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Regulation of "Economic" Markets vs. Regulation of the Market for Culture and Ideas:

Economist Bryan Caplan poses some excellent questions to liberal economists who want heavy government regulation of "economic markets" but take a laissez-faire approach when it comes to the market for culture and ideas. Bryan gives his own answers to the questions in this follow-up post.

Bryan's challenge to liberals parallels my own recent article challenging conservatives such as Robert Bork, who defend laissez-faire with respect to economic markets, but advocate extensive cultural censorship in order to protect our "morals." Bryan and I both believe that many of the rationales used to justify government regulation of cultural and idea markets are applicable to the market for goods and services, and vice versa. But we also believe that the government has common, systematic weaknesses in both fields that outweigh those of the private sector. Thus, we advocate a free market approach in both fields (though Bryan is probably more sweeping in his rejection of government regulation than I am).

Nobel Prize-winning economist R.H. Coase addressed some of the same issues in his underrated 1974 article "The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas" (available here to those with access to J-Stors). He too stressed the parallels between conservative arguments for regulation of the culture and the left's arguments for regulation of the market for goods and services.

mporcius (mail):
Is there any data on what liberal (I guess "liberal" here means "progressive" or "socialist" or "left") economists think of the recent campaign finance reforms, the Fairness Doctrine, or sex and violence on TV/film/video games? Are they for a free market in ideas and culture in practice, or just in theory?
8.28.2008 4:25pm
Calculated Risk:
That similar arguments may be used, it is clearly possible to rationally distinguish between regulation of economic markets on the one hand, and culture and ideas on the other.

For one, it is much more heavy handed to regulate culture and ideas than say, big business.

Which is a bigger infringement on the personal liberty of individuals? Regulations limiting the amount of pollution that big factories can emit into the atmosphere, or regulation of culture and ideas?

Clearly, regulation of culture and ideas is much more "in your face" than regulations that prevent you from polluting the atmosphere we all breathe as much as you would like.

Liberals rationally distinguish between them.

Yeah, similar sorts of arguments may be used against either type of regulation. But so what? These are entirely different contexts and deserve to be treated as such. The personal liberty costs of regulating ideas and culture are much much higher than the personal liberty costs of regulating big business. Modern day liberals rightly acknowledge that and make a distinction.

I don't know if it is more funny or sad to see libertarians like Byran even making an attempt to reach out to liberals. I think we are from different planets. Byran tends to like to abstract and make equivalent things that, concretely speaking, are very different.

From my perspective, the argument isn't even close to sensible. But its nice to see you try to make it, I guess.
8.28.2008 4:34pm
Calculated Risk:

Is there any data on what liberal (I guess "liberal" here means "progressive" or "socialist" or "left") economists think of the recent campaign finance reforms, the Fairness Doctrine, or sex and violence on TV/film/video games? Are they for a free market in ideas and culture in practice, or just in theory?


First of all, I should point out that a free market is not the same as an unregulated market. So, that one is for some sensible regulations (i.e. you must use properly calibrated and accurate equipment if you are going to be selling gas by the gallon.)

Second, why don't liberals see campaign finance regulations as a big regulation on culture and ideas with big costs on personal liberty? The reason is simple. For most people, such regulations never affect them. Liberals would be very likely to oppose regulations that affected small donors (i.e. you can't even give $15 to your favorite candidate) but would be much less concerned about regulations that prevent millionaires from essentially buying and controlling the politicians that make the laws we all have to obey.

As far as the Fairness doctrine goes, it does not regulate the content of ideas. Rather, it just ensures that multiple perspectives are heard. It really is a rule that goes to procedure, not substance.

Finally, as far as sex and violence on TV/film/video games goes, it is typically traditionalist Christian conservatives who show the most concern about these issues, not liberals. There, are of course, some well known examples of liberals expressing concerns about these things and advocating relatively unobtrusive measures, like the establishment of a rating system for video games, or the installing of chips enabling parents to block objectionable programming on their television.
8.28.2008 4:46pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Yeah, similar sorts of arguments may be used against either type of regulation. But so what? These are entirely different contexts and deserve to be treated as such. The personal liberty costs of regulating ideas and culture are much much higher than the personal liberty costs of regulating big business. Modern day liberals rightly acknowledge that and make a distinction.
That's not an argument; that's restating the premise of the question. "It's different because it's different" doesn't provide any information content.
8.28.2008 4:54pm
Cactus Jack:
Ilya,

Nowhere does Caplan pose questions to "liberal economists" who want "heavy" government regulation of economic markets. That's your characterization.

Caplan's questions are posed regarding "economists who eschew the "free-market" label" and "non-libertarian economists". Perhaps more often or not these categories mostly political liberals. I would hesitate to make that conclusion because (1) I don't know that to be true, and (2) there are many who advocate non-libertarian economic principles (such as protectism) who are not politically liberal.
8.28.2008 4:54pm
Arkady:
I've always thought that the back-of-the-envelope distinction between liberals and conservatives is that liberals think the government has every right to tell you how to run your business and not right to tell you how to run your private life; conservatives think the government has no right to tell you how to run your business and every right to tell you how to run your private life.
8.28.2008 4:56pm
BP (mail):
Liberal economists don't want "heavy regulation" of economic markets, they just want heavier regulation of economic markets than conservative economists. Believe it or not, a suboptimal level of regulation does exist. I swear, it's true.
8.28.2008 5:03pm
Kevin C. (mail) (www):
As Ayn Rand said:

The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles or factories--with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul free-wheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe--but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.
8.28.2008 5:05pm
krs:
Bryan is probably more sweeping in his rejection of government regulation than I am.

I'm not sure if that's possible.
8.28.2008 5:13pm
frankcross (mail):
It seems to me that there is a very simple answer to this question. Much like the difference between government democracy and corporate democracy. In government democracy, each citizen is respected as being of equal worth and given one vote. In corporate democracy, each shareholder is given votes depending on the number of shares they hold. The latter does not recognize the notion of moral equality of souls.

Now, the argument for this inequality is that the free market works. Virtually everybody is made better off by the inequality. But moral qualms about the inequality, at the margin, make people more willing to regulate economic markets.

I'm not exactly sure what is meant by the market for culture and ideas. It may have inequalities but probably not nearly so stark as economic differences.
8.28.2008 5:24pm
EnriqueArmijo (mail):
Let's complicate the hypothetical a bit. Take a state that restricts who can own a newspaper, which operates as a limitation on free speech, a strike against it in the regulation-of-the-ideas-market column. Because of this limitation, the main opposition party can't start its own newspaper, one of many factors which leads to the promulgation of the present regime of state power.

However, the main opposition would be even more oppressive as to who could own a newspaper than is the current government. It's also fair to assume that the opposition would be less laissez-faire in its regulation of the economic market, based on its philosophy toward regulation of the culture/ideas market.

Would you still advocate pushing the culture market "shock therapy" button?

(By the way, I was glad to read in Caplan's intro to the paperback edition of Myth of the Rational Voter that he's decided to focus on books rather than journal articles.)
8.28.2008 5:28pm
Plastic:

As far as the Fairness doctrine goes, it does not regulate the content of ideas. Rather, it just ensures that multiple perspectives are heard. It really is a rule that goes to procedure, not substance.

Are you serious? The Fairness Doctrine says that if you air a political opinion you must offer equal time to opposing opinions. That is simply and clearly regulation on the content of speech. If I passed a law that any time a lawyer joke was told the comedian must immediately hit himself in the head with a ball-pin hammer, would that be purely procedural too?

Anything that so clearly and unnecessarily burdens speech is an affront to the 1st amendment, and the only reason it wasn't struck down when it was last a law is because it was so rarely enforced.
8.28.2008 5:28pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Liberals do want to regulate the market of ideas-- other people's ideas. That's why we see speech codes on campus and limits to what you can say on the job-- even a government job. The current Governor of Massachusetts thinks political pamphlets can be like baseball bats. In Europe we see laws against racism and xenophobia. What's that but the regulation of speech and ideas. Even in this country you risk your job if not your life if you try to discuss race and IQ as James Watson found out. Professor Arthur Jensen needed an a police escort to visit the campus library. Liberals control many of our major universities and they they try their best to curtail and regulate the marketplace of ideas on campus-- that's why FIRE exists. They would be no need for a FIRE otherwise.
8.28.2008 5:32pm
Guest 2L:
I was under the impression that "the market place for ideas" was some analogy that Justice Holmes used in one of those 1920s 1A cases. But it's just an analogy. There's a market for intellectual property. There is not a market for ideas. So, I'm kind of suspicious of the whole premise here.

But having said that, it seems that most 1A issues involve a particular kind of "market intervention." If the government is intervening in the market for meat, it could intervene on anti-trust issues (to correct market failure due to market power) or it could intervene on quality issues (to correct for market failure due to asymmetric information). 1A speech issues seem (to me) to arise mainly in the second context. So, what's the difference between meat and an idea?

The seller of meat is more likely to know that it's of inferior quality than the buyer is. But is the promoter of an idea more likely to know that it's of inferior quality? I'd say, first, no. And, second, I'm more willing to trust government meat inspectors than government idea inspectors.

What am I missing?
8.28.2008 5:48pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"I'm more willing to trust government meat inspectors than government idea inspectors.

What am I missing?"


Why do you trust government meat inspectors? Look at the USDA and the terrible job they have done on Mad Cow disease. The SEC has not done a adequate job on policing the securities industry, and the Federal Reserve (strictly speaking quasi governmental) really messed up on regulating the banking industry. See the recent paper by Buiter at this year's Jackson Hole.
8.28.2008 5:59pm
Adam J:
A. Zarkov - interesting theory, except why then does FIRE's biggest ad have to do with some green activist getting booted out of school for protesting against a parking garage? I think you're partially right thought, most of their cases seem to have to do with some students getting in trouble with the school for spouting bigotry of some sort. Most people have alot of problems with understanding 1st amendment rights apply to bigots too- even college professors.
8.28.2008 6:05pm
Byrne Hobart (mail) (www):
Clearly, regulation of culture and ideas is much more "in your face" than regulations that prevent you from polluting the atmosphere we all breathe as much as you would like.


I assume there is some specific pollutant you're thinking of that has lead to more deaths than the idea of collectivism. But I can't for the life of me tell which one it is!
8.28.2008 6:16pm
trad and anon:
The market for culture and ideas is a metaphor, not some kind of strict isomorphism to economic markets. I think the argument needs to be made as to why arguments for one apply to the other, and which arguments it is claimed carry over. I don't see how we can describe what the grounds for distinction is without knowing which of the many, many arguments for economic regulation apply.

There are even different arguments for different types of regulation. Is the claim that like economic markets, unregulated cultural "markets" suffer from inefficiency resulting from monopoly and oligopoly pricing? That they're causing global climate change? That they cause people to die from unsafe food?
8.28.2008 6:16pm
Byrne Hobart (mail) (www):
much less concerned about regulations that prevent millionaires from essentially buying and controlling the politicians that make the laws we all have to obey.


Millionaires take good care of their possessions. I've never met a rich person who lived in a crack house, or threw trash out on the floor, or burned down part of his neighborhood when he heard about a verdict he didn't like. So if you're saying that the politicians will be beholden to responsible people rather than your average imbecile, I think you've made the case for freedom in campaign finance.
8.28.2008 6:19pm
Sarcastro (www):
Byrne Hobart's argument is quite the winner! Clearly, we need to institute thought police to keep the very toxic ideology of collectivism from infiltrating America. Because every time there's a hint of it, it kills millions!
8.28.2008 6:19pm
ARCraig (mail):
Campaign finance limits = incumbent protection. It's that simple. The only people hurt by the inability to get large amounts of money from single individuals are outsiders and third parties, who are prohibited from getting "seed money" from a small number of dedicated supporters. Incumbents and major-party candidates already have big fundraising networks. If anything, campaign finance laws like McCain-Feingold just force politicians to spend more time whoring themselves out because they have to raise money in smaller increments.

And all of this does absolutely nothing to stop corruption.

And that's without delving into the whole issue of trampling the First Amendment. How the hell a law banning criticism of political candidates supposedly passes constitutional muster is beyond me.
8.28.2008 6:26pm
Sarcastro (www):
I love Byrne Hobart's point about the responsible rich. And don't forget richness tends to be hereditary! Now if only we could get the average imbecile to stop breeding think of the heights America could get to!
8.28.2008 6:31pm
Guest 2L:
A. Zarkov:

I'm not saying I trust government meat inspectors. I'm just saying that I'd trust them more than government idea inspectors. I can look at the record of federal inspectors and decide whether they have reacted reasonably to mad cow disease. How can I do the same for government idea inspectors?
8.28.2008 6:31pm
Calculated Risk:

That's not an argument; that's restating the premise of the question. "It's different because it's different" doesn't provide any information content.


It is different because it is less "in your face." It is not a direct control on your personal life. It is not like a regulation limiting who you can marry.

Now, you may not think that is an important distinction. That is a matter of opinion. But, whether you think the distinction should matter is irrelevant. You cannot deny that there is a distinction, one that liberals tend to think is important.
8.28.2008 6:33pm
trad and anon:
That's not an argument; that's restating the premise of the question. "It's different because it's different" doesn't provide any information content.
True, but what we're responding to is "it's similar because it's similar."

I'm not an economist, but I think that, among other things, Caplan's question seems to be based on the entirely baseless idea that the criteria for what counts as a successful "culture and ideas market" ought to be the same as the criteria for a successful economic market. Economists' basis for this is basically handwaving about not being prescriptive and there being no accounting for tastes, but it's their criterion. And is that really what liberal economists think a good "culture and economic market" does?
8.28.2008 6:51pm
trad and anon:
Oops! Somehow a sentence got cut out of that paragraph. It should have read:

I'm not an economist, but I think that, among other things, Caplan's question seems to be based on the entirely baseless idea that the criteria for what counts as a successful "culture and ideas market" ought to be the same as the criteria for a successful economic market. Economists judge an economic market's success on how well it satisfies people's arbitrary subjective preferences. Economists' basis for this is basically handwaving about not being prescriptive and there being no accounting for tastes, but it's their criterion. And is that really what liberal economists think a good "culture and economic market" does?
8.28.2008 6:55pm
Brian K (mail):
Millionaires take good care of their possessions. I've never met a rich person who lived in a crack house, or threw trash out on the floor, or burned down part of his neighborhood when he heard about a verdict he didn't like.

so that explains why i've never heard of any person who once was rich but now is poor. social mobility only works in one direction, upwards, right?
8.28.2008 7:06pm
MarkField (mail):

Why do you trust government meat inspectors?


Because I can see that in the roughly 100 years since the FDA was established, the quality of meat has improved dramatically.


True, but what we're responding to is "it's similar because it's similar."


Exactly. In fact, of course, ideas and tangible goods are not comparable in economic terms. For one thing, ideas can be shared infinitely so that everyone can have the same one; tangible goods can't. For another, there's no meaningful exchange value for ideas; we don't fork over cash to get them (at least not directly and often not ever). Here's a third: ideas often come bundled with other ideas; tangible goods can be isolated and conveyed separately.
8.28.2008 7:09pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
To throw gas on the fire, since Jim Lindren has disabled comments on his latest post... we now apparently have a major party candidate who is willing to stifle both the economy and political speech (as evidenced by the Obama campaign's bazen attempts to silence and intimidate WGN for having Stanley Kurtz on the air yesterday). Based on his stated economic policies, that candidate seems willing to be just as heavy handed in the economic sphere too.
8.28.2008 7:55pm
Lawyer (mail):

It is different because it is less "in your face."


The degree to which regulations restricting speech are "in [one's] face" are irrelevant. The premise is that the gov't is not an effective mechanism for responding to peoples' desires for ideas, and thus should be precluded from censorship. From this, it follows that since the gov't isn't an effective mechanism for responding to peoples' desires for goods and services, they should leave such to the private sector.

Thus, the conclusion is that the gov't shouldn't be in anyone's "face" *at all*. Thus, pointing out the differing degrees of "face-time" across categories is meaningless.
8.28.2008 8:03pm
Jay Myers:
Calculated Risk:

It is different because it is less "in your face." It is not a direct control on your personal life. It is not like a regulation limiting who you can marry.

So it isn't "in my face" when the government tells me how much I can agree to be paid, who I can hire and fire, for what reasons I can hire and fire someone, who I sell or rent my house to, or how much profit I can make on a transaction? That's a relief because I thought it was!
8.28.2008 8:10pm
Ak Mike (mail):
I don't think Prof. Somin's post accurately captures Prof. Caplan's. The question posed by Prof. Caplan was that, if economic regulation is justified by market failures and negative externalities, why is it not just as reasonable to regulate the expression of ideas on exactly such a basis.

For example, assume it could cause harm to let milk be sold after the pull date. Groceries, including mom and pop groceries, are therefore forbidden to sell old milk.

But it may also be dangerous for diet loonies to air their claims about avoiding fruits and vegetables, or whatever. Certainly there is a reasonable chance of negative externalities from such expression. If the potential of harm to others justifies limiting property rights to sell milk, why does it not justify limiting expression rights to push harmful diet ideas? Or harmful social ideas?

Why is it OK to regulate where your garage is located for aesthetic purposes, but not OK to regulate whether you can scream and curse, or in some holdings panhandle, in the public square, annoying all and sundry?

Caplan is suggesting that the very same possible harms that liberals think should be controlled by regulation when it comes to property, liberals think should be uncontrolled when it comes to expression.

The "in your face" distinction fails because a lot of market/property regulation is real in your face (eg, your right to buy a life-saving drug if the FDA says no), whereas a lot of expression is pretty remote (how many would be affected if newspapers had to get a license to publish?).
8.28.2008 8:11pm
TGGP (mail) (www):
The reason is simple. For most people, such regulations never affect them
Right, because liberals never stick up for minorities.

krs, Caplan is an anarchist. Unless Ilya is one as well, it is quite possible for Caplan to favor less regulation.
8.28.2008 8:12pm
James Lindgren (mail):
Jonathan Rauch's book on this topic, Kindly Inquisitors, is great.
8.28.2008 9:54pm
egrim (mail):

Jonathan Rauch's book on this topic, Kindly Inquisitors, is great.


Second that.
8.28.2008 10:36pm
dmccartney (mail) (www):
Economics is not very good at normative analysis. And for information "markets", it is not even very good at positive analysis because information is both an assumption (perfect information) and a product of economic markets.

Further, culture and idea "markets" are poorly modeled by economics because even if you can fix what you are trying to efficiently do (e.g., produce expression, ideas, information, communications, tolerance, understanding) the externalities of the "transactions" quickly overwhelm the analysis.

That said, the "marketplace of ideas" is "more than just a random metaphor: it is an accurate summation of many of the assumptions that our society brings to the discussion of information issues." Boyle. But just because it embodies our assumptions, doesn't mean that it produces usefully predictive theory.

For example, not only are our "preferences" for ideas not exogenous to the idea-market (the way economic theory presumes), but we hope that they are not; we hope that they are deeply responsive (although maybe only responsive in certain ways: not to coercion, but to enlightened reason or some such). The marketplace of ideas metaphor takes our "spent" attention as a proxy for some kind of valuation (accuracy? usefulness? entertaining?). In a market where all we can "spend" is attention, economics struggles to fix upon something to maximize.

Abstract reasoning demands that our theoretical assumptions be consistent (the sort of consistency that Caplan ridicules "liberal economists" for lacking when they move from econ-markets to culture-markets). This is how theory is neat: good theory suggests areas where--if the theory holds--we should expect to see consistent results (think of the periodic table, it has suggested areas ripe for investigation). But if we poke around these areas and find that the theory is not terribly predictive, then it is no longer a good theory for that area and we must revise or rewrite the theory.

One attempted substitute theory for information policy is "cultural environmentalism". My own opinion is that cultural environmentalism is (thus far) only really good at explaining why economics is so very bad at predicting about information policy; I don't think it is mature enough to really make sophisticated predictions itself. This is a recurring problem faced by legal scholars leaning back against Law &Econ's imperialism: there are areas where simple-minded L&E is not predictive (even horrendously inaccurate) but it is very difficult to find a substitute analytical device that is as sophisticated as economics. Instead the substitute theory, while maybe more appropriate to the subject, is often underdeveloped and unable to actually give many policy predictions. We see examples of these more-appropriate-but-underdeveloped theories in IP ("cultural environmentalism") and communication law ("network neutrality"). Economics is such a conclusory discipline that it is very tempting to dig into its tools for an answer at the slightest whiff of a market-like social device, even when its fundamental assumptions are not satisfied and cause it to be systematically inaccurate in that context.
8.28.2008 10:48pm
Calculated Risk:
Right, because liberals never stick up for minorities.

Hitler was a minority.

That someone or something is a minority does not mean they should be defended.

I am not going to defend the "right" of a minority of extremely wealthy people who want to corrupt politicians and our political process to contribute unlimited funds to their favorite politician.

I am sorry, but this particular minority does not need this sort of "protection."

On the other hand, I certainly would protect this particular minority from theft. (And no, I do not think taxation is theft, for you more extreme libertarians out there.)

And, really, it is not a big imposition on someone to prevent them from doing something they absolutely ought not to do in the first place. No one should try to use their wealth to corrupt the political process.

What is the line between corruption and participation? There is no precise line. But, if a politician depends on his political survival to a tiny minority of individuals or businesses that provide huge amounts of funds, that would move away from participation to corruption, to take one example.

Anyway, moving back to the original point. If the premise is that there is no difference between business and culture and ideas, that is obviously a false premise. It need not and should not be entertained. If, on the other hand, the premise is that these differences should not matter, that is a matter of opinion and that may be where libertarians and liberals part.

In my view, and in the view of most liberals, treating the right of Exxon to drill oil in pristine wilderness as equivalent to an individuals right to speak their own mind is absurd. Individual liberty is much more important and sacred than institutional liberty.

Guess what. In this world of ours, hiring and firing and business practice have a huge social impact. They are not merely matters of individual rights (although individual rights certainly come into play). If companies were to systematically discriminate against a racial minority (perhaps because their customers derived satisfaction from doing business with a company that discriminated) this is not a mere matter of "personal liberty" but is instead a matter of business liberty. In fact, to the extent that personal liberty is involved, the liberty that is being infringed is the opportunity of particular racial minorities to be able to apply for jobs without being discriminated against. The business liberty of being able to hire anyone you want and to express your discriminatory preferences is much less important.

Of course, as the size of the business goes down, this argument is less sensible. A single individual expressing his discriminatory intent through hiring and firing and promoting individuals of a particular race may be a matter of personal liberty. (A personal liberty that should not be respected.) It does seem that the law often accounts for this to some degree by exempting small businesses who hire a small number of people from some anti-discrimination laws.

However, if a huge institution like Exxon were to engage in discrimination based on race, this hardly could be sensibly be equated to a matter of personal liberty. Whose personal liberty are we supposed to be protecting in that situation, exactly? The liberty of the CEO? He is supposed to serve the shareholders, not express his own discriminatory preferences. What if the shareholders are racist? Well, it is really not much of a big infringement on their liberty to require Exxon not to discriminate. They can always sell their stock. That would not be an equivalent infringement on liberty as being denied a job opportunity after going to school to be a petroleum engineer, simply because you are a minority that Exxon wished to discriminate against.

(And really, lest anyone think otherwise, I am not picking on Exxon based on any belief that they discriminate. Instead, I have chosen them because they are a suitably large company, and thus can be used to nicely illustrate the difference between mere business liberty, and something that is the much more: personal liberty.)

The bottom-line is this. Society should express its values. We should not treat all choices as being equal, merely because they are choices and thus granting individuals discretion to act on them could be said to increase their liberty.

Choices that restrict the choices or opportunities of others should be especially prone to scrutiny. And, of those sorts of choices, those that can be classed as personal liberty deserve more respect than those more appropriately classed as business liberty. (Although, any of these choices, regardless of category, should be potentially curtailed, depending on the severity of their consequences in restricting the choices and/or opportunities of others. Obviously, we wouldn't restrict speech merely because it was annoying, but you cannot cry fire in a crowded theater because this is not merely annoying, it also potentially puts others at risk for their lives -- being trampled to death -- thus reducing their opportunities to make choices in the future.)

Why does business liberty deserve less protection?

For one, because it is less universal. Only a typically better off than average minority is in a position to exercise business liberty at all. Liberties that benefit everyone deserve more protection than liberties than benefit only a select few. If you think about aggregate social costs and aggregate social benefits, this is entirely sensible. The liberty cost of curtailing the desire of one malicious, careless, or just plain greedy individual to pollute the air is not as costly in terms of liberty as the reduced opportunity set suffered by those who must then breath this air and suffer adverse health consequences as a result.

I will say this about libertarians. They have it right in thinking about things in terms of liberty. However, they have it wrong in trying to equate all sorts of liberty, without any sense of the costs and benefits of curtailing certain choices, versus encouraging others.

They also have it wrong in not considering the curtailment of liberty and opportunity among those with less property. The typical libertarian attitude seems to be, if you own it, you can do whatever you want with it, regardless of the harm to the opportunity set and choices and liberty of others. Now, of course, most libertarians do acknowledge limits to property. Most libertarians acknowledge that you should not be able to just use your property in a way that straight out kills others, for example. However, there are very few liberty interests that libertarians like to recognize short of extreme ones involving actual physical harm when it comes to the use of property. And furthermore, libertarians do seem to have a tendency to ignore risks of physical harm if there is any uncertainty about those risks at all. In other words, libertarians play with loaded dice when it comes to evaluating the costs of policies in terms of liberty.

What libertarians need to do is stop ignoring certain liberty interests altogether. And they need to accept that they live in a society, and as such, they have to live under rules that are made by groups, not just individuals. Instead of protesting the legitimacy of society and the rule of law, libertarians would be better off if they brought voices to the table to shape laws in a more liberty respecting way, while also adopting a more broad and less narrow conception of liberty.

You know, do something productive, instead of adopting extreme positions. (i.e. about how all taxation is theft or how it just isn't fair that majorities get to make rules that affect you and your business). I for one think there is a productive place for a moderate libertarian voice at the table. Shrill voices, whether left, right, libertarian, communist or whatever, probably are not productive.
8.28.2008 11:11pm
Timmy:
Bryan Caplan poses some excellent questions to liberal economists who want heavy government regulation of "economic markets."
Why do libertarian armchair economists insist on framing every debate as if it were one of the "socialism vs. capitalism" debates of the '40s and '50s? Thanks Prof. Somin, but I took Ec10, and I read Hayek, and I understood that socialism failed and that markets are the way to go by the end of my freshman year in college. Can you bring yourself to move beyond Ec10 debates? Or does it feel too good to argue against (fictional) opponents who want "heavy government regulation of economic markets"?

You'd expect one of those "liberal economists" to say something like this:
"[T]he right way to address poverty is to bolster the social safety net everywhere."
Damn socialists, right? Well, no. That's from noted conservative economist Ed Glaeser of Harvard. I bet Prof. Somin would view such bolstering of the social safety net as an inefficient government intrusion into the private market. Maybe it's not the "liberal economists who want heavy government regulation" who don't understand markets; maybe it's you.
8.28.2008 11:58pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
MarkField:

"Because I can see that in the roughly 100 years since the FDA was established, the quality of meat has improved dramatically."

How do you know the quality has improved dramatically? Do you have data from 100 years ago as to the meat quality? Let's remember The Jungle was written by a socialist, and is a novel not an objective study.

If it has improved, how do you know the FDA was responsible? Perhaps the quality simply improved with increasing affluence. BTW fish is not inspected by the FDA, and I think no one else. Do you have a problem with fish quality?

A much better example is the SEC. We have data on financial fraud before and after. We can relate increased transparency in financial markets to specific actions and regulations. The major problem with the SEC is lack of budget and manpower for enforcement. But the Democrats along with the Republicans continue to starve the agency.
8.29.2008 12:34am
ReaderY:
Well, so everyone writing here has chosen to write in English. So as long as one is willing to maintain a very high level of generality, there is much more in common among what posters so far have had to say than there are differences.
8.29.2008 12:41am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Adam J.

"... interesting theory, except why then does FIRE's biggest ad have to do with some green activist getting booted out of school for protesting against a parking garage?"

Because it's their current case.

"... most of their cases seem to have to do with some students getting in trouble with the school for spouting bigotry of some sort."

How is protesting a parking garage bigotry? I think your characterization of FIRE's cases is misleading. The way free speech gets attacked and curtailed is by accusing the speaker of being a bigot, whether true or not. FIRE's mission is not about protecting bigots, it's about free speech. Remember the left can turn anything into an issue of bigotry including global warming.
8.29.2008 6:07am
TGGP (mail) (www):
On the other hand, I certainly would protect this particular minority from theft
Imagine it is Germany and the Nazis are considering expropriating Jewish property. Before that happens some seek to protect it by bribing politicians. Would you consider that acceptable? What if the politicians were unbribeable but wealthy Jews purchased radio advertisements attacking especially anti-Semitic politicians? As you say, it is hard to draw the line behind participation and corruption. It seems to me that people draw the line depending on what policies or groups they approve of.

In this world of ours, hiring and firing and business practice have a huge social impact
Does the market for culture and ideas not have a huge impact? That's actually one of the questions Caplan asks.

they absolutely ought not to do in the first place
Like burning the flag (or a cross), using curse-words, failing to tip, declining to shower or use deoderant, smoking, eating fatty foods, cheating on their spouse or significant other and a million other non-economic acts?

It does seem that the law often accounts for this to some degree by exempting small businesses who hire a small number of people from some anti-discrimination laws.
That is a completely unprincipled exception. Would it be wrong to apply laws against murder or theft differently according to size of organization?

Well, it is really not much of a big infringement on their liberty to require Exxon not to discriminate. They can always sell their stock
It is not a big requirement to prohibit any Jewish involvement in finance or media. They can always sell any companies they own. It is not such a big deal to prohibit blacks from living in certain areas, they can always sell their houses. It is not such a big deal to prohibit gay marriage, they are as free to marry members of the opposite sex as straights!

Liberties that benefit everyone deserve more protection than liberties than benefit only a select few
I guess all those restrictions I just mentioned are in the clear then!

However, they have it wrong in trying to equate all sorts of liberty, without any sense of the costs and benefits of curtailing certain choices, versus encouraging others.
There are plenty of consequentialist libertarians. I consider myself one of them.

you cannot cry fire in a crowded theater
There is no need for a law against it. The theater owner may decide whether he wants to allow people to yell fire. The Supreme Court decision from which that dates actually prohibited speaking out against war and the draft during World War 1. Do you think they were correct.

Libertarians distinguish between "positive freedom" like opportunities from "negative freedom", is restrictions on what others can do to you. Positive freedom is entitlement and it MUST BY IT'S NATURE infringe on others. It cannot be the case that everyone is required to hire an individual (as I'm not an employer and don't have funds, it would be ridiculous to expect me to). Nor is a consumer obligated to purchase anything. If I decided to hire someone, that would be my choice (which I would be free not to make at all, though it would equally prevent someone from having a choice). Assuming I do hire someone, that person receives an ex ante benefit (otherwise they wouldn't have agreed and it would presumably be slavery). By making a choice among multiple candidates I MUST privilege one over another. If they had rights to a job it is inevitable that in the act of hiring I violate rights. To have the government insist I hire one of them must harm the others who I would have hired otherwise.

This is not a freedom merely to "express my preference". This regards freedom to associate and work with. What if we could not discriminate against known Ku Klux Klan members? I might be required to hire one and I would not want to work with them. My employees would usually not want to either and so I would have trouble hiring more. My customers might not want to patronize my establishment.

Instead of protesting the legitimacy of society and the rule of law, libertarians would be better off if they brought voices to the table to shape laws in a more liberty respecting way
Would you say laws that called for the extermination of an ethnic/religious group would be valid if they are created by "society"? Or does validity law in the substance of a law rather than its source?

Shrill voices, whether left, right, libertarian, communist or whatever, probably are not productive.
There is no possibility that I can have any real effect on our laws as an individual. That's why I don't vote. When I talk about libertarianism, as here, it is not because I believe it will have any effect. It is because it's what I really believe.

Why do libertarian armchair economists insist on framing every debate as if it were one of the "socialism vs. capitalism" debates of the '40s and '50s?
Caplan clearly said "regulation" rather than socialism. I don't think Bork wants something like "cultural socialism", just heavy regulation. So WHO specifically is doing the framing you object to?

[T]he right way to address poverty is to bolster the social safety net everywhere.
Regulation is different from a safety net (which Hayek and Friedman endorsed, though a rather stripped-down form). Variance in regulation is associated with more impact on growth (negative) than redistribution. Like Caplan, I would disagree with Glaeser but it's not really that big a deal to me. I'd rather increase the Earned Income Tax Credit than raise the minimum wage.
8.29.2008 11:41pm