2013-04-12

You're More Of A Libertarian Than You Think

A consistent theme on my blog (and in my interactions with people elsewhere) is my belief that nearly all people are basically libertarians, at least in a nutshell. Politicians do a good job of hiding this fact, of course, by using wedge issues to convince us of a vast ideological divide between American "liberals" and American "conservatives."

In truth, Americans share a common history, a common cultural narrative, and a common sense of individuality. Our feelings of patriotism are all wrapped-up in ideas about liberty and individual rights, no matter what our political affiliation is. Whether we are rightist, leftist, or something else, we all frame our political debates in the language of the "classical liberalism" and Enlightenment-era philosophy of our country's founding.

By international standards, this is an anomaly. It cannot be said that every political discussion in every other country leans so heavily on the language of the John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Benthams and Thomas Paines of those countries. In many cases, there were no such figures. The central liberating figure in Cuba, for example, is Fidel Castro. For better or for worse, communist and formerly communist countries term their political issues in the lexicon of revolution, progress, and equality of result. This is not exactly how it is in the United States. In fact, the more exposure one gets to foreign politics, the more obvious it is that Americans are more politically similar than they are different.

Reading the op-ed pages, though, you'd hardly know it.

This language issue is not small potatoes. Economists frequently use their familiar internal jargon to express free market concepts, and this jargon seems silly - and even downright objectionable - to "ordinary people" out there who hear about it.

A great example of this is F.A. Hayek's "Knowledge Problem." The whole problem might be phrased thusly: No one person or group possesses all the knowledge required to improve upon the inherent conditions of a free market. In other words, free trade creates a superior outcome precisely because small elements of partial knowledge is dispersed across the entire market. Each tiny piece of knowledge marginally impacts market trends and equilibria (assuming the existence of equilibria). To "improve" upon a free market by placing greater control in the hands of the few is to diminish the optimality of the market situation precisely because a smaller group possesses less knowledge.

Now, if you're not an economist, your eyes probably just glazed over and you kind of stopped paying attention.

But if I told you that the best way to find the answer to a question is to take to a social network and crowd-source your question, you wouldn't even blink. You crowd-source for answers every time you ask a question on Facebook, search for something on Wikipedia, or create a new thread on StackOverflow.com. What's more, you thoroughly understand this process and you don't need it explained to you. You completely understand that everyone out there has a slightly different expertise, so if you ask your question "publicly enough" you will soon get your answer.

Now, if I told you that Barack Obama wanted the US government to purchase Wikipedia so that the information it contained could be vetted by experts before it was published, you would cringe. [Note: To my knowledge, no such thing is happening; this is just a hypothetical scenario.] The reason you would cringe is because you know that the whole strength of Wikipedia - the genius of it, in fact - is that all people can publicly alter the information according to what they know, and because everyone is constantly doing this, the quality of the information consistently improves.

Take out that magic ingredient, and what you're left with is a small group of government bureaucrats attempting to write an electronic encyclopedia on everything. And what are the odds that such a group, no matter what their qualifications or methodology might be, will be able to improve upon the already-excellent Wikipedia?

On a gut level, we all accept the plain truth of Hayek's Knowledge Problem. So long as we use modern language to express what we're talking about, everyone is on-board. But the minute we frame it in economic terms, people start to choose ideological "sides" based on preconceived notions of what it means to be "pro-market" or "libertarian."

Hence, I think it's important for free market advocates to make their case using as little jargon as humanly possible.