Libertarian Provincialism

Let me speak in broad over-generalizations.

Libertarians who live in America look around them and see cops shooting unarmed pedestrians, people getting arrested for growing pot or selling (delicious) raw milk, taxes and government spending and debt going ever higher. In short, disaster. And all of these things are bad and it is very good that we have libertarians railing against them.

But where it leads them astray is that they are often taken to make the following sorta-syllogism: “America has terrible policies. Most of the people around me are either for them or just not up in arms about them as I am. The combination of most people being dumb and democracy produces terrible policies.”

Thus the venerable Ilya Somin in this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. (And of course Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book about this.)

The only problem with that is that if you take a little bit of a broader perspective (both geographically and historically) you realize that democracies are actually really awesome and that they kick the sh** out of all other forms of government. I mean, it’s not even close! On every front: protecting civil liberties, developing markets, etc.

Almost all the countries that have the best policies are democracies. It’s really quite lopsided. The only exceptions are either short-lived affairs (Chile) or exceptions that prove the rule (Singapore).

Libertarians who bash democracy are really sawing off the branch that they’re sitting on because to criticize democracy for those reasons is really to undermine markets. The idea that voters have to be experts to make good choices is like the idea that consumers have to be experts to make good buying decisions. Consumers are stupid, but markets nonetheless work for a bunch of complicated reasons, but at bottom because markets are a decentralized trial-and-error process and that in a highly complex world decentralized trial-and-error produces more robust outcomes. This is why Ayn Rand is so dumb: markets work not because of supermen, but because of millions of idiots making mistakes. If only people with an economics degree were allowed to participate in markets, all the markets would break down (except the market for economists). Over the long run, millions of lemmings make spontaneous order.

Because the feedback mechanisms of pulling the lever on the wrong guy are more diffuse than the feedback mechanism of making the wrong decision in the marketplace, it takes longer for the benefits to emerge, but if you look at the broad sweep of history and the planet today, it’s just no contest. Democracy works because it fires people who produce bad outcomes. And over the past centuries, democracy has led to more libertarianism than ever. Median-voter-pandering presidents and prime ministers have legalized trade and gay marriage and cut taxes and abolished Prohibition and and and and. The march of liberty goes on at an excruciatingly slow pace, but it does go on. Because your neighbors are dumb. Not you, of course. No. You’re the smart one.