The Essence of Fresh-cut Straw

March 5, 2010

Bryan Caplan writes:

Most libertarians condemn the public’s anti-market reflexes. Left-libertarians reply, in essence, is: “It’s only natural for the public to condemn the unholy alliance of big business and big government that passes for ‘the free market’ nowadays.”

The key problem with this position: Normal people think that government is the solution, not the cause, of monopoly problems.  Before I studied economics, I repeatedly heard about government’s struggle against monopoly – and never heard that government might be part of the problem.  I’ve been arguing about monopoly for two decades – and teaching about monopoly for the last thirteen years.  As far as I can tell, the idea that government habitually creates monopolies on purpose is largely limited to free-market economists and the hard left.

It’s a perfectly valid argument. There’s only one problem. I don’t know of any left-libertarian that actually argues anything close to the “in essence” reply Caplan claims: that left-libertarians say that normal people are largely against the free-market because they are aware that it is really an “unholy alliance of big business and big government.”

Left-libertarians don’t generally believe that normal people don’t blame the free-market per se. In fact, of course they don’t; a central point of the left-libertarian project (to the extent that it’s libertarian, not left) is to make people aware of that fact because normal people aren’t generally aware of it and to persuade against the state. If normally people thought this way, we would be doing better things with our time than writing and talking about it.

From what I can tell, it’s simply a straw man “essence” that Caplan has pulled out of thin air. It would better read:

It’s only natural for the public to condemn the free-market per se given that what passes for ‘the free market’ nowadays is really an unholy alliance of big business and big government.

And that’s not even a particularly left-libertarian idea; it’s a mostly libertarian idea period. Why Caplan wants to turn this into opportunity to pick on left-libertarians is a mystery (that may have to do with Sheldon Richman’s lecture but I don’t think Richman said anything like what Caplan is saying).

And it does explain the free market’s unpopularity; it just doesn’t explain it in terms of a conscious link.

Well, if most of public [sic] isn’t even aware of the government-monopoly connection, it’s hard to see how “cronyism” could explain public hostility to markets.

Really? It seems easy enough if you don’t limit your understand of what an explanation is.

  1. Cronyism leads to bad economic outcomes for normal people.
  2. Bad economic outcomes for normal people make normal people hostile towards whatever economic mechanism they think is in place.
  3. They think the economic mechanism is a free-market because that’s what they are told by those in favor of the cronyism the free market threatens.
  4. The cronies are successful in large part because normal people think that government is necessary and listen to the leaders (who are cronies).
  5. Thus, normal people are hostile to free-market mechanism, even though they aren’t aware of the misnomer in 3 above.

That’s an explanation that doesn’t require any awareness on the part of “normal people” of the government-monopoly connection. Is Caplan trying to suggest that hostility to markets is somehow the natural reaction to the economic theory itself as it exists on the pages of textbooks? If he were to say that any theory that calls on paper for less government is going to lead to hostility because people want government, then I certainly agree with him. But does he not think it likely that why people want government is precisely because cronyism intends exactly that? They play good-cop, bad-cop. They prevent most normal people from being capable of independence from government. Again, it seems that cronyism explains the hostility.

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4 Responses to “The Essence of Fresh-cut Straw”

  1. James Says:

    I left a similar reply in the comments section:

    Isn’t this a strawman though? As one of the left libertarians Bryan Caplan is talking about I have NEVER claimed people are aware the government creates monopolies or read such a statement in any left libertarian work. Could he perhaps provide us with a link?

    “Well, if most of public isn’t even aware of the government-monopoly connection, it’s hard to see how “cronyism” could explain public hostility to markets.”

    Really? it doesn’t take much imagination to draw a link between public hostility to markets and cronyism:

    cronyism causes economic problems
    economic problems cause suffering
    people are unaware of cronyism so blame their suffering on the free market

    It’s odd that the author of “the myth of the rational voter” appears to be claiming that the government-monopoly connection doesn’t explain people’s hostility to markets as if people don’t blame the wrong thing for their suffering sometimes.

  2. Neverfox Says:

    Wow! That’s really creepily similar. Great minds think alike.

  3. James Says:

    Yeah they do. Although I did read the first paragraph of your post before I followed the link which may explain some of the similarity.

  4. James Says:

    Though the second half is bizzarely similar too…


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