Tyler Cowen gave last night’s keynote address at the Institute for Humane Studies Fellows’ Research Colloquium, and in it he revealed a selection of five ‘libertarian heresies’. Three of them particularly struck me.
First, he made a cogent case for the idea that we (in the developed world, at least) are freer now than we were in the past, and that it’s unwise for libertarians to look back on any particular era as some sort of libertarian elysium. If government was small way back when, in large part it was because everything was small. There is a tendency among some libertarians to argue for the future by going back to a past that did not exist; Cowen exposed this tendency very effectively.
Next, he argued for a form of positive liberty. This is not the positive liberty of Isaiah Berlin, with its totalitarian tendencies and desire to tell others how to live – something that has plagued the political left for many years and arguably persists to this day. Rather, Cowen’s positive liberty is closer to Amartya Sen‘s account of ‘capabilities’ – people should be able to do certain things, and the most successful society is one where the most people can do the most things. Then – and this is where there was an audible gasp around the room – he argued that roughly 70% of the liberties worth having fall into this ‘ability’ version of positive liberty.
Once people had cleared up that he wasn’t riffing on a notion of ‘ve vill give u zees because vee think it vill be gooood for you’, some of the grounds for the audible gasp drained away. Cowen’s and Sen’s ‘positive liberty’ has a modesty absent from Berlin’s account, and lacks the obsession with inequality that – later in the address – Cowen dismissed using Hayek’s words: as a ‘category mistake’.
Finally, in language sure to gladden the heart of jurisprudes everywhere, throughout the address he placed considerable emphasis on the rule of law and the benefits that flow from it. What poor countries need is not more liberty, but more law, law that is abstract, end-independent but – and this is the clincher – also enforced. He then moved into territory that is politically dangerous, but needs to be addressed: one of the things that helps promote both liberty and prosperity throughout the Anglosphere is citizens’ widespread ability to be loyal to a set of abstract concepts. Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it is poor – Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put paid to much Russian poverty – but because Russians tend to privilege their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.
He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked (also rhetorically), if – in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and prosperity – societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation, including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focussed on Russian loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think, for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous societies.
Serious food for thought.
(And for those looking forward to a collection of DC pics, two things. One, I forgot to bring my camera cable to the US, so I can’t upload anything until I get back to Oxford; and two, I got rained on for the length of the National Mall yesterday. The weather – not to put too fine a point on it – has been shite. Truly shite).
UPDATE: The DC pics are here, and I’m currently looking for my notes so that I can blog the rest of Prof Cowen’s address. Watch this space.