Liberaltarianism unbound by mattsteinglass
August 25, 2010, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism

Back in 2003, when I’d just moved to Vietnam, one of the first stories I worked on was a piece for the Boston Globe on shrimp and catfish farming. US catfish farmers and shrimp fishermen were pushing to get anti-dumping tariffs enacted on imports of Vietnamese farmed shrimp and tra catfish, which had become a huge engine of prosperity for Vietnamese farmers over the previous few years. (Exports to the US went from about $50 million in 2000 to about $500 million in 2003, if I recall correctly.) The US Department of Commerce favored the anti-dumping tariffs because to calculate dumping, it employed a process called “zeroing”, which I won’t get into but is basically mathematical sleight-of-hand to make it look like imports are being sold below market price. And the independent expert who’d written the best explanation of why zeroing was screwy and unfair, and how it harmed the interests of poor third-world producers like the Vietnamese catfish and shrimp farmers I was writing about, was a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute named Brink Lindsey. I called Lindsey up and he talked me through how zeroing worked, and that strongly informed the article I wound up writing. (In the years since, the Commerce Department has been forced to partially abandon zeroing in investigating dumping claims, due to international criticism.)

Years later, I came across the writing of another Cato Institute chap, Will Wilkinson, on his blog. As I recall I got into some argument with him in a comment thread at some point about his writing on happiness research and whether it meant you shouldn’t have kids. But I found his work consistently very interesting, he was clearly writing from a standpoint of genuine political and intellectual curiosity and independence, and he has an unforcedly erudite writing style that was quite different from most of what was being written in the blogosphere at the time.

I have a tendency to get into arguments with libertarians. To be more specific: I’ll get into arguments with conservatives, but I’m capable of becoming obsessed by arguments with libertarians. I also think conversations with some libertarians have forced me to think harder than perhaps any other conversations I’ve had in the past decade or so.

Anyway, Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson are both leaving the Cato Institute. That’s too bad for the Cato Institute, and great for me, since now Will Wilkinson is blogging at The Economist. But honestly, for all the differences I have with libertarians, I think it’d be too bad if that particular shade of libertarianism lost its connection to major libertarian institutions. This is a bit hard to articulate, but I think that if all the free-thinking unorthodox libertarians drift away to other kinds of centrist or even liberal-leaning institutions, they’ll continue to be interesting and influential writers but libertarianism may cease to be an interesting or influential philosophical current. I’m not sure why I think that would be a bad thing, since I’m not a libertarian and I think the philosophy gets much about the world quite wrong. But for some reason I think it would be a bad thing.


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