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Better Check Yo’ Selfish Before You Wreck Yo’ Selfish

October 22nd, 2007 · 6 Comments

I’ve always found irritating the penchant of some on the left for casting policy disputes as centrally questions of “selfishness” or “generosity”—even if it’s too familiar to rankle much at this point. It seemed like a distracting ad hominem, a way of shifting the conversation from substantive arguments to pointless speculation about ultimately unknowable motives. It seemed like a confusion of personal virtue with political justice—two spheres that a moment’s reflection on, say, the virtue of “family loyalty” should establish as properly distinct.

And maybe because those seemed like sufficient objections themselves, I think I’d just plain ignored a far simpler problem—a glaringly obvious problem, once you think about it—which Megan McArdle explains. Because there are surely some very wealthy libertarians out there. But the folks who find themselves on the wrong end of this sort of rhetoric tend to be pundits, journalists, bloggers, and other folk who like arguing in bars. And the overlap between those groups is, to a first approximation, nil. If I were “selfish,” I would be arguing for universal healthcare funded by confiscatory taxes on brackets I’d need Hubble to glimpse. What exactly is our stake in the tax burden on the top one percent supposed to be? A big payout for our loyal hackwork from the Gnomes of Zurich? They really are screwed if their only advocates are money-grubbers so dim as to eschew law or consulting for journalism.

Tags: Libertarian Theory


       

 

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin // Oct 22, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Julian, that’s because people who talk about it in those terms aren’t aiming their arrows at you. They’re aiming them at how policy actually occurs – over the plutocrats and voters who actually fail to take into consider the disenfranchised in their policy initiatives. Liberal policymakers are willing to engage you on the merits (or ignore you), but when they bring out the populist rhetoric, theyre actually making a cognicent point about Marxist (qua descriptivist, not qua communist supporter) political realities.

  • 2 Gil // Oct 23, 2007 at 2:06 am

    Justin,

    Who are these libertarian plutocrats?

    Most of the wealthy who influence policy try to turn it to their advantage, not reduce its scope.

    At least, that’s what the unprincipled selfish ones are doing.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Oct 23, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Justin-
    That would be at least a potentially valid argument, but it’s also clearly not what about 90% of the people who talk that way mean.

  • 4 Justin // Oct 24, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Gil,

    I’m just talking about taxes, not expenditures. There’s a reason we have a big deficit, and that’s becaues outside the pundit class, there really is no liberterian constituency.

    Julian, I’ll just agree to disagree on this one. “Selfishness” (as opposed to cruelty, on occasion), is a political message – and as above, liberterians are not that important to the political debate because they have no constituency.

  • 5 Thomas Nephew // Oct 24, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Hi Julian,
    thought I’d pop by and see what you’re writing about. It was a pleasure meeting you at Welch’s book party last night.

    What exactly is our stake in the tax burden on the top one percent supposed to be? A big payout for our loyal hackwork from the Gnomes of Zurich?
    I’ve wondered that myself, but with slightly different tonal emphases. Given your implied lower tax bracket, and assuming you’re arguing for flat tax, no tax, or no single payer healthcare (I’m not going to visit McArdle’s post to get the specifics) I suppose your stake is (a) the pleasure of advancing something altruistically, on behalf of those richer than yourself, because it’s in line with libertarian policy prescriptions, and/or (b) your hope of eventually reaching those higher tax brackets and reaping the rewards at a later date.

    Re (a): while libertarian altruism seems counterintuitive to me, maybe it isn’t; I just don’t know the libertarian canon well enough. Re (b): Good luck! Really.

    They really are screwed if their only advocates are money-grubbers so dim as to eschew law or consulting for journalism.
    Who says you’re their only advocates? You’re just the ones that cost the least. :) Change that as quickly as possible.

  • 6 Anonymous // Oct 25, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    I can name at least 3 moderately prominent libertarian proponents who are trust-fund babies.

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