In Praise of an Ideology of Freedom

by Don Boudreaux on April 29, 2019

in Hubris and humility, Man of System, Myths and Fallacies, Truth-seeking & ideology

In my most-recent column for AIER I argue that pragmatists are just as ideological as are libertarians – a reality that does not mean that all ideologies have equal merit. A slice:

The same knowledge limitations that counsel caution when considering any particular government intervention also counsel caution when considering what we might call a ‘policy of pragmatism.’ How will anyone know when intervention will likely work and when it won’t? The individuals who must make this determination in each case are always flesh-and-blood human beings.

Although pragmatists concede that government officials in some specific cases lack sufficient information to intervene successfully, pragmatists nevertheless assume – usually unawares – that government officials (or their advisors) do not lack sufficient information to determine when intervention will work and when it won’t. Yet this assumption is unwarranted.

The very same limitations on human knowledge that even pragmatists admit prevent government officials from successfully intervening in many specific instances also prevent government officials (and their advisors) from successfully distinguishing those real-world instances in which intervention is likely to ‘work’ from those real-world instances in which intervention is likely to fail.

This problem is compounded when we consider incentives. The same government officials who, in specific instances, have poor incentives to intervene in ways that promote the general welfare also have poor incentives to distinguish instances in which the general welfare will be improved by intervention from instances in which the general welfare will be damaged.

In short, the same government officials who are not god-like when charged with carrying out particular interventions do not become god-like when charged with deciding “pragmatically” when to intervene and when not to intervene. Yet pragmatists’ ideology holds that government officials can indeed be trusted to intervene pragmatically only when intervention will improve the general welfare.

And note: the indisputable fact that it is possible to describe theoretical conditions under which intervention will succeed does almost nothing to give real-world government officials the information necessary to intervene successfully – and it does absolutely nothing to give real-world government officials the incentives to intervene successfully.


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