Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Megan McArdle's collectivist libertarianism

McArdle has come in, quite rightly, for a great deal of criticism following her recent post suggesting:
I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.
In terms of tactics, simply rushing a gunman whose weapons may be fully automatic is an extraordinarily bad idea, truly a last resort. It looks good in the movies but in real life, every aspect of the maneuver -- range, position, response time -- plays to the shooter's advantage. This is pretty much the situation that assault weapons were designed for.

In terms of implementation, it is arguably even less practical. As an old history professor of mine (who happened to be ex-military) explained, when someone shoots at you, the overwhelming instinct is to run away which is why so much military culture is designed to condition soldiers to reflexively follow orders (and why officers sometimes point their sidearms at their own troops).

Jonathan Chait pointed out that even in the familiar and controlled setting of a football practice, it takes considerable training to get kids to rush toward large, threatening opponents without hesitating or flinching. The idea of getting typical elementary school children to instinctively swarm an armed gunman is so absurd that Chait concluded:
Unless I am missing a very subtle parody of libertarianism, McArdle’s plan to teach children to launch banzai charges against mass murderers is the single worst solution to any problem I have ever seen offered in a major publication.
That's the one part I disagree with, not about it being the worst solution but about it being libertarian. McArdle is suggesting that we institute what can only be a massive government program to indoctrinate kids to put aside personal choice and individual initiative and instead automatically take collective action to serve the interests of the group. I honestly can't think of a recent proposal more at odds with libertarian principles.

This last point has no real significance in the gun control debate. McArdle's idea was next to impossible to implement and was unlikely to work even if you could get it in place. The fact that it contradicted her stated core values has no bearing on the question of guns and safety.

It does matter, however, when we consider the larger and, in the long run more important, question of how to have a discussion (more important than keeping our children safe? Yes. We have to be able to intelligently discuss the problem before we can hope to address it). A great deal of our discourse on almost every major issue is staked out by nominal libertarians like McArdle.

Libertarianism is often treated as the respectable and intellectually coherent branch of conservative thought, particularly when compared with say. social conservatives or nativists, but if you start with the same axioms these groups hold about the validity and interpretation of certain sacred texts or about cultural identity respectively, then most of the positions held by social conservatives and nativists are at least coherent. By comparison, much. perhaps most, of what we hear from leading libertarians like McArdle is completely inconsistent with the defining assumptions of libertarianism.

With a few exceptions, most of the nominal libertarians seem to take a curiously pro-authority stance, particularly when that authority preserves the social order. Even when the authority is governmental, actions that greatly reduce aggregate liberty (the war on drugs, extensions of copyrights and patents), are objected to less strenuously than are policies that arguably increase aggregate liberty such as civil rights laws.

Update: You can see Megan's response to this post in the comment section.


  1. Your assumption that libertarianism precludes self-sacrifice or voluntary collective action is incorrect; even Ayn Rand favored the latter, and contrary to popular belief, most of us aren't Objectivists.

    Your apparent belief that libertarians don't care about the drug war as much as civil rights laws is also incorrect; if you'll read through the websites of places like Reason and Cato, I think you'll find as much or more about the drug war and civil liberties than you will about the ADA or minority contracting rules. I certainly spend more time on the former than the latter, since as far as I can recall, I've never expressed a strong opinion either for or against various civil rights laws.


    Megan McArdle

    1. Megan,

      You're completely right in saying that there's no conflict between libertarian values and self-sacrifice or collective action, as long as these things are voluntary. On the contrary, many have joined the military (requiring both sacrifice and participation in collective efforts) specifically because they wanted to defend libertarian ideals.

      But we're talking about something different here. The proposal here was that we, as a society, train children to reflexively perform these actions. It's a plan that, if we're going to take it seriously, has little tolerance for free riders and therefore no room for children to make up their own minds or for parents to consent. It only makes sense if we collectively make the decision that these children should put themselves in harm's way.

      I don't see any way of reconciling that with libertarianism.

      Happy New Year,

    2. Again, you're construing libertarianism very, very narrowly, as (I gather) basically minarchism. We're not all minarchist, and plenty of us recognize that their are collective action problems which are solved by social norms. Including what we teach kids in school. I mean, fair enough--the hard liners expel me from the movement all the time for being too soft, though usually on things like taxes and environmental regulations. But the movement is a lot broader than you think, and certainly includes both public schools, and public values.

  2. Scanning Reason's headlines today I see more about government spending than the drug war but that might just be due to recent events. I think I would be a libertarian if the mainstream of the movement was Radley Balko.


    I do note that you had an article today that supports one of Mark's favorite memes:

    So there are at least some points of agreement.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Sure, there are lots of liberals who would be libertarians if libertarians only focused on the stuff that liberals care about. :) Radley was pro-life last time I checked, and considerably to to the right of me on economic issues, but what he writes about is stuff where he's more in agreement with liberals. I am on the same page as Radley with law enforcement abuses, but it's not my area.

    However, I was addressing a specific assertion--that libertarians care more about opposing civil rights laws than opposing the drug war. That is the exact opposite of the actual record of the most prominent libertarian places, at least for the last ten years or so.