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Empirical Evidence That Brad DeLong Is Completely Obtuse

Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of Thought

02/22/2011Robert P. Murphy

Brad DeLong recently wrote a blog post titled "Empirical Proof That America's Libertarians Are Completely Insane." The "proof" was that libertarian Sasha Volokh had had the audacity to suggest that it would be immoral for the government to tax people even to stop a deadly asteroid from hitting the earth.

As we'll see, DeLong misunderstood Volokh's nuanced position — which is not surprising, because he was prepared to declare Volokh insane. More generally, the episode illustrates the absurdity and unprincipled worldview of nonlibertarians in the modern American political context.

DeLong Puts Volokh on the Couch

DeLong's entire post, including his quotation from Volokh, is short enough that we can quote the whole thing:

The intellectual train wreck is truly astonishing. Matthew Yglesias sends us to Sasha Volokh, who writes:

The Volokh Conspiracy » Asteroid defense and libertarianism: I think there's a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid … is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. … [I]t's O.K. to violate people's rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people's rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it's not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone's rights. …

[I]f you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn't apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public. …

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.


Let's deal with the minor issues first. Beyond the hyperbole ("insane," "train wreck," etc.) DeLong doesn't even understand Volokh's point about looting. Volokh never said "it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid … because it will cause violations of rights through looting."

No, what Volokh was saying was that the only way (in his understanding of rights) to justify taxing people because of an impending asteroid collision would be to invoke the possibility that there would be greater rights violations if the government stood by and did nothing.

I don't want to dwell on this particular issue too much, because I don't embrace Volokh's position. Even so, it is an entirely reasonable view, and it is surprising to me that DeLong doesn't even understand it. In the first place, Volokh is saying that there is a general moral prohibition against violating another person's rights.

So, for example, it is immoral to kill a random person, even if by doing so you could harness his organs and prevent three other people from dying. To do so would be to introduce more injustice into the world. It's not a violation of someone's rights when he dies from heart disease, but it is a violation of someone's rights if we kill somebody to take his healthy heart and transplant it into somebody else.

So far, so good. I agree with Volokh; this is just a particular application of the notions running through Western civilization that the ends don't justify the means, and that people have moral worth as individuals: they can't be sacrificed to promote the common good or to increase total social happiness.

Where Volokh and I part ways — yet where his position is still perfectly understandable — is that he thinks it is arguably permissible to violate someone's rights if doing so will avert other, greater violations of people's rights. For example, Volokh presumably thinks it could be morally acceptable to blow up an innocent person, if he had had the misfortune to be strapped to a missile that an enemy army fired toward a city. Yes, it would be regrettable to "murder" that person by firing an interceptor missile and knocking down the enemy projectile, but the enemy army made murders unavoidable; our side is simply minimizing the amount of murder.

More generally — and here I really part ways with him — Volokh says that standard government activities can be justified morally through this type of argument. Specifically, it's okay to steal money from people — which is a rights violation — if the government then uses the money to fund police, courts, etc., which will prevent greater theft and murder (i.e., rights violations) that would occur in the absence of a taxing government. That is how Volokh reconciles the existence of a government with libertarian rights theory.

As I've said repeatedly, I don't endorse Volokh's stance; see Murray Rothbard's work on libertarian rights, and the operation of a totally free society, to see the problems. But this language of rights — and the limits it places on government actions — is apparently so foreign to Brad DeLong that he misunderstands Volokh's point about looting.

Now that I have spelled out Volokh's views, his point should be obvious: Just because an asteroid threatens to destroy all human life, that alone is not sufficient to justify violating people's rights. It is not morally acceptable to engage in theft, if doing so would merely prevent people's deaths from natural causes (i.e., the asteroid strike). This is simply an exaggeration of the earlier example of killing an innocent person in order to harvest his organs and prevent three other deaths from natural causes.

However, because Volokh thinks it is okay to tax people (i.e., steal from them) in order to fund anticrime operations, which thereby prevent even worse rights violations, he allows for the possible justification of taxing to stop the asteroid: specifically, the proponent of this plan would need to demonstrate that failure to do so would result in greater rights violations than the theft of increased taxation (to pay for the asteroid defense).

In other words, Volokh is saying that in practice it could be morally acceptable (in his view) for the government to steal money from taxpayers, because the taxpayers would be so relieved once they realize that the government has enough money to blow up the incoming asteroid, that they won't resort to massive looting (i.e., stealing). So the taxing and spending on asteroid defense would belong to the same class of operations as the taxing and spending on police and courts.

Do People Have Rights? Are There Any Limits on Government Power?

Beyond DeLong's fumbling of Volokh's looting caveat, there is the more general problem: He is aghast that someone actually takes seriously the fact that people have rights. The reason DeLong finds Volokh's views "insane" is that Volokh has elevated his precious political principles to such a height that they trump the survival of the human race.1 What an ideologue!

Yet if we go and read Volokh's actual post — as opposed to the excerpt DeLong shows us — we see that Volokh is grappling with the conflict. This example of the killer asteroid was indeed designed to test libertarian rights theory. Volokh knows full well the implications of his stance, but he is reporting that he cannot conclude that it is moral to steal from people in order to prevent natural deaths. (Incidentally, David Friedman handles this type of thorny problem by acknowledging that it is a rights violation but hoping people go ahead and violate rights.Download PDF)

I have to wonder: Does DeLong — and the majority of his readers (judging by the comments) who also found Volokh's views evidence of insanity — think people have any spheres of autonomy, protecting them absolutely from government action? Going the other way, are there any hard limits on what the government can do to people — or does it all boil down to a utilitarian assessment of what promotes the greatest good?

Let's turn the tables on DeLong and his fans by changing the example. Apparently those folks don't think much of property rights. Fine. What about bodily integrity? Suppose Martians showed up and announced, "Unless you earthlings torture 1,000 infants to death, we will blow up the earth."

Now is it so obvious? Could DeLong at least understand someone who became squeamish and said, "You know, I don't think it would be moral to do that, even if it meant the whole earth would be destroyed"?

This isn't mere Ivory Tower pontificating. People like Glenn Greenwald have gone hoarse over the last decade, pointing out all the rights violations of the Bush and Obama administrations. Supporters of the war on terror have routinely dismissed Greenwald as an ideologue, who elevates the oh-so-precious rights of accused terrorists above national security and saving lives.2 In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if neoconservative pundits have dismissed Greenwald's views as "completely insane." After all, what good are guarantees to a fair trial if we all get killed by terrorists?

The Market Could Handle an Asteroid (if Government Could)

In all of this discussion, nobody is bringing up the fact that the government is incompetent and has no resources of its own. If taxation would allow government to blow up the incoming asteroid, then it is obviously technologically possible for humans to accomplish the feat. Then we have to wonder, why could government achieve it, but the private sector couldn't?

Presumably the answer is that the incoming asteroid presents a "public-goods problem" par excellence. To wit, if a private company pays for the research to destroy the asteroid, then the company can't restrict the services of "enjoying life on earth" to its paying customers. Either everybody dies, or everybody lives.

Yes, it is true that this type of problem would be hard to address with a regular contract. But, if the fate of the world were truly at stake, billions of people putting on their thinking caps just might lead to a solution.

For example, organizations (analogous to Groupon) could arrange campaigns where people conditionally pledged money. The pledge might be something like this: "I promise to pay $100 to the company that successfully averts the danger from the asteroid, as determined by a 95% vote of the astronomers and physicists listed in the Appendix."

The organization running the campaign would then publicize the list of those who had made their pledge. People could use ostracism and other forms of social pressure on those incredibly selfish individuals (in the middle- or upper-classes of course) who were trying to free-ride and not chip in $100 to literally save the world.

Would every single person with the financial means contribute to this campaign? No. But if the threat were real, and if the earth's destruction were imminent, it's hard to imagine that fewer than, say, 100 million people around the world would chip in $100. That means a $10 billion payoff would await whatever company came up with the technique to save the world.

Once the payoff had been established, private investors would then analyze the proposals of contending companies. The general public — and heaven forbid, a government panel of "experts" — wouldn't make the decisions to devote scarce resources to the various competing ideas. No, it would be profit-seeking investors who would rely on their own scientists and engineers to evaluate which projects had the best shot of winning the $10 billion pot.

It's true, such a plan wouldn't guarantee success. But I would be much more confident in that approach than putting the fate of humanity in the hands of the government's security agencies and NASA.

I should mention one other consideration: In reality, it wouldn't be "public-goods problems," but governments themselves that would cripple the market's ability to avert disaster. For one thing, taxes would whittle away the $10 billion prize, thereby reducing its attractiveness. And of course, there are all sorts of restrictions on the lasers, satellites, and missiles that private companies can develop. Finally, there would be a lot less private capital available to fund competing private approaches to asteroid defense, because the government would have taxed hundreds of billions already for the project, perhaps relying on testimony from Brad DeLong.


In fanciful thought experiments, it takes all of five minutes to realize the dozens of reasons that free markets will (as usual) outperform monopoly governments. But more serious is the fact that governments in the real world systematically violate the rights of their subjects, whether in "mere" theft of their money or the more serious violations of (literally) lawless imprisonment and torture.

One doesn't have to endorse Sasha Volokh's worldview to at least sympathize with his strong commitment to individual rights. Brad DeLong and others should respect such a commitment rather than citing it as proof of insanity.

  • 1.
    DeLong confirms my impression in a subsequent blog post. Note that DeLong has somehow turned the idea of people being "ends in themselves" to support his position in this exchange!
  • 2. Ironically, it seems Sasha Volokh himself associates with people who do not stay up at night worrying about the rights violations of the War on Terror. I combed through Volokh's archives, looking for evidence one way or the other of his own views, and didn't find anything definitive. However, the fact that he allowed Max Boot to guest blog under his (Volokh's) name is good circumstantial evidence that Glenn Greenwald is not necessarily one of his favorite thinkers. In any event, none of this would render Brad DeLong's criticism valid; it would simply mean Volokh should think long and hard about which policies promote individual rights in the real world.

Contact Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy is a Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute. He is the author of numerous books: Contra Krugman: Smashing the Errors of America's Most Famous Keynesian; Chaos Theory; Lessons for the Young Economist; Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism; Understanding Bitcoin (with Silas Barta), among others. He is also host of The Bob Murphy Show.