Skip to content

Richard Epstein Schools Jeffrey Sachs on Libertarianism @DefiningIdeas

Sachs can only attack libertarianism by caricaturing it.

The popular version of the term libertarian does not convey solely this meaning. The second branch of libertarian theory is classical liberalism. It takes a somewhat larger view of government that makes it a bit more elusive to characterize. The classical liberal does not deny the importance of controlling aggression and honoring promises. Indeed, these two values have to be as much a part of the system as they are of any alternative that Sachs might put forward. But the classical liberal makes two conscious adaptations from hard-line libertarian thought that render it largely immune to the criticisms that Sachs and others lodge against it. The first deals with moral obligations. The second deals with issues of monopoly, taxation, eminent domain, and regulation.

The first of these modifications is that classical liberalism is not just a theory about the legal interactions between ordinary individuals. One of its key components concerns the moral obligations between persons. To be sure, there are many instances in which legal and moral obligations overlap, including the imperatives to avoid the use of force against others and the need to keep promises. But in addition to these obligations, there is a second set of obligations that are not enforced by law, but which are enforced by an elaborate set of devices that range from public opinion to social pressures, which can come from friends, associates, religious institutions, or moral conscience.

I’d argue that classical liberalism is more aligned with conservatism, and that the large-L Libertarians are responsible for making themselves vulnerable to this caricature, but it’s good to see Epstein taking on the problem head-on, and putting Sachs in his place.  Sachs’s economic ideas have done a tremendous amount of harm around the world.

Posted in Economics, Politics.

Tagged with , , .