Freedom, Pessimism, and Reverse Survivor Bias

Cato vice president (and my former boss) David Boaz had a really fantastic essay last week at Reason about libertarians’ unfortunate tendency to sentimentalize an imagined past of lost liberty:

For many libertarians, “the road to serfdom” is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think. They (we) quote Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” We read books with titles like Freedom in Chains, Lost Rights, The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, and yes, The Road to Serfdom.

The Cato Institute’s boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn’t seem quite that way to black people.

And he was right. American public policy has changed in many ways since the American Revolution, sometimes in a libertarian direction, sometimes not…

No doubt one of the reasons that libertarians haven’t persuaded as many people as we’d like is that a lot of Americans don’t think we’re on the road to serfdom, don’t feel that we’ve lost all our freedoms. And in particular, if we want to attract people who are not straight white men to the libertarian cause, we’d better stop talking as if we think the straight white male perspective is the only one that matters. For the past 70 years or so conservatives have opposed the demands for equal respect and equal rights by Jews, blacks, women, and gay people. Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying “Americans used to be free, but now we’re not”—which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.

But it’s not just a strategic mistake. It’s a mistake.

I think there are at least two factors driving libertarians’ tendency to see the world as losing freedom even as things get more and more free. One is Kerry Howley’s concept of “state worship.” Many of the mechanisms for the subjugation of women, blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians and other disfavored groups during the 19th and 20th centuries were not primarily the work of the state. Yes, we had fugitive slave acts and sodomy laws, but we also had lynchings, anti-Jewish hiring and college admissions policies, domestic violence, and so forth. These latter policies were genuine impediments to liberty, but because they weren’t being perpetrated directly by the state, a lot of libertarians seem to believe their abolition doesn’t count for as much when we’re tallying up the overall state of liberty. But if you’re a libertarian because you’re a liberal—that is, if you believe limited government is a means to the end of liberty rather than an end in itself—then there’s no good reason to draw this kind of distinction.

The other problem is that I think it’s hard to keep a sense of perspective when you’re “in the trenches” thinking about today’s threats to freedom. Libertarian pundits and activists spend the most time on issues where freedom is the most threatened. We don’t pay much attention to issues (like the draft, sodomy laws, or airline and trucking deregulation) where the libertarian perspective has become so mainstream that it’s rarely even a subject of debate. The result is a kind of reverse survivor’s bias, where the grimmest cases get the most attention.

Undue pessimism seems to be a common problem in pro-freedom movements. Tim Wu wrote an excellent article in Slate last week arguing that the iPad represents the final abandonment of the heritage of open technologies Apple inherited from Steve Wozniak. As I’ve written before, I agree with this critique as far as it goes. But I also think it’s important that advocates of open technologies and user freedom not overstate their case. Open technologies are incomparably more popular and deeply entrenched today than they have ever been. There is no real threat that core Internet technologies like TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, DNS, and SMTP—all of which are open standards—will be displaced by proprietary alternatives. Successful open standards have a habit of rapidly and thoroughly destroying their proprietary competitors. And this means that once an open standard “wins,” it quickly stops being an interesting story. It would be hard to sell Slate on an article pointing out that TCP/IP is still the world’s dominant networking protocol and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future. So instead, all the discussion focuses on those areas where open standards are still the underdog. This leads to the same kind of reverse survivor’s bias that plagues the libertarian movement. And it helps to explain why we get a seemingly endless series of books warning about the decline of the open Internet even as open technologies continue to become more and more dominant.

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3 Responses to Freedom, Pessimism, and Reverse Survivor Bias

  1. Jamie says:

    I think you’re overthinking this a bit.

    There’s nothing wrong with accepting that one’s personal position is the frame of reference that informs one’s opinions. One big lesson, for me, going to an elite liberal arts school in the early 90s, was that feminists have a point. Smart, priviledged white boys like me simply don’t have to think about lots of things that others do, and it is well worth keeping in mind that my personal geeky concern with, say, the way TLS certs creep into Mozilla’s default list are at least a bit strange to someone who trying to get back in to the work force after doing a stint in jail for dope.

    So, it is OK to think about such concerns, but it really, really isn’t OK to miss the fact that these are just some concerns amonst many, and that control of DNS means little to a family in the South that doesn’t have running water in their home or a way to not spend the next several years paying a dentist over wisdom teeth.

    I know what the response there is, and I agree that dentist shouldn’t be working for free, and that in a perfect world we’d figure out how private firms could manage water in a non-exploitive way. I think the argument should be more about understanding how power accumulates, and less about how it is right and proper that it does so. I find it interesting that many on the libertarian side seems to dislike royalty, and at the same time fails to note that government is just what you buy when you get that rich.

  2. Contemplationist says:

    This is plain weird.
    Slave Fugitive Acts were huuuge. Sodomy laws likewise a limitation on freedom. And what about lynchings? Of course thats a state failure as well. If individual is not protected from crime thats the state’s fault. Don’t forget lots of states passed laws disarming blacks, which infact led to more lynchings on the margin.

    Domestic violence? Again, if the individual is not protected from crime/third party violence, when the state has claimed sole dominion over the use of force, IT IS A STATE FAILURE.

  3. Pete says:

    @ contemplationist

    “Domestic violence? Again, if the individual is not protected from crime/third party violence, when the state has claimed sole dominion over the use of force, IT IS A STATE FAILURE.”

    In a really perverse sense, that is true, but do you really want to go there?

    I mean, if any instance of domestic violence is a failure of the state, I don’t see how you can avoid the argument that, in order to properly fulfil its duties, the state has to be present, in all settings, every time a husband and wife are together. There are probably a few really radical socialist feminists who actually believe that, but not many libertarians.

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