Libertarians and Trump, one last chance for redemption

Progressive websites and even the mainstream media have been surprisingly blunt in their reporting on Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election.  Many reporters and commentators have rejected bothsidesism and said openly that Biden has won and Trump is trying to steal the election.  Quite a few have gone further and emphasized that his behavior is a threat to the survival of American democracy.

One group that has not been so outspoken?  Libertarian economists.  Of course, it is difficult to prove a negative, but I follow several libertarian thinkers, and so far, it’s been nothing but crickets.  My observation is consistent with the discussion of conservative economists by Saldin and Teles in their book Never Trump.

What accounts for the silence of the libertarian economists?  I can think of two possible explanations; they are not mutually exclusive.

The first explanation is that libertarians genuinely do not believe that Trump poses a threat to American democracy.

How can this be?  Consider this passage by Tyler Cowen (written before the election):

The dangers of the current political moment in the West — with its polarization, harsh rhetoric and growing hostility toward cosmopolitanism — are evident to historians and economists alike. But which group sees the situation as more grave? I suspect it is historians, and it is worth considering why.

. . .

More fundamentally, however, historians stress the importance of contingency, that things really could have gone another way. The decisions of a solitary assassin or the outcome of a single battle can shift the course of history. Particular leadership decisions might have avoided or limited World War I. Or what if the Germans had not, in 1917, put Lenin on a train back into Russia? The Bolshevik Revolution might have been avoided and probably the entire course of history would have been different. A shrewder President Paul von Hindenburg might have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

If you think about these questions enough, you can end up very nervous indeed. Historians have seen too many modest mistakes spiral out of control and turn into disasters.

Economists, in contrast, work more with general models than with concrete historical situations, and those models emphasize underlying structural forces. Economies have fairly set populations, birth rates, natural resources, capital stocks, savings rates, trading partners, and so on. So to an economist, the final outcomes are closer to necessary than contingent.

. . .

A more typical economist’s view is that Trump is promoting some bad policies with respect to trade and immigration and fiscal policy, but that most essential features of America are likely to persist. And when it comes to politics, economists of the “public choice” variety tend to see outcomes as controlled by a fairly tight structure of voter preferences and interest groups, variables which a president can change only at the margin and with great effort.

So which perspective is correct — the historian’s or the economist’s? It is hard to counter the historian’s contention that contingent events can shift the course of a nation or the world. That said, the underlying fundamentals seem to have greater predictive power. The U.S. economy seems fairly robust, the investigation into Russian interference in the election is proceeding, and the courts have repeatedly stood up to Trump. The system seems to be holding up.

According to Cowen, economists do not worry about Trump because they regard structures and incentives as more important than individuals – or at least as more useful for predicting average outcomes.  This is a possible explanation for the silence of libertarian economists about Trump’s effort to undermine trust in elections, since libertarians do put a great deal of stock in this type of public choice reasoning.

Note, however, that the reasoning Cowen describes (and appears to endorse) is very implausible.  A small risk of a democratic collapse is indeed something worth worrying about, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into existing public choice models.  And the fact that Trump was in some sense “unpredictable” ex ante is not a reason to be complacent about what he will do in office – or as he leaves – given what we know about him now.

Cowen also ignores the norm erosion around voting and elections that has already occurred among Republican politicians and Supreme Court justices (e.g., in Roberts’ Shelby County decision).  This norm erosion increases the risk of more aggressive attacks on the election process.  In other contexts, Cowen takes norms seriously, so his failure to do so when it comes to the risk of democratic deconsolidation is puzzling – he seems to be encouraging complacency, but the predictability of reasonably fair elections in the past may have depended on people not being complacent about democratic norms.  A student of incentives might also notice that Trump has far stronger than normal reasons to want to remain as President, such as getting tons of adulation, abusing his office for personal financial gain, and staying out of prison, which makes him particularly likely to exploit weakening norms.  Theories of democratic failure emphasize the importance of norm erosion.

The upshot is that Cowen’s public choice reasoning is unpersuasive, which reduces the plausibility of this explanation for the silence of libertarians.  But implausible theories can blind us to reality, and it is possible that public choice libertarians just don’t perceive that Trump is a threat to democracy.

The second possible reason that libertarian economists are quiet about Trump’s democratic abuses is that they want Trump to win.  They may not approve of his racism and his tariffs, but they like his deregulation and his tax cuts.  Some of them are terrified of the “socialist” turn in the Democratic party.

This is a difficult explanation to evaluate because most libertarians do not openly support or oppose Trump.  Many contemporary libertarians avoid overt partisan commitments, preferring to strike a pose as disinterested intellectuals who are disdainful of the tawdry world of politics and who are too busy with the noble task of defending liberty to engage in the petty compromises of everyday politics.  But in fact the libertarian movement is aligned with the Republican party – libertarian economists are the intellectual spokespersons for the plutocratic wing of the party.  Milton Friedman was open about his partisanship, but for some reason many of today’s libertarians are a bit shy about it.

Is there some other explanation for the failure of libertarian economists to speak out clearly against Trump’s attempt to undermine the election?  Maybe.  Perhaps some privately oppose him but there are career or social costs in the world of right wing think tanks for criticizing Trump too harshly.  But whatever the explanation, time is running out for influential libertarians who have remained silent in the face of Trump’s assaults on democracy to redeem themselves.