Congratulations to Sam Bowman. Sam is the young bright and likable spokesperson for free-market think tank the Adam Smith Institute, an organisation that has done more for the libertarian movement than I am qualified to name. Sam is good looking, well spoken and smart so you will have seen him on the TV with increasing regularity. In fact Sam also appeared in person at the Rose and Crown meetup where he gave an excellent and useful speech summarising the argument-so-far over the minimum wage issue. It has been obvious that Sam is being pushed to the front by his older colleagues at the ASI and so his promotion to deputy director, announced to friends on Facebook, is not a surprise.
Here is how the Institute describes Sam:
His current research agenda is the political economy of “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism”, a school of thought that tries to use free market policies to improve the welfare of the poor. His key policy areas are immigration and planning, which he sees as the two major areas where states hurt the poor globally and in the UK respectively. He is also interested in market monetarism, the epistemic challenges facing social democracy, and the case for wealth redistribution within free markets. He likes food, beer and pop music.
These are important areas for academic research and discussion, someone will want to research them and so it is good that a consequentialist libertarian like Sam is the one doing it. You have guessed it already, but there is a but coming.
Before I get to the but, here is where I am coming from intellectually. I am a product of Samizdata, since it was first chronologically to spread it’s influence through the web and through the mess of self-contradictory and free-floating nonsense that was the blogosphere at the time. Later, I am the product of Popper, Rand and Hayek, chronologically. The one that has stuck is Rand (and on economics, Hayek) and Rand has stuck for two reasons.
Going under the intellectual hood and putting scaffolding under your libertarianism is empowering, and helps to put a range of ideas (including non-political ideas, frequently) into order. Libertarian political policy makes more sense, rather than less, if taken alongside a study of Rand. This is about empowering the mind to see connections across topics of thought.
People do not vote their pocket-book. Actions to not arise, politically, as they do commercially. In commerce a spreadsheet is a viable tool for calculating the best option from a range of options. In politics however, not only is this impossible as a matter of economic calculation, it is inappropriate and doesn’t occur. Instead, people vote for what is good and proper and just.
That which is good and proper and just is determined by a moral code (often but far from consistently an altruistic code) which is absorbed from some combination of school assemblies, fiction, sermons, art, self-help books, government communication, journalism and more. Moral assumptions are present in all those cultural endeavors and is in all of them poorly backed up, usually not even argued out but is assumed, and is nearly always implicit. No one ever explicitly says that individuals are the means to the end and their labour ought to be taken by force to achieve that end, but such is the basis of taxation and where welfare cheques come from. Of course the one time people will vote on an economic calculation is when one party promises them more money, an argument the labour-confiscating left generally wins.
Now for the “but”, the reason Sam Bowman’s promotion needs to be approached with caution and sandwiched with a tactical analysis, is that his favoured policies are a tactical error. Land value tax will communicate and economically incentivise the idea that we are a collective and that ownership ought to a privilege, not a right. It will legitimate the idea that luck is a factor in the moral decision about how to approach other human beings, that their luck means taking more labour from them by force is okay. Citizen’s basic income is an economic nightmare undermining all incentives, but also undermining the moral idea that one ought to pay one’s own way.
I like Sam, on a personal level, and have liked him since we met, but his consequentialism was the second thing he told me about himself after his name. He wears his bleeding heart on his sleeve, and we ought to take that pronouncement at face value. The moral argument for liberty is both strong and essential, and cannot be omitted or mixed up with Rawlsian moral ideas.
This is welcome news, and guarantees the ASI has a future, but watch closely where that future leads.