Increasing Marginal Utility

A blog so good it violates the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Am I Actually a Libertarian? Also, Bayesian statistics.

There is a new Cato Unbound on libertarian ideology and evolutionary psychology, which I should care about much more than I do (at the moment, at least), since, you know, that’s a huge point in my dissertation. What caught my eye more was the characterization of libertarians and how it relates to Bryan Caplan’s “libertarian penumbra.” Shermer’s stereotype of libertarian is,

Libertarians are a bunch of pot-smoking, porn-watching, prostitution-supporting, gold-hoarding, gun-stashing, Constitution-waving, secession-mongering, tax-revolting, anti-government anarchists.

Little of that applies to me, but it does apply to virtually everyone I met at IHS. I even come from a proud, long line of angry people stashing guns, but I would refuse to live anywhere dangerous enough to require me to own a gun.

The first response to Shermer gave a far more interesting (if tongue-in-cheek) stereotype of a libertarian.

I am—like many libertarians, in my admittedly skewed Silicon Valley experience—just another pot-decriminalizing, prostitution-supporting, computer-programming, science-fiction-reading, Bayesian-statistics-promoting, mainstream-economics-respecting, sex-positive, money-positive, polyamorous atheistic transhumanist government-distrusting minarchist.

Huh. In order, my responses would be “yes,” “I’m a libertarian not a libertine,” “I guess sorta,” “not really,” “YES,” “sorta,” “I’m a libertarian not a libertine,” “I’m a libertarian not a libertine,” “I’m a libertarian not a libertine,” “I’m religious,” “transhumanism is kinda dumb,” “Yes,” and “Yes.”

For those keeping score at home, the only one I went YES all-caps-is-cruise-control-for-cool was Bayesian statistics.

The only time I’ve heard a libertarian get all excited about Bayesian statistics was Bryan Caplan’s (coincidence?) debate with Walter Block over Austrian epistemology. That took place very formally in debates in either RAE or QJAE a decade ago. When you say “Bayesian statistics,” it sounds difficult and scary, but it’s another way of ordering reality (in a similar vein to the way I view rational choice theory) to help you think about things. We don’t know the true state of the world and we can only assign a probability to any given state. When you get new information, you update those probabilities. I don’t remember exactly when, but I latched onto the concept roughly halfway through college. But besides Caplan, I hadn’t heard anyone linking it directly with libertarianism. Mostly I was just yelled at for not accepting the Misesian interpretation of probability.

This actually happens to me periodically. I was more than a bit surprised when I heard recently that evolutionary psychology generates a whole set of libertarians, in the same sense that Austrian economics brings people to libertarianism. I have somewhat made a point of reading (or at least making myself aware of) the “classics” in libertarianism, but this hasn’t helped me anticipate those who believe similarly. In evolutionary psychology, Pinker is a quasi-libertarian and Ridley is but it was slightly ambiguous (to me) until The Rational Optimist. In Bayesian statistics, I don’t know of an equivalent. Caplan was just making a mainstream methodological argument, as he is wont to do, against Austrian economics.

Are there other libertarian champions out of Bayesian statistics out there, or did I just pick up on an incorrect stereotype?

One response to “Am I Actually a Libertarian? Also, Bayesian statistics.

  1. Daniel Kuehn September 8, 2011 at 8:31 am

    Defining libertarianism is always an interesting enterprise. I don’t fit the first one all that much either, although the second one really zeroes in on a couple things (really at the end) such that I can say “I am not a libertarian”. Since most libertarians would agree with that assessment of myself, it’s probably a half-decent definition!

    What I always find funny is definitions of libertarianism where I come out as a solid one. David Henderson presents a Gillespie/Welch definition of this sort here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/09/do_nick_gillesp.html

    By that definition I am very firmly in the libertarian camp. Often these definitions just aim at classical liberalism or the liberal tradition. I’ve said for a while now that libertarianism and classical liberalism are not identical – and the best evidence of that is passing around Gillespie/Welch’s definition and passing around a minarchist-based definition and realizing that the circle of people agreeing with Gillespie/Welch is much wider than the circle that you could ever get excited about the modern libertarian movement.

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