Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig Demolished Libertarians. And It Was Beautiful.

The New Republic staff writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently penned a devastating critique of libertarians, where she argued that the beliefs of self-described libertarians do not square with the central tenet of “freedom” that (allegedly) underlies libertarianism. She links to a wonderful Pew Research Center study, which she uses to base her takedowns and factually demolish libertarians bit. By. Bit.

Here is a play-by-play of her critique:

1) After quoting porn-famous Belle Knox on her move toward libertarianism after a strict Catholic upbringing, Bruenig notes that “Insofar as libertarianism is opposed to almost every feature of Catholic morality, Knox has certainly picked an appropriate politics of rebellion.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Catholicism teaches us to help the poor. Libertarians hate the poor, as evidenced by their desire to almost completely dismantle the safety net. Sure, they might argue government programs are inefficient or fail to stop poverty – but they only say this to cover up their elitist distaste of poor people. The truth is that even if these programs are inefficient, it doesn’t matter, because what they do is they show our commitment – as a society – to recognize the plight of the poor. You can’t put a price on dignity – and we want to restore the dignity of our lower class!

2) Relying on her careful reading of the Pew study, Bruenig concludes that “libertarians themselves do not appear to have a good sense of what libertarianism actually means.” You want evidence? Here is the evidence.

Why this demolished libertarians: According to the Pew study, 14% of Americans identify as libertarians. Furthermore, 11% of all Americans both identify as libertarian and at the same time know what libertarianism is. That means that 11/14 = 78% of people who identify as libertarians actually know what libertarianism means. And what does that mean? It means that more than 1 in 5 self-described libertarians doesn’t understand what libertarianism means!!

People who do not foolishly choose to identify with that political label of teenage rebellion are a different matter. The study notes that 57% of all Americans know what libertarianism means. If we remove the mere 11% of the population that is both libertarian and knows what the label means, that means that 46% of the population is both non-libertarian and knows what the label means. 46/86 = 54% of non-libertarians know what libertarianism is. That is, more than 2.5 out of every 5 self-described non-libertarians know what libertarianism means. And last time I checked 2.5/5 is, well, 2.5 times more than 1/5! If you eat 2000 calories a day, 2.5 times more than that is 5000 calories a day. Can you imagine that?!

3) Bruenig points out that “libertarians polled as far more supportive of police intervention in citizens’ daily lives, showing greater support for stop-and-frisk policies than the general population” [emphasis mine].

Why this demolished libertarians: Bruenig is not afraid to cite her sources, and even shows us a diagram from the study that backs her claim (red elements mine):

Notice that libertarians are a whole 1% more likely to allow police to stop/search all who look like crime suspects. And before libertarians start crying out that 1% “is within margin of error” or some made-up excuse like that (after all, they hate statistics because reality has a strong liberal bias), let me point out that 1% of the US population is more than 3 million people. That’s a lot of people, people!! The data proves it – libertarians, while pretending to be pro-freedom, actually support intervention into our lives far, far more than the general population!

4) Continuing, we learn that “A baffling quarter of libertarians surveyed believe homosexuality should be discouraged.” Do you know what I think should be discouraged? Libertarianism! If you didn’t think they were barbarians before, how can you have any doubt now? Libertarians think that homosexuals (or whatever awful slang word libertarians probably use at home to describe them) are no better than animals.

Why this demolished libertarians: Once again, just look at the source data, and the picture becomes clear: when it comes to hating gays, libertarians are unparalleled:

Notice that 26% of libertarians (even more than Bruenig had humbly cited!) think homosexuality should be “discouraged” – as if our neighbors and family members who are homosexual just “choose” to be gay and to be ostracized by society. Let me remind you, people, 26% is an enormous number!

How do non-libertarians compare? We just need to solve the equation 0.11*26 + x*89 = 31. Solving it, x=31.6, which means 31.6% of non-libertarians favor discouraging homosexuality. That means that almost 69% of non-libertarians are against discouraging homosexuality! If you need me to do the math for you, libertAynrians, the number 69 is more than 2.5 times bigger than 26! We see that 2.5 pop up again. Weird, huh?

5) Of course, Bruenig, being a master writer, also interweaves humor into her narrative: “Knox is only 19 years old, so we can hardly fault her for these contradictions.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Don’t you get it? Only teenagers could be libertarians, because teenagers are so immature and don’t know what the real world is like! Libertarians harbor ideas so far out of touch with reality, that even though they pretend to love “economics”, no libertarian (or person supporting any libertarian ideas) could ever win any legitimate prize in economics like the Nobel Prize.

6) She just keeps going for Belle: “For Belle Knox, freedom has to do with decriminalized sex work and fair pathways for women in employment—but both of those projects imply a level of proactive government regulation in business.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Can’t libertarians get it? Decriminalization of sex work means that we will need to regulate it. It’s obvious that, therefore, libertarians support a policy that would add regulation to the market: We’d go from a laissez-faire, completely unregulated and uncontrolled ban on sex work that requires no government intervention to a legalized industry with some regulations!

7) Bruenig calls the libertarians polled “jingoistic” – and once again her source backs her. When we look at the real, objective data, only 46% of libertarians think US involvement makes world problems worse, while the corresponding number for the entire US population is significantly higher: 40%!

Why this demolished libertarians: 54% of libertarians don’t think US involvement makes world problems worse. 40% of the general population understands that US involvement makes things worse. Would you rather be with 54 warmongers or 40 peaceful people? I thought so.

8) She just keeps going: “Libertarians who oppose government aid to the poor seem to desire freedom from taxes, but have no interest in whether or not the poorest are really free to exercise their rights to human flourishing when they can barely eat.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Read my lips: If you oppose the current welfare system, you think all poor people should die. Period.

9) Bruenig finishes the article off by telling us that “for genuine, invested activists like Knox, the evasiveness of the libertarian message should be a red flag.” A wise warning indeed.

Why this demolished libertarians: Belle is a teenager, and teenagers are stupid, so we know she’s genuine and invested. But other libertarians are not excused.

Class dismissed.

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Sloppy Economics and Part-Time Austrians

The economy must have been hit harder than expected, given that so many Austrian Economists have switched to being only part-time Austrians, and otherwise thoughtful economists (whether Austrian or not) have shirked their duties.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about two recent waves of libertarian appeals to poor minimum wage empiricism that would not pass the sniff test in an introductory econometrics class.

The first round:

Kevin Erdmann blog post on the effects of minimum wage on teen employment. Erdmann originally regressed teen employment over time before and after the minimum wage was increased at different times in US history, concluding that there is strong evidence that the minimum wage caused the decrease in the employment trend.

This article was shared by (at least) Steve Horwitz, Peter Boettke, Don Boudreaux, and Mark Perry.

Horwitz introduces the article with

Evidence about the minimum wage harming teen employment you say? Evidence you shall have.

Boudreaux says

These data and these estimates combine with the compelling nature of – and with the central role in economic science of – the law of demand to make an empirically persuasive case that, as employers’ costs of employing low-skilled workers rises, fewer such workers will be hired than otherwise. [emphasis in original]

And Perry tosses in some snarky strikethrough formatting to note that

Marginal RevolutionCafe Hayek and the Coyote Blog are all featuring the chart above and the blog post about the minimum wage law government-mandated wage that guarantees reduced employment opportunities for teenagers by Kevin Erdmann on his Idiosyncratic Whisk blog.

The problem with all of these authors sharing the blog post and praising its conclusion is that the evidence provided is simply useless. One of the most fundamental aspects of science is the idea of controlling for external variables. The original post by Erdmann simply regressed teen employment over time – before and after the minimum wage was increased – without including any controls. However, it is notable that at least some of the periods with minimum wage increases overlap with recessions. And when the two competing theories about why employment has fallen are a minimum wage increase and a recession, my bet is always with the recession.

This is not to say, of course, that I believe minimum wages do not have teen disemployment effects. Rather, my point is that the evidence presented provides no backing for the claim, given the naive data processing performed. Not only can recessions help to explain the trends in employment, but they can also help to explain minimum wage hikes (or at the very least there is a plausible pathway): the economy goes south, so politicians argue for a higher minimum wage to help out struggling families (and win the left-liberal vote). As such, recessions are a classic example of a confounding variable in the analysis.

Yet even if the analysis somehow included the effects of recessions, there would still be too many variables uncontrolled that could be causing the observable effect (Dube also mentions that state-level variation in minimum wages could have an important effect). This is fairly standard Austrian Economics 101 mantra – you can’t control the necessary variables to claim causation (at least in most situations – I believe Imbens et al (1999) to be a tantalizing attempt at empiricism Austrians wouldn’t dislike).  I do not use the word “mantra” disparagingly, as I am strongly influenced by the Austrian position on empiricism and I approach all econometric studies with extreme caution. This case is no different – especially when so little work was done to rule out confounding factors.

The second round:

A Steve Hanke blog post at the Cato blog arguing that data from across European countries shows that minimum wages increase unemployment. Hanke shows a graph of unemployment for countries with and countries without minimum wages. Those without minimum wages have lower unemployment:

This is another piece of fairly useless empiricism. Once again, there are no controls for confounding factors. Is it so strange to think that countries that are more likely to enact minimum wages are also more likely to enact other labor market regulations that weaken the job market? If this is the case, then what we are seeing in the graph could very well be the effect of those other regulations – and we learn absolutely nothing new about the effect of minimum wages. I am not sure whether Dr. Hanke considers himself to be an Austrian, but in either case, the argument is unworthy of being published.

Sadly, the post has been propagated across at least a few websites already (including Boudreaux’s Cafe Hayek).

What could have been said

Once again, I am not disagreeing with the ultimate conclusions of the two posts discussed above. I believe that, if not in the unemployment rate, minimum wage hikes would have impacts in other variables, some seen, some unseen – perhaps job training, perhaps the intensity of the work environment, and so on.

Here’s what the articles could have said, which I would have found not only acceptable but a fantastic argument for their side:

Suppose the correlations in the two analyses ran in the completely opposite direction. That is, minimum wages tended to correspond with higher teen employment in the US over time, and minimum wage countries in Europe tended to correlate with a lower unemployment rate. What would the left-liberals do? They would parade this fact around in victory. Yet the facts are not like that, but the complete opposite. We do not see a corresponding pensiveness and pause on their side as to why the facts might not be so.

In this case, this argument wouldn’t be a critique of the minimum wage policy, but of the opposition itself. This doesn’t make it bad – it points out the dishonesty of loudly parading when the data superficially supports their side, but crickets when it doesn’t.

Conclusion

Austrians should be consistent Austrians: Do not reject empiricism when it disagrees with your policy stances and accept it when it agrees. If an analysis cannot possibly control all relevant variables, the analysis cannot be used to make a causal claim. If an analysis doesn’t even begin to attempt to control variables, then this is not science but toying with numbers.

And if you don’t want to be an Austrian, then at least don’t be a sloppy economist.

Update (2/1/2014): Jonathan Catalán takes on the same study, though he appears more mild-mannered than I am here: http://www.economicthought.net/blog/?p=5633