Last Thursday, April 25, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University Jeffrey Miron delivered a lecture in PAC 001 entitled “A Libertarian Perspective on Economic, Social, and Foreign Policy.”
During the lecture, Miron explained the differences between libertarian, conservative, and liberal views of politics and offered analyses of pertinent political issues through a libertarian lens. The talk was given to a full classroom of students. Over half of the audience stayed for an additional half-hour question-and-answer session.
President of Wesleyan Students for a Free Society Charlie Smith ’15 organized the talk, and the College of Social Studies (CSS), the Student Budget Committee, and the Office of Student Activities and Leadership Development provided the necessary sponsorship.
Smith, a CSS major, founded Wesleyan Students for a Free Society at the beginning of the last semester as a libertarian, free market, classical-liberal discussion group. The organization discusses libertarian ideology in the abstract, but focuses on how economic and political theories can be applied to salient political issues. This was the first event that the group has hosted, and Smith hopes to bring many more speakers next semester.
Smith sees bringing a diverse array of speakers to campus as integral to the liberal arts experience. He said that the title of the lecture, “Beyond the Left and Right,” was used to appeal to students who are currently dissatisfied with the polarized nature of our nation’s political system.
“What makes it great to go to school in this isolated bubble is that you can step away from the prejudices and preconceptions that often guide people’s political thinking, and you can instead assess things for what works, what you think is right,” Smith said. “The conception of left and right is a false dichotomy. It should be about what works and less about which brand you like the look of.”
Smith worked with Miron last summer on a municipal finance project and asked him to speak as both an Ivy Leauge academic and a political activist. Miron served as the economic advisor to Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate in the 2012 presidential election. In addition to his influential academic research on the functioning of the Federal Reserve, Miron has made a name for himself by controversially advocating for the legalization of all drugs.
Though Miron self-identifies as a libertarian, he noted that his intention in giving this lecture was to spark discussion about alternative ways in which political issues can be interpreted, rather than to convert students to seeing things from his perspective.
“I try to argue that there is a case for small government across the board,” Miron said before the talk. “There’s a third perspective on policy that is neither liberal nor conservative that is more consistent, more rational, more evidenced-based.”
Miron opened the lecture by addressing the difference between liberal and conservative schools of thought. Liberals, he explained, want more government intervention on economic issues and less intervention on social and foreign issues, whereas conservatives hold the polar opposite view, vouching for less government intervention on economic issues and more intervention in social and foreign issues. Both, he pointed out, advocate for extensive government intervention across the board. These views stand in stark contrast to libertarianism, which advocates for the least possible amount of government intervention in all arenas.
Miron pointed out that the definition of libertarianism itself is highly individualized.
“Libertarians are a picky, difficult, and annoying lot,” Miron said. “Every one of them has their own special flavor.”
That being said, Miron divided the complicated, broad view of libertarianism into two major schools of thought: philosophical libertarianism (PL) and consequential libertarianism (CL). PL emphasizes the view that individuals have “natural” rights and that policy should never infringe on those rights. In contrast, Miron explained that the CL view suggests that government intervention is necessary in the realm of political policy if the overall consequences of political intervention are less than those of a more laissez-faire approach.
In most cases, CLs tend to find that there are more negative effects of government intervention than positive ones. The CL view of policy appealed to many students in the audience, including Jason Reitman ’15.
“The idea behind CL that I most liked was the way that it looks at the pros and cons of each situation or policy,” Reitman said. “The gives and takes for each situation are really beneficial to analyze. That’s how people think about individual situations anyways. Why not analyze politics that way?”
Miron then explained the view that many libertarians hold that all drugs should absolutely be legal. CLs argue that neither theory nor empirical evidence suggests that prohibition has a major impact on drug use or associated harms. According to Miron, the prohibition of drugs increases rates of violence and income-generating crime, worsens health conditions for users because of a lack of quality control, and has direct costs for the government in the form of police enforcement.
He also explained that many libertarians oppose gun control legislation, arguing that most people who want guns will find ways of acquiring them regardless of government regulation. Most libertarians support gay marriage and civil unions because there is no empirical evidence that gay marriage harms anyone, he noted. He also pointed out that most libertarians opposed the Iraq invasion, based mainly on the grounds that it was not on the basis of self-defense.
During the question-and-answer session, one student suggested that libertarianism could be seen as an appeal for anarchy. Miron clarified that most libertarians believe that the national government has many legitimate objectives, including self-defense, the enforcement of copyrights, and the selling of contracts.
The students who attended were open to hearing an alternative viewpoint.
“I felt like Miron provided a nice contrast to the homogeneously liberal points of view that most people hold on politics at Wes,” said Brenda Li ’14. “Most people here would agree on most political and social issues. This was something new.”