Richard Epstein Needs to Get Over His Rand Paul Problem

Richard Epstein is a smart guy. He writes sound columns, he advances strong arguments consistently. And his current column, ostensibly about Rand Paul but really about the difference between libertarians and “classical liberals”, (h/t Insty) can be counted as one of that number. I have never considered myself a hard-core libertarian, and would probably land on the classical liberal side, with Epstein, if push came to shove.

But telling Rand Paul to move to the center puts a glaring spotlight on the problem on the right.

Libertarians aren’t right about everything. They have, like any ideologues, blind-spots. But those blind spots are tiny motes compared to the vast black holes of reality found amongst progressives. In the wake of everything the progs have done to our body politic these last six years, I struggle to care about the libertarian problems with copyright law. That doesn’t mean I don’t consider copyright law a worthy issue, merely less worthy of my time at this juncture than dismantling ObamaCare and reigning in the NSA.

I may not be a libertarian, but libertarians are my allies. I think well of them and want them to advance their arguments. If they are successful in convincing just one more person about the greater value of liberty vis-a-vis another government-bloating progressive social crusade, then that is to the benefit of classical liberals. If they can argue soundly in favor of a flat tax, we can argue, on similar principle, in favor of other things. Our points of disagreement are not anywhere near as much of a problem as Epstein suggests. Take this graph:

Precisely for this reason, the vigorous “antitax” strand of hard-line libertarian thought has never commended itself to classical liberals like myself, who recognize the need for taxation to support the institutions of social order. Usually that view cashes out into a defense of a unified flat tax on either income or, preferably, consumption. That view is in evident tension with antitax activists like Grover Norquist, whose focus is current tax struggles and not general political theory. Norquist wants to shrink government “to the size where we can drown it in a bath-tub.” The classical liberal avoids such over-the-top rhetoric. Instead, he seeks to maximize the net social gain from the tax system, so that each taxpayer receives a bundle of government services whose value exceeds the cost of the tax.

Am I really supposed to not help Grover Norquist shrink government, because he might someday shrink it too much? Does anyone doubt that if Norquist shrunk the size of government half as much as he wanted to, he wouldn’t consider that a win? And can’t we have this debate about this hypothetical too-small government at that hypothetical moment?

Look, it doesn’t hurt to point out distinctions between one mode of thinking and another. Distinctions are good things. But this column is warning us against a danger too remote to be considered. If Rand Paul pushes his way into the White House, tearing up copyright law isn’t going to be the first thing he does. It isn’t even going to be the thousandth.

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