Tolerance, The Church of Unlimited Government, and Bias for Regulations

Folks often characterize liberals and libertarians as generally aligning on social issues.  By Haidt’s five dimensions of political psychology, libertarians are essentially liberals who know some economics, but I think there actually are important differences in the way libertarians and liberals think about social tolerance.  Robin Hanson explains,

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means.  Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus.  But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest.  That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”

“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you.  Things that make you go “ick”, or that conflict with strong intuitions on proper behavior.  Once upon a time, the idea of gay sex made most folks quite uncomfortable, and yet many of those folks still advocated tolerance for gay sex.  Their argument was not that gay sex isn’t icky, but that a broad society should be reluctant to ban apparently victimless activities merely because many find them icky.

The basis of liberal “tolerance” isn’t tolerance at all!  It’s the libertarians who are genuinely socially tolerant. Arnold Kling posits a kind of liberal religious dogma,

Make a list of five to ten social issues that you feel are important. Next, make a list of five to ten social issues that you think government should stay out of. What is the intersection of those two sets? If it is zero, then you probably belong to the Church of Unlimited Government. If every social issue you care about (not just the top five or ten) is one where you want government to deal with it, then you definitely belong to the Church.

Suppose, for example, that you think government should stay out of the issue of marijuana smoking. You don’t think that people should be arrested for smoking pot. That only gets you out of the Church of Unlimited Government if you think that marijuana smoking is an important social problem. If your thinking is “marijuana smoking is not so bad,” then you’re still in the Church.

You see, I think that the overlap between liberals and libertarians is somewhat suspect. The libertarian thinks that government should get out of the business of regulating marijuana primarily because the libertarian believes in limited government. The liberal thinks that government should get out of the business of regulating marijuana because the liberal doesn’t think marijuana is such a problem.

What kind of bias might be associated with such religious fervor for government?  Robin Hanson points out a one-sided fetish for regulation,

Yesterday I heard politicians talking sagely about how the gulf oil disaster shows we need stronger drilling regulations. I’ve recently heard similar musings about how the financial crisis shows we need stronger financial regulations. Makes sense, right?   But stop for a moment and ask:  Aren’t there lots of areas where we haven’t seen a big disaster in a long time?  (E.g., when was the last big hairdressing disaster?)  How strong would regulations have to be before you’d say that a prolonged period of no big disaster suggests we need weaker regulations? When did you last hear someone using this reason to suggest we weaken a particular regulation?

Look, in any area where we let humans do things, every once in a while there will be a big screwup; that is the sort of creatures humans are. And if you won’t decrease regulation without a screwup but will increase it with a screwup, then you have a regulation ratchet: it only moves one way. So if you don’t think a long period without a big disaster calls for weaker regulations, but you do think a particular big disaster calls for stronger regulation, well then you might as well just strengthen regulations lots more right now, even without a disaster. Because that is where your regulation ratchet is heading.

Heads:  you lose; tails:  you lose.

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