Albert Einstein claimed that "God does not play dice" with the interactions of subatomic particles. Actually, as it turned out, He does. So there's plenty of precedent for very smart people to believe stubbornly in very silly ideas, even in direct contradiction of all evidence. Thus, maybe we shouldn't be too hard on Ed Glaeser, who is really a very brilliant economist, but who remains wedded to an outmoded and discredited intellectual religion:
It is both the best and worst of times for libertarians. On the plus side, real, live politicians who might conceivably get elected call themselves libertarians. On the negative side, true libertarians have lost their ancient luxury of being able to avoid any responsibility for the gaffes and errors of political leaders.
Libertarianism rests on two bedrock beliefs: human freedom is a great good and the public sector tends to screw things up. The first belief is based more on faith than empirical result; the second derives from millennia of human experience. The increased appeal of libertarianism today reflects a nonpartisan view that the public sector has been deeply problematic under either party. It is a backlash against President Bush as well as President Obama. (Ron Paul was, after all, the only Republican to vote against the 2002 Iraq war resolution). Libertarians tend to think that the Bush years taught that all governments were flawed, not that everything would be better with a new leader who would expand the public sector.
Showing a remarkable sense of timing, my colleague Jeffrey Miron has just published an excellent primer on libertarian thought: “Libertarianism, From A-Z,” an engaging arrangement of brief essays illustrating one libertarian’s view on everything from abortion to zoos. Professor Miron’s libertarian mix of love of liberty and skepticism toward the state leads to his view that “radical reductions in government make sense for any plausible assessment of the effect of most policies.”...
I always find it refreshing to take a quick, clean intellectual shower in the cold, pure waters of libertarian thought...
The problem with dogmatic thinking, of course, is that it always falls victim to teleology; when you decide your conclusions first and then go looking for evidence in support of them, you'll see what you want to see. Thus, Glaeser looks at the Bush administration and sees proof not that good government is necessary and important, but that government itself is inherently inefficient. As Mark Thoma notes, this is more than a bit ridiculous:
Bush made his ideological belief about government self-fulfilling -- he stacked the deck in their favor (e.g. hiring incompetent people to head agencies like FEMA, filling regulatory agencies with people opposed to regulation, etc., etc.). Drawing general conclusions from an outcome that was forced by design, as libertarians have apparently done with Bush, does confirm preexisting biases, but it doesn't tell you much beyond that.
The lesson of the Bush administration is not that "all governments were flawed." We learned about an extreme, i.e. how bad things can be when a president sabotages government agencies by appointing cronies -- people who provided important political support -- to head important agencies rather than qualified, competent administrators...
The Bush administration was deeply flawed, no doubt about that, and it was partly (though not entirely) by design. But there is no general lesson here about all governments, only the particulars of an administration that did it's very best to validate libertarian beliefs about government.
In a word, yes.
More generally, though, Glaeser seems to be straining at the intellectual confines of his chosen dogma. He points out the problem posed to libertarianism by events like the BP oil spill. He proposes using the court system - one of the few government institutions that libertarians generally accept - to put things right, but is dissatisfied with this solution.
But he does not yet see the rot at the heart of libertarianism. Its two bedrock beliefs - that "human freedom is a great good and the public sector tends to screw things up" - are deeply flawed. The moral belief is ill-defined and the empirical belief is factually false.
"Human freedom is a great good." Sounds good to me! But which human freedom? The freedom to murder? The freedom to dump pollution on your neighbor's land? The freedom to scream profanity in public? The fact is, different freedoms tend to be mutually exclusive; what we end up doing is choosing those freedoms we think lead to a better society - free speech, freedom from violence - and exalting those above the others, so that those "freedoms" become "good" by definition, while the opposing freedoms - the freedom not to hear ideas you disagree with, the freedom to punch annoying people in the head - get ignored and swept under the rug. Libertarians, sadly, rarely if ever acknowledge this. They merely pretend that all the murky, confusing cases - for example, smoking bans, or pollution regulations - don't exist, or else they go with their gut and pretend they're following a high moral principle.
As for the idea that "the public sector tends to screw things up," it's just not right. There is strong evidence that the public sector has done a GREAT job with roads, research, national defense, clean air regulations, and other public goods. And there is the nagging fact that every single rich country on the planet spends over a third of its GDP through the government. Libertarians, following the teleological imperative of their assumed conclusions, simply pick the examples of government failure - the Soviet Union's ham-handed economic planning, or the dysfunctionality of European labor markets - and claim that these constitute all the available evidence.
So both pillars of libertarian thought are made of Jell-O. But this does not stop libertarians from believing in them, and only gives pause to the very smartest among them (like Glaeser). Ideologies are attractive because they are "quick," "clean," "cold," and "pure." But those are just synonyms for "easy," "comforting," "rigid," and "simplistic."