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Fear Not Lesser Evil

June 27, 2024

Daniel Klein and Zachary Yost

We welcome the commentaries on our essay “Libertarians Should Get Real about Politics” and thank Peter Suderman of Reason Magazine, Michael Munger of Duke University Political Science, and Geoff Kabaservice of the Niskanen Center for their replies. Suderman and Munger are libertarians; Kabaservice describes himself as “a moderate Republican.”

  When we find that our interpretations differ wildly from those of our intellectual adversaries, we know that delusion lurks—in them, ourselves, or both. The delusions would involve deep denialisms (“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”), about worldly things including one’s own vices. Some vices to consider are pride, vanity, greed, indolence, and cowardice. In offering up interpretations of things, we must also theorize the delusiveness and self-deceit of our adversaries. All are on both ends of it: You theorize your adversaries, and your adversaries theorize you. “Here’s why he says the wrongheaded things he says…” That symmetry is one thing we can agree on. Agreement on the symmetry in being object of theorizing, in being the explanandum, is vital to engagement.

  First we reply briefly to Kabaservice and then to the libertarians. We respond substantially to Suderman and briefly to Munger.


Is the Biden Administration Dem Par for the Course? A Reply to Geoff Kabaservice

 We welcome Geoff Kabaservice’s comment on our essay. Kabaservice declares himself “a moderate Republican.”  Yet Kabaservice does not come close to affirming that, generally speaking, Republicans > Democrats. And he strongly implies that Biden > Trump. The political donations showing up in public records (1, 2) under his name all serve Democrat causes, including multiple donations to ActBlue, one to a Democrat candidate, and one to a former Republican turned independent politician who worked for the Lincoln Project.

  Kabaservice says “the libertarian movement would rather marinate in its own irrelevance than undertake the hard work of persuasion and governing.” Yet libertarians “could discredit their cause for a generation or more” if they say “Trump > Biden” out loud.

  Kabaservice tells the reader that “State Capacity Libertarianism…may find common ground with supply-side progressivism” but not the pertinence of that; that “many libertarian policies are highly unlikely to be passed into law” but not the pertinence of that; that Klein & Yost do not explain what “libertarianism yoked to Trump’s GOP might do to address” various issues but not the pertinence of that.

  Kabaservice suggests that the Biden administration is Dem par for the course, writing: “Biden is a run-of-the-mill big government liberal who has acceded to his progressive wing’s preferences on too many issues.”

  The normalizing of the Biden administration has several dimensions. First, what is the Dem par for the course? Does it look back, say, to the Clinton presidency? Or does it look forward to those who would substitute for Biden, say, Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsome in the years ahead? Once some notion of Dem par for the course is reckoned, there is the question of assessing the Biden administration in relation to that par.

  The main contention of our essay is that the Dem par for the course is worse than the Republican par for the course. Does Kabaservice disagree? He doesn’t say. Readers should ponder why.

  Another main point of our essay is the Republican abuse of power is far more checked than Democrat abuse is. None of the commenters addressed the point.

  Kabaservice thinks the Republican party has been hijacked by conservatives and Tea Party types who tend to oppose the governmentalization of social affairs. Kabaservice’s earlier work (1, 2) calls conservatives the true RINOs. It is understandable that someone who disagrees with opponents of big government would not want to see such people further “hijack” the party.


Feel the Tao: A Reply to Peter Suderman

 We are grateful to Peter Suderman for his collegial comment. Our piece challenges libertarians and classical liberals to rethink their civic virtue. Suderman justly relates some of the main ideas of our piece. What Suderman’s piece says in response tells us, however, that he has not quite gotten his mind around some of our challenges.

Suderman writes:

 Klein and Yost ground their argument in the wrongheaded notion that a libertarian’s primary responsibility is to particular electoral outcomes. Libertarians themselves, however, might suggest that their only responsibility is advancing a vision of government that is something more desirable than a lesser evil.

Both sentences miss the essence of our plea. At the center of our piece is the statement A > B > C. (Reminder: A = classical liberal politics, B = Republicans, C = Democrats.) Suderman is wrong to say that we are saying that affirming B > C is the libertarian’s “primary responsibility.” As for the second sentence quoted above, Suderman suggests that libertarian’s “only responsibility” is to advance A > B. Keen to emphasize that A > B, Suderman pushes away the issue of whether B > C.

  A > B > C is a compound statement. It is the compoundedness that we are asking libertarians to get their mind around and handle more competently. Our plea to libertarians is a both/and plea: Both A > B and B > C. Maintaining A > B is fully compatible with saying B > C. Though time and attention are scarce, give more time to B > C.

  Suderman says that the libertarian project does not expect “that people participate in a political binary they find actively repugnant out of a duty to the polity.” He then writes that Klein & Yost “eliminate this classically libertarian impulse to expand the range of political choice.” We are all for expounding on A, and we say so. But the B-vs.-C binary is not something we are imposing or proposing. It’s a reality of our civic life. It is our civic duty to speak to it.

  Detain death and otherwise lessen evil.

  Our discussion of whether Republicans are the lesser evil is an example of what Gordon Tullock called “high school” reasoning. Tullock explained:

In my high school civics class, the teacher once explained to us how to think ‘logically.’ She wrote down on the blackboard several arguments in favor of voting for the Republican Party and several arguments in favor of voting for the Democratic Party. She then told us we should look at these carefully, add additional arguments, weigh them, and then choose. (Tullock 1995)

  Tullock writes sensibly about aspects of the process, such how many arguments to list, how to formulate them, and how to weigh them.

  Suderman claims that Klein & Yost “discount the possibility that a libertarian might genuinely believe that a Democratic presidency is the lesser evil.” Not true. We know libertarians, such as Deirdre McCloskey, who genuinely believe that Biden > Trump. We try to persuade them that, generally speaking, Republican > Democrat. If we persuade them of the soundness of such a maxim, then they need to explain why Trump vs. Biden would be an exception to the maxim.

  We enact Tullock’s “high-school” reasoning by listing 30 aspects of the choice, scoring each, and concluding that a vast majority go in favor of the Republicans. Check it out, if you haven’t. And check out the linked sources (1234).

  Suderman does not quarrel with our scorings. Nor does he add additional aspects to the mix.  Although Suderman, at the end of his piece, says that Biden > Trump, he never weighs in on whether Republicans are generally the lesser evil. Suderman simply resists speaking to the issue of B vs. C, apart from Biden vs. Trump.

  Suderman misses our drift when he writes: “The authors also overstate the importance of any individual vote, and thus substantially inflate both the moral and the practical stakes of either non-voting or third-party voting.”  He links to a lengthy article by Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason: “Your Vote Doesn’t Count: Why (almost) everyone should stay home on Election Day.”

  One aspect of Tullock’s “high school” reasoning is the possibility of making other lists.

Thus, Republican vs. Democratic is not the only question. By making three lists we might arrive at the compound statement A > B > C. Tullock’s larger point is that our decision-making always comes back to “high school” reasoning.

  Our drift is that you are a civilizationally situated creature with a moral responsibility to make sense of things that are important to your own personal activities. If discoursing on public policy and politics in a polity with a two-party system is one of your activities, the cosmos behooves you to form judgments about which of the two major parties is the lesser evil, and to speak frankly and openly about those judgments. Adam Smith said: “Frankness and openness conciliate confidence.”

  Contrary to what Suderman suggests, our case for speaking to B vs. C does not hinge on the election-outcome significance of one person’s vote. One way to ratify to oneself one’s own judgments about the lesser evil is to see what happens inside the voting booth.

  An important section of our piece is “Checking the Abuse of Power,” which Suderman did not comment on. The “B > C” element of our piece is the generality Republican > Democrat. On the specific matter of a Trump administration vs. a Biden administration, we judge that case not an exception. But that is not a topic in our piece. Exceptions are exceptional, and it is for those wishing to make an exception to explain why an exception should be made.

  A notable passage in Suderman’s comment is the following:

The invocation of civic virtue, and the resulting implication of social obligation, suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the libertarian worldview. One of the core tenets of libertarianism is that individual choice and conscience are sacrosanct and not subordinate to perceived social obligations, especially those supposedly foisted upon people by politics as we know it. No individual has a duty, civic or moral, to support a political choice they find affirmatively evil. One cannot shirk a duty that does not exist. 

While invoking sacrosanctity, Suderman here seems to reject the notion that the cosmos (C.S. Lewis called it the Tao) might put you under a positive moral obligation to act, an obligation that you did not choose, and to act even though evil elements attend all options. Patrick Deneen and others indict libertarians and classical liberals for, supposedly, holding that the only possible source of positive moral obligation is the individual’s own consent. That indictment is nuts when it comes to Adam Smith, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and many, if not most, of the leading thinkers of classical liberalism. Suderman, though, here perhaps gives some basis for directing the indictment at some libertarians.


A > B = C? Really? A reply to Michael Munger

 We are glad of Michael Munger’s comment but must say we find it frenzied. Not once does he quote, link to, or even refer to our article or us. His comment exemplifies libertarian ’splaining.

  If you say out loud that B > C, “you are endorsing evil,” Munger inveighs (his italics). He sees “no important difference between” B and C. Munger says not a single word about our 30-aspect breakdown. He says not a single word about the linked evidence showing, in some of the ratings, a lexicographic ordering of Republicans > Democrats. Nothing to see here, folks. No important difference. Keep diverting your eyes, keep diverting your eyes.

  On the presidential contest, Munger has happy news for supporters of the Libertarian Party. Munger has concluded that Biden and Trump would be “equally calamitous outcomes.” That conclusion is happy because it would have been inconvenient if one were more calamitous. In that case, the LP might affect an election outcome, and with the only effect it can have, namely, to effect greater evil. Munger reminds us that he has taught “political science at universities for 40 years.” Libertarian Party supporters may rest assured that a veteran 21st-century political science professor has interpreted things and determined that A > B = C.

  Also, the professor has interpreted things and determined that Trump deserves to be defamed as an “unrepented felon” and “convict.” Nothing to see here, folks. Divert your eyes, divert your eyes.

  Like the other two commenters, Munger ignores our section “Checking the Abuse of Power.” Again, Munger makes no reference to our article whatsoever.

  Munger ends with a final strange sentiment. He tells us that his vote is “my only precious tool for protesting this disastrous forced choice.” Why is voting Libertarian more precious than explaining the badness of governmentalizing social affairs? Munger should see that the tools of writing such an article—including keyboards, fingers, and brain cells—are more precious than a vote for Biden, Trump, or the LP candidate Chase Oliver.


Concluding remarks

All three commentaries focus on something that we do not address, Biden vs. Trump. Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) is real. As ‘derangement syndrome’ connotes, TDS indicates that the person has problems in living, problems that are wider and deeper than just the TDS. TDS indicates self-deceits and delusions, which manifest several of the cardinal vices, such as pride, vanity, greed, indolence, and cowardice.

  Vices tend to wrap around, like a mobius strip, and to turn into one another (just as the cardinal virtues do). Yet, to understand TDS, perhaps foremost is vanity.

  It may be fitting to conclude with a profound warning from Irving Babbitt, who highlighted vanity and indolence:

True liberty… cannot be founded on indolence; it is something that must be won by high-handed struggle, a struggle that takes place primarily in oneself and not in the outer world. Possibly, the ultimate distinction between the true and false liberal… is that between the spiritual athlete and the cosmic loafer. If true liberty is to survive, it is important that ethical idling should not usurp the credit due only to ethical effort. This usurpation [vanity!] takes place if we accept the program of those who would substitute expansive emotion for the activity of the higher will.


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