Scott Adams: Closet libertarian

By Jeremy Lott
web posted March 1999

In this essay, I will prove that Dilbert creator Scott Adams is a closet libertarian. Here is what I will not even attempt to prove: that Adams is a member of the Libertarian Party, that he votes libertarian or that he votes at all. If my time were worth as much as his, I probably wouldn’t bother to vote on the grounds that I would be losing money. And there would always be the off chance that he could be "hit by a stray bullet while standing in line." (The Dilbert Future, p. 94.) This would be a great tragedy, because the Dilbert strip would cease to brighten millions of lives. First, we’ll get the terms straight:

Libertarian n. Someone who believes in a free economy, a minimal government and freedom in general. Also, generally hates bureaucracy, holds dim view of human nature, abhors central planning, thinks technological innovations are valuable, thinks that the root cause of crime is criminals, is attracted to contractual arrangements vs. employment and doesn't mind downsizing.

Bureaucracy n. Management. Specifically, bad management. More specifically, management that is so bad that it acts like it can never go out of business. Similar to government.

Central planning* n. The idea that government (or, in this case, a large company) can pick winners in advance and allocate resources accordingly. Assumes near omniscient levels of information and ignores market feedback.

That’ll do it for now, so here goes.

The Humor Hurdle

I understand that, in quoting Adams extensively, I run the risk of undermining my own argument. That's a risk I'm willing to take after issuing the following warning. Warning: Scott Adams is funny and you will be tempted to laugh very hard rather than think about what is being said. Go ahead and laugh real hard but then read it seriously.

The reason that nobody, so far as I know, has yet argued that Scott Adams is a libertarian is that he is one sneaky little weasel. First, he doesn't often talk about government. Second, he makes them laugh so hard that they forget what was just said.

But, in addition to making people laugh, humor is often used to advance a point of view. P.J. O'Rourke regularly skewers liberal ideas by going where they are implemented and laughing at the victims. Dave Barry advances his no-holds-barred libertarianism by writing columns announcing that he's running for president. Through his comic strip, books, tapes and cartoon, Scott Adams also advances his point of view; and it is libertarian.

I will prove this by looking at Adams on the following issues; human nature, downsizing, bureaucracy, planning, and the tragic vision.

Stupid, Selfish, Horny Idiots

While dining with some friends recently, I sprung the news of this article upon them. I'm going to prove that Scott Adams is a libertarian, said I. One of them wasn't so sure. His sticking point was that Scott Adams has a low view of human nature.

He was, of course, correct. The theme of Adams first book is this, People are idiots. (The Dilbert Principle, p. 2) If he meant everybody else but he was an idiot, this would make him an elitist. But, says he, I proudly include myself in the idiot category. (DP, p. 3) In fact, idiots are not only people with low SAT scores, Everyone is an idiot The only differences among us is that were idiots about different things at different times. (DP, p. 2) This bears a remarkable resemblance to Adam Smith's division of labor. More on that later.

But, the burning question goes, what does he mean by idiots? It has three elements, which Adams calls the Immutable Laws of Human Nature: 1) Stupidity, 2) Selfishness and 3) Horniness (DF, p. 7).

Libertarians believe in self government, said my friend, So how can he be a libertarian when he thinks that were all dolts? Are dolts capable of self government?** This is where that division of labor thing comes in.

Notice the different things at different times argument. This might be silly*** but imagine for a moment that if I do not look at one consistently funny cartoon strip every day, I will keel over and die. I can not draw worth beans and most of my humor is verbal, not visual.

Further, imagine that Scott Adams and I are roommates. Imagine also that Scott can not work the microwave well and that he has no other way of getting non-poisoned food and thus avoiding death by starvation or by food poisoning.

Scott draws Dilbert while being an idiot about microwaves while I know how to push Cook, Time, and Start but couldn't produce Dilbert to save my life. There is an obvious solution to this problem, but I'm too much of a stupid idiot to see it. Luckily, I'm also selfish.

Defending Downsizing

When asked by a reporter if there was any good in downsizing, Adams replied, [C]ompanies lower expenses by downsizing. They become more competitive and their stock prices go up. Also, after a round of downsizing at his old employer Pacific Bell, which also eventually downsized him, [T]he bureaucracy decreased as the number of useless middle managers declined. (The Joy of Work, p. 254, tenses changed)

Now this did not mean that he is in favor of downsizing like President Clinton is in favor of Big Macs. In fact, he often attacks downsizing and the Orwellian language companies use to deny that they are downsizing employees. But he believes it is a business decision that companies should make for themselves. It might sometimes be a bad decision but its a free country.

Leftist media critic Norman Solomon saw these quotations and flipped. He wrote a book called The Trouble with Dilbert. Leading with his chin, he said Adams was in favor of downsizing (vs. critical but tolerant of it) and he accused him of being a greedy cynical hypocrite. The perceived hypocrisy was this, in his Dilbert strips, Adams is critical of downsizing while he accepts money from large corporations which pay for Dilbert related activities (licensing, speaking, etc.) This got to Scott because, in his heart, I know that I am only greedy and cynical. (JW, p. 252) Further, he warned Norman, Many newspapers, magazines and book publishers are large corporations. Be sure to avoid taking their money as you pursue your writing career. Otherwise, you might loose your credibility. (JW, p. 255)

In a mock interview with Dogbert, Adams roasts him over an open pit (JW, pp. 256-258 abridged):

Dogbert: [Y]ou accuse Mr. Adams of favoring downsizing?

Norman: Thats right. Mr. Adams is a cynical man. Downsizing is bad.

Dogbert: What is the alternative to downsizing that you favor?

Norman: Alternative?

Dogbert: Does is start with a C and end with the fall of the Iron Curtain?

Norman: Companies should not be able to fire people just to increase profits for the greedy owners!

Dogbert: Can you think of any economies that have tried it your way? (Hint: Albania)

Dogbert: Didn't I just see you on MSNBC promoting your book?

Norman: So?

Dogbert: Do you know who owns MSNBC?

Norman: I assumed it was the Multiple Sclerosis people. Is that wrong?

Adams reluctantly defends downsizing because, among other reasons, it cuts down on bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is Bad

Because Adams is critical of business practices, most leftists (Norman being the exception) have given him a pass. Meanwhile, most libertarians are so used to hearing business criticized that they involuntarily screen it out. They should not have done this. Here is a revolutionary thesis: Scott Adams criticizes business practices that are either caused by or that closely mimic government. For instance, here is his list of Productivity Thwarting Activities (DF, p. 137):

Mandatory dress code (mimics government).
Mandatory safety training (caused by government).
Mandatory sexual harassment training (caused by).
Mandatory diversity training (caused by).
Mandatory United-Way kick-off meeting (caused by).
Mandatory staff meeting (At first glance, its an exception to the rule.
However, many of these meetings concern the above caused bys).

His alternative plan for business is this, Companies with effective employees and products usually do well. (DP, p.316) In order to have effective employees, companies should knock off the above productivity thwarters and let the employees use their natural creativity to help produce and sell the product.

This would all but eliminate most middle management because, according to Adams, their raison detre is to thwart productive behavior by making decisions about things they don't understand. Which brings me to the next point.

Planning and Poppycock

Libertarians abhor planning. I don't mean planning as in I planned to write this article. I mean the kind of top down central planning that the Soviet Union used to actually subtract value from the raw materials used to make the products. In fact the chief challenge to lefty-economist-as-God, John Maynard Keynes, was the book The Road to Serfdom, by libertarian economist F.A. Hayek. In it, he took on the leading economic orthodoxy of his time, prosperity through central planning. Central to the idea of planing is forecasting; predicting future demands and needs. Problem: It never works.

Scott Adams is critical of forecasting. Says he, There are many methods for predicting the future [Y]ou can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards and crystal balls; the nutty method. Or you can put well researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly referred to as a complete waste of time. (DF, p. 3) But why are they such a waste of time?

Because they assume that human beings are a collection of statistics, not rational creatures and, thus, ignore markets. Says Adams, Some people try to predict the future by assuming that current trends will continue. This is a bad method All trends have logical limits, (DF, pp. 5-6) For instance, in the last election, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans sat on their butts waiting for the forces of history to sweep them into huge reelection gains. They did this because no opposition party had ever lost seats in an off-year election since 1934.

Problem: In no off-year election had the opposition party been lead by a Speaker who was an evil Southern salamander ****.

So the trend failed to continue.

Also, to the prophets of doom, he replies, Any doom that can be predicted wont happen. (DF, p.6) Why? Because there is a natural market for solutions to problems. Central Planning, however, removes the incentives to solve problems and the feedback that a market naturally provides.

Damned if You do, Damned if You do

Adams analysis is informed by what Dr. Thomas Sowell calls the tragic vision. This vision runs contrary to the liberal vision because it assumes that life is limited and that there are no grand solutions, only tradeoffs, that evidence matters and that a vision can become invalid if the evidence contradicts it. They are the original party-poopers for saying you cant eat your cake and have it too.

Two examples:

1) Laying into bleeding hearts everywhere for the insistence that crime does not decrease when you lock criminals up for life, Adams writes, slowly so that they can understand, People who are in prison are not elsewhere at the same time committing crimes. Its a physical law. Its math. This is not a gray area. (DF, p.101. Italics his)

He carries this further in a dialogue between Dilbert and Dogbert (Ibid.):

Dilbert: I oppose putting career criminals in jail for life. Theres no evidence that longer sentences reduce crime.

Dogbert: So your theory is that when career criminals are in jail, other people commit more crimes to keep the average up

2) Human life expectancies increase every year, Adams informs us and, This is not necessarily a good thing. (DF, p.9) It will put pressure on redistributionist ponzy schemes like social security, forcing the younger generation to pay higher taxes while they are lectured by Gramps about how tough he had it as a kid.

Let's See

Scott Adams has a low view of human nature, a tolerance for downsizing, a hatred of stupid pointless bureaucracy, a hearty laugh for central planning and a very good understanding of economics and tradeoffs. He doesn't write about government much but, when he does, he is entirely dismissive.

This may not add up to a party loyalty or even a political philosophy but it does add up to a point of view. And that view is libertarian.

Is Adams a libertarian? Find out March 12 at SpinTech Magazine!


* See John Maynard Keynes, Soviet factories which actually subtracted value from the natural resources used to make insipid products and Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies.

** OK that's only a summary of some of what he said and he didnt use the word dolts, but it works for me. For those people who read the footnotes (you know who you are!) I would add that he also contrasted libertarians, who accept some government, with anarchists, who don't. He insisted that Adams thinks were too doltish to govern ourselves but still believes in government. Therefore, said he, Scott Adams is not a libertarian. Well, there's belief and then there's belief. Adams doesn't necessarily have the answers but he very much doubts government is the answer.

*** But not sillier than most other economic models. Remember, Keynes response to Hayek was models proving that planning did too work. There is a Latin phrase used by economists ceteris paribus; all things being equal. Problem: They're not.

**** Actually, I'm not sure if a newt is technically a salamander.

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