Thursday, May 27, 2010

Responding to Marc Eisner

Marc Eisner recently made a post regarding the obstinance of principled libertarians, and entertained the idea that they generally have it easy; only having to debate in a theoretical context. I offered the following:

This is an interesting post, and I’ve gone back and forth with people of all stripes over many of these same contentions. This might be an over-simplification, but I think libertarians are actually less free in some regards; as opposed to having the lack of constraints you’ve denoted. I’ve come to find that libertarians have the peculiar habit of trying to fight a war on two fronts.


I think this is the playing field for most political ideologies. It’s mostly a tug-of-war involving differing views of the most pragmatic ends and the most pragmatic means to achieve those ends. Whether those ends are the welfare of the people, the abolition of vice as it is perceived, or anything else, we tend to squabble about what the best ends are and the easiest way to get there. Libertarians do this just as much as anyone else.

In fact, libertarian sensibilities regarding their economic dispositions revolve pretty heavily on the idea that freedom will actually produce these preferred results more completely than their statist counterparts’ ideas will. And I have to say, in their defense, that some of the more particular aforementioned contentions are just going to leave most libertarians shaking their heads. There is certainly such a thing as market failure (that is the entire concept of public goods). But pointing blame at free-markets for an economic crash that happened in a market that is anything but free from government perversion seems pretty
unreasonable; as does pointing to a disaster perpetrated by a company that is tucked well away under government protection and privilege.

But even if we were to accept the premise that we have been operating under some utopian, free-market regime, the argument would still stand (in most cases) that free markets would correct themselves much better than ratcheting reactionary regulations (which mysteriously seem to fail in light of the next crisis). In fact, I think a strong argument is made that the free-market pattern of failure and self-correction is what makes the whole system work so efficiently. Economists like Peter Boettke make
this point time and time again, that it’s actually the friction – the creative destruction – within the free market that resolves so many of these problems. The argument is not that free-markets never run into problems. The argument is that free-markets self-correct, and that political intervention most often makes things worse in the long run by perverting incentives (see: 2008 market crash & 2010 BP oil spill).


This is arguably the playing field where libertarians find their political enemies doing a bit of a different dance. Libertarians often find themselves in line, ethically, with many of the ends of both their liberal and conservative brethren. Few of us will be found praying for human suffering and misery. However, even if we did not believe that freedom was a pragmatic answer to our political question, we would generally find it
unconscionable to openly perpetrate harm against innocent people in order to achieve some greater good.

If we were offered the chance to shoot 75 innocent people to save 100, I think many people of other persuasions would just start shooting. I think most libertarians would ask how we, in light of the ethical ends of trying to preserve life in this situation, could justify taking innocent life in the process. It certainly may not seem pragmatic, but what the libertarians are trying to offer is a way out of this binary dichotomy of choice(s) we seem to be presented with. We entertain the idea of putting down the gun altogether.

But even if we found ourselves talking pragmatics, I think the annoying “consistency” of libertarians still has value. If nothing else, libertarians, at the expense of political power (ha!) and expediency, offer a reminder to those who believe themselves to be somehow more “mature” than their counterparts; to constantly be aware of what hangs in the balance. I think people find it too easy to push aside the inconsistency of their views even in light of their own ethical norms, and libertarians will (hopefully) keep reminding them that two wrongs don’t make a right.

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