Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Libertarian Curse

It's no secret that libertarianism, in general, has a pretty malignant public image. From Ron Paul to Rand Paul, the verdict is in. As far as the general public is concerned we're snobs, elitists, and contrarians at our core, and we're wrapped in a candied shell of racism, greed, and social Darwinism. Any formal libertarian is all-too familiar with the pretense. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've had the term "self-righteous" personally thrown at me.

But no one is more surprised by their perceived political predispositions than the libertarian. We couldn't imagine that view of us as being any further from the truth. In fact (and as a staunch libertarian, I can openly say this) I think that most libertarians believe they are following the most humble and compassionate line of thought they possibly can. We could be absolutely wrong in our position(s). But that doesn't seem to explain the baggage of bad intentions that we seem to be anchored to when it comes to public perception. So what gives?

I think there are several factors that are bound to give us some undue heat as a pretext to any real discussion. I'd like to outline some of those factors here, and parse through some of that cognitive baggage. And I'd like to close with a simple thought or two regarding libertarian bewilderment in regards to how the public perceives them.

Libertarianism as Minority - This is probably the largest source of our collective frustration as libertarians; particularly as it pertains to the public perception of us being snobs or elitists. I think this phenomenon is too complex to sort through all of it here. But there is certainly a common line of thought that holds that centrism is optimally correct at the outset. I personally feel that this is the direct result of democratic institutionalization. We have a very real predisposition to hold the most average view as the most rational view. We use terms like rational, independent, and reasonable to essentially describe the cross-section of the political spectrum that represents the average of our collective views. And anyone who deviates too far away from that centrist view begins to suffer some serious social stigmas. The extreme left, the far right; this is the pejorative framing of the political opposition as fringe - unreasonable.

Libertarianism as Contrary - This is closely connected to the issue of libertarianism being a somewhat fringe view. But we are often accused of being simply contrarian. The reason for such an accusation is pretty obvious; we hold some of the views of BOTH major U.S. political movements in contention. In our current two-party system, it looks like we're just trying to stir the pot so to speak. Instead of being seen reaching out to either political party on the issues on which we agree, we're more often seen arguing with either of them regarding the issues on which we don't. I think this is an inherent fatalism built into the libertarian mindset. We feel like we have some common ground with both movements, and so, I think, we find ourselves trying to hammer out the non-libertarian positions - to essentially pull them closer to our own views. However, since it seems that we ostensibly can't seem to do much hand-shaking with either party in any serious way, we always appear to be simply trying to ruffle the feathers of the mainstream establishment.

Libertarianism as Ethical and Utilitarian - If there is anything that stands to hamper libertarians it's the fact that they openly volunteer to play by the rules of their opposition. The libertarian position, at its heart, is a completely ethical one (in the sense of argument, not conclusion). Thus, all of our justifications are rightfully within the realm of ethics. But we seem to be ultimately susceptible to the everlasting allure of utilitarian arguments. And, of course, this manifests itself most discretely in the realm of economic theory. Most other political movements argue their position in a strictly utilitarian sense if not nominally. But the libertarian believes that his position is not only ethically superior, but also that it can be framed as furthering the greater good as well. That mindset throws libertarians in to an assault of argumentative side-steps and half-steps that put dance routines to shame. Although it is perfectly consistent to believe that libertarianism is correct in the sphere of ethics AND utility, our tendency to bounce between the two spheres of argumentation for our convenience lends itself to serious cynicism.

Libertarianism as Language - Among all the things that tie libertarians down, this is probably the most subtle. I believe this may be the sole-source of the misconception of libertarians as being "racist" or "greedy." All rational action (in the Misesian sense) derives from a means-ends framework. The libertarian argues that, although the ends of any action may ultimately be ethical, often (especially in politics) the means are inconsistently unethical. So when the libertarian argues against any proposed action on the basis of the means by which it is to be employed, we find ourselves hamstrung by the background context of the ends. Philosophers like Stephan Molyneux have discussed this concept at length. Essentially, people tend to blanket their arguments with the sensible language of their intentions. Social Security, Medicare, National Security, No Child Left Behind - these are all terms that mask the reality of what actually constitutes such programs with the ethically sensible language of their ends. Libertarians don't suffer from this...and it makes their positions seem obtuse and dismissive. When the libertarian opposes social security, he is said to hate the poor. When he opposes war, he is said to oppose security. When he opposes public education, he is said to oppose children. When he opposes Medicaid, he is said to oppose the sick. The conflation of ends-means terminology is the bane of libertarian existence, and nothing invokes erroneous sentiment more in the opposition, nor pushes any truly intellectual conversation further away.


All of this being said, the libertarian is still ultimately bewildered by the extreme disposition of the general public towards them as opposed to other rival political views. It's true that some of us may be overly zealous about our convictions - but I've venture to say that libertarian zealotry isn't really any more profound than the zealotry of mainstream political positions. Yes, our views are in minority, but ALL VIEWS have been in minority at some point. Galileo, Locke, Copernicus, Aristotle, Hume; all of them have enjoyed the privilege of being in the minority at some point. And it rightfully might have made them look crazy or contrarian at some point. But it has NOTHING to do with the ultimate validity of their views. As libertarians, we need to become more adept at pointing out the obvious and shutting down logical fallacies at the offset.

Likewise, we need to be more steadfast in our convictions in light of the accusations of bigotry, selfishness, and lack of compassion. Obviously those assertions are intentionally inflammatory, and may be secondary, but it's important to really tackle them head-on nonetheless. We're often accused of being absolutist in our defense of liberty, and dismissive of virtue. But I think libertarianism is arguably the most subjective political ethos. In fact, we're so subjective that our only prime directive is the abolition of initiatory force. In other words we believe you should be free to adopt any virtue or moral code you wish, so long as you respect the freedom of others to do the same. In this sense, it is the various proponents of individual creeds and moral codes that are the absolutists - not the libertarian. The support of utilitarian means to reach morally "objective" ends - THAT is rigid - THAT is without compassion - THAT - is intolerant - THAT is selfish.

As libertarians, we must keep reminding people of this even if we are doomed to live with the political and social stigmas of our little corner of political thought. It's the curse of libertarianism. We find ourselves discussing the means of collective actions, and we find the majority arguing exclusively from the perspective of the ends of such actions. Never-mind our perceived pretentiousness. We need to focus the light of reason on the failed ethical frameworks of our accusers. If there is anything that reeks of self-righteousness or intolerance, it's force-feeding the public on ultimately subjective moral obligations, while turning a blind eye to the moral inconsistency of the means by which you wish to achieve it. How much more elitist does it get than that? Pot, meet kettle.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Nails on a Chalkboard

It's interesting how a person's focus changes gradually as their general preconceptions do. It's funny to think that I can read something now and cringe; when I might have totally glossed over it ten years ago. I ran across this gem in a conversation about libertarianism in an online forum.

Anonymous: Our economy is going to plummet because we consume more than we produce. It has nothing to do with the Federal Reserve or Central Banking.

So close, yet so far away...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A (not so) Short Response

Due to pesky character limits, I decided to put what I thought was a "short" response to a comment by a "mysterious" poster in its own blog-post:

RobertB said...
Perhaps this is a naive view of libertarianism, but it looks to me like it's relying on after-the-fact remedy and a 'rational' assessment of risk/reward to keep things like Chernobyl and the BP spill from happening. Suing BP out of business isn't going to make that oil magically go away.

I also think that gutting regulatory agencies then pointing out their failures as examples of why regulation is pointless is a circular argument straight out of the Reagan playbook.

I don't think what you're presenting is a completely naive view of libertarianism; however I'm not sure it's in line with MY libertarian view. I can't hold anyone else liable for that. Libertarianism is already a minority-view. So it's hard to walk around indicting people for not being versed in my minority-view of a...well...minority-view. Your criticism (I think) is more applicable to the standard libertarian position. But it's important to understand - for the sake of discussion - that libertarianism is actually a pretty wide spectrum in and of itself. YOUR view of libertarianism proper is probably more along the lines of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman; whereas my views are more in line with Rothbard, Chartier, and Long. The differences might seem too subtle for casual conversation, but I think it's important to distinguish this point for future reference.

In any case...

You'll have to forgive me here because there have been volumes and volumes of material refuting the counter-arguments you're presenting here at length, and it's nearly impossible to condense all that theory down into a short response. But I will try to offer some of the most obvious arguments, and if you want links back to better source material (seeing as how I'm not exactly a genius here) I'll be happy to provide what I can.

The first criticism here is that free-market solutions seem to be ad hoc. The obvious flaw in that argument (at least to me) is that government solutions are ALSO generally ad hoc. I'd venture to say that every piece of protective legislation we have shares a causal relationship with some mis-hap. It's only after such mis-haps that the public pushes for a solution. In many areas, they've done this politically. But it can be, and has been, done via markets as well.

Take a look at something as basic as household appliances. There's 120V of possible death surging through the walls and floors of the modern household. I'd venture to say some of the first plug-in appliances weren't too safe. There were probably some pretty serious accidents (more than today per capita). Was it massive government interference and regulation that pushed manufacturers to make products safer, or did market demand for safer products push industry towards adopting systems of standards, and rigorous third-party (voluntary) inspection and approval?

This is kind of tangential to an argument Mises used to make regarding markets and politics. It seems like a conflicting view to assume that we can trust the masses to politically enforce regulation upon industries but that they somehow have absolutely no control over how they "vote" with their own money. In some ways, the free-market is a pseudo-democratic process. If Ford starts to make death-traps made out of cardboard and rusty metal, I don't find it likely that a democratic majority would be so opposed as to push for regulation, but not so opposed as to not purchase the product. In that way, the market is self-regulating.

On the point of "rational" risk/reward assessment, is it really your view that this disappears when government becomes involved? Everything that is done privately OR publicly is subject to that kind of assessment. As long as resources are finite, that's simply reality. Now, you can make a claim that government is better at moving the goal-posts (I disagree), but you can't pretend like the goal-posts magically go away when government walks in.

We could spend hundreds of billions of dollars on inspecting oil rigs, or we could spend nearly nothing. We could enforce a minimum of 10,000 safety mechanisms per rig or none. We could send send five inspectors to every rig or we could send 1,000. We could send them every year or every day. It's all a risk/reward assessment...regardless of who's doing it. As we become more productive, I think there's less slack to give . But nonetheless there is a give and take. People die of preventable cancers. People die in car wrecks. And yet, we don't go to the doctor every single day and we don't all drive tanks. It's not because there are evil people who want us to die. It's because there are real economic trade-offs that are inescapable.

And on that point, even while you seem to gesture towards the issue of funding, it seems that government didn't prove to be too effective in any case. I'm not sure exactly how many MILLIONS of dollars the MMS receives, or how much you figure they would need to do their job, but they certainly had enough to have issued BP over 800 citations without reprisal. Did they just need an extra $300 in stamps to get it to some other bureaucrat's desk? Maybe if they had spent more of their money on that and less of it on meth and hotel rooms shared by/with BP employees, this could have been avoided.

Of course, maybe if the regulatory apparati of government didn't have such incestuous relationships with the institutions they try to regulate that wouldn't be as much of an issue. Safety is too dangerous to be left to the adversarial relationship of a liability insurer, customers, and a company, but it can be left to a government who employs heavily from within those industries (they are the experts, right?), and one that is heavily lobbied by those industries? Does the hand-shaking and corruption magically disappear because it was written down on paper somewhere that it's not supposed to happen? At the heart of it, it seems to me that humans are corruptible whether they are in government or not. I'm much more impressed with the incentives a free-market provides than the lack of incentives AND corporate protection that government offers.

If your claim is that market incentives aren't strong enough, I'd agree. AS IT STANDS (the way things are right now) market incentives aren't enough. My claim, and that minority anarcho-libertarian claim, is that government dilutes those incentives. I don't think this post warrants an in-depth discussion of each item, but here are a few ways government perverts market incentives when it comes to oil spills:

1. Public Property - I can't help but invoke the tragedy of the commons here. No individual owns any part of the ocean per se. In fact, the only body that claims a sovereign monopoly on it is...government. A government that receives royalties from letting companies like BP drill on "their" property.

2. Incorporation - Limited individual liability brought to you by none other than the state. At the end of the day, the most that will happen (because of that fictitious body we recognize as a corporation) is that BP might go bankrupt. However, the executives or owners will hold no personal liability for the damage they've caused, and will continue to legally hold onto whatever assets they have personally. And that doesn't even begin to touch the fact that their liability as a corporation is/was legally limited as well.

3. Subsidies - Let's not forget the direct subsidization the energy industry gets for development and distribution. This includes everything from direct funding to what sometimes seems like monopolistic privilege in the realm of government grants, contracts, and licensing.

4. Regulation as King-maker - Sometimes we forget that regulation can bring forth economies of scale. While subject to free-markets, EoS can provide for cheaper goods and services, but induced purely with government privilege such a thing isn't the case. Huge corporations like BP aren't nearly as strangled (financially) as any would-be competitor is. It seems counter-intuitive, but government regulation stifles competition - the engine of free-markets. Do you think Walmart began to publicly support mandatory health coverage from employers because they suddenly had a change of heart in 2009?

5. Free Roads - I hate to invoke ye olde faithful public good here, but roads are ostensibly free at the margin. Do you think that people having to truly bear the cost for road usage (in a real sense) might shift the demand for newer technologies - in other words, less expensive/oil-related ones? Could decreased demand change the incentive structure for riskier operations - like deep-sea drilling?

6. Regulation as Risk-pusher - A related item, part of the whole picture (which people seem to be ignoring) is that it's much more expensive for companies like BP to drill deep in the ocean. They aren't doing it because there aren't any reserves closer to land. They're doing it, largely, because government regulation regarding drilling has made this the next-best option for them. Call me crazy, but it might be easier to cap a spill that isn't 5,000 feet under the ocean.

There are dozens and dozens of similar political and economic points that have been made and expounded upon. And I'm sure I'm not doing the ones I've brought up much justice here - I'm certainly not the intellectual fall-back for libertarian theory and I'm not going to pretend like I have all the answers. But what I am going to say is that their arguments over the years have seemed increasingly compelling to me as compared to the statist excuses that are offered in the wake of every disaster that happens upon us. The best that government apologists can seem to do is hold steady to that regulation-ratchet claim of government never intervening enough, pretend that free-markets actually exist now (and are ipso facto responsible), and/or just ignore government liability altogether. Those just haven't proven to be convincing arguments to me.

I know I'm holding the fringe-position here. I don't get any better reception from conservatives when I excoriate their views either. I could be as completely wrong as the next guy on any of these issues. But I have to go where my own sense of reason takes me, and every pro-government/pro-corporatist argument I've heard made on the subject has just absolutely fallen apart under the light of that "fringe" libertarian political and economic theory for me.

And trust me, it's not easy to hold those views. It doesn't win me any friends. There's been an awful lot of cognitive dissonance involved on my end. Name about any issue and I've probably been on the opposite side of it at some point. The idea that I was very pro-market-regulation at sixteen is just as embarrassing for me as the fact that I was pro-Bush and pro-Iraq-War when I was twenty. But that doesn't mean I've shut off my mind to new ideas. If someone starts making arguments that can stand up to those of Rothbard and Hoppe, I'm more than willing to listen. But until then, the excuses just don't fly with me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Status Quo as Consequence

In reading some fairly mainstream critiques of libertarianism - which seems to be getting a pretty bad shake lately - I can't help but notice the following sequence of thoughts:

1. Problem X exists.
2. Libertarians do not like X.
3. Libertarians believe that government enables X.
4. Libertarians believe in little/no government.
5. The absence of existing government presents a possibility for X.
6. Libertarian reforms allow for X.

Did anyone else catch the problem with that line of reasoning?

Let's try an example:

1. The BP oil spill exists.
2. Libertarians do not like oil spills.
3. Libertarians believe that government policy actually increases the chance of oil spills and inadequately prevents them.
4. Libertarians call to repeal related government intervention.
5. Without government, the possibility of an oil spill exists.
6. Libertarian reforms allow for oil spills.

Does anyone else find this at least a little puzzling? We have a large government RIGHT NOW. We have massive regulation RIGHT NOW. There is heavy-handed government intervention set up to prevent this exact thing RIGHT NOW. Libertarians make an argument that government intervention actually paves the way for things like oil spills. The liberal (and sometimes conservative) retort is that without government, we'd have oil spills. But WE DO have government. And WE DO have oil spills. THAT is the status quo. So the anti-libertarian argument is basically that, if we oppose the coercive reach of government into our lives, we will get what we have now.

Call me un-impressed.

Of course, I'm being exposed to the specifics of the BP situation as of late, but I've heard this exact same argument in all sorts of contexts. In fact, it comes up pretty frequently in arguments from within the libertarian spectrum; minarchy vs. anarchy. Anarchists claim that it's possible to provide justice, protection, and charity in a non-coercive (ie: no government) society. They point out all the ways in which the state is terrible and why it needs to be abolished. Minarchists concede on many of these points but often argue that without an entity with a monopoly on justice (government), we introduce the danger of one we must support one.

What's that you say? Non-sensical you say? Maybe, but the argument is often made nonetheless.

"Why, without a government, a group of people might coalesce and claim a monopoly on violence, and we will be subject to their every whim! So what we must do is create a group of people who have a monopoly on violence so that....wait a minute..."

Can you tell how I feel on the subject? I'm not saying that statists (from minarchists to fascists) don't make some good arguments for their claims. Indeed, given scarce resources and the minority view of libertarian-anarchism, it's safe to say that we've claimed a relatively small amount of intellectuals to give us ideological ammunition. Statists predictably have quite an arsenal of ripe and lucid minds to quash the incessant reproach of libertarian ideals. And I think that's why the previous line of reasoning surprises me so much. If you're a utilitarian with half a brain, you can pick and choose your battles with ease. Why offer such feeble rebuttals as "If you do away with what we have now, won't you just give us the results we currently have?"

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thick and Thin

I've been contemplating some kind of move towards resolution between thick and thin libertarianism. I can safely say this little task is far beyond my paygrade. However, I think just trying to understand the practical differences between the two views could be of great value in the debate, as the two groups seem to often just be talking past each other. So far, this is how I've formulated the conceptual differences between the two groups: