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?"


  1. 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.

  2. Turned my would-be response into a second post...