Tuesday, November 1, 2011

19 Tough Questions for Libertarians

I'm not even sure (at this point) of the story behind this list, including its context, purpose, or even accuracy. But seeing the infamous Stefan Molyneux take a swing at it earlier this morning, I figured that I could give it a rough go and see what happens. The following is a list of "19 Tough Questions for Libertarians" supposedly laid out recently by Jon Stewart. While I'm not particularly a fan of Stewart or his show, he's certainly a smart and funny guy. Considering the respect and attention that his show commands on the political entertainment front, it's certainly worth putting forth at least some type of coherent response. I don't promise to do the questions or the answers to them any real justice (there are plenty of libertarians better-suited to grapple with them), but I figured I'd put my own spin on things as I see them. In the interest of innocent readers I'll attempt to provide short, concise, and possibly open-ended (Socratic?) responses to these.

Before going forward, it's worth noting that there are many, many stripes of libertarian out there. So I don't pretend to speak for the majority nor any particular sub-set therein. My views are roughly Anarcho-Capitalist; and other Anarcho-Capitalists can feel free to disown me at any point in my responses.

1. Is government the antithesis of liberty?

It depends on what you mean by "government". Government (as we know it) has three interlocking mechanisms; one by which they offer (or in some cases force upon us) certain public goods and services, one by which they preclude competitors from offering some of those goods and services, and one by which they forcibly collect payment for the provision of those public goods and services. The last two mechanisms seem (at least to some degree) antithetical to liberty. Simply providing those goods and services are not necessarily antithetical to liberty.

2. One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.

I would say that these things enhance your ability to take advantage of your "freedom" - more explicitly, your rights. But so does having a car, or a boat, or shoes, or food, or shelter, or even a pen and paper. They are all means which enhance the extent to which one may utilize their freedom. And they are all things that we may produce and trade with one another to our collective benefit. A libertarian's task is to ask, in return, exactly why we should feel comfortable with a world in which government does not have a monopoly over shoes and yet we should scoff at a world in which government would not have a monopoly over roads.

3. What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?

Routine decimation is my best guess.

But my second-best guess would rely on the sense in which "losers" is being employed here. If we're using "losers" in a relative way - meaning the bottom X% of population X in geopolitical territory X - then I think the question is nonsensical. By that measure, even if we were all countless magnitudes richer than we are today, "losers" of this type would still exist.

If, however, we mean the truly impoverished, the sick, the disabled, etc., then I would think we'd rely on the same popular sense of charity that entrusts democracies to institute such safety nets in the first place. Unless the true "losers" under such a system make up a super-majority of the populace, it would seem as though any serious criticisms of fraternal charity as an alternate approach would undermine the very reasons we'd believe social democracy could provide such things to begin with. If a solid plurality of voters would endorse forced charity, and subsequently an even larger portion of the population would still support charity more generally, it's not particularly clear why the right hand of the general populace need assault its left hand to shake the money loose.

4. Do we live in a society or don't we? Are we a collective? Everybody's success is predicated on the hard work of all of us; nobody gets there on their own. Why should it be that the people who lose are hung out to dry? For a group that doesn't believe in evolution, it's awfully Darwinian.

Right, because, if anything describes libertarianism, it's religiously dogmatic denial of evolution. I think Ayn Rand might be rolling in her (sexy) smoke-filled grave.

It's lines of questioning like this that make me feel like either libertarians have somehow done themselves a great disservice in their explanations over the years or that non-libertarians have been simply sticking their fingers in their ears the entire time. My guess is that it's been a little of both.

Of course we are a society. To think that libertarians believe otherwise is to buy into the atomistic-individualist-caricature that libertarians are too often painted with. Yes, we are indeed islands unto ourselves! We shun social interaction - which is why we talk so little about open trade, open immigration, social acceptance, the perils of war, freedom of association, respecting the rights and choices of individuals (even the poor!), etc. Libertarians, as far as I can tell, aren't against helping people, or against forming institutions to help people, or even against shunning those who refuse to help people. What we are against, more generally, is putting your boot to the throat of sovereign individuals in the name of compassion on your behalf.

5. In a representative democracy, we are the government. We have work to do, and we have a business to run, and we have children to raise.. We elect you as our representatives to look after our interests within a democratic system.

Yes, at least that's the idea at any rate. Outside of the rhetoric the breakdown becomes more complicated. Let's start by assuming away all of the familiar public choice and regulatory capture issues that dominate actual policy today. I'm starting you at the 90-yard-line of our hundred-yard dash here. Who is "we" when we say "we are the government." Is it you? Is it me? Is it both of us? What if our views diverge? What if those with my general view only carry %10 of the vote in every election? Am I still the government, distant as I am from the views of my supposed "representative", and small as the voice I have with that representative as a constituent?

No, the government is certainly not simply "us." At the very best, the government is a representation of a simple plurality of the people - a plurality whose interests may be selfish, wrong-headed, prejudiced, and generally nonsensical. We could debate that at any given time. What we can't debate is that having a simple democratic majority is the sole measure of what should or shouldn't be done in any meaningful sense. And our country certainly has a history of repression in regards to electoral minorities of all sorts - or at least enough to give any intelligent person pause before they wave off the idea of something being pulled out of the hands of such a government.

6. Is government inherently evil?

I suppose this depends on whether we're talking about government as in the people who constitute it, or simply the personification of the abstract entity itself at some level. I'd have a hard time labeling people as purely evil. My guess is that, like other normal people, many in government are basically decent people who have some particular threshold for the malevolent. Most that I've known have had good intentions. But many people with good intentions do bad things ("The road to hell is paved with good intentions", etc.).

If we're talking about the more abstract idea of government itself, it's a somewhat different question. Calling it "inherently evil" is to say something different than what I think most libertarians are claiming. Our claim is that much (if not all) of what government does is predicated upon coercion and aggression - with regards to at least one of the three mechanisms mentioned earlier. As such, it's not an issue of intention (generally). It's about a systemic aggression upon innocent people.

7. Sometimes to protect the greater liberty you have to do things like form an army, or gather a group together to build a wall or levy.

Sure. Absolutely. And there's no part of libertarianism that would stop you from doing such - on a voluntary basis. Libertarians believe (strongly) in society. Society is not government. Until non-libertarians begin to understand that distinction, conversations are going to prove difficult if not confusing. The leftist Bastiat penned in the mid 19th century:

"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

8. As soon as you've built an army, you've now said government isn't always inherently evil because we need it to help us sometimes, so now.. it's that old joke: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? How about a dollar? -Who do you think I am?- We already decided who you are, now we're just negotiating.

I guess this subsequent question is predicated on the idea that us "right-wing-extremists" love us some government-funded walls and armies.....to oppress the darkies I guess. You might want to consult the minarchy-lite rendition of libertarianism as it pertains to neo-libertarians or libertarian-leaning conservatives. You'll have to venture somewhere else for that one. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.

9. You say: government which governs least governments best. But that were the Articles of Confederation. We tried that for 8 years, it didn't work, and went to the Constitution.

Well, I know this may be a shock for people who happen to endorse a Whig view of history, but there are some people who believe (yes, in the 21st century) that the Articles of Confederation were actually superior to the present constitution. Earth-shattering, I know. There are also people who believe that the loose way in which the powers of the central government were granted in our second constitution led the way to (gasp!) a federal government with incredible sweeping powers fueled by massive debt born onto its people. And, believe it or not, many people who helped write the new constitution had the same worries (did anyone else read the Federalist Papers?).

It's shocking to think about, but it's possible that a handful of wealthy white guys convening to centralize power between the colonies in a last-ditch effort to overthrow the most powerful imperial force in the world (lest they be hanged for treason at that point), may have been a little hasty in constructing such an authority properly - for the long term. Of course, arguably, this is the reason an amendment process was implemented. In either case, however, the drafting of a new constitution was not proof that the previous one didn't or couldn't work; nor is it proof that either of them didn't suffer from significant flaws...which they did.

10. You give money to the IRS because you think they're gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.

I'm pretty sure the IRS doesn't have much to do with my local fire protection. But, skipping over that slight oversight, would the same argument be made to justify the government's monopolistic production and provision of shoes if we deemed it to be a public venture? If I said that shoes could be provided privately on the market, and that, at the very most, if you were concerned about people who couldn't afford it you could simply credit them for the purchase, would you snap back that we cough over money to the IRS so that we can have shoes on our feet? If the "shoes on your feet" response seems silly to you, replace it with "fire protection" and you'll see why that seems silly to us.

11. Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters? The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative, seems insane.

I don't know many libertarians who inherently trust corporations, or even businesses generally. Businesses have to earn my respect and trust to garner continued patronage on my behalf. In fact, one of the chief reasons that libertarians oppose government intervention is the extent to which large companies are able to influence even seemingly restrictive policies to their advantage, extracting additional profits and rents that would likely not be possible without such subsidies and barriers to competition. As to why libertarians might view government in an even-more-dim light, it would probably have to do with the fact that businesses don't generally walk around forcing consumers to purchase their products or services at gunpoint. I'm pretty sure that's an important distinction...that whole freedom of association thing.

12. Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? ..and there are choices within the educational system.

I suppose you could say that there's competition in the health care system...probably to about the same extent to which you could say it's socialized. But I'm actually struggling to think of a market more burdened by regulation and oligopoly. Working for a third-party company in the medical billing industry, I happen to see a larger extent of government's reach into the industry than a lot of people. Government is not only the largest single payor but over half of all receipts are from government as well. Think about the kind of power that any single entity would yield as half of the entire customer base (by dollar amount). Think about all the government regulations and mandates that encourage excess consumption of health care, or impede real competition all the way from zoning laws to federal medical regulations to AMA restrictive licensing policies. If we want to have a discussion about how market mechanisms have been hampered or destroyed, my first three industries to use as examples are health, education, and housing - in that order. I'm not saying there couldn't be any viable points about why government should be involved in these industries, etc., but if you're going to have a discussion about free-market failures I would think you'd want to start by looking at industries that aren't the epitome of over-regulation and government control.

13. Would you go back to 1890?

You mean, like, if I had a DeLorean and a flux capacitor? Sure.

If you're asking whether I'd personally rather live in 1890, I'd say decidedly not. We have such incredible wealth available to us thanks to technological advancement that you'd have to draw up shorter time windows to get me to want to live in the past. But all that would tell you is that I'd rather live in incredible comfort with the government control we have now than what my lack of productivity could afford me then. Of course, I'd rather have had both a smaller government and the comfort current technology affords us. In fact, I'd think my comfort now might be even greater had government not been growing in the ways it has. But that's speculation. In either case, I wouldn't make that decision on anyone else's behalf.

14. If we didn't have government, we'd all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream?


There's some methodological pretense with which I don't feel comfortable answering in the affirmative on any particular counterfactual. I do feel comfortable with saying that government (as we know it) has a detrimental effect on progress to some extent. I couldn't tell you that cancer would be cured right now. I feel pretty confident in telling you we'd be closer to curing cancer if we hadn't already though.

15. Unregulated markets have been tried. The 80's and the 90's were the robber baron age. These regulations didn't come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn't fight back against.

As far back as I can go, in our country, unregulated markets have never existed. And surely not in the 80's or 90's - unless I'm just hallucinating the hundreds of thousands of regulations at the federal level alone. I think it's pretty easy to point to any particular regulation that has been taken away or added as the culprit in any number of unwanted outcomes. Digging deeper, the truth is a little more complicated. You come to find that there are countless regulations predicated on other countless regulations - regulations often created by inept legislators and/or lobbyists or industry consultants. So what you get seems much more like a giant pile of Jenga blocks which we are constantly taking away from and adding to.

The more broad political problem that this creates is the illusion of any one block alone making or breaking the system, when in reality it's actually a good deal of the blocks together which are uniformly determining the temporary feasibility of the structure. Take out a single block and watch it tumble down. Tell yourself it was the pulled block. But don't pretend as if the blocks above and below it had nothing to do with the collapse. The point is simply this - people, the consumers, have a much more powerful voice at the end of a transaction than they do in entrusting legislators to build mile-high Jenga towers without knocking them down or making them impossible for actors (many of which have nothing but piles of money and interest in keeping it) to skillfully evade and navigate.

16. Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?

Because, although possibly better than the alternative, they were still horrible working conditions. I think that's pretty obvious - even for us evil libertarians.

17. Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government.

So an important part in your defense of government is to point out how they failed to protect the individual rights of workers' to associate freely...and that sometimes the government even directly helped violate their rights? Say what you will about Pinkertons or mining companies - that doesn't exactly sound like a shining endorsement of government either. Like many of the services that government provides, I think that protection from physical harm is something that's going to be high on the list for most people. The question is who provides these services and how. I wonder if the government of the Gilded Age worked to protect or subsidize any corporate interests at the expense of workers and consumers as it often does today...hmmm. I think the coal-mining example might be something that both big-government and small-government types might not want to throw out there too hastily.

18. Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Marten Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not.. The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.

In all honesty, I think there would be a mix of both in a world of voluntary interaction. We expect and demand free association in almost all related facets of life, but our cultural struggle against racism and prejudice is so tightly wound into the disavowal of that freedom in that one aspect that we've seemed to lose all the connecting dots. Should a man have the right to not work in service of another man, or not let him make use of his property? I'd think so. But I'm told I'm wrong (and possibly racist). I believe that people should be allowed to associate exclusively with any particular race, gender, or creed of people - whether I find that to be rooted in prejudice or not. I can't force you to befriend a person of another religion. I can't force you to date someone of the opposite sex. I can't force you to allow people of a different race onto your property....Oh, that's right! Except for when you're selling something on your property.....which apparently makes "corrective" force on my part completely different from a moral or philosophical standpoint. It's interesting that we'd be so concerned for the economic livelihood of an individual that we'd make businesses serve people of all stripes and yet consumers are not forced to patron business-owners/workers of all stripes. Somehow withholding the purchase of your services because of prejudice doesn't sanction force but withholding my labor from a consumer does.

However, and perhaps more importantly, what people should be allowed to do is different than the question of what people should do, or even what would have happened if they had been allowed to do it. I think prejudice in the form of stereotypical generalization as a backdrop for preconceived judgment of any individual is a testament to the stupidity of humans in groups. There's an awful lot of it still around, in case you haven't noticed....on both sides of the political aisle. My personal favorite is nationalism, which drives Conservatives to blow up brown people around the world and Liberals to protect "poor" Americans from the horrid possibility of other Americans employing people outside our borders. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of prejudice in almost any sense. But, like free speech more generally, people should be allowed to talk, think, and associate in stupid and shitty ways.

As to which method would effectively combat prejudice better, it's hard to say. I do think that, culturally, we were heading in this direction in either case - after all, how would democratic support for such institutional change be garnered otherwise? My guess is that the primary differences would be that, at this point, you'd still have some above-table racism, marginally, with free markets. As to whether that's better than the subdued culture of racism that's been reinforced by the curtailment of individual liberties in the name of protecting "civil liberties", well, your guess is as good as mine there.

19. Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions.

Well, that's not in the form of a question, but it's certainly begging the question. I really don't think that government (again, as described by an organization laying hold to the three mechanisms I outlined earlier) is necessary. I believe that society is necessary. I believe that law is necessary. I believe that freedom is necessary. And I don't believe that any of those require the type of government we've been discussing.

In fact, I'd proffer that the second and third mechanisms of modern government are linchpins for systemic error - errors which cannot be remedied with platitudes about regulation and "accountability" because of their systemic nature. Proponents of government intervention and oversight seem to be keen on believing that selecting the proper inputs will yield the correct outputs. And no matter how many ways it can be shown to them that this is not what happens in reality, that this structure of human interaction is not only flawed ethically but practically as well, they don't seem to be willing to give way to pause for even the briefest of moments. They become apologists for the state and its actions, excusing any and every outcome. So to these nineteen cleverly aimed questions I'll retort with a simple, open-ended question to those that endorse state-based solutions:

Even if it were to be ceded that the state is not inherently responsible for countless atrocities over human history, that it facilitates compassion, reason, and understanding amongst the governed, that it keeps humanity (socially) on some kind of vague, upward trajectory - are you so wed to state-authority that it is impossible for you to even imagine more superior, compassionate, social constructs through which we could solve problems?


  1. Great job! You brought some very interesting lines of thought to this. After seeing the same video, I too am looking forward to answering these same questions and read yours for starting points.

    I'm shocked at how misinformed the vast majority of people are to the real perceptions of Libertarians.
    Great job! rob gainey

  2. Thanks for the complimentary comment - always appreciated