I didn’t have much respect for Michael Kinsley’s understanding of libertarianism going into today. I have less after reading his opinion piece in
today’s Saturday’s Washington Post, titled “The Church Doctrines of Pope Ron Paul.” (Clever in its truthiness.) Consider:
Libertarians get patronized a lot. Chipmunky and earnest, always pursuing logical consistency down wacky paths, they pose no real threat to the established order.
If a path is logical, it is by definition not wacky. It may be different from what average citizens accept, but the average citizen believes that common and normal are synonyms. They are not. It is common to be circumcised¹ as an American male. The circumcised penis is not normal.
So what is wrong with the libertarian case for extremely limited government? Economics 101 teaches some of the basic justifications for government interference in the economy. Some things, such as the cost of national defense, are “public goods.” We can’t each decide for ourselves how much defense we want. We have to decide that together.
National defense is a very poorly chosen example. And I believe that Mr. Kinsley is smart enough and familiar enough with libertarianism to understand that it’s a poorly chosen example. This is intentionally deceptive, presented to make the main line of libertarianism appear much less reasonable than it is.
But assuming a naive grasp of basic libertarianism, there are quite a few libertarians who actively accept that national defense is a legitimate government function. Apart from Mr. Kinsley’s justification, which is valid, it’s also in the United States Constitution. Small-l libertarians may disagree that it should be there, believing instead that private markets can handle defense. But only crackpots deny that it’s in our Constitution. Mr. Kinsley incorrectly implies that such nonsense is a fundamental tenet of American libertarianism.
Then there are “externalities,” which are costs (or, sometimes, benefits) that your decisions impose on me. Pollution is the classic example. Without government involvement of some sort to override our individual judgments, we will produce more pollution than most of us want.
He’s on slightly firmer footing here, but he still ignores the possibility that free, private markets could produce a solution. To accept his position completely, we must accept that individuals would willingly choose a slow-burn suicide through environmental destruction, past the point at which any fix could be achieved. Perhaps this is so, but Mr. Kinsley provides zero evidence that his favored position is any more likely than what he rejects. He relies solely on a belief that individual men are evil, while collective men are wise.
There are “market-oriented” solutions to this problem, but there is a difference –often forgotten, especially by Republicans — between using market forces and leaving something to the market. The point of principle is whether the government should intervene at all. How it chooses to intervene is purely pragmatic.
Libertarians have a fondness for complex arrangements to make markets work in situations where the textbooks say they can’t. …
He is off the rails here. Libertarians do not pretend to know what solutions will look like. We have ideas about how they “should” look, but we’re smart enough to know that others have ideas, too. Imposing ours blocks what might be better. Competition has a way of shoving less efficient solutions to the side. Free-market thinkers understand this.
The United States Postal Service, by virtue of being a “public good” (and in the Constitution), demands that the government handle this work. Everyone believed that until Fred Smith proved that belief to be dated nonsense. Some still believe the USPS should stick around, even though it clearly isn’t the best at what it does. Such thinking wandered long ago into irrational.
Libertarians also have a tendency to see too many issues in terms of property rights (just as liberals, they would counter, tend to see everything in terms of discrimination and equal protection). Pollution, libertarians say, is simply theft: you are stealing my clean air. Settle it in court. This is a really terrible idea: inexpert judges, lawyers and juries using the most elaborate and expensive decision-making process known to humankind — litigation — to make inconsistent decisions in different cases. …
What about “inexpert” politicians? Politicians believe that ridding ourselves of incandescent light bulbs will cure global warming. Politicians believe that manipulating Daylight Saving Time on the calendar will somehow decrease the amount of energy we use, rather than shifting around when we will use that energy. Politicians believe that subsidizing biofuels will save us from dependency on foreign oil, even though biofuels as currently subsidized by the United States is inefficient, expensive, and pollutes the environment.
More importantly, a decree from a judge when reviewing property rights generally means you can or can’t continue doing X, the action under consideration. Politicians see these actions and decide not only whether you can or can’t continue doing X, but they will also mandate the use or prohibition of Y, Z, A, H, K, P, and S. Inexpert politicians, through the elaborate and expensive decision-making process of legislation.
… And usually there is no one “right” answer: There is a spectrum of acceptable answers, involving tradeoffs (dirty air versus fewer jobs, etc.) that ought to be made democratically — that is, through government.
Earlier in the piece, Mr. Kinsley wrote this:
Furthermore, democracy and majority rule are no answers. Tyranny of the majority is a constant danger.
No kidding. So now we’re praising inexpert voters along with inexpert politicians instead of inexpert judges. Brilliant. What could go wrong?
So yes, a Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism could replace a straightforward government regulation. But what if you aren’t interested in turning your grocery shopping into an ideological adventure? All that is lost by letting the government take care of it is the right of a few idiots to be idiots. That right deserves respect. But not much.
He is writing of unpasteurized milk. Notice that choosing to drink unpasteurized means the individual is an idiot. This is the classic central planner’s argument. His subjective evaluation of an issue is the only valid evaluation. By virtue of his certainty, its subjective nature becomes objective, enshrined in rules. It is the central planner’s job to protect everyone from themselves.
For what it’s worth, I don’t drink milk, pasteurized or not. Should I get to regulate everyone’s diet to exclude milk because I think drinking it is unwise? If you will not subject yourself to my opinion, why must I subject myself to yours?
Essentially, Mr. Kinsley seeks to indict libertarianism as a belief-system centered in a fantasy world in which everything works out efficiently and effectively, while asking that the reader accept that government is efficient and effective, generally as a result of its benevolence. But libertarians do not believe that capitalism is perfect. We know only that it’s superior to every other system tried by mankind. We know that government is inefficient and ineffective at every task it undertakes that don’t involve destruction. It is also operated by politicians who will sell any constituent to win a “better” constituent. Evidence demonstrates that, whether it’s taxes targeted
to “the rich”, forcing consumers to higher-margin fluorescent light bulbs, higher food prices so that gas doesn’t rise to a price that would force people to seek out alternative energy sources, or any other readily available example in which government acts to impose the subjective will of one onto another.
More thoughts at East Coast Libertarian.
¹ Speaking of circumcision, following the logical consistency that we don’t normally amputate healthy body parts from children, it is not wacky to denounce the giant exception applied to infant male foreskins.