Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Libertarianism, part 2

Since I wrote my post on libertarianism, I've received quite a few comments, including a few by email and phone. Some are highly positive about what I wrote, some less so.

One particular poster, "Philanthropic Patriot", is now a repeat visitor to this blog and has written a fairly lengthy reply. I decided I can't do it justice without starting a new post. Thanks for your interesting feedback, PP.


"I believe that we are better off for having a government that actually does stuff. Not that I think the government is in good hands right now; I think that we are being run by a bunch of insane bunglers who are incapable of long term planning. Nevertheless, I believe that a government, run by competent and rational people, is critical for managing aspects of a decent society that the free market doesn't address. That's right, there are things that the free market does not, never has, and cannot do."

Philanthropic Patriot:
"The assumption on the left is that people, left to their own devices and attmepting to improve their lot in life will naturally end up rushing the planet and society headlong to their own destruction. It is believed that if we can only get the correct legislators in place and leave important decisions to these more enlightened, socially responsible individuals is the only way that man can be prevented from destroying himself. Yet I ask, what suddenly makes an elected official less self destructive than the rest of us, and why should we really want universal sufferage given the self destructive nature of most people. Are we to trust people to vote on the best legislators to solve their problems, but not trust them to solve their own problems?"

Okay, hold it right there. You're already trying to turn me into a straw man.

Sorry, you are incorrect. The belief held by me (and whether this is typical of "the left" is open for debate) is *not* that people, left to their own devices, will isolate themselves from one another and destroy themselves. Quite the contrary, I believe that because people are smart, they will eventually recognize the fact that there are things they can't do on their own, and band together in groups to accomplish larger and more important works than scrabbling out a bare existence. This is a huge distinction from the words that PP is putting in my mouth.

For example, suppose I'm writing an essay on the virtues of technology. My eyesight is awful; I correct that with very powerful contact lenses. My running speed is not very fast; luckily I can and frequently do zip across the landscape at 60 miles per hour in my car. Also, luckily for me, I am able to feed myself readily available food without bothering to learn how to hunt or farm; and luckily for me, I am able to communicate my thoughts to people thousands of miles away by tapping my fingers on a piece of plastic. Technology is terrific.

Now suppose somebody comes along and says: "The assumption of the technologists is that people, left to their own devices without their cars and computers and optometry and grocery stores, will naturally end up dying young. Why do they have such contempt for mankind?" Well, no, it's not contempt. If you take away my technology then I'm going to have a much tougher time surviving. That's why I'm pleased that humans are so intelligent and resourceful as to have invented all those things. Before those things existed, life was much shorter and more unpleasant. That's our niche. We do things the smart way.

Government, like contact lenses, is a technological advancement. Go read Guns, Germs and Steel sometime and you'll see the point. In a primitive society, it's pretty much every man for himself, and most of what occupies their time is finding or growing food. Even in primitive societies, of course, there's typically some sort of rudimentary social structure, either family based or chieftain based, but dealing with other tribes is a sketchy business.

Once a tribe discovers the principles of agriculture, suddenly it becomes easier and easier to grow food. All of a sudden, people are no longer limited to eating what they can grow by themselves. They can do other things with their time. There then arises an enormous idle class, and what those idle individuals do to occupy their time is what makes a tribe powerful. They develop technology and weapons. They organize themselves and make laws to keep things running smoothly.

The cultures that do not do this, get crushed or assimilated by the ones who do. History demonstrates, over and over again, that failure to organize is an evolutionary dead end.

"You go on to point out that a free market cannot think far enough ahead to invest in fusion research despite the potential advances for humanity in general. I could point out that politicians rarely think past 4 years, but I will instead say that the market can and would support such research when humanity needs it. If oil prices continue to rise (due to scarcity rather than inflation) than more money will be invested into finding energy alternatives. Politicians love to invest in so-called green technology, but not having any market forces to help them determine when and where that technology is needed, they are more likely to invest in useless technologies as helpfull technology. (and with our current political system I would claim that they would be much more likely to invest in technologies pormoted by those with the most political clout.)"

And yet, nevertheless, governments somehow managed to get an impressive array of large projects that individuals failed to do by themselves. Little things, like, you know... stop lights. Sewers. The internet.

I'm also kind of keen on how we no longer have widespread child labor, or a 50% poverty rate among the elderly, or 70 hour work weeks.

"However, if you tax away all the rich people's 'excess profit', you also have to deal with certain consequences. Seeing as how rich poeple invest far more heavily in new businesses and new jobs, taxing away their excess capital reduces future job growth. Reducing future job growth then reduces workers ability to negotiate for higher wages as they will end up having more competition for the fewer jobs available."

That would be a swell point if it weren't another irrelevant straw man. At no point in my post did I say a word about "taxing away all the rich people's excess profit." See, I believe that your income should be taxed at a marginal rate that is greater than 0% and less then 100%. I do think that people who have more money are better able to afford taxes, but taxing away ALL the excess profit, golly, that would be a dumb thing to say, wouldn't it?

"Your talk about vouchers is a bit misleading as any libertarian I know wants government out of education completely. Any voucher system (in fact any government money) will come with strings attached which will compromise the private school and move it closer to a public school. So what would happen if we got rid of government schools.

Many progressives assume that poor people would get no education."

What an unreasonable assumption. I guess they only say that because poor people never *have* been educated effectively in a society with no publicly supported education. Still, why bother with trifling things like evidence?

"This stems from a belief that public education is 'free education'"

No it doesn't. It stems from a belief that public education is publicly supported, in such a way that people who can't afford it get educated. Homeowners pay for it, with people who live in more expensive homes paying more. By so doing, they get to buy the privilege of living among an educated populace who don't feel that their only avenue of profit is stealing stuff from the rich houses.

"Another effect the ending of compulsary education would have would be that some people would choose not to school their children. Before public schools were common in the U.S. some of the best selling books were reading primers and there was no illiteracy problem in our country. If I have a succesfull carpentry business and I choose to keep my son home and teach him my business and what I feel he needs to learn, why is that wrong?

You go on to claim that poor children would end up in the worst schools, yet right now only wealthy people can afford to send their children to private schools because they have to, in effect, pay for that schooling twice (once through thier property taxes), so the poor are already going to the worst schools. If, however, they went to a poor private school, that school would have incentive to improve (attracting more students) that public schools lack. In addition, many businesses would understand the need for a well educated work force and would set up scholarships and other financial help for the poor. Believe the poor would be excluded from private schools? Read this:
And this:"

Nope. I don't believe that the poor would be "excluded" from private schools. One of the things I have noticed throughout this post is that you are constantly engaging in thinking that everything is all or nothing. For instance, if there are a few dimly lit ratholes serving as "schools" for a fraction of the children in third world countries, that doesn't make it an impressive substitute for widely available education.

Interesting that you need to look in underdeveloped and impoverished countries to locate examples of the ideal libertarian educational situation. Why do you suppose that is?

"You say that the free market does not provide good meals for the poor and, in this, you are correct. While charitymay not be the perview of a free market, it is much more so that it is the perview of the government. Most charity does, and should, come from private individuals yet corporations do have a good track record of giving to charity. Is that good for the bottom line? Well, it turns out it is. Companies do not just put up a sign that says 'my busines' and automagically have customers, they have to attract those customers and many businesses realize that goodwill from the community can be better than paying a high priced Madison Avenue ad firm."

Again, this is an example of all or nothing thinking. You imagine that, because a few companies have the incentive to give to charity, suddenly the problem of meals for the poor -- poof! -- just vanishes. The question isn't whether some poor people get fed; the question is whether ENOUGH poor people get fed to massively reduce the number of people who starve in the streets. While I'm sure that lots of private charity makes up some of the shortfall, it's never managed to offset hunger the way a fully funded government program does.

Prove me wrong. Find me a society of comparable prosperity and size, which has no public welfare programs and manages to stave off starvation among the poor better than we do. Or should I take this assertion on faith?

"Yet when someone is in need. Truly in need of a meal and a bed to keep them alive, do they turn to the government? No. They go to the Family Kitchen for a meal and to the YMCA for a bed."

You are talking about a starving person looking for a last resort to keep them alive. Yet you dismiss the fact that "the government" is what keeps many people from reaching that point.

Moving on to post number two...

"Your analogy of a multicelled animal with humans as the cells really gives a good insight into the progressive mindset. Viewing humans as lumps of material to be molded by those better able to see the good of society into a functioning whole. You ignore the fact that those cells (humans) have intelligence, free will, thier own hopes and dreams and even thier own ideas on how to best organize society. Individual cells in a body don't wake up every morning worried about bills, about forgetting their anniversary; they don't wake up in the morning thinking about that girl they met at the party the night before or the bonus they are hoping to get this quarter. If you look at humans as aimless, lifeless masses to be organized by 'your plan' for society than your plan is going to fail."

This should win an award for "most strained attempt to take an analogy literally." Yes, PP. My dad made that analogy because he thinks that human beings are literally microscopic cells with no brains. He's just the stupidest scientist in the world.

Or perhaps the reason that the analogy between people and cells actually works is because people, like cells, function best in a larger context. Don't believe me? Then go ahead and abandon society, cut yourself off from human contact, and become a hermit. I'm sure you'll be a very wealthy hermit. Maybe when you've managed to truly free yourself from the shackles of governments and laws, you can serve as a shining example of someone who has truly made it on his own, with no help from anyone.

"I don't know about icelands history, but I do know of a society that was far closer to the ideals of libertarianism than any socety today. This society watched over some of the greatest achievements and discoveries by man, had a booming economy, practically inflation free money, no income taxes, true property rights and a judiciary who zelously defended those rights, and a level of freedom almost unprecedented in human history."

Nothing I read about Iceland since this subject was brought up have in any way indicated to me that the economy was "booming". On the contrary, the article by Jared Diamond that I referenced earlier had this to say:

"Medieval Iceland became Europe's most backward country, poorer even than Albania. In contrast to the rich burial goods found in Viking graves elsewhere, all of the gold and silver recovered from Viking graves in Iceland could be accommodated within a small bucket. Everyone lived on scattered farms: until the 1700s Iceland didn't even have any villages, towns, or full-time merchants. It had no roads, carts, or wheeled transport until the late 1800s; at that same recent date most Icelanders still lived in houses built of turf."

The other "perks" that you mentioned seem to be either things that we already have, such as "true property rights," or cases where you are simply begging the question, such as "no income taxes." Income taxes pay for a lot of the great stuff I mentioned we have in our society, which the Icelanders seem to have notably lacked.

"You probably already know I am refering to the first one hunder and fifty years of our Constitutional Republic, before the standard bearer for the progressive movement, FDR, decided the Constitution was too binding for his plans and bullied the Supreme Court into redefining it. Now we have far too much ignorance about what the Constitution says, even among our legislators who all swear an oath to defend it. As far as I can tell about progressive thought, the Constitution starts with Amendment I and ends with Amendment XXVII."

No, I agree that people should be familiar with the whole Constitution, such as the part where it says that the government is supposed to do things like "promote the general Welfare" and "establish Post Offices" and "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." (And yes, before you ask, I am fully aware that the definition of "welfare" is "health, happiness, or prosperity.")

"Finally, I find it funny that you spend some time disproving that Iceland was libertarian and then you turn around and say that Iceland is proof that libertatrianism is self-defeating. Which is it?"

I suppose I can concede here that you've caught me in a bit of a contradiction, which is probably understandable since, as I said, I'm not all that familiar with medieval Iceland.

So let me try to clarify. It's clear that medieval Iceland was not a pure libertarian society, but of course, there is no such thing. It does, however, make sense to talk about degrees of libertarianism, and I'll also grant that medieval Iceland was definitely CLOSER to the libertarian ideal than the United States has been in any century. Certainly there was no centralized government across a largish group of very small areas. There were laws within the tribal families, but the authority was clearly broken up into smaller groups.

So I'm going to rescind my statement that Iceland wasn't a libertarian society; it was "sort of" a libertarian society, before the scheme collapsed under the weight of the warring families. As for whether they were prosperous, I don't see any evidence of that. The fact that they simply survived for a while doesn't impress me very much.

Woodrow Wilson once said, "Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance."

Wilson was right. Liberty doesn't "come from" the government. As Thomas Jefferson said, people are endowed with inalienable rights. (Though, as I am an atheist, please excuse me if I disregard the"by their creator" part.)

But as Jefferson also went on to say, governments are instituted among men, to secure these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Jefferson had just lived through a period of unjust government, so I presume he knew what he was talking about. Once Jefferson and his compatriots was free of a tyrannical monarchy, did they say "All right lads, clearly government is inherently evil, so let's abolish government from this day forward and create an anarcho-capitalist utopia"? Nope, they proceeded to spend thirteen years crafting the details of a new government, which they felt would be the best vehicle for securing their rights. I guess that was a pretty good idea.


  1. Wow, I feel like such a blog-muse now. I will try to write you a good response, probably this weekend (it's been crazy at work with one of our engineers out and me covering for him). I think I will follow your lead and post the response on my blog, but I will at least post back here when it is up.


  2. I'll look forward to it. I'll be pretty busy with some grad school work, so don't be surprised if the response is less than rapid.

  3. If I might be allowed a little laugh:

    The American War of Independence was I understand brought about because you guys didn't like being ruled over by this chap George who only got the job because his father had it before him. I think we all admit he was a bit mad but, you know, is that something we should take into consideration when considering good governance.

    OK enough. :-) I hope you check old posts, I have added to you blog of March.


  4. All I can say is, if you're going to make fun of Americans for having elected Bush, then you will neither offend nor elicit argument from me.

    However, I will say that when a dumb electorate elects a dumb guy as president, it is not PRECISELY the same as an unelected monarchy. Even if the dumb guy's father was once elected president also.

  5. Societies which had something close to the libertarian free market have been tried before. They didn't work out too well- I address that here