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Friday, January 18, 2008

Those Too-Consistent Libertarians


The writer Michael Kinsley is very intelligent. He is also very glib, and his glibness often gets in the way of his intelligence. The expression too clever by half could have been coined for him. You can see this when he writes about the libertarian philosophy, as he did recently for the Washington Post website.

After paying some compliments (The libertarian perspective is useful, and undervalued.) he attempts to show that ultimately the consistent application of libertarian principles is foolish and anti-egalitarian. For example, he faults libertarians for seeing pollution as a property violation rather than as a regulatory matter: 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. 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.

You don't have to believe the tort approach to pollution is perfect to conclude that central planning is not a better alternative. Here Kinsley gives a pass to the political process, which in the real world is characterized by the iron triangle of corporate and other special interests, inexpert politicians with an eye on the next election, and self-justifying regulatory bureaucracies. This is the unsavory realm he tries to disinfect with the word democracy. Kinsley commits the fallacy that market critics always commit: they compare an unflattering caricature of civil society with a flattering caricature of the state. That is, they rig the game. Harold Demsetz dubbed this illegitimate argument the Nirvana Fallacy, which is discussed here.

In fact, if the nineteenth-century's Progressive courts had not decided to sacrifice property-owner/pollution-victims to industrial progress, the precedents against polluters would have been set long ago and the invalidity of Kinsley's case would be obvious. (For details see Fred L. Smith's Freeman article, The Progressive Era's Derailment of Classical-Liberal Evolution.)

Controlled Substances

Here's another example of Kinsley at work:

Libertarians are quick to see hidden costs of ignoring libertarian principles and slow to see such costs in adhering to them. For example, Tucker Carlson reports in the Dec. 31 New Republic that Ron Paul wants to end the federal ban on unpasteurized milk. No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does. Paul himself doesn't. But it bothers him that the government tells people they cannot do something they shouldn't do. Libertarians would say that if most people want pasteurized milk, the market will supply it. Firms will emerge to certify that milk has been pasteurized. These firms will compete, keeping them honest.

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.

Surely Kinsley knows more than he lets on. The case against a federal ban on unpasteurized milk is grounded in more than the right of a few idiots to be idiots. There is the legitimate concern that centralized power tends to be more of a threat to freedom than decentralized power. This is true if for no other reason than that the smaller the jurisdiction is, the cheaper it is to vote with one's feet. So even if there were good grounds for a ban, why a ban imposed from Washington?

This leads to the next concern, namely, that if the government has the power to protect you from unpasteurized milk, one can reasonably expect that such power will not be confined to that purpose for long. Kinsley is aware that a variety of recreational drugs are banned — he mentions that fact early in the column. The tendency for government power to grow after it begins modestly and perhaps uncontroversially is a good reason to keep even state and local governments from banning products, including those that perhaps no one wants to use. Vices are not crimes, Lysander Spooner wisely wrote.

Kinsley's talent for glibness can be seen in his Rube Goldberg remark. Ideological adventure? What is he talking about? Is it really so difficult to envision grocery stores clearly identifying unpasteurized milk should they decide to sell it? Do they have trouble labeling other products? Kinsley sounds more interested in scoring debate points than in seriously exploring a political philosophy.

It doesn't take much historical or contemporary knowledge to understand that the state is a constant threat to liberty. That's the point of the eternal vigilance idea that is so often quoted and just as often misunderstood. The best way to keep government on a short leash is for people to have a clear understanding of the boundaries that must be honored if each person is to be free and equal.

Equality

And speaking of equality…

A similar flaw affects libertarian thinking about government-mandated redistribution. Extreme libertarians believe this is immoral or even unconstitutional, and even more moderate libertarians disapprove of government social welfare programs as an infringement on the freedom of taxpayers. But freedom is only one of the two core values our nation was built on. The other is equality. Defining equality, libertarians tend to take a narrow view, believing that it means only political equality with no financial aspects. Defining freedom, by contrast, they take a broad view, and see a violation in every nickel a citizen must spend.

Libertarians ask: By what justification does the government concern itself with inequality — financial or otherwise — in the first place? They are nearly alone in asking this question. Even conservatives claim a great concern for equality of opportunity, while opposing opportunity [sic] of result. And the reasons seem obvious: some degree of material equality as a necessary basis for political equality; the huge role of luck in getting each of us to our relative stations in life; etc.

Note the too-clever move: Freedom is not the only value. Equality too is a value. Equality means material equality — or equality of opportunity, never mind the difference between these — as well as political equality. In fact, political equality requires material equality. Anyone who opposes government-engineered material equality must also oppose all other kinds of equality.

Kinsley overlooks a few things. If the state can confiscate honestly earned wealth from peaceful individuals in order to give it to others, the state's officers and the current voting majority must stand in a relation of superiority to the rest of us. It doesn't matter that you and I have a shot at being in the majority or that some of those officers are chosen democratically, because there is no way to opt out. This violates John Locke's principle of equality, from whom we inherited that core value. Thomas Jefferson had Locke in mind when wrote All men are created equal. in the Declaration of Independence. Locke said the state . . . of equality [is one] wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection.

As Roderick Long elaborated in The Freeman, In short, by the equality of men Locke and Jefferson meant not that all men are or ought to be equal in material advantages, but that all men (today it would be all persons, regardless of gender) are equal in authority. To subject an unconsenting person to one's own will is to treat that person as one's subordinate — illegitimately so, if we are all naturally equal. Hence any interference with another person’s liberty violates the Lockean conception of equality.

Kinsley, then, is the opponent of equality.

Finally, as long as we're talking about material equality, it is worth pointing out something else Kinsley overlooks, namely, that even partial economic freedom in the West has created essential material equality. Don Boudreaux put it well:

Imagine resurrecting an ancestor from the year 1700 and showing him a typical day in the life of Bill Gates. The opulence would obviously astonish your ancestor, but a good guess is that the features of Gates's life that would make the deepest impression are that he and his family never worry about starving to death; that they bathe daily; that they have several changes of clean clothes; that they have clean and healthy teeth; that diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, and pertussis present no substantial risks; that Melinda Gates's chances of dying during childbirth are about one-sixtieth what they would have been in 1700; that each child born to the Gateses is about 40 times more likely than a pre-industrial child to survive infancy; that the Gateses have a household refrigerator and freezer (not to mention microwave oven, dishwasher, and radios and televisions); that the Gateses's work week is only five days and that the family takes several weeks of vacation each year; that each of the Gates children will receive more than a decade of formal schooling; that the Gateses routinely travel through the air to distant lands in a matter of hours; that they effortlessly converse with people miles or oceans away; that they frequently enjoy the world's greatest actors' and actresses' stunning performances; that the Gateses can, whenever and wherever they please, listen to a Beethoven piano sonata, a Puccini opera, or a Frank Sinatra ballad.

In short, what would likely most impress a visitor from the past about Bill Gates's life are precisely those modern advantages that are not unique to Bill Gates-advantages now enjoyed by nearly all Americans.

If Kinsley is so concerned about inequality, why isn't he exposing the countless corporate-state privileges that the well-connected enjoy at the expense of the rest of us?

Controlled Substances

Here's another example of Kinsley at work:

Libertarians are quick to see hidden costs of ignoring libertarian principles and slow to see such costs in adhering to them. For example, Tucker Carlson reports in the Dec. 31 New Republic that Ron Paul wants to end the federal ban on unpasteurized milk. No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does. Paul himself doesn't. But it bothers him that the government tells people they cannot do something they shouldn't do. Libertarians would say that if most people want pasteurized milk, the market will supply it. Firms will emerge to certify that milk has been pasteurized. These firms will compete, keeping them honest.

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.

Surely Kinsley knows more than he lets on. The case against a federal ban on unpasteurized milk is grounded in more than the right of a few idiots to be idiots. There is the legitimate concern that centralized power tends to be more of a threat to freedom than decentralized power. This is true if for no other reason than that the smaller the jurisdiction is, the cheaper it is to vote with one's feet. So even if there were good grounds for a ban, why a ban imposed from Washington?

This leads to the next concern, namely, that if the government has the power to protect you from unpasteurized milk, one can reasonably expect that such power will not be confined to that purpose for long. Kinsley is aware that a variety of recreational drugs are banned — he mentions that fact early in the column. The tendency for government power to grow after it begins modestly and perhaps uncontroversially is a good reason to keep even state and local governments from banning products, including those that perhaps no one wants to use. Vices are not crimes, Lysander Spooner wisely wrote.

Kinsley's talent for glibness can be seen in his Rube Goldberg remark. Ideological adventure? What is he talking about? Is it really so difficult to envision grocery stores clearly identifying unpasteurized milk should they decide to sell it? Do they have trouble labeling other products? Kinsley sounds more interested in scoring debate points than in seriously exploring a political philosophy.

It doesn't take much historical or contemporary knowledge to understand that the state is a constant threat to liberty. That's the point of the eternal vigilance idea that is so often quoted and just as often misunderstood. The best way to keep government on a short leash is for people to have a clear understanding of the boundaries that must be honored if each person is to be free and equal.

Equality

And speaking of equality…

A similar flaw affects libertarian thinking about government-mandated redistribution. Extreme libertarians believe this is immoral or even unconstitutional, and even more moderate libertarians disapprove of government social welfare programs as an infringement on the freedom of taxpayers. But freedom is only one of the two core values our nation was built on. The other is equality. Defining equality, libertarians tend to take a narrow view, believing that it means only political equality with no financial aspects. Defining freedom, by contrast, they take a broad view, and see a violation in every nickel a citizen must spend.

Libertarians ask: By what justification does the government concern itself with inequality — financial or otherwise — in the first place? They are nearly alone in asking this question. Even conservatives claim a great concern for equality of opportunity, while opposing opportunity [sic] of result. And the reasons seem obvious: some degree of material equality as a necessary basis for political equality; the huge role of luck in getting each of us to our relative stations in life; etc.

Note the too-clever move: Freedom is not the only value. Equality too is a value. Equality means material equality — or equality of opportunity, never mind the difference between these — as well as political equality. In fact, political equality requires material equality. Anyone who opposes government-engineered material equality must also oppose all other kinds of equality.

Kinsley overlooks a few things. If the state can confiscate honestly earned wealth from peaceful individuals in order to give it to others, the state's officers and the current voting majority must stand in a relation of superiority to the rest of us. It doesn't matter that you and I have a shot at being in the majority or that some of those officers are chosen democratically, because there is no way to opt out. This violates John Locke's principle of equality, from whom we inherited that core value. Thomas Jefferson had Locke in mind when wrote All men are created equal. in the Declaration of Independence. Locke said the state . . . of equality [is one] wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection.

As Roderick Long elaborated in The Freeman, In short, by the equality of men Locke and Jefferson meant not that all men are or ought to be equal in material advantages, but that all men (today it would be all persons, regardless of gender) are equal in authority. To subject an unconsenting person to one's own will is to treat that person as one's subordinate — illegitimately so, if we are all naturally equal. Hence any interference with another person’s liberty violates the Lockean conception of equality.

Kinsley, then, is the opponent of equality.

Finally, as long as we're talking about material equality, it is worth pointing out something else Kinsley overlooks, namely, that even partial economic freedom in the West has created essential material equality. Don Boudreaux put it well:

Imagine resurrecting an ancestor from the year 1700 and showing him a typical day in the life of Bill Gates. The opulence would obviously astonish your ancestor, but a good guess is that the features of Gates's life that would make the deepest impression are that he and his family never worry about starving to death; that they bathe daily; that they have several changes of clean clothes; that they have clean and healthy teeth; that diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, and pertussis present no substantial risks; that Melinda Gates's chances of dying during childbirth are about one-sixtieth what they would have been in 1700; that each child born to the Gateses is about 40 times more likely than a pre-industrial child to survive infancy; that the Gateses have a household refrigerator and freezer (not to mention microwave oven, dishwasher, and radios and televisions); that the Gateses's work week is only five days and that the family takes several weeks of vacation each year; that each of the Gates children will receive more than a decade of formal schooling; that the Gateses routinely travel through the air to distant lands in a matter of hours; that they effortlessly converse with people miles or oceans away; that they frequently enjoy the world's greatest actors' and actresses' stunning performances; that the Gateses can, whenever and wherever they please, listen to a Beethoven piano sonata, a Puccini opera, or a Frank Sinatra ballad.

In short, what would likely most impress a visitor from the past about Bill Gates's life are precisely those modern advantages that are not unique to Bill Gates-advantages now enjoyed by nearly all Americans.

If Kinsley is so concerned about inequality, why isn't he exposing the countless corporate-state privileges that the well-connected enjoy at the expense of the rest of us?


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.