Friday, November 26, 2010

In Defense of Libertarianism

I recently ran across this rant against Libertarianism. The author warns us ahead of time that there is no use arguing with him about Libertarianism. He says:

The values of libertarianism can not be rationally grounded. It is a system of belief, a 'worldview'. If you are a libertarian, then there is no point in reading any further. There is no attempt here to convert you: your belief is simply rejected. The rejection is comprehensive, meaning that all the starting points of libertarian argument (premises) are also rejected. There is no shared ground from which to conduct an argument.
I agree with him that there is no shared ground but he is wrong about the rational grounding. Many, possibly most, of his arguments are emotional rather than rational. He mistakes his own passion for reason.

This is not meant to be an attempt at a debate. I'm just doing this for fun. The author, (The article is unsigned but the URL contains the name Paul Treanor. Since I do not kow if he wrote or simply posted this article, I will simply refer to "the author") is not interested in debating nor is he willing to commit himself to an economic system that he thinks is better. We have to infer that from his complaints about Libertarianism. Accordingly, I will point out some of his more laughable mistakes and try to tease out what system he thinks is superior.

The author does not define Libertarianism. Instead he lists a series of principles which he says are affirmed by most Libertarians. This gives him the opportunity to phrase Libertarian principles on his terms. Most of them are correct even if the context he gives them makes them seem undesirable. I do take issue with one of them.

world of emergence
Libertarians attach great value to the outcome of process: it defines the ideal libertarian world. The liberal tradition generally is hostile to utopias, seeing them as attempts to enforce an ideology. Liberals share this aversion with some postmodernists, who see a direct line from European utopian thought to Auschwitz. However, libertarians are an exception to this pattern of hostility. They often have a utopian political style, not hesitating to describe their 'ideal society' (at least, a version set in the USA). This society is usually seen as the result of libertarian process, not the process itself. For example, the libertarian utopia is not simply 'less government', it is what emerges after 25 years of less government. It is not relevant to say that libertarians have 'got their predictions wrong', and that something else would happen. The point is, that libertarianism does have an ideal world, which it intends to substitute for other possible worlds. Inherently, it must then defend this world's existence. And if the absolute free-market had totally unexpected effects (such as a Bolshevik world government), then most libertarians would interfere with its workings, to reinstate their intended ideal world. In other words the libertarian utopia is not a prediction of the effects of libertarian politics, it is a stand-alone utopian vision. It is defined as emergent (or in similar terms), and perhaps it is emergent, but the relevant fact is that libertarianism generally operates under the equivalence "the emergent = the good". By being 'emergent' it is for libertarians a world more perfect, than any ideal city of the European Renaissance. And therefore, it "must" come to existence, and it "must" exclude other existence. Libertarianism can not be understood without understanding this preference, and its emotional depth.
Since when do liberals reject utopias? Liberals and Progressives are all about trying to create a utopia. That is where the Progressives get their name - because they are making "progress" to a better world. This is a coercive progress. In contrast, Libertarians see governmental attempts at changing the world to be a cause of most world problems so their idea of a utopia involves minimal government. The part about free-market leading to a Bolshevik world government is a red herring since such governments have always formed in response to abusive governments (i.e. Czarist Russia).

I also disagree with his take on Libertarians and Collectivism. He has this totally backwards. In a free market, individuals make distinct decisions. Collectively, these choices influence the markets. In a collective state, a few people at the top make all of the decisions in the name of the people. The two have the same relationship as a democracy and a dictatorship yet the author sees them as equivalent.

His final point, expansionism, has a strange passage:
Libertarians believe that to impose freedom is not an imposition. For them, anything which can legitimately be described as 'freedom', may legitimately be imposed. The Libertarian FAQ, for instance, says "America's free press is envied by freedom-starved people everywhere": implicitly, to allow any other press would be a denial of freedom. In this logic, imposition of a political ideology is a generous response to the suffering of others, who are 'starved' of it.
I'm not sure that you can "impose freedom." The author seems to be arguing that a government-controlled press is a good thing or, at least, a valid choice. This is echoed later when he gives his views of the role of government.

After sort-of defining Libertarianism, the author goes on to describe "the claims and self-image of Libertarianism". This is where the author's own values start to come out.

Under non-coercion:
Some US employers require their employees to smile at all customers, or lose their job. I call that coercion: libertarians call it freedom of contract. There is no point in further discussion of these issues: they are examples of irreconcilable value conflicts.
This is one of several "gotcha" moments where the author mixes terms and meanings in an effort to find value paradoxes. Not all employers require their employees to smile. Unless a worker is coerced into taking a job, the work rules cannot be considered a coercion.

After complaining that Libertarianism is coercive, he then turns around in the next point and says this:
Libertarians claim to value the moral autonomy of the individual. However, in the free market which they advocate, there is no connection between individual action and social outcome. A one-person boycott of meat will not stop the slaughter of animals. In reality, the individual is powerless in the face of the market - and without some decision-making power there is no real moral autonomy.
So, under moral autonomy, he complains that Libertarianism is not coercive. He is correct that Libertarianism will not force people to be vegetarians but it will not force them to be carnivores, either.

Under "political freedom" he equates Libertarianists and Anarchists. Libertarians want a limited government within prescribed limits. These include national defense, enforcement of laws, and a court system to enforce contract law. The exact extent of the ideal legal system is a matter in debate but all Libertarians include violent crime.

The Libertarian Party of the United States, for instance, seeks to impose a libertarian system on the United States. It is an imposition, and can not be anything else. Unless they are prepared to accept the division of the country, they will have to deal with millions of anti-libertarians, who reject the regime entirely. They might call the riot police the Liberty Police, they might call the prisons Liberty Camps, but it's still not 'political freedom'.
In all seriousness, when was the last time people rioted because they wanted more intrusive government? The closest thing that I can think of are the demonstrations against government cutbacks and the anti-free trade street theater that accompanies G-20 meetings. Some of these have turned violent but nothing like the author suggests.

I'm going to backtrack a bit. Under "Instrumental Claims", the author refers to "bad trucks" as described in an earlier section.
As Friedman says, "The capitalist truck was built under a system of institutions in which people who build bad trucks are likely to lose money". So in the end, no more 'bad trucks' will be built, and Friedman sees nothing wrong with that. For him, and many other libertarians, it is self-evident that certain things are 'bad': they deserve no existence, and society should be designed to punish them out of existence.
This is nothing radical. It is market economics. Any free market system will produce these results. "Bad" means a product that cannot be sold for a profit in sufficient quantities. That this can happen causes great anguish to the author. During the mid-2000s, Chrysler brought out a number of expensive, 4WD vehicles that were poorly made (according to Consumer Reports) and had poor mileage. No one bought them and they were all dropped. These would qualify as "bad" cars. Should the government have insisted that Chrysler keep making them when they were bailed out? Of course not but the author classifies this as a soviet-style shop.

The subject of coercion vexes him, also. He sees everything as coercion:
May fish legitimately be coerced into nets? Is it coercion to demolish a building?
He quotes the Libertarian Party as saying:
We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.
From this quote, it is fair to assume that the Libertarian definition of coercion involves force. The author rejects this. To him, any interference constitutes coercion, especially markets. He also sees markets as potentially evil. He gives this example:
A simple example: two islands exchange crops, to reach a minimum healthy diet. Soil conditions mean that a full range of crops can not be grown: without the exchange the inhabitants of both islands will die. Then an external trader arrives, and sells the necessary crops to one of the islands. The trader sells honestly at fair prices: both parties (trader and one island) are satisfied with the deal. Nevertheless, the inter-island exchange ends. On the other island, the population dies of malnutrition. Obviously, they never contracted to this, yet some libertarians would claim that they are in some sense more free.
This is a simplistic and contrived example. The market-based reality would be very different. Let's define the islands as A and B and the trader as C. A and B have been producing equivalent crops and each needs both crops. Then Trader C appears with a surplus of the crop from Island A. He is willing to sell it for a lower price than A. Island B gets a price break but that leaves Island A with both a surplus of their own crop and a market for Island B's crop. This is great news for Island B and terrible for A.

So, do the people on Island A quietly starve to death? Of course not. They would cut their price to undercut Trader C. They would still be left with a surplus crop and high prices for B's crop but they might be able to sell those through Trader C and establish a new equilibrium. If there were no new markets then things would get depressing. Probably a number of islanders would leave A and either go to Island B or where ever Trader C got his supplies. That would reduce the supply of Island A's crop and the demand for Island B's crop. Prices would stabilize. It might not be pleasant but it would not the the disaster the author envisions. One wonders how the author thinks that things should happen? Would Island D step in and force an embargo on Trader C (causing a black market)? No economic system is going to look good in this contrived case.

This is turning into a long post so I will break here and add a second post on the rest of this rant.

More on the subject here.

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