I’m a pragmatist, and hence don’t ascribe to the sort of libertarianism advocated by the true believers—those who base their arguments on natural rights. I’d like a government that intervenes much less than any real world government, but much more than members so the Libertarian Party would want.
But when I read criticism of libertarianism by outsiders, it almost makes me want to embrace the most dogmatic forms of libertarianism. Consider a recent critique of libertarianism by Christopher Beam of New York magazine, which struck me as a series of knee jerk reactions to libertarian ideas that seem wacky at first glance, until one actually starts to think seriously about the issues:
There are all sorts of situations the private market isn’t good at managing, such as asymmetrical information (I know my doctor is qualified to treat me because he has a government license)
That’s good to know! I had almost been brainwashed by some big government advocates into supporting medical malpractice suits. They kept telling me there are “thousands” of incompetent doctors out there.
I currently have an excellent doctor, but in the past that wasn’t always the case. How do I know? Let’s just say that I didn’t evaluate their effectiveness on the basis of whether they are government certified. Indeed, how many of us have even checked out our doctor’s certification? (And yes, there are doctors who practice illegally, w/o certification.)
Of course not everyone will agree with me. But that’s the beauty of libertarianism–if you really are stupid enough to believe that one can judge a doctor’s quality on the basis of certification, you are free to rely solely on doctors who have degrees from respected medical schools.
Beam also ignores the costs of certification—all the residents of poor neighborhoods who are deprived of medical services because the medical cartel has priced health care services at exorbitant levels. Many ordinary procedures could be performed by people with nurse-level training, for instance.
Here is another critique of libertarianism:
[Penn] Jillette might choose his words differently today. Everyone knows going through airport security sucks, even without “porno- scanners.” But few dispute the need for some line of defense. More-efficient, less-intrusive security would be great. But none at all? Jillette’s tract is a good example of how libertarianism ventures down some fascinating paths but usually ends up deep in the wilderness.
Put aside the empirical question of whether airport security does more good than harm, which Beam doesn’t even consider. The more serious problem is that Beam confuses libertarianism as a political philosophy with the personal preferences of individual libertarians.
I don’t know the optimal amount of airport security. My hunch is that it is much less than we have now, but more that Jillette would prefer. But all that’s irrelevant; the question is whether the market would provide the optimal amount of air security. I’d guess the answer is no. People are irrationally afraid of flying. The data on the safety of flying are literally beyond human comprehension, like the time it would take to ride a bicycle to Pluto—even with terrorism. But that means the market failure is probably too much security. Adding the TSA just makes a small market failure into an even bigger government failure.
I’ll stop there, although the rest of the article is almost as bad. It consists of the sort of counterarguments you’d get from someone who had heard about libertarianism in a bar, but had never actually bother to evaluate arguments showing the myriad ways in which seemingly well-intentioned regulations can actually do more harm than good.
More disappointing was the praise Beam received from normally level-headed Matt Yglesias:
I liked Chris Beam’s NY Mag article on libertarians, but I want to quibble with this:
“Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition.”
People, especially people who are libertarians, say this all the time. But we should consider the possibility that the market in political ideas works is that there’s a reason you typically find conservative and progressive political coalitions aligned in this particular way. And if you look at American history, you see that in 1964 when we had a libertarian presidential candidate the main constituency for his views turned out to be white supremacists in the deep south.
So Yglesias thinks the main problem was that Beam didn’t also tar libertarians with the brush of racism? Why pick Barry Goldwater? Wasn’t Calvin Coolidge even more libertarian? He presided over a government that spent 4% of GDP. Yet the deep south states were just about the only states that Coolidge lost in 1924. And does Yglesias really believe that libertarianism would appeal to the sorts of people who favor Jim Crow laws? Wouldn’t it make more sense to see where the votes came from for presidential candidates who actually were libertarian, rather than someone who was a hodgepodge of libertarian, conservative, and militarist views? The best performance by a libertarian candidate occurred in 1980, when Ed Clark received nearly a million votes. His strongest support came from socially liberal states like Alaska and California; he did relatively poorly in the south.
Of course any movement collects it share of undesirables. One can find self-professed “socialists” spanning the spectrum of Nordic-style social democrats all the way to hard core totalitarian communists. So in that sense Yglesias is correct, it is easy to find examples of unsavory libertarian individuals and unsavory libertarian arguments. But surely he goes too far when he claims:
And this is generally how politics goes in most countries. You have a dominant socio-cultural group allied with the bulk of the business community, and you have a more diffuse “left” coalition of reformers associated with labor unions and minority groups. There’s nothing “inconsistent” about organizing politics this way.
There are two problems here. First, there are many places, such as Eastern Europe and Russia, where politics split along libertarian/statist lines. “Liberals” are socially liberal and free-market-oriented. Conservatives are strongly religious, xenophobic, and anti-market And even where the right is “pro-business” it often doesn’t favor free markets. Italy is the classic case of a country that lacks a pro-market right, but to a lesser extent this is also true in Japan, France and Germany (excepting the Free Democrats in Germany.) In Latin American the right has traditionally been very hostile to the free market, with the notable exception of Chile after 1975. China also splits along statist/classical liberal lines. In much of the world Yglesias would be voting for the more free market party.
Yglesias is partly right about the US, but less than he might think. There have been only a few truly free market reforms in the US since 1975 (price and market entry deregulation, NAFTA, deep cuts in MTRs during the 1980s, welfare reform, immigration reform, banking deregulation, etc.) All received extensive support from Democrats, often from liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy. So there is actually very little evidence that the statism/free market divide is what separate American liberals and conservatives. And on both social issues and foreign policy the libertarians are much closer to the Dems.
Yglesias frequently points out (correctly) that American conservatives don’t really act like they believe in small government. So he’s previously bashed conservatives for not really being libertarian, and now he’s bashing libertarians for being too close to Southern conservatives. Yes, Obama has pushed the libertarian movement further to the right, but they certainly didn’t feel they had a home in the big-government conservatism of George Bush.
Here’s how one might defend Yglesias’s argument. A healthy libertarian movement is a sign of good governance in a country with lots of social conservatives. Where you have bad governance (say lots of really stupid economic policies, and also laws that discriminate against various groups), the honorable opposition is called “liberal.” When you have already achieved a free market economy and also eliminated most laws that discriminate against minorities, women, and gays, the remaining fight will be in a few areas; income redistribution, environmental protection, and affirmative government intervention to help minorities. In that policy environment the dogmatic conservatives will often line up with cultural conservatives who resent the “undeserving poor” getting handouts, and who have somewhat traditional or tribal views on cultural issues. With enough infiltration from the right, you’ll even get some so-called “libertarians” rejecting libertarian policies like open borders.
The dogmatic and pragmatic libertarians should really be treated separately, as any generalizations directed at one group will be wholly inappropriate for the other. It’s easy to make fun of the views of Ron and Rand Paul. But I don’t recall Milton Friedman losing many debates over libertarianism. Indeed I don’t recall him losing any. If Christopher Beam tried to address the arguments of people like Friedman, Hayek, Brink Lindsey, or Will Wilkinson, he might have produced an article worth reading.
HT: Tyler Cowen