Bad arguments against libertarianism

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

So you say you want Nordic-style socialism?

Be careful what you wish for.  Tim Worstall sent me this interesting post about the Nordic countries:

The UK’s centre left just doesn’t seem capable of understanding what it is that makes what they claim to want work: imagine the horror there would be if I suggested that Group 4S took over the majority of fire and ambulance services in the UK? Yet that is what Denmark does (really: it’s actually Group 4S that runs them). We can hear the screams already as Gove tries to bring the Swedish school system with its funding following the pupil, essentially a market, to the UK. Can you imagine the piteous wails if someone suggested importing the Finnish schools system (often ranked as the world number 1)? With its division at 15 into academic sheep and vocational goats?

Compare and contrast the the Swedish health care system with the NHS: taxes are raised in county and spent in county (on average, 400,000 people, it’s as if a PCT raised and spent its own money), there are copayments to see the doctor…no, we couldn’t imagine the British centre left allowing such a system to exist, could we? Nor the localism of Denmark: the national income tax rate is 3.76%: the top national one 15%. The vast bulk of the money is raised by the communes which can be as small as 10,000 people. You and I would think that money so raised will be better spent when any and every taxpayer knows exactly who is spending it and where they have a snifter on a Friday night.

This reminded me of a post I did a while back, which discussed an interesting article in the New Yorker on health care in McAllen, Texas:

In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.

. . .

I was impressed. The place had virtually all the technology that you’d find at Harvard and Stanford and the Mayo Clinic, and, as I walked through that hospital on a dusty road in South Texas, this struck me as a remarkable thing. Rich towns get the new school buildings, fire trucks, and roads, not to mention the better teachers and police officers and civil engineers. Poor towns don’t. But that rule doesn’t hold for health care.

I had this to say about the New Yorker quotation:

Suppose McAllen was an independent country with universal health care.  How much would it cost the government to insure the entire population?  If independent, McAllen would be poor relative to the US, but it certainly wouldn’t be poor in any absolute sense.  My guess is that it would come in somewhere around Portugal or Slovenia.  And I would also guess that it would spend less insuring the entire population than we now spend insuring the relatively small share of the population covered by Medicare.

Many on the left say we should adopt the European health care system.  A good place to start would be federalism.  The EU is roughly the size of the US, but has 27 members, each with their own health care system.  If we are to copy Europe, the first thing to do is to delegate health care to the 50 states.  No more Medicare and Medicaid.  Any public health care should be fully funded at the state level, just as in Europe.  My guess is that the good citizens of Houston and Dallas are not going to be enthusiastic about spending $15,000 per enrollee in McAllen, when the prestigious Mayo Clinic spends $6688 per enrollee.  If those on the left aren’t enthused about this idea, then let’s not hear any more talk about copying Europe’s health care system.  (After completing this post I noticed that Robin Hanson had an even better idea.)

Liberals often tell me that Swedish vouchers wouldn’t work here, our population isn’t as homogeneous and civic-minded.  I’d think that’s a much better argument against the more socialist aspects of the Nordic system, like generous unemployment benefits.  Reading this stuff I can’t help but think back to posts by people like Paul Krugman, praising our Medicare system for its low administrative costs.  He’s right; they spend very little preventing the health care industry in places like Texas and Florida from systematically looting the taxpayers.  By all means, let’s let each county run and pay for its own health care system.  If not, then stop talking about how the Swedes are superior to us.

A few weeks back I complained that Obama was trying to force me to divorce my wife.  According to The Economist, the Swedish government doesn’t do that:

In Sweden 88% of women aged between 25 and 54 take part in the labour market. It helps that the country’s extensive day-care facilities for children are largely reserved for workers, and that couples file their tax returns separately so that households do not get hit by higher marginal tax rates on their second incomes.

A larger share of Sweden’s older people, too, remain in the labour force than anywhere else on the continent, not least because they accrue higher retirement benefits for each year they work after the age of 61. If other Europeans aged between 55 and 64 were as industrious as older Swedes, the continent could reduce the gap in hours with America by almost a quarter, according to the MGI.

The rest of Europe could also learn from Denmark’s efforts to beat unemployment and from the Netherlands’ success in getting youngsters into work. To echo an old joke, heaven is where women and older people work like the Swedes, the young work like the Dutch and the unemployed find jobs like the Danes. Hell is where workers get into unemployment like the Americans and out of it like the Italians.

And we are falling behind them in neoliberal reforms.  Again, from The Economist:

Sweden offers a more encouraging lesson. In the aftermath of its banking bust in the early 1990s it not only cleaned up its banks quickly but also embarked on a radical programme of microeconomic deregulation. The government reformed its tax and pension systems and freed up whole swaths of the economy, from aviation, telecommunications and electricity to banking and retailing. Thanks to these reforms, Swedish productivity growth, which had averaged 1.2% a year from 1980 to 1990, accelerated to a remarkable 2.2% a year from 1991 to 1998 and 2.5% from 1999 to 2005, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Sweden’s retailers put in a particularly impressive performance. In 1990, McKinsey found, they were 5% less productive than America’s, mainly because a thicket of regulations ensured that stores were much smaller and competition less intense. Local laws restricted access to land for large stores, existing retailers colluded on prices and incumbent chains pressed suppliers to boycott cheaper competitors. But in 1992 the laws were changed to weaken municipal land-use restrictions, and Swedish entry into the EU and the creation of a new competition authority raised competitive pressures. Large stores and vertically integrated chains rapidly gained market share. By 2005 Sweden’s retail productivity was 14% higher than America’s.

The restructuring of retail banking services was another success story. Consolidation driven by the financial crisis and by EU entry increased competition. New niche players introduced innovative products like telephone and internet banking that later spread to larger banks. Many branches were closed, and by 2006 Sweden had one of the lowest branch densities in Europe. Between 1995 and 2002 banking productivity grew by 4.6% a year, much faster than in other European countries. Swedish banks’ productivity went from slightly behind to slightly ahead of American levels.

.   .   .

Even in America there would be benefits. But, alas, the regulatory pendulum is moving in the opposite direction as the Obama administration pushes through new rules on industries from health care to finance. So far the damage may be limited. Many of Mr Obama’s regulatory changes, from tougher fuel-efficiency requirements to curbs on deep-water drilling, were meant to benefit consumers and the environment, not to curb competition and protect incumbents. Some of the White House’s ideas, such as the overhaul of broadband internet access, would in fact increase competition. The biggest risk lies in finance, where America’s new rules could easily hold back innovation.

I didn’t always agree with President Clinton, but at least he did deregulation, welfare reform, NAFTA and cut the capital gains tax.  I can’t recall a single thing that Obama has done that a classical liberal would approve of.  Even where his private views may be libertarian (free trade with Cuba, gays in the military, ending the abuses of the national security state, medical marijuana, a smaller military, etc) he seems to lack the courage of his convictions.  No wonder he generates so little enthusiasm.

Tea Partiers complain that Obama wants to make us like Sweden.  If only that were true.  I fear we are headed toward Brazilian-style “big government.”  Lots of spending and lots of poverty.

Congratulations to Liu Xiaobo

I am a big fan of Liu Xiaobo and the Charter 08.  It’s mostly about political liberalization, but here are a few points that relate to economic policy:

8.   Rural-Urban Equality. The two-tier household registry system must be abolished. This system favors urban residents and harms rural residents. We should establish instead a system that gives every citizen the same constitutional rights and the same freedom to choose where to live.

14.  Protection of Private Property. We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market.

15.  Financial and Tax Reform. We should establish a democratically regulated and accountable system of public finance that ensures the protection of taxpayer rights and that operates through legal procedures. We need a system by which public revenues that belong to a certain level of government””central, provincial, county or local””are controlled at that level. We need major tax reform that will abolish any unfair taxes, simplify the tax system, and spread the tax burden fairly. Government officials should not be able to raise taxes, or institute new ones, without public deliberation and the approval of a democratic assembly. We should reform the ownership system in order to encourage competition among a wider variety of market participants.

16.  Social Security.  We should establish a fair and adequate social security system that covers all citizens and ensures basic access to education, health care, retirement security, and employment.

Update:  A few comments.  This post is not an endorsement of the “Peace” Prize, which obviously has little to do with promoting world peace.  Rather, this award provides publicity for the Charter 08, which I see as classical liberalism at its best.  The charter basically reflects the pragmatic neoliberal ideology of publications such as The Economist magazine.  It’s good publicity, even if for the wrong reason.