George Ought to Help

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Oct 30

Libertarianism: Replies to Jon Stewart

My responses to the questions that Jon Stewart asks judge Napolitano here.

1 Is government the antithesis of liberty?

I prefer not to talk about liberty if possible since it means lots of different things to different people. But to the extent that liberty means freedom from coercion, yes the state is inherently hostile to liberty.

2 One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.

The implication is that governments provide roads and a social safety net, which we otherwise wouldn’t have, therefore government enhances freedom. The possibility (and historical fact) that these things can be provided on a voluntary basis, without government intervention, is being ignored.

3 What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?

We, collectively, shouldn’t do anything. Many individuals feel a strong sense of responsibility to help the unfortunate through charity—they expressed this impulse under statism by voting for social welfare programs—and they’ll be free to continue doing so.

Notice too, that because of the massive increase in productivity that a freed market brings, there will be fewer ‘losers’ altogether, in absolute terms.

4 Do we live in a society or don’t we? Are we a collective? Everybody’s success is predicated on the hard work of all of us; nobody gets there on their own. Why should it be that the people who lose are hung out to dry? For a group that doesn’t believe in evolution, it’s awfully Darwinian.

We form a society, but we are not a collective (in the sense of being united by a common goal).

Libertarians don’t suggest that those who experience hardship deserve to be ‘hung out to dry’. The opposition to the welfare state doesn’t stem from a belief that it’s good for society if its ‘losers’ die in a ditch. Instead it reflects a conviction that it’s not okay to threaten force against peaceful people—that’s how the welfare state is funded.

Happily, the coercive welfare state isn’t the only way of providing a safety net. A return to the successful system of mutual aid societies (they were killed by legislation) would be a desirable development from a libertarian perspective: http://mises.org/daily/5388

Libertarians are a diverse bunch. Opposing the use of violence against peaceful people doesn’t automatically mean that you’re a Christian, or a creationist. Also, appreciating that (natural) selection happens doesn’t mean that you judge its outcomes to be morally desirable.

5 In a representative democracy, we are the government. We have work to do, and we have a business to run, and we have children to raise.. We elect you as our representatives to look after our interests within a democratic system.

As Rothbard points out, If ‘we’ were the government, then it would be correct to say that the Jews, who were gassed by the agents of a democratically elected government, actually committed suicide. If you don’t believe this is an accurate way of describing reality then you don’t actually believe the fiction that ‘we are the government’.

6 Is government inherently evil?

Evil, like liberty, is a very ambiguous word. I prefer to say that if we value prosperity, and if we oppose the use of force against peaceful people, then we should oppose government.

7 Sometimes to protect the greater liberty you have to do things like form an army, or gather a group together to build a wall or levy.

Are you claiming to know that there’s no way to achieve these things without making threats of violence against peaceful people? If so the burden of proof is on you.

Meanwhile it helps to keep in mind that humans are ingenious, especially when profit is at stake. For a sketch of plausible ways in which a defensive army could be created by purely voluntary means see Robert Murphy’s book Chaos Theory (PDF).

8 As soon as you’ve built an army, you’ve now said government isn’t always inherently evil because we need it to help us sometimes, so now.. it’s that old joke: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? How about a dollar? -Who do you think I am?- We already decided who you are, now we’re just negotiating.

It’s not clear that government is necessary for national defence.

I agree that libertarian minarchists (like Napolitano) are in a weak position here—if you claim to oppose coercion, the credibility of that opposition is undermined if you advocate the existence of even a small government.

9 You say: government which governs least governments best. But that were the Articles of Confederation. We tried that for 8 years, it didn’t work, and went to the Constitution.

I don’t know much about it. I’m an anarchist rather than a minarchist: The best government is no government.

10 You give money to the IRS because you think they’re gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.

No, I pay taxes because I know that if I don’t, I’ll face a strong of increasingly severe punishments, ultimately backed by deadly force if I try to defend myself against my attackers.

Incidentally, private firefighting exists, and does better than tax funded alternatives. We don’t need a system of institutionalised violence to deal with the ancient problem of things catching fire.

11 Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters? The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative, seems insane.

Libertarians tend to trust firms, (or rather would do, under a freed market), more than governments because profit-seeking in strongly competitive fields can be expected to lead to behaviour that closely responds to the values and preferences of the ‘customer’. Firms generally operate within the confines of law, and generally go bankrupt if they fail to provide what people want.

By contrast, the government can change the law without your consent, and it’s common knowledge that politicians routinely break their promises—taken together these things are the equivalent to reserving the unilateral right to change a contract after its been signed. You might not choose to do business again with whoever managed to pull this off, but you—and everyone else—are still the victim for four years.

It’s true that an official may lose his position of power after a while, but voting for package deals of promises is a process that sends a very weak, vague signal about preferences that often seems ineffective in determining how a ruling party behaves. In what sense are you being ‘represented’ by the current governments’ involvement in foreign war for instance? How effective has the ‘accountability’ of the ballot box been in disincentivising the ‘commander in chief’ from pursuing war?

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘give up my liberty to an insurance firm’.

12 Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? ..and there are choices within the educational system.

Competition in the provision of health care in the US is artificially limited by the AMA, a cartel of doctors with the power to control entry into their industry. By keeping the trickle of new healthcare providers very low, they guarantee their own high wages. It should be clear that this is a dangerous conflict of interest.

As I understand it, competition between insurance companies is artificially restricted too, for instance by laws that forbid firms from selling insurance to customers in other states.

Further, competition is limited by the FDA also, an agency that restricts the availability (and raises the price) of medicine. Because its an agency which cannot go bankrupt, (funded by taxes, and not by customers) the FDA is incentivised to be very conservative in the products that it allows to reach the market. This is because if it approves an unsafe product and someone dies, it will loose face—maybe someone will be fired, but if it fails to approve a safe product, generally no one will know about it and it will not lose income.

13 Would you go back to 1890?

No. But we’d be better of if we had the same economic freedom as we had in 1890.

14 If we didn’t have government, we’d all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream?

Yes.

15 Unregulated markets have been tried. The 80’s and the 90’s were the robber baron age. These regulations didn’t come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn’t fight back against.

The ‘Robber Barons’ were anything but. For instance, Rockefeller made his fortune by producing oil more efficiently, and selling it at a lower price, than any of the hundreds of competing oil firms were willing or able to. The Antitrust legislation that eventually killed his firm, Standard Oil, was the design of his less successful competitors.

Of course, in every industry the less efficient competitors can be expected to snipe at their superior rivals, and in many instances sniping turns into an organized political crusade to get the government to enact laws or regulations that harm the superior competitor. Economists call this process “rent seeking”; in the language of economics, “rent” means a financial return on an investment or activity in excess of what the activity would normally bring in a competitive market. This sort of political crusade by less successful rivals is precisely what crippled the great Rockefeller organization.

The governmental vehicle that was chosen to cripple Standard Oil was antitrust regulation. Standard Oil’s competitors succeeded in getting the federal government to bring an antitrust or antimonopoly suit against the company in 1906, after they had persuaded a number of states to file similar suits in the previous two or three years.

http://mises.org/daily/2317

16 Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?

Because they believed this would increase their negotiating power.

While there are other potential workers who would accept the mining jobs, this means that if the union was to strike, its employer would hire replacement workers. For the union to be effective then, it has to prevent this from happening. It does this through the threat of violence: either directly, using picket lines to threaten ‘scabs’, or indirectly through legislation that limits the employers freedom of association (he is compelled by law to accept certain terms when employing, for instance he must agree not to fire striking workers).

Workers unions, as we know them, are coercive institutions.

17 Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government.

Without government there would be no workers unions as we know them. Pinkerton agencies wouldn’t be necessary, because unions would be toothless without their current powers to use threats of violence against their employer, his property, or the workers who replaced them.

On the other hand, under free market conditions, the number of employers would skyrocket, bringing a massive increase in competition to buy labour. Working conditions would improve much faster than they currently do as a result of employers competing to offer workers the most attractive working conditions they can afford.

18 Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Martin Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not.. The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.

If 51% favour racial segregation in a representative democracy, it will be illegal everywhere for a black person to sit in the front of the bus (for instance). If 51% favour racial segregation on a free market, 49% of businesses will still offer non-segragated facilities.

Here’s Walter Block explaining how market forces would punish those who would indulge their preference to discriminate on grounds of skin colour:

On the assumption that blacks wanted to ride on the front of the bus, but were prevented from doing so by the owners of the extant bus firms, this entrepreneur would start another bus line, one on which blacks can ride anywhere they want - front or back - as long as they pay for this privilege. The problem in the Jim Crow South was that this would have been illegal. Entrepreneurs were required to obtain a permit or franchise in order to start up a competing bus line. But the same statist powers that forbade blacks the front of the bus also prohibited entrepreneurs from coming to the rescue of the minority group in this commercially competitive way. Operation permits to alternative bus firms were simply not granted (Wiprud, 1945; Moore, 1961; Eckert and Hilton, 1972). In this instance the underdog could not be helped by the market - not through any fault of private discrimination, but because of the far more deleterious public variety. […]

Had the market been allowed to operate freely at the outset, the effects of this pernicious legislation could have been rendered ineffective in the short time that it would have taken an entrepreneur - black or white, it makes no difference - to set up a competing bus line. The market, in other words, is potentially the best friend of the downtrodden black minority group.”

Last item:

19 Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions.

I disagree that government is necessary. The current functions of government can be divided into those things that the private sector could do more efficiently, and those things that no entity should be doing in the first place.

It’s a good job that government is unnecessary, because it certainly can’t be held accountable. Once you’ve granted an entity a monopoly in the initiation of force, and you’ve allowed it to continually expand its power, in what sense can this entity be held accountable? The only concrete limit to its growth is the ultimate threat of violent revolution, and conditions can get very bad indeed before that boiling point is reached.

Furthermore, given the problem of rational ignorance, why should we expect that most people will even care enough to find out what this entity is doing before it’s too late?


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