Friday, August 20, 2004

Fisk You 

I normally think fisking is a bit too aggressive and nitpicky to generate anything worth reading, so I hope Macneil will take this in the good-natured way I mean it. He simply said a lot of things I disagree with, and commenting piece by piece feels like the most natural way to rebut such a long piece.

(for a low-quality article, check out this reasoning
free article
from the editor-in-chief; I've seen less
annoying writing styles in articles about sports bras in women's magazines).
I've found that (giving the benefit of the doubt and other concessions for the
sake of argument) the high-quality articles are well-reasoned but that they
reflect poor values. A good example is
an article by
Jacob Sullum
on the same topic of the poorly-written one
(and in the same issue! why did they bother publishing the other

I don't think Nick Gillespie's article is an example of bad reasoning. It is an example of an Editor-in-Chief writing a small article introducing a themed issue (the physical magazine, which often contains things not on the website, might well have more articles). It's a common thing, especially in magazines that don't come out very often (Reason is published 6 times a year).

At heart, here's what I think libertarians value:
Economic growth
Consumer choice

Well, you always get into trouble when you tell people what they value. That's why I'm not going to say anything about what I think you value. That said, it's probably true that libertarians value those things, but that isn't what defines them, in that it's not the framework that they use when reasoning about what they believe in.

I think both sides recognize that either extreme is bad: corporations without
anti-trust laws become oligarchies; while governments that control what is good
for us and bad for us become, well, oligarchies. What the conservatives need to
realize is that capitalism only works when it has regulations. What the liberals
need to realize is that many kinds of regulations can create devastatingly
negative effects: markets have an amazing ability to balance out (provided
collusion isn't part of the equation), and the wrong regulations can lead to
economic "inefficiency," which is a technical way to say that resources have
been wasted without much benefit.

You keep saying this thing about capitalism only working when it's regulated. I have no idea what that means, or what your evidence for it is. I'm not aware of any economic theories that state that, and when you examine markets that are unregulated, there doesn't seem to be a general breakdown in the capitalist system. Perhaps what you mean is that you don't like what capitalism looks like when it's not regulated in the way you want.

Why do I value economic growth, innovation, and consumer choice? Do
I value these for the principles that they are? No. I am closer to a pragmatist,
not to an ideologue. I value these things because they increase the quality of
life. Freedom is a fine corollary to concerns for quality of life: it's hard to
imagine "the good life" if it doesn't have choice. However, no one is an island.
If we give someone the "freedom" to pollute a river, he is affecting the quality
of life of everyone down the stream. Pollution is a good example, because it
shows clear effects of one person affecting others, and how it's immoral to
allow one person to do something that would kill hundreds.

Again, I think you're putting words in people's mouths. Anything can sound offensive if you replace the word "ability" with the word "freedom." Libertarians do care about freedom, but that doesn't mean they would agree with the construction "you should have the freedom to kick people's teeth out." You don't seem to understand what the word means, or where it applies. Obviously, anyone's freedom to any action is firmly bounded by other people's freedoms, which might act in opposition. Freedom is the ability to make decisions about the things that affect your life, not anyone else's. The freedoms, or lack of freedoms, that people get upset about are things which aren't anyone's business but yours: what you read, say, buy, think, and do with the things that belong to you, who you love and associate with, and how you manage your own body.

In any case, you might validly think freedom can easily and safely be traded for comfort and happiness. My impression, however, is not that libertarians are weirdos who value an abstract notion like freedom entirely apart from what it brings. On the contrary, I think they are concerned largely with slippery slopes. The question is, how does one articulate a principle of government that you can use to guide you for the long term? You can't do it with short term pragmatism.

This is largely the problem the framers of the Constitution were attempting to deal with, and is why the document is so short and vague. I think the framers did a pretty good job, but over time our attitudes towards what it says have changed. We rediscovered some of the freedom it grants us over time, but we also invented roles for the government that it wasn't originally intended to fill. The commerce clause of the Constitution is used as a backdoor by congress to legislate pretty much whatever they want at the federal level, for example. For what it's worth, many libertarians consider themselves to be simply restating what Thomas Jefferson and many of the framers thought and wrote about the role of government.

If you accept vast expansions of government like that, you can find yourself somewhere that you didn't want to be. Here's a simplistic example. If you're accepting of the notion that the government (taxpayers) should pay for everyone's healthcare costs, then it makes perfect sense for the government to have a say in whether or not you smoke, and how much you weigh, and perhaps other things too. Or, if you're accepting of the idea that the government (taxpayers) should pay for everyone's retirement, then is it any surprise when decades later your country has a very low savings rate and huge long-term debt obligations which will require significant tax increases?

You might think that either of these are no big deal to you, and that's a fine opinion. Libertarians tend to have a different opinion, and think that if people bear the costs of their own actions, and are given the benefits of their labors, they will be properly incentivized and most able to make decisions for themselves without affecting others (ie, that that situation will maximize personal freedoms). In the above example, if you bore the cost of your own healthcare, you could smoke if you wanted. And if you bore the costs of your own retirement, you would save money to retire in an account, and then withdraw it when you retire (Social security is often said to work "kind of" like this from any individual's perspective, which might lead you to wonder why it doesn't just work exactly like that). In any case, if you feel that the idea of the goverment having a say about how much you weigh, or whether or not you smoke is disturbing, you would rationally and validly be against the principles that led to such an expansion of the role of the government.

I think it's similar to the minimum wage: Some libertarians cry
that the minimum wage is unfair and hurts more people than it helps. So, suppose
we eliminate the minimum wage. In the libertarian's wildest fantasies, the
economy surges to never before seen highs, and quality of life explodes. Now
imagine in this libertopia that a new minimum wage of two cents is instituted.
Suddenly, the economy crashes, there is a great depression and millions suffer.
Does that sound far fetched? It should. Because the point I'm making here is
that some rates of minimum wage will have no practical effect, whatsoever, in
the real world. And, indeed, leading economists believe our current minimum wage
has a very negligible effect, and the same goes for John Kerry's proposal for a
$7 minimum wage (which Bush is starting to echo as something he finds
acceptable; funny how the Great Divider moves toward the center in an election

I would agree that many libertarians think that, and it's probably true that the minimum wage doesn't have that big an effect when it is kept low. But you could just oppose it on the leave-me-alone principle. If a given job I want done is worth less than the minimum wage to me, and someone is willing to do it for less than the minimum wage, who are you or anyone to interfere in a transaction that is agreeable to the two of us? Yes, it might not have that big an effect, but that's not a good enough reason. In reality, people do have a reservation wage, the threshold at which they will choose to work. Few people would value their time such that they would work for $0.02 an hour, or any wage below their reservation wage. This is like a free market minimum wage: if you want to hire someone to do something, you must pay more than their reservation wage.

I don't enjoy taxes out of some Robin Hood aesthetic of justice. I
value them because they can be used to help protect and promote what we value;
particularly when the market itself does not have the right incentives in place
to do so on its own.

Well, you can't get any sort of agreement on "what we value," for the most part. You seem to mean "what I value." There are plenty of things that benefit everyone equally, like national defense, crime prevention, roadway and telecommunications spectrum coordination, and so forth. No one would argue that these are very valuable, only doable by a central authority, and that we should use taxes to fund them. However, most of our taxes don't go toward that sort of thing, they go towards transfer payments from one group of people to another. Someone could very validly agree with the value of using the power of government to transfer wealth around.

Again, this is about protecting against the abuse of power. Government is an apparatus that is difficult to fight against or dismantle. The more powerful it is, the harder it is to fight against when it is behaving badly. You might appreciate a benevolent use of government power, but the power of government provides powerful incentives to those who wield it. The Constitution was designed to fight against that and, for example, Washington, DC was put in a god-awful location so that a permanent group of rulers wouldn't spring up. For government to do the things that you value requires government to have incredible power that is open to gross misuse.

By the way, you really should read that paper on slippery slopes that I linked to.

Interesting, the Lessig blog said just today that "Openist, deregulationist, libertarian, or cyber-anarchist all take innovation as telological."
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