Arnold Kling  

An Article on Libertarianism

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In New York Magazine, by Christopher Beam. (I got the link from Tyler Cowen.) The writer says,


Libertarian minarchy is an elegant idea in the abstract. But the moment you get specific, the foundation starts to crumble. Say we started from scratch and created a society in which government covered only the bare essentials of an army, police, and a courts system. I'm a farmer, and I want to sell my crops. In Libertopia, I can sell them in exchange for money. Where does the money come from? Easy, a private bank. Who prints the money? Well, for that we'd need a central bank--otherwise you'd have a thousand banks with a thousand different types of currency. (Some libertarians advocate this.) Okay, fine, we'll create a central bank. But there's another problem: Some people don't have jobs. So we create charities to feed and clothe them. What if there isn't enough charity money to help them? Well, we don't want them to start stealing, so we'd better create a welfare system to cover their basic necessities. We'd need education, of course, so a few entrepreneurs would start private schools. Some would be excellent. Others would be mediocre. The poorest students would receive vouchers that allowed them to attend school. Where would those vouchers come from? Charity. Again, what if that doesn't suffice? Perhaps the government would have to set up a school or two after all.

I think it's foolish to speculate on whether or not minarchism would work. Instead, we should try to get to minarchism gradually, starting from where we are today. Just keeping taking away government functions until you reach a point where everyone agrees that you took something away that you shouldn't have.

I think that Beam is fairly confident that his readers will nod their head in agreement when he says that libertarianism obviously cannot work. He takes the view that government programs exist because markets fail. But the fact that markets fail does not mean that government solutions work.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy




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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Steve Miller writes:

"Who prints the money? Well, for that we'd need a central bank--otherwise you'd have a thousand banks with a thousand different types of currency. (Some libertarians advocate this.) "

Really, thousands? Are there thousands of big box retailers? Thousands of word processors? Thousands of operating systems? Does Beam lack sincerity, imagination, or both?

John Fast writes:

Arnold: You're mostly preaching to the converted here, and probably so is Tyler. There's no real use in doing that. Why not post your response to this loser on the New York Magazine website as a response to his article, where maybe it will be seen by people who don't already understand your point? Or, if that's too much trouble, I'll post it for you.

For the record, I'm not a minarchist, I'm more hard-core than that. But I think minarchy would certainly be much better than what we have now.

In particular, I'd rephrase part of your comment to be:

Just keep taking away government functions until you reach a point where a majority agrees that you took something away that you shouldn't have.

@Steve Miller I have no idea exactly what Beam's major malfunction is. If there were a way we could actually figure it out, though, I would be willing to place a bet.

Andy writes:

Parts of the article are intelligent, but then we get the cliched arguments -- child labor, need for government schools, medical licensing, etc.

James writes:

Beam's entire argument seems to be "libertarianism, if my imagination is a reliable guide to reality, would not bring about the results that I want, therefore big government is good."

Government interference, for thousands of years and in thousands of places has brought about results in reality that I wouldn't want. I wonder if Beam would recognize this as a valid argument that statism only works in the abstract.

Michael writes:
I think it's foolish to speculate on whether or not minarchism would work. Instead, we should try to get to minarchism gradually, starting from where we are today. Just keeping taking away government functions until you reach a point where everyone agrees that you took something away that you shouldn't have.
This seems to assume that electoral politics is the only means for reform. What about radical strategies like seasteading? This type of strategy does allow "starting from scratch", and so would require thinking about the end goal.
Randy writes:

Limited "government" will work only when political behavior is outlawed. The first step towards that end is the delegitimization of political behavior.

David C writes:

I thought page 2 was pretty good other than the part about the Tea Party because I disagree with Cato's analysis. Page 3 was okay. The rest of the article kind of falls flat. There's so many partial truths, like the mischaracterization of Penn Jillette's position on airport security or the story of the house burning down or the definining of the value of the libertarian movement based on the beliefs of the average members. If you define a movement based on the average member, well, liberals believe the problem with our education system is a lack of money and conservatives believe George W Bush did an okay job in Iraq.

Mark Bahner writes:

I think a good way to argue for libertarianism is to look at all the countries in the world: which are most libertarian and which are least libertarian?

Most libertarian? You might get New Zealand(?). The U.S.(?) Switzerland(?) The Netherlands(?)

For least libertarian you'd get North Korea. Cuba. Countries like that.

So on that account, clearly more libertarian is better than less libertarian.

Then, within those most libertarian countries, look at specific policies. For example, Switzerland's foreign policy is certainly more libertarian than the U.S.'s. Is that good or bad for Switzerland? I think most people would say more libertarian is better.

Then take drugs. The Netherlands is certainly more libertarian than the U.S. Is that good or bad for the Netherlands? I think most people would say more libertarian is better.

Therefore, Christopher Beam can be shown to be blatantly wrong, just by comparing the various countries of the world. In virtually every case, for virtually every aspect of life, more libertarian is better.

MernaMoose writes:

Arnold,

I think it's foolish to speculate on whether or not minarchism would work.

Hmm. I think, it's not foolish to speculate. Because the first thing we must do is motivate people to get out the meat axe.

The second thing we'd need to do is give The People a serious tool to utterly and immediately check the growth of government. It's clear that in today's world, we don't have that kind of veto power.

We can't even slow the growth rate down. The idea of reversing it is fantasy.


Randy,

Limited "government" will work only when political behavior is outlawed. The first step towards that end is the delegitimization of political behavior.

I like your idea. I just don't believe it's possible. I've long said that we should do away with elections and democracy, and congress should be filled by something like jury duty appointments (and you are only eligible for one term). That would eliminate much of politics as we currently know it in the US.

Maybe some things are still determined by popular vote, like tax increases, and whether and what kinds of government run "charities" are going to exist. In which case, votes should be weighted according to how much you paid in taxes during the last cycle (whatever that may be). The poorer people still have a voice, but votes are weighted such that they are prevented from voting themselves free stuff at the expense of "the rich", by virtue of sheer numbers.

But I doubt any of this would end politics, it would just shift it into new avenues.

Even if it was better, it would only be for a time. Because whatever system you create, someone is going to find a way to game it.

I'm at least as concerned about keeping a hard wedge driven between government and the press. Right now on most days, I'd swear the MSM is a propaganda outlet for the government.


Mark Bahner,

For example, Switzerland's foreign policy is certainly more libertarian than the U.S.'s.

That's not even comparing apples to apples. Because Switzerland can get away with something does not mean the US can just copy it and get the same results.

Foreign policy is where I most disagree with libertarian theory, which is largely pipe dreaming in the case of the US. Libertarian theory can only work in foreign policy if you're a small and relatively insignificant player in the global economy. The Big Fish are always going to be vulnerable in ways the smaller ones aren't, and they're going to be targeted in very different ways too.

Mark Bahner writes:

I wrote, "For example, Switzerland's foreign policy is certainly more libertarian than the U.S.'s."

MernaMoose responds, "That's not even comparing apples to apples. Because Switzerland can get away with something does not mean the US can just copy it and get the same results."

Well, that could certainly be argued. I'm not sure why you think Switzerland is so different from the U.S.? Is it because they are a smaller country?

If so, how about a country like Brazil? It's large, and its foreign policy is much more libertarian than the U.S.'s. (Obviously, from all the wars the U.S. has been in in the 20th and 21st centuries, a great many countries have foreign policies that are more libertarian than the U.S.)

Is Brazil's foreign policy, which is more libertarian for the U.S., better for Brazilians? I'd argue it clearly is, because Brazilians aren't paying for many, many wars (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq I + II, Afghanistan, etc.) in blood and treasure.

"The Big Fish are always going to be vulnerable in ways the smaller ones aren't, and they're going to be targeted in very different ways too."

I just gave the example of Brazil. But if you want bigger economies, take Japan. Japan clearly has a more libertarian foreign policy than the U.S. Again, is this better for people in Japan? I think it is. Once again, they aren't expending blood and treasure on wars and troops all over the world like the U.S. is.

Troy Camplin writes:

I see no actual evidence for his assertions. Private charity seems to have been more than sifficient in the past, and it has sadly been mostly replaced by government welfare. I would have started a school a long time ago if it weren't for government.

I would like you to imagine what would happen if I started teaching people and accepted donations for what they learned. How many want to bet that someone would try to shut me down, and that there is in fact a law somewhere that could and would be used to do it?

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