The Final Word on Liber-al-tarianism
I honestly thought I was done on this topic, and for the most part I am. But given the misunderstandings that seem to have developed (e.g., arguing that it’s “big-government libertarianism,” or that the idea is just an attempt to allow us evil cosmotarians to feel comfortable hanging out with the cool kids), it’s worth calling attention to Will Wilkinson’s writing of the last 24 hours, which draw some really compelling connections that I’ve been struggling to make ever since I started seeing the appeal of liber-al-tarianism almost a year ago.
The fact that a government is small doesn’t rule out the possibility of egregious restrictions on non-economic liberties or of incredibly burdensome economic regulation. Suppose it takes two years to fill out all the paperwork, get all the licenses, etc. to start a small business, but once you do that, your profits aren’t taxed all. Suppose many forms of exchange are simply prohibited. You might have small government, low taxes, and very little economic freedom. Of course, a small government can ban abortion, prostitution, drugs, a free press, etc. just as well as a big one. Such a government may need to spend a lot of its modest budget on police and prisons instead of on genuine public goods. The size of the budget as as percentage of output doesn’t tell you anything about the composition of spending. This is a really important point. The United States spends a lot on prisons, the military, drug law enforcement, border patrol, etc. A lot of this is the opposite of rights-respecting, and a lot of it is downright wasteful. The composition of spending is important both as a matter or morality and a matter of economic growth (which I happen to think is also a matter of morality.) Which is all to say, the fact that a government is small logically implies almost nothing about either liberty, justice or efficiency.
This is a point I tried to make, albeit far less successfully, here. Wilkinson goes on in that first post to note that qualitatively there is little difference between minarchists, liber-al-tarians, and most modern liberals on the issue of “limited” government at least insofar as we are discussing the welfare state and the legitimacy of the government’s authority to tax and spend.
But to get the full idea, it’s really worth reading all three posts.
One conclusion that I draw from Wilkinson’s posts, and which I think was implicit in much of my writings on this subject, is that the real difference between libertarians and modern American liberals is over the competence of the government to regulate in a way that does not unnecessarily infringe upon individual freedom. It is this concept of regulation, far more so than the issue of the legitimacy of a social safety net, that has the greatest effect on economic liberty.
That is not to say that we libertarians should be reflexively opposed to any and all forms of regulation; instead, we should be concerned about making sure that regulations – past, present, and future – more take the form of planning “for” rather than “against” competition as Hayek would have phrased it.
But even there, the primary focus should not be on the effect of a regulation on the size of the government, although if a regulation, to be effectively and fairly enforced would require a massive expansion of government there’s a good chance it’s a regulation that plans “against” competition (see the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act). But if a regulation is to be passed no matter what, I think it may well be that it is better to make sure that the enforcing agency has adequate resources to completely implement the regulation.
If insufficient funds are provided to do so, I think there is quite a bit of evidence to demonstrate that it will actually have a far more negative effect on liberty than if it were provided more resources (thereby growing government a little more). Take licensing laws, for example. If the government provides inadequate resources for a licensing agency, then the agency will be unable to timely admit qualified applicants. In that case, what will happen is that a black market will develop. Except that the black market will be in licenses, and those who will receive the licenses will be political cronies and businesses with the greatest capacity to bribe the officials that exist. In other words, an underfunded set of regulations may inhibit the growth of government, but in the process it will concentrate power in fewer hands, which are likely to be quite unaccountable and arbitrary.
The Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index actually provides some terrific examples of how size of government and economic freedom are not necessarily the same thing, which Will discusses in his second post on the topic. One excellent example that demonstrates my point about an underfunded bureaucracy is Nepal, which has a remarkably small size of government and yet ranks terribly in terms of overall economic freedom, especially because of its high rate of corruption and poor ability to safeguard property rights. An even better example is Turkmenistan, which has an even smaller government and yet even more corruption and problems with property rights and other economic freedoms.
The simple reality is that, as Wilkinson points out so well, “small government” and “limited government” are not necessarily the same thing. And “limited government” is what we are really aiming for, unless we’re going to accept that total anarchism is the only acceptable way to protect liberty (a position that is not, by the way, indefensible).
UPDATE: One thing I left out from this post. What Wilkinson tries to re-emphasize is that “liberaltarianism” is not about creating a left-libertarian alliance, or dressing libertarianism up to make it appealing to the political Left. It is instead almost entirely about articulating a libertarian vision for society that is more true to its classically liberal roots, and then attempting to persuade the politically inclined that this vision presents a better means of achieving goals upon which liberals and libertarian agree. It does not mean giving up on persuading conservatives to adopt libertarian means to achieve goals upon which libertarians and conservatives agree; nor does it mean that libertarians should start voting for Dems – in fact, it largely doesn’t take a position on which “side” is better for libertarianism.