In the comments to Scott’s post last week, greginak (who was one of the few to hone in on Scott’s central point) asked for the “posters to offer criticisms of their own theories.” This seemed like an interesting and worthwhile exercise, so I figured I’d give it a try, with some help from Monty Python. I should note that for the most part, these critiques are going to be of libertarianism (excluding the pure anarchist variety, to which a lot of these critiques don’t apply) in general rather than my theories that deviate from run-of-the-mill libertarianism (if such a thing exists).
- “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Government, both in terms of size and power, has grown to the point where it is possible to plausibly connect government intervention to almost any imaginable problem. But although I believe this general libertarian inclination to point the finger at government for any given problem is correct more often than not, the converse of being able to link government to just about any problem is something that libertarians have a hard time recognizing. Specifically, if government is now so large as to be able to take the blame for any problem, it is equally true that government is now large and powerful enough to take credit for any good.
- “I dunno, must be a king…. He hasn’t got shit all over him.” For all of our anti-government rhetoric and attempts to either blame poverty on government intervention or blame it on lack of personal responsibility or talent, libertarians do a poor job recognizing the inconsistency of their position to the extent we do not actually advocate anarchy. Where libertarians blame poverty on government intervention, they they ignore that this logically means that as long as government exists (and again, this critique does not apply to anarchists), there will be people who benefit economically from the State and people who suffer because of it. The only way to rectify this situation is going to be to take from those who benefit from the existence of the State and give to those who suffer from it. Where libertarians (usually Randians) blame poverty purely on lack of individual responsibility or talent and credit individual responsibility and talent for success, they are ignoring the role of the State in defining the skill sets and activities that will make a person economically successful and are thus justifying the results of those actions. The State (and by implication, the successful) thus may have a duty to in some significant way compensate those whose skills the State has deemed unworthy.
- “I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! “You’re cured, mate.” Bloody do-gooder.” One of the areas where the libertarian critique is strongest is in its warning against the unintended consequences of central planning and regulation. The trouble is that we don’t do a very good job recognizing that de-regulation can likewise have its share of unintended consequences. Often these unintended consequences can justifiably be overlooked on the grounds that the people hurt will be the people who were using a regulation for their own competitive advantage and thus are not really victims. But other times, deregulation can mix with other still-extant regulations and laws to exacerbate the effects of those existing laws, hurting people who have not directly benefited financially from the previous regulation and who may even already be victims of the other regulation and thus see the effects of that other regulation increase even more. Still other times, deregulation may only serve to strengthen the hand of businesses that already benefit from the protection of another regulation. A good example of such a situation would be one where regulations severely restrict who can enter a given market while the deregulation gives those already in that market the ability to expand even more without a significantly increased threat of competition.
- “Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” If Libertopia were to emerge out of nowhere tomorrow, we’d have a situation where the most powerful people, the people who really did wind up controlling people’s lives the most, would be the people who already possess the most wealth – wealth that has hardly originated in anything resembling a free market. And so without some theory of intermediate redistributive economic justice, Libertopia would quickly come to resemble the type of oligarchy that arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- “Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them. Reg: But you can’t have babies. Stan: Don’t you oppress me.
Reg: Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?” Libertarians, with our focus on almost unimpeded rights, have a tendency to ignore the immediate problems right in front of our faces in order to focus on some relatively unimportant long-term ideal. We’re too often tone deaf in this respect.
- “Follow. But. Follow only if ye be men of valour, for the entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived. Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair. So, brave knights, if you do doubt your courage or your strength, come no further, for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth.” We don’t live in a Coasian world with no transaction costs and in which information-sharing is perfect. Although the lack of access to adequate knowledge is a fundamental assumption of libertarian critiques of central planning, it is all too easily forgotten about when arguing for less-regulated markets and for the power of local knowledge. To be sure, local knowledge is generally far superior to centralized planning, but there will be occasions where individuals encounter something foreign to them of which the dangers will be unclear. Centralized government can act on aggregated knowledge to ensure that individuals are protected from things about which they are inherently unaware.
I think libertarianism still offers the moral vision that I find most appealing, and I think the Hayekian critique of central planning is almost certainly correct. But libertarianism is an ideology/comprehensive political philosophy. And just like any other ideology or political philosophy, its adherents are going to be subject to a lot of blind spots when it is confronted with reality. This doesn’t make libertarianism “wrong” in any sense of the word – if we were starting society from scratch, I can easily imagine any variety of functioning governments that would be consistent with libertarian philosophy. But we’re not starting society from scratch and instead are dealing with a highly complex and developed world that won’t always be amenable to libertarian ideals. Libertarians would do well to be cognizant of these imperfections even if they do not think these imperfections warrant a deviation from standard libertarian theory in a given instance.