“Well, what are you doing creeping around a cow shed at two o’clock in the morning? That doesn’t sound very wise to me.”

Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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100 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    The biggest problem with libertarianism is that it often looks exactly like “screw you, I got mine” (whether or not the libertarian in question has actually gotten his is not terribly relevant). Additionally, there is the whole “born on (xth) base, thought s/he hit a single/double/triple” issue. Even as someone might have done something like “worked his or her way through college”, it turns out that they had a support system that allowed them to do so rather than “work his or her way through his or her early 20’s”. The very social support structure they have is something that they see as organic is something that just isn’t there for a number of other folk. The argument that the government ought not step in and be a support structure for those without an organic one looks like, and in some cases actually is, cruel indifference.Report

  2. greginak says:

    I go around work and home telling people that they are missing the point and I am the one that gets it and they should listen to me. Now I have verification of that. In fact it may go on my resume.

    Great post. I takes some brain cells to be able to look at your own ideas and see the cracks. Until you can do that you are an empty headed zealot. If I were to raise my criticism of libertarianism they would be pretty similar to yours.

    Too often we see our political beliefs as verifiable truths and not the quasi-religious beliefs, which they actually are. I know my liberal beliefs are not products of pure intellect and years of monastic study leading to my current state of total awareness. I am a product of liberal parents and child of my times.

    If we were to start all over from scratch I think quite of few political philosophies could work just fine. I can picture a world where libertarianism would work well. Of course I like Star Trek, so I can picture a lot things. I think a cool libertarian planet should have like four moons and a big ring.

    Libertarians are in many ways an ignored group on the national stage. That can lead to a nasty dynamic where you are sure your ideas have all the answers but you never get to actually try them. So it is easy to slip into a the role of a permanent crank shouting at everybody else about your great ideas without any real world proof about how well they work. Lefties and liberals felt, for many years, left out of the political mix and many of them slipped into that mode. It wasn’t pretty.

    But anyway, on this world, any country is always going to be a mix of the best and worst elements of all our varied philosophies. Which is bound to drive many people permanently crazy. In fact we might do better to focus less on our ideas and more on how to mix our ideas.

    Any post with Monty Python is also an almost guaranteed win. If you know what I mean.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

      Libertarian ideas tend to be embraced by whichever party is out of power for a while and then cheerfully abandoned once the pendulum swings back. Remember the “liberaltarian” movement? Ah, good times. The Republicans have started making libertarian noises again. I reckon they’ll stop as soon as they find some power over others worth wielding again.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

        What actually happens is that individuals’ inherent and justifiable desire for an intuitively balanced degree of governmental restraint vis-a-vis activism is violated by extreme governments, and they react to having the implicit contract that the government adhere to the rough average of that balance in the polity (Rousseau’s “General Will”) violated.

        It’s not that they temporarily adopt (or is it steal?) “your” ideology when it is convenient for them, and then return it to you scuffed or broken when they are done with it. You don’t own liberty or the right to desire it just because you have a particular way of balancing restraint against activism, Jaybird.Report

        • Moff in reply to Michael Drew says:

          I think Jaybird is just saying that the GOP was massively uninterested in libertarianism as recently as last year, when they wouldn’t even let Ron Paul come to the primary debates, but now that a Socialist Unicorn Führer (!!!) has taken over, they’re conveniently rediscovering interest in being the party of smaller government. And I think it’s fair to say Obama, too, didn’t necessarily actively court the libertarian vote but did present himself during the election as wanting to promote citizen activism over federal intervention.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Moff says:

            Well, I think they’ve rediscovered an interest in being the opposition (loyal or otherwise), because they have little choice in the matter. Their ideology, or that of the party in power, has very little to do with it. Libertarianism is at most a talking point for them. If that’s what Jaybird meant — its use by cynical politicians seeking to appeal to people’s unhappiness with gov’t, then I’m with him. But that is a universal behavior of politicians of all stripes regarding many varieties of ideology that have any broad appeal. I think individual citizens routinely and completely justifiably arrive at a place of temporary “libertarianesque” outrage when government loses its sense of restraint in ways salient to the individual. This is among the most legitimate public sentiments of all, and they shouldn’t be criticized for arriving there in extremis even though they aren’t in the habit of describing themselves as particularly committed to liberty as they go through life in general.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Whew, I’ve been wanting to get that one off my chest for a while now. Thanks for the opportunity, Jay. Just to save you the trouble, you needn’t bother protesting that this isn’t your position personally — I completely grant that.

          But I think it’s a strain of thinking that is present to some extent in some libertarian rhetoric, and since Mark is here concerned with necessary concessions libertarianism must make to have a chance at broader appeal, I wanted to raise it. Any tendency in libertarians, when people who don’t claim to hold liberty above all (or nearly all) other values nevertheless feel theirs is being curtailed unacceptably, to react by saying they are co-opting the ideology, or to say “a little late to the party are we?” or display any such proprietary attitude toward freedom is (I hope quite obviously) irksome, alienating — hell why beat around the bush — patently offensive and infuriating. Of all the things libertarians can say to cause potentially sympathetic or at least friendly interlocutors to turn on their heels and dismiss the camp out of hand, this would probably be out in front by a furlong as the most alienating possible such type of comment, occupying a special, unchallengeable position of repulsive preeminence. (IMHO.)

          To have any hope of selling libertarianism, eliminating that tendency is an indispensable requirement.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

            “Selling Libertarianism”.

            Here is the problem that I have *ALWAYS* had with selling libertarianism. It comes down to the philosophy that the individual must have toward others.

            It’s very easy to get someone to agree with “your privacy? You have a *RIGHT* to privacy!!!” They get all fired up about that.

            The problem comes when you point out “that person? S/he has a right to privacy too. You need to treat him or her as someone with that right.”

            Then you, inevitably, get into discussions about how such-and-such is a public good, or this-and-that are dangerous for children and we as a society must take responsibility for children, and who-and-how is so obviously *NOT* a privacy issue that it’s absurd that the topic even came up and the very fact that I’d think that it wasn’t implies awful, awful things about my character.

            What this tends to do, in practice, is result in a vocal amount of people who, until recently, were the part in power who make appeals to libertarian principles but who are libertarians for only about as long as it’s their own oxen that are being gored. When “their” person gets in power and someone else’s oxen are being gored, well, you have to understand, to be sure, the price of civilization, security, etc.

            Compare to the dynamic of, say, the appeals to feminism made in the run-up of the war in Afghanistan.

            One gets the feeling that the person who just showed up is not saying these things because they, themselves, believe it but because they know that *YOU*, yourself, believe it.

            There is an amazing about of resentment that builds up when you feel that someone who doesn’t give a shit about your principles is saying “you should agree with me because you people care about dumb shit like this, right?”

            And, when it happens more than once, it can make one say “welcome to the party!” when someone new shows up.

            Which is, of course, not to excuse the poor treatment of others. Each person is an individual and, most likely, comes to their individual conclusions honestly and deserves to be treated as if they were arguing in good faith.

            But I try to keep in mind that people who resent people from (other group) probably do so because they got burned bad. So when you see a libertarian say “welcome to the party!!!”, know that it’s the same dynamic democrats feel when a Republican clears his (or her) throat and says “I am not sure that signing statements are Constitutional.”Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Jaybird says:

              Jaybird, I’m totally with you on the way parties represent themselves any way that can to get votes — most of what they say is bullshit. (In terms of representation, however, the Republicans are pretty consistent in their claim to be the party of small government.) You were clear in your comment that you were talking about parties not individuals — I missed that. I went ahead and ground my axe anyway (which I never mind doing in any case…), but in reality I think the behaviors we each are venting on here are actually pretty much nonintersecting, so we’re kind of talking past each other.

              As far as selling libertarianism, I’ve got nothing invested there myself; I was just going with the theme. By all means, keep the faith, brother!Report

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    Fantastic post, Mark. More like this. From all across the sphere. Reminds me a bit of the posts Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias engaged in studying other ideologies as honestly as possible (the “what I think progressives believe” etc.) but this is better. Top notch.Report

  4. Michael Drew says:

    A couple things. First, how does libertarianism deal with the American experience of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which except in the realm of international trade, my understanding is that commerce for the most part was left to evolve essentially unrestrained, and the result was vicious cycles of boom and bust, generating untold misery in the population, whereas in the balance of the twentieth century, the U.S. government responded to that experience (thankfully not by jettisoning capitalism altogether, but) by instituting a regulated, constrained capitalism that seems to have produced among the longest, most stable periods of growth known by any society in human history? What was not in place in the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century to disqualify that as a fair test of the libertarian approach to societal economic structure?

    Second, I agree that Hayek largely devastates the case for central planning by proving sufficient information cannot be processed to make it work. But what about an approach to economic policy that allows government to identify major imbalances in the market’s broad allocation of resources in society such as we saw in the financial industry over the last thirty years or that we are about to see in health care? If libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that it is merely a theory, and a normative one at that, about the most efficient way to allocate resources, and that the natural mechanism it appeals to is prone to occasional if sometimes significant failures within a broad context of consistent success, but rather simply defines its own success as the comprehensive institution of its prescriptive tenets, regardless of the observed results, (What is the path to the best possible economic state of things in society? Instituting the tenets of libertarianism. How will we know if the tenets of libertarianism have succeeded in bringing that about? Because the tenets will be in place, which is the definition of the best economic state of things in society), isn’t it susceptible to a charge of normative-descriptive identity, ie Panglossianism?

    Great post, Mark.Report

    • Michael:

      Thanks for the compliment.

      On the 19th and early 20th century question, I can say that there really isn’t any one libertarian answer to it. Depending on the segment of the libertarian movement you’re looking at, you can probably get any of the following answers: 1. The 19th century was more statist than is generally recognized, particularly in light of tariff policies and banking policies (IIRC, this is basically the Austrian critique); 2. The 19th century booms and busts are overstated; 3. The gold standard was really, really bad (this is only an argument made by those willing to piss off the Austrians, though, so it’s a minority position). There’s probably a few more takes that I’m less familiar with as well. I’m not sure where I stand on all this, although I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the 19th century was far from a libertarian paradise because of the tariff issues, amongst other very pro-business but anti-laissez-faire policies. Where I think libertarians get into trouble sometimes is in failing to realize that a lot of the Progressive-era interventions were ameliorative of these policies, and while it may have been more preferable to rescind those pro-business policies, ameliorative regulations were at least an improvement over the status quo.

      On the second question….I’m not sure, and will have to think about it. But I think the issue of normative-descriptive identity is a problem that infects political philosophies of all stripes; in some ways I think this post is in part an attempt to show where the normative and positive/descriptive sides of libertarianism don’t line up, ie, it’s an attempt to get away from that problem.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Yeah, I figured the notion that there was some form of Libertopia in those periods wouldn’t really fly, but I was just curious what the specific counts were. I hadn’t ever thought that the Progressive and Depression-era changes would be seen as pro-market. I’ll try to look into that more.Report

  5. Bob Cheeks says:

    Mark, excellent post, would you mind expanding on these sentences? :
    “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. ”
    As a libertarian how do you, generally speaking, see the role of the state.
    How does the state determine a “skill set (whas that?) is unworthy?
    What business is it of the state as to how I conduct my life, assuming of course, I’m not committing a crime? If it is the state’s business to ‘rescue’ me every time I fail, isn’t that socialism, or some form of it?Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      Those are excellent questions, esp. vis a vis the value of various skill sets. I’m not sure if this is the flip-side or just a different version of the same question, but my thought on skill set value is whether we really want to have a society that defines the value of skill sets only by whether they are remunerable according to the values of the consumer marketplace? I know that one of the great virtues of the market economy is that it maximizes gains from specialization. But are there some specialties that we have developed that we’d like to preserve, if in very much reduced numbers, even when the market for the product/service has dried up? I’m thinking here personally of certain artistic fields, or, more controversially, quality news reporting, but people may have their own valued specialties that they can’t keep afloat merely by contributing to the demand in the the market for them. There are definitely ways to alleviate this outside of government, and it’s done all the time, but I’d also defend government efforts to promote not-immediately-remunerative skills and endeavors through funding (NEA/H, etc.).

      I wonder if such government efforts (since presumably private non-profit efforts at it are fully unproblematic) are viewed more receptively or critically by libertarians?Report

    • Bob and Michael:

      This is going to be a far shorter response than this question deserves (because it’s a great question), but unfortunately I’m still very short on time at the moment.

      The big point I’d make is that I’m referring to the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to truly get ahead without relying on the State in some way in this day and age. For instance, strict licensing laws restrict entry into various professions, making those professions more lucrative than they probably should be while simultaneously restricting the career options of people who lack the means to obtain those licenses – either because they can’t afford the money necessary to obtain them or because they lack the skills necessary to obtain them (which, I should point out, only rarely have anything to do with the actual practice of that profession). Other examples would be things like subsidies, other regulations that heighten the costs of entry into a profession or which define standards of practice in ways that discourage innovation, individualism, or the use of practices and procedures that would be more accessible to various groups of people. Basically what I’m referring to here is that I think there’s quite a bit to the libertarian critique of the state picking “winners,” but that libertarian views of taxation and social welfare quite likely reinforce rather than alleviate that problem by preventing ameliorative measures from being implemented that would help the losers at the expense of the state-chosen winners.

      As for the question of how I see the role of the state, there’s no quick way to answer that. But I certainly have my vision of what a libertopia would look like – basically a bunch of small local governments with rather limited powers, combined with a federal government whose primary responsibility would be ensuring that the local governments don’t overstep their bounds. (I’d ask that you not inquire too much into this imagined libertopia because it would really require about a 10,000 word essay just to give an initial idea of how it would work, etc., etc.).

      The bottom line, though, is that I think libertopia is well worth working towards. However, where I think libertarians (myself included) have a tendency to get things wrong is in the assumption that everything that reduces the power of the state in a given arena is inherently a step in that direction, while everything that increases the power of the state in a given arena is inherently a step in the opposite direction. I think there are going to be lots of occasions where ameliorative (I believe this is Kevin Carson’s terminology, to give credit to the originator of this argument) regulations and redistribution are going to be necessary to work towards some form of libertopia.

      Finally, I don’t view this as at all amenable to socialism, for a few reasons. First of all, socialism I think requires a particular utopian vision for society that is at odds with libertarianism’s vision – there will be occasions, however, as with any competing ideologies, where the interests of both are aligned in favor of the same policy. Indeed, it’s worth remembering how Hayek described many socialists of the early-to-mid 20th century as merely misguided classical liberals. Additionally, I would note that what we call “socialism” now is really not the type of socialism that Hayek was warning about in RTS (this is by Hayek’s own admission in the preface to, IIRC, the 1956 edition of RTS). That type of socialism is of the sort that leads the state to pick even more of the winners, thus exacerbating the problems that in my view make taxation and welfare spending justifiable in the first place.

      Hmm….this brings me to a new thought. Is it possible that welfare spending and taxation are necessary effects rather than causes of an overly powerful State? Discuss (I will probably be off the radar for the rest of the day for the most part).Report

      • One more thing. I’m kicking myself for forgetting to include in the original post the following, although maybe it wouldn’t have been appropriate since I got over my Objectivist phase a long time ago:

        “Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.
        The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!
        Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
        The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
        Brian: You’re all different!
        The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
        Man in crowd: I’m not…
        The Crowd: Sch!”

        This pretty much sums up the problems of Objectivism in one sequence, I think.Report

  6. Excellent comments and questions as always, foks. I don’t have time to respond right now, but I will get to everything tonight, along with a bit of an update.Report

  7. steve says:

    I have said many times that if I were to start a new country, I would do so based on libertarian principles. Trying to do it in our already established society creates the problems to which you allude. Besides the inequity which already exists in financial capital, you start off with big differences in social capital. In a true Libertopia you would need to start everyone off with the same assets. The good news is, if libertarians are correct, we have nothing to fear from China and the rest of the world. We will be kings forever since all other countries have much more governmental involvement in their economies.


    • Jaybird in reply to steve says:

      I suspect that people would still hate each other for their lifestyle choices.

      If someone grows dredlocks and plays guitar in a bar band and smokes weed and sleeps with groupies but only pulls in 17.5k/year from his day job, he will resent the businessman who works 9-5 and makes good money. The businessman who works 9-6 because he takes a lunch and wants to make sure that the work gets done anyway and goes home to do more responsible stuff and rarely, if ever, have fun (and never, ever sleep with groupies) will look at the guitarist and resent the bloody hell out of him.

      And both will call for the government to “do something”.Report

      • Moff in reply to Jaybird says:

        True. I mean, if steve only invites stereotypes from ’80s movies to be part of his new country, that is.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Moff says:


          Libertopia could work.

          It’s just never been implemented properly by the right people!Report

          • Moff in reply to Jaybird says:

            I’m certainly not saying Libertopia is going to happen. But “X could work. It’s just never been implemented properly!” is more or less the starting point of every successful venture or invention throughout history. So I have to assume you’re being sincere and not sarcastic, because otherwise that comment would make no sense.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Moff says:

              Libertopia is like Communism.

              When it works, it works on a very, very small scale on the margins by people who have opted out of the established societies… and it tends to die out after a generation or two (if it even makes it that far).

              If I wanted there to be more ‘topias out there, I’d make sure that there were more margins for people to go when they opted out.

              Insofar as I suspect that we are running out of margin, my statement was sarcastic.Report

  8. Moff says:

    Great post, Mark — as with greginak, my criticisms of libertarianism would be pretty similar (although I am not a libertarian). This sort of self-critique has to be hammered home over and over, I think, if the libertarian movement wants to be taken seriously on a national scale, because as it stands, most of its proponents seem to be young white men unaware or unwilling to acknowledge just how much they’ve benefited from government while growing up in this country. The axioms and arguments underlying the philosophy may be attractive, but they’re much easier to propound when you can already afford to share them over Facebook on a fast computer from the comfort of an air-conditioned apartment.Report

    • Greego in reply to Moff says:

      “acknowledge just how much they’ve benefited from the services and institutions that are monopolised by government while growing up in this country.”


  9. Creon Critic says:

    I’ve always been curious as to whether there is a libertarian answer to “private” discrimination. From racially restrictive covenants in home sales, to segregated lunch counters, to employers forcing women to leave the workforce upon marriage – private actors have all sorts of power that goes under-theorized by the libertarian outlook. As libertarians focus attention on government misdeeds they miss the capability constraining behavior of others (cf. capability approach). Altogether, focusing on government means a panoply of actors go unaddressed; when non-government actors who can make impositions on liberty are left to their own devices the most vulnerable are bound to bear the consequences. Maybe I’m just echoing Michael Drew’s point upthread, but I picture Dickens’ view of Victorian England as the social outcome of libertarianism – you are free to be as poor as you like.

    Even if libertarianism is a vector and not a destination – is it pointing in the right direction? As a trade unionist remarked about the contributions of the Tories, “Kids would still be up chimneys.” Doesn’t this criticism, failure to address the needs of the more vulnerable segments of the society, apply to libertarianism as well?

    Can I just add, look away now Helen R., great post. And yay for Monty Python & the BBC, I wish America had a public broadcaster of similar size and stature.Report

    • Minos in reply to Creon Critic says:

      Creon-that’s a great question, for which there is no easy answer; 17 libertarians will give you 30 answers. But I’ll try to give you my own, and restrict it to one.

      When private descrimination is a small scale affair (that is, an insistance that this apartment complex is a Muslim community, and we will only rent to Muslims, or I really hate German people, and won’t rent to them), I don’t think we have a problem. Such small scale discrimination can actually be positive for group formation and identity (in the first example), and is pretty heavily punished by the marketplace to the extent that a large number of my customers are German (in the second).

      I would argue that the challenge for libertarians is to deicide when a form of discrimination becomes sufficiently systemic that the pattern strongly disempowers the group on the business end of the discrimination. A single Elks’ club populated by sexagenarians that keeps out women in a small town doesn’t meet this test, but exclusive country clubs that are the gateway to success in the business world that keep out women certainly do.

      *Obviously*, Jim Crow was an extreme version of this, and required extreme government intervention. The exclusion of African Americans from avenues of personal advancement took on the nature of an absolutely monopolistic cabal. I’m willing to tolerate pretty massive governmental intervention to crack that sort of system.

      In short, I think the lisence for governmental action in regards to private descrimination has to be linked and roughly proportional to the scope, scale, and damage caused to others by the discrimination.

      I think the examples you cite of racial and gender discrimination pass enough of a “scope, scale, and harm” test that there is a legitimate public interest in outlawing them, but that may be the squishiness of my libertarianism talking, and I may be shouted down by angy hordes of purer libertarians than myself.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Minos says:

        I think that the official Libertarian line is this: So long as there is no government intervention creating barriers to entry, companies can discriminate however they want.

        And this bus company can say “no African-Americans” and that bus company can say “we accept anybody” and that other bus company can say “front half is for Whites, back half is for everybody else” and, eventually, everything will sort itself out. The African-Americans would, presumably, boycott the two bad bus companies and ride on the good one. And the two bad companies would either find that their business model was sustainable or they would find that it was not. As I recall, the boycott did a great deal of economic damage… and it was doing economic damage because companies were not ALLOWED to say “we treat everybody equal”… as such, there was talk of what could be done to deal with the “unlicensed taxi” issue where people were driving African-Americans to and from their jobs at or around cost! The nerve!

        The problem was not the company policy of discrimination, it was the law (voted upon by elected representatives and upheld by the courts including the Supreme Court!) that forced the companies to discriminate.Report

  10. Katherine says:

    One of my objections to libertarianism is that based on personal experience, government is actually better at some stuff than the private sector, and regulation can genuinely have a good effect.

    One example is transit, which I use constantly. Without government it would not exist, because it is not profitable. It involves running the bus/metro at regular, predictable intervals, and due to variations in use some of those times the buses won’t be very full, and thus won’t be making much money. Plus, most of the people who use them are lower-income, so raising fare costs would be counterproductive. But as they do exist, they allow people to get around without cars. Not only is this good for the environment and reduces congestion, by providing transit government increases the amount of freedom I have: my freedom of movement.

    Another example is Granville Island in Vancouver. In my opinion, it’s the best part of the city: an artist’s enclave with loads of stores of small artisans and groups of artisans and a wonderful farmer’s market. It’s managed by the Ministry of Housing. Restrictions prevent big chain stores from setting up there, so it’s somewhere for innovative, small-scale craft workers to sell their stuff, and it’s a major tourist attraction. Before Housing took it over, it was a defunct, unattractive former industrial district.

    Thirdly, environment. This is an area where it seems positively nonsensical to suggest government has no role. Externalities like cleanliness of air and water have little impact on a business’ profits, but a great impact on the surrounding population. Unless businesses are forced by government regulation and enforcement to abide by environmental and health standards, they will ignore them and, in the case of some industries, make the area surrounding them a toxic, unliveable wasteland. I’m not exaggerating; look at the developing world for examples.

    This leads into my other central objection to libertarianism, which you’ve probably heard a million times: that is is simply freedom for the strong to oppress the weak.Report

    • Perhaps the distinction is purely semantic, but it strikes me that government provision of transport isn’t in any way increasing your freedom of movement. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think McDonald’s adding snack wraps to the menu expanded anyone’s freedom to eat. In both cases, all that happened was more options were opened up to which we can in turn apply an equal and unchanged amount (relative to prior to the addition of said options) of freedom. But perhaps the distinction is merely semantic.Report

      • Katherine in reply to Kevin Waterman says:

        People of a low income level don’t have the option of buying a car. Therefore, having transit gives me the freedom to go many places that I wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise.Report

      • Moff in reply to Kevin Waterman says:

        Also, if something happens to the car you do have, you’re left with another option. Yeah, Kevin, I would say you’re nitpicking semantics. “Having more options” is, I think, generally consistent with most people’s conception of freedom. It’s true that there’s diminishing marginal utility — there are already so many things to eat that it’s hard to see the addition of snack wraps as a significant gain — but if your sole transportation option is walking and all the good jobs are ten miles from your house, most folks are gonna say your quality of life is awfully constrained.Report

        • angulimala in reply to Moff says:


          This is a good example of how, when many libertarians speak about “Liberty/Freedom” they really mean “the types of Liberty/Freedom that I happen to care about”.

          Likewise the old, tired, truism that “You should be able to do what you will as long as your actions do not adversely effect others” seems to often mean “You should be able to do what you will as long as your actions do not adversely effect others … in ways I care about”.Report

    • Glen Raphael in reply to Katherine says:

      What makes you think private transit wouldn’t be profitable? It might not be profitable to drive huge, new, mostly-empty buses but absent regulations fought for by existing transit operators there’s nothing to stop private citizens from taking on passengers for profit in their regular commutes or to stop decentralized, more flexible, smaller-scale services from meeting the same need. Look up jitney services. Jitneys have been outlawed in US towns because they outcompeted the streetcar services – providing cheaper, more frequent, more flexible service along the same lines. Which might be bad for streetcar operators, but is good for customers.Report

      • Moff in reply to Glen Raphael says:

        Private mass transit might be workable, and barring mitigating information, I’m opposed to public operators using regulation to put them out of business — the pedicabs in Manhattan were getting hit like that, with the city council voting to prohibit them from hooking up small motors to their cycles (to make pedaling uphill or while carrying heavier loads easier), at the behest of the Taxi & Limousine Commission (if I remember correctly). And that’s bullshit.

        But even if a reliable private system gets put in place, I’d be nervous about a lack of public transit. I mean, when you need it, you need it. And for all its problems, public transit can generally be counted on. It might take longer, it might be full of crazy people, but catastrophes notwithstanding, it’s going to be there. Private operators are much more sensitive to the whims of the market and more. What happens if it’s no longer profitable to run services in the areas that need them most? What happens when the owner raises prices faster than those areas can keep up? What happens if ownership transfers? Or the company shuts down? Or what if there are several private operators, creating the illusion of competition, but they all offer mediocre service or worse, are largely insensitive to customer feedback, and don’t answer directly to any higher authority?

        The private sector is great. I think it should be allowed in many cases to compete with the public sector, in no small part to keep the public sector on its toes. But I’m also very wary of the long-term consequences of shifting some services over to the private sector.Report

        • Glen Raphael in reply to Moff says:

          Pretty much by definition the areas that need them most are the areas in which it’s the most profitable to run services. Private decentralized services can quickly adapt to changing conditions, adjusting routes and expanding to meet new needs. How do your objections not apply to, say, privately-run grocery stores or restaurants? When there are a bunch of competing service providers any particular one getting bought or going broke or providing bad service doesn’t hurt you much. Private businesses are customer-focused; they make more money if they do a better job of meeting customer needs. So you have to have a pretty good imagination to picture them being *less* sensitive to customer feedback than public businesses run for the benefit of the transit workers’ union.

          Personally, I find it hard to believe the sort of people who created the Bolt Bus couldn’t do the same thing for within-city transport that they’ve done for between-city transport if they were legally allowed to do so. When it comes to jitneys, historically the chief worry of regulatory agencies is *too much* competition, not too little. The usual fear is that you’ll get unsafe driving in crowded areas as competing firms try to steal each other’s customers. Or that in trying to lower fares to the absolute minimum you’ll get a “race to the bottom” – untrained drivers and falling-apart cars getting all the fares, making higher-priced services uncompetitive. Too little or overly expensive service just isn’t a plausible thing to worry about in this context. (how expensive could it be, really, to run a battery-assisted pedicab – or an old used car – compared to a 200-seat bus?)Report

          • Moff in reply to Glen Raphael says:

            Your optimism is impressive, but there are in fact places without conveniently located grocery stores or restaurants where people could use them. And I don’t need a good imagination at all to picture private businesses that are insensitive to customer needs: I just think of airlines, or cable providers (yes, even in areas where there are more than one), or plenty of property management companies.

            I didn’t argue at all against the merits of private-sector operations or say they were unworkable. I said they’re more sensitive to the market and other whims than public-sector operations. Neither is perfect. But one could decide to close up shop, for whatever reason, in my neighborhood with minimal notice, whereas the other typically can’t. And on another note, if I need to get across town with my mechanical wheelchair, I’d probably rather ride on the bus than in the jitney.Report

    • MHodak in reply to Katherine says:

      “One example is transit, which I use constantly. Without government it would not exist, because it is not profitable.”

      Actually, the opposite is closer to the truth:

      The original highways in this country were privately built. (A “turn pike’ is an old way of collecting tolls.)Report

    • Jim Glass in reply to Katherine says:

      …based on personal experience, government is actually better at some stuff than the private sector, and regulation can genuinely have a good effect … One example is transit, which I use constantly. Without government it would not exist, because it is not profitable…

      One might note that Sweden has a 100% voucherized public school system (any for-profit private party can open one), has privatized its post office, has private accounts in social security, and yes, has privatized public transit operations too. Sweden!

      What are the services that only government can provide?

      As to public transit in particular, far from being “impossible” if not run by the government, it was universally for-profit until the 1930s — and yes, there was plenty of it.

      The NYC subways, the greatest example in North America, were built privately
      and operated profitably with great success for decades. (As recalled at the above link, than you MHodak)

      Then the city’s politicians price controlled fares to cut the real fare in half, gutting the private operators financially. Then the city government took over the subways and literally turned them into ruins (look at movies and TV shows from the 1970s). Then the state gov’t took the subways away from the city and put them into a qausi-govt agency, the MTA, to insulate them from city politicians. This resulted in the subways getting fixed but at immense financial cost. Its union workers earn 50% more than market wages, full pensions at 55, and work rules that let then collect overtime pay while sleeping at home literally.

      As for other US transit: Transit rail lines built in cities that grew after the arrival of the car can never be anything but a huge financial waste. Such
      cities are laid out flat, on a plain, with cars crossing in every direction — but rail lines run in a straight line. There’s no way a line can service a plane. (New York’s subways were laid out before the car, and the city grew along the rail lines).

      Other forms of transit, buses and the like, are very expensive for the same reason as NY’s — they are run by government workers who get above market pay for below-market performance.

      Note well: Sweden and other nations with privatized transit operations have operating costs 40% below US levels.

      To preserve monopoly and such above=market cost, US governments prohibit competition. E.g., NYC bans jitneys and dollar vans, limits the number of taxis, limits where taxis can go — all specifically to protect monopoly transit routes. Run dollar van in competition with a $2.25 transit line and wear handcuffs.

      Thinking on the basis of personal experience: “Only government can provide these services” — transit, public schools, post office, social insurance, etc., — is a form of Stokholm Syndrome.

      The only thing you’ve ever seen is the government enforcing its monopoly on them and charging above-market prices for them while blocking private suppliers from the market — and then you think: “Thank you government for providing them, since nobody else ever would.”Report

      • Katherine in reply to Jim Glass says:

        Not above-market prices. Below-market, which is why people can afford them.

        I’m not in the US. I don’t know what US transit is like. But in Vancouver the public transit system – bus, trolley, and Sky Train – is excellent. I’m not aware of any regulations preventing taxis from going to any part of the city.Report

      • Moff in reply to Jim Glass says:

        I believe part of the reason New York limits the taxi licenses it issues is to prevent congestion. And how does the city limit where taxis can go? I’m pretty sure they can go wherever you want, although you have to negotiate with the driver if it’s an unusually long fare.

        I mean, yeah, they’ll never take you to Brooklyn. But that’s not because they’re not allowed to.Report

  11. mw says:

    …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 – mark

    Fine (and fun) post Mark. This is why I describe myself as “libertarian-leaning” rather than Libertarian or libertarian. As a political philosophy it keeps me oriented to “true north”, even if I am moving in other directions.

    That said, the oft-repeated “criticism” (as seen throughout this comment stream) of lilberatarian thought distilled to “screw you – I’ve got mine” is the intellectual equivalent of distilling liberalism to “I want yours, and I’m taking it.”Report

    • Moff in reply to mw says:

      Well, those criticisms wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t people calling themselves libertarians who do seem to present their philosophy that way. I don’t think anyone making the criticism is suggesting that intellectually honest, genuine libertarianism is about that — just saying one of libertarianism’s practical problems is that it’s often manifested that way.Report

      • mw in reply to Moff says:

        Yeah. I know exactly what you mean.

        Libertarians would do well to emulate the humility, tact and thoughtfulness of Liberals as they considerately and carefully explain why they know better than you what you should drive, what y0u should eat, who you should watch and listen to, to whom you can contribute your money, how much insurance you need, how much money you should be allowed to make, and how much they need to take away from you for the greater good.

        They are an example for all of us.Report

        • greginak in reply to mw says:

          strawman much?Report

          • Moff in reply to greginak says:

            You’re a lot pithier than I am. 😉Report

          • mw in reply to greginak says:

            Just to be clear. This is a strawman, but you are representing libertarians accurately. Do I have that right.Report

            • Moff in reply to mw says:

              Yes, “libertarians.” We mean every single libertarian. That’s very obviously what we’re saying.Report

            • greginak in reply to mw says:

              yes i think there are exactly three political beliefs in this country. and every person ascribes to one of them and believes exacatly what everybody else in their group believes.

              Just to be clear. I think it would be nifty if libertarians had a bit more influence on a national level. I also think there are just as big a percentage of shallow, silly thought and cliche in libertarian thought as every other group.Report

        • Moff in reply to mw says:

          Clearly my point, since I spent so much time lauding the humble virtuousness of liberals, and anyway, it’s obviously an either-or proposition: By pointing out (quite correctly) that people of political stripes other than the one under discussion often present themselves poorly, you have demonstrated that such criticisms of libertarians are thoroughly without merit. Thank you for moving the discussion forward with your thoughtful, well-considered response.Report

          • greginak in reply to Moff says:

            so is it possible to criticize/examine your own beliefs? Is it possible to fairly criticize a movement? I would say yes, but you need to avoid strawmen, attacking the weakest arguments of the other side and ridiculous caricatures.Report

            • Moff in reply to greginak says:

              Agreed. I mean, criticism, self- and otherwise, is always necessary, because no movement or belief is perfect. I think that’s really important to remember, too — that the aim of constructive criticism isn’t to make its object perfect (because that’s impossible) but just to improve awareness of how a belief or movement or policy is received by people beyond those promoting it. Sometimes you can make a change that makes more people happy without detracting from present happiness; sometimes you have to bite the bullet and say you can’t. But even though it’s harder, I really believe there’s generally a net gain for more people when folks on every side of an argument appreciate what’s on their opponents’ minds, even if they don’t act to accommodate it.

              (By the way, greg, because of how the nested comments can sometimes get tough to follow, I should say I hope you replied to this one of mine [“Clearly my point…”] because you were interested in spinning off of it and not because you thought it was directed at you.)Report

              • greginak in reply to Moff says:

                i find the nested comments confusing sometimes myself. So i just assume bad will on the part of everybody else. insert smiley face hereReport

            • mw in reply to greginak says:

              Ok, I’m getting it now. You mean caricatures like this:

              “most of its proponents seem to be young white men unaware or unwilling to acknowledge just how much they’ve benefited from government while growing up in this country. The axioms and arguments underlying the philosophy may be attractive, but they’re much easier to propound when you can already afford to share them over Facebook on a fast computer from the comfort of an air-conditioned apartment.”

              My mistake was not inserting the word “most”. I’ve learned something. Thanks.Report

              • Moff in reply to mw says:

                Fair enough. I shouldn’t have said “most”; but many of the libertarians I’ve encountered do seem to fit that model, and I think that model does correspond to a lot of non-libertarians’ perception of them. I don’t think dismissing their perception as unfounded or responding by attacking other groups’ shortcomings is particularly helpful to libertarians — and I don’t think anything I’m saying here is especially contentious.

                I mean, what’s the response you’re looking for here? This is a post about criticisms of libertarianism (written by a libertarian, no less). It’s been clarified now for you several times that no one (as far as I can tell) is saying, “All libertarians are jerks.” Some of us are saying, “A substantial number of libertarians come off as jerks.” I’m sorry that bothers you, but I don’t think we’re just making it up, and this does seem like a relevant place to broach our feelings. Do you need an explicit addendum that libertarians aren’t the only jerks out there? Should every criticism be accompanied by a saccharine testimonial about a really great libertarian we know? Or do you think it would be somehow useful if we just decided we were imagining things and that the multiple interactions we’d had with libertarians matching the description above had never happened? What point are you trying to make?Report

              • mw in reply to Moff says:

                I’m throwing a red flag on the field. Lets go under the hood and take a look at the instant replay…

                I make an innocuous complimentary comment on an excellent post, adding what I think is an incontrovertible casual observation that this thread is chock full of (to use greginak’s terminology) “ridiculous caricatures” of libertarians. Just sayin… all y0u have to do is read through the thread. That was it. That was the whole point.

                But then Moff feels compelled to defend the caricatures.

                Okaaaaay. I guess caricatures are fair game. I offer one myself, thinking I am holding up a mirror to the other “ridiculous caricatures” in the thread. And things devolve from there.

                I am chided for being off-topic. Clearly this is a libertarian flagellation thread (self and otherwise). Guilty as charged. My apologies to the commentariat. I look forward to the liberal flagellation thread where I believe I may be able to contribute in a more constructive fashion.

                With that, I defer to the judgment of the referee in the booth.Report

              • Moff in reply to mw says:

                OK, hey, calm down. Here’s how I saw it:

                You said, “Great post and it’s as silly to reduce libertarians to caricatures as it is to reduce liberals to caricatures.”

                I said, “Well, I think there’s some basis in reality for the libertarian caricature, and that seems to me like it’s an issue libertarians would be well served to address.”

                And then you said, “Oh, ’cause liberals are so perfect.” And I still don’t understand how that’s relevant. And then when it was pointed out that that isn’t a valid counterargument,* you came back with, “But let me get this straight: You think all libertarians are like this.”

                So you put words in my mouth, now you’re hyperbolizing this as the “libertarian flagellation thread,” and you’re acting like the aggrieved party. All in the service of refuting the supposed “caricature” view I hold of too many libertarians as excessively indignant and overly sensitive to criticism. Uh huh.

                I’m sorry this has gotten so heated. But I think if you’ll go back and reread my original response to you — the one that acknowledges quite happily that genuine, intellectually honest libertarianism isn’t about “I got mine” — you’ll see that there’s not a rude word in it. Maybe some words you didn’t like, or agree with, but nothing mean. And then you followed up with a bitchy non sequitur about liberals. Are you sure you just got attacked out of nowhere, or did I politely raise a point in response to your first comment, which you misread as an attack? And if I did attack you in that first comment, could you please show me where?

                *And it’s not — with all due respect, if you say, “Steve is a jerk” and I respond, “Well, Dave is a jerk too,” I’ve just tried to move the argument, not addressed your point; and if I say later on, “Well, I was just holding a mirror up,” I think you’re within your rights to say, “Great, uh, you’ve shown there are other jerks out there. Who knew? Thanks, we’ve all learned a lot.”Report

              • greginak in reply to Moff says:

                I think this thread was about Mark engaging in looking critically at his own beliefs as an exercise in improving his thinking.Report

              • Moff in reply to Moff says:

                Whatever his reasons were for doing it, “for the most part, [his] critiques are…of libertarianism…in general rather than [his] theories that deviate from run-of-the-mill libertarianism (if such a thing exists).” I think “a post about criticisms of libertarianism” is a very fair way to characterize it.Report

              • Dave in reply to Moff says:

                This guy has me all figured out without me ever making a comment here. Nice 🙂Report

  12. David Pinto says:

    I can’t let a Monty Python post on this subject go by without bringing up Python’s great criticism of socialism. The highway man Dennis Moore was robbing the rich to give to the poor. Eventually, the rich had nothing left and the poor were so rich they scoffed at what Moore brought them. As he rode off, the chorus sang:

    “He robs from the poor, and gives to the rich,
    Stupid bitch.”

    At which point Moore thinks for a minute and then exclaims to the camera, “My, this redstribution of wealth is trickier than I thought!”Report

  13. Tim says:

    * I don’t know why so many people are slamming libertarianism, seeing as it has been pretty much sidelined in the USA and has only marginal influence elsewhere. In fact, I think it’s just a big straw man that liberals use to comfort themselves as they confront their own failings as political rulers.

    * Since when is libertarianism about the strong bossing around the weak? Quite the opposite in fact, if you ask me. Libertarians believe in protecting *individual* rights against the collective. Big government believes in no-knock raids and the War against Drugs, regulating every aspect of human behavior in the name of one fashionable cause or another, censoring speech, taxing away more and more of one’s hard-earned cash, and generally viewing its subjects as caged veals (sp?). No straw man here — these policies are implemented and in place throughout the Western World.

    * Politics today have certain rules. A politician gets elected, and in return, he or she joins the redistributive system of cash for votes. This surges forward in good times, and recedes once it oversteps its bounds, but it never truly goes away. Libertarianism, as a philosophy and an attitude, just isn’t compatible with this. If you join the system, you become the system and you keep it going. Libertarians are impractical, pie-eyed idealists. They need to either get their feet dirty and stop being what they are, or retreat back to their libraries and Mountain View cocktail parties, right?

    * The Internet is libertarianism in practice. Its strongest adherents decry regulation and flout rules. Entities spring up and innovate, attract investment dollars, and thrive or fail. Its boundless energy is the result of keeping government out of the mix. We all love it for this. But I look forward to how anti-libertarians will feel when additional rules, taxes and controls are imposed on the Internet that strip away all of this.

    * Private charity is more moral than government social policy. When someone persuades another to voluntarily part with their money for a cause or to help someone, there is 1) a moral choice involved and 2) an expectation of concrete results that polices the recipient. I’m not saying government welfare programs and so on are terrible, but carried to the extreme, you get concrete apartment complexes filled with hoodie-wearing thugs dealing drugs and getting violent, or Indian reservations — funded to the brim — in complete and total social collapse. Do you really trust government bureaucracy? Look at public choice theory and how the actors in these institutions have their own self-interests.

    I’m no crazed libertarian. But I see our freedoms being taken away on a weekly basis, and it’s chilling to me. Maybe I ought to flee to Costa Rica and live with Woody Harrelson. =PReport

    • greginak in reply to Tim says:

      Tim it took gov regulation to open up the internet so that is could be a free market/libertarian paradise.Report

      • Tim in reply to greginak says:

        I’m glad we both agree that the Internet is a free market paradise. I’m happy to hitch my wagon to that example any day.

        You mean ARPANET? Just because government was involved in that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to manage an economy or lead technological innovation. (Government, with its thumb now in every pie, loves to take credit for everything.) It was only when the “Internet” was divorced from government control that it took off. Did government launch the personal computing revolution, or did two guys in a garage? If government were deciding how to proceed, we’d still be stuck in the world of mainframes. I think it’s indisputable that innovation here has been advanced by government stepping out of the way than leading it.Report

        • greginak in reply to Tim says:

          see this link http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/04/the-regulatory-origins-of-the-internet.html

          if there is anything the gov has been great at is funding and pushing tech innovation. See modern science and also the defense industry.

          the issue is not whether gov gets credit for everything it has ever been involved in. These arguments can get pointless real fast since it is easy to point out things gov has done right, done wrong and everything in between. One of the boring variations is to then argue about what actually has worked and what doesn’t.

          Gov and markets are part of life. I refuse to take anybody seriously who thinks either one or the other is perfect and the only answer. So we have to find the proper mix of ind rights, society, gov and markets. That is our challenge.

          hyperbole and strawmen get us nowhere.Report

          • Tim in reply to greginak says:

            Yes, I’m well aware that “government and markets are part of life,” and that we’re trying to find a “proper mix of ind rights, society, gov and markets.” Duh.

            If government was so marvelous at furthering tech innovation and research, we’d still be singing hosannas to Japan’s MITI. We all know how it’s once-praised, now-derided approach to HDTV went. Is Japan conquering the world today?

            I really don’t think you want to be praising the American defense industry. We need what they generate, and the gov’t (with a monopoly on the use of force) must institute some kind of procurement process, so fine… but $800 toilet seats and F-22s that require 34 hours on the ground for every hour in the air are hardly beacons of accomplishment.

            Just because government inserts itself into a process and takes credit for any inventions, while ignoring the massive expenditures that could be better spent elsewhere, does not mean it is the best way. Intel does just fine in computer chip research. Apple’s software engineers don’t need to be told to innovate by a government department. Competition is good. Get government out of the way — UNLESS a compelling case can be made for it to be there. Maintain competition and introduce it where cartels have taken over. Etc. Etc.Report

            • Moff in reply to Tim says:

              I don’t think many people here are slamming libertarianism so much as criticizing some of the mind-sets it’s become associated with. Some of us, it seems, have encountered a certain type of libertarian over and over again: excessively indignant, sensitive to criticism, prone to dismissing what are clearly complex problems as having obvious solutions, and overconfident about the capabilities of the market.

              If genuine libertarians hope to have more than marginal influence, it would probably be helpful for them to recognize that some of these criticisms have merit, as Mark has done.Report

              • greginak in reply to Moff says:

                exactly Moff. The excellent point of this post was to look beyond dogma and cliches. No theory is perfect or survives contact with reality. Ideologues present problems as having simple solutions, which always happens to be their beliefs. Many libertarians have that tendency. To a large degree that is because they do not a have strong party with influence on gov or have had to actually run a country, so they can rest comfortably with never having had to fail. Until you can fail and learn from it, you are a neophyte. Until you can see your own short comings, you are a child.Report

              • Tim in reply to Moff says:


                You’re just asking that libertarians concede their principles to yours, full stop. You may smile and say you’re being reasonable and “practical”, but it’s no different from a libertarian asking you to give up your addiction to government solutions. As for the libertarians you meet, I think you need to get out more; libertarians are the ones who urge government restraint and lament the hubris of planners who think all solutions come from a bureaucrat’s desk. And many libertarians are business owners who are grounded in the day-to-day world.


                Libertarians are out of power in the USA, but have had quite an influence on policy making in the GOP (until they went all social conservative) and in the world. You should take a look at Cato’s publications; you’ll see output that you may not agree with, but is certainly serious and well-argued.Report

              • Moff in reply to Tim says:

                I forgot to add “paranoid” to the list of qualities I mentioned above. Yes, Tim, I have a secret “get the libertarians to concede their principles” agenda, despite sometimes advocating for those principles myself. (How strange that you know all about my “addiction to government solutions,” as I don’t recall us having conversed before or my ever having expressed such a position.) Anyway, it’s all a Magnificent Master Plan. It’s been fruitful having this good-faith discussion with you.Report

              • Tim in reply to Moff says:

                LOL I think my attributing a government addiction to you is no more rash than you perceiving me as a wide-eyed libertarian wacko. (And I hadn’t even shared pics of my Ayn Rand duvet cover and John Galt license plate!) I guess we both do a lot of prejudging.

                PS Did I say anything was *secret* about your desire to get libertarians to concede their principles?Report

              • todd in reply to Moff says:

                Moff, in regards to your perception of libertarians’ “overconfiden[ce] about the capabilities of the market” I would direct you to Arnold Kling over at Econlog. His saying, which he offers as a description of Masonomics (which seems to me pretty in-line with standard libertarian thought) goes something like “Markets fail. Use markets.” It may be that you have encountered a multitude of people who describe themselves as libertarians that refuse to recognize any market outcomes as “sub-optimal” in any meaningful sense, but that really strikes me as a caricature of the libertarian view that I’ve come to accept.

                I’m not happy that there are poor children in the third-world who have to work in sweatshops to eat. I would much prefer that they didn’t have to work at all and could instead spend their time like most American children playing and learning, but from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look like that is a realistic option for them. It looks to me like their options are either starving or working in a sweatshop, of which the sweatshop seems undeniably preferable.

                When I end up in these conversations with my liberal friends, I always feel that the only way to come off as being morally upright in their eyes is to deny that is a real scarcity of resources in this world. It’s a similar situation when the conversation veers toward regulation. They seem to regard my concerns about public choice problems and regulatory capture as wildly overblown, but the evidence of established firms using government regulations to limit competition to their benefit seems so overwhelming to me that I usually just end up scratching my head.Report

              • Moff in reply to todd says:

                I completely agree that we should use markets. I am pro-capitalism. As far as I can tell, the course of recorded history shows that it’s worked better, in general, than any of the alternatives.

                I don’t have a major problem with libertarianism, either. I’m self-employed; my father and his before him (and his before him) were self-employed. I’m from North Dakota. I enjoy the works of Robert Heinlein.

                I don’t think I’ve said anything particularly critical of libertarianism qua libertarianism in this comments section. I’ve said there are services I’d be nervous about handing over to the private sector (but also that I tend to favor private-sector competition with the public sector in those areas). And I’ve said I think there’s a certain negative perception of libertarians, which in my experience has enough basis in reality that it would be worthwhile for libertarians to address, even if (or rather precisely because) that perception doesn’t align with what many libertarians actually believe. (An analogy: I think Christians ought to be more vocal about how the beliefs and policies of the religion’s mainstream face—evangelicals—don’t square at all with plenty of other churches’ beliefs and policies.)

                And maybe I’m wrong and I’m just attacking a caricature. But since I’m reiterating what feel to me like fairly noncontentious points for the umpteenth time, and since I’ve in this very thread been accused by a libertarian of secretly wanting to undermine them under a pretense of reasonableness, I think their might be something to what I’m saying. About how libertarians sometimes present their beliefs. Not about libertarianism. Since I haven’t really said much about it.Report

              • Moff in reply to todd says:

                Oh, that was a little sharp. todd, thank you for your considered and thoughtful response (seriously). I hear what you’re saying.Report

              • todd in reply to Moff says:

                Point taken, Moff. I understand what you are saying, and even where you are coming from with respect to the views many outside the libertarian movement have of libertarianism. I guess my point was that I’m still searching for the right way to persuade critics of libertarianism that free-markets are almost always the best option for allocating scarce resources without being accused of thinking markets are perfect. In my experience, admitting that allowing people to try to solve their problems through markets will not immediately make everyone (particularly the poor) much better off, but holds out the promise for the best chance of long-term sustainable improvements in standards of living does not earn me kudos for honesty from those who disagree with me. As part of a movement with no real connection to political power, it seems to me that most public proponents of libertarianism are generally more willing to engage in civilized debate than would-be opponents.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to todd says:

                I’m still searching for the right way to persuade critics of libertarianism that free-markets are almost always the best option for allocating scarce resources without being accused of thinking markets are perfect.

                I would respectfully suggest that one very good way to go about doing this would be to step back and note to what extent that proposition is already accepted at about 75-85% strength or higher by just about every serious policy maker or advocate in the American political debate, left, right and center. You’re really much further along on this goal from the jump than you seem to think; it would seem to me that a good way way to advance even greater acceptance of this axiom would to focus on just how broad and extensive that acceptance already is and expand from there, rather than to focus on and emphasize the areas/instances where those you want to persuade depart from market orthodoxy. After all, as has been discussed here often (in this very post if I am clear where I am actually commenting at the moment), one plausible picture of libertarianism that has been suggested is as a vector, the inspiration of which conception lies in the fact that even self-described libertarians for the most part (short, as noted above, of anarchists) have their breaking points, where they admit of the need for governmental provision of certain public goods.

                Granting the degree of consensus already in place about the efficacy of the market and making that the starting point for discussion seems to me to be the most honest way to conduct this discussion, given that we all exist somewhere on the spectrum between libertarianism and support of government action, and given that the the debate that occurs in this country around that issue occurs within a relatively narrow band of that spectrum, considering where the poles are rightly set (ie. anarchy to total state control). Such an approach has the added benefit of (in my view) being likely the most effective at increasing individual levels of support for the free market, because it affirms a value that you have in common with the person you are trying to persuade — the value of individual economic choice and the cumulative benefit of such free choice — rather than attacking a competing value that the person values more highly than yourself, namely concern about those who are unable to secure a certain minimum quality of life or about other outcomes in an environment of unrestricted or radically deregulated free choice.Report

  14. the first video doesn’t seem to work, but here it does.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOMqfx5Ers4Report

  15. Matt says:

    This is the first time I have ever read one of your posts and I think it is excellent. I will be checking back in the future.
    I consider myself libertarian from “this point.” All that means is that I think there should be less government than there is right now.
    But you absolutely nailed the reason I feel uneasy about a libertarian party. Right now, a libertarian is the guy at the party telling his friend not to drink anymore becuase he’s already smashed. If we become a legitimate party, my fear is that we would start off drinking slowly to show everyone how to do it responsibly, but before too long we’d be the one throwing up on our friends coffee table.

    Mark, what do you think the best role is for a libertarien?Report

  16. Mike says:

    Great post. The criticisms you give broadly cover the reasons I’m liberal, not libertarian. So let me add a little to some.

    First, one can take as evidence the importance of government the fact that among all the societies that have ever existed on Earth, not one has developed without a corresponding development of strong, centralized government.

    The second is the reason I believe in progressive taxation. Without, for instance, patent and copyright law — or if such laws existed eternally to the past — the landscape of personal wealth would be very different. Given that the state of humanity without strong government appears to be very poor development, I think it is almost tautological to say that those who benefit most from the net effect of government are those who are wealthiest. This motivates asking them to contribute more to its maintenance.

    Third goes along with second.

    Fourth I think runs deeper than your post suggests. The reason is, at the core, there is no basis for property ownership other than the ability to defend it by force. What we deem legitimate market transactions exist only because they are defended by the overwhelming power of the state. We own property in the U.S. because our ancestors took it by force from natives, and devised schemes to distribute it among themselves. It seems to me impossible to undo this legacy, except insofar as government can equalize opportunities among its citizenry.

    I guess the fifth ties to the fourth: ideologically libertarianism may have many virtues, but the practical world is different.Report

    • Tim in reply to Mike says:


      “those who benefit most from the net effect of government are those who are wealthiest…”

      The welfare state, with its redistributive taxes, social spending and government services, has resulted in an extraordinary benefit to the “poorer” in society. The top 1% in the USA pay 40% of the taxes. Corporate taxation siphons off vast sums to the government purse. Obama is only able to run up such massive deficits because the rich are around to pay for it (and even that is questionable). If we are to believe leftist agitprop, the rich are always agitating to topple the welfare state and institute massive cutbacks.

      You have a simplistic view of property. First of all, it’s not just land but capital and all other saved work. Second, the idea that there is a fixed, zero-sum amount is false, as we are always growing due to our efforts, productivity, etc. Third, this serves as another basis for the foundation of property — namely, we earned it. If I bake a cake, it’s mine, whether or not you can make off with it when I’m not looking. Fourth, who did the natives take their property from? They were not Rousseauean innocents, but warriors who took what they wanted and defended it with force themselves. At some point, when a society develops with common agreements, it makes sense to devise rules that keep it working; otherwise, we have chaos.Report

      • Mike in reply to Tim says:


        I think you are taking the simplistic view.

        Of course, if you look at who are the direct beneficiaries of federal outlays, most of them are not among the wealthiest. But one should look at the net effect. There is not large income disparity among members of primitive societies. Income disparity comes from a complicated society that organizes labor and resources in such a way that some people can benefit more from the organization than others. Whether this is “fair” or not is beside the point — it is made possible by government, which creates “legitimacy” by its ability to provide overwhelming force, in turn allowing people to trust each other.

        It is very naive, I think, to consider that one can excise government and still have the social organization we have. While the activities of government that make this organization possible are a small fraction of its outlays, they obviously play the dominant role in shaping our society.

        I think your view of property is simplistic. I spoke in simple terms to be abstract and general. You mention baking a cake, and that cake is “yours” whether someone can take it from you or not. By what reason do you deduce this? Consider, first of all, the ingredients of the cake came from someone’s property, which was ultimately obtained and is defended by force. How did you obtain those ingredients? You have in mind you bought them, but you don’t enter this world with anything to buy them with. The “owner” of the cake ingredients might contract you to make the cake, but then what fraction of the cake is his, verse what is yours? Also, how do you know how to make a cake? You learned this, but why don’t the people who did the work to discover how to make a cake “own” those ideas, and thus also “own” a fraction of the cake?

        The fact is all of this is arbitrary. We have a set of rules to answer these questions (which I agree work very well, for the most part), which are so ingrained in our mindset that they seem “natural” — but they are not, they are just made up. Their true authority rests with the overwhelming power of the state to defend them.Report

        • Mike in reply to Mike says:

          Maybe I should clarify some points.

          It is common — and I think largely correct — to attribute the wealth of our society to (social) market capitalism. My point is that you need government to have market capitalism. Ultimately, it’s government that sets standards for contracts and obligations, for what happens when parties (attempt to) renege, and defines what exactly is “property” (who owns land, sky, airwaves, genes, ideas, etc.) The proof I give of this is that across the globe, and across history, different governments have done these things differently.

          Thus, those who benefit from our system of economy, benefit from the government that defines it and legitimizes it.

          Now, while I think this motivates asking wealthier people to pay more for government, it of course doesn’t answer the question of whether government should introduce a certain regulation or not, or do away with another or not. Nor does it answer the question of whether government should fund a certain welfare program or not.

          I think on these issues, libertarianism tends to be short-sighted because it tends to fail to recognize that we are very far from a “free market,” if even such a thing exists (I personally don’t understand what exactly is meant by “free market” — does that mean no patent or copyright law? no bankruptcy law? no consumer protections? no rights for shareholders? etc.) One of the important points made by the above is that it is not clear that, given the present state, removing a given regulation produces a better approximation to a “free market” — or that adding a given regulation does not (where you can replace “free market” with “ideal market” if like me you don’t know what the former is). This means such questions have to be analyzed, you cannot rely on some trite rule like “smaller government / less regulation is always better.”

          With regard to welfare, I think libertarianism is short-sighted in neglecting to see the importance of resources on opportunity, and the role of the state in providing that. To some extent, the “haves” of today beget the “haves” of tomorrow. “Welfare” is a means of compensating for the injustice of this, both by attempting to make the lives of the “have nots” more tolerable, and attempting to equalize opportunities among the progeny of “haves” and “have nots.” I claim “injustice” not so much because I know what “justice” is, but because I know the roots of resource distribution are arbitrary, to the extent we benefit from our ancestors, which seems to me to be great.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Tim says:

        Re: Tax Burden on Top 1%, 20%, rest

        — “The top 1% in the USA pay 40% of the taxes.” —

        The top 1 percent of holders of wealth hold on the order of 40% of the wealth; they pay on the order of 40% of the taxes. The dog bites the man.

        Source: http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

        Distribution of net worth and financial wealth in the United States, 2004

        Total Net Worth
        Top 1 % Next 19 % Bottom 80 %
        2004 34.3% 50.3% 15.3%

        Financial Wealth
        Top 1 % Next 19 % Bottom 80 %
        2004 42.2% 50.3% 7.5%

        (Source: http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html)Report

  17. Eric H says:

    Brilliant. Two problems, though:

    “libertarians do a poor job recognizing the inconsistency of their position to the extent we do not actually advocate anarchy.”

    Speak for yourself. Have y’all heard of Kevin Carson and mutualism?

    “We don’t live in a Coasian world with no transaction costs and in which information-sharing is perfect.”

    Ugh. Ronald Coase did not believe the world was free of transaction costs; indeed he did perhaps more than his fair share of pointing them out. The belief that he did believe in this nonsense could largely be blamed on George Stigler. Let us call the transaction free world a Stiglerian world, please.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to Eric H says:


      Thanks for the comment. Re: mutualism and Kevin Carson, I should say that Kevin is specifically who I had in mind in exempting anarchist libertarians from this sort of self-criticism. Indeed, many of Kevin’s own arguments likely influenced a lot of this post.

      On the second point, I wasn’t trying to suggest that Coase believed the world was free of transaction costs – Coase obviously did not believe this.Report

  18. FGH says:

    A key element lacking in your analysis of libertarian shortcomings is the consideration of the temporal considerations. Robert Mundell, the Nobel laureate, once observed when asked what kind of economist he was reportedly replied, “In the short run a socialist, in the long run a laissez-faire capitalist.” There’s a parallel to this in ethics. We should not be surprised that moral relativism, the “ends-justify-the-means” approach, is embraced by the left, i.e., short-term focus, and that a principled approch, i.e, long-term focus, is embraced by the right.
    A further observation here: Many intelligent economists on the right have said they are only 90 percent libertarian and are 10 percent utilitarian, meaning they allow that prudence sometimes, but rarely, requires a short-term perspective in the interest of achieving the superior goal. But even here, the focus is long term.Report

  19. Julian Duane says:

    Sorry, but as far as I can see all the “analysis” you do is as shallow and trite as a Jilly Cooper novel. It’s no wonder libertarians are not taken at all seriously academically.Report

  20. Steve Hayes says:

    Deregulation and unintended consequences.

    We have a fine example in south Africa. About 20 years ago the government deregulated goods transport. Before then, most goods went my rail over long distances. Now, after years of huge overloaded trucks, our roads are rapidly deteriorating and becoming more dangerous, because they weren’t designed for that kind of traffic. The government thinks toll roads are the answer, but the truckowners bypass the toll roads to avoid paying the fees, and travel on the smaller roads even less designed for that kind of traffic.

    The statement “universal healthcare is theft” seems to be part of libertarian dogma — but what about streetlights, and the streets themselves, and rubbish removal, and drains? One never hears them whinging about those.Report