Liberaltarianism and mutual improvement

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James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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63 Responses

  1. Avatar BSK says:

    Very interesting post. I appreciate the nuanced and non-dogmatic approach. Curious to see the feedback this generates.Report

  2. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    We had an angry, drive-by dude who stopped by for a day and lectured me about how I’m not smart enough to be a libertarian (yes, I did assume he was a Randroid), and at one point I asked him, “If the factory a mile away pollutes the groundwater and I get cancer as a resuly, what’s the answer in a libertarian society?” His response, which was classic, was, ““Is it your land? You can sue them if it’s your property. Otherwise, tough shit!” I let it slide, but my thought was that either 1. He’s wrong about libertarianism (good chance of that), or 2. He’s right about libertarianism, in which case, libertarianism is all good and well, but I’m going to keep living in the non-libertarian world, thanks.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Rufus F. says:

      And his argument ignores completely the difficulty of winning that suit. Prove first that your cancer is a result of exposure to the contaminant. Prove second that the contaminant in your groundwater is from that particular factory, and not a different factory in a different direction. And do all that while undergoing (and paying for) cancer treatments. Myself, I think I’m happier living in a world where “Thou shalt dispose of benzene properly” is an enforced law, rather than an option for someone who thinks they can win in court against the cancer victims.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

      We had an angry, drive-by dude who stopped by for a day and lectured me about how I’m not smart enough to be a libertarian

      It’s been my experience that libertarians are the only political group likely to tell you that they are in Mensa. In fact, the only people who’ve ever told me they were in Mensa were libertarians.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Chris says:

        I have known only one person who ever told me they were in Mensa. She was a perfectly decent person, and I got along with her extraordinarily well, but a libertarian she most definitely was not. She was, instead, a card-carrying liberal.

        I do not view the fact that every person who ever told me they were in Mensa was a liberal as being reflective of liberals.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          Mark, it’s been several more than one. In statistical terms, the number is infinite. 😉 (in statistics, infinity is ~30.)

          Anyway, I was just making a quip about libertarians and pretentiousness. I don’t think you have to meet many to get the joke, whether they mention Mensa or not.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    Awesome post James K, I agree enthusiastically with pretty much every point.Report

  4. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’m mostly with you, but I’m going to hold this bit up for a practical critique:

    [T]here are a lot of market-based approaches to environmental problems. Pigouvian taxes (such as carbon taxation) use market mechanisms to spread the cost of pollution abatement in the most efficient manner. And tradeable permits for fishing are a much superior option to prevent overfishing than the methods used by most governments. But it’ll be hard to convince people to take us seriously when we sound like we don’t care if people are harmed by pollution, just so long as we’re not inconvenienced. I mean, people already think of us as raging narcissists, how about we fight the stereotype a bit?

    In the past when I’ve suggested a carbon tax, I’ve been accused of offering it merely as a ploy — I know it won’t pass, but it sure looks good, and so I say I support it. The liberal who looks into my heart of hearts just knows that I’m insincere.

    Liberals, how can I get taken seriously on this one? If we have to tax something, we should be taxing pollution in strong preference to, say, income. Income doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone, but pollution does.

    (Of course, you on the left are convinced that income does hurt, so maybe we don’t have anything to talk about.)Report

    • I’m on the left. I think a carbon tax is a great idea. I don’t think it’s more important to tax income than it is to recognize the negative externalities of our current energy policy. I won’t presume to read your mind if you grant me the same. 😉Report

    • Avatar david in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      You’re a CATO scholar, and the CATO institute continues to publish attacks on AGW, the relationship between AGW and carbon dioxide, and carbon tariffs. Explicitly and meaningfully calling your colleagues out for it might help.

      Atop this, even pro-carbon-tax-in-principle libertarians spend an inordinate amount of time attacking actual tariff proposals as they stand (for being inefficient, for letting special interests through, etc.). Libertarians are already suspected of waving the flag of fake ideological purity in order to push assorted conservative positions (see also: Ron “free trade except when it comes to a vote, gay marriage except when it comes to a vote” Paul). Accept that legislation requires compromise and voice your grudging support.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Blanket assertions and painting with broad brushes is bad so why don’t we do more of it?Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      As David points out, can you convince your bosses bosses not to spend millions to defeat any candidate who proposes a carbon tax?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        I’ve done what (very little) I can, not being an expert. This, for example. Not a denialist on the panel. Indeed, I’m not even sure it’s correct that any Cato scholars still deny global warming. That they aren’t as convinced as you are of imminent doomsday is not terribly upsetting to me, to be honest.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          The imminent doomsday theory is a bit of a red herring, isn’t it? We’re talking geologic-time like intervals here (well, not that slow). But ocean levels will rise, weather patters will be more chaotic, desertification will continue. From our perspective it will appear gradual – and that’s the danger of not taking it seriously.Report

    • Ironically, I actually have to back-track a little on carbon taxes specifically, since I don’t think they’ll work due to the intractable coordination problems involved. Emissions taxation is a good solution, but not when you need to get every country on the planet to join in.

      I think we’re going to need to fall back on second-best solutions for dealing with climate change.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to James K says:

        You don’t need to get all the other countries of the world onboard to tax something that’s harmful (carbon) rather than something that’s benign (income). This is a policy change that is good on its own merits, regardless of what other countries do.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    If you discussed Friedman’s Negative Income Tax with a Tea Partyer (leaving the name off it), what do you think the odds are it would be rejected as socialism? I’d put it way above 50%.Report

  6. Avatar rj says:

    Something else libertarians should do in order to work better with liberals: stop talking about every government action or tax as occuring “at the barrel of a gun.” Looking at all of the corporations who are holding bidding wars to see who will offer the biggest bribe to relocate, it’s hard to say that states and cities can’t force anyone to do anything. If you have a problem with the big, bad feds, then go find your libertarian paradise somewhere else – we don’t have an exit visa requirement. That’s not a small distinction – you are always free to go.

    It’s kind of amazing how libertarians who use this type of language can keep up the cognative dissonance of at once thinking of themselves as Randian supermen who would never need any safety net while also being frightened little creatures who spend their days led on an endless death march between OSHA and the IRS, all the while kept in line by armed government thugs.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to rj says:

      stop talking about every government action or tax as occuring “at the barrel of a gun.”

      Look, I’m the last person to talk like that as talking like that doesnt allow the government to tax people to prevent force and fraud and provide genuine public goods. That said, laws in general are necessarily coercive. (What do you think we do with criminals?) There is some major explanatory work that needs to be done to bridge the gap between our judgement that its not ok for our neighbours to coerce us and the judgement that it is acceotable for the government to coerce us at least some of the time. Of course libertarians in general do believe that it can be bridged, but agreed maintaining that coercion is wrong in all cases is not the way to do so.Report

      • Avatar rj in reply to Murali says:

        Even the comments at Bleeding Heart Libertarians rather quickly stray to “barrel of a gun” wailing. The only difference with the BHL is that you have to go farther down the thread until you see the word “parasite” than you do at Cafe Hayek or McArdle.

        Around here at LOOG, things are much better, a certain Mr. Cheeks aside.

        Which means you really aren’t libertarians after all! Ha!Report

  7. Avatar greginak says:

    Good post. I have to admit with being mostly incredibly bored with most of the debates regarding libertarianism over the last few months. It’s much more interesting to talk how principles work in the real world, where philosophies struggle since that is the place where they need to develop more and where we have agreements.Report

  8. Avatar ppnl says:

    My major problem with libertarians is that so many of them don’t seem to understand the tragedy of the commons. This is counter-intuitive because the protection of individual property rights is what libertarianism is all about. Anyway this is what gives libertarians that corporatist flavor.

    I’m not a fan of a blanket carbon tax. There are some sources of co2 that can reasonably easily be dealt with while for others there is no clear solution. A tax should be aimed at the low hanging fruit. Coal power plants for example. There is no way to reduce our carbon footprint much while we depend on coal for power. And there are options.

    Also maybe the tax collected from carbon taxes should be given back as a rebate. Then this acts as a lower tax rate on people who do not produce much carbon.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to ppnl says:

      “My major problem with libertarians is that so many of them don’t seem to understand the tragedy of the commons. ”

      A libertarian would say that the concept of a “commons” is a silly idea to begin with, and that if only the ownership of that space were clearly defined then there wouldn’t be a problem.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Which is one reason why most of us think they’re silly.Report

      • Avatar ppnl in reply to DensityDuck says:

        A libertarian would say that the concept of a “commons” is a silly idea to begin with, and that if only the ownership of that space were clearly defined then there wouldn’t be a problem.

        I don’t think so. They would argue “commons” should be avoided when possible exactly because it makes ownership ambiguous. A point that I agree with. But for example any pollution problem is in a sense a commons problem. Here we have a massive artificial reservoir for flood control, hydro power, reliable water supply and recreational fishing and boating. Creating such a thing is essentially impossible for a private group.

        It’s just that most of them don’t see how pervasive commons type situations are.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to ppnl says:

      Actually one of the advantages of emissions taxation is it uses market forces to mediate those questions. If a pollution source is valuable, and hard to replace people will just eat the tax, but if it can be replaced it will be. Also, the higher prices encourage innovation to improve efficiency or replace the pollutant.Report

      • Avatar ppnl in reply to James K says:

        Actually one of the advantages of emissions taxation is it uses market forces to mediate those questions. If a pollution source is valuable, and hard to replace people will just eat the tax, but if it can be replaced it will be. Also, the higher prices encourage innovation to improve efficiency or replace the pollutant.

        Yes but the bureaucracy for measuring all the sources of emissions will make it a mess. And while the market will adapt and try to find alternatives it is much better to focus on the problems that are easier for it to solve. One step at a time. We don’t need a law so large and complex that in printed form you need a forklift to move it and no human will ever read anyway. Low hanging fruit first. If possible we want to avoid the law of unintended consequences.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to ppnl says:

          I don’t think its as complicated as all that. You identify the major sources of CO2 (coal, petroleum products, I’m sure there are others), you tax them in proportion to the amount of CO2 they emit upon being burned, and you tax them at the point of extraction / importation (unless the imported stuff has already paid a carbon tax in another country).

          There’s some work involved, but it’s not that hard really.Report

          • Avatar ppnl in reply to James K says:

            Yeah and I think once you get all those special interests involved you will dwarf the the size of the health care bill. For example if you carbon tax energy then you can tax anything at all imported from a country without an energy tax. I foresee hundreds of millions spent in lawsuits over how we calculate that tax. I foresee hundreds of millions going into campaign contributions to politicians. I foresee many thousands of special exemptions for people who make those contributions.

            Keep it simple. I think close to half of all emitted co2 is from coal fueled power plants. This is a problem that can be solved. This is a problem that must be solved to make any progress at all.

            The next problem is emissions from transportation. You can only achieve marginal improvements here until the first problem is solved. Once we have co2 free energy then we have the tools to fix this. Until then any effort expended here rather than on the energy problem is only marginally effective.

            After that you start mopping up a lot of smaller sources. This gets complex, costly and has diminishing returns. But thats ok because you have already solved most of the problem.Report

            • Avatar James K in reply to ppnl says:

              Ah, we’re talking realpolitik, that’s different.

              As a practical measure I don’t actually support carbon taxation (I know I used it as an example above, but I was more interested in the general principle than this specific example). Though my objection is more about the fact that there’s no way in hell we’re ever going to get enough countries to sign up for it.

              So that leaves us with second-best solutions, and there my thinking is similar to yours. We need to replace coal as a power source. Right now, nuclear fission is the only thing that fits the bill (right now), and the current international moves away from it in Europe are disquieting. But new technologies would be welcome as well, and I can see a role for government there (ideally through contestable prize funds).Report

              • Avatar ppnl in reply to James K says:

                As a practical measure I don’t actually support carbon taxation

                I think a carbon tax could be useful but only if it is simple and is used to solve a well defined simple problem. The problem is that politicians will turn it into a complex mess designed to save the world from everything from AGW to the common cold. Start simple and build slow as you see what works. Work the problem.

                Though my objection is more about the fact that there’s no way in hell we’re ever going to get enough countries to sign up for it.

                Any plan that depends on international cooperation is doomed. If a plan makes economic sense then it makes sense even if we do it alone. If it does not make sense then doing it together is just compounding the error.

                We need to replace coal as a power source. Right now, nuclear fission is the only thing that fits the bill (right now), and the current international moves away from it in Europe are disquieting.

                If nuclear fission is a viable strategy, and I believe it is, then we should do it no matter what the rest of the world does. Show them that it works and they will follow. There are substantial benefits to being followed.

                Also while I support fission I also think solar has a good future. Wind I’m not so sure about.

                But new technologies would be welcome as well, and I can see a role for government there (ideally through contestable prize funds).

                I’m not really a fan of x-prize plans. I remember McCain proposing an X-prize for battery technology. The problem is that anyone who could win the X-prize pretty much had a license to print money. There are vast amounts of money being invested in battery research. An X-prize isn’t going add significantly to that. An X-prize works better if there is no immediate payoff for success. The Ansari X-prize that Burt Ruttan and Paul Allen won comes to mind. But the payout was only ten million while they invested over a hundred million in the project. I just don’t see it as a big motivator. I see it more as cheerleading what is going to happen anyway.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to ppnl says:

                If a plan makes economic sense then it makes sense even if we do it alone. If it does not make sense then doing it together is just compounding the error.

                I think a carbon tax could only work with international cooperation, otherwise you just end up moving carbon emissions around the world, which is pointless at best, and may be perverse. I agree that it is doomed because of this.

                If nuclear fission is a viable strategy, and I believe it is, then we should do it no matter what the rest of the world does. Show them that it works and they will follow. There are substantial benefits to being followed.

                I agree. This is where I think policy attention needs to be focused, there are significant political barriers to nuclear fission. I think solar has potential as well, but only time will tell on that one.

                The problem is that anyone who could win the X-prize pretty much had a license to print money. There are vast amounts of money being invested in battery research. An X-prize isn’t going add significantly to that.

                A good point, but like any economist I think at the margin. Every bit helps.Report

  9. Avatar Invictus523 says:

    Excellent post. I would like to dispute your assertion that there are no market forces at work as applied to charities. I propose that the law of supply and demand do apply. While there is no tangible product purchased from giving to charity there is still an effect on the giver. Just as buying a movie ticket gives you an experience so does donation. The demand for charity is not the number of people requiring assistance, this is often the reason that people discount charities from the effects of market forces. The demand is an emotional one, people want to feel good about themselves, feel that their disposable income is going to some greater purpose. Through charity they purchase a form of self image that they desire. It is at heart the same forces that cause people to buy a certain brand or style of clothing/cars/etc. The supply is the amount of money deemed necessary to help in a given situation. The larger the disaster, i.e. the more money needed to assist in the relief of the disaster the greater the demand to give to a related charity and the greater the self esteem purchased by that giver. Short term, large scale, finite events garner far more short to mid-term charity than wide spread loosely defined issues like overall hunger or poverty. The latter of which generate a steadier long term but overall smaller average donation(purchase) per giver. This is described by symptoms of fatigue in the market the longer an event goes on, the less given. Charity is essentially governed by the same market forces as fashion which really deals not in formed textiles but in self image.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Invictus523 says:

      I can see where your coming from, but my essential point is that you can’t expect all (or even most) of the human suffering generated by poverty to be automatically met by charity. Therefore, you can’t just use private charity as a rejoinder to the question “if you abolish welfare, what will become of the poor?”Report

  10. I’ve been wanting to learn more about liberal libertarianism and this is an intriguing post. I was wondering if you could explain a bit more about free trade, specifically this:

    “By protesting the importation of products from 3rd world countries western unions are effectively trying to enrich people in the 90th income percentile worldwide at the expense of people in the 30th percentile.”

    I am under the impression (and my knowledge of economics is quite limited) that free trade hurts American workers (as you point out most liberals think) but that it also harms 3rd world workers and domestic economies, meaning free trade depresses wages world-wide and at the same time puts local industries in 3rd world countries(as opposed to multi-national or American) out of business, and that ultimately the products we’re importing are not products of 3rd world products in the true sense–the countries where the products are technically produced and their citizens don’t profit, but rather the multi-national companies do. Thoughts?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Rachel Levy says:

      I’d submit that the picture is more complicated than that. If the manufacturing and assembly jobs in third world countries were not superior to the activities the populace were previously doing then they wouldn’t likely want to do it. In the case of the far east the activity was mostly subsistence or tenant farming/herding. While we in the west might look and see a Chinese worker making a buck an hour in a vile environmentally filthy manufacturing plant as being exploited the worker him/herself is likely at least modestly pleased with this arrangement. The first world itself went through these dirty and unpleasant industrialized phases (albeit slowly, we consumed only the sum of our own production) and the increase in wealth and increase in education that those small improvements allowed yielded an ever increasing cycle of productivity, efficiency and education that has led us to our cleaner more prosperous society today. The developing world, with the first world providing additional demand and technological know-how, is poised to speed more quickly through the dirty and unpleasant development phases to get to the improved standards of living phases that they know lie ahead of them. South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan all stand as testaments to the power of this process with hundreds of millions lifted out of bone crushing poverty. All they need to do so is stable government, free trade and global peace though eliminating things like agricultural subsidies would probably also accelerate the process.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Rachel Levy says:

      In basic terms, the extent to which capital and labour gain or lose from freer trade depends on two things: relative abundance and specificity (or how easily a resource can be turned to other uses).

      In layman’s terms: in capital-rich countries profits rise and wages fall in response to liberalising trade, in a capital poor-country (like anywhere in the 3rd world), the reverse is true. The reasons for this are technical, but it comes down to the general principle that the more of something there is, the less it is worth (all things being equal). If a country restricts trade with the outside world, then all that matters is how abundant or scare it is in that country. But when you open trade up, what matters is how abundant or scarce something is in the whole world. This is borne out by the fact 3rd world sweatshops actually pay significantly more than the alternative sources of employment (which are generally pretty dismal – subsistence farming, prostitution and picking through polluted landfills are the most common alternatives, even for the children)

      But that’s only part of the story. Workers (and shareholders) consume as well as produce, and free trade drives down prices. So if you’re a first world worker, your income is likely to fall but prices will also fall, so the real question is which effect is bigger? That depends on how easily you can turn your hand to another line of work. If you are equally productive in some other line of work then you can just change industry. However, if your current line of work is the only thing you’re good at you have a problem.

      Does that help?Report

  11. Thanks so much, North & James K., for your further thoughts.

    I think that helps. So essentially you’re saying that free trade does less harm & more good than not free trade?

    What about my question about decimating local industries or does that mostly happen with subsidies or aid (for example, sending all of our used clothing to 3rd world countries I’ve heard helps in the short term but harms in the long term as it kills their own textile industries)?

    Am I confusing free trade policies with free trade policies couples with aid/subsidies policies? Do you see flaws with free trade policies as they’ve been set up by Clinton and maintained by later presidential admins?

    Thanks again.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Rachel Levy says:

      It’s definitely true that the gains exceed the losses with free trade.

      As to decimating local industries, most of the countries we’re talking about have little or no local industry – that’s why the labour there is so cheap. And opening trade will shift the patterns of production, some current activates will shrink or disappear, while others rise up. So yes, some industries may well disappear, but the overall effect will be jobs with higher productivity, which means higher pay.

      As for actually existing trade policy in the US, most US trade agreements seem to be more about getting countries to adhere to the US’s specific take on intellectual property than anything else. also, they often include so many exceptions they are practically useless. I’m less familiar with NAFTA, but mos of the agreements the US tries to close in the Asia-Pacific region are somewhat dubious.Report

      • Avatar Rachel Levy in reply to James K says:

        Okay, so is what you’re saying is that you think that free trade should work relatively well in theory but that the way US executes free trade policy is faulty?

        If this is what you’re saying, can you point me to an instance (a link would be fine) where free trade is working relatively well on the ground? Just trying to challenge my own thinking/pre-conceived notions.

        Thanks again for taking the time.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Rachel Levy says:

      One thing also to keep in mind Rachel is how powerfully free trade acts as an impediment to violence. China has all the ingredients to be a big scary “other” like the USSR once was: a large growing economy; swelling international strength and influence; an illiberal and opaque government etc… But despite the best efforts of neocon squawking here in the US there is not much hostile sentiment and China walks on eggshells to generally keep things stable and amicable. The credit for that lies primarily with trade: China needs trade with us to raise their living standards and we enjoy cheap consumer goods and peaceful relations with China (and the hope of gradually organic liberalization of their government) in return.

      Mind you on re-reading that seems very rainbow-sparkly but I think I’m going to keep it that way. Relations are complicated (and there’s poor Tibet) and trade isn’t an unmitigated good but peace, even imperfect peace, has a lot going for it.Report

  12. North, I see your point. So interesting. Thanks again to you and James K.Report

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