Michael Kinsley has a piece in this morning’s WaPo impugning the philosophy of libertarianism and by extension the presidential campaign of Ron Paul. Despite being mentioned by name in the title of the article, Ron Paul appears only twice in the body of the text and only once does the author address a specific Paul proposal. The bulk of Kinsley’s energies are spent on mocking a caricature of libertarian positions. He avoids the use of profanity, but his tone is incredibly hostile and condescending. Still, he is worth engaging since he is relatively polite and seems to represent the perspective of a large swath of the American public.
Here are some of Mr. Kinsley’s questions, meant to both represent and confound libertarians, followed by my answers:
Q: How do you justify laws that forbid private behavior such as the use of recreational drugs?
A: Such laws are inconsistent with the principle of individual autonomy. Assuming that by private behavior Kinsley is referring to acts that physically affect only the actor, then we can safely say that no one else’s rights are being violated, thus no one else has a right to interfere with the choices that person makes.
Seeing a person succumb to addiction or critically injure themselves while engaged in dangerous sport can be profoundly saddening experiences. The mental anguish imposed on others is very real, and I would never seek to discount it. Government, however, lacks both the authority and ability to regulate the emotional states of its citizens. This is the basic concept outlined in the first amendment. It is also a concept familiar to most pre-schoolers, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Psychological pain is real, but it does not justify physical retaliation.
Q: How do you justify government programs that redistribute one person’s money to someone else?
A: First of all, we should be intellectually honest and rigorous and replace the word “redistribute” with “forcibly confiscate from one to give to another.” This is an act of theft, and it is not justifiable. Where members of society are incapable of supporting themselves, other members of society will organize to assist them. This is the process known as charity, and it is a completely voluntary process meaning no one is deprived of their rights at any time. As a matter of principle, this is the only logically consistent path for a libertarian to follow. From a more utilitarian perspective, it also comes out on top as it has been shown time and again that government programs intended to combat poverty end up nurturing it instead. For more detailed analysis see this book.
Q: Why does the government pay farmers not to grow food?
A: Farmers have effectively lobbied government to steal from taxpayers and give to them. As a practical matter it is the problem of distributed costs and concentrated gains. Kinsley made no attempt to defend this government practice, so I will not spend any more time assailing it. Does anyone think this is a good idea?
Q: Why are medications for fatal diseases sometimes held off the market in case they aren’t safe?
A: Government bureaucrats believe that maintaining the consistency of their program, in this case the FDA’s drug approval process, trumps the life or death concerns of a terminally ill patient and her doctor. As a libertarian, I find this perspective appalling. These are consenting adults making one of the most important decisions possible. It is difficult for me to contemplate the perspective of an outsider that feels entitled to interfere.
At this point, Kinsley leaves off the interrogatory and ventures into the expository mode of speech, but before I tackle his specific assertions regarding libertarian philosophy, I would ask any so interested to examine my responses to the above questions and decide if they are illogical or inhumane. Despite Kinsley’s perspective, I do not believe that valid premises and sound logic lead people down “wacky paths.” It seems much more likely to me that those that oppose rational discourse are indulging in “wackiness.”
Now onto the specific complaints.
Kinsley initially brings up the issue of network efficiencies and externalities as justification for the government funding of public goods. First of all to the extent that he wishes to use this article as an argument against the policies of Ron Paul, he is barking up the wrong tree. Paul has said time and again that he supports a strong national defense and given that the Constitution authorizes the government to raise funds and spend them on the provision of public goods it seems foolish to argue that Paul would oppose these activities.
Secondly, although Kinsley derides the “Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism” that most libertarians would prefer to use in place the “straightforward government regulations” currently employed, his reason in doing so seems based more on idealistic visions of state functioning rather than a dispassionate analysis of the present legal code. On the one hand, markets are complex, but so are biological organism, in neither case is the complexity inherently counterproductive since in both cases it has developed as a natural response to the unpredictable nature of the world we live in. Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order is alive and well. On the other hand, government regulations rarely have the attributes of simplicity and transparency: examine the tax code.
We may imagine that we could design things to work better, but realities dynamism undercuts our static statecraft. Things change, and in order to adapt effectively, people must be free. To the extent that it is possible to impose the discipline of the market on sphere’s of activity previously outside of it, we should expect general efficiency to improve even if the original survey of circumstances appears chaotic. Given humanities remarkable skill at orchestrating voluntary exchanges that benefit both parties, it doesn’t make a lot of skill to remove the tools of trade from our inventory. Outright bans against pollution often violate private property rights and involve economic costs that few would be willing to live with. Smog is terrible, and dioxin is incredibly vicious, but automobiles and plastics have brought significant gains to the quality-of-life. Without pricing mechanisms it is difficult to say where we stand on balance, but my hunch is that if people were presented with the choice of perfectly clean air and water and no cars or plastics or smog and higher risks of cancer with planes, trains, and two liter bottles, they would choose the latter.
Regarding roads and public utilities, I will say that the example Kinsley gives of monopoly private roads is legitimate; however, his contention that libertarians are being disingenuous when they don’t call such entities government is off-base, for however much you might despise monopoly pricing power, a private monopoly cannot threaten you with deprivation of life, liberty, or property if you decide not to use their services. Governments can. Here the utilitarian arguments may very well come down in favor of state provision, and it is an area where libertarians are divided, but to suggest that monopolies and governments are equivalent is wrong.
Finally, Kinsley posits that libertarians assign different weights to the twin pillars of American society: liberty and equality. He suggests that we place more emphasis on liberty, virtually ignoring equality all together. My response is that his definition of equality, extending to even distribution of material wealth is both outside the scope of government concerns and physically impossible to realize. The explanations for why this is so go to the very heart of capitalism and usually require diligent study to fully grasp, but if you don’t feel you have the time to read Locke, Smith, Ricardo, Mill, von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, you should consider the historical record. Has wealth inequality in America increased or decreased as the welfare state has grown over the past century? What did the distribution look like in the USSR? Hong Kong? 19th century Britain? 20th century Britain? It actually turns out that respecting everyone’s right to own and exploit properly equally provides the greatest progressive and egalitarian impetus we have yet discovered.
Life is undeniably difficult, and we will all face challenges they we will fail to overcome; the consequences of those failure will sometimes be profound. A free society, however, will be the most successful in providing support for us when we fall and new opportunities to recover and maintain our independence and unique personalities. The use of force against those that do not threaten or cause others harm is unjustifiable. This is the kernel of libertarian philosophy. Many people tacitly disagree with it, but find it much more difficult to dismiss when presented explicitly. Where do you come down?