An FAQ for Libertarians

This is a compilation of my objections to the main arguments of right-libertarians (or propertarians) done as an FAQ (based on the fact that my FAQ for economists was pretty popular). I hope here to persuade libertarians that things are more complicated than their framework, neat as it is, implies. Whether it will succeed is another question.

Writing these arguments revealed an interesting recurrence: once the libertarian framework is picked apart, the debate collapses back to where it’s always been. The various binary distinctions libertarians make (voluntary/coercive, government/market, positive/negative liberty) fall apart upon critical inspection, and we then have to take things on a case by case basis in the fuzzy world of morality, trade offs and so forth. It strikes me that the libertarian framework tries to provide easy answers, to side step this debate.

Anyway, let’s start. The first question might strike some as odd, but unfortunately it’s something I’ve encountered repeatedly:

What do you have against liberty? Why do you statists always try to rationalise ways to control our lives?

Slow down! If everyone who criticises you is automatically the bad guy, that doesn’t leave much room for productive debate, does it? For what it’s worth, I’d characterise libertarians as those who are so skeptical of the state that they think it should only protect the most powerful, but that’s no reason to dismiss them as the bad guys before we’ve even started. But more on that later – for now, just try not to assume I am Stalin reincarnated.

But libertarianism is about liberty. What justification do you have for infringing on liberty?

Again, this attitude leaves open the actual question of whether libertarianism really does improve individual liberty. Libertarians generally distinguish between positive and negative liberty, where positive liberty is the freedom to command resources to realise certain ends, while negative freedom is the extent to which one is (or isn’t) constrained by other moral actors. Since a low degree of positive freedom is, unfortunately, imposed by nature, the only things humans as moral actors can do is ensure we don’t restrict people’s negative liberty.

However, this distinction is functionally meaningless. A starving man at a shop cannot take food because he will be arrested or at least kicked out – he is constrained by another moral actor. The libertarian might reply that property rights helped create that resource, so the starving man is no worse off than he would have been without property rights. The my first response to this is “so what?” It doesn’t change the functional relationship between the starving man and the food, and begs the question of whether we can harness the resource-creating power of property rights to create more just outcomes. Or just let the guy have some food through redistribution.

Taxes are theft! Why do you think you can steal from people?

First, it would be easy to turn the question of wealth creation raised in the last section around on libertarians and ask exactly how the government can be said to ‘steal’ resources that its own actions created. A large amount of innovation has its roots in government research and development, and many of the institution upon which capitalism is built are state-backed. These are the facts; going into unverifiable counterfactuals about how things would be better with ‘less’ government is just speculation. The moral question of whether government should ‘intervene’ is undermined by the fact that it already has.

Even more importantly, the pretax income distribution cannot necessarily be thought of as some amoral ‘baseline’ into which the government ‘intervenes’. The enforcement of property rights, contracts and the prevention of force, fraud and theft does not avoid significant political decisions. For example, implied contracts are an incredibly tricky area of law; so are intellectual and environmental property rights, where the nature of the property itself raises difficult questions. Ownership of some things (votes, people, identities) is generally prohibited, as are certain contracts (slavery, murder-suicide pacts, anything entered into by children/the mentally ill). Political decisions about these issues, and many more like them, will involve value judgments, historical path dependence, and sometimes be somewhat arbitrary. And this will all influence patterns of production, distribution and exchange. There is no neutral ‘baseline’ distribution, and there is no way of keeping politics out of distribution. A similar argument can be made about individual choice.

But if distribution results from voluntary actions, then what is the problem?

There are a few major problems I have with the ‘voluntarist’ perspective:

First, saying that existing actions are ‘voluntary’ takes the existing social structure as a given. I was born in the UK, and I ‘voluntarily’ opted to go to university; if I had been born in certain areas of China, a libertarian would argue that I ‘voluntarily’ consented to working in a sweatshop. But obviously my actions are dependent on the circumstances in which I found myself, and an argument to change those circumstances is independent of whether people’s actions are deemed ‘voluntary’ in any given situation. (This is short of banning things, physically restraining people and so forth).

Second, there is the binary distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘coerced’ action, which leads to a lot of problems. Using it, I could argue that nobody in the developed world is really ‘forced’ to obey the law, because they could move country. Obviously it would be silly to say this: one can’t expect people to uproot themselves from their family, friends, location and career, so functionally people do not have much choice about obeying laws. Another example of the limitations of the libertarian line of argument is that one could use it to frame the decision not to obey the law as a ‘voluntary trade off’ between, say, prison and the alternative.

A better way to think of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action is as a spectrum. We might consider the degree to which someone’s action is voluntary as how much it is influenced by factors outside the persons/objects involved in the immediate decision. Under such criteria, few actions can be considered truly ‘voluntary'; there are always outside influences on decisions, however small or large. At the less significant end  of the spectrum we might have travel costs; we might then go through peer pressure, then, for workers, the threat of poverty. We would end up at something like the threat of being killed or tortured. The extent to which actions are voluntary must be considered on a case by case basis; we cannot just make a binary distinction and apply one size fits all based policies on this basis.

The third voluntarist argument I take issue with is the Nozickean justice principle most libertarians implicitly or explicitly respect. It is based on the idea that if voluntary actions led to a situation, that situation must be just. This problem is perhaps best illustrated within one of Robert Nozick’s own thought experiments: the Wilt Chamberlain example (as it goes, this is also  a situation where one could accurately describe the agent’s behaviour as purely voluntary). Nozick suggests that if everybody at a basketball game volunteered to pay Wilt Chamberlain a small amount of money, the end result would be a vastly unequal income distribution, but since everybody had donated ‘voluntarily,’ there would be no problem regarding the justness of the outcome.

But while it is true that everybody at the basketball volunteered to donate their own money, it is not true that they agreed to anyone else donating money, and it is certainly not true that they all agreed to everyone collectively donating a fortune. The principle is actually based on a subtle switch from individually voluntary choices to collectively voluntary ones, one which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The libertarian may reply that the choices of others are none of my/other’s/the state’s business. But if the inequality has pernicious effects (which is a separate issue) then it is very much everyone’s business. Since the voluntarist principle cannot be applied collectively, we are back to discussing the effects of inequality. This disparity between individual choices and collective outcomes is the reason we have voting, political movements and so forth to help.

Politics? Don’t you know any public choice theory? Democracy is a sham!

Well, modern democracy is probably a sham. But overall, public choice theory is simply refuted by the evidence, something that people do not note nearly often enough. Political scientists have known – and empirically confirmed – that voters and politicians mostly act in what they perceive to be the public interest, rather than for selfish gains. This isn’t to say that there is no truth to public choice theory, but evidence suggests it is more appropriate to model politicians and voters as public servants who are buffeted by special interest than as selfish maximisers who occasionally stumble upon a beneficial policy. The result is that democracy is far more effective a tool for translating collective interests into policy than libertarians might suggest.

But government action, democratic or not, rests on the initiation of force. When is that ever justified?

The special status libertarians accord to ‘force’ falls apart even on its own terms. For the fact is that most laws are not actually enforced by force, but by credible threat of force. These are, by definition, two different things. I know that if I try to go into a night club without permission, the bouncers will stop me or drag me out. This isn’t the same experience, and doesn’t have the same moral implications, as them actually dragging me out when I do run in. The relationship between the individual and the law can also be applied to laws libertarians approve of: to argue that credible threat of force is the same as force is to argue that people are constantly the object of coercion due to what they can and can’t do because of other’s property rights. Overall, the reduction of all laws to someone forcing you to do things at gunpoint is a stretch to say the least.

However, this is not the only problem with the focus on ‘force’. Even if we take the word ‘force’ at face value, it is irrelevant, because which laws we decide to use – where ‘force’ is justified – rest on theories of justice, and of who owns what and why. Taxation is only ‘initiating force’ if you believe you own your pretax income; if you don’t, it is evading tax that is an act of aggression. Hence the discussion collapses into theory of justice, distributive or otherwise.

Regardless of force, governments cannot know better than individuals/the market. So why should they intervene?

The framing of governments versus markets is largely a false dichotomy. I have already noted the inevitable political decisions that go with even what libertarians consider their baseline institutions. Beyond this, there are laws such as immigration, limited liability, laws that define shares and protect shareholders, laws that define companies, and so forth. These so-called ‘interventions’ do not require a government to ‘know better’ than any one individual; they were defined to have a systemic impact that cannot be enforced by any individual or group of individuals. Furthermore, the question of where we draw the line between ‘intervention’ and ‘the market’ is up for debate. Or it doesn’t really exist.

Even if the government backs the institutions required for markets, it sucks wealth out of the economy to do this. Hence, it should do as little as possible, right?

Saying ‘governments can’t create wealth’ is a sweeping, largely vacuous statement based on a superficial zero sum view of taxation as being ‘extracted’ from the private sector. In fact, taxation is just one prong of a symbiotic relationship that exists between the private and public sectors. If we take the definition of wealth as the creation of valuable resources, it’s clear that, say, teaching and infrastructure ‘create wealth.’ We’ve already seen just how large a source of wealth the government can be through its funding of research and development. Furthermore, many state-backed institutions are historically a prerequisite for substantial wealth creation to take place at all. Again, obscure, selectively interpreted examples like Medieval Iceland, or speculative counterfactuals about what things would be like without the government are ahistorical wishful thinking. Give me a clear example of capitalism as we know it coming out of nowhere and I’ll give you the time of day.

That reminds me – you seem to be primarily referencing minarchist libertarians. What about anarcho-capitalism?

Anarcho-capitalist, as far as I’m aware, have yet to answer exactly what a landowner is if not a de facto state. A state is defined over a particular territory, and (theoretically) has control over what happens in that territory. Ownership is also defined as having control over an object; in the case of land, this quite clearly leads to each land owner effectively being a sovereign state, however small. People do not have a ‘choice’ of whether they exist on land, and nobody created land, so there is no justification for those with ‘the biggest gun’ controlling it, while those without land are at their whims.

The extremely unsatisfactory response that, for some reason, everyone would respect the libertarian ideal and not engage in force, fraud and theft is really just wishful thinking. I can’t help but wonder what libertarians would say if a socialist made a similar argument about people suddenly becoming angels under socialism. Similarly, any response that centered on how landowners would be competitively inclined to do Good Things could equally be applied to states, so would be an exercise in special pleading.

OK, maybe you’re not Stalin. Do you have anything else worthwhile to say?

Probably not, but just in case, here are some more of my posts on libertarianism:

See here for more on the flawed positive/negative liberty distinction.

See here for a discussion of the problems with seeing ‘government’ as a homogeneous, all-encompassing entity.

See here for my criticism of libertarian’s perceptions of individual choice.

See here for a more detailed discussion of the faulty government/market dichotomy.

See here, here and here for discussions of the link between libertarianism and neoclassical economics.

See here and here for why libertarians may well be lazy marxists!

Potpourri: why employers might have substantial power over their employees; a few posts with some specific criticisms of libertarians; a discussion of Hayek and Bastiat

Happy hunting!

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  1. #1 by Roman P. on March 30, 2013 - 8:20 am

    The sad thing is that it is nigh impossible to change beliefs people hold by rational arguments. People are pre-set in their ways. Just how much are we the products of our soul-searching and rational scepsis, and how much are we who we are just because of our genes and upbringing? I’d say it’s mostly the latter.

    If anything, this FAQ is useful for strengthening one’s beliefs, not shattering others’.

    • #2 by Josie on March 30, 2013 - 9:32 am

      “The sad thing is that it is nigh on impossible to change beliefs people hold by rational argument”

      Then why did you bother saying that? Why do you ever bother speaking at all, if you do not think that it can have any effect on what the people around you believe? You clearly do, as we all do. A belief in a reasonable level of rationality is the basis for all human interaction, all language, and all academic thought.

      It is very easy to imagine that people never change their fundamental beliefs, because such changes happen slowly and you do not get to see it, like you do not get to see plants growing. Yet plants grow.

      Nobody has an entirely open mind, or an entirely closed one. Nobody has ever changed their whole world view to accomodate one contrary fact or argument, including you, so don’t expect other people to. (Neither would it be rational to do so). But over time, after a lot of chipping away, things do change.

      • #3 by Roman P. on March 30, 2013 - 12:12 pm

        Why, I did it all for my own entertainment. I and the owner of the blog have largely compatible sets of beliefs and knowledge, so I like to write something in here. It’s interesting getting a response now and then. But to expect something out of it? Ultimately, there is no higher purpose or agenda for me. I guess I’m just nihilistic.

      • #4 by Unlearningecon on March 30, 2013 - 12:13 pm

        I’ve read some research somewhere that debates are generally not useful for changing the minds of the people involved, but it is the third parties who observe the debates that become persuaded either way. So I suppose this is the most I could hope for with a post like this.

        edit: but yes, Roman P.’s point is valid: if nothing else, I enjoy it!

  2. #5 by Theremustbeanotherway on March 30, 2013 - 8:55 am

    If the arguments are aired often enough and by a majority of people then a consensus will be created. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_decision-making

    The problem has been that while those Left of centre have been good at advancing just social causes, they have been very poor at putting forward the economic case, which has left a vacuum which so called libertarians have exploited.

    • #6 by Unlearningecon on March 30, 2013 - 4:13 pm

      Yeah, I don’t know why the right hold the reputation for ‘good economics’ considering they generally have poor or at least roughly equivalent records on everything from growth to unemployment to the national debt. The claims of the right that Basic Economics supports their policy prescriptions is flawed for two reasons:

      (a) It doesn’t, certainly not in the case of austerity and their blase attitude toward monopolies.

      (b) More advanced economics generally leans toward what we might call the prescriptions of the centre left.

      It’s about time the left started drawing more attention to this.

      • #7 by Will on March 31, 2013 - 5:09 am

        I don’t know how old you are, but I can say that in the late 90s, I felt that as a leftist I was on the defensive on economic issues. It was widely taken for granted that deregulation, privatization, and less governmental involvement was always productive of more growth and employment (and western Europe, with its 7 to 8 percent unemployment, was procured as proof!). Amusingly enough, in retrospect, free trade was the one issue that was at least still hotly contested, though efforts were made in mainstream organs like the New York Times to liken support for protection to white nationalism. The way economics was taught to me did little to make me feel more confident. I think this feeling was widespread, which is why we focused on other issues.

        The notion that everything was now peachy and would ever remain so, and the related notion that the 70s inflation had been the worst thing evaaaaah. This was held to discredit the straight Keynesian program, and few Keynesians protested how sloppy this analysis was — let alone Marxians or Institutionalists. (Galbraith was an exception, but he was thought to be as discredited as anybody, and subjected to much undeserved denunciation).

      • #8 by Unlearningecon on March 31, 2013 - 5:12 pm

        Yeah I’m in my 20s so I don’t ‘remember’ that and rarely comment on it, though obviously I can see the effects in action.

        Interestingly, I’ve just been reading Krugman’s ‘Peddling Propserity,’ and though he is on the mark with the things you describe in your first paragraph, his dismissal of Galbraith is laughable (capitalism hasn’t become characterised by large corporations!)

      • #9 by Will on March 31, 2013 - 5:11 am

        *The notion that everything was now peachy and would ever remain so, and the related notion that the 70s inflation had been the worst thing evaaaaah

        I meant to add: “was crucial to the maintenance of this received wisdom”.

      • #10 by Will on April 1, 2013 - 7:55 pm

        Krugman used to dismiss Galbraith in just the way that people now dismiss him. It’s the danger of taking a firm stand: others will think that there’s nothing to you but the stand.

  3. #11 by Josie on March 30, 2013 - 9:19 am

    Nice. I really like your answer to Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlin argument. I studied it at Uni (many years ago) and your answer is way better than any of the answers I read (or thought of!)

    • #12 by Unlearningecon on March 30, 2013 - 12:16 pm

      Thanks. I’m happy to say that one is entirely my own creation (I think).

  4. #13 by altruisttroll on March 30, 2013 - 9:37 am

    About most innovation coming from government R&D

    1)
    Even if natural rights libertarians accepted your premise, I suspect they would not agree that wealth existing in part due to government R&D is justifiably taxable, since the taxes to conduct the R&D were not legitimate in the first place. More over the production of public goods by a government, or by a private entity, which confers benefits on to others does not give the former an ownership stake in the latter’s wealth under libertarian doctrine. If wikipedia claimed to own part of the wealth it creates among private individuals and firms, which undoubtedly is substantial, libertarians would not accept this in general.

    2)
    If one defines innovation as new scientific and technical knowledge in general, then the premise seems plausible, that is the majority of new knowledge is generated by government funds. However, if one defines innovation as new products depending on new scientific and technical knowledge, than this seems less clear to me.

    A large empirical OECD report examined the sources of economic growth in OECD countries over a long period of time, and public expenditure on R&D was found to have no relationship with growth, however private expenditure on R&D did. Anecdotally, this perfectly aligns with my outside view of most of the research at my department. More over, there was a crowding out multiplier larger than one.

    http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/the-sources-of-economic-growth-in-oecd-countries_9789264199460-en

    But, even if you are correct, that even new innovations of the mentioned kind overwhelmingly are enabled by government R&D, that does not imply that in the absence of government funding one would not have equivalent, or even better, R&D production, in particular as it pertains to growth, as the publication above suggests in terms of crowding out.

    Have a look at this lecture on science as a public good, he goes into this in some detail and makes a reasonable case, even if you dont agree:

    I will read the link you provided, thank you!

    3) Public choice

    I think you may be selling the approach just a little bit short, narrowly defined selfish utility has never been essential to any public choice work I have read, in fact ideology was a fundamental consideration in early work. Either way, I would urge you to consider two things.

    It is very likely that other political scientists and and economists have found data showing that consumers and business owners are not as selfish as micro-failure theory would have you conclude either, so the sword does cut both ways. If a person is altruistic enough to vote away money and undertake costly information acquisition to produce political public goods, then they can be altruistic enough to donate money to a lighthouse or for charity etc.

    However there is still the problem of information and rational irrationality. You may already be familiar with this, but this is a great talk about the issue:

    • #14 by Unlearningecon on March 30, 2013 - 12:49 pm

      If wikipedia claimed to own part of the wealth it creates among private individuals and firms, which undoubtedly is substantial, libertarians would not accept this in general.

      Really? I find this odd. By this logic, a libertarian would object to a company taking a portion of a salesperson’s sales, which is common practice.

      If a person is altruistic enough to vote away money and undertake costly information acquisition to produce political public goods, then they can be altruistic enough to donate money to a lighthouse or for charity etc

      Sure, this is fine and I’d never deny it. However history tells us that charity is rarely sufficient. Political science suggests that people are happier donating if they know everyone else is, so that a problem will actually be solved. Charity has a nihilistic feel about it.

      Re: R & D, I have little doubt that private R & D increases growth, because private R & D is directly channeled toward mass producing and selling marketable products. Research pertaining to space ships will not have an impact on growth, but it may still be desirable. In any case, I think what’s clear is that most innovation has some roots in public R & D and some roots in private R & D.

      But, even if you are correct, that even new innovations of the mentioned kind overwhelmingly are enabled by government R&D, that does not imply that in the absence of government funding one would not have equivalent, or even better, R&D production, in particular as it pertains to growth, as the publication above suggests in terms of crowding out

      Well, as I said, I’m not particularly convinced by speculation.

      The TED talk is quite predictable, sadly. First, the selective timeline used for terrorist attacks in the US set off alarm bells even in the only area where I agree with him! He’d have been better off showing from the Oklahoma bombings up until now and comparing murder rates.

      Unfortunately, it gets worse with protectionism where he does a Bryan Caplan (whom he references) and assumes economics, makes an appeal to authority, and labels everyone who disagrees as ‘irrational.’ He then makes cost-benefit analysis in an area where it definitely doesn’t apply due to both uncertainty about costs/benefits and their incommensurability. That whole bit flies in the face of what political scientists know (the book I linked is pretty extensive on this). Also, becoming angry during political discussion does not make someone irrational. When discussing, for example, the war on terror, it is irrational to think there is something wrong with being angry!

      • #15 by altruisttroll on March 30, 2013 - 2:37 pm

        1) Sales people

        The reason a sales person gets a given wage is because it has been contracted, this contract fully regulates his/her interaction with the sales company as per libertarian doctrine. The entire assumption in (this brand of) libertarianism is that no such contract exists between the state and the individual – atleast not one conferring this privilige, just like there is no contract between an individual and wikipedia about the latter getting the wealth of the former?

        I’m suprised you would make this point as you seem to understand libertarianism so well?

        If you want to assume from the outset that there is a contract empowering political insitutions to legitimately claim taxes from individuals, just like a company claims gross sales income from a sales person, then you have already assumed what you want to demonstrate. This if fine, but there would be no need to invoke the productive role of government in R&D or otherwise in legitimizing this taking, or any other intrusion into private matters for that sake (banning drugs, gambling, abortion etc).

        2) Speculation

        Like you claim history shows charity does not work well enough outside political institutions, I could equally claim that history shows that funding of science is done equally well if not better without government (see industrial and agricultural revolution any time pre 1941 in the US and 1913 in UK, notice the ITIF paper started at 1970, which is no coincidence). You cannot reasonably discount all counterfactuals as speculation, in particular if the counterfactual actually has an historical antecedent.

        3) Charity

        I have not come across any evidence that non-political institutions could not and cannot produce sufficient (economically efficient, or some other standard?) levels of charity?

        Put differently,IF political institutions were not available for society to express a preference for charity, on what basis can we conclude that the level of charity that would have developed through alternative institutions would be less in quantity and quality (this latter dimension is of course always neglected in allocative efficiency)?

        The mere emergence of the welfare state cannot be taken as evidence, as I have not seen any work explaining how political institutions naturally discover market failures and only market failures, there is no reason to think this. Political institutions lead to lots of arrangements (segregation, prohibition, wars, persecution, price controls of various types which cannot be claimed to be good) which cannot reasonably claimed to be welfare increasing, so selectively claiming that the emergence of some arrangments (public charity) is evidence of them being so does not hold. Even if you think governments on the whole are worth it and that markets would produce even worse outcomes on these very same issue, the argument still applies.

        Also, the argument about failure of non-poliical charity is not that people only want to donate if others do, that would make everybody donating a perfectly fine and atainable equilibrium. The argument is that all people care about is the absence of poverty, not weather they themselfs contribute to it, and so the absence of poverty becomes a non-excludable good subject to free-riding. If one wants to subscribe to this level of narrow self-intrest in civil society, than making these same people altruistic in poltics does not hold.

        3)
        You want to embrace market failure, but reject most similar conclusions made about political institutional failure based on the exact same considerations (public goods, information asymmetry, principal agent problems, cost externalization) by picking empirics which you claim consistenlty rejects PC conclusions. This is not even handed, I could find plenty of market failure refuting examples and empirical research.

        Also you did not really engage with the main thesis of the talk, even if the examples of irrationality he provided were not satisfactory. The problem he presents is that non-desicive nature of voting allows individuals to sustain incorrect beliefs about policy while externalizing the cost on society.

      • #16 by altruisttroll on March 30, 2013 - 2:42 pm

        Sorry, miss posted below, would love if you responded to the full post I was making, Ive never posted on your blog before :). It adresses some points that you ended up making. Again, sorry!

      • #17 by Draco T Bastard (@DracoTBastard) on April 2, 2013 - 2:54 am

        Re: R & D, I have little doubt that private R & D increases growth, because private R & D is directly channeled toward mass producing and selling marketable products. Research pertaining to space ships will not have an impact on growth, but it may still be desirable.

        The only reason why we have ICs today is because of the US Space Program. Without the massive funds available from the government the hand wound ICs that the Apollo program used would never have gotten off the drawing board as they were far too expensive.

      • #18 by Ayn Rant on April 3, 2013 - 7:15 pm

        While I certainly wouldn’t dispute the fact that government funding provided the R&D core behind the IC, you’ve got the wrong war in mind. The USA government funding for computers (and the R&D money pumped into Texas Instruments for defense electronics) was actually a product of WWII.

        The space program such as we recognize it (NASA, satellites, etc.) did not get started until the basic R&D for computers was already done. However, the IBM and TI machines were certainly being used in rocket science for WWII. Actually, NASA spun off from the WWII missile program of the USA Army (which in turn was founded on science funded by Nazi Germany in its buildup to WWII, transferred via Werner Von Braun’s team of defected rocket scientists).

  5. #19 by altruisttroll on March 30, 2013 - 10:18 am

    It should be noted that the OECD report I cited was done by the OECD itself and covers 34 states, while the report you cited was done by ITIF which covered only the US and they explicitly state in their mission statement that they are

    “a think tank – whose mission is to formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity internationally, in Washington, and in the states.”

    so I have a hard time seeing how they could have concluded otherwise?

    The same applies to the libertarian talk I posted above, but he is actually using the OECD as his source, not a libertarian anti government support for science think tank.

    • #20 by altruisttroll on March 30, 2013 - 1:21 pm

      1)

      The reason a salesperson does gets a given wage is because it has been contracted, this fully regulates his interaction with the sales company as per libertarian doctrine. The entire assumption in libertarianism is that no such contract exists between the state and the individual, just like there is no contract between an individual and wikipedia? I suprised you would make this point as you seem to understand libertarianism so well?

      2)

      Well, suffice to say I dont agree with you considerations about charity, I could equally claim that history shows that funding of science is done equally well if not better without government (see industrial and agricultural revolution any time pre 1941 in the US). And I could equally charge you with speculation when saying that non-political institutions could not produce chairty at comparable levels today. You really seem to be uneven handed on this issue.

      3)
      You want to embrace market failure, but reject all similar conclusions made about political institutional failure based on the exact same considerations (public goods, information asymmetry, principal agent problems, cost externalization) by picking empirics which you claim consistenlty rejects PC conclusions. This is not even handed, I could find plenty of market failure refuting examples and empirical research.

      • #21 by Unlearningecon on March 30, 2013 - 2:10 pm

        The reason a salesperson does gets a given wage is because it has been contracted, this fully regulates his interaction with the sales company as per libertarian doctrine. The entire assumption in libertarianism is that no such contract exists between the state and the individual, just like there is no contract between an individual and wikipedia? I suprised you would make this point as you seem to understand libertarianism so well?

        Perhaps that wasn’t the best example, although I don’t see how it being ‘voluntary’ changes the mechanics of the relationship. I understand that libertarians don’t think a social contract exists; in fact, neither do I. I also understand that it is incredibly difficult to make a positive argument for the state: in fact, I tend to agree with libertarians about legality not being morality etc.

        However, the main argument I’d make is the one I made in the second paragraph of the tax is theft section, which is that there is no neutral baseline from which we decide where the state is ‘redistributing.’ This turns libertarian questions about how exactly the state can ‘take away’ their stuff in the first place, since what they own has already been determined in large part by political decisions regarding property rights and so forth. Taxes are one prong certainly the most visible – in the determinants of distribution. Object to the state if you want, but isolating taxation as an unnantural determinant of distribution misses the bigger picture.

        I could equally claim that history shows that funding of science is done equally well if not better without government (see industrial and agricultural revolution any time pre 1941 in the US).

        I cannot vouch for every single innovation before 1941. What I do know is that the reason the US changed its stance was to keep up with the centrally planned USSR, who beat them into space. Sure, innovation takes place without government funding. I’d like to see a world where private individuals do not need government funding to spend their time in R & D, instead of working for a hedge fund. But the reason so much recent innovation has been government funded is precisely because the most state-centric model of them all was outpacing the US.

        And I could equally charge you with speculation when saying that non-political institutions could not produce chairty at comparable levels today. You really seem to be uneven handed on this issue.

        I’m basing it not on speculation but on experience. I can’t tell you exactly what would happen if we removed all welfare today. I can tell you that I wouldn’t expect it to be enough, based on what charity was like before the welfare state. In fact that welfare state was created precisely because charity proved insufficient.

        You want to embrace market failure, but reject all similar conclusions made about political institutional failure based on the exact same considerations

        Well, it depends which market and which failure you’re talking about! But yes, this isn’t a double standard. Or rather, it is a justified double standard. What I’m arguing is that people taking part in political life do so as public minded individuals. When they operate within ‘the market’ they are more likely to behave as economic theory predicts, though of course not to such an extreme extent. I think you have these broad ideas of ‘how man behaves’ and ‘the market’ in your head, when people behave differently in different situations (see psychologist’s theories of multiple selves) and different markets function differently. I take things on a case by case basis and try not to make too many unilateral pronouncements.

  6. #22 by altruisttroll on March 30, 2013 - 3:13 pm

    1)

    I would accept that US changed its science policy because of the cold war, but the political motivation here would be to produce weapons (which science charity and firms does not produce on their own at all) and otherwise very visible technical acheivements (like going to the moon) which had little to do with producing growth and standard of living. Lots of countries have devoted much more funding, as a percentage of national income, to public research (china, Russia, India), but neither was ever close to the same level scientific output to the US or UK, even in normalized terms. Per capita nobel prizes for the UK and US has never been approched by any country with higher levels of public science expenditure.

    I am perfectly happy to accept that the USSR produced competitive weapons and military technology, but in terms of science and technology not directly linked to war, and where civil and market institutions therefor played a role, I suspect the USSR was never close.

    Please have a look at the terrance keely talk about this, it is at the veyr least interesting :)

    2)

    Why is an individual to be any less publicly minded if given the oportunity to give to charity through non-political institutions then how publicly minded they are when voting their money away in politics, which indeed everyone indeed does today?

    Yes, I am less publicly minded when I buy some milk then when I pick a politician on educational issues for example (not sure exactly how much more), but suppose I could only express this public mindedness about education through non-poliical means, why do I suddenly become the milk buyer? This is not reasonable.

    I actually think that given the non-collective nature that being public minded about education in non-political instiutions allows me to control exactly what I do with my contribution, and so I would be more inclined to learn about good education policy related to charity rather than good education policy as related to what politician tells me?

    As a conclusion, yes, public issues are adressed in political institutions, and so it may seem that people are more public minded there, but if the very same issues were being adressed in non-political institutions then public mindedness would follow to these arenas as well. This is ofcourse unless you can find some spesific reason, like people not caring about contributing personally like I said before.

    • #23 by Unlearningecon on March 31, 2013 - 5:24 pm

      (1) The point is that this had the unintended effect of creating goods such as in the study I cite. Government research is often without a clear goal, so benefits may take a lot of time to be discovered; a private firm would not bother. This is especially true of space. Also, the USSR could have used its research to produce non-military advances – as it did before the Reagan acceleration of the cold war – had it not been devoting its top scientists to the war effort, something that article points out.

      (2) Because people are aware of collective action problems; in fact, this is half the reason for the existence of the state (the other half probably being more sinister). Raising taxes and, say, providing education can relieve a systemic problem in the way charity rarely manages. This is part of the reason why charity donations are so much lower than taxes.

      • #24 by altruisttroll on March 31, 2013 - 11:57 pm

        Indeed there are unintended benefits of government military R&D, but it seems beyond reasonable to claim that these unintented benefits would exceed the intended benefits of R&D we know would otherwise take place, that is no way to gamble. Please again consult the OECD paper which dealt with actual government R&D directed at NON-military R&D, which would be above and beyond more growth promoting than the military R&D of the cold war spending.

        You keep adressing the subject as if there was impartial empirical data supporting government R&D being critical for growth when exactly the opposite is the case, not only anectodally or even historically, but empirically in the OECD the last 25 years?

        We have no evidence that the USSR government R&D could rival the non-governmental research in the west in non-military domains, and that was never your argument. Your argument was that military R&D success in USSR changed US R&D. This makes perfect sense, why on earth would IBM and AT&T and the rockefeller foundation fund new bomb related science? They wouldnt, so in so far as one believes the US government had to prepare for war, then ofcourse they had to sponsor these “innovations”? Whether or not they had other unintended spillovers is irrelevant, unless you actually believe that military R&D spillovers are superior to actual normal non-governmental R&D absent crowding out? That would seem absurd. Also keep in mind, what was being compared was military might and visibility (sputnik, moon, etc), not the number of Nature papers or Nobel prizes, and military might and visibility has many more variables other than pure scientific efficiency, hence the response from the US was not only to USSR scientific prowess.

        Moreover, I am sure the USSR, like china and india probably funded lots of non-military R&D, so the counterfactual you are offering has actually taken place, albeit not as much as it otherwise would have been absent the military spending. Ofcourse that applies to the US as well, all the political games motivating putting a man on the moon and the related decades of crowding out that constituted of non-governmental R&D would actually have translated into growth promoting R&D, again see OECD paper.

        Moreover, even if the USSR R&D could produce even more growth than the non-political alternative in the US prior to the Reagan era, how do you know this was efficient? How many hip replacements could not happen due to the knowledge produced about some molecule, was this an efficient choice the USSR made? No more do we want an infinity of scientific knowledge produced than we want 0 polution produced given that we live in a world of tradeoffs, and even under the most charitable interpretation USSR R&D policy was this likely done. Indeed a very substantial portion of the USSR economy did support the military machinery.

        The story you tell about governments funding lots of wise long time course aimed research and thereby subziding the short sighted non-governmental institutions does not hold. Had that been the case then the data should have shown it as countries should have had an impact of growth over this periode. If you want to claim that government spending on R&D is only benefitial on time courses much longer than 25 years, then you are just speculating, as effective funding for basic science on a wide scale is so recent (1941 in the US had no funding at all, let alone the level seen today).

        Also, why is the only non-governmental instituion willing to fund science a private firm abscent crowding out?

        My experience is, most researchers (95% ?, and I’m at a world top 5 uni) do lousy work that never makes its way into any product/service in any way, the value they bring is non-research based instruction. Some researchers do amazing things, and they likely would have gotten the funds in a world with less of the mentioned waste.

      • #25 by Ayn Rant on April 4, 2013 - 4:00 am

        You act like you are unfamiliar with the basic outline of the R&D situation…

        The problem is that private firms will only do R&D if they can capture the benefits within the firm.

        But long-term, large-scale research does not permit that. The benefits of long-term basic research are entirely positive externalities. Self-interested firms won’t fund them.

        The history, not just of military science, but also medical science, physics, and pure mathematics, has shown this to be true again and again. Looking at great names in science, it’s hard to find any working for private industry; and those that are mostly work for military contractors.

        There’s really no mystery to this. What reason would any self-interested corporation have to fund Einstein or Hilbert or Watson & Crick? Absolutely none. And that’s why private funding had nothing to do with discovering relativity, or DNA, or any of the mathematical revolutions of the 20th century.

  7. #26 by Andrew Berkeley (@spatchcockable) on March 30, 2013 - 9:08 pm

    I found the argument regarding the “.. subtle switch from individually voluntary choices to collectively voluntary ones” very apealling as it is similar to something I have been considering recently.

    It seems to me that if we are asked to make our own choices, completely individually (which I think is the case under the Reagan/Thatcher market cult) then most of our choices will probably seem superficially benign – our individual impact on the economy or the environment, say, will almost always seem completely inconsequential in comparison to the system as whole. The benefits of our decisions – to ourselves – will clearly seem attractive and therefore in our individual cost-benefit analysis we will decide to consume. As you say, if we had the piece of mind to consider the combined effect of many similar decisions we might see things differently.

    The cynic in me can’t help but think that part of the celebration of the market and of the individual is to precisely exploit this asymmetry. The result is that real negative externalities (rise of inequality, concentration of wealth/power, monopolies, resource depletion, environmental degradation) are obscured – we are tricked into handing over our money for things that may very well be detrimental to us in all but the very short term. And when the problems become apparent, they can be blamed on a diffuse scapegoat.

    Do you have any further elaboration on your version of this, or any links to similar arguments?

    • #27 by Unlearningecon on March 31, 2013 - 5:19 pm

      It seems almost like something that flows directly from Hayek’s knowledge problem, which has been used and interpreted shallowly, in my opinion.

      Anyway, I haven’t really written anything on it because I regard it as obvious (though you put it well). I guess it’s mainstream economics in many ways: externalities, public goods etc. Problem is mainstream economists often regard the baseline as a ‘perfect’ market.

      • #28 by Andrew Berkeley (@spatchcockable) on April 1, 2013 - 8:30 pm

        Fair enough. I’ve no formal economic training and never come across it, but it was something that struck me a few months ago and it *is* simple and obvious in hindsight. I’ll check out those links, thanks!

  8. #29 by Guillermo on March 31, 2013 - 5:38 pm

    Nice response to the “Wilt Chamberlain” problem. I have conceived of a similar thought experiment in the past to illustrate the consequences of ignoring collective consequences of property rights and exchange.

    Suppose 10 people get shipwrecked on a small island. Initially they agree to distribute the land into 10 parcels of equal size. But one day one of the 10, a rather funny stand up comedian named Joe, gets 8 other people to agree to give him their land in exchange for weekly comedy or performances. Jane disagrees but can’t do anything other than keeping her own parcel. So now Joe has potentially massive power over Jane (and everyone else even if they regret their decision later), and that’s perfectly fine by Nozickean principles because everything was voluntary.

    Also regarding “voluntary vs. coerced”, many Libertarians seem to assume that “private sector = perfectly voluntary (barring force or fraud), and public sector = perfectly coercive”. But as you point out, individuals could choose to break the law and accept the penalty, or more realistically, try to avoid getting caught. And it’s not really clear on a purely emprically level whether a certain individual could more easily find another job or renegotiate a contract, or attempt to immigrate illegally to another country without getting caught and deported.

    • #30 by Unlearningecon on April 2, 2013 - 2:04 pm

      Jonathan Wolff’s response to the problem is similar to that. Just because people have consented to the transaction, it doesn’t mean they’ve consented to the resultant distribution. Obviously combine that with my point that they haven’t consented to everyone else’s transaction and the Nozickean principle looks pretty weak.

      The whole thing about consent is incredibly shallow. Libertarians presume that if you’ve bought a cup of coffee you’ve somehow consented to capitalism, global poverty, etc etc

  9. #31 by Harry Bowls on March 31, 2013 - 10:29 pm

    Can we rule out the possibility that if internet libertarians got exactly what they wanted with a magical snapping of fingers, that over time we would still end up right back to where we are now (democratic nation-states with full-service central governments)? And not via some insidious coercion, but via voluntary transactions? I think not.

    Here’s the storyline I’m imagining, and apologies if you have made this point already:

    1. Day one: globally, we are all free individuals voluntarily engaging in transactions. Populations grow and businesses are diversified.

    2. Realising that there are economies of scale in the production of things like infrastructure, education, and defence, groups of people and businesses voluntarily pool their money. For obvious reasons, those groups tend to be delineated by geographical features like mountains and rivers. A few people are paid to administrate those pools of money, and they are voted into those jobs by those who contribute to the pool of money.

    3. These pooling arrangements are stable. Firstly, under repeated games, cooperation is a better strategy than defection/cheating for rational actors. Contracts are upheld and fraud is prevented. Secondly, the whole system is voluntary, so you don’t have to participate and can leave if you wish. If you opt out, but choose to stay within a given group’s geographical zone, you’re likely to be be bought out in some way and/or forced to leave (as per the Coase Theorem) if you’re free-riding on their “public” goods.

    4. With the benefits of economies of scale these pooling arrangements expand over time, and start bumping up against each other. Some arrangements join up, some split. The rules of the pooling arrangements differ between groups, and may change over time, both in what they produce and their contribution requirements. The rules are democratically decided upon.

    5. All along, people are free to opt out of the pooling arrangements and go somewhere else. Some groups allow you to voluntary join them (freely, or under certain circumstances) – but to join you have to contribute as their rules require.

    6. Land is finite, and these pooling arrangements keep growing, so over time there are fewer and fewer places to go to “opt out”. Eventually, the only place to go might be an abandoned sea fort in the English Channel or a strip of land on the Horn of Africa.

    And voila, we’ve voluntarily achieved the (more or less) current real-world status quo political arrangement via voluntary means! We can continue to use democracy to argue over the finer points of how these pooling arrangements should work.

    • #32 by Unlearningecon on April 2, 2013 - 2:09 pm

      Yeah, absolutely. Libertarianism doesn’t seem to acknowledge that space is scarce, and people have to go somewhere.

      Obviously, in reality, there would be more war than in your example.

    • #33 by Ayn Rant on April 3, 2013 - 6:15 pm

      This is not the “gotchya” that you think it is. This is exactly what anarcho-capitalists say would happen. Without government, voluntary organizations would serve all government functions (and better, more efficiently, etc.).

      The big difference is that, unlike “involuntary” governments, you’d have to buy your way in. The government would not just grant citizenship or rights for free to the riffraff element. So basically, the same as what we’ve got, except we throw the poor into the ocean (where they can homestead or whatever).

      • #34 by Unlearningecon on April 3, 2013 - 7:24 pm

        I don’t see how that’s different. If you have to buy your way in, how is that different from taxes?

        And people have to live somewhere, so they’d have to pay someone. Eventually all spare land would be owned.

      • #35 by Ayn Rant on April 4, 2013 - 3:35 am

        On a theoretical level, the difference is that taxes are not the basis of the rights of citizenship; they are, rather, obligations of citizenship. One does not buy citizenship with taxes, but rather is obligated to pay taxes as a result of citizenship. (Yes, non-citizen residents still pay some taxes, but let’s not over-complicate this.)

        On a practical level, the difference is that the modern liberal democratic state collects taxes at a rate proportional to income, thus ensuring the ability of all to pay. No one has their citizenship revoked for having too little income.

        The libertarian pseudo-state, on the other hand, would be based on a “head tax,” which would not be proportional to income (or otherwise proportional to ability to pay). Thus, those without sufficient incomes could be denied (pseudo-)citizenship — that is, they could be deported.

        Of course, this arrangement has a significant benefit to those with the highest incomes that goes beyond the removal of riffraff.

      • #36 by Harry Bowls on April 11, 2013 - 1:28 pm

        That sounds like a nice government, throwing poor people into the ocean.

        I don’t see how you can be sure that these “voluntary” organizations will necessarily be more efficient, given that as I described they won’t be much different to the governments we have today. It stems back to the artificial public vs. private dichotomy that libertarians like to use, which as pointed out on this blog are problematic.

  10. #37 by altruisttroll on March 31, 2013 - 11:26 pm

    Suffice to say, we disagree on the charity and R&D issue, but more importantly:

    You claim that libertarians subscribe to many false dichotomies, in particular the market vs. government dichotomy, but you seem to be promoting it in most of your replies to me? (e.g. private firms wont do long term research, so government must)

    There is a large space of institutions outside politics, be that religious, charitable, cultural, professional, academic or market institutions, and politics potentially crowds out all of them, not just markets. The pressure to solve some social issue is naturally channeled through political institutions the way most countries are organized today, but one cannot conclude that if politics was not available as a channel, then other institutions could not handle it since they are presently not.

    These alternatives all encompass larger scopes for individual decisive action, and therefor good individual incentives to be informed and to act on new information, and also competition where alternatives simultanously coexist and compete over time, rather than a sequence of counterfactuals like we are faced with in the monopoly of politics.

    e.g. As a voter I am entirely unaware of how many students need more teachers per student and how many students need more highly qualified teachers, and the political process is a poor way of encouraging me to give the right signals to politicians to organize a system whereby this is discovered and rediscovered through time. Good social outcomes like this have an infinity of dimensions, and institutions among those I listed can better explore this than a single vote per voter.

    It should be noted that the availability of politics as a channel for organizing society is ultimately based on the conviction of the populus, but there is ofcourse no reason to leap from this pervasive conviction to the necessary efficiency of said institution. (see monarchy, slavery, mercantilism, no property for woman, kill the gays act i Ghana, jim crow, gay marriage in france etc. for previous/contemporary pervasive convictions). Saying that politics is 50% efficient since people are “aware” of the collective action problems in all of the above institutions, yet unaware of the much more massive collective action problem of political institutions simply is not an honest assesment of how ordinary people think (most of your friends probably arent informed voters, but most of them would donate to education charity if they knew government wasnt and they kept the taxes). Even if you love politics as a solution, claiming that the latent wisdom of the crowds is proof of it simply does not cut it.

    Please consider the institutional space as being political vs. non-political rather than market vs. government, because the latter gives a far to empoverished view of the alternative to politics. I am sure there are other ways of slicing institutional space as well, but this one works very well.

    • #38 by Ayn Rant on April 4, 2013 - 4:28 am

      You write:

      “There is a large space of institutions outside politics, be that religious, charitable, cultural, professional, academic or market institutions, and politics potentially crowds out all of them, not just markets.”

      I think you’re missing the point about the false dichotomy, since you’re reproducing the same false dichotomy here.

      Political institutions do not “crowd out” markets; they _create_ markets. Similarly, political institutions don’t “crowd out” charity; they create the very property rights that allow charity to exist (and tax breaks to incentivize it, etc.).

      Granted, the same political institutions that create markets can abolish them; but there’s no such thing as the market _without_ a political institution to create it. That’s why it’s a false dichotomy.

      • #39 by altruisttroll on April 4, 2013 - 1:24 pm

        A minarchist libertarian will provide you with a conception of what role government ought to play in society, and by implication in defining and sustaining markets in her opinion. Now, if you want to argue that markets would not have been there, or would have been worse, without this involvement, then a minarchist would tend to agree with you. However, what relevance does this point have w.r.t the impact of government staying within or going beyond this libertarian conception? None, even if you think her conception is arbitrary or even wrong.

        Regardless of what role government plays in sustaining markets in a variety of ways, arguing that involvement outside the libertarian conception (e.g. subsidies) are required to improve outcomes in e.g. education, welfare and research BECAUSE OF MARKET MALFUNCTION neglects a space of alternative institutions that are not like markets. And more over, when e.g. subsidies are used as a tool to solve the given problem, they crowd out the alternatives. These alternatives may be markets themselves, or they could be other institutions. Saying that governments create markets does not refute this, while indeed they do in a variety of ways, in other ways they clearly crowd them out (see public education, healthcare and R&D). Either way, markets are not all there is!

        E.g. If you claim that adverse selection and externalities means we need public health service and education respectively, then you are making statements about how markets work and what government should do outside the libertarian conception to improve outcomes BECAUSE OF MARKET MALFUNCTION. This type of argument, which unleanringecon regularly promotes, does not recognize other institutions as a means of solving problems and in this sense promotes a government vs. market dichotomy. To the extent that one agrees that these institutions could work well this is actually a far worse dichotomy to promote than simply neglecting to be aware of how important governments are for markets, as minarchists are being charged with.

        Would appreciate your thoughts unlearningecon!

  11. #40 by Birdyword (@Birdyword) on April 1, 2013 - 5:09 pm

    I very much like the idea of positive/negative liberty as a spectrum. It’s a much more reasonable way of looking at things than a stark ‘positive bad negative good’ reduction. I’ve found it’s worth putting it in the form of imagined anecdotes too: for example, how a power-relationship works between an employee and an employer. Doesn’t work with Natural Rights fanatics but most consequentialists can intuitively understand that sort of argument.

    I’ve got mixed opinions on your points about property – I agree that the idea that the current distribution of property, assuming the overnight abolition of the state would somehow be natural or correct is vacuous – one thing that left-libertarians often understand better than right-libertarians is that the state (or any violent actors) haven’t historically needed to control large proportions of GDP to dramatically skew the distribution of wealth.

    “Give me a clear example of capitalism as we know it coming out of nowhere and I’ll give you the time of day” – I don’t think this is fair, partly because I think you’d be quite prescriptive over what constitutes ‘capitalism as we know it’. If Engels’ anthropological theories turn out to be utter rubbish, does it discredit Marxism in general? I’m no Marxist but I’m not sure that would be a fair way to judge it. If something is taken to be organic, how can you show an example of it coming out of nowhere?

    Hirshleifer is a good example of an economist who was able to engage with anthropological understandings of property and come out with broadly pro-capitalist framework.

    The Chamberlain example is interesting, but a little odd when you think of it as more than a thought experiment. In a one-off example, assuming a vacuum of information, yes, it might be the case that not everyone agrees collectively to donate money for some sort of performance. But of course, most people who go to watch basketball games are well aware that they will not be the only ones there, and that the players are very well paid. There is no collective decision, but the actors are in many cases quite aware of what the sum of the individual decisions looks like.

    In the example of immigrants and limited liability, in that the laws around them “were defined to have a systemic impact that cannot be enforced by any individual or group of individuals”, I think you might need other examples – a lot of libertarians wouldn’t say either immigration laws or limited liability should exist.

    Agreed on the ‘governments can’t create wealth’ bit. It’s quite obviously untrue and anyone who says it is misled or an idiot. It might well be (my argument) that the government doesn’t make a very good wealth creator, but that’s not the same issue.

    • #41 by Unlearningecon on April 2, 2013 - 1:53 pm

      If Engels’ anthropological theories turn out to be utter rubbish, does it discredit Marxism in general? I’m no Marxist but I’m not sure that would be a fair way to judge it. If something is taken to be organic, how can you show an example of it coming out of nowhere?

      I don’t think it discredits libertarianism at all; it was merely intended as a narrow rebuttal to the idea that capitalism is natural, unplanned, etc.

      The Chamberlain example is interesting, but a little odd when you think of it as more than a thought experiment. In a one-off example, assuming a vacuum of information, yes, it might be the case that not everyone agrees collectively to donate money for some sort of performance. But of course, most people who go to watch basketball games are well aware that they will not be the only ones there, and that the players are very well paid. There is no collective decision, but the actors are in many cases quite aware of what the sum of the individual decisions looks like.

      They may be aware of it but there’s nothing they can do about other’s decisions, whether they themselves attend or not.

      I only really used the Chamberlain example to take libertarians on on their own turf. In fact the logic is much stronger if you apply to it real life: the overwhelming majority of people have only consented to a tiny portion of the existing property distribution. The unborn have not consented at all.

      I think you might need other examples – a lot of libertarians wouldn’t say either immigration laws or limited liability should exist.

      Well there is still the question of the politics of property rights, contracts, force fraud and theft. All of these have significant implications and affect distribution.

  12. #42 by Eric L on April 2, 2013 - 4:08 am

    Taxes are theft! Why do you think you can steal from people?

    Personally, I’d start with: Libertarian governance requires taxes, so “taxation is theft” makes a more compelling measure of the naivete of libertarian premises than of the problems of other sorts of government.

    But government action, democratic or not, rests on the initiation of force. When is that ever justified?

    The libertarian view of equating government with force and violence always rung hollow on emotional level for me for a simple reason: where’s the fear? Apparently an economically liberal society is one characterized by violence, and yet when something goes bump in the middle of the night, I never find myself thinking “What if it’s the IRS?”

    But accepting that all government including libertarian government requires some implicit threat of violence, there is another problematic assumption buried in here: that more government requires more violence. But there is no evidence to support this. What threats are require to tax at 40% that are not required to tax at 5%? And what of the violence that may result from allowing inequality to grow unabated? What of the fact that the most economically liberal nations are the least willing to use the death penalty, and in many cases prefer to have most police not carry guns? Is there any way in which the Swedish government is more willing to threaten force than the U.S.?

    • #43 by Unlearningecon on April 2, 2013 - 1:45 pm

      Yeah, well the most persuasive argument I find against the tax is theft position is the one you outline: the state enforces and defines property and indeed theft; to say that in doing this it violates the same institutions it is required to sustain is nonsensical. The logical position is that pretax income is not an appropriate benchmark for ownership.

      However, if I had said this, I would have had to rebut libertarian fantasies about how property rights don’t depend on the government, which I didn’t want to get into.

      Your last paragraph is a great point, and reminds me of Jame Kwak’s the size of government fallacy. We need to know a lot more than ‘make government bigger or smaller’ to evaluate how our ‘freedoms’ are doing.

      • #44 by Ayn Rant on April 3, 2013 - 6:33 pm

        Not only is pretax income an inappropriate benchmark for ownership — institutions of property ownership depend on redistributive taxation for their basic moral legitimacy. Property requires some equity of distribution for its moral legitimacy, and (in all modern states) taxation-funded welfare programs are what accomplish that. Remove the taxation, and capitalist property rights will start to look about as morally righteous as feudalism.

        The dependence of property on equity for legitimacy was recognized by Locke (“enough and as good”) although I’m not sure he actually meant that any political institution should follow from that. Locke’s libertarian followers, at least, have chosen the non-reality-based position that there is always infinite land to homestead and it’s definitely just as good as Manhattan real estate.

  13. #45 by dan on April 2, 2013 - 2:37 pm

    “The first is the binary distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘coerced’ action, which leads to a lot of problems. Using it, I could argue that nobody in the developed world is really ‘forced’ to obey the law, because they could move country. Obviously it would be silly to say this: one can’t expect people to uproot themselves from their family, friends, location and career, so functionally people do not have much choice about obeying laws. ”

    Strangely enough there are libertarians here in the states that actually make that very argument. There is a strange contradiction in which libertarians tend to value state’s rights over federal goverment power, mainly because if you believe the size of government fallacy the obvious conclusion is that the smaller local governmental bodies are therefore “better” than the larger, broader bodies of government. So therefore states should have more power and the federal government should have less (according to them). Of course American history with its Jim Crow laws and local protectionism seems to discredit the idea that increased power to local authorities brings more individual and economic freedom. And the Eurozone debacle is just the latest example of how confederacies end up being economically dysfunctional. But that doesn’t stop people from believing these fallacies. It highlights the supreme contradiction of libertarianism when so called “liberty” lovers like Ron Paul end up arguing for the rights of the state to ban things like gay marriage or drugs.

    At the end of the day I am glad I am a modern liberal and not a libertarian, modern liberalism is a much more coherent philosophy when it comes to individual freedom because it tends to value “freedom you can feel” and acknowledges that un-liberty can come from a number of places, not just the state. The libertarian has made up in his mind that the state is the source of all evils, and as a result they end up advocating policies which are shockingly illiberal in the freedom that the individual has.

    There is also the issue of actual voluntary consent versus paper consent. The libertarian’s define consent in the way that modern contract law does, if its a contract and you didn’t have a gun to your head and you weren’t high on drugs when you signed it then it is legitimate and voluntary, sociology be damned. This may work as a rule of thumb in a court of law but if you are going to base a philosophy of ethics on such a simple definition of consent that is pretty damn weak. But they don’t really care, at the end of the day libertarian’s worldview is that of a snotty teenager, and unsurprisingly the majority of libertarians fit within that demographic.

    • #46 by Unlearningecon on April 3, 2013 - 1:57 pm

      Good post.

      The libertarian’s define consent in the way that modern contract law does, if its a contract and you didn’t have a gun to your head and you weren’t high on drugs when you signed it then it is legitimate and voluntary, sociology be damned.

      Don’t be so sure about the drugs one!

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