Thursday, June 13, 2013

Answering Michael Lind's question to libertarians

Michael Lind from Salon magazine wrote a ridiculous article the other week, so I’ve decided to ridicule it. The article, which you can readhere, is titled “The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer.” According to Lind, that question is “If your approach is so great, why hasn’t any country in the world ever tried it?”

That’s it? That’s the stumper, Mike? Of all the possible angles from which one might attack libertarianism, a grade-school logical fallacy is the best you can come up with? To quote Will from Good Will Hunting, “that’s a tough one – but I’ll take a shot.”

First off, the entire argument Lind derives from his question is a non-sequitur anyway. Even if we didn’t have an answer to why governments have so far been unreceptive to libertarianism, it does not follow that libertarianism is a bad idea. Many good ideas take a while to catch on (not just in governance, but also in art, technology, etc.). There was a time when none of the nations on earth had implemented the abolition of slavery. There was a time when no nation had an Air Force. There was a time when no government had legalized gay marriage. When Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on a church door in Wittenburg, not a single country had tried Protestantism before. This does not mean his concerns were invalid, or that challenging the Catholic Church’s immoral practices was a bad idea. Sometimes old problems are solved, and conditions improved, by adopting a new approach. But that can’t happen if the only ideas people are willing to consider are the ones which have already been tried. It amuses me that so-called progressives, the supposed champions of bold ideas designed to move society forward into the 21st century, now view “it hasn’t been done before” as a reason not to do something.

But just to humor him, I'll answer his question anyway. The short answer to to why no country has tried full-blown libertarianism is that powerful people are extremely reluctant to relinquish their power, such that they will ignore, dismiss, refuse to consider, or even attempt to silence any worldview which challenges that power. This is for at least three reasons:

  1. Power can be used to confer material benefits on the holder. In the olden days, this manifested itself as outright corruption: the transfer of money directly to a politician in exchange for voting or acting in a certain way. But in the modern world, you needn’t pass briefcases in smoke filled rooms to win political favors from government officials. Those with wealth or connections use government to protect their business and profit interests all the time. At first this was mere necessity – the government had become involved in so many things that companies needed lobbyists just to ensure their competition didn’t write all the rules. But today, those with enough sway to win this rigged game have found they rather like this shortcut, because it allows them to bypass the challenges of competition on an open market. Open market companies have to compete with China; politically involved companies get tariffs to keep Chinese goods out. Open market charities have to convince people to donate; politically authorized charities get taxpayer funding. Why risk failure when you can craft regulations or rewrite the rules to guarantee your success? Libertarianism would end all these special privileges and handouts, so it’s not good news for those with enough power and connections to get them.

    Of course, it would be great news for everybody else. Cronyism carries real costs for the majority of the population: higher taxes, higher prices on consumer goods, etc. But unfortunately for libertarians, these costs are dispersed among many, whereas the benefits bestowed by government are concentrated among a few. The brilliant Tom Woods elaborates on this principle here. It’d hard to get the average American riled up just because manufacturing goods cost an extra 25 cents. But those whose fortunes are built on big government have an enormous vested interest in its perpetuation, so they’re willing to put forth enormous effort into convincing people that small government would be chaos. Those in power have both an incentive and a means to oppose the implementation of libertarian ideas, and so far, they’ve succeeded.

  1. Power enables people to get their way. Oftentimes, people disagree. Sometimes these disagreements are fact-based, such that one party is right while the other is wrong. But other times, disagreements result from different worldviews, or from subjective moral opinions. It would be great if everyone was mature enough to accept those differences and get along, but the unfortunate reality is that many people are not. Like bickering siblings, many people who are confronted with beliefs or practices they dislike feel a natural inclination to impose their will on others. Government allows them to do this, because only government can use force to change the behaviors of other people. Don’t like Mexicans? Government can force them to leave the country. Don’t like drugs? Government can punish those who do. Don’t like greedy rich people? Government can force them to give to the poor. Those in power get to impose their personal worldview on everyone else, and that’s a tempting prospect. Libertarianism wouldn’t let them do that anymore, so in order to keep doing it, they must oppose libertarianism.

  1. Power carries a great deal of prestige, such that those who hold it often cling to it as a matter of personal pride. Those in a position of power are usually respected and venerated members of their community – much more respected than they were before their election. Additionally, rising to that position can be extremely difficult, requiring lengthy political campaigns or a long career of promotion through a competitive bureaucracy. The result is that once someone finally rises to the top of the political food chain, they often become intoxicated by their own importance, which influences the way they view the world.
Once a leader incorporates his or her right to hold their position as a part of their identity, their self-esteem requires that position to be honorable, important and necessary. Proud people are resistant to the notion that their services may not be required. No policeman likes to think that the laws they enforce are immoral. No tax collector likes the idea that no taxes need to be collected. No economist likes the thought that the economy might not need to be managed. No general wants to be told that the war he manages is counterproductive and unnecessary. Everyone wants to feel important, and nobody wants to view themselves as the problem. Since libertarians view government as the problem, members of government take it as an insult, and their defensiveness leads them to reject it. It is uncomfortable for people to consider the idea that their life’s work was for naught; rejecting that thought preemptively is much easier, because it avoids the cognitive dissonance that results from challenging perspectives.

This is also why no bureaucracy ever voluntarily cuts its own funding. When a government agency has a job opening, the applicants for that position are disproportionately likely to support that agency relative to the general population; those who disagree that the agency is necessary probably wouldn’t have applied for the position. This is called volunteer bias, and it’s a big part of the reason government is so hard to shrink. Any cuts to any part of government are protested vociferously by those in that part, because by the nature of their employment there, they’ve come to view that part as extremely important.

Those who view the state as an effective solution for society’s problems like to imagine that policy is formed by wise and benevolent leaders, motivated by nothing but selfless concern for their people’s wellbeing. This is naïve. The aforementioned truths demonstrate that personal biases often prevent governments from acting in accordance with what’s best for their subjects. Ultimately, governments consist of people, and people are frequently selfish, vain, greedy and mistake prone. The political left, of which Mr. Lind is a proud member, is the first to point this out in the private sector. But perplexingly, they seem convinced government officials are made of a different moral fiber than the rest of us. When wrongdoing is unearthed outside of government, they view it as proof that people are too evil to live without the protection of these caring few.  But when scandal after scandal emerges among those leaders, it is viewed as an unfortunate exception to the rule, rather than the rule of human nature itself. In order for our society to truly progress, progressives must learn that the people in government are every bit as vain, corruptible, dishonest, and self-interested as the people outside of it.


To be clear, libertarianism faces many challenging questions from many intelligent people. These people have valid reasons for skepticism. It is not a foolproof solution or a bulletproof ideology. But if the left is looking for some kingmaker argument to leave us stuttering all over ourselves, they’re going to have to do much better than this.

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