Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Libertarianism Makes you Stupid?

I was bored and depressed watching the market go south for the 5th successive day, so I went on a blog ramble. Via Chris Dillow if found this post called "I like the state, the state is Great" (to which I was going to post a response, along the lines that all problems he mentioned are caused by the welfare state - get rid of that and most of the problems people care about go away: Immigration and crime in particular). But I noticed an earlier post: this, which led me to an essay entitled libertarianism makes you stupid - to which I respond yes, but nowhere near as much as Collectivism.

Now, I'm a Conservative Libertarian and as such I'm not doctrinaire. I'm a minarchist - one who believes that the state is an utterly incompetent agent which - consisting as it does of people spending other peoples money on behalf of other people - will naturally buy shit products and services at inflated prices. On this basis the state should do as little as possible, and when it does need to do something, it should act as a purchaser. It may be an incompetent purchaser, but it would be an even worse provider because services would inevitably become in thrall to producer capture, and would be measured like the British NHS by inputs rather than outcomes.

In his essay, Seth Finkelstein makes a number of assertions. He lays into the "initiation of force" principle, which underpins all libertarian thought, suggesting that a doctrinaire libertarian will define "initiation of force" or fraud as "anything of which he disapproves". He's probably right, but as I've never met a doctrinaire Libertarian, and most libertarians couch their beliefs firmly within reality, initiation of force stands as a nice basis for a logical evaluation of right and wrong. I would contrast this belief in an individuals right to go unmolested about his business with the grosser initiations of force implicit in communism or other collectivist philosophies. The extreme position is a straw man.

Where I really start to diverge from Seth, is when he says

"While you might be told Libertarianism is about individual rights and freedom, fundamentally, it's about business. The words "individual rights", in a civil-society context, are often Libertarian-ese for "business"."
I see where he's coming from. Many self described libertarians are cheerleaders for big business - but they're ignorant, and often take the position on the basis that"if it pisses lefties off, it is therefore probably right". I, and most genuine libertarians however believe big business to be an agent of the state, which helps huge multi-nationals by making the regulatory playing field so complex and expensive to navigate that in many of the most profitable business areas - in particular finance and manufacturing - only large bureaucracies are capable of competing. Without excessive regulation, "caveat emptor" would see personal relationships spring to the fore - swinging the pendulum of power back to the individual provider of labour and services and away from bureaucratic tyranny. Big business is, from an individual empowerment point of view, merely an arm of the oppressive state.

So big business rails against regulation alongside libertarians, but not as fervently as small business organisations. Indeed the biggest businesses in the UK are often providing most of their services to the state - much of the construction sector under PFI (which is in itself an argument for the state as a lousy purchaser) or have a government guaranteed oligopoly. Example? British Airways: Legislation protects BA's Heathrow landing slots, preventing proper competition in the lucrative transatlantic market, where they make most of their profit. Look how much fares have come down in the relatively unregulated European short-haul market in comparison, which is dominated by businesses which did not exist 20 years ago. Regulation entrenches the status quo. Even the trains are an example of how not to do state intervention: It was crap under British Rail and it's better, but costs the tax payer more under a ludicrously tight regulation which prevents businesses matching demand. Thus state intervention often brings the worst of both worlds: Expensive finance and public sector work ethics.

Above all, though the libertarian is against direct subsidy and protectionism - most grossly the CAP and US farm subsidies. Most libertarians are also against "fair-trade" too, on sensible economic grounds. Get rid of the CAP and there would be no need for Fair Trade! So there is a consistency in the Libertarian position to big business and business in general - we are for some of the things they are for, but ambivalent to the corporation. We are against legislation in general, whatever its motivation, because of the unintended consequences.

Seth then goes on to suggest in some length that Libertarians are against civil rights legislation, and that this is barmy. I disagree about the barmy.
"One of the seamiest and ugliest aspects of Libertarianism is its support of turning back the civil-rights clock to pre-1964 legal situation for businesses. "I am not making this up". They're very explicit about it:
Consequently, we oppose any government attempts to regulate private discrimination, including choices and preferences, in employment, housing, and privately owned businesses. The right to trade includes the right not to trade -- for any reasons whatsoever; the right of association includes the right not to associate, for exercise of the right depends upon mutual consent.
That's "rights" according to Libertarianism. Whites-only lunch counters, "No Jews or dogs" hotels, "we don't serve your kind here", "No Irish need apply", "This is man's job", etc. All this is a "right of association" in Libertarian theology. "
Yup. Guilty as charged, but let's look at this again. In the days of blatant racial discrimination, where was the initiation of force? Surely the police and other agents of the state enforcing "whites only" drinking fountains are initiating the force, not the Black man drinking at it. There is a general dislike by libertarians of laws and that includes discriminatory ones. So the true libertarian would have been arguing against Jim Crow laws, just as he argues against affirmative action. Seth is good enough to point out that Libertarians are not racists, though I have seen racists use Libertarian thought to cover their views. What fundamentally changed was not the legislative framework, but society. Racists, frankly lost the argument, and a good thing too! It is now unacceptable to discriminate and a white-owned business which had a sign saying "no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish" would be unlikely to get white business either - certainly not mine. Perhaps the laws were necessary in the deep south of the USA to kick start the process, but perhaps the argument was already lost by the racists by the time the laws came in. I don't think anti-discrimination laws were ever needed on this side of the pond.

There is no doubt that positive discrimination remains an abomination, and anyone who thinks otherwise is no better than the Klansman he despises.

Because I believe that state action is fraught with unintended consequences, I'm still happy to say freedom of association should be an absolute right, which means if you choose not to associate with people of different races, you should be able to. However the flip side of this is that if someone chooses to sack you because you're a nasty bigot, then there should be no recourse to law. A right to hold an opinion is not a right to hold that opinion without consequences. As such where individual cost benefit analysis of expressing an opinion boils down to whether racism or anti-racism is prevalent in society. Anti-racists can and should take an active part in that argument. Laws, however are often counter productive: with the remaining racists driven into an underground movement, they inevitably become more extreme. Here the initiation of force by the police drives people away from the relatively harmless frequenting of whites-only bars into a more dangerous sullen resentment of a conspiracy to keep the white man (specifically him) down, which permeates racist literature.

Seth goes on:
"The fanatical opposition of Libertarians to anti-discrimination laws also illuminates a crucial aspects of the stupid-making effects of the philosophy. They can never admit even one instance of government intervention doing good overall for society as opposed to the effects of the market."
Because there are few examples where the states action did not have unintended consequences. Many anti-libertarians in the UK would point to the Welfare state or the NHS as "good" action by the state. Perhaps the finest rebuttal of this is "the welfare state we're in" by James Bartholemew, which argues that these institutions are responsible for most of the problems of modern society, which Theodore Darymple backs up with some anecdotal artillery. The NHS is certainly not a good argument against a libertarian position! The examples of positive interference by the state given in Seth's essay are noticeable by their absence. Instead he seeks to elaborate his point with a "dispatches from libertopia". It's easy to knock over ideas which you've set up for the purpose. Yet again - the straw man.

Finally, he suggests that there has never been a Libertopia. I disagree. There has been one and in it's day it was the richest, freest and most powerful society the world has ever seen. One where poor young men could, with luck and talent make it to the highest offices of the land and do so from extremely humble birth. Liberal Britain - a country which eschewed a standing army for centuries as a foreign and tyrannical imposition on the populus was very nearly libertarian. The state existed to defend its borders (helped by a handy bit of sea) and little else. Even its empire had to be nationalised from private business! It is sad that in an attempt to create a land fit for heroes in the aftermath of the twentieth century's bloody wars, increasing state involvement in education and poor relief has sucked the spiritual and economic strength of a once great nation.

I forget who it was who said (of the third world) "if you want to be a good country in which to live, don't do war and don't do socialism", but it's true of the UK too. Libertopia died in the mud and blood of Flanders in 1914-18 and I for one yearn for its return.


Simon Jester said...

Needless to say, Jackart, I agree with nearly everything you say.

I'm not sure I'd agree with Seth's assertion that "They can never admit even one instance of government intervention doing good overall"; the point is partly that (as you observe) government intervention very rarely produces better outcomes, and partly (for those of us who are rights-based libertarians) that it would be wrong even if it did.

His 2+2=5 section reads like the Chewbacca defence.

I think the key to all the faults within his essay can be found in the fact that his essay is collected among "Critiques of Libertarianism: Liberal Critiques".

In other words: he's an authoritarian statist who not only wants to caricature and vilify his diametrical opponents, but is more-or-less unable to comprehend them. Hence his insistence that all libertarians are liars, acting as a front for big business: he simply cannot understand any alternative explanation for their (our) behaviour.

Incidentally, I don't think the old British Empire per se was particularly close to Libertopia, although England during much of the 19th and Hong Kong during much of the 20th centuries came close.

donpaskini said...

Thanks for the link.

One obvious objection to the idea of Liberal Britain pre-1914 being an example of 'Libertopia' is that a large part of Britain's wealth at the time came from the empire, which I'm sure you would agree wasn't run on remotely libertarian lines.

As for getting rid of welfare state=get rid of problems people are bothered about, this has been tried, at least to some degree, in parts of the USA. I was looking at some research from Texas (where, for example, mothers have to look for work as soon as their children are one year old, and any failure to adhere to any of the rules mean loss of all welfare benefits for the whole family) and the results have been...not so good.

Jackart said...

I agree that The British Empire was not a Libertarian institution - but the state at the heart of it was.

I a world where others were aquiring empires, it is noticable that much of the British Empire was acquired almost by accident: Peccavi... and it was run with much less tyranny than others.

I'm not suggesting it to be a good thing - "in seeking to conquer others England has made a shameful conquest of herself" - but it was for its subjects often the least bad option. In many cases better than self rule.

Roger Thornhill said...

Of course sometimes Government intervention "does good", but that is like saying that a liar tells the truth now and again - it does not stop them from being a liar.

Finklestein's algebra "example" is false anyhow:

* Step 1: Let a=b.
* Step 2: Then a^2 = ab,
* Step 3: a^2 + a^2 = a^2 + ab,
* Step 4: 2 a^2 = a^2 + ab,
* Step 5: 2 a^2 - 2 ab = a^2 + ab - 2 ab,
* Step 6: and 2 a^2 - 2 ab = a^2 - ab.
* Step 7: This can be written as 2 (a^2 - a b) = 1 (a^2 - a b),
* Step 8: and cancelling the (a^2 - ab) from both sides gives 1=2.

What he chooses not realise is that (a^2 - ab) = 0, so of course 1*0 = 2*0!

You could say 1*0 = 1984*0 also, but that does not make 1 = 1984.

Proof that Socialism makes you stupid?

Candace said...

I agree with much of this post apart from the part which addressed anti-discrimination laws.

The point about Libertarian objections to such laws were not fully addressed. You tackle the part where he mentions Jim Crow laws, but that was not what the reference was to when Seth mentioned instances in Britain of things such as 'no black, no Irish, no dogs.'. Whilst Jackart concedes anti-discrimnination laws may have been necessary in the US deep south he doesn't see any need for these in Britain as society had already changed. I think Jackart has an overly optimistic and naive view of England in the 50s-70s. Speak to any of the West Indian immigrants at that time (those who chose to stay) about the widespread discrimination in housing and employment they faced.

Yes a true Libertarian will value individual freedom over the cost to society, yet if anti-discrimination laws have positive upsides with no downsides then how are these a bad thing.

I don't agree with the notion that these merely drive racism underground, I think that is often stated but really far from the truth. And if by underground, we mean those who are racists grumble to themselves, whilst being unable to have widespread adverse impacts on society then, should we care?

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