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Does Libertarian Success Just Produce More Government, and Should We Give Up Trying to Shrink It?

In his contribution to the recent Cato Unbound debate on Brian Doherty's essay on prospects for libertarianism, Tyler Cowen claims that the success of libertarian ideas leads to bigger government. He also contends that this proves that libertarians should largely abandon the effort to shrink the modern state and instead focus on other issues:

Libertarian ideas also have improved the quality of government. Few American politicians advocate central planning or an economy built around collective bargaining. Marxism has retreated in intellectual disgrace.

Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They've also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.

I have enormous respect for Tyler and his scholarship, but in this case I think he's wrong. It is true that we can afford more government if we become wealthier. But more wealth also enables us to afford more of everything else. The extra increment of wealth will only be used to buy more government if people believe that to be a better use of the additional resources than other possible purchases. And of course the whole point of libertarianism is that purchasing more government is rarely, if ever, a good deal relative to the available alternatives. Moreover, if Tyler is correct that "the better government operates, the more government people will demand," then we should expect the growth of government to focus on those areas where libertarian reforms have made government operate better. Tyler himself lists several such fields, including monetary policy, policy towards the high tech sector, and a less perverse tax system. It is, striking, however, that most of the growth in government over the last 30 years has not occurred in these areas. It has instead focused on Social Security, medical care, agricultural subsidies, and other areas where libertarian ideas have had little or no impact on policy, and fairly crude "command and control" statism remains the name of the game.

Tyler next argues that, even though in his view (and mine) libertarians are right to believe that most of the post-New Deal regulatory/welfare state is a bad idea, they should largely stop fighting it because big government and growing wealth are a "package deal:"

The major libertarian response to modernity is simply to wish that the package deal we face isn't a package deal. But it is, and that is why libertarians are becoming intellectually less important compared to, say, the 1970s or 1980s. So much of libertarianism has become a series of complaints about voter ignorance, or against the motives of special interest groups. The complaints are largely true, but many of the battles are losing ones. No, we should not be extreme fatalists, but the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not ....

Let's not fight the last battle or the last war. Let's not obsess over all the interventions represented by the New Deal, even though I would agree that most of those policies were bad ideas.

Tyler is probably right to suppose that we can't achieve a complete rollback of the post-New Deal state in the foreseeable future. It does not follow that it is impossible to make large cutbacks in the size of government that fall short of the libertarian ideal. There is no theoretical reason to believe that big government and modern prosperity are a "package deal" to such an extent that such cuts are impossible. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests the opposite. In just a few years, Ireland has gone from being a fairly typical big government European-style social democracy, to a set of policies that have allowed to almost catch up with the US in the Index of Economic Freedom (a measure that ranks overall degree to which a nation pursues free market as opposed to statist policies). New Zealand and Australia, which also pursued quite statist policies until recently, have actually surpassed the United States on the index, and Singapore has always ranked well ahead.

None of this proves that cutting the size of government is easy or that every country can imitate Ireland's success. But it does suggest that Tyler is wrong to suppose that big government and modernity are so closely intertwined that major cuts in government are impossible. At the very least, we need much stronger evidence to demonstrate the existence of Tyler's "package deal" than he has provided.

Tyler also contends that, instead of trying to cut government, libertarians should refocus on issues such as global warming, nuclear terrorism, and intellectual property. We should indeed give careful consideration to these issues. But it does not follow that that requires us to give up the fight against big government. To the contrary, if (as Tyler believes), we are right about the harmful effects of overgrown government, reducing its size is likely to improve our ability to deal with these newer dangers. To the extent that reducing inefficient or harmful government programs increases our wealth, that creates more resources that can be devoted to combatting the threats Tyler points to. Moreover, as I have argued on many occasions (e.g. - here), a smaller government will be easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor, and thus more likely to perform well. Finally, as Bryan Caplan points out in his response to Tyler, the new issues themselves might well be better addressed (at least in part) through private sector rather than political initiatives.

Bottom line: Libertarians are unlikely to win a complete victory over the modern state. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try for incremental movement in that direction. The impossibility of total victory doesn't mean that we should give up the fight. Partial success is a lot better than admitting defeat.

UPDATE: It is theoretically possible that we can cut government down to roughly the size that currently prevails in the US, Ireland, or New Zealand, but no further. If so, Tyler would be correct as to the prospects for libertarianism in the US, but wrong about the vast majority of the world. However, Tyler provides no reason to believe that the current size of government in these countries is indeed the smallest that is politically feasible. So even in the most free market nations in the developed world, we should not rule out the possibility of major cuts in the size of government.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Two Fallacies that Cause (Excessive) Libertarian Despair:
  2. Does Libertarian Success Just Produce More Government, and Should We Give Up Trying to Shrink It?
PersonFromPorlock:
Er... you are aware, aren't you, that the real choice is between the Republican nanny state and the Democratic one? Libertarianism has much to offer the people, but nothing to offer the politicians that beats buying elections with tax dollars. Hopes of a libertarian influence on the major parties are foolish indeed, and I can't see the Libertarian party doing any better than it already has, or, more precisely, hasn't.
3.17.2007 7:15am
Bottomfish (mail):
What about redesigning government programs to allow more individual choices?

As I type, Massachusetts is busy setting up compulsory health insurance programs for everybody. (If you don't want it you may end up having your pay garnished.) Probably there is no way to avoid this trend. Characteristically, the Connector, as it is called, is concerned mainly with deciding what the required components of all programs should be. At the same time the cost per month is supposed to be affordable. Thes results appear to be policies with considerable coverage but high deductible amounts. Have the people ever voted on what the required components whould be? No.
3.17.2007 8:03am
liberty (mail) (www):
"It is theoretically possible that we can cut government down to roughly the size that currently prevails in the US, Ireland, or New Zealand, but no further."

So wait, I'm confused about this theory. Does that mean there has never been a smaller government than the one that we currently have (which would mean its been shrinking or remaining the same size up till now which in conflict with your earlier concession about recent growth of government)? Or is it theoretically possible that today we can't have a smaller government because somehow today we require this size of government (because of people's expectations). Alternately one could argue that somehow government can only change in one direction (getting bigger) and the act of cutting back spending, cutting programs etc is impossible, but you said the theory is that you can cut to a certain level and then no more.

I recognize that you are just postulating one theory and asking Tyler to defend it - but I think even that theory is on rather flimsy foundation.
3.17.2007 10:55am
JosephSlater (mail):
I don't want to drag this off-topic, but I must say I'm once again struck by the libertarian antipathy to unions. How absurd that, in the inital quote "collective bargaining" is used as a companion -- and, implicitly, equivalent -- to "central planning."

Collective bargaining (in the private sector) is contract negotiations over work relations by two private parties. It's quite libertarian. And yes, current law is that majorities who wish to be represented by unions must be recognized as a bargaining agent of those workers. But in the same way, the law says that groups of people who form business relationships like corporations must be recognized as a single entity for bargaining purposes too.
3.17.2007 12:08pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Oh, and I meant to say that if it is just expectations - we can change those. Each new generation can understand these things differently. If young people associate free markets and small government with the wealth and technology that they expect and desire, rather than with evil Bush-Hitler, they will vote in smaller government.
3.17.2007 12:22pm
Ken Arromdee:
But in the same way, the law says that groups of people who form business relationships like corporations must be recognized as a single entity for bargaining purposes too.

Does it? There's nothing preventing a union from saying "if you want to hire the union members, we need to be hired by the owner, not by the corporation the owner runs". Of course, there's no reason the owner would want to make such a contract, but there's nothing illegal as far as I know (IANAL) about doing so. The corporation needs to be recognized as a single entity only if the workers had decided to make their contract with the corporation in the first place, in which case they already recognized it.
3.17.2007 12:42pm
frankcross (mail):
When have there been large cuts in the size of government? Other than transition from communism, I guess. I think of Ireland and New Zealand as deregulatory and in that sense libertarian, but did they really cut the size of their governments much?
3.17.2007 1:31pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
In my opinion the article is pretty fatalist itself. I mean what he recommends pretty much entails throwing away what makes libertarians libertarians and picking some of the worst policy areas from the two major parties.

Personally, I think people are growing very sick of the Nanny, Mommy, and Daddy state. They're sick of the paternalism. They're sick of the meddling. They're sick of the incompetence. They're sick of the waste. I believe that the pendulum will swing back the other way at some point, and that if libertarians do a good job of informing and educating people hopefully the pendulum will swing back into a place where some gains in liberty can be made.

I also think there are likely some major economic crises looming, and it would be very unfortunate if in the aftermath people blamed capitalism (rather than the real culprits - statism, interventionism, corruption, cronyism, etc.) and turned left to try communism/socialism/etc. "one more time".

So I don't agree with the article. As Mises favorite quote goes: "Do not cede to evil". And while those enacting a lot of these policies aren't seen as evil, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. In my opinion modern libertarians should not back off their goals. Mises didn't and I don't think he would if he were around today.
3.17.2007 4:22pm
Viscus (mail) (www):

Libertarians are unlikely to win a complete victory over the modern state.


Indeed. This is an understatement. You have a snowballs chance in hell of achieving anything like this. Ever.

I would say that being against an absolute right to food would hurt libertarians politically. I think the link between the subset of libertarians who are against such a right and libertarianism should be made strongly and used to marginalize libertarians.

Overall, libertarianism is not likely to ever be very influential, because extreme and unreasonable wackos seem to be drawn to it. Too few libertarians are the reasonable type (i.e. Tyler Cowen) for libertarianism to have much influence. It is only with the marriage to conservatives, that smaller government rhetoric has had any impact. And at the end of the day, the conservatives will throw libertarians to the curb. Conservatives have morals.

In the meantime, the conservatives are in pain themselves, due to the corruptions and incompetence of the GOP. To exacerbate the wound of its already sorry image, the GOP has failed to recruit an inspiring Presidential candidate. Romney is an unprincipled flip flopper who is first pro-life, then pro-choice, then pro-life again. Whatever seems to suit his political ambitions. Guiliani has serious family issues, did not stick through his last Senate campaign and his pro-choice views mean that many evangelicals would simply stay home if he won the nomination. McCain is too old and weighed down by his support of the war. Brownback if a total joke. The GOP is destined to lose the next presidential race.

It is thus understandable that certain libertarians are now running to liberals, talking about an alliance. Such an alliance would only be possible to the extent that more extreme libertarians have no influence. Liberals are not going to tolerate people who think it is okay to sit on the beach sipping martinis while people starve.

I should note, however, that I do like Tyler Cowen. He is my sort of libertarian. That is, mostly reasonable, given what I know of him. Cowen is the future of libertarianism to the extent it will have any influence at all in the immediate future. The Cowen wing of the libertarian ideology is destined to be the most influential.
3.17.2007 4:58pm
Viscus (mail) (www):

Mises didn't and I don't think he would if he were around today.


And of course, libertarians should do whatever some dead guy would think is best. This is a blatant appeal to authority.
3.17.2007 5:01pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"And of course, libertarians should do whatever some dead guy would think is best"

Some dead smart guy.
3.17.2007 5:06pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

Ah, you have the guts to respond to me in this thread. Kindly don't repeat any of your statements that have been already debunked in other discussions.

I would say that being against an absolute right to food would hurt libertarians politically. I think the link between the subset of libertarians who are against such a right and libertarianism should be made strongly and used to marginalize libertarians.

If libertarians were actually "pro-starvation" that might hurt them. But they're not. And most people realize how cheap and emotionally manipulative you are being with the statements you are making.

If you want to create a US tax to stop world hunger, go and lobby and get it passed. Don't hang around a generally libertarian site and continually insult and defame libertarians by claiming they want to see people starve, because they don't. They support economic systems that result in the least amount of people starving and the most capacity to provide aid.

Overall, libertarianism is not likely to ever be very influential, because extreme and unreasonable wackos seem to be drawn to it.

Blanket ad hominem attack.

And some surveys have indicated that once people realize what libertarian views are a large portion of the population supports quite a number of them. So there are a lot of people out there that agree with us on many issues. And at the same time elements of both major parties continue to disappoint, offend, and in some cases disgust the average voter.

I also know libertarians are right on most issues. So ideologically libertarians will always be relevant. And depending on how things shake out there is a good chance we will become more politically relevant than we already are.

Conservatives have morals.

Contrary to your incorrect statements otherwise, so do libertarians.

Liberals are not going to tolerate people who think it is okay to sit on the beach sipping martinis while people starve.

Well, since you haven't sold all your possessions and given it all to hunger charities you believe the same thing. You're constructing cheap, emotional strawmen Viscus, and you know it.

The Cowen wing of the libertarian ideology is destined to be the most influential.

Good for them. Maybe they'll still write to those of us on the wacko, looney-tune wing.

And of course, libertarians should do whatever some dead guy would think is best. This is a blatant appeal to authority.

The reference was made at the conclusion of my post after I had made other points. Although Mises certainly was an authority.
3.17.2007 5:55pm
Ilya Somin:
I think of Ireland and New Zealand as deregulatory and in that sense libertarian, but did they really cut the size of their governments much?

Indeed, they did. Government spending was significantly reduced as a percentage of GDP, and deregulation also reduces the size of government as well.
3.17.2007 10:10pm
Dick Schweitzer (mail):
I will come back later with a bit more, but I hope all have read or will read Mr. Cowen's piece.

What he is singing is the siren song of "sufficient" liberty, balanced off by a "progress" that produces things and services (conditions) of increasing material desireability.

Given the impediments to complete individual freedom naturally existing within social orders,creating and accepting expansions of other constructs that leave us "sufficient" liberty will lead to defining sufficiency down.
3.17.2007 10:21pm
Dick Schweitzer (mail):
In the recent past, until my late wife's illness took me from the D.C. area, I was a long-term Sponsor (smaller size) of Cato from shortly after it arrived in D.C; and, I will be again. I have also been a long-term supporter of FEE. At 82+, there has been a lot of exposure to changes in the relationships within this social order we call the U.S. or "America." Enough credentials.

Still, I can not claim to be a Libertarian in the same vein of philosophic, economic, political or social conviction of those proud of their respective intellectual tattoos for those elements in our human interactions. Nevertheless, I have deep respect for and empathy with "libertarians" of every persuasion. By and large they are never collectivists.

But, from recent history, and these essays, as well as some of the commentary, I sense some possible misperceptions on the issues involving governments (pl.). Intense efforts are expended on the issue of the functions of governments, on limiting those functions, and limiting the effects of those functions. However, with the possible exception of Public Choice Theory, libertarians have not concentrated adequately on how and why governments function as they do in their operations. There are similarities to treating the symptoms rather than seeking the causes of the disease or disorder. With an aggressive examination, and ultimate better understanding of that how and why, all those "disciplines" of the libertarians might form a meaningful confluence.

Sorry to mis-spell desirable in prior post
3.17.2007 11:35pm
TJIT (mail):
American Psikhushka,

Nice, crisp fisking of Viscus.

The first step progressives like viscus take when commenting on libertarians is to bring in a truckload of hay to construct strawmen libertarian positions to argue against. Some fun examples from viscus in blockquotes below
I would say that being against an absolute right to food would hurt libertarians politically.

Liberals are not going to tolerate people who think it is okay to sit on the beach sipping martinis while people starve.
3.18.2007 2:34am
Viscus (mail) (www):
TJIT,

I am not a progressive. Thanks.
3.18.2007 3:13am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Another point.

There are no strawmen here. A subset of libertarians think that there should be no positive right to food.

That is, they think that no one has a duty to lift their finger when someone is starving to death. Which, of course, implies that the person with no obligation to lift their finger can sip martinis on the beach instead.

If you are a libertarian, but think that there is a duty to prevent starvation, my criticism does not apply to you. But it does apply to those who have different beliefs and this is no strawman.
3.18.2007 3:17am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

There are no strawmen here. A subset of libertarians think that there should be no positive right to food...
That is, they think that no one has a duty to lift their finger when someone is starving to death. Which, of course, implies that the person with no obligation to lift their finger can sip martinis on the beach instead.


No, you've created an army of strawmen.

And your imagery of "sipping martinis on the beach" is pure histrionic emotional manipulation. It implies that if anyone engages in any kind of leisure activity while someone, somewhere is starving that they are the equivalent of pre-revolution French aristocrats. And note that as I have said before you are included in that - since you haven't sold all your possessions and given the money to a hunger fighting charity you are still basically sipping martinis on the beach.

Libertarians don't tend to say there is a right to food because it may not be possible to provide. As mentioned before we would probably have to intervene militarily in half a dozen places, maybe more. That itself might not be possible due to the potential loss of life.

If you are a libertarian, but think that there is a duty to prevent starvation, my criticism does not apply to you. But it does apply to those who have different beliefs and this is no strawman.

Most libertarians are against starvation, just like most people are. But saying it and doing it are two different things. You yourself don't do it because you haven't sold all your possessions and given them to charity yet.

The way to find out if people will go beyond saying to the doing is to see if they will do anything. Start lobbying (with your time and money or time and money freely given - not taken - from others) Congress for the tax increase to end world hunger and see if they will pass it. You were saying earlier that liberals and conservatives were both better than those "immoral" libertarians, they should pass the increase pretty quickly, right? Or it might be more complicated than that, and people might not actually do what they say they will do or believe what they say they believe.
3.18.2007 4:29am
kldimond:
I wandered the blog circuit following the responders. I thought Bryan Caplan did a particularly good job with his piece, but I thought the very most interesting point that anyone made is that Cowan is giving in to Stockholm Syndrome: fall in love with your abuser.

Could be the reason Americans haven't fixed the monstrosity yet---by and large a mass Stockholm Syndrome event?

I say that as I only threaten to put my tongue in cheek--it's not there yet...

I think Cowan is doing the Hanoi Jane thing. Here we are out here, fighting the good fight, as it were, and Cowan is saying, "Quit, give up, you're beaten; your masters are better than you. See? They're simply further down the evolutionary chain."

Did they put Wrath of Khan worms in his ears?
3.18.2007 5:03am
Viscus (mail) (www):

Libertarians don't tend to say there is a right to food because it may not be possible to provide.


So, are libertarians against a right to not be murdered, because such a right could not be guaranteed in all circumstances? Because, you know, that is the truth. Whether or not there is a right to not be murdered, it is impossible to stop all murders.

Obviously, that it might be impossible to stop all starvation is not a good reason to not provide a right to prevent it. Just as the fact that it is impossible to stop all murder is not a good reason to not provide a right to prevent it. So, you are going to have to do better than this.


You yourself don't do it because you haven't sold all your possessions and given them to charity yet.


First, if I felt that selling all my possessions and giving them to charity would work, I would do so. Without hesitation. If I knew I could save even one person from starvation, I would do it.

The problem is that I do not have the ability to ensure that my funds, limited as they are, would be correctly administered. Further, my funds are inadequate to have much impact.

The only way to be truly effective in this area is with collective action. Through collective action we can ensure correct administration and adequate funds to solve the problem. Thus, I tend to devote my energy and resources to political activism in order to enable collective action to solve such problems as starvation, which would be more effective. But obviously, this has to be balanced with the acquisition of more resources. It is often correctly said, it takes money to make money.

So I disagree with you. There is no need to take ineffective and impractical actions in order to avoid charges of hypocrisy. Especially since I believe that the duty to prevent starvation is a collective duty, as much as an individual one.
3.18.2007 5:17am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Global Warming?

The Libs have delusions of grandeur indeed.

If you follow the science at least 80% of GW is caused by the sun.

What exactly do Libs propose to do about solar output if they can't roll back USA government?

I have come to the conclusion that Libertarians are delusiional utopians. I was a delusional utopian once myself - don't take it so hard. Once you figure out the psychology, the politics is easier.
3.18.2007 8:56am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Collective bargaining (in the private sector) is contract negotiations over work relations by two private parties. It's quite libertarian.

In theory.

In practice labor unions are run by the Mafia or behave as Mafia type orgaizations.

Just another example of libs operating on a theoretical frame work and avoiding the real world.
3.18.2007 9:01am
Automatic Caution Door:
I must say I'm once again struck by the libertarian antipathy to unions.
Why? The National Labor Relations Act strips freedom from one arbitrarily identified group ("employers") to grant privileges to another ("employees"). It is completely antithetical to basic principles held dear by libertarians and others who value individual liberty.

In short, someone defined by the government as an "employer" is mandated to "bargain" with a collection of individuals that calls itself a "union." Additionally, labor laws codify and restrict certain forms of speech, and limit individual choice, as part of the larger effort to choreograph a certain realm of human affairs.

Why would it perplex you that libertarians aren't real keen on any of this?
3.18.2007 1:00pm
John Noble (mail):
The "fundamental paradox" that Cowen posits depends on the assertion that "libertarian ideas ... have improved the quality of government," and can take credit for "much greater wealth and much greater liberty." While libertarian dogma emphasizes the protection of property rights and of civil rights, those values are hardly foreign to the conservative and liberal mainstream of American politics, and I would be more inclined to credit the powerful attraction of individual freedom with libertarianism's persistent, but scant purchase on the political landscape, rather than to credit the prosperity and dynamism of the industrial democracy to libertarianism's "initial victories." Isn't it America's devotion to individual freedom that keeps libertarianism on life support, rather than libertarians who have succeeded in the promotion of economic and social liberty as the central values of American politics?

Libertarianism's distinctiveness, as a political movement, has to be found in its departures from mainsream conservative and liberal politics unless the overlap is owed to the influence of libertarianism. I see little evidence that libertarianism has influenced the direction of mainstream liberal or conservative politics; and less evidence of libertarian "victories" at the points from which it departs from the mainstream.

Marxism's defeat was not at the hands of libertarianism. It fell to the industrial democracy and modern welfare state. State ownership gave way to private investment-- and the thorough regulation of investment securities. Central planning wasn't disgraced by the prospect of an economic free-for-all (against which it might well have prevailed), but by the calibrated regulaton of commerce and, yes, collective bargaining. Seeing more and bigger government as the unavoidable consequence of the successes of a political movement principally committed to less and smaller government is double-speak for "we lost."

As Cowen and Somin both recognize, there's no future for libertarianism in tilting against the windmill of the modern welfare state. But to "refocus on issues such as global warming, nuclear terrorism, and intellectual property" would amount to the abandonment of whatever distinctiveness libertarianism might still have as a political movement. You might as well be a Democrat or Republican if you're going to join the fray over allocating the burdens of international environmental regulation, weighing the surrender of privacy rights to homeland defense, and balancing free speech against private proifts in the allocation of intellectual property rights.

A more useful, and still distinctive direction for libertarianism, to my mind, would be toward the distribution of political authority, and empowerment of local governments; toward the creation of a marketplace of regulatory climates with respect to the matters that most closely affect our lives -- education, road maintenance and utilities, business licensing, liquor distribution, even weapons possession -- at the community level, which is where we live and work.
3.18.2007 4:08pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

So, are libertarians against a right to not be murdered, because such a right could not be guaranteed in all circumstances? Because, you know, that is the truth. Whether or not there is a right to not be murdered, it is impossible to stop all murders.

No libertarians support a right to their lives, self-ownership, and self-defense.

Obviously, that it might be impossible to stop all starvation is not a good reason to not provide a right to prevent it. Just as the fact that it is impossible to stop all murder is not a good reason to not provide a right to prevent it. So, you are going to have to do better than this.

You can say all you want. You haven't sold all your possessions - so you don't appear to take your "duty" very seriously.

There's no "right" to prevent murder. You have a right to life and a right to self-defense. Since you pay taxes the police are supposed to aid in this protection as well.

"Prevention" doctrine is a slippery slope. The Nazis claimed they were aiding society by sterilizing and imprisoning innocent gypsies. So you can use "prevention" to justify all kinds of crime, profiteering, and nonsense.

First, if I felt that selling all my possessions and giving them to charity would work, I would do so. Without hesitation. If I knew I could save even one person from starvation, I would do it....The problem is that I do not have the ability to ensure that my funds, limited as they are, would be correctly administered. Further, my funds are inadequate to have much impact.

Cop-out. There are many charities and aid groups that have a lot of oversight.

The only way to be truly effective in this area is with collective action. Through collective action we can ensure correct administration and adequate funds to solve the problem. Thus, I tend to devote my energy and resources to political activism in order to enable collective action to solve such problems as starvation, which would be more effective. But obviously, this has to be balanced with the acquisition of more resources. It is often correctly said, it takes money to make money.

There already is a lot of collective action - from charities and aid groups. Although it is voluntary collective action, perhaps you don't enjoy something or think it is worthwhile unless you can force other people to do it.

So I disagree with you. There is no need to take ineffective and impractical actions in order to avoid charges of hypocrisy. Especially since I believe that the duty to prevent starvation is a collective duty, as much as an individual one.

We do disagree. And as long as you are using your time and money or time and money that has been freely given to you, and not taken from others, that is fine. If you do believe it is "collective duty" you should lobby Congress to raise the tax to fight world hunger and to authorize the military operations that will be necessary to implement your plans. You might want to look at working within the currently existing aid structure, however. Your efforts might be much more effective when working with voluntary enterprises.

I do find your rhetoric hypocritical, though. You constantly go on about people "sipping martinis on the beach" yet you don't seem to be doing much more actively yourself.
3.18.2007 6:02pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
M. Simon-

The Libs have delusions of grandeur indeed...If you follow the science at least 80% of GW is caused by the sun...What exactly do Libs propose to do about solar output if they can't roll back USA government?

It was Cowen that mentioned Global Warming. There are many libertarians that are skeptical of Global Warming theories and the proposed solutions.

I have come to the conclusion that Libertarians are delusiional utopians. I was a delusional utopian once myself - don't take it so hard. Once you figure out the psychology, the politics is easier.

Actually libertarians are pretty realist. If you want to see utopians look at the two major parties.
3.18.2007 6:09pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
John Noble-

While libertarian dogma emphasizes the protection of property rights and of civil rights, those values are hardly foreign to the conservative and liberal mainstream of American politics, and I would be more inclined to credit the powerful attraction of individual freedom with libertarianism's persistent, but scant purchase on the political landscape, rather than to credit the prosperity and dynamism of the industrial democracy to libertarianism's "initial victories." Isn't it America's devotion to individual freedom that keeps libertarianism on life support, rather than libertarians who have succeeded in the promotion of economic and social liberty as the central values of American politics?

Libertarianism basically IS a system of maximizing individual freedom. So the attraction to "individual freedom" is an attraction to libertarianism, whether the proponent of individual freedom realizes it or not. And seeing as how the country started off much more libertarian than it is now, I would say that libertarian thought, whether recognized or not, has been responsible for much of the prosperity of the country.

I see little evidence that libertarianism has influenced the direction of mainstream liberal or conservative politics; and less evidence of libertarian "victories" at the points from which it departs from the mainstream.

Can you provide examples? The vast majority of libertarian positions can be found in one party or the other, or both. But it is the particular combination that tends to push them out of the major parties.

Marxism's defeat was not at the hands of libertarianism. It fell to the industrial democracy and modern welfare state. State ownership gave way to private investment-- and the thorough regulation of investment securities. Central planning wasn't disgraced by the prospect of an economic free-for-all (against which it might well have prevailed), but by the calibrated regulaton of commerce and, yes, collective bargaining.

I disagree. It is a matter of degree. The more libertarian a country's economic policy was the more successful it tended to be. So the less regulated and taxed an economy was, the more successful it tended to be.

And note that some form of securities regulation is permitted by libertarian philosophy. Libertarians are against fraud and coercion, so some forms of regulation that prevent fraud and provide remedies for fraud are acceptable. We are talking legitimate regulations here, not nonsensical, discriminatory, anti-competitive, or protectionist ones - like claiming that all Finnish companies are worth half of what they say they are worth or double-taxing all Finnish companies, etc.

Seeing more and bigger government as the unavoidable consequence of the successes of a political movement principally committed to less and smaller government is double-speak for "we lost."

That's why I disagreed with how the essay was framed and its recommendations.

As Cowen and Somin both recognize, there's no future for libertarianism in tilting against the windmill of the modern welfare state.

I strongly disagree with this. Many people are starting to wake up and resent people trying to arrogantly and obnoxiously dictate every aspect of their lives. There is a lot of room for effective action there. And every time the welfare state grows and impinges on more freedoms and rights it creates more opponents and discontents.

A more useful, and still distinctive direction for libertarianism, to my mind, would be toward the distribution of political authority, and empowerment of local governments; toward the creation of a marketplace of regulatory climates with respect to the matters that most closely affect our lives -- education, road maintenance and utilities, business licensing, liquor distribution, even weapons possession -- at the community level, which is where we live and work.

Sounds rather anti-libertarian. If I don't want the federal government nanny-stating me I don't want the local government doing it either. To an extent the marketplace in regulatory climates already exists. But I don't think that should stop libertarians from working to make things more free everywhere, or at least where people want to be free.
3.18.2007 7:27pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
"Actually, libertarians are pretty realist." (Is this a comment on appearance or philosophy?)

I have never found true libertarians to be realistic, because they subscribe to an idealized view of society and man's place in society. I am glad they do, too.

"Realists" do not promote social change as much as idealists, as they are more happy with the status quo, or too cynical to believe that it can be changed for the better. Sometimes, it takes a libertarian to point out the flaws in a government program and to come up with a more free-market alternative that works better for the program's beneficiaries. A realist may suggest incremental changes to the program, but not sweeping ones that sometimes produce the best results, because the realist will think that such changes are not possible. This is not to say I am a libertarian or that I subscribe to their philosophy, just that I am glad our society has them in our midst.
3.18.2007 7:39pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
American Psikhushka,

Your points are slipping towards the unintelligent, in addition to being long. Thus, I will have to limit my response.

If there was no positive enforcement of prohibitions against murder (protecting your negative right to life) then that right would be pretty meaningless and useless. If no one was every prosecuted (positive action) there would be no deterrence. Your right would amount to nothing. This is obvious.

Your failure to "get" or make any effort to address this obvious point makes me wary of having a discussion with you. I should not have to point this out; you should have already addressed it. It does not appear to me that you are interested in having an intelligent discussion, but merely clinging to and defending your beliefs by any means possible. You bring up the most superficial counters, then depend on the other side to point out the obvious holes. A more intelligent response by you anticipates and addresses the obvious weaknesses of your argument, so the other side does not have to address these obvious point, and the discussion can move to deeper points. There is obviously no profit in talking with a wall, and there is little profit in talking to someone so dogmatic that they are the equivalent of a wall, unable to process anything accept the most superficial responses with obvious holes. I do not enjoy thinking for you. If you want to respond in a deeper, more nuanced, and more thoughtful way, then a conversation might be possible. If you want to respond with counterarguments that have obvious unaddressed holes, resulting in a response where I address those holes for you, followed by another response where you respond with more obvious unaddress holdes... and so on, well, I just don't see the point.

A final point. I am working on the problem to solve what I see as my duty to prevent starvation. I may adopt a different strategy than you would if you perceived yourself as having such a duty (which you don't, because your immoral). A mere difference with regards to strategy does not transform someone into a hypocrite.
3.18.2007 10:07pm
TJIT (mail):
Viscus,

You said
Obviously, that it might be impossible to stop all starvation is not a good reason to not provide a right to prevent it.
The circular logic in that statement illustrates the difference between liberals like you and libertarians and fiscal conservatives.

Giving someone as you said "an absolute right to food" is an utterly meaningless, feel good gesture, on your part. Let us flow chart your idea.

1. Give people an absolute right to food
2. A miracle occurs
3. Everyone has plenty of food

The critical step is creating and nuturing a system that does the best possible job of producing food and getting it to the consumers who need it. That is what the libertarians and fiscal conservatives focus on. That is what feel good slogans ignore.

Cold hearted, rational, libertarian economic policy has lifted more people from poverty then liberal, feel good slogans ever have or ever will.
3.19.2007 12:31am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Christopher Cooke-

(Is this a comment on appearance or philosophy?)

I have never found true libertarians to be realistic, because they subscribe to an idealized view of society and man's place in society. I am glad they do, too.


I guess it depends on your definition of realist. I took it to mean a realistic view of how things are and a reasonable opinion of how people behave. So for example:

Foreign policy - General libertarian view is not to meddle in the affairs of other countries. That anti-terrorism operations should basically be handled as law enforcement operations. Generally encouraging free trade.

Economics - Cut taxes and spending to stop stifling the private economy. The economy grows, employment is increased, the standard of living rises for everyone while the unemployment rate declines.

I see these views as very practical and realistic, firmly rooted in the real world and how things really are. (And from the economic standpoint, pretty well proven.) So that's why I described libertarians as realistic.
3.19.2007 2:50am
Viscus (mail) (www):
TJIT,

I hate to say it, but capitalism is not a libertarian invention. So, stop taking credit for every success of capitalism. Giving people a right to food does not entail abandoning capitalism. We can keep a system in place that provides adequate incentives for producers of food to continue while at the same time taking actions to ensure that food is distributed so as to prevent starvation in cases where markets would fail to ensure that. Thus, your point is irrelevant. Your statement is a tad bit arrogant, as if libertarians are somehow responsible for capitalism.

The relevant question is whether giving someone an absolute right to food, just as we give someone an absolute right not to be murdered, would in fact decrease starvation or not. To say that such a right would have to be perfect to be worth anything is nothing more than the all or nothing fallacy (but in a different context) that Somin mentioned in a subsequent post.

If we were to say that the right has to be perfect at accomplishing its objectives to be useful, we would have to conclude that any right not to be murdered would be foolish. Surely, regardless of any right, some people will nonetheless be murdered, no matter what we do. Ultimately, am bringing this up to illustrate the fallacy of setting such a high bar for the attachment of a right. For an absolute right to food to be useful, it would merely have to function as the right not to be murdered functions now. That it, it would have to decrease the probability of starvation, just as the right not to be murdered decreases the probability of being murdered.
3.19.2007 3:04am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

Your points are slipping towards the unintelligent, in addition to being long.

Nothing like starting off with a good old ad hominem attack.

If there was no positive enforcement of prohibitions against murder (protecting your negative right to life) then that right would be pretty meaningless and useless. If no one was every prosecuted (positive action) there would be no deterrence. Your right would amount to nothing. This is obvious.

No, it isn't obvious. If the laws against murder weren't enforced chances are not many of the others would be. Therefore self-defense would organically expand to fill the void. The positive enforcement would be taken up by the individual, family group, tribe, clan, etc. There would be plenty of deterrance.

Your failure to "get" or make any effort to address this obvious point makes me wary of having a discussion with you. I should not have to point this out; you should have already addressed it.

No, I just explained how things wouldn't be as you described them. Maybe you should be wary because you don't grasp the concepts involved.

It does not appear to me that you are interested in having an intelligent discussion, but merely clinging to and defending your beliefs by any means possible. You bring up the most superficial counters, then depend on the other side to point out the obvious holes. A more intelligent response by you anticipates and addresses the obvious weaknesses of your argument, so the other side does not have to address these obvious point, and the discussion can move to deeper points. There is obviously no profit in talking with a wall, and there is little profit in talking to someone so dogmatic that they are the equivalent of a wall, unable to process anything accept the most superficial responses with obvious holes. I do not enjoy thinking for you. If you want to respond in a deeper, more nuanced, and more thoughtful way, then a conversation might be possible. If you want to respond with counterarguments that have obvious unaddressed holes, resulting in a response where I address those holes for you, followed by another response where you respond with more obvious unaddress holdes... and so on, well, I just don't see the point.

More ad hominems.

Funny, I don't seem to remember you pointing out many holes in my arguments. What I recall from our conversations is you coming up with several examples of supposed libertarian "immorality" and each one being refuted. Then you moved to the positive right to food and histrionically claim that when libertarians don't promise this (which you admit may not be possible) that they are immoral. People are not immoral or unintelligent simply because they disagree with you. Although its amusing that you think people will be convinced when you claim this.

And as far as unaddressed holes go, you still haven't addressed how you are going to carry out all of the military interventions that will be necessary to achieve your goal.

A final point. I am working on the problem to solve what I see as my duty to prevent starvation. I may adopt a different strategy than you would if you perceived yourself as having such a duty (which you don't, because your immoral). A mere difference with regards to strategy does not transform someone into a hypocrite.

Here we go again. Anyone that doesn't parrot Viscus in promising all mankind a positive right to food, which he admits may be impossible, is by definition immoral. Talk about simplistic arguments that are full of holes.

It does make you a hypotcrite because your rhetoric implies that anyone engaging in any leisure activity at any time is somehow shirking their "duty to prevent hunger". Since you haven't sold all you possessions and likely still engage in some leisure activities, you yourself are guilty of the same infraction. You're a totalitarian collectivist, Viscus. You've decided on an agenda and somehow think this gives you moral authority to claim that anyone who questions or disagrees with you is immoral, decadent, and/or lazy.

But if you really are working on the problem of hunger with your time and money or time and money that has been freely given to you - not taken from others - good for you and good luck.
3.19.2007 3:39am
JosephSlater (mail):
Unions are generally run by the mafia "in the real world"? Funny, I didn't notice that in my decade-plus practice of labor law, or in any of my subsequent studies. This type of caricature, if made about businesses -- they're all like Enron! -- would be (properly) scorned on this blog.

The other comments still don't deal with the fact that if a group of people come together to form a business corporation, they can require workers to deal with those people as a single entity. Similary, if a group of workers decide democratically to chose a union to represent them, they can require the employer to deal with them as a single entity. And if a minority, dissenting employee doesn't like it, he can get a job somewhere else -- that's the libertarian response to all other employee rights issues, but somehow they forget that when it comes to the one workplace issue that generally favors employees.
3.19.2007 12:44pm