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January 14, 2004

Limits of Libertarianism

I'm finding Cobbs all over the place these days. The latest of these, Steve Cobb, has some good things to say about Libertarianism. I'm going to go off half-cocked before I read his opus so that I can do synthesis later. He sounds reasonable enough to hear out.

My reasons for not being Libertarian primarily has to do with my belief that humans are not be infinitely flexible and we should not pretend that they are simply because history has gotten away with it. Since we know that markets are amoral, they can be conformed to any shape whatsoever. So long as enough people are interested in X, X can come to dominate in a market economy given enough exchange. X may be in total opposition to human value. Market regulation is necessary in order to limit the freedom of markets from being destructive of the limits of human beings.

The best example I can think of is that of Baku. What is Baku but one of the world's most polluted places? There are very likely worse places, but it is Baku that is fixed in my mind because according to what I've heard, it is polluted beyond anyone's means to clean it up. What the Soviet Empire has fouled with oil spills, air pollution and chemical spills no free markets will consequently clean up. Global markets will sustain Baku's oil production business, and the people of Azerbijan will continue to be employed by that business, but no unregulated market forces will improve their health.

Secondly, when I hear Libertarianism championed, it is most often coming from the folks whose lives are well assisted by recent technology. I myself marvel on an almost daily basis on the progress of technology, science, medicine and all forms of civilizing knowledge. But I am also acutely aware that there are limits to the advancement of knowledge and conflict between the dissemination of knowledge and market incentives. The suggestion that knowledge, science and techonology are practically infinitely exploitable resources whose dissemination through market mechanisms will inevitably raise the standard of living is a fallacy I cannot abide. Furthermore, the continuous selling of this story flies in the face of human history as does American exceptionalism. Liberarianism sounds good for the here and now in the rapid and vital markets of America, but it is no good for humanity because humanity cannot sustain it.

This is why I believe Libertarianism to be irresponsible. Markets will not take care of things. There is no market solution to the problems on the ground in Iraq. There are fixed principles which must be pushed. There were no market forces that would ever have deposed Saddam Hussein.

As a global capitalist it sounds like a contradiction for me to suggest as I do that markets be expanded while Libertarianism be contained. That is because I think there are limits that should be imposed on freedom while I recognize that most people on the planet need more. We Americans should champion freedom for others, but we certainly have enough liberties and shouldn't base our politics on the false idea that more is always better.

Libertarianim defunds good government and the result is Enron. I'm listening, but I think it mighty peculiar that other than Samizdata, I don't hear much of Libertarian political parties and movements anywhere else in the world. I think that's because the amount of conservatism and big government liberalism we have at home is a necessary precondition (not to mention huge active markets and great gobs of money) for such Libertarian activism. It simply doesn't make sense anywhere else in the world. The fact that people desire freedom does not mean that Libertarians will deliver it - dismantling governments for markets is the wrong way for the world to go.

More on the Free State, and Steve Cobb later.

Posted by mbowen at January 14, 2004 11:18 AM

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Tracked on March 15, 2005 01:37 PM


Not that I'm arguing in favor of libertarianism (I'm not particularly libertarian, at least not in comparison with the blogosphere at large), but what does the befouling of Baku have to do with market forces? Surely you're not arguing that the Soviet Union's thorough trashing of the Caspian Sea area had much if anything to do with market forces, are you? It's not the perfect example - I tend to use Siberian-Arctic radioactive dumping grounds, myself - but the generally appalling ecological state of the ex-Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries seem to be an argument *against* untrammeled government's capacity for protecting the commons.

I can see that you're arguing that there isn't a market in the world that would be willing to clean up the Caspian oil extraction area, but I'm not sure I see any governmental or non-market entities ready to step up to the plate, either.

Don't get me wrong - I have a friend who works in an environmental clean-up bureaucracy, and I've heard enough about the subject to agree that it's a governmental function. But that doesn't mean that I don't see some market functionality in the process.

Both command and market functions are prioritizing schemes. The same reason that markets aren't particularly likely to get heavily into the Caspian environmental cleanup business also tends to discourage governments from getting into the subject. Namely, there isn't enough money (patronage) worth the investment (expense). Governmental entities are prone to use less direct means of evaluation than the profit motives; that makes them less efficient, not more altruistic.

Posted by: Mitch H. at January 14, 2004 01:53 PM

I am nothing if not reasonable. ;)

>The best example I can think of is that of Baku

Excellent example. While I have never been to Azerbaijan, I went to school in Leningrad for a year (receiving ration coupons the entire time) and lived in Russia and Ukraine for 5 more years (and I live there again now). There is a Russian expression: "there's no owner". Under communism, property belonged to everyone (the state), and thus belonged to no one, and it was not looked after. I could tell you a few horror stories. Suffice it to say that, yes, I would fight and die to prevent such a system from destroying my country, turning so many women into prostitutes, so many men into drunkards or thieves, and children into cynical, amoral creatures. As I write this, I realize that I am lying: much of that has happened in black America, via the twin wars on Drugs and Poverty. I fight (e.g. via such posts and the Free State Project), but feebly.

Markets are "amoral", but how does morality magically appear in government? It's the same species working in both the public and private sectors. At least the latter are immediately accountable--the former are elected (if not appointed) at best only once a year, and the incumbent nearly always wins. Democratic accountability is an illusion, really a joke. Read The Calculus of Consent, which won James Buchanan a Nobel Prize.

>Secondly, when I hear Libertarianism championed,
>it is most often coming from the folks whose lives are well assisted by recent technology

The correlation is due to mentality, not interest. Libertarians are clumped together in an odd quadrant of the Myers-Briggs space. *Everyone's* lives are well assisted by "recent" (it's been improving for thousands of years) technology. I am typing this in an internet 'cafe' on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand. This is a real poor place, but everyone is carrying a cell phone, and there are millions of these little internet access points, with people using webcams to talk to others in other countries. If you want more scholarly material on how the poor benefit from the free market, Cato has lots of it:

>Libertarianim defunds good government and the result is Enron.

Then what did Parmalat result from? EU countries certainly do not have low taxes--I paid German taxes for three years--and they do not skimp on regulation. Mainstream minarchist libertarians (which I am not--I'm an irresponsibile anarcho-capitalist) believe in the government still performing police functions. "The result is Enron"...are you suggesting that every time a crime occurs, it is a government failure? People commit crimes all the time--the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. You can't point to single events and cry "Failure!"--you need some overall metrics. You could otherwise point to Columbine and decry the moral rot in American society, not bothering to mention that the incidence of school shootings has been declining. I suggest that Enron is the exception, not the rule.

>Markets will not take care of things.

They do all the time. Look at the perennial problem areas in the US--education and health care--and they are areas with huge government involvement. Markets punish poorly managed companies. I'm sure any company like Enron now trades at a discount.

>There is no market solution to the problems on the ground in Iraq.
>There are fixed principles which must be pushed.
>There were no market forces that would ever have deposed Saddam Hussein.

I could give you the anarcho-capitalist counter-argument to that, but I am playing the role of mainstream libertarian here: many agree with you. Even I tend to, as a way to solve a problem that we got ourselves into (US troops on Saudi soil). But why do you pick an extreme, three-sigma situation to support your position? Worse, the anti-Iraq-war opinion is shared by most Democrats, so it's hardly a unique, far-out libertarian position. It may yet bring down Bush. Let's stay within the bounds of normal everyday experience.

You are right that there is a class of "public goods" problems that may be difficult or expensive (not impossible) to solve without coercion. But by allowing coercion in some cases, you are letting the camel's nose under the tent, and it will not be denied in other cases. That is the utilitarian argument. For me, the moral argument is sufficient: thou shalt not use coercion.

>This is why I believe Libertarianism to be irresponsible

There are few libertarian positions which are unique to libertarianism--we just put them in a convenient, coherent, consistent ideological wrapper. We are fond of saying that the ideal country would have the personal freedoms of the Netherlands, the economic freedom of Hong Kong, and the neutrality and non-interventionism of Switzerland. It is no coincidence that all of these countries have been highly successful.

I am tired of lectures from Dutchmen about how the US is no longer the "land of the free", when I have no rebuttal.


Posted by: Steve Cobb at February 21, 2004 07:23 AM

While I've never been to Baku, I've seen a lot of the Volga basin, and what ails the CIS is not capitalism, nor libertarianism, but corruption, fed by a lack of the rule of law. The same may be seen in many part of the world where private property is not broadly held by the average citizen.

Where are elephants endangered, and where are they so plentiful as to be pests? Hint: when they are private property, the owner has an interest in their well-being.

The Libertarian believes the best cure for ecological disarray is private land ownership, and the rule of law to prevent neighbors from injuring each other or innocent third parties.

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 20, 2004 05:07 AM

Libertarians ought to do something about pricing. I'll bring it up.

Posted by: Cobb at August 20, 2004 12:12 PM

Libertarians can help communicate the price of things, and the value of things, so the consumer can make informed decisions.

Good example: Florida prohibits price-gouging on building materials when Charley blows in. Thus the market cannot rationally determine where scarce resources are allocated. It's strictly first-come-first-served; and the most-needful, who may not be first in line, must look outside the state. Who benefits economically? Georgians and Alabamans, not Floridians.

Williams says it more eloquently than I. I'll see if I can find his piece.

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 22, 2004 08:39 AM

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 22, 2004 08:52 AM

Hispanicpundit refers us to:


- which also addresses "gouging". When will we get a clue?

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 23, 2004 04:04 AM

Those who regard Williams as libertarian might have second thoughts after reading this:


Posted by: True_Liberal at August 25, 2004 01:16 PM