Saturday, August 9, 2008

On Libertarianism

This entry is a discussion of the meaning and importance of libertarian principles, or principles of limited government that was composed as a response to a challenge to those principles. It is presented as the second part of a dialogue between the ideological Publius and his more practical friend, Pragmaticus. In the first part of the dialogue, Pragmaticus championed a traditional conservative view of as small a government as reasonably possible, but asserted that the libertarian view of as little government as possible was dangerous because it left society's moral compass in the hands of industry, which cares little for the people. He offered as evidence the business practices of the cigarette and restaurant industries, the latter of which serves unhealthy food in large portions to the detriment of society. He argued that communism failed because it ignored its moral compass and that public policy should be based on a sound moral compass and scientific method to determine correct policy. Publius responds:

Let me start, dear Pragmaticus, with the fact, that we don’t seem that far apart on our view on the proper role of government. The only real difference is your willingness to compromise on the philosophical view of small government for the right cause (public health, school funding, etc.) and my ideological insistence that, no matter how well meaning the goal, the aggrandizement of government is, in the long run, a dangerous precedent which threatens the liberty of the individual (government power always comes at that price). The road to Hell is paved, as they say, with good intentions. The unintended consequences of government intervention are often ignored and the principle of rule of law is sacrificed by political expediency and the overwhelming, although completely human, desire to “do something,” to address a potential problem. You are a very reasonable, rational, and thoughtful person as is evident in your discussion of how reason, fact and evidence should be used to shape public policy. What I would contend, however, is that it is a small step from conceding that government can or should intervene in a particular aspect of social policy and engaging the type of demagoguery we have seen with regard to climate change or invading Iraq, to bludgeon rational debate about facts and evidence into oblivion. Having conceded the principle of government intervention, it then becomes impossible to stem the tide of those who will then view it as their moral responsibility to use whatever means necessary to achieve a goal that they are convinced is right and just, regardless of whether our Constitution grants our government that kind of authority and whether or not they need to play fast and loose with the truth to achieve what they are convinced is a morally just end. I think that conceding a role for government in things in which it has no Constitutionally defined role leads inevitably to the type of decay of scientific method and reason that you lament.

I would disagree that a libertarian view leaves society’s moral compass in the hands of business or corporations. Libertarianism leaves the moral compass in the hands of individuals, where it belongs. I think there is no more fundamental human right than the right to self-determination – the right to make choices for yourself, the right to think independently and voice those thoughts publicly, the right to worship as one pleases, the right to engage in business and recreation as one sees fit, the right to keep what one has earned and use it as one sees fit. Is this not the philosophical premise behind the Bill of Rights? Is this not the philosophical premise of our Revolution? That we hold, “these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…”(1) This is the creed of a free society. The individual is his own king. The individual is free to live his or her life as he or she sees fit, so long as it does not threaten the life, liberty, or property of another.

A truly free society, therefore, requires a system of self-government. Your comments on the importance of a moral compass and scientific method in governance are eerily similar to Plato’s proposed benign and enlightened rule by philosopher-kings. I recently read The Republic (how I got through college philosophy courses without reading it, I am not sure) and Plato raises the same issues you do. He argued that popularly elected rulers, that are eager rather than reluctant to govern, use office for their own aggrandizement and hold and maintain it by pandering to the masses rather than pursuing good governance. His solution? Groom the most intelligent to be philosophers and rulers from day one to have an educated pool of rulers who understand science and justice, that must take a turn at ruling regardless of their will, to rule for the benefit of society. However, this philosophy presupposes that happiness is maximized in a society when everyone’s individual will is subjugated to the benefit of the state. You come close to this philosophy with your suggestions that government has a role to make sure industry does, “what’s right for society.” Plato took the argument one step further. He made the case that too much freedom for individuals to pursue their own desires, rather than simply good and productive desires as defined for them by the philosopher-kings, causes men to become slaves to their passions and allows a tyrant to rise that can play to the hopes and fears of the masses to rise to power. “The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into the excess of slavery.”(2) Eerily similar to Orwell’s, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.”(3) Yet Plato’s solution to the problem of democracy is to have a Big Brother!

In your comments, you do not quite stray this far and you were quite clear that you still favour popularly elected government. The problem with communism, however, is not that it had no moral compass and that, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need…” was lip service. The problem with communism is that, even if practiced in its purest form, it is unworkable. It, by its very definition, subjects the free will of every individual to the will of the state, or collective. In the most ideal form of communism, no worker is entitled to the fruits of his labour (the very definition of slavery – forced labor for the benefit of someone else), only to a “fair share,” of the fruits of everyone’s labour in aggregate. With no penalty for working less, clearly such a system will encourage some to live off the work of others – and that will happen if communism abides by its stated moral compass!(4)

A free society requires that each individual be allowed to set his own moral compass. There is no moral difference between the spiritual legislation of morality passed by 18th century British parliaments (everyone must belong to the Church of England) and advocated by modern social, so-called, “conservatives,” or the secular legislation of morality that bans drug use, redistributes wealth, or combats climate change. In each case, individuals are having choices made for them and forced upon them. Each is an example of coercion. A recognition that it is a role of government to review data, decide what is right or good for society, and then enforce that end on each individual in society is an implicit approval of coercion as a tool of public policy. If five guys who haven’t eaten in a week attack me in downtown Baltimore, steal my money and buy food they have committed a crime – even though they are many (an overwhelming majority in that hypothetical group of six) and I am only one and their need is clearly greater than mine. I ask you, how is that morally different from a majority of Americans (or a majority of their representatives in Congress) from voting to take money from wealthier Americans and distributing it to poorer Americans? It’s not. In both cases the property owned by one individual is forcibly or coercively taken, by the will of a majority and given to someone else. How can a free society operate like this? If I am not entitled to the fruits of my own labour, am I not a slave? How would we react if the majority voted to silence the free speech of the minority, or to exclude the minority from voting, or to condemn the minority’s sexual orientation, instead of taking the minority’s property? Why does it matter if the minority is a small group or just an individual; a minority of the poor, or of the wealthy; to have equal protection of personal rights and liberties (including private ownership) under the law?

It is this individual liberty that libertarianism seeks to preserve. It is important to do so, because coercing individuals to do what seems obviously, “right,” in one setting sets a precedent for government coercion that can be applied to any of those other basic freedoms we enjoy that I mentioned above. There is an important role for government in the libertarian view. The view does not advocate near anarchy. Government is necessary to protect the rights of individuals. Without it, the rich would trample of the rights and freedoms of the poor and the strong would coercively take from the weak. It is the fundamental role of government to prevent that from happening. As Mr. Jefferson said, a free society requires, “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…”(5) If we are to maximize liberty (and prosperity), we need to be left free to do most things, but we can’t be left free to do anything. I have been arguing that government doesn’t have the right to tell me what foods to eat, what substances I can and can’t take recreationally, who I can or can’t have sex with, or to take my money or property arbitrarily. Well, neither do I have the right to do that to any other citizen and it is the role of government to prevent me from doing so and to punish me if my actions coerce others or take from others. But, just as there needs to be a rule book to limit coercive behaviour by individuals, their needs to be a rule book limiting the power and scope of government as well to prevent this government in which we, of necessity, invest so much power from misusing this power and do to us exactly what we are charging it to prevent us from doing to each other. Most people are quite annoyed when their parents or in-laws tell them how they should raise their own children. And although they might tolerate that, they would find it completely unacceptable if their neighbours told them how they should raise their children. Why on earth, then, should we give government (the voice of our neighbours in aggregate) any role in this arena (beyond protecting children from abuse, of course) or any other decision of personal, political, or economic behaviour? In our country, the rule book that limits power of government is the U.S. Constitution. More than democracy (we have seen how tyranny can occur just as easily when a majority imposes it’s will on a minority or individual as when an individual tyrant imposes his will on the majority), this is the guarantor of our liberty. It is our Constitution that prevents government from wielding the power we have invested in it arbitrarily. It is for this reason that I tend to oppose any government program or role for government for which authority is not specifically granted by the Constitution. I understand that a 220-year-old document may not always be relevant to the 21st century, but I think it is in the long run threatening to our liberty to lessen our restraints on governmental power by ignoring the Constitution, a court decision, or a simple majority; rather than by using the constitutionally proscribed remedy of amendment.

The economic system of a free society is capitalism. In a truly capitalist society, the consumer is king. When markets are open and competitive, profits are maximized by providing a good or service that the masses desire, at an acceptable level of quality for the masses, and at a price that the market will bear. The individual consumer benefits from having multiple companies competing for his business, the individual labourer benefits from having multiple businesses competing for his work, and the businesses benefit from having a competitive labour force to choose workers from. Most importantly, for a free society, in an open market, all of these transactions are engaged in voluntarily. Markets achieve goals through voluntary cooperation – a business chooses whether to hire person A or person B, a worker decides whether to take a job offer from employer A or employer B, a borrow decides between lender A and his terms or lender B and his, A lender decides whether nor not borrower A or borrower B is a better investment or risk, a consumer decides whether or not to buy widget A or widget B, or whether or not he needs a widget at all. Some grow impatient that markets are too slow to effect change, others complain that they distribute wealth inequitably. However, markets accomplish a distribution of wealth and resources based on persuasion and voluntary cooperation that preserves and protects liberty, rather than coercion and force. Furthermore, in truly competitive markets, wealth is distributed to those who have worked for and earned it. This brings me to another crucial role for government. It is imperative, both for freedom and individual empowerment, as well as for prosperity and economic growth, that government pursue policies that keep markets open and competitive. This means removing trade barriers and pursuing free and open trade with all countries, breaking up trusts and monopolies that would limit consumer choice and competition, providing a framework for the protection of private ownership and property rights (on which a market economy is based), and the mediation of contract disputes. Some regulation of business practice is also important. Competitive markets are based on the notion that the prices of goods and services, costs of investments or borrowing, value of stock prices and so on convey accurate information to consumers about the relative safety and profit potentials of a given benefit or the supply and demand of a particular good or service. If companies cook their books, like Enron, the consumer doesn’t have accurate information on which to base economic decisions. Monopolies are coercive and must be avoided. It is particularly egregious for governments to decide winners and losers in the marketplace by subsidies; bailouts; tax breaks; or regulatory favours for one particular industry, business, or economic sector over another.

The late, great, libertarian guru (and Nobel laureate in economics), Milton Friedman, also argued a role for government when there is, “market failure.”(6) This includes situations in which an intervention is desirable to a society as a whole but not cost effective for private industry, such as infrastructure. I would argue government funding of, particularly basic science, research falls into this category as well as it increases the understanding and knowledge base of society at large and would not be otherwise funded if the application, and therefore profit potential, of such knowledge is decades away. The classic example of market failure is pollution. The Chesapeake Bay gets polluted from the water tables of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia; but only Maryland and Virginia have a direct interest in preserving the bay. Therefore market forces would never, in and of themselves, provide an incentive for other states in the Chesapeake water table to assist with conservation of the Chesapeake Bay. Clearly, there is an important role for government in protecting the environment – not dictating how we live our lives as a way of tilting at the windmill of climate change - but regulations to limit actual pollutants, maintain a supply of clean air and clean water, and conserve important but scarce natural resources. I would argue that your “conservative,” position that government should be as small as reasonably possible is the libertarian position. Government is important and has the above roles to play – and must be effective at those roles to benefit society. But, to protect individual liberty, government must be limited to those defined roles. Government that is as small as possible (as you asserted the libertarian view advocates) is often ineffective and cannot accomplish its important role in the maintenance of a free society. Our government under the Articles of Confederation is a good example of that.

I am concerned about your trust in government over business and industry. You argued that business, “cares the least for the people.” And yet, business generates its profits solely from the people, the consumers. A business that provides a good or service that people don’t want, or at inferior quality, or at an exorbitant price will go out of business! Businesses compete for our business and need to persuade us to by their products. Although certainly some unscrupulous business owner will cut corners or cook books to generate short-term profits at the expense of his consumers, a business model for long term success is one of providing goods or services that are in demand and of competitive quality and price. It seems to me that business owes for more to the goodwill of consumers than does government (particularly with the growth of independent regulatory agencies that are outside of elective politics). Do you really think politicians seek office and wield political power because they care about you and me? Do you believe that just because we vote for a government means it will be more farsighted in pursuing what is in the nation’s best interests, or even more foresighted than a company that would like to ensure our business for years and decades to come? Do you believe the popularly elected governments don’t respond to organized special interests rather than the diffuse national interest? And regardless of what product a particular business is selling, what sneaky advertising campaign they have used to market it and make you think you need it, the bottom line is they must still persuade you to buy it. It is still your choice. I’ll put aside your mention of the cigarette industry. That is, perhaps, a special case since the product they sell is addictive. But your example of the restaurant industry is illustrative. Yes it is unhealthy to eat out. It is particularly unhealthy to eat fast food. Yes we can decry the morality of serving unhealthy food in portions sizes that are too large and not giving healthy choices to consumers. But, McDonald’s can’t force me into the store. Once I enter, McDonald’s can’t force me to super-size my fries. If I stop in for a Big Mac value meal it is a choice I have made. Government on the other hand does have the ability to force behaviour by rule of law, at the point of a gun. You are afraid of corporate power and aggressive business practices, but there is not a company in this country that can make you or I do anything we don’t want to do or don’t choose to do. Private sector monopolies are coercive (which is why government needs to prevent them), but even a private sector monopoly leaves the consumer with the choice of trying to do without that particular good or service. When laws are passed, individuals have no choice but to obey or be punished. You may recall there was a push by fast food restaurants a few years ago to add “healthier” choices to their menus. They all abandoned it when the Hardee's franchise rebounded by offering people the Monster Thick-Burger. Now it’s all about bigger burgers and super-sized fries. But why did that happen? People wanted it. People chose it. The fast food restaurants were responding to consumer demand. There was a market for unhealthy fast food and people weren’t going to fast food places in the first place because they wanted salad. These people are making individual choices (and need to be responsible for the consequences of those choices). It may not be a choice that is good for them and it may not be the choice you would want them to make, but in a free society it is their right to make it and if there is enough of them, then of course businesses will actively seek that market. As an aside, as far as mandatory labeling for restaurant food, I personally don’t have much of a problem with the concept – anything that allows consumers to make more informed choices is probably a good thing. The only caveat is, it must be applied equally, across the board, so that it doesn’t put any one particularly restaurant at a competitive advantage or disadvantage. Most people will probably still choose the food they like, rather than the food that is healthier – and many will still choose that super-sized Big Mac value meal…

This then, is the essence of libertarianism. It begins with recognizing that the most important thing about a society are the individuals that comprise it. Each individual is a unique moral agent with an intrinsic right to make choices for himself about personal, political and economic behaviour; an intrinsic right to express those choices and thought freely; an intrinsic right to worship freely; and an intrinsic right to the fruits of his own labour. Free choices are best expressed through an open and competitive market of ideas, goods, and services, in which associations are based on the voluntary cooperation of the participants and not coercion. In this context, there is an important role for government to protect our liberty from foreign threat; protect our liberty from others who may wish to coerce us; maintain a free, open, and competitive marketplace; protect property rights and mediate contract disputes; and undertake projects the market may fail to handle such as infrastructure, scientific research and environmental protection. To be effective at this essential role a government must be powerful. To prevent this power from being used arbitrarily and coercively against the citizenry and therefore undermining the liberty and freedom to choose that the government is ostensibly there to protect; the role of government must be precisely defined and limited. Those limits, in our country, are spelled out in the U.S. Constitution and therefore it is imperative that we seek to avoid empowering government with roles not enumerated in the Constitution if we are to protect our liberty in the long term. If it seems as though our Constitution is outdated on a particular subject and we want to lift the limits it imposes on our government for political expediency in dealing with an issue of the modern world, we should do so only after serious and sober reflection and prolonged debate to insure that doing so does not set a precedent for government intrusion that will threaten the liberty of future generations. This is why such limits on governmental power should be lifted only by constitutional amendment, not by fiat from the judicial bench, executive order, or the simple majority of a legislature.

I’ll end with this thought, similar to the sentiment with which I began:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard

to protect liberty when the government's purposes are

beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to

repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.

The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroach-

ment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without


1 Jefferson, T. The Declaration of Independence. In the Continental Congress, July 4, 1776.

2 Plato. The Republic. Book VIII.

3 Orwell, G. 1984.

4 Excellent literary examples of how such a system is doomed to fail, resulting in oppression, can be found in the example of the horse in Orwell’s Animal Farm (“I must work harder…”) and in the disintegration of the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

5 Jefferson, T. First Inaugural Address. March 4, 1801.

6 Friedman M and Friedman R. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich. 1979.

7 Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. United States. 1928

1 comment:

David A. said...

A truly excellent discussion with almost no points I disagree with. You clearly understand how and why markets work, the dangers of government deciding how you should live your life, an understanding of the source of individual rights. You go far beyond anyone's (including my) depth of exploration of the topic. But why aren't such ideas more readily accepted, or rather, why are they being continually undermined today?

I think Ayn Rand, and those who follow her, are among the few who understand these points. Without the sense that you are morally right in taking your position, the implication is that there is something 'missing'. Rand pointed out that the fundamental flaw in most conservative defenses of their position is an acceptance of the modern ethic of altruism. The notion that you must sacrifice yourself for the sake of others (accepted by both the left and the right in this country); something that, thankfully, did not rear its ugly head in your discussion, leads to a serious moral undermining of the arguments. It is necessary to reject the ethics of self-sacrifice (realizing that it is appropriate to live for the sake of your own happiness) explicitly, I think, to truly defend these ideas.