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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Libertarian vices

Via a tweet, I came across a very interesting 2006 Tyler Cowen post, titled "The Libertarian Vice." Back then, I would've still called myself a libertarian, albeit with some qualification about being a libertarian conservative or fusionist. Nowadays, I wouldn't (centrist or center-right being my preferred self-descriptions, and I recognize there's some tension between those two). Some background here. Getting back to Cowen's post, his central point is here:
The libertarian vice is to assume that the quality of government is fixed.  The libertarian also argues that the quality of government is typically low, and this is usually the bone of contention, but that is not the point I wish to consider.  Often that dispute is a red herring. 
If the quality of government is fixed, the battle is then "government vs. market."  Not everyone will agree with libertarian views, but libertarians are comfortable on this terrain. 
But sometimes governments do a pretty good job, even if you like me are generally skeptical of government.  The Finnish government has supported superb architecture.  The Swedes have made a good go at a welfare state.  The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. was a high-return investment.  In the area of foreign policy, we have done a good job juggling the China-Taiwan relationship.  Or how about the Aswan Dam for Egypt?  You might contest these particular examples but I assure you there are many others.
Me: I agree that ignoring variability in the quality of government is a libertarian vice. I'm not sure I'd call it the libertarian vice, as I think there are others of comparable significance. Another libertarian vice, perhaps a cousin of the one Cowen describes, is to take the truth that government involves coercion and exaggerate it into a caricature--while pretending the private sector does not involve coercion. Consider this line from Brian Doherty's (overall very valuable) book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement:
For those who don't see the power of men with guns behind every law, libertarians say just wait and see what ultimately happens if you refuse to obey one, even the most picayune one.
Me: Actually, in practice, often nothing happens. But more to the point, what sort of thing happens if you don't meet obligations in a voluntary private-sector transaction--if you don't pay your restaurant bill, say? You're violating a law, yes, and men with guns might show up--but wouldn't that be true if the men were private security guards or officers of a private police force in an anarchocapitalist society? If you decide not to pay your landlord (or are unable to) how different is that from deciding not to pay your taxes (or not being able to)? In either case, people with guns may well get involved, and it's hard to imagine any society that would dispense with that contingency altogether. (A left-anarchist society that has neither government nor property rights would also involve coercion. Suppose I don't want the crops I planted to be used by the "voluntary" collective that's been substituted for private farming?)

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