Posts Tagged ‘issues’

There are at least two good reasons why libertarians should not be supporting McCain this election.

One of those is fairly straightforward: Obama is better. I have written several posts in the past elaborating on this point. To put it briefly, Obama is no libertarian, not even close, but on some of the most important issues facing us — foreign policy, civil liberties, war on drugs, thwarting the Christianist agenda — he is better than McCain. Even on the economy, where libertarians usually agree with the conservatives, I’d go with Obama — McCain has been an erratic, populist, nightmare.

The second issue is one that I have not posted on as often but it is as important, if not more. The libertarians and the country need to teach the Republicans a lesson. The party of Goldwater and Reagan — once a friend to so many libertarian principles — is in its present avatar a populist, dogmatic, anti-intellectual, collectivist nightmare.

No one has expressed this second viewpoint more eloquently than Radley Balko. In a recent article, published at Fox and Reason, he writes:

While I’m not thrilled at the prospect of an Obama administration (especially with a friendly Congress), the Republicans still need to get their clocks cleaned in two weeks, for a couple of reasons.

First, they had their shot at holding power, and they failed. They’ve failed in staying true to their principles of limited government and free markets. They’ve failed in preventing elected leaders of their party from becoming corrupted by the trappings of power, and they’ve failed to hold those leaders accountable after the fact. Congressional Republicans failed to rein in the Bush administration’s naked bid to vastly expand the power of the presidency (a failure they’re going to come to regret should Obama take office in January). They failed to apply due scrutiny and skepticism to the administration’s claims before undertaking Congress’ most solemn task—sending the nation to war. I could go on.

[…] A humiliated, decimated GOP that rejuvenates and rebuilds around the principles of limited government, free markets, and rugged individualism is really the only chance for voters to possibly get a real choice in federal elections down the road.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that’s how the party will emerge from defeat. But the Republican Party in its current form has forfeited its right to govern.

Here’s the whole article.

And while I am at it,  if you are an eligible voter and a friend to individual freedom, do consider voting for Bob Barr. I’ll post more on Barr in the future, but suffice it to say that he is the real deal — a man who was won over by the power of libertarian ideas. He is an intelligent and experienced politician and his conversion to libertarianism — from every piece of evidence I have seen — is a genuine one. So do consider him,  especially if you live in a non-swing state.

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Both candidates running for presidency are bad from a libertarian perspective, but, my opinion, as I have often stated on this blog, is that McCain is clearly worse. Radley Balko, who shares that view, has a fine post explaining why.

Obama is a seriously flawed candidate. And yes, Obama united with a Democratic Congress is a scary proposition. But on the issues I cover and that I think are most important this election, Obama is clearly the better choice. Will he disappoint, even on those issues? Almost assuredly.

But we’ve had eight years of a GOP administration, and before that eight years of a mostly GOP Congress. The result has been an explosion in the growth of government that by every measure has been the largest since at least the Johnson administration, and by some measures since FDR. I see no reason why a McCain administration would be any different, particularly given that he has made bipartisanship and deal-making the hallmark of his career (and let’s face it, “bipartisanship” is rarely a case where the parties come together to shrink the government–it almost always results in more government). In other words, the GOP has consistently been worse than the Dems even on the issues where they’re supposed to be better.

I agree. And as I point out in his comments, it is not just about the issues. Obama might have positions I strongly disagree with, but anyone who has followed his career closely or read his works will see that he possesses undoubted intelligence, a good temperament, intellectual curiosity and above all an ability to see both sides of a question (more than McCain does, anyway). Also, as he has demonstrated with his stand on several issues, he prefers a ‘nudge’ to outright force in influencing behavior (see this post of mine). That’s much more than one can say about McCain, who epitomizes authoritarianism.

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Neither of the major candidates of the upcoming US presidential election offers much hope to those who believe in individual liberty and limited government. In this post, I will outline the five things to fear most from each of them becoming President.

Five things to fear from an Obama presidency:

1. Card check. This ought to be one of the definitive issues of the election and it is worrisome that it is not. Obama supports the farcically named “Employee Free Choice Act“, which is basically a measure to drastically alter the process of forming labor unions. As of now, the decision to unionize is undertaken by the workers via the process of secret ballot. Under the proposed Act, this would be replaced by ‘card check’, that is, the signing of authorization cards. In theory this may appear fine, but in practice this will lead to illegal coercion. Basically, unionizors can keep browbeating a worker until he or she signs the card; and the moment there is a majority of signatures, unionization can take place. Not only is card check a terribly collectivist idea that will effectively allow workers to be harassed and ostracized by union leaders, it will also pave the way for the degeneration of the American labor force into militant socialism. As someone from the Indian state of West Bengal, where shut factories, labor troubles, strikes and violent unions are the norm, I can tell you that the future under this Act is bleak.

2. Fairness Doctrine. According to the fairness doctrine, broadcasters have to present issues in a balanced manner, such as by presenting equal amounts of liberal and conservative viewpoints on an issue. It is a terrible idea that rides roughshod over the basic principles of free speech and property rights. Also, as the internet era has aptly demonstrated, the free market of ideas is the best system (*). Forcibly attempting to remove perceived bias in the media does much harm and no good. Obama’s stand on the fairness doctrine has been ambivalent, and judging by his stand on other issues and the position of his Democratic friends like John Kerry (who thinks that the fairness doctrine ought to be there), there is reason to worry that this terrible law might be reinstated during his presidency.

3. Over-regulation. Obama has been long sympathetic to the idea that companies ought to be regulated more and laws such as antitrust ought to be enforced more strongly. It is a viewpoint that shows a lack of understanding of both property rights and the modern world. Much of the troubles with the global economy arise not from too little control but from too much. To give a simple example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the failed giants, were among the most regulated guys in the business. By contrast, relatively unregulated companies like Goldman Sachs are doing fine. As for antitrust laws, they have always done more harm than good. If history has taught us anything – if there is any lesson to be drawn from the emergence of Firefox, the toppling of the Detroit three by Toyota in US sales, the fairy-tale of Google and the ascendancy of Apple from nowhere to the pre-eminent position it is in today – it is that you cannot keep a good product down. In this age of instant dissemination of information, companies do not need the help of antitrust laws to rise to the top. And the consumer doesn’t either.

4. Broadening of hate crimes and anti-discrimination statutes. Regular readers of this blog are aware of my extreme distaste for hate speech laws and anti-discrimination statutes (when applied to private entities). They increase disharmony between communities, not bridge them. More pertinently, they violate all the fundamental freedoms of man — freedom of speech, freedom of association and property rights. As these works ([1], [2]) show, they also have other negative repurcussions. Obama wishes to expand the scope of such laws.

5. Mandatory national service. Obama’s idea of putting people to work attempts to reshape American society in a way they do not really understand, as Jim Lindgren notes here. On the surface there is nothing wrong with the proposal. Voluntary community service can be an enriching experience both for the child and the community. The trouble starts when the government steps in. The inevitable effect is the substitution of individual volunteerism by a huge bureaucratic machine that subsists on tax money. Like many bad proposals, the detrimental effects show up slowly, but when they do, they are hard to remove. Eventually, these kind of proposals convert non-governmental organizations that flourish on private philanthropy into inefficient arms of the government. Furthermore, as this article points out, those who lead these social-services groups tend to become advocates for government-funded solutions to social problems. The result is more social problems, not less. Volunteerism is a wonderful thing but to be truly voluntary and useful, it needs to be more than an arms length away from government control.

Five things to fear from a McCain presidency:

1. Country First. Don’t get me wrong, patriotism is a wonderful thing, but only when it is not forced down your throat. McCain’s entire philosophy of governance centers around the idea of a cause greater than yourself, which really means blind trust and servititude to the government of the day. McCain not only disrespects rugged individualism, he simply does not even consider it. His philosophy is a soldier’s, and God save the country which has to abide by it. As Reason pointed out once, [McCain] has lauded Teddy Roosevelt’s fight against the “unrestricted individualism” of the businessman who “injures the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit.” He has long agitated for mandatory national service. His attitude toward individuals who choose paths he deems inappropriate is somewhere between inflexible and hostile. “In the Roosevelt code, the authentic meaning of freedom gave equal respect to serf-interest and common purpose, to rights and duties,” McCain writes. “And it absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country’s sake….”

2. Endless war. McCain is a warmonger if there ever was one. Much has been made of his “hundred years in Iraq” comment. More pertinently, he thinks it is entirely appropriate that the US spend millions of dollars in military bases abroad while the country suffers from financial crises at home and extreme ill-will abroad. He loves hard power but does not even understand the concept of soft power. And if he ever becomes president, a war with Iran appears certain.

3. Christianization of the US. If McCain wins, the evangelists will be the one who carry him over the top, and most certainly they will be rewarded. The Bush era has seen the reinvigoration of the obscenity law, and a ban on stem cell research. McCain will carry all these things forward. He is also likely to appoint judges who overturn Roe vs Wade (**). He will carry the war on victimless crimes forward and his VP will encourage the teaching of creationism and abstinence only sex education.

4.  Further weakening of civil liberties and the First Amendment. McCain does not respect the concept of free speech. To him, it comes with caveats and clauses, and is subservient to collectivist and national interests.  Here’s a real McCain quote: “I know that money corrupts…I would rather have a clean government than one where quote ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected.” And here’s a statement from his campaign: “Neither the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001.”

5. It’s the economy, stupid. Generally, Republicans are better at controlling spending and balancing the budget. But not the present-day ones. The national debt has grown tremendously during the Bush era, fuelled by wasteful spending and the war in Iraq. McCain does not even understand economics, as he has himself admitted. He is likely to continue spending on useless things like war in foreign countries and is going to continue the Bush tax cuts, which, while a good thing in principle, are incompatible with the spending he has in mind. His reaction to economic issues has been a bizarre mixture of soundbites against earmarks and populist drivel. In the last week, he has both supported and opposed government intervention, made irrelevant threats about sacking the SEC head, and called for salary-limits for CEOs. He is quite simply not the right guy to be in charge of the present crisis.


(*) This quote by a Reason commenter may be pertinent:

Dear Senator Obama

Let me tell you about something called the Internet.

It is a medium where every sort of opinion – from far left to far right and way beyond either – gets aired. And thrashed.

It is a wide open, no holds barred, forum where anyone can speak his piece and find those who agree with him. Those who don’t agree are equally free to rebut, make counter-assertions, abuse or insult the first one. They, in turn, are subject to the same give-and-take. (Try googling “flame war”.)

The internet is almost unregulated (aside from a few asinine attempts by your fellow senators and their counterparts in other countries), yet still manages to achieve this remarkable fairness.

I humbly suggest that this example should persuade you that fairness will be best achieved if the regulation of media is decreased, not increased.

Yours truly,

Your neighbor, Aresen.

(**) Many libertarians, including many pro-choice ones, oppose Roe vs Wade and believe that the abortion issue should be decided by the state. I disagree. Some things are just too fundamental to be left to the states. The right to life is one of them. So is the right to sovereignty over one’s body. Such a right cannot be overturned by a state just as a state should not have the power to kill without cause or to make slavery legal.  A foetus is not a person — but even if it were, it does not deserve full human rights for the simple reason that it is a part of someone else’s body and thus any attempt to assign rights to it obviously contradict the more important rights of the host on which it is completely dependent.

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This post is meant to rebut some of the common criticisms of libertarianism. Many such criticisms can be found by a simple web search and are mostly variants of a few recurring themes. Typically, libertarians are accused of being utopian, unrealistic, dogmatic, immoral, simplistic, nihilistic or simply extreme. Unfortunately, it is impossible to address these claims when phrased in such generality; the situation is further complicated by the fact that most existing critiques of libertarianism are either a) too narrow b) applicable to bad arguments made by some libertarians rather than libertarianism itself, or c) poorly written to the point that it is a waste of time to even attempt a rebuttal.

One of the better criticisms that is available online is Robert Locke’s essay that appeared in 2005 in “The American Conservative”. Titled “Marxism of the Right”, it is a relatively well-written article that brings together several of the commonly levelled criticisms under one roof and seems to appeal to conservatives and liberals alike; thus it seems worthwhile to respond to it. This is what I do below.

It goes without saying that I do not speak for all libertarians, only for myself. I am defending my position (roughly, pragmatic minarchist); not that of every person who has ever lived and called themself libertarian. While I have tried to argue as broadly as possible, some of my arguments below do not exactly apply to all flavors of libertarianism. I have left a note whenever that is the case.

Locke’s statements are color coded purple and some of it is in bold for emphasis. My responses are color coded blue, some of it italicized for emphasis. For simplicity, completeness and to preempt any suspicion that I am quoting Locke out of context, his essay is retained in its entirety.

So here goes…


Marxism of the Right

by Robert Locke

Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual eccentrics often find an attractive political philosophy in libertarianism, the idea that individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics and government. Libertarianism offers its believers a clear conscience to do things society presently restrains, like make more money, have more sex, or take more drugs.

This is highly misleading. Libertarianism (being a political ideology) makes no pretense at doubling up as a code of personal ethics. There is an important distinction between the legal and the moral. It is perfectly consistent to be personally against something and at the same time advocate it should be legal. In his enthusiasm, Locke makes a mistake that is common among conservatives who accuse the ideology of immorality or nihilism.  He starts with the fact that libertarians are against government interference in private affairs and concludes that it encourages its followers to be immoral libertines. The issue is not one of morality but of coercion. Nowhere from the hypothesis that the government should stay out of private matters does it follow that the individuals themselves are freed of moral culpability.

Some might counter that it is small step from legal sanction to social approval. According to this argument, legalization of drugs and prostitution will lead to tremendous abuse and a breakdown of the moral fabric of society. This fear is however unfounded, as empirical evidence in countries where these things are already legal shows. I will expand on this later.

It promises a consistent formula for ethics, a rigorous framework for policy analysis, a foundation in American history, and the application of capitalist efficiencies to the whole of society. But while it contains substantial grains of truth, as a whole it is a seductive mistake.

There are many varieties of libertarianism, from natural-law libertarianism (the least crazy) to anarcho-capitalism (the most), and some varieties avoid some of the criticisms below. But many are still subject to most of them, and some of the more successful varieties—I recently heard a respected pundit insist that classical liberalism is libertarianism—enter a gray area where it is not really clear that they are libertarians at all. But because 95 percent of the libertarianism one encounters at cocktail parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill is a kind of commonplace “street” libertarianism, I decline to allow libertarians the sophistical trick of using a vulgar libertarianism to agitate for what they want by defending a refined version of their doctrine when challenged philosophically. We’ve seen Marxists pull that before.

Again, Locke’s enthusiasm (to tar libertarians with the brush of ‘Marxism’) causes him to gloss over the fact that little of what he says here makes sense. I presume that by “street libertarianism” he means unsophisticated arguments backed up more by conviction than data. In that case, I can assure him that proponents of his own ideology, conservatism, are no less guilty of that. However, if I were to undertake a serious criticism of conservative politics, I would attack the strongest arguments, not some stupid utterance by a straw-man. When I agitate for individual rights, I do not pretend to be nutter, so there is no reason for me to do so when I defend libertarianism. Locke will surely find it easier to refute some aspects of street libertarianism than rebut the arguments made by the folks at Reason or Cato. He must have remarkably low confidence in his own ability if the former is all he wishes to aspire for.

This is no surprise, as libertarianism is basically the Marxism of the Right. If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both selfishness and altruism, to function. Like Marxism, libertarianism offers the fraudulent intellectual security of a complete a priori account of the political good without the effort of empirical investigation. Like Marxism, it aspires, overtly or covertly, to reduce social life to economics. And like Marxism, it has its historical myths and a genius for making its followers feel like an elect unbound by the moral rules of their society.

As a libertarian, I do not claim that society can function purely on individualism and selfishness; I do contend however that altruistic, collective and philanthropic enterprises (except for the measures that preserve individual liberty itself) must be voluntary. History has shown us that such enterprises are not just possible to achieve without government coercion but in fact function much better when it is so. This is an important point that I will return to.

Furthermore, Locke’s insinuation that libertarians ignore empirical studies in favor of armchair reasoning is completely false. (Locke’s own essay, on the other hand, does not contain a single piece of empirical analysis.) Libertarians have considerable data to back up their claims, some of which I will touch upon.

The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is not freedom, but one cannot live without it. Prosperity is connected to freedom, in that it makes us free to consume, but it is not the same thing, in that one can be rich but as unfree as a Victorian tycoon’s wife. A family is in fact one of the least free things imaginable, as the emotional satisfactions of it derive from relations that we are either born into without choice or, once they are chosen, entail obligations that we cannot walk away from with ease or justice. But security, prosperity, and family are in fact the bulk of happiness for most real people and the principal issues that concern governments.

Libertarians try to get around this fact that freedom is not the only good thing by trying to reduce all other goods to it through the concept of choice, claiming that everything that is good is so because we choose to partake of it. Therefore freedom, by giving us choice, supposedly embraces all other goods. But this violates common sense by denying that anything is good by nature, independently of whether we choose it. Nourishing foods are good for us by nature, not because we choose to eat them. Taken to its logical conclusion, the reduction of the good to the freely chosen means there are no inherently good or bad choices at all, but that a man who chose to spend his life playing tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill.

As I have already mentioned, libertarians do not claim that freedom is the only good thing in life. While much of the sources of happiness, such as relationships, friendships and what we do with our spare time can be effectively reduced to freedom, some things, as Locke rightly points out, cannot. What libertarians contend, however, is that most of these things, such as prosperity, food, services and cultural provisions are best provided through the free market. Put another way, the government should limit its role primarily to the defence of freedom and the enforcement of contracts. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, costs and benefits are different for different people. Locke contends that nourishing foods are universally and objectively good for us. What he really means is that  nourishing foods are universally and objectively nourishing. Some people might be willing to eat less nourishing food simply because they are tastier. As Jacob Sullum eloquently put it — “Maximizing health is not the same as maximizing happiness.” There is no set of universal terminal values that work for everyone. Ergo, we should let people decide their own terminal values instead of having some government bureaucrats do so.

Secondly, the free market is more efficient in providing the goods that people need. Let me relate a little story to illustrate this. The other day, I took my parents to the Getty Villa, a beautiful museum in the Malibu seafront that emulates a Roman city. It does not have an admission fee. The Villa is a veritable treasure-house of ancient pottery, sculptures and paintings. People of all ages visit the place today to play, learn and enjoy. The Getty Villa wasn’t built by the government. No tax money went into its construction. It came up because of the vision of one man, a philanthropist, the late J. Paul Getty, who is also responsible for the magnificent Getty museum in Los Angeles.

This illustrates two fundamental truths. A free society tends to produce wealth. A free society also tends to have a lot of people willing to give. America between the late eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries enjoyed some of the highest levels of freedom (though stained by the terrible wrong of slavery) that the world has ever seen. There was very little regulation, and this, more than anything else, catapulted the US into an economic powerhouse. What is less well-known, however, is that nineteenth century US also witnessed more philanthropy than the world has ever seen anywhere.

So, yes, there are a lot of things beyond ensuring personal freedom and property rights that go into a worthy life. But these things, from the mundane to the sophisticated, from corn flakes to art museums, are best provided through the mechanism of freedom. Locke, if he is an economic conservative, will know this. And if so, then he is already in agreement with the libertarians, who, whatever Locke might think, make no claim about the relative value of different things, but simply state that the only thing of value that the government ought to provide and protect is individual freedom. Once this is accepted, it is clear that questions such as whether there are inherently good or bad lifestyles are not relevant to politics.

Furthermore, the reduction of all goods to individual choices presupposes that all goods are individual. But some, like national security, clean air, or a healthy culture, are inherently collective. It may be possible to privatize some, but only some, and the efforts can be comically inefficient. Do you really want to trace every pollutant in the air back to the factory that emitted it and sue?

Certain things, such as the air we breathe, are collective properties because, as Locke points out, there is no realistic way of dividing them into private units. Thus, problems relating to them affect us all and may need a collective solution. The question then becomes what is the most effective way of dealing with these problems taking into account the various issues involved.

Libertarianism is about respect for individual freedom and property rights. It isn’t about extending the concept of privatization to situations where it obviously does not apply. (Note: I am talking on behalf on minarchists here, not anarcho-capitalists, some of whom go further than me in their notion of privatization. But I doubt that even they will seriously consider privatizing air)

Libertarians rightly concede that one’s freedom must end at the point at which it starts to impinge upon another person’s, but they radically underestimate how easily this happens. So even if the libertarian principle of “an it harm none, do as thou wilt,” is true, it does not license the behavior libertarians claim. Consider pornography: libertarians say it should be permitted because if someone doesn’t like it, he can choose not to view it. But what he can’t do is choose not to live in a culture that has been vulgarized by it.

Freedom, in the sense libertarians use the word, does not mean ‘freedom to not get offended’ or ‘freedom to live in a society where people don’t see porn’. Indeed, if the word freedom were used to include such things, it would not retain any consistency. One woman’s freedom to wear a spaghetti-top could then be viewed as impinging upon her neighbour’s freedom to not live near someone who wears spaghetti tops. Of course, this is absurd, as everyone would agree. However this is precisely what happens when the word ‘freedom’ is used in a haphazard manner.

The concepts of freedoms and rights are best viewed through the lens of private property. The freedom to watch pornography in one’s home or in a business establishment is a simple corollary of property rights and freedom of contract. Locke does not make precise what he means by ‘vulgarization’. If he is talking of sexual abuse or unacceptable conduct of related nature, then the law indeed needs to step in to punish, not pornography, but, the incidence of sexual abuse. However, if he just referring to a vague (and subjective) notion of ‘immorality’, then I’d simply reply that a ‘freedom to not live in a vulgarized society’ does not exist anymore than a ‘freedom to not live near someone who wears spaghetti tops’ does.

In any case, as Locke does not give any evidence to back up his claim of ‘vulgarization’, let me provide some. Denmark legalized prostitution in the late 1960’s and experienced a drop in sexual violence in the next two decades. Several prominent studies (see, for instance, this paper by Kutchinsky) have concluded there is little or no link between legalization of pornography and sexual violence. As for the effect of such liberal social policies on intangibles like happiness, a recent study found that Icelanders are the happiest people in the planet. This would probably disturb social conservatives like Locke, as both pornography and prostitution are legal in Iceland and divorces are fairly common.

Libertarians in real life rarely live up to their own theory but tend to indulge in the pleasant parts while declining to live up to the difficult portions. They flout the drug laws but continue to collect government benefits they consider illegitimate. This is not just an accidental failing of libertarianism’s believers but an intrinsic temptation of the doctrine that sets it up to fail whenever tried, just like Marxism.

Libertarians need to be asked some hard questions. What if a free society needed to draft its citizens in order to remain free? What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners? What if it needed to force its citizens to become sufficiently educated to sustain a free society? What if it needed to deprive landowners of the freedom to refuse to sell their property as a precondition for giving everyone freedom of movement on highways? What if it needed to deprive citizens of the freedom to import cheap foreign labor in order to keep out poor foreigners who would vote for socialistic wealth redistribution?

In each of these cases, less freedom today is the price of more tomorrow. Total freedom today would just be a way of running down accumulated social capital and storing up problems for the future. So even if libertarianism is true in some ultimate sense, this does not prove that the libertarian policy choice is the right one today on any particular question.

Furthermore, if limiting freedom today may prolong it tomorrow, then limiting freedom tomorrow may prolong it the day after and so on, so the right amount of freedom may in fact be limited freedom in perpetuity. But if limited freedom is the right choice, then libertarianism, which makes freedom an absolute, is simply wrong. If all we want is limited freedom, then mere liberalism will do, or even better, a Burkean conservatism that reveres traditional liberties. There is no need to embrace outright libertarianism just because we want a healthy portion of freedom, and the alternative to libertarianism is not the USSR, it is America’s traditional liberties.

I cannot resist the temptation of mentioning one of my favourite Milton Friedman stories here. Friedman, who was vehemently against the compulsory drafting of citizens into the army, was on a 15 person commission appointed to contemplate the future of the draft. Vietnam troop commander William Westmoreland gruffly announced during one commission hearing that he was not interested in leading an army of “mercenaries.” Friedman coolly replied, “Would you rather command an army of slaves?”

Mr. Westmoreland bristled and said, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” Friedman then retorted, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.”

Indeed, all the hypothetical scenarios Locke proposes suffer from basic moral inconsistencies. Let us go through some of his questions again. “What if a free society needed to draft its citizens to remain free?” This is contradictory, because a state (not society!) that forcibly sends its citizens to war isn’t free in the first place. “What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners?” This argument is incredibly nativist. Whose economic freedom is being talked about here? “What if it needed to deprive citizens of the freedom to import cheap foreign labor in order to keep out poor foreigners who would vote for socialistic wealth redistribution?” Even if it is true that “cheap foreign” labourers would tend to vote for socialism, the answer is not to discriminate against them or stop immigration but simply to set constitutional constraints on governmental policies. There is a reason why America has a bill of rights. It is there to protect our freedoms from the state.

Furthermore, in most cases, there are libertarian alternatives that leads to better solutions. For instance, as this article points out, conscription reduces the efficiency of an army. Thus, even if one ignores moral considerations (that is, the intrinsic worth to freedom), a volunteer army is preferable. Locke’s words might sound convincing in theory but in reality, it is hard to find an actual example where the promise of greater future freedom justifies a significant restriction on freedom today. There are simply too many negative externalities (beyond the large, intrinsically negative cost of any freedom-restricting measure) associated to such laws.

Are there no situations that warrant a restriction of individual liberty to preserve a greater freedom? Why, of course there are. No sensible libertarian will advocate allowing private citizens to possess nuclear weapons or other weapons capable of huge destruction. However, in the overwhelming majority of ‘typical’ cases, the libertarian path is superior on both moral and consequentialist grounds.

Libertarianism’s abstract and absolutist view of freedom leads to bizarre conclusions. Like slavery,  libertarianism would have to allow one to sell oneself into it. (It has been possible at certain times in history to do just that by assuming debts one could not repay.) And libertarianism degenerates into outright idiocy when confronted with the problem of children, whom it treats like adults, supporting the abolition of compulsory education and all child-specific laws, like those against child labor and child sex. It likewise cannot handle the insane and the senile.

Libertarians grant people the freedom to do whatever they want with their private lives or with each other. However it does not promise that the libertarian government will enforce all contracts private citizens draw up. For instance, some contracts might be inherently contradictory, or too vague, or simply too costly to enforce. In a libertarian society people can’t be stopped from drawing up such contracts, but the government (which would be funded by everyone) would indeed be able in certain cases to say: “You know what, this lies in the category of contracts we do not enforce.” I believe that slavery, because of its irreversible nature, does belong to the category of contracts that ought to be unenforceable. In other words, if a person willingly — or perhaps through some sense of honor or duty — promises to work without pay for another on a permanent basis, the government should do nothing; however if this person later changes his mind and decides to leave, the state will not help his “owner” get him back, nor will the owner be exempted from the force of law if he persecutes his slave and the latter decides to complain.

Regarding child sex and such issues, no libertarian supports treating a toddler like an adult. Mr. Locke has either been hanging out with the wrong libertarians or has severely misunderstood what libertarianism has to say about children’s rights. Libertarians believe that on a lot of issues, parents are in a better position than the state to take decisions about the child. They also believe there are a lot of absurd laws around, like the ones that send an 18 year old boy to prison for having consensual sex with his 17 year old girlfriend. However, I would be extremely surprised if there is any libertarian who seriously believes that a three year old has the capacity to consent to sex. (Note: There have been some libertarian documents, like the ‘children’s rights’ section of the poorly phrased 1992 platform of the Libertarian party, which have called for abolition of all children-specific laws. The reasoning behind them was to reduce government interference in family matters and hand over control to the guardian or parent. While I sympathise with that view, I do not personally endorse doing away with underage laws, nor I suspect do most other minarchists.)

As far as the mentally ill are concerned, many libertarians believe that there is no ground for involuntarily committing such people unless they are a danger to others. However nothing prevents such people from making advance arrangements, perhaps in the form of a living will, that specifies how they should be treated if they are later deemed to have lost certain mental capacities.

It is also worth noting that to an extent, mental illness is a social construct. Some might counter that science has progressed and it is possible to biologically identify those who are mentally ill as opposed to those who are merely eccentric or different. However, all science can do is point out biological differences, not give an answer to how much biological difference counts as ‘acceptable eccentricity’ and how much as ‘mental illness’. The latter remains a social construct. Only a few decades ago, homosexuality was officially recognized as a mental illness and indeed modern science suggests there is probably a biological (and genetic) basis that identifies homosexuals. If, today, we respect their right to be left alone, what prevents us from doing the same about those who are depressed or mildly schizophrenic or bipolar or otherwise abnormal (but no danger to others)? Of course, someone who is mentally equal to a toddler does not deserve to have the same rights as an adult. However, not all cases are this clear cut — there is a huge grey area in the middle. For cases that fall there, libertarians, rightly, prefer to err on the side of freedom.

Libertarians argue that radical permissiveness, like legalizing drugs, would not shred a libertarian society because drug users who caused trouble would be disciplined by the threat of losing their jobs or homes if current laws that make it difficult to fire or evict people were abolished. They claim a “natural order” of reasonable behavior would emerge. But there is no actual empirical proof that this would happen. Furthermore, this means libertarianism is an all-or-nothing proposition: if society continues to protect people from the consequences of their actions in any way, libertarianism regarding specific freedoms is illegitimate. And since society does so protect people, libertarianism is an illegitimate moral position until the Great Libertarian Revolution has occurred.

Locke is a brave man to defend the war on drugs — possibly the most absurd, pointless and expensive effort ever conceived by a government. The utter failure of current drug policy on every front is well documented, see for example this website. Let me however focus on just one aspect of Locke’s position, namely his contention that there is no empirical evidence that legalization of drugs will not lead to massive abuse. He is perhaps unaware of countries such as the Netherlands where certain drugs, such as marijuana are easily available and can be legally consumed in “coffee-shops”. From whatever I can tell, the Dutch are doing perfectly fine. In fact, according to a recent survey, they are two times less likely than Americans to try marijuana and eight times less likely to have cocaine.

Indeed, all drugs were legal in the US before 1914. As a result most of them were easily available, for recreational as well as medicinal use. However, the percentage of addicts in society was less than it is now. For addicts who wished to stop taking drugs, treatment and rehab were easily available and there was no fear of legal sanction. Most importantly, there was negligible criminal involvement in drug trade. What the “war on drugs” has done is cause tremendous social and economic harm without any observable gains.

Thus, Locke is profoundly wrong in his claim that there is no empirical evidence. Evidence abounds; he only needs to open his eyes.

And is society really wrong to protect people against the negative consequences of some of their free choices? While it is obviously fair to let people enjoy the benefits of their wise choices and suffer the costs of their stupid ones, decent societies set limits on both these outcomes. People are allowed to become millionaires, but they are taxed. They are allowed to go broke, but they are not then forced to starve. They are deprived of the most extreme benefits of freedom in order to spare us the most extreme costs. The libertopian alternative would be perhaps a more glittering society, but also a crueler one.

There are three obvious counter-questions.

Is it morally justified to limit everyone’s freedom simply because some people might ruin themselves through their exercise of liberty?

Even if the answer to the first question is yes, is a universal restriction of freedom the only way to ensure a certain amount of social security?

I will let readers answer the first question for themselves. The answer to the second is, however, an unambiguous no. There are simply too many alternatives to enforced government regulation — private philanthropy, privately funded social security, insurance, libertarian paternalism that preserves choice — that would substantially reduce the number of people ruined by bad choices without necessitating blanket regulations that affect everyone else.

Lastly, would a libertarian state really be crueler than Locke’s conservatopia? Locke clearly favours retaining (perhaps strengthening) the laws against victimless crimes that we presently have. These, laws, in modern USA, have created an environment where a woman is driven to suicide for doing nothing worse than help adults have consensual sex in exchange of money and where a good man faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison for helping alleviate the pain of the sick and the dying. Aren’t these things much more cruel than what would happen in a more libertarian system?

Empirically, most people don’t actually want absolute freedom, which is why democracies don’t elect libertarian governments. Irony of ironies, people don’t choose absolute freedom. But this refutes libertarianism by its own premise, as libertarianism defines the good as the freely chosen, yet people do not choose it. Paradoxically, people exercise their freedom not to be libertarians.

The political corollary of this is that since no electorate will support libertarianism, a libertarian government could never be achieved democratically but would have to be imposed by some kind of authoritarian state, which rather puts the lie to libertarians’ claim that under any other philosophy, busybodies who claim to know what’s best for other people impose their values on the rest of us. Libertarianism itself is based on the conviction that it is the one true political philosophy and all others are false. It entails imposing a certain kind of society, with all its attendant pluses and minuses, which the inhabitants thereof will not be free to opt out of except by leaving.

It is true that no purely libertarian government has ever existed. The same, however, has been true of every socio-political system at some time in history. Indeed, freedom of expression in the sense we enjoy it is an extremely recent invention. There is a basic resistance to any kind of change; that does not mean the change is impossible.

More pertinently, most of the freedoms that libertarians advocate today have all existed some time or the other in history, just never simultaneously. The American economy was virtually free of regulation in the nineteenth century. Drugs were legal before 1914. Prostitution, free speech, homosexuality and pornography are legal in much of the world today. Anti-discrimination laws didn’t exist in the private sphere till forty years ago.

Unfortunately, while citizens are extremely rational and well-informed in economic choices, they are less so while voting (for a detailed analysis, see Bryan Caplan’s “The myth of the rational voter”). This is not a failing of libertarianism, but a common trait of all political ideologies. I believe that much of the resistance to libertarianism can be traced to a profound ignorance of what the ideology entails and what its consequences will be.

Lastly, Locke is not wholly accurate in saying that the inhabitants of a libertarian system will be forced to endure the minuses even if they don’t want to. If they find less freedom more to their taste, they will be free to enter into (certain) contracts with the government that would take away some of their freedom. For instance, an alcoholic will be free to voluntarily sign himself into, say, a three year contract, stipulating that it would be illegal for him to drink during that period. This has already been tried with considerable success in some American states. People who are worried that they might make bad choices when their mind deteriorates will be free to draw up living wills that stipulate certain conditions under which they might be entered into a conservatorship or involuntarily committed. In essence, people who wish to live in a manner similar to the way things are today will be able to do so to a considerable degree, while preserving choice for those of us who choose greater liberty.

And if libertarians ever do acquire power, we may expect a farrago of bizarre policies. Many support abolition of government-issued money in favor of that minted by private banks. But this has already been  tried, in various epochs, and doesn’t lead to any wonderful paradise of freedom but only to an explosion of fraud and currency debasement followed by the concentration of financial power in those few banks that survive the inevitable shaking-out. Many other libertarian schemes similarly founder on the empirical record.

A major reason for this is that libertarianism has a naïve view of economics that seems to have stopped paying attention to the actual history of capitalism around 1880. There is not the space here to refute simplistic laissez faire, but note for now that the second-richest nation in the world, Japan, has one of the most regulated economies, while nations in which government has essentially lost control over economic life, like Russia, are hardly economic paradises. Legitimate criticism of over-regulation does not entail going to the opposite extreme.

Consider the greatest libertarian economists of the last century — Milton Friedman (born 1912), Friedrich Hayek (born 1899). Does Locke really believe that these people earned their fame by analyzing economics that took place before 1880?

I can only conclude that Locke has never read a single serious work of libertarian economics. Let me recommend that he buy a copy of “Capitalism and Freedom” and study it. He will benefit from it.

As for Locke’s example of Russia, I am utterly confused. What point is he trying to make? Russia suffers from a severe lack of individual freedom in both the social and economic spheres and its economic system is essentially a conglomerate of government-sanctioned monopolies. Nothing could be more unlibertarian.

Libertarian naïveté extends to politics. They often confuse the absence of government impingement upon freedom with freedom as such. But without a sufficiently strong state, individual freedom falls prey to other more powerful individuals. A weak state and a freedom-respecting state are not the same thing, as shown by many a chaotic Third-World tyranny.

Libertarians endorse a strong system of law and order because it is of paramount importance to ensure that the freedoms they advocate are not violated by individuals. Without that, all other liberties are useless. To insinuate, as Locke does, that libertarians favor a weak state that allows powerful individuals to ride rough-shod is a huge distortion. In fact, Locke is misrepresenting the libertarian position in exactly the same manner Naomi Klein, the left-wing author did in her book “Shock Doctrine” where she blamed the problems of South American dictatorships — which were perversely unlibertarian nations — on their enforcement of libertarian-esque economic doctrines. In reality, their problems can be traced to a lack of freedom and an absence of law and order.

Libertarians are also naïve about the range and perversity of human desires they propose to unleash. They can imagine nothing more threatening than a bit of Sunday-afternoon sadomasochism, followed by some recreational drug use and work on Monday. They assume that if people are given freedom, they will gravitate towards essentially bourgeois lives, but this takes for granted things like the deferral of gratification that were pounded into them as children without their being free to refuse. They forget that for much of the population, preaching maximum freedom merely results in drunkenness, drugs, failure to hold a job, and pregnancy out of wedlock. Society is dependent upon inculcated self-restraint if it is not to slide into barbarism, and libertarians attack this self-restraint. Ironically, this often results in internal restraints being replaced by the external restraints of police and prison, resulting in less freedom, not more.

This contempt for self-restraint is emblematic of a deeper problem: libertarianism has a lot to say about freedom but little about learning to handle it. Freedom without judgment is dangerous at best, useless at worst. Yet libertarianism is philosophically incapable of evolving a theory of how to use freedom well because of its root dogma that all free choices are equal, which it cannot abandon except at the cost of admitting that there are other goods than freedom. Conservatives should know better.

This is precious. Libertarians attack self-restraint? Nothing could be further from the truth. In a paternalistic society, the government has the authority to restrain individuals for actions it deems inappropriate; thus such a system is the very antithesis of self-restraint. Libertarians do not treat adults like children but as autonomous individuals; in doing so they encourage personal responsibility and teach people how to properly use the freedoms they have been granted. If anything, libertarianism preaches that personal morality or social pressures are sufficient forces to motivate self-restraint in a grown up population.

“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”  ~ Ayn Rand.


Comments welcome!

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Wendell Gunn, a conservative, wrote Obama when he sent him a campaign contribution:

My contribution to your campaign is based on hope and change: My hope that you will change your mind on the tax and economic policies you are proposing.

That’s strangely apt. I do not think there has been another presidential contender in history with such a large fraction of supporters who actually hope he has been lying. And yes, I am one of them too. Mea Culpa.

Of course, Obama’s obvious intelligence doesn’t hurt, nor does the fact that at least on the important issues of war, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic surveillance, he is so much better than McCain.

Here’s a nice article with quotes from some prominent conservative and libertarian Obama backers.

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Christopher Beam lists Obama’s post primary shift towards the center. It seems to me that on six of the seven issues listed, his new position is actually better.

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A subtle, highly readable article by Virginia Postrel on Barack Obama. Obama she says, has brought glamour — that special combination of mystery and grace — back into American politics. Indeed, Obama’s exceptional combination of charisma, intelligence and vagueness makes people want to project their own ideology onto him.

Plenty of candidates attract supporters who disagree with them on some issues. Obama is unusual, however. He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too. They project their own views onto him and figure he is just saying what other, less discerning voters want to hear. So when Obama’s chief economic adviser supposedly told a Canadian official that, contrary to campaign rhetoric, the candidate didn’t want to revise NAFTA, reporters found the story credible. After all, nobody that thoughtful and sophisticated could really oppose free trade.

However, she warns, these very qualities could be his undoing.

To rely on illusions is to risk disillusionment. If Obama the dream candidate becomes Obama the real president, he’ll be forced to pick sides, make compromises, and turn “hope” and “change” into policies some people like and some people don’t. Or, like the movie star governor of California, he might choose instead to preserve his glamour by letting others set the agenda. Either way, his face won’t make America’s worries disappear, and his cool, polite manner won’t eliminate political disagreements. Some of his supporters will feel disappointed, even betrayed. The result could be a backlash, heightened partisan conflict, and a failed presidency.

I agree completely. However, some of his supporters (and I am one of them) are fully aware of the above and still willing to take the risk of disappointment. When one thinks about the alternatives, what choice does one have?

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