Open Letter to Michael Kinsley On Behalf of Ron Paul
by Walter Block
by Walter Block
Something strange is going on. Usually, when mainstream media journalists write about libertarianism, they can barely spell the word correctly. Often, in terms of their understanding, they seem to think of it as "libertoonianism" or, perhaps, "librarianism"; sometimes they actually confuse it with libertinism or conservatism (Block, Walter. 2007. "Plumb Line Libertarianism: A Critique of Hoppe." Reason Papers, Vol. 29, Fall, pp. 151—163). Typically, at least in surveys, leading pollsters do not even include the philosophy of liberty as an option, along with the alternatives they do offer: socialism, liberalism, on the left, a category for moderates, and then on the right conservatism and fascism.
It is, then, with great appreciation that we must welcome a series of two articles written by Michael Kinsley on this subject (here and here). This journalist certainly qualifies as a leader of his profession; but, amazingly, his understanding of our philosophy is not the typical hopeless mishmash of misunderstanding to which we have become accustomed. He actually gets more than just a few things right. Were he a student of mine, I would have to award him as high as a B—. It is in the hope of raising his grade even further that I offer the present reaction to his two essays. There will be reading homework for Mr. Kinsley embedded in it; I hope and trust he will react to these bibliographical suggestions in a manner far different to Rudy Giuliani's (non)response to Ron Paul's request that he read some material on "blowback."
II. Rising libertarians
Mr. Kinsley's first effort to wrestle with our philosophy is entitled "Libertarians Rising," and was published on 10/18/07 in Time Magazine. In it, he starts off by demonstrating keen understanding of the views of Democrats and Republicans regarding government. Neither wishes to greatly reduce its size overall. He notes, correctly, that the former support civil liberties to a greater degree than the latter. I have a slight quarrel with his view that "War in general and Iraq in particular — certainly Big Government exercises — are projects Republicans tend to be more enthusiastic about (than Democrats)." This certainly ignores the views of Dr. Ron Paul, a ten-term Republican candidate for his party's nomination for President. It also fails to reckon with the fact that US participation in the Korean and Viet Nam "police actions" as well as World Wars I and II were begun under Democratic, not Republican, administrations.
When it comes to libertarians, our author is certainly on solid ground when he avers "Libertarians are against government in all its manifestations. Domestically, they are against social-welfare programs. They favor self-reliance (as they see it) over Big Government spending." I'll let that crack about "as they see it" pass under poetic license. If this was meant seriously, Mr. Kinsley would have indicated in what manner the libertarian notion of self-reliance was faulty.
But then he says "Internationally, they are isolationists. Like George Washington, they loathe "foreign entanglements," and they think the rest of the world can go to hell without America's help."
Now, it is time to take out the red pen and penalize him a few points. Libertarians in general, and Ron Paul in particular (he will do just fine as an exemplar of this perspective), are not at all "isolationists." Rather, they, and he, are non-interventionists. What, pray tell, is the difference? This is a distinction beyond the ability to comprehend of virtually all non-libertarian journalists, so we do well to carefully spell it out. An isolationist is one who wishes to hide behind his national boundaries, and close out the entire world behind them. North Korea is a reasonable case in point. Wishing that "the rest of the world can go to hell" is indeed a good characterization of this viewpoint. In very sharp contrast, a non-interventionist desires to eschew one and only one means of international interaction: gunboat "diplomacy," imperialism, forcing our will upon foreign nations at the point of a gun when they pose no threat to us whatsoever. It is entirely compatible with this stance to wish the rest of the world well, and to act so as to attain it. How would a non-interventionist accomplish this task, if he is precluded from utilizing military force? Why through trade, investment, cultural and intellectual exchanges, competing in sports programs with other countries, etc. By serving as a disinterested judge, to resolve foreign disputes, if we are called upon to do so. Congressman Paul is the only true internationalist now running for the Republican nomination for President since he enthusiastically embraces all of these modes of interaction.
But all is not lost. Mr. Kinsley's next characterization of the libertarian philosophy shows great acuity: "… they don't think the government should care — about what people are reading, thinking, drinking, smoking or doing in bed," that is, if we interpret this sympathetically: not "people," but rather "adults." Libertarians, like most other people, favor paternalist laws that apply to children; just not to consenting adults. In the felicitous statement of Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (p. 163), libertarians oppose the prohibition of any "capitalist acts between consenting adults." Sex, drugs, earning a profit, it does not matter; liberty is a seamless web.
But then comes the next logical howler: "And what is the opposite of libertarianism? Libertarians would say fascism. But in the American political context, it is something infinitely milder that calls itself communitarianism. The term is not as familiar, and communitarians are far less organized as a movement than libertarians, ironically enough. But in general communitarians emphasize society rather than the individual and believe that group responsibilities (to family, community, nation, the globe) should trump individual rights."
Not so, not so. Libertarians do not oppose communities, no matter how ostensibly coercive and totalitarian they are, provided, only, that membership in them is voluntary. For example, the nunnery, the monastery, the commune, the kibbutz, the volunteer army, all believe that (in very different ways) the desires of the group should take precedence over those of the individual. But as long as no one is forced to join, libertarians have no problem with any of these organizations. Take the orchestra as perhaps the ultimate in communitarianism. Here, the individual will is so subservient to the needs of the group that members (wind players) are told when to breathe. If a flutist so much as gasps for air at the wrong time, the conductor will stop the entire rehearsal and glare at him. One can hardly be more totalitarian than that.
No, the polar opposite of libertarianism is communism and fascism. Libertarians believe in freedom in economics, in civil liberties and also in freedom from imperialism. These others tolerate none of these liberties.
Mr. Kinsley is quite correct to criticize as hypocritical those who "advocate(e) mandatory so-called voluntary national service by people younger than whoever is doing the advocating." Here, he sounds almost like a libertarian. But what are we to make of this: "Libertarians … are not the selfish monsters you might expect. They are earnest and impractical — eager to corner you with their plan for using old refrigerators to reverse global warming or solving the traffic mess by privatizing stoplights. And if you disagree, they're fine with that. It's a free country."
Part of this is correct. If and to the degree that libertarians are indeed selfish, it is in the spirit of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," where the public good is best attained by everyone seeking to maximize profits, and thus coordinate their economic activities with each other. And, libertarians are amongst the most easy-going people on the entire planet. But the plan to deal with global warming in particular, and with the environmental crisis in general, has nothing to do with "old refrigerators." Rather, it is predicated upon the notion of "free market environmentalism." See on this here and here. As to privatizing stoplights, I will deal with this charge in my comments on Mr. Kinsley's next essay, which centrally features this fallacious charge.
This author ends on a splendid note:
"But the party that does well in the future will be the one that makes the better guess about where to place its bets. My money's on the libertarians. People were shocked a couple of weeks ago when Ron Paul — one of those mysterious Republicans who seem to be running for President because everyone needs a hobby — raised $5 million from July through September, mostly on the Internet. Paul is a libertarian. In fact, he was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988. The computer revolution has bred a generation of smart loners, many of them rich and some of them complacently Darwinian, convinced that they don't need society — nor should anyone else. They are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics."
Well, let me temper that a little bit. What's with this "convinced that they don't need society — nor should anyone else?" This bespeaks a confusion between society and the state. Not good, not good. Libertarians are as social as anyone else. More so than most, perhaps, as witness the vast number of Ron Paul Meetup groups, the Ron Paul blimp, the money bomb days that have garnered for the Paul campaign in the tens of millions, and LewRockwell.com, all of which are supported by voluntary, that is, social efforts. Most libertarians do not at all oppose society, but rather the state, at least when it grows larger than constitutional limits.
All in all, this was not a bad essay. I would rate it a B+, maybe, even, were I in a generous mood, an A—. Why, then, the overall rating of a B—? It is because I am grading both essays as one package, and if the first was pretty good, the second is anything but. Let us now turn to it.
This second one is entitled "The Church Doctrines of Pope Ron Paul, What's wrong with libertarianism?" and appeared in the Saturday, January 12, 2008 edition of the Washington Post. Even the title is problematic. Pope Ron Paul? Dr. Paul is a practicing Baptist (although he does not use his private faith as a means of garnering votes as do some of his competitors for the presidency, who are trying to out Christianize each other). Thus, this title is at least extremely insensitive on religious grounds. But more. It also implies that Congressman Paul is a bit of a fanatic for attempting to import religious dogma into a context where it does not belong. As a matter of fact, Mr. Paul bases his political views, and defends them, on grounds of the Constitution, logic and fact, not faith.
But if the title is off-putting, the same applies to the opening salvo:
"Libertarians get patronized a lot. Chipmunky and earnest, always pursuing logical consistency down wacky paths, they pose no real threat to the established order. But the modest success of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in the presidential campaign entitles them to some answers to the questions they raise. They say: People should be free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't hurt other people."
Yes, libertarians do indeed "get patronized a lot." And Mr. Kinsley is guilty of doing just that right here. Chipmunk? Okay, yes, I can see it. My friend of 40 years Ron Paul, maybe, looks a little like a chipmunk. If you had to pick an animal, that might do it. Or, maybe, a raccoon. He can't help looking like that. Mr. Kinsley is here guilty of "lookism." This doesn't bother me one bit, nor would it Dr. Paul, but what pray tell will Mr. Kinsley's employers think of such rampant non-political correctness? While we are on this topic, why does no mainstream journalist opine that Mick Huckabee and Fred Thompson look like basset hounds, that Rudy Giuliani looks like a weasel, that John McCain looks like a prune, or maybe a bowling ball, that Mitt Romney and John Edwards look like Ken (of Ken and Barbie fame) and that Hillary looks like a shrew. (I dare not speculate as to which animal Obama resembles, such is the parlous state of our society nowadays, none of it due to "kooky" libertarians.)
"No threat to the established order?" C'mon, give us a break. If Ron Paul were "no threat," why would he raise so much money? Cure an entire younger generation of their political apathy? Inspire a modern-day tea party? A blimp? Why, when he is interviewed by the likes of Hanratty, and Russert, do they not allow him a moment to answer their questions, before interrupting him, lecturing him, trying to browbeat him? Why would Fox choose to exclude him from their debates? Why is a man who beat out Giuliani in Iowa, and Thompson in New Hampshire, given so little time in these debates? Why do pollsters stick to land telephones and those who voted in Republican primaries? What is it with those "focus groups?" Why has there never been a supporter of Mr. Paul in any of them? It seems to me that he is "a threat" alright.
It is a mistaken interpretation of libertarianism, albeit it a common one, to attribute to it this: "People should be free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't hurt other people." Not at all. The correct rendition of this is: "People should be free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't violate the rights of other people." This is not mere semantics. If I open up a bakery across the street from yours and attract half your customers, or alienate your girl friend's affections away from you and in my direction, I can indeed be said to have "hurt" you. But in so doing I have not violated your rights. Others might (anti-trust regulations might call the former predatory pricing, or monopolizing) deny this, but libertarians would not.
All is not lost, however. There are some good bits in this essay:
"The libertarian perspective is useful, and undervalued. Why does the government pay farmers not to grow food? Why are medications for fatal diseases sometimes held off the market in case they aren't safe? (Compared to death?) Legislators and regulators should ask themselves far more often than they do whether some government activity or other expands freedom or contracts it.
"Furthermore, democracy and majority rule are no answers. Tyranny of the majority is a constant danger. How would you like a law requiring that people with odd Social Security numbers have to give $1,000 to people with even Social Security numbers? To libertarians, much of what the government does is essentially like that.
Good bits? No. These are excellent!
II. Public Goods
But now comes material unworthy of the person who just wrote those great insights:
"So what is wrong with the libertarian case for extremely limited government? Economics 101 teaches some of the basic justifications for government interference in the economy. Some things, such as the cost of national defense, are ‘public goods.' We can't each decide for ourselves how much defense we want. We have to decide that together. Then there are ‘externalities,' which are costs (or, sometimes, benefits) that your decisions impose on me. Pollution is the classic example. Without government involvement of some sort to override our individual judgments, we will produce more pollution than most of us want."
Before poking holes in this, let me say the following. Erroneous as it is, this criticism is at least an intellectually able one. Most journalists, when criticizing libertarianism, will resort to ad hominem arguments and name-calling. We are greedy. We do not care about the poor. We are racists. We are in the pay of Wall Street. We are Nazis. Say what you will about Mr. Kinsley's criticisms, none of them deserve to be placed in the gutter, like these others.
Now, back to the point. Our journalist friend is entirely correct when he attributes his criticisms of libertarianism to "Economics 101." The problem is that there is more to economics than "Economics 101." There are also advanced courses; even graduate studies in the dismal science. The American people deserve better than "Economics 101" from their top journalists.
First of all, national defense is not a public good, mainstream economists to the contrary notwithstanding. In order for a good to be considered a good in the first place, people must be willing to pay for it. But, based on the neoclassical story, no one would freely pay for this service; each person would wait for others to do so, and then "free ride" off of them. But if so, then public goods, all of them, are not "goods."
Secondly, for a "good" to be considered a public "good" two criteria must be met: a. it must be non-rivalrous, and b. it must be non-excludable. The first means that if one person consumes this service, it does not leave any the less for anyone else. Air qualifies: if I breathe heavily, there is still plenty for you. But this is clearly false in the case of defense: if the U.S. defends the East Coast, there will be just that many fewer resources left over to do so for the West Coast. The second means that non-payers cannot be excluded from receiving the benefits of protection. But if, say, Taxachussets becomes filled with pacifists, who refuse to pay taxes for defense, the Federal Government can say to our enemy, the "Hitler" of the day, whoever he is: "That state is no longer under our protection. If you kick their butts, we will not retaliate." Thus, they could be excluded. No one is saying that Washington D.C. would or should say any such thing. Only that national defense, strictly speaking, does not qualify as a public good, despite serving as the very paradigm case thereof in "Economics 101." For more on this see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. For a refutation of the claim that the lighthouse qualifies as the second paradigm case of the public good, see this material: Barnett, William II and Walter Block. 2007. "Coase and Van Zandt on Lighthouses," Public Finance Review, Vol. 35, No. 6, November, pp. 710—733; Barnett, William and Walter Block. Unpublished. "Coase and Bertrand on Lighthouses."
Third point. This entire discussion is irrelevant to Ron Paul, presumably the focus of Michael Kinsley's entire article. For Representative Paul fully supports not only a U.S. national defense, but a strong national defense. Indeed, that is one of the primary reasons he objects to our country operating some 700 foreign military bases in some 130 countries. In his view, these do not at all serve to defend ourselves. Rather, their effect is to make enemies out of people who would otherwise not bear us any ill will, and encourage them to attack us. Anyone ever hear of 9/11 and blowback out there?
States Mr. Kinsley: "Libertarians have a fondness for complex arrangements to make markets work in situations where the textbooks say they can't. Hey, let's issue stamps, y'see, and use the revenues to form a corporation that sells stock to buy military equipment, then the government leases the equipment and the stockholders vote on whether to user (sic) it — and so on. The point becomes proving a point, not economic or government efficiency."
I have no doubt that some person calling himself a libertarian said this, or something like it (however, it would have been nice to have been furnished specifics). But no sensible libertarian did so. In any case, this is certainly not Dr. Paul's view. In logic, this is called setting up a straw man and knocking it down. Not really cricket.
Now consider the "externality" of pollution. The truth of this matter is almost the diametrical opposite of Mr. Kinsley's view. Pollution is not a market failure. Rather, it is a government failure. Consider this finding from the Supreme Court of Georgia, which serves as the basis of U.S. government policy: "The pollution of the air, so far as reasonably necessary to the enjoyment of life and indispensable to the progress of society, is not actionable" (Holman v. Athens Empire Laundry Co. ). When government takes upon itself the role of protecting property rights (pollution is nothing but a trespass in the libertarian legal code), but then abrogates this responsibility with court findings of this sort, to characterize the situation as the market failure of externalities as is commonly done not only in "Economics 101" but all throughout the profession of economics, is highly problematic. See here for a further analysis along these lines.
But Mr. Kinsley is not yet finished bashing the free enterprise philosophy on the issue of pollution. He continues: "Libertarians also have a tendency to see too many issues in terms of property rights… Pollution, libertarians say, is simply theft: you are stealing my clean air. Settle it in court. This is a really terrible idea: inexpert judges, lawyers and juries using the most elaborate and expensive decision-making process known to humankind — litigation — to make inconsistent decisions in different cases. And usually there is no one ‘right' answer: There is a spectrum of acceptable answers, involving tradeoffs (dirty air versus fewer jobs, etc.) that ought to be made democratically — that is, through government."
This is more than passing curious. If we read this literally, and how else are we to interpret it, he is saying that government courts are not part of government. Surely, he would acknowledge that the Supreme Court, the Circuit Courts, indeed all government courts, are, well, government courts.
His way of putting the problem, perhaps leads to his error here. He says, "Pollution, libertarians say, is simply theft: you are stealing my clean air." Not so. In our view, pollution is not a theft of clean air. Rather, it is a trespass of dust and other particles onto the property (and lungs) of other people.
IV. Private roadways
At last we arrive at what is for me the crux of Mr. Kinsley's argument against libertarians. We are kooky because we want to privatize highways. Let us allow him to speak for himself on this matter:
"Sometimes libertarians end up reinventing the wheel. My favorite example is an article I read years ago advocating privatization of highways. This is a classic libertarian fantasy: government auctions off the land, private enterprise pays for construction and maintenance, tolls cover the cost, competition with other routes keeps it all efficient. And what about, um, intersections? Well, markets would recognize that it is more efficient for one company to own both roads at major intersections, and when that happened the company would have an incentive to strike the right balance between customers on each highway. And stoplights? Ultimately, the author had worked his way up to a giant monopoly that would build, own, and maintain all the roads, and charge an annual fee to people who wanted to use them. None dare call it government."
There is more wrong here than you can shake a stick at. There is enough to write an entire book about the errors here. As a matter of fact, I have written a book on it: Block, Walter. Forthcoming, 2008. Privatize The Highways. Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute. (I strongly suspect that the "article he read years ago was one of mine, since I have written so much about this topic; but who knows?) Let us, however, before analyzing the problems, ask, why is it that libertarians so vociferously reject the present institutional arrangements that govern highways and streets? In a word, it is because some 40,000 people in the U.S. bite the dust, are slaughtered, are dying like flies, on the nation's thoroughfares. I know, I know, it is weird and kooky to be concerned with so much needless death, but, bear with me gentle reader, while I explain further.
To put this into context, "only" some 3,000 people perished in the tragedy of 9/11. A similar number of U.S. military have so far been given a one-way ride home in a casket from Iraq. "Only" some 50,000 of our servicemen died in quagmire of Viet Nam in all the years we were engaged in our imperialist initiatives in that country.
Compared to these, the 40,000 deaths per year on our roadways is a national shame. A disgrace. The death toll includes women, children, black people, old people, gays, the groups usually in the public eye whenever something untoward occurs to them. Why is it not in the news? Because journalist such as Mr. Kinsley are too busy trying to embarrass libertarians, the only ones concerned with the problem, and who are offering realistic solutions. Why are there no governmental commissions studying this problem? Why is there no public outrage? Again, this is due to the undoubted power of the Fourth Estate. They have lulled the populace into accepting the notion that like death and taxes, massive highway fatalities are inevitable.
It is only to be expected that people of the perspicacity of Mr. Michael Kinsley will object at this point: the fault for these deaths lies not with the state. Rather, responsibility for these tragic killings can be laid at the door of excessive speed, drunken driving, vehicle malfunction, driver error, bad weather, the litany goes on and on.
No. These phenomena are but proximate causes. They are not the ultimate causes of the problem. The deaths are the responsibility of the managers of the highways. It is as if we were to blame for a restaurant bankruptcy cold food, poor service, dirty conditions, bad location. No, no, no, these are the fault of the restaurant manager. In like manner, the "buck" stops with the statist bureaucrats in charge. It is they who have failed to confront the problems of excessive speed, drunken driving, vehicle malfunction, driver error, bad weather, etc. Why privatization, then? This is because competition brings about better products at lower prices. It does so for every good and service in the private economy. We have reasonably good pizza, for example, because those who cannot satisfy customer demands in this regard fall by the wayside. Imagine if government were placed in charge of providing this foodstuff. We would have Sovietized pizza. Well, we now suffer under the yoke of Sovietized highways and streets.
Let us now consider Mr. Kinsley's puerile objections to privatization. First, he calls it "a classic libertarian fantasy." But this is mere name-calling. Any student of mine guilty of this sort of "arguing" would soon enough feel the wrath of my red pen. Every new idea, in any case, starts out as a "fantasy." This applies to the horseless carriage, the computer, pizza, bubble gum, the airplane. Second, our libertarian critic comes up with this gem: "And what about, um, intersections?" I love that "um." Any discerning economist would. The implication is that no long thin things, like roads, which necessarily overlap, could be privatized. But what about railroads? At least in this country, we have private entities in that industry. How, ever, do they solve the horrendous challenge of the, um, intersection? There really is no difficulty. In libertarian property rights theory, based on the concept of homesteading as outlined by Locke, Rothbard and Hoppe, one railroad or highway, would privatize, say, 500 miles in a north—south direction (the earliest roads in our nation were created by private turnpike companies). When a second owner wanted to build an east—west thoroughfare, he would have to purchase the rights (or else tunnel under or bridge over) from the owner. The initial company would have every incentive to deal reasonably with the second, since a crossroad would enhance the value of his own installation.
But Mr. Kinsley is having none of this. The only "solution" he sees to this "problem" of intersections, and, also "stoplights," is "a giant monopoly that would build, own, and maintain all the roads, and charge an annual fee to people who wanted to use them," which in his view would be equivalent to "government." But there is no reason for one private company to own all the nation's roads, any more than there is for railroads, autos, steel, oil or computers. And, even if there were, that is, one big firm owned an entire industry, it would still not be governmental. If Wal-Mart took over all the groceries, or McDonald's all the fast-food emporiums, they would still be private entities. There is an old joke: "Do you know the difference between a bathroom and a living room?" If the reply is "no," the rejoinder is, "Well, then, don't come to my home." In like manner I say to Mr. Kinsley, if you don't know the difference between a large private enterprise, and a government enterprise, then don't get into political economy, for this is the single most basic distinction to be made in that entire field.
For the libertarian case in favor of private highways and streets, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Also, google the following libertarian scholars: David Beito, Dan Klein, Gabriel Roth, John Semmens all of whom have done important work in this crucial field.
Let us accord Mr. Kinsley the opportunity to speak out, without interruption, on this issue (a privilege rarely accorded to libertarians in the mass media, nor to Ron Paul):
"Something similar goes on when the government forbids or requires people to do something for their own good. Why shouldn't people, at least adult people, have the right to decide for themselves? Libertarian thinking has been useful, for example, in making it easier to get prescription drugs through the maze at the FDA. The Terry Shiavo case of 2005 was libertarianism's greatest moment so far, as the entire nation rose up in defense of her right to die."
Let us pause for a moment. Much as I hate to reject accolades from eminent journalists, the correct libertarian position on Terry Schiavo was to support her life (Block, Walter. Forthcoming. "Terri Schiavo: A Libertarian Analysis," Journal of Libertarian Studies) not her death. (I wonder if Mr. Kinsley's unconcern with the life of this unfortunate woman has anything to do with his unconcern for highway fatalities.) Her husband was ruled to be her guardian. Well and good, as long as he kept "guarding" her life. But when he wished to do away with her, something akin to child abuse given that she was in a helpless vegetative state, this guardianship should have passed on to someone, her parents for example, who wanted to protect her, as a good guardian should.
To return to Mr. Kinsley's attack on libertarians for being insufficiently paternalistic, to adults that is:
"The trouble here is that libertarians tend to analogize everything to a right to die. If you have the right to end your own life, you must have the right to do anything else you wish, short of that. If you're allowed to shoot yourself through the head, why aren't you allowed to drive without a seat belt?
"The answer is that it's a bad analogy. When you drive without a seat belt, you are not motivated by a desire to die, or even a desire to take a small risk of dying. Why should your motive matter? Because your death — especially your death in a car crash — does impose externalities on others. I would pay good money not to have to see your bloody carcass lying beside the highway, or endure the traffic jam, or pay the emergency room costs. A serious right like the right to die may be worth the cost, while a right to be careless or irresponsible is not."
No, it is not a matter of costs or benefits. It is solely a matter of rights, something with which Mr. Kinsley seems unfamiliar. If the private road owner is concerned with "a bloody carcass" negatively impacting his other customers, he can insist on seatbelts, if he thinks that the best means to this end (studies have shown, however, that the more safe the motorist feels, the more chances he will take). In some jurisdictions in Canada bicyclists are compelled to wear helmets. This bit of nannyism is "justified" on the ground that if a bicycle user gets hurt, he will constitute an external diseconomy, others will have to pay his medical bills due to that nation's socialized medical system. The proper answer to the charge of "imposing externalities" on others is privatization, however. Without socialized medicine, injured bikers will have to pay their own medical bills. Similarly, with private highways, all such externalities get internalized. At this rate helmets and seatbelts will soon be compulsory for walkers, joggers, maybe even for people who are sleeping. After all, if you fall out of bed, you can hurt your head, and "impose" costs on other people.
VI. Milk socialism
Mr. Kinsley now launches into an attack on Dr. Paul for his views on pasteurized milk:
"Libertarians are quick to see hidden costs of ignoring libertarian principles and slow to see such costs in adhering to them. For example, Tucker Carlson reports in the Dec. 31 New Republic that Ron Paul wants to end the federal ban on unpasteurized milk. No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does. Paul himself doesn't. But it bothers him that the government tells people they cannot do something they shouldn't do. Libertarians would say that if most people want pasteurized milk, the market will supply it. Firms will emerge to certify that milk has been pasteurized. These firms will compete, keeping them honest.
"So yes, a Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism could replace a straightforward government regulation. But what if you aren't interested in turning your grocery shopping into an ideological adventure? All that is lost by letting the government take care of it is the right of a few idiots to be idiots. That right deserves respect. But not much."
"Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism?" To borrow a leaf from Rudy Giuliani in his criticism of Ron Paul regarding blowback and 9/11, "I have heard many attacks on capitalism in my day, but I have never once heard it characterized as a ‘Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism.' I ask the distinguished journalist from The Washington Post to take back his ill-considered remark and apologize for it." Dear Mr. Kinsley: the Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism is capitalism. Everything else is, yes, wait for it, hold on a minute, socialism. A French economist is reputed to have looked down from the Eifel tower at people scurrying around down on the streets, as small as ants from his vantage point, and wondering how Paris got fed. They were running around down there without any central direction at all. It is the function of economics, a discipline about which you seem unfamiliar, to explain all this. Hint: it has to do with supply and demand, competition, entrepreneurship, and, most important, economic freedom. (I am not now engaging in an ad hominem criticism of Mr. Kinsley for not being credentialed in the dismal science. Dr. Ron Paul, a physician who has delivered some 4,000 babies — of all races and ethnicities I would add — also has no credentials in economics. But he full well understands the fallacy of sneers like the "Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism.")
Another phrase soon to enter the libertarian lexicon I predict is “straightforward government regulation.” I love it. I wish I had invented it myself, but I am not as blessed with words as is the gifted Mr. Kinsley. The West German version of our Food and Drug Administration, which must be beloved by Mr. Kinsley, is a marvelous example of “straightforward government regulation.” They approved, yes, approved, of Thalidomide, committing a type I error. Then, in the aftermath, governmental licensing bureaus in many countries, including the FDA in the U.S., hardly approved of anything in a timely manner, committing type II errors on a massive scale. Nowadays, it takes years, and zillions (yes, the technical term is indeed zillions) of dollars for a new drug to negotiate its way through, pardon the expression, this FDA “Rube Goldberg contraption” of, no, not capitalism, but rather socialism. This failure, too, has reduced consumer protection, not increased it.
Mr. Kinsley is on record as stating "Why are medications for fatal diseases sometimes held off the market in case they aren't safe? (Compared to death?)" Why, indeed? It is because of the nanny FDA, that will not even allow dying people the crapshoot of a medicine not approved by them. I have a great idea. A libertarian one. Therefore, a kooky one. Yes, here is another "classic libertarian fantasy" coming up. It is called, hold onto your socks, competition. Yes, another "Rube Goldberg contraption." How would this work? Instead of a monopoly FDA, there would be a whole host of private certifiers of food and drugs. Groups like Consumers Reports, Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval, Standard and Poor, Moody's, private testing laboratories, perhaps even rabbis with their "kosher" criteria would enter into this business. Of course, private courts would have to interpret their advice strictly on this basis: no one would be allowed to sue if errors occurred, as they undoubtedly do in all of human endeavor. The only difference is that groups that make great errors, such as the FDA with Thalidomide, would go bankrupt (the Army Corp of Engineers and FEMA would have the same fate).
Here is Mr. Kinsley on egalitarianism:
"A similar flaw affects libertarian thinking about government-mandated redistribution. Extreme libertarians believe this is immoral or even unconstitutional, and even more moderate libertarians disapprove of government social welfare programs as an infringement on the freedom of taxpayers. But freedom is only one of the two core values our nation was built on. The other is equality. Defining equality, libertarians tend to take a narrow view, believing that it means only political equality with no financial aspects. Defining freedom, by contrast, they take a broad view, and see a violation in every nickel a citizen must spend."
Say what? Yes, historically, freedom is one of our national core values (well, apart from slavery) and the other is indeed equality. However, "equality" is not a synonym for "egalitarianism." Equality means equality before the law. When a rich man and a poor man are at loggerheads in court, the judge is to ignore their relative wealth. But it does not mean that the government shall take money from the rich and give it to the poor. There is entirely another word for that: "theft." Just because a majority can be convinced of the righteousness of this sort of stealing does not render it acceptable. Hitler, after all, came to power through a democratic process. QED.
Mr. Kinsley continues: "Libertarians ask: By what justification does the government concern itself with inequality — financial or otherwise — in the first place? They are nearly alone in asking this question. Even conservatives claim a great concern for equality of opportunity, while opposing opportunity of result. And the reasons seem obvious: some degree of material equality as a necessary basis for political equality; the huge role of luck in getting each of us to our relative stations in life; etc."
Let us forget about equal rights for the moment. Concentrate, instead, on income and wealth inequality. How can this best be reduced, given that this is the goal (it is not a libertarian goal, but that is another matter)? There are two ways to achieve this end: through the market place (yes, the aforementioned "Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism"), or through governmental coercion (a redundancy). At first blush it would appear that the latter is the better bet. After all, "straightforward government regulation" is much more, well, "straightforward." All we need do is decree that certain amounts of money will be taken, from Peter and given to Paul (not Ron Paul.) What could be more "straightforward?" But, maybe, the rich, who usually wield more power than the poor, will, instead, seize wealth from the poor and middle class, and give it, instead, to their well-deserving selves? Anyone ever hear of Halliburton? Bechtel? President Lyndon Baines Johnson died a rich man, even though his governmental salary could never have garnered for him such wealth.
No, a far more reliable way to attain this goal is through laissez faire capitalism. How, you may ask, does this work? Simple. The market consists of nothing more than the concatenation of all trades and commercial interaction: buying, selling, renting, lending, employment, barter. Each and every time anything like this occurs there are mutual gains, at least in the ex ante sense. Both trading partners necessarily gain in this manner, otherwise, why would they voluntarily enter into the transaction? In other words, the market does not constitute a fixed or shrinking pie. Bill Gates became wealthy through his efforts, but in doing so, he enriched all of those who purchased goods or services from him. That is, in gaining income, he improved the economic situation of everyone he dealt with. He gained wealth, but so did everyone else. In sharp contrast, when a dictator seizes money (usually for his Swiss bank account) he enriches himself, to be sure, but he impoverishes everyone else. These theoretical considerations are empirically illustrated by Gwartney, James, Robert Lawson with Dexter Samida in 2000 Annual Report: Economic Freedom of the World (Vancouver, B.C.: The Fraser Institute, p. 17) who positively correlate the economic freedom that prevails in a country with a more egalitarian income distribution.
Mr. Kinsley ends on a positive note:
"But nothing like this is obvious to libertarians. They force us to think it all through from scratch. Good for them."
I say, in return, "Good for Mr. Kinsley." In spite of my many and serious reservations about his views, I think I speak for the entire libertarian community when I say that we are grateful for his mention of our philosophy in such great detail in the pages of the august Washington Post. It is to be hoped that, having touched his toe in the libertarian waters, in not one essay but two, he will in the future endeavor to learn more about this philosophy, so that his subsequent criticisms, if he still has any, will be more accurate.
January 14, 2008
Copyright © 2008 LewRockwell.com