• Statism and Lazy Thinking

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    It is a common
    failing of many advocates of statism, frequently noted by libertarians,
    that they cannot see past the immediate and obvious results of a
    measure to less immediately obvious consequences. The great majority
    of those who supported alcohol prohibition probably never thought
    about the results of black markets, just as most modern supporters
    of drug prohibition are oblivious to the effects of pushing narcotics
    into the criminal sector. They think, "Great, we'll discourage
    the use of these harmful substances," without thinking through
    the unintended effects – gang violence, organized crime, tainted
    products that kill their users. These results are not hard to foresee,
    but most people don't think past step one.

    Likewise, most
    people who thought the modern welfare state was a good idea surely
    didn't anticipate the social breakdown and dependency created by
    the Great Society. They simply thought, "Great, poor people
    will have more money that they need" and thought no further
    than that. Again, the destructive effects were not unforeseeable,
    but for those who never thought past the first step it must have
    come as a rude shock.

    This is not
    new; libertarians have been commenting on this intellectual failing
    at least as far back as Frdric Bastiat. Less commented on by libertarians,
    but in my opinion equally important, is the way in which many statists
    fail to think past the first step when considering the results of
    libertarian proposals. They assume that even with a major change
    in government policy, everything else will remain static, with disastrous
    results.

    Consider the
    example mentioned previously, drug laws. In my experience, many
    prohibitionists, ignorant of the way that prohibition has affected
    the drug market, are horrified by the idea of legalization because
    they assume a situation that is otherwise completely static –
    laws will change, but society will otherwise stay the same. Drug
    users will still buy the same tainted products from the same violent,
    unsavory characters.

    Now, an examination
    of another formerly illegal and potentially toxic product, alcohol,
    makes the problems with this obvious. I don't buy pints of Guinness
    on street corners from members of the Crips. The bottle of whiskey
    I received for Christmas was not distilled in a filthy bathtub and
    flavored with antifreeze. Shootouts between employees of Jim Beam
    and Johnnie Walker are fairly rare nowadays.

    Why? Because
    dealers in legal products can have their contracts enforced without
    shooting at each other, they can be sued if they poison customers
    with tainted products, and they don't attract a disproportionate
    number of violent and dangerous people to their industries. There's
    nothing magical about narcotics that would make them different,
    but many people assume that a legal drug industry would have all
    the social pathologies of an illegal one, because they fail to think
    past the obvious.

    Education is
    another good example. A depressingly common response to a proposal
    to get the government out of education is to point out that there
    is nowhere near enough capacity in the private school system, as
    if no entrepreneur would think to try to fill this gap and satisfy
    the demand. A slightly more sophisticated criticism is that private
    schools are costly, or often don't accept students with poor grades
    or behavioral records, or are usually affiliated with religious
    groups that many parents are not members of.

    Once again,
    the lazy assumption that society and the economy would remain static
    in the face of a fairly major change in government appears. If one
    thinks things through, and considers the example of other areas
    of the economy, it becomes obvious that a free market in education
    would quickly result in entrepreneurs offering schools with a broad
    array of different disciplinary environments, student bodies, religious/philosophical
    orientations, and price levels, just as any other area of the economy
    offers a wide array of products if allowed to.

    This failure
    to think past what seems like the obvious effects of a proposed
    policy is endemic to many areas of politics. The typical responses
    to many libertarian ideas, from cutting welfare ("The poor
    will starve to death in the streets!") to ending occupational
    licensure ("No one will know who's a competent doctor!")
    are in large part manifestations of this mental laziness. The assumption
    of a static society naturally encourages statism. If voluntary society
    currently isn't doing something (for instance, certifying the safety
    of products or businesses) because the government has crowded out
    such efforts, anyone who doesn't bother to think past the immediate
    and obvious will of course be horrified by the prospect of removing
    the government from that area of society; in his mind, doing so
    leaves us with nothing at all! Recognizing the ability of a free
    society to carry out functions currently filled by government requires
    an investment of mental effort that many people don't bother with.

    Thus, while
    a great deal of statism arises from collectivist or elitist philosophical
    premises, a great deal is also the product of sheer sloth. This
    is a depressing thought, in a way, but it is also a heartening one.
    Convincing someone who is a committed philosophical collectivist
    to value liberty is terribly difficult; guiding someone who hasn't
    given the issues enough thought through a few extra mental steps
    to see the power of free societies is child's play by comparison.
    That doesn't mean it's easy, but it's possible.

    December
    30, 2006

    John
    Markley [send him mail]
    is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
    blog at The Superfluous
    Man
    .

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