Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Libertarian Loonies: Liberty vs. License

[Gentle readers—In my last update, I posted an essay about how I was planning to vote as it pertained to specific candidates. This got many responses; peace and blessings be upon all of you who answered my pleas for input. I have tried to reply to each person who left a comment. My sister Carolyn, who happens to be a brilliant intellectual property lawyer with an avid interest in politics, posted the longest comment and asked the most challenging questions. As I started to reply to her, it quickly morphed into a completely new blog post. It was not what I wanted or intended, but it’s what happened. So here is my quickly-written, lightly-edited, highly imperfect “open letter” essay about Libertarianism. It is long and doesn’t even try to be funny. If you’re not fascinated by politics, you should skip it. --GHB]


Yours was definitely the most directly argumentative so far. Which gives me more material to work with. Yay!

I avoided detailing lots of Libertarian positions because I was trying to keep it short. I have these episodes in which I attempt to be more disciplined in my writing. Don’t worry; it will likely be of short duration.

You’ll note that I said that Libertarians are awesome on some issues and totally insane on others.

(The best description of Libertarians I've ever heard came from the candidate for governor of North Carolina in, I think, 2004. He started off a radio interview by saying (I paraphrase) "Libertarians are people who sit around arguing about whether a private citizen should be allowed to own an aircraft carrier.")

Yes, I am aware of the Libertarian stances on abortion and marriage. I can live with their compromise on abortion: make it legal, but don’t have the government subsidize it in any way. I don’t like legalized abortion, but it’s already among us and unlikely to depart. Plus I understand the legal arguments in its favor. I listened to the oral arguments in Roe v. Wade (yes, I know there were two) and I understand why the Supreme Court ruled as it did. Again, I don’t like it, but I understand it.  

I quote from my original post:
“The differences between principled compromise (which is necessary)…”

In our history, there have been times when people of strong moral convictions compromised, as on slavery. Northern abolitionists didn’t like it, either, but occasionally decided that it was more important to reach some kind of settled standard.

When I wrote the above line, I was thinking of the 3/5ths compromise, or the two Missouri Compromises. Northern abolitionists who found slavery repugnant were unhappy about them, but many concluded it was better to preserve the union imperfectly than to engage in scorched earth tactics. Given our current understanding of the evils of slavery, maybe that was the wrong call. Maybe the U.S. should have started out as two different countries, or split earlier. But I count those compromises as principled because the participants were honest, saying “I really don’t like it, but I think it’s the best we can do.”

“…and unyielding stubbornness (which is generally not helpful)…”

Here I was thinking of President Bush (II). I spent a lot of his 2000 campaign saying “He’s slightly crazy and probably stupid. But I’m impressed that he has stood firm in his beliefs. He has pandered remarkably little.” A year or two later I was tearing my hair and saying “Does this man even understand the IDEA of compromise? This is ridiculous! 9/11 has gone to his head and he thinks he can shove ANYTHING through Congress and not make even small, reasonable concessions. Aaaaagh!” I spent the next six years in that vein, growing increasingly disgusted with him. Grrr. I STILL don’t like W.

“…and being tossed about by every wind of political opinion (which is morally empty and also destructive to everyone involved)—”

I was thinking of Mitt. I admit it. Other politicians in recent times have been accused of flipping. John Kerry comes to mind. But I don’t remember his pendulum swinging with anything near the number of issues and depth thereof as Mitt has shown in the last two cycles.

It feels like Mitt shifts so frequently and so fast and so far, I’d still distrust him even if he weren’t Mormon.  His religion just makes me even more disappointed in him than otherwise.

“—those are topics for a different blog post.”

You see now why I said that. Here I am not even half done answering you, and it appears likely this will turn into its own post rather than just a long comment. Sigh.

Regarding their marriage position—that really is a topic for another blog post. For one thing, in a real blog post, I can italicize and bold and not sound like I’m screaming at people. [Editorial note: as this point in my response, I was only using all-caps for emphasis, since I was still writing in the comments section, in the vain hope I could keep it short. Yes, snort and snicker away. It’s likely the only laugh you’ll get in this entire post.] Let’s just say that since I know they don’t have a prayer of getting elected, I am willing to punt that point for the present. This reasoning does not apply to Mr. Obama. The “likelihood” consideration is part of my overall strategic decision with each election cycle. If the Libertarian Party ever got to a point where they were consistently earning around 30% of the vote, I might very well jump ship. Kind of like a venture capitalist who realizes her latest company is now running itself smoothly so she sells it and starts anew.

I think you are slightly overstating the libertarian position when you say they believe there should be “NO GOVERNMENT.” Most libertarians I’ve researched acknowledge the need for a military. They don’t want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they think it is reasonable to impose low taxes to support national defense on a federal level. Some moderate Libertarians support roads and highways. A few of them even support public schools.

(Mostly random aside—Steven R. Brust is an idealistic socialist, harmless mostly because he writes fantasy novels. I paraphrase something he once asked: “Why do they say ‘socialized medicine’ but not ‘socialized national defense’ or ‘socialized roads’ or ‘socialized schools’? If we pool our resources for the latter, what’s so horrible about working together on the former?” I’m still thinking about that one, mostly because our interstate highway system is excellent, our military is, overall, well-equipped, well-trained, and effective, and our schools are mixed—some good, some horrible. I’d hate to try the national experiment of a single-payer health system and have it turn out like our educational  initiatives did.)

Cheryl wrote an interesting essay in high school about how the ideal government would be anarchy—provided the people were all saints. Basically (as I recall) she said that if every single person were honest and self-disciplined, we would not need government intervention. Granted, she wrote it more as a contrarian “devil’s advocate” kind of experiment, but it was still fun. (Cheryl, feel free to clarify or correct me here.)

I think Libertarians take too generous a view of human nature. Their stance on a complete lack of regulation drives me nuts, because they seem to think that if a butcher sells tainted meat, he’ll naturally go out of business. People will stop buying from him. Problem solved. Well, yes--after dozens of people get sick and die. If he’s a small supplier, he won’t be able to cover all the victims’ medial costs, no matter how much he’s sued. And in an increasingly interconnected food supply, a mega farm might ship meat to thousands of stores all across America. Without regulation, it would be very difficult to track the outbreak, trace contaminated units, issue warnings, and so forth. 

Libertarians seem to think that a few such cases and all the bad actors would shape up from fear. I’m incredibly skeptical; telestial people tend to convince themselves that short-term gain is worth high risks. “I won’t get caught,” they think, and then proceed to behave in sociopathic ways. The death penalty hasn’t proven much of a deterrent against murder, either. Completely unregulated capitalism had some horrible effects during the industrial revolution and Victorian eras. Maybe we should wait and try it again during the Millennium.

And don't even get me started about Ayn Rand's businessmen, who seem to pay their workers well for no obvious reason, even though they generally hate altruism. In fact, you should probably not mention Ayn Rand around me at all unless you want Yet Another blog post, or an hour-long argument.

I said in another comment that if the majority of people want something wicked, there are no good options. Leaders can either give it to them, which is bad, or deny their agency, which is probably worse. This is one of the reasons I can make the “no funding for abortions” compromise. If people are completely determined to do something destructive, they probably will. At least this way they can do it without my tax dollars enabling them.

Using this reasoning, I am also okay with legalizing marijuana. Again, not happy about it, but I can’t imagine that legalizing marijuana could possibly be worse than ending prohibition was. And I’m not convinced that marijuana is any more medically destructive or impairing than alcohol. Our current policy has resulted in crazy criminal gangs, and is obviously not working well. Time to try something else. Obviously the best solution would be for people to abstain, voluntarily, from any destructive drug. Since that’s not going to happen—until, probably, the Millennium—the next best option is probably to sigh and regulate it, and then tax it to high heaven.

I feel the same way about censorship. Voluntary abstention is best. Parental control over minors is necessary. Government censorship is bad.

Of the three options you listed, it seems that I am mostly lining up with #2. And you agreed that, in such a case, Gary Johnson is the best choice for me.

Three pages. Yup, that was sure a short chronological duration for my self-imposed verbal brevity. It also answers an earlier question: this has definitely morphed into a new post.


Carolyn said...

Thank you for your response. But I would point out that even President Obama doesn't "fund" abortions -- doing so is illegal under the Hyde Amendment. :-)

Gail said...

Curse you, Perry the Platypus! Now I must research the Hyde Amendment. Will you never allow me to escape and go to bed? YOU get to escape all the time!

Gregory said...

Watch for the marble in the unfunded mandate shell game. Government says to business, thou shalt pay for health care which may include abortions. Business thinks this stinks but, as it is required, calculates it as a cost of doing business which the consumer pays as part of the purchase price. We are the consumer in aggregate so effectively the government has forced the populace to pay for the mandate. Obama's name may not be on the check but his fingerprints are all over it.

Krenn said...

Gail: Regarding the tainted meat scenario. There are several possible solutions to that which are acceptable to libertarians. The ideological stance is generally that the GOVERNMENT should not be solely responsible for the solution.

For example, you could structure it so that virtually all butchers were franchises of a few brand-name stores, and the stores had clear incentives to police their own meat lockers, or risk the entire corporation being sued out of business.

Or you could set it up so that every business was privately insured against liability; but as a condition of low insurance rates, the insurance company paid a private meat inspector to check up on you once a year.

You could even structure a method where a privately owned meat inspection business recieved bounties based on successfully finding and prosecuting butchers for neglicence and public endangerment. Bounties might be paid by health insurance companies, competing butcher shops, or even as government awards for successfully prosecuting criminals.

The point isn't that butcher shops shouldn't be inspected: it's that the Governments involvment, and thus monopoly and sovereign immunity, should be as small as possible. In theory, the Government's only role in this would be presiding over lawsuits, creating laws for criminal neglicence and manslaughter which covered failing to exercise due care over meat products, and maybe sponsoring a industry convention once a year to discuss what the current legal definition of 'due care' in the meat industry business should be.

I'm not quite crazy enough to vote for liberterians in a close election, but a lot of their ideas have a certain elegance to them. I'd certainly approve of a political system where the successful 'moderate' was somewhere between a center-right republican and a libertarian.

Gail said...

Greg--That is an excellent point. I can't think of anything to add. I feel almost bewildered about that, but that's my problem. Thanks for your comment.