The Libertarian Fallacy

Ron Paul seems to be picking up steam as a populist candidate - the candidate who speaks for the people. Part of his popularity stems from the fact that he is was always against the Iraq war, which appeals to the left, and his heavily libertarian positions, which appeal to the right. Republicans, by contrast, tend to be conservative, not libertarian, when it comes to individual rights (like drugs, media censorship, wiretapping, etc etc etc). Paul was also against the Patriot Act from day one - along with pretty much anything that would increase the power of government.

And that's the problem. He has one simple rule for every single problem: less government. Unfortunately, reality doesn't follow simple rules. The market, far from being a magical benign force that solves all of society's ills, has proven again and again to bring out the worst in many people. There are too many examples to go into here, but one good resource that indicts the market and the negative effects that it has had on our lives is Is The American Dream Killing You?, by Paul Stiles (it's on my reading list on the right of this page, which I haven't updated in a quite a while).

The general motto for Libertarians is something like this: "Can we really trust the government with [insert issue here]?" Of course, the question they don't ask is "Can we really trust corporations with [same issue]?" At least government agencies have to answer to voters, to some degree.

FEMA was put under the magnifying glass after their shockingly inept performance in New Orleans. Why do we expect that a private agency would do better? The people of New Orleans were not exactly profitable victims. What's in it for the private sector? For all its faults, FEMA's mission is "to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters..." The mission of any private agency would be profit. The fact that the competent and experienced FEMA workers were replaced with political cronies doesn't reflect as badly on FEMA as it does the corrupt administration that ruined it.

Privatization may fix many problems in this country, but it's not a panacea - not by a long shot. Ron Paul's approach may be able to undo much of the damage Bush has done to this country (particularly in the realm of civil liberties), but there's also a real possibility that he'll make things much, much worse. I hope his presence will force certain issues to the forefront that more mainstream politicians would prefer to ignore.



Bret Moore said...

Government has shown - for nigh on 2000 years now, unless you wanna go Chinese-scale, so maybe 5000 - that is it consistently BAD, at doing anything. This is sort of the guns don't kill people, people do argument. Government is a tool, and it's been consistently abused, by kings, the church, and political parties.

Ergo, what other rational conclusion can there be? Tight restrictions on its ability to act - and tight restrictions on the ability of anyone to affect the level playing field that is the free market, outside of being an entrepreneur. There's no "libertarian fallacy" because there is no alternative. Government cannot plan its way out of a wet cardboard box - cf Katrina, for a great example, obviously take your pick of any war and its aftermath.

Ron Paul 2008. Reinstate the Constitution, and END wars (all of them).

YodaYid said...

Hey Bret - thanks for your comments. I don't accept your argument that governments are bad at doing anything. For example, it was government programs, not private enterprise, that got America out of the Great Depression, and more importantly, vice versa. America was economically libertarian from the late nineteenth century until FDR was elected, and it wasn't pretty.

In addition, the idea that the free market is a level playing field is simply absurd. Do you really think that a poor kid in Harlem has the same prospects as a wealthy kid in Greenwich? Leaving aside race, they don't have the same access to education or job resources, not to mention food and health care. Liberty generally comes at a cost to equality, and vice versa. It is a truism that the rich get richer in a pure market economy.

Private entities like corporations will only plan action for what will turn a profit. If something will lose a company money, a company won't do it. Period. At most, they will do a token gesture to spread goodwill (i.e. marketing and branding).

Finally, it's important to distinguish between government programs and laws. Assuming that government "cannot plan its way out of a wet cardboard box", a claim I'm skeptical of, laws and regulations are still necessary to protect the citizenry from private projects. The market will absolutely not clean up our air, stop child labor, or prevent companies from selling us pills that will kill us. Why should it?

Anonymous said...

"He has one simple rule for every single problem: less government"

Well, is that less rational than everyone else's simple rule for every single problem, which is more government?

I just gave the $2,300 maximum to Paul today and it felt AWESOME. I'm 34 and have never given to a political campaign. It is a lot of money for me. I did not vote in 2004.


Omar said...

I feel the problem is that the choice has become between government and private enterprise. As when it comes to private enterprise, we've all succumbed too much to market forces and looked out for ourselves over anything.

The best example I can think of to demonstrate my point is retirement money. We've all been scared into saving for old age so much, that we believe the extra few thousand dollars we may have lying around is best spent investing in a retirement fund resulting in the money going into corporations to make profits.

However, from a societal standpoint maybe that isn't the best use of the money. Perhaps the money is better spent on scholarships or programs to train the unemployed for new jobs. However, since the private money went to corporations we either have to wait for them to see those as profitable ventures or ask government to tax them so they can get the money to use for these programs.

That's why I put some money away for retirement for peace of mind, but the majority of free time and money I have, I would rather use to invest in the betterment of my community now rather now my life years from now.

Who knows, if enough of us think like this, perhaps we can finally shift the burden off of government and they can reduce taxes. In the end, it's a win-win.

YodaYid said...

@anon: I think it's great that Ron Paul has gotten you more involved with the political process. The status quo, especially when it comes to campaign financing, is woefully broken. So I definitely commend you. I don't agree with you, but I commend you ;-)

@Omar: That's why civil society and what the rest of the world calls NGO's are so important. There definitely is this false dichotomy between government and for-profit corporations, neither of which are particularly trustworthy. As I mentioned in my post, at least we have representation in government, such as it is. But private non-profits can often be the best (or worst) of both worlds.

I'm not sure I get your retirement example, though. At some point, a person is just too old to work. So investing at a relatively early age to prepare for that stage seems like a pretty good idea. Social Security is one such investment, a 401K plan is another. Putting money into your community is wonderful, but it only makes sense financially if the community will then take care of you when you're older (unless you plan never to retire). I.e. there has to be some sort of long term incentive here in order for this approach to become widespread. I have a feeling I'm missing something, though...

Sorry I've been lax in replying - I'm bit under the weather :-P