Tag: libertarianism

‘Anti-Government’ Libertarians

Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, “[Rand] Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government.”

I can’t speak for Rand Paul, but for the libertarians I know, this is just wrong. Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.

As I wrote in these columns last month (and in 1998):

A government is a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights, and provide for certain common needs. It derives its authority, at some level and in some way, from the consent of the governed… What we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions… Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government — limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

What does “anti-government” mean? We’re hearing about “anti-government” protests in Greece. But as George Will says, “Athens’ ‘anti-government mobs’ have been composed mostly of government employees going berserk about threats to their entitlements.” The anti-government protesters in Bangkok appear to be opposed to the current prime minister, protesting to bring back the former prime minister. And then there are the “anarchists” who protest government budget cuts. But none of those have anything to do with American libertarians.

Michael Gerson should withdraw his false charge and debate the role of government honestly with libertarians who believe in limited government and oppose the vast expansions of government that he provided the arguments for.

Objectivist-Libertarian Summer Conference

I’ll be speaking at Free Minds 2010, along with Nathaniel Branden, Anne Heller, David Kelley, Tibor Machan, Henry and Erika Holzer, Nigel Ashford, and two dozen more scholars and practitioners of Ayn Rand’s ideas and other libertarian thinkers. The conference will be held in Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington and Reagan National Airport, June 30 to July 8. If that’s too long, you can register for either the pre-July 4 or the post-July 4 half of the seminar. Either way, you can spend July 4 wandering the city the Founders established and wondering what they would think.

Check it out.

Topics:

Krugman and Oil Spills, cont’d

Last week Paul Krugman seized on the Gulf oil spill as another occasion to bash libertarians in general and the great Milton Friedman in particular. On Friday David skewered the Times columnist over his odd rhetorical ploy of treating politicians’ failure to follow Friedman’s principles as a refutation of those principles. Now economist Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reports that Krugman also completely misunderstands the current set of laws governing oil spill liability:

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which is the law that caps liability for economic damages at $75 million, does not override state law or common law remedies in tort (click on the link and search for common law or see here). Thus, Milton Friedman’s preferred remedy for corporate negligence, tort law, continues to operate and there is no doubt that BP’s potential liability under common law alone would be in the billions of dollars.

…The point of the OPA was not to limit tort law but to supplement it.

Tort law, as traditionally understood, could only be used to recover damages to people and property rather than force firms to pay cleanup costs per se. Thus, in the OPA as I read it – and take the details with a grain of salt since I’m not a lawyer–there is no limit on cleanup costs. Moreover, the OPA makes the offender strictly liable for cleanup costs which means that if these costs are proven the offender must pay them regardless (there are a few defenses, such as an act of war, but they are unlikely to apply). The offender is also strictly liable for up to $75 million in economic damages above and beyond cleanup costs. Thus the $75 million is simply a cap on the strictly liable damages, the damages that if proven BP has to pay regardless. But there is no limit, even under the OPA, on economic damages in the event that BP failed to follow regulations or is otherwise shown to be negligent (same as under common law).

The link Krugman supplies, and perhaps the source of his error, was this Talking Points Memo item baldly describing “the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill” as “a paltry $75 million.” Even the most passing acquaintance with the aftermath of real-world oil spills should have been enough for Krugman and TPM author Zachary Roth to realize that liability for assessments to this one federal rainy-day fund is but one component, perhaps but a minor one, of liability for overall spill damage. And even as regards this one specialized federal fund, Krugman and Roth got it wrong, as a glance at the May 1 edition of Krugman’s own paper would have revealed:

When a rich and well-insured company like BP is responsible for the spill, the government will seek reimbursement of what it spends on cleanup from the company and its insurers.

So Krugman’s post not only strained to take a cheap shot at libertarians, but also thoroughly botched a factual background that it would have been easy enough for him to have looked up. Other that that, it was fine.

Krugman and Libertarianism and Political Power

Paul Krugman has a post today titled “Why Libertarianism Doesn’t Work, Part N.” Maybe parts A-M were compelling, but it seems like there’s a big flaw in his logic today. Here’s the entire item:

Thinking about BP and the Gulf: in this old interview, Milton Friedman says that there’s no need for product safety regulation, because corporations know that if they do harm they’ll be sued.

Interviewer: So tort law takes care of a lot of this ..

Friedman: Absolutely, absolutely.

Meanwhile, in the real world:

In the wake of last month’s catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski blocked a bill that would have raised the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. The Republican lawmaker said the bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would have unfairly hurt smaller oil companies by raising the costs of oil production. The legislation is “not where we need to be right now” she said.

And don’t say that we just need better politicians. If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

Well, he’s got a point. Politicians do interfere in the tort system — by placing caps on liability, by stripping defendants of traditional legal defenses, and in other ways. As my colleague Aaron Powell notes, the problem here is that politicians have power that libertarians wouldn’t grant them. And:

Second, and more troubling for Krugman, is his admission that all politicians are corruptible. If that’s true (and it almost certainly is), then what does it say about Krugman’s constant calls for granting those same corruptible folks more power over our lives? Surely if Murkowski is corrupt enough to protect BP from tort damages, she’s corrupt enough to rig safety regulations in BP’s favor.

The libertarian system of markets and property rights is impeded when politicians interfere in it. But Krugman’s ideal system is that politicians should decide all questions — monetary policy, health care policy, product safety, environmental tradeoffs, you name it. Whose system is more likely to produce corrupt politicians, and more likely to fail because of them?

Are Libertarians Anti-Government?

The term “anti-government” is getting tossed around a lot these days, and used rather indiscriminately to describe libertarians, libertarian-ish Tea Partiers, hate groups, and violent individuals (not to mention opponents of specific leaders and regimes in countries around the world). That’s a pretty wide spectrum, and journalists and politicians ought to be more careful with their language. In the meantime, I’m republishing here a Cato Policy Report editorial that I published in 1998:

————–

For the past several years, especially since the Oklahoma City bombing, the national media have focused a lot of attention on “anti-government” extremists. Libertarians, who are critical of a great deal that government does, have unfortunately but perhaps understandably been tossed into the “anti-government” camp by many journalists.

There are two problems with this identification. The first and most obvious is that many of the so-called anti-government groups are racist or violent or both, and being identified with them verges on libel.

The second and ultimately more important problem is that libertarians are not, in any serious sense, “anti-government.” It’s understandable that journalists might refer to people who often criticize both incumbent officeholders and government programs as “anti-government,” but the term is misleading.

A government is a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights, and provide for certain common needs. It derives its authority, at some level and in some way, from the consent of the governed.

Libertarians want people to be able to live peacefully together in civil society. Cooperation is better than coercion. Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors—a government, in short. Thus, to criticize a wide range of the activities undertaken by federal and state governments—from Social Security to drug prohibition to out-of-control taxation—is not to be “anti-government.” It is simply to insist that what we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions.

But if libertarians are not “anti-government,” then how do we describe the kind of government that libertarians support? One formulation found in the media is that “libertarians support weak government.” That has a certain appeal. But consider a prominent case of “weak government.” Numerous reports have told us recently about the weakness of the Russian government. Not only does it have trouble raising taxes and paying its still numerous employees, it has trouble deterring or punishing criminals. It is in fact too weak to carry out its legitimate functions. The Russian government is a failure on two counts: it is massive, clumsy, overextended, and virtually unconstrained in scope, yet too weak to perform its essential job. (Residents of many American cities may find that description a bit too close for comfort.)

Not “weak government,” then. How about “small government”? Lots of people, including many libertarians, like that phrase to describe libertarian views. And it has a certain plausibility. We rail against “big government,” so we must prefer small government, or “less government.” Of course, we wouldn’t want a government too small to deter military threats or apprehend criminals. And Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., offers us this comparison: “a dictatorship in which the government provides no social security, health, welfare or pension programs of any kind” and “levies relatively low taxes that go almost entirely toward the support of large military and secret police forces that regularly kill or jail people for their political or religious views” or “a democracy with open elections and full freedom of speech and religion [which] levies higher taxes than the dictatorship to support an extensive welfare state.”

“The first country might technically have a ‘smaller government,’” Dionne writes, “but it undoubtedly is not a free society. The second country would have a ‘bigger government,’ but it is indeed a free society.”

Now there are several problems with this comparison, not least Dionne’s apparent view that high taxes don’t limit the freedom of those forced to pay them. But our concern here is the term “smaller government.” Measured as a percentage of GDP or by the number of employees, the second government may well be larger than the first. Measured by its power and control over individuals and society, however, the first government is doubtless larger. Thus, as long as the term is properly understood, it’s reasonable for libertarians to endorse “smaller government.” But Dionne’s criticism should remind us that the term may not be well understood.

So if we’re not anti-government, and not really for weak or small government, how should we describe the libertarian position? To answer that question, we need to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Libertarians generally support a government formed by the consent of the governed and designed to achieve certain limited purposes. Both the form of government and the limits on its powers should be specified in a constitution, and the challenge in any society is to keep government constrained and limited so that individuals can prosper and solve problems in a free and civil society.

Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government—limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

What’s a Libertarian?

In a new episode of Stossel,  Cato’s David Boaz and Jeffrey Miron join a panel of experts to discuss where libertarians stand on a host of major issues facing the nation today.  They tackle libertarian views on war, abortion, the welfare state, gay rights and more.

Watch the videos below for a full re-cap.

The first video covers the so-called culture wars, including gay marriage, abortion and immigration:

More videos after the jump.

In the second video they discuss the role of government in providing aid to the poor:

In the third video, the panelists discuss libertarian views of war. Should the United States leave Afghanistan and Iraq? What should we do about Iran? Watch:

If you’re hungry for more, the segment is a great supplement to David Boaz’s timeless book, Libertarianism: A Primer and Jeffrey Miron’s forthcoming book Libertarianism: From A to Z.

Up from Slavery, Continued

Jacob “Bumper” Hornberger has posted a gracious response to my article “Up from Slavery, ” which among other things criticized his essay “Liberal Delusions about Freedom.” It’s a pleasure to engage in intelligent and civil debate with another committed libertarian.

Hornberger says that he should have mentioned the “tragic exception” of slavery in writing about American freedom in the 19th century, and he links to many articles where he did so. I am glad to know that the article I criticized was an exception. Still, I’m not sure that parenthetical asides, as in this first linked article, quite suffice:

With exceptions (slavery being the worst), during the first 150 years of America’s history, people were free to live their lives in any way they chose as long as their actions did not entail violence or fraud against others.

Slavery was not just an exception. It was the foundation of the Southern economy. Slaves made up 19 percent of the population at the beginning of the 19th century – about 50 percent of the Southern population – and there were four million Americans held in chains in 1860. And of course, one might also note the exclusion of women not just from voting but from property ownership in the early 19th century. So that means that only about 40 percent of “people” were free to live their lives as they chose in the pre-Civil War era.

Hornberger goes on to posit a more plausible golden age, 1880:

Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.

As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.

Good points. But Will Wilkinson responds:

Nope. Sorry.

How about the female half of the population? By 1880 coverture laws, which basically denied married women any meaningful property rights, were still in place in many states. (Coverture laws persisted in some states until the 1920s.) And there were plenty of further paternalistic regulations on the sort of work women were allowed to undertake. Of course, women in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.

Slavery was gone in 1880, but systematic state-enforced racial apartheid was going strong. The economic and political rights of blacks were severely curtailed under the various antebellum state Black Codes and then under the Jim Crow laws. What formal rights Southern blacks did have were often denied in fact by extralegal enforcement of racist norms by lynch mobs and other campaigns of terror.

By 1880, most of the the U.S.’s imperialist efforts to secure North American territory against the claims of competing European imperial powers were complete. But the government’s campaign of murder, theft, and segregation against native populations continued.

One could go on and on in this vein in gruesome detail. But this is enough to establish the point: 1880’s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If that’s golden, I’d hate to see bronze.

I’d make one more point in response to Hornberger. He writes:

Boaz raises another point that needs addressing: He attempts to diminish the significance of what our American forebears achieved.

I certainly did not attempt to do that, and I don’t think that’s a plausible reading of my article. I am a great admirer of the Founders, as I write on many occasions. When I talk about the progress we’ve made in expanding freedom for blacks, women, gays, and other once-excluded groups of people, I often say that we have “extended the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – to more and more people.” I love and respect those promises, I appreciate the extent to which the Founders made good on them immediately, and I am glad that they have indeed been extended.

I share Hornberger’s commitment to a world with no income tax, no alphabet soup agencies, no central banking, no drug laws, and so on. I’m just not sure that the world of 1880 – much less the world of 1850 – is actually more free, on balance, for Americans as a whole, than today’s world. But that’s a reasonable argument, and I am happy to engage Hornberger and others in it.

Of course, the world is full of unreasonable arguments, too. In case anyone’s been reading some of them in the Reason comments or elsewhere on the Web, let me make just a few comments: I did not “attack” or “malign” Jacob Hornberger; I criticized an article he wrote. In fact, I took pains to call him one of the “libertarians who hate slavery” in distinction to some self-styled libertarians who sound like neo-Confederates. I did not say that “we have to accept” the Civil War, anti-discrimination laws, the income tax, or anything else as the price of abolishing slavery; I just said that we shouldn’t overlook the crime of slavery when we write paeans to 19th-century freedom, and that on the whole we may very well be freer today than in antebellum America. I did not say that “it was necessary to reduce everyone’s freedom drastically before we can morally allow anyone to have more freedom than another.” Here’s a tip: If you’re shocked by what someone says my article said, please read the article.

OK, that’s all for this topic. I have a D.C. power-elite meeting to go to, and then a Georgetown cocktail party.