Tag: libertarianism

The Insane Drug War

“Thousands of police and soldiers swarmed into slums in Jamaica’s capital Tuesday in search of an alleged drug kingpin wanted by the United States, trading gunfire with masked supporters of the fugitive,” the Washington Post reports. “At least 30 people, mostly civilians, have been reported killed since the battle erupted Sunday.” Later reports put the number of deaths at 44. And for what?

[Christopher] Coke, who allegedly assumed leadership of the “Shadow Posse” from his father, was accused in a U.S. indictment in August of heading an international trafficking ring that sells marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere.

So he’s accused of selling pot and coke to willing buyers. I’m sure he and his colleagues have engaged in violence along the way, but that’s an inevitable part of illegal businesses. And to capture a drug dealer, we’ve spent nine months pressuring a friendly government, and “thousands of police and soldiers” have been dispatched, with 44 deaths and counting. This policy is insane.

And it seems to confirm the point of this Newsweek column by Conor Friedersdorf, which I read a few hours earlier:

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

Friedersdorf goes on to declare that Rand Paul’s views on the gold standard and his doubts about the Civil Rights Act are “wacky.” (Without refighting the civil rights argument, I’ll note that some economists would disagree with Friedersdorf about the gold standard.) But, he concludes, “crazy, kooky, extreme actions are perpetrated by establishment centrists far more often than by marginalized libertarians.” Look no further than Jamaica.

A Bum Rap for Limited Government

Every so often an editorial comes along that is so obtuse that you wonder if it came from human hand. I allude, not surprisingly, to the item in this morning’s New York Times, “Limits of Libertarianism,” which arises from the kerfuffle over Rand Paul’s critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for its undermining the private right to freedom of association. 

The editorial’s main target, however, lies beyond the Paul senatorial campaign. It’s the tea party movement and its libertarian, limited government themes. But from the start the Times conflates limited government with anti government. They’re not the same. More broadly, the editorial shows beyond doubt that the Times, ever the friend of “enlightened government,” finds danger lurking mostly in the private sector. (One wonders just how it is that those not-to-be-trusted private actors become so quickly enlightened once they get their hands on monopoly government power.) 

Thus, we’re told that the libertarian theory of private liberty has “roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society.” Really? What history have the scribes at the Times been reading? Their next line, presumably supporting that claim, only compounds the mystery: “The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.” Is that what slavery was, private discrimination, to be corrected by government?

Apparently, because following immediately is the editorialists’ main point: “It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression.”

Where to begin. Skip the Depression point; it’s been so often refuted that one does so again only with embarrassment for its authors. The first claim, however, warrants more than passing attention. Contending that only government power saved us from slavery and Jim Crow, it ignores the role of private power – the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement – that brought about that government power. More important, it invites us to believe that government had little or nothing to do with slavery and Jim Crow in the first place when in truth we would have had neither without government’s creation of those legal institutions, with legal sanctions that kept them in place. Indeed, it is limited government, government limited to securing our rights, that is the surest guarantee against those twin evils.

‘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.


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.