In January, the funny but irreverent Bill Maher argued that the NFL is an example of the success of socialism, because “they literally share the wealth, through salary caps and revenue sharing – TV is their biggest source of revenue, and they put all of it in a big commie pot and split it 32 ways.” He called it an example of the Democratic philosophy that everyone deserves an equal opportunity, and said this is why the tiny town of Green Bay has just as good of a chance as a metropolis to produce a Super Bowl winner, unlike, say, baseball with its Yankee dominance.
A quick recap for those out of the loop… The transition from monarchy to democracy across the globe in recent centuries had largely been ignored by Africa and the Middle East. Then suddenly in 2011, a bunch of citizens got fed up and started rioting, and it spread across several countries. Maybe it was food prices; maybe it was Twitter. But rulers started getting overthrown and it was officially dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Some of the rulers weren’t too excited about abdicating their thrones, and started mercilessly slaughtering protesters in an attempt to quell the rebellions.
Especially in Libya. Except the rebels became more organized and started fighting back. Dictator Gaddafi brought out military aircraft. Talk about escalation! Everybody from the U.N. and the Arab League started talking about creating a no-fly zone to protect the rebels. Finally, they did. Of course the United States, with a military budget nearly as big as the rest of the world combined (depending on who’s counting), helped out – firing over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles and stuff like that.
One of the kinda cool things about the United States is states’ rights, or what’s left of them. The federal government controls a bunch of stuff, but all 50 states have branches of government that do lots of stuff and set lots of rules, and people like to compare different states to try to learn about the pros and cons of various policies – although due to the complexity of it all, and the inherent geographical differences between a lot of states, it usually just ends up in confirmation bias.
Such was Salon’s accusation of a recent “Koch-funded study” that ranked states based on their level of freedom. They claim that these sorts of libertarian-esque studies tend to deliberately pick factors that will put the red states at the top and the blue states at the bottom. The producers of the study want you to think that the freer states are much better places to live. But Andrew Leonard, the author of the Salon piece, asks a very valid question: if super-liberal states like California, New York, and New Jersey are such horrible places to live, why are they among the country’s highest populations? “Sixty-five million Americans in just three states cower under a totalitarian shadow!” he jests. If these freedom-less societies are really so bad, why don’t they all move?
The raging Arizona wildfire, which was recently determined to be the largest in state history, makes an excellent case study for postlibertarian thought. Now here are externalities if I ever saw them: hundreds of thousands of acres across multiple states being burned, communities being disrupted or temporarily displaced… and just think about the opportunity cost of all the firefighters working on this thing! And all because of some irresponsible campers (at least that seems to be the running plausible theory, and we’ll go with it for the sake of thought experiment).
Clearly it is in society’s interest to prevent such things from happening. The general libertarian free-market approach is pretty simple… find who caused it and make their consequences very large. It may not change what already happened, but it will give everyone else the incentive to not let something like that happen again, right?
But what if that’s the fallacy of Assumed Information Flow? What if we never figure out who caused it? Or what if we figure out and lay hefty penalties but the next round of irresponsible campers doesn’t even know that all of that happened?
The statist response to preventing forest fires would probably involve something like requiring explicit permits to have campground fires, limiting all fires to within 25 feet of any tree over 6 feet tall, and setting up an agency with funds to initiate regular campground inspections to ensure that everyone is following the rules.
But like many other regulations, the cost to freedom might be very high. What if it incentivizes people to avoid campgrounds altogether? What if the arbitrary numbers in the rules aren’t optimal? What if the inspections aren’t actually carried out regularly, accurately, and bribe-free? (Oh, wait, I forget, that never happens with any existing regulation enforcements…)
Proponents of freedom believe that it comes with a price – the risk of some bad things happening – but they generally believe that it’s worth that cost because trying really hard to eliminate some kinds of risk just isn’t worth the cost and the negative consequences, and it’s not often not effective even if it was worth it.
Of course, that response is not going to give much comfort to anyone whose home was destroyed by the wildfire. And it’s not going to refill whatever coffers are currently being drained by the firefighting battles. The statist response above is a bit of a straw man, of course – I haven’t seen anyone honestly calling for such things to prevent forest fires, but maybe there is something that can reasonably done to enhance the flow of information about irresponsible campers and encourage them to take more responsibility without damaging freedom in an unacceptable way.
Ultimately, it’s true what Smokey the Bear has always said. Only you can prevent forest fires. If we tried to make the state responsible, I don’t think it would work. Postlibertarianism is not about trying to make the state responsible; it’s about being open to incentivizing responsibility out of other people who don’t want to be responsible. I don’t know how easy or hard that would be, but I’m open to smart personal-responsibility-encouraging regulation over “no-regulation-forever-and-ever.” The question is whether such “smart regulation” actually exists and has any more chance of being accomplished in the world than regular state-responsibility regulation…
Libertarians are interesting people. I first discovered them when I stumbled onto Ron Paul in the presidential preliminaries of summer 2007. As I was growing up and growing disillusioned with the Republican establishment, I was a ripe vessel for the libertarian ideology of less government and vast personal freedom. After all, they argued, that’s what true conservatives used to be like, anyway. I spent hours and hours in a Facebook group forum, watching – and sometimes participating in – grand conflicts of the mind. There was no problem in the world that was not caused by an overreaching government, and no problem that could not be solved by the beauty of the free market. And if anyone dared to accuse libertarian dogma of causing problems in the real world, there was always an explanation that it wasn’t really libertarianism at play – there was a meddling governor or lobbyist or bureaucrat somewhere causing it to only pretend to be a free market and soiling its reputation. I learned about the heroes, from Smith and Hayek to Rand and von Mises; I learned all the lingo and jargon, from the wonders of Austrian economic theory to those dreaded RINOs and neocons.
I also learned that libertarians are often jeered and accused of living in an old-fashioned fantasy. It “sounds good in theory,” but it “just doesn’t work in the real world.” But the logic of libertarian ideas was always so convincing, and the accusers never seemed to explain why it just didn’t work. If they couldn’t disprove the logic, than maybe there was just something imperfect in the execution, some way that it wasn’t true libertarianism, but the actual philosophy was still true. Some would make vague accusations that libertarianism promotes a greed that consolidates wealth and ruins the poor, but that wasn’t very good either. The logic of libertarians said that greed helps things by forcing sellers to meet the desires of buyers, and so forth. So those were only vague attacks on the vice itself, doing nothing to defeat the logic of how that vice improves things instead of destroying them.
And yet…. things didn’t always add up. I saw real evidence of real greed destroying things in the real world. I saw laws and regulations being enacted because horrible things were happening without them. I was still skeptical of the ability of governments to be smart enough, competent enough, or pure enough to make them better, but I was no longer convinced that pure libertarianism held the path to a perfect world, either. I learned more about economics and took a class on game theory, and I am finally at a point where I can identify four logically based reasons why pure libertarianism fails.
That’s why I call myself post-libertarian. I am still grounded in a general aversion to the power of government and an appreciation for the power of the market, but I am not dogmatic about it. I am willing to admit when these ideas fail, but I don’t have to vaguely blame such failures on poor execution or on greed. I am also willing to admit that the world is a complicated place and I don’t understand everything, and I try to understand the point of view of someone who disagrees with me so I can better understand the truth. In fact, all of this is really simply a pursuit of truth.
So what’s wrong with pure libertarians?
1. Libertarians tend to underestimate externalities. An externality is a fancy economic word for an activity that affects someone who had nothing to do with the activity itself. The sort-of classic example is pollution. Big company dumps pollutants into river; little fisherman downstream can’t fish anymore. You might think that a libertarian would use the oversimplified “regulations-are-bad” dogma and say that this is perfectly OK, and this turns a lot of people off to libertarianism. Now a lot of libertarians will actually pay lip service to the existence of obvious negative externalities like pollution (you can also craft an argument on this particular case based on property rights), and they may say it’s perfectly acceptable to regulate activity that negatively affects others, because at its core, libertarian philosophy is “do whatever you want if it doesn’t hurt someone else“.
But these kinds of externalities are everywhere (especially in a world so complex that the debt of a tiny European country has an affect on the price of filling up my tank), and libertarians often don’t think about them in their haste to criticize an over-regulating big government. I think that a lot of times when statists attack libertarians because they see the outcomes of some particular policy as being terribly unfair, it’s an unfairness that actually comes from a negative externality that a libertarian might not have thought about.
2. Libertarians tend to overestimate the perfect flow of information in the market. One of the extremely important assumptions in the functioning of the free market is the flow of information. If someone is extra greedy and charges too much for a product, then someone even greedier will come along and charge less for that product because he can get all the customers. If someone is greedy and sells an inferior product, everyone will find out and stop buying the product. This logic is sound, and it happens all the time in the real world, but only when enough people figure out what’s happening. A libertarian may claim that there’s no need to regulate the food industry because if some producers produce bad food, people will find out and stop buying from them, so producers have an incentive to produce good food. And yet, even in a nation that may have too much food regulation, we frequently hear about bad food reaching the grocery stores. This means that the built-in incentives and the regulation failed. Why? Because the information that the product was inferior did not flow properly to the regulators or the consumers until people started getting sick or worse. (I am not suggesting what should be done to improve food safety, but simply that we must keep the flow of information in mind when we discuss what should be done one way or the other about this and many other issues.)
3. Libertarians tend to underestimate the importance of the rule of law and participation thereof. The rule of law is another important assumption in the philosophy of “do whatever you want if it doesn’t hurt someone else.” In the aforementioned case of two greedy businessmen lowering their prices to attract customers, such a scenario only plays out if both businessmen follow the rule of law, or, if it makes more sense, the “rules of the game.” If one businessmen spreads lies about the other’s product or burns down the other’s store so he doesn’t have to match the prices, then the consumer stops winning. That’s why society creates basic laws about slander, theft, murder, and so on – the rules of the game, the rule of law.
Now here the pure libertarian will object that any businessman who goes about burning down competitors’ buildings will not be in business very long himself, and thus he has an incentive to abide by such behavior whether they exist as rules or not. But now he has committed fallacy #2 – an overestimation of the flow of information. If nobody knows who burned the other building down, than nobody has a reason to dislike the first businessman, and the law enforcement has no reason to enforce the law. Dishonesty is not incompatible with free markets if the dishonesty is found out – and the sooner, the better – but deception that covers up dishonesty prevents the market from working. When greed plays by the rules the market works, but if there is no religious/moral/ethical compulsion to play by the rules, and if it is possible to prevent discovery that the rules are being broken, then greed will break the rules every time. This is the supreme cause of all the fraud and corruption that statists think about when they accuse libertarian greed of being destructive. The statist assumes that the greed will never be discovered quickly enough to prevent the damage, and the libertarian assumes that it always will. (The truth is probably in the middle, so instead of denouncing or praising greed as bad or good, we should think about ways to either encourage the compulsion to play by the rules and not hurt others, or increase the flow of information so that the people-hurting rule-breakers will be more quickly discovered. My belief in Christianity relates to the former, although I realize that may not be the most popular “solution”…)
4. Libertarians tend to completely ignore game theory. My father explained the prisoner’s dilemma to me as a curious novelty years ago, but it was only when relearning about it in a college Game Theory philosophy class that I realized I had solid logical proof of a failure of the core principle of libertarian philosophy. The philosophy of freedom, from Adam Smith down on through Ron Paul, said that if everyone pursued their own interests, everyone would be better off. The buyer gets a product he wants, the seller receives money she wants, and so on. The logic worked. Greed was good. But the prisoner’s dilemma was an undeniable scenario where two players each pursue their own best interest and each end up worse off. Now most everyday economic interactions aren’t prisoner’s dilemmas, of course, but we discussed various real-world scenarios that are prisoner’s dilemmas, and every one feels like a strike against libertarian thought. I had never heard of this in libertarian forums! Never accused and never defended!
I believe prisoner’s dilemmas are relatively rare in the real world, but anywhere such a scenario exists, we must concede that the me-first philosophy will fail and think about ways to change the incentives to encourage the players to cooperate, even if that (gasp) means regulation or some other intervention. Related game theory concepts, from the free rider problem to the game of chicken, also have interesting implications for libertarian thought, sometimes for and sometimes against. The important takeaway here is simply not to assume that a “me-first” philosophy will always lead to optimal outcomes for all involved parties, even if it usually does. I recommend a Game Theory class, or at least a book, for anyone interested in economics and politics.
And this is what I call postlibertarianism. I was actually surprised to see that there do not seem to be such things as postlibertarians on the Internet (except for one definition I found that was really just regular libertarianism presented more softly than usual), so I am defining it here and making myself known. A postlibertarian accepts the basic premises of libertarianism, but also tries to understand how and why it sometimes doesn’t seem to work, and tries to use that wisdom not to denounce it, but to make it work better. (e.g. When are problems caused by a lack of information, and how can we make that information flow better?)
My economic and political philosophies have changed more in the last four years than in all of my first eighteen, and they may change even more in the next four. I don’t have all the answers, and I’m willing to admit it. This is meant to be a launching pad, not a stone screed. But I believe in the power of markets to create positive outcomes and I believe that there are also frequently overlooked limitations, as I have outlined here. I don’t know how pure libertarians will react to such thoughts, and I don’t know if regular conservatives or liberals will like it very much, either. (If you feel I’ve mischaracterized you, please let me know.) That’s the problem with trying to be so reasonable and conciliatory. But such is the pursuit of truth. Whether you join me, question me, or accuse me, you are helping the pursuit. Thanks for reading.