Book Review: The Libertarian Mind

The full title of this book is The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom, written by David Boaz, Executive Vice President at the Cato Institute. This is actually the second edition of Libertarianism: A Primer, published in the late 90s by Boaz.

So why did I read an introductory book on libertarianism? Well, it had been a while since I’d really looked at a libertarian book, especially critically. As discussed in What is Postlibertarianism? v2.0, I’ve strayed a bit from a libertarian absolutist, and that post in an attempt to carve out a space independent from both the Right and Left, but also perhaps libertarianism itself. It seemed this might be a good time to revisit some of the basics to see if I had forgotten what had made libertarianism so appealing in the first place. David Boaz’s introduction to the political philosophy seems to be a good way to do that.

Intro and Libertarian History

The book is a solid introduction to libertarianism. Boaz discusses important libertarian talking points like the fact that the two-party political system in the US doesn’t necessarily hold all the answers. He also does a fair job tracing the history of liberalism in political philosophy, culminating in modern libertarian thinkers. That’s one of the better chapters of the book, and similarly, perhaps the most useful segment is Boaz’s recommended reading list on various libertarian topics, located in the final pages. There are literally hundreds of libertarian readings and authors mentioned, and I plan on adding a few to my future reading list.

I have never been as familiar with the pedigree of American conservatives and American progressives, and I would be curious to see what their similar reading lists or genealogy would look like.  Libertarianism included routes through Locke, Mill, Mises, Friedman, Nozick and many more. It was clearest here that while I may not agree entirely with the label of “libertarian” today, there is a broader liberal tradition, wide and powerful in scope, and it is squarely within that tradition that I find myself. 

Obviously then, I had broad strokes of agreement with this book in many areas, but I wanted to point out a few areas that I thought did a good job of applying libertarian critiques or approaches.

Positives

Boaz talks a lot about rights and rights-based approaches, which I’m not quite as excited about as I used to be (see Rules and Heuristics). Nonetheless, he makes a strong case for the consequentialist benefits of property rights: they reduce the amount of issues that must be political. Application of property rights settles disputes, allowing individuals to make choices about who they interact with and how. Alternatively, if the state is dictating policy, e.g. education policy, all education is determined by politics. Political losses then have greater effect on individual lives, since it’s often harder to opt-out of state policies you dislike.

Relatedly, the chapter on pluralism and tolerance was excellent. Also well stated was the chapter on the rule of law. This is a nebulous concept, and I think Boaz does a good job discussing the many aspects, including constitutional law, the importance of judicial activism (would have been surprising to me 8 years ago) to protect individuals from government, general warrants, regulatory loopholes for specific companies, and overcriminalization. Each of these are fairly disparate parts of law, but they are all important breaches of a uniform rule of law, and contribute to delegitimatize the state and democracy. 

The chapter on public choice theory resonated, and I especially liked the terminology of a “package deal” to refer to political candidates, and how that could be so limiting. And as you would expect from a libertarian, the discussion of free markets, price theory, opportunity costs, and free trade were pretty straightforward. One highlight included the importance of entrepreneurial profits and the value of entrepreneurs seeing value missing in the economy, taking risks, and profiting by fulfilling needs. Another was the argument that the “balance of trade” wasn’t a useful measure since it doesn’t acknowledge that by definition, goods are traded by individuals. Individuals benefit from trade because they wouldn’t take part in it otherwise. Trade balances don’t take into account international supply chains routed all over the world, simplifying imports to two countries, when value added can come from dozens.

Negatives

Now for things that didn’t quite work. The book acknowledges the fact that several of the founding fathers were slave owners. Nonetheless, since the book doesn’t spend much time on anything, it only lends a couple pages to the issue of slavery. That isn’t going to convince anyone from the social justice movement.  This is a recurring issue. Many times I did object to a point the book brought up, but there’s no time for any in-depth discussion, so most of the time I remained unconvinced.

For example, in the rule of law chapter, Boaz attacks the concept of unaccountable bureaucracy, demonstrating how bureaucratic rules can be authoritarian with no accountability. Nonetheless, elitist independent agencies could make more sense than democratic Congressional loudmouths; the alternative to bureaucracy isn’t necessarily that the government doesn’t perform that job, but that it is left to unrestrained democratic pressures. 

The book also spends some time arguing not just that welfare is expensive, but that it’s actively harmful. I’m not sure how much I agree, but welfare for the poor never seems like it should be the first priority of spending cuts; the top federal budget items are Medicare, Social Security, and Defense spending. I actually thought the discussion of mutual aid societies was intriguing although I’m not sure how well they’d work now. It was one of the better answers I’d heard of for the critique that bad things will happen if we get rid of the welfare state. Another related point: the book doesn’t state what a “good” tax level would be, just that we have high taxes now. It’s not wrong, but I found it a bit of a cop-out.

Finally, the book isn’t too concerned about inequality, like you’d expect. However, the claim was that innovative markets would constantly challenge and undermine those at the top, with new products and markets catapulting new successful entrepreneurs at the expense of the old. Again, this could be true, but there wasn’t enough time to really dig into it; certainly the Forbes top 400 richest people in the world would constantly change as markets shift over time, but would the richest 1% really be in much danger? Is it ok if they are not? Libertarians would probably also argue that market innovation and technological progress are more important than inequality (a poor person in 2018 has much more material wealth than a rich person in 1968), but are there political risks to allowing for large inequality? The book doesn’t have time to answer these critiques.

For my takeaways: the book did a bit better than I expected on pointing out that I still generally agree with the bulk of classical liberalism/libertarianism, and my critiques are more like policy tweaks than philosophical deal-breakers. However, it’s only an introductory book, and due to my knowledge in these areas, specific issues I have with libertarian orthodoxy weren’t well addressed, nor was they really meant to be.  I will definitely be looking at the extensive “For Further Reading” list for some libertarian writings on specific topics I’m concerned about. I would also state that this is a pretty good introductory book if you want 350+ pages from a representative libertarian. If you have already studied a lot of libertarian thought, I doubt you’ll find too much new here.

 


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Against Hillary: Fiscal Policy and Taxation

This is the fourth post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Taxation

I won’t spend a huge amount of time on this section because there’s another fundamental ideological argument here, but I want to emphasize a few key points. One is that government taxation and spending is inherently distortionary in an economic sense. Therefore, we should be biased against government policies that transfer money unless we can definitively show the benefits are significantly larger than the costs. Relatedly, the tax code should be as simple and as non-distortionary as possible. Gary Johnson has a pretty good idea here on replacing the income tax with a similarly progressive consumption tax. Similar tax holes would likely be carved out over time, but throwing out the current system in favor of one that does not discourage income earning, but only spending, would have some clear benefits. This idea is popular among libertarians, progressives, and even Bill Gates. It is not a perfect plan, especially when taking into account transition costs, but the current tax code does not have much going for it: it’s complex and creates bad incentives everywhere. Needless to say, Donald Trump’s fiscal policy may not raise taxes, but excessive government borrowing can have big costs as well, and at some point in the future distortionary taxes will need to pay for all of Trump’s out of control spending ideas.

Spending

The second point is that if we assume luck is an inherent part of wealth, then using government as a form of social insurance is pretty reasonable, even from a libertarian standpoint. But most government spending is not focused on giving money to the poor. A huge chunk is spent on the elderly in the form of social security and medicare, even though many are solidly middle class. Taxes for the programs are also fairly regressive. Other major spending categories are overseas military operations, defense spending generally, veterans spending (which we will see more of if Hillary is elected), and interest on the national debt. Together these make up a lot more than 60% of the federal budget. And that’s not even going into the costs of the war on drugs, corporate subsidies, and so on, which are a bit harder to calculate, but are nonetheless real costs which are not remotely focused on helping the poor. The problem is that Hillary isn’t really talking about reforming these areas. If anything, she’s talked about expanding them and introducing new spending areas. Again, this isn’t even mentioning the unknown costs of her future foreign policy blunders.

Free college tuition is really the most egregious. We already live in a world where college graduates are forced to take jobs that they are overqualified for. The reason is partially because government already offers huge subsidies for college tuition; as a result, colleges have little price competition. They just increase the prices, and the state just keeps paying it. Increasing the amount of subsidies in order to fix a high price doesn’t work for tulips (seriously, read it), and it doesn’t work for college. Spending lots of money to educate someone on a subject that is not in demand, whether it’s a B.A. in psychology or skills in coding fortran, is very expensive to society. That cost should be born out by the person learning the skill with no market, not by society. Incentives would then push people to either learn skills that are in demand (so they can pay back the cost of education), or to forego college and begin earning immediately without huge upfront costs. Both of these would be better for society at large. Yes, we should help those with little wealth with government support, but those receiving help should ultimately decide what to do with additional funds that will best help them. The government should not interfere with the relative opportunity cost faced by prospective applicants to college. Reducing, not increasing college subsidies is the only way to control the rising cost of college and fix the overqualification and saturation of college degrees in the job marketplace.

Finally, paying for this with higher taxes on the wealthy is a bit wishful. Firstly, the arithmetic doesn’t quite add up; the New York Times estimates higher taxes would raise only $100 billion to $200 billion depending on how broad and steep the tax increases are. This isn’t enough to cover current annual payments on the national debt. It would likely cover public college tuition today, before additional cost growth and the large influx of students that free tuition would bring. There wouldn’t be much room for a new war in Syria or an expansion of social security. Secondly, federal tax revenues have basically never exceeded 20% of GDP. It’s not that higher taxes wouldn’t raise revenue; they just wouldn’t beyond a certain level. A Clinton presidency would not be as fiscally irresponsible as a Trump presidency, but it is a bit worrisome considering the returns of this spending seem to be to get middle class votes more than to help the poor.


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Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0