Thursday, March 29, 2007

Libertarianism in a Nutshell

Andrew Sullivan "fisks" David Brooks today. And in the course of so doing, he writes:
But bigger government always means less personal liberty. This is simply a fact, not an opinion. The trade-off is always there. It may be worth it in some instances - which is why I'm not a libertarian. But it is simply true that every dollar taken by the government is one dollar less for you and me to spend on what we decide is best; every freedom removed or infringed by the government is one less for you and me to enjoy. You can defend the trade-off, and should at times, but please don't pretend it isn't there.
Now of course Sullivan says he isn't a libertarian, because he thinks that the trade-off is sometimes worth it. This is based on a fundamentally false premise, however, because libertarians also 'think the trade-off is sometimes worth it'. Those who don't think the (supposed) "trade-off" is worth it -- that is, who think both that "bigger government always means less personal liberty" and that one should always decide on the side of smaller government/more personal liberty -- aren't libertarians at all: they're anarchists. This is the logical outcome: any given choice is between government and liberty; always choose liberty; no government is the obvious result.

Of course, libertarians like to posture as people who always make the trade-off between government and liberty in favor of liberty. But it's a fundamentally dishonest posture: it's one that allows them to debate the question on their (imaginary) grounds, 'should we choose government or freedom', while avoiding the difficult question that everyone who is not an anarchist actually faces: what precisely should government do and not do? This is one of the (many) reasons why I don't agree with libertarian views; it is a rhetorical posture that hides the true issues. Thus, for example, for a generation Republicans have campaigned against taxes in a broad and general way. But only anarchists think there should be no taxes (since governments, like any other institution, require funding); but "what should we have government for, and how should we tax to pay for it?" is less rhetorically powerful.

But beneath this dishonesty -- one that Sullivan buys into, presumably because it is so common in libertarian rhetoric (I am not accusing him of deliberate dishonesty here) -- is another fundamental error: namely, the premise behind the libertarian posture, that "bigger government always means less personal liberty". Sullivan calls this "simply a fact"; but (in fact) it's not: it's a myth, and a pernicious one.

This is easiest to see when looking at the reductio ad absurdum of the claim -- which, as I already said, is anarchy. Anarchy does not produce more personal liberty: it produces (as we see to far too great an extent in the hell that is contemporary Iraq) far less of it. In an anarchy, people don't even have the freedom to walk down the street: because they will far-too-likely be kidnapped or killed. Anarchy produces only the freedoms to shiver in fear in a basement -- or to become a thug and gangster and try to out-kill and out-kidnap your rivals.

But if that's the easy case, the others are fairly easy too. Let's take Sullivan's economic generalization: "it is simply true that every dollar taken by the government is one dollar less for you and me to spend on what we decide is best." This would be true of the number of dollars were a fixed sum; but of course it isn't. It is often the case that the government will take a sum in taxes -- and use it to produce things that create far more economic growth than what was taken. (Roads are an obvious example here.) Thus people actually end up with a lot more money to spend on what they decide is best.

Or take Sullivan's second generalization: "every freedom removed or infringed by the government is one less for you and me to enjoy". This, too, is simply wrong. Here my favorite example (one due to Elizabeth Anderson (specifically here)) is traffic laws. Traffic laws restrict our liberty in specific circumstances in all sorts of ways -- we can't drive when sitting at a red light. But without them, all one gets is gridlock: as Anderson says, a situation in which we have "the formal freedom to choose any movement in one's opportunity set--which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere." Go read her post for a more extended version of the metaphor. The point is that government regulation can increase freedom as well as diminish it.

This isn't true of all government, of course. But that's why the fundamentally silly question of "more or less government" (or "bigger or smaller" government) should be set aside, and we should ask what policies produce the best outcomes: the freest, safest, richest society one can manage. And of course in that calculation there are trade-offs and mistakes. There are even some specific cases where a trade-off can be usefully analyzed as one between bigger government and more liberty (and far more cases which can be shoe-horned into that mold). But the idea that eliminating a government function always increases freedom is just silly.

To produce a just, safe, rich -- and, yes, free -- society, we need to get away from the silly abstract question of "how much government", and start thinking about the ways in which government can create a society which allows for the maximum possible freedom (and justice, safety and wealth -- since I don't think that freedom is the only virtue.) An less clownish version of libertarianism is one that argues that freedom is the only virtue that we should take seriously -- but which recognizes that government is sometimes essential to that freedom, and that lack of freedom can come from sources besides government. This would to my mind produce nightmarish results -- since, again, I don't think freedom is the only virtue worth pursuing; I think that justice and security and wealth have some value too.* But at least that sort of argument doesn't have a silly analysis of cause and effect at its base.

When speaking on specific issues libertarians often make extremely valuable contributions, reminding us of the importance of freedom and liberty as values to take into account. But their analysis of how to get there -- which is all to often 'less government', full stop -- is ridiculous as a general principle (even if, in some specific cases it will be right on the merits: some government programs reduce liberty and should as a consequence be scrapped. But that's as a result of specific, contingent factors and specific choices to be weighed and balanced -- not a general rule).

Sullivan's simple fact is not merely opinion: it's simply wrong. But it's too common a belief -- or at least rhetorical move -- in our political discourse. We need to get rid of it in order to think in a useful way about what sort of society we want, and how best to get there.

Update: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link! And welcome, fellow Daily Dish readers. More in the sidebar if you're interested -- feel free to look around, kick off your shoes, stay awhile.

* Here you get trade-offs -- although any 'more justice/security is less freedom' analysis will be just as simplistic as the 'more government is less freedom' analysis is -- and just as wrong.


Jason said...

Man, right on. Although sometimes I'm ambivalent about whether I should keep reading blogs, posts like this convince me that it's a better way to while away my time than playing Civilization II. In an ideal world, everyone would respond, "Well, duh," to this post, but back here in reality, it's perceptive.

James said...

Agree with Jason. Best thing I've read this week.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points. I would also ask: Freedom to do what? What is it that you feel government is denying you the ability to do? Drugs are generally the first issue which libertarians posit, but beyond that, what are the substantive, life-affirming issues which are being denied? (I use "life-affirming" because freedom to rape, pillage, destroy at will is specious.)

Anonymous said...

Government institutions do not have marketplace pressures to keep them efficient and innovative, so they tend to devolve into entrenched bureaucracies (e.g. most DMVs), or worse, corrupted tools for maintaining political power (see the recent testimony of Lurita Doan of the GSA).

The thing that drives me nuts about statists like yourself, Jason, is that you all believe that you can be trusted to expand government harmlessly, even if nobody else can. The Democratic statists of the 1980s believed that; the Republican statists of today believe that. You're all wrong.

George Bush and his Christianist apparatchiks turned me into a fervent believer in limited government -- because I realized I wanted those people limited. But were I a Christian conservative myself, I would find the blithe willingness of the secular liberal left to impose themselves upon me at least as maddening.

I'm with Andrew Sullivan. The default should be as little government as possible.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Jason and James on this one. I'm tired of the libertarian hijack of 'freedom vs. taxes', and the simplistic thinking it so often disguises.

I do agree with the last commenter, though, who emphasizes that no one can be sure what the outcome of a government policy will be. I'd take strict libertarianism over the current administration any day of the week. Similarly, even though I think progressive taxation is common sense, I would take a no-loophole flat tax over the system we have now.

I moved to Denmark last year, and this country illustrates a lot of what Frug is talking about. Like the 'traffic light' example, the welfare state in many ways greatly increases my freedom to do what I want with my life. I live in an almost crime-free country where my health, retirement and education are all completely taken care of, no questions asked. This gives me immense freedom to go back to school, switch jobs, take time off, have kids, whatever. Now, whether that is worth 50% of my income is arguable. But the services that the government provides its citizens are far more than the kroner-sum of what they take from you and what they give back.

The market cannot provide that kind of security, certainty and, yes, freedom in everyday life. Or at least no market-oriented country has ever pulled off universal healthcare and education (peopler are actually PAID to go to college here) that I know of. I'll take that over 'marketplace pressures' any day.

The Inner Marker said...

There is another aspect to American libertarians that I find amusing. They enjoy criticism that points out the obvious real world implications of their positions. It allows them the illusion that they, unlike the rest of us philistines, can remain true to their principles in spite of what disaster they may cause. Of course, saner heads always prevail and the logical extensions of their creed have yet to occur. So, like so many of the laptop warriors here, they can keep up the posture without any real fear of suffering for it. Which leads me to wonder: just how many libertarians live in Iraq?

goethean said...
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