Explain something to me, libertarians

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

I just know there are some libertarians (small or big L) hanging out here. So answer me a few things I’ve been wondering for a long time.

Despite being a fan of tax-and-spend government policies and income redistribution, I’m also sympathetic to small government (yes, I walk a narrow line).

But I’m not fond of ideologies. I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question. So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology. Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems. I’m willing to accept (or at least debate) libertarian positions on any policy issue. I’m not willing to consider libertarianism as the Correct Ideology.

That’s my basic problem. Here’s my real question: What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?

I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for? Isn’t it cheaper than prison?

[–Peter Moskos]


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135 Responses to “Explain something to me, libertarians”

  1. #1 |  Tom | 

    I often wonder how anyone would or could mistake taking resources from one individual by force and redistributing it to others has anything to do with compassion.

    Tom

  2. #2 |  Marcus | 

    @Highway

    “Marcus, I think an important point to remember is that ‘government’ cannot do anything that ‘people’ cannot do. ”

    True.

    “If government has advantages in accomplishing things, that’s because it has the coercive power to raise funds in great quantity, or to force other individuals to do things they don’t want to, or it can ignore the rules it puts on other people.”

    The advantage comes in the size and scope of the activity. Just as a large widget manufacturer will have lower per unit costs than a equally well managed small manufacturer and Wal-Mart will get product more cheaply than than a corner store.

    “It’s not that government can do things cheaper, unless it is breaking rules that other people have to follow. Given a level playing field, government isn’t going to do anything cheaper.”

    Not true. Government doesn’t need profit.

    Please note, when I say government I mean the idea of government. I understand that in practice, governments are broken to some degree. My contention is that individuals are as well, and of course are the root of what is broken about governments.

  3. #3 |  Marcus | 

    @Highway

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  4. #4 |  Highway | 

    Marcus, government does ‘need’ profit about the same amount that any business does. Same thing with ‘non-profit’ organizations. Profit is just some amount of money that’s used in a way that’s not acceptable as a cost, but that doesn’t mean that money doesn’t get spent. Some companies roll that into employee payments, others roll it into capital improvements, some distribute it to shareholders. Government does all of those things. If we’re talking an ideal government, they’d give the ‘profit’ back to the taxpayers, either as refunds or in lower future tax rates. But just because there’s a leftover item on a business’s spreadsheet that isn’t accounted for by other expenditures doesn’t mean that it’s something only private businesses have.

    As for the projects of giant scope, generally the large size of government is as much of a hindrance as it is an economy. In manufacturing, sure, there tends to be economy of scale. But government tends to not do much in the way of manufacturing. In service, sometimes there is. But not always. And there isn’t the economy of scale when the budget pressures are relaxed, the way they are when you’re talking government budgets, where more money can be dialed up either through debt that doesn’t need to be repaid or increased tax rates or increased printing of cash.

    In short, the economies that are theoretically possible when one moves up to the scale of a country’s government are usually more than offset by the lack of competitive pressures on that same government.

  5. #5 |  EH | 

    The fact is that most of the underclass’ behavior is utterly irrational.

    LOL, just the underclass, though, right?

  6. #6 |  Marcus | 

    Highway, I have to disagree on “Profit is just some amount of money that’s used in a way that’s not acceptable as a cost, …”. That seems almost an IRS definition. To me profit in relation to this discussion is more closely defined as revenue in excess of costs needed to deliver the widgets.

    “Some companies roll that into employee payments, others roll it into capital improvements, some distribute it to shareholders.”

    Profit is not the same as Revenue – Cost of Goods Sold.
    For the most part employee payments and capital improvements are not profits. At least to the extent they are necessary to deliver the widgets. This is where I think government can differ from private sector as they have no need to enrich / create new billionaires.

    On government being a hindrance to the economy, please contrast that to any large entity providing similar services. I would argue that it is only a hindrance IF it is unnecessary. My point is, spending a Billion resource units having the Government perform a function is equivalent to spending that same Billion privately.

    Of course there are unnecessary, IMO, parts of government, but that is not a failing of government the idea, it is a failure of execution. My concern is that the alternatives presented here are good at the idea level, but the execution may fail for the same root cause, people.

    Finally, as someone else stated earlier, we didn’t always have many of the social programs we have today, but the situation on the ground created a need that wasn’t filled privately.

  7. #7 |  2nd of 3 | 

    I think we’re looking at the high water mark of libertarianism right now. Your nightmares of “collectivism” will seem quaint when your grandkids are uploading your old blog comments directly into their brains from the shared group consciousness. Yeah, you think I’m exaggerating. We’ll see.

  8. #8 |  Highway | 

    Marcus, sure the incentives are different on the part of government versus the management of a private company, but they manifest the same sort of way.

    For example, the US government bureaucracy, where there’s only minor competition for your budget and where promotion is less a function of hard work and merit than it is time served, a major effort is made to ’empire building’. So you use all of your budget to acquire ‘things’. And you make sure you spend all that budget because that’s how you get more next time.

    My point is that profits really are just the name of another type of cost. Thinking they are fundamentally different is where one of the major pitfalls of government ‘efficiency’ comes from. Taking your example, where a company might figure out a way to spend less than a billion resource units because they can pocket or distribute the remainder, government has no incentive to increase efficiency. They need to spend that budget to be able to argue for more.

    Also, arguing about the ‘idea’ of government without acknowledging the failure of execution that is nearly a certainty is just as unrealistic as the folks who say that libertarianism is going to lead to libertopia. If people are always going to be in government, then it will always have failings, so why should the failings of people be held against those who want to limit government, but waved away when holding a pro-government position?

  9. #9 |  colson | 

    @26:

    I’ve always understood the “rational actor” in the economic light. To paraphrase the wikipedia entry on Rational Choice Theory,

    “Rational choice theory uses a specific and narrower definition of “rationality” simply to mean that an individual acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes personal advantage”

    However your use of the rational actor tends to meld “rational” with judgement of the actor’s decision without knowing his reasoning. Man as a rational actor is just as is described above – there is no finite moral judgement of the man’s reasoning in the definition used when a libertarian uses the concept of man-as-rational actor. In essence, we know people make subjectively bad decisions – but the decision and reasoning is there own. You’re not telling us anything we don’t already know about human nature. There’s no gaping hole in the philosophy or ideology.

  10. #10 |  Cyto | 

    #92 | colson |

    we know people make subjectively bad decisions – but the decision and reasoning is there own.

    There it is, in a nutshell. Who do you trust to make decisions? Who better than you to decide what is in your best interest? Right or wrong, nobody has better motivation, better information and more pure incentive for making decisions about your life.

    I work in an industry that is regulated (heavily) by the federal government. One regulation we deal with requires obtaining a court order in which the court determines if the contract is in the customer’s best interest. The nanny state taking itself literally.

    One particular judge handled the determination thusly: He asked the appellant to stand up. He asked him ‘Do you believe this is in your best interest?’ The man answered ‘yes’. The judge ruled: ‘The court finds that nobody is better able to determine what is in your best interest, certainly not the court. Order approved.’

    If he’d run, I’d vote for him.

    I’d vote for that guy for

  11. #11 |  JS | 

    #93 Great example Cyto!

  12. #12 |  perlhaqr | 

    I’m someone who hit the edge of libertarianism and fell right off into the Void of Anarchy, and I hire homeless people to do yardwork for me. And I pay more than minimum wage, and they don’t get taxed on it.

    Do you think I’m less likely to do things like that if the government isn’t taxing me to death anymore?

    I’m not a heartless bastard. I don’t like to see people starving and suffering. But I don’t like being mugged, either, even if the mugger in question has an Official Clown Suit on.

  13. #13 |  Marcus | 

    Highway, thanks for your responses, I will go and read some of the items that have been linked here.

  14. #14 |  Cyto | 

    @Highway –

    If people are always going to be in government, then it will always have failings, so why should the failings of people be held against those who want to limit government, but waved away when holding a pro-government position?

    Because by limiting government you de-facto limit the damage that can be done by those people with failings. Less power –> less opportunity to screw things up.

  15. #15 |  parse | 

    I worked my ass off for mine. That’s why it’s mine.

    This suggests you think it’s OK to confiscate wealth from those who inherited it or otherwise acquired it without working (hard) for it. Is that really your position?

  16. #16 |  Random Nuclear Strikes » Sums it up in two words | 

    […] guest bloggers, Peter Moskos, asked for the libertarians who haunt the comments at the Agitator to explain certain positions to him. The community did a pretty good job responding, but one of the other guest bloggers really, IMHO, […]

  17. #17 |  Highway | 

    Cyto, I completely agree. I was addressing Marcus’ assertion that he can argue about the ideal of government in support of government (ignoring the flaws humans introduce), while arguing just the reality of libertarianism including the flaws.

  18. #18 |  tman | 

    wow, this post sure hit a nerve.

  19. #19 |  joel | 

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?”

    The rich and compassionate fallacy…

    Part 1: the rich. We are not rich. Most of the public “assets” we have are actually liabilities. If we had perfect income redistribution for all wealth created by Americans – that would be 45K each person, each year. If we divided up all the existing wealth, that would be a one time pay out of around 170K. Part of the reason government is too big is simply because people think there is this super rich country with tons of wealth around to do whatever we want.

    Part 2: the compassionate. The compassionate thing is not to take from those who have more and give it to those that have less. The thing to do is allow the amount of wealth available in the country to go up. I benefit directly because someone else has a lot of money. That guy had enough money to invest in and build a business. Now we work together on making him richer and I benefit. If it would have just been the two of us with our 170K income redistribution starter cash – we would not have been able to start this business. And neither of us would work hard to build the business and hire more people – because making the company worth billions would only be worth a few extra bucks a year because of “compassionate” redistribution. Instead, the company gives thousands of dollars to charity, and we give valuable things to people that want them.

  20. #20 |  steve | 

    Peter- Read up on the difference between positive liberty and negative liberty. Also, many libertarians, not all, have a very different idea about what life was like in the 1800s. That informs a lot of their thinking.

    Steve

  21. #21 |  Cyto | 

    #98 | parse | May 6th, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I worked my ass off for mine. That’s why it’s mine.

    This suggests you think it’s OK to confiscate wealth from those who inherited it or otherwise acquired it without working (hard) for it. Is that really your position?

    The implied subordinate clause of “that’s why it’s mine” is “and I can do with it as I please”. Included in “as I please” is give it to my heirs or to anyone else I choose. So no, you can’t confiscate my wealth from them either.

  22. #22 |  Chuck | 

    I keep reading that private charity is somehow more efficient than government assistance, as if caring for the needy is an either/or undertaking. What I don’t see are any numbers that show that somehow private charity alone could take care of the needs of the poor, or that it does a “better job” of this somehow. Also, logic leads me to the conclusion that government assistance came about specifically because private charity proved incapable of caring for the needy on its own. So government provides assistance to fill in when private charity fails. Ideology is apparent when one chooses either a private or public solution solely, when a combination of public assistance/private charity continues to be effective, if not perfect.

  23. #23 |  scp | 

    “Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”, Thomas Paine

    No matter how hard you try, you are never going to be able to transform government into society. The more government you have, the less society.

  24. #24 |  moskos | 

    I was reading a book review about George Orwell and came across this quote: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/may/26/intimate-orwell/?page=2

  25. #25 |  Eric | 

    Compassion is using your own money… Not mine.

  26. #26 |  John Hardin | 

    It’s not “compassion” if it’s extracted under duress, at gunpoint.

  27. #27 |  jimbob86 | 

    “You have to pay for some people, and that’s just the way it is.”

    1. No, actually, I don’t. I just won’t make enough money to pay taxes. At such time as the government stops confiscating huge portions of profits, I might get around to making some.

    2.You want to pay for them, go right on ahead, for all the good it will do: You are ignoring a basic tenet of economics, that if you reward a behavior or product, you will get more of it……. maybe that is why we have such a huge underclass……

    This “We have to do something to help these people in society who fail.” ……

    That’s a foolish idea, there: “Let’s subsidize failure, with other people’s money, and when we run out of that, we’ll borrow some more! You see this is unsustainable, don’t you? And you want my children to promise to pay this back? You said “We”….. what, you have a frog in your pocket? There is no “we” who must help these failures. Not me. You, fine. Knock yourself out, just leave me and mine out of it. “We” (me and mine) will not be tilting at windmills with what little we have.

  28. #28 |  DonM | 

    In a libertarian society, If you wish to help the undeserving poor, you will not be stopped.

  29. #29 |  Doc Merlin | 

    No, no, there is no we. There is only I. What will *I* do for the undeserving poor. Ask yourself that question and be enlightened.

    Using someone else to threaten/violently attack people into complying with your policy preferences is immoral. If you wish to change the world, you must be that change yourself.

  30. #30 |  Explaining things, Part 1 – Ideology | Nobody's Business | 

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  31. #31 |  Billy Beck | 

    “What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?”

    That’s none of my fucking business, and that means *I’m* none of *yours*. No matter what your problem is, you have no moral claim on what I produce. If you want to help these people, then you can *ask* for my help, but here’s the bottom-end: when you once threaten me with the force of government in order to assist the project, it’s on. We’re at *war*.

    Now, think it through. Is that what you want?

  32. #32 |  me | 

    “I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?”

    That is why we have the police, and that is why we have concealed weapons permits.

    If you are arguing in favor of paying the Danegeld, history demonstrates that this is never a viable strategy in the long run. Or even the short run.

    In 1960, there were 172 murders and 3988 armed robberies in the city of Detroit. In 1970, after the transfer of uncountably vast sums of the people’s wealth under the auspices of President Johnson’s soi-disant “Great Society” programs, there were 495 murders and 23038 armed robberies in the city of Detroit.

    This would appear to be empirical disproof of your claim, good sir, and support for my counterclaim that the “progressive” ideology is at odds with objective reality because it has its roots in a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

    I shall make further counterclaims: that the welfare state as it exists, as it was conceived by Lyndon Johnson and his party, was created purely and solely as a multi-trillion-dollar bribe to purchase the Negro vote for the Democratic Party. At this it has been tremendously successful; at reducing crime, not so much… but that was never the intent, was it?

    And lastly I shall make the counterclaim that the social contract exists as an agreement for services in return for fee, like any contract–that it exists, in other words, between the taxpayer and the state. Useless eaters are not and never have been party to the social contract. Welfare recipients should, like felons, be stricken from the voter rolls for life–“no representation without taxation.” As such, they will take whatever we choose to give them of our own free will, and they will goddamn well like it. They can always leave if they don’t like things here–if another country can be found that will accept people incapable of supporting themselves and incapable of existing except as burdens on society.

    Your turn, good sir.

  33. #33 |  Lupis42 | 

    Snarky answer: give them your money. When you say “we” and “society” what you mean is “anyone who isn’t willing to pay for this voluntarily should be robbed to help cover the costs”. If “we” as a “society” decide to do something, and anyone who wants to opt out is forcibly opted back in, then “we” are forcibly robbing all those people who didn’t want in, at least from a moral perspective.

    Real answer: Most people who Libertarians consider the “undeserving poor” will find non-criminal ways to take care of themselves as the disincentives for not doing so become sharper. Those who can’t hack it effectively become the “deserving poor”, and private charity is a lot more morally acceptable than institutionalized theft.
    But here, more than perhaps anywhere else, is the crux of the debate:
    You are advocating the forcible taking of resources from other people for the benefit of third parties.
    Libertarians are claiming that, no matter how successful you are, the end does not justify the means. They are not arguing that these people should not be taken care of, just that any means that involves forcing people to take care of them is morally unacceptable.

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