In the Blogosphere, Rand Paul’s case of hoof-in-mouth disease has started what may become a serious discussion of libertarianism. Perhaps that discussion might even spread to the real world.
My view, and that of most liberals (e.g. Gabriel Winant, writing in Salon), is that libertarians have elevated some common-sense ideas (for example, that voluntary market transactions have some self-regulating properties not shared by political decision-making and public-sector implementation) into absolute dogmas with very little connection to consensus reality (for example, that taxation is no different in principle that physical violence or enslavement, and that any government that fails to fit their prejudices is therefore implicitly totalitarian). As a result, we have the political equivalent of philosophical solipsism: a position that can’t be refuted in its own terms and has a certain charm in dorm-room bull-sessions, but which can’t actually be believed by anyone intellectually and emotionally mature.
[And yes, I, too, know lots of sane people who call themselves “libertarian” – Eugene Volokh, for example – but their sanity consists precisely in their lack of dogmatic adherence to the libertarian catechism.]
Matt Welch, writing at Reason’s Hit and Run, thinks this is a canard:
The “worldview” of libertarianism suggested, back in the early 1970s, that if you got the government out of the business of setting all airline ticket prices and composing all in-flight menus, then just maybe Americans who were not rich could soon enjoy air travel. At the time, people with much more imagination and pull than Gabriel Winant has now dismissed the idea as unrealistic, out-of-touch fantasia.
John Cole at Balloon Juice scores a “gotcha”: he links to a Frontline story about the way in which, post-deregulation, some airlines have cut safety corners, citing the case of a flight with a Continental Airlines flight number but in fact operated by a firm that might as well have been called Nocturnal Aviation:
An investigation of the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board was recently completed and identified pilot error as a major factor in the accident. But the investigation has also put the spotlight on operations of regional airlines like Colgan Air, where the first officer on 3407 had made less than $16,000 the previous year and the captain had failed five flight tests and received inadequate training on a critical safety system involved in the crash.
I disagree with both Welch and Cole, though at different points in the argument. And it seems to me that airline deregulation is in fact a good case study in the tensions between regulation and unrestricted market activity, with lessons for both sides in what ought to be a reasoned argument but which the right wing has decided to convert into a culture war.
Welch is, I think, right to say that airline deregulation was an idea with roots in laisser-faire economics and that it was, on balance, a good thing. Yes, flying was much more comfortable back when the government kept it artificially expensive; since most of my air travel is paid for by others, I’d be personally better off under the old system, but de-reg substantially democratized flying.
Welch is wrong to pretend that de-regulating airfares was some sort of radical libertarian idea resisted by all right-thinking liberals; in fact and in truth, airline de-reg was a Ted Kennedy special, with Steve Breyer doing some of the staff work and Jimmy Carter signing the bill. Like trucking de-reg, telecoms de-reg, and market-simulating environmental regulations such as cap-and-trade programs, airline de-reg was part of the political worldview identified with the Brookings Institution (back when Brookings was liberal; the key players were Alice Rivlin and Charles Schultze) and sometimes known as “Brookings neoliberalism.” (This was before “neo-liberalism” came to mean the IMF insisting that third-world peasants starve in the name of “getting prices right.”)
But – a vital point – this was all about the de-regulation of pricing, not of safety. The Civil Aeronautics Board went out of business, but the Federal Aviation Administration is still there, still writing and enforcing safety regs. Now it’s true that competitive pressure in truck and airlines creates additional incentive for corner-cutting. But the de-reg bills simply let prices float; they didn’t repeal any of the safety rules or reduce the power of the government to enforce them. The general hollowing-out of the Federal bureaucracy that started under Reagan and continued through Bush the First, the Gingrich Congress, and then Bush the Second has no doubt led to some loosening in practice, but that was a different process.
Now, on libertarian principles the airline safety regulations were no more justified than the government-enforced price cartel. To a true believer in laisser-faire, if someone wants to run a cheap and nasty airline, it’s up to the passengers – at least the consenting adults – to decide whether or not to fly. Just as with employment discrimination, a true libertarian counts on the market to find the right solution.
So, in my view, Cole is wrong to blame libertarianism for the latest crash. But Welch is equally wrong to claim airline de-reg as a libertarian triumph. Ending economic regulation while maintaining safety regulation was a straight-up liberal approach, and not consistent with what libertarians claim to believe.
Which is not to say that I’m convinced that the current level of safety regulation is optimal. I suspect, without having run the numbers, that flying is currently too safe. (It’s well known to be safer than driving, and for the short routes on which the two modes compete, making flying more expensive leads to additional driving.) Certainly the money and effort spent on changing the probability of surviving a water landing from zero to epsilon could be better spent on something else. As long as more safety costs more money, the optimal number of airline crashes is not zero.
But whatever the right number is, the market isn’t going to find it. Crashes are too rare, and safety precautions too technical and hard to observe, for safety to be a plausible locus of competition. We’re going to get on airplanes as safe as they’re required to be by law, and the process of making and enforcing safety rules is necessarily governmental: that is, political. No, the governmental process isn’t perfect, but caveat emptor-plus-lawsuits would almost certainly be worse.
But if you believe what Rand Paul claims to believe, we can’t even have the discussion. If it’s wrong to interfere with “economic relations among consenting adults,” then it’s wrong – immoral – to have licensing requirements for airline pilots or big-government safety inspections for aircraft. Of course that’s an insane position, but it’s straightforwardly the libertarian one, along with eliminating medical licensing and food-safety laws.
Ever since that avuncular con-man Ronald Reagan, the “small-government” crowd has successfully masqueraded as the exponents of common sense as against elitist dogmatism. But their principles aren’t common sense (or common law): they’re simple, self-consistent, and, in practice, utterly bonkers.