I try my best to appreciate the insights of libertarians. I mean that truthfully, not condescendingly. I’m by instinct much closer to a flinty individualist than an Organization Man. I think government exists to further our common interests, not to represent some alleged social unity. I oppose the very idea of a public philosophy and think government should damn well let us think for ourselves. I find several recurrent egalitarian temptations—to regulate pornography, keep “offensive” speech off college campuses, and ban private alternatives to public provision in education and health care—not just wrong on policy but insulting and immoral. I think Adam Smith, scourge of monopoly, guilds, and regulatory capture—and defender of public goods—was a great benefactor to humankind. I found Brink Lindsey’s proposal for liberaltarianism so intriguing that I helped organize a conference on it, and enjoyed meeting both him and Will Wilkinson. (That particular alliance didn’t exactly work out, of course, and at this point probably never will.) I support the welfare state and public goods provision because they enable individual projects, but admit that political support for such things often requires communitarian rhetoric and friend-enemy distinctions that are distasteful on their face and bad for public debate. I believe it’s very important to have a strong party in society that’s suspicious of spending to ensure that spending is well directed and government not even more responsive to concentrated, organized interests than it inevitably is to some extent. And I read Reason’s blog Hit and Run for a reason: it makes about five interesting contrarian points a day, and covers plenty of stories others bury. (Random examples in the last couple of days here, here, here, here, and here—and I’m not just saying that because two of those items showcase UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, though it helps.)
But sometimes I’m just at a loss. Yesterday, John Stossel proposed a plan to balance the budget. It’s fairly standard libertarian fare. Leaving out ideological items that he admits don’t amount to many dollars, he wants to do the following: Eliminate the Department of Education (since “Federal involvement doesn’t improve education. It gets in the way”). Zero out agriculture subsidies. Ditto energy subsidies (green and non-green). Raise the retirement age and index benefits to inflation (as opposed to wage growth, I assume). Cut “Medicare and Medicaid” in unspecified ways endorsed by Cato. And shrink defense spending, again per Cato. Now, I sharply oppose a great many of these proposals. Federal education subsidies prevent a state-level race to the bottom—which libertarians call “fiscal federalism” without thereby making it less callous towards the poor, not to mention the non-poor with extraordinary requirements; I doubt Stossel has a kid with autism. Raising the retirement age would be a kick in the teeth to people with physically punishing jobs. I do not believe that one can massively cut Medicaid without harming health care for the poor, and think that comforting-sounding budget caps proposed “control the growth” of that program serve to whitewash, not change, that fact. I see no merit in Stossel’s claim that we’d save money by repealing our current law governing health care, which he fails to call the Affordable Care Act. And, of course, I don’t think he has grounds for leaving the word “taxes” out of his article, nor for not bothering to consider the consequences during a recession of a massive drop in government-driven demand. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind ag subsidies getting slashed; defense cuts are fine with me too; it’s quite possible that Medicare, which has much higher reimbursement rates than Medicaid, could achieve the same health outcomes at lower cost; and I hear it’s an open question whether ending all energy subsidies would on balance be better or worse for the environment than the status quo. In short, I partly agree, but overwhelmingly disagree, with Stossel’s politics.
But the gobsmacking part is how Stossel frames the proposal: “disciplined government could make cuts that get us to a surplus in one year.” “[E]ven a timid Congress could make swift progress if it wanted to.” While “bureaucrats” will complain, if “the crowd in Washington would limit spending growth to about 2 percent,” we’d be almost in balance in ten years. In short, “the budget can be cut. Only politics stand in the way.” The Reason staff’s link to the item says the same thing (though it makes “politics” singular). It seems to be the party line.
This is pretty common talk among libertarians, who often claim we’d be much better off without “politics.” And it’s completely mad. Stossel proposes that we slash our spending on public goods; rearrange the compact between the federal government and the states; greatly scale back our military commitments abroad; shrink substantially our commitment to provide for the poor and elderly; and let the market set our energy policy in spite of global warming being the mother of all externalities (or if he likes the denialist line, at least widely asserted to be so). And of course, he assumes that the level of taxation should be the same as or lower than it is now, not higher. These proposals aren’t marginal to politics. They are the essence of politics. If we took questions like this off the table, politics would practically disappear.
If libertarians meant their stance cynically—using a posture of opposing “politics” while knowing very well that it meant “enact our politics”—I’d understand. But as far as I can tell they mean it completely sincerely. They really think that radical political proposals aren’t political at all, and that all that stands in the way of enacting them is lack of spine among our politicians, who must secretly know that libertarians are right in spite of having collectively spent millions of hours asserting that they’re wrong. (Libertarians seem to be fair-weather believers in civic virtue: citizens never need it, but politicians universally lack it.)
I simply can’t understand how thinking people could believe this for a second without their heads exploding from illogic.