Two Strategies for Avoiding a Marijuana Mega-Corp

In many industries, including tobacco, a small number of companies control most of the business and in doing so attain sufficient economic power to shape regulatory decisions in their favor. A similar situation could easily arise if marijuana is fully legalized.

Regulatory capture by a legal Marijuana Mega-Corp is not considered problematic by most libertarians given their hostility to government and worship of corporate power. But it profoundly troubles at least three political camps (a) Good-government advocates who fear corruption of regulatory agencies, (b) Public health professionals, and, (c) The noble minority of libertarians wise enough to appreciate that large, weakly-regulated corporations can and frequently do violate the freedom of the citizenry. These public-minded groups can pursue at least two different policy strategies to keep any future legal marijuana industry from becoming a clone of Big Tobacco.

The Washington State Legalization Ballot Initiative 502 offers a strategy based on control of producer size. The Liquor Control Board has the power to issue a large number of licenses to legally produce marijuana while limiting how much each licensee can produce. The resultant cottage industry would be highly competitive and have a hard time coordinating regulatory capture efforts relative to an industry with only one or two mega-producers. On the downside, such an approach would raise the costs of inspecting all production sites and make monitoring compliance with any future regulations a more significant bureaucratic challenge.

Pat Oglesby has offered an intriguing alternative policy approach: Using tax rates to help small marijuana production firms compete with large ones, who economies of scale could otherwise allow them to undersell small producers. Federal alcohol taxation has this intent:

Small wine businesses, producing no more than 150,000 gallons a year, pay just 17 cents a gallon – instead of the standard Federal rate of $1.07 — on the first 100,000 gallons. Small and medium sized brewers, on the first 60,000 barrels, pay $7 a barrel instead of the standard $18.

As Pat notes himself, a sized-based tax rate requires the up-front work of creating clear standards and monitoring protocols to ensure that “small” producers are in fact small (versus for example being a mega-corp disguised as a series of small producers operating under different names). Still, as a public policy, it has the elegance of simplicity, which is often a facilitator of implementation within overstretched state bureaucracies.

Comments

  1. dino says

    No need to keep reading past this whopper: “Regulatory capture by a legal Marijuana Mega-Corp is not considered problematic by most libertarians given their hostility to government and worship of corporate power. But it profoundly troubles at least three political camps (a) Good-government advocates who fear corruption of regulatory agencies, (b) Public health professionals, and, (c) The noble minority of libertarians wise enough to appreciate that large, weakly-regulated corporations can and frequently do violate the freedom of the citizenry. These public-minded groups can pursue at least two different policy strategies to keep any future legal marijuana industry from becoming a clone of Big Tobacco.”

    Libertarians oppose concentrated power in any form, be it corporate or government. Next, any libertarian with a functioning brain accepts public choice economics, meaning that robust regulation is what leads to regulatory capture (Hello rent-seeking!). The fact that you cannot even mildly come close to being able to explain and articulate what your ideological adversaries actually believe in makes anything else you write completely colored by a perception of your interlocutors that is so false that no one could ever possible take you seriously. /Epic Ideological Turing Test Fail!

    • Mark Kleiman says

      On Keith’s behalf, let me apologize to extreme libertarians for his failure to grasp how astoundingly, mind-bendingly false some of their core beliefs are: e.g., their failure to distinguish health and safety regulation from the “economic” regulation that does indeed generate rent-seeking.

      • H. Beaver says

        The line between health and safety regulation and economic regulation is blurry. Not sure if this is a great example but it’s the first that comes to my mind. In Califronia, the master settle agreement (tobacco) led to regulation (party in the name of health and safety) which allowed licensing inspectors to seek out and physically destroy the products of tobacco companies that did not join the msa. Joining the MSA was expensive of course, helping the big guys. It became extremely expensive to enter the marketplace. Therefore the Master Settlement agreement was used to cement the market share of big tobacco in the name of Healthy and Safety. That was a pretty cool power given to big corporations. Getting government employees to seek out and destroy your competitors could have been better than advertising but I don’t think it was done as much as the tobacco companies hoped. In fact, I think they threatened to sue California for not killing their competition as much as they wanted.

    • Anonymous says

      Libertarians oppose concentrated power in any form, be it corporate or government

      Absolutely true! That’s why Cato Institute has never, ever accepted funding from the Koch Brothers.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        It is strange to me that some people took this as a controversial statement. There was an era when Russell Kirk walked the earth and libertarians were equally concerned about big corporations as big government, but now that is true only of a minority of libertarians (The Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog is an example, meetings of “Liberaltarians” which Mark has written about might be another, though I have never been to one so I don’t know).

        I mean, name the last 5 campaigns against corporate misbehavior organized by the Libertarian Party, or Reason magazine, or Cato Institute. What those groups do is criticize government, they just about never take on corporations. And it is not like the Cato Institute is financed by small contributions from gun-rights activists and back-to-the-land types, it was a corporate creation from the first (so is the Mercatus center at George Mason University) designed to use libertarian arguments to serve corporate interests, and it has done that.

  2. Mike says

    I’ll have some positive suggestions later when I’m not fighting late night health irritations. For now, I won’t whine like the libertarians, but will suggest some reference to the serenity prayer might be advised for everyone…

    My Suggestions for the Profoundly Troubled

    a) There’s no reason to believe that enforcement of reasonable marijuana regulation in a legalized environment will be any different than the way alcohol, tobacco, medicine, pharmacy, automobiles, gambling, guns and other products generally considered to be for adults. In general, we’ve seen no systemic corruption associated with those, although there’s always the lone wolf bribe taker, I suppose. I presume that we’ve been speaking of “Good-government advocates who fear corruption of regulatory agencies” specifically, because most good-government advocates I know support legalization because it will lessen the drug wars corrupting influence on police and the courts.

    b) If a public health official doesn’t have at least a Top Ten To Do List WITHOUT marijuana legalization on it, they’re spending too much time worrying about very speculative assertions of problems and not enough time worrying about problems with immensely worse public health consequences. Each would have hard statistical evidence associated with it. Anyone looking for similar numbers for marijuana will conclude marijuana is an issue that doesn’t justify significant resources. The stupidity of the 21 and up drinking age will be as legally problematic for marijuana as it is for alcohol, of course, but immensely less fatal however, with some possibility that this might be the start of a long term trend.

    c) I believe that when the term “noble minority” is associated with libertarianism, it usually as a condescending reference to the only local libertarian who is non-white. ;)

    I’ll start, not sure how far I’ll get, but the most obvious solution to keeping things real, local, and oriented to foster a small biz with a manageable entry for a start-up — home grow. If that were permitted, it would satisfy those most likely to undermine a regulatory regime. It removes users with higher consumption levels from the commercial market, thus lowering its attraction to profit-hungry corps. It would keep prices lower, because they would more closely reflect the cost of production, rather than some artificial, tax-inflated value. And it would provide entry level training for a regulatory and tax regime oriented toward support for small businesses, non profits and cooperatives. Remember the feds have washed their hands of doing this for now, so a state can experiment.

    Another factor with the feds and the present situation is that whatever legal entities are recognized by the state, they cannot legally do business across state lines. Residency requirements can help with that some, such as requiring owners and operators to live in the general area.

  3. James Wimberley says

    On this site we’ve discussed, and generally supported, strong labelling, packaging and quality standards on legal marijuana products. These effectively impose a minimum size on a commercially viable business, as in wine and beer. It’s a low minimum; but will discourage backyard producers.

    • Nick says

      Or you could just have those regulations only apply to producers above some minimum size?

      • Brett Bellmore says

        Kind of like you have with all your other regulations, like the child labor laws you’re currently using to destroy family farms?

        • Nick says

          No, kind of like we have with *some* of our other regulations, like the menu calorie labelling laws in California and NYC.

          I do love how black and white your view of the world is though.

          • Nick says

            Black and white, and perverse, for that matter. Shouldn’t you be off somewhere fighting for those concealed-carry laws that you use to kill innocent people? Environmental deregulation that you use that give children lead poisoning? Something like that?

          • Keith Humphreys says

            The next thing you know, the damn guv’mint will be outlawing slavery on the plantation…

          • Nick says

            Keith, I’m sure it slipped your mind because you were too busy using the 13th Amendment to kill hundreds of thousands of soldiers but incidentally it also did outlaw slavery.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            What’s so great about telling a family with a farm that their children can’t help out until they reach the age of majority?

          • James Wimberley says

            OK, I’ll bite. What US federal laws prohibit occasional light work on family farms by school-age minors? By light work I mean a couple of hours at a time at peak planting and harvesting times, say; whatever is compatible with full attention at school. If there are any such laws, are they effectively enforced?

          • Rob in CT says

            If I recall correctly from when that hit the news last year, the Feds backed down.

            The stats on injuries are what they are, so I understand them making an effort. The opposition was fierce, and they let it go.

            Be happy.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      This brings up an important dimension of regulation, namely that large producers sometimes endorse extensive regulations that will be too costly for small producers to meet, thereby driving them out. You could handle this by doing what Nick suggests, namely exempting small producers. But Washington has the option between controlling number of licenses and volume per licensee of doing it by not letting firms vary in size (hence regulatory compliance costs are comparable for all of them)

  4. noseeum says

    It seems to me many of the worst instances of regulatory capture, or at least anti-competitive, incumbent supporting legislation, are in fragmented industries. Licensing for hair dressers, estheticians. Dentists making it illegal to provide teeth cleaning services without a dentist on site. Government support for incumbent taxi cab medallion owners. Just a few examples I thought of off the top of my head.

    A small, fragmented industry can easily create a single powerful lobby. And since each individual provider is small potatoes in the scheme of things, the citizenry won’t know what’s going on.

    I think the assumption that a bunch of small producers being automatically better than a few large ones better be proven before it’s used as a basis for rule making because I see plenty of evidence to the contrary.

    At least with a few large ones we’ll know who to keep our eye on.

    But really why must it be either or? The ideal setup is to create competing interests. If you have nothing but small producers their interests will be heavily aligned and supported by one powerful lobbying group. And worse they’d be below the radar. If you have nothing but large producers you may have concentrated power. If you have both small and large producers, they will have competing interests and can serve as checks on each other.

    Similar example, though admittedly it’s big vs big, happened this week when the large beer companies began lobbying to get the banks out of the commodities owning/warehousing business. Now that another big business is lobbying congress against the big banks, congress is finally listening. And it will likely work to cause some reforms.

    You can’t stop lobbying. You can’t minimize it. Instead you should attempt to build a system of rules that encourages different types and sizes of companies that will often have conflicting interests. The more different businesses disagree, the better our government will run.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      noseeum: I agree that small firms can be very effective lobbies. Local chambers of commerce/organizations of small businesses for example. The National Council of Churches used to be an influential lobbying group in a prior era.

      But the argument that keeping the firms small may reduce regulatory capture is not that they *can’t* organize and achieve in regulatory capture, just that it is relatively harder to organize around a cohesive agenda 300 different firms versus 3 firms.

  5. Mike says

    Here’s an idea sparked by how the FCC chose to award low-power FM licenses to non-commerical groups. The application gave points for having a local board of directors and devoting significant air time to locally produced programming. Not an exact parallel, but let me riff…

    Obviously, for-profit producers will howl over this. I can see states choosing to go that root and issue licenses only to non-profits, churches, educational institutions, or some form of cooperative. It would be a grand experiment that might prove too threatening to the capitalists, so probably won’t happen. But it does happen in some cases, like state alcohol monopolies, blood banks, etc, so there are precedents that apply. Then there is the issue of fed enforcement, a temporary thing at this point, to be sure, where it’s clear there will be enforcement against those who “profit” from medical cannabis, but is less clear for non-commerical entities, so it may also be the most viable short term tactic. Let’s move on.

    Assuming there will be a limited number of licenses available, divide them 50/50. Half to small biz, half to non-commercial entities as I’ve described above. Make the non-commerical entities submit apps where they get points for localism, volunteer involvement, etc. to compete for their 50%, but there may be ways to do that with the commercial apps, too.

    In the process itself, most attempts to pass Big Dope Corp. off as homies will come out in the wash if the regs are written right.

    Another important point about making whatever regulatory structures goes into place not overly onerous is to treat it like small craft breweries are treated. Much of the 24/7 surveillance and intense tracking requirements being pursued are more appropriate for a Schedule One controlled substance. Duh, we’re changing that and it has nothing to do with the plant itself. If we can trust brewers to pay their taxes and stay legal, then let’s not get all ridiculous for another legal substance.

  6. Ned says

    I think a certain amount of sturm und drang in the comments might have been avoided by just omitting the reference to “libertarians” from the original post. There’s no reason that Keith couldn’t have discussed regulatory capture, oligopolies, etc. without any statement (correct or incorrect) about how libertarians would view these issues.

    That said, my impression is that many libertarians would at least profess to oppose “regulatory capture” but the objection would be primarily to the means (large corporations exerting power through the state) rather than to the ends (large corporations dominating the world). There might also be a tendency to accept or even encourage regulatory capture where it’s seen as a way to stop the state from exercising regulatory power. From this point of view, the preferred case is to have no regulatory agency at all, but a regulatory agency populated by people who will do what they can to minimize the scope and enforcement of regulations is decidedly preferable to a regulatory agency that genuinely tries to regulate.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      ” but the objection would be primarily to the means (large corporations exerting power through the state) rather than to the ends (large corporations dominating the world).”

      That’s in part because we don’t really believe they can achieve the end without that means. But mainly it’s because libertarianism is all about means, not ends. If you’re not using objectionable means, libertarianism really has nothing to say about your ends. You’re going to try to conquer the world with violating anyone’s rights? Sure, whatever floats your boat.

        • Brett Bellmore says

          Well, yeah. Touch typist here, my fingers know how to spell right. But ever since the chemo, there’s been something going amiss between the thought and the keystrokes. I keep getting the wrong properly spelled words showing up. It’s embarrassing, particularly at sites where you can’t edit your comments, and since the words ARE spelled right, my computer certainly doesn’t warn me.

          I’m running on glitchy hardware these days. :(

      • Rob in CT says

        You’re going to try to conquer the world with violating anyone’s rights? Sure, whatever floats your boat.

        And this, in a nutshell, is why dogmatic libertarianism is a foolish ideology.

        It has its uses. I’m actually rather fond of it. But damn, Brett.

        • Freeman says

          And this, in a nutshell, is why dogmatic libertarianism is a foolish ideology.

          Dogmatic anything is generally foolish. But I can’t tell from your comment what you’re objecting to. Are you saying it would be easy (or even possible) to conquer the world without violating anyone’s rights?

      • Nick says

        I’m genuinely curious about how someone could conquer the world without violating anyone’s rights.

        I guess I kind of think that people have a right to live in a non-conquered world.

        • CharlesWT says

          No one said the world could be conquered without violating anyone’s rights.

          But, from the libertarian point of view, if someone thinks they can without violating rights, there’re welcome to do so without any objections from libertarians.

          • Nick says

            If the world can’t be conquered without violating anyone’s rights, then someone who thinks they can is just wrong and any attempts they make to do so will fail.

            So this just sounds like a complicated way of saying, “Libertarians have no objection to people not conquering the world.” and on that I think liberals and libertarians can agree.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            The reason libertarians care about means, and not ends, is that the means are what you’re actually doing. The “ends” are just what you claim to be attempting. But “ends” don’t effect other people, MEANS do. So ignoring “ends” in favor of means, in favor of what people are actually doing, is a way of cutting through all the rationalizations and BS to what’s really going on.

            “Ends” are just misdirection. Watch the means people chose, that’s where all the action is, literally.

          • Ned says

            This subthread has reached the point where further nesting isn’t allowed. See below for my response to Brett, who IMHO is not thinking clearly. To most people, both the means and the ends matter.

  7. Rob in CT says

    I don’t really care if a “megacorp” sells pot, so long as consumers don’t get screwed. Megacorps are a thing. They happen. I see no reason to worry about them wrt pot, any more than beer or any other product.

    • Nick says

      “I see no reason to worry about them wrt pot, any more than beer or any other product.”

      If people had worried more about tobacco megacorps fifty years ago, a lot fewer people would have died of lung cancer since then.

      So I’m not sure what your statement is supposed to mean.

  8. Ned says

    Brett Bellmore writes: [...] libertarianism is all about means, not ends. If you’re not using objectionable means, libertarianism really has nothing to say about your ends.

    And that’s the crux of it right there.

    Brett Bellmore, comfortable middle-class 21st century American, can afford to ignore the end results because for him the ends have turned out pretty well.

    But what about Brett Bellmore, 7-year-old malnourished girl born into an impoverished family with too many mouths to feed and no economic resources? Something happened in her great-grandmother’s time that put her family on the trajectory leading to her current miserable circumstances. Maybe that long-ago event was something that libertarians would find objectionable, or maybe it was not. Do you think she cares more about the “means” that led to her misery or about the end result — the fact that she’s likely to die before reaching her next birthday?

    To the vast majority of human beings, both the “means” and the “ends” matter. If people believed that the set of rules that libertarians want to organize society around would lead to a better end result, they’d be happy to adopt those “means”. The problem is that people in general don’t think that the libertarian “means” would lead to a good “end”.

  9. Brett Bellmore says

    Actually, I think that would be Bret Bellmore, to be picky.

    No, only the means matter, because the means are what the people are actually DOING. The “ends” are simply what they publicly proclaim to be their goals. It’s like the difference between the title and text of a bill: The title can be anything, it’s the text that becomes law, so you need to pay attention to the text, and ignore the title.

    Take Kelo and Poletown. The end in both cases was economic development. The means was robbing people of their homes. Guess what: The homes got taken, but the development didn’t happen. “Ends” are just public relations. Always it’s the means that matter to the people being subjected to them.

    • Ned says

      You’re talking about people’s professed ends or “intentions” or something, but I’m talking about the actual, real-world ends. What actually transpires.

      If you come up with a set of rules that results in a society where most people are mired in misery, no one will care how theoretically beautiful and internally consistent the rules are. The end results suck!

      • Ned says

        Furthermore, if you look back at my comment that started this whole “means and ends” digression, it’s thoroughly obvious that I was referring to the actual consequences not merely “intentions” or “public relations”. You seem to have chosen to pull a phrase out of my comment, and reply to that phrase as if I were talking about something entirely different.

        The “ends and means” point came up in reference to a world dominated by large corporations or a wealthy elite acting through economic coercion. Now, you may not believe that such a thing is possible, but for the sake of argument assume that it is. Would libertarians care about a society where many people’s actual day-to-day lived experience of freedom was sharply curtailed due to extreme economic inequality? Or does the end result not matter as long as everyone is following your moral code?

        As I said above, for most people both the means and the ends (consequences, outcomes, results) matter.

        • Freeman says

          But the actual consequences you refer to had means to achieve them. I think your argument needs to show how means which DO NOT violate individual rights have resulted in those ends.

          “A world dominated by large corporations or a wealthy elite acting through economic coercion” infers that the rights of many are violated. Coercion of any kind is opposed by libertarians in favor of voluntary cooperation, but even that has limits. The rights of voluntary association and cooperation that form corporations do not trump the rights of individuals to live free of coercion, any more than the property rights of plantation owners to own slaves trumps the self-ownership right of individuals to live free of slavery.

          Your objections are addressed by the libertarian philosophy of a hierarchy of rights with the individual at the top.

          • Ned says

            Freeman writes: But the actual consequences you refer to had means to achieve them. I think your argument needs to show how means which DO NOT violate individual rights have resulted in those ends.

            OK, let’s consider the following scenario:

            Five families (A, B, C, D, E) live in a village. One year, something happens that reduces the yield from the lands cultivated by B, C, D, and E. (Maybe a flood that affects the lowest-lying fields, maybe a disease outbreak that spares A’s household but incapacitates many of the laborers in the other families right at the harvest time. Whatever.)

            Faced with starvation, families B, C, D, and E have no choice but to (“voluntarily”) sell portions of their land or their livestock to A in exchange for food.

            A few years later, a drought reduces the yield of all the farms in the village. With their additional land and larger herds, A does fine but B, C, D, and E don’t have enough margin. Once again, they “voluntarily” sell off part of their land because the immediate need for food outweighs the long-term desire to keep their farms intact.

            Rinse and repeat a few more times over a couple of generations, and the village now has one very wealthy family that owns most of the land and most of the livestock. Their children are well-fed from birth and are physically and mentally stronger, and are well-educated thanks to the family’s wealth. The other four families are living in extreme poverty, with their children malnourished and illiterate.

            For most of the people in this hypothetical village, the “end” is a pretty bad deal. But the “means” that led to that result — random chance plus the natural tendency of wealth to concentrate itself through its own gravitational attraction — are entirely unobjectionable to libertarians.

            So, does the end result matter at all? Or just whether all the individuals involved have played by the approved set of rules?

            Please note that I’m not suggesting this scenario proves that libertarianism is wrong. I’m just suggesting that certain commenters here need to consider the possibility that the set of rules they see as maximizing freedom might, in the real world, lead to a situation where most people have very little practical, day-to-day experience of freedom.

          • Freeman says

            I’m just suggesting that certain commenters here need to consider the possibility that the set of rules they see as maximizing freedom might, in the real world, lead to a situation where most people have very little practical, day-to-day experience of freedom.

            Nope. In your hypothetical scenario, it takes a series of natural disasters over several generations and a great deal of shear luck favoring family A and disfavoring all others every time, to lead to the ends you describe. Political rule-sets caused (or “led to”) none of it. The scenario reminds me of Ayn Rand’s absurd hypothetical in Atlas Shrugged where it takes a magic perpetual-motion free-energy device and a huge invisibility cloak for the Galtians to break free from the greater society and thrive on their own. In that case, Objectivism didn’t win the day, magic and impossible technology did. There is very little “real world” represented in either scenario.

            Your scenario could have been easily mitigated without resorting to coercion if every family were assumed to be wise enough to purchase disaster insurance. What alternative political philosophy would you recommend that would guarantee a more positive outcome for the hypothetical population while also avoiding unintended negative consequences such as those illustrated in Aesop’s Ant and the Grasshopper fable?

          • Ned says

            Freeman writes: In your hypothetical scenario, it takes a series of natural disasters over several generations and a great deal of shear luck favoring family A and disfavoring all others every time, to lead to the ends you describe.

            Yes, and in my understanding of the world, chance plays a huge role in people’s lives.

            Oh, and note that I wasn’t exactly positing a whole series of random events that all happened to favor “A”. Only the first event specifically favored “A”. The other events affected the whole village, including “A”s farm, but “A” was better able to cope with them because of the advantage they had accrued at the time of the first event. I’m not trying to be picky here, this is an important distinction.

            Political rule-sets caused (or “led to”) none of it.

            I disagree. The outcome in that scenario was a result of the combination of random chance plus a social context in which there is no safety net, no effort to reduce inequality through (e.g.) inheritance taxes, and no restraint on A’s ability to engage in economically predatory behavior. In a different social context, the outcome might have been better for B, C, D, and E (and of course potentially worse for A). Thus it is not just the random chance that caused the outcome, it’s chance plus the particular socio-economic system.

            There is very little “real world” represented in either scenario.

            I strongly disagree that my scenario is unrealistic. I think similar kinds of scenarios have been widespread throughout human history. One could probably find places where this scenario is playing itself out right now.

            Your scenario could have been easily mitigated without resorting to coercion if every family were assumed to be wise enough to purchase disaster insurance

            Right. Or it could be mitigated if a wealthy foreign charity came in and gave alms to families B, C, D, and E. Or it could be mitigated in lots of other ways.

            But it’s not particularly helpful to say “Well, if we changed your scenario, or considered an entirely different scenario, then families B, C, D, and E wouldn’t be as impoverished as they were in your scenario.” That’s basically like going up to one of the parents from those families while they’re trying to figure out how they’ll feed their children tomorrow, and saying “Hey, cheer up, some other family in different circumstances elsewhere isn’t facing the same problems you’re facing!”

            Maybe disaster insurance doesn’t exist here.

            What alternative political philosophy would you recommend that would guarantee a more positive outcome for the hypothetical population while also avoiding unintended negative consequences such as those illustrated in Aesop’s Ant and the Grasshopper fable?

            I’m not proposing any alternative political philosophy, and I fully recognize that if we imposed any other political philosophy on this hypothetical village we might well see a different set of negative consequences.

            The point was to suggest that it is in fact possible for a wealthy elite to achieve dominance without resorting to means that libertarians would necessarily consider a priori objectionable. Whether you’re willing to accept that point obviously depends on whether you agree that the scenario is reasonably plausible. If you think that such things never happen in history, this won’t do anything for you.

            Again, this doesn’t mean that libertarianism is bad. I just think that if people are assuming that a libertarian socio-economic environment can’t possibly lead to a situation where a wealthy elite achieves dominance over the rest of society, that is a poor assumption.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        First, lacking any skill with the Vulcan mind meld, I really don’t have access to people’s actual ends, only their professed ones. But that doesn’t matter, because even actual ends are merely aspirations, which may or may not be achieved. The means absolutely do happen. You set out to do good by doing evil, the evil is guaranteed to happen, the good is speculative.

        • Ned says

          You continue to miss the point. I’m talking about the actual, real, consequences of people’s actions. Not “aspirations” or “what people set out to achieve”. I’m referring to the objective, external reality that we all inhabit.

          I’ll try this one last time, then give up.

          Consider any set of rules that could be used to organize society — libertarianism, communism, theocracy, liberal democracy, anarchy, whatever. Someone who believes deeply in the moral superiority of that particular set of rules might say that we must live by them regardless of the outcome. That is, even if most people ended up immiserated in poverty, the rightness of the moral code is all that matters.

          A different way of looking at it would be to say that if the end result is awful, you should probably take a different approach. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds ideal in principle but in practice hasn’t worked out so well.

          So an ideologue will tend to focus only on the “means” (the rules, the moral code) regardless of how much or how little human well-being and happiness those “means” produce. In contrast, a more pragmatic observer would say that both the principles and the results matter.

          I can’t believe I’m wasting all this time writing one comment after another in an apparently futile attempt to explain what ought to be a trivially simple and rather obvious point. It has, however, served as a reminder of how most of my conversations with libertarians leave me wanting to stab myself in the ears with knitting needles. There are aspects of libertarianism that do appeal to me, so I guess it’s helpful to be reminded of that occasionally, as a caution.

          • CharlesWT says

            “Consider any set of rules that could be used to organize society — libertarianism, …”

            Libertarianism isn’t about organizing society, but to allow society, as freely as possible, to organize itself.

          • Ned says

            Great slogan, Charles! Well, it may not be exactly correct,and it’s completely non-responsive to the comment you were responding to, but whatever.

            Read the rest of that sentence that you quoted, please. Notice that it includes a very wide array of political/social systems, including anarchy. I had thought that would make it clear that I was using the concept of “rules that could be used to organize society” as broadly as possible. Saying “we’re going to have no rules at all” (anarchy) or “we’re only going to have rules dealing with a circumscribed set of issues related to property rights, coercion, etc. and to the mechanisms for enforcing those rules” (libertarianism) is still making a decision about how society will be organized.

            As with Brett’s serial misunderstandings above, however, that’s all completely irrelevant.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            I feel much the same: That “means” are what you’re actually DOING, while “ends” are at best speculation about what the outcome will be, and often just deceptive public relations, seems such a basic point that it’s mind boggling anyone would deny it.

            By focusing on the actual end outcome, you neatly sidestep a rather important point: At the point where you’re trying to decide if the end justifies the means, you don’t yet KNOW what the actual real consequences will be. You’re just speculating about them. So you’re free to claim you would have rejected Kelo or Poletown, because the end outcome was bad. But the truth is, you folks didn’t, at the time. Libertarians did, because we didn’t care about the benefits which it was claimed would come from the rights violations. And we dumb libertarians turned out to be right, and the brilliant consequentialists wrong.

            So, consequentialist theories undoubtedly rock, if you have perfect knowledge of the future. They suck when applied by people who don’t know what the future holds, and are prey to being over-confident their schemes will work. In practice, it’s just a handy way to rationalize violating people’s rights.

          • Freeman says

            I can’t believe I’m wasting all this time writing one comment after another in an apparently futile attempt to explain what ought to be a trivially simple and rather obvious point.

            We get your point, Ned: Consequences matter — Communist theory had some good things going for it, but in practice the consequences were unsatisfactory — “if the end result is awful, you should probably take a different approach.”

            The problem you’re having getting through is that you have failed to show where the practice of libertarian theory has led to unsatisfactory ends, you’ve merely speculated about hypothetical ways in which it might. I refer you to Brett’s argument about divining the future. You’ve irrationally used the failure of ends-based ideology to argue against means-based ideology. Your Communism illustration fails to recognize the fact that Communism’s spectacular failure in practice to produce desirable ends was due almost entirely to it’s means — the huge amount of coercion necessary to even attempt to achieve it’s ends. Your argument that ends are just as important as means is ineffective because you want to completely ignore the means while accusing everyone else of completely ignoring the ends. In doing so, you ended up posing the absurd argument that highly coercive means which historically failed to lead to ideologically-desired ends illustrates why we should focus on ideologically-desired ends and ignore the means necessary to achieve them because “an ideologue will tend to focus only on the means”. Wrong. As you amply demonstrate with your own reasoning, most ideologues focus almost entirely on desired ends and want to completely ignore whatever means are necessary to achieve them, along with the unintended undesired ends that result. I refer you to the Drug War for further illustration.

            It has, however, served as a reminder of how most of my conversations with libertarians leave me wanting to stab myself in the ears with knitting needles. There are aspects of libertarianism that do appeal to me, so I guess it’s helpful to be reminded of that occasionally, as a caution.

            I’ll bet you have similar difficulties conversing with conservatives, or anyone else you strongly disagree with. Perhaps you might consider that the power to change that situation and avoid “wanting to stab myself in the ears with knitting needles” lies within yourself.

          • Ned says

            Brett Bellmore writes: By focusing on the actual end outcome, you neatly sidestep a rather important point: At the point where you’re trying to decide if the end justifies the means, you don’t yet KNOW what the actual real consequences will be.

            Thanks for finally coming around to addressing what I’m actually saying instead of something totally different.

            Yeah, there’s always uncertainty about the future, but it’s not like we are acting in total ignorance either. If someone proposed transforming the US into a one-party state where all industry is nationalized, all land is held collectively, and all economic activity is determined by central planners, a reasonable response would be “No, sorry, they tried that in the USSR and it was a fiasco.” It’s not necessary to ignore what we know about the impracticality of communism and restrict ourselves to arguing against it from abstract theory.

            That’s a somewhat artificial example because it involves repeating more or less exactly a previous failed experiment. With libertarianism it hasn’t really been tested anywhere, at least in the specific form that many people who self-identify as libertarians would claim to be advocating. However, there are certainly times and places where states have been larger vs smaller, social organization has been tighter vs looser, economic activity is more vs less regulated, etc. We do know something about how humans behave in different circumstances.

            In the original post, Keith wrote “Regulatory capture by a legal Marijuana Mega-Corp is not considered problematic by most libertarians given their hostility to government and worship of corporate power”. I think that’s wrong. Here’s what I’m suggesting:

            (1) Many libertarians would object to the prospect of a single corporation achieving dominance through a process of infiltrating the state and using state power for its own benefit.

            (2) For many people, that objection would be largely based on the means by which that dominance was achieved.

            (3) Again for many people who self-identify as libertarians, the negative aspects of the end result (an industry dominated by a single player) would be of much less concern if that result came about through different means (involving some combination of good luck plus aggressive competition).

            As far as I can tell, some people in this thread, possibly including Brett Bellmore, would agree with me on (1) and (2). Some of those people also seem to have trouble with (3) not because they disagree but because they think it’s a situation that can’t possibly occur. As you can see from my exchange with “Freeman” above, I think it’s not particularly implausible.

          • Ned says

            Freeman’s comment at 7:59am was posted while I was composing my response to Brett Bellmore, which is why what I wrote immediately above appears to be ignoring it. At first glance I think there are a number of things I would disagree with, but overall it’s much more interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful to me than pretty much anything else that’s been posted in the latter portions of this thread and I’d like to thank “Freeman” for that.

            At the end of his comment, “Freeman” quotes me saying this: It has, however, served as a reminder of how most of my conversations with libertarians leave me wanting to stab myself in the ears with knitting needles. There are aspects of libertarianism that do appeal to me, so I guess it’s helpful to be reminded of that occasionally, as a caution.

            and responds with this:

            I’ll bet you have similar difficulties conversing with conservatives, or anyone else you strongly disagree with. Perhaps you might consider that the power to change that situation and avoid “wanting to stab myself in the ears with knitting needles” lies within yourself.

            At the risk of destroying any good will I’ve just earned, I’d say that, no, in general I’m often able to engage in discussions with people whom I disagree with, or read the work of people I disagree with, without being annoyed to the point of wanting to put myself out of my misery. Perhaps it’s a gross and grossly unjust stereotype, but somehow more than a handful of my interactions with libertarians over the years have been different, not because of the substance of the disagreement, but because of its form. I don’t particularly want to analyze this further right now.

          • Freeman says

            Ned, while I await your response, I have a couple of observations to share:

            (1) Agree

            (2) Agree that the objection would be to the use of coercion to inappropriately place the liberties of the corporation above the liberties of those affected by the corporation’s activities.

            (3) Disagree on the likelihood of the speculative scenario proposed, but open to considering a convincing example to the contrary. You have said “I strongly disagree that my scenario is unrealistic. I think similar kinds of scenarios have been widespread throughout human history. One could probably find places where this scenario is playing itself out right now” and have repeatedly stated in bold that “I’m talking about the actual, real-world ends. What actually transpires”, and “I was referring to the actual consequences, so please let’s agree to dispose of the hypotheticals. You have made the claim and have speculated that real-world examples which support it are widespread throughout human history, so it’s up to you to provide a real-world example of “an industry dominated by a single player” that was achieved and maintained without violating the rights of others. Good luck with that. I think you’re going to find it harder than you assume.

            On the other subject, no worries about the goodwill, friend — I recognize your sincerity and it seems you recognize mine. Unresolved disagreement can be exasperating, but as you point out it isn’t always that way. So why does it always seem to come up when conversing with certain types? I’ve found that for me the exasperation factor seems to be negatively correlated to, and a function of, my own understanding of the alien viewpoint I disagree with. The better I understand the other’s viewpoint, the better I can disagree in a way that relates to my interlocutors without both sides talking past each other and ending up exasperated to the point of wanting to rip out our own intestines with a fork.

  10. Sebastian H says

    “Regulatory capture by a legal Marijuana Mega-Corp is not considered problematic by most libertarians given their hostility to government and worship of corporate power.”

    This is a really confused sentence. Regulatory capture is one of the key libertarian arguments AGAINST large scale government. In fact regulatory capture is a key libertarian insight that everyone should pay attention to even if you hate everything else they say. Look up the popularizer of the term: george stigler. You’re so wrong that I’m having trouble coming up with a good analogy. It is akin to: police abuses are not considered problematic by liberals given their love of large government.

    • CharlesWT says

      Yes, well, it takes the output of a large Kansas hay farm to create all the straw libertarians running about.