Question for libertarians: why are rangers less evil (and more stupid) than teachers?

Libertarians often say that public lands should be handed over to the private sector, which has an incentive to conserve them. But doesn’t the same logic that leads them to hate teachers’ unions also imply that forest rangers will do anything to preserve the forests that provide their cushy jobs?

A student currently enrolled in an Institute for Humane Studies seminar writes me to ask about a libertarian argument I’ve heard before: that “privately owned lands will be better cared for since their owners have incentives to do so; public servants have no incentive to do so since their salary is independent of their success at preserving these lands.”

This has always struck me as a complete non sequitur. The conclusion seems to rely on an incentives argument but is stated with much greater confidence than the argument seems to justify.  If I own a forest and clear-cut it for the lumber, I can make millions.*   On the other hand,  a forest service employee who lets the land be clear-cut will clearly be out of a job, will never get another one in the government, and will probably go to jail.  Why are public sector workers whose job depends on protecting the environment supposed to be so lousy at protecting their interests while private entrepreneurs are perfect at protecting theirs?  In other contexts, i.e. those in which public employees’ determination to protect their turf,  budgets, and employee pensions are at issue, libertarians typically assume the contrary: public-sector employees will do anything to keep their jobs and to increase, not decrease, their power to regulate. Continue reading “Question for libertarians: why are rangers less evil (and more stupid) than teachers?”

Right-sizing government

Can the assertion “Government is too big [or too small]” ever mean enough to support a serious conversation, much less a policy decision?  How about “California [or the US; plug in your own jurisdiction larger than a small town] can’t afford [plug in a program]”? What could such  statements mean, or be shorthand for?
Continue reading “Right-sizing government”

More on “Wheat, Weed, and ObamaCare”

Judge Roger Vinson calls the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, citing (among other things) this ReasonTV video.

I am now an adjunct fellow of the Century Foundation. I will be posting occasionally at their very nice website, Taking Note. I posted something there yesterday on Judge Vinson’s surprisingly strident decision seeking to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act. I will let the actual lawyers analyze the substance of Vinson’s decision. I do want to note his tone and argument, exemplified by this ReasonTV video cited in his decision. For more, see my Century Foundation post.

The politics of anti-politics

Many libertarian ideas are worthy of respect, or at least attention. That massive policy change can be contrasted with “politics” is not one of them.

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.

Would someone explain to me…

Years ago, when I was first teaching environmental policy, my students correctly pointed out that I was serving a neoclassical theory of it with externalities, Pigovian taxes, and all that good stuff, and they wanted to know the “radical” theory. Fair enough; I asked my most lefty colleagues to tell me the Marxist theory of environment.  I got:

  • “I don’t know but there are people who do. I don’t actually know who they are. “
  • “After the revolution, pollution will be impossible because the people will own the means of production.”
  • “[what was just coming out about] environmental disaster in the Soviet orbit is irrelevant, because that’s not real socialism.  You should look at China.”

Somehow this didn’t make me feel ready for class.  I tried an easier question: “After the revolution, what should the fare on the subway be, and why?”  I didn’t get much further with that one; still waiting for it.

This all flashed back to me when I read Stephen Bainbridge’s very elliptical response to Keith’s DMV story.  OK, I’ve got the Kool-Aid poured out: when Keith and I show up at the Libertarian temple ready to learn, what will the priests tell us about the DMV?

  • Automobiles and drivers should not require licensing at all. Anyone who can afford a car has the right to drive it on the public ways [are there public ways in Libertaria?] and if he hurts someone, it’s a matter for litigation. And no job-destroying regulations about speed limits and working taillights, either.
  • Licenses (both kinds) should be provided by private firms free of job-destroying regulation, competing for business.  “Our road test is so easy a blind cave man could pass it!”  “Our patented license plate font is guaranteed illegible in broad daylight!” “With our operators license, you get a free portfolio of head shots suitable for sending to casting directors!”
  • The antidote to regulatory abuse at the DMV, as everywhere, is to defund the agency so its service will be worse.

I’m sort of teasing, but it’s a serious question.

Libertarianism and the State of Nature

Zombie idea department: the “natural market distribution.”

In Christopher Beam’s interesting piece on libertarianism in New York magazine (h/t an excellent piece by Chait), he reveals a deep yet flawed structure of modern American political argument.  Noting that Ayn Rand’s objectivism is the “gateway drug” for libertarianism, Beam explains that:

The core of the Randian worldview, as absorbed by the modern GOP, is a belief that the natural market distribution of income is inherently moral, and the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers.

Italics mine.  I have yet to hear any coherent account of a “natural market distribution.”  Why do we have any property?  Because the state enforces it in court, and if necessary, with force.  Why do millions of business thrive throughout the country?  Because the government has decided to give them patents and copyrights.  Corporations are creatures of the state, designed to protect investors with limited liability.  (And that liability, too, of course, is a creature of the state).

Now, merely because it’s “the state” doesn’t mean that we don’t have rights, or that the state can and should do whatever it wants.  There are lots of very compelling reasons to endorse the institution of private property.  But that’s what it is: an institution.

One good argument for various forms of private property is that they help human beings to flourish, either psychologically, materially, or whatever.  And any defintion of human flourishing rests upon beliefs about human nature and really, the purpose of existence.  But that is very, very far away from the libertarian notion of a “natural market distribution.”  That doesn’t exist.  And we should stop talking about it as if it does.

Markets need rules, and rules need enforcers.

On Elizabeth Warren, Charles Fried gets what “libertarian” politicians don’t: it’s no favor to “markets” to let fraud run rampant.

Charles Fried, Reagan’s Solicitor General, makes the case for Elizabeth Warren (and for a recess appointment, no less).

Here is one more difference between the responsible libertarians in academe—whom I happily talk to, though normally disagree with—and the wingnut variety who prevail in politics.  The latter want government to get out of businesses’ way, period.  The former realize that markets only benefit society when force and fraud are prohibited—which means that government should get very much in businesses’ way when that’s what they’re prone to.

A Question for Libertarians

How many subsidies will libertarians demand for their favorite bigots?

Justice Alito says that if the Christian Legal Society at Hastings College of Law, which discriminates against gays and lesbians, doesn’t get a subsidy from the law school, this lack of a subsidy violates its “freedom of expression.”

Do you agree?  What other government subsidies are required for freedom of expression?

So you would have voted with the majority, right?  Right?

UPDATE: Just noticed this.  Eugene Volokh says he would have voted with the liberal justices.  Good for him.  I’ll return the favor and say I probably would have voted with the conservatives in the gun case: if the Second Amendment is an individual right, then it should be applied against states and local governments.

Rand Paul is NOT a Libertarian

Rand Paul represents the return of the Old Right.

Although the blogosphere (including all of us) has had a good time discussing libertarianism and Rand Paul, in my view it has been misplaced, because Paul’s pedigree is not libertarian.

Instead, it makes more sense to put Paul together with the Old Right.  Paul’s foreign policy views are not about prudentialism, but rather are about Robert Taft (pictured), “Mr. Republican,” who fought the Truman Doctrine and NATO, and resisted the New Deal until he died in 1953.  Ike’s triumph at the 1952 Republican Convention theoretically killed Taft’s conservatism off within the GOP, but it’s back in a big way with Paul.

Rand Paul wants to keep Guantanamo open.  He supports military commissions.  He opposes gay marriage and as far as I know, has never said anything about gay rights in other contexts.  Although he has a lot of trouble with Title II of the Civil Rights Act, he has never complained about things like parking requirements and other local land use regulations that represent perhaps the most over-regulated portion of the economy.  His father’s newsletters were shot through with racist invective.  His immigration plans include an “underground electronic fence” and helicopters monitoring the border. 

This is not a libertarian profile.  Now, maybe Paul is just a hypocrite, but it makes more sense just to make it clear where he comes from.

Question of the Day: Rand Paul Edition

If Rand Paul can’t stand up to David Gregory, how can he stand up to the terrorists?

If Rand Paul can’t stand up to David Gregory, how can he stand up to the terrorists?

Paul is also whining that he has been deprived of his entitlement of a honeymoon from the press.  Funny, I always thought that libertarians pride themselves on their tough individualism.