January 13, 2007

Lean, Left And Lofty

Libertarians have their problems. I'm a big "L" as well as a little "L" libertarian & in general I've been unhappy with the party & its alleged strategy. But a more pervasive problem is non-libertarian perception of what libertarians (big & little "L") are. Most of the time the criticisms laid against us make me think the critic is really talking about anarchists rather than libertarians. I've often said that the more I see the government in action the harder it is for me to remember why I'm not an anarchist but so far I can think of a few reasons.

I mention all this because Tam points to a post over at Lean Left called The Problem with Libertarians. There's a lively discussion going on in the comments section which seems to use the healthcare system as its exemplar.

As you might have guessed from the title of the blog Lean Left is run by folks on the left side of the political line. Not that libertarians of either sized first letter get much love from those on the right (which I think has much to due with the confusion of libertarianism & anarchism) but the response from the left to libertarian positions is usually more animated.

For the helluvit I'll go ahead & fisk Lean Left's critiques of libertarianism.

"It should come as no surprise that we here at Lean Left reserve a special sort of contempt for libertarians. Hell, weíve even reserved an entire category for mocking them. Kevin and I have often joked that Libertarianism is like Communism: It looks good on paper, but one only needs to spend about five minutes around other human beings to figure out why it can never work."

uh-huh. Leftists claiming that libertarians don't have a sense of what works in the real world? Two words: Hillary Care.

Snark aside most libertarians are much better at taking human nature into account than communists or leftists usually are. we realize that things will not be perfect under any system but a system with more allowances for human nature (i.e. free markets) will work better than those which try to restrict human nature or "balance" human nature on some sort of "fairness" scale.

"And SayUncle (himself either a small-l libertarian or a South Park Republican, depending on when you ask him) likes to say that to see why Libertarianism canít work, you need only watch an episode of Cops. (Iím pretty sure heís quoting somebody else when he says that.)"

Funny, last time I watched Cops (admittedly a long time ago in a galaxy kinda far away) it seemed to me proof that libertarianism has got to be better than what we have now.

"But what is it about libertarians that drives us batty?"

That it's an effective counter to everything you propose concerning economics?

"I canít speak for the Kevins, but I know a big part of what bugs me about them: Itís that theyíre the ultimate naysayers. Theyíre really good at bitching about stuff, and telling you all about what they oppose and why they oppose it, but when it comes time to suggest a better idea, theyíre nowhere to be found. If they respond at all, which isnít often, itís with the most vacuous rhetoric imaginable: 'Let The Market (tm) decide,' theyíll say, or 'We donít need new laws, letís enforce the existing ones.' Donít look to them for anything helpful or useful. Theyíve got nothing."

Actually "We don't need new laws; let's enforce the old ones" is more a Republican/NRA position than a libertarian one. A more accurate description of the libertarian take would be "We don't need new laws; & while we're here let's repeal the old ones that caused this mess in the first place".

"Let the market decide" is a valid libertarian position. & in most cases the outcome will be better than by letting a bureaucrat decide.

The links Lean Left points to as examples of bitching w/o providing a solution aren't that hard to get the gist of. In the first Say Uncle complains about Kennedy's plan for "universal health care" & the second Tam complains of regulations requiring physical inspection of every container shipped in foreign commerce & an increase in minimum wage. They didn't directly say it but the implication is that it'd be better to not pass those particular laws as they'd create more problems in lieu of the ones they purport to solve.

That's not bitching without providing a solution. That's bitching without providing a government solution or perhaps bitching while providing a solution that does not address Lean Left's concerns. Not quite the same thing as what was stated in the post.

In fact libertarians do have solutions to a lot of the problems Lean Left complains of. the problem is Lean Left does not like those solutions & in some cases there's a big disagreement on what the problem is. But I'll get to that in a few.

"Nearly 50 million Americans without health care? 'Get a better job!' Yep, just put your lousy jobís pay stub under your pillow, and the Better Job Fairy (aka, 'The Invisible Hand of the Market [tm]') will handle everything. (And if youíre a single parent without health care, be sure to leave a note asking the Better Job Fairy to call her friend, the Day Care Fairy. Maybe she can even hook you up with the Time Fairy and the Money Fairy so you can get job training or a better education in between working two jobs and raising your kids. But I digressÖ)"

Actually most libertarians would suggest a visit from the Don't Have Kids Until You're In A Position To Care For Them Fairy before all those things became a concern with a reminder that the Goverment Will Bail You Out No Matter What Decisions You Make Fairy does not exist.

& let's be honest - the term to be used is medical insurance. Health care is available to nearly every damn person in this country even if at only the most basic level (i.e. emergency services).

I'll be honest - I'm poor. Not in the "over-extended" sense but in the "low income" sense of the word. I do not have health insurance. I don't plan on having health insurance other than the old United Federation of Musicians health plan (drink a glass of Orange Juice everyday & pray that it's all ya need). If I get sick I grab Theraflu & hope for the best. If I injure myself I'm on my own for the cost of the injury. Therefore I'm kinda careful about injuring myself. I generally (but not always) think about the consequences of my actions because I will be responsible for them. Granted that doesn't do much for diseases but outside of genetically caused ailments (there's a lot of cancer in my family) I think I'm pretty safe. So for anything minor (colds, etc...) I tend to myself. For anything major I'd seek medical treatment at my own expense. Supposing I have a cancer found & opt for chemo & radiation to treat it I'll go into debt (very fast). If I live I'll pay it back (or as much as I can before I die) & if I don't then whatever's left of my meager estate will go towards the balance owed. I realize this. I could seek out health insurance but for better or worse I've decided to not pursue that option. It's a choice which I've made fully aware of the consequences of my actions (or inactions as the case may be).

So speaking as one of those 50 million Americans that Lean Left is so concerned about I have to say that I appreciate the thought but if you really want to do something to help me out let's start with minding your own damned business. If you don't think that's enough then how about getting government out of the medical system altogether? A big reason that health care costs are so high isn't that the "evil medical corporation machine" is looking to stick it to us; it's that government subsidation has created a distortion in the market that has artificially inflated pricing. Another thing is the too lenient tort system which results in very high medical malpractice insurance rates. If I was a doc that paid $120,000 a year in malpractice coverage you damn right that aspirin would cost you 3 figures retail.

So to make it clear I'm not bitching without a solution. My solution is to get government as far away from the economic aspects of medicine as possible & that will result in a better system. Not perfect & not universally fair, but better than what we have now or anything else I've heard proposed.

"Thatís but one example. Name any problem society faces, and libertarians have vacuous, untenable explanations as to why we donít need to do anything about it. Say what you will about liberals and conservatives, but at least theyíre trying to address societyís problems. You may disagree with how theyíre going about it, but theyíre trying to go about it. Not so, the libertarians. All they want to do is tell you all about why what you want to do wonít work, and why your idea is a bad one."
"

Nope. The usual libertarian response is that a proposed solution will create more harm, not that nothing should be done about it. The disconnect is that Lean Left seems to equate that any action must come from government & that any scaling back of government is inaction. That's the only way Lean Left's statements about libertarian positions make any sense.

So if I understand where Lean Left is coming from liberals & conservatives disagree about the method but they both try to use government to solve problems therefore they're doing something. Libertarians try to arrest government or scale it back in an effort to find non-government fixes to perceived problems therefore they're doing nothing. Got it.

"Donít get me wrong, though. Iíve got nothing against informed dissent. In fact, itís critical if this whole 'government of, by, and for the people' thing is going to work. Look no further than Kennedy/Vietnam or Cheney/Iraq to see why lack of dissent is bad. But that dissent canít take the form of that guy in the meeting (you know the guy, every meeting has one) who shoots down everyone elseís ideas without ever offering a better idea. (As an old boss of mine used to say, if youíre complaining about one idea without offering a better one, youíre just whining.)"

so if Lean Left suggested that by poking our eyes out with hot sharp sticks we'd protect them from the glare of the sun & a libertarian suggested that perhaps we shouldn't then he'd just be whining? Got it.

Again Lean left misses the idea that a non-government solution is a valid alternative. His unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of the "Let the market decide" option does not mean that it's not the correct one. & by a libertarian complaining about a government idea as being bad it's reasonable to assume that the implied solution is to have government leave us the hell alone.

Course if it makes things clearer here's a note to all libertarians (big & small "L") who discuss anything with the folks at Lean Left: At the end of your naysaying cross yourself while saying "Let The Market Decide" three times so Lean Left will realize that a solution is in fact being proposed.

"And indeed, there are parts of Libertarianism that are actually good and make sense, if kept within reason. There really are a lot of cases where we (and, by extension, the state) ought to err on the side of leaving people alone. Behaviors that donít hurt anybody shouldnít be criminalized. Even self-destructive behaviors neednít be criminalized or regulated. (Now, encouraging people to engage in self-destructive behavior, and actively striving to profit from self-destructive behavior, are other matters). No, itís not so much Libertarianism thatís the problem. Itís self-described libertarians. And in this regard, I find that the small-l variety to be even more annoying than the ones that go all out and embrace the big-L. (At least those in the latter category have the balls to commit.)"

Small "L" libertarians are commitment-phobs? & I thought that I was single before I joined the party because of advances in optometry!

See it's the "kept within reason" thing that keeps me from thinking Lean Left is a "big tent" liberal kind joint. I'm gonna pull out a quote from a guy I'm sure Lean Left views with more distain than Reagan:

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" - Barry Goldwater - 1964 Republican Party Presidential Candidate Acceptance Speech

Sometimes doing something half assed is - well, ya know - half assed. In some things I can live with a half assed approach but when it concerns my freedom I'm an all or all kinda guy. & like it or not things that effect the economy or sectors of it (such as the medical profession) do effect my freedom (albeit indirectly). Right now we have a half assed medical system. It's basically free market in theory but with a quasi-socialized component that distorts said market enough to keep it from operating (bad puns are intentional) the way it should. In my view this half assed approach is not a good thing. Sure it's better than going to fully government subsidized medical care but it's a damn site worse than, oh - I dunno - "Letting The Market Decide"?

"You know what libertarians are? Theyíre that friend you had growing up (and everybody had this friend) who, whenever anyone suggested 'Letís do X,' no matter what X is, they didnít want to do it, but when asked what they want to do, they say 'I donít know.' Theyíre the ultimate hedge-betters. They never have to take any blame when things donít work, because nothing was ever their idea, and they opposed all of everyone elseís idea. They can avoid accountability for any and all problems."

In a word: Bullshit. One of the key tenants of libertarianism is taking accountability. But for your actions; not anyone else's. hedge betting my ass. It's very simple; libertarians want an absolute minimum level of government involvement in our personal lives (which would include our economic lives). Given that we'll fully take all accountability for whatever our actions lead to on an individual basis. To make what I'm typing clear if in an ideal libertarian world I get cancer & cannot afford the health care I need I won't go bitching to the government for a hand out. If someone I know has cancer & needs cash I'll give him/her whatever I feel I can. If someone I don't know wants to go to school I'll happily tell them what I think the best choices are given there situation but I probably won't lend them a dime to enroll. If society collapses because folks do not learn to take accountability for their own lives & futures & the circumstances they find themselves in then so be it. That's Darwinism on a societal level, not a failing of the market or libertarian ideas.

It's a very cold world & it's a very unfair world. Things are unequal for people & things are damn hard for some people. A libertarian world would not make things equal in outcome. What it would do is provide more equality in opportunity which is all we should ever hope for.

"So until self-described libertarians start putting forward a positive agenda; until they start giving us viable ideas for what they are willing to do to address societyís problems; until they start taking ownership of something, anything, apart from their own selfish asses, I not-so-humbly submit that thereís simply no reason to take them seriously."

We do have a positive agenda. It's just not utopian. It recognizes that sometimes life sucks (& not in a good way) & as much as possible works with human nature instead of trying to rise above it. & we do present viable solutions. Theyíre just not usually government sponsored solutions so Lean Left can't comprehend that they'd actually work.

& taking ownership for something other than my selfish ass? Lean Left couldn't seriously be encouraging the acquiring of property could they? I mean that's so - like, mid 17th century. Maybe they've seen the light & will change their name to Lean Locke? No I must have misunderstood.

Libertarians take ownership of themselves. Individually. They typically advocate that idea as the basis for their entire political philosophy. They have even been known to do so in such a way that would imply government does not have the final say over what they do with their bodies or the products of their labors. & to be honest even as minimal a "life" as I have I simply don't have the time or energy to take "ownership' of anything else, including someone else's life.

What it seems Lean left's big contention with libertarians amounts to is that we value individuals over the collective even more so than conservatives (in Lean left's experience). We want the pendulum to swing too far in the direction of freedom for the individual. & with individual freedom comes individual accountability which leaves very little time or energy for collective accountability. Lean Left wants a certain amount of individual freedom but is not happy with the prospect of too much of it as it would result in a lack of importance on the collective which they seem to value over there. After all if every individual is solely responsible for his life & the consequences thereof then he wouldn't have any justification to whine (because no solution was offered it must be whining right?) about us 50 million Americans who lack medical insurance - er, sorry - I meant health care. :)

Libertarianism should be taken seriously. It's not perfect as an ideology but in my view it's better than anything else floating around out there. Some of the principles involved are so important that any free society cannot exist without them - for long anyways. What shouldn't be taken seriously is the idea that since libertarians offer non-government solutions that they're in favor of doing nothing. we are in fact favor of doing a lot of things - it's just most involve individual effort & choice, not government mandates or a safety net.

But freedom is a scary thing, not for the timid.

& Lean Left plans on follow up pieces:

"Related posts, yet-to-be-written: The Market (tm) Doesnít Give A Shit, and Libertarians Deny Global Warming Because Libertarianism Has No Solution To Global Warming "

I would have opted for "The Market: Red In Tooth & Claw" myself but I try to be catchy instead of just ill informed. Course I hope follow ups to their follow ups come out. Perhaps "The Market Doesn't Give Like A Nanny State Will" & "Liberals Deny Libertarian Solutions To Global Warming Because Liberals Think Global Warming Actually Exists" would be decent working titles until they're fully fleshed out.

Walter In Denver has a post that points to an Arnold Kling piece called From Far Left to Libertarian. Might I suggest the folks at Lean Left read that before writing their follow up pieces? Not that I think they'll see the light but maybe they'll do a slightly better job of setting up libertarian straw men.

& just for kicks, any chance the fine folks at Lean Left would be willing to highlight what's wrong with the libertarian view on firearms ownership as opposed to the presumably correct Lean Left take on things gun? This is a gun blog after all & I do like to try to cater to my readers every now & then. :)

Posted by Publicola at January 13, 2007 07:23 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Excellent and well stated, Publicola. I can't add much to that. You've covered all the bases with one exception - a quote I keep posted above my desk at work:

If you have a problem and get advice from a knee-jerk conservative and a knee-jerk liberal, if you take the conservative's advice you'll at least know what problems it will cause.

Posted by: Kevin Baker at January 13, 2007 08:41 PM

So far I've only had time to read the last paragraph:

any chance the fine folks at Lean Left would be willing to highlight what's wrong with the libertarian view on firearms ownership

You'll find my views on firearms to be atypical of "leftists," cf. here.

My only quarrel with the libertarian view on firearms ownership is that it has no viable plan for prevention. Every (sane) person I know, several of them libertarian, acknowledges that there are some people who simply shouldn't have firearms. They acknowledge that anyone who wants to K&BA ought to learn gun safety, take training, demonstrate proficiency, etc. They're simply not willing to require any of those things.

IOW, I fully support an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, recreation, and hunting. In that regard, I'm at odds with many liberals. However, I'm not opposed to requiring things like training and licensing, which puts me at odds with libertarians (whose paranoia concerning links between registration and confiscation I don't share).

You can see why I don't blog about guns very much, given that my middle-of-the-road position is despised by pro-gun and anti-gun forces alike.

I'll try to read the rest of this later. "&" have a nice day. :)

Posted by: tgirsch at January 13, 2007 10:51 PM

Tgirsch,
I wouldn't call it "paranoia". "paranoia" implies that it's either never happened before or has little chance of happening again but we're worried about it anyway. & yes; it's happened in the u.S. & rather recently.

Required training isn't something that most pro-gunners are opposed to. It's the licensing &/or registration required to implement such a program. Now you throw basic firearms safety & handling into the school curriculum at several different grade levels & most libertarians wouldn't have much objection (it could be done under Congress' power to regulate the militia) as long as there's not a list of folks who have taken such training or a requirement to show proof of training prior to purchase.

& I agree & I'll go one further - there are folks I know of who should not be trusted with dull spoons, let alone arms. The problem is who gets to decide? A conservative? (I have long hair so I probably would be deemed unsuitable) A liberal? (I'm a gun nut so I'd probably be deemed unsuitable.) DiFi? (I'm not a government worker so I'd probably be deemed unsuitable.) An ex-g/f? (Oh hell no - after all those lame ass jokes we ain't letting Pub have that!) An old caveat is never pass a law you wouldn't want your political opponent to enforce against you & I really can't think of anyone I'd trust to make the correct decision as to who gets to exercise a basic fundamental Right. I'd point out that free speech is even more dangerous than a firearm yet we have very little restrictions on whom may speak. Or type. I just don't think prior restraint is really worth the effort (i.e. it'll do more harm than good).

But please - get in depth with this so I can justify my use of ampersands in the quest for blog fodder. & hell, I might figure out how to script those tiny little "tm" things in the course of this. :D

Posted by: Publicola at January 14, 2007 07:02 AM

Frankly, upon reading this whole thing, it sounds an awful lot more like wishful thinking than a "fisking."

Libertarian economic policies would almost certainly lead to oligarchic plutocracy (worse even than what we have today), if not outright fuedalism. "Hillary Care" was supposed to result in skyrocketing health care costs and lack of choice. Gee, I sure am glad that didn't get through, so that I may pick among the wide variety of low-cost health-care choices that exist today.

"Let the market decide" is a valid libertarian position.

So long as libertarians don't mind unsafe work environments, toxic dumping, child labor, and Enron-style accounting, I guess you could argue that. The market loves all those things. :)

In fact libertarians do have solutions to a lot of the problems Lean Left complains of. the problem is Lean Left does not like those solutions

The problem is these "solutions" don't have a snowball's chance in hell of actually working. Actually, I'm wrong, which is why there are libertarian paradises all over the world where libertarian policies have been implemented and created just, polite societies which thrive, and in which all citizens get a pony.

Actually most libertarians would suggest a visit from the "Don't Have Kids Until You're In A Position To Care For Them Fairy"

See, that's a fine attitude to take toward the parents, but what about the kids? I know libertarians like to mock the "what about the children" thing, but somehow they always stop short of the logical conclusion of their rhetoric: if you're born to irresponsible parents, tough shit. It's not my problem that your mom couldn't keep her legs closed... That's precisely where libertarianism leads, and yet few libertarians have the courage to state it quite that bluntly.

And that's ultimately why we'll never agree. If humans were solitary creatures, I might be able to get behind a philosophy where one's sole responsibility is to look out for #1, and where there's no shared responsibility for common problems. But humans are social creatures, and we didn't advance this far by saying "screw everybody else, I'm looking out for me."

Libertarianism tries to dress itself up in fancy philosophical discussions about "freedom" and "liberty," but what it's really about is freedom from responsibility, beyond just the very basic level of "don't kill anyone (who didn't deserve it) and don't do great harm to anyone."

A big reason that health care costs are so high isn't that the "evil medical corporation machine" is looking to stick it to us; it's that government subsidation has created a distortion in the market that has artificially inflated pricing.

Neat claim. But I wonder if you've ever heard of this thing called "evidence."

That's Darwinism on a societal level, not a failing of the market or libertarian ideas.

I have to admit, it's refreshing to hear a libertarian so freely admit that libertarianism is essentially social Darwinism. That type of candor is rare.

What a libertarian world would do is provide more equality in opportunity which is all we should ever hope for.

OK, now it's my turn to call bullshit. In a libertarian world, wealth would inevitably concentrate in relatively few hands. This would result not in equal opportunity, and in fact it would result in quite the opposite. The inequality would start from the very beginning. There'd be no public schools at all, so poor parents wouldn't be able to afford to educate their children, and middle-class parents wouldn't be able to afford nearly what the wealthy could. So the children of the wealthy would have an even greater advantage than they do today.

See, that points up another problem with libertarianism: it's predicated on the myth that all it takes to go from rags to riches is hard work. Well, that just ain't so. You need a lot of luck (including being lucky enough to be born to the right parents) and a lot of help. Libertarianism would eliminate what few social equalizers currently exist (public education, estate taxes, etc.).

Most poor people aren't poor because they're lazy (a fact which, if you are as poor as you say, you ought to recognize first-hand). They're poor because of externalities, many of them outside their control. Now if you're okay with that, that's fine, but don't bullshit me and pretend that this reality amounts to "equal opportunity" in any sense.

Theyíre just not usually government sponsored solutions so Lean Left can't comprehend that they'd actually work.

Make it easier for me. Show me examples of where they ever have worked. And spare me the "they took down traffic signs in europe" bit.

What it seems Lean left's big contention with libertarians amounts to is that we value individuals over the collective

Not at all, although I'd give you bonus points for the liberals-as-Borg jab. As I've been trying to point out here, my primary contention with libertarians is that their philosophy can only work if everyone truly does start out on equal footing, and with equal opportunity. But that world simply doesn't exist. In libertarian-world, the single-biggest thing you can do to succeed and get ahead is pick the right parents.

And I think you, like Kevin Baker, are too quick to lump me into your preconceived notions of "liberal socialist." I happen to be a big fan of individual liberty. I just don't happen to think that expecting everyone to share some of the common costs of society is an undue infringement on such liberty. And I certainly don't think trying to regulate against corporate exploitation is, either.

As I told Kevin Baker, I don't want some kind of socialist Utopia. I think pure socialism has about as much a chance of working as pure capitalism. What I want, instead, is a system where capitalism and socialism are in tension. Where neither one gains too much of an advantage over the other. I think the worst thing we could do is throw out either one of those concepts in favor of the other. Where the market does a good job of providing, by all means, leave it to the market. Where it doesn't, that's where it's time to step in and tweak.

Finally, WRT global warming, denying it doesn't make it fiction. Pretty much every climatologist not named Richard Lindzen agrees that it's a very real problem. Even prominent libertarian scientist and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer has come around. But set aside, for the moment, your objections to global warming science, and assume, for the sake of argument, that it's real, that the predictions are correct, and that the only way to fight it is to drastically reduce fossil fuel emission. What's the libertarian solution to this? Seriously, how do you solve that without governments stepping in and regulating? If you can come up with that solution, you might just win a Nobel prize.

Posted by: tgirsch at January 14, 2007 10:53 PM

WRT global warming, denying it doesn't make it fiction. Pretty much every climatologist not named Richard Lindzen agrees that it's a very real problem. Even prominent libertarian scientist and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer has come around. But set aside, for the moment, your objections to global warming science, and assume, for the sake of argument, that it's real, that the predictions are correct, and that the only way to fight it is to drastically reduce fossil fuel emission. What's the libertarian solution to this? Seriously, how do you solve that without governments stepping in and regulating? If you can come up with that solution, you might just win a Nobel prize.

Willie Soon and Sallie Balunis don't buy into it either. Neither does Pat Michael (well, he thinks it might be happening, but not because of humans).

Of course, the Russians are more concered about global cooling.

and low and behold, now that they defeated the Republicans, even the New York Times isn't so gung ho on the idea any more ... admitting finally that there might actually be more to the issue than their last 6 years worth of reporting.

Posted by: countertop at January 16, 2007 06:20 AM

As I've been trying to point out here, my primary contention with libertarians is that their philosophy can only work if everyone truly does start out on equal footing, and with equal opportunity.

As I tried to point out on your blog but probably did a poor job, that assumes that Libertarians are outcome based just like liberals.

Liberals are the ones obsessed with the outcome always being equal.

Libertarian definition of a system "working" does not involve everyone having equal incomes, the same size house, identical health care opportunities and playboy bunny wives.

Libertarian definition of a system "working" has everything to do with poeple's destinies being a function of their own efforts and desires. They begin from their starting point, wherever that happens to be...yes, decided by luck of the draw and who their parents are...and go as far as their desire, capabilities and motivations take them. That is a system that works. It doesn't guarantee equal outcomes, only equal opportunities.

The government knocking some people down to keep them from getting too far ahead of their competitors is not a system that "works".

A rising tide really does lift all boats. Unless you really believe that "poor" people in the US, with their big screen TV's, cell phones and spinny wheels on their beater cars, are truly "poor" in the classical sense.

Posted by: Sailorcurt at January 17, 2007 11:32 AM