Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why liberal sensibilities turned me Libertarian

I take no end of abuse for saying I am libertarian. Libertarians are the ones that believe that the police and federal highways should be private, remember? And they are just closet republicans that want to smoke dope. And they magically believe that the free market will solve everything. And libertarians don't want to help anybody. So I must be an asshole.

Well, I'll cop to the asshole part, but none of rest of the above is true for this particular libertarian. So I will offer a small apologia.

I'll make it quick, because my conservative and liberal friends will soon drown me out with their incessant squawking about how evil I am.

I don't think that everything can be private. Incentives matter, and there are lots of times when the incentives would be all wrong for private ownership. No one should own the air. Highways can be made private successfully, but in general, there is a sort of monopoly relationship that gets established that isn't healthy.

The legitimate initiation of force needs to be confined to someone at least sort of beholden to everyone. The perverse incentives here are probably obvious. Private security and military operations have their place (I live in the hometown of the founder of Blackwater. Whatever you think of their performance in Iraq, they have a track record of success overall. Yes, they slightly give me the oogies. But so do exterminators.)

My argument can be distilled to a salient example that illustrates my general feelings, which are that if it is ethical, possible and practical to keep things out of the hands of government, then it should be left to individuals. There is a lot of room for debate. That's fine. I welcome it. But this lets you know from where I start, and what sort of convincing you'd have to do to overcome my bedrock assumptions.

Biofuels are in the news. They are helping starve the third world. Yet, they are almost entirely the project of governments that are trying to do environmental good. Pressure was applied from many quarters for the government to mandate biofuels, irrespective of the fact that many economists could see, and verily shouted from the rooftops, that this would create food shortages. The reliably 'progressive' newspaper, the Independent in London (I'm picking on a British paper because I can't mention a domestic news source that right and left won't declare as in the tank for the other side) said in 2005

"At last, some refreshing signs of intelligent thinking on climate change are coming out of Whitehall. The Environment minister, Elliot Morley, reveals today in an interview with this newspaper that the Government is drawing up plans to impose a 'biofuel obligation' on oil companies ... . This has the potential to be the biggest green innovation in the British petrol market since the introduction of unleaded petrol."

Imposing a biofuel obligation was the only way the market would respond. Biofuels do not make economic sense. I'm not going to argue with you- they don't, or they would be pursued in the absence of subsidies. Now, there can be other reasons to do things that are uneconomic, but the environmental argument doesn't hold up well, either. The same newspaper said last week:

"The production of biofuel is devastating huge swaths of the world's environment. So why on Earth is the government forcing us to use more of it?"

I cribbed this observation from Mark Steyn, but even if he were the devil, the damnation comes from their own history. The environmental degradation the Independent decried is not half the problem. The incentives provided for biofuel have incentivized food right out of starving people's mouths.

This bothers me. I do have a heart. I care about people, and I care about the earth. I just think that government, despite its best intentions, ends up making things worse much of the time. Other times, the intentions are not good, and are the raw exercise of power to curry favor. Not everything can be left to the free market (of ideas, as much as money). But given the unresponsiveness of government, and the lack of feedback to dissuade them from disastrous policies (yes, I am thinking of the War on Drugs, despite not partaking myself), having economic chains to yank can give us all more power than ceding all our power to government.


At Monday, July 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating. What you seem to be saying is that the people are more reliable and adaptable than the government that represents them. Perhaps that is what is meant by the tenth amendment to the Constitution.

At Monday, July 07, 2008, Blogger David Eaton said...


It took a good course in microeconomics for me to begin to see this. Once this initial seed was planted, I found that this general sense that you describe fit the data really well.

What is unfortunate, in my eyes, is that I had always left human behavior out of the normal rational processes that I followed on scientific matters. Maybe part of it was hubris, thinking that anything outside physical science had to be too nebulous to analyze.

I see this again and again amongst scientists I know. They completely abandon reason in favor of squishy feelings of what 'ought' to be when it comes to economics and human choice. It's too bad.


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