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What Should We Libertarians Call Ourselves? How About Libertarian!

David's post raises the perennial issue of what term libertarians should use to refer to themselves. I propose the radical option of embracing the term by which we are already known to 90% of the people who know about us at all: libertarian.

If I were writing on a blank slate, I would argue that we should opt for the terminology favored by F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman and still used in Australia and many European countries: what we call libertarians should be called "liberals," today's liberals should be called "social democrats" (as they are in most of Europe), and the nonlibertarian right can continue to be known as "conservatives," while the word "conservative" should NOT be used to refer to libertarians. Hayek even wrote an essay entitled "Why I am Not a Conservative" to explain the differences between conservatism and liberalism/libertarianism; most of his points are highly relevant today.

However, Hayek and Friedman lost this terminological battle a long time ago, and I'm not sure we should want the term "liberal" back today even if we could have it. After all, the word now has such negative associations that even many liberals (in the modern sense of the word) no longer use it and have instead taken to calling themselves "progressives."

Sticking to "libertarian" avoids the substantial annoyance and cost of trying to change the language. Moreover, the term has important positive connotations because of the link to the word "liberty," traditionally perhaps the most important of American values and among the most important principles of Western civilization more generally. The other terms proposed by various people are either awkward ("market liberal"), confusing ("classical liberal"), or lacking in any positive connotations ("minarchist," etc.).

Regarding David's suggestion of "free exchange," I think it's clever, but has several shortcomings. Most important, many of the freedoms defended by libertarians do not involve any kind of exchange. Moreover, the term is more awkward and has fewer positive connotations than libertarianism. Indeed, for many people, the word "exchange" may conjure up negative images of evil capitalists or scam artists.

Libertarians today face many daunting obstacles, but I don't think that the need for a new name is one of them. The one we have is perfectly fine, especially compared to the available alternatives.

UPDATE: David e-mails:

I didn't say libertarians shouldn't call themselves libertarians. I was raising the question of what a libertarian should say when asked what he believes in. "Liberty," in my view, doesn't quite cut it, nor, as I blogged, do individualism, classical liberalism, etc.

I apologize for misinterpreting his post. I think the misunderstanding arose from the fact that most of the terms he discussed (e.g. - classical liberalism, market liberalism, etc.) are usually thought of as substitutes for the term "libertarianism" rather than as explanations of its meaning.

Nonetheless, I think most of my original points stand, to the extent that they were directed at the general debate over what libertarians should call themselves rather than at David's arguments specifically. Regarding the term "free exchange," I think most of my reservations about it apply even if it is used only in the way David envisions. If I had to come up with a short explanatory phrase about what libertarianism means, I would prefer something like "maximizing liberty" or "minimizing the power of government." Obviously, these would require explanation in order to apply to particular issues (and even libertarians will disagree about the applications among themselves). But the same is true of any brief phrase - as David pointed out in his original post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. What Should We Libertarians Call Ourselves? How About Libertarian!
  2. "Free Exchange":
Lev:
The problem with libertarians calling themselves libertarians, is that probably for most of the population that means libertarians are calling themselves kooks. For it is the kook libertarians who say that government ownership of everthing should be abolished, government should be reduced to a tiny military structure suitable to organized the private citizens...or at least those who wish to participate...when the country is actually invaded, all government programs should be abolished, and the "oath" not to initiate force against others, whatever that means, must be taken by part members.

Kookdom.
7.6.2006 12:29am
Ilya Somin:
Lev,

I suspect that most of those people who know about what you call the "kook" libertarians also know that they are not the only libertarians out there, or even the majority of them. It makes little sense to abandon the term merely to disassociate ourselves from them.

Moreover, we cannot get away from the fact that people who are more radical in their libertarianism than, say, I am, are still libertarians. For example, there are important commonalities between even the most moderate libertarians and libertarian anarchists such as David Friedman and Murray Rothbard. We disagree on several major points, but we also share some important common principles. Every political ideology has a radical element within it, and libertarianism is no exception.
7.6.2006 12:37am
Fishbane (mail):
I'm a libertarian voting Democrat. Executive power is my main issue, right now, and if that means holding my nose, so be it. Libertarians have no power. Libertarians that behave in the system we have (hold your nose), might help.

It is with some regret that I have to cross paths with the social conservative types. I'm terribly sorry, but burning flags, fags, or any other of the flurry of sillyness going on in congress really gets me off. Especially when we're supposed to be in a "time of war".

I can already predict the NYT attacks...

Let me just say that I had a wonderful experience in a parking lot, watching the NYC fireworks (from two different angles, no less) with a bundle of immigrants, who loved it. They were more enthusiastic picture takers than I was, so I gave up my place. Watching a six-year old kid talk about being an American is cool. That doesn't change if her parents didn't get papers.
7.6.2006 12:45am
Dean Esmay (www):
I have almost invariably found that "classical liberal" is perfectly understandable to most people and if they don't understand it they can quickly be explained as, "like Libertarians but not nuts. For free markets and individual freedom but not to extremes."
7.6.2006 12:46am
Fishbane (mail):
going on in congress really gets me off.

Gah, sorry, doesn't get[s] me off.
7.6.2006 12:47am
David Krinsky (mail):
Is minimizing the power of government a goal of libertarianism? I would argue that the goal of libertarianism is to minimize the role of government in ordering society. Minimizing government power is only one way--perhaps the best way, but perhaps not--to get there.

I think one can consistently believe in libertarianism but also believe that, for instance, the British concept of parliamentary sovereignty (in which there are no effective limits on the power of government) works adequately. Indeed, I suspect there are a large number of British libertarians who advocate that libertarian positions be enacted by Parliament, but who do not challenge the existing political process.
7.6.2006 12:51am
steve ex-expat (mail) (www):
Well, "conservatives" and "libertarians" who support the war and don't deem to enlist can all be called "chickenhawks". Otherwise, I think libertarians could call themselves "Conservatives who aren't that into Jesus, but love guns, coporate pollution and long for an aristocracy." I know it's a little long, but you want to capture the full essence of libertarianism. I hope that was helpful.
7.6.2006 1:45am
Swimmy:
I saw some insulting liberals refer to us as "propertarians" and, honestly, I thought it was a handy term. You might say that it would conjure thoughts of the evils of consumerism or property worship, but how often are the insulting terms the ones that eventually become the standard? ("Capitalism" anyone?)

A friend likes to throw around the term "libertoid." The difference between those and libertarians? In his words, "between the pure platonic world and the one made out of brick and mortar and statists is this thing called 'reality' that makes incremental steps the only ones that count"

Well, whatever. My only problem with the term is that I don't care for the Libertarian Party much at all. Then again, how many conservatives oppose the current Republican agenda?
7.6.2006 2:03am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
It occurs to me, I did a pretty interesting post, more-or-less on this subject, as my first post as a full-fledged blogger. If anyone cares to check it out, I've reprinted it here. Excerpt:

One of the subjects which has piqued my fancy recently is the concept of N-dimensional variants on the classic Nolan chart. This was initiated a few weeks ago when I read this TCS article by Eugene Miller, on a link from Virginia Postrel. In it Miller attempts, quite successfully, to typify political philosophies on a Nolanesce grid – embrace of change forming one axis, and the need for control over change forming the other.
7.6.2006 2:31am
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I always thought of Libertarians as Republicans who smoke pot and who, during college, found Ayn Rand to be a thoughtful and inspiring writer. Perhaps that is because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (land of Cannabis buyers clubs).

Some of the VC posters who apparently fancy themselves as libertarians strike me as conservatives, but with some non-uniform positions (mainly, on gay rights). But, maybe they fit my definition and I just don't know them well enough. (No need to confess to the pot-smoking).
7.6.2006 2:34am
Ilya Somin:
I always thought of Libertarians as Republicans who smoke pot and who, during college, found Ayn Rand to be a thoughtful and inspiring writer. Perhaps that is because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (land of Cannabis buyers clubs).

Some of the VC posters who apparently fancy themselves as libertarians strike me as conservatives, but with some non-uniform positions (mainly, on gay rights).


I think you have some misconceptions about both libertarianism and various VC members. Whether or not they themselves ever smoked pot (and it is a silly assumption to think that you have to smoke pot to favor its legalization, much less to be a libertarian more generally), libertarians support the right of all people to do a wide range of things that most conservatives would like government to forbid. Legalized drug use is just one of many examples (others include flag burning, prostitution, using "obscene" words in print and on the airwaves, abolition of most if not all zoning laws, legalized gambling, and many more).

As for the VC bloggers who "fancy themselves libertarians," I can assure you that most if not all of us support a wide range of things that wouldn't exactly please the average conservative (and in some cases might make him cringe). Of course we have fewer differences with those conservatives that genuinely favor strict limits on government power, as opposed to the "big government conservatives" of the Bush Administration. But even so there are some major disagreements, particularly on so-called "social issues."
7.6.2006 2:58am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Fishbane-

I'm a libertarian voting Democrat. Executive power is my main issue, right now, and if that means holding my nose, so be it. Libertarians have no power. Libertarians that behave in the system we have (hold your nose), might help.

But what can be done "in the system"? The system is dedicated to maintaining and expanding its size, scope, and power, so you wind up hurting your interests more often than not. This is a major issue for libertarians that needs some heavy and original thought. Voting for gridlock seems like it might be a good interim measure, but one party is always bad on some major libertarian issues and in some cases both parties are bad on some major issues.

Swimmy-

I saw some insulting liberals refer to us as "propertarians" and, honestly, I thought it was a handy term. You might say that it would conjure thoughts of the evils of consumerism or property worship, but how often are the insulting terms the ones that eventually become the standard? ("Capitalism" anyone?)

That whole leftist condemnation of property rights is really wacky. There's some kind of weird psychological dynamic going on there - like they are the ones fixated on property but they have to condemn it because they feel guilty about it. Like the firebrand preacher with the mistress, the secret drunk that criticizes everyone's drinking, etc. And don't draw attention to the fact that doing away with property rights tends to pretty quickly result in starvation, corruption, misery, etc. Funny, but I'll bet their stance on property rights would change pretty quickly when the neighborhood commisar came for some of their prized possessions - "for the common good", of course.
7.6.2006 5:31am
Dean Esmay (www):
Well, "conservatives" and "libertarians" who support the war and don't deem to enlist can all be called "chickenhawks".

Bwahahahahahaa! Since when did Libertarians ever suggest that you can only support a war that you personally fight in? Do you REALLY mean to suggest that only members of the armed forces can have an opinion? Okay sport, tell ya what: let's let everybody stationed in Iraq decide by vote whether the mission should continue. Oh, wait, over 70% of them voted for Bush last time around, so we already know don't we.

Some of us tried to enlist but couldn't get in due to medical problems, by the way. And some of us have dearly loved family and friends over there.

But Abraham Lincoln never fought in any war. Neither did Thomas Jefferson. So what's your point exactly?
7.6.2006 6:00am
SLS 1L:
I suspect looking for a short explanatory phrase is a misguided task. If a political philosophy is at all nuanced, it simply won't be possible to condense it into a short phrase. I couldn't condense the meaning of "progressive" into a few words.
7.6.2006 8:50am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Dope-Smokin,No Tax payin, Gun ownin, Home Schoolin surrender Monkeys.
7.6.2006 9:32am
Will (mail) (www):
How about Hayek's second choice:

Whig.
7.6.2006 10:02am
llamasex (mail) (www):
Why not let the market decide?
7.6.2006 10:23am
JimSaco (mail):
The danger that lurks is that, apparently, Kos and his ilk are going to try to appropriate the term "libertarian" for themselves. He's apparently planning to write his next book on it.

What those statist, let-the-government-solve-everything types have in common with the leading lights of classical liberalism, I will never know.
7.6.2006 10:28am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
libertarians support the right of all people to do a wide range of things that most conservatives would like government to forbid. Legalized drug use is just one of many examples (others include flag burning, prostitution, using "obscene" words in print and on the airwaves, abolition of most if not all zoning laws, legalized gambling, and many more).

Ilya, don't get too broad there. Libertarianism is a "political" philosophy not a social, esthetic, theological, or even (surprisingly) a broad moral philosophy.

We disfavor a monopolist, collective system of social control as well as interpersonal and intergroup aggression but we can each favor almost any social control we like outside of the monopoly context.

Thus a given PUD, religion, club, or 'society' can impose any restrictions it likes on its members.

Thus the Amish seem reasonably liberterian (though I don't know if they have a specific political philosophy beyond their church) even though they wouldn't seem to be too libertine. Disfellowship seems to be the major method of social control.
7.6.2006 11:25am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Duncan Frissell-

We disfavor a monopolist, collective system of social control as well as interpersonal and intergroup aggression but we can each favor almost any social control we like outside of the monopoly context.

Thus a given PUD, religion, club, or 'society' can impose any restrictions it likes on its members.

Thus the Amish seem reasonably liberterian (though I don't know if they have a specific political philosophy beyond their church) even though they wouldn't seem to be too libertine. Disfellowship seems to be the major method of social control.


I don't think so, Duncan. Most libertarians aren't looking for a surrogate mommy or daddy, whether that constitutes the government or "community" groups.

A lot of the "community social control" mechanisms you mention are just collectivist, elitist, and/or majoritarian totalitarianism. So no, I don't want the town gossips, prudes, religious fanatics, and busybodies trying to force their opinions on me any more than I want the government doing it.

This "community social control" that some libertarians push is astounding - it's like they want a set of chains and someone to make their decisions for them and no matter what they'll manage to find or create them.
7.6.2006 11:45am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
The main problem with the word "libertarian" is that many people will assume you mean "Libertarian," i.e., that you're claiming membership in the LP rather than describing a theoretical position. "Classical liberal" largely avoids this, and also is unlikley to be confused with "libruhl" in the left-progressive sense. But I see the objections that others have made to "classical liberal," and admit there's no easy or obvious solution. That's one problem with labels generally I guess.
BTW: the word "Propertarian" is from a 1974 LeGuin novel.
7.6.2006 11:49am
Medis:
I mentioned the term "mild libertarian" in the other thread, and it seems to work for me. I also ended up concluding that one possible summary of my beliefs is "a strong preference for autonomy", so if I had wanted to coin a term, I might have suggested "autonomist" (which, handily, sounds a little like a play on "economist").

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, it turns out that a branch of Marxism has already laid claim to "autonomism". I guess it is no surprise that a movement with so many schisms has already taken all the best terms, but it is a little annoying.

So, I guess "mild libertarian" it will have to be.

By the way: I feel like I have very little in common with those libertarians who think that it is only the government which is a problem, and that other institutions can (and perhaps should) be as repressive and coercive as they want to be. I generally don't favor such institutions even if they aren't governments (and there is not always a neat distinction between government and such institutions), although I do recognize that there is a bit of a dilemma for libertarians like me with respect to what, if anything, the government should be doing in regards to such institutions.
7.6.2006 11:54am
Sean Sirrine (mail) (www):
I think we should start calling ourselves the Common Sense Party.
7.6.2006 12:22pm
SeaLawyer:
The essay by F.A. Hayek does not really fit the American definition of a Conservative.
7.6.2006 12:41pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
I think Aeon makes an important distinction between "l" and "L" ibertarians. On another blog, I refered to myself as a libertarian and offended some Libertarians. I don't like the Libertarian's party's obession againt Bush and Iraq (I was not in favor of going to Iraq but being against Bush and Iraq is hardly a long term defining philosophy especially relative to Dems).

Overall, I think the libertatians need to do more education in the way of bumper stickers. Libertarians (intentional ambiguity) need to define themselves and distinguish themselves from the other parties in simple to understand terms. Clayton Cramer has some suggestions on his blog and I have a few on mine: http://closetlibertarian.blogspot.com/
7.6.2006 12:53pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I always enjoyed that the "Liberal Democrat" party of the former soviet union was one of the most racist right wing organizations to ever get votes.
7.6.2006 12:54pm
Irensaga (mail):
What about those of us who embrace a "realist" foreign policy, advocate for more traditional moral values, and are equally distrustful of "big business" as we are of "big government?"

I am repulsed by the "liberal" moral wasteland. But I find completely ridiculous, the assumption (shared by both libertarians and Republicans) that the "free market" is some sort of magic-pixie-dust that will make everything better, as long as you think "happy thoughts."

Where's is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him?

"Progressive Party" anyone?
7.6.2006 1:08pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
I always thought that libertarians were nothing more than right wing anarchists that can only be distinguished from the left wing ones by being much neater and the object of their wrath (they still hate government but love big business).

The central tenet of libertarianism, that private property is somehow a natural right that transcends the institution of government, is absurd. Without government there is no such thing as property or liberty. You just have stuff that hasn't been taken from you by someone or something with a bigger stick or sharper teeth.
7.6.2006 2:06pm
Medis:
SeaLawyer,

I think that is an interesting topic--what do you see as the distinctions?

Closet Libertarian,

I suspect that a "Libertarian Party" is going to continue to be an oxymoron for the conceivable future. It seems to me that for libertarians, there are basically two, non-exclusive, viable options when it comes to partisan politics:

(1) Support the more libertarian-minded candidate regardless of party;

(2) Support those allocations of power among the viable parties which in practice are most likely to lead to more libertarian results.

In general, I think that libertarians just need to accept the fact that partisan contests for political power appeal to something deep in human nature, and thus that most people will not be willing to sign onto an agenda that does not allow them to root for a team with a chance of "winning" political power. But with enough libertarians following their own voting strategy, and a sufficiently even division among the partisans, the libertarians could have a pretty significant swing effect.
7.6.2006 2:08pm
Paul S (mail) (www):
Another vote for a 'too short to put on a bumper sticker':

I believe you know better how to run your life than anyone else. So long as you do not cause physical harm to others' property or person, you may continue to run your life as you see fit.

Or:

The government has no role other than the protection of invasion/attack by another state, protection of basic property rights, and settlement of contract disputes.
7.6.2006 2:35pm
MDJD2B (mail):
I don't think so, Duncan. Most libertarians aren't looking for a surrogate mommy or daddy, whether that constitutes the government or "community" groups. A lot of the "community social control" mechanisms you mention are just collectivist, elitist, and/or majoritarian totalitarianism. This "community social control" that some libertarians push is astounding - it's like they want a set of chains and someone to make their decisions for them and no matter what they'll manage to find or create them.

I think you misunderstood Duncan. He does not INSIST that there be such social control, but he believes that such social control is acceptable as long as membership in the community is voluntary, and that the community is not so powerful as to be, de facto, exercising compulsion over others to accet its strictures.

Disclaimer: I am NOT a libertarian.
7.6.2006 2:50pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
The government has no role other than the protection of invasion/attack by another state, protection of basic property rights, and settlement of contract disputes.

Of course the bumper sticker will be obscured by the clouds of black smoke emitted from the tail pipe and the dust from the dirt road as there will be no emissions control and no paved road in this libertarian utopia.
7.6.2006 2:55pm
SeaLawyer:
Medis,
At least in my view an American Conservative isn't opposed to change. They are opposed to changes that reduce individual liberty, and changes they think are harmful to society as a whole. I guess you could say a "if is not broke don't fix it" attitude. I don't have a lot of time to write down everything that I think an American Conservative is, but I hope that sums it up.
7.6.2006 3:06pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
Tsk Tsk Freder:

in the libertarian utopia, rich people will voluntarily live in "clean" communities where everyone voluntarily contracts with each other not to pollute (which includes a ban on polluting vehicles), and they sue each other for breaching that contract. They will also use all of the money they save from taxes to pave their own roads.

Of course, the poor and middle class (i.e., most of us) are screwed, but isn't that always the case.

Anyway, it will work out well for us civil litigators.
7.6.2006 3:06pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
On the capital vs. lower case "L" question, I generally refer to myself as an undeclared libertarian, so as to set myself apart from both the LP and the "libertarian wing" of the GOP.
7.6.2006 3:08pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
No Paul, Freder and Cooke, what you are talking about is an anarcho-capitalist utopia. Libertarian first principles allow for protection of the commons.
7.6.2006 3:27pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
Paul S.,

I still think your slogan would be better broken into several distinct subjects: No Nany State for me, DoD should live up to its name: Defense, Give me private property or at least reasonable compensation, Contracts for all. (Yes, I know these need work for accuracy and catchyness: please help). At the end of each or in different font is "Vote Libertarian".

Freder and Christopher,

My philosophy (and the way I interpret libertarianism) is different from anarcharism. There is a role for government in providing national security, police, courts, and some regulation; and paying for some education and other public goods (not providing these directly). As an order of magnitude, the federal government should be one quarter to one half of its current size. The states and local gov would pick up some of these functions but drop some others (net effect would vary by state).
7.6.2006 3:35pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Irensaga-

What about those of us who embrace a "realist" foreign policy, advocate for more traditional moral values, and are equally distrustful of "big business" as we are of "big government?"

You could have the strictest traditional moral values imagineable and still be a libertarian. You would just have to refrain from trying to force them on other people. Therein lies a problem, because many people with traditional moral values think they have a right to force their values on other people. But this point is why a more libertarian society, if the libertarians really lived by their principles, would be a more peaceful society.

Many libertarians, including myself, are equally distrustful of big government and big business. Its a common misconception that just because we support free markets we worship big business and believe they can do no wrong. Quite the contrary - often big business colludes with big government to create distortions that favor them in the marketplace. Big business also often contributes - directly or indirectly - to the increase in the size, scope, and power of government. That is all anti-liberty and anti-free market.

As far as "realist" foreign policy is concerned, it depends on what your definition of "realist" is.

I am repulsed by the "liberal" moral wasteland. But I find completely ridiculous, the assumption (shared by both libertarians and Republicans) that the "free market" is some sort of magic-pixie-dust that will make everything better, as long as you think "happy thoughts."

The "free market" is truly a magical thing. No violence. No coercion. Each party benefits or they wouldn't undertake the transaction. It is pretty utopian, and if allowed to operate relatively unfettered it does tend to make many things better. Most of the problems occur when people engage in force or fraud or the government engages in force or fraud or screws things up - none of which are failings of the free market.

Just imagine how vibrant the economy would be if taxes were about 15% or so. Much less unemployment - probably as close to full employment as you could get. Much less poverty. Life-improving and wealth creating technological developments left and right. Etc, etc, etc....That free market pixie-dust tends to work pretty well when its allowed to operate.

Don't know about the "liberal" moral wasteland. But I do know that if society was more libertarian it would be more peaceful and happy because for the most part people -from the complete puritan to the complete hedonist - would not be trying to force their values or way of life on others.
7.6.2006 5:16pm
Peter Jackson (mail) (www):

Thanks to Nozick, I think the term "libertarian" in it's most common usage today implies a full-blown philosophical position, not unlike "utilitarian" or "objectivist" or "Marxist." And as Lev points out at the top of the comments, thanks to the philosophically strident voices of folks like Murray Rothbard (bless his soul), "libertarian" conjures the concept "kook" for those who are ironically unfamiliar with either Nozick or Rothbard. Unfortunately for the Libertarian Party, of which I was a twenty-plus year member until approximately 9/11/01, they have chosen to align their political movement so closely with their parent philosophy (see "the oath") that their tent simply isn't big enough to accomodate those sympathic to their politics but not adherents of the total philosophy.

For that reason I've decided to call my politics "liberal capitalism." I believe this term updates "classical liberalism" while simultaneously drawing a concise distinction from the modern left, which is simply classical liberalism retrofitted with Marxian economic premises.

And "Liberal Capitalist Party" has a nice ring to it IMHO.

=8^]

yours/
peter.
7.6.2006 5:20pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
MDJD2B-

I think you misunderstood Duncan. He does not INSIST that there be such social control, but he believes that such social control is acceptable as long as membership in the community is voluntary, and that the community is not so powerful as to be, de facto, exercising compulsion over others to accet its strictures.

Possibly, if he meant things as you present them I would not have much to disagree with. But I think what you present might be improbable, since "community social control" groups tend to grow into things that can very easily become coercive.
7.6.2006 5:22pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
peter-

Unfortunately for the Libertarian Party, of which I was a twenty-plus year member until approximately 9/11/01, they have chosen to align their political movement so closely with their parent philosophy (see "the oath") that their tent simply isn't big enough to accomodate those sympathic to their politics but not adherents of the total philosophy.

I couldn't find the "oath", but what changed on 9/11? A libertarian administration could hunt down and punish those responsible just as well as any other. Probably better - they wouldn't be distracted by neoconservative master plans to try to change the whole middle east.
7.6.2006 5:39pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Just imagine how vibrant the economy would be if taxes were about 15% or so. Much less unemployment - probably as close to full employment as you could get. Much less poverty. Life-improving and wealth creating technological developments left and right. Etc, etc, etc....That free market pixie-dust tends to work pretty well when its allowed to operate.

And you know this how? Other than snorting the free market pixie dust?
7.6.2006 5:54pm
Peter Jackson (mail) (www):
I couldn't find the "oath", but what changed on 9/11?

Here's the oath; it's the little checkbox at the top of the form. It's the core principle of libertarian ethics.

As for what changed on 9/11, the answer is that I did. It's when I realized that when it comes to foreign affairs, there is no "invisible hand."

yours/
peter.
7.6.2006 6:08pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
How about this for a bumper sticker:

Libertarian: Not just another stoned Republican.
7.6.2006 6:14pm
Swimmy:

I am repulsed by the "liberal" moral wasteland. But I find completely ridiculous, the assumption (shared by both libertarians and Republicans) that the "free market" is some sort of magic-pixie-dust that will make everything better, as long as you think "happy thoughts."

This is actually pretty funny, as libertarian rhetoric against your own position would probably take the same form. Something like: "I find completely ridiculous the assumption that, because free markets are not perfect, we should try to fix them by investing power into a wildly inefficient and monopolistic bureaucracy."

Of course, either one is a reductio ad absurdum that doesn't really get us anywhere. There are collective action and externality problems that arise from a free market, and there are externality problems and infringements upon freedom that result from government regulation and intervention. Our goal, as politicians, political scientists or philosophers, economists, lawyers, or whatever, is to find or advocate a system of rules that enhances whatever we believe to be the most beneficial relative to the costs. Often our personal weights on certain benefits over certain costs are highly subjective--hence why it appears that free market advocates are blindly faithful. (I'm reminded of an episode of Friedman's Free To Choose in which he argued with British economist Peter Jay that we could only serve one god--freedom or equality. Jay held that small reductions in freedom were all right if they brought about great increases in equality.) Of course, most are not, just as American liberals are not blindly faithful in government.

Might I recommend Buchanan and Tullock's Calculus of Consent for more?
7.6.2006 6:23pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Each party benefits or they wouldn't undertake the transaction.

So Ken Lay or Bernie Ebbers wouldn't exist in a free market? Or did Enron and WorldCom happen only because of the government regulation, not in spite of it?

If you believe they wouldn't be around to sucker innocent rubes and sophisticated investors alike (along with all the Kenyan princes who are sending out emails looking for a trustworthy person to transfer their millions of dollars to an American bank) well then I know this guy in the Ivory Coast and he has $45 million he is trying to get out of the country, and if you will just . . .
7.6.2006 6:27pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Life-improving and wealth creating technological developments left and right

There are some things the free market is just lousy at. Basic research is one, providing health care and protecting worker rights and safety is another (most libertarians are virulently anti-union but not anti-corporation, both are legal fictions that only exist and have rights because of the government). And the market simply cannot be brought to bear to put a price on the air we breath, the value of nature, love or peace, or why a people are gay (as Posner once tried to do in what was one of the most intentionally hilarious essays I have ever written--If he wasn't dead serious I would have put it up there with some of the greatest pieces of satire in history).
7.6.2006 7:03pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Of course that should be "I have ever read" Perish the thought I would ever claim authorship to something written by the Great and Powerful Richard Posner.
7.6.2006 7:12pm
Irensaga (mail):
How exactly do you fix imperfections (and they aren't "minor imperfections" either) in the free market without invoking bureaucracy?

Just curious.
7.6.2006 7:21pm
Medis:
SeaLawyer,

You say: "At least in my view an American Conservative isn't opposed to change. They are opposed to changes that reduce individual liberty, and changes they think are harmful to society as a whole."

I'm not sure this definition is going to work. First, suppose, say, that someone advocated a change that would reduce individual liberty somewhat, but increase national security. Could this person be an American Conservative? In general, is it really true that American Conservatives are liberty maximizers?

Second, I'm pretty sure that almost every political ideology opposes changes insofar as such changes would be harmful to society as a whole. Instead, what I think defines much of political ideology is what people think would be harmful to society.

So, the first clause strikes me as too restrictive, and the second clause as too broad.

Incidentally, I don't have any particular definition of American conservatism in mind. Personally, I think that both "conservative" and "liberal" are almost entirely devoid of nonpartisan meaning in America.
7.6.2006 7:40pm
Swimmy:

How exactly do you fix imperfections (and they aren't "minor imperfections" either) in the free market without invoking bureaucracy?

This is a very large question. It's worth several books, at least one for each public policy question. I think, before you examine typical libertarian answers, it's important to recognize that there are many market failures that very few people would desire the government to fix. For instance, externalities (like pollution) can be very broadly defined--any outcome from a two-party transaction which imposes a harmful cost on a third party is a negative externality. A favorite of some anti-regulation economists is the ugly shirt externality: if I buy an ugly shirt and wear it, and another person sees that shirt and is offended by it, it is a very standard negative externality.

Another example of a standard market failure that most people would like to leave uncorrected: In Buck v. Bell, judge Holmes offered a public-good-provision argument for compulsory sterilization. He said, "The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes." Even if eugenics were not garbage science, I, and I hope most others, would still consider this regulation deplorable.

Another example, one of Ronald Coase's favorites: People are generally in favor of government provision of markets that involve public goods and positive externalities. The standard example is education--an educated population generally increases the standard of living for everyone, and a poorly educated populace can decrease the standard of living for everyone, especially in a democracy. So, because we worry about underprovision under a free market, the government controls education. But each of the same issues are involved with media. Misinformation or insufficient information can spread through the press, and an excellent press corps would lead to excellent results for democracy and society. But do we want the government controlling the media?

Because of issues like these, many libertarians are more comfortable with underprovision of public goods or with the costs of negative externalities than others. However, with very serious problems (like pollution, underprovision of roads and other goods, malnourishment in working class citizens, etc.) libertarians often suggest private collective action to cope. Moreover, they often invoke the Coase Theorem to deal with externalities. Private action can still be insufficient, but government action can just the same overprovide or overregulate. (Can you say "nuclear proliferation"?) Many others recommend reducing the role of the government to an information-provider rather than a regulator. (This is especially true for consumer-protection functions such as the FDA.)

Gosh, that was a long response. Sorry. But, like I said, a book could be written for each public policy question you want to ask.
7.6.2006 8:32pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
Christopher, I love your bumper sticker.
7.6.2006 11:00pm
C Bowman:
How about liberalizing liberals? Or, better yet, liberal liberals?

I call myself a liberal plain and simple.

On the one hand, I would like to distance my views from the anarchists who use the libertarian moniker.

On the other hand, progressives are fleeing from using liberal in its "modern liberal" sense. We can reclaim the word now and repair the damage they've done. Admittedly, it's a fixer-upper in the US, but we are part of a wider world where the original sense persists. Vargas Llosa, a master word-craftsman, is on our team building the word up beyond the world of politics, and the Alterative Liberale is a new shining light in France. Using the term liberal has the added advantage, I have found, of opening up progressives for discussion, for at least a moment.

I have a visceral dislike of conservatism and prefer a healthy distance there, too, which the term liberal affords.

The liberal tradition is full of lost names, leveller, commonwealthman, whig, and liberal itself (temporarily). I tried using libertarian in the 90s. I guess I just have a fondness for the word I have always identified with deeply, liberal.

God knows what the future holds. Pirate is a word to watch, a term of opprobrium that may become a word of honor, much like leveller. Indeed there's a new "Pirate Party", which interests me. I agree with Randy Barnett's categorization of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, as a defect in our Constitution (Restoring the Lost Constitution, p. 355) and so would like to see it repealed. In the Pirate Party forum, I distinguished between Lessig pirates and Barnett pirates. The former tend to be progressives calling for a mish-mash of reforms entangling the internet and government, the latter I envision as liberals calling for the abolition of copyrights and patents with an overarching respect for natural rights. Here is the Swedish Pirate Party's Declaration of Principles 3.0. They also have a collection of papers available here.

After all is said and done, just call me a liberal pirate.
7.7.2006 1:29am
C Bowman:
I forgot to mention....

There's an excellent book on the subject of the liberal label, which I just read, Le Liberalisme Americain: Histoire d'un detournement by Alain Laurent (American Liberalism: History of a Hijacking) I recommend it.
7.7.2006 1:59am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Frederson: "So Ken Lay or Bernie Ebbers wouldn't exist in a free market?..."

This entire course of argument is absurd - tantamount to saying Saddam Hussein's regime was legitimate, because without him, Iraq devolves into Somalia.
7.7.2006 4:51am
The Cranky Insomniac (www):
Well, if nothing else, I think this comment thread has proven what we probably already knew: Ask a question of X number of libertarians and you'll get X number of answers.

Good luck trying to herd the cats!

A quick note to "steve ex-expat": From your lack of response to Dean Esmay ripping you apart, I assume you did your drive-by and you're gone. That said, in case I'm wrong, I call myself a "libertarian hawk" and support the principle of the war in Iraq, if not the execution. However, I didn't "deem to enlist," mainly because I served during the first Gulf War and my knee is still screwed up from losing an argument with the ground in airborne school. So my question is: Am I a chickenhawk, or are you an idiot? It's a simple question, befitting of your simple mind.

Lastly, I'd like to thank Christopher Cross and Freder Kahlo for their incisive looks into the hearts and minds of libertarians. (All names approximate and indicative of nothing more than my sheer unwillingness to go back and find their real names.) Reading their wonderfully nuanced comments took me all the way back to my college days at good old Columbia, where being a libertarian meant being called a "fascist." Although at least back then one could claim ignorance of what a libertarian was.

Thanks for the memories, boys! Keep 'em flying!
7.7.2006 5:55am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Peter Jackson-

Here's the oath; it's the little checkbox at the top of the form. It's the core principle of libertarian ethics.

As for what changed on 9/11, the answer is that I did. It's when I realized that when it comes to foreign affairs, there is no "invisible hand."


I don't recall anyone saying that there was an "invisible hand" in foreign affairs.

Again, a libertarian administration would not have any qualms about hunting down those responsible for an attack like 9/11. They just wouldn't pre-emptively attack an unrelated country as part of those efforts.
7.7.2006 12:29pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Freder-

And you know this how? Other than snorting the free market pixie dust?

Because every dollar taken in taxes tends to weaken the private economy. (above what is necessary to fund essential services) More take home pay = More consumption, savings, and investment = Stronger, more vibrant economy.

So Ken Lay or Bernie Ebbers wouldn't exist in a free market? Or did Enron and WorldCom happen only because of the government regulation, not in spite of it?

No - frauds (if they are, I don't know the specifics of the cases) still exist in a free market, hopefully they are brought to justice criminally and civilly quite quickly.

There are some things the free market is just lousy at. Basic research is one, providing health care and protecting worker rights and safety is another (most libertarians are virulently anti-union but not anti-corporation, both are legal fictions that only exist and have rights because of the government). And the market simply cannot be brought to bear to put a price on the air we breath, the value of nature, love or peace, or why a people are gay (as Posner once tried to do in what was one of the most intentionally hilarious essays I have ever written--If he wasn't dead serious I would have put it up there with some of the greatest pieces of satire in history).

Research: Huh? There are these things called private universities, they do research. There are these things called pharmaceutical companies, they do research. Private inventors, foundations, etc, etc, etc... And if taxes were much lower you could use your much larger amount of disposable income to fund the research organization of your choice. Isn't choice in a free market wonderful - instead of your money going to some pork barrel boondoggle you could fund the research effort of your choice, if that's what you wanted to do.

Health Care: Health care could be made much cheaper if some changes could be made to the bureaucracy. I've heard the limits placed on the number of doctors and medical schools bandied about as one.

Worker Rights/Safety: That could all be handled through the civil and criminal legal system.

Environmental Concerns: This could also be handled through the civil and criminal legal system. From what I've seen environmental groups don't find it too hard to sue polluters, despoilers, etc. Your extra disposable income could go toward the environmental advocates of your choice, rather than down the rathole.

Love: That's why libertarians believe in letting consenting adults run their own lives.

Peace: That's why libertarians believe in not violating the rights of others.

Homosexuality: You said why "a people" is gay. I'm assuming that's a typo, because all groups tend have the same general deviance rates. A "people" that was gay wouldn't be around for long. As for the libertarian stance, see above about consenting adults.
7.7.2006 1:07pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Irensaga-

How exactly do you fix imperfections (and they aren't "minor imperfections" either) in the free market without invoking bureaucracy?

A free market society still has laws, the main function of which is to prevent the use of force and fraud. So the bureaucracy would eventually be abolished and reduced to whatever essentials were decided upon. The functions of the bureaucracy that were valuable or worthwhile could be picked up by private sector agents.
7.7.2006 1:12pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Research: Huh? There are these things called private universities, they do research. There are these things called pharmaceutical companies, they do research. Private inventors, foundations, etc, etc, etc.

I said basic research. The free market is lousy at funding basic research because there is just no profit in it. Who in the free market is going to fund research in quantum physics. Whether or not the quark exists or if you can ever tell the exact location of an electron is not going to make anybody any money this year, next year or maybe not for the next 100 years, and that research was started a hundred years ago. Some very big inventions that we take for granted have been very lousy investments that wouldn't exist today if government hadn't propped them up. For instance, nobody has figured out how to make commercial aviation profitable in over seventy years. World War I was the only thing that saved airplanes from being a rich man's toy and nothing else. Same goes for space travel, nuclear power (which wouldn't exist at all if not for the massive government investment in the nuclear bomb in World War II). And there has never been a transportation system built that didn't depend wholly or substantially on government support.
7.7.2006 1:25pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
No - frauds (if they are, I don't know the specifics of the cases) still exist in a free market, hopefully they are brought to justice criminally and civilly quite quickly.

But this description of libertarianism given above:

The government has no role other than the protection of invasion/attack by another state, protection of basic property rights, and settlement of contract disputes.


seems to render the term "fraud" almost meaningless. If you go into a contract with your eyes open, no matter how manipulative, dishonest, greedy, unethical, deceptive and cheating the other party, well then that is your own damn fault for not doing your homework. Daddy government is not going to protect you from pyramid schemes or off-the-books transactions. The government cannot and should not mandate consistent or open accounting practices--that just interferes with the free market. It's buyer beware, buddy, don't expect the government to protect you from your bad investment decisions, as long as nobody put a gun to your head we're not going to police the markets. If you're dumb enough to answer that Nigerian email, why should we stop the person who sent it, he will obviously spend your money more wisely than you will.
7.7.2006 2:14pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
To Cranky Insomniac: I guess your name fits, and I hope you get more sleep tonight.

I do not consider, nor have I ever called, libertarians "fascists." First, fascists believe in a strong, centralized government, which I would imagine is the antithesis of what most libertarians want. Second, I find I agree with libertarians about 50 percent of the time, which is more than I agree with most people, and I find that libertarians frequently contribute excellent and creative ideas regarding social policy and governance, which is one reason why I enjoy this site. So, no offense intended by a few jokes. I do agree with some of Freder's criticisms --regarding the quasi-religious belief that many libertarians have in the free markets. And, I tend to agree more than most libertarians with Justice Holmes' observation --"taxes are the price we pay for civilization" (meaning, I have a higher tolerance for taxes than many libertarians). Anyway, I found this blog post and responses useful, as it shows the diversity of thought among people who call themselves libertarians. Before this post, for example, I assumed that libertarians opposed the Iraq war, both the idea and execution of it.
7.7.2006 3:20pm
byomtov (mail):
every dollar taken in taxes tends to weaken the private economy. (above what is necessary to fund essential services)

In other words, everything the government does that AP doesn't like is a waste.

There are these things called private universities, they do research.

A huge amount of the research done in private universities is funded by the government.

Health Care: Health care could be made much cheaper if some changes could be made to the bureaucracy. I've heard the limits placed on the number of doctors and medical schools bandied about as one.

Do you have any evidence of this, or of what the savings would be? Or is this just blind faith?

Worker Rights/Safety: That could all be handled through the civil and criminal legal system.

What is that old saying about "an ounce of prevention?" Waiting until something bad happens and then punishing someone, or paying damages, doesn't undo the harm.

Environmental Concerns: This could also be handled through the civil and criminal legal system. From what I've seen environmental groups don't find it too hard to sue polluters, despoilers, etc.

Boy. I'm surprised all tort lawyers aren't libertarians. Your ideal society would be heaven for them. Nonstop lawsuits.
7.7.2006 4:44pm
Swimmy:
I think another influencing fact on the "blind faith" criticism is that many people are getting their understanding of libertarianism through comment threads on popular blogs. These are usually not the most opportune places to present evidence. (Most academic papers are hidden behind barriers and only accessible to some, most passages in books dealing with relevant topics are too long to quote, etc.) Most libertarians that I know tend to have a strong faith in private action because of study after study and book after book highlighting the strengths of the profit motive, pointing out the radical differences between bureaucratic and free societies, and so on. Besides a philosophical framework which fears any encroachments upon freedom, libertarians have, well, read lots of Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Public Choice economists like Buchanan and Tullock, and so on. Their views were not presented without evidence; there's just not room to cite much of that evidence in weblog comments.

However, if you don't buy that, a couple entries at Café Hayek might be interesting reads. Here's the first, and Here's the second.

One last thing.

What is that old saying about "an ounce of prevention?" Waiting until something bad happens and then punishing someone, or paying damages, doesn't undo the harm.

The threat of a financial crisis does act as an ounce of prevention. If the cost of getting sued by a worker is higher than the cost of, say, paying fines for not complying to governmental standards or bribing a regulatory agent, then the business owner will have even more incentive to act appropriately. (If you think this is a matter of "blind faith," you must explain to me why a businesses would not weigh the projected costs against benefits of most decisions they make.)
7.7.2006 7:00pm
byomtov (mail):
If the cost of getting sued by a worker is higher than the cost of, say, paying fines for not complying to governmental standards or bribing a regulatory agent, then the business owner will have even more incentive to act appropriately. (If you think this is a matter of "blind faith," you must explain to me why a businesses would not weigh the projected costs against benefits of most decisions they make.)

Failure to comply with regulations opens the business up to both fines and, if harm results, lawsuits, so the incentive to act appropriately is stronger.

A couple of other points:

We need not take the business owner's calculation as either accurate in itself (I once knew a businessman who made a misjudgment) or as the measure of social benefit. I believe safety practices, for example. are worthwhile even if, on an economist's spreadsheet they seem to be "inefficient." Yes, I know all about how it can't be perfect, etc., and that's true, but it doesn't mean the calculus is nearly as simple as you pretend, or that the owner's analysis is the end of the argument.

Lawsuits are long and expensive and uncertain. The victims of negligence are often at an enormous tactical disadvantage against insurance companies and the like. I don't think that we can rely on this process to produce anything approaching ideal results even if the only issue were monetary compensation.

The damages businesses (and individuals) may have to pay are limited in many ways, putting a ceiling on the cost side of the calculation. There is the corporate form, there is the fact of having limited assets, there is bankruptcy. Surely your rational business owner takes all this into account in his cost/benefit calculation.

So, imperfect as it is, I still think regulation accomplishes a good deal of prevention not otherwise obtainable.
7.7.2006 9:04pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Freder-

I said basic research. The free market is lousy at funding basic research because there is just no profit in it. Who in the free market is going to fund research in quantum physics. Whether or not the quark exists or if you can ever tell the exact location of an electron is not going to make anybody any money this year, next year or maybe not for the next 100 years, and that research was started a hundred years ago. Some very big inventions that we take for granted have been very lousy investments that wouldn't exist today if government hadn't propped them up. For instance, nobody has figured out how to make commercial aviation profitable in over seventy years. World War I was the only thing that saved airplanes from being a rich man's toy and nothing else. Same goes for space travel, nuclear power (which wouldn't exist at all if not for the massive government investment in the nuclear bomb in World War II). And there has never been a transportation system built that didn't depend wholly or substantially on government support.

Universities would still be hotbeds of research if they were private. That includes basic research. Some funding would shift around because researchers would have to apply to private sources for research grants rather than the government, but things would eventually adjust.

Regarding aviation: Well some of the airline manufacturers have done pretty well. And there's this company called Southwest Airlines that has done well. And the shipping companies like FedEx and UPS rely to a large extent on air transport.
7.8.2006 3:54am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Freder-

But this description of libertarianism given above:


The government has no role other than the protection of invasion/attack by another state, protection of basic property rights, and settlement of contract disputes.



seems to render the term "fraud" almost meaningless. If you go into a contract with your eyes open, no matter how manipulative, dishonest, greedy, unethical, deceptive and cheating the other party, well then that is your own damn fault for not doing your homework. Daddy government is not going to protect you from pyramid schemes or off-the-books transactions. The government cannot and should not mandate consistent or open accounting practices--that just interferes with the free market. It's buyer beware, buddy, don't expect the government to protect you from your bad investment decisions, as long as nobody put a gun to your head we're not going to police the markets. If you're dumb enough to answer that Nigerian email, why should we stop the person who sent it, he will obviously spend your money more wisely than you will.


How did you get that reading from those statements?

First of all, fraud falls under both the "protection of basic property rights" and "settlement of contract disputes" clauses in the rough definition you cite. I don't know where you get the notion that libertarians are or would be tolerant of fraud - they aren't. The term "free market" implies a fair market as well, since a market wouldn't be "free" unless it was fair. The libertarian's ideological support of free markets usually leads them to be VERY intolerant of things that threaten how "free" markets are - like fraud and coercion.
7.8.2006 4:04am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
byomtov-

In other words, everything the government does that AP doesn't like is a waste.

Not at all. Every dollar in taxes above what is necessary for essential services weakens the private economy. My opinions - or your opinions - of a particular government action don't change that.

A huge amount of the research done in private universities is funded by the government.

And that research could be funded by private sources too. The funding for various areas would shift, but who's to say that focus on the more pressing or profitable research areas would be negative? If we were under this model maybe our energy problems would have been solved already.

Do you have any evidence of this, or of what the savings would be? Or is this just blind faith?

Here is some literature on the subject. Those that draw attention to this automatically look like bad guys, because with a few exceptions most doctors are assumed to be the good guys, even when they're not:

http://www.mises.org/story/1547
http://www.mises.org/fullstory.aspx?Id=1749

What is that old saying about "an ounce of prevention?" Waiting until something bad happens and then punishing someone, or paying damages, doesn't undo the harm.

That's the case no matter what. You don't think insurers and managements would start doing their own OSHA-like inspections if the policing of this area shifted to the civil legal system? Managements would want to decrease their insurance expsenses by having a safe workplace. Plus it would be an ongoing process at all locations (well, all smart locations), not a catch as catch can thing in the off chance you happen to be inspected by OSHA.

Boy. I'm surprised all tort lawyers aren't libertarians. Your ideal society would be heaven for them. Nonstop lawsuits.

No, lawsuits would stabilize once employers and insurers recognized and did what was necessary to maintain a safe workplace. Of course if you were an employer that didn't do this you would increase your liability. In many ways this system might be much more effective than a government system, some of the fines employers get for deadly, unsafe workplaces is a slap on the wrist.
7.8.2006 4:34am
Freder Frederson (mail):
Regarding aviation: Well some of the airline manufacturers have done pretty well. And there's this company called Southwest Airlines that has done well. And the shipping companies like FedEx and UPS rely to a large extent on air transport.

Name two airline manufacturers that have done well without government support. I'll give you a hint, there are only two companies that manufacture commercial airliners left in the world and one of them was created by a consortium of European governments. The other one has often gone back to the government for support and depends on its defense business to stay afloat.

Southwest has exploited one small niche of the airline industry and made money out of it. Its success depends on a healthy airline industry that serves other markets. It can not be replicated to create a comprehensive civil airline sector.

That's the case no matter what. You don't think insurers and managements would start doing their own OSHA-like inspections if the policing of this area shifted to the civil legal system? Managements would want to decrease their insurance expsenses by having a safe workplace. Plus it would be an ongoing process at all locations (well, all smart locations), not a catch as catch can thing in the off chance you happen to be inspected by OSHA.

Then why didn't we have safer workplaces before government regulation? Why did the government have to step in and regulate workplace safety. Why didn't workers just sue or strike to demand better working conditions. Oh yeah, they did. But of course, Libertarians don't like unions either, so of course they would foreclose collective action to demand better working conditions.
7.8.2006 10:10am
byomtov (mail):
AP,

You act as if "essential services" were a well-defined term. It's not. Further, even if we agree that the government is doing something that not "essential" that does not automatically mean it weakens the economy.

As for fantasies about how insurers and businesses would effectively replace OSHA regulations, for example, please read my response to Swimmy about tort liability. And while you are at it ask yourself whether the situation you imagine will come to pass existed prior to the establishment of regulations. Here's a hint: it didn't.

Further, as I suggested in my previous comment, tort damages are not the appropriate measure of the social cost of accidents. They are all we have to compensate victims, but that doesn't mean they are a good mechanism. How much would you take to be blinded, or to become a quadriplegic? Do you think if that happened to you because of someone's negligence that the cash award, assuming you got it, would be adequate?

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog about the Kelo decision. Most commenters and posters are outraged by the notion that the government can force people to sell their property if they don't want to, even at "fair market value." Well, losing an eye or an arm is a lot worse than having to sell your house, yet the libertarian view is that payment of damages in a lawsuit is a perfectly adequate solution to the problem. This is incoherent.

You make the standard fallacious libertarian argument that because there is some incentive for business to do something it automatically follows that no conflicting incentives exist, and that the incentive will work better than regulation.

I encourage you, as you read libertarian writings, to take a somewhat more critical view, as indeed we should do with all ideological materials.
7.8.2006 12:39pm
Lorenzo (mail):
This comment thread illustrates the problem of choosing an alternative to "libertarian". The thread bogs down in specific policy/belief issues, when a movement (it IS a movement, isn't it?) needs a core set of values all can agree on, with plenty of room for interpretation. Until a person/group spells out those core values that the majority can agree on, no movement really exists.
As for naming the movement, all existing political names are tainted, even libertarian ('I'm libertarian, but not one of the nuts'), so it might be better to go with either a compound like right-wing liberal, for example, or make up a new word like some corporations do, i.e. Kodak.
It may be that Hayek's second choice of whig, would work. That name has been out of public use for so long that the opening interview question will initially be "What's a whig?". You can't ask for a better chance to spell out that set of values, if you have them.
7.8.2006 6:11pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Freder-

Name two airline manufacturers that have done well without government support. I'll give you a hint, there are only two companies that manufacture commercial airliners left in the world and one of them was created by a consortium of European governments. The other one has often gone back to the government for support and depends on its defense business to stay afloat.

Are you honestly trying to argue that we wouldn't be using airplanes to ship goods and travel if they had not been subsidized by the government? You realize that's an insane, untenable argument, don't you? If all government support for the airline industry stopped tomorrow there would still be air travel - things like price and routes would change, but it would still exist and somebody, like Southwest, would be doing it profitably.

Yes Boeing has received subsidies and gets a lot of government contracts, but national defense is a legitimate government function. (Although the amount of funding necessary for defense is very open for discussion.) And again, if Boeing had not received government subsidies it might have gone bankrupt, but someone would be making big commercial and military airplanes.

Then why didn't we have safer workplaces before government regulation? Why did the government have to step in and regulate workplace safety. Why didn't workers just sue or strike to demand better working conditions. Oh yeah, they did. But of course, Libertarians don't like unions either, so of course they would foreclose collective action to demand better working conditions.

My guess would be that it was harder to access legal services and prevail in court for a variety of reasons. However there are precedents for laws being created to make it easier for workers to prevail against employers in dangerous industries - the Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA) for railroad workers, for one. These kind of adjustments could be made to the legal system to hold employers accountable for workplace safety.
7.9.2006 4:54am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
byomtov-

You act as if "essential services" were a well-defined term.

You're correct that what constitutes "essential services" is very open for debate, even and especially among libertarians themselves. But there has to be some simplification so a particular topic can be discussed.

Further, even if we agree that the government is doing something that not "essential" that does not automatically mean it weakens the economy.

Basically, we can say it weakens the private economy. Every dollar taken in taxes has to come from somewhere in the private economy. So productive labor or manufacturing is rewarded less - everyone is that much poorer. It's the inverse of the statement I made above: Less take home pay = Less consumption, savings, and investment = Weaker, less vibrant economy.

As for fantasies about how insurers and businesses would effectively replace OSHA regulations, for example, please read my response to Swimmy about tort liability. And while you are at it ask yourself whether the situation you imagine will come to pass existed prior to the establishment of regulations. Here's a hint: it didn't.

See my response to Freder above concerning the Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA). This was used to make it easier for workers to prevail using civil litigation in the railroad industry, a very dangerous industry at the time. (still is)

Further, as I suggested in my previous comment, tort damages are not the appropriate measure of the social cost of accidents. They are all we have to compensate victims, but that doesn't mean they are a good mechanism. How much would you take to be blinded, or to become a quadriplegic? Do you think if that happened to you because of someone's negligence that the cash award, assuming you got it, would be adequate?

So what are you getting at? Does knowing that an employer got a slap on the wrist OSHA fine help someone that's been blinded more than a damage award?

Well, losing an eye or an arm is a lot worse than having to sell your house, yet the libertarian view is that payment of damages in a lawsuit is a perfectly adequate solution to the problem. This is incoherent.

So again, you're employing a lot of emotional arguments, but what are you getting at? There are still criminal laws as well. There's nothing "incoherent" about it, or if you claim that there is, it's just as "incoherent" as the current system. The only difference would be that there would be a stronger economy under the libertarian system.

You make the standard fallacious libertarian argument that because there is some incentive for business to do something it automatically follows that no conflicting incentives exist, and that the incentive will work better than regulation.

Wait a minute here, the current system doesn't offer anything more than the same basic incentives:

Current system:
OSHA - fines, shut you down if you don't comply
Criminal - criminal sanctions if violations rise to that level
Civil - sued for violations resulting in injury

Libertarian system:
Civil - still sued for violations resulting in injury, expanded complaints for violations of various standards, possible changes to make it easier for worker to prevail, provisions made to shut workplaces down if they don't comply
Criminal - criminal sanctions if violations rise to that level

So the "incentives" that you mention aren't changing much, they're just being shifted from the public sector to the private sector. If designed and executed correctly it could be just as safe or safer than the current system, and less costly to the taxpayer.
7.9.2006 5:40am
Freder Frederson (mail):
Are you honestly trying to argue that we wouldn't be using airplanes to ship goods and travel if they had not been subsidized by the government?

Yes I am. After almost eighty years of commercial civil aviation, the industry as a whole has not yet made a profit--and that is just looking at the balance sheets of airline companies. It doesn't even count the massive government subsidies pumped into the industry in the form of infrastructure, price, competition and route control, outright ownership of airlines, and bailouts.

If you have a business model to make commercial aircraft or run an airline without government subsidy, I'm all ears. Exactly how would that work. Remember the jet engine was invented under government contract (seperately by the British and the Germans) and was considered a military secret of the highest order.

If making commercial jets is such a lucrative business, why are there only two companies doing it, and why can't they do it without massive government support?

Transportation infrastructure, since the dawn of civilization, has been subsidized by government. It simply cannot exist without government help.
7.9.2006 11:24am
byomtov (mail):
Basically, we can say it weakens the private economy. Every dollar taken in taxes has to come from somewhere in the private economy. So productive labor or manufacturing is rewarded less - everyone is that much poorer. It's the inverse of the statement I made above: Less take home pay = Less consumption, savings, and investment = Weaker, less vibrant economy.

You are taking as a given that government spending (other than what you consider "essential") is non-productive. This is a circular argument.

So what are you getting at? Does knowing that an employer got a slap on the wrist OSHA fine help someone that's been blinded more than a damage award?

I'm getting at the notion that prevention is a good social investment because damage awards are inadequate compensation. Hence if damage awards are the only cost of negligence there is likely to be underinvestment in safety. Imposing standards under threat of fines or shutdown adjusts for this.

I'm getting at the point that OSHA regulation does not replace tort or criminal liability, it adds to it, again adjusting the incentives.

I'm getting at the point that if you think OSHA fines are "slaps on the wrist" then maybe the solution is to make them larger, not eliminate them. Or to strengthen OSHA's authority.

you're employing a lot of emotional arguments, but what are you getting at? There are still criminal laws as well. There's nothing "incoherent" about it, or if you claim that there is, it's just as "incoherent" as the current system. The only difference would be that there would be a stronger economy under the libertarian system.

No. I'm saying that libertarians recognize that if an individual is forced to sell her house then "fair market value" is inadequate compensation if she doesn't want to sell for that, economics notwithstanding. Hence there should be strong restrictions on the use of eminent domain. (Some, as I understand it, even oppose eminent domain entirely) Similarly, there should be strong safeguards to reduce the chance that someone is forced to "sell" an arm or an eye for some arbitrarily determined amount. Those safeguards come in the form of regulation. To say "We shouldn't force Kelo to sell even at FMV," and at the same time to say, "It's too bad Jones got blinded, but he got paid for it, so it's OK," is incoherent. This is not an emotional argument.

Libertarian system:
Civil - still sued for violations resulting in injury, expanded complaints for violations of various standards, possible changes to make it easier for worker to prevail, provisions made to shut workplaces down if they don't comply
Criminal - criminal sanctions if violations rise to that level


You talk of "expanded complaints by workers." Fine. But someone has to evaluate those complaints, and deal with the possibility of retribution, etc. You talk of "provisions made to shut workplaces down." You talk of "criminal sanctions." Someone has to do all these things. Someone has to set the standards whose violation justifies complaints. Someone has to actually force the shutdown. Someone has to define and prosecute criminal violations. That's government. This is not a "private" scheme at all. It's a regulatory system. What are you arguing about?

So the "incentives" that you mention aren't changing much, they're just being shifted from the public sector to the private sector. If designed and executed correctly it could be just as safe or safer than the current system, and less costly to the taxpayer.

In a totally tort-based system they are changing enormously, as I have extensively pointed out. Can the tort system be improved? No doubt. But the fundamental problems - delays, asymmetric bargaining power, unequal resources - aren't going away. Neither is the problem of the inherent limit on business liability - its ability to pay.

One further point. It is far from clear that business will make the appropriate investments in safety even if such investments have expected returns (in reduced liability for negligence) that justify them. Besides the issue of ability to pay damages, there is the fact that many small businesses are capital-constrained - they do not have and cannot get the money to pursue all profitable investments. Some will be foregone. Investments in safety may easily be among those. After all, there may not be a return - maybe you'll be lucky and have no accident even with relatively unsafe conditions.

So the whole "rational businesses don't need regulation" case falls apart on all sorts of grounds. As it should. It is little more than a far-fetched and unrealistic argument to justify opposition to regulation.
7.9.2006 12:35pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Freder-

Yes I am. After almost eighty years of commercial civil aviation, the industry as a whole has not yet made a profit--and that is just looking at the balance sheets of airline companies. It doesn't even count the massive government subsidies pumped into the industry in the form of infrastructure, price, competition and route control, outright ownership of airlines, and bailouts.

Some airlines have made profits. And some airlines would make profits if there wasn't government subsidies.

If you have a business model to make commercial aircraft or run an airline without government subsidy, I'm all ears. Exactly how would that work.

If you were really interested you could start by studying Southwest. The gist of it is controlling costs, focusing on the most profitable routes, having good relations with your employees, etc.

Remember the jet engine was invented under government contract (seperately by the British and the Germans) and was considered a military secret of the highest order.

Great. National defense is generally accepted as one of the functions of the state. It's good that some of these expenditures have valuable civilian applications and aren't all wasted.

If making commercial jets is such a lucrative business, why are there only two companies doing it, and why can't they do it without massive government support?

Probably because its a big, expensive, high tech industry. From what I recall the europeans created Airbus to compete with Boeing. For what reason I don't know - offended by a monopoly, independence from American interests, thought it could be profitable, etc.

Transportation infrastructure, since the dawn of civilization, has been subsidized by government. It simply cannot exist without government help.

Cruise ships are also big, expensive, fuel-guzzling piles of metal. I'm not sure, but I don't think all of them are subsidized by the government. Why do they still exist?

Freder - your notion that we wouldn't be using the airplane for transportation profitably in some way if there weren't government subsidies is insane.
7.9.2006 4:50pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
byomtov-

Don't have time to respond now, will try later.
7.9.2006 4:53pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
byomtov-

You are taking as a given that government spending (other than what you consider "essential") is non-productive. This is a circular argument.

Well not only would it have to be productive, it should have to be more productive than what the funds would have produced in the private economy. That's a pretty high hurdle. Plus the "production" isn't decided by the market and its pricing mechanism, but by bureaucrats, planners, and politicians, who often decide incorrectly and/or for dubious purposes. And seeing as how it is anti-liberty and reduces the incentive for productive labor and manufacturing it wouldn't seem to be a very good action to take. It's giving up a bird in the hand for a theoretical, usually less than a bird (friction costs) in the bush.

I'm getting at the notion that prevention is a good social investment because damage awards are inadequate compensation. Hence if damage awards are the only cost of negligence there is likely to be underinvestment in safety. Imposing standards under threat of fines or shutdown adjusts for this.

I'm getting at the point that OSHA regulation does not replace tort or criminal liability, it adds to it, again adjusting the incentives.

I'm getting at the point that if you think OSHA fines are "slaps on the wrist" then maybe the solution is to make them larger, not eliminate them. Or to strengthen OSHA's authority.


Tort actions also serve a preventive function - employers and their insurers tend to react to prevent further claims. Under the libertarian system the standards could be enforced by private agents.

Similarly, there should be strong safeguards to reduce the chance that someone is forced to "sell" an arm or an eye for some arbitrarily determined amount. Those safeguards come in the form of regulation. To say "We shouldn't force Kelo to sell even at FMV," and at the same time to say, "It's too bad Jones got blinded, but he got paid for it, so it's OK," is incoherent. This is not an emotional argument.

I'm not arguing for no safeguards, I'm arguing that for the most part they be privately enforced. I think you're trying to equate libertarianism with lack of compassion, and that isn't the case.

You talk of "expanded complaints by workers." Fine. But someone has to evaluate those complaints, and deal with the possibility of retribution, etc. You talk of "provisions made to shut workplaces down." You talk of "criminal sanctions." Someone has to do all these things. Someone has to set the standards whose violation justifies complaints. Someone has to actually force the shutdown. Someone has to define and prosecute criminal violations. That's government. This is not a "private" scheme at all. It's a regulatory system. What are you arguing about?

It is a private scheme. OSHA's function is taken over by private sector agents. The courts still have the same role or a slightly expanded one. Possibly some of the court function is taken over by private arbitrators. So in the end you do have reduced bureaucracy.

One further point. It is far from clear that business will make the appropriate investments in safety even if such investments have expected returns (in reduced liability for negligence) that justify them. Besides the issue of ability to pay damages, there is the fact that many small businesses are capital-constrained - they do not have and cannot get the money to pursue all profitable investments. Some will be foregone. Investments in safety may easily be among those. After all, there may not be a return - maybe you'll be lucky and have no accident even with relatively unsafe conditions

But that's the case anyway. How many businesses does OSHA actually get to? How many small ones? If enforcement of standards was shifted to the private sector this would likely be less of a problem.
7.10.2006 3:32am