Libertarians for social democracy ?

by John Quiggin on June 25, 2006

Several commenters on this post about the asymmetry of the case for and against war made the suggestion that, if I applied similar reasoning to domestic policy I would come out with libertarian conclusions. So can I be a libertarian social democrat?

To recap briefly, I observed that the supporters of the war had many different and logically incompatible ideas about what sort of war should be pursued. By allying to support the war they all assumed that their own version (or something near enough to be acceptable) would be the one that would be pursued.

The same point can be made as part of a more general libertarian response to arguments for an extension of state power. There are many instances where replacing individual decisions with a single collective decision would reduce costs or generate other benefits. So, as long as the collective decision is close to what I would choose, it’s reasonable for me to support choosing in this way. But obviously, if people have very different preferences, this condition can’t be satisfied for everybody.

This is an important point, and a valid criticism of various forms of central planning. But if we agree that it’s good to expand the range of choices available to everybody, we don’t, in general, reach libertarian policy conclusions. To take one example, a society where inherited wealth is very important is one where, for many people, all sorts of opportunities and choices are closed off at birth. And in the case of public goods, a decision to provide them collectively means that everyone can choose whether or not to take advantage of them; the choice set is reduced if they are not provided (though of course there is an offsetting contraction in the quantity of private goods that are available to choose).

Social democracy and its key institutions, the mixed economy and the welfare state, require a balance between collective and individual actions and decisions. On the whole, in my judgement, the result has been to make more choices available to more people than any alternative system.

Another aspect of the asymmetry I discussed is that between the status quo (peace in this case) and a poorly-understood alternative. Arguments for the status quo lead in the direction of conservatism, and there is a conservative component to the argument. But that’s for another day.

{ 59 comments }

1

Mark Bahnisch 06.25.06 at 3:14 am

2

Brendan 06.25.06 at 5:51 am

‘This is an important point, and a valid criticism of various forms of central planning. But if we agree that it’s good to expand the range of choices available to everybody, we don’t, in general, reach libertarian policy conclusions.’

But this is the key point. Are there many social democrats (are there even many socialists) who nowadays actually believe in central planning? And what exactly does central planning mean any more? I know perfectly well what it used to mean. It used to mean a situation where the state would say; ‘this year we will aim for the production of x million tonnes of pig iron and the factory will be based in town ‘y’ and it will employ ‘z’ thousand people’ and so on. THAT’S central planning, and when libertarians talk about ‘socialism’ that’s what they tend to be thinking about. But does anybody really believe that that is a realistic option nowadays?

Even stronger than this position is the view (that used to be extremely widely held, even as late as the 1980s) that the desideratum should be that all economic activity should be controlled via central planning. But again, are there many people left who actually think that in some future society markets could (or should) actually be abolished? Parecon gets talked about in certain circles, but does anybody actually believe that it’s a plausible model for the left (or anyone?).

If one removes central planning from the left wing ‘armoury’ as it were, then the major libertarian objection to social democracy/socialism is removed. I know that according to many libertarians, many other ‘government’ activitiy (health and safety legislation, for example) is actually covert central planning, but I don’t understand why they think that.

3

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 6:06 am

“And in the case of public goods, a decision to provide them collectively means that everyone can choose whether or not to take advantage of them;”

LOL! But not, of course, whether or not to pay for them. That’s some “choice” there, where you get charged for a good regardless, and then might be allowed to turn it down… And by virtue of the fact that you WERE required to pay for it, can no longer afford to pay for any other choices you might otherwise have gotten in the market.

You’re really reaching here.

4

Kevin Donoghue 06.25.06 at 6:18 am

If you are planning to explore this topic further, it might be worth thinking about the peacetime defence establishment and Eisenhower’s worries regarding the military-industrial complex. Any large supplier of public goods takes on a life of its own. But unlike the French railway system or the UK national health services, the Pentagon and its suppliers really need an enemy at all times. That lobby does a lot more to distort Americans’ perceptions of their national interest than the one Mearsheimer and Walt are worried about – not that diverse pressure-groups can’t work together of course.

5

Carlos 06.25.06 at 7:16 am

Odd how the choice to put cash down is more important than every other single thing in #2’s world.

And of course, the typical troll’s psychological projection in his last line. And the near RANDOM capitalization.

Good one, John.

6

abb1 06.25.06 at 7:41 am

So, this mixed half-socialist-half-capitalist welfare-state hybrid – is this the best possible model, the-end-of-history thing?

7

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 9:18 am

Oh, it wasn’t random.

And the point is, if it’s a government program, it’s not a *choice* to put cash down. The government, in case you hadn’t noticed, isn’t into offering that sort of choice.

The only thing the government has to bring to the table, for solving any problem, is it’s ability to take people’s choices away from them. It’s ability to compell. It’s practically Orwellian to refer to charging people for a service, and then maybe letting them refuse to recieve it, as an expansion of “choices”.

8

Carlos 06.25.06 at 9:54 am

Oh, so you like PUTTING emphasis in w3ir@ and nonsensic/\l places.

I don’t care. If you believe what you say, you’re not interesting enough to talk to. If you don’t believe what you say, you’re just some dumb troll.

9

jet 06.25.06 at 10:03 am

(though of course there is an offsetting contraction in the quantity of private goods that are available to choose).

In Soviet Russia, the goods chose you.

10

jet 06.25.06 at 10:10 am

Heh, from another angle, there are these people who continually bemoan how power corrupts and how political parties always seem out to enrich themselves at the expense of their constituents. But then these same people keep wanting to expand these corrupt politicians power.

Mark Twain and Will Rogers had all the answers we will ever need. Either every 4 years you tar and fearther and run out on a rail every one of your politicians, or you leave them so hamstrung they can’t do anything.

11

Elliot Reed 06.25.06 at 10:55 am

While I’m not a libertarian, nor a fan of this particular libertarian argument, it seems to me that you’ve completely missed the point of the analogy. Even if some pro-war policy X would be better than the status quo, it’s pretty easy to develop alternative strategies that would be worse than the status quo. So someone who thinks X would be successful but Y and Z wouldn’t be is making a mistake if they team up with supporters of Y, Z, “X or Z,” etc., to support “war” without a guarantee that strategy X would be applied. And in fact there may be no way for supporters of X but not Y or Z to guarantee that the war will be designed like X, not Y or Z.

This is particularly dangerous if there are people with economic incentives to support strategies Y or Z over X. This is one of (many) problems with how the Iraq war has been conducted: we have scads of defense contractors pushing for capital-intensive strategies, but no comparable lobbies pushing for human-capital-intensive strategies like spending lots more money to hire more experts in the Arabic language and Iraqi culture.

Obviously at least some possible social-democratic regulatory or transfer policies could be so badly designed, inefficiently managed, or subject to regulatory capture by interest groups that they’d be worse than the status quo. The libertarian/Hayekian claim, as I understand it, is that this is likely to happen because even well-meaning people have different ideas about how these programs should be designed and regulatory capture is likely.

I think there are problems with this argument, but the pheonomenon described does happen at least sometimes. The professional licensing of lawyers is an example. To be a lawyer, you need seven years of post-secondary education, only three of which need have anything to do with the law. The educational cost is pushed even higher because the cost of law school is artificially inflated by ABA accreditation standards that mostly serve to increase barriers to entry. I think the optimal regulatory scheme would involve some kind of licensing requirement, but the regulation that actually exists is worse than no regulation at all would be. Some people would be screwed over by charlatans, but millions of people who are currently shut out of the legal system entirely because of the inflated costs would have access.

So in short I think you haven’t really responded to the libertarian/Hayekian argument.

12

Brendan 06.25.06 at 10:59 am

‘Heh, from another angle, there are these people who continually bemoan how power corrupts and how political parties always seem out to enrich themselves at the expense of their constituents. But then these same people keep wanting to expand these corrupt politicians power.’

Right this cuts to the chase. First thing: the ‘markets’ (plural. There is no such thing as ‘the’ market) ain’t free, never have been never will be. Or to be more specific, some markets ARE free but they ain’t exactly the best argument for your libertarian. If you want to see the real free market in action, go down to your local red light district and watch for a bit (maybe you already do this, of course). THAT’s the free market. The girls have no health care, they sleep on the streets, there is no advertising (apart from dressing up, hiding track marks), no income tax, no VAT, no permits about how and what you can sell, no credit deals, no nothing. It’s just supply and demand pure and simple.

But the vast majority of market based (or market like) activities in the real world ain’t like that. To set up a store, for example you need to buy one, which means you have to negotiate with a bank about a mortgage, you have to get planning permission to build your store, or negotiate about buying it, there are rules and regulations as to how and why and what you advertise and what you sell, you can get ‘start up’ funds from various government bodies, there are taxes (VAT, income tax) set by central and local government and so on and etc. In other words your ‘free market’ deal occurs in a backdrop of societally negotiated activity, in which politicians play a part. It’s not the case of ‘corrupt politicians’ having ‘more power’. This is a democracy. They have all the power anyway. They run the country, and thank God for that. Even when they decide to ‘give up’ power

a: this means that power is taken away from at least nominally democratically controllable poiticians to unelected businessmen and
b: the politicians usually end up with the power anyway except at a disadvantage.

For example, privatisation is a method of politicians ‘giving up’ power. But in actuality, what happens is that the private firms regain their power via lobbying firms, thus influencing the politicians. So the politicians, in a sense, retain the power but at a disadvantage: whereas in an era of nationalisation at least the politicians power of the industry in question is direct, and they are only answerable to the people, now it is indirect, but they politicans has a responsibility to the people AND to the lobbying firm who will try and bribe, sorry, influence him or her.

The biggest mistake economics ever made was to assume that assume that they could create an autonomous science that paid no attention to sociology, anthropology or psychology. It’s just a fantasy. Markets are always embedded in specific societies, which have and always will have, influence on the behaviour of the markets in question. There never will be free (i.e. autonomous) markets.

As for the idea of leaving politicians ‘so hamstrung they can’t do anything’…this is again a libertarian fantasy. Politicians have ALL the power. Always have always will have. This is a democracy. Elected representatives have TOTAL power over ALL the citizens in the country ( insofar as their (i.e. the politicians’) activities remain within the law). You tie their hands (actually you can’t do that, but even if you could) what will happen is that unelected people outwith any societal control will step in and fill the gap. Might be organised crime, might be ‘militia’, might be ‘big business’ but the gap WILL be filled. Libertarians assume that if politicians hands are tied, then everyone will live in a happy clappy world of sem-anarchism with everyone being nice to everyone else and everyone happily concerned with making money in a mysteriously non-exploitative way. It’s a dream.

13

Cryptic Ned 06.25.06 at 11:35 am

Yes, Brett Bellmore, taxes are immoral. We already know that.

14

abb1 06.25.06 at 11:39 am

Some people would be screwed over by charlatans, but millions of people who are currently shut out of the legal system entirely because of the inflated costs would have access.

Doesn’t it seem kinda likely that all those millions of people who are currently shut out – or even a few more – would be screwed over by charlatans?

15

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 12:12 pm

Even somebody who doesn’t think taxes are immoral, certainly ought to realize they don’t represent an increase in one’s choices. John is trying to make a libertarian argument, I’m merely pointing out that from a libertarian perspective, it fails.

16

Kevin Donoghue 06.25.06 at 12:36 pm

John is trying to make a libertarian argument, I’m merely pointing out that from a libertarian perspective, it fails.

On my reading he isn’t trying to do that at all. He is exploring whether the fact that he uses an argument of a vaguely libertarian nature in relation to war obliges him to take libertarians more seriously than he is wont to do in other matters. Does his worry about collective decision-making in relation to war (a public good of a sort) also apply to decisions in relation to other public goods? His verdict is that it doesn’t:

But if we agree that it’s good to expand the range of choices available to everybody, we don’t, in general, reach libertarian policy conclusions.

Do libertarians care about expanding the range of choices available to everybody? If so I have misjudged them. In any case the provision of public goods, paid for by taxation, certainly does expand the range of choices available to people who can’t afford to buy them on the market.

But maybe I’m misreading; some of the comments seem to be about a different post altogether.

17

DC 06.25.06 at 12:44 pm

Taxation may not “expand choices” of itself, but state redistribution of wealth certainly does for those who benefit from it.

18

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 1:29 pm

” but state redistribution of wealth certainly does for those who benefit from it.”

So do muggings.

19

Kevin Donoghue 06.25.06 at 2:16 pm

Brett,

Not many people would claim that muggings “make more choices available to more people than any alternative system.” That’s the claim being made here for social democracy. Of course if you regard taxation as an abomination then that claim won’t excuse it for you. But equally, your commandments mean nothing to the rest of us.

20

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 2:24 pm

Libertarians want people to have the maximum range of choices, consistant with not agressing against other people. Hitting somebody over the head with a tire iron and lifting their wallet may represent “choice” on the part of the person wielding the tire iron, and the money expands what they can do, but it’s not the sort of “choice” we’re interested in promoting.

Even where you delegate the tire iron wielding.

21

abb1 06.25.06 at 3:38 pm

It’s not necessarily “agressing against” – unless you take these tokens called ‘money’ or ‘property’, extremely seriously; and they aren’t meant to be taken extremely seriously. They are just promissory notes that come with all kinds of strings attached.

22

Tracy W 06.25.06 at 4:35 pm

And in the case of public goods, a decision to provide them collectively means that everyone can choose whether or not to take advantage of them

This does not necessarily apply. Eg NZ’s biosecurity controls, which I think are the perfect example of a public good, but you can’t chose not to take advantage of them. You live in NZ, you can’t have a pet snake. You can’t chose to have your farm ravaged by some small South American bug while your neighbour’s farm enjoys the advantages of secure border controls, etc.

The same problem generally applies to defence – while, unlike biosecurity, it may be possible to set up excludable defence systems, on the whole if you’re being defended with modern day technology, so is your neighbour.

23

John Quiggin 06.25.06 at 4:39 pm

Brett, I take “not aggressing against other people” to mean not depriving them of rights they currently possess. In particular, that would include not cutting social security entitlements and similar.

Is this what you have in mind, or are you saying that some sorts of rights (for example, private property rights) should be enhanced at the expense of others. If so, how do you choose which kinds of rights are expanded and which are to be retrenched?

24

Jason 06.25.06 at 5:06 pm

Well, John, you see, we have these things that are called “natural rights,” and they’re explained by Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and others. Perhaps “asserted” would be more appropriate than “explained.” Fortunately the good libertarians have discovered these axioms (they’re embedded into the universe). “Rights” to social security and the like — so-called positive rights — are just made up because they sound nice.

Or at least this is the sort of explanation I’m used to hearing.

25

Mike Huben 06.25.06 at 6:17 pm

Jason, hundreds of years ago “natural rights” were correctly identified as “nonsense on stilts.” You seem to prefer authors who take such mystical nonsense seriously. Natural rights are the libertarian equivalent of religious indulgences.

26

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 7:01 pm

“Or at least this is the sort of explanation I’m used to hearing.”

That’s it in a nutshell.

I don’t think any rights should be “enhanced at the expense of others”, because rights, properly defined, don’t conflict with each other in that way. Conflict between rights is a consequence of improperly defining them.

That the “rights” liberals, as opposed to libertarians, defend, DO conflict with each other, is evidence that the system of rights you’re proposing is logically incoherent.

Rational people don’t insist on axioms which result in logical contradictions, no matter how nice it might be if those axioms were true.

27

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 7:06 pm

Mike, of course you can’t get from is to ought. But some systems of morals work, because they’re both logically coherent and consistant with man’s nature, and some don’t work.

And if your system of morals tells you “X” AND “not X”, you know it’s wrong.

Short form: Your stilts are quite a bit taller than mine.

28

DC 06.25.06 at 7:51 pm

Brett,

“Libertarians want people to have the maximum range of choices, consistant with not agressing against other people.”

Clearly you consider mugging to be such an aggression. Fair enough. But how about pick-pocketing, or any non-violent theft?

What’s happening in such cases? I am taking “money” from you; your money allows you to use certain items, and excludes me from using them. If I try and walk into your house and watch your TV (both yours by virtue of money) you (or the police) will presumably use violence/coercion to prevent me from doing so. Is this aggression in your book?

Basically your right to exclusive use of your property (house, TV, newspaper, car etc.) is really your right to coercively prevent anyone else from using them. According to your libertarian principles you must surely oppose private property, precisely as theft.

29

roger 06.25.06 at 8:08 pm

I’ve never understood why the Hayekian point about central planning stops at the edge of the business enterprise. A business enterprise, especially a multi-national, absentee owner corporation, is the embodiment of central planning, with many of the pernicious effects one would expect — the savage, irresponsible way the upper management increases its own share of the revenue the thing generates (not even the profits — they have their share long before that), which is the equivalent of high taxation; the disenfranchisement of the stakeholders — for instance, arbitrary mass firings; the rentseeking attempt to corrupt states into overlooking the long term theft they need to operate, called, sweetly, negative externals — such as planting their pollutants in the bodies of third parties. Corporations are different from your usual government insofar as they are much more tyrannical institutions, and the tyranny does spread from the central planning mindset. Anything that can pull them down is to the greater liberty of all.

30

Jason 06.25.06 at 8:11 pm

Mike,

I am of course being sarcastic. (I’m also familiar with your wonderful site, and I hope you linked the Colin Farrlley piece mentioned in the last thread on libertarianism).

The oft-quoted “nonsense on stilts” remark comes from Mr. Bentham.

Exclusive right to property is especially problematic for libertarians with respect to land, because one person’s ownership necessarily limits what others can own. In my home town, for example, I understand there’s currently a dispute about developing oversized homes on the hillside. Nouveau riche yuppies want to build gaudy, white trash palaces, while others would prefer to keep the area open to the public for bike trails, green space.

That private development restricts people’s choices because they’re prevented from biking on the trail. In another sense it restricts the choices of people who want to build homes.

All this “aggression” nonsense was discussed in Bertram’s aforementioned thread. See the part about “robbers with badges.”

31

Lukas 06.25.06 at 8:38 pm

roger – Coase did the basic work on why central planning makes sense in the context of specific business enterprises; basically, he explained why firms exist.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Coase#The_Nature_of_the_Firm

32

Lukas 06.25.06 at 8:40 pm

Anything that can pull them down is to the greater liberty of all.

Anything that can pull down a voluntary association of citizens is an increaes in liberty? You’re into deep Republican methods of logic, friend.

33

Brett Bellmore 06.25.06 at 8:41 pm

Roger, yes, you definately don’t understand. I can explain it simply:

Bill Gates won’t shoot me if I install Linux on my personal computer. If Microsoft were a government, that would be a real possibility.

34

nonsense 06.25.06 at 10:31 pm

Bill Gates won’t shoot me if I install Linux on my personal computer. If Microsoft were a government, that would be a real possibility.

That’s true. There was this guy, who didn’t pay his tax-es, right, and he refused to pay any tax-es, and the feds shot him.

35

Xero 06.26.06 at 12:29 am

It seems to me that the argument here is more a mater of semantics than actual difference. When the term Libertarian is used are we referring to classical/european Libertarianism, such as numerous anarchist movements, or are we referring to American Neo-Libertarianism, which is more like Objectivism as faith rather than sound political theory?

36

roger 06.26.06 at 1:06 am

Obviously, Brent, you have not heard of the East India Company, which did quite a bit of shooting in its day. Taking shooting as a criteria, which I think is rather silly. Why not take, oh, breathing asbestos fibers as a criteria? Yeah, it isn’t being shot — in fact, asbestos lung disease is a lot slower and a lot more painful. And companies like W.R. Grace, with vermiculate asbestos mines, had the evidence for this for years, and of course kept it secret. And how could they get away with that? Because they are centrally planned tyrannies.

Real freedom comes from democraticizing the firm.

37

Brendan 06.26.06 at 2:17 am

Brett
If you go to Nigeria and try and protest against the environmental problems there, Shell will indeed shoot you. This is not a ‘one off’. It’s a direct consequence of the ‘privatisation of the military’ that has gone on in Nigeria. It can’t happen here (to coin a phrase) because we have a publicly owned police force and army which is democratically accountable. We also have laws (sorry ‘red tape’) that controls what firms can and cannot do. A history of British multi nationals in the 18th and 19th century (including the invasion of India by the ‘British’ and the opium wars) will give you an idea as to the sort of thing firms, and those acting on behalf of them get up to in the absence of laws, and strong public institutions.

http://www.essentialaction.org/shell/issues.html

38

Z 06.26.06 at 2:54 am

What puzzles me about libertarian thought, is that I find it either self-evident (in the expand liberty form) or very bizarre (in the robber with badges, brett form). I mean, true, my state requires me to pay taxes, but last time I checked I decided that, through my vote, I decided the amount paid and what will be done with the money. Of course, I don’t get to choose alone, but no-one does either so I am quite happy with this arrangement. More specifically, I have always found extremely peculiar that some libertarians actually seem to think that if a group of people reaches a consensus about their own self-management that is not libertarian (in the brett form), then this consensus is coercion nonetheless.

39

French Swede the Rootless Vegetable 06.26.06 at 4:20 am

Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom

Hernando de Soto: The Mystery of Capital

It really makes me sad that if social democrats and libertarians read those books, maybe the former would understand that a lack of capitalism is what is behind most social problems (poverty, unhealth, uneducation, etc), and the latter that capitalism is not possible without a state that actively tries to provide the best institutional framework for markets (which is, by definition, “regulation” and “state intervention”).

40

Brett Bellmore 06.26.06 at 5:49 am

You’ve got a rather interesting version of “I decided”, haven’t you? You toss three people into a room, and two of them decide to do something, that doesn’t magicly erase the fact that the third didn’t. People are individuals. “Consensus” is just another way of saying “outnumbered”.

Coercion is coercion no matter how many people got together and decided to coerce you. Numbers haven’t got anything to do with it. If a million people decide something, and one decides differently, putting a gun to his head in order to get him to go along with everybody else is still coercion.

This does, however, get the the heart of the disagreement between libertarians and liberals: The belief on your part, and our rejection of it, that people can be treated as some kind of lump, that harming one person, and benefiting another, somehow averages out. So if you take the loot from robbing one person, and use it to benefit two, the fact that you robbed somebody is just peachy, because on average they’re better off.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Voting and democracy are better than the alternatives in cases where there’s no way to avoid everybody getting the same thing. But when there’s no way to avoid everybody getting the same thing, you’re already in a bad situation. And you should be looking for a way out of it, not using it as an example of how you should handle situtations where it’s perfectly feasible to let people make their own free choices.

But you’re not going to agree with this, because we do in fact reason from different axioms, and arrive at different conclusions.

41

Brendan 06.26.06 at 6:14 am

‘Voting and democracy are better than the alternatives in cases where there’s no way to avoid everybody getting the same thing. ‘

Eh? As decided upon by whom? And what do you mean by ‘the same thing’?

Incidentally, in case some of you are unaware where this kind of thinking leads: from ‘After the New Right’ (Bosanquet Heinemann, 1984).

Bosanquet discusses how Hayek began to see the inevitable movement towards totalitarianism as coming from ‘”democratic”‘ government (note scare quotes). More specifically, the problem is a legislative assembly with unlimited powers. The other problem is universal suffrage. Luckily Hayek offers a solution. Parliament will still be ‘democratic’ (no scare quotes this time) but people will be allowed to vote only once. Suffrage will be raised to the age of 45. These people in turn would elect the ‘real’ politicians who would actually hold power. There would be a ‘proper’ parliament (i.e. with universal suffrage) but this would have few powers, and any powers it did have would be overrideable by the ‘real’ parliament. Civil servants, OAPs and the unemployed would be forbidden to vote. Money would be ‘denationalised’.

It is up to the reader to decide whether this constitutes a serious political programme or whether it does not.

42

DC 06.26.06 at 7:27 am

“if you take the loot from robbing one person, and use it to benefit two, the fact that you robbed somebody is just peachy, because on average they’re better off.”

But why, why, why Brett, is it “robbing”? What moral claim does the person have to their goods? Presumably you won’t say “the law”, since that simply means that the state coercively enforces the right of the individual to exclusive ownership of her property at the expense of everybody else.

This, it seems to me, is closer to the “heart” of the difference between right-libertarians and everyone else than is the reification of society at the expense of individuals.

43

abb1 06.26.06 at 8:10 am

What moral claim does the person have to their goods?

Validity of a claim is not necessarily a constant.

I feel that a person who produced something has a pretty good moral claim to that thing. After that it becomes blurry, all the way to corporate CEOs and their heirs and such, who clearly have no claim.

44

asg 06.26.06 at 8:14 am

#42: What moral claim do YOU think a person has to his goods? Presumably you won’t say “none”, since that way lies all sorts of unpleasantness, and presumably you won’t say “only those claims conferred by the law”, since that would mean the law can create moral obligations just by virtue of being the law, and that way too lies all sorts of unpleasantness.

45

Z 06.26.06 at 9:08 am

No Brett, I don’t believe what you think I do. As I wrote, the expand liberty part of libertarianism (which in my mind includes the people are individuals part) is self-evident. You cannot average things out and if 10 people wanting a master impose one on the eleventh (to paraphrase Rousseau), then it is coercion. This is clear. However, if ten people decide together that from now on they will make decision using a majority voting procedure and if they subsequently decide to do something that a minority disapproves of, this is not coercion, this is the simple application of the consensus. Of course, real society did not come to existence like this, but we are all speaking theoretically here.

Specifically, I can very well imagine a purely libertarian society where private property does not exist, simply because individuals have all freely decided that they rather had their properties in common (a society of lovers maybe?).

To make crystal clear my position, though I agree with the general libertarian state of mind (I even think it is trivial), I disagree that a libertarian society would have, say, less taxes than actual societies, or stronger property rights, or no welfare. These are usually the preferred social choices of vocal libertarians, but, surely, it is among them that one would expect to find people who understand that their individual preferences are just that, and that other individuals have different ones.

46

burritoboy 06.26.06 at 11:36 am

“roger – Coase did the basic work on why central planning makes sense in the context of specific business enterprises; basically, he explained why firms exist.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Coase#The_Nature_of_the_Firm

Actually, Coase did NOT do the basic work. He laid out a theory….and left it there, without satisfactory empirical proof. In fact, there are still no good empirical proofs indicating what actual levels of transaction costs would drive the creation of internal markets (i.e. firms) rather than external markets.

The reality is that the transaction costs would really need to be quite large and easily observable for the Coase theory of the firm to be viable. The difficulty with which any empirical proof of the Coase theorem has been achieved would indicate that it’s not a valid explanation.

47

DC 06.26.06 at 12:54 pm

asg,

I sort of don’t feel there’s as much need for me to answer the question (“What moral claim does a person have to their property?”) as there is for someone who sees taxation as theft.

But actually I would probably say that people don’t have any moral claim, as such, to private property. They have a moral claim to the material resources adequate for the satisfaction of basic needs and human dignity in the society in which they live. This is the standard by which I would judge property rights and relations, rather than any deontological entitlement, such as advocated by libertarians as well as Lockeans and Marxists. (Though I certainly prefer the Marxist principle to the libertarian one.)

That the law currently sanctions property relations entailing shameful inequalities, including flagrant violations of the above standard shows that the law does not furnish moral claims to property. The laws in relation to property rights can (and should) thus be justly changed to bring about a better arrangement.

48

paul 06.26.06 at 1:59 pm

The idea that people naturally get more choice about what they “purchase” (either with tax money or with the funds that would have been tax money, did they live in a jurisdiction that relied on taxes) from private firms than from a government seems to me risible on its face.

A government is at least nominally directed toward the benefit of its citizens, and if enough of its citizens see a benefit in unbundling government goods and services for purchase, it will happen. (Yeah, right. But we’re talking utopian ideals here.) Businesses, on the other hand, are dedicated to maximizing shareholder and management return, something that is best done under circumstances of asymmetrical power between business and customer. Under those circumstances, it’s almost a given that customers will pay for a variety of things they don’t want — including some items that actively disserve them — in order to maintain access to the things they do want. And since it’s more profitable to act that way than to unbundle (economies of scale, cross-subsidy and all that), there’s no reason to think that some competing firm will want to act differently.

49

asg 06.26.06 at 2:14 pm

I agree that the question is less compelling for you than for someone who opposes taxation. My point was that it’s not as easy as your initial post suggests to divide the world into “right-libertarians” and “everyone else”, since I suspect a very, very small percentage of “everyone else” would endorse the principle you do (“people don’t have any moral claim, as such, to private property”), much less the idea that people’s entitlements to material resources are based on what societies they live in(!).

50

asg 06.26.06 at 2:25 pm

One hardly knows where to begin with #48, but I think it should definitely meet #2.

51

mpowell 06.26.06 at 3:02 pm

Its unfortunate that this debate always degrades into an argument about libertarianism. Nobody here is going to convince anyone else here on that score. I’d like to respond to John Quiggin’s original post: sure the assymetry argument does not lead to only libertarian principles of government, but in can still be useful for thinking about governmental policy. And I think that it usually weighs in on the side of minimizing government involvement. This happens to be a libertarian position, but thats not really the important part.

Brendan in #12 makes the sort of argument that markets exist in a social context so they are never really independent and free. I guess we are to infer from this that as long as this is true there is really no difference between social context and government regulation. But I don’t agree. I think there is a way you can measure more or less government involvement in a market, and although that involvement may be aimed at a generating a positive social result, there is also a cost associated w/ that involvement. Further, the institution you create to effect that involvement may work against your initial aim anyhow.

Studies of administrative barriers to investment in Africa have shown that red tape like approvals and licensing can signficantly affect business and economic growth. Its a simple and clear example, but surely not the only one.

52

DC 06.26.06 at 3:14 pm

asg,

You might well be right that most people don’t share the belief that there is no moral claim to private property – I only expressed that view myself as a fairly provisional answer to your question. As I indicated, the Marxist idea that workers are entitled to the fruit of their labour, that this should not be appropriated by others (i.e. employers) is attractive to me. But it poses obvious problems given that many people won’t be able to work for their living – hence there’s a contradiction with another Marxist idea: “to each according to needs, from each according to ability”.

But surely the implication of the rejection by the vast majority of people of libertarianism (particularly of the idea that taxation/redistribution is morally wrong) is that they do not in fact really think that the property relations produced by the capitalist economy are of themselves just, that people have a moral claim to (all) the wealth that accrues to them in that system.

As for “the idea that people’s entitlements to material resources are based on what societies they live in(!)”, this is obvious. I specified that such entitlements ought, in my opinion, to satisfy not merely basic material needs but also some minimal standard of human dignity. The standard of living required to meet the latter requirement would clearly be different in, say, 21st century America than it would in, say, 13th century Britain. Poverty is always relative to the time and place in which it exists.

53

Brendan 06.26.06 at 3:41 pm

‘Studies of administrative barriers to investment in Africa have shown that red tape like approvals and licensing can signficantly affect business and economic growth. Its a simple and clear example, but surely not the only one.’

This may well be true, but I would wager that there are a lot of things that have a much bigger impact on African capitalism than ‘red tape’. To take some examples off the top of my head:

1: Debt repayment

2: International tariffs and subsidies (which, remaining under the control of politicians, are always open to manipulation and special interest prejudice….the only way you can get round this would be to make it ILLEGAL for countries to subsidise their firms or set tariffs but who would have the power to do that in libertarianland?)

3: Corruption which, however it starts is facilitated by external powers (in Saudi Arabia, for example, most weapons deals are ‘facilitated’ by drugs and prostitutes).

My feeling about libertarianism is that libertarians are onto something, but it’s not what they think they are onto. Libertarians have stumbled upon some important facts about ‘bottom up’ organisation (what Hayek called a catallaxy, I used to think although Wikipedia tells me I’m wrong) and they are almost certainly on the money about central planning. But my question remains: who believes in central planning any more? Like socialists, therefore, I am very much against what libertarians are against, in the abstract. It’s just when I hear what they are FOR that I start to have my doubts (like socialism again, perhaps).

54

james 06.26.06 at 5:26 pm

Every post on liberalism seems to be advocating taking away a right I currently have. Isn’t there a way to solve these problems without stripping away individual rights?

55

McDuff 06.26.06 at 11:15 pm

Brent, you are welcome to go live in the desert, away from the protection of laws, a system of courts, highways, and the general lovely trappings of life that come from a bunch of people agreeing to live together.

If you want to live in a society of people, especially one where those at the bottom do not necessarily die of cholera all over your manicured lawn or storm your palace with pitchforks, some compromises are necessary. This is unfortunate, but the “natural” way of things, so I am led to understand by documentaries on the Discovery Channel, will just fucking outright kill you in the face with a big lion. So, y’know, I’ve personally decided that taxes are better than lions.

56

abb1 06.27.06 at 1:54 am

Every post on liberalism seems to be advocating taking away a right I currently have.

What right you currently have is being taken away here?

57

Brett Bellmore 06.27.06 at 5:29 am

McDuff, you, too, are free to go live in a desert, and redistribute income between yourself and the snakes. In the mean time, I’m as entitled to advocate a system of principles that reject redistribution and paternalistic coercion as you are to advocate the opposite. And to think I’m right, even as you think the opposite.

And, who is this “Brent” fellow?

58

abb1 06.27.06 at 6:11 am

What Milton Friedman describes as “neighborhood effects” and the founders as “general welfare” will easily justify almost anything you call “paternalistic coercion”. It’s only a matter of degree, not principle.

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paul 06.28.06 at 2:29 pm

Is there a practical, or even implausible-but-arguable, way to get out of the libertarian free-rider problem? I’m thinking maybe a series of stars, so that with a blue star for not paying local taxes, you agree to forfeit local police and fire protection, and any goods or services provided by someone educated in a public school; with a yellow star for not paying federal taxes you forfeit your passport and any use of the interstate highway system or goods and service delivered along it, or any products developed by federal grants or contracts; maybe a pink star for FICA, which entitles your parents and grandparents to stop collecting Social Security…

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