September 2012
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Anti-libertarian views

Because I get most of my world views from a self-chosen, selective subset of the internet, I’m exposed to a great deal of sycophantic thought. I don’t think it’s a large problem that I read only that which I agree with, because I consistently hear from everyday people and the mass media messages contrary to my own views. It so happens that I hold a minority opinion about the formation of social structures, that today is considered wildly eccentric, but in the past may have resulted in my internment. Not often, but every once in a long while, I run across material which has enough depth that it’s not tilting against a strawman version of my views. Paul Treanor’s article, Why is libertarianism wrong?, largely contains a faithful representative view of libertarian values.

Although I agree with much of his characterization, I find that his analysis incomplete. For example, he identifies both “non-coercion” and “political freedom” as a claim and self-image of libertarianism. He objects to “non-coercion” using the example of an employer which forces employees to do X or lose their job. I don’t buy the argument, because employees don’t have a right to a job. The objection to “political freedom” however, points out a stark problem: many libertarians are minarchists.

Libertarians say they favour political freedom. But even to simply enforce the outcome of the market, the apparatus of a state would be necessary – an army to prevent invasions, a police force to suppress internal revolt, a judicial system. Most libertarians go much further: they want a libertarian regime. Some of them have written complete and detailed constitutions. But like any state, a libertarian state will have to enforce its constitution – otherwise it will be no more than a suggested constitution.

Now it is logically inconsistent, to demand a ‘noncoercive principle of governance’. Unless someone (coercively) enforces it, it will be meaningless.

If you share a similar lack of imagination with Treanor, then it would seem that these two principles in logical conflict. My commitment to the principle of non-coercion has led me from minarchism to anarchism. None of the examples given: enforcement of contract, prevention of invasion, keeping of the peace, resolution of dispute, require the territorial monopoly of violence that is a state government.

Also his caricature of the free market woefully confuses cause with effect:

Most libertarians favour a drastic deregulation and full privatisation of the economy, and this is typically where the instrumental claims are made. The libertarian reforms will, they claim, improve education and medical services and make better and cheaper products available.

Different economic systems and different societies produce different types of goods and services. Libertarians implicitly claim that their preferences are the right preferences, and that the economic system itself should be chosen to produce their preferred goods and services. They don’t want Soviet-style goods in the shops, so they want a non-Soviet system. Perhaps you don’t want Soviet-style goods in the shops either. The point is: did they ask you?

It’s not that proponents of the free market wish to impose the outcomes of the market on the people, but that the participants of the market determine the equilibrium. The market mechanism is historically proven to produce what the consumers demand. We don’t have to ask what goods you will like, because the very design of the market itself ensures that what you like is considered, no matter who you are.

Treanor’s heart-felt objection to the market seems to rest on his viewpoint:

A one-person boycott of meat will not stop the slaughter of animals. In reality, the individual is powerless in the face of the market – and without some decision-making power there is no real moral autonomy.

Cynically defined, a libertarian is a person who believes that all humans should live in total and absolute submission to market forces, at all times from birth to death, without any chance of escape.

libertarian image libertarian reality
moral autonomy of the individual libertarians demand that the individual accept the outcome of market forces

This may be a regretful state of affairs, but I think all other systems are worse. The fact that PETA hasn’t successfully prevented the slaughter of animals for food means precisely that most people don’t care. It would be morally wrong for PETA to forcefully impose their views on others. This fact stands, even if PETA is morally right. Fortunately, the free market has mechanisms of correction: PETA can campaign for their view, run advertisements, hold rallies, fund-raisers, demonstrations, create veggy/vegan restaurants and supermarkets, etc. The market equilibrium shifts as they convince other market participants. Today it’s standard for conferences and catered parties to offer veggy/vegan options for each meal. Individuals may be powerless in the face of market forces, so they are encouraged to band together. After all, what is a business, but a coalition of people acting together to produce a good/service?

Treanor also occasionally ascribes the laudable market outcome as libertarian personal preference.

In other words certain entities will be permanently missing from the libertarian world. To libertarians, that is an advantage: they think of these entities as wrong: wrong as a product of coercion, or just plain wrong, like David Friedman’s ‘bad trucks’. Not just bad trucks will be missing, but an entire range of ‘bad’ entities, from ‘bad’ pencils, to ‘bad’ organisations, to ‘bad’ cities.

Individual libertarians usually feel a personal connection with the market outcome. This seems especially so in countries (the U.S.) that have enjoyed the benefits of freer markets. However, as Treanor should realize from his earlier arguments: the libertarian will also be subjected to market equilibriums that may not coincide with personal valuations. Friedman’s examples are nearly tautologically true: What is meant my ‘bad trucks’ are those trucks which are inadequate for their desired use, those trucks which the market participants would find lacking. ‘Bad’ items are missing from the economy because nobody would volunteer to fund them. Rather, libertarians object to such projects as ‘Soviet Cities’ because they exemplify a misallocation of resources (with respect to the aggregated desires of the market) fundable only through appropriation from unwilling participants.

Finally, Treanor ends with a list of ways in which coercion is not necessarily wrong. Because I place most of my philosophy on the non-coercion principal, I disagree with all of his claims. Moreover, he doesn’t give example or argue his case. Without consideration of public choice theory and in ignorance of the role of prices within the economy, Treanor places an unreasonable, and in-practice unfulfillable, faith in the ability of state to govern economic outcome.

The fundamental task of the state, in a world of liberal market-democratic nation states, is to innovate. To innovate in contravention of national tradition, to innovate when necessary in defiance of the ‘will of the people’, and to innovate in defiance of market forces and market logic.

Despite the disagreements, I found Treanor’s presentation wonderfully clear and carefully organized.

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