Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Society

19 Tough Questions for Libertarians, Part 4

This is part four in my series on the internet meme, “Jon Stewart’s 19 Tough Questions for Libertarians.” Please see part one here, part two here, and part three here. Today we deal with questions 10-19.

You give money to the IRS because you think they’re gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.

This is obviously a very simplistic description of “your tax dollars at work” but it makes the point that many of us try to make when arguing with libertarians: are you really comfortable in a world where you and only you look after yourself, where another only looks after himself / herself?

Libertarians answer with theory: it is only just / right /moral for things to be this way. They don’t appear to consider this: “Firefighters let house burn down because owner hasn’t paid“. Or if they do consider it, they consider it only in terms of the abstract “right” / “wrong” of things, and not “would I really, really – I mean deep down – like to watch my house burn to the grown while the fire prevention service I haven’t paid watches next to me?” For me, this is obviously something I would not want to experience; it is actually at the level of belief for me: I know – know without a doubt in fact – that I like and need the fire department and the role they perform. And I also like and need the building codes the prevent the Great Fires of years past.

These things are absolutely essential to my standard of living, my quality of life. I can’t even imagine a world without these things where I retain my current quality of life. (And when I say imagine, I mean realistically imagine: I can obviously imagine a perfect world without these things, where I still have my quality of life, but I know that world doesn’t exist as a possibility in Canada.)

Frankly, beyond repeating myself from my previous posts, I don’t know what else to say to libertarians regarding this stuff: I don’t want my house to burn down because I haven’t paid my fire toll. But on top of that, even if you pretend that you do want that – and I honestly think a libertarian is pretending when he or she makes this claim – it doesn’t matter: had we lived in a wholly libertarian society on this continent for the last couple hundred years, fire trucks wouldn’t get to your house, because there wouldn’t be fire trucks, there certainly wouldn’t be the network of roads that we have, their wouldn’t be telephone wires to use to call the fire department (forget about cellular technology); their wouldn’t be anything like what we have today because infrastructure of this type requires society, and libertarianism does not support society as we know it.

Frankly I don’t want to live in that world, no matter how “just” or “moral” or “free” a libertarian insists it would be.

Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters? The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative, seems insane.

Even as a recovered libertarian, I don’t really know how to answer this question. I guess, in theory, the transaction between me and a corporation is wholly voluntary and based on my free will, so therefore, according to certain liberal-based ideologies, it is inherently good, whereas I don’t choose to pay taxes, so that transaction is inherently bad. I have tried to rip apart these assumptions in my previous posts:

  • free will doesn’t really exist (this is not to deny the ability to make choices),
  • choices are always constrained by circumstances and context and aren’t inherently valuable beyond the fact that we can all make them.

But there’s more to this critique than just a critique of the concept of “free choice” / “free will”.

There’s also the idea of how people respond to you: libertarians like to think that because you paid someone, that person will honour this contract, even if there are only very basic contract laws in existence (if there are any at all…). They also feel that if you entered into a contract without full knowledge of something and you do not benefit, well tough shit.

But we know that not only is the profit motive not altruistic, it is also duplicitous. Throughout history, people have lied, cheated, etc to make a buck. This is what people do, especially when there aren’t rules governing their behaviour. (Blaming this reality on society puts you in an infinite regress trying to explain which caused which, so don’t blame society.)

And at this point, most for-profit enterprises are gigantic. If I am not a shareholder, all I have is my customer complaints. If the company is successful enough to not worry about customer complaints, then I have absolutely nothing.

This is not true with representative government: I do have an option as I can vote out my representative. Now obviously governments are extraordinarily complicated at this point and in some countries there doesn’t appear to be much connection between the ability to vote one person out and another in and the policies that emerge. And this leads to a completely different question about how we design are representative institutions. (Hint: there is no right answer.)

We need to understand that institutions that are 200+ years old or even 30 years old (in the case of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms) are not necessarily perfect, just because dead people created them. What few “government” opponents seem to truly understand is unfortunately our particular governments in North America were built to stay are they are, rather than to change to fit changing circumstances. Or rather, they fail to understand that the lack of an ability to reform is actually a bad thing; not a virtue at all. But this is somewhat beside the point.

The point is that representative government that helps look after the basic needs of those less fortunate is going to respond to those needs in a qualitatively different sense than a for-profit company which is primarily concerned with financial returns and not with effectiveness. The US health care system, which is both the most expensive and – at least in toto (obviously not for those who can afford it) – the least effective health care system in the developed world, is proof of this.

Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? ..and there are choices within the educational system.

If we have both public and private systems, people within and without government use the existence of the private system as an excuse to under-fund the public system. Some US universities are extraordinarily expensive but not necessarily better than Canadian universities which can be attended for a small fraction of the cost. Some US public school systems are a disaster due in great part to a lack of funding. On the other hand, obviously some Canadian public school systems are also pretty terrible.

If we have no public system then we have no mandatory education and we have no mandatory health care. There are all sorts of studies to show that mandatory education improves society, but why not just look at the history of the 20th century? All this unprecedented innovation comes – in part – from increased literacy. As for health care: competition and health care do not mix. Only in the US do they believe that competition can actually provide health care. What about the profit motive encourages people to save other people’s lives exactly?

Would you go back to 1890?

Nobody really wants to go back to 1890. And anyone who thinks they do should watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Art can actually tell us something.

If we didn’t have government, we’d all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream?

This is unfair but funny. Yes, utopias are easy to mock. They are harder to debunk. I tried to do so in my book. It’s a long, long argument. I was going to include a history lesson as to why utopias are bad but I had to omit it for space reasons. If you are interested, I will write a post about the theoretical and practical. Let me know.

Unregulated markets have been tried. The 80’s and the 90’s were the robber baron age. These regulations didn’t come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn’t fight back against.

I don’t actually fully agree with this statement.

I think markets were less regulated then, but I think it’s a myth that “the market” as a whole, was ever wholly unregulated in any country at any time. (Beyond maybe a few enclaves within certain industries in specific countries for very short periods of time.)

But the point is still there: relatively freer markets were tried in the US in the late 19th century (and at a few other times in a few other places). The results were not pretty for most people. Regulations did indeed emerge because of the huge problems that occurred around railroads, mines and the like. I would strongly recommend reading Big Trouble, which is about the kind of abuses that went on in the less regulated parts of the United States in the early 20th century.

Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?

I certainly don’t think there’s anything within libertarian thought that is inherently anti-union. It does seem like a lot of libertarians do not support unions (for whatever reason) but I don’t know that a libertarian philosopher should logically object to unions in any way… provided, of course, membership is not mandatory.

Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government.

This is an incoherent statement because it is taken out of a conversation. But I think what Stewart is attempting to say is that unions, in order to be maintained, require government regulation.

This certainly seems to be true to me in practice. Theoretically, unions shouldn’t need government affirmation, because, if they are truly offering something to their members that is valuable, workers – being rational utility maximizers of course – will naturally want to belong to the union in order to bargain with their employer. (Though one could argue in this theoretical world that the employer-employee relationship is so beneficial to both parties as to never require a union, which is a clear reflection of reality, especially factory reality.)

This is not how it works, of course. Union members did not experience the same rights under the law as employers, union-busters, and scabs. A libertarian might argue that this was actually the fault of government regulation but I am not interested in trying to imagine that argument.

Rather, all I am trying to say is that those with more economic power often – usually – have more political power and, whether we want to admit it or not, that gets in the way of “justice” and “fairness” in actual human societies, if not in theory. The history of the union movement certainly suggests for unions to succeed they need at least some kind of government affirmation. And personally, given the pre-union factory conditions in many places and times, I for one am willing to grant my government a role in labour politics.

Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Marten [sic] Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not… The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.

Of course the libertarian response to this is that there would be no slavery in a free market and so there would be no legacy of slavery. But there could be, if someone sold himself into slavery. (Unless you have laws against that, but then that sounds like government intervention.)

The point Stewart is trying to make is that if libertarianism had been introduced during a given era, he thinks it unlikely to have made these changes. Certainly it is possible to conceive of a libertarian society divided on racial, ethnic or sexual lines, at least in theory.

For me this is not really a critique of libertarianism at all and so it sort of falls out of the purview of this topic. Libertarians who want a libertarian society now should not have to argue that their society would have been an improvement on – or the equal of – a particular time and place, necessarily. Rather they should be trying to show why it is desirable – and, more importantly, plausible – now. I don’t think they can do that, but I don’t think bringing up the civil rights movement, and civil rights legislation in the US, is much of a critique of libertarianism.

Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions.

I would say that government isn’t just necessary but that it’s a reality of which we cannot escape. That makes it necessary, in a certain sense. But, as I have tried to point out in this series, arguing that it is necessary or isn’t, obscures the nature of government: historical contingency. It is up to us as to what we do about the reality of government and I am with Stewart in holding it accountable for its decisions.

The only way I know how to do this – as I have argued in my book – is through liberal institutions – an enforceable bill of rights, effective institutional checks on government power, government institutions in competition with each other for power – combined with representative – i.e. indirect – democracy: the leaders have rules and when they violate these rules they are kicked out. That’s the only way to do it.

Libertarianism theoretically fits into this liberal democratic framework. I think it is very easy to conceive of a theoretical libertarian society which has representative democratic institutions to oversee the few government institutions that would supposedly be necessary.

t is much harder to conceive how such a society would function when filled with actual human beings, especially in the numbers seen on this planet. It is even harder to understand how such a society could come to pass in Canada or the United States, given the society we currently find ourselves in – that of a welfare state – even if it were desirable. I have tried to argue here and in my book that a libertarian society isn’t desirable; for moral reasons and for practical reasons.

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