Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Socially, I'm a libertarian, but economically...."

One of the reasons I'm not a libertarian is that I have an incomplete idea of what, exactly, libertarianism is. My readings of libertarian authors are pretty much limited to libertarian leaning blogs and columnists, such as the OneBestWay (the successor to Positive Liberty), the Volokh Conspiracy, and Steve Chapman. I have read John Locke, who, at least according to some people, was a proto-libertarian. Otherwise, that's about it.

When I ask my (mostly liberal or left-leaning) friends about their views on libertarianism, I generally get one of two responses. The first is a long lecture about how libertarians are hypocrites because they use public roads and benefit from taxes more than most non-libertarians do. This seems a bit strawman-ish to me. I imagine thoughtful libertarians at least recognize the points at which their ideology/political orientation conflicts with daily practice, just as my Marxist friends recognize the conflict between their relatively comfortable middle-class status and their advocacy for the rights of the "proletariat" and my liberal friends recognize the conflict between, for example, using the government to aggressively promote the economic interests of the disadvantaged even though many of the same disadvantaged people might support a non-liberal political party for reasons that have little to do with economics.

The other response is something like this: "When it comes to social matters, I'm a complete libertarian, but when it comes to economic issues, I think there ought to be regulation." In a sense, this, too, is strawman-ish because most libertarians, in my admittedly somewhat limited observations, accept the need for at least some regulation of the economy. What bothers me most about this response, however, is the neatness of the distinction that the speaker is trying to draw between the putatively "social" and the putatively "economic." To me, the two are so interspersed that it is often, though perhaps not always, hard to separate them. Here are some examples:
  • Libertarians usually want an end to, or at least a de-escalation of, the War of Drugs. There is a social component to this--the freedom of consenting adults to use drugs--but also an "economic" component--the state would spend less money in enforcing drug laws and in incarcerating offenders (and, I suppose, drugs would be cheaper, both in price and in the "transaction cost" of being arrested).
  • Libertarians usually dislike state-mandated discrimination based on arbitrary categories. Therefore, while they may have qualms about state actions that encourage marriage, they or at least some, usually believe that the state should recognize gay marriages if it is going to recognize any marriage. And the issue of the legality of marriage is not purely social. For the parties involved, there are some very real economic benefits. For the state--federal and state-level--there is a question of allocation of resources. For example, the distribution of survivor benefits for social security, I imagine, would change if the federal government recognized gay marriage.
  • A "libertarian" political economy--one in which the government is minimally intrusive and does only that which the "market forces" cannot do, and in which each adult is assured of a "liberty of contract" to sell his/her labor as they see fit--has social implications. Dismantling the welfare state*--whatever its other effects--would probably force poorer people to be even more reliant on family and informal networks of similarly situated people than they already are. (Here and now, I make no judgment on whether this would be a good thing, except to say that there would be definite pros and cons.)

*I'm not suggesting that all libertarians want to dismantle the welfare state, or that those who do, would want to do it precipitously and with little regard the very real hardships such a dismantling would cause, at least in the short term. I can also imagine a more moderately libertarian argument for continuing the welfare state (perhaps on the assumption that there are bigger fish to fry than taking away resources from poor people) but modifying its incentives to make its operation more efficient and beneficial to recipients of welfare. But dismantling the welfare state is logically consistent with what I understand to be libertarian critiques of government.

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