Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In search of the libertarian / liberal divide, part III

Continuing with my series of posts on "marginal libertarian" policies and my hope to define further the distinguishing features of libertarianism and liberalism [click here to see the first post, and click here to see the second], here is a discussion of those policies which I support, but with reservations. Of these, some reservations are libertarian-friendly and others are probably more "liberalish," or at least non-libertarian (notice that I haven't defined liberalism, or liberalishism; suffice it to say that I'm "working on it").

The only one policy about which I have reservations solely on grounds that I might call "libertarian" is the radical reduction of the armed forces. Of course, my reservations probably depend at least in part on what counts as "radical" reductions. In the abstract, I'm all for ending the warfare state and the militarization of the US society and economy. In practice, the US does have a lot of commitments abroad that would be difficult to disentangle even in ten or twenty years time. Such issues are well beyond my pay grade, and I'm too ignorant. I just fear that a precipitous and "radical" draw down might be dangerous.

I call this a "libertarian" reservation not because there aren't libertarian reasons to support demilitarization: indeed, one might argue that the original antipathy to government violations of civil liberties in the Anglo world--an antipathy from which I think it's possible to trace modern libertarianism--arose in reaction to England's warfare state (I'm thinking of the "country Whig" constituency that arose in England during the 18th century and whose thinking, at least according to historian Bernard Bailyn, provided some of the ideological basis for the American Revolution). I call this reservation "libertarian" because I believe it is located closely to a notion of national defense, so that a strong military can, or at least might, deflect or at least channel the rise of local hegemons that might divide the world into separate "power spheres." In short, I fear a return to the 1930s, which depending on the circumstances might be an even greater threat to liberties than our current standing army and military industrial complex.

Now, I'm open to the notion that I'm entirely wrong on this fear. I should stress that my reservation--resting as it does on a hypothetical and on an imperfect historical analogy--is a weak one, and I would welcome a demilitarization of our economy and society the moment and to the degree that it is shown to be feasible in our current world system.

My reservations against vouchers and against a constitutional amendment to overturn the Kelo decision (the 2005 court decision that upheld a state's taking of private property and transfer to a private developer on the ground that the resulting development would increase the local tax base and provide jobs, etc.) are both liberalish and libertarian.

As for vouchers, I'm not in principle against programs that broaden people's horizons and give them options to go to schools different from the public school to which they would otherwise be assigned. The rent seeker, however, is in the details, and I'm concerned about how vouchers would work and do work in practice.

First, I would need to know if the vouchers are merely rebates of property taxes. If so, I imagine they would effectively price out those who do not own real property because there cannot be a rebate to such taxes when the taxes are not paid directly in the first place (they are paid indirectly, of course, through rent). Second, I am concerned that regardless of the basis for the rebate--or grant of money, as I imagine some voucher systems might simply be a grant of money that people may use for non-public schools--the poor will still be priced out of using vouchers and would be warehoused in public schools that now would have fewer funds available. (Perhaps this concern is less valid than I stated it: maybe money for vouchers does not imply necessarily a loss of funds for public schools, and perhaps money is only one of many problems that some public school districts face so that merely giving more money does not necessarily mean improvements.)

Now, these concerns are liberalish in the sense that they rest on the implication that it is better to compel people to pay for public education, which is in a sense a state-supported, partial monopoly. Libertarians tend not to like state-supported monopolies unless there is no other way to provide the service. I understand the libertarian support for vouchers has to do somewhat with the competition that they would allegedly introduce. Therefore, inasmuch as I would strengthen the public schools' monopoly on primary and secondary education, my reservations against vouchers is non-libertarian.

My concerns are also libertarian-friendly, however, in that I believe a voucher scheme, again, depending on how it operates, could be just a way of funneling money from one group of people to another, particularly if the voucher program is based solely on giving a rebate for property taxes. This funneling might create a class of interested, relatively more affluent people who are strongly subsidized at the expense of poorer people. Again, I must stress that this objection, like my others, comes from my ignorance of how these programs operate in practice or would operate if implemented on a wide scale.

My reservations about an amendment to overturn the Kelo decision are based more on the means of a constitutional amendment than on the prospect of overturning Kelo itself. I belief that the decision of New Haven, Connecticut, to take Ms. Kelo's property was based on a wrongheaded policy. (I have heard that the private developer ultimately did nothing with the land acquired. I don't know if that claim is true, but even if it is false, I think the policy was a bad one.) I also believe that any takings that involves a transfer of property to a private entity should be subject to the strictest scrutiny, so that the type of policy pursued by New Haven could not have survived a constitutional challenge. I disagree with a constitutional amendment for two reasons, one liberalish and one libertarian, and I admit that in some ways the betray an internal contradiction in my own thinking on the matter:
  1. Liberalish: as my invocation of a "strict scrutiny" test above might suggest, I can imagine, but only in the abstract, situations in which a taking for a purpose to transfer to a private entity might be justified. I say "in the abstract," because I cannot think of anything off hand. Also, and perhaps this is only a minor reservation, would such an amendment bar any transfer of land to a private entity if that land had been acquired by eminent domain? Perhaps this question represents a misunderstanding of Kelo (I have not actually read the decision, and I do not know if the private developer in question paid for the land that was condemned). But say the state acquires land for a public purpose through eminent domain: could it transfer the land 10 years later? a 100 years later? (I will say that the libertarian skepticism of eminent domain is well founded, especially because "just compensation" is not necessarily, in practice, fair compensation.)
  2. Libertarian: a constitutional amendment, depending on how it is worded, might do what it's supposed to do, but it might also either be redundant or, worse, might enable more Kelo-style takings in the future. It might seem strange to say that an amendment to overturn a Supreme Court precedent be redundant when the precedent has been set, but I would not be surprised if the Court in the next 20 years or so will start distinguishing Kelo almost out of existence. (I'm not a Court watcher or otherwise an expert on the law, so take my prediction with several large grains of salt. I have no evidence, just my "hunch.") My main fear--that it would enable future takings--rests on my belief that introducing a ban into the constitution might be interpreted as "now you can do, provided you don't violate this rule." The fifth amendment allows the federal government (and the state, through incorporation via the 14th amendment) to take property "for public use." The new amendment would, I imagine, put a further qualification on "for public use," that would likely follow a format similar to the following "shall not be construed as to permit a transfer to a non-public entity." I wouldn't be surprised if such an amendment only makes it incumbent upon the state to claim and to prove to the satisfaction of the Court that the private entity is actually, really, and in all truth, in a matter of speaking, for purposes of this taking, a "public entity." And then we'd be back at square one. (Of course, I might be wrong on all this. And maybe an amendment would introduce in practice the type of strict scrutiny I favor.)
For the remaining policies that I support, but with reservations, my reservations are probably more liberalish than libertarian. These concern Mr. Hanley's prescription for reforming health care provision, his desire to end agricultural cartels, and the negative income tax idea.

Re: his prescriptions for health insurance reform: I like the idea of decoupling health insurance from employment and introducing a competitive market for insurance. I also favor government intervention to help the poor and for "catastrophic" coverage (I confess, I'm ignorant enough about insurance to have a firm grasp on what is meant by "catastrophic" coverage and whether it includes, for example, pre-existing conditions). My reservations, such as they are, rest on a skepticism, or at least an ignorance, of how well the government intervention would help: how intrusive and cumbersome the means testing requirement would be and wide the gap between what coverage one can get on the market and one can get from government provision.

Re: ending agricultural cartels: Any consideration of whether farmers should be allowed to form cartels must take into account the effect such cartels have on the prices of foodstuffs. In short, I, as a non-farmer, find it hard to sympathize with practices that at least in the short term raise prices of necessary food to the consumer, and I also find it hard to sympathize with the massive subsidies provided farmers, especially when those subsidies seem to work more to encourage small- (or medium-, or sometimes large-) scale farms on land that would otherwise be farmed any way than to encourage farming on land that wouldn't be farmed at all without them. Therefore, I would support ending government support for agricultural cartels, but my reservation rests on my ignorance: does the government merely tolerate such cartels, or does it enforce them? If it's only the former, then I might be inclined to support them or at least their legality.

Re: the negative income tax. I confess to not knowing much about the negative income tax, and most of what I do know I learned just a few days ago when I read this post by someone who has studied the idea. There are, as the author of this post notes, some problems with implementing such a plan, but I think it sounds like in general a good idea. I would not like to end all other forms of support, however: I think I would support a robust food stamp program (with all its problems), for example, in addition to a negative income tax, largely because I fear that any version of the negative income tax likely to be implemented would not be sufficient to ensure what I would like to consider a minimum standard of living (note that my "minimum standard of living" is probably higher than what might be considered subsistence level).

In my next post, I'll discuss briefly the policies that I more or less oppose, although I'm not entirely opposed to the motivations behind enacting them.

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