Monday, November 24, 2008


For many days now I wanted to pen my thoughts on what I think about libertarianism. This is mostly because I find myself often agreeing and disagreeing with libertarians. Many people who call themselves libertarians are my good friends and so these conversations are frequent and interesting. But somewhere I have to constantly ask myself which "ism" I belong to. While I never like to label myself any kind of "rian" or "ist", the expediencies of taking a position inevitably mean that one has to at least slightly lean towards one side or the other. But most of the time I find myself alternately taking sides. This does not mean I am confused but it just means that I alternately favor one viewpoint or the other based on the times. I personally think that political positions should be fluid, like dressing for the weather. The correct response should not be either-or but should consist of changing proportions of ideologies depending on the environment. I humbly think that that this position is a safe one since it at least endeavors to remind you of trying to stay unbiased, even if in practice you cannot. So here's a short account of some very simple thoughts about this matter that I have. These thoughts don't constitute any argument against libertarianism nor any sophisticated critique, lest my friends immediately rise up in arms against me. It's more a general documentation of arguments and discussions that I have had and what I have thought about them. More simply, it's a set of ramblings that I get to indulge in because this is my personal blog.

Let's begin with acknowledging that most sensible people who are not extremists are libertarians to some extent. That is, most sensible people will agree that people should be free to live their own lives in whatever way they deem appropriate, and that government should have a minimal say in their lives and decisions. First let's talk about social libertarianism. This is really short and simple, because here I am almost in complete agreement with all libertarians. I strongly oppose government intervention in matters of personal choice such as abortion and gay marriage. Leave the gay business to the gay people. I also strongly feel that, the caveats of such a policy notwithstanding, drugs and prostitution should be legal and that government should not have an authority to prosecute 'victimless crimes'. When it comes to social libertarianism, I am pretty much in lockstep with libertarian principles.

It is when it comes to economic libertarianism (not completely mutually exclusive from social libertarianism) that I start to have disagreements with my libertarian friends. Again, let's start by acknowledging that most people who have thought carefully about these matters and have a basic understanding of history will agree that on the whole, free markets rather than central command economies constitute the best system for maximizing rewards and nurturing incentives and freedom. I am for example in complete agreement that property right are of supreme importance and that such rights have been rampantly violated in case of farmers in India, both by the government and by private corporations. On the whole we need to agree and keep on arguing that free markets are best. Only self-deluded mortals (read Comrade Karat) would believe otherwise. In this context, I find close and parallels between Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Both frameworks rest on ideas that constitute simplicity itself. Both frameworks lead to propitious complexity starting from very simple principles. However, Adam Smith himself did not advocate laissez faire capitalism. Several sources document this fact. Now of course because Smith does not advocate a principle does not mean that that principle is bad. But all I ask is that the same free marketers who swear by Smith's name and praise his Wealth of Nations also pay due homage to his Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as some of the lesser known parts of Wealth which advocate government intervention in areas like education. Ideally, I think it would be better if we don't swear by anyone's name.

So then, the question really boils down to when and how much government intervention should be allowed. I personally believe that for most political camps who don't take extreme positions, this is the real issue to argue about. Libertarians just like other political camps straddle a wide range of their political philosophy, with some advocating complete and unfettered free markets and others supporting government intervention in at least some endeavors. Again, the scope and value of such government intervention can be argued, but at least you have distinguished between two sub-factions there to begin with.

No other dimension of public policy encompasses libertarians' objections to government intervention so much as paying taxes, and this has been one of the major sources of contention for me. First I would like to gently clarify a point. There is a minority of libertarians who assume that the very fact they they constantly argue against taxes of every kind means that they are taking the high moral road. By default then, anyone who opposes them and actually argues in favour of this tax or that one is advocating social coercion and has already consigned himself to Hayek's famous "road to serfdom". This is unfair and uncalled for. Just because I may think that some taxes are justified does not mean that I love freedom any less than you do or that I want to impose my will on my maid or that I am ready to be enslaved by the government. Once we have clarified this source of much outrage on my part and others, let's move on to the actual issues.

When it comes to not paying taxes, my contention is very simple. If you don't pay taxes, you don't reap the rewards. This is the famous "free rider" problem. Let's say I don't think that one government endeavor or the other is not justified and therefore I don't want to pay taxes to support it. That's fine, but then why should I be entitled to any benefits that may accrue from it? If I do think that I should be entitled to its benefits, then wouldn't I be a free rider capitalizing on other people's support of government projects? There are happily many such avenues of government-sponsored human activity where there is consensus on public support. Nobody for example would question the extensive basic science research programs that have been supported in India or the US; there most people seem to agree on some notion of 'sacrifice' that they make to support the collective enterprise. But there are many other borderline cases which are hotly argued, where the free rider problem rears its ugly head. I have not yet found a libertarian who has been satisfactorily been able to answer the free-rider dilemma for me. Now in theory I can see an answer; the system can be mutually reinforcing. That means that I should be entitled to the benefits from some government endeavor that I don't support because in turn I am probably paying taxes for some other government endeavor that somebody else does not support. However, how does one exactly break down the value and scope of these two projects which will almost certainly differ in their nature and investment returns? I believe that the problem of taxes may be resolved to a large extent once we address the free rider problem. The problem of not paying taxes to support others also has another rather unpleasant dimension to it. When it comes to healthcare for instance, many people argue that raising taxes to provide universal healthcare is 'immoral'. We won't argue about the thorny healthcare issue at this point. But let's assume that this point is justified. It won't be implausible to assume then that the poor may revolt against the rich at some point, French Revolution-style. Their actions surely won't be justified, but a system in which inequality keeps on growing simply may burst at some point. I would think that preventing such a catastrophe would be in the interests of everybody.

There is no other sphere of activity that challenges libertarian principles as much as climate change, and it is here that I probably have the biggest difference of opinion with libertarians. But this should not really be so. Let's look at the core libertarian tenet again which essentially says that both socially and economically, every individual should be free to do whatever he or she wants as long as his or her actions don't trespass on someone else's freedom and rights. However, in my opinion, climate change immediately provides the biggest exception to the core libertarian tenet. When it comes to global warming, the individual's activities do harm and trespass on the rights (air, water, land) enjoyed by other individuals in remote parts of the world. Since climate change provides a very readily seen exception to the core libertarian tenet, I personally find it wondrous that libertarians would so strongly resist government intervention in mitigating climate change since such intervention would not violate libertarian principles after all.

But let's leave aside politics here. What I found depressing was that there was a minority of libertarians who so strenuously wanted to argue against government intervention in these matters that for a long time they even refused to accept the science behind climate change. A case in point was George Reisman who wrote this completely misguided essay against environmentalism that did not soundly address a single piece of hard scientific evidence in favour of climate change (link: Chetan). This inadequate understanding and appreciation of the science and the problem leads people like Don Boudreaux to completely miss the point and write flippant articles that are supposed to reassure us that "we are not going to run out of oil". Unfortunately I don't remember any libertarian taking a strong stance against this crackpot refusal of facts in the face of massive evidence. I am sure most libertarians would not be loathe to accept objective scientific facts just because they would suggest measures that seem to violate their treasured political ideals.

Even the great Milton Friedman acknowledged that, as much as the government was responsible for the Great Depression in his controversial opinion, once the Depression set in, massive government intervention was necessary and justified. Climate change today is unfortunately in a similar precarious position. All scientific indicators and the testimony of hundreds of careful and dedicated scientists point towards this fact. There is no debate about the reality and pernicious effects of climate change. We have already passed many crucial checkpoints, if not the ultimate tipping point. Are libertarian solutions to climate change possible? In theory, yes, provided they had been suggested fifty years ago. Of course we did not know anything about global warming fifty years ago so the point is meaningless. But the real point is that it does not matter now. The great problem of our times is that we have to do something right now. Large-scale legislation to curb CO2 emissions, to improve mileage efficiency, to stop deforestation and the exploitation of fisheries, to cap sources of carbon is necessary right now. At the very least, this fact should be given serious consideration by all of us. Libertarian solutions where the market "regulates itself" may be possible in principle, and while these principles may still be applicable in local scenarios, the times are past for employing them on the stage of global affairs. A typical libertarian scenario would posit that if car companies don't have better emission standards, the public would be concerned about its health and be loathe to buy cars from them, which would set in motion the self-correcting wheels of demand and supply. The simple fact that throws a wrench in this smooth clockwork solution is that by then it will simply be too late and neither I nor anyone else would really care that the market provided a 'solution'. Also, the free rider problem crops up in such circumstances too. Consider that there are two kinds of cars, one which is cheap and pollutes and another which is expensive and clean- a pretty plausible scenario. It would be tempting to imagine that in such a case, public pressure and refusal to purchase would force the polluting car company to switch to the clean car. But not so. Since the polluting car is cheap, people would wait for other people to switch to the clean car so that they themselves could drive a cheap car as well as enjoy clean air. Again, the solution in such a case if it comes at all would be excruciatingly slow and ultimately fruitless. When it comes to human nature, no "ism" can prevail.

It's also interesting that those "socialist" Europeans understand this and have refused to listen to industry leaders who would sacrifice environmental standards for further growth. The United States is still one of the few developed countries in the world who refuses to answer the clarion call of our planet. Again, every libertarian should be bothered by the fact that it does so not just to its own detriment but to that of others, an action that violates basic libertarian beliefs. At the same time, the point about the government conveniently using a crisis of some kind to heavily enforce its regulations on people is very well-taken, and the world has seen too many cases of this. That's why we need to elect better leaders. But that's not the same as questioning the concept of government leadership itself, which whether we like it or not, is going to be necessary to solve the global climate crisis. I commiserate with libertarians when they get upset about government intervention for setting environmental standards, but we are unfortunately in one of those stages in human history where we have put ourselves in a straitjacket. We have left ourselves with few other options. This is not the best solution. It may not even be a good one, but it may be the only one.

Finally, let me say that I am in complete support of libertarians' suspicion of government. Government certainly consists of human beings who constantly invest in their self interests. It would be folly to assume that such people are altruistic. Therefore there is no doubt that we must constantly be on our guard. Having a government in power is like constantly being in a fencing game. As Jefferson famously said "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and we would all do well to keep it in mind. But the "vigilance" part of Jefferson's quote also crucially extends to the process of electing government officials, which seems to have failed us. Much is said about not trusting the "wise men" who move about in the highest echelons of power and make decisions for their flock. But we should also remember that these men were originally deemed to be "wise" because they were chosen on the basis of the wisdom of the people. If the wisdom of the people had truly prevailed, these men would be wise indeed. So perhaps, instead of constantly laying blame on them, we should simply try to make sure that we always breathe and sustain wisdom in the process of selecting them. I don't think government is the problem. I think it's the process of creating and fostering it. And it should certainly be possible to improve on that.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Regarding climate change, I just thought I should let you know that all libertarians do not take a hardline position that governments should not be involved in environmental standards. Nor do they deny the science behind global warming etc. (Sure, some libertarians do, but you have such people in every ideology). Certain things, such as the air we breathe, are collective properties because there is no realistic way of dividing them into private units. Thus, problems relating to them affect us all and may need a collective solution. The question then becomes what is the most effective way of dealing with these problems taking into account the various issues involved. And yes, the government can have a role, but I think that market based solutions such as cap and trade are preferable. There was a debate in the libertarian magazine Reason on this topic that you should probably read. In short, it is wrong to characterized the libertarian position on climate change in any particular manner.

I call myself a libertarian and there is little in your post I disagree with (well, maybe healthcare, but I could not exactly make out your position). I suspect that we might have disagreements on some issues that straddle between the 'social' and the 'economic'. For instance I am against minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws; positions I suspect you do not hold. But on the whole, I think you are more libertarian than you realize :p

10:41 AM  
Blogger Chetan said...

I am speaking for myself when I say the following. But I may also be speaking for Ashutosh, since I think both of us share similar views in most of the matters referred to in his post. I nodded my head at every point written in this post and I lean more towards libertarian points of view when it comes to markets and climate change than Ashutosh does. So do you think I too am more libertarians than I realise?

I think not! The reason being my agreement with Ashutosh on this point.

--There is a minority of libertarians who assume that the very fact they they constantly argue against taxes of every kind means that they are taking the high moral road. By default then, anyone who opposes them and actually argues in favour of this tax or that one is advocating social coercion and has already consigned himself to Hayek's famous "road to serfdom". This is unfair and uncalled for. Just because I may think that some taxes are justified does not mean that I love freedom any less than you do or that I want to impose my will on my maid or that I am ready to be enslaved by the government.

I am not only opposed to this kind of thinking and insinuations about my commitment to freedom, I am utterly disgusted by it. This is akin conservatives calling liberals unpatriotic. The crux of the matter is, for libertarians, freedom and property rights are the primary moral issue, all other issues are subordinate. All other issues that others think are more important morally are brushed aside using the argument that they are supposed to follow from property rights. Libertarians will use 'logic' to justify how every right follows from property rights. I don't even want to bother about dissecting this line of thinking, except saying that I strongly disagree with this notion. The David Friedman article you linked to in your blogpost should be a pointer.

Following from this, it also will be clear that I (and I suspect Ashutosh too) do not think of necessary restrictions on freedom as coercion. For instance the same logic for allowing owning of guns can be extended to nuclear weapons and other WMDs. You/libertarians construe government restrictions on these as necessary evil. I look at these these, just like I look at taxes, to be necessary. Period. I find their ownership in private hands to be more 'evil' than the restrictions on freedom of owning them placed by governments. The point here, which I think you will have to concede is that once you admit to legitimate situations, (I am referring to your own position on nuclear weapons), necessary evil or not, where restrictions on freedom are acceptable, then you go down the slippery slope that you warn liberals against. Explicitly, you are saying that there are situations where your first principles cannot be applied without horrendous outcomes. Implicitly, however, you are suggesting that libertarians are better judges, than say liberals, of determining such situations where restrictions on freedom can be permitted. So once it is admitted that the principle can be allowed to be violated under certain circumstances, it opens floodgates. Had these been restrictions that your opposing camp had been talking about; restrictions, which according to their moral compass are legitimate, I doubt if libertarians would be as charitable as you are being about boundary conditions and property rights.

To go deeper, I think libertarians, by being dogmatic, try to neglect, do not discriminate (they rationlise this on the basis of consistency in law) and thereby diminish any role played by proportion in real life issues. What is more egregious, according to me, is they do so just so that their first principles are not violated. This is like moulding reality just so that it fits your (their?) conception of it. To give an apt example, Road to Serfdom by Hayek is unadulterated bull shit! And for all the talk about looking at intentions rather than outcomes I have never came across a libertarian who honestly confronts the fact that European welfare states haven't turned into the monstrosity that they were predicted to become. Going by the libertarian credo, the welfare states would go down the slippery slope and a 1984 like scenario wouldn't be too far away. The difference is proportion and just like free market is by far the best system to spread prosperity known to man, there are many who believe that democracy, despite its flaws, is by far the best system to handle issues of restrictions on freedom taking into consideration circumstances of a particular time and place and the proportion of harmful/beneficial consequences, even if sometimes it fails to follow a precise principle and does lead to ridiculous laws. (refer to the blackmail issue you discussed on your blog).

Anyways, this comment was written in a hurry and I haven't thought through this one and may subsequently write a more coherent comment. To summarise, I may be persuaded by arguments following from libertarian principles but won't ever share the moral disgust that libertarians have for non-libertarian views. To give some specific examples, I won't ever think that coercing manufacturers to jot down ingredients and calories in foodstuff they sell is 'evil.' I will never think that a fine for not putting my seatbelt on to be 'evil.' (I may find it inconvenient, unnecessary or downright irritating, but not evil!) I cannot persuade myself to think that funding SCHIP is 'evil.' And, lastly I won't for the life of me believe that such 'nanny state' restrictions will one day put the US firmly on the road to serfdom.

That is why even though I may agree almost 99% of the time with libertarians, I won't ever consider myself to be one.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Chetan, Abhishek, thanks for your comments. And as you know, we can always trust Chetan to follow up with a comment that's longer than the post! In any case, this is just a quick note to let you know that I am on vacation right now and so will respond with a detailed reply shortly. However, since both of you have mentioned market solutions to climate change, I just want to say that I am open to such solutions, but until now just haven't come across one that would promise a quick and global fix. Several people are of the opinion that the sheer variety of sources of CO2 (as compared to say SO2) may make it difficult to use cap and trade extensively and efficiently. At the same time, such solutions are going to be very important in limited, local scenarios. This was a thought which probably did not come through strongly enough in the post so I thought I would mention it.
Anyway, I will definitely respond to both of your comments in more detail shortly.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chetan, that was a great comment. I would have liked to respond in detail to it with regard to two distinct points -- slippery slopes and the nature of morality. Unfortunately, that will take more time than I have right now; so it will have to wait, I guess. Regarding your other points, there's not much that I have to say, except that it was nice -- and useful -- to read your viewpoint.

Just wondering, do you read libertarian-ish, not-property-right-moralizing liberals like Will Wilkinson? I suspect you might find a lot to like in his posts.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ashutosh, talking of climate change and market mechanisms, here's an interesting post that I had linked from my blog a long time ago.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks for the link!

12:28 PM  

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