Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why I'm not a Libertarian

I feel like I have been reading and hearing a lot from Libertarians recently. I guess they proxy for the intellectually (more) honest opposition in the health care debate, and I suppose there are a few friends I love dearly who are of the persuasion, so I get exposed to the arguments more than I would otherwise.

There is absolutely no daylight between me and Libertarians on social issues (legalize drugs--though I might regulate more than the most ardent Lib; government absolutely stays out of the bedroom and the body; individuals decide for themselves what constitutes a family, etc.). I also really believe in many of the economic insights generated by neoclassical economics. So why is it that the GMU crowd drives me so utterly crazy?

Somewhere along the way, and I blame the Reagan era for a lot of this, a myth developed that government was by definition incompetent and free enterprise is by definition infallable. There is no empirical evidence for either claim and plenty of counter-examples. Most importantly, private enterprise is often utterly incompentent, mendacious, and willing to trample liberties far more quickly than any government bureaucrat. And occasionally, when those government bureaucrats are given respect, resources and a functional institutional structure, they can do fabulous and great things. Health care is a great example of this, but by far not the only one.

As a result, I believe that when the assumptions of the fundamental theorems of economics are met: well-defined and -defended property rights, symmetric information, and large numbers of parties on both sides of the potential transactions, there is no good reason for government interferrence. On the other hand, those assumptions are almost never met, and when they are not, there is potential for constructive collective intervention--i.e. the government could play a useful role.

The Libertarian ideology cuts off the search for constructive answers to difficult problems by excluding out of hand a host of possible solutions, and all too often the argument devolves into denegrating government workers and ignoring evidence that doesn't fit. I'd really rather have the conversation focus on where collective action is necessary and appropriate and how best to structure the government's involvement in facilitating such action so that it protects our liberty and social welfare to the extent achievable by mere humans.

I'd also like to be able to talk about the very real problems in dysfunctional competitive environments without having to wade through silly ideological objections to the existence of the problems.

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