1.1: Who are you? What is this?
You can find more information about me at www.raikoth.net. This is the Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka Why I Hate Your Freedom)
1.2: Are you a statist?
Vikings believe the universe is dominated by the great cosmic battle between the Gods and the Frost Giants, and naturally place their support behind the Gods. I don't follow Thor or Odin, but it would be unfair to describe me as pro-Frost Giant. I simply reject the Gods vs. Frost Giants dichotomy as one around which I want to shape my life.
Likewise, libertarians believe in the great cosmic battle between the State and the Individual, and naturally place their support behind the Individual. I don't think this philosophy makes sense, but not because I'm hoping the cosmic battle is won by the State. I just think there are more important dichotomies to deal with.
1.3: Do you hate libertarianism?
To many people, libertarianism means the belief that over-regulation is a greater danger than under-regulation and therefore the burden of proof is on anyone who thinks a problem can be solved with more regulations. I agree with this form of libertarianism one hundred percent, and if that is how you define the philosophy, I am a libertarian.
But to other people, libertarianism means that politics must be seen solely as a cosmic battle between the State and the Individual, and that the only solution to this dichotomy is to oppose the State in all its actions. That any concession to “statism” is a betrayal of humanity liable to end in Soviet communism or worse, and that proposed regulation can be immediately dismissed as either a plot to seize power for the dark forces of Statism or as the idiotic fantasies of bleeding-hearts with no grasp on reality.
If you are the first form of libertarian, you will probably agree with many things in this FAQ, and find other things so simplistic as to completely fail to address your strongest arguments. If you are the second form of libertarian, this FAQ is aimed at you.
1.4: Why write a Non-Libertarian FAQ? Isn't statism a bigger problem than libertarianism?
Yes. But anyone with their eyes open has realized by now that communism and totalitarianism are deeply flawed systems. There aren't a lot of honest-to-goodness Stalinists running around, and the few there are probably encounter people willing to talk them out of their Stalinism at every turn.
But the Internet, especially the parts of it where people debate politics, are full of libertarians. Some areas are downright dominated by them. And I see very few attempts to provide a complete critique of libertarian philosophy. There are a bunch of ad hoc critiques of specific positions: people arguing for socialist health care, people in favor of gun control. But one of the things that draws people to libertarianism is that it is a unified, harmonious system. Unlike the mix-and-match philosophies of the Democratic and Republican parties, libertarianism is coherent and sometimes even derived from first principles. The only way to convincingly talk someone out of libertarianism is to launch a challenge on the entire system.
There are a few existing documents trying to do this (see Mike Huben's Critiques of Libertarianism and Mark Rosenfelder's What's (Still) Wrong With Libertarianism for two of the better ones), but I'm not satisfied with any of them. Some of them are good but incomplete. Others use things like social contract theory, which I find nonsensical and libertarians find repulsive. Or they have an overly rosy view of how consensual taxation is, which I don't fall for and which libertarians definitely don't fall for.
The main reason I'm writing this is that I encounter many libertarians, and I need a single document I can point to explaining why I don't agree with them. The existing anti-libertarian documentation makes too many arguments I don't agree with for me to feel really comfortable with it, so I'm writing this one myself. I don't encounter too many Stalinists, so I don't have this problem with them and I don't see any need to write a rebuttal to their position.
If you really need a pro-libertarian FAQ to use on an overly statist friend, Google suggests The Libertarian FAQ.
1.5: How is this FAQ structured?
I've divided it into moral issues and practical issues. Too often, I find that if I can convince a libertarian that government regulation is sometimes practically useful, they raise moral objections, and then when I explain why government intervention can be moral, they circle back around and try the practical objections again. I've tried to clearly define the moral and practical arguments to make that harder to do.
1.6: Didn't Ayn Rand say "The moral is also the practical"?
Yes, she did. She was wrong.
As a counterexample, consider Genghis Khan. By going on an insane campaign of murder and destruction, he ended out master of a third of the world's land area, practically infinitely rich, and with enough wives and concubines that he has seventeen million living descendants. From a practical point of view, he's probably feeling pretty good about himself.
From a moral point of view, he was still a rapacious, despicable butcher.
That's why I say the moral is not always also the practical. I think Ayn Rand had a decent insight, but that it would be better framed as "The moral and the practical are not always opposed to one another." Needless to say, this FAQ will in many cases be discussing the times when they are.
2.1: Laissez-faire can be proven to be the best economic system. Any attempt to interfere with the free market only lowers its efficiency. See Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and practically any economic textbook published in the centuries since then for details.
Donald Knuth once famously said of a piece of code that he couldn't be sure it would work, because he had “only proven it correct, not tested it.” Many things that can be proven on paper turn out not to work, because the proof had some hidden flaw, or made too many assumptions, or applied only to ideal cases. This is why the Western scientific tradition has made a virtue out of valuing empirical observation over something someone thinks ze's proven by thinking really hard about it. Empirical observation of social sciences, like politics and economics, is notoriously difficult, but in my opinion provides more than enough evidence that laissez-faire doesn't always lead to the best possible outcome, and that the economic theories based around it are generally correct but overly simple.
What do I mean by “generally correct but overly simple”? Imagine a physicist who says, if he drops a sheet of paper and a bag of bricks from the top of a high tower, they'll both hit the ground at the same time. When the local villagers tell him he must be mad, he scoffs, and declares they must not understand gravity, for which (as Galileo proved) the rate of an object's downward acceleration is independent of its mass. When the villagers continue to doubt him, he writes angry pamphlets expressing his disappointment that everyone is too foolish to accept perfectly simple principles of physics.
However, in this case the physicist is wrong and the populace is correct. Sheets of paper really do fall more slowly than bags of brick, and an experiment would have confirmed that fact. Although the physicist was correct in saying that Galileo proved gravity operated independent of mass, he didn't realize that this general principle wasn't enough to determine at what times the paper and bricks would hit the ground. The villagers, who knew less about gravity but were willing to trust their experience, ended up doing better, even though they might not have been able to explain the principles at work. If the physicist had understood air resistance as well as gravity, he would have been able to match the villagers' success and even exceed them, but until he admitted that the problem wasn't as simple as taking his favorite physics equation and applying it to the exclusion of all else, he would never have an incentive to study it.
In this metaphor, the laws of the free market play the role of gravity. They are entirely correct, and they are the most important factor determining the production and distribution of wealth. But there is no guarantee that someone who applies only the laws of the free market will come up with the right answer, or even an answer better than people who use common sense and empirical observation.
The rest of this section will explore some of the factors that play the part of air resistance in this metaphor and have the potential to confound the free market.
2.2: Don't bother. I've seen examples of 'free market failures'. It always ends up being because of government, not the free market.
Data in these areas is often hard to analyze, because in almost every real-world economy there's some market freedom and some government regulation. It's always possible to dismiss any apparent failure of the free market as really being because there was that last little bit of government regulation no one removed. And it's always possible to dismiss any apparent success of government as really being the free market doing so incredibly well that even the oppressive government regulation couldn't break it.
So the question isn't whether you can think of an excuse for why the evidence doesn't break your theory. The answer is always yes. The question is whether you find yourself having to make an unusually large number of excuses, and expecting that the next time someone gathers evidence you'll probably have to make another.
2.3: Give an example of a government intervention that actually improves a market.
Let's say you learn you're at risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease. You go to the supermarket and buy a block of cheese that advertises itself as being “high calcium!”, a frozen pizza that says “Helps fight osteoporosis!”, a frozen steak that says “May increase bone density!” and a supplement that says “Clinically proven to prevent osteoporosis!”
What if the cheese is high calcium compared to, say, dirt, but has no more calcium than any other block of cheese, and perhaps less? What if the pizza contains such a tiny amount of osteoporosis-fighting chemicals as to be a thousand times less than the clinically significant level, even though supposedly every little bit “helps”? What if the frozen steak contains no calcium at all, and the “may increase bone density” claim ought to have been read as “Well, for all we know it may increase bone density, although we have no evidence for this.” What if the supplement was “proven” to work in a sham study conducted by the supplement manufacturer and rejected by all qualified scientists?
Government regulation of food is currently spotty, and different standards are applied to different kinds of claims and different kinds of food. But in cases where the government doesn't regulate food labels, this is exactly the kind of thing that happens. You can't sue the companies for false advertising, because they've made a special effort not to say anything that's literally false. But they've managed to throw off the free market and confuse your ability to honestly purchase healthy food anyway.
2.3.1: But the free market would solve this problem. Without government, if people really want to buy healthy foods, private industry will invent a better certification procedure that health-conscious people can choose to follow.
I chose this example precisely because government regulation is so spotty. There are many areas the government completely fails to regulate, has failed to regulate for decades, and in that time, nothing even resembling a trustworthy well-known independent certification agency has arisen.
There are a couple of reasons why this might be. First, some large companies have tried to invent their own certification system, promising that they will only put “low fat” stickers on their food if it has less than a certain number of grams of fat. But it's impossible to compare these systems to one another: a product that qualifies as “low fat” under Kraft's system might have more fat than a product that doesn't qualify as “low fat” under Kashi's system. There are significant incentives for a company to create its own system such that its flagship products qualify as “low fat”, and companies have taken these incentives. Although it would be nice if consumers exerted pressure on these companies to use an independent standardized certification agency, after decades of lax government regulation this has yet to happen, and there's no reason to believe it will happen in the future.
Also, most consumers either aren't very skeptical or just plain don't have enough time to dedicate to researching the latest information on competing food labelling practices. If a box of cookies says “low fat” on it on a colorful star-shaped sticker, that's good enough for us. Did you investigate further last time you bought a low-fat or high-vitamin or loaded-with-anti-oxidants product? It is all nice and well to wish that people were more rational in their buying decisions, but wishing just doesn't help.
Consider also the list of nutrients, calories, and so on prominently featured on most food item sold in US supermarkets. Do you find that useful? I do. I like to know how many calories food has before I buy it. I've even based buying decisions entirely on that information.
Do you think companies would voluntarily list that information even in the absence of government regulations forcing them to do so? If your answer is “yes”, how come large restaurant chains, which aren't regulated, practically never list nutritional information on menus? It's not that there's no demand: voters in several American cities have supported laws to force restaurants to provide such information, so obviously a lot of people want it. Restaurants have just concluded that it's more profitable for them to avoid it. I think they're probably right.
It's also worth noting that in countries with less strict supermarket labelling laws, supermarket labels contain much less information: this is true even in countries with flourishing free markets.
What all this means is that the existence of government regulations on food labelling practices actually make an improvement over free market conditions. Consumers get more information and purchase goods more efficiently than they would under laissez-faire conditions.
2.3.2: People stupid enough to behave irrationally in the absence of government nutritional labels deserve to have poor health.
See the Moral Issues section, specifically 3.11.
2.4: Government intervention in the free market destroys the economy.
Quick, which of the two major political parties has supported higher taxes, tighter regulation, and more government intervention in the economy? Okay, “both” is a fair answer, but which one has done it more than the other?
Most libertarians I know are willing to concede that, while both parties betray free market principles, the Republicans are by far the lesser of two evils. The phrases “tax-and-spend Democrat” and “big-government liberal” do exist for a reason.
And yet over the past sixty years, unemployment has gone down under every Democratic president but one, and gone up under every Republican president but one (and the single exceptions were only very small, almost insignificant changes).
The two greatest recessions of the last hundred years, the Great Depression and the current (as of 2009) recession, both happened after long periods of policies considered by historians to be unusually laissez-faire. The Great Depression happened after Harding (Republican, reduced taxes, considered small-government by historians) Coolidge (Republican, according to Wikipedia criticized as “a doctrinaire laissez-faire ideologue”) and Hoover (Republican, small-government, but probably only of minor importance since he was in office less than a year when the Depression started). The current recession happened after eight years of President Bush, who consistently cut taxes and repealed scores of environmental, health and safety, labor, financial and other regulations. In both cases, the Republicans had controlled Congress for at least a decade prior to the start of the recession.
On the other hand, possibly the two greatest success stories of the twentieth century, the recovery from the Depression and the dot com boom in the Clinton years, happened under Democrats – FDR as the archetypal big-government Democrat, Clinton as at least a moderate-government Democrat (think FDR caused/prolonged the Great Depression? Read this article.)
2.4.1: That's confusing correlation and causation! A few poorly controlled statistics about politics aren't even close to enough evidence to tease apart complex economic issues.
I agree. None of those facts are even close to enough to say that laissez-faire policy hurts the economy, or that big government helps it. That would require complex statistical analysis far beyond my abilities, and even so probably end up vulnerable to bias.
But that wasn't the question. The question was whether laissez-faire policies help the economy.
If the economy consistently does worse every time policy gets closer to laissez-faire, then we can at least say conclusively that there's no evidence that laissez-faire actually helps the economy, or that big government hurts it.
2.5: Government hurts the economy by taxing the rich. Since the rich are the engine of economic growth, taxes on them should be as low as possible. Otherwise, they will have no incentive to produce wealth.
During the 1950s, the American economy was booming. This is the classic era that conservatives hearken back to, when everyone was moving to the suburbs, buying cars and appliances, and happily enjoying the benefits of middle-class life.
Indeed, until the Reagan years the tax rates on the rich were always above 70%. And yet the economy continued working, often spectacularly well. Yet now we are told that the current top tax rate of the low 30s is so high that people will stop working or move abroad or shut their businesses in disgust unless we slice it immediately.
2.5.1: If the rich have more money, it will "trickle down" and help the poor as well.
This was a very interesting theory and well worth a shot, but it's been tried and it is empirically false.
After decades of trickle-down policy from Reagan to Bush II, the gap between the rich and the poor reached the highest levels in eighty years. During that time, the average wealth of the richest 1% increased by 176%, and the average wealth of the bottom 20% increased by only 6% (the average person gained about 20%). 20% is not bad, but is much lower than the gains during the earlier parts of the century, when everyone from the very rich to the very poor saw incomes doubling within a generation. Although certainly trickle-down economics and the rise in the gap between the rich and the poor are not the only factors causing the stagnation of the poor and middle classes, the data certainly doesn't look good for the trickle-down hypothesis.
It's also worth noting that one of the most consistent findings in positive psychology, the study of happiness, has been that the best financial predictor of happiness has not been having a large amount of money, but rather having a large amount of money relative to other people in one's society, and that the happiest communities tend to be the most financially egalitarian, not the wealthiest. While it would be morally repulsive to deliberately take money away from the rich in some sort of Harrison Bergeron-esque attempt to institute a false equality, we can at least avoid deliberately inflating the rich-poor gap on the misguided theory that it might help someone.
2.6: Governments destroy productivity and innovation by imposing environmental regulations. The free market takes the environment into account in its own workings, so any government interference with the system will only make things worse.
Sometimes the free market does solve environmental problems, but there are certain situations (often referred to as “tragedy of the commons”) where this process breaks down.
As a thought experiment, let's consider aquaculture (fish farming) in a lake. Imagine a lake with a thousand identical fish farms owned by a thousand competing companies. Each fish farm earns a profit of $1000/month. For a while, all is well.
But each fish farm produces waste, which fouls the water in the lake. Let's say each fish farm produces enough pollution to lower productivity in the lake by $1/month.
A thousand fish farms produce enough waste to lower productivity by $1000/month, meaning none of the fish farms are making any money. Capitalism to the rescue: someone invents a complex filtering system that removes waste products. It costs $300/month to operate. All fish farms voluntarily install it, the pollution ends, and the fish farms are now making a profit of $700/month - still a respectable sum.
Now one farmer (let's call him Steve) gets tired of spending the money to operate his filter. Now one fish farm worth of waste is polluting the lake, lowering productivity by $1. Steve earns $999 profit, and everyone else earns $699 profit.
Everyone else sees Steve is much more profitable than they are, because he's not spending the maintenance costs on his filter. They disconnect their filters too.
Once four hundred people disconnect their filters, Steve is earning $600/month - less than he would be if he'd kept his filter on! So is everyone else, for that matter, except the unhappy filter users, who are only making $300. Steve goes around to everyone, saying "Wait! We all need to make a pact to use filters! Otherwise, everyone's productivity goes down."
Everyone agrees with him, and they all sign the Filter Pact, except one guy, who's a jerk. Let's call him Mike. Now everyone is back using filters again, except Mike. Mike earns $999/month, and everyone else earns $699/month. Slowly, people start seeing it Mike's way and disconnecting their filters...
A self-interested person never has any incentive to use a filter. A self-interested person has some incentive to sign a pact to make everyone use a filter, but in many cases has a stronger incentive to wait for everyone ELSE to sign such a pact but opt out himself. This can lead to an undesirable equilibrium in which no one will sign such a pact.
The most profitable solution to this problem is for Steve to declare himself King of the Lake and threaten to initiate force against who doesn't use a filter. This solution leads to the highest total productivity for the thousand fish farms. It's basically the justification for government intervention in many environmental issues, and it's a very good one.
The classic libertarian solution to this problem is to try to find a way to privatize the shared resource (in this case, the lake). I intentionally chose aquaculture for this example because privatization doesn't work. Even after the entire lake has been divided into parcels and sold to private landowners (waterowners?) the problem remains, since waste will spread from one parcel to another regardless of property boundaries.
Replace "filter" with "carbon caps" and replace "fish waste fouls the lake" with "global warming makes Earth uninhabitable" and you have the source of environmentalist rhetoric on global warming.
2.6.1: This would never happen in real life. I bet you individuals and corporations, free from government regulation, would come to an enlightened, mutually beneficial solution.
You lose. Fishing Atlantic cod used to be a highly profitable industry. Despite decades of warnings from scientists and environmental groups, fishing companies overfished the cod, stocks collapsed, and the industry no longer exists.
If not for knee-jerk resistance to government regulation, the American and Canadian governments could have set strict fishing quotas, and companies could still be profitably fishing the area today. Other fisheries that do have government-imposed quotas are much more successful.
2.6.2: I bet [extremely complex privatization scheme that takes into account the ability of cod to move across property boundaries and the migration patterns of cod and so on] could have saved the Atlantic cod too.
Maybe, but left to their own devices, cod fishermen never implemented that scheme. If we ban all government regulation in the environment, that won't make fishermen suddenly start implementing complex privatization schemes. It will just make fishermen keep doing what they're doing while tying the hands of the one organization that has a track record of actually solving this sort of problem in the real world.
2.7: But governments don't just overregulate environmental issues. They also regulate for so-called "moral" reasons. For example, they might ban the use of sweatshop labor. But in a real free market system, people who disliked sweatshop labor would boycott the companies that used it, and those companies would change of their own free will.
Actually, the same game theoretic complications occur during a boycott as during aquaculture.
Let's say Wanda's Widgets has one million customers. Each customer pays it $100 per year, for a total income of $100 million. Each customer prefers Wanda to her competitor Wayland, who charges $150 for widgets of equal quality. Now let's say Wanda's Widgets does some unspeakably horrible act which makes it $10 million per year, but offends every one of its million customers.
There is no incentive for a single customer to boycott Wanda's Widgets. After all, that customer's boycott will cost the customer $50 (ze will have to switch to Wayland) and make an insignificant difference to Wanda (who is still earning $99,999,900 of her original hundred million). The customer takes significant inconvenience, and Wanda neither cares nor stops doing her unspeakably horrible act (after all, it's giving her $10 million per year, and only losing her $100).
The only reason it would be in a customer's interests to boycott is if ze believed over a hundred thousand other customers would join zir. In that case, the boycott would be costing Wanda more than the $10 million she gains from her unspeakably horrible act, and it's now in her self-interest to stop committing the act. However, unless each boycotter believes 99,999 others will join zir, ze is inconveniencing zirself for no benefit.
Furthermore, if a customer offended by Wanda's actions believes 100,000 others will boycott Wanda, then it's in the customer's self-interest to “defect” from the boycott and buy Wanda's products. After all, the customer will lose money if ze buys Wayland's more expensive widgets, and this is unnecessary – the 100,000 other boycotters will change Wanda's mind without zir participation.
This suggests a “market failure” of boycotts, which seems confirmed by experience. We know that, despite many companies doing very controversial things, there have been very few successful boycotts. Indeed, few boycotts, successful or otherwise, ever make the news, and the number of successful boycotts seems much less than the amount of outrage expressed at companies' actions.
The existence of government regulation solves this problem nicely. If >51% of people disagree with Wanda's unspeakably horrible act, they don't need to waste time and money guessing how many of them will join in a boycott, and they don't need to worry about being unable to conscript enough defectors to reach critical mass. They simply pass a law banning the action.
2.7.1: I'm not convinced that it's really that hard to get a boycott going. If people really object to something, they'll start a boycott regardless of all that game theory stuff.
So, you're boycotting Coke because they're hiring local death squads to kidnap, torture, and murder union members and organizers in their sweatshops in Colombia, right?
Not a lot of people to whom I have asked this question have ever answered "yes". Most of them had never heard of the abuses before. A few of them vaguely remembered having heard something about it, but dismissed it as "you know, multinational corporations do a lot of sketchy things." I've only met one person who's ever gone so far as to walk twenty feet further to get to the Pepsi vending machine.
If you went up to a random guy on the street and said "Hey, does hiring death squads to torture and kill Colombians who protest about terrible working conditions bother you?" 99.9% of people would say yes. So why the disconnect between words and actions? People could just be lying - they could say they cared so they sounded compassionate, but in reality it doesn't really bother them.
But maybe it's something more complicated. Perhaps they don't have the brainpower to keep track of every single corporation that's doing bad things and just how bad they are. Perhaps they've compartmentalized their lives and after they leave their Amnesty meetings it just doesn't register that they should change their behaviour in the supermarket. Or perhaps the Coke = evil connection is too tenuous and against the brain's ingrained laws of thought to stay relevant without expending extraordinary amounts of willpower. Or perhaps there's some part of the subconscious that really is worry about that game theory and figuring it has no personal incentive to join the boycott.
And God forbid that it's something more complicated than that. Imagine if the company that made the mining equipment that was bought by the mining company that mined the aluminum that was bought by Coke to make their cans was doing something unethical. You think you could convince enough people to boycott Coke that Coke would boycott the mining company that the mining company would boycott the equipment company that the equipment company would stop behaving unethically?
If we can't trust people to stay off Coke when it uses death squads and when Pepsi tastes exactly the same (don't argue with me on that one!) how can we assume people's purchasing decisions will always act as a general moral regulatory method for the market?
2.7.2: And it'll be different with government?
Sure seems that way. Many laws currently exist banning businesses from engaging in unethical practices. Some of these laws were passed by direct ballot. Others were passed by representatives who have incentives to usually follow the will of their consitutents. So it seems fair to say that there are a lot of business practices that more than 51% of people thought should be banned.
But the very fact that a law was needed to ban them proves that those 51% of people weren't able to organize a successful boycott. More than half of the population, sometimes much more, hated some practice so much they thought it should be illegal, yet that wasn't enough to provide an incentive for the company to stop doing it until the law took effect.
To me, that confirms that boycotts are a very poor way of allowing people's morals to influence corporate conduct.
2.8: Government regulation denies corporations the right to make choices that affect only them and their consenting customers.
In many cases this is true, and in some of those cases I oppose the regulation. However, other regulations exist precisely because cases that appear to affect only the corporation and its customers actually affect everyone.
Take the example of regulating banks. Banks made some really poor loan decisions. That means that the banks collapse and go bankrupt and their executives end out on the street (at least it would, if we didn't keep bailing them out all the time!) Not good, but the executives deserve it, and the people who took out loans from those banks knew what they were getting into. Therefore, the correct course of action is to hope they'll be smarter the next time around, not to regulate who banks can and can't give loans to.
...except that when hundreds of major banks around the world go broke simultaneously, that affects a whole lot more people than just bank executives and their customers. It sends the world economy into recession, potentially creates runs on the more responsible banks, and is negatively affects everyone in the world. I've never taken out bad loans nor condoned anyone who did so, and you probably haven't either, but we're both getting hurt in this recession, and we both had to pay the taxes that bailed out the banks so the economic system didn't collapse.
I think it's reasonable that the government, not wanting innocent people to be hurt by stupid lending policies, bans the banks from having those stupid lending policies in the first place. It's not to protect the banks from themselves, it's to protect everyone else from the banks.
(If you have a complicated economic reason why you don't think the current recession was caused by poor banking policies, think up another example at your leisure.)
2.9: Socialist health care is proof that government doesn't work. After all, countries with socialist health care have less efficient health systems .
Actually, socialist health care is empirically more efficient than market health care. One interesting statistic I read recently is that Blue Cross New England employs more people to administer health insurance for its 2.5 million customers than the Canadian health system employs to administer health insurance for 27 million Canadians. Health care spending per person (public + private) in Canada is half what it is in America, yet Canadians have longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, and are healthier by every objective standard.
Here's a great chart comparing health spending to life expectancy (a good measure of health results). The United States spends more on health per capital than any other developed country. In contrast, we have one of the lowest life expectancies (a measure of health results) of any developed country (we come in 22nd). All twenty one countries with better health results than us use some form of socialized health care. If you don't like life expectancy as a measure of health results, I can assure you that if you look up any other measure you'll find more or less the same story.
The evidence supporting socialized medicine is so strong that conservative commentator Bill Kristol actually wrote a letter demanding that Republicans oppose socialized health care, because if it was implemented it would work so well that it would be impossible to convince people to distrust Big Government anymore.
Why is socialized medicine so successful? A lot of it is economies of scale: if the government is ensuring the entire population of a country, it can get much better deals than a couple of small insurance companies. But a lot of it is much more complicated, and involves people's status as irrational consumers of health products. A person sick with cancer doesn't want to hear a cost-benefit analysis suggesting that the latest cancer treatment is probably not effective. He wants that treatment right now, and the most successful insurance companies and hospitals are the ones that will give it to him.
Here's a good article explaining some of the systematic flaws in the economics of health care in American hospitals.
Speaking of hospitals, does it surprise you to learn that for-profit hospitals are more expensive than non-profit hospitals and give poorer care (measured in death rates?)
2.9.1: But socialist health care systems lead to long waiting times. Sometimes people have to wait so long to see the doctor for symptoms that don't seem important at the time that they end up dying when they turn out to be indicative of some more dangerous disease.
I can't argue with this one because it's true. Both socialized medicine and private medicine have their down sides, and this is a downside to socialized medicine.
In socialized medicine, the number of doctors remains more or less constant, but the number of people who can afford to see a doctor goes up. That means that if I am an upper-middle-class person with back pain, the doctor probably can't see me right now because a taxi driver with colon cancer has priority. In a private health care system, I'd get to see the doctor immediately, and the taxi driver with colon cancer would die. That is an improvement from my point of view, but not an objectively better system.
Both socialized and private medicine have their down-sides. The important question is not whether it's possible to come up with some aspect of a policy you oppose that sounds bad, but which way the evidence points once you've performed a complete cost-benefit analysis that factors in all the pros and cons of each. The countless studies showing that socialized health care produces better results in terms of higher life expectancy, lower mortality from specific diseases, better care in hospitals, lower costs, and so on prove that despite its downsides it is still a better policy than private care.
2.10: Privatized, for-profit prisons would be a great way to save money.
No one likes criminals very much. Even so, most of us agree that even criminals deserve humane conditions. We reject cruel and unusual punishment, and try to keep prisoners relatively warm, clean, and well-fed. This is not only a moral issue, but a practical one: we don't want prisoners to go insane or suffer breakdowns, because we want them to be able to re-adjust into normal society after they are released.
For-profit prisons have all of the flaws of for-profit companies with none of the advantages. Normal companies want to cut costs wherever possible, but this is balanced by customer satisfaction: if they treat their customers poorly or create a low-quality product, they won't make money. In prisons, the ability to get new “customers” comes completely uncoupled from the quality of the product they provide. If the government pays them a certain fixed amount per prisoner, the prison's only way to increase profits is by treating prisoners as shabbily as possible without killing them. Indeed, statistics show that prisoners in private prisons have worse medical care, terrible living conditions, and rates of in-prison violence 150% greater than those in public prisons.
But the real dangers lie in the corruptibility of the political process, something with which libertarians are already familiar. Private prisons have been active in lobbying for stricter sentencing guidelines like the Three Strikes Law, which encourages governments to imprison criminals for life. In a country that already imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world, it is extremely dangerous to create a powerful political force whose self-interest lies in imprisoning as many people as possible.
But the most striking example of the danger of private prisons is the case of two judges who received bribes from private prisons to jail innocent people.
If this is the alternative, I'm willing to bite the bullet and accept the overpaid prison guards with annoying unions who dominate the public prisons.
2.11: What makes the regulators in government think they know better than I do?
It is a truism in our society that everyone is equal and anyone who says they know better than anyone else must be some sort of elitist who wants to control other people's lives. In reality, though, some people do know better than other people on account of superior knowledge and training. If the system is working properly, drug regulators will be people with Ph. Ds in pharmacology and biochemistry (or at the very least advised by such people). The people deciding what chemicals can and can't go in drinking water will be chemists and toxicologists. All of those people probably know their fields a heck of a lot better than the average person.
It's true that breaks down quite often. Maybe you're also a pharmacology Ph. D, and you're smarter than the regulator. Or maybe your position is a very unusual one that the regulators never even considered. But the government can't say "Follow these rules unless you happen to know better than the person who made them, in which case do your own thing." Their only choices are the blunt instrument of "Always follow these rules", or no rules at all.
If they have statisticians working for them (and they do) they can calculate whether a rule does more good (because of the people it was aimed at) or more bad (because of the exceptions). If the system is working properly, they will only pass rules that, on the whole, do more good than harm.
2.12: Doesn't [current government program] do more harm than good? Isn't that a good argument for eliminating all government programs?
If by [current government program], you mean the FDA, drug laws, most licensing schemes, the foreign aid we give to various dictatorships, et cetera et cetera, then yes.
But regulation is not a one-dimensional line. Libertarians sometimes act like there's a slider in the White House going from "0% regulation" to "100% regulation", and the President's only power is to move that slider. Some regulation can be stupid. Other regulation can be useful.
In the space of all possible regulatory systems, there's one system that leads to the best possible results. I've yet to see any proof that this point is "none".
If you want a concrete example, consider the FDA. The FDA currently does some good by keeping dangerous medications off the market, and also some bad, by delaying life-saving drugs from getting approved. Currently, the bad is worse than the good, and so the libertarian case setting all regulation to zero would be better than the current FDA system. But we can also imagine a system which is better than zero. For example, if the FDA approved all potentially lifesaving drugs instantaneously, but gave a short review period to all cosmetic drugs to ensure they weren't obviously fatal, this would save more lives than the "no regulation" case. If we consider FDA regulation as a function where x is the amount of regulation and y is the number of deaths, the function has a minimum, and it's not at zero. I don't know where that minimum is, but I'll bet a good statistician with FDA data from the last fifty years could find out. If a libertarian rejected that statistician's proposal because he hated all government regulation, he would be killing people needlessly.
(I ignore the converse problem, of the socialist who rejects the statistician's proposal because he wants more government regulation, only because this is the Anti-Libertarian FAQ. In point of fact this is a huge problem and the case we find ourselves in today. Basically, I am pro-statistician.)
2.13: All government programs, even the ones that seem good, have unintended consequences that end up hurting more people than they help.
You'd think that from reading the news, wouldn't you? Every day, you read another story about how the government tries some well-intentioned plan to help workers or save the poor or something, and then it backfires and workers and the poor end up worse off than ever.
There's a bit of a selection bias and a recall bias here though, isn't there? "Government Program Works More Or Less As Planned" doesn't make good headlines and isn't very memorable. Take government regulation of formaldehydes. You've never heard about government regulation of formaldehydes? They're a chemical used in various industrial applications that was found to cause cancer. So the government banned it. Now industry uses other chemicals at more or less the same cost and there's less cancer. As far as I know, there were no unintended consequences or horrible screwups or anything.
2.13.1: If government hadn't banned formaldehydes, consumer outcry would have caused the free market to eliminate them. Once again, the plodding government messes things up with a premature use of force where the free market would have performed so much more elegantly.
Tricked you. The government has banned formaldehyde: the EU government. If you're in America, it's perfectly legal and probably in a whole host of products that you use every day. Why hasn't the free market eliminated it? Well, did you know formaldehyde caused cancer? And do you know exactly which products at your local store do or don't contain formaldehyde? Are you even sure I'm not making this whole example up?
2.13.2: Are you?
2.14: Maybe a few very-well targeted government programs are valuable. But it's a slippery slope. Once you allow any government programs at all, it's only a matter of degree before you're living in a dictatorship where you can't even flush the toilet without begging the State for permission.
I hate slippery slope arguments. They always remind me of those people who say "If we allow gay people to marry, next thing you know we'll be marrying animals and rocks!" That problem has a clear solution: Let gay people marry, but don't allow people to marry animals and rocks.
I'm being glib, but the point is sound. The slippery slope argument makes it sound as if, twenty years after legalizing gay marriage, everyone will think human-animal marriage is a good idea. But there's no reason this should be the case. If there are good, logical reasons against people marrying animals, those reasons will remain twenty years later. If the only reason people don't marry animals is because of meaningless cultural norms, then yes, we can expect those cultural norms to change after a while if we loosen up on them even a little. But who cares about meaningless cultural norms anyway?
Insofar as the arguments against dictatorship are good ones, they'll remain good ones if we allow a few genuinely useful government programs. The only case in which they wouldn't remain good ones is if they'd just been based on our personal prejudices, which get worn away by time as soon as we stop maintaining them.
2.14.1: No, sorry, I still think that's too glib. What if there are real arguments against dictatorship, but most people are too stupid to understand them? Most people's opinions really are influenced by prejudice, and as soon as they see that a little government is okay, they'll be willing victims for the first would-be despot to come along.
If people are really dumb enough so as to think "Hmm, government regulation of basic minimum safety standards for industrial products have worked okay, so I'll bet letting a huge, oppressive government control every facet of our lives would work GREAT!" then people are probably also too dumb to responsibly live in a libertarian society. Our only hope would be to get a responsible-if-only-barely government in place as quickly as possible with enough checks and balances to avoid the worst sorts of excess.
This may or may not be the world we're living in now.
2.14.2: You can't just magic a small, responsible government into existence. Governments, by their very nature, seek more and more power until they become tyrannies. The only way to prevent that is to cut it out at its root by opposing all government programs.
Does the path to Nazi totalitarianism really lead through the Dietary Fiber Levels In Food Act of 2006? The history of ancient Rome doesn't show a gradual increase in government power by well-meaning fools leading up to totalitarianism. It shows a bunch of civil and external wars, culminating with Caesar realizing he had the military might to take the whole thing over and deciding to do so. The history of czarist Russia doesn't show creeping socialism eventually leading to full-on Communism. It shows the most regressive, least liberal regime in the world getting violently overthrown by Communists after people had enough - same in China. Even in World War II Germany, Hitler (who was never exactly elected) was less known for his enlightened social policies and support of government welfare than for his bold strategy of "Kill everyone who's different from us."
History's never shown a country sinking into dictatorship in the way libertarians assume is the "natural progression" of a big-government society. No one seriously expects Sweden to become a totalitarian state, even though it's gone much further down the big-government road than America ever will. On the other hand, history does contain ample examples of countries that sink into tyranny by having such a dismal social safety net that people think they have nothing to lose by installing the first silver-tongued demagogue to come along.
2.14.3: Beware! That kind of complacency is exactly what the government wants!
I have always found the libertarian conviction that all politicians are secretly trying to build up their own power base to 1984-ish levels a bit weird.
All the time, I am hearing things like "No one really believes in global warming. It's just a plot by the government to expand control over more areas of your life." Or “since private charity is a threat to government's domination of social welfare, once government gets powerful enough it will try to ban all private charity.”
People do like power, that's true. But usually it's the sort of power that comes with riches, fame, and beautiful women willing to attend to your every need. Just sitting in your office, knowing in an abstract way that because of you a lot of people who might otherwise be doing useful industry are fretting about their carbon emissions - that's not the kind of power people sell their souls for. Having a piece of paper in your desk drawer saying there are now four times as many bureaucrats in the EPA, even though you've never met any of them, isn't the sort of thing that gave Stalin wet dreams.
Most folk like to think of themselves as good people. Sure, they may take a bribe or two here, and have an affair or two there, and lie about this and that, but only for the right reasons. The thought process "Let me try to expand this unnecessary program so I can bathe in the feeling of screwing American taxpayers out of more of their hard-earned money" is not the kind that comes naturally. Especially in a society where it leads to minimal personal gain. A politician who raises your taxes can't use the money to buy himself a new Ferrari. At least, he can't do it directly, and if he really wants that Ferrari there have got to be much easier ways to get it.
Human beings find it hard to get angry at a complicated system, and prefer to process things in terms of evil people doing evil things. The antidote is to remember the mantra "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." I also quote here a parable first seen on Overcoming Bias:
Suppose that someone says "Mexican-Americans are plotting to remove all the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere." You'd probably ask, "Why would they do that? Don't Mexican-Americans have to breathe too? Do Mexican-Americans even function as a unified conspiracy?" If you don't ask these obvious next questions when someone says, "Corporations are plotting to remove Earth's oxygen," then "Corporations!" functions for you as a semantic stopsign.
2.15: You seem very ambivalent about government policies. You're always saying things like "this could work, if it were done correctly", or "if the system is working properly". What makes you think the system is working properly?
Nothing. I think getting a properly working system is a very complicated task, and one we've currently barely begun on. I think the necessary tools and theories exist to start work, but that the political will just isn't there.
I think if you've got enough intelligence and energy to be a libertarian, a better use of that intelligence and energy would be to help enact a properly working system.
3.1: Taxation and regulation are immoral, and equivalent to theft at best and slavery at worst.
The argument goes something like this: Someone demands you pay him $10,000. You don't want to. He sends angry men with guns to your door, who either take the money by force or haul you away to some terrible fate.
If it's a Mafia don sending goons after you, we call this theft and disapprove of it. If it's the government sending police after you, we call it taxation and condone it.
Or: someone tells you you're no longer allowed to work for yourself, or indeed for anyone but him. He's happy to let you work for him, but he will decide how much he pays you, what conditions you have, and how easy it is for you to quit. If you try to work for yourself, he will send angry men with guns to your door.
If it's a rich white Southerner telling a black man to farm his cotton, we call this slavery. If it's the British government telling doctors to cure patients, we call it the National Health Service (I heard this argument from a libertarian, who assured me that doctors in Britain are not allowed to practice privately, although some British people have since told me that isn't quite true.)
3.1.1: So, what's wrong with that argument?
Nothing's wrong with it, really. It's just words.
There is a certain line of argument that goes like this: say a woman living in an oppressive regime like Myanmar or somewhere manages to escape and make her way to America as a refugee. I'd have a lot of respect for her. She had the moral sense to know an oppressive regime when she saw one, the intelligence to realize a better life was possible, and the initiative to do something about it. Good for her.
No, says the devil's advocate, she is a traitor, and therefore deserves our scorn.
Come on, I say. Myanmar is a terrible regime, and she was completely justified in leaving them.
No, insists the devil's advocate, she was a traitor who betrayed zir homeland. She was a terrible person. Well, how do you argue with that?
You don't argue with it, because it's not an argument. It's a word. The definition of “traitor” is “a person who switches allegiance from one country to another.” The Myanmar refugee certainly fits that definition, so I suppose she's technically a traitor.
The word “traitor”, though, also has a less technical definition. It means “a person who switches allegiance from one country to another BY THE WAY YOU MUST HATE THIS PERSON FOREVER ZE IS TOTALLY EVIL”. So we equivocate between those two meanings of the word traitor. We prove the first meaning – that the refugee changed allegiance – and then consider the identification as “traitor” proof of the second meaning – that the defector is evil.
You can do the same thing with a bunch of words: “murderer” (think of pacifists screaming it at soldiers, who do fit the technical definition “someone who kills someone else”), “greedy” (all corporations are “greedy” if you mean they would very much like to have more money, but politicians talking about “greedy corporations” manage to transform it into something else entirely) and of course that old stand-by “infidel”, which sounds like sufficient reason to hate a member of another religion, when in fact it simply means a member of another religion. It's a stupid, cheap trick unworthy of anyone interested in serious rational discussion.
And calling taxation “theft” is exactly the same sort of trick. What's theft? It's taking something without permission. So it's true that taxation is theft, but if you just mean it involves taking without permission, then everyone from Lew Rockwell up to the head of the IRS already accepts that as a given. So what are you really trying to say?
Taxation is theft just as a refugee from Myanmar is a traitor, all the soldiers returning from Iraq are murderers, all corporations are greedy, and all Muslims are infidels. Now stop playing stupid tricks with words and let's discuss this like mature adults.
3.2: Okay, let's discuss this like mature adults.
It is generally agreed among people that killing is bad. One might even make a moral law: "Thou shalt not kill", and demand people follow it. But in fact, we don't do this. There are many times when we support killing. Some of us support executing convicted criminals. Most of us support killing enemy soldiers during wartime. We all probably support killing a crazed attacker before he kills us.
It is tempting to refine our moral law to say "Thou shalt not kill innocent people, and we define criminals and enemy soldiers as non-innocents". But there are times when we are tempted to break this law as well. Some of us support euthanizing the terminally ill when they are in great pain. Many of us condone dropping bombs on terrorist hideouts when we know that those bombs are likely to also kill some civilians. You may think of other examples at your leisure.
Our society solves this problem by rephrasing the law as "Thou shalt not murder", where murder is definined as "Killing someone in a situation we don't approve of." This is not a very creative solution.
If we look more closely, we find that our moral landscape is not so much rules with a few exceptions, as a huge network of exceptions so vast you can barely make out any rules at all. Never stab someone with a knife. Unless you're a surgeon. So surgeons can just stab people with knives? Of course not...it needs to be for a valid medical reason, and that person needs to have given permission. Oh, so if a person's unconscious and bleeding, you can't operate on them because they can't give permission? Of course not - you can always operate on a bleeding unconscious person. Even if they've joined Jehovah's Witnesses, who carry around little cards saying "Never operate on me - it's against my religious beliefs"? No, then you can't operate on them. Even if they're a two month old baby, who's only in the Jehovah's Witnesses because their parents are? According the US legal system, in that case you can operate on them.
It would seem that morality has a very, very complicated structure. Unlearnably complicated, even. I just thought up eight levels of rules, exceptions, and counterexceptions for something as narrow and non-generalizable as surgery. Do you have no hope of understanding morality unless you study the thousands of rules inherent to every human discipline? And where do all those rules come from? They can't all be in the Bible or the Bill of Rights, can they?
We can't talk about what is or isn't moral until we know what morality really is. Not just the simple rules like “don't kill”or “don't murder”, but the underlying basis for morality that gives those rules their power and determines when we should or shouldn't make exceptions.
3.3: What is morality?
There have been many different proposals for this over the year, most of which I think are flawed.
One popular proposal is that it's whatever God and the Bible say it is. As an atheist, I can't accept that one. Even if you're religious, you should at least wonder whether there might be a deeper level. Why do God and the Bible choose those rules instead of others? Can we imagine a possible world in which God wants you to murder, and in that world would you happily go around murdering other people without a second thought? If you're religious, I submit there must be a reason why God chose His particular set of moral laws, or that the superiority of those laws must be reflected in some real-world implications that even atheists can appreciate. Please join the rest of us in looking for another source for the moral law.
Another proposal, popular with some nihilists or would-be intellectuals says that morality is a silly set of societal conventions created by the weak to control and manipulate the strong. These people think it's all bunk, and that real morality is the strong doing whatever they want. Rather than argue with these people, I will simply remind them that if they really believe this, they can be neither liberals (who place a lot of importance on helping the poor and disadvantaged) nor libertarians (who place a lot of importance on avoiding force and respecting rights of others) and therefore they have no reason to be concerned about the present discussion.
The proposal to which most libertarians I know subscribe usually involves the concept of natural rights in some way. Usually, libertarians believe in a negative conception of natural rights: that is, you can't say people have a “right to health care” because that's saying they have a right to get stuff. These libertarians would be more comfortable with rights like “the right to free speech”, because that's saying no one can take away their natural ability to say whatever they want.
Although different sects would state it slightly differently, the standard libertarian interpretation of morality seems to be that it is always wrong to initiate force against anyone else, except in self-defense. This implies that we must always respect people's negative rights, but that we're under no obligation to worry too much about whether someone else has health care.
3.4: What's wrong with a negative right based interpretation of morality
It doesn't capture what we mean by morality, and it doesn't work.
When I say it doesn't capture what we mean by morality, I mean there are a lot of things we consider moral or immoral not covered by this interpretation. Most of us, Objectivists excluded, believe that helping the needy – for example, paying for a poor stranger's hospital costs or volunteering at a soup kitchen – is a moral action. The standard libertarian account of morality can't explain why this is: it suggests that there are two different moral systems, or that personal morality works completely differently from political morality, which seems inelegant.
When I say that it doesn't work, I mean that it doesn't produce many common-sensical results, and so we have to fudge it and pretend we're not.
For example, a person has the right to live where he or she wants, because he or she has a right to personal self-determination! Unless that person is a child, in which the child has to live where his or her parents say, because...um...the parents have a right to their child that trumps the child's right to personal self-determination. But what if the parents are evil and abusive and make the child live in a fetid closet? Then the authorities can take the child away because...um...the child's right to decent conditions trumps the parents' right to their child? Or something?
I dunno. The problem with rights is that everyone thinks they have them, everyone's conflict with everyone else's, and everyone tries to resolves the conflicts in a way that favors themselves.
I'll give another example. I can build a shed on my property, because I have property rights. But I can't build a giant ten million decibel noise-making machine on my property and leave it on all night, because my neighbor has a right to...privacy?...quiet?...pursuit of happiness?...something or other that would prevent me from doing so and which apparently trumps my property rights. But whatever this something is, it probably doesn't apply to me just putting up a shed, even if my neighbor really hates that shed.
This, by the way, is the state at which much current moral philosophy is languishing. Whenever there's a conflict, both parties figure out why their natural rights are at stake, and the arbitrator can do whatever he feels like. No one can prove zir wrong, because rights are an inherently fuzzy concept created mainly so that people who would otherwise say things like "I hate euthanasia, but I guess I have no justification" can now say things like "I hate euthanasia, because it violates your right to life and your right to dignity." (I actually heard someone use this argument the other day)
You can eventually frame anything in the language of rights, if you try very hard. But the more complicated the situation gets, the more it seems that you're desperately trying to come up with the solution that makes sense, and then retroactively think of a reason why “rights” justify it.
Besides, we have already seen that this “moral” system can sometimes make everyone worse off. In the case of Mike the Antisocial Aquaculturist, respecting everyone's “right” to pollute their portion of the lake ended up with the entire lake going out of business. Steve, who declared himself King of the Lake and refused to respect people's rights, made every single person better off.
What, exactly, is the point of following a moral system if it makes every single person worse off? Do you get some sort of ghostly Morality Credit that makes up for all the harm it does in the real world? Doesn't it seem like a moral system is only valuable insofar as it helps people in some way?
What would it mean to call something the true morality if it didn't do anyone any good? If all the philosophers discovered the true morality, and wrote it on a stone tablet, and it said “ONLY WEAR GREEN CLOTHING ON TUESDAYS”, but wearing green clothing on Tuesdays didn't give anyone any benefits, prevent any harms, or even make anyone a little happier, why would we call that tablet “morality” instead of just “a tablet some people wrote something on”? If the tablet says “NEVER INITIATE FORCE EXCEPT IN SELF-DEFENSE”, why give it any more credence, unless we find that it works?
3.5: So what form of morality works?
I said before that my criteria for calling something a true moral system as opposed to just something written on a tablet somewhere is that adapting it leaves people, on average, better off. Moral systems that adopt this view are called consequentialist systems. Consequentialism says morality can be defined as the set of principles which, when followed, will create on average the best world. One can define “best” in various ways, but they usually involve people being happy instead of unhappy, as little pain and suffering as possible, and nice things like beauty, knowledge, and excitement.
Usually, all of these goods are collapsed into a single value called “utility”, which is defined by saying that Situation A has higher utility than Situation B if people would prefer A to B. Utilitarians believe that the moral action is that which increases utility the most.
This system alone captures all of the intricacies of human morality, doesn't require any patches or fudging over, and makes people who adopt it better off (it's also almost impossibly hard to figure out in practice, so we usually use the concept of “natural rights” as a first approximation.)
3.6: Right. Get to the part where you're explaining why you're not concerned that taxation is theft and slavery.
When viewed in a utilitarian light, we can see that many things that formerly looked like moral laws are actually heuristics (heuristic = a rule-of-thumb that usually but not always works). "Thou shalt not kill" is a useful moral law because the vast majority of killing decreases global utility - most people don't want to die! There are a very few exceptions - if a crazed attacker bursts through your door, killing him will lower his utility - but vastly raise yours and that of all his future victims.
In naive non-utilitarian moralities, moral debates tend to hinge on what words you can classify something as. How many people opposed to execution have said "We can't execute people! That's MURDER! And MURDER is wrong!" Everyone admits that execution does, in fact, kill the criminal, so it doesn't seem like classifying that death as "murder" should add anything of interest to the moral calculation.
No, what the opponent of execution is trying to do is invoke your heuristic. He is saying "Apply your 'killing is wrong!' heuristic when considering capital punishment!" And if you support capital punishment, you will say "This is an exception to the 'killing is wrong' heuristic!" If you are a utilitarian, you can even explain why: in your opinion, killing this person will create enough utility (by deterring future murderers and lowering the murder rate) to outweighs the amount of harm it does to the criminal being killed.
"Thou shalt not steal" is another good heuristic. When I steal something, I deny you the use of it, lowering your utility. A society in which theft is permissible is one where no one has any incentive to do honest labor, the economy collapses, and everyone is reduced to thievery. Therefore, from a utilitarian point of view, theft is wrong.
In Les Miserables Jean Valjean's family is trapped in bitter poverty in 19th century France, and his nephew is slowly starving to death. Jean steals a loaf of bread from a rich man who has more than enough, in order to save his nephew's life. This is a classic moral dilemma: is theft acceptable in this instance? There are two points of view. From one point of view, saving a young boy's life is so much more important than a rich man having one extra piece of bread that the theft is acceptable. From another, if we ever allow theft, people will just willy-nilly start thinking "Hey, that rich guy doesn't need all his stuff, and I really want a PlayStation" and society will collapse. Both are good points.
There's a reason God supposedly gave Moses a big stone with "Thou shalt not murder" and not "Thou shalt not murder unless you have a really good reason." People have different definitions of "really good reason". Some people would murder in self-defense. Some people would murder to save their nephew's life. And some people would murder for a PlayStation, and think up some bogus moral justification for it later.
If everyone violates moral heuristics whenever they personally think it's a good idea, society collapses. If no one ever violates moral heuristics, Jean Valjean's nephew starves to death for the sake of a piece of bread the rich man never would have missed.
3.6.1: Okay, so you're saying that a lot of our moral rules are moral heuristics, and we sometimes need to violate them, but we can't go around violating them willy-nilly. Once again, get to the part where you say why you're okay with theft and slavery.
We need to bind society by moral heuristics, but also have some procedure in place so that we can suspend them when we have to. Ideally, this procedure should include lots of checks and balances, to make sure no one person can act on zir own accord. It should reflect the opinions of the majority of people in society, either directly or indirectly. It should have access to the best minds available, who can predict whether violating a heuristic will be worth the risk in this particular case.
Thus far, the human race's best solution to this problem has been governments. Governments provide a method to systematically violate heuristics in a particular area where it is necessary to do so without leading to the complete collapse of society.
If there was no government, I, in Jean Valjean's situation, absolutely would steal that loaf of bread to save my nephew's life. Since there is a government, the government can set a certain constant amount of theft per year, distribute the theft fairly among people whom it knows can bear the burden, and then feed starving children and do other nice things. The ethical question of "is it ethical for me to steal/kill/stab in this instance?" goes away, and society can be peaceful and stable.
3.6.2: That's some of the weirdest reasoning I've ever seen.
Libertarian reasoning leads to the conclusion that having a national health care system is morally equivalent to enslaving doctors and killing them if they dissent. I hardly think they're in a position to be worried that other people's reasoning is counterintuitive or goes against the "common sense" of society.
I think the biggest problem is that most people are used to working in a moral muddle and have insufficient appreciation for the clean, crisp beauty of utilitarianism. Until I finish that Utilitarianism FAQ, go read a book. The utilitarianism chapters of "The Moral Animal" are pretty good.
3.6.3: So you're seriously okay with theft?
I am okay with the government taking a certain amount of people's property, including my own, and applying it to other causes when this is deemed to be generally beneficial by a procedure which I consider to be more or less in accord with the principle of utility. I don't think shouting “But that's THEFT!!!” adds any information to that description, except manufactured outrage.
3.7: The government doesn't need to violate moral heuristics. In the absence of government programs, private charity would make up the difference.
Find some poor people in a country without government-funded welfare, and ask how that's working out for them.
Private charity from the First World hasn't prevented the Rwandans, Ethiopians, or Haitians from dying of malnutrition or easily preventable disease.
It's possible that this is just because we First Worlders place more importance on our own countrymen than on foreigners, and if Americans were dying of malnutrition or easily preventable disease, patriotism would make us help them.
The US government currently spends about $800 billion on welfare-type programs for US citizens. Americans give a total of $300 billion to charity per year.
Let's assume that private charity is twice as efficient as the government (in reality, it's probably much less, since the government has economies of scale, but libertarians like assumptions like this and I might as well indulge them).
Let's also assume that only half of charity goes to meaningful efforts to help poor American citizens. The other half would be things like churches, the arts, and foreign countries.
Nowadays, a total of $550 billion (adjusted, govt+private) goes to real charity (800b*1/2+300b*1/2). If the government were to stop all welfare programs, this number would fall to $150 billion (adjusted). Private citizens would need to make up the shortfall of $400 billion to keep charity at its current (woefully low) level. Let's assume that people, realizing this, start donating a greater proportion (66%) of their charity to the American poor instead of to other causes. That means people need to increase their charity to about $830 billion ([400b + 150b]/.66).
Right now, 25% is a normal middle-class tax rate. Let's assume the government stopped all welfare programs and limited itself to defense, policing, and overhead. There are a lot of different opinions about what is and isn't in the federal budget, but my research suggests that would cut it by about half, to lower tax rates to 12.5%.
So, we're in the unhappy situation of needing people to almost triple the amount they give to charity even though they have only 12.5% more money. The real situation is much worse than this, because if the government stopped all programs except military and police, people would need to pay education, road maintenance, and so on out of their own pocket.
My calculations are full of assumptions, of course. But the important thing is, I've never seen libertarians even try to do calculations. They just assume that private citizens would make up the shortfall. This is the difference between millions of people leading decent lives or starving to death, and people just figure it will work out without checking, because the free market is always a Good Thing.
That's not reason, even if you read it on www.reason.com. That's faith.
3.8: No person or government can be trusted with the ability to violate moral heuristics. They're too likely to use it for evil.
This seems to be an empirical issue. We have a lot of experience with trusting governments with the ability to violate moral heuristics. The data seem to indicate that when done responsibly, it turns out really well.
Among truly democratic countries, the ones with the most government intervention – that is, the ones that most frequently violate moral heuristics – are the Scandinavian countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland. These are also the countries that always top almost every measure of national success, whether it be quality of life, health care, education, or any of a thousand other measures.
There is no evidence that giving a government the power to violate moral heuristics inevitably leads to doom and dictatorship. It's simply a function of how well-designed the government is. I don't know if the American government is designed well enough to handle more power, but I'd rather devote my effort to improving it than to trying to thwart it at every turn.
3.9: Governments will inevitably make mistakes when deciding when to violate moral heuristics. Those mistakes will cost money and even lives.
And the policy of never, ever doing anything will never be a mistake?
It's very easy for governments to make devastating mistakes. For example, many people believe the US government's War in Iraq did little more than devastate the country, kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and replace Saddam with a weak government unable to stand up to extremist ayatollahs.
But the other solution – never intervening in a foreign country at all – didn't work so well either. Just look at Holocaust-era Germany, or 1990s Rwanda.
Why, exactly, should moral questions by simple?
There is a certain tradition that the moral course of action is something anyone, from the high priest unto the youngest child, can find simply by looking deep in his heart. Anyone who does not find it in his heart is welcome to check the nearest Giant Stone Tablet, upon which are written infallible rules that can guide him through any situation. Intelligence has nothing to do with it. It should be blindingly obvious, and anyone who claims it has a smidgen of difficulty or vagueness is probably an agent of the Dark Lord, trying to seduce you from the True Path with his lies.
And so it is tempting to want to have some really easy principle like “Never get involved in a foreign war” and say it can never lead you wrong. It makes you feel all good and warm and fuzzy and moral and not at all like those evil people who don't have strong principles. But real life isn't that simple. If you get involved in the wrong foreign war, millions of people die. And if you don't get involved in the right foreign war, millions of people also die.
So you need to have good judgment if you want to save lives and do the right thing. You can't get a perfect score in morality simply by abdicating all responsibility. Part of the difficult questions that all of us non-libertarians have been working on is how to get a government that's good at answering those sorts of questions correctly.
3.9.1: No, there's a difference. When you enter a foreign war, you're killing lots of people. When you don't enter a foreign war, people may die, but it's not your job to save them. The government's job is only to protect people and property from force, not to protect people from the general unfairness of life.
Who died and made you the guy who decides what the government's job is? Or, less facetiously: on what rational grounds are you making that decision?
Currently, several trillion dollars are being spent to prevent terrorism. This seems to fall within the area of what libertarians would consider a legitimate duty of government, since terrorists are people who initiate force and the government needs to stop this. However, terrorists only kill an average of a few dozen Americans per year.
Rather less money is being spent on preventing cardiovascular disease, even though cardiovascular disease kills 800,000 Americans per year.
Let us say, as seems plausible, that the government can choose to spend its money either on fighting terrorists, or on fighting CVD. And let us say that by spending its money on fighting terrorists, it saves 40 lives, and by spending the same amount of money on fighting CVD, it saves 40,000 lives.
All of these lives, presumably, are equally valuable. So there is literally no benefit to spending the money on fighting terrorism rather than CVD. All you are doing is throwing away 39,960 lives on an obscure matter of principle. It's not even a good principle – it's the principle of wanting to always use heuristics even when they clearly don't apply because it sounds more elegant.
There's a reason this is so tempting. It's called the Bad Guy Bias, and it's an evolutionarily programmed flaw in human thinking. People care much more about the same amount of pain when it's inflicted by humans than when it's inflicted by nature. Psychologists can and have replicated this in the lab, along with a bunch of other little irrationalities in human cognition. It's not anything to be ashamed of; everyone's got it. But it's not something to celebrate and raise to the level of a philosophical principle either.
3.10: Stop calling principles like “don't initiate force” heuristics! These aren't some kind of good idea that works in a few cases. These are the very principles of government and morality , and it's literally impossible for them to guide you wrong!
Let me give you a sketch of one possible way that a libertarian perfect world that followed all of the appropriate rules to the letter could end up as a horrible dystopia. There are others, but this one seems most black-and-white.
Imagine a terrible pandemic, the Amazon Death Flu, strikes the world. The Death Flu is 100% fatal. Luckily, one guy, Bob, comes up with a medicine that suppresses the Death Flu. It's a bit difficult to get the manufacturing process right, but cheap enough once you know how to do it. Anyone who takes the medicine at least once a month will be fine. Go more than a month without the medicine, and you die.
He quickly patents the cure , and because this is a libertarian perfect world, everyone respects Bob's intellectual property. Bob knows he can charge whatever he wants for the medicine, so he goes all out. He makes anyone who wants the cure pay one hundred percent of their current net worth, plus agree to serve him and do anything he says. He also makes them sign a contract promising that while they are receiving the medicine, they will not attempt to discover their own cure for the Death Flu, or go into business against him. Because this is a libertarian perfect world, everyone keeps their contracts.
A few people don't want to sign their lives away to slavery, and refuse to sign the contract. These people receive no medicine, and die. Some people try to invent a competing medicine. Bob, who by now has made a huge amount of money, makes life extremely difficult for them and bribes biologists not to work with them. They are unable to make a competing medicine within a month, and die. The rest of the world promises to do whatever Bob says. They end up working as peons for a new ruling class dominated by Bob and his friends.
If anyone speaks a word against Bob, they are told that Bob's company no longer wants to do business with them, and denied the medicine. People are encouraged to inform on their friends and families, with the promise of otherwise unavailable luxury goods as a reward. To further cement his power, Bob restricts education to the children of his friends and strongest supporters, and bans the media, which he now controls, from reporting on any stories that cast him in a negative light.
When Bob dies, he hands over control of the medicine factory to his son, who continues his policies. The world is plunged into a Dark Age where no one except Bob and a few of his friends have any rights, material goods, or freedom. Depending on how sadistic Bob's and his descendants are, you may make this world arbitrarily hellish while still keeping perfect adherence to libertarian principles.
Compare this to a similar world that followed a less libertarian model. Once again, the Amazon Death Flu strikes. Once again, Bob invents a cure. The government thanks him, pays him a princely sum as compensation for putting his cure into the public domain, opens up a medicine factory, and distributes free medicine to everyone. Bob has become rich, the Amazon Death Flu has been conquered, and everyone is free and happy.
3.10.1: Yeah...uh...that's never going to happen. It's ridiculously unlikely and has no relevance to the real world.
I admit this particular situation is more a reductio ad absurdum than something I expect to actually occur the moment the Libertarian Party gets power. But I disagree that it has no relevance.
The arguments that libertarianism will protect our values and not collapse into an oppressive plutocracy require certain assumptions about the marketplace: there are lots of competing companies, zero transaction costs, zero start-up costs, everyone has complete information, everyone has free choice whether or not to buy any particular good, everyone behaves rationally, et cetera. The Amazon Death Flu starts by assuming the opposite of all of these assumptions: there is only one company, there are high start-up costs, a particular good absolutely has to be bought, et cetera.
The Amazon Death Flu world, with its assumptions, is not the world we live in. But neither is the libertarian world. Reality lies somewhere between the “capitalism is perfect” of the one, and the “capitalism leads to hellish misery” of the other.
There's no Amazon Death Flu, but there are things like hunger, thirst, unemployment, normal diseases, and homelessness. In order to escape these problems, we need things provided by other people or corporations. This is fine and as it should be, and as long as there's a healthy free market with lots of alternatives, in most cases these other people or corporations will serve our needs and society's needs while getting rich themselves, just like libertarians hope.
For the libertarian version of capitalism to work perfectly, you need a whole bunch of assumptions about how efficient and elegant the market is. The Amazon Death Flu scenario makes all of the opposite assumptions and presents the possible world most hostile to libertarianism. The same principles that make the Amazon Death Flu not perfectly applicable to reality make libertarianism not perfectly applicable to reality as well.
3.11: People stupid enough to make bad decisions deserve the consequences of their actions. If government bans them from making stupid decisions, it's just preventing them from getting what they deserve.
An article on Less Wrong provides a much better critique of this argument than I could. It starts by discussing a hypothetical in which the government stopped regulating the safety of medicines. Some quack markets sulfuric acid as medicine, and a “poor, honest, not overwhelmingly educated mother of five children” falls for it, drinks it, and dies.
If you were really in that situation, would you really laugh, say “Haha, serves her right” and go back to what you were doing? Or would it be a tragedy even though she “got what she deserved”?
The article ends with:
“Saying 'People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!' is not tough-minded. It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe. Real tough-mindedness is saying, 'Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation.'...I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration. I count it as a tragedy. It is not always helping people, to save them from the consequences of their own actions; but I draw a moral line at capital punishment. If you're dead, you can't learn from your mistakes. “
The person who wrote that has libertarian sympathies. But he understands that “making a virtue out of necessity” shouldn't go as far as celebrating deaths if it makes your political beliefs more tenable.
3.12: Government has done so much harm over the years. Can't we just lay it to rest already?
It's also done a lot of good over the years...but I don't want to get into a contest of trying to name pros and cons. Let me end this FAQ with one more questionable metaphor.
Up until around 1800, medicine unquestionably did more harm than good. The vast majority of “treatments” were insane holdbacks of religious or pseudoscientific theory, and more likely to kill the patient than save zir. Doctors and shamans would let out the patient's blood, or drill a hole in zir skull, or try and starve the disease out of the patient. Among this incompetence there were a few genuinely useful herbs, and a few intelligent doctors who were able to separate the wheat from the chaff, but overall the picture was grim.
A person living during this period could have taken one of two paths. Ze could have demonized doctors and medicine, and launched a crusade to destroy the entire field, holding up examples of medical malpractice as zir justification. Or ze could have accepted that some parts were rotten and other parts were good, and done zir best to find the good practices and improve upon them.
By the mid-1800s, the people who took the second path had managed to debunk many of the genuinely harmful remedies, organize a list of the useful ones, and begin discovering new pharmaceuticals and procedures that worked even better. Medicine, once torn between harmful and helpful interventions, became unquestionably a net good. The process of eliminating all counterproductive techniques from the field continues even today, but almost no one would dispute that it's a good thing we stuck with it.
Government, like medicine, attempts to improve the world by applying various interventions. Like medicine, these interventions can be either helpful or harmful, and it's not immediately obvious which are which. And right now, government is in the same state as medicine in 1800. Bogged down by a history including many bad results, encouraged by a few good results that stand out in that history, and working on the task of improving its record. Some governments, like those of Denmark and Sweden, can be compared to excellent doctors with a proven track record of helping their patients. Others, like those of Russia and Cuba, are like the incompetent doctors who do much more harm than good. Instead of throwing out all medicine just as we're starting to understand it, we should learn from the good doctors, fire the bad doctors, and come up with a science that can ensure we do the right thing at the right time.
4.1: I still don't agree with you. How can I debate you and other non-libertarians without having you dismiss what I say?
Non-libertarians have not always been very receptive to debating libertarians, partly because libertarians have a record of being poor sparring partners. If you want to avoid that sort of reputation, here are a few suggestions.
Don't come on too strong. Words like “thievery” and “enslave” are emotional button-pressers, not rational arguments. Attempts to insult your opponents by calling them tyrants or suggesting they want to rule over the rest of humanity as slaves and cattle (yes, I've gotten that) is more likely to annoy than convince. And please, stop the “1984” references, especially when you're talking about a modern liberal democracy. Seriously. It's like those fundamentalists who have websites about how not having prayer in school is equivalent to the Holocaust.
Don't talk to us like you're trying to explain something blindingly obvious to a three year old. And on the other hand, don't talk to us like you're some sort of amazing rebel who has come to free us from our mental chains. Generally we've heard arguments similar to yours before and rejected them because we don't agree with them, not because we lack enough of a human soul to be a brave freethinking individual.
On a related note, don't use quotes everyone has heard before as if you're reading from some holy book. That means you, o people who constantly quote Reagan's “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” That's an assertion, not an argument. Likewise, if you quote George Washington's “Government is like fire: a troublesome servant and a fearful master,” don't be surprised if I respond “...and therefore we should avoid it, just as we currently avoid fire and all other forms of combustion.”
Don't immediately assume that just because we are not libertarians, we worship Stalin, love communism, think government should be allowed to control every facet of people's lives, or even support things like the War on Drugs or the FDA.
Finally, you may have better luck convincing us of specific points, like “Government should not set a minimum wage” than broad slogans, like “Government can never do anything right.” You have any idea how hard it is to prove a universal negative?
4.2: I want to respond to this FAQ in some way.
My email is scott period siskind at-symbol gmail period com.
If you have a question or argument you want to add to the FAQ, email it to me and it might get included.
If there's something in the FAQ that's objectively wrong, like a false statistic, email me about it and it'll get removed. If there's something that's arguably wrong, email me about it and depending on how arguable it is it might get a footnote or something.
If you want to respond to one or more of the FAQ entries, or even to the whole FAQ, send me your response. I'll definitely read it, I may respond to it, and if it is of high enough quality I may add it to this page, with your permission.
If you write a response to this on your own website, tell me and I will link to it.
If by some miracle you have absolutely no objection to this FAQ and simply want to tell me how much you like it, that would be neat.