Monday, November 17, 2008

The One Where I Self Righteously Proclaim The Role Of Libertarian As Skeptic

Interesting debate making the blog rounds this morning, which I discovered via Megan McArdle. Conor Friedersdorf argues that libertarians and conservatives face disadvantages in policy disputes like the proposed auto bailout because indirect effects and unintended consequences are so much less personal than liberal narratives. Freddie of L'Hôte responds, arguing that both the human and economic harm of not bailing out the automakers could be catastrophic and that free markets arguments are nothing more than pure ideology with no relation to the real world. Or something like that.

Freddie's is a line of argument I've seen increasingly rehashed of late, where free marketers are cast in the role of ivory tower elites whose intellectual meanderings bear no relation to the "real world."

But first, allow me to briefly to respond to Conor, who perhaps overplays his hand. It's not exactly true that libertarians can't point to the specific faces of human suffering- this is precisely what many libertarians have tried to do in arguing against the drug war. But despite the Cory Maye's of the world, the real problem isn't about the human face of the issues, the real problem is the built in idealogical bias that government lending a helping hand is morally superior to a government that removes barriers. To return to Freddie, I'd argue that it's not the free marketers, but everyone else who's acting on faith. How else could you describe the belief that this auto bailout would be more than a temporary measure?

Once again, allow me to return to the notion of the libertarian as skeptic. The truth is, markets and government work very, very differently. And the truth is that most people- even American liberals- realize that markets are, as a general proposition, more efficient than governments. That would be why none but the most ardent Marxists advocate for the destruction of profit making enterprises. And even amongst libertarians, all but the most ardent anarchists recognize that government has a role to play. This isn't about correcting for failures in the market, but accounting for what the market can not do, such as build public roads and highways through the seizure of privately owned lands and use tax dollars to ensure that the poorest of the poor are not left to starve on the street.

In other words, if markets are more efficient than government, than those who advocate for one form or another of government intervention in the markets need to bear the burden of proof. Once again, this is my libertarian as skeptic argument, where the role of the libertarian is not to be forced to articulate the what-ifs, but to simply demand specific evidence of those who would take action that their proposed action is the simplest, most efficient way of obtaining the desired results.

And this is precisely the problem with the "human element" argument for the auto bailout. If the human costs are the largest concern, a massive, temporary unemployment policy to assist the potentially displaced workers would be far less expensive and far less of an intrusion into the market. Yet that's not what's being called for.

I could add that Freddie's comments are indicative of someone who's never dealt with the side effects of bad lawmaking. As someone who has, I'd ensure him that those stuck with the side effects of bad laws are in fact real people, just as real as the autoworkers who could lose their jobs and they shouldn't be any less important because they may not be so obvious. I make this point solely to raise the human issue, not to make any points about specific policies. The truth is, even the best of us can't foresee all the potential future effects of every law. But in making law, there should be some recognition that "future victims" are every bit as real the here and now victims and that is precisely why that all laws, all regulations, and all massive bailouts of failing companies need to be approached carefully and with a degree of skepticism.


Post a Comment

<< Home