A Belarussian translation of this essay is here.
Why I Am Not a Libertarian
I thought about entitling this essay “Two Cheers For Libertarianism.” On civil liberties matters, I am perfectly libertarian; in fact, I have just delivered a briefing paper on the pervasiveness doctrine to the Cato Institute, and hope to write more for them on topics such as anonymity and mandatory ratings systems.
But there are other libertarian positions, such as that against anti-discrimination laws, which shock the conscience; like Hayek, I believe that there are things worth doing that the free market cannot do. Here then, is an attempt to outline what is good about libertarianism, and then contrast what doesn’t make sense. The conclusion I draw is that like most human belief systems, libertarianism mixes practicality with some idealism unrelated to human nature. Therefore, as much as I sympathize with most of the diagnoses and some of the prescriptions, I am not a libertarian.
1b) These objective facts, when taken collectively, contain all of existence
1c) A fact is a piece of incontrovertible truth which exists at a specific point in time, or over a length of time
2) Under no circumstances can humans be perfect (or optimized)
3) As a result, humans can’t have perfect knowledge of facts
Result: No claim by humans of objective truth can be correct. Humans can only have working rules.
1) Humans can’t have perfect knowledge of facts
2a) Humans can improve their situation by applying solutions based on correct understanding of facts
2b) The human situation is the current state of either a single person, a group, or collective humanity
3) As a result, humans can improve their situation, but their application of solutions is imperfect
Result: There is a distinction between “correct knowledge”, which can help humanity improve its situation, and “perfect knowledge”, which is an impossibility involving total understanding.
1) Humans can improve their situation, but their application of solutions is imperfect
2a) Humans can improve their situation through careful study and application of innovation
2b) Innovation is anything created or concocted by humans that exists outside of nature
3) As a result, careful study and application of innovations can improve humanity’s situation, though imperfectly
Result: Broad (ideological, say) rules don’t suffice in improving the human situation.
1) Careful study and application of innovations can improve humanity’s situation, though imperfectly
2) Even though facts don’t change, our understanding of facts can change
3) As a result, our imperfection in applying innovations is a reflection of a lack of understanding
Result: When we change our position, it’s not an admission that we don’t think facts are absolute- it’s that we were wrong.
a) retained eternal objectivity, and removed objective truth from the controlling hands of humans
b) removed human perfectibility from consideration (destroying communism), yet protected things like transhumanism and futurism as incremental enhancement
c) defended the ability of humanity to continue solving problems
d) wholesale destroyed broad “moral imperative” ideologies (socialism, modern progressivism, evangelicalism), in favor of incrementalism
Positions: ( 1 ) A laissez faire economic system works remarkably well at the beginning stage of almost any business, for example computers, but in the past such things as fast food, automobiles, and movies. Freedom to innovate and build business ventures is a great strength of laissez faire.
Corollary: Sometimes government research expedites the process. That is, results from government supported research projects can be borrowed intact and made into successful new businesses, as has happened with the Internet and simultaneously the computer industry itself. This was also true concerning railroads in the 19th century. Corollary: The economic purpose of governance is to create fair markets. This does not always require action by the government per se but often it does because no other system can protect those without access to establishments which hold dominant economic power. Also, government, at least in theory, has a neutral referee function and can act as an impartial adjudicator. While this may sometimes not be the case, the ideal of fair judgement is important in maintaining some semblance of fair play.
( 2 ) In mature industries / businesses, laissez faire has an overwhelming tendency toward monopoly formation and the rise of super-corporations that make it impossible for smaller firms to compete. Hence the dozens of car manufacturers of the early 20th century eventually became just 3, and hundreds of TV enterprises have become just 9 giant businesses today. This happens in every mature industry except businesses that are strictly focused on local markets like restaurants and beauty salons. ( 3 ) A mythology of laissez faire distorts the reality of this system. Proponents of laissez faire tell us , for example, that the Free Market is always fair to all businesses and always self regulates for the common good.
often are false and deceptive. Corollary: According to this mythology, regulations always –maybe a few exceptions are allowed– are harmful to the economy and almost always are motivated by ideology-driven politics that serve the interests of special interest groups, especially labor unions.
( 4 ) Laissez faire, because it is over-lionized by many people, tends to be regarded as almost a God unto itself. Consequently, the market in an advanced Capitalist society tends ( overwhelmingly ) to become outright amoral or even immoral. This harms society generally since all ethical principles are thrown to the winds whenever some unethical “product” is perceived as offering large profits. Hence, marketing of inappropriate goods and services to children, and so forth. Corollary: We can see the effects of immoral market forces in exaggerated form in the functioning of illegal businesses like recreational drugs, “businesses” that indulge in a myriad of criminal activities for the sake of maintaining profit margins. Corollary: Because of worship of the bottom line intrinsic to the laissez faire system even national security may be sacrificed for the sake of quarterly earnings. Hence massive technology transfer to America’s detriment. Hence willingness to agree to business contracts with nations like Saudi Arabia and China which, different as these particular states may be, are alike is seeking advantage in obtaining sensitive military hardware, as in the case of the Saudis, or such things as commercial jet basic assemblies, on the part of the Chinese. Laissez faire economic policy, in other words, can easily result in national disadvantage, which we can now see more clearly than before in the case of auto parts shortages etc, that were the result of the tsunami some months ago. It may be that there is much money to be made through usual laissez faire practices but when this results in national military security or national economic security vulnerabilities, then laissez faire can be seen for what it is, excellent in some ways, terrible in others.
( 4 ) The market simply cannot or will not do some things that are very useful to society. In such cases government may decide to act. Hence, the Interstate highway system, the Intercoastal waterway –the canal system used by Atlantic seaboard states– and Boulder Dam and other hydroelectric projects.
We Need a Conversational Shift
The Present Paradigm
It seems that in most exchanges about politics and issues today, whether they be pundits or shows on TV and radio, debate in Congress, or exchanges among regular folks, the same arguments and accusations are made and impasses reached. Rarely is any new ground covered. Each side is stuck in its perspective.
We tend to look at the other side as the adversary, whose voice we believe must be silenced. And, when we do have an “open” conversation, it’s usually among those who share our thoughts. What I’m describing is the prevailing paradigm of communication, which has been going on for centuries.
Meanwhile, problems keep surmounting, while real solutions remain elusive. Many of the old solutions that once worked, no longer apply. We’re coming to a point in human history, when, in order to come to terms with our problems, we need to shift our thinking and communication to a new paradigm.
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100 New Constitutional Amendments for the 21st Century
• Allegra Stratton and Patrick Wintour
• guardian.co.uk, Sunday 13 March 2011 12.11 EDTNick Clegg has told Liberal Democrat delegates that they are now the party of the “radical centre”, hours after the party voted to commit itself to the traditions and beliefs of social democracy.
In his address wrapping up the party’s two-day conference, Clegg pushed ahead in his attempt to redefine the Lib Dems. His speech rejected the “tribalism of left and right” and instead made its pitch to middle-income earners – “alarm clock Britain”.
Clegg said: “We are liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics. Our politics is the politics of the radical centre. We are governing from the middle, for the middle.
I explain my unexpected and strange transformation from a right-wing ideologue to a passionate centrist. Please join us—you have nothing to lose but your dogma.
I’ve followed politics for years, but for most of them, I was a dogmatic right-winger. This was not the product of deep thinking; it was probably the natural result of growing up in a conservative household. My parents hated liberals and leftists; they sincerely thought these people were out to destroy America. For most of my life I took a right-wing party line, going as far to join the John Birch Society! I never seriously examined my ideology. I knew that the people on the other side were ignorant and had the worst intentions; there was no point in talking to them.
Incredibly, a baseball (really) book radically changed my thinking. I had been a fan of a writer named Bill James since I was in high school, many years ago. He wrote a book in 1994 called What Happened to the Hall of Fame, and I decided to check it out. Unexpectedly, he discusses his political beliefs on page 28. After reading this page, my thinking changed forever (really). He explained eloquently why he was a moderate. These are the five sentences that changed my ideology forver:
It is my observation, listening to political partisans, that there is some truth in what everybody says, but that they will all distort the truth to defend their position.(emphasis added). In my judgment, everyone on the political landscape,from Rush Limbaugh to Howard Metzenbaum (former liberal Senator from Ohio) is right about some things; I will listen to any of them and think that there is some truth in what he or she is saying. But at the same time, they all B.S. They all wear blinders. They say things they know or should know are not true, but which they feel they must say to defend the extreme positions they have taken. (emphasis added).