Monday, April 17, 2006

Libertarians and me

I don't really have a party affliation anymore. I suppose I could call myself an Independent but somehow that sounds too non-commital and swingy. It just conjures up coy voters who want to wooed by both sides of the Uni-party we used to call Democrats and Republicans.

I find myself morphing towards sort of a quasi-libertarinism but none of the current definitions fit me. You have your big L's, your little l's, your conservative libertarians but all them hold some fatal flaw in my reckoning. I've been trying to define my thoughts on this for a while. Today thehim posted a definition of a liberal libertarian that defined it for me.

He calls it liberal libertarian, I kind of prefer Libbytarian myself, but thehim nails what the Libertarians of any stripe need to get straight about. The personal responsiblity thing is right on but the blind trust in a free market just doesn't work. It's unacheivable, a mythical beast, and has no connection to the realities of human nature. The Libertarians' reliance on economic models that don't take the sociological aspects into consideration are what prevents the party from gaining the credibilty and the converts it could otherwise enjoy.
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11 Comments:

Blogger Kathy said...

I like the liberal libertarian definition too. What kind of libertarian is John LaPlante? Conservative?

8:18:00 AM  
Blogger Bostonian Exile said...

Wait a minute... For a while there, you were all for the "true" free market, which still awaited the formation of a definition.

Are we now to conclude that you are accepting the tradtional definition of a free market in order to reject the model it defines?

If so, isn't the model's rejection premature in light of your previous assertions that we do not have (and -- by implication -- have never seen) a free market?

9:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Libby said...

I don't know Kathy. LaPlante may be in a category of his own but I'd tend to put him the big L category with his diligent defense of the megacorps.

Exile, I don't think I'm being contradictory at all. The true free market would be one with, as thehim said, where are the players start out equally informed on an level playing field. What the corporations put forward as the free market now is really just a code word for corporate welfare.

And thehim nailed the big problem with trusting this corporate dominated "free market" to act responsibly in terms of the public good. The bottom line is the pure economic model will never work as long as it doesn't factor in human greed.

I think Katrina is a good example of that theory. What we have there is effectively a privatized response to disaster relief managed by a government agency. The contractors weren't chosen on free market criteria, they were chosen on the basis of their political connections and surely you can agree that it was and continues to be a mess.

10:06:00 AM  
Blogger Bostonian Exile said...

Exile, I don't think I'm being contradictory at all. The true free market would be one with, as thehim said, where are the players start out equally informed on an level playing field. What the corporations put forward as the free market now is really just a code word for corporate welfare.

I don't mean to suggest that you are being contradictory, but I do want to ensure that we are on the same page as to working definitions. I think this is a "no" to my first question, but please correct me if I am mistaken. If it is a "no," then my second question is obviously moot. (Sidenote: is "thehim" pronounced "the him"? The word is causing slight cognitive dissonance.)

The problem that I have, though, with thehim's definition is that he is attempting to force a new definition on a term of art that already has a long-established meaning. In a nut shell, it is as though he is saying to the libertarian, "We're not that different economically since we both believe in "free markets," except for how our sets of assumptions about the composition of those markets are radically different."

Also, his definition is troubling to me because it requires the conflation of three related, but necessarily distinct, concepts: liberty, freedom, and democracy. While these concepts ususally operate along parallel tracks, looking at them seperately is imperative if you are trying to find common ground with libertarian ideology because there will be instances when the three will be at odds. While liberty is an absence of governmental restraints, freedom carries with it the absence of additional external restraints and even a sense of active empowerment.

Additionally, democracy is often at odds with liberty when it might not be at odds with freedom. For example, suppose we impose a 1% annual surcharge on the net worths of billionaires via an act of the legislature for the purpose of funding public schools. We can make the argument that democracy has acted in the public good, and that this action has increased freedom by empowering the people who will benefit from improved educational opportunities. But, even if you believe that this is a public good, you must also acknowledge that it is a diminution of the liberty possessed by those individuals who must now pay the tax. Whether the diminution of this liberty is substantial or incidental in relative terms is really not material to the analysis; any way you cut it this is an exercise of the State's power over the individual and a net loss of liberty for that individual.

The contractors weren't chosen on free market criteria, they were chosen on the basis of their political connections and surely you can agree that it was and continues to be a mess.

I do agree with this continues to be a problem, and that the contractors were not chosen by anyone's definition of free market principles, but I really don't see how this advances thehim's model of the free market (either on its own terms or as applied to libertarianism) or, since we have each (within our own frameworks) stipulated its nonexistence, how this demonstrates the failures of the classical free market instead of merely underscoring that point on which we already agree in principle.

11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Libby said...

(Sidenote: is "thehim" pronounced "the him"? The word is causing slight cognitive dissonance.)

I don't know how to pronounce it but I assume it's as you think. Theher also posts, who I assume is his wife or significant other.

Also, his definition is troubling to me because it requires the conflation of three related, but necessarily distinct, concepts: liberty, freedom, and democracy.

I think that IS the point Exile. The model as it's put forward can't exist because it doesn't take into account those variables. If I'm to understand the model as it's put forward by the big L libertarians, the free market will bring wealth to those who deliver the best goods and services and we're to believe that those who benefit from the system will take care of the less fortunate, e.g. lookout for the public good, as a sort of side effect of success. That they'll see it as a good business practice. The problem with that premise for me is it's sold on the basis that those who have benefited have the right to choose who will be the recepients of their largess. Unfortunately, the practical manifestation of this "freedom" is that those who need help the most get left out in the cold because they're perceived to be lazy, stupid or otherwise unworthy of help. I mean I just don't see Exxon coming forward and funding food stamps or Medicaid for instance. The Big L's are always complaining about having to fund it with taxes as it is. Why should I believe they'd do it out of choice?

Your point on freedom is well taken, but it neglects to take into account social responsibility. I think it was Kathy that posted a piece on why the wealthiest should pay more because they didn't make their money in a vacuum. They gained their wealth and thus power, by way of the toil of the working class and have a social obligation to give something back.

Liberty without some rules, isn't really freedom, it's anarchy. I mean making murder illegal also infringes on someone's right to take out their anger on their fellow man and is a limit on their liberty -- but one that is necessary in order to preserve the social order.

As to how this relates to Katrina, I disagree that the work wasn't awarded within the framework of the free market as it's presently defined. Although the government awarded the contracts, I was told the reason Halliburton and the other major corps got them was because they were the only ones big enough to handle the job. They're doing a lousy job and the free market model fails in that they aren't held accountable by the awarder of the contract however, again as it's defined presently, they will continue to be awarded future contracts because of their size and their theoretical ability to do the work, which still fits within the free market framework. That in my mind is why a free market is simply another word for a free-for-all without some limitations imposed from outside in the form of regulation. I don't think that makes it less free, simply less chaotic.

12:14:00 PM  
Blogger Bostonian Exile said...

I think that IS the point Exile. The model as it's put forward can't exist because it doesn't take into account those variables. If I'm to understand the model as it's put forward by the big L libertarians, the free market will bring wealth to those who deliver the best goods and services and we're to believe that those who benefit from the system will take care of the less fortunate, e.g. lookout for the public good, as a sort of side effect of success. . . .

I follow what you mean, assuming the model you are referring to in the second sentence is the "classical" free market. And it's true that, in its most basic form, that concept does not take "political" considerations into account.

But there is a difference between posing a theory that takes liberty, freedom, and democracy into account, and one that tries to force all three into the same space. As I see it, thehim has done the latter. Trying to use the terms fully interchangably creates fatal conceptual problems when skeptics start to kick the tires.

Liberty without some rules, isn't really freedom, it's anarchy. I mean making murder illegal also infringes on someone's right to take out their anger on their fellow man and is a limit on their liberty -- but one that is necessary in order to preserve the social order.

On this I agree with you, and I suspect most libertarians would agree with you also. (I say "most" because there are anarchists who call themselves libertarians.) But I don't believe I have ever encountered a libertarian who disagree with the following premise: The government exists to protect the physical security of the person from others and to protect private property. The murder hypothetical clearly falls within that framework.

As to how this relates to Katrina, I disagree that the work wasn't awarded within the framework of the free market as it's presently defined. Although the government awarded the contracts, I was told the reason Halliburton and the other major corps got them was because they were the only ones big enough to handle the job....

Now, if this isn't self-contradictory, it does toe the line. Leaving aside your initial statement that the contractors were chosen on the basis of political connections rather than economies of scale, the statement still does not hew to the classical free market model. If this followed the free market model, as you ultimately contend, then the large corporations will not get the repeat business you claim. Why? Because the government, as the customer, would disregard any political connections and recognize that the contractor's obligations had not been upheld. The costs of those failures go into the calculus for future contracts. The "theoretical ability to do the work" is only one piece of the capitalist puzzle. And, if the government falls down on the job and does not demand accountability for those failures, that's a problem with the customer -- not the system. After all, you could change to thehim's model and a lackadaisical government response would leave you no better.

As for "social responsibility", is it -- in any practical way -- anything other than the "morality legislation" of the Left? After all, that strikes me as the primary Libertarian objection. You note that "big L"s gripe about taxes to fund food stamps and Medicaid. Review the "Libertarian" premises about government above. In light of them, how are those taxes -- to a Libertarian -- fundamentally any less of a government intrusion and overreach than the prohibition of marijuana? In light of that question, I renew the first question in this paragraph and ask: Is the answer unchanged?

I should note as an aside that I am not, myself, a Libertarian. I have my own fatal misgivings about the ideology (and its numerous permutations). At the same time, I can see where this economic issue would force an impasse.

1:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

But there is a difference between posing a theory that takes liberty, freedom, and democracy into account, and one that tries to force all three into the same space.

I don't get the difference Exile. I think the point is that the model doesn't even work unless you take these things into consideration, so it would be a necessary parameter rather than forcing an artificial requirement into the equation.

The "theoretical ability to do the work" is only one piece of the capitalist puzzle. And, if the government falls down on the job and does not demand accountability for those failures, that's a problem with the customer -- not the system. After all, you could change to thehim's model and a lackadaisical government response would leave you no better.

Therein lies the problem. What passes for a free market, as it's been employed thus far has left us with no other choices but to continue to give the work to incompetent purveyors because they're the only ones who gained the size and power, having been given an unfair edge in the first place, to be big enough to bid on the contracts. Had the free market worked within the confines of a purely economic model, these megacorps would never have become so big because they consistently fail to deliver the goods and services at the price and productivity they initially promise.

I think that's the whole point of adding the sociological elements to the model, in order to build in accountability. That being said, corporate greed can't he held solely responsible for the failure of the model since the government's complacency aids and abets the lack of performance. As LaPlante would say, there's no incentive for either side to perform well since we haven't held our leglislators responsible to us.

In light of them, how are those taxes -- to a Libertarian -- fundamentally any less of a government intrusion and overreach than the prohibition of marijuana?

I'd say the difference is the use of marijuana is a personal choice that affects only the user whereas the taxes are levied to ensure the public good and we have a social responsibility to assist those in society who for whatever reason are unable to provide for themselves, if not for altruistic reasons then for the very practical result of keeping the public order.

I don't know Exile, I'm working this out in my head as I go along here. Bringing it back to my original contention that there is no true free market in existence, I still stand by that point. Capitalism as it has evolved in our society has not rewarded the best players, it's rewarded the most powerful ones without regard to merit. I think a true free market would have evolved differently. At this point I don't think it's possible to create one unless we could somehow wipe the slate clean and start out fresh with everyone beginning with an equal stake. So we're left with redefining the parameters within which the market can work to the benefit of all.

I don't see how we can do that using a purely economic model. It just doesn't work. Thehim has come the closest to putting forth a viable solution that I've seen.

2:16:00 PM  
Blogger Bostonian Exile said...

I get that you are working this out (and that I'm essentially impelling you to do so on the fly), but you started with one other premise: that thehim defined the issue for you. Hence, I am left to assume that his conclusions are yours until you indicate otherwise.

I don't get the difference Exile. I think the point is that the model doesn't even work unless you take these things into consideration, so it would be a necessary parameter rather than forcing an artificial requirement into the equation.

A fair point in the abstract. But, the difference I articulated is evident if you go to the source:

Individual free will can exist on its own, isolated from the society as a whole. But corporations and individuals operating within an economic system can have wide reaching effects, and true liberty stems from people having the ability to both participate in and regulate this system through democratic means. Forcing free market solutions within this framework is not the equivalent of having total freedom within the system. Free markets are not infallible; they can fail us, and oftentimes they do.

I have bolded the sections that are definitionally problematic. The bolded sentences, taken as a whole, attempt to equate "liberty" and "freedom," which are similar, but have their own distinct limits. Secondly, the notion that "true liberty [not freedom] stems from people having the ability to both participate in and regulate this system through democratic means," is easily self-contradictory as I illustrated above. True "freedom" is certainly another matter, but ideology is not known as "freedomism," so this does not resolve the issue satisfactorily. Accordingly, because the nuances are significant here, the words are not interchangable. I'm certainly open to a theory that would take into account any or all of these concepts, but this one ultimately attempts to superimpose one over the other, and the fit is far from workable.

I'd say the difference is the use of marijuana is a personal choice that affects only the user whereas the taxes are levied to ensure the public good and we have a social responsibility to assist those in society who for whatever reason are unable to provide for themselves, if not for altruistic reasons then for the very practical result of keeping the public order.

You know, of course, that the arguments you make in favor of that taxation is structurally similar to those made on the Right about marijuana use. And, it makes no difference whether either or both of those arguments are based upon unsound social science; one of the freedoms in representative government is to enact measures that are ultimately unwise and ill-considered.

Moreover, the Libertarian would probably opt against creating another bureaucracy when the criminal laws would suffice to protect him from theft or violence.

What passes for a free market, as it's been employed thus far has left us with no other choices but to continue to give the work to incompetent purveyors because they're the only ones who gained the size and power, having been given an unfair edge in the first place, to be big enough to bid on the contracts.

I agree with some of this, but there is one point I can't quite let pass without comment. Where, exactly, is the line between the "unfair edge" and "comparative advantage"? When did the unfair edge arise and who bestowed it? Is all advantages, by their nature, unfair?

I think a true free market would have evolved differently.

And we've come back to the point of my original inquiry: what is a "true" free market? If it is the one that thehim proposes, then how, specifically, would you reconcile the apparent paradox I raised at the outset?

I'm not, of course, demanding an answer now, but if you would consider revisiting the issue in a later post, hopefully we can continue what has been an enjoyable discussion.

3:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

I'm not, of course, demanding an answer now, but if you would consider revisiting the issue in a later post, hopefully we can continue what has been an enjoyable discussion.

Gee whiz Exile. You're making me work for this post but I've also enjoyed the debate and it's helping refine my thinking. I do think I've had enough for one day. I need to mull all this over for a while so I can put my finger on the flaw in your argument. We'll get back to this in a new post.

Geesh, you're such a lawyer...;-}

5:35:00 PM  
Blogger Bostonian Exile said...

It's amazing what a slow day at work will yield. This comments page takes forever to load on my computer.

I need to mull all this over for a while so I can put my finger on the flaw in your argument.

Good to know that you won't stop looking when you see the flaw in yours. :^P

I can't wait.

6:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

My, aren't we getting cocky now that we've earned that Esq after our name? I haven't conceded yet. You're beginning to win too many of these debates. ;-}

6:41:00 PM  

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