3 Big Thoughts on Libertarianism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stereotypical libertarian and conservative (and libertarian conservative, and conservative libertarian) approach to various topics in modern American politics. It’s pretty weird, and this will be somewhat longish, but I have to get it out of my head. [WARNING: Words ahead. Lots and lots and lots of words.]

First off, there is a huge focus on taxes, mostly accentuated by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, their leader, Grover Norquist, and his little “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” (whereby signatories refuse to vote for any tax increases. Ever. Or something.) The end result is we pontificate endlessly about marginal tax rates and the Laffer Curve, and how we should cut taxes to boost the economy and employment, and yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with this approach, though, is that it’s misplacing the blame. The real problem with the government is not taxation. While I agree that taxation is an issue, and there can and should be significant tax reform (flat tax, anybody?), government spending and command and control regulation are way more important and far more serious. Government spending creates huge distortions in the market by moving money around in the private sector that wouldn’t have been if we left decisions up to private citizens, thus negating their power of choice in the market as producers scramble to lap up the government money that is spread around. Meanwhile, government regulation prohibits Americans from doing sensible things every day, not just by changing incentives as taxation does, but by literally saying “No, you can’t do that.”

What is really stopping American business from hiring more workers and reigniting the nation’s economic engine? It is corporate income taxes, or is it a bewildering and byzantine system of government regulations at the federal, state, and local level, that make it a nightmare to hire anyone or even to do business itself? You can get around taxation through creative accounting, and indeed, many major companies have done it so effectively they never paid corporate income taxes for years. So clearly, taxation is not the biggest problem. Government spending and regulation, which breeds cronyism, lobbying, and corruption (talk about being redundant), and prevents people from pulling themselves up on the social ladder (what eggheads call “income mobility”), is–or, at least, is bigger.

There are three more considerations to think of when it comes to taxation. The first is the debt and deficit, which are massive problems today. Would cutting taxes do anything to fix them? Au contraire–they would only exacerbate the problem! Cutting revenue would only make the debt grow larger, because you can guarantee there would be no corresponding cut in spending. So that’s a big no-no. Second, by and large the American populace accepts taxes as the cost of living in America. Sure, they want that cost to be lower, but they’ve accepted it as just the way things are. It’s like grocery shopping; you’re going to shop around the lowest price, or maybe even try to haggle for a lower one, but at the end of the day, you’re still going to buy your food. At the end of the day, Americans are going to pay their taxes because they like America, with all of its flaws and blemishes, and they want it. Running a messaging campaign that myopically focuses on taxes may gin up some support on the passionate right, but it doesn’t quite reach out to middle America and makes you look like a fool in debate with leftists, who can rightly point out that the tax rate was much higher back in the day, but millionaires and billionaires still stayed in America and made things.

The third issue is much more severe. There are many other issues out there which are far more serious and injurious to your liberty than taxes. I happen to think that being thrown in jail for unlocking your smartphone, shot and imprisoned for smoking a joint, spied on by domestic intelligence agencies through drones and wiretapping, living under the cloud of indefinite detention by the military, or potentially even being assassinated by your government, are much bigger problems than having to pay a 25% marginal tax rate. In comparison, the tax problem seems fairly mundane and just simply pales compared to the decimations of civil liberties going on today.

These thoughts started percolating in my head after reading this comment to a really long Popehat post on right-libertarianism vs left-libertarianism. As I kept thinking about it, it made more and more sense. I’m not the only one, though. Reading this page at Libertarianism.com, I’m struck by how many libertarians say “Ignore taxes; spending is the real problem.” Jeffrey Miron, who I admire for a multitude of reasons, says “Slash expenditures; then lower taxes will follow.” Congressman Ron Paul, who has his issues, notes that the real discussion is the proper role of government, not taxation; on that I completely agree. And finally, Lawrence Reed of FEE states that the “real problem is spending. We tax because we spend and if government spends too much, no resulting tax system could be called remotely ‘fair.'” Right on, Mr. Reed, right on.

In summary, we libertarians (and conservatives) focus far too intensively on taxation. We’re missing the forests for the trees, in some sense. That’s not good.

This indirectly also leads into my second topic I’ve been thinking about, which is a basic income and libertarian justifications for it. Basically, a basic income (see what I did there?) is a minimum income, or floor, provided by the state to keep people from becoming too poor. Naturally, libertarians are against this, because it consists of the state taking money from some people to give to others. Normally, I would agree…except for a few things.

One, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, two of the greatest libertarians of the 20th century, were both in favor of a universal basic income. (Hayek especially. Milton Friedman a bit less so.) So is Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, though he supports it only as a “second-best” system to no welfare at all, and a far superior model to the bloated mess we have today. Matt Zwolinski, of BHL fame, also makes a strong argument for a small basic income. That’s fair, and definitely one reason why I’m becoming attracted to it.

The second thing is that, while libertarians emphasis “negative liberty” and “negative rights,” if you can’t feed and clothe yourself, they don’t mean much. As one libertarian philosopher puts it:

Most, if not nearly all, libertarians emphasize negative liberties. These rights, for the most part, mean the ability to pursue an activity that does not cause harm to other parties. Thus, the right to vote, to earn a living, to read, to pursue an education, to speak freely, to enter a contract with another agent, and other similar rights are rights that may be pursued without the enslavement of others by means of force and or coercion.

One of the most common criticisms of negative liberties is ‘so what?’ Indeed, it is easy to see the dismal of the negative right to free speech when one is hungry, poor and unemployed. Negative rights for agents in those derelict conditions mean not that much, if any bit at all.[9] For those in the said conditions the offer of positive rights, the right to be free from hunger, to an education, to a home, and to a job are understandable preferences. So of what relevance is the libertarian with his mantra of negative rights to the person in desperate need?[10]

Most right-libertarians take the standard of self-ownership, which most declare to be an axiom, as the sole foundational pillar of libertarian thought and political philosophy. As long as you own yourself and your property, that’s all that matters. But as Matt Zwolinski has been pointing out lately at Libertarianism.org (different site than the one cited above), that’s really far too simplistic and isn’t really adequate.

Also, I recently read John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness, examining a “middle way” between libertarians and classical liberals on one side, and Rawlsian “high liberals” on the other. Tomasi notes that a better basis for a libertarian polity, with free markets and a “thick” conception of economic liberties, is not the self-ownership principle. Rather, it is the ability of each citizen to be a “responsible self-author,” able to write his own story and lead his own life. (I don’t have my copy with me, unfortunately, having lent it to a friend, so I can’t give you a page number, but it’s there.)

The way I see it is this: you’re on the street, homeless, starving, and begging for food. Nobody will give any to you, though, and you won’t steal from anyone because you have principles. You end up starving to death. Now, the self-ownership principle was followed, but were you really free? Of course most libertarians would argue that yes, you were, and that is is a horribly over-simplified scenario–which they’re right about, it is over-simplified–and that “positive rights” serve only to enslave others because for that to work you must force someone to provide you with food…but if we have a society where people are starving like this, is that justifiable? Can libertarians really accept such a thing? And if your number one need is survival, if you’re living hand to mouth and living on a subsistence diet, are you really free?

I myself am torn on this, in terms of moral issues. I don’t know the answers to the above questions. I certainly don’t think, though, that targeted economic interventions and wealth redistribution as the left always promotes is the answer. We’ve seen what that has done over the past century, and it’s nothing good. Therefore, in terms of consequentialist issues, I’m totally onboard; it may be “second-best,” as Murray puts it, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we have today. I’m also in favor of it from a purely PR perspective; Americans do indeed care about the poor, and a movement and/or political party that seems to just want to let the poor starve on the streets is going to be ignored at best, and vilified at worst. A basic income would remove that weakness.

As for how to actually implement…hell if I know. The standard basic income system is simply not feasible, ever. Even if we replaced all other government spending, giving $15,000 to every American, at a population of 300 million, would cost $4,500,000,000,000–that’s $4.5 trillion a year. I don’t think that’s something we can afford, even with a rapidly growing economy (which, as it turns out, we don’t have right now.) Probably the only way we can do this is through a form of the negative income tax. Originally proposed by Milton Friedman, I think Jeffrey Miron has come up with a slightly better version. That one might actually be doable.

At the very least, though, this is something that libertarians and conservatives should be taking seriously. As Mike Munger notes in the abstract of his article on basic income, “A distinction is made between libertarian destinations and libertarian directions.” Basic income may not be–and probably isn’t–a libertarian destination. But to me it seems it sure as hell is a libertarian direction.

Finally, one last thing, again from the left-libertarian playbook, are some thoughts about our environment and natural resources. I’m not what Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear would call an “eco-mentalist.” I don’t think increased government regulation over the environment is going to solve anything. I don’t think global warming or climate change is a serious problem (and even if it were a problem, I don’t think government would be the answer.) I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, and I don’t go into any of that crap. I like my big engines and my big burgers just like any other red-blooded American. But I am very sympathetic to an idea amongst left-libertarians that the world is common property.

The basic gist is that left-libertarians are totally free market libertarians, like everyone else, at least until we get to natural resources and the environment. This kind of left-libertarianism is known as “Steiner-Vallentyne libertarianism”–at least on Wikipedia–after it’s two major proponents, Hillel Steiner and Peter Vallentyne. This turns into a strong defense of self-ownership, but holding an egalitarian view on natural resources. I remember reading about this a long time ago when I first researched Henry George and the “Georgist” school (which also has led to geolibertarianism.)

To break it down, wilderness and natural resources are, in their “initial state,” unowned. They become owned when, as John Locke and Robert Nozick put it, someone “mixes their labor” with it. Henry George disagreed with this analysis, pointing out that we own something when we make it, but nobody “makes” or “creates” land; it is just there. How then could we own it? Although he was writing in the late 19th century, before automation and global industrialization, his viewpoint is very appealing to me. It makes a lot of sense.
I should also note that I’ve always considered myself to be a “green-libertarian.” While I’m definitely a libertarian first and foremost, I also care a lot about the environment. That’s why I don’t want to entrust it to the government. That’s probably why I’m feeling sympathetic to this view of “common ownership” of the Earth.

But while the view that we can’t own land–we can merely “rent” it from the rest of the community–because we don’t create it is appealing, it also has significant flaws. First, what’s to say that one must create something in order to own it? Why not mixing your labor with something that is unowned? If someone discards something in the trash and another person claims it, does anyone care? I don’t think so, and I think you would be hard-pressed to say that the latter person doesn’t “own” it because it took it and it had no owner.

But a more fatal argument is the tragedy of the commons argument: that without a clearly defined, individual (or a very small group) owner, the whole ecosystem will go to pot as people overexploit the area. You must have some incentive for people to take care of the land.

Of the three points presented here, this is the weakest and the faintest one. I’m just not sold on it like I’m sold on a pivot away from tax obsession and the idea of a basic income. It is merely an interest. We’re stuck in a rut right now between global warming eco-mentalists on one hand who think we should all go into “deep ecology” and hard-headed conservative types who can’t even dream that the environment may be having problems on the other. There has got to be another way to break out of this. I’m just not sure what at the moment.

I definitely think that we, as a liberty movement, can use some strategic adjustment. I think the vehement opposition to any sort of income redistribution is going to stop us in our tracks; sure, it works fine from a high philosophy standpoint, but nobody on the ground really cares, and anyways, you can make a case for libertarianism with a bit of that as the crowd over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians have shown. (Heck, even Adam Smith, godfather of capitalism, was not as market-dogmatic as modern libertarians.)

Well, those are my two cents, anyways.