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An Invitation for Libertarians

An Invitation for Libertarians

Here at Angry Bear, we’ve had a number of posts on LIbertarians over the years. Inevitably, someone writes to tell us we’re misrepresenting Libertarians… even when we’re quoting well known libertarians.

So… if you are libertarian consider this an invitation. Send me one to three paragraphs on what it means to be a libertarian or what libertarianism is. Or put it in comments. (I beg the indulgence of non-libertarians to please not put up comments of their own.) If you feel what you are writing about applies particularly to one or another strain of libertarianism, please make that clear.

I will put up as a separate post, verbatim, those e-mails and comments I get sent that seem to me to best tell the libertarian story from the libertarian perspective to the slightly left of center audience that resides here at Angry Bear. (I can’t promise to print everything that comes in to avoid the sort of repetition that will simply detract from the story.)

Here’s your chance to have your story told in your words.

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I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion, Part 2

by Mike Kimel

I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post on libertarian philosophy, the aftermath of which was a surprising amount of, well, let’s just call it assorted vigorously uncomplementary communication. (Shows what I get for making myself easy to find, eh?) But I also got some more interesting comments from libertarians which have led me to think further, and perhaps they can help me refine my thoughts.

To quote something I noted in the last post below the fold:

In the end, the question is – who will be coerced, how many will be coerced, and how bad will the coercion be? I tend to come down on the side that the coerced party should be the one that is the first to try to coerce others, and that the coerced party should be as small as possible, and that the coercion should be the least bit possible.

By that I mean the following… when people in an apartment complex listen to loud music, or they let their lawn get overgrown with weeds, or they don’t vaccinate their children, or they dump toxic waste in a river that passes through their property, or engage in any number of other of activities, there can be very large negative externalities created. This is because the loud music doesn’t stop at their property line, and the weeds emit seeds or shelter vermin that move beyond their property line, and stuff dumped in a river keeps going past their property line, etc.

Now, just about every activity produces some externalities, positive and negative. Externalities are a byproduct of human activity and progress, and we don’t want to eliminate the good with the bad. Nothing gets produced without some amount of pollution and/or destruction. That means unless we want to live in caves, some amount of externalities have to be tolerated in society. The question comes down to how much, generated by whom, who decides, and is there some form of compensation for those who suffer the consequences?

Decades ago, Ronald Coase provided an answer. (A comment to non-economists: the paper, perhaps the reason he won a Nobel Prize, is surprisingly readable and I recommend it. A pdf version is here. Its been a decade since I looked at it last, I think I’ll reread it myself!) Essentially, he said that the problem is reciprocal – my right to prevent you from emitting toxic fumes impinges on your right to emit them. As long as the property rights are well defined, and it is easy for the various parties to negotiate, you end up with the same (efficient) outcome no matter who has the right to decide what goes into the air. The reason: the various parties will negotiate amongst themselves.

But there are some problems, aside from who decides the property rights. Coase identified one – that is is often difficult for parties to negotiate; one nightclub has a lot of incentive to generate loud music and might be able to figure out how much that generates in revenue, whereas folks two blocks away might still have their sleep disturbed by some sub-sonic thumping, but they might have a harder time realizing they were harmed or putting a dollar figure on that harm. Besides, how do you get everyone together who was harmed to negotiate?

There are other problems… my son is too young to be vaccinated for many diseases. The anti-vaxx movement is killing herd immunity. If my son gets the measles before he is old enough to get the MMR vaccine, will I know who caused it? In the unlikely even that I do know, in what world will my son be adequately compensated?

But there is one other problem Coase did not consider. I frankly don’t care if someone is listening to mind-numbing bass on their sound system down the block. I only care if I (and to be socially minded) or someone else is forced to listen to that bass. My guess is that in most instances, the person generating the mind-numbing bass doesn’t care whether other people are listening to it either. And while it is possible for the party generating the music to ensure that the music (mostly) stays on his/her property, it is very difficult for a very large number of neighbors scattered over a wider area to protect against the broad range of all possible negative externalities that might seep onto their property, any one of which might start up at any time.

In the end, someone has to decide how much a person can do on his/her property taking into account what externalities are generated. And unless you want a free-for-all or people are sufficiently distant from each other that none of the negative externalities generated is very large, that someone is the government.

From what I can tell, this is the crux of the problem as far as most libertarians are concerned. Given their distrust of the government, they want people to be left alone. And that leads a free-for-all. Galt’s Gulch may even begin as a well-ordered place, but it very quickly either develops order, or becomes an anarchy and eventually gets abandoned. If you don’t believe it, there are countless examples across the American West. Less familiar to Americans, the same pattern can be seen with settlements all across Latin America. Pick any random town in the middle of, let’s just say, the state of Goias in Brazil. (A nice place to visit, by the way, though I haven’t been there in twenty five years.) The history of that random town is probably the same regardless of which one you pick. Some settlers left a bigger settlement somewhere on the coast of Brazil, either because they were looking for gold or wanted to set up a ranch. At first there were no rules, but those settlements that are still around today are called towns and cities, have plenty of rules, and a government to enforce them. I can’t think of a functioning place that manages to remain like Galt’s Gulch after a couple of generations.

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I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion

by Mike Kimel

I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion

I wandered over the Libertarian Party and I found their Platform. I’m sure there are a few items here and there with which some libertarians disagree, but in general, it seems to me to be a pretty fair representation of libertarian beliefs, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. That said, I do not believe libertarians live up to their stated beliefs. Here’s the first sentence of the pre-amble:

As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.

To that end, of course, the libertarian philosophy also seeks to minimize government, in particular, government coercion.

More below the fold!

And it is precisely here – in the first sentence of the pre-amble, and its implications, where libertarians go off the rails. Consider the following… my neighbor, whom we have never met and might not even have seen (we’re not certain) despite living in this house for two years, seems to enjoy letting her lawn grow uncontrollably. (Feel free to substitute “loud music” or “noxious fumes” or “toxic waste” or “rats and other vermin” or “vile (like there are any other kind) windchimes” or “measles”, etc., to make the story more relevant to you.) As I type, the place is something of an eyesore: weeds, overgrown bushes and knee-high grass. Now, a libertarian would say that our neighbor, being the home-owner, has the right to do what she will with her property, and I should mind my own business and my own property. As it happens, I agree. I may wish she would have weed collection trimmed, but the weeds are on her property and she paid for the right to do what she wants on that property.

My problem is that my neighbor also has taken upon herself to make choices about what happens on my property. See, the weeds she has chosen to grow, or rather, allow to grow, have seeds, and she has chosen to allow the seeds from her weeds to cross onto my property instead of keeping them on her property. Put another way, she has made a decision that I either have to have dandelions and weeds on my own lawn, or I have to expend resources (some combination of time, effort, and money) to eradicate outbreaks. The more weeds she chooses to cultivate on her property, the more resources I have to apply to keep weeds in check on my property the following year. But it isn’t just me – she is also making the same decision about the lawns of other people on the block too.

Now, in this instance, there is a simple solution that anyone who truly believes that property rights should be sacrosanct and nobody should be coerced by anyone else should be willing to agree upon. See, she should have every right to cultivate weeds on her property, but should have zero right to place weeds (actively or passively, it makes no difference to the rest of us) on anyone else’s property. Put another way – it should be her responsibility to ensure that she does not cultivate weeds on our property without our say so.

Now, it turns out that the city has some rules about this. Last year I saw signs placed on some people’s doors saying essentially: “clean your lawn or the city will do it and bill you for it.” As far as I can tell, a libertarian – every libertarian I have come across, would view that as coercion. I, on the other hand, see things differently – were the government to allow people to create infestations on their property that inevitably spread onto their neighbors’ property, the government is essentially coercing the neighbors of those that would grow weeds into either growing weeds themselves or spending an inordinate number of resources fighting it. And to some extent, the libertarians, and I, are both partly right. But here’s what they’re missing; someone will be coerced, no matter what, as long as there are people who will grow weeds. Or play loud music or emit noxious fumes or dump toxic waste or allow rats and other vermin to proliferate or put up vile windchimes or refuse to get their kids vaccinated for measles, etc. In the end, the question is – who will be coerced, how many will be coerced, and how bad will the coercion be? I tend to come down on the side that the coerced party should be the one that is the first to try to coerce others, and that the coerced party should be as small as possible, and that the coercion should be the least bit possible. And it is clear that while libertarians may say the same thing, it isn’t true, as the one they don’t want to see coerced is my neighbor, but they have no problems coercing everyone else on the block.

Now, frankly I can understand how many libertarians don’t see this. Many of them are misfits or eccentrics. Others simply can’t reason out that there are two sides to every equation (and this, six decades after Coase!). Some like to view themselves as lone wolves, in no way beholden to the rest of society. Some find they can be more successful in business if they don’t pay taxes and/or find export their costs onto third parties. And of course, there are the thugs. Guess which group will take over if libertarians ever get their way.

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