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The Freedom to Diminish Other Peoples’ Freedom

by Mike Kimel

The Freedom to Diminish Other Peoples’ Freedom

You’ve probably heard about this study by the Mercatus Institute looking at Freedom in the 50 States.

I always find these measures look at the wrong things, and that’s usually because they pick one side of an equation and ignore the rest. See, I support my neighbor’s right to play loud music at 3 in the morning, fire a gun in his front yard, and generate toxic waste and polluting to his heart’s content. However, I object to my neighbor violating my property rights by placing anything, anything at all on my property, be it music, high velocity projectiles, or any contaminants of the air, water, or soil. The problem is that in general, people who play loud music at 3 in the morning choose to do it in a way that leads to unwanted sounds being expressed on other peoples’ property. Those who choose to enjoy their rights to send toxic emissions up a smokestack on their own property usually aren’t doing it because they value the ability to send toxic emissions up a smokestack, but rather because they know that by doing so they will push those toxic emissions into the air over the property of their neighbors… and people tens or even hundreds of miles away. We know that precisely because there are ways to send toxic emissions up a smokestack without exporting those emissions onto other people, but despite the huge number of smokestacks, we never see those being done in practice.

This Mercatus study, like so much else that comes from that institution, seems to be promoting a specific kind of freedom, namely the freedom of some parties to diminish other people’s freedom and the ability of one group of people to make decisions about what goes onto someone else’s property. And this, to me, is not really a measure freedom, but rather a measure of the right to oppress. So as a result, I am going to exercise one of my remaining freedoms (and I hope you do the same) to treat this latest Mercatus study the way way I think of almost everything else coming from Mercatus, namely as an assorted collection of random buffoonery. If they ever extend their concept of freedom and liberty to considering the rights of people not to have sights or sounds or bullets or pollutants placed on their property without their say-so, I might reconsider.

Risk = Freedom?

Peter Dorman at Econospeak speaks to the current selling of big idea models of the world (re-posted with permission from the author):

There’s a review on the Dissent website by Steve Randy Waldman of Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America by Jonathan Levy. The book sounds interesting, but it is apparently based on a commonplace but false understanding of the relationship between freedom and risk-taking.

At the individual level it is absolutely true that we face a tradeoff between risk and freedom. You can opt for a secure life, but only at the expense of creativity, individualism, moral courage and all the other Emersonian goodies. Each one of us, every day, faces this choice. Mostly it is just a matter of a tiny bit of risk-taking, but these moments add up, and from time to time there is a fundamental fork in the road. We make our own freedom.

But the social level is another story. Individuals take the array of risks as given; society can choose how much risk its members will face and what their risk-freedom tradeoffs will be, at least up to a point. If the objective is to minimize all risk of any sort, especially all risks to health and income, the result will be stultifying. But that’s not where we are on the Great Risk Curve.

 Rather, the debates we have are about whether to cut back or extend social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare, social protections like TANF and Medicaid, and more or less regulation of finance, pollution and such. It seems clear to me that more security of this sort, which limits the downside risk individuals face in their personal lives, reduces the cost of living freely.

Examples are everywhere. Ample unemployment insurance makes it easier to work for a startup or switch jobs in general rather than being held down by too strong a need for job security. A stronger public pension system encourages entrepreneurship: people can hazard their savings by starting a business rather than hoarding everything for old age. Social guarantees for basic needs make it possible for artists to risk making art their day job. Professors with tenure (big time risk reduction) can take more controversial positions on public issues. (I don’t say they always do this, but they do it more than they would if all professors were temps.) In each case there is a real tradeoff between freedom and security at the individual level, but society can create programs that relax it, so it takes less courage to live freely.

That’s what I don’t like about the nanny state rhetoric. Yes, of course the state can go too far and overprotect us from risks we would do better to face ourselves. But the state we actually live in goes too far in the other direction. With a stronger safety net we could have less risk and more freedom.

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.

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.

Robert Reich’s After Shock and Corey Robin’s Freedom Arguments

by Linda Beale

In earlier posts on ataxingmatter (here and here), I reviewed Robert Reich’s 2010 book, After Shock, and wrote about his suggested cures for the problems made most visible in the 2007 crash and the Great Depression that followed.

The gist of the book is summed up in the following quote:

“[L]eft to its own devices, the market concentrates wealth and income–which is
disastrous to an economy as well as to a society.” at 59

Corey Robin writes in the Nation about the same problem, Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom, The Nation, Apr. 26, 2011. But he notes that harping on the distributional inequality doesn’t resonate with voters. If the left wants to influence policies and capture the hearts of voters, he suggests, it needs to demonstrate that this distributional mayhem, which leaves everybody but the rich vulnerable, has even broader consequences that reach to the very fundamental creation myths of our society–the desire to be our own masters, to free ourselves from a tyrannical monarchy and colonial overlords who seemed to want to dictate how we could work, what we could drink, and where we could live. That is, to make what we are saying comprehensible at the “yeah, that’s what counts for me” level, we need to connect to America’s own Founding Moment. We need to “reclaim[] the politics of freedom.”

And I think he is correct. Because the problem we are facing today, with corporate lobbying and campaign contributions reinforcing the elite class’s wining and dining of politicians, is more than the dysfunction of the economy. Yes, there is too much money at the top where there is not enough ability to spend it. Yes, there is too little money at the bottom where there is no way to provide for basic needs. Yes, there is barely enough in the middle, resulting in stagnation in local businesses who don’t have enough customers to sell to and can’t afford to give credit to those who want to buy.

It is not just that banks, connected to power through their managers and shareholders, are able to speculate with other people’s money (our money!) in the international derivatives casino and then push their losses off on us. It is not just that corporate bosses rake in as much in a day as many of their workers make in an entire year of hard labor. It is not just that we can no longer talk to anybody local when there is a problem with our phone or our order from a company. It is not just that ordinary people are ignored, disregarded, almost shunned, because the elite really are only comfortable in the company of other elites. It is not just that we can’t get an appointment with a doctor unless we have (expensive) health insurance, or can’t get that crown we need on the broken tooth because it costs as much as some of us make in half a year.

No. These things are real, they affect us every day, they make us angry every day because we recognize our powerlessness to deal with the highly impersonal Big Business world that has been fostered by the four decades of reaganomics’ deregulation, privatization, tax cuts and militarization. But still, the problem goes much deeper than these things.

Our very freedom is threatened. When we are economically powerless, we are also powerless in our lives because we lose our freedom to make choices that are right for us.

  • we lose our rights to bargain with our employers (look at how Wisconsin and Ohio have treated their public employees or how WalMart treats its workers and anyone who talks unions),
  • we lose the power to improve ourselves by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps through publicly funded education from grade school through university,
  • we are dominated in the marketplace by powerful businesses that use automated systems to turn us off, ignore our calls and letters seeking redress for a mischarge or a poorly done job,
  • we lose our jobs, are forced to accept paycuts or furloughs, when the company claims times are tought, yet we watch the same public companies to pay their CEOs millions more

Our freedom to improve ourselves, freedom to choose the kind of work we want to do, freedom to prepare for our retirement and then retire with some security about our future, freedom from worry about whether or not a catastrophic medical emergency will eat up all our savings and leave family without an adequate living–all these freedoms are being threatened today by the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few who thereby become emplowered to set the market terms as they choose.

The idea of the “free market” is a bill of goods sold to replace the real concepts of freedom we should be considering. Markets, of course, can only function well for the people where government constraints prevent the owners and managers from setting all the terms to suit themselves, leaving externalities of their profitmaking to be borne by the people. literally ripping them off. The sloganeers have persuaded ordinary Americans to think that the American Dream of freedom is encapsulated in that little bitty notion of a “free market” so that they will unknowingly throw away the big idea of freedom–the freedom to set one’s own course in life, in a cooperative society that works to provide those tools.

The reason we need a progressive tax policy–including at the least progressive tax rates with brackets that reach much higher into the stratosphers of the ultra rich (55% for those making $1 million or more annually) ; elimination of the capital gains preference (so that all income is taxed under the same rate structure); and an estate tax with bite (meaning a graduated rate that protects a reasonable nest egg for the next generation while serving as one method of limiting the concentration of wealth)– is to ensure the freedom of each and every one of us, from rich to poor, from newly arrived immigrant to elderly Native American.