Saturday, August 13, 2011

Two good criticisms of libertarianism

- Noahpinion on property and freedom.

- Kenneth Silber on how libertarians "lost their way".

Noahpinion offers a good counter-argument to the sort of people that have a hard time embracing non-market institutional forms. Silber has a very good critique of the Reason crowd.


  1. I stopped reading right here:

    "But libertarians tend to take this basic concept to its maximal extent; the more things are brought within the cash nexus, the more free we become."

    Libertarians generally aren't terribly interested in whether voluntary arrangements are within the cash nexus or not. If people voluntarily want to have communal property, bully for them.

    I did read down into the comments and a reader makes the point that there are plenty of free parks, etc. in Japan.

  2. The guy gets completely fisked in the comments.

  3. As for how some libertarians lost their way - well, they associated with Republicans like David Frum and Kenneth Silber.

    So let's take on some of the claims found in the argument:

    "Surely, the Interstate Highway System gave people some new options..."

    The IHS was a user-driven and funded system of transport initially; the political classes have done their level best to destroy that nexus and thus it isn't surprising that we see so many infrastructure problems because money that should be going to the IHS is being bled away for transit boondoggles.

    " did the Erie Canal way back when."

    The Erie Canal was a partly state financed project (the federal government had nothing to do with it); and it was preceded by years of debate before it was built.

    My response is of course to look to the hundreds of boondoggle public construction projects of the past hundred years; particularly the water projects that litter the American west for the purpose of growing agricultural projects at subsidized levels (which have also caused tremendous environmental damage to boot). If you're going to talk about the claimed successes then you need to talk about the failures too; but that doesn't seem to be in the vocabulary of many advocates of public spending on infrastructure projects.

    "Would America be more vibrant, prosperous and interesting if the small sliver of the federal budget devoted to science were excised by measures such as Rand Paul’s push to eliminate the Energy Department?"

    You mean like all the money poured into the blackhole known as fusion research?

    "It’s hard for me to see how terminating research projects that are too large-scale or long-term for the private sector would yield greater choices of technologies and careers."

    You have to buy into a particular ideological perspective accept this argument.

    "...but describe its 1969 invention rather obliquely (“a new technology allowing university computers to communicate with one another went live”) without mentioning the Pentagon agency that did it."

    Because it wasn't the Pentagon that did it; the history of the internet is far more complex than the canned history we get about it re: DARPA; DARPA was one player amongst many; some private and some public. To suggest that it would not have been invented sans DARPA - which is really what this statement seems to be getting at - ignores that rich history. As for DARPA the reason it has been successful is largely because it doesn't function like a normal government body, and that's partly why it has been so hard replicate - it has a very unique history, a lot of independence from political actors and it values thinking outside the box.

    As for the commentary on Postrel, I just couldn't help but laugh. There are an entire class of conservative types who got upset re: Reason because it was (generally) quite critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy - and that criticism arose after Postrel left in 2000-2001. That's the backstory that Silber is not relating here of course. I have no idea how Silber fits personally into that backstory, but for the conservatives that came to the Hit n' Run blog and complained about the criticism it was beyond the pale that Reason would do that. For a lot of conservatives it was simply unforgivable for Reason to do that in other words; to daily attack Bush for the folly of Iraq and Afghanistan.

  4. Crap, my long comment got eaten apparently.

  5. Some other reviews of _Declaration of Independents_:

  6. Since the second article is critical of Matt Welch for what he has had to say about David Frum, see here:

  7. Neither are really critiques of libertarianism, nor are they really good.

  8. Daniel, don't you think it's a good thing to make people pay for usage of public utilities?

    That's the only way to reduce their consumption to prevent uneconomic exhaustion.

    Who cares how you fetishize the word "freedom"? Making people pay for parking space makes perfect sense, or else those parking spaces will be crowded full and it will be difficult for people to drive in or out of them.

  9. Prateek -
    Right I don't think Noahpinion of all people is going to dispute the value of markets. The point is there are market institutions and non-market institutions, and sometimes simply assigning property rights as a solution is more cumbersome than other institutional solutions we've developed. Gary, as usual, seems to take this too personally. It's an "if the shoe fits, wear it" point. Some libertarians are market fetishizers like this. Many are not.

    Clearly there are many margins on which more market-oriented approaches could do a tremendous amount of good. You'll have no disagreement from me (and I suspect Noahpinion) on that point. I'm often the one making that point.

  10. Cumbersome?

    I say tarriffs for usage of goods always makes life much simpler.

    Too radical of me to say it, but it IS a one-solution-fits-all for me.

    When I was in the Denzhong province in India, there was a tiny public parking space filled with hundreds of cars, and members of the public had to voluntarily step in and act as traffic control to motion each car slowly out of the lot and into again.

    A mere Rs. 200-500 tarriff per car would have made it less of a hellish experience.

    I dispute Noahpinion on the idea that life in Japan, or a similar place such as Singapore, is somehow worse for it. He doesn't know what it's like when you don't pay for parking space in a densely populated area.

  11. Prateek,

    Right, we don't have a free market in parking in the U.S. in many U.S. cities and as a result trying to find parking sucks. Suddenly congestion pricing becomes anti-freedom.

    Anyway, Noahpinion's claims about Japan are contested by people who have lived there; in other words, much of his argument is based on whatever anecdotal, personal evidence he has to bring to bear.

  12. Daniel,

    I take it as personally as it needs to be taken.

    Let me give you the inside score card: the reason conservatives fell out with Reason after Postrel left was due to the magazine's increasing opposition to the war in Iraq (there were a couple of notable exceptions to this as far as the writer's for the magazine were concerned). David Frum is a big government conservative (along with being a national security conservative - see his "End All Evil" book) so it is not surprising that someone who is part of Frum's "heresy" (it really isn't a heresy - Frum is following a line of national greatness conservativism going well back into the 19th century - heresy against what in other words?) would have a problem with libertarians who are not into that sort of thing. The fact that (a) you don't see that doesn't surprise me and (b) illustrates just how little you know about libertarians.

  13. Noahpinion really conflates his own personal preference for commons with the issue of handling and allocating resources in commons.

    Anything in commons tends to be wastefully used, abused, and discarded.

    As such, in the Third World, we see dirty water pools, and large areas with garbage strewn around in the exact same place where people live - precisely because of the lack of property rights. Had any private owner existed for that water or that garbage disposal area, the related health problems would have been mitigated.

    Here is Japan, which has managed to solve such problems with property rights. What does Noahpinion dislike about it? He dislikes that it does not match his personal preferences. Who cares what his preferences are?

    Never does he consider that the downside of not paying for entering parks is congested parks with garbage and filth strewn around everywhere.

  14. What is funny is that people in regions with ACTIVIST GOVERNMENTS understand this concept BETTER.

    You know what other places have high tarriffs have congestion charges?

    Scandinavian social democracies. That's right, even in Sweden, there are high tolls for **intra-city** automobile transit during peak hours. I'd like to see Noahpinion criticise the Swedes for excessive libertarianism!

    That's the problem here. If any suggestion comes from radical free marketers, it is bad. When the same suggestion comes from social democrats and strict governments, nobody takes issue with them. Why is that?

  15. Daniel,

    I'm not a market fetishist; as I said, if people voluntarily reject the cash nexus that's fine by me. I have no expectations that in whole classes of human endeavors that markets are the solution for common human problems; I just don't have any expectation that government is either. Now, one thing I'm not is a government fetishist; and that's ultimately what divides you and I.

  16. Prateek Sanjay,

    Ultimately it is argument from culture (as a number commentators on his blog note); things don't work the way they do in the U.S. and he takes issue with that.

    Anyone who has visited an American national park of any prominence in September knows what that the lack of congestion pricing creates - parks that are beat up and take months to repair. But since these are basically heavily subsidized middle-class resorts that sort of scheme is hard to implement (we know they are subsidized resorts because you find similar, private parks in North America that cost far more than it costs to stay in a national park - then again, you often have to get to the former in a float plane). With that comes of course the expectation that these landscapes should like the way we expect a park to look like - with easily accessible animals and all that.

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  18. FWIW, I have some related thoughts on Noah's post and transaction costs (as well as Ronald Coase and FA Hayek via Paul Samuelson!) here.

  19. Gary -
    re: "I'm not a market fetishist; as I said, if people voluntarily reject the cash nexus that's fine by me."

    Right - nobody said you were.

  20. re: "Now, one thing I'm not is a government fetishist; and that's ultimately what divides you and I."

    How does that separate you and me if you're not a government fetishist? Are you saying I am??

  21. Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite - the lack of a "commons" makes me feel constrained. It forces me to expend a constant stream of mental effort, calculating whether it's worth it to spend $4 to sit and rest for 10 minutes, whether it's worth $2 to get a drink.

    So the better option is to have no say in whether you pay for the good or not????

    This guy is critiquing some straw man form of libertarianism - which you do as well - and it's frustrating because I was really hoping for a serious post.

    These prices would be fairly close to your willingness-to-pay, and these prices might change from day to day, or even hour to hour! So you would probably have to check to see whether it was worth it to step outside your house. Does that sound like "freedom"?

    Apparently Noahpinion can't fathom the idea that contracts and bills can be established over a period of time, and not every purchasable item will be reduced to gumball expenditure.

    It's like a socialist critiquing the idea of rental homes, "What - you're going to pay every hour, for every room, for every time you take a shower? Talk about mental effort! Why not just have it done publicly and you won't have to worry about it?"

  22. Needless to say, Noahpinion would make an awful entrepreneur if his pricing options are the best his brain can come up with. Parking in Japan is awful because it's a microscopic country (Japanese are genetically lactose intolerant because there's not enough room on the island to justify raising cattle). And the places that don't give free wireless are stupid - or the public aren't interested in it because they have smartphones that carry 3G. Who knows? Pointing to idiosyncratic differences in a foreign land as an argument for taking responsibility from consumers and giving it to unelected bureaucrats is really, really, really idiotic.

    And he calls this an extremely libertarian country! Haha


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