Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

What Principled Libertarianism Looks Like (though I still disagree with it)

with 3 comments

I don’t care much for libertarianism. Sure, individual libertarians are fine (some of my best friends are libertarians!). As libertarian economist Henry Hazlitt wrote in his 1946 classic Economics in One Lesson:

The question is not whether we wish to see everybody as well off as possible. Among men of good will such an aim can be taken for granted. The real question concerns the proper means of achieving it. (141-142)

As I’ve written before, I think the ideology of libertarianism is mostly a failure. Libertarianism does not lead to everyone being “as well as off as possible,” as evidence, we can contrast the United States with the democracies of western Europe, Australia, Canada, and Asia, which on the whole have cheaper, better healthcare (which covers everyone and gets better results), better education, and broadly speaking more functional, cohesive societies. (I recognize that this is a broad generalization, but I sincerely believe it to be true).

Nonetheless, I think libertarianism can be an intelligent, principled position. Case in point, this blog, The Sheep’s Vote, and particularly this most recent post about the health care summit:

The president and congressional Democrats did what they do best. Step 1, appeal to emotion. Step 2, appeal to authority. Step 3, the pièce de résistance, argument by anecdote. This is the Dems’ premier rhetorical recipe: two parts emoticon, one part encyclopedia. Not that this should surprise anyone. It’s the ratio of choice for Democrats and liberals everywhere. Earn a living? You keep two parts, the government keeps one. Public schools? Two parts babysitting, one part math and reading. Time allocated for “bipartisan” health care reform summit? Two parts team blue, one part team red.

I don’t agree with the assessment of the American education system, that’s for sure. Nicholas Kristof was on the money when he observed that “America became the world’s leading nation largely because of its emphasis on mass education at a time when other countries educated only elites (often, only male elites).” As a student of American Jewish history, this seems pretty obvious to me. American Jews embraced the public school system en masse, including at the post-secondary level, and New York’s City College became even more of a Jewish Harvard when the Ivy League instituted quotas after ww1. The same is of course true of other immigrant groups. There is no question that the American public school system has been the greatest force for social mobility in the 20th century United States.

But I credit The Sheeps Vote for being consistent, and calling out the Republicans like John Boehner on their hypocrisy.

Masticate on this Boehner: what’s the difference between a trillion dollar government boondoggle in the health care industry (which you oppose) and a near trillion dollar government boondoggle in the financial industry (which you supported)?

I also agree with the criticism of the Democratic that mandates the purchase of private insurance, though I don’t quite think it’s “at the barrel of a gun.” I do think, like Glenn Greenwald has argued (among others) that it’s a gift to the insurance companies, which is why I would prefer single-payer, or a robust public option (which is really kind of bullshit, but much better than the status quo). I also think the bad Senate bill would be better than the status quo, but that’s another story.

The larger point here, however, is that what the Republicans are offering is even greater bullshit, and smart libertarians can recognize that too. They don’t have a party to vote for, which is unfortunate. But that’s a problem of the two-party system, which is another post altogether.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 11, 2010 at 17:55

3 Responses

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  1. so Libertarianism as an economic model, is that we’re talking here? so, what’s the Weiner view on – and I hate this phrase, but…Civil Liberties? For example, what’s Too Far for you? Just curious.


    March 11, 2010 at 21:01

  2. Better education? You mean better K-12 education? If you mean overall better education, then why are studying in NYU and not any of those places you listed? And in what sense are the US education & health care systems failures of libertarian ideology? The fact the we call them “systems” indicates how heavily they’re regulated. The US has many absurd public-private hybrids that privatize gains and socialize losses/costs, but this is not a failure of capitalism or libertarian ideology — it’s a a failure of the mess I just described.


    March 12, 2010 at 16:26

    • I meant better k-12 education. Should have been more precise there. Though Canada and the UK, and probably some other countries have good university education too. In my particular field of American Jewish History, however, the only school that could have offered me comparable education at the graduate level in Canada is University of Toronto, and I was not admitted there, though I likely would have chosen NYU over it in any case.

      US health care’s failure, in my mind, is without question linked to a market-oriented approach which encourages health providers (doctors, insurance companies, drug companies) to maximize profits with little regard to the cost to consumers, nor the nature of the service they are providing.

      American educational failures are more complex, though I might point to a few causes: the fact that the teaching profession is no longer as well-respected as it used to be, or should be, and thus not adequately rewarded, the fact that American culture has a highly individualistic strain that encourages elite success but sacrifices communal advancement, that property taxes determine local school funding making the public system massively unequal, and more broadly, that societal economic equality, due in many ways to libertarian capitalism (which causes problems like those in American health care) leads many students to be woefully unprepared for high school and the world after high school.


      March 13, 2010 at 08:22

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