Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dangerous Enthusiasm

I was looking at the Libertarian Party website this morning and I found myself beset by two opposing thoughts. First of all- damn the Libertarians sure do talk a good story. The emphasis on civil liberties, free market economics, and of course, limited government action is a proud stance that was certainly shared by those who founded this country, as well as many of us that inhabit it today. But my enthusiasm was dampened by a painful realization. Correct me if I'm wrong, but America doesn't seem ready for a Libertarian government. Ironically enough, the proof of this is found in the idea of Free Markets, the very ideological root of Libertarianism.

Free Market principles are quite simple in their basic form. An unregulated market will adjust prices, wages, and whatnot automatically. This idea was first presented by Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This unfortunately titled book is large enough to double as a self-defense tool, yet the gist of it is simple enough: Don't Fight Self-Interest, Use It. Smith believed that all men are governed by self-interest. He also believed that one man's unyielding pursuit of what is best for him will be counter-acted by another man's similar interest. In essence, everyone is ruled by something like greed or ambition. But the danger of one man's ambition is neutralized by that of the next man. You can trust everyone only because you can trust no one. After millennia in which religions and philosophies sought different ways to make mankind virtuous, Smith finally realized that if one cannot stop mankind from being vice-ridden, perhaps one can redirect that vice to make it useful. Where Plato used Karate, Smith uses Jujitsu.

This general idea has come to govern everything from the very creation of our county (checks and balances, and the division of powers are based on this principle according to the Federalist Papers), to our adversarial legal system (attorney's argue for their clients, and only indirectly for the 'Truth' or 'Justice'). For over two hundred years the most important facets of our government and economy have been governed by Smith's basic idea. Our natural greed is the only proper tool for correcting market. Certainly there have been painful hiccups, and occasionally the proper way to act upon our natural self-interest is difficult to determine. But overall the great minds of our country, be they conservative or liberal, have generally ascribed to the belief that our greed can be used beneficially. It is a rare American politician that believes capitalism is fundamentally flawed, or that our legal system needs a fundamental redesign. Clearly the ideas that Libertarians advocate are based upon commonly accepted principles of human behavior. That is not the problem. The problem is timing and starting points. My fundamental problem with Libertarianism can be demonstrated in many elements of their political platform. For ease of understanding I have chosen the Libertarian stance on 'Economic Liberty' as an illuminating example.

Among the many admirable proclamations found on the Libertarian Party website (http://www.lp.org/) is the following segment describing their party platform regarding economics:

“2.0 Economic Liberty
A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner. Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market. The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.”

Take special note of the last sentence, as this is where they have gone wrong. One of the inescapable facets of Adam Smith's basic idea of capitalism is that the proper functioning of free markets requires certain things. The individuals participating in the market must have the most perfect information possible and they must be as free to adapt financially (alter careers or investments). The equation is simple: less information or less financial mobility equals a less efficient capitalism. The converse is also quite simple: more information or more mobility and the market will self-correct more efficiently.

The problem with the Libertarian platform is that it fails to recognize that different Americans are born into different levels of information and mobility. It is still quite possible for a modern day Einstein to live, work and die unnoticed simply because he came from a poor family, or he lived in a neighborhood with a mediocre public school system. My understanding of Libertarians is that they want the world to be a true meritocracy with people getting what they deserve. The lives of most of people are determined by unnatural advantages. Anyone who cares to notice will have seen stupid, lazy people go to Ivy League universities because their parents made a well-timed donation. It is equally common to see truly brilliant, hardworking people fail to impact the world because they lacked the necessary money or contacts.

Perhaps if we had begun our civilization with a more Libertarian outlook we would not have these problems, but the simple fact is that these problems exist and cannot be fixed by adopting Libertarianism now. Rather than jumping in immediately, we must prepare the ground. The Libertarianism that I would vote for is one that proceeds slowly and carefully. It would be a Libertarianism that works to fix the inequalities we have created for over two hundred years as a necessary prerequisite. Let me be clear, once we live in a country where you succeed based solely on hard work and intelligence, Libertarianism will be the best possible plan. But until then it seems destined to exacerbate the mistakes of the past by ignoring them.


  1. So, here's a vaguely capitalistic and libertarian question - if you buy illegal drugs are you funding gangs, and/or Mexican cartels, and/or terrorist organizations and thus you become a party to and indirectly a supporter of their crimes?

  2. Definitely a tough question. It is undeniable that a significant amount of illegal drug sales end up funding criminal organizations. The proper response to this is debatable, however. When the prohibition of alcohol gave rise to organized crime, individuals and the country as a whole had the choice to either repeal prohibition or find further justification for the policy in the crime it produced. In that case the choice to allow the consumption of alcohol had obvious benefits. Admittedly alcohol is a different substance with a different history, but nevertheless I think that it is a helpful example. In essence, I worry that the logic in you question might cause one to more readily accept bad laws due to subsidiary effects that they cause or at least aggravate.

    That being said, it is undeniable that organized crime is taking a horrible toll on many countries and communities. In the last couple years the situation in Mexico in particular has progressed to the point that a boycott of the illegal drugs largely responsible is rapidly becoming necessary.

    To be specific, I have different opinions regarding the different drugs concerned. All drug regulation fosters black-markets and organized crime. This is a necessary evil for those drugs which have been proven to cause serious problems. For marijuana, this seems less acceptable. I would prefer to see that particular drug legalized and regulated like alcohol. Until that happens however, there does seem to be a moral imperative to verify the origin of any marijuana one buys on the black market. This is not a trying a task as it might seem as there is significant domestic production by individuals who lead otherwise law-abiding lives.

  3. I was walking by the 420 Rally yesterday and the question occured to me - "Why do we need mind-altering drugs?" - It seems key that we understand the root cause here if we are to address this as a society - right now we seem to not care about the cause and just build more prisons and conduct a Sisyphean "War on Drugs". So what is the 'problem(s)' that drugs are 'solving'. Are we just too rich so we can buy anything we want (our household garbage is worth more than per capita income in many places - makes us a great market for all the junk in the world including drugs)? Are sunsets just not pretty enough without 'enhancements'? What deep despair are we trying to medicate? Do we simply not know what is good for us and what is not - is it our cognitive dissonance to always seek the short term gratification over the longer term or unseen (outtasight), but inevitable consequences of using drugs? Is it just part of 'the human condition'; some legacy of our DNA burned into our biological and neurological pathways?

    Perhaps if we undersood all these causes and interactions we could prescribe a more effect 'treatment' than conducing a 'War on Drugs' -- and if we understood this, maybe we would also understand our inclination for wars in general? I suspect the causes are not unrelated....