Wednesday, January 13, 2010

government-loving libertarians

Here's an interesting article in Reason by a couple libertarian authors of a new book about why libertarians should care about improving the quality of government. Sounds interesting. Choice bits:
Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.
In the short term, a philosophy of “government never works” might sell to the base but it’s not an effective strategy for building a broad-based electoral coalition or actually governing. Voters won’t trust people who hate government with the keys to City Hall.
After all, what is it that gets you so worked up about the current state of affairs? It is the human potential squandered by a government that isn’t the best that it can be. The ultimate goal is the pursuit of happiness, and when a properly limited government does its job well, it fosters freedom, peace, and prosperity. That is a noble goal. Why not embrace it?
It's fairly easy to become obsessed with the machinations of the enemy and forget all about the real reasons for your endeavors. While some libertarians find the very nature of government despicable, and thus its destruction or obstruction really is the whole point, I suspect most libertarians want most of all to expand liberty and advance human welfare; they just have a mix of biases and insights that make them keenly aware of the limitations of government in achieving these goals.

For incremental steps toward greater freedom and greater welfare, you have to use or adapt the institutions in place. (Revolutions are so last century?) This is one reason why I can't get behind the conservative criticism of value-added taxes, that their very clean, non-distorting efficiency will make it easy for the government to increase them. Reihan Salam speaks sense on this.

Or marriage of the gays. You're not doing good by harping on and on about how the state shouldn't be involved in marriage of any kind, however true that may be. When and where gay marriage is legalized, it will be an expansion of liberty over the status quo, even though one could perversely view it as an increase or entrenchment of government involvement.


  1. I think this gets at an important point about libertarianism. Although I have some libertarian leanings (I think from listening to all that industrial music), my liberal-leaning side gets turned off by outright rejections that the government CAN do some things reasonably well. Many things the government is involved with are somewhat ridiculous (agricultural subsidies anyone?). However, there are certain areas where free markets won't really do the job that well due to either natural monopolies (electricity as mentioned by the Reason article) or information asymmetries (healthcare stands out in my mind). I think the best thing for the government to do in this case would be to create regulated marketplaces, rather than outright deregulation which is counterproductive (or even worse, complete nationalization). Perhaps the slogan should become "effective government" rather than just "limited government". A more efficiently run government would get out of the way of the vast majority of areas where markets are the most effective means of allocating resources.

  2. if/when gay marriage is up for a vote, will you vote?

  3. The Reason article mentioned California electricity deregulation not as case of natural monopoly, but as a case of deregulation poorly executed. I'm skeptical that electricity is a natural monopoly.

    Also, I'm beginning to hate the word 'deregulation'. 'Efficient regulation' is better, or 'regulatory reform'.

  4. Voting is so dirty though. The amount of water I'd waste showering afterward would more than cancel out any effect my vote might have.

  5. aww. okay. well, I'll keep voting for marriage rights. :-)

  6. The problem with advocating "effective government" is that everyone thinks their version of government is effective. The true insight is that free individuals cooperating and experimenting with solutions in what we call the market have a lot better chance of success in solving problems than any one person/branch in government.