Wednesday, December 03, 2008

State of the state

High and Dry sends me a link to an amusing piece from Reason:

We are in fact living at the cusp of what should be called the Libertarian Moment, the dawning not of some fabled, clich├ęd, and loosey-goosey Age of Aquarius but a time of increasingly hyper-individualized, hyper-expanded choice over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life-saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services. This is now a world where it’s more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms; it’s an early rough draft version of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s glimmering “utopia of utopias.” Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky. If you don’t believe it, ask your gay friends, or simply look who’s running for the White House in 2008.

I'm reading--and quite enjoying--Nozick, butI can't seem to figure out how his "minimal state" even vaguely resembles the leviathan in Washington. Granted that the proliferation of technology in a somewhat capitalist society confronts the individual with a variety of choices, libertarianism is primarily concerned with the relationship between an individual and the State, which is likely to violate the individual's rights. The State remains strong. Too strong.

Singling out the gays and Obama is curious, too. Gay marriage isn't a fundamental right since it has been summoned from the abyss by the State; increased cultural acceptance of homosexuality, on the other hand, may be a liberation, but it is difficult to attribute this to Governmental forces. Likewise with Obama. Blacks haven't been disqualified from running for political office for sometime now; it is, instead and yet again, cultural change--coupled with a very pathetic Republican candidate--that has elevated a black man to the highest office in the land.

More importantly, "living life on your own terms" is still rather difficult to do. If you work hard to become moderately successful, the government will take upwards of a third of your income to give it to someone "less fortunate". Moreover, even these will have to pay; for under our economic system, which is difficult to opt out of, one is forced to use fiat currency. Inflated regularly by the Federal Reserve, this funny money exacts a tax, in the form of decreased purchasing power, upon everyone who uses it.

Since the authors are speaking of a "rough draft" of Nozick, I think it's unfair to suggest they believe we are living in some sort of libertarian paradise. But they do think that such an idea is not only plausible, it is likely--and in the short term. Perhaps this is so, though I severely doubt it. The essential point here is that we have a very long way to go yet.

I take umbrage, too, with their thoughts about what libertarianism means, and the victories we have, apparently, won:

The Libertarian Moment is based on a few hard-won insights that have grown into a fragile but enduring consensus in the ever-expanding free world. First is the notion that, all things being equal, markets are the best way to organize an economy and unleash the means of production (and its increasingly difficult-to-distinguish adjunct, consumption). Second is that at least vaguely representative democracy, and the political freedom it almost always strengthens, is the least worst form of government (a fact that even recalcitrant, anti-modern regimes in Islamabad, Tehran, and Berkeley grudgingly acknowledge in at least symbolic displays of pluralism). Both points seem almost banal now, but were under constant attack during the days of the Soviet Union, and are still subject to wobbly confidence any time capitalist dictatorships like China seem to grow ascendant in a time of domestic economic woe. Though every dip in the Dow makes the professional amnesiacs of cable TV and the finance pages turn in the direction of Mao, there is no going back to the Great Leap Forward.

The first point is solid, though I offer a caveat and a criticism. Even if Central Planning were superior to capitalism in regards to the organization of the markets--of course, we know that they are not--capitalism is still to be preferred because it respects property rights in ways State planning cannot. My only criticism is that I don't think people necessarily accept the superior efficiency produced by a free market, to say nothing of its greater respect for property rights. If people believed the market was superior, there would be no clamoring for bailouts. No entity is large enough or secure enough to prevent anything else from failing forever; history is replete with the rotten carcasses of nation states and empires who were once thought too big to fail. A few corporations may collapse during this present recession, but only the attempt to save the whole mess will destroy the present State--which is almost a shame.

The second point is less valid. The centrality of the libertarian's argument is that the State must be small so that man may be free. Voting doesn't even enter into this except insofar as it may be argued that a representative republic will best secure the blessings of liberty. I find this notion to be exceedingly dubious. One of the great flaws of the present system is that, since the people believe themselves to be responsible for their leaders, they will continue to work through the ballot box to effect change. This is a waste of time and energy as both parties are antithetical to the principles of liberty and limited government for which the libertarian stands.

In addition, the authors ought to ask themselves: if libertarianism is growing in popularity, shouldn't we see liberties being returned to the people as more and more libertarian minded folks attain representation in Government? If not, either libertarianism is still largely a fringe movement--I think it is--or democracy is not necessarily the best way to ensure that the State respects individuals' rights.

Also, while I sincerely hope there is no going back to the Great Leap Forward, as long as the recent economic crisis can be blamed on the failures of capitalism, socialism will attract a fair number of adherents. After all, it simply has not been implemented correctly--at least not yet. Should a totalitarian regime arise again--and I see nothing to suggest that this is a fundamental impossibility--another Great Leap Forward is quite plausible, and far more likely than a development of authentic socialism, whatever that is.

The writers go on to discuss the role played by the Internet in the coming libertarian revolt:

The ne plus ultra change agent as we lurch through the finish line of yet another electoral contest between our 19th century political parties is the revolutionary, break-it-down-and-build-it-back-up power of the Internet, and all the glorious creative destruction it enables at the expense of lumbering gatekeepers and to the benefit of empowered individuals. No single entity in the history of mankind has been so implicitly and explicitly libertarian: a tax-free distributed network and alternative universe where individuals, usually without effective interference from government, can reshape their identities, transcend limitations of family, geography, and culture. It’s a place where freaks and geeks and regular folks can pool their intelligence and compete (even win!) against entities thousands of times their size.

The generation raised on the Internet has essentially been raised libertarian, even if they’ve never even heard of the word. Native netizens now entering college exhibit a kind of broad-based tolerance toward every manner of ethnic, religious, and sexual-orientation grouping in a way that would have seemed like science fiction just a generation ago. The products and activities they enjoy and co-opt most, from filesharing to flying discount airlines to facebooking, are excrescences of the free-market ideas of deregulation and decontrol. Generations X, Y, and those even younger swim in markets—that is, in choices among competing alternatives—the way those of us who grew up in the ’70s frolicked on Slip ’n Slides.

This is probably the most intriguing part of the article. The Internet is conducive to libertarian thought; witness Ron Paul's presence, far outweighing his actual support in polls not conducted on the information superhighway. But it is also open to Government control. Take Facebook, which I begrudgingly use. The social networking tool is useful to those who log-on to message friends; but it also provides, well, anyone, with a cornucopia of information about a person: who he hangs out with, and where; what he looks like and what he likes. Most concerning is that all of this information is provided by the participants themselves without any poking or prodding by Orwellian forces.

It would be hypocritical of anyone who spends as much time using it as I do to bash the Internet. It has its flaws, certainly, but it provides many benefits; in any event an analysis of the pros and cons of the Internet is best dealt with elsewhere. The salient point is that it is still too early to say that the Internet won't be controlled by the State. It is also worth mentioning that, while it allows for open discussion of issues and ideas not mentioned by traditional media outlets, all of this seems to mean little in the long run. After all, look at the recent Statist in the White House.

Liberty is too popular an idea for libertarianism to ever fade entirely. But it does no good to pretend that it is more popular than it actually is. True, from certain vantage points, things are looking up a bit. Yet we still live in a country with a massive Government and an Empire almost as large. There are still minds aplenty who remained unconvinced that "government is best which governs least." There is also the political battle, and that hardly even begun.

8 comments:

hoosiertoo said...

Methinks "libertarian" has been confused with "libertine." Dreck like this is why I no longer read Reason.

Liberty is simply the freedom to do what one ought. What ought one to do? That is the $64,000 question. The answer is in Corinthians:

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

Of course, the freedom to do what one ought assumes the possibility that one won't. The negative aspect of libertarianism is that one should be free to suffer the consequences.

If you think about it, libertarianism is almost perfectly Biblical. The choice has ever been ours; we will reap what we sow.

I have not experienced the Libertarian Moment in US politics; it passed, if it ever really existed, long before Shay's rebellion was quashed. Libertarianism, like (according to Chesterton) Christianity, has never been tried and found wanting; it has simply never been tried.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Methinks "libertarian" has been confused with "libertine." Dreck like this is why I no longer read Reason.

Good point. I don't usually read it, but as I said, a friend sent the link.

If you think about it, libertarianism is almost perfectly Biblical. The choice has ever been ours; we will reap what we sow.

I quite agree. The amusing part is that people get all mad when Christians want to legislate morality. Well, we don't. You think we'd be easier to understand.

Libertarianism, like (according to Chesterton) Christianity, has never been tried and found wanting; it has simply never been tried.

Agreed. The question then becomes, since libertarianism, though good, isn't sanctifying like Christianity, how we go about making out current system more libertarian--rather than waiting for the "utopia of utopias".

troutsky said...

Like most "libertarians" I meet, they have confused their geeky Objectivism with a real philosophy. And talk about "found wanting"!Maybe libertarian government has never been tried but Christian States have.My answer is not in Corinthians.

It remains a mystery to me how you can believe in planning most everything about your life but not something as important as your political economy.

hoosiertoo said...

trotsky -

A managed economy is what we have. It works really well, doesn't it?

How many layoffs this week?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Like most "libertarians" I meet, they have confused their geeky Objectivism with a real philosophy.

Trout, you know that's unfair. Sure, I've read Atlas Shrugged, but it's not as if I cite Rand as one of my influences. Dig into the Austrian school if you want some more illuminating libertarian thought.

It remains a mystery to me how you can believe in planning most everything about your life but not something as important as your political economy.

Who says I believe in planning everything in my life? A big part of Christian living is realizing that, though you have free will, ultimately, you're not the one in control.

The reason I don't believe we should plan a political economy is that: 1) it cannot be done, as evidenced by the embarrassing attempts by every Government that attempts to subvert the free market; and 2) I believe property rights, though not absolute, should be respected, and not violated at every opportunity.

troutsky said...

hoosiertoo, I guess we both need to be more specific with out terms. I'm talking about a totally democratically operated economy, from production goals to remuneration to distribution.No markets. This has not been tried and therefore has never had a chance to fail.

The mongrel we have now may not be a fundamentalists dream but it is the market functions that failed and not the intervention.Please be honest enough to admit that.

Wiser, I do not include you in the "reflexive libertarian" crowd I criticize. Sorry if I was unclear.

I think you need to separate your faith in God and willingness to let Him direct and your faith in the Invisible Hand. And never say "Cant".

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I'm talking about a totally democratically operated economy, from production goals to remuneration to distribution.No markets. This has not been tried and therefore has never had a chance to fail.

Interesting thought. Offhand, this seems problematic because it assumes that the populace has knowledge of how much certain goods should cost, how much of each good each person should have, etc. In other words, the masses lack the necessary information in the same way the central planners in Soviet Russia did--and as those in Washington do today.

Consider too that the market allows people to vote with their pocketbooks. This is what determines prices, and does so more efficiently than any other method.

The mongrel we have now may not be a fundamentalists dream but it is the market functions that failed and not the intervention.Please be honest enough to admit that.

But the market has not failed. I don't want to sound like some obdurate true believer, but the market is merely trying to correct itself after the boom created artificially by the Federal Reserve.

Austrian Economics predicted the boom and the bust which we are now trying to stave off. It further predicts that continued attempts to prop up malinvestment only perpetuates the problem. Keep a watchful eye; it's going to get worse.

hoosiertoo said...

S'okat troutsky. So long as I'm in a different country when you give it a go - preferably one with a market economy - so I can be properly envious when your economics experiment succeeds, and as far away as possible if it, as is far more likely the case, fails.

The market works despite the planners anyway.