Social Justice, Liberty

More Than Just Free Markets

Everyone knows that libertarians like free markets.  Even we Bleeding Heart Libertarians spend an awful lot of time talking about the economic implications of libertarianism.  And it would be easy to infer from this that libertarians care about economic freedom to the neglect of all other freedoms.  One might even go on to conclude that libertarians are only concerned with freedom to the extent that such freedom serves the interest of the wealthy and powerful.  Such a conclusion is seriously mistaken, I think, even as an interpretation of just the economic aspects of libertarian thought.  But it is a mistake for which libertarians themselves bear some responsibility.  Economic freedom is not the only freedom over which governments currently run roughshod.  And, as I have suggested here before, it is probably not even the most important one.

Consider, for instance, the egregious violations of liberty visited upon Americans every day at the hands of their own police.  In just the past few weeks, we’ve heard about a SWAT team in Arizona breaking into a man’s house and firing over 60 rounds into his body, purportedly because he was involved in marijuana tracking.  Or maybe it was home invasions.  The story seems to change a bit, but so far police have not reported finding anything illegal in his home, or anything linking him to any crime.  Police in Philadelphia, meanwhile, have told citizens that – the law be damned! – they’re going to “inconvenience” people who openly carry weapons in public, regardless of fact that doing so is legal in Pennsylvania.  And don’t you try to videotape those inconveniences, either.  Police don’t like to be videotaped and really, really wish it was against the law for you to do.  Even though it isn’t.

There’s probably a reason that libertarians, especially academic libertarians like me, don’t talk more about this kind of thing.  Academics tend to focus their attention on issues that are a matter of academic dispute.  As John has recently pointed out, there is an active and ongoing dispute between libertarians and high liberals about issues involving property rights, economic freedom, taxation, and the like.  But there aren’t that many academic philosophers out there – are there any? – defending a police state.  The philosophical debate on the war on drugs, for instance, basically boils down to whether it should be entirely abandoned or merely radically scaled back.  A defense of no-knock raids on suspected marijuana dealers just isn’t something people are willing to submit to peer review.

But libertarians, and especially bleeding heart libertarians, ought to give these issues much more attention than they currently do.  First, these issues matter for people’s lives, especially the lives of the poor and vulnerable who are much more likely to find themselves victimized by the growing police state, either directly or indirectly.  Second, precisely because they aren’t under dispute we can make compelling arguments on these issues without first trying to resolve all of the difficult and intractable problems that divide various schools of political and philosophical thought.  And finally, I think libertarians have a real comparative advantage here.  After all, we can draw on the core concepts of libertarian thought to provide compelling diagnoses of why these abuses of power occur, and compelling prescriptions for their resolution.

I would be remiss to close a post like this without mentioning the outstanding work of Radley Balko.  No one in the libertarian movement, as far as I’m concerned, has done more than he to bring these issues to light.   His work as a policy analyst, as a blogger, and as a contributor to Reason Magazine has brought a penetrating analysis to issues of criminal justice to the attention of libertarians for years.  If you aren’t reading him now, start.  A good place to begin might be next month’s issue of Reason, which is edited by Radley and Jacob Sullum and which will cover issues of criminal justice in depth.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Second your lionizing of Radley Balko.  He is doing such important work, and I look forward to the day when I can buy him a beer.
    But your larger point- I don’t know, no one I know defends a police state, but there are academics who support the war on drugs, which is one reason for the proliferation of these police state tactics.  So yes, we need to argue for individual liberty in a variety of dimensions.

  • Matt,
    It may be a little harder to separate “free markets” from “other freedoms” than you acknowledge. Do you really think that we have a free market in police services? Aren’t police departments often unionized? Don’t union rules make it difficult to fire or even discipline bad officers? Shouldn’t officers have to compete for their jobs on an ongoing basis, like most American workers do (excluding tenured academics, of course)? What if this service were open to competitive bids by private agencies–would this increase or decrease the levels of unwarranted police violence? In short, economic freedom or its absence has a huge impact on society in ways often not easy to trace.

    • Frank Hecker

      Would private vs. public provision of police services really make a difference here? It seems to me that the underlying driver is really public attitudes toward perceived criminal activity, including a desire to “get tough on crime” and a deference to police actions in carrying out this directive. I can’t see that privatizing police functions would really change this dynamic. To take a somewhat related example, we already have privatized prisons, and I’m not aware that they’re run in a manner that different that prisons run by state employees. As always, I’m not an expert on these issues, so if you or others have evidence that would cause me to change my opinions, please feel free to correct me.

      • It is not public vs. private provision that would make the greatest difference, but the labor laws. If police officers were, like most private sector workers, “employees at will,” then if the chief of police came to believe that an officer was guilty of use of excessive force, or if a supervising officer allowed a pattern of police abuse, these officers could be fired immediately, no questions asked. This is quite certainly NOT how it works now for teachers, police officers and other public sector workers. The current labor laws in many states allow the unions to negotiate contracts with provisions that make it nearly impossible to terminate incompetent, lazy or even criminal employees. The laws end up this way because unions are very politically powerful due to their massive support of a certain political party. 

        • Damien RS

          Which is of more concern, public union political power or corporate political power?  Unions as a whole are clearly not politically powerful in the US, they’re rather defanged really, which may be related to Americans enjoying the least vacation time, most drug tests, and chanciest health insurance of any rich nation.

          • BrianDH

            I find your odd switch from “public unions” to the power of “unions as a whole” more than a bit misguided. Teachers’, prison guards’, and yes, police officers’, among others’, unions come to mind. Besides highly public issues with discharges and discipline, as for benefits, the various ominous pension crises come to mind.

          • Guest

            If only it were true that public unions have been defanged.  This is where they have become the most parasitical and entrenched. The top political donors for the past ten years are corporations *and* unions. Why do you think Obama bailed-out Detroit? And remember, public unions get their money through forced dues. Add-in taxation and it becomes apparent that public unions are parasitism on top of parasitism.  What they don’t have in per capita riches they make up for in concentrated organization for privilege. Check this list out:

          • Guest

            “the past ten years” should be “more than 20 years”

        • John H

          Mark, it seems like invoking labor law immediately places the discussing into a market setting rather than “other” setting. I do think that making a distinction based on public versus private is important because it sets the focus on institutional form and how the relates to both how and which freedoms can be constrained from what we have in the state of nature. I think when we talk about “free-markets” we make some effort to clarify what we’re talking about. If one uses “free-market” to reference almost any interactions two or more people can engage in then definitionally we’ve pretty much defined free-market as a synonym of other freedoms as the two reference the same set of actions. 

          If we are to make a distinction between market and not market freedoms we need to start defining market in a way that does not include everything.* One distinction has already been made in another thread — monetary versus non-monetary. Another might be related to time, if the market is fixed price versus negotiated price (fixed price meaning something like your grocery where you are not expected to bargain about price). I think these different types of setting imply the potential for a different set of terms in the surrounding set of laws, rights   and existing customs.

          While I do think there will be a common core, my view is that we’ll find a degree of variation in the complete set of rule/rights/expectations that govern the interactions as we move from one context to another.

          * I would suggest that “free-market” is largely a bumper sticker type phrase similar to taxes =  theft; it’s a catch phrase (not as provocative) for a complicated subject. Unfortunately many use it without even considering all the surrounding requirements, set of rights, laws, customs, and even technology that all define the scope for which the term applies.

          • Damien RS

            “bumper sticker”: agreed, which is why I prefer “competitive  market” myself.

          • John,
            As you will recall, Matt started his post by drawing a distinction between “economic freedom” and “other freedoms,” and claimed that BHLs focus too much on the former. I accept this distinction, but believe that the absence of economic freedom often (as in the case of our system of public education) has serious adverse consequences for society in ways not always understood. I believe police brutality is one of those cases.

            I live outside of Seattle, a great “liberal” stronghold. Nevertheless, the feds are currently investigating the police department for a pattern of excessive force going back many years. When called upon to explain why she hadn’t gotten rid of some of her officers with a troubling history of violence, the chief basically said, “hey, its not my fault because it is virtually impossible to fire these guys.”

          • “She?” That sounds like Sheriff Sue Rahr, rather than Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. Personally, I (as someone else who lives just outside of Seattle) feel that this was simply Sheriff Rahr covering her butt by blaming labor law when the culprit is a culture of allowing officers to get away with things until something blows up, and then suddenly trying to scapegoat whoever was caught by the public. If the Sheriff’s office worked harder to be in front of these things, rather than always reacting to them, she wouldn’t need to try to cast the union as the guilty party.

            But the King County Sheriff’s Department and the Seattle Police Department both have had these difficulties. And while the police unions in the area have been leading the charge against greater accountability for officers, I suspect that simply making police officers “employees at will” won’t change their overall hostility to active oversight by the public, or their opinion that such oversight is intended to be a weapon against them.

          • Aaron.
            Thanks for the correction. I was referring to an interview I saw of Sheriff Rahr. I agree that there seems to be a failure of leadership at the Sheriff’s Office, which is a political and not a labor law issue. Nevertheless, given the way human beings typically react to incentives/disincentives, the fact that officers know that they will keep their jobs under almost any set of circumstances leads to a reasonable conclusion that our labor code contributes substantially to the overall problem. 

          • True, true. But it’s worth keeping in mind that there is no law that prevents the officers from being fired – the law simply enforces the contract between the officers and the department – it’s the contract that blocks the firings. Preventing employees and employers from entering into binding contracts so that the employer doesn’t have to be careful about what they agree to seems that it would create a nasty set of incentives/disincentives all its own.

          • Damien RS

            And I doubt the contract protects the police against evidence of criminal wrong doing.  But you’d have to have a prosecutor’s office willing to investigate the police, which seems to be rare regardless of union contracts.

            Conversely, preventing casual firing of the police may protect the people from easy abusive of the police by elected politicians.  Making the police an obedient arm of the executive has its own common drawbacks.

          • John

            Mark, that’s a good insight and I do think examining what factors are contributing to undesirable outcomes is necessary. 

            It may be the case that brutality arises as an externality from the labor law/union job protections. I would also look for a more direct cause: police seeing themselves more as Die Hard characters than Andy of Mayberry characters.  In the former, the law is enforced by all power available, citizens just by-standers and potential collateral damage. In the later the protection of the citizen is primary and the goal it the minimum application of force. In your example, the police chief simply ignores her responsibilities in defining and enforcing the culture that informs police behavior in their delivery of a public service. The inability to fire such officers seems more like  a loss of a significant disciplining tool, not all of them. Of course, if the union terms make any form of disciplining such behavior nothing but lip service that’s a different story.

            I do agree that competition in policing services would probably result in a reduction in police brutality and excessive use of force, just as monopoly provision has probably contributed to police treating everyone like a criminal.

        • Frank Hecker

          I’m not a big fan of public sector unions myself; however after reading a bit more on the Arizona case I’m reluctant to conclude that a unionized workforce in and of itself is the whole problem here. From Balko’s article I gather that the lawyer for the police union has been trying to portray the case in a way most favorable to the police; however the sheriff’s department itself also seems to be stonewalling on the issue of possible errors and/or malfeasance on the part of any officers involved. Maybe the heads of the department are cowed by the part of the union, but if this were purely a case of “incompetent, lazy or even criminal employees” protected by their union at the expense of the department then I’d expect to see more daylight between the department and the union in terms of their public actions and statements.

          • Frank Hecker

            (Sorry, I meant “cowed by the *power* of the union…”.)

          • Andrew P.

            I’m a bit lost on what’s not to love about public sector unions.  Would you feel better about them if we called them monopolistic labor corporations?

            Unions, public or private, are just a way of organizing resources in a marketplace.  If public sector unions are de facto a bad thing, then so are public sector contractors, or public sector suppliers, or public sector bureaucrats, or public sector executives.

            Maybe it’s just the “public sector” aspect of “public sector unions” that bothers.  But if that were the case, one might expect a proportionate amount o f railing against other public sector players.

          • BrianDH

            This is an issue that has been beaten to death. The following article covers the issue quite well, I think:

            Your point about the comparability of some entities with “public-sector” prepended to their titles is well taken, but I’ve hardly known classical liberals or libertarians, bleeding-heart or otherwise, to sit quietly in the face of rent seeking. See libertarian outrage over “the military-industrial complex,” “urban renewal agencies,” etc.

          • Damien RS

            I read some of that.  But, I dunno.  California prison guards’ union is infamous, and pre-Thatcher UK might have had real problems.  OTOH, Wisconsin public workers aren’t actually overpaid after adjusting for education, teachers strike me as underpaid for the value they do and for enticing high-scoring high-choice people to become teachers, and VA doctors definitely underpaid.

            The current backlash against civil servants seems to be misplacing the blame for tax revenues having shrunk 10% in the recession while outlays rise and balanced budget straitjackets constrain options. And I suppose it’s particularly modern-American to go from “they have better benefits” to “let’s tear them down” rather than “we deserve better ourselves”.

          • BrianDH

            I highly encourage you to read all of the article starting from below “The Public-Sector Difference”. I, for one, found it very informative and enjoyable.

            And yes, I too tire of needless demagoguery of public employees. They’re just doing their jobs; I really resent how aggressively many individuals of similar ideological stripes to mine pursue public employees for daring to be compensated for the work the government gave them. It’s not their fault, so to speak, that the government jobs exist, whether or not they are wasteful in some way, shape, or form.

            All that said, I have little sympathy, if not downright ire, for public-employee unions.

          • Andrew P.

            Rent seeking is a byproduct of maximizing profit, which is a natural aspect of free markets.  As such, it’s pervasive and systemic in all markets which are liquid.

          • BrianDH

            Rent seeking is also a byproduct of the political environment, which is not a natural aspect of free markets.

            But that is beside the point — no one (that I know of) is going to argue that it is abnormal for entities to rent-seek.

            The question is whether or not those rent-seeking actions are to the detriment to a free society. I say that in both cases, the public-sector union and the big-ticket military contractor, it is (albeit of course in different ways and degrees).

  • Guest

    “Trying to change the subject, Matt?” queries the psychologist.  Economic freedom just might be where some BHLs are the weakest in their philosophical defenses.  It will be interesting to see how Tomasi defends Hayek’s apologetics for the limited welfare state. There was a reason why Mises exclaimed in disgust ‘You’re all a bunch of socialists’ at a Mont Pelerin Society shindig. It may come down to an unbridgeable rift between those who get and accept the Misesian concept of calculation v. those that take the Hayekian “dispersed knowledge” approach. Not sure. But following even the general Mises’s line one ought to understand that economics is not about goods and services but about human choice first. In this regard, one must conclude that liberty is a whole and only separable into economic vs. civil spheres metaphorically.  

  • Steven Horwitz

    Guest:  nice false dichotomy.  Some of us think the “Mises calculation” approach and the Hayekian “knowledge problem” approach are two sides of the same coin.  And what that distinction has to do with the degree of radicalism that libertarians have is also a mystery.  Most of the “Hayekians” I know are anarchists or close.  You might check this out:

    • Guest

      Yes there are some, like Yeager e.g. (and you!), that believe Mises and Hayek are two-sides of the same coin concerning calculation. But it looks like there is a fundamental difference. Hayek viewed prices as spreading localized knowledge necessary for coordinating disparate economic plans, right? Yet, Mises reasoned that prices are past phenomena and have no say on the future. Prices in the ‘present’ are formed out of an anticipation of this uncertain future too. And nobody knows specifically why a price is what it is (was). Prices are outcomes of action, not determinants. Then what knowledge could Hayek be referring to? Why is it unreasonable to conclude that, contra Hayek, prices convey nothing special, but merely act as an indispensable cardinal unit making economic calculation even possible?  Thanks Steven, will be checking out your link.

      • John H

        “Prices are outcomes of action, not determinants.”

        Aren’t they really both?

        • Guest

          John, thanks.  I don’t believe that the human mind is driven by historical determinism. Prices are historical data. This does not mean that humans are not subordinate to cosmic cause and effect and the laws of physics.  Can you really predict how even you, John H., will act in the future even if you were given momentary prescience about future prices?  You do not know what your preference scale might be in the future.

          • John

            A lot will depend on what price we’re talking about. If I know the price of IBM stock in 2 weeks I have a pretty good idea on what I will do.  Depending on what’s going on with fuel prices there are also actions I know I will take, under certain other condition. If we’re talking about the retail price of whole milk in my grocer I don’t know how to take advantage of that information.

            I don’t support the extreme optimizer view of human behavior, I think it’s more rule based.

            I don’t agree that prices are merely historical artifacts having no influence on today’s or tomorrow’s actions. Your statement stuck me as saying prices have no informational content or any rationing power. I don’t buy into that claim.

            While I might no know what I will have for lunch tomorrow (or today for that matter!) to say that it’s completely unaffected by past and current prices and past actions is, to me, a rather extreme position. Again. perhaps I’m reading something more into your response.

          • Guest

            You have ‘a pretty good idea’ colloquially, but not really. You would never claim to know your future mind formally, scientifically, would you?  Your mind does not move like a physical object.

            How much weight you give to past prices in your current decisions is a subjective and objectively immeasurable matter.  All that can be known for certain is that you bought something at a specific exchange ratio at a certain time and place. 

            The facts, motivations and ideas that might have motivated your choice and to what degree requires an  historian’s understanding. Knowledge about the past can never be complete.  Even if this historian was granted temporary omniscience about all your motivations concerning the original purchase, she still would not be able to predict your future actions. Historical actions are always one-offs. “There is no history of the future”.

    • Guest


      Just did first read through of  “Monetary Calculation and the Unintended Extended Order: The Misesian Microfoundations of the Hayekian Great Society”.  I have no intentions of jumping to conclusions- so I abstain from critical feedback for the moment. But let me at least acknowledge what I perceive your project to be:  If it is true that 1) Salerno, Hoppe, Rothbard, Hulsmann, Kinsella and others, were fashioning a difference in kind, i.e. “Knowledge vs. Property”, where one does not exist; 2) some Hayekians, through their misuse of language or misconceptions, have fed a confusion about Hayek; 3)  that your take, e.g. prices are “surrogates for knowledge” (you coined it!), is indeed the correct Hayek; 4)  and, your Hayek synergizes/compliments Mises and does not undermine the key component:  necessity of private property for calculation;  then you would be absolutely correct. 

      One problem that one blogger found is that Hayekians are steeped in supplemental interpretations. Maybe this is because Hayek was not as clear a communicator as Mises. But this phenomenon means that I need to read Hayek directly and, quite possibly, that there is not a clear resolution to be had. Thanks again, Steven.

  • Daniel Shapiro

    Matt, I would add to your examples this recent incident where people were arrested and subject to violence for dancing in the Jefferson Memorial, of all places. See

  • John H

    Matt, I think you’re making a very important point, and raising an interesting question. Why is it that such clear violations of our underlying and foundational principles for the country not “a matter of academic dispute”? It seems that exploring such behavior should be a critical aspect to understand within all social sciences (at some level at least). It’s a strange implication that academic institutional incentive make it more important to argue about fine differences between schools of thought than exploring why such violations emerge as accepted — in the sense of formal social institutions do not self- or cross-census such actions and behavior. 

  • Matt: I’ve heard academics accused of political group think, but I have a very hard time believing there’s a shortage of academics who want to generally keep recreational drugs illegal.  And certainly it’s a mistake to generalize from the debate in one philosophical book to “the philosophical debate” in general.

    I’m with you on drug legalization, but appeals to imaginary philosophical consensuses are a pet peeve of mine.

    • Maybe I’m wrong, but I wasn’t basing my conclusion on one book alone.  I’ve searched far and wide for articles defending drug prohibition written by philosophers, and DeMarneffe’s stuff is the closest I’ve come.   Do you know of some pieces I’ve missed?
      Of course, it’s possible that there’s a difference between the views of philosophers who *publish* on drug policy issues and the views of philosophers more generally.  Perhaps drug criminalization is something people are willing to defend in casual conversation but not in a peer reviewed forum.  Or perhaps the kind of philosophers who are attracted to writing about drug policy issues are ones with antecedently strong libertarian views on the issue.  I’m not sure.

  • Mr. Zwolinski, what do you think of the idea that Libertarianism is viewed as “only concerned with freedom to the extent that such freedom serves the interest of the wealthy and powerful,” because many social conservatives wrap themselves in the mantle of Libertarianism when it comes to opposing “wasteful, fraudulent or abusive” government spending and/or regulations that they perceive as being “bad for business?” After all, who could be opposed to “freedom and liberty?” But otherwise, many conservatives have no use for it. The Police State that can lock up shifty-looking foreigners and suspected criminals at will is perfectly acceptable, as long as taxes don’t need to be raised to fund it.

    Libertarianism, through its association with the conservative movement and the stereotypical understanding of Ayn Rand has become linked to a cynical understanding of the “just world” fallacy, wherein poverty is the result of moral turpitude, and programs aimed at poverty remediation are the refuge of lazy parasites, while wealth is always justly acquired, regardless of what tactics were employed to accumulate it.

    This is simply a side effect of the nature of political alliances. Given a choice between fiscal Libertarianism, and social Libertarianism, Libertarian philosophers appear to publicly choose fiscal concerns, and stay mum on other topics. If you look at the Cato Institute’s home page today, you wouldn’t realize that they’d come out in favor or expanded marriage rights or drug legalization. But the idea that Global Warming is an anti-business plot? You couldn’t miss it. And since the Cato Institute is commonly identified as “Libertarian” whenever it comes up in the news, the public makes the connection.

    One of your previous commenters to an earlier post said it very well – I can’t find the exact quote, so I’ll try to recreate it here, and hope I have it correct: “People do not derive their understanding of Libertarianism from a political philosophy text; they derive it from the statements and actions of self-described Libertarians.” Therefore, to the degree that the public discourse around Libertarianism is lead by those people who use it as a justification for delegitimizing government, climate change, anti-poverty programs and worker/consumer protection, that is what the public is going to understand Libertarianism to be about.

    • Damien RS

      Yes, this.  When I was libertarian, I was “Democratic” in a way; I voted Libertarian, but in a forced choice my sympathies would be Dem not Rep, and I cared more about civil liberties and victimless crimes than cutting taxes.  I know I wasn’t unique in that, but even then I seemed to be in the minority.  And California ballot proposal arguments would be full of Libertarian arguments against bonds for various projects, because they’d mean more taxes later, and little Libertarian presence about anything else.

      General perception is of people who’ll talk about drugs or the Patriot Act but circle the wagons around tax cuts and making life harder for consumers and workers, and who lend themselves to Republicans.

      • Exagoni

        To join the voices also how I feel. While I’m not a fan of either the ‘right’ or ‘left’ (damn this two-axis rubbish!), I do feel when pidgenholed I’d side with the political left, since I rated social liberties higher than economic ones. I understand that ultimately the two are the same, liberty overall, but in our politics when the policy is split often I find myself in the end choosing what I see as the less of two evils. I also find it easier to support the side what doesn’t sound like a theocratic vanguard half the time.

        …oh how I wish the libertarian party was stronger…

    • The libertarian movement has been associated with the right for so long that even half the contributors to this blog have difficulty conversing with the left — and this a libertarian blog that explicitly promotes an open dialog with the left. We need some kind of rhetorical rehab program. Call it: Conservatarians Anonymous.

    • Well put.

  • Rowz

    I agree with all this, but I don’t see how one can follow “Economic freedom is not the only freedom over which governments currently run roughshod”  with no discussion or even mention of foreign policy. If libertarianism condemns anything, it’s the ongoing slaughter of non-Americans. 

    • You’ll get no disagreement from me regarding the importance of that issue.  It’s certainly worth a future post of its own.  The same goes for immigration.

  • After all, we can draw on the core concepts of libertarian thought to provide compelling diagnoses of why these abuses of power occur, and compelling prescriptions for their resolution.

    Frankly, I don’t think contemporary libertarians are particularly strong when it comes to explaining why things happen in the social world.  They incline toward monocausal obsessions with state power as the root of all social evil, obsessions that frequently reach extreme heights of explanatory absurdity and fancifulness.   If some brute runs someone else over with a bulldozer, the libertarian will propose a distortion wrought by the government’s regulation and licensing of bulldozers to explain the calamity.

    Libertarians seemingly have massive social blind spots regarding every human evil that is not government-caused.  Wherever state power infringes on liberty, libertarians see it and are aghast – as well they should be.  But wherever private power infringes upon liberty, libertarians either don’t see it
    at all, or seem blithely willing to accept these inhibitions of liberty as part of the natural order of things.

    In part, it appears to me, this present weakness of libertarian social thinking is due to an undue kneejerk fixation on moral classification, and a consequent neglect of causal and social thinking.  There is too much a priori and abstracted thinking about good and bad, right and wrong in isolation from investigations into “how” and “why”.  But achieving a better world requires detailed, nuanced understanding of the causes of things, which can then give rise to realistic and practical initiatives to achieve outcomes seen as preferable.  A political philosophy that is not deeply grounded in a mature understanding of the human animal is no serious political philosophy at all.   The machinery of human society and sociality is complex; if libertarians want that machinery to be geared more to the production of freedom, they are going to have to do a lot more work in understanding it than they presently seem inclined to do. Libertarians today, though, seem so busy finding the mechanisms of society and power irksome and oppressive to spend much time studying them.

    (By the way, I could make much the same claims – or at least parallel claims – about “high liberalism” and other schools of contemporary academic political philosophy.  These schools of thought are excessively moralistic and rationalistic, and often seem more like contemporary schools of secularized revealed theology than scientifically informed fields of inquiry, continuous with the causal sciences of human nature and behavior.  The unfalsifiable “theories” these thinkers produce are idealized projections of preferences, replete with all sorts of made-up “principles” with no other basis than the fancy of the theorist and her friends.)

    Everywhere power is exercised, that exercise constitutes a limitation on someone’s freedom: it induces people to act in ways they would not otherwise act if that power had not been exercised.  The exercise of power impresses the wills of some people on the world in ways that thwart the expression of the wills of
    other people.   Libertarians should concern themselves more thoughtfully with power in general, and its construction and distribution.  If one wants freedom to proliferate, and want to promote and protect high levels of freedom in ways that are compatible with a sustainable decent life, we need an ever-vigilant
    effort to identify those places in our societies in which power is growing and concentrating in ways that will ultimately be difficult to check, and we need continual efforts to impose new checks on concentrated power.    The forms of power are always evolving and changing, so no fixed, simple charter or rulebook for life will do.  Sometimes power resides in institutional centers that we regard traditionally as “governmental”.   Other times the power resides in institutional centers – or even individuals or small groups of individuals – usually regarded as “non-governmental”.  Libertarians should be prepared to recognize that, given the realities of human behavior and social organization, the promotion of desirable forms of freedom sometimes requires the exercise of more governmental power, not less.

    And that governmental power cannot just be restricted to the protection of property rights and market integrity.  The growth of a police state is made possible, in part, by extreme social and economic inequalities.  The disposition of the effective governing coalition to demand and enforce limits on forms of police power, and even the preservation of liberty-respecting attitudinal dispositions among the police themselves, depends on the preservation of a broad commonality of interests among diverse members of the society.  So long as the people who are the most socially secure and closest to the levers of power see police abuses as inflicted primarily upon the socially marginal or criminal, people toward
    whom they feel no comradely attachment, we can expect little disposition to arise in their breasts to rectify the abuses.  If libertarians want people to feel a lively engagement with the liberty of others, and experience the infringements of the liberties of others as threats to one’s own freedom and well-being, then they need to do more to see to it that people in our society are bound to one another in solidarity and equality, with a mutual respect for and emotional engagement with the lives of others.   Brutality and unchecked police power will likely be tolerated to the extent that the abuses are seen as safely
    confined to a criminal underclass, or to the suppression and control of specific ethnic or economic classes.

    • Dan,
      Have you read Richard Epstein’s SIMPLE RULES FOR A COMPLEX WORLD? If you have, I suggest you read it again. If not, you should probably do so before issuing your next broadside against libertarianism generally.

      • He should probably also read this:
        And this:
        just to name the two counterexamples that jump most clearly to mind.

        • Andrew P.

          I appreciate that there are people outside of this blog asking (and answering) such questions.  These reflective questions are all to rare in popular discourse.

          Reading Charles Johnson’s essay, one is struck by how the question is framed: “But if coercive laws have been taken off the table, what should libertarians say about other religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments that pursue their ends through non-coercive means”

          Clearly the author agrees with Dan’s take on popular Libertarianism.  It is so concerned with the action of the state, to the exclusion of all other forms of power, that it is an open question how Libertarianism should deal with those other forms of power.

          Until this ideological blind spot is clearly and loudly addressed in such a way as to move popular Libertarianism away from an exclusive focus on government power, few are going to take the broader movement seriously.

    • Roentgenster

      “Libertarians should concern themselves more thoughtfully with power in general, and its construction and distribution. ”

      This. Most (but of course, not all) Libertarians seem to not be very concerned with the coercive uses of economic power, except to use them as another bludgeon to decry government.

    • Ken S

      I agree with most of your critique on methods, and many political discussions inevitably involve going outside what is empirical and well-modeled in a not so productive way. But it seems like in the past there have always been calls for a more scientifically informed moral code and society, and things never panned out. Perhaps over time we will run out of excuses for why this is so.

      There is still a problem, which is that not everyone might be willing or able to apply state-of-the-art science to the moral choices they make… it’s hard to underestimate the impact ‘a priori’ thinking has on society overall. Even if a moral philosopher could faithfully model the impact of any sort of human action in the world, unless you make everyone as smart as that moral philosopher you are still going to need a simplified abstract moral code that can approximate the correct choices when followed (listen to that philosopher is probably the simplest one, but it might not go over that well).

      Given that our best thinkers are probably closer to the average person rather than they are to the previous hypothetical all-seeing all-knowing moral philosopher in terms of how much complexity they can manage, there is at least some reason to believe that the sort of ‘a priori’ notions they come up with are more effective than the previous ones. While I might put myself in the ‘science or bust’ camp, I do think libertarianism is making progress on some issues.

  • Daniel Shapiro

    Matt–George Sher defended drug prohibition at the APA symposium on drug policy in 2002. I agree with you–I’ve looked for philosophers who have written in favor of drug prohibition, and it’s a small bunch.

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  • David Cheatham

    As a liberal (Actually, a progressive), I have exactly one question I ask before conversing with any Libertarian. This question has changed over the years, but here is the current one: Are you more concerned with the constitutionality of enhanced interrogations or the constitutionality of the health care law?

    If they can’t immediately answer that with ‘enhanced interrogations, and don’t use government newspeak to talk about torture’, then they’re not really worth talking to. Either someone think that ‘holding people without trial and causing them pain in attempt to get them to tell us things’ is worse than ‘taking a small percentage of people’s income and using that to pay for medical care if they need it’, or their world view is so different from mine I can’t converse with you.

    After all the insanity in the current randomly fascist,
    right-infringing, continual endless multiple war, system is straightened
    out, _then_ we can have a discussion about how much the government
    should take money from people to help other people. Oh, and our drug war, which has higher penalties for possession than almost any voter wants, is a major example of how broken our political system is.

    I read this blog because it seems like this place actually understands what the real issues are. Yes, it’s an invalid objection to say ‘You can’t try to fix problem B while problem A exists’. But there really is some sort of hierarchy of severity of problems. You do not attempt to repaint a room while the house is on fire, and you do not whine about having your ‘rights infringed’ by slightly higher taxes to make sure poor people don’t die, when people are running around shooting people, or, hell, you have much higher taxes _because_ people are running around shooting people. You guys understand this, and hence are one of the few ‘right’ blogs I read.

    And on top of that, you guys at least _see_ the economic problems with the massive poverty and unemployment, and are talking attempting to solve them, which is a bonus in my book. I might disagree with your proposed solutions, but just _accepting the problems exist_, and cannot magically be solved with tax cuts, put you guys a huge distances in front of the rest of the right. (How long did it take to Republicans to even come out with a nonsensical ‘proposal’ for job creation?)

    • BrianDH

      >Either someone think that ‘holding people without trial and causing them
      pain in attempt to get them to tell us things’ is worse than ‘taking a
      small percentage of people’s income and using that to pay for medical
      care if they need it’, or their world view is so different from mine I
      can’t converse with you.

      I won’t waste time rehashing them here, but libertarian fears regarding the individual mandate of the PPACA/HCERA generally follow one or both of the following two threads:

      1. It is unconstitutional, and as a matter of pure principle, any government practice deemed unconstitutional is strictly forbidden.

      2. If upheld as a constitutional use of the Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, the individual mandate threatens to set a precedent conferring to the Congress the power to regulate over a massively larger, if not practically unlimited, scope of fields.

      I’m not a constitutional scholar and hence I’m not here to argue over the constitutionality of the PPACA/HCERA. But I will argue that:

      With respect to (1), torture is also constitutional, and thus one can say while of course practically and morally the two issues are on completely different grounds, from a rule-of-law perspective they are more or less identical.

      Indeed, I, as do others, fear that we continue to devalue our constitution (if we value it at all), and as a populace we will ignore it and enact any law or practice we deem “important” enough, constitutional or otherwise. Every time we give an “important” law a “pass” we are simply setting ourselves up for future peril…

      And with respect to (2), if you subscribe to that theory, its illiberal implications are obvious. I’d hate to see what a “compassionate conservative” (for instance) might deem necessary to regulate in our lives and culture.

      • David Cheatham

        > With respect to (1), torture is also constitutional, and thus one
        can say while of course practically and morally the two issues are on
        completely different grounds, from a rule-of-law perspective they are
        more or less identical.

        (Obviously you meant ‘also unconstitutional’ there.)

        Seriously? Identical? Holding people without charge and torturing them violates _several_ precepts: The writ of habeus corpus (By definition), the fifth amendment (THREE TIMES), and the fourteen admentment (Due process clause). A case could be made for the fourth, also, I don’t see any arrest warrants, but why bother at this point?

        Whereas the mandate is…what? A violation of the 10th?

        Even completely ignoring the difference in level of harm done (And I’m not sure why we should.), torture is utterly outside the entire philosophy of Western civilization, outside the entire basis of our government.

        Habeus corpus goes so far back as to _predate_ our government.  We’re talking _thirteenth century_  England here, so far back that it was just _assumed_ in our constitution. As ones of the Bush people that I have forgotten pointed out, the constitution doesn’t actually say such a right exists at all. It’s such an inherent right, it would be like asserting people have the right to breath.

        And torture bans are _older_ than that. Torture was, in theory, never legal in England.

        Are people really arguing with a straight face that violating  ‘trial by jury’ and ‘presumption of innocence’ has the exact same rule-of-law issues as ‘making people buy things’? Seriously?

        One is worse than the other, because one _very important to a functional democracy_, and the other isn’t. There is no particular reason that the government should be restricted from a mandate, if we assume for a minute it is. It is entirely possible to pretend such a government exists…in fact, such governments _do_ exist, and appear to have a civil and democratic society.

        The idea that constitutional violations are all identical is sheer and utter nonsense. It’s right at the level of asserting all crimes are identical, so a police officer letting someone get away with a busted taillight is identical to letting them get away with murder.

        And, again, this is _without addressing the different levels of harm_, which renders this entire discussion total nonsense, but we’re supposed to ignore that, because, um, I dunno. It’s not like the constitution is intended to protect people from the government harming them or anything. That’s just crazy talk.

        As for (2), the issue is nonsense if you look at outcomes at all. The Federal government could have just taxed everyone and _bought_ insurance from the lowest bidder. The idea of requiring everyone to pick their own results in _more_ freedom. (Although it is very stupid, financially.)

        • Blogger

          Making people buy things that we know they’ll come begging for once they need them, too.

          Actually I wonder if a justification parallel to “you can’t sell yourself into slavery” could be constructed: “you can’t take stupid gambles with your life”.  People bluster about a right to not buy insurance but you know they’ll come running to the ER if something goes wrong.

          There is one difference in implementation: a tax would be a set tax, adjusted by democratic decision; a mandate is a pseudo-tax raisable by private corporations.  There’s some oversight of that, and medical loss ratio floors, but pretty loose.  AIUI other countries that use this structure go further, with non-profit insurers whose premiums are set by regulators, and they compete on I dunno, extra services?  Customer friendliness?  Germany’s got 200 of such sickness funds, though — find me an American who can choose between 200 health insurers.  Or even a third of that, to adjust for Germany’s larger population relative to any one state.

          Of course, one can also see the “fine” as a flat extra income tax, which happens to be waivable if you buy insurance.

          • David Cheatham

            > Actually I wonder if a justification parallel to “you can’t sell
            yourself into slavery” could be constructed: “you can’t take stupid
            gambles with your life”.  People bluster about a right to not buy
            insurance but you know they’ll come running to the ER if something goes

            Strangely, I was thinking about _exactly_ the same thing. The ‘right to not be a slave’ is a negative right on _people_. (Unlike other negative rights, which are on governments.) People cannot enter labor contracts of that sort, even if they really want to.

            And there’s Jared Loughner, who is ‘not competent to stand trial’, because the court says he’s so crazy that he would not be able to assist his lawyer with a good defense. Even if he wants to stand trial, he can’t.

            And even things like OSHA stop people from hurting themselves. Even if you don’t mind working in unsafe conditions, you aren’t allowed to.

            The Drug War is _not_ an example of this, as, generally, the punishment is generally worse than any even hypothetical harm. We don’t disallow people from selling heroin for their own safety. It might have had the origins in this, far back, but isn’t anywhere near it now.

            And perhaps the best analogy here: Quarantine. As paranoid lunatics will correctly inform you, FEMA can quarantine people in cases of contagious diseases, without even asking the courts. (However, this ability has, as far as anyone can tell, never been misused.)

            But, anyway, I’m sure some libertarians here are going to decry ‘nanny state’, but there really are things that we don’t don’t let people choose to do. The idea of a ‘negative personal right’ is strange, but it does exist…sometimes we don’t let people do things, because those things are things people simply make very bad decisions about.

            In fact, make enough bad decisions, and we stop letting people make any decisions at all…aka, prison.

            We do let people decline medical _treatment_, though, but that’s more akin to volunteering to work without pay. People can do that, they just can change their mind at any time. Likewise, we can require them to have the ability to pay for health care, but refuse the actual care.

            That said, I don’t like the mandate, and I don’t think we should have people buying private health insurance at all. We should have single payer, with no warning at all, and private health insurance companies should have their stock plummet and die horribly with their metaphoric head on a pike as a warning to future companies that attempt to behave in such a sociopathic manner. Behave badly enough and we will KILL YOU.

            > Of course, one can also see the “fine” as a flat extra income tax, which happens to be waivable if you buy insurance.

            That’s how I look at rights. It baffles me when people start complaining
            about thing when you could get _exactly_ the same results in some other
            way. I fail to see _any_ moral difference between the government taxing
            everyone, and purchasing health insurance for them, vs. the government
            requiring them to do so.

            I had this debate about Kelo somewhere. The problem isn’t that the
            government forced someone to sell their land to some other private
            actor…the situation isn’t any better at all if they had bought it
            themselves and given it away, is it? The problem is the damn government
            handing out money and property and tax cuts in return for ‘development’,
            which produces an idiotic race to the bottom between communities, and
            is very ripe for graft. And, at some point, local governments just start
            taking everything and turning it over, because we’ve entered a
            situation where that sort of behavior is reasonable.

            Rights are, in my universe, an _ends_. They are often spelled out as
            means, true, they are means the government can’t do. But behind them,
            there’s some principle that says ‘People should not have to suffer X’.
            If the government does that ‘without’ doing something unconstitutional,
            I’m sorry, that’s wrong.  (Which is why I just ignore all nonsense about
            ‘unlawful combatants’ and whatever insane justifications are invented
            for Gitmo. People, in the US, have a right to a trial or release,
            period. Yes, even POWs…POWs just have an additional right to not have a
            trial if they choose.)

            And if the government, for whatever reason, does something outside the
            process but ends up with an ends they could get if they were in the
            process…well, I won’t encourage it, but I don’t think the right gets
            to force a mandate, without a public option, down everyone’s throat
            instead of single payer, and then bitch about the mandate. The
            government taking money from people with the result of health care _is_
            constitutional. How that happens is entirely a matter of perspective.

            As you said, if we just pretend the government raised taxes, and then
            issued a rebate for people with health insurance, there is no
            conceivable way _that’s_ not allowed, and that’s _exactly the same end
            result_. It’s all words and labels at that point, and I don’t think
            labels can make actions right or wrong.

            Now, if you think ‘the government taking money from people with the
            result of health care’ _isn’t_ constitutional, fine, that’s another
            matter. That is, at least, a sane position to hold.

          • Blogger

            Yeah, I’d have preferred extending Medicare to all myself, and am pissed at Obama for not trying or putting it on the table.  The public option was already the compromise position, and he started out compromised and gave up  that.  Quite possibly nothing better could have passed Congress… but we won’t know for sure, because he didn’t try.  “Liberal president” my butt.  Still, I can value what did pass; I’m benefiting from Romneycare right now.

            I amused myself greatly when I realized that Kelo could be a path to left-libertarian (like Bakunin) views on property, and possession through current best use rather than ownership through right.  Someone convinces the public they can make better use of some land,  public compensates the current tenant for investments made and transfers possession.  “He’s holding land for speculation, but I could build affordable housing and a public park right now!” “Sounds good! Go ahead!”

        • BrianDH

          > (Obviously you meant ‘also unconstitutional’ there.)

          Yes, thank you.

          Anyway… whoa!

          Ahem… BrianDH: “…of course practically and morally the two issues are on completely different grounds…”

          What I wrote may have been unclear (obviously “from a rule-of-law perspective,” or whatever, was woefully inarticulate), but please, I never claimed that mutual unconstitutionality put them on equal moral planes, made them equal detriments to society of society, or anything else of the sort. And what with you being a “progressive” and me being a “libertarian” and this being the internet, it’s only natural that we misinterpret each other (on not just the receiving end but especially also the sending end — I thought the two or three sentences I threw at the subject would be abundantly clear, but evidently not).

          I claimed only that they were equal in that they were both practices that (for the purposes of argument) could be deemed unconstitutional. And I did not claim that they were abridgements of the same “magnitude”.

          All I was trying to say was that many libertarians believe that abiding by a strict (usually originalist) interpretation of the constitution is crucial to maintaining a civil society, and that EIT and the PPACA/HCERA are both threats in that respect — whichever is more an issue notwithstanding. Given that they are both threats to civil society, they are both concerning…

          …and “concerned” not having been clearly identified as a judgement of disgust versus a judgement of interest versus a judgement of ideals — and so on — the “Consitutionocalypse” potentially ushered in by the PPACA/HCERA may very well seed in someone more “concern” over it than EIT.

          Which brings be back around to two…

          > As for (2), the issue is nonsense if you look at outcomes at all. The
          Federal government could have just taxed everyone and _bought_ insurance
          from the lowest bidder. The idea of requiring everyone to pick their
          own results in _more_ freedom. (Although it is very stupid,

          It’s not a matter of the outcomes the PPACA/HCERA itself. In fact, even though it gives me “liberty squirms,” I am actually quite amicable to an individual mandate — implemented via other, constitutional, means, of course — as redress for adverse selection.

          The problem is the threat that the Congress’s powers under Commerce Clause could be massively expanded beyond recognition. Again, I have neither the time nor the expertise to explain (nor would it be constructive, as it has already been done); I will instead refer you to the premiere legal authority arguing against the PPACA/HCERA’s individual mandate, Randy Barnett:

          (the first is probably more readable; the second, being a recent court brief, is more up-to-date)

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