I am pleased to announce that my third book, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, is now available from Amazon a few weeks ahead of schedule. This book is part of Oxford University Press’s acclaimed “What Everyone Needs to Know” series. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about topics in the book.
Here’s an (uncorrected) excerpt from the introduction.
Libertarians are sometimes thought to have excess enthusiasm for the free market. Sure, critics say, markets tend to work pretty well, and markets tend to deliver the goods. But, critics add, markets also fail or make mistakes. When they fail, this calls for government intervention.
Libertarians say, yes, of course markets can fail. And, they add, so too can governments. It’s one thing to argue that in principle, a fully informed and well-motivated government could correct a market failure. It’s another thing to argue that a real-life government will actually correct a market failure. When introductory economics textbooks call for government intervention, they stipulate that the governments in question know how to correct the market failure and will use their power to do so. In the real world, we don’t get to stipulate governments are like that. That makes all the difference in what we want real-life governments to do.
We might say that dumb libertarians advocate market solutions without taking into account market failures. Dumb interventionists advocate government solutions without taking into account government failures. If I had to summarize economic libertarianism in one lesson, it would this: When assessing different policies, consider both market and government failures. Any person who fails to do so arrives at her political beliefs in an irresponsible way.
The Noble-laureate economist Gary Becker argues that once we take into account both market and government failures, we will rarely advocate government intervention into the market. Just because an ideal government could correct the mistakes of a market doesn’t mean that a real government will. Governments make things worse more often than they make things better, Becker says. Now, perhaps Becker is wrong. Perhaps a proper assessment of market and government failures calls for massive government intervention, or even socialism. We could debate that. However, if we’re having that debate, we are at least debating politics in an intellectually responsible way. That’s an improvement.
As I stress, though, libertarianism is not primarily about economics. In fact, I don’t focus on economic issues until chapter 6.