Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Give me Liberty, and Give me a Break

Libertarianism: great idea, or greatest idea? It has a romantic quality to it, with an emphasis on individuality and the belief that each of us working it out for ourselves will make us all better. This latter belief is perhaps best captured in the concept of free market economics. The more the government is willing to get out of the way, the better. Let enterprising individuals do things, from starting a small business to teaching our children.

And like most romantic ideas, it can be rather naive. For example, there was the recent spat when Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul (and named after Ayn Rand?), stated that the government should not force restaurants to not segregate due to race. The journalist John Stossel even stated that the free market would have taken care of racist businesses. After all, he (nor Paul) would want to do business in a racist institution.

Now just think about that claim. The free market would get rid of racism, at least overt, public racism in business. If that is the case, then why is it that businesses had racist policies for centuries until the 1960s when the federal government finally stepped in to make this illegal? How naive is it to say that that is what the free market would have done when it failed to do so given 100 years after the American civil war. Perhaps there were racist businesses because most people were actually racist? Take for example the situation in 1930s Germany. If you were a restaurant that served both Caucasian Germans and Jews, the white customers would be appalled to have to eat at the same place as those terrible people (horrible in their minds). Antisemitism has a long history, and what helped make it uncouth was not free markets.

In fact, free markets could very well have allowed racism and antisemitism to last. After all, if you are continuously divided from those you see as inferior, there will be nothing to deter you in that belief. Moreover, if you frequent places that have such racist policies, you are most likely to absorb this and pass it off to others, including your children. Only by some force breaking the cycle can it be possible to get away from racism. And once broken, then racism withers and no one wants to support it. The reason Stossel or Paul would not go to such a restaurant today is because they live after a time when it was socially acceptable.

And that is the problem with libertarianism. It pretends things about societies that are simply wrong. For one thing, people are not simply rational agents that constantly figure out what is best for them. Heck, we make the wrong decisions all the time, even when the correct information is given. This is also a problem for economists that blindly and dogmatically follow Adam Smith's invisible hand. Obviously Smith had insights, but his model was ultimately flawed and professional economists need to admit this.

Unfortunately, the naivete of libertarian economics is common in academia even when the evidence is there, staring them in the faces. Check out this special from Nova: Mind Over Money. When professors at the University of Chicago can be as dogmatic as seen there, no wonder a skewed version of reality reaches the public at large.

Though I like some of the propositions of the libertarians, especially when it comes to minimizing government intrusions into private matters and the maximization of freedom, there needs to be some realizations about how people and groups of people actually behave. Rand Paul has even stated that if everyone were good Christians there would be no need for laws. After all, it's not like there have ever been Christians committing crimes or starting wars or abusing children or...

We need to get real here. The loose goal of having as much individual freedom as possible is worthy of admiration, but the laissez-faire approach to governement is a failed strategy. Sure politicians can be complete doofuses, mob mentiality is not the antidote. Heck, mob mentality can lead politicians to do stupid things, such as send us to war. There is obviously a middle ground between a libertarianism as close to anarchy as possible and hyper-communism. I don't know yet where I will fall in this political spectrum (I often vote Democrat, but not always), but I know that these extremes, especially the popular libertarianism today of Beck, Palin, Stossel, Paul, and others is all too often naive and even hypocritical (i.e. the government preventing abortions, monitoring for illegal immigrants, going to war offensively, making the US a Christian nation).

When it comes to spectra, this one is perhaps useful in categorizing libertarians.

Indeed, if you have an overly-simplistic political stance, prepare to look silly.

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