KinsleyMichael Kinsley had an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times on January 12th entitled ‘Libertarians deserve a listen‘. I agree! And I was interested to see the story. The same thing appeared in the Washington Post on the same day titled slightly less favourably The Church Doctrines of Pope Ron Paul, which is an interesting difference; from the Times title it looked like, and indeed turned out to be, a thoughtful article on the libertarian movement. But, despite the favourable title, the piece itself was critical and ultimately dismissive of libertarianism as a political philosophy, and that’s why I decided it deserves a response. Nothing like a good scrap, huh? So, let’s go. Kinsley starts with these incredible sentences:

“Libertarians get patronized a lot. Chipmunky and earnest, always pursuing logical consistency down wacky paths, they pose no real threat to the established order….”

…as opposed to Kinsley’s method: to follow a logical path consistently only up until the point at which it makes one feel uncomfortable or until it seems somewhat unprecedented, then to abandon it as though logic is optional in matters of politics. No other inference can be taken from this opening statement. Not a good start, but he begins to make up for it with this paragraph:

“The libertarian perspective is useful and undervalued. Why does the government pay farmers not to grow food? Why are medications for fatal diseases sometimes held off the market in case they aren’t safe? (Compared to death?) Legislators and regulators should ask themselves far more often than they do whether their activities expand freedom or contract it.”

Yes indeed, though it’s boring to hear non-libertarians make lists of things that libertarians believe for reasons of principle as though they’re simply good points to raise, independently of the philosophy that produced them. He flirts with libertarianism in this way while neglecting to commit to it completely… so let’s get on to the main event. Why, when it comes time to take the plunge, does our friend Kinsley get cold feet about formalising his flirtatious relationship with libertarianism? Let’s find out. He asks:

Q: “So what is wrong with the libertarian case for extremely limited government?”

And then answers thus:

A: “Economics 101 teaches some of the basic justifications for government interference in the economy. Some things, such as the cost of national defense, are ‘public goods.’ We can’t each decide for ourselves how much defense we want.”

Hold on now, as I try to stifle an enormous, malicious grin. Is this Kinsley trying to teach libertarians about “Economics 101”? That’s fascinating, since there is no political philosophy that is more reliant upon nor embodies more fully the discipline of economics than libertarianism, and it’s amusing to hear someone who started his piece with such a lack of concern for basic logic attempt to teach us about it. Second, he’s preaching to the converted here: I know of no libertarian that doesn’t support the government’s legitimate role in defending its citizens from aggressors (in fact something like that very sentence appears in almost every primer on libertarianism for that very reason). He goes on:

“Then there are ‘externalities,’ which are costs (or, sometimes, benefits) that your decisions impose on me. Pollution is the classic example. Without government involvement of some sort to override our individual judgments, we will produce more pollution than most of us want. There are ‘market-oriented’ solutions to this problem, but there is a difference — often forgotten, especially by Republicans — between using market forces and leaving something to the market. The point of principle is whether the government should intervene at all. How it intervenes is purely pragmatic.”

True. But then he’s misunderstood libertarians if he thinks we’re advocating a government that never intervenes in anything. There are substantial, important areas in which a government would be morally deficient not to intervene (for the exact same reason that it would be morally deficient to intervene in the other areas). Perhaps an explanation here is in order, for the uninitiated.

Libertarians believe that governments should only interfere in the matters of individual citizens to protect them and their freedom, and never for any other reason. This argument is one of consistent principle from which the argument cannot justifiably deviate: libertarians generally don’t decide how to feel about something on an impromptu, issue-by-issue basis; instead they apply libertarianism’s central principle and that principle dictates their response. Rather than a government of adhocracy, then, it is a government regulated by this principle that libertarians defend. What is the principle? It’s straightforward: government should only intervene in matters where the rights of an individual are being infringed upon. In the case of, say, theft, government must intervene because a person’s right to private property is being infringed upon. (Some call it the ‘harm principle’, to say that government should only intervene if someone is being harmed. Others call it the ‘consent principle’; government may only intervene if someone’s consent is being suppressed. Dr. Mary Ruwart has called it the ‘non-aggression’ principle, meaning that both government and citizens must not initiate aggression, and that the only aggression permissible is that conducted in response to existing aggression, in order to stop it.)

Kinsley doesn’t buy into this principle, so he doesn’t understand why libertarians pursue it to its all-too-logical conclusions. Yet he never explains what is wrong with the principle! Perhaps that would be too philosophical for the readers of the LA Times? Or perhaps he doesn’t really know what’s wrong with it, so he keeps his commentary on the pragmatic level. In any case, Kinsley has so far failed to say why libertarians are wrong, fundamentally.

What about the issue he raises, of pollution? Well, for Kinsley this is a matter of deciding how best to deal with pollution while not stomping too harshly upon civil liberties. For libertarians, though, it’s more than that: it is a matter of deciding whether any rights are being infringed upon and then acting accordingly, all the while not stomping at all upon civil liberties. Plenty of libertarians would be happy to agree that polluting the air of your neighbour is not a civil liberty to begin with, and therefore would agree with Kinsley. He acknowledges this here:

“Pollution, libertarians say, is simply theft: You are stealing my clean air. Settle it in court. This is a really terrible idea: inexpert judges, lawyers and juries using the most elaborate and expensive decision-making process known to humankind — litigation — to make inconsistent decisions. And usually there is no one “right” answer: There is a spectrum of acceptable answers involving trade-offs (dirty air versus fewer jobs, etc.) that ought to be made democratically — that is, through government.”

I love this: his answer is not the “elaborate and expensive decision-making process” of the courts but the totally simple, efficient decision-making process of government. I wonder what government he has in mind! Yet he’s wrong to suggest that libertarians’ only answer to pollution is “Go to court.” Even if he was right about this, it doesn’t follow that the decisions of courts are “inconsistent”: on matters like this the likelihood is that there would be a great deal of regularity. Has he ever heard of stare decisis, the policy of the US court system to stand by precedent? And what Kinsley has done is to write off both of the libertarian answers he mentions (‘court’ and ‘the market’) with barely a cogent argument to be discerned against either of them anywhere in his article. He says:

“Libertarians have a fondness for complex arrangements to make markets work in situations where the textbooks say they can’t. Hey, let’s issue stamps, y’see, and use the revenue to form a corporation that sells stock to buy military equipment, then the government leases the equipment and the stockholders vote on whether to use it … and so on. The point becomes proving a point, not economic or government efficiency.”

If he thinks libertarians are simply out to prove a point, then he’s missed the point we’d rather prove. Since when was “government efficiency” a priority higher than protecting rights? For example I’m sure it’s more efficient to run a dictatorship than it is to run a democracy, but I’m not sure we want a dictatorship simply because it’s an easier process. Why not? Well, because… we just don’t. Right, Kinsley? (I’m thinking Kinsley’s apathy for a principle of limited government is only useful to him one-way: the way he’s directing it at us libertarians.) The point is that, while holding to the ‘harm principle’ might produce a less efficient process than some other, that fact does not disengage the harm principle. We’re not absolved of the responsibility to engage with the principles of rights and freedoms simply because it’s more difficult to do so. If it were all simply a matter of efficiency, we may find out that we don’t like the results very much. It may be easier to allow police to enter private property any time they like, without the added hassle of going to get a warrant – why involve the “elaborate” court system anyway, right, Kinsley? – but an important principle incorporating something called ‘private property rights’ forces us to choose a less efficient process for the sake of that principle.

Regardless, what’s so horrible about the process of setting up the kind of system he describes? He’s exaggerating, of course, and I’ve never heard any libertarian advocate anything like this ‘stamps-corporation-military-stocks’ thing.  But the only way I can understand his objection to these kinds of ‘market’ alternatives is the impression I get that Kinsley simply doesn’t hold rights to be as important or as incontrovertible as I do. If such a thing is so difficult to set up and run, Kinsley doesn’t have to help if he doesn’t want to. Libertarianism guarantees his right to spend his time instead writing articles about how awful libertarianism is and how it would be so much better y’see just to forget about rights and freedoms for the sake of “government efficiency”.

This ignorance of principle continues throughout Kinsley’s piece. My favourite part is where he tries to defend seatbelt laws without any appeal to principle of any kind:

“The trouble here is that libertarians tend to analogize everything to the right to die. If you have the right to end your own life, you must have the right to do anything else you wish, short of that. If you’re allowed to shoot yourself through the head, why aren’t you allowed to drive without a seat belt? The answer is that it’s a bad analogy. When you drive without a seat belt, you are not motivated by a desire to die, or even a desire to take a small risk of dying. Why should your motive matter? Because your death — especially your death in a car crash — does impose externalities on me. I would pay good money not to see your bloody carcass lying beside the highway, or endure the traffic jam or pay the emergency room costs. A serious right, like the right to choose the time and manner of one’s death, may be worth the cost, while a right to be careless or irresponsible is not.”

First, let’s deal with this statement that “libertarians tend to analogize everything to the right to die.” I’ve been giving libertarian responses to current affairs on this blog since 2003, and Stephen Graham is on his 100th full-length essay on the same themes. I don’t recall ever once analogising anything to the right to die. It simply isn’t a libertarian argument to say, “Well, you’re allowed to die if you want, so why can’t you do X, Y or Z?”

But the best part of this paragraph is where Kinsley analyses the motive of someone who isn’t wearing a seatbelt and tries to come up with a plausible means of thus justifying forcing that person to wear it under threat of government force. It fails, miserably! He doesn’t want to see your bloody carcass while driving past. (How many bloody carcasses have you seen, Kinsley?) Yet wearing a seatbelt only reduces rather than erases the chances that someone will die in a car accident, and wearing one certainly doesn’t eradicate the possibility that there will be blood. If this is a real argument, then perhaps it should be illegal to drive without airbags too, since they do a much better job in crash tests of preventing the eventuality of a bloody carcass than seatbelts alone. Why isn’t Kinsley championing the cause of the United States’ first airbag laws? You quickly see how, without a guiding principle like that of the libertarians, no consistency can be reached in lawmaking. Why just seatbelts and no airbags? Uh, well, just because. And it’s interesting to see Kinsley construct the argument in terms of “externalities” even in the middle of a critical piece: it appears that libertarianism has rubbed off on him, even just a little. Here’s another example:

“Tucker Carlson reported … that Ron Paul wants to end the federal ban on the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk. No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does. Paul himself doesn’t. But it bothers him that the government tells people they can’t.”

But Ron Paul does not oppose the ban because it “bothers” him. Ron Paul is opposing the ban in principle (that it infringes on the rights of people who want to, for whatever reason, sell or buy unpasteurised milk; the reason is irrelevant). But, “No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk”, Kinsley says. This is a symptom of Kinsley’s lacking in the kind of principle guiding Ron Paul: he is entirely willing to judge for other people what they “should” and should not want to do. That, friends, is collectivist arrogance at its most blatant. Kinsley tries, but he finds it almost impossible to understand rights or freedoms if they don’t pertain to him or to the majority or to the status quo in some other manner.

I’ll give Kinsley this: he has spent longer thinking about libertarian ideas than most, and that exuded from these paragraphs of his article. He’s wrong, despite some real effort on his part. That much is evident here:

“Libertarian thinking has been useful, for example, in making it easier to get prescription drugs through the approval maze at the Food and Drug Administration. The Terri Schiavo case of 2005 was libertarianism’s greatest moment so far, as the entire nation rose up in defense of her right to die.”

I’m not sure that all libertarians agreed on it, but indeed the Schiavo case was a great debate which highlighted some libertarian themes. The article I wrote at the time (available here) is still the most popular I’ve ever posted, with hits from far and wide. But Kinsley wishes to ignore the most pertinent fact of all, which is that the reason many libertarians advocated Schiavo’s right to die was not out of pragmatism but out of principle. Sure, some liberals happened to agree with the libertarian position, but it didn’t emanate from a consistent principle. Frankly, all that illustrates is that liberals are less consistent than libertarians in their application of rights and freedoms to political issues.

And that describes Kinsley perfectly. He’s attracted to libertarianism. He’s flirted with it. He’s gone along with some libertarian thinking. It seems like a good match, but when it comes time to settle down, he bolts from the altar for lack of commitment to principle. Perhaps he feels that such a commitment will curb his ideological freedom? Maybe he isn’t ready for political adulthood yet? Or it could be that he’s afraid a commitment to principle will simply ruin his fun. Whatever it is, Kinsley’s article sounds like a guy who isn’t quite sure why libertarianism is ultimately wrong, but who wishes to claim that it is anyway.

Word of the day: PRINCIPLE.

Kinsley: get some!


Added, 10pm: I’ve noticed many other libertarian responses to Kinsley’s article. For the best of all these, see Dr. Walter Block’s great response here (Dr. Block is an Austrian school economist, libertarian philosopher, Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans and Senior Fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute).