Does Libertarianism Work?
January 12, 2008
Michael Kinsley doesn’t think so.
So what is wrong with the libertarian case for extremely limited government? 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. We have to decide that together. 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.
That’s a legitimate point, but I don’t think it says anything substantial against libertarianism as a principle. For one thing, a strict constitutionalist libertarian like Ron Paul would probably argue that the constitution does in fact “provide for the common defense,” and that national security is a mandate given to the federal government that they must accomplish. Kinsley’s argument seems to be imaginary, since I have yet to hear a libertarian decry the ability of the federal government to protect Americans, and yes, many times without direct input from the taxpayers. A necessary evil, to be sure, but hardly the Achilles heel of the libertarian system.
Then there’s the example about pollution, and more broadly about how one person’s actions might impose on another’s well being. I would begin by stating that libertarianism, at least in its form today, would inherently do more to alter the function of the federal government, and not the state or judicial systems. With that said, I would say that the existence of the judiciary is one of the avenues by which an individual could complain against the actions of his neighbor, and perhaps get the law to agree with him (aka lawsuit). Libertarians would also say that most people would tend to build their own compromises (in the case of pollution, perhaps new energy sources or burning processes), and, God forbid, maybe even make a profit from it (!). In any case, Mr. Kinsley’s concerns have and almost always do work themselves out, with no help from an indifferent federalized bureaucracy.