Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How Not to Argue Against Libertarianism

Over at Psychology Today, Peter Corning has penned an attack on libertarianism. This is nothing remarkable, as attacks on libertarians, especially attacks aimed at showing how psychologically damaged we must be, are a dime a dozen. But Corning’s diatribe so neatly fits the archetype of an academic pointing out that “Libertarians Just Don’t Get It” while evincing a profound misunderstanding of libertarianism, that it’s worth taking a moment to look at. Specifically, like far too many who dismiss libertarians, Corning fails to recognize how we distinguish society from state.

“All philosophies must ultimately confront reality,” Corning writes, “and the more radical versions of libertarianism … rely on terminally deficient models of human nature and society.” What’s this libertarian model? Homo economicus, which holds that “[o]ur motivations can be reduced to the single-minded pursuit of our (mostly material) self-interests.”

“One problem with this (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence that the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient,” Corning says.

We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses…

Libertarians reject this, we’re told, and instead believe that every man should look out only for himself, reject notions of reciprocity, eschew social ties, feel no empathy, and do nothing to help others until we stand to directly profit from it (and then only do it because we directly profit from it).

His evidence for this remarkable claim comes from citing (and misrepresenting) libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick, F. A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand. Regarding Nozick, Corning has this to say:

A line from libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s path-breaking book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, says it all: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group [or state] may do to them without violating their rights.” (When asked to specify what those rights are, libertarians often cite philosopher John Locke’s mantra “life, liberty, and property.”) Not to worry, though. Through the “magic” of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the efficient pursuit of our self interests in “free markets” will ensure the greatest good for the greatest number.

From this Corning concludes that Nozick is in favor of a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself world. Which would no doubt come as a surprise to Nozick himself, as it’s completely at odds with his own writing, including the entire final section of Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Corning attacks Hayek for rejecting socialism, believing that this amounts to a rejection of society. And, unsurprisingly, he misunderstands Rand in precisely the way a great many intellectuals misunderstand Rand: Corning believes her claim that we should never use each other (and particularly never employ violence in order to use each other) is instead a claim that we should always see each other as morally insignificant at best—and more often as outright enemies.

The common thread linking these misinterpretations is Corning’s inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish society from state. Because Nozick says the state ought to be limited, Corning believes he must have an impoverished view of society. Because Hayek thinks state economic planning violates our freedoms and makes us worse off, Corning believes he must also think robust social ties violate our freedoms and make us worse off. Because Rand adopts an Aristole-influenced conception of man’s purpose (i.e., his own eudiamonia), Corning believes she thinks we should never form meaningful relationships and never help those worse off than us.

Stripped to its essentials, Corning’s argument (which I stress is quite common among intellectuals who reject libertarianism) looks like this:

1. Humans are social animals, require deep social connections in order to thrive, and develop much of their sense of self through the social environment they’re raised in. Humans cannot live well in isolation, and live best when working together within a framework of mutual respect and reciprocity.

2. Big government is the only political system compatible with (1).
3. Libertarians oppose big government.

4. Therefore libertarians reject (1).

Set out like this, the absurdity of these anti-libertarian arguments becomes clear. Libertarians don’t dispute (1). In fact, many of us are libertarians because we believe libertarianism (broadly defined as strong respect for liberty, private property, and free markets) will best facilitate the sort of human flourishing (1) describes. Further, we believe the evidence supports this claim.

So instead of rejecting (1), libertarians in fact reject (2). Not only do we reject (2) by claiming that there are other political systems compatible with (1), but we take it a step further by saying that big government isn’t just unnecessary for a rich, social environment, but in fact undermines the very sort of flourishing (1) describes.

Whether we’re right about that is an argument worth having. But it’s not the argument Corning seems interested in. Instead, like so many others, he believes big government’s link to human flourishing is so obvious that the only way one could reject big government is to quite literally reject human flourishing.

This is, put simply, a failure of the imagination, coupled with profound status quo bias. Corning just can’t envision how a society where the state isn’t free to use violence to compel nonviolence citizens to do its bidding can function. And maybe that is difficult to imagine. But so was democracy, as economist Bryan Caplan notes:

"Imagine advocating democracy a thousand years ago. You sketch your basic idea: “Every few years we’ll have a free election. Anyone who wants power can run for office, every adult gets a vote, and whoever gets the most votes runs the government until the next election.” How would your contemporaries react?

They would probably call you “crazy.” Why? Before you could even get to the second paragraph in your sales pitch, they’d interrupt: “Do you seriously mean to tell us that if the ruling government loses the election, they’ll peacefully hand the reins of power over to their rivals?! Yeah, right!”

Corning, and so many like him, could learn a little humility from history. Just because violent nation states engaging in social engineering and forced redistribution are the flavor of the day doesn’t mean they’re the best system for enabling people to lead rich and rewarding lives.

But having that discussion demands much more than painting your opponents as moral monsters who reject the very foundations of what it means to be human. In other words, it demands more careful study than Peter Corning appears ready to muster.



An invitation from the Sunshine State

by Jeff Jacoby

DAYS AFTER Massachusetts residents began feeling the sting of new tax increases, Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, cheerfully reminded them that they have other options.

On Aug. 6, Scott sent letters to 100 Massachusetts business owners, inviting them to relocate to the Sunshine State "because we have the perfect climate for your business." He trumpeted his state's "incredible economic turnaround," and drew a few pointed contrasts: "While Florida's unemployment rate has seen the second-largest drop in the country, Massachusetts' June unemployment rate increased to the highest since November 2011," Scott wrote. "While Florida ranks fifth in the nation for our business tax climate, Massachusetts is stuck at No. 22, according to the Tax Foundation." And now that taxes are up again — Beacon Hill raised taxes on gasoline and cigarettes, and enacted a 6.25 percent sales tax on software and computer services that has the tech sector in an uproar — "it's bound to get worse in Massachusetts."

From Scott's Democratic counterpart in Boston came a huffy response. "I am not surprised that other states wish they had the successful and growing innovation businesses that we have here in Massachusetts," said Governor Deval Patrick's economic development chief, Greg Bialecki. Low taxes may be venerated in red states like Florida, but the governor of bluest Massachusetts worships at a different altar. "We have committed to long-term investments in education, innovation, and infrastructure, all good news for companies doing business here," Bialecki said. "Massachusetts is creating a special environment for a 21st-century innovation economy, one that thriving businesses happily call home."

But if "long-term investments" — i.e., permanent tax and spending hikes— are such good news for Massachusetts entrepreneurs, it's hard to understand why the Massachusetts High Technology Council and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, two of the commonwealth's leading business advocates, have launched a campaign to repeal the new software tax. Or why it isn't only analysts at the nonpartisan Tax Foundation who judge the business tax environment in Florida to be far more appealing than the one that prevails in Massachusetts. In May, the tech-focused business magazine Fast Company ranked Florida the best state in the nation for business innovation and startup culture. Massachusetts came in at No. 42.

If tax-more-spend-more really were the formula for spurring growth and encouraging entrepreneurs, why isn't Patrick the one sending out invitations? Unlike Scott, who points out that Florida has no income tax, Patrick could try enticing business owners with the advantages of moving to a state where the combined state and local tax burden (as a percentage of income) is the nation's 8th heaviest. He could make the same pitch to business leaders in Florida and other low-tax states that he has repeatedly made at home: The way to "significantly improve our economic tomorrows," is with big tax and spending increases today.

He could cite Forbes magazine, which gives Massachusetts top marks for quality of life — reflected in strong schools, a healthy population, arts and recreation opportunities, and stellar universities — while simultaneously observing that business costs and regulations in this state are among the most onerous in America. A worthwhile tradeoff? Forbes seems to think so: It ranks Massachusetts higher than all but 16 other states, including Florida.

If a two-day break from sales taxes can affect people's economic behavior, imagine the impact of a state's year-round tax climate.

The argument can be made, but will it convince taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and business innovators to move to Massachusetts? Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, a market-oriented think tank in Boston, notes that between 1990 and 2007, the number of companies headquartered in Massachusetts fell from 16,000 to 11,000 —accounting for the loss of about 250,000 jobs. Over the past two decades, he says, Massachusetts has experienced no net employment growth. Massachusetts today "is still 100,000 jobs short of even our 2001 employment levels."

And all the while, taxpayers keep moving away from states like Massachusetts, where taxes are high, and migrating to states like Florida, where the tax burden is low.

Is it all about taxes? Clearly not; decisions about where to live and work are affected by all kinds of considerations, from weather to family to education. But it is preposterous to imagine that nobody changes their economic behavior in order to minimize their tax bill. If individual shoppers will defer a purchase until the annual sales-tax holiday, entrepreneurs and investors deciding where to establish a company are certainly apt to take taxes into account.

Massachusetts may be a perfect fit for your business. But if it's not, Florida's governor would like to remind you: You've got other options.



Surprise! NSA Broke the Rules

The National Security Agency is under fire once again after an internal audit revealed that it broke privacy rules or exceeded its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008. According to The Washington Post, "Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order." There were 2,776 such incidents at the NSA's Fort Meade headquarters alone in the 12 months preceding the May 2012 audit, which, among other things, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the media.

In one instance, the NSA mistakenly intercepted a "large number" of phone calls originating in Washington because a "programming error" substituted U.S. area code 202 for 20, Egypt's international dialing code. The NSA opted not to report this allegedly unintended surveillance of Americans and generally considers "incidental" surveillance not noteworthy. Likewise, the NSA instructs personnel to be as vague and generic as possible when describing any incident it does bother reporting.

Just last week, Barack Obama insisted, "[W]hat you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs." Obviously, his press conference feigning the desire for NSA "reform" was pre-emptive because he knew the Post was about to publish another inconvenient report.

We also recall Obama's other tone-deaf remarks: "[I]f you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, 'U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera,' well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn't inside the government." Effective anti-terror measures are clearly needed to maintain national security -- after all, al-Qaida is alive and well -- but the people should be concerned that our government prove trustworthy.



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