Many thanks to David Friedman (hereafter "DF") for providing the best critique of Mike Huben's (hereafter "MH") anti-libertarian faq that I have seen. I agree with DF that MH could make some changes to improve the faq (for example, see 2, 3, 17, 18, 19) but even without any changes, it remains an excellent resource for understanding popular Libertarianism today. DF's critique also has problems. Indeed, it has more than MH's extensive faq. MH has not yet had time to respond to DF's critique (no doubt it's physically impossible for one person respond to ALL the criticism of MH's faq) so I have compiled a few thoughts as a third party in the debate.
I have only included the minimal quotes to aid the flow of these arguments, but you are encouraged to go to DF's and MH's documents to see the originals. I maintained the order of points used by DF, but I do not have the interest nor expertise to comment on all of DF's points (such as some of the legal issues), so some numbers are omitted entirely. I have linked the section numbers to MH's faq as DF did, but unfortunately DF did not put targets into the HTML of his critique, so I can only include a generic link to the top of his page.Shortcuts to text below: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 27=20
1. MH: [Libertarians] are utopian because there has never yet been a libertarian society
DF: A utopia is an ideally perfect society, not merely a society that has never existed.
DF appears offended that people think libertarianism is utopian. However, if it is possible to describe any group as utopian, then that word applies to many libertarians. MH's point remains that libertarians can not point to any example of a libertarian society (outside of dubious romantic versions of some pre-industrial societies like the tiny village society on Iceland). DF's version of libertarianism (anarchy with property rights) is even farther removed from any historical example than more moderate libertarianism. If no libertarian society has ever evolved outside of fiction, then it is surely a utopian movement that has not even succeeded at creating a libertarian island or suburb or any community. Other erstwhile utopian groups such as communists, anarchists, Hare Krishnas, Shakers, Mennonites and others have all created communities to test out their ideals, but libertarians have not. Thus, libertarians are utopian in the sense that they are promoting an imaginary society that they believe is more perfect than any other on earth, but that nobody has ever been willing or able to create.
2. MH: Are
libertarians serving their own class interest only?
DF: What class interest? Libertarians are not a class in
economically relevant sense.
MH could easily clarify the class interest of libertarians in his faq. Define the economic class of libertarians as being those above the median expected total lifetime income. Certainly not all libertarians are well above the median expected lifetime income, but all the ones I have met are. It might be similar to say that about 90% of African Americans vote Democrat because they have some class interest. Obviously not all Democrats are African American and not all wealthy people are Libertarian. The vast majority of wealthy people see the benefits they have received from the economic system created in part by our government and feel that they have some duty to pay some taxes. If the super-rich did not feel the duty, they would have the resources to be able to dodge much more tax than they do. Some wealthy people feel no such duty and there are many examples of these elites (Marc Rich for one) who go to great lengths to pay very little tax. As Leona Helmsey said, according to her world view, "Only the little people pay tax."
Most libertarians applaud and encourage self-interest. Naturally, wealthy people who expect to pay above the median lifetime taxes would find it in their short-term self-interest to abolish them and find Libertarianism an attractive ideology to justify dodging taxes.
seems to forget in this passage that he himself is, by his
Perhaps MH should expand his definition of Evangelist from "(those trying to persuade others to adopt their beliefs)" to *only* include people who as he later states "tend to be more interested in effect than in accuracy." Then DF's critique of this point would loose nearly all its weight.
5. MH is correct that the Government is the foremost defender of our freedoms and rights. DF also correctly points out that it is also a foremost infringer of rights. Does Government create and defend more freedoms than it destroys? It is hard to tell.
Part of the problem is defining what rights are. Rights are social constructs. In practice, governments create rights by creating laws via whatever political process exists. Everyone has a slightly different preference for their moral philosophy and definitions of rights. Thus it is incumbent to have a political process to define rights because economics is very clear that poorly defined rights creates inefficiency. Despite the fact that everyone would like to pay less tax, there is near universal consensus among Americans that the government has the right to collect taxes. Libertarians like DF say that the government does not have this right. Therefore they are either saying that their moral philosophy (telling right from wrong) is better than that of most Americans or they are saying that the democratic political process is flawed when the vast majority imposes its will upon hapless libertarian victims who do not believe taxes are a right.
DF has a good point that governments kill a lot of people, but it is unfortunate that DF does not give any data to back up his claim that governments kill more citizens than private murders. Do democracies kill more citizens than private murders? Probably not. It is important to distinguish between the government of authoritarian communist China and that of peaceful democratic Costa Rica. DF might as well tell shepherds that dogs kill more sheep than other animals and if we got rid of dogs less sheep would die. However, shepherds would immediately see the silliness of this. First of all, only certain breeds of dogs kill sheep. Chihuahuas do not. Secondly, if they eliminated all dogs entirely, there may be more killing by mountain lions because the sheep dogs would not be there to protect sheep.
It is also unfortunate that DF can provide no data to compare how many people would be killed in a libertarian society today. Perhaps there would be more people killed by private police corporations than by current governments or perhaps murder rates (by individual criminals or invading armies) would soar in libertarian societies that decide to forgo police and national defense. The world is waiting for some brave libertarians to form a libertarian society to demonstrate how it works in practice.
DF is disingenuous to compare the crime rates of England in the 1700 to that of today and say that it worked better then because of private law enforcement. Society has changed in the last 300 years and institutions that worked in hyper-religious pre-industrial village society probably would not work in today's gun infested urbanized society.
DF also gives the example of Saga period Iceland (going back 1000 years or more) as a model for government and law enforcement today. This is ludicrous. There are more recent (and close to home) examples of societies in the history of the American West that had no government expenditure on law enforcement, with high levels of rights and property rights protection. However, the vigilante justice of the period did not follow due process and was extremely harsh (immediate death upon apprehension for alleged theft). Few people would trade our expensive modern criminal justice system for the fiscally cheap vigilante justice systems of the pre-government American west.
6. DF would have us believe that public defenders, the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights are "almost entirely government efforts to protect rights and freedoms from infringement by the government." It is hard to imagine that DF or any reasonable person believes that government is "almost entirely" the only thing that infringes upon our rights. How does DF measure the percentage that these legal institutions defend against the government and how much they defend against private parties? Only a very small percentage of legal cases claim the government as defendant. It is also obvious to anyone that this list of government institutions defends against all infringements by anyone including the government, so this point of DF does not refute anything in MH's faq.
8. DF goes to the heights of absurdity to claim that libertarians achieved the "abolition of slavery, the institution of large scale free trade, the destruction of guild restrictions on employment--most of the progress of the 19th century". Statists (assuming that there is someone who is willing to go by that libertarian umbrella label) could more easily assert the same claim for themselves. VERY few of the many people who worked to end slavery (such as Abraham Lincoln) were anywhere near the political stripe of DF and all of these examples of progress were the direct result of government action rather than some kind of market or libertarian force. DF might as well also claim that the spread of democracy, extension of life span, eradication of smallpox, and the huge improvement in the standard of living of the past century are also "progress" and are therefore libertarian accomplishments.
DF goes on to say that libertarianism, "has a historical track record unmatched by any alternative in recorded history." However, I still have yet to see a working example of a libertarian society that is more than an overly nostalgic interpretation of some pre-industrial society. It is necessary to live like pre-industrial Icelandic saga-era people to achieve libertarianism?
9. DF suggests "that we reduce government expenditure to the level that can be supported by taxing [income from unproduced resources]." which he claims are only a few percent of national income. One strategy that forces libertarians into engaging in constructive dialog about how to change the present system is to ask them how they would alter the national budget and tax structure. I would ask DF to do the same for how to spend his tiny revenue. I am sure that DF knows how government revenue is spent, but many libertarians (like most of the public) have no idea how the government actually spends money and tends to have a very inflated estimation of how many tax dollars go to things like welfare cheats and arts funding. It is easy to save a few percent of the national budget by cutting popular libertarian enemies like NPR funding, but the big expenses are often things that most libertarians would secretly like to keep such as defense.
Ironically, DF says he would accept (as a compromise) a tax on unproduced resources like land. Until now he has been arguing that taxation equals theft and that the government does not have the right to tax. Now he is willing to accept billions of dollars of property tax. What happened to the righteous indignation against government and taxation? If DF really believes taxation is the moral equivalent of violent theft via men with guns, then no amount would be OK. How is it possible for a libertarian to morally justify accepting this theft but not others?
It is also ironic that DF chooses to live in a city and a state with relatively high property tax, sales tax, income tax and extensive local government services and regulations. If he were really convinced that taxation is the moral equivalent of violent theft via men with guns, then why doesn't he take some very simple precautionary steps to avoid it and move to a city and state with less taxes and regulation? Most people go to great lengths to avoid violent crime. Perhaps he doesn't really believe his own analogy.
10. DF is correct that the origin of the "social contract" is problematic. However, it is a convenient construct to explain and give moral justification for how society has evolved even if it is just a metaphor. However, it is no more problematic than property rights or laws. Laws are also problematic without some kind of social contract. Why should I obey any laws? I did not sign any social contract. If I like to put antipersonnel mines around the border of my yard and honk my car horn all night on my driveway, is that my property right and my right to freedom of expression? If someone comes over in the middle of the night to ask me to be quiet and gets blown up by a mine, can I sue his estate for damages caused when he destroyed my land mine by trespassing? A strict interpretation of libertarian philosophy of property rights might lead to these conclusions.
Whether or not you use a social contract as a metaphor, the same rationales that can be used to justify and explain property rights and laws (such as a social contract or DF's favorite: Schelling points) can also be used to justify taxes.
Furthermore, there is a free market in social contracts. It is arguably closer to perfect competition (with about 190 "firms") than many markets such as the computer operating system market or the airplane market. If you do not like the social contract of one country, you are free to go to any other country and negotiate with them for a new social contract. Many countries compete for the productive class of individuals that libertarians tend to come from. Alternatively, you can attempt to change the social contract of the country where you live (as many libertarians are doing) by convincing a majority to support your libertarian (or communist or anarchist or whatever) views, but libertarianism will be a very hard sell.
11. 12. 13. Again, a social contract is an arbitrary social construct, but the same thing is true of property rights or laws. Libertarians just get more fixated on the taxation clause in the social contract than the property rights clause. If the government creates the infrastructure that underpins our economy such as money, the legal system and property rights, does it not have property rights over the use of that infrastructure? Why can't it then tax the use of these things as it sees fit?
If you copy CDs and freely distribute them at your own expense to the poor (who probably would not buy them anyway) MEN WITH GUNS will initiate force and put you in jail. Why do libertarians get more excited about tax law than copyright or other laws?
libertarians make a big deal about needing to actually sign a
contract. Take them to a restaurant and see if they think it
to walk out without paying because they didn't sign
DF: The act by which one agrees to an implicit contract is
that the other party has the right to control
DF's assertion makes no sense. In any contract, both parties must agree. Thus with an implicit contract, DF is arguing that both parties must have the right to control the act. In the case of the restaurant, who has the right to control whether food is exchanged for money? To argue that the contract in the case of the restaurant is different from the case of taxation, DF would have to begin by assuming the conclusion that he wants and use the same sort of circular argument that he accuses MH of making. MH is correct that the two cases are very similar.
One has the right to control whether they stay in a country or not. One also has the right to control whether they get a job that pays a taxable income. One could become a volunteer or a monk or a homeless person or live in a cash economy that can't be traced (such as sell illegal drugs or be a carpenter or artist). There are millions of people in the US that choose one of these options and there are millions more around the globe who choose to change their country of residence every year.
15. DF asserts that government rights to territory came into being via conquest. However, virtually all private territory also came into private hands via conquest at multiple points in history too. If government got the right to territory via force just like private individuals got property rights, then why does DF cares who is morally worse? I think we agree that there is no historical moral foundation for these kinds of property rights. The important question for libertarians to answer is how do they provide a rule of law without government or government territory? Without some sort of territorial rights, there is no way to have laws. Does DF want to create a society of men with guns in which everyone must enforce their own individual contracts with guns?
There are also many examples of government rights evolving without conquest. For example, the powers of the federal government of the US, and the EU evolved in large part without conquest. The transferal of power from the British monarchy to their democratic government of today also evolved largely without conquest. It is generally in a community's best interest for everyone to work together and form some sort of government to accomplish common goals that can't be realized any other way. When groups are too large for consensus and free riders become a problem, then the community obligates them to contribute through the most effective power they have available (ostracism or religion in many early societies and MEN WITH GUNS today). DF provides no evidence or rational for his assertion that individual private property rights are any more justified than public government property rights.
16. DF claims that government is equivalent to the Mafia and that the Mafia provides a valuable service (defense) for which it charges a fee. However, this is a poor analogy for the American government. There are many mafias and many mafia bosses do not defend at all, they kidnap and extort. They do not provide protection from others. They provide protection from themselves. If you do not pay, they kidnap and hurt you themselves. The money they take they then consume privately. In contrast, the American government uses tax revenue to create public goods and redistribute income back to the public. A final difference (in much of the world) is that citizens collectively choose their government and choose the level of taxation and services through a democratic process. DF's characterization of a relatively benevolent Mafia gets closer as an analogy for the government of Joseph Stalin, but the American government (unlike Mafia rule) was and is created and shaped by the popular will of American citizens. See my answer to #25 for more elaboration along this line of thought.
When democratic governments take away taxes, they do not privately consume them like criminals would (increasing criminal consumption is not necessarily a bad thing, but most people are morally opposed to it). They primarily redistribute the resources to other individuals and produce (mostly) public goods for the benefit of all citizens. By equating criminal theft and taxes, DF is wrongly assuming that criminals have an incentive to be benevolent like Robin Hood and steal for the benefit of the public.
If taxes are eliminated, you'll need to purchase services that
formerly provided by government. (2) If taxes are eliminated,
economics of wages have changed, and wages will change as
DF's response to MH's point (1) is that, "most of the services provided by government cost far more than they would if provided privately". However, the private sector will not provide most government services at all. Most government services are public goods and it is very difficult for the private sector to make a profit from providing public goods. Many economists argue that when the economy (government or market) does not provide enough public goods, the efficiency of the economy declines and everyone is poorer. DF also gives three examples of arguably bad regulation to demonstrate how bad government is. Unfortunately, whenever there are laws created by humans, some of it will be bad regulation. A libertarian government will not change that. American citizens will always have to be vigilant to put pressure on lawmakers to change laws regardless of how big or small the government is.
Point (2) MH should probably concede to DF although they are not far apart in their reasoning. I think MH's main idea is that if taxes are abolished, each individual worker can't expect to see his income increase by quite the full amount that had been formerly paid in taxes. However, DF is correct that the gains would go to workers as a whole. As wages rise, the labor supply will (most likely) also rise and that will work to suppress overall wages a bit. However workers as a group would still see the gain as long as we assume that the entire economy doesn't first collapse into anarchy under libertarianism.
18. 19. DF is correct that the government was a smaller share of the economy in the 19th century. However, most Americans demand more expensive service from their government today and it is no surprise. People are several times wealthier now and our demand and consumption of all goods (including those produced by government) has also increased several times. Many of the services that government provided in the 19th century, such as defense, education, and public health, have become much more expensive relative to other sectors of the economy such as manufactured goods and commodities which are generally cheaper now (in real terms) than in the 19th century. We do not expect businesses to operate like they did in the 19th century, so why would libertarians expect government to do so? Today's economies that most resemble 19th century America are all in the third world.
DF goes on to say that the degree to which a government is libertarian can be measured by the level of taxation. This is a bit ironic when one examines governments of today. By that standard, the most libertarian governments of today are primarily authoritarian dictatorships in the third world.
A further irony (in addition to those listed in #9) of many libertarians (though perhaps not DF) is to argue that the taxation of 19th century America is a model to emulate. On one hand they say that government does not have the right to tax and that taxation is theft by "men with guns". Then they turn around and give an example where it is OK as long as there is only a little taxation. It is as if libertarians are saying that it is OK to steal if it is done in certain ways. Is taxation morally OK to libertarians or not?
DF also states that "anything approaching the current level of government" can't be justified by the need to produce public goods and correct for externalities. I have never seen any estimation of how to value the total externalities and public goods in America and I would appreciate it if DF would share his method for estimating this if he has one or does the would-be philosopher-king have no clothes?
20. MH: "Self government" is libertarian newspeak for "everybody ought to be able to live as if they are the only human in the universe, if only they believe in the power of libertarianism."
DF: You don't need the power of libertarianism--standard
neoclassical economics gets you most of it. To first
the price system allows each individual to use his resources to
achieve his objectives without imposing net costs on
details see the chapter on "
What is Efficient" in my (online)
DF has a lot of great ideas for economics, but in this case, DF's economics is not so much "standard neoclassical economics" as it is neo-economics. Neoclassical economics does not lead to libertarianism in the eyes of the vast majority of economists. This is obvious because the vast majority of economists are not libertarians. I checked DF's link to his textbook chapter on efficiency and found it conveniently omits several preconditions to efficiency which other, less ideological, textbooks do not. Not everyone are price takers, there are transaction costs, and there are externalities. It is as if a Physics textbook mathematically proves that a feather and marble will both fall at the identical speed when dropped from the top of the Sears tower but neglects to explain that the proof only applies if the Sears Tower were in an airless vacuum. We know that markets generally do not work quite as ideally as DF's textbook examples would have us believe. Markets work very well for some things like shoes, but not at all for other things like national defense.
Another major flaw with using economic efficiency as a moral yardstick is that it says nothing about justice. For example, if Bill Gates Jr. starts out with all the assets in the world, economics teaches that the (pareto, walrasian, etc.) efficient thing is for Bill Gates Jr. to keep it all and everyone else to remain destitute. Most people would agree that the just thing would be to redistribute some of the wealth from Bill Gates Jr. to the other 6 billion people on earth. Revolutions are not fought for economic efficiency. They are fought for justice because that is what stirs passions. This is probably why popular libertarianism mostly ignores the efficiency argument and concentrates on moral arguments to convince people that government is perpetrating unjust criminal acts on its victimized citizens . Many libertarians are trying to whip up a following with revolutionary fervor.
The previous example demonstrates that equity is a form of justice that can at times trump property rights. Unfortunately economics as a discipline does not have much to say about the ideal amount of equity versus efficiency. DF's economics textbook completely ignores the tradeoff between efficiency and equity, but economics does not. For example, an extremely popular series of undergraduate economics textbooks by N. Gregory Mankiw explains this tradeoff between efficiency and equity in the first principle of economics in the first chapter of all his 2001 introductory economics texts (Micro, Macro, Essentials, Brief Macro). The seventh principle in the first chapter is that "governments can sometimes improve market outcomes." This, not libertarianism, is standard, basic economics as taught in Econ 101 and on up.
Another flaw of using economic efficiency as a moral yardstick is that if you accept the Coase theorem then there is no currently feasible outcome that is better for all parties than the present situation. It is impossible to make any policy recommendations without having some moral philosophy that judges that people who gain are somehow more important than those who will lose. Communism under Stalin was inefficient for most of the USSR, but it worked fabulously for Stalin, so it was already pareto efficient. To recommend that they should have adopted Libertarianism, you need more than economics. You need a moral philosophy that justifies redistributing property and rights from Stalin to the people of the USSR.
[libertarians] support the initial force that has already taken
in the formation of the system of property
Here DF completely ignored MH's critique of the libertarian preoccupation with the initiation of force. Instead of responding to MH's point, he repeated his earlier criticism of MH's vague definition of libertarian class interest that he already stated in #2. MH is correct that there are moral and logical problems with libertarian philosophy regarding the use and initiation of force. Libertarians have a hard time defining "initiation of force" which they consider unjust, and separating it from justified force. I personally think a superior moral philosophy would attempt to minimize total force over the long term rather than try to determine who initiated force and put the total blame on them. Does anyone really care who *initiated* WW1? This libertarian preoccupation with the initiation of force is similar to the moral philosophy of fighting children who always yell, "He started it" at the other kid.
large fraction of the arguments for government regulation of
individual action depend on the implicit assumption that
act on their own self-interest under conditions of limited
in market contexts, but that government actors are fully
benevolent--with no theory to derive the latter from the
There is no more need to assume that government is fully informed and benevolent to derive the benefits of government than there is need to assume that individuals are fully informed and benevolent to derive the benefits of markets. A very simple theory from late economist Mancur Olson to derive the beneficial impact of government is as follows. Before there were governments, nobody had incentives to produce public goods and they were not provided by anyone. However, nations formed (via various mechanisms) and the taxes of robber kings and emperors were preferable to the predations of roving bands of bandits. This is because the tyrants had a long-run stake in the domain they were exploiting (or robbing if you like) and the roving bandits did not have a long-run stake, so their incentive was to have a marginal tax rate of 100%. The roving bandits tried to maximize their theft each time and then moved on to steal from another household. In contrast, autocrats were motivated to increase the efficiency of these economies by providing public goods and thereby increase the tax receipts over the long run. The autocrat acted in self-interest under limited information to provide public goods that grew the economy for his subjects and simultaneously increased his income. This is one reason why even horrible despots like Castro or Saddam Hussein provide public goods for their nations. It is in their long-run self interest. If they were not thinking about the long run, it would be in their self interest to tax 100% now and keep it all for themselves instead of producing public goods.
Later some nations evolved into democracies. These can be seen, in the least charitable light, as dictatorships of the majority which try to rob the minority. However, the majority (working in self-interest with limited information) will now decide to provide even more public goods in order to increase the income of the majority. This grows the economy more than an autocratic government and now the benefits are much more widely dispersed. This helps to explain one reason why the rich world is virtually entirely composed of long-time democracies.
Furthermore, the roughly 190 national governments of our world compete with each other for productive citizens and for military and economic power. This competition provides some check on the excesses of governments. Factions within countries also compete for power. Generally, the more broadly distributed the power is in a country, the better the government will be at providing public goods as if it were purely benevolent.
Another advantage of social systems with governments is that the government takes a monopoly on the right to use violence. As everyone who has taken Econ 101 knows, monopolists raise the price of their product and decrease the quantity. In this case, the product is a "public bad" and it is desirable to raise the price (credible threat of overwhelming retaliation and possible fines) and decrease the quantity of violence. The incentive for the ruler of the government is self-interest to maximize long term revenue by maximizing economic growth. In anarchic social systems where nobody owns violence, there can be conditions analogous to a "tragedy of the commons" as violence is overused.
There are real examples of more or less libertarian societies,
societies that in particular respects were entirely
libertarian, so we
do have real world evidence to go on.
Even if you accept DF's nostalgic version of history, DF doesn't give any "real world" examples that are more recent than the 19th century. Most people would not want to live under the impoverished conditions, poor human rights and short life span of pre-industrial times, and the people (and governments) of agrarian and pre-agrarian eras had very different priorities that have relatively little in common with the priorities of people (and governments) today.
Things like Public Health and Defense are much more expensive today than they were in 1777 or in saga-period Iceland, so popular libertarian comparisons with government budgets of previous centuries are not very helpful for determining the ideal level today
As I said before, we libertarian-skeptics are waiting for some brave libertarians to put their money where their mouth is and start creating a small libertarian community. Perhaps they could start by implementing their ideals within their own family life. Then if that works, they could buy (and subdivide) a large ranch (or small island) that is distant from government tentacles and begin a community of libertarians living in peace and harmony with markets and property rights, but no local government and no local taxes. Start by evolving the political system at a local level and see how well it scales up before you call for the largest economy in the world to scrap a large part of its economic and legal system. If it works on a local level, everyone will want to emulate it and the system will spread like a virus in the free market for ideas.
I think libertarians have many excellent suggestions for how to improve government when they keep to incremental changes and specific issues rather than grandstanding about how government and taxation is morally wrong and should be abolished. Everyone agrees that there is always much that should be done to improve government and I often agree with libertarian ideas for how to improve specific programs. However, much libertarian rhetoric is irresponsible and also inspires people who are less stable (and more socially disaffected) than DF or MH. People like the unabomber or Timothy McVeigh also espouse similar rhetoric as their philosophical underpinning. Much popular libertarian rhetoric is a subtle revolutionary call to arms. After all, the American Revolution was inspired by relatively tame "taxation without representation" and popular libertarian rhetoric is more extreme: taxation is the violent initiation of force against innocent victims via men with guns. Furthermore, according to popular libertarian rhetoric, only the INITIATION of force is wrong. Most libertarians do not openly say the next logical step, but now their philosophy justifies the violent retaliation of libertarian men with guns. This is particularly irresponsible because libertarians have not even demonstrated how their institutions would work in modern society on a small local scale. Instead they focus on macro changes at the national level. It would be more responsible to evolve libertarian institutions from a small scale up rather than in the other direction. That would minimize risk for us all if libertarian institutions turn out to be a disaster.