Dear Libertarians

For as long as I can remember, every discussion I’ve had with Libertarians ultimately goes to the same syllogism:

All government is a form of force.
All force is bad.
Therefore all government is bad.

I question line #2 of the syllogism, and therefore don’t agree with the conclusion. Why is all force bad? Don’t we need force to protect us? Most Libertarians agree that we need a police force to protect us from bad guys. But we need protection from more bad elements than just bank robbers.

Corporations, driven by the desire to maximize profit (i.e. greed) place financial goals above all others. Left unchecked, they deforest continents, exploit workers, spew pollution, sell unsafe goods, and exploit loopholes in financial markets. Lax regulation led to the recent banking crisis and the BP oil spill. Child labor in unregulated 3rd world countries continues to be a problem supported by our free market, which is far more concerned with cheap jeans and TVs than it is with the welfare of humans. A world where corporations are unregulated is not a world we would want to live in.

It would be awesome if there were an alternative to regulation (force). It would be wonderful if the free market could control the power of greed, but history shows us that it does not… mostly because consumers either don’t know or don’t care what they’re supporting with their purchases. Corporations will work tirelessly to cut corners and find loopholes in order to maximize profit at the expense of the interests of the general population. Not even Adam Smith believed that an unregulated free market could work to the good of the general population.

We need to know that our citizenry are educated; therefore we need force to make sure all of our children go to a satifactory school. I would prefer if force weren’t needed for that, but it is. To keep our population healthy (and from going broke), we need protection from the exploitative practices of health insurers, so we must apply force in two vectors – we must limit what insurers can charge, and we must force our population to have insurance of some kind. Insurance companies have shown us what they’re made of — their interests are personal greed, not public health.

Without government “force” we would have no National Parks — all of that land would have been razed and populated long ago. Without government “force,” we end up with broken systems spiralling out of control at the expense of the people. What alternative to government “force” do we have?

Of course government force can be a dangerous thing too – it needs checks and balances to keep it fair and safe. But our representative form of government, and our system of checks and balances, ensures that ultimately WE ARE the government. We can remove entities that don’t serve us well. We get to look inside of government and control its workings. We don’t have that option with the free market, since we can’t look inside of corporations, can’t take control of them. Healthy governance is open and transparent in ways that the “free” market will never be.

Libertarians, help me out here. When you trot out the old “But government is a form of force” argument, what exactly do you mean to convey? That it’s OK to let greed drive our world rather than common sense? Do you really believe that free market forces can protect us and our land/water from the power amassed by corporations? Do you really want to live in a world with no government?

16 thoughts on “Dear Libertarians

  1. russ nelson

    If you think force is okay, then why do you object to being killed? Ahh, so only the force YOU think is okay, is okay. Can you see how that has very bad results? If force is okay, then the group controlling the most force has its way every time. How can you POSSIBLY think that isn’t going to be the people who run the corporations?

    Giving government the power to regulate corporations gives corporations the power to control customers.

    Okay, so I’m not a libertarian. I don’t think the force genie can be controlled. Yes, I do think that force can generate good results, just as you name above. However, the benefits of a group of people having a monopoly on violence are not greater than the negative effects of this monopoly.

    So yes, I don’t want a government. Yes, I think that customers can regulate corporations better than governments. Why do you think customers can regulate indirectly through government when they they can do that directly?? Where is the logic in that argument?

    But I don’t expect to convince you. You have made too many wrong assumptions, all of which need to be corrected before you can possibly change your mind.

  2. baald

    uh, Russ, if you want to be taken sirrusly, don’t start your argument witha such a blatant straw man.

    -baald (who is generally sympathetic to libertarianism)

  3. shacker Post author

    Russ – Sorry for delay, the weekend was all about bucketlist :)

    I agree with baald – you’re starting with a straw man. Obviously no one believes in unfettered force, and obviously I’m not arguing for that. You’re taking a black and white view that doesn’t reflect reality (I would prefer if we can stick to reality-based reasoning).

    Giving government the power to regulate corporations gives corporations the power to control customers.

    Umm, corporations already have way too much power to control customers. That’s exactly the problem that government regulation of corporations addresses.

    However, the benefits of a group of people having a monopoly on violence are not greater than the negative effects of this monopoly.

    I don’t see government “force” (notice I usually put that word in quotes) as a monopoly. Force is everywhere, coming from many directions simultaneously. The important things is to keep forces in balance to ensure we can all pursue happiness (which we can’t do if we’re broke from paying health insurance, have no natural world left, etc.)

    Why do you think customers can regulate indirectly through government when they they can do that directly??

    Sorry, I’m not following you here.

    You have made too many wrong assumptions

    I hope I’m not making assumptions (if I am, please spell them out so I can examine them). Certainly our premises differ. My first premise is that we need “force” to control spiralling power that’s unhealthy for society. My second premise is that the free market alone is not sufficient to keep corporate power in check.

    If you see fault in those premises, please address them.

  4. Russ Nelson

    Why do you think that government legislation has the effect of regulating corporate behavior? Sometimes it does. More often, the legislation removes the ability of customers to regulate, and substitutes an inferior regulation. And sometimes, the legislation deregulates corporate behavior completely. That is why no legislation is the best regulation of all.

  5. Russell Nelson

    Here’s another thing where you have been misled by other people: free markets don’t require greed. Instead, the idea behind free markets is that people will ALWAYS be greedy, so you arrange things so that WHEN they are greedy, they must serve other people first. When you give government the power to legislate business controls, that serves as a “greed control point” (I just made that term up). If you can control that point, you can be as greedy as you want and nobody can stop you. When governments don’t have the power to enact controls over business, businesses have no option but to offer the customer the best deal.

    Let me say that in stark terms:
    When governments control business, business need only control government, and customers get screwed.
    When customers control business, business must make customers happy.
    Which of these two situations best describes, say, the K12 education market? The high education market? The market for occupational training?

    From a risk management / system design point of view, the first has one knob. Grab that knob, and you rule the market. The second has many knobs, no one of which is in control, and no one of which has power over the other.

    So here’s where you’ve gone wrong: you *think* that corporations have so much power that governments have to regulate them, but you’ve gotten the order backwards. Yes, it’s true that corporations have much market power. Yes, it’s true that governments regulate corporations. But the true state of affairs is that corporations have that much power because they’ve gotten the government to regulate away effective competition.

  6. Russell Nelson

    Okay, so you don’t see that government has a monopoly on legitimate violence. Let’s try an experiment. Try pointing a gun at a policeman. Everyone around you will dive for cover, and hope that the policeman kills you before you kill anyone. If the policeman does, he will suffer no harm. No one will condemn him for shooting you.

    Another experiment. Try not paying your taxes. Eventually the county will sell your land for the back taxes, and expect you to vacate their property. If you refuse to leave the land you consider your own, men with guns will come to remove you. If you resist, they will apply force. If you resist violently, they will draw their guns. If you continue to defend your property, they will shoot and kill you. Again, they are just doing their job and everyone will support them and not you.

    Try taking a gun into court. Or, in Texas, where the banks have signs saying “No guns allowed”, into a bank.

    In every one of these cases, your fellow citizens will back up the government against you, because they think the government should be the only entity using violence.

    Now, if you want to talk about forces, yes, there are forces pointing every which way. Steve Jobs is trying to force me to buy an iPad (but somehow, even though you complain that corporations have so much power that individuals cannot resist them, I still have not). You are trying to force me to explain liberty to you. I am trying to force you to change your mind (which is the hardest thing in the world to do). My fingers are forcing the keys to move. Force is everywhere and is normal and ordinary. Violence, however, is the purview of the government. If you wonder why I am always suspicious of every government action, look right there! Corporations are peaceful and governments are violent. You can find examples of wars fought by corporations through government proxies, but they are few and far between. It proves but does not break the rule.

  7. Russell Nelson

    I said:

    Why do you think customers can regulate indirectly through government when they they can do that directly??

    by which I mean: how is voting to do something any more effective than simply doing it? No new resources are created by voting. If you have 100 people, and they vote to do something, they have the power of 100 people. If they individually choose to do things, they still have the power of 100 people. Nothing is lost by doing something peacefully rather than the weapons shop.

    I can hear your wheels turning. You’re thinking “But when 100 people choose to do something, ALL of their power is brought to bear against the corporation”. Well, yes, that’s true. But let’s say that people can only choose to do one thing. Resources are always limited. Voting doesn’t create more of them. If you “tax” people by forcing them all to do the one thing that gets voted on, then all the other things they would do, doesn’t get done. So yes, 100 people banding together has the power to do one thing, but only at the cost of all the other things that people would truly prefer to do. Everyone who voted against the winning thing gets something other than their first choice — the thing they wanted most. Voting has made them worse off.

    There are ways to address the worst flaws of voting to do something. If you work hard at it, voting can be only a little bit worse than simply doing it. Of course *somebody* has to do that work, and that takes away from simply acting. And acting happens smoothly and continuously, whereas voting occurs discretely, and only after the need for action is forseen, and only for actions that can be planned in advance.

    For example, eminent domain is only needed by public bodies, because they need to vote on doing something, and that will clue people into trying to be the last person bought out. Whereas private entities doing things can do them quietly, so that nobody can game the system.

    Can you see, Scot, that voting to do something is always worse than simply doing it, and sometimes is much worse?

  8. Russell Nelson

    I think the 10:20 posting addresses your premise that governments can successfully force corporations, and the 10:50 posting addresses your premise that customer regulation is not, in the main, better than government regulation. They’re actually the same premise: that a free society can regulate corporations without corporations regulating the society. Kinda sounds like one hand clapping to me.

    If I’m being hard on you, it’s because we have the same goals (a free, prosperous society), but YOU are encouraging the government to take action which acts against the achievement of that goal. You’re subverting yourself. I feel sorry for you, but I’m angered that you’re countering my work toward that goal.

  9. shacker Post author

    Russ, I’m puzzled. Why would you say “Shut up, stupid” to me on Twitter, then return here and engage in civilized debate? What’s up with that?

    To your points, let me ask some concrete questions, and you tell me how the free market can solve them.

    - A corporation wants to buy as much land as they can and clear-cut rainforests, leading to more greenhouse gases and over-removing a slow-growing resource. The corp is exerting force over the land and the people, who are nearly powerless to stop them. Now, you might say, this is bad for citizens, so we should band together and boycott the company, starving it of money and thereby stopping the clear-cutting. But to make the boycott work, you’d have to A) Convince millions of people that their land can’t withstand the long-term effects of the clear-cutting; B) Make sure that the citizens can buy their products from another source (there are often monopolies at play here); C) Make sure another corp won’t come in and do the same thing to the land. Are these attainable objectives? Could the boycott become solid enough to make an impact before the whole forest is gone? What if it’s an international corp with deep pockets? A boycott by just one country wouldn’t make a dent. So it seems the citizens have no real leverage, no means to defend against the corporate force.

    - A tobacco company wants to market their cigarettes as healthy, and wants to market them to children. They are so wealthy, and their users so addicted, that no amount of boycotting will have an impact. They are exerting force over the people as drug peddlers. In this case you could say “It’s the users’ fault for getting addicted, not the corporations for lying and peddling.” But can society withstand the cost and impact of the lying and peddling? So this gets to the question of corporations and truth-telling, or of behaving with integrity in general.

    You’ve done a good job of explaining your position in the abstract. But what actual mechanism, other than government regulation, can protect citizens from these corporate behaviors (which are driven by unchecked greed)?

  10. Russell Nelson

    I have to write a few caveats in the abstract first. Sorry if that detracts from your attempt to pin me down.

    First, you’re asking how specific problems would be solved without the violence of the state. I don’t know the answer, because my whole point is that *I* don’t know the answer and *you* don’t know the answer either. Solutions to societal problems can’t be planned by smart people like you or I. They have to be worked out by the free interactions of all of us. If it were possible to plan the best solution, then force be damned, I’d do whatever it took to implement it. But I know that no such thing is possible, so I say from the start: don’t use force except to stop a greater amount of force.

    Second, it’s not necessary that the peaceful solution be at all good. It could be quite a horrible solution. It suffices that the solution be better than a forceful solution.

    Third, it’s quite possible that there is no acceptable peaceful solution. But that doesn’t mean that the forceful solution is any good either. You can’t look at the libertarian solution to a problem, dislike it, and then merely assume that the governmental solution is any better. It’s certainly possible that no acceptable solution of any kind exists.

    Fourth, there is no such thing as unchecked greed, unless the government has removed all checks. In that case, of course, you don’t have a free market. Greed is *always* checked, if only by other people’s greed. You see, the problem with markets is that greed is a commons. You can be greedy, and I can be greedy, but if we both try to be greedy, we run out of available greed. If we’re both competing in the same market regulated only by consumer action, I can lower my costs and gain market share over you by lowering my costs or providing better service, or doing any number of things which lower my profits on the individual sale, but which make it up in volume.

    You might think, in your fantasy world of unchecked corporate greed, that you can be as greedy as you want because there is no government legislation to stop you from being greedy. So you decide NOT to lower your profits. The trouble with that idea is that customers regulate the amount of acceptable greed in a market, and they won’t tolerate yours. They’ll go to your slightly-less-greedy competitor.

    You have two choices: give up some of your greed or give up your business. Well, if you give up your business, you have to give up ALL of your greed. So the only greedy thing to do is lower your amount of greed, and match your competitor’s lowered profits.

    At some point, both of you decide that there are no gains to be had by competing harder. THAT is the point of minimized greed. Below that, and you really WILL give up the business and go do something else.

    Now let’s toss in government attempts to regulate. There is essentially nothing that they can do to improve matters. If they try to force you to reduce your profits further, you will go do something else. If they do *anything* which impedes the competition, anything which gives either of you a slight edge, that will inhibit the greed-reducing effect, and increase the amount of greed. Government legislation cannot regulate markets better than consumer action.

    Obviously, this never works perfectly. You can find lots of examples where this doesn’t happen. Trouble is that you can’t really tell which is which. If you support government legislation of markets, then sometimes legislation improves regulation, and sometimes it makes it worse. It’s gonna come out as a wash — except that government action isn’t free. It’s quite expensive, and needs to be paid-for by other market interventions in the form of taxes. So unless government action *usually* improves the situation, it can’t justify its costs. And there’s no reason to believe that legislation improves regulation.

    Okay, on to your two examples.

    A corporation wants to buy as much land as they can and clear-cut rainforests

    Already you’re on the wrong track. Rainforests are usually in countries with poor property rights. People who have lived and worked the land for centuries don’t have title to the land. Somebody else does, and the government will side with them and not the true Lockean owners of the land. So you’re already starting with a non-free-market system which you don’t recognize as such.

    leading to more greenhouse gases

    Errr, no. Cutting down trees doesn’t increase greenhouse gases, since the trees will regrow (yes, I know about thin soil; we have it here; other plants will grow). One fifth of all the carbon in the air goes through plants every year.

    and over-removing a slow-growing resource.

    This is an assumption, not a fact. It’s possible that rainforest trees are more valuable when cut down than growing. I don’t know, you don’t know, you’re assuming. But to keep on track, let’s assume that you’re right.

    The corp is exerting force over the land and the people, who are nearly powerless to stop them.

    Because the government doesn’t recognize their title to the land. Or maybe the government owns the land and is selling it at a below-market price to benefit some politically-connected corporation. Either way, the government is wearing the black hat.

    Let’s keep track of the villain here!

    Now, you might say, this is bad for citizens,

    If it’s bad for citizens, then you’re saying that some other action is more profitable. By that I mean that people may value having the rainforest more as a rainforest than as lumber and some really poor soil. If so, they’ll be able to buy it, or rent it, or come to some other arrangement with the owners of the land which stops them from selling to the big nasty corporation.

    So it seems the citizens have no real leverage, no means to defend against the corporate force.

    In this example, with the assumptions you make, no, they don’t. But that’s because the government isn’t defending the property rights of the people. That’s not a failing of free markets, that’s a failing of governments. Expecting the government to step in and correct the mistake that it continues to make is … well, it’s insane.

    Let’s move on to your next example.

    A tobacco company wants to market their cigarettes as healthy,

    Why do you think a free market would tolerate this? Do you think that marketplace law is a construct of government? It isn’t. It’s a system that sprung up based on countless interactions between buyers and sellers. Eventually a default contract gets created, which has certain attributes. For example, something has to work as it’s described. If it doesn’t, then the word gets around that you are not an honest seller, and nobody will buy anything from you because they can’t trust you.

    So, if you’re selling cigarettes, and you let the maker of the cigarettes describe them falsely, people aren’t going to trust you and they’re going to buy elsewhere.

    People wickedly underestimate the amount of trust in a marketplace, precisely because there is such a high level of trust. Like water to a fish, nobody can see it, but it’s there. You just have to try to crack through the walls of the aquarium to find out. Break a consumer’s trust and you’ll see the swords come out. There is no mercy, nor should there be.

    wants to market them to children.

    Children are a really bad example. Nobody expects them to behave as adults, because, well, because they’re not adults. Children’s rights, and parent’s rights, are necessarily restricted. The right of children to smoke is restricted, and we implement that by forcing cigarette companies to refuse to sell them to children.

  11. mneptok

    Lax regulation led to the recent banking crisis and the BP oil spill.

    You’re being disingenuous.

    You imply there was no mechanism in place to defend against these things, and, indeed there was.

    The banking crisis was caused by people. The citizens. There would be no housing bubble and no banking crisis if people lived within their means. Sorry, if you make minimum wage, owning a 5K square foot home in a nice neighborhood is beyond your means. Stop blaming regulatory agencies for the unbridled avarice of the common person in the 21st century.

    The US-MMS was supposed to monitor and ensure compliance with Gulf drilling. It didn’t. All the government “force” you wanted was right there. And it failed.

    The solution to bad government oversight is not to layer more government on top of it. You pull the slum down, pave it over, and build something that works. And in my mind, telling a greedy, self-centered populace that they don’t need to worry about issues because The Gubmint will take care of it for them is a recipe for disaster.

  12. shacker Post author

    First, you’re asking how specific problems would be solved without the violence of the state. I don’t know the answer, because my whole point is that *I* don’t know the answer and *you* don’t know the answer either. Solutions to societal problems can’t be planned by smart people like you or I. They have to be worked out by the free interactions of all of us.

    Well, we disagree on this point. Solutions *have* to be planned by smart people because smart people have enough awareness of history and the patterns of interaction between corps and the populace to know that corps must be kept in check by something other than the interactions of the market, which by itself is insufficient to protect our shared resources, our health, our economic stability. We do know the answers because when we look around us, the landscape is littered with examples of corporate abuse at the expense of the health of society (I gave some examples in my earlier comment; I could give many more).

    If we’re both competing in the same market regulated only by consumer action, I can lower my costs and gain market share over you by lowering my costs or providing better service, or doing any number of things which lower my profits on the individual sale, but which make it up in volume.

    That’s the beautiful, Platonic theory of how things should work. You’re describing textbook free-market capitalism. But not even Adam Smith believed that it could actually work. Sure, greed is limited by what people will tolerate when it comes to something simple like the price of oranges. But refusing to buy one oil company’s product because it rapes the land and the people in South America isn’t going to help, because there are other oil companies happy to go in and do the same thing, and I don’t have the option of buying no oil at all. I can refuse to buy bug spray from a chemical company with a lousy track record, but not until it’s too late and the bird eggs elsewhere in the food chain have become so thin that chicks are dying (IOTW the free market doesn’t do a good job at all of controlling for externalities).

    The fact of the matter is that if you want to advocate for an unchecked free market, you have to be prepared to be pinned down on specifics – you can’t be slippery on these questions. We’re talking about the operation of the real world here.

    Already you’re on the wrong track. Rainforests are usually in countries with poor property rights. People who have lived and worked the land for centuries don’t have title to the land. Somebody else does, and the government will side with them and not the true Lockean owners of the land. So you’re already starting with a non-free-market system which you don’t recognize as such.

    The point is that the government needs to side with whatever course of action is best for the country – and that clearly is not cutting down forests. If you don’t like this example, then focus on the one about our National Parks, which we wouldn’t have today if the free market had had its way.

    It’s possible that rainforest trees are more valuable when cut down than growing.

    Exactly – more valuable in terms of money, and only in the short term. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that corps and greedy individuals do best. Short-term profit at the expense of long-term health for larger systems. That’s why reefs are destroyed, forests clear cut, plastic bags fill landfills and oceans…. all the result of thinking like Ferenghi.

    Why do you think a free market would tolerate this?

    Because it’s the case all over the world. Wherever tobacco company advertising is not regulated, cigarettes are marketed to children. We’re not talking economic theory here – we’re talking about empirical reality. This is how greed behaves. And the “free market” does nothing to stop it.

  13. shacker Post author

    @mneptok – The whole problem with the MMS is/was that it’s a “government” org that’s being run by the oil industry itself. During the Bush years, the MMS quite literally got into bed with the oil industry it was supposed to regulate. It’s an ugly story. Point is, you can’t point to the MMS as an example of govt regulation because it wasn’t one. Greed got in the way of regulation.

    The banking crisis was caused by people. The citizens. There would be no housing bubble and no banking crisis if people lived within their means.

    Certainly true (that people don’t have the good sense to live within their means), but you also know that banks acted unethically, lied, and strongly encouraged tens of thousands to take out loans that they knew were bad — all because they weren’t closely monitored. Greed led the banking industry to do un-sane things, which regulation could have prevented. The free market did what the free market does – impaled itself on its own Achille’s Heel (sorry, mixed metaphor).

    And in my mind, telling a greedy, self-centered populace that they don’t need to worry about issues because The Gubmint will take care of it for them is a recipe for disaster.

    You talk about Gubmint as if it were something other than ourselves. We are the government. That’s the cornerstone of our democracy. Government is not an alien. It’s us designating certain people who believe certain things to take care of certain process. Just like you do in your family (each family member gets a set of chores and responsibilities – that doesn’t mean Junior is some kind of alien element because we told him it was his job to mow the lawn). We designate Uncle Jeb to mind the hen house agains the foxes. We designate certain members of our population to guard the forests against the greedy corps. Same thing.

    All that said guys – feel free to respond but I’m busy hosting a workshop and leaving on vacation in a few days – won’t weigh in on this again for a while.

  14. mneptok

    You talk about Gubmint as if it were something other than ourselves. We are the government. That’s the cornerstone of our democracy.

    The cornerstone of our democracy is the idea that government is controlled by the people, and that the people are not controlled by the government. This was quite fresh in the minds of the Framers, who had just suffered under a government to which they answered, and was not answerable to them.

    As Thomas Jefferson said, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

    No government with the kind of control you want to give it is going to be scared of the people. Ever. It will be a self-serving bureaucratic behemoth.

    You want a safe, definable, ordered world. It’s a nice idea. But that’s not the way things are. The world is messy and chaotic. People are messy and chaotic. Business is messy and chaotic. Nature is messy and chaotic. If you try to control the chaos inherent in the world, all you do is control people. Your neighbors. Your friends. Me.

    I’m not willing to sacrifice liberty for a little security. But that’s me.

  15. Jesse Taylor

    I think you’ve misrepresented what libertarians believe. I think it goes like this:

    * Compulsory forms of government (i.e. those where you have no say in what they do to you, and have to do what they say) deprive people of political liberty (i.e. the ability to directly participate in all political decisions that affect you)

    * Depriving people of political liberty is a bad thing, because it leads to unhealthy imbalances in other areas (such as economic inequalities, etc.)

    *Therefore compulsory government is a bad thing.

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