Friday, May 27, 2016

Political and Economic Realism

The Libertarian Party in the United States is no more (and maybe no less) realistic than the Democratic or Republican parties. The platforms of parties are not based on realistic legislative goals; they are the work of party ideologues with little to no hope of becoming legal realities. There are exceptions, but overall the party platforms are hopes and dreams, meant to reaffirm core values for base voters.

In the world of an Almost Classical Liberal, ideologues from across the political landscape represent the failure of pragmatism in our political discourse.

Let us admit to some basic realities, how things really are, and that might reduce the name calling and outlandish fallacies that dominate our political climate.

1) Every major nation in the world has a hybrid economic system. There are welfare state programs in most industrialized nations and those aren't going to be ending anytime soon. Also, there are markets in those nations, and the markets aren't going away, either.

2) Every nation is a "failure" of some perfect political model that didn't take hold. The Communist nations ended up nothing like the Marxist ideal, and never will achieve the Communism of Marx. Instead, cults of personality and authoritarianism lead to Leninism and Maoist cults. Sorry, but Communism in practice ends up with a technocratic and/or bureaucratic class in charge — and they assume they are entitled to more than their "worker" comrades.

Democracies fail because voters want things, often things the nation cannot afford in endless supply. This leads to rationing, at some point, and voters get angry. Democracies end up pretending to serve the majority while trying to defend the elites from political collapse. Safety nets expand and contract to balance the tensions between the classes.

Republics, which seem ideally suited to the libertarian ideal, end up dominated by coalitions of the business and technocratic elites. Corporations and regulators collude, sadly, and a system meant to mitigate the risks of mob rule and personality cults ends up serving near-oligarchs.

3) Every claim of "It's never been tried" is a proud (and silly) deflection of reality. Of course Marxism hasn't been tried. Of course, neither has capitalism as described by Adam Smith. Republicanism was sort of attempted in various nations, and it continues to limp along in most of the West (elected representatives, protections of minorities against mob rule), but republicanism is struggling.

With the above three items in mind, a realistic libertarian has to admit some things that he or she will not like but must accept: 1) social safety nets aren't shrinking until they collapse; and 2) ideologues won't admit their systems also failed.

The best we can hope to do is limit the size and scope of government vs. individual freedom. We cannot hope for a free and open market, because that would require informed consumers and transparent markets. Our markets are not transparent (especially in health care and finance) and transparency seems unlikely anytime soon.

We can fight for our ideals, but we must also participate in our political and economic systems as they are, not as we wish them to be.

My goals for the United States are still unrealistic, though less radical than the Libertarian Party platform. I'm certainly no objectivist, either.

In my ideal world:

1) We should have transparent markets, especially in health care, finance, and education. Pricing should never be hidden from consumers, because then the supposed "value add" is undisclosed.

2) The federal government would, except in extreme cases, defer to the states and local government. The decisions that affect our daily lives are local: education, public safety, transportation, et cetera. The federal government is used to forcing regions to comply with largely elite, urban ideals. Too much of that and people will rebel, at least at the ballot box.

3) Individual freedom would trump majority values. What people do in private rarely alters my life. You don't have to be tolerant or accepting of other lifestyles: ignore them and deal with your own life, please.

4) Companies, unions, groups of people, whatever and whomever, would not receive special treatment in the tax codes or any other regulations. We all belong to "special interests" and it's time to admit that most of us complain about "special interests" only when some other group receives a favor. Sorry, but the middle class gets more perks than any other group — because that's where the votes are. That's not good government. Big corporations get special treatment, too, but plenty of research shows the middle class tax breaks (which the wealthy also receive) are the untouchable budget items.

5) No party-based primary elections, immediate disclosure of donations, and a "majority to win" requirement with instant run-offs in elections. Nobody with only 40 percent of the vote should win an elected position. Parties have lost their influence, with single-party dominance in most congressional districts assuring the primary is the election. Let's come up with something better.

6) Simplify taxes, eliminate deductions, and establish a maximum debt ratio for the federal budget. I do not believe in balanced budgets, but there should be fiscal discipline.

Why I dislike most "Libertarian" and "Conservative" politicians:

1) The Gold Standard. Absolute nonsense. Every "standard" is arbitrary, including the gold standard. We could not return to the gold standard without major disruptions to the global economy.

2) Deregulation without commonsense. Seriously, the financial industry should never have lost its focus on basic saving and lending. Once the local savings and loan became a casino, it was doomed. Insuring the gambling was even dumber.

3) Unwillingness to criticize the bigots clinging to libertarianism as an excuse for hatred. Sorry, but if we believe in freedom, we must also believe in a responsibility to point out and protest hatred. Fine, a baker doesn't want to sell cakes to gay couples. Libertarians can accept that, be we should also decry the stupidity of the baker.

4) The God vote. The moment I hear a politician invoke religion, I am biased against that person. Stop equating liberty with the "freedom" to teach religion in public schools or to enforce a particular faith's morality via laws and regulations. Go away. Please.

But, I am realistic. Sadly, my only political choices are often people espousing some pretty stupid ideas, but at least the ideas are less stupid than the alternatives.

I must be pragmatic, not a purist.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Left-Leaning Libertarians

A supposed "tolerant progressive" wrote online that Libertarians are "invariably men with immature, selfish attitudes." When asked why she also invoked Ayn Rand on a regular basis when criticizing the "greedy libertarians" she posted that Rand "looked and acted like a man." At least the irony wasn't missed by those posting comments on Facebook. Reading this thread, which started on the site of a major online magazine, the generalities from all sides were disturbing.

Can we be any more insulting to people with different views than the approved urban-elitist progressivism? (See, I can generalize, too!)

Seriously, my wife is more "Libertarian" than I am, but I consider myself more "libertarian." The range from left-to-right within libertarianism is probably broader than the ranges within either major political party in the United States. What unifies libertarians is a distrust of the majority to protect the rights of the minority without negative rights being codified in the Constitution. We simply do not trust groups — and plenty of research and history support this skepticism.

I am a left-of-center ("moderate" or "pragmatic") almost classical liberal. I object to the social engineering of the Republican Party, which is heavy-handed when they have complete faith in a cause. I object to the social engineering of the Democratic Party, too, which wants to protect me from bad choices.

Let me state the apparently not-so-obvious: there are left-leaning and extreme-left "libertarians" and if you go far enough out along the political scales you reach the other side. (This is why I prefer scales of statist-individualist, since authoritarians are authoritarians, no matter what they might claim.)

Left-leaning, pragmatic libertarians are found among policy architects of Democratic administrations. They are men and women who believe in choice, but also know that the "default choice" should be the best choice for society. (An example used in texts: organ donor status should be a choice, but opt-out versus opt-in leads to more organ donors and more benefits for society.) There's nothing wrong with this "parental libertarianism" (sometimes called "paternal" but that label is problematic).

The left-leaning libertarian believes that it is absurd to claim "ownership" of natural resources that no company created. You can own the technology to extract, process, refine, and deliver oil, gas, gold, diamonds, or even salt. You cannot claim to have created the actual item of value — you can only offer a "value-add" via extraction. Compare this to the farmer, who plants a seed, nurtures it, harvests the crop, and so on. For this reason, many left-leaning libertarians support mineral leases, extraction taxes, and so on, allowing the people of a state share in the benefits of luck while also rewarding technological innovation.

It's quite fair to charge mining and extraction fees, but those fees cannot make it unprofitable to extract and distribute those resources. And because the presence of resources is a matter of luck, not individual action, there's also some reason to allow some regulation on how resources are managed. The key question for the libertarian is how to balance rewarding risk in the marketplace with sharing this "luck of location."

But, most businesses are not extraction of the most extreme sort. Most businesses should be left alone as much as possible, allowed to rise and fall on their own merits.

My personal "model" for the left/center of libertarianism is Deidre McCloskey. As her website notes, she's a "Christian libertarian" who believes in social safety nets, but would rather err on the side of freedom and individualism whenever a policy choice is made. Just because you don't want government to operate as the leading charity in our nation doesn't mean you don't believe in the concept of charity. Anytime government "helps" someone, it gets to set rules and conditions on that help. Those rules have unintended consequences.

I encourage readers of this blog to read McCloskey.
Deirdre McCloskey
Deirdre McCloskey taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. A well-known economist and historian and rhetorician, she has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. She is known as a "conservative" economist, Chicago-School style (she taught in the Economics Department there from 1968 to 1980, and in History), but protests that "I'm a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not 'conservative'! I'm a Christian libertarian."
For a little more on left-leaning libertarianism, you can read Wikipedia as an okay starting point. It's not the best resource, though. Instead, consider reading the early works of Austrian economists.

Critics point out that even left-leaning libertarians have allowed their messages to be co-opted to defend racism, sexism, and other bigotries. The progressive movement, however, was often led by outright racists (Woodrow Wilson) and people intolerant of the disabled (George Bernard Shaw). The Republican party has been stuck with its bigots since the 1970s, so there's no "good" political movement with clean hands.

It is incumbent upon libertarians to reject the bigots using our ideals to defend their hatreds. If we're going to suggest freedom with risks is better than less personal freedom with more security, then we need to explain why freedom is so important. We have to explain how a "free market" isn't the mess we have in the United States. We have to explain variation within Austrian and conservative economic theories, refuting the idea there is one unified "libertarian" economic model. We need to remind people that libertarians, like progressive or conservatives, are a varied group.

Defending individual freedom does mean defending the right to fail. Life cannot be risk free, neither can business. The libertarian not only accepts risks are part of a dynamic economy, but embraces that risk as the price of advancement.

I'm on a crusade, probably quixotic, to stop the insults lobbed at libertarianism from the progressive camp. As long as the loudest progressives refuse to appreciate the tolerance of libertarianism, they will be estranged from potential allies on a great many issues. That's a shame.

Friday, May 6, 2016

More Caricatures of "Libertarians"

Tonight, someone generalized so broadly about libertarianism that I was shaking in anger. The notion that libertarians do not care about other people is beyond insulting. It is precisely because we do care about human rights that we want government powers and government intrusions limited.

People trusting the government any more than they trust corporations will either be disappointed or choose to willfully ignore the failures of government. And government fails spectacularly on a constant basis.

It scares me that an increasing number of people are okay with "socialism" or "communism" and have nothing but contempt for classical liberalism. They blindly associate libertarian ideals with crony capitalism and a lack of compassion.

Most of us in the "classical liberal" school of thought are not Libertarians with a capital-L as in the Libertarian Party. The party, for one thing, does not reflect the Austrian economists much less Adam Smith. The Libertarian Party is close to the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, not the morality-based market ideals of Hayek or Adam Smith.

I'm tired of people accusing libertarians (small-l) of "Social Darwinism" and glorifying greed. Even Rand did no such thing, as I've written before: her characters would rather be poor than surrender to mediocrity for money (read The Fountainhead, it is a rejection of selling out).

For most libertarians, government serves the essential purpose of protecting the individual from the mob. It creates and maintains the rule of law, including contract law. Government at the local level performs vital functions, agreed to at the local level, in compliance with the national ideals of freedom.

I'm tired of being insulted for caring about freedom.

In no way do I believe money is the path to happiness or that greed is good. I do believe that government threatens my freedom more than the local Walmart does, but that doesn't mean I have to love Walmart.

The insults from left and right towards libertarians remind me how lousy politics are in this nation and how divided we are as a nation.

To one side, I'm a lousy amoral person willing to accept transgender unisex bathrooms. To the other side, I'm a horrible capitalist pig willing to let employers automate jobs and outsource parts.

The libertarians I know donate time and money to causes. They want better roads, safe water, and decent schools. They also know that governments and businesses form alliances that favor the big and powerful over the small business, over the individual citizen. We don't trust government because once it regulates, the powerful get the regulations and rules they want… while the rest of us get crushed.

Big companies complain about regulations, but they can comply. Small businesses get ruined.

Witness the mess after the financial crisis. On this Bernie Sanders is right: the big banks got bigger, not smaller, after the mess. Why? Government regulation actually helped remove competition. Funny how that worked out.

Libertarians are not in favor of such crony capitalism. We want less regulation because that's actually more fair to the small and medium-sized businesses.

Imagine a world in which medical services had price boards. Not shifting prices, based on your insurance, but fixed pricing posted for all people to see and understand. The price is the price, period. That's a libertarian ideal. Most of us believe regulations and complex insurance systems have made health care expensive and inefficient. Libertarians want transparency in a market.

Do I oppose, do most libertarians oppose, social safety nets? No. The Libertarian Party aside, few classical liberals reject the basic modern welfare state. Adam Smith reminded us that taxes on the rentier class should support those workers in needs. Many current libertarian economists suggest a "guaranteed income" would be better than the modern tangle of welfare programs. That's not social darwinism. If anything, it's simply a more efficient way to care for people and let them make their own decisions on how to live on that basic income.

Stop claiming all classical liberals and libertarians are Libertarians. We aren't. We cover the range of political and economic models, but we always place the individual above the group. We believe in freedom ("negative rights") because we don't trust other people to tell us how to live and we don't want to tell others what is right or wrong, either.

Sadly, the 2016 election mess is going to give the Libertarian Party more attention than it deserves. It is not home to classical liberalism. It is home to an almost nihilistic distaste for any and all government, a reaction to conservative and liberal overreach during the last 50 years.

The Libertarian Party could shift towards more pragmatic views, but I doubt it will.

The classical liberal has no party in the United States. We're stuck watching and hoping the nation doesn't implode from the radicals in the two major parties, while knowing the party that claims to represent us is often a juvenile reaction to the major parties.

And so we are caricatured, by the two parties, because we have no platform and the intellectuals in our schools of thought are in fields like economics or decision sciences. We abandoned the social sciences to the left long ago. There are few strong, coherent voices for classical liberalism.

We care about people. We care about freedom. And we're disillusioned after watching the two parties pulling further and further away from this nation's founding principles.