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Jan 25

Libertarian Theory and Practice

Sam SederThe following video from the Majority Report is really good and very funny. Sam Seder has a standing “libertarian challenge” where he encourages libertarians to call in and discuss issues. At first, when I heard libertarians call in, I thought the show must be screening for stupid people, but I don’t think that’s it at all. Anyone calling up a radio show is at a distinct disadvantage because they aren’t professional talkers. What’s more, Sam Seder is a very smart and knowledgeable guy. He is also quick-witted and funny. So it is no surprise that by the end of the call, the libertarians come off sounding crazy as they back themselves not so much into a corner as into non-existence.

But I think there is a special aspect of libertarianism that creates this problem. When I was a libertarian, all my libertarian friends would come to me with theoretical questions. The truth is that they never seemed to get the philosophical basis of it. They were attached to libertarianism for reasons other than theory. Most often this was just good old American rugged individualist mentality. My feelings on the matter were quite different.

I felt trapped in libertarianism. Theory seemed to dictate that I believe in a political philosophy that I really didn’t like. As a result, when I got into arguments with non-libertarians, I made absolutely no practical claims for it. I was completely willing to admit that the kind of policies that came from it would create an overall terrible society. That didn’t mean I won or lost arguments—I don’t think I did either. I think people went away for the conversations thinking I was so mired in theory that it didn’t make a lot of sense to talk practical matters with me. But at least I was reasonably internally consistent. Eventually, I saw that the problem was not so much my reasoning but the assumptions I was making.

Libertarians more generally accept the theoretical foundations because they’re used to reading people who looked at it the same way I did. But the only reason they are reading someone like Friedman is because they already think that libertarianism will create a better world. Thus we get the Sam Seder kind of debates. The libertarian will start by making a practical claim for his beliefs. All hope is lost at that point. Libertarianism is a theoretical system and it needs to be defended on that basis. On a practical level, a libertarian approach sometimes points the way to better policy. But that is the best you can say about it.

The caller in this clip tries to argue against the minimum wage. The argument he starts with is that it will destroy jobs. This is not a libertarian argument! The libertarian argument against the minimum wage is that employers and employees should have the right to enter into any contracts they want. I can demolish this argument because it has hidden assumptions about freedom that employees do not have in the modern world. But it doesn’t matter because when it comes to public political debate, no one is interested in theory. A perfect theoretical system is nice for people like me, but the question ultimately is whether or not the theory will make things better or worse. So even if the caller had started with the theoretical argument, it would soon have become practical.

But the caller did start with the practical. He then, of course, went to the theory. But in his case, the theory wasn’t about contracts and freedom. It was economic theory that supposedly proved that if you raised the minimum wage it would cost jobs. Just supply and demand! It was a classic example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. It isn’t just supply and demand. It is actually quite complicated and that’s why in general we don’t find much evidence to support job losses because of modest increases in the minimum wage. But what I especially like in this video is the denouement where the caller, having changed the argument from practical to theoretical, changes the argument to the ultimate technical issue: the quality of Sam Seder’s mic!

The video is over 20 minutes long and it is quite enjoyable. But the libertarian’s argument can be summed up quite simply, “I just know that it is bad to raise the minimum wage because it will cost jobs.” He never made that case, but even if he had, that wouldn’t end it. Is job creation the only good in our society? Isn’t the loss of a few jobs a price worth paying so that those who do have jobs can live in dignity? I’m not sure what the caller would have to say about that. I know there is no libertarian theory to guide us on that point. And that’s the big problem with libertarianism.

2 comments

  1. JMF

    Poor caller. I could defend libertarianism a lot better than this, but probably not on live radio to a host who has all the power in the conversation. The caller actually sounds less like a doctrinaire idiot (until the end) and more a believer in local government being more responsive to social problems than the federal government. Quite true in many cases; less true, as we know, when it comes to things like voting rights.

    There’s probably a case to be made for a low minimum wage. In very special circumstances. If we still had a manufacturing base, there would be a role for teenagers getting $8 an hour just to be around grownups who provide positive models of adulthood, even if the teens can’t contribute to the company’s productivity for a few months or a year.

    (In real life, of course, the minimum wage for grownups should be linked to inflation, and pay enough to meet the rent plus setting a few dollars aside . . . with full health benefits. For every job. Everywhere.)

    I’m a fan of extreme theories. When the acceptable discourse is narrowly constrained, extreme theories can help open up the range of debate. 150 years ago, women getting to vote would have been considered outrageous, silly, laughable.

    Once the debate’s been opened, then you have to set aside the extreme theory for practical responsibility. I understand where this can be hard to do. If you’ve believed in an extreme theory when everyone was laughing at you, what do you do when they stop laughing? The natural inclination is to stay with what got you thus far. However there’s a big difference between theorizing that is just howling in the wind and trying to be heard versus making decisions that have concrete ramifications on other people’s lives.

    Libertarianism has some good arguments. Some very good arguments. Adherents should also be aware where it came from; in America, it came from racists and rich people wanting the right to beat blacks and workers to death. That’s the origin story. It’s not where libertarian ideas come from, but it is why they became popular here. Admit it; say you abhor it; talk about the older, more principled inspirations for libertarianism, and get with the damn "what does this mean in the real world" program already.

    Because libertarianism isn’t a theory howling in the wind. It’s well within our narrow range of acceptable discourse. It has been for quite a while. And, as such, it has some things it can be proud of contributing to and many, many things it really needs to answer for.

  2. admin

    @JMF – I think that you are wrong about the caller. I know how libertarians think and I know what is behind all their arguments. The "local governance is best" argument is just a way of destroying the government. It is hard for local governments to raise taxes, because it is so easy to move. This is why state and local taxes tend to be regressive. The only reason our tax system is overall [i]slightly[/i] progressive is the federal income tax. This is why libertarians (Like all conservatives!) argue about it and not the regressive taxes. And the moment it is to their advantage to argue the opposite way (as it is on some pet issues), they do. For example, among anti-choice "libertarians," the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade would be celebrated as a proper use of government.

    I agree with your analysis of extremists and I even apply it to myself. My perfect world would probably be a disaster, even though my ideas are fairly practical. The problem with libertarianism especially is that the kind that is now "popular," is a most pernicious kind. Look at Rand Paul: he isn’t even for drug legalization. (He’s also anti-choice!) He’s only for the legalization of cannabis, and even that he seems to hold his nose about. In these people’s hands, libertarianism is showing its true colors: it is the belief that nothing should stand in the way of the freedom of the rich. And it is as simple as that.

    Now, I understand that most adherents don’t see it that way. And there is a subset of libertarianism that I get along pretty well with: the bleeding heart libertarians. I still think they are wrong, but I appreciate what they [i]think[/i] they are doing. But they are, in my experience in the movement, perhaps 5%. And that was when libertarianism was much smaller. I suspect now, that percentage is even smaller. Most libertarians just have a visceral hatred of the government, the way old communists hated Wall Street bankers. They are, quite simply: dangerous.

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