The 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.