Monday, March 17, 2008

Libertarians And Their One-Note Melody

Ezra Klein:

I find it impressive that Megan was able to use the financial meltdown to compare liberals who're calling for tighter regulation of a financial market run amok to conservatives who call for warrantless wiretapping. In these tough economic times, it's comforting to know that normalcy can still be achieved.
Actually, the Megan McArdle post Ezra links to is a lovely, chemically pure example of what makes libertarianism so clear, logical, and utterly misguided:
So the left wants me to admit that the current meltdown means that we need oodles more financial regulation, and maybe the death penalty for being a rich idiot. The right wants me to admit that if we don't allow warrantless wiretapping, it will be harder to catch terrorists. . . .

These two things are essentially flip sides of the same coin for me. Government powers come only at enormous cost: to liberty, to community, to the economy, and of course, the financial burden of paying for them. In some cases they are necessary. But pointing to a problem and noting that it exists is not an automatic warrant for me to smash it with the hammer of the state.
Well, I suppose that regulation of financial markets is "the flip side of the same coin" as warrantless wiretapping if both are viewed solely as exercises of government power. But by that token, everything that government does is essentially the same. Public schools are pretty much the same thing as nuclear weapons. The FDA is about the same as farm price supports. Putting drug dealers in prison is interchangeable with Social Security disability benefits.

Megan and many other libertarians are so focused on the "enormous cost" of government that they never move on to ask the obvious questions most people ask whenever they are asked to pay for something: What are we buying? Do we want it? Is it worth the price we are being asked to pay? Is there some better alternative? Rather than get into any of these messy, real-world questions, Megan just says, "Ooh, that sounds expensive," and decides not to use "the hammer of the state," no matter what the purpose, the cost, or the context.

This is about as logical as considering all proposed purchases the same--tickets to a Broadway show, prescription medicine, a vacation in the Caribbean, repairs to the family car. (You might imagine some pathological miser feeling equally resistant to all these forms of spending.) If you were to evaluate everything solely on the basis of whether or not it costs money, you'd end up lumping together things that are totally different--just like libertarians, who evaluate everything solely on the basis of whether or not it involves government power.

Of course, Megan would never admit that she reflexively, mindlessly opposes government action no matter what the circumstances. Instead, she pretends that she is simply doing battle against unnamed, hypothetical opponents who "automatically" want to use the government to solve every conceivable problem. This is a pure straw man. Socialists in the contemporary U.S. are a vanishingly small minority with no voice in the public debate. The only people with knee-jerk attitudes toward government are the libertarians and their Republican allies, whose knees jerk to the right rather than the left.

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