Saturday, August 22, 2009

If a libertarian falls in the forest...

Is he/she still right?

One reason my posting has been slow is waaaay too much time spent wading through some detailed and carefully thought-through comments by some of my favorite bloggers on government policy.  In addition, as some of you have commented, I seem to have lost my way as I journeyed from Ayn Randville to another place altogether.

Libertarians have been having a veritable editorial eruption as the prospect of a massive new government "intrusion" appears on the horizon, and as you will see, they put forth some seriously powerful arguments against, well...everything (which is essentially the libertarian point of view).

Will Wilkinson from Cato captured this theme best in his brilliant paper on inequality, which I found compelling.
Recent discussions of economic inequality, marked by a lack of clarity and care, have confused the public about the meaning and moral significance of rising income inequality. Income statistics paint a misleading picture of real standards of living and real economic inequality. Several strands of evidence about real standards of living suggest a very different picture of the trends in economic inequality. In any case, the dispersion of incomes at any given time has, at best, a tenuous connection to human welfare or social justice. The pattern of incomes is affected by both morally desirable and undesirable mechanisms. When injustice or wrongdoing increases income inequality, the problem is the original malign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many thinkers mistake national populations for "society" and thereby obscure the real story about the effects of trade and immigration on welfare, equality, and justice. There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the poor can be addressed only through policies that actually work to fight poverty and improve education. Income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice. [More]
Counter-posts rained down in response.  Ezra Klein, for example, reaches common ground that inequality is a symptom from a different approach altogether.
One of Will's first arguments is that income inequality is not a good way to think about the issue. The real key is consumption inequality. It's not, in other words, how much money people make, but how much stuff they buy. And "the weight of the evidence shows that the run-up in consumption inequality has been considerably less dramatic than the rise in income inequality."
You'd think the fact that our ears are still ringing from the deafening "pop!" of the consumption bubble would, in some way, impact this analysis. But it doesn't. Nor does the word "debt." But that's how many households have kept their consumption high amid widespread wage stagnation. [More]
OK - with you guys so far.  But the more I read about how this insight affects the best way to handle the health care issue, I found my attention wandering, even as I slowly grasped and agreed with most of the meticulous arguments.

So what is my point, you may be wondering?

Simply this, as minds far brighter then mine are working overtime to illuminate good choices for our nation during these profoundly important debates, I become more convinced they are having little or no impact.

Contrast the conversations above with the tenor of the popular media.  Voices like Wilkinson, even though probably closer to being helpful than most others are irrelevant because they no longer have a constituency among conservatives.

What passes for conservative thought is less informed by libertarian principles than ever. The health care debate has been hijacked by fear-mongering and outright deception to trigger visceral, and anti-intellectual antipathy to those who would advocate more effective policy.  As Wilkinson himself points out, he does not oppose government intervention such as redistributive policy if it addresses problems, not symptoms.  Contrast that with senior citizens shouting about death panels.

Of course, there is much less common ground between liberals/progressives and libertarians to begin with.  The underlying philosophies simply are too far apart.

Consequently, libertarians preach as never before to few, and to make matters worse, have allowed their ideals to front those who simply oppose government intervention that does not benefit them directly.  Farmers, who benefit from massive federal largesse are suddenly invoking libertarian screeds as if now  - after they have gotten theirs - it is time to draw a line in the philosophical sand. And boy - do we want an intrusive government when it comes to the ethanol mandate.

I was almost relieved to see that, yup - I still think along many of the same lines as the guys at Reason and Cato and Volokh.  Including lower defense spending, free trade, open immigration, decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, and a raft of other issues.

Other than satisfying our own desire for being "correct", libertarians have proven to be fairly impotent in the public sphere even as they probably offer more good ideas that any other faction. While many slogans are embraced by self-styled conservatives, they are only for political expediency.  The same voices horrified by the stimulus spending (which has been pretty well embraced by all flavors of economists despite the costs) would hardly be speaking up were the political power structure reversed, I suspect.  And when it was, a few months ago, libertarians were again heartily ignored by the right.

So those of us actually interested in what happens in the next few months are likely wasting our time laboring through abstruse arguments while real impact will be caused by whoever gets in the last terrifying commercial before the vote, or which Senator is likely to have a primary challenge.

Maybe libertarian philosophy peaked with Ron Paul, but even as it has found a powerful voice on blogs and websites, it has become incidental to public discourse because it is shackled by a quaint insistence on provable truth. Without any standing on the right, it is doomed to articulate commentary, not meaningful persuasion.

It has ever been thus, perhaps, but for my own conscience sake, I think I have finally figured out why I don't go to those sites as much. 

They don't matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, dry your tears John. It is not your opinion they are ignoring, it is just Libertarians aren't spending enough money on campaign contributions and lobbying. You watch, when it is all said and done with the health care debate, the winners will be those that spent the money(Insurance and drug companies, hospitals and doctors) not the people of America.