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December 20, 2004

Why Does Libertarianism Descend So Quickly Into Self-Parody?

Reason's Jacob Sollum writes:

Hit and Run: The point, I hasten to add, is not that today's "public health" paternalists are Nazis. I am not suggesting that everyone who hates smoking is just like Hitler. But there is an unmistakable totalitarian logic to the notion that the government has a responsibility to promote "public health" by preventing us from engaging in activities that might lead to disease or injury. The implication is that we all have a duty to the collective to be as healthy as we can be, an idea the Nazis embraced but one that Americans ought to find troubling.

And let's start by removing those annoying signs at the gas station telling Jacob to remove the gas can from the bed of the pickup truck and put it on the ground before filling it! There really is something totalitarian about the government's reminding people that they really don't want to be in the middle of their own little fuel-air explosion, isn't there?

Posted by DeLong at December 20, 2004 11:39 AM

Comments

Public health is one of the great triumphs of modernity -- clean drinking water probably saved more lives than everything else put together. Stupid remarks about public health programs are a good indicator of incurable freemarketer fanaticism.

Yes, I HAVE seen freemarketers question the need to provide safe tap water. I've seen them attack free public libraries. I've seen principled opposition to public funding for the Smithsonian institute.

Some of them really are mad dogs who should be encouraged to bite themselves.

Posted by: John Emerson at December 20, 2004 11:53 AM


My gas station had an even more intrusive prohibition: "do not syphon by mouth". There is also an instruction to switch the engine off before pumping gas, which is not only fascist but anti-poor --- what if your alternator does not work and you can start only with a jump start?

Posted by: piotr at December 20, 2004 12:02 PM


Yeah and what business does the government have telling us we can't drink and drive?

Posted by: knobboy at December 20, 2004 12:04 PM


Right, because we'd NEVER have clean water without a government mandate. All of us non-leftists HATE the thought of clean water. If you weren't keeping guard 24/7, we'd pee in it behind your back.

So Delong, aren't you an economist who has a notion of marginal cost and benefit? I guess in your world, no cost is too high when it comes to warning (or forcing) others to comply to their notion of safety, no matter that the benefit may be incredibly small.

[Yep. Self-parody. Descent. Quickly.]

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 12:08 PM


Right, because we'd NEVER have clean water without a government mandate. All of us non-leftists HATE the thought of clean water. If you weren't keeping guard 24/7, we'd pee in it behind your back.

Ah, from such a small acorn does the mighty oak of obfuscation grow.

Posted by: Ivor the Engine Driver at December 20, 2004 12:13 PM


Whatever Ivor. Got a meaningful point?

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 12:15 PM


Why would anyone think these statements are even faintly comparable?

1. "Don't smoke because it's bad for you."

2. "Don't fill your gas can in a way that may ignite the gas station."

#1 instructs you not to hurt yourself. #2 instructs you not to endanger others.

Only #1 is "paternalistic".

[Yep. Self parody. Descent. Quickly.]

Posted by: MDP at December 20, 2004 12:19 PM


[another comment spam makes it through]

Posted by: at December 20, 2004 12:39 PM


This is a fine line that libertarians tread. Mostly, it's the laws that aren't about saving people from your idiocy, but saving you from yourself. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish under which category a law falls.

The flip-side of the smoking label debate is that the law is designed not to protect one from your own idiocy, but to protect consumers from malicious tobacco companies. This argument held water back when the dangers of smoking were not as well-publicized, but it is common knowledge now, and the labels only serve a paternal function rather than a consumer protection function.

A closer analogy than the gas can situation is the seatbelt law - where you MIGHT be able to make an argument that without a seatbelt, in the event of an accident you become a projectile and are therefore a danger to others, but I don't think that's the argument most lawmakers are making however.

Posted by: Joel Barciauskas at December 20, 2004 12:40 PM


Please, just ban my IP. You simply can't take it.

[If you insist. Done.]

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 12:47 PM


"Fair, Balanced, and a Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community"

Now that's ironic.

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 12:50 PM


I think if you went back and traced how the smoking warnings signs came into being it was a case of the tobacco companies using them to prevent more serious govt actions.

So the question is are they really liberal, or free market?

Posted by: spencer at December 20, 2004 12:56 PM


Sollum, in his haste to find "the collective" in every government action, ingeniously misses the point that it is in each person's private interest to be healthy.

As I point out in Libertarianism in One Lesson, "All food, drugs, and medical treatments should be entirely unregulated: every industry should be able to kill 300,000 per year in the US like the tobacco industry."

Posted by: Mike Huben at December 20, 2004 01:09 PM


[another comment spam makes it through]

Posted by: at December 20, 2004 01:18 PM


David Anderson, if your post was a joke, it failed.

If you were serious, you should know that historically, clean tap water is a government program that worked. So is vaccination. So is a lot of testing for congenital diseases like PKU (there's a long lit now).

As far as I can tell, you're one of the rabid dogs. But I can't tell exactly what you mean, but I can't be sure.

Posted by: John Emerson at December 20, 2004 01:33 PM


Jesus, the guy is really a textbook case. We're lucky today. He's exactly what I meant.

Posted by: John Emerson at December 20, 2004 01:45 PM


Not a joke, sarcasm.

It seems to be an article of faith on the left that if a government program produces results, it demonstrates that government execution is the one and best way to achieve those results. Furthermore, the efficacy of those results never seems to be questioned by the faithful. If the results are questioned by someone less than enamored with the program, the faithful tend to make excuses and declare (more often than not) that the lack of optimal results is due to a lack of sufficient funds. Of course they also always profess that such important matters can't be left to the free market and it would be even worse if we did.

I simply disagree with this view. I don't believe I would be drinking contaminated water if not for a government mandate.

[Ah. But lots of people were drinking adulterated milk.]

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 01:47 PM


[No point here]

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 01:50 PM


Think of this as my virtual living room, and treat it as such, please...

Posted by: Brad DeLong at December 20, 2004 01:54 PM


As one who works very hard to keep the water supply of small communities in California safe, affordable and reliable, I can assure the poster that without govt' oversight his water supply would be not safe, not affordable and not reliable.

Water supply in a municipality is, duh, a natural monopoly. Do you really expect a competing water company to invest millions developing water supplies, treatment plants and delivery infrastructure to run a parallel water main in front of your street? I didn't think so.

And, absent govt regulation, the monopolist has every incentive (a) to raise rates; (b) not to secure supplies and (c) not to keep water clean. What are you going to do, sue? You have just a tiny little freerider problem, not to mention causation. Go to a competitive provider? There isn't one. Provide for yourself? Call a local well driller and get a quote for installing your own well and treatment system, then call the power company regarding lifting costs, then read your water bill. Big difference, eh? How many years would you need to operate your own well before you broke even? oh, don't forget o&m costs.

Hence the existence of Public Utility Commissions (to set rates) and Departments of Health Services (to establish contamination levels) and Environmental Protection Agencies (to force polluters to clean up water supplies). We have these agencies not due to some sadistic impulse by environmentalists to run up your tax bill, but instead because their existence meets a need which the market failed to provide.

the level of ignorance demonstrated by Mr. Andersen in the ability of the "market" to provide him safe, affordable and reliable water is so high that it makes resisting the temption to write some "mocking condescension" difficult.

Francis

Posted by: fdl at December 20, 2004 02:08 PM


When the government says you can’t smoke at the beach or a stadium or even in your own house, it’s gone too far. All of these have actually happened in certain jurisdictions. Prohibition against smoking in your own house is based on the notion that some smoke might go out the window and drift into your neighbor’s back yard. Evidently, the writers of these ordinances are unaware of a basic principle of toxicology: The dose makes the poison. I am skeptical (but could be convinced with competent evidence) that secondary smoke is harmful to the average person. Many people who smoke simply feel the pleasure they derive from tobacco is worth the risk to their health. I don’t see why this is any different from other risky recreations like hang gliding, or ice climbing. Moreover, smoking is less risky than being a test pilot or going into wartime combat. Yet, we seem to have some kind of jihad against tobacco in the US. It’s the slippery slope that worries libertarians. Today’s sensible public health measure (like clean water standards) can become tomorrow’s ridiculous prohibition. It’s not a question of whether we regulate behavior, all civilizations do that, it’s how we do it.

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 20, 2004 02:33 PM


"Many people who smoke simply feel the pleasure they derive from tobacco is worth the risk to their health."

Many people who breath simply feel that the pleasure of breathing air without tobacco smoke is worth the risk to unfettered smoking rights.

Posted by: Ottnott at December 20, 2004 02:49 PM



people who breathE, of course.

I'm such a potatoe head.

Posted by: Ottnott at December 20, 2004 03:20 PM


With smoking in public places you need to take into account a very libertarian ideal: Grown adults shouldn't make decisions for other adults.

The kind of self-parody libertarians simply turn off their brains when they forget to realize "gee, if I'm smoking, I'm deciding for someone else that they should be (second hand) smoking." It's an important enough negative externality that something should be done about it... short of smokers having their own air supply, not allowing it in public places is the only effective solution. It's similar to how people shouldn't be allowed to play music as loud as they want when the noise escapes from their own property: it's an instrusion of other's property rights.

Posted by: Macneil at December 20, 2004 03:23 PM


bans on outdoor smoking etc: the fact that there are good government regulations does not mean that every government regulation is good.

As a bicycling smoker, I am exposed to passive motoring -- the pleasure of breathing exhaust-free air would be worth the risk of fettering the rights of drivers, but, alas, it is not meant to be.

If you want to enjoy a vice, it is wise to be in a majority.

Posted by: piotr at December 20, 2004 03:32 PM


Yes, clean drinking water and vaccinations are the case for public health measures. I have no use for those who argue that they are great evils. The list of greater evils is practically infinite.

About a year ago in the province of Ontario it was reported that between 1990 and 1998? 2002? the rate of accidental death had dropped by 23%. The reasons for this astonishing drop (it astonished me) was that 1. Cars are made better 2. There are helmet laws. 3. There are widely observed seatbelt laws.

There is a certain nanny aspect to Ontario culture (no more and perhaps less than Ohio) but I think that this is one of the freer places on the face of the earth. When we've dealth satisfactorily with bigger problems in Darful, Iraq, and China, to name three of dozens of countries, we'll worry about the oppression of hypersensitive libertarians here with a bit more justification.

The people who argue against effective government regulation of water don't know their history (that typhoid-spreading pump in 19th c. London) or their present (Google Walkerton water Ontario).

Posted by: sm at December 20, 2004 03:47 PM


I think that if a government program works, it shows that government programs can work. And if, historically, certain good effects are first achieved and most often achieved by government action, that that is an arguing point in favor of government action. Mr. Anderson disagrees with this, and quite vehemently too, but I have no idea why.

He hasn't given his opinion about free public libraries, either -- which force people who don't read books to pay taxes to make it possible for others to read them -- and even if these readers don't pay any taxes themselves! There's an injustice to rage about!

Posted by: John Emerson at December 20, 2004 03:51 PM


“Many people who breath simply feel that the pleasure of breathing air without tobacco smoke is worth the risk to unfettered smoking rights.”

Should we require ugly women to wear burkas to avoid visual pollution? How about perfume? There are many human activities that that some people will find offensive, but do not involve a health risk to their health. How do we decide whose pleasure gets abrogated for another’s esthetic preference? I am forced to endure many things I find offensive, like rap music at the fitness club. Should the club accommodate me?

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 20, 2004 04:44 PM


Mr. Anderson is obviously a person of great religious faith and a member of the First Church of Free Market, which holds that there is no problem too small or great that a market can't solve it. By definition there is no evidence required for faith and his belief that there is some way in the real world that a market, a feedback system for economic systems somehow is capable of enabling a public good. This assumes that no person is capable of rationalizing a bad action by convincing themselves that it really can't be that bad since it does, after all, save them money. It assumes absolute rationality, compassion and caring about the common good on the part of every human being. At least that's the only way that I can see it working.

Posted by: Jim S at December 20, 2004 05:35 PM


Ah, Mr Zarkov, but you have the choice of going to another fitness club. Absent these laws I can't take my children to another (non-smoking) public park.

If your point is that there is no such thing as a right not to be offended, I agree (I think a healthy democracy depends inter alia on the right to give offence). Nor do I support helmet or adult seatbelt laws (education programs for these is another matter, in the interests of an informed market). But in fact there is enough evidence that passive smoking affects others' health that we should consider there is a serious externality here, as there is with other forms of pollution.

Posted by: derrida derider at December 20, 2004 05:42 PM


In California is it actually illegal to fill a can of gas while it's still in the back of a pickup truck? I mean, posting a sign offering good advice is one thing. Making it a requirement for a business establishment that pumps gasoline to post a sign offering good advice is something a bit more. But arresting idiots for doing somewhat risky things is something still more. About the third gas station that exploded from the static electric build-up arsing from gas flowing thru neoprene hoses sparking against un-grounded metal gas cans ... yeah, I mean, I can envision it a legislature feeling pressure to "do something".
But again, how many people actually get fined for violating this particular example of the wisdom of the law?

Posted by: pouncer at December 20, 2004 05:46 PM


Of course some of these are stupid. The "switch engine off" is very representative of how government cannot keep up with evolution of technology, and how most people trust it blindly. In modern engines (i.e anything that's been built over the past 30 years or so), a running engine or its alternator will not emit sparks in the free air, but a starter might well... hence it is more dangerous to switch the engine and then start it than leave it running. Does not mean we should not have government health guidelines or even regulations, just that they will be suboptimal.
Remember prohibition? Probably motivated by the wrong rationales (i.e. primarily for religious reasons), government banned alcohol (which, as we all know, can, if consumed in excess, be at least as bad as tobacco in terms of impact to society). But, if consumed with moderation, can be the source of great satisfaction... We would all be up in arms should prohibition come back. Meanwhile, there is a clear majority in support of the continuation of prohibition on marijuana, in spite of ample medical evidence that it is harmless to the health. Should you want to smoke, marijuana is clearly preferable to tobacco. It does not appear to have any major medical drawback at any dose, and hence is probably second safest to not smoking at all (and much safer than drinking alcohol). But the government finds it inappropriate...
Bottom line: government intrusion is suboptimal. We react contextually rather on absolutes. And we find it very appropriate when government mandates (or prohibits) something we have never thought of questioning, but less so when any change to those mandates or prohibitions occur...

Posted by: ergos at December 20, 2004 05:50 PM


“Ah, Mr Zarkov, but you have the choice of going to another fitness club. Absent these laws I can't take my children to another (non-smoking) public park.”
In reality it’s not so simple. If I go to another club I will have to pay another initiation fee. The other clubs might play rap music (is it music?) too, and there might be only one club near me. On the other hand, a public park is a wide-open space, so I don’t think your children can possibly hurt by secondary smoke. The example of the fitness club is real, and I am about to register a complaint about the excessive volume of music right over my head at the elliptical trainer. A club I went to in New York City had a solution. Every exercise station has it’s own audio jack. Another solution for me is to get noise canceling headphones, but I don’t know how well they work.
“Nor do I support helmet or adult seatbelt laws (education programs for these is another matter, in the interests of an informed market).”
Actually I support helmet and seatbelt laws. The public has to spend money to treat the people who get injured. I suppose if someone were willing to post a bond to cover the cost of his treating his injuries, I might hold a different view. Education programs are useless; any sane person knows helmets and seatbelts reduce injuries. People don’t want to wear them for various reasons including comfort or just lazyness.
“But in fact there is enough evidence that passive smoking affects others' health ...”
Here I disagree, but perhaps I am insufficiently informed. I have not seen any convincing evidence that secondary smoke (at what concentration?) injuries the average person.

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 20, 2004 06:13 PM


Second hand smoke is medically harmful to many non-average but mostly normal people. It's also unpleasant to most nonsmokers, such as myself.

The laws are a relief, because in the old days smokers were so attached to their smoking, and so oblivious to its effects, that it was socially very difficult to ask anyone to stop. In effect, they controlled the space.

Having it written into law puts the burden on the smokers, who are the ones stinking up everyone's air. Smoking is intrusive for non-smokers, but if you approach a smoker and ask them to stop, that's intrusive too, and often resented, and it ruins the fun if it's a fun event.

I am tempermentally and in principle undisposed to stick my nose in other people's business that way, but I am actually quite happy with the new laws.

Posted by: John Emerson at December 20, 2004 08:30 PM


“The laws are a relief, because in the old days smokers were so attached to their smoking, and so oblivious to its effects, that it was socially very difficult to ask anyone to stop. In effect, they controlled the space.”

I think that is an extremely valid point. I too detest cigarette smoke, and a part of me is glad I don’t have to put up with it. But another part is apprehensive about what’s the next. Suppose it’s something I like. Now I detest rap music as much or more than cigarette smoke, but I don’t think it should be banished in the heavy-handed way we’ve banished smoking. Again I don’t see competent evidence on the medical effects of secondary smoke. The dilution factor is tremendous compared to direct smoking, and it’s very hard to detect harmful effects of smoking less than ½ pack a day. Remember Sir Ronald Fisher, the founder of modern statistics, as well as the head of the Mayo Clinic statistics group (both an MD and a statistician) had serious doubts about the ill effects of smoking until about 1960. Later the evidence became overwhelming, including laboratory experiments on animals, and the discovery of the specify mechanisms for the harmful effects of smoking. For example the paralysis of the airway cilia. To my knowledge we don’t anything like the latter in the case of secondary smoke. It’s all based on observational data, and that’s weak evidence in my book.

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 21, 2004 12:51 AM


What I don't understand about the political libertarians is why they are so contemptuous of individual citizens and their elected legislatures. The democratic nature of the government that rules us is the cornestone of its ligitamacy. To place legitimacy outside of democratic citizenship, in say immutable property rights, is to impose an immovable dictator on all our actions. Even more curious is that democratic citizenship can regulate the competing interest of the state and private property; immutable property rights can not.


So it comes to pass that an ideology that proclaims mans complete self sufficiency does not trust this same man to govern himself as he sees fit. In this manner, modern political libertarianism is an anti-democratic tyranny of the highest order, as criminal in its deprevations as marxism, infact it is made of the same moral absolutism that infects maxism only here the absolute state has been replaced with absolute property.

Posted by: Nemisis at December 21, 2004 08:59 AM


It's the inherent contradiction of libertarianism. People know their own best interest. If that's the case then whatever is, is good. But libertarian's dont' like what is.
Unless of course aliens are controlling our behavior.
Libertarians remind me of Marxists (old style): the revoltuion is inevitable, therefor we must do everything we can to further it.

Posted by: Bil at December 21, 2004 09:30 AM


In response to ... I can assure the poster that without govt' oversight his water supply would be not safe, not affordable and not reliable. Do you really expect a competing water company to invest millions developing water supplies, treatment plants and delivery infrastructure to run a parallel water main in front of your street? I didn't think so....

Um ... my water supply is safe, affordable, and reliable without government oversight. I live 1.5 miles from a small municipality but do not have a 'water main in front of my street [sic]'. I have a cistern, which collects rainwater. This required a small, additional capital investmsnt [$1500 to build + $200 for "infrastructure" (pump, filters, etc.). It requires approximately 12-15 additional hours and costs $20-75 per year, including time and cost of having water samples drawn and tested at a private firm.

In five years, I have had to purchase water only twice. However, there are are enough howmeowners in our county with smaller capacity cisterns to support five independent water "haulers". They compete on the basis of the same factors other businesses compete on -- price, service, quality, etc. I naively believe they have every incentive to:

(a) NOT raise rates;
(b) secure supplies and
(c) keep water clean.

Including O&M costs, I figure I broke even after 36-40 months [vs. monthly bills of comparable households inside the municipality].

Before you drown me in "mocking condescension", I am not attempting to argue that everyone can/should build and operate their own cistern. However, the post to which you were responding asserted that an 'article of faith of the left is that if a government program produces results, it demonstrates that government execution is the one and best way to achieve those results'. In the case of water supply, I believe there is ample evidence to suggest that this is a valid assertion.

Posted by: Scott Schaefer at December 21, 2004 09:33 AM


Just to mix things up: I know people who are deadly (and I do mean deadly) allergic to the solvents in cheap perfumes. Expensive traditional perfumes are fine.

Posted by: sm at December 21, 2004 06:55 PM