Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

On Liberty

Anyone who teaches in higher education occasionally encounters students who have found the single key that unlocks every puzzle of politics and policy. The highest principle is human liberty, the essence of liberty is control over one's own property, and the greatest threat to that liberty is government. While one might be concerned about problems of justice or social welfare in the absence of government, those concerns are illusory. The Free Market, operating without government intervention, maximizes social welfare and produces justice by rewarding the talented and enterprising. Taxation is by definition immoral, because it deprives people of their property. Regulation is immoral because it restricts people's liberty to do what they wish with their property, and it is harmful to the general welfare because it deprives us of benefits the Free Market would bestow upon all.

It is trivially easy to debunk these arguments. Obviously, it is not only government that can deprive us of our liberty, but also individuals and private interests. At the most basic level, we have police and criminal laws -- government agencies -- to discourage people from robbing us, raping us, kidnapping us, killing us, and taking other actions which might deprive us of our liberties. Libertarians generally concede this, but they somehow can't see the generalizability of the principle, for example to regulation of business enterprises that might deprive us of liberty and property in innumerable ways. Perhaps more centrally, property does not exist by nature, it is bestowed by law and regulation. People gain and lose it not only by talent and enterprise or the lack thereof, but by fortune of birth and timing, ruthlessness and dishonesty or charity and altruism, generosity of others or victimization, and so on. Finally, and most fatally, there is no such thing as a "Free Market." Markets, in complex societies, are creations of government, and can only exist with the benefit of contract law and enforcement, government regulation of the money supply, banking and exchange regulations, and so on. The arguments that markets can maximize allocative efficiency depend on numerous assumptions that can only be made to approximate the truth by extensive government intervention, such as no monopoly power, perfect information, no externalities, and several others. Furthermore these arguments ignore the existence of a public domain. And the truth is that even the most conservative and market fundamentalist economists have no argument that shows that markets produce anything that resembles justice.

So why is this patently absurd and counterfactual philosophy so appealing, and why does it retain a place in the public discourse? It constitutes a defense of privilege, and it is a friend and comfort to the powerful. That is why economics departments and business schools, which are largely endowed by wealthy people and corporations, indoctrinate students with ideas that can be knitted into this cloth. It is useful in politics for the same reason, although corporate interests and wealthy individuals are quite happy to temporarily forget about it whenever they want government to do something for them.

All that is understandable. What I have difficulty understanding is how this supremely amoral philosophy, this apologetic for ruthlessness, greed, and injustice, is now championed by the most vocal and influential politically active Christians in the United States. I received an e-mail from a reader who informed me that Jesus was the first libertarian, and that Christian libertarianism will triumph. Of course these same Christian libertarians, when it comes to examples of your property such as your genitals and your womb, don't agree that you should be free to do with them as you please. Very puzzling indeed.

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