Libertarian Idealism

April 14, 2008

The Onion

Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department

CHEYENNE, WY—After attempting to contain a living-room blaze started by a cigarette, card-carrying Libertarian Trent Jacobs reluctantly called the Cheyenne Fire Department Monday.

 

Ever since I first read this story, I felt a strong urge to respond to it, even though I knew that in so doing, I would officially become a curmudgeon. Well, the time has finally arrived, and you damn kids can all get off my lawn.

The article is premised on a conflict between “libertarian principles” and “practical concerns,” purporting to demonstrate how, when your house is burning down, practical concerns win out over principles. The article  portrays libertarians as idealists who, if they really believed in what they advocated, would never make use of any government-provided services. But there is a huge difference between saying “everyone would be better off under system X” and “everyone should behave as they would in X, regardless of whether it makes them better off.” Libertarians are idealists in the sense that they value human autonomy and liberty above all else, but they are pragmatists about the way people actually behave. Libertarians don’t say “if people behaved in this way, libertarianism would work.” Instead, they say “because people behave the way they do, libertarianism works.”

Libertarians have seen the way people behave. Like it or not, people respond to personal incentives. Given this fact, libertarians argue that the best thing to do is to create a system in which people’s natural tendency to respond to incentives happens to coincide with the best interests of everyone. This system is free-market capitalism. However, just because we are all better off under pure free-market capitalism doesn’t necessarily mean that I should behave under any system as a person would in a capitalist system. A libertarian isn’t surprised when someone, exploits a government-created situation to their own advantage; that’s what people are expected to do, and the solution is to not create exploitable situations to begin with.

One of my favorite quotes, which is probably apocryphal but I don’t care, comes from bank robber Willie Sutton. “Why do you rob banks?” he was asked. Answer: “That’s where the money is.” On the one hand, as a libertarian, I certainly believe that communism is a morally depraved system because of its lack of respect for individual rights, but still, I’m not surprised that people work for communist regimes. As a talented and intelligent person living in a communist country, people work for the government because that’s where the “money,” i.e the opportunity to make use of your talents, is. Under communism, you are faced with the choice of being a worker like everyone else, or trying to move up to a position in government. The former is a waste of your abilities; even if you are a great farmer or engineer, you will receive nothing more than any other worker. So instead, as a highly-talented individual, you will go to a place where these talents bring you some advantage. It happens to be the case that under communism, this means getting a government job where you have power and the ability to capture more resources for yourself. Everyone is competing for the same fixed pool of resources, so your competition doesn’t contributing anything of value to your fellow citizens, but that is not your fault. If you were in a capitalist system, the best use of your talents would be to create a new product or way of delivering products that benefits other people with money. But you’re not in a capitalist system, so there’s no point in acting like you are.

That a libertarian would call the public fire department doesn’t undermine the case for libertarianism; it strengthens it. The libertarian in the story should say, “You see, everybody responds to incentives. Even me, a principled libertarian! That’s exactly why we should have a system whereby people’s actions when they respond to these personal incentives make us all better off.”

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One Response to “Libertarian Idealism”

  1. Leysin Says:

    What a clever way of saying Libertarism doesn’t work.


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