Monday, June 10, 2013

Michael Lind asks Libertarians a Question

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

-- Michael Lind
This is a good question, but it is not the right question. Lind, like many philosophically-minded people, finds something "seductive" about libertarianism: start from the premise that liberty is the most important thing and reason from there to design a society accordingly.

But that is entirely the wrong way to think about society. Societies are too complex, with too many unpredictable synergies, to be designed from first principles. To approach societies you must proceed inductively. I think we should look around the world and ask ourselves, what sort of society makes people happy? To which the answer is social democracy.

Even if you were going to design a society from first principles, why start with liberty? Why is that more important than other principles? If you ask me, "liberty" in this sense is just a fancy word for selfishness; libertarians are people who don't care about anyone else and are seeking a philosophy to justify their narcissism. How about starting with compassion?

Don't get me wrong, I understand the problems of collectivism. I've been listening to the memoirs of a man who spent some time on an Israeli kibbutz in the 60s. He decided to leave partly because he wanted to go to college. Had he stayed, the kibbutz would have paid his bill, but the leadership would have decided if and when he could go to college, and what he would study, according to the interests of the group.

But would a strictly libertarian system give more freedom to would-be college students? No, because without state subsidies only a tiny minority could afford to go to college in the first place. The whole post WW II educational boom would never have happened and we would be back to the situation of the 1930s, when only the rich and a few super smart scholarship kids would be college bound. Limitations imposed by poverty are every bit as real as those imposed by the state.

Maximum freedom for college students would only exist where college was open to all and also free. For a variety of reasons -- bad incentives, waste of resources -- this might also be a bad idea. And the way to proceed is to try various levels and types of subsidies and see what works best.

Extreme solutions to social problems are never the best way.

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