Let’s try to summarize a little

So today I got a link to this post on Crooked Timber (“self-ownership leads to contradiction in a carefully-constructed and appallingly literalist argument”) and was reminded of the “libertarians hate kittens” contrapositive “if a libertarian takes anything from the government, s/h/it’s a hypocrite” in this post by William the Coroner.  Those combined with a bit of fine beer to set some gears in motion, and I’m prompted to (try to) summarize a lot of my recent arguments in damn few words like LabRat did over here.

1. We can’t have anarchotopia right away, and that’s not what I’m after

Look, if we dissolved every single public institution overnight, there would be trouble.  We’d need to — and probably would, eventually — replace them with other workable institutions, but what’s more we’d need an entirely different mindset. What precise mindset we need is a matter of vigorous debate, but in the end it probably doesn’t matter whether we’re Randians or Rothbardians or Tyler Cowen clones.  I want to achieve that mindset by creeping incrementalism.  As we get there, counterarguments like the first one I linked to will seem quaint and anachronistic, like using the divine right of kings to refute proportional representation schemes.

2. Everything gets paid for somehow

The excuse to forget this comes from the idea that this great institution will survive, come what may.  But someone always has to pay.  When my cable company sent a tech by to replace my zombie modem and check out my connection, they didn’t do it “for free” — the new modem must have been bought and the tech must have been paid somehow.  That cost is rolled into ever customer”s cable bills.  Do we customers prefer that model of stealth payment to lower monthly bills and service charges?  Maybe, if you believe in demonstrated preference.

Why is this even an issue?  Aside from the question of what happens when you can’t pay your bills: all wealth is what’s left of someone’s life and liberty — whatever they were doing with their life and liberty when they earned it.  The beer I’m drinking is what’s left of fifteen minutes or so of my life that I chose to spend on iPhone development.  When my grandfather died, I inherited a modest amount of money; what I spent that money on is, in part, what I have left of him.

3. Institutional power enables small threats

I’m not worried about FEMA-run concentration camps or Obama nationalizing doctor’s offices or whatever fiendish conspiracy the tinfoil hat I’m not wearing would let me perceive fnord.  I’m worried about school districts photographing sleeping teenagers, or Department of Commerce bureaucrats stalking their exes through Homeland Security databases, or CRA agents selling my personal information to criminals.  Institutional power enables those abuses — be it governmental, corporate, religious, or anything else.  (The tinfoil hat-wearing Formula One fans will tell you that Ferrari have infiltrated the FIA to let the Prancing Horse cheat on everything, except the ones who’ll tell you that the not-Ferrari teams have infiltrated the FIA to mutatis mutandis.)  But we can’t opt out of being governed.

4. Little things add up

This is where 1 + 2 + 3 = wharrgarbl.  Little procedural abuses, like tying food-stamp programmes to farm subsidies, eventually result in a bloated monolith of corporate welfare that no-one can bring themselves to tackle.  Creeping incrementalism works both ways.  Seemingly-innocuous laws designed to Protect The Children leads to kids being prosecuted for producing child pornography.  A state full of avocado lobbyists with designer work clothes and tax-funded naturopaths finds itself unable to pay its bills and on the verge of collapse.

Those “little things” usually amount to scope creep.  School districts with severe drops in enrolment demand the same budget to serve fewer students.  Good news, if they get it, for the teachers; bad news for the homeless people in the shelters that otherwise would’ve been funded.  Voters demand subsidized tuition for all college students rather than need-based bursaries, and post-secondary budgets drop.  Medicare — well, you do the math.  What might have been intended as a social safety net for those who genuinely need it turns out to be adequate only as a superficial (and temporary) comfort for everyone — that is, everyone who can take advantage of it before it collapses or is reformed into a genuine safety net.

5. These aren’t easy problems

What about people who, in good faith, paid into (see 2.) national pensions like the CPP (see 4.)?  What about people whose wealth (see 2.) includes the ill-gotten gains of their ancestors?  What about regulatory-captured (3.) but vital (4.) programmes that have no obvious alternative (1.)?  I don’t know, and I’m skeptical of anyone who says they do.


3 Responses to “Let’s try to summarize a little”

  1. 1 williamthecoroner
    April 21, 2010 at 06:10

    YEAH! Change must happen incrementally, as it occurred incrementally. Massive changes quickly tend to be…bad.

    As a libertarian person, I have no problem with a safety net, or clean water, or good roads, or garbage collection. I want, though VALUE for my money. Is that too much to ask?

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