Choosin’ ain’t easy

Noah Smith goes to Japan, discovers property rights to which he’s not accustomed, and writes a blog post:

He begins with the standard far-minarchist construction of society:

Since the dawn of time, libertarians have equated property rights with freedom. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: if the government can come and confiscate your stuff, or tell you what to do with it, you don’t feel very free at all. But libertarians tend to take this basic concept to its maximal extent; the more things are brought within the cash nexus, the more free we become. No limits, no exceptions. A direct implication is that the more government functions we can privatize, the more free we will be.

But is that right? What would it really feel like to live in a society where almost every single thing is privately owned and priced?

I feel two things reading this:

  1. Joy at discovering a natural experiment.
  2. Suspicion at the last sentence.

What Noah goes on to describe is not “what it would really feel like to live in a society where almost every single thing is privately owned and priced”, but “what it would feel like for a present-day North American to airdrop abruptly into a society where &c.”  See, that society is Japan, and he’s visiting for the summer.  He describes the private provision of public goods, always with a price tag and a transaction cost:

For example, there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). On the streets, there are very few trashcans; people respond to this in the way libertarians would want, by exercising personal responsibility and carrying their trash home with them in little baggies. There are also very few public benches. In cafes, each customer must order something promptly or be kicked out; outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that!

Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite – the lack of a “commons” makes me feel constrained. It forces me to expend a constant stream of mental effort, calculating whether it’s worth it to spend $4 to sit and rest for 10 minutes, whether it’s worth $2 to get a drink.

(Emphasis added.)

Believe it or not, this dovetails perfectly with my long-term anarchocapitalism.  I’ve argued repeatedly that yanking people out of their comfortable lives and dropping them into Luna tomorrow would be a very bad thing for all concerned.  As Noah points out, transaction costs are a killer, and getting those down to manageable — or insignificant — levels is pretty much a prerequisite for a purely private society.  One of the major transaction costs that needs to be addressed is the cognitive burden he describes above: having to stop and think about every damn thing you might — or might not — want to spend money on.

This isn’t an insurmountable problem, of course.  Find a friend who’s lost — and kept off — a significant amount of fat, and you’ll probably find an illustrative example.  Changing one’s diet for the better involves learning a new process for making “nutritional transactions”: you stop thinking in terms of “I’m kinda hungry” and “that looks tasty” and start counting calories, considering portion sizes, and tracking protein intake.  Maybe you go all the way and start considering nutrient timing and insulin response.

For the first month or two, this becomes an obsessive habit and drives your friends nuts.  But then something cool happens: you stop checking, because you’ve learned heuristics at the subconscious level.  You know what 500kcal looks like on a plate, what that beer’s likely to do to your insulin levels, and whether you ought to buy a few heads of broccoli or a few cans of Pringles.  The cognitive load of making those decisions has all but disappeared.  More than that: you’ve changed your habits to make it easier to make those decisions — maybe you brew your coffee at home rather than tempting yourself at Starbucks every morning — so you’ve reduced both the cost and the number of food decisions you have to make.

It would take — or is taking — a long time to develop the social norms I’ve dubiously analogized above, so it’s no surprise to discover that Noah finds it excruciatingly uncomfortable to adapt to Japan’s “private commons” in a couple of months.  But when he writes sweeping universal statements like this one:

Noticing all this has driven home the realization that the existence of a government-owned “commons” often makes people feel more free, not less.

I have to wonder if he bothered to ask any Japanese people how free they felt.


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