The what-if game

Catching up on my tab clearing, I come across this post by Bryan Caplan:

“What if a poor person gets sick, doesn’t have insurance, and can’t get friends, family, or charity to pay for treatment?”

“What if an elderly person gets defrauded out of his entire retirement and the perpetrator vanishes into thin air?”

“What if a child is starving on the street, and no one voluntarily feeds him?”

“What if someone just can’t find a job?”

If you’re a libertarian, you face what-ifs like this all the time.  The point, normally, is to make you say, “Tough luck” and look like a monster.

Caplan points out that these what-ifs are rather fanciful, and is too polite to note that they constitute question-begging.  The first, for example, amounts to the following: “What if a stable minarchist or anarchist society emerges without any social institutions to provide for misfortune, and a poor person gets sick […]”.  The unstated assumption that libertopia is necessarily heartless is doing all the work.

Caplan also notes that, by contrast, obverse what-ifs against status quo government are depressingly realistic.  Here’s one: “What if an illegal immigrant gets sick, can’t legally buy insurance, and can’t get friends, family, or charity to pay for treatment?”  But again, he’s too polite to use specific real-world examples.  I’m not.

What if one government detained a software engineer because another government fabricated evidence that he was a terrorist, then renditioned him to Syria for almost a year of torture?

What if a government deployed sweeping agricultural and industrial reforms and ended up starving thirty-some million people to death?

What if a different government starved millions of people to death as a result of different sweeping agricultural reforms, possibly out of sheer malice?

And naturally, because statists don’t get to hide behind Godwin’s Law:

What if a government orchestrated the mass murder of six million people because it disapproved of their particular ethnicity, and another five million people of whom it disapproved for similar reasons?

I could do this all day.

We can be thankful that only a vanishingly small number of statists will say “tough shit” to the Holodomor (although I’m given to understand that “tough shit” is precisely the Obama administration’s position in re: Maher Arar, as it was the Bush administration’s position before).  Commenter Tom West points out that, instead, statists will argue: “Well, those are bad things, and they show that the statist project isn’t yet complete.  We need to reform bad governments that do those bad things into good governments that only do good things.”  Any day now, guys.

Libertarians, of course, aren’t afforded this luxury.  Presented with the poor person fallen ill and unavailed by either insurance or charity, I’d reply: “That sounds like a pretty horrible place.  We should do our utmost to build social institutions that would never let someone fall through the cracks like that — and a level of prosperity under which even the poorest of people can afford health care.”  I’d never get away with it — I’d get eye-rolls and snorts of derision, and demands for a precise prescription for those social institutions and that prosperity.  Gentle reader: If I had an ironclad, detailed, foolproof, step-by-step recipe to make society good and charitable and incredibly prosperous, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.


10 Responses to “The what-if game”

  1. 1 kbiel
    October 11, 2012 at 21:50

    The problem for the statists (the true believers anyway) is they never account for people in their perfect system. I forget which writer I was reading (probably Jerry Pournelle), but he made a case that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship, except finding a benevolent dictator is impossible. At least no one has been able to find one yet and every state that has tried (USSR, DPRK, PRC, etc.) found the results disastrous at best. But the statists persist in telling us it will work this time for sure.

    • October 11, 2012 at 22:03

      I wouldn’t say they never account for people — “people” are often the justification for whatever state they’re trying to impose (because obviously Hobbes and Malthus were right). The problem is that “people” usually has a quick fix that’s almost ready, in the mind of the statist.

      For example, “people” will supposedly, in a state of nature, do lots of drugs. This is obviously bad because, um, Mexicans and stuff. So the wise and benevolent state will make drugs illegal, and then people will stop doing them. What, that doesn’t work? No problem, we’re close… all we have to do is start kicking down people’s doors, shooting their dogs, and dragging them off to prison for rolling a joint. What, that doesn’t work either? No problem, we’re close… give those door-kickers surplus military personnel carriers and Predator drones. This time, for sure!

      • 3 kbiel
        October 14, 2012 at 07:29

        Of course you’re right, they always use flawed people who can’t be trusted to tend their own best interests as the excuse to demand or seize power. I should have been more precise and said that they do not account for those same flawed people are the ones they want to put into power. It’s always, “we can give the police/judges/presidents/premiers/chancellors more power, they’re the good guys.”

    • October 11, 2012 at 22:04

      Also, good to see you back in the comments.

    • December 9, 2012 at 05:56

      I realise I’m replying to a very old thread (at least in Blog Years) but I do sometimes wonder if Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t be a pretty good dictator.

      Surely she couldn’t do much worse than the Brits are doing under the vaguely-representative democracy they’ve got going now.

  2. 6 perlhaqr
    October 14, 2012 at 07:16

    “What if a government deployed sweeping agricultural and industrial reforms and ended up starving thirty-some million people to death?“

    Hah! I read this, hadn’t gotten to the next line, and didn’t know which mass famine you were talking about until I rolled over the link!

    I think I’m going to be sick now.

    • October 14, 2012 at 12:02

      Yeah, it’s frustrating how 20th-century communism led to mass famines with dreary consistency. The only way you can tell those descriptions apart is if you recognize the death tolls.

      At least we seem to be running out of people who look at collectivized agriculture and say “This is a great idea, you just did it wrong”. Now they’re all looking at the oil industry, which at least doesn’t kill as many people when the grand experiment goes tango uniform.

      • 8 ruralcounsel
        October 21, 2012 at 07:01

        If the fossil fuel industry (thought it worth widening from just oil) goes tits up, my estimation is you’ll see some equally horrific death tolls. Our modern agricultural system relies heavily of fossil fuels. Our entire culture and lifestyle is built on cheap available energy for transportation. When people can’t get to their jobs, trucks can’t deliver food, homes can’t be heated, the lights go out, and what few goods are avialable skyrocket in price … there will be urban riots and chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And it might not ever get back under control until millions are dead.

        • October 21, 2012 at 14:41

          I wasn’t thinking so much about the global fossil fuel industry so much as state-owned “we can plan energy production and sale better than you” concerns like Gazprom and PDVSA (and, of course, most of the middle-east’s oil concerns). But I take your point — if, say, PDVSA goes tango uniform, Venezuelans are going to have to import a lot of fuel to keep their society running, and will have a lot less money to do it with. Resource curse.

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