Sunday, November 19, 2006


At Crooked Timber Chris Bertram has a good post on the importance of inquality.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Simple (but resilient) Definition of Power

I'm 100% sure this has been thought of elsewhere, and I'm not claiming anything profound - I'm just pinning this up here to clarify my own thoughts.

Power over someone is simply the ability to restrict their choices.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Teaching Economics

Christoper Hayes has an interesting article on the way first year economics classes are taught. It focuses on the University of Chicago, but much of it reflects my own experience.

Some good bits:

Neoclassical economics smuggles a great many normative wares underneath its positive trenchcoat, both in its assumptions about how humans operate—as individuals rationally
maximizing their utility—and its implied preference for “markets in everything.” Because neoclassical economics always presents itself as a value-neutral description of the world, its ideological commitments can be adopted by those who learn it without any recognition that
they are ideological. This is the source of some very spirited debate within the field itself. A growing global movement of “heterodox” economists has criticized the ideological confines and blindspots of the neoclassical approach. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz put it, the dominance of the neoclassical model is a “triumph of ideology over science.”

Sanderson’s politics aren’t one-dimensional, and he certainly isn’t a propagandist. But the fact remains that he has the predispositions of someone who “learned economics from Milton Friedman.” First, there’s a tendency to see trade-offs between equity and efficiency even where
they might not exist. Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of the book The Conservative Nanny State, points out that policies can be both fairer
and more efficient. For instance, Baker told me, “it is not clear that a flat tax is more efficient than a progressive income tax. This is entirely an empirical question. It is entirely possible that taxing middleincome workers and Bill Gates at a 25 percent rate will create more distortions
than taxing middle-income workers at a 15 percent rate and Bill Gates at a 40 percent rate. … They want liberals to say that we care about fairness and they care about efficiency. This is crap. They find ways to justify redistributing income upward and proclaim it to be efficient. The
reality is it is not fair and generally not efficient either.”
But when equity and efficiency tradeoffs do arise, economists like Sanderson are systematically biased in favor of efficiency because that’s what they are experts on. Efficiency they can measure and analyze. Fairness? That’s the turf of philosophers and politicians. This tendency
is most pronounced in discussions of economic growth, and how the benefits of that growth should be distributed. Sanderson paraphrases his Nobel Laureate colleague Bob Lucas, who
says that “once you start to think about the benefits of high growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.” In other words, first worry about how best to grow the pie, then how to slice it up. Let efficiency trump equity, create wealth, and then you can use the extra wealth
you’ve created to alleviate inequality. This makes a certain amount of sense. But when this rhetoric comes to dominate our politics, the problem of inequality is never addressed. Now is always the time for growing, later is always the time to address concerns about equity. The result is predictable: In countries that have adopted the neoclassical policy prescriptions
(including the United States), there has been an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Crimes of Punishment

If you have a chance, have a listen to the BBC documentary, “Call That Justice”. The documentary looks into crime and punishment, and – in the second part – into the US prison system. In particular, it examines the glee with which many states lock away their children.

The section of the documentary that I listened to focused on Colorado which (forgive me if the details aren’t entirely correct) has a law through which prosecutors can call for child-offenders to be tried as adults. Colorado also has mandatory life sentences for homicide (or at least for homicide in some instances). This means that if a prosecutor demands that a child murderer be charged as an adult and, if they are convicted, they will spend the rest of their lives behind bars – no chance for redemption.

This legislation has already led to cases where teenagers have been given mandatory life sentences for murdering their abusive parents, but the Colorado situation is even more crazed. In Colorado they also have legislation in place regarding felony murder. This means that, if you are involved in a crime where someone is killed – even if you did not kill them yourself – you can be sentenced as if you were the murderer.

Combine all these rules together and you get the Case of Erik Jensen. Erik walked in on his friend Nathan Ybanez murdering his (Nathan’s) mother. Nathan had suffered abuse at the hands of both his parents over many years and, even though Erik and others had tried to get Nathan help, it was never made available. Eventually, his situation intolerable, Nathan cracked.

Erik was not involved in the murder but he helped Nathan tidy the house afterwards. For the crime of making the spur of the moment decision to help his friend, Erik is now serving life without parole.

Does this sound like justice?

If you're as appalled by this as I am have a look at the Pendulum Foundation’s website for ways to help.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Atlas Mugged? A reply to Duncan Bayne and Peter Creswell

A bloke by the name of Peter Creswell and one of his Objectivist fellow travellers, Duncan Bayne, have been kind enough to blog replies of a sort to my ‘essay’ “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism”. I say “of a sort” because Creswell and Bayne both appear to primarily replying to a post on NoRightTurn, which linked to my essay. They claim to be responding to me, yet it is fairly apparent that neither has read much of my essay. Nevertheless, given that their responses have been aimed in my general direction and given that they bandy my name around, I feel like I ought to reply.

First I’d like to thank them for taking the time to write (if not read) and for attempting to explain the rationale behind their beliefs.

In the interests of being both systematic and rapid I will respond to Bayne and Creswell in Turn – Starting with Bayne.

Duncan Bayne

Bayne starts his response with a pithy explanation of why he is a libertarian:

I am a Libertarian because I am capable of running my own life, and think others are too. Libertarianism is the political expression of Mill's statement of harm…

Duncan’s obviously written this in haste. I can empathise: in blogging we often find ourselves reaching for a succinct, evocative sentence – one which we latter regret. So I won’t linger too much on the first part of his opening sentence which is so dreadfully vacuous it’s embarrassing. For what it’s worth I’m glad to hear Duncan is capable of running his own life, but if he doesn’t give some credit for this to the altruistic acts of others (family etc) or to the benefits of collective action – public roads, schools, prisons etc. – then he’s being completely intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, if he thinks that the rest of the world shares the privilege of self-actualisation that he feels he possesses, he really needs to get out more often . (I mean honestly Duncan, do you include in “others” elderly, children, invalids, people starving during a drought…?)

With regards to his evoking of Mill, this is the first evidence that Bayne has simply not properly read my essay. Under the heading “No Man (or Woman) is an Island” I spend quite some time explaining why Mill’s maxim, while being perfectly reasonable, simply isn’t a defence of libertarianism. I suggest that Bayne read this section of the essay as I don’t have time to repeat myself.

While Duncan couldn’t make time to actually read what I wrote, he did have time to have a read about the ‘about me’ section of my blog. This has lead to him writing:

“Terence – who is happy to be described as having a ‘latent hostility to capitalism’ while, of course, availing himself of technology made & sold by capitalists in order to express that hostility.”

I’ll ignore the fact that, when it comes to computer technology, we all benefit from state investment in IT R&D and that open source software (no property rights here guys) continues to be some of the best. I’ll simply note that I reproduced the accusation because it is (a) quite funny on its own terms and (b) totally incorrect. By advocating for the reforms necessary to humanise capitalism I’m hardly expressing hostility to it.

Duncan then moves on to “clear up a misconception”: me conflating libertarianism with Objectivism. This, sadly, is more evidence that he hasn’t read my essay as I point out early on that I am aware of the differences between different libertarian thinkers. I’m also aware that Rand believed herself to be telegraphing a deeper world view into the political philosophy that she espoused. Yet the political philosophy is, for all extents and purposes, libertarianism. Hence my inclusion of Rand in my critique.

I am grateful to Duncan for providing some information on the splits amongst different libertarian groups in the USA. This is interesting, and appears to be one of those pleasant-ironic ‘reflections’ that makes history so much fun to follow: libertarians squall as much, and over as trivial things, as Trotskyites.

Duncan then, after move’s into the “deep” philosophical underpinnings of his own, Objectivist, libertarianism, noting that:

As Rand has explained, people live by rationality and production – liberty is merely a necessary precursor, borne of the requirement that in order to act rationally, one must be free from compulsion.

This sentence is – taken as a whole – incoherent so I’ll try to address the points I think it makes, one at a time:

people live by rationality and production

People do, indeed, live – in part – by rationality and production (with the exception of hunter-gathers, of course, weren’t so much into production). But they also survive and thrive, thanks to a whole bunch of other attributes, including: empathy, intuition, instinct etc. By ignoring this, Duncan is simply engaging in the reverse engineering much beloved by ideologues everywhere. That is: my utopia looks like X. For X to be realistically plausible world people need to be like Y. Therefore I will claim that people are like Y and so – logically – X is the type of society I need.

liberty is merely a necessary precursor, borne of the requirement that in order to act rationally, one must be free from compulsion.

Two points here:

1. (Which is slightly tangential) rationality itself, is partially a product of nurture, being the product (in part) of the environment we are raised in and the education we receive – in other words: if you really care about cultivating rationality you’ll understand that positive freedoms matter .

2. (Which borrows from Richard’s excellent point made in the comments of my own original post). If Duncan believes that reason can only realised through non-interference then what does he make of this thought experiment:

Annie lives in a libertarian utopia. Sadly her husband Robert became gravely ill several years ago and their medical bills have driven them to the edge of destitution. Annie and Robert live next to Murray (Muzza to his mates). Muzza is happily wealthy. One day Annie and Robert’s situation becomes particularly grave: their infant son Milton is struck with disease too, and will die is he doesn’t see a doctor. Unfortunately, there is no money for this.

Now Annie has long ago suppressed her emotional attachment to her child (love, what a repulsively un-human sentiment!) But, thinking purely rationally, she knows she needs Milton alive to support her and Robert in their dotage. So Annie makes the rational choice to burgle Muzza’s house. Muzza call’s the cops. And they stop Annie.

Did Muzza have the right to do this? Do the cops have the right to stop Annie?

Not if Duncan’s thinking at all consistently.

Duncan then goes on to argue:

Furthermore, a right can only be proscriptive.

Really says who? why?

And then, a little further on:

But that doesn't mean that anyone is obliged to support me if I'm incapable of doing so

Compare this with the horrors he sees in social democracy:

After all, (and especially in a socialist state where healthcare is paid for by the general citizenry) one could easily concoct an economic rationale for the execution of the terminally ill, retarded, or recividist [sic] criminals.

Social Democracies might conceivably (but in fact never do) do this, meanwhile Duncan’s own utopia appears to explicitly countenance the leaving the needy to their fate. Executed, starved – they’re still dead.(1)

Duncan also notes that:

to demand charity from a productive member of society is equivalent to mugging him.

Atlas mugged! Duncan should read up a little bit on social contracts here. If society – that inextricably linked web of individuals, causes, and effects – decides, through a democratic mechanism that everyone should contribute in the name of a greater good, which itself leads to improved individual good, then no mugging has taken place. The free rider problem has simply been put paid to.

Duncan then ‘moves on’ to address my critique of the utilitarian argument for libertarianism. It appears that he is unaware that he has, from time to time, already being making a utilitarian argument for libertarianism (if Objectivism is not to be impaled on the “is ought” problem then an intermediate step through utility is required).

Duncan claims:

There is a clear relationship between liberty and propserity [sic]. This has been demonstrated by the case of North and South Korea, which are visibly different from orbit, and in the failure of socialised education.

These two sentences deserve a prize for a truly amazing error to word ratio.

Firstly – Duncan, once again, hasn’t read my essay at all carefully. Up until a point “liberty” does indeed lead to increased economic prosperity. Beyond that point the correlation simply doesn’t exist. And that point is several light years to the left of a libertarian society . It’s called Sweden. So spare me North v South Korea. All that tells us is that totalitarian societies inhibit growth (there are interested exceptions to this though – maybe in a future blog post) it does not tell us that libertarian societies will have stratospheric rates of growth. Moreover, the state actually played a significant role in South Korea’s economic miracle. As it does in all other economic success stories.

My own post on taxes and growth for more on this explores these matters further. Or, if you have time, search for William Easterly’s cross country regression analyses that show that (short of being punitive) tax take is not negatively correlated to economic growth. Or just read the book I linked to in my original post – it contains careful analysis rather than hair-brained comparisons.

Secondly – I think you’ll find that in South Korea (that libertarian paradise) the state’s involved in the education system too. As it is in almost every developed country. So – if you view economic development as good – it’s ever so slightly hard to claim that socialised education has failed miserably. Indeed, here in New Zealand literacy rates are very high, secondary completion rates are high, tertiary uptake rates are good. Things could improve, true. But it’s very hard to characterise this as a failure.

Duncan then, with nary a flap of his sails, tacks away from utilitarianism and back to defending Nozick and justice. He makes a – sort of – fair point about the Libertarianz not supporting the Seabed and Foreshore Act (good for them). And then goes on to agree with me that it would be simply impossible to create a just distribution of property rights as per Nozick’s terms. Fine, here’s hoping that his libertarian brethren now ever-after cease to make any claims for the fairness of their system. What he doesn’t do is explain (other than the banal “two wrongs don’t make a right”). Why, if we accept that we can’t possibly get a just distribution of property in a historical sense, we should then accept start from now libertarianism over some other form of distributional justice.

Peter Creswell

Peter Creswell is(?) was(?) a fairly senior figure in the New Zealand libertarian party – the Libertarianz – so I’m grateful he’s taken time to respond to my essay.

Some of what he says is similar to Duncan Bayne’s claims so I will concentrate on what I see as additional points of some form.

Creswell starts out by (possibly unwittingly) making a utilitarian defence of property rights, which can surmised as: we need property rights, and the incentives and protections they provide to enable us to produce. And we need to produce to survive. Now this claim is not incontestable of its own accord (any anarchists around?). It’s also unclear why Creswell would choose property rights on there own here rather than say property rights and education. However, up to a point, I don’t entirely disagree. There’s a place for property rights, but if you are making a utilitarian claim for them you don’t need to be absolutist about it. I.e. (and this is my own belief) up to a point, a clear and transparent system that fairly protects property rights – for the entire population – is desirable. (This point is mostly uncontroversial in economics (see North, Rodrik or Acemoglu on institutions)). However, absolutely inviolable property rights aren’t consistent with a utilitarian defence of property rights whatsoever. As I noted – pretty fucking clearly I thought – in my original essay and, as I have repeated above, one relatively clear lesson of economic history is that some compromise between property rights and other societal needs – enforced well – appears to lead to the best outcomes. For an excellent vox pop theoretical explanation of this I recommend Dani Rodrik here in Finance and Development.
Right about now I think you’ll find Creswell retreating into an absolutist defence of property rights (stubbing his toe on the is-ought dilemma on the way).

Creswell then goes on to claim that: “Markets are simply the sum of voluntary choices taken by individuals seeking to better themselves”. Peter (and anyone else inclined to agree), please, take the time to read the section in any first-year economics textbook on market failures. This will explain why that just ain’t so. To paraphrase Joseph Stiglitz: part of the reason the invisible hand is invisible is that, much of the time, it doesn’t actually exist.

After this Creswell disputes my interpretation of freedom.

The chief problem with positing freedom as something different to this, as for example so variant of ‘freedom from want’ is that reality provides no guarantees on that score, and the state is in no position to fake reality any more than you or I or Jacques Derrida.

This, I think conflates freedoms with rights somewhat, but, glossing over this, I’ll simply note that – in New Zealand – the state is quite capable of providing education and some health care. While, in other parts of the world, (often partially because of the result of poor education and epidemics) it is unable to provide the freedoms that Mr Creswell wants anyhow.

Creswell then argues that.

If providing ‘freedom from want’ is considered to be the state’s job, then coercing those who provide the means of life is what the state is required to do, and (as history shows) there goes the whole voluntary interaction deal…

The trouble with this claim is that the moment you get the state involved - for any reason – it brings with it coercion. And the end of the “whole voluntary interaction deal”. Don’t blame positive freedoms for this.

Finally, Mr Creswell makes the same point as Duncan about distributive justice, Maori and the Libertarinz. So he can refer to my answer to Duncan on that point.

One sentence after indicating that he places some worth in Nozick’s view of justice. Mr Creswell writes:

I’d like in conclusion to just point out to both Terence and Idiot Savant that I am not a Nozikian, and I know no libertarians outside academia who are. There is a reason that Nozick is popular in university politics departments, and it’s not because he provides robust arguments for liberty. Quite the opposite.

Actally, the reason that Nozick is popular in the academy is because his philosophical thought (which extends much further than political philosophy) is considered credible and worthy of consideration. This includes his defence of libertarianism. In my opinion it’s faulty, but it least it starts from premises which aren’t full of errors and which other political philosophers can meaningfully engage with. Rand, on the other hand, trips on the is-ought problem right after take off and then falls forwards. She comes up with an explanation (as I understand it, a mix of utilitarianism and the idea that the only moral act is an un coerced one) but then loses it in the subsequent flailing of arms and ideas. In the end she crunches to the ground painfully. I’m not a political philosopher but I’d imagine that most political philosophers have quite wisely decided to steer well clear of the crunch.

All of which reminds me that I did, at one stage in my original essay, promise to poke fun at Rand. This would have been mistaken, for Rand’s life was a tragic one. And I think that her world view stems from the trauma her family suffered at the hands of Bolshevism.

Ms Rand went through this tragedy and generated a misguided philosophy as a response. When, as she aged, someone close to her treated her with all the selfishness that she herself espoused, she degenerated into sorrow and bitterness. Not an Island after all. And not deserving of humour, just pity.

(1) If you support Social Democracy either from a Rawlsian perspective or from a sophisticated/indirect utilitarian perspective then you would never support the these actions. Pace Rawls – no one, behind a veil of ignorance, would rationally choose to live like this. In sophisticated utilitarianism, because we are not oracles, we do put in place systems of rights [including ones precluding the types of acts that Duncan describes] because, in the long run this is the best way to preserve our well being.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Raging Against Modernity

Almost as long as I have been blogging I’ve been meaning to rescue this little exchange from the comments over at John Quiggin’s wonderful blog.

Elizabeth Says:

Here’s some humour that puts everything into context.

Subject: The Modern Noah

In the year 2005 the Lord came to Noah, who was now living in Australia, and said, “Once again, the earth has become wicked and over-populated, and I see the end of all flesh before me. You need to build another Ark and save 2 of every living thing along with a few good humans.

You have 6 months to build the Ark before I start the unending rain for 40 days and 40 nights”.

Six months later, the Lord looked down and saw Noah weeping in his yard - but no Ark.

“Noah!” He roared, “I’m about to start the rain! Where is the Ark?

“Forgive me, Lord,” begged Noah, “but things have changed. I needed a building permit. I’ve been arguing with the inspector about the need for a sprinkler system. My neighbours claim that I’ve violated the neighbourhood zoning laws by building the Ark in my yard and exceeding the height limitations. We had to go to the Development Appeal Board for a decision. Then the Department of Transport demanded a bond be posted for the future costs of moving power lines and other overhead obstructions,to clear the passage for the Ark’s move to the sea. I told them that the sea would be coming to us, but they wouldn’t listen.

Then I had problems getting the wood. There’s a ban on cutting Local trees in order to save an endangered species, the spotted quoll. I tried to convince the environmentalists that I needed the wood to save the quolls - but no go!

When I started gathering the animals, an animal rights group sued me for confining wild animals against their will. They said it was cruel and inhumane to put so many animals in a confined space.

Then the local council ruled that I couldn’t build the Ark until they’d conducted an environmental impact study on your proposed flood.

I’m still trying to resolve a complaint with the Human Rights Commission on how many indigenous people I’m supposed to hire for my building crew.

The Immigration department is checking the status of most of the people who want to work and I’ve even had a letter from Amanda Vanstone asking about my ethnic background!

The trades unions say I can’t use my sons. They insist I have to Hire only Union workers with Ark-building experience.

To make matters worse, the Taxation department has seized all my assets, claiming I’m trying to leave the country illegally with endangered species.

So, forgive me, Lord, but it would take at least 10 years for me to finish this Ark.”

Suddenly the skies cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow stretched across the sky.

Noah looked up in wonder and asked, “You mean you’re not going to destroy the world?”

“No,” said the Lord. “The Government beat me to it.”

fatfingers Says:
September 9th, 2005 at 6:34 pm

Ha ha, Elizabeth. Not. I am so sick of that modern-day Noah parable. I’ll give you the express refutation.

Think of it this way - a lunatic who thinks God is talking to him wants to cut down trees that aren’t his to build an ark that will impact on his neighbours and need powerlines and bridges torn down to move, and that will be filled by starving wild animals.

Do you let him go ahead?


Viva fatfingers I say. But the reason for my post isn’t just to bask in the verve of a blog commenter with whom I agree, but also to make a semi serious point about New Zealand’s much despised Resource Management Act.

Typically it is the left – of the post and pre modern variety – that is accused of being detached from reality and against progress. But I would contend that here, in New Zealand, the people with the real problem with reality – at least when planning laws are concerned – come from the right.

These are the people who bluster that, thanks to the RMA it is impossible to get anything done in New Zealand anymore. Not like the good old days when a bunch of good keen blokes could muck in and clear some sand dunes and make a splendid cricket club – or whatever; free from the constraints of hateful bureaucrats.

Now’s true that, once upon a time you could just about do something like this. And it’s also true that if you tried to do so now, you’d have several arms of local government reaching out to stop you. But the problem here is not one of government. It’s to do with the reality of modern life. Once upon a time there were a heck of a lot fewer New Zealanders; there was also a heck of a lot more undeveloped space. Accordingly, it was much easier to build, clear, destroy and create without significantly impeding on the lives of others (with the exception of native landowners, who disappear from all the fables of the right). Now that just ain’t so anymore. Because, particularly in urban areas, there are so many more of us, and because there is so much less space, we have come to a point where we place a much higher premium on the un (or under) modified environment. Be it where we live, or where we holiday. Or where we would just like it kept preserved so that our children can have some idea of how it once was.

The reason, then, why it’s so much harder to build, clear destroy, and create than it used to be is simply the reality of modern life. There’s no use railing against the RMA: you could tweak it – perhaps; resource it better – certainly. But scrap it and it will return as fast as you can say “huh I actually kindof liked that Pohutukawa”.

What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I?... – Hillel the Elder

Conventional wisdom has it that the 2005 elections in New Zealand were fought, to a significant extent, over the size of the government. According to such conventional wisdom, the reason why Kiwi voters almost turfed Labour out of power despite 6 long years of economic prosperity was because they were sick of a big, greedy government that insisted on running huge surpluses funded by their hard earned wages (never mind that the surpluses weren’t huge). In short, New Zealand voters, we are told, wanted a piece of economic freedom. Yet, oddly enough, despite the supposed thirst for economic liberty, the 2005 elections also turned out to be spectacularly cruel for the two parties who, on the surface at least, were offering the most economic liberty of anyone: ACT and Libertarianz. ACT, who proudly refer to themselves as “the Liberal Party” (that’s classical liberal darling), saw themselves almost extinguished as a political force, being reduced to receiving 1.5% of total votes cast and only being kept in parliament by Rodney Hide winning his seat in Epsom. While the Libertarianz managed the scarcely credible feat of receiving a percentage of the party vote that was 37.5 times smaller than the percentage ratio of government spending to GDP they had campaigned on. This was despite the fact that they were calling for government spending to be only 1.5% of GDP in the first place (in other words they received a whopping 0.04% percent of all votes cast).

All of which ought to be provoking something of an existential crisis in our classical liberal and libertarian friends at present. After all, one of the prerequisites for believing that libertarianism will lead to a better world is the belief that people (individuals) will make the right choices if only given the freedom to do so. Yet here was the public (that motley collection of individuals), operating under all the freedom of MMP elections, choosing to flush the two parties who had the most confidence in their ability to choose wisely down the electoral toilet.

No doubt ACT-ites and their Libertarian brethren will have their own explanations for this: the pernicious influence of state-run education perhaps? Or the endless torrent of propaganda that flows from the obscenely statist (and state-owned) National Radio? Or the fact that the elections themselves were organised by the state (when, surely, private contractors would have been best for the task)?

But I’m not so sure. In fact I’m inclined to believe that the reason why ACT and the Libertarianz did so badly was because the New Zealand voting public (who, it’s true, even I despair of often enough) were smart enough at least to recognise baloney dressed up as political theory when it was presented to them.

What follows is what I see as “being the matter with Libertarianism?” In particular, what I see as being the matter with Libertarianism as it manifests itself in the New Zealand political arena. I won’t, except for the odd instance, be assailing the wisdom of Robert Nozick (who was wise enough to recant some of what he said anyhow) nor Hayek. Not even Ayn Rand (oh heck maybe occasionally in her case – it’s kind of fun). And I do recognise that there is a reasonable degree of heterodoxy of belief amongst Libertarians themselves (Nosick, Hayek and Rand, for a start, are completely different animals, and – likewise – ACT and Libertarianz have plenty of air between them). What I intend to do is take aim at libertarianism, as it is broadly represented in the Great New Zealand Debate.

People Don’t Live by Liberties Alone

While I have no intention of debating particular libertarian philosophers, I do feel that it is worthwhile starting by pointing out a few of the philosophical holes in the Libertarian ship. After all, any ideology that starts taking on water in the deep blue depths of philosophy is likely to be next to sunk by the time it has sailed as far as the treacherous shoals of practical application.

In my mind, the largest of the holes in the HMS Liberty is the privileging of certain “rights” over others. And, in particular, the privileging of one person’s right to hold private property over the right of another human being to survival (or even good health). The inalienable right to acquire and hold private property is central to almost all libertarian(i) thought, yet explanations of why one person’s right to possess inanimate objects or land ought to take precedence over another person’s right to survival tend to be thin on the ground, or unconvincing. Which, to be fair to libertarians, is probably because they are rather hard to construct. After all, what is more central to the human condition: property or survival? Indeed, what is actually more important in safeguarding the total quantity of freedom (aka liberty) that any particular person is able to enjoy in their life: ensuring that they get to hang on to every bit of private property that they have ever acquired(ii) or ensuring that they receive food and shelter sufficient to enable them enjoy another day on this planet?

Against which, a libertarian might argue that, in the real world, freedom and property are all that is really required to ensure survival; that man can live by liberty alone: with freedom from a greedy state, his or her industriousness and capacity to reason will be sufficient to put food on the table. True, there might be the odd person who, through their own indolence, goes hungry, but that’s their problem. All of which is a nice fantasy but also, sadly, complete nonsense. For the simple reason that people are – whether libertarians like to admit it or not – affected to varying degrees by forces beyond their control. No matter how hard a small farmer works, if he is caught up in an event like the Oklahoma Dustbowl, there is a pretty good chance that he will starve or at the very least suffer. The same is true for an urban worker who is caught in the tides of economic depression – through no fault of her own she may find herself unable to put food on the table.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen covers this ground in his book Poverty and Famines, showing that significant famines have occurred without anyone’s rights (as conceived by libertarians) being violated.

Freedom’s Just Another Word…

In another of his books – Development as Freedom – Sen discusses another flaw in libertarian thinking which, while not necessarily present in all libertarian thought, certainly finds a happy home in the rhetoric of New Zealand’s libertarians. This is the equating of negative freedoms with freedom per se. As Sen so neatly points out in outlining his capabilities approach to measuring poverty, the concept of freedom surely relates to what we are able to do with our lives not simply what we are permitted to do. Or, in other words: positive freedoms matter. Getting the “government off our backs” will increase freedom when the government is doing things like restricting newspaper’s freedom to publish; but when the government is involved in other undertakings like ensuring that we can all read and write, getting it off our backs is more likely to reduce rather than increase the freedom of a significant proportion of the population. Newspapers, after all, are only any use if you can read them. None of which is to say that the dreaded state will inevitably do a great job of promoting such positive freedoms or even that it inevitably does a better job than the private sector does. But – given that in New Zealand education is a major chunk of government spending, and given that the experiences of countries where education has been privatised indicate that one of the effects has been to move it out of the reach of poorer sectors of the population – it seems at least worth acknowledging that eliminating (or dramatically shrinking) the state might not actually increase the real freedoms of the average New Zealander.

No Man (or Woman) is an Island

As I noted earlier, a significant proportion of New Zealand’s libertarians like to refer to themselves as ‘classical liberals’ alluding to the fact that their ideology has a pedigree that stretches to enlightenment liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. I have written elsewhere why I think Smith was a great thinker but why I also don’t believe that his views on the state are particularly relevant to today’s debates, so I won’t rehash my arguments here, other than to note that we have another word (other than classical) for groups that cling to literal interpretations of texts written hundreds of years ago, ignoring the lessons of the intervening years. Instead, for a moment I want to examine a particular quote from John Stuart Mill. In ‘On Liberty’ Mill wrote: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Personally, I am not sure that I agree entirely with Mill on this matter but I think that the general principal is reasonably a solid one, and one that should be overridden by policy-makers with utmost caution. Which seems like a strange thing to admit in an essay headed “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?” Strange because most Libertarians would also agree with Mill, and maybe even appeal to Mill’s Maxim when staking the case for their libertarianism. My problem with libertarianism, however, is not so much with the ideal that the only place for government is in mediating when the actions of one person interfere with the life of an other, but rather with the fact that libertarians seem to have a limited understanding of just where and when the actions of one person may cause harm to others. Most libertarians, for example, would agree that it is appropriate for the collective unit (the state in the case of Minarchists, militias or something similar in the case of Anarcho-capitalists) to intervene to stop one person from beating to death another person for no reason, or from stealing their justly acquired property. And I’d agree with them. The trouble is that there are millions of other situations where the actions of one person interfere with the wellbeing of others that many libertarians seem to be wilfully blind to: pollution for example; or noise pollution from boy-racers; or the danger caused by speeding drivers etc. It’s possible that some libertarians might even agree with me that some form of collective action might be appropriate in these instances. However, where we would part ways almost certainly is the issue of seat-belt laws. To a libertarian, mandatory seatbelt laws are an example of the state doing just what Mill extols it not to do: intervening in people’s lives “for their own good”. Surely, if I choose not to wear a seatbelt, knowing the risks, this is my own business as I am the person who is going to go flying through that windscreen, no one else. And I am the person who is going to bear the consequences of my action: no one else. Except that things aren’t that simple – starting with the wellbeing of any dependants that I might have. Of course a libertarian might respond to this by asking: “well what if I don’t have any dependants?” This changes the situation somewhat but your actions are still going to have an emotional impact on your family and friends. To which a libertarian might then reply: “well, what about if I have been a good Objectivist for many years and – for some hard to grasp reason – have no friends and have alienated my family?” Even then though there is going to be the cost of the ambulance and hospital treatment which will be born by the rest of society. “Ah, but not if we scrap public health care and I have insurance?” a libertarian might reply. Unfortunately though, in this case, the costs will simply be born by other policy holders. Which would probably lead to a libertarian’s final response: “well what about if we scrap public health care and if I have no insurance and don’t want to receive health care?” Even then though things aren’t that simple: humans are empathetic creatures and your actions are still going to have an impact on the ambulance driver who has to leave you to die by the roadside or the A&E surgeon who has to decide to withhold your treatment.

In saying all this, I am not making an argument for extreme communitarianism where all our actions have to be considered intensively vis-à-vis their impact on other people. I’m not even necessarily making the case for seat belt laws. I am simply pointing out that humans are communal beings and that our lives are linked in innumerable ways. This is something that means that there are, in reality, very few “victimless crimes” or actions which we may take that have absolutely no impact on other people. Which, in turn, means that an awful lot of what the state does actually takes place without violating Mill’s maxim above.

At the end of the day, our lives are full of interactions with other human beings – they are an inescapable element of being human. We rely on others and, likewise, others rely on us. Other people’s choices influence our lives. And our choices influence theirs. Libertarianism, by its almost exclusive focus on the rights of the individual simply isn’t a workable philosophy when placed in among the messy – interconnected – reality of human existence.

Just Plain Unjust

“Such are the rich, they seize what belongs to all and claim the right of possession to monopolise it.” Saint Basil of Caesarea, 4th Century.

As well as being a long way removed from the reality of human existence, libertarianism suffers from the problem that, when placed in historical context, it is thoroughly unjust – even on its own terms.

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick famously argued (partially in response to Rawlsian and Utilitarian arguments about distribution of income) that: “A distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means.” Which is a pretty succinct statement of the libertarian perspective on distributional issues. Ultimately, I don’t agree with Nozick here – I’m in favour of something representing a Utilitarian approach – however, even if you do accept Nozick’s proposition, it’s no argument for the justness of libertarianism in any practical sense. In fact it’s evidence as to why any libertarian society must inevitably be unjust – at least by Nozickian standards. This is for the simple reason that the current distribution of income (in New Zealand, in the USA, in the world) hasn’t arisen legitimately from another just distribution at all. Think of all the crimes of history: of all the violations of property and liberty as defined by libertarians (the Nazi theft of land and belongings from the Jews; the collectivisation of private property that took place in the Soviet Union followed by the de-collectivisation which handed most of this property to figures high-up in the communist party; the theft of indigenous people’s land by the colonial powers; slavery; the billions of contract violations that have taken place since the first contract was drawn up). Once you do it becomes clear that our present ‘distribution’ is anything but just. What’s more it’s irredeemably unjust – on Nozickian terms. This is because while it might be – theoretically – possible set up some sort of draconian court that looked back through all the injustices of the past and confiscated from those who benefited from them, returning wealth to those who had lost, in practice, this would be impossible. Not in the least because you would have to be compensating people who were already dead (and, indeed some who were never born) by taking property from people who might not be alive (or have ever been born) were it not for the injustices perpetuated by their forbearers. In the absence of any real chance of justice looking back, a libertarian could possibly argue for some sort of ‘level playing-field moving forwards’ form of justice as a next best option. This might involve a 100% inheritance tax accompanied by massive investment in public education for a generation followed thereafter by a libertarian system with strict protection of property rights. This would at least be interesting, if still highly implausible. But you certainly won’t find it in the proposals of New Zealand’s libertarian parties. To be fair this, perhaps, is because a 100% inheritance tax would be politically unpalatable to most New Zealanders; but at the very least, one would expect Libertarians to be as hawkish as practically possible when it came to rectifying past wrongs. This would provide their philosophical system with a tiny semblance of fairness.

Yet, Libertarianism, as it is advocated in the political arena in New Zealand, argues for nothing of the sort. The ACT party, for example, is not, as you would think, staunchly in favour of providing redress to Maori for our long history of violating their property rights. Much the opposite in fact: ACT is one of the cheerleaders of ‘moving on’ from the crimes of the past; of putting an end to the ‘culture of grievance’(3). What they’re really advocating is ‘start from now’ libertarianism which, funnily enough, almost-always finds its strongest advocates amongst those who are doing pretty well at present thank you very much.

Mostly Bonkers - what’s Worse, it wouldn’t Work

The final problem that I have with libertarianism runs as such. Even if you’re willing to accept that it’s philosophically dodgy and unjust even on terms of its own philosophers you might still favour libertarianism simply because it worked. If, unfairness and all, it provided the best outcome for people. Utilitarian’s libertarianism, so to speak. The trouble is simply put (and apologies for the shortness of this section I would like to get this essay finished) there’s simply no evidence to show that a ‘freer’ economy leads to better outcomes than a more regulated one (up to a point of course – we’ll call that point Sweden). As Harvard Economic historian Peter Lindhart shows in his book Growing Public, state intervention in the European welfare states, did not – over the last century – lead to appreciably slower growth than in more liberalised economies like that of the US. All the US has got for its troubles is a less healthy less secure society with a bundle of social problems that are worse than those encountered by Social Democracies. And this is despite the fact that the US is only slightly more liberalised than the European states. Now it’s possible that you could argue that the US only suffers because it hasn’t been bold enough in embracing ‘Freedom’, but given that the major problems it encounters – the environment, health care, inequality, poverty etc. – have only ever been addressed effectively using collective action, it’s pretty darn hard to see how more economic liberalisation in the US will take the country closer to utopia.


What I have written above is my attempt to explain what bothers me with libertarianism and why I would never vote for its acolytes here in New Zealand. To me libertarianism just doesn’t pan out: when expressed in terms of rights it renders absolute a right (property) the pre-eminence of which it cannot defend; its rhetoric co-opts the word freedom and robs it of half its meaning; and it is unjust – on its own terms. What’s more I see no evidence that – even if you were to discard all the concerns above – it would ‘work’ any better than the alternatives. In short it is wholly unconvincing.

The iconoclastic Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote that: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” To the extent that much modern conservatism is libertarian in nature, and because none of the justifications offered for it hold water, I am inclined to agree.

Perhaps I am wrong though. This is only a blog post – a first draft if you will – I’d love to hear where my mistakes are.

Some Readings:

In terms of Books – Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom covers, makes an eloquent argument in favour of positive freedoms.

Some online articles I found worth a read were:

Johann Hari on Ayn Rand

The LRB on Ayn Rand (hat tip to Anon in comments)

The Wikipedia has an ok section on criticism of libertarianism

And, of course, on libertarianism itself

This is an online index of criticism

A conservative criticism of libertarianism, which – typically enough – uses ad homs. etc. It almost made me want to side with the libertarians.

This is someone who obviously got tired of arguing with libertarians on Usenet

If house pets were libertarians – a cartoon

A good critique of libertarianism by a philosopher:

Whittaker Chambers’ famous review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.



(1) It is central to right-libertarian thought, but not, of course, to the beliefs of anarco-socialists who, typically, reject private property along with government.
(2) At this stage I am working on the assumption that such property is justly acquired. I’ll deal with unjustly acquired property later in the essay.
(3) The term ‘culture of grievance’ is particularly rich coming from a group of people who appear to grieve excessively for every penny they pay in tax.