Markets are much more than multinational corporations, banking firms, and stock brokerages on Wall Street, though all of those things are the result of a market system.
Sound economies, from the biggest multinational banks to a child’s sidewalk lemonade stand, operate on the principles of private property and exchange. These concepts are the building blocks of free societies, and it is the system of countless small trades, taken as a whole, that we call “the market.”
It is important to note that these trades are positive sum (win-win) situations: each party agrees to a trade because they value what they’re getting more than what they’re giving up.
And when those trades are voluntary—when nothing is preventing people from making trades or forcing people to make trades—that results in a free market, which makes everyone healthier, wealthier, more peaceful, and more technologically advanced.
That’s what libertarians mean when they defend the free market.
Produced by Evan Banks and Aaron Ross Powell.
View full post on Libertarianism.org
I was pleased to see last week that Professor Epstein had penned a response to my criticism of his recent piece on Hoover’s Defining Ideas in which he argued against treating protection of civil liberties and privacy as “nonnegotiable” in the context of counterterrorism. It is not the disagreement that is pleasing, of course, but the opportunity to air it, which can foster discussion of these issues among libertarians while illustrating to the broader world how seriously libertarians take both security and liberty.
What’s most important in Professor Epstein’s rejoinder is what comes at the end. He says that I should “comment constructively on serious proposals” rather than take an a priori position that civil liberties and privacy will often impede expansions of government power proposed in the name of counterterrorism.
I believe that Professor Epstein and I share the same prior commitments–to limited government, free markets, and peace. Having left it implicit before, I’ll state that I, too, believe that protection of life and property is the primary function of the state. But I also believe that excesses in pursuit of security can cost society and our liberties more than they produce in benefits.
Some years of work on counterterrorism, civil liberties, and privacy bring me to my conclusions. I had put in a half-decade of work on privacy before my six years of service on the Department of Homeland Security’s privacy advisory committee began in 2005. While interacting with numerous DHS components and their programs, I helped produce the DHS Privacy Committee’s risk-management-oriented “Framework for Privacy Analysis of Programs, Technologies, and Applications.” From time to time, I’ve also examined programs in the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS through the Homeland Security Institute. My direct knowledge of the issues in counterterrorism pales in comparison to the 30+ experts my Cato colleagues and I convened in private and public conferences in 2009 and 2010, of course, but my analysis benefitted from that experience and from co-editing the Cato book: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It.
Whether I’m operating from an inappropriate a priori position or not, I don’t accept Professor Epstein’s shift of the burden. I will certainly comment constructively when the opportunity arises, but it is up to the government, its defenders, and here Professor Epstein to show that security programs are within the government’s constitutional powers, that such programs are not otherwise proscribed by the constitution, and that they cost-effectively make our society more secure.
The latter two questions are collapsed somewhat by the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of reasonableness, or “fit” between means and ends when a search or seizure occurs. And to the extent I can discern the program that Professor Epstein prefers, I have commented on it as constructively as I can.
Professor Epstein apparently believes that there is some kind of surveillance that is at once general, comprehensive, and non-intrusive. Adjoined to racial or ethnic profiling, it works to deter terrorism and more immediately to apprehend terrorists.
Let’s dispense with the profiling first. A “disproportionate number of terrorists are Muslim,” Professor Epstein wrote in his original piece, and in his rejoinder he said race and ethnicity are “valuable information that could help tweak the design of surveillance systems of searches.”
In 2006, IBM distinguished engineer and chief scientist Jeff Jonas and I published a paper entitled: “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining.” We found that sophisticated algorithms based on variables far more salient than race or ethnicity will not turn up terrorism because there are insufficient instances of terrorism on which to build models that predict it. Sifting vast stores of data can turn up credit card fraud because there are thousands of examples per year on which to model this particular type of wrongdoing, and the costs of false positives are low–inconvenience to credit card customers, for example.
This is not the case with terrorism. “The possible benefits of predictive data mining for finding planning or preparation for terrorism are minimal,” we concluded. “The financial costs, wasted effort, and threats to privacy and civil liberties are potentially vast. Those costs out-strip any conceivable benefits of using predictive data mining for this purpose.” Data mining doesn’t work in this area, and tracking Muslims doesn’t help.
So what about mass surveillance? In his original essay, Professor Epstein cited the need for “improved software in such key areas as facial recognition detection” and apparently the use of aerial drones for visual data collection regarding all potential terrorists, which is to say everyone. His preferred surveillance system would “collect troves of information about the conduct of people in public places,” he emphasized, “which can then be stored for future use.” The idea of a secret court system governing access to this data does not put the privacy-minded at ease.
As I also said in my original piece, these systems would not work. By “work,” I mean “cost-effectively secure the country and its inhabitants.” The number of ways to do damage and the number of “soft targets” in the country would require an utterly comprehensive national surveillance system. National security expert and Cato senior fellow John Mueller has distilled this fact to a jibe about the terror threat to the Weeki Wachee Springs water park in Florida. It’s a symbol of the thousands of locations around the country all seeking homeland security money because they all could be attacked. They are all indeed potential targets, equally likely and unlikely, and it would take billions of dollars to implement the surveillance system Professor Epstein envisions if he wants visual surveillance to serve as a preventive or terrorist apprehension tool for them all.
As I said, doing so would not cost-effectively deter terrorists. And Boston is not the only guide. I have been pointing out since at least 2007 that terrorists are not terribly concerned with worldly justice and thus not as deterrable as ordinary people. Audrey Kurth Cronin shows in her excellent monograph “Ending Terrorism” that a goal of many terrorist acts is to signal other terrorists (imagined or real, and however pathetically). Notoriety is in the interest of terrorists to some degree. This helps explain lame escape attempts by the terrorists who don’t do themselves in. Their relative indifference to capture given their mixed motives renders security measures like national identification and mass surveillance rather impotent in comparison to its effect on ordinary criminals whose goal is truly “getting away” with something.
We aren’t relitigating Boston here. Security guru Bruce Schneier had an excellent piece on CNN.com last week exploring how hindsight bias makes the Boston attack appear obvious when it was not. The problem after Boston is what will secure against the next attack, coming, as it will, from an unknown actor or actors, anywhere in the country, using a wide variety of tools and methods.
That’s a real security problem, though it’s far from existential. Terrorism is well under control and remains a far lower cause of mortality and morbidity in the United States than very exotic dangers like bees and fireworks accidents. Terrorism is indistinguishable from the x-axis in any reasonably sized cause-of-death chart that includes overeating and smoking. The objective facts about causes of death and property damage in the United States today counsel keeping terrorism in its place on the list of priorities, below automobile accidents, heart disease, domestic violence, and the Drug War.
Returning to the constitutional issues in the light of the security challenge, there is certainly such a thing as surveillance that doesn’t implicate the Fourth Amendment. But what Professor Epstein must be defending if he thinks this program is going to catch terrorists before they act is not in that zone. United States v. Jones last year showed that the Court is not going to embrace the facile conclusion descended from dictum in Katz (and rejected in the holding) that all bets are off simply because a person is in public.
When facial recognition software arrives to the point where it works at scale—it’s not there yet—the issue will be joined whether it is a search to use high-definition camera scanning of each person’s visage, highly tuned algorithms that convert each face to a signature, and time-and-location databases that record every person’s facial signature each time it is recognized outside the enclave of the home. “Stand-off” identity detection by laser-scanning of the iris holds out more hope for reliability, I think. I look forward to the case in which the government argues that these kinds of high-tech “examinations” are not searches.
Whether he has in mind the logistics of his surveillance system or not, Professor Epstein rejects my comparison of it to clearly unconstitutional crotch-searches in response to a nuclear threat because:
The Fourth Amendment treatment of unreasonable searches and seizures rests on a critical distinction between investigation of particular suspects and the stopping of dangers from unknown quarters. There is a lot more information in the first case, so that a dragnet search makes no sense, which is why particularized evidence is required. But general surveillance at unknown targets has to spread its net far wider. It is both less intrusive and more comprehensive, and it can and does work.
The distinction he talks about doesn’t arise from the language of the Fourth Amendment, which requires all searches and seizures of protected things to be reasonable, and I don’t know of case law relying on these poles. To my mind, he is simply describing two distinct points on the continuum along which suspicion and reasonable government action run. Courts administer the reasonableness of searches and seizures in a step-wise fashion, of course: Searching or seizing is unreasonable when suspicion is non-existent or low, a modicum of seizing and searching is reasonable when there is “reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts,” and a full warrant search is reasonable when facts, inferences, and identifiers about crimes and criminals have reached the level of probable cause.
If there is a difference in kind between the two situations, I don’t see how they are on opposite sides of the line. In both my crotch-searches-for-nuclear-weapons hypothetical and mass surveillance for terror threats, law enforcement has no idea who the bad actor is and no idea where he, she, or they will strike–if anyone ever does. The government’s power to search and seize our persons, papers, houses, and effects is low—and rightly so: Even great danger doesn’t justify essentially random government action.
What we are looking at post-Boston is well-summarized by the statement of Massachusetts state senator Robert Hedlund (R – Weymouth) that Professor Epstein attacked. Hedlund appears to be the rare example of a politician who avoids the a priori position that we can get more perfect defense against terrorist attacks if we just give more power to the government. It brings him to thinking that I find welcome, and that I think libertarians should generally endorse:
It’s not surprising that you have law enforcement agencies rushing out to use [the Boston bombing and subsequent manhunt] as pretext to secure additional powers but I think we have to maintain perspective and realize that civil liberties and the protections we’re granted under the Constitution and our rights to privacy, to a degree, are nonnegotiable…
You don’t want to let a couple of young punks beat us and allow our civil liberties to be completely eroded. I don’t fall into the trap that, because of the hysteria, we need to kiss our civil liberties away.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
There has, of late, been much debate about the philosophical merit of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). See here for a partial summary. Personally, I have been deeply gratified by the quality of argument that debate has elicited—on both sides—and I look forward to watching it continue to unfold. No doubt I will have more to contribute to it myself before long.
But, for now, I want to put to the side the philosophical question of the NAP’s defensibility, and ask instead some questions of a more sociological nature. Just how many libertarians really believe in the NAP, anyway? And for those who do, how does it inform their analysis of practical moral and political questions?
As far as I know, there hasn’t been much empirical work done on the moral and political beliefs of self-identified libertarians. But one always-fascinating source is Liberty’s decennial readers’ survey (No, not that Liberty, and not that one either. This one). First in 1988, then again in 1999, and finally in 2008 (before the magazine’s demise as a print periodical in 2010), Liberty published the results of an extensive survey of their readers and other libertarians. In each of these surveys, respondents were asked to provide demographic information, name their intellectual influences, say whether they agreed or disagreed with various moral, political, and religious beliefs, and analyze a handful of applied moral problems.
The results are fascinating along a number of different dimensions. But one item on the survey is of particular interest for my purposes:
“No person has the right to initiate physical force against another human being.”
Respondents were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement – essentially an unlabeled formulation of the NAP. In 1988, a full 90% of respondents said that they agreed. By 1999, however, the percentage expressing agreement had dropped by almost half to 50%. And by 2008, it was down to 39.7%.
It is possible that some of the drop was due to a change of wording in the question between 1988 and 1999—more on this below. But on its face, this is a pretty radical shift away from support of the NAP.
Interestingly, though, there doesn’t seem to have been much of a corresponding change in respondents’ answers to the kind of practical moral questions that would seem to involve the application of the NAP.
For instance, in 1988, the survey asked a pair of questions about a scenario labeled, “How much is that baby in the window?”
Suppose that a parent of a new-born baby places it in front of a picture window and sells tickets to anyone wishing to observe the child starve to death. He makes it clear that the child is free to leave at any time, but that anyone crossing his lawn will be viewed as trespassing.
The questions asked were, 1) Would you cross the lawn and help the child? And 2) Would helping the child violate the parents’ rights?
In 1988, 89% of respondents said they would cross the lawn. 26% said that doing so would violate the parents’ rights. In 1999 those numbers were 87% and 31%, respectively. And in 2008 they were 90.9% and 24.1%. In other words, despite the radical change in the professed belief in the NAP, and despite the fact that crossing the lawn in this case certainly looks like a violation of the owner’s property rights, there was almost no change at all in professed belief about either the question of whether respondents would themselves cross the lawn against the owner’s wishes, or in the question of whether doing so would violate the owner’s rights.
The same is true of another scenario, “Trespass or Die!”
Suppose that you are on a friend’s balcony on the 50th floor of a condominium complex. You trip, stumble and fall over the edge. You catch a flagpole on the next floor down. The owner opens his window and demands you stop trespassing.
In 1988, 84% of respondents said they believed that in such circumstances they should enter the owner’s residence against the owner’s wishes. 2% (one respondent) said that they should let go and fall to their death, and 15% said they should hang on and wait for somebody to throw them a rope. In 1999, the numbers were 86%, 1%, and 13%. In 2008, they were 89.2%, 0.9%, and 9.9%. Once again, change in professed belief about the NAP appears to have had virtually no effect on change in professed belief about the right thing to do in a situation that seems to involve aggression against an innocent person.
A few thoughts:
1. In 1988, respondents were asked whether they believed that “no person has the right” to initiate physical force against another human being. In 1999, the wording was changed, and respondents were asked whether they believed that “it is always wrong” to do so. The 1999 wording was kept in 2008.
Strictly speaking, these questions are asking about two different things. And it is possible to believe that no one has the right to initiate force, while nevertheless believing that in some extreme circumstances it would not be morally wrong to do so. Indeed, this seems to be the position Rothbard himself took in his chapter on “Lifeboat Situations.” It is possible, then, that respondents’ belief in the NAP didn’t really change at all between 1988 and 1999, and that the change in response simply reflected a philosophically sophisticated reaction to the changed wording of the question.
Bill Bradford, the founder and editor of Liberty, writing under the name of Ethan O. Waters, saw things somewhat differently.
To me, the most salient finding of the Poll is that libertarian moral thinking is not very rigorous … Although nearly all libertarians (89%) agree with the non-aggression axiom, a great many are willing to dispense with it when convenient: 89% will trespass to prevent a parent from starving his child for the fun of it; 98% would rather trespass than die in the flagpole question, including 14% who would restrict their trespassing to his flagpole and 84% who would go so far as to enter another’s residence …. It is apparent that many of those willing to dispense with the nonaggression axiom have no clear or consistent criterion for deciding when to dispense with it.
It’s hard to adjudicate between these two interpretations without more information. But one datum of interest is the fact that most respondents did not view crossing the lawn to feed the starving child as a violation of the parents’ rights. This suggests, at least, that respondents were not in this case making the distinction between the moral permissibility of an act and the question of whether that act violated someone else’s rights. And this, in turn, casts at least a bit of doubt on the idea that seeming discrepancies in their answers were undergirded by a sophisticated Rothbardian analysis of the ethics of emergencies.
2. How well do the results of these surveys represent the beliefs of libertarians in general? In each case, the respondents were drawn from attendees at the Libertarian Party National Convention and readers of Liberty magazine. Liberty was a magazine for “movement” libertarians—people who were very clear in their self-identification as libertarians, and enjoyed reading articles about the possibility of privatized roads, gossip about Ayn Rand’s inner circle, and the like. A very different kind of reader than you might expect from an “outreach” publication like Reason, for instance. And, of course, the kind of people who hang out at LP conventions (filling out surveys, no less!) are, well, a “different” breed as well. (As Ed Crane quipped about his experience at the 1971 founding convention in Denver, “As a libertarian, I always knew it was important to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles, but … until I went into that convention hall, I had no idea how many alternatives there were.”)
The respondents, then, were probably significantly more “hard core” than the median libertarian. And it’s probably reasonable to assume that hard core libertarians are generally more likely to agree with the NAP than the less hard core ones. If so, then the survey results probably overstate the extent of agreement with the NAP among libertarians as a whole.
3. I wonder what’s happened since 2008? My sense from conservations online and at various libertarian conferences is that the NAP might be making a comeback. Is this accurate? And, if so, what might explain it? Well, 2008 was the year of Ron Paul’s first campaign for the presidency, and his rise to stardom among libertarian youth. Paul has a long connection to the Ludwig von Mises Institute via Lew Rockwell, and my sense is that the LvMI has used this connection and its incredible web presence to draw a lot of young Ron Paul supporters into its fold. And the NAP is, of course, a central part of the “plumb line” libertarianism that LvMI seeks to defend and spread.
At the same time, 2008 was also the year in which Students for Liberty was created, and it too has enjoyed tremendous growth and success in the last few years. And, compared at least to LvMI, SFL is less closely wedded to the Rothbardian vision of libertarianism, including the NAP.
Both LvMI and SFL are diverse organizations, of course, and there are plenty of individuals in each of them for whom my generalizations will not hold. I’m painting with a broad brush here simply in order to speculate about possible large-scale trends in the libertarian movement. But, in the end, it’s just one guy’s speculation.
Perhaps it’s time for another survey?
View full post on Libertarianism.org
Karl Hess was a noted speechwriter (for Barry Goldwater among others) and author, and later in his life became known as a tax resister, welder, and market anarchist.
In this video from a National Libertarian Party convention in 1985, Hess speaks about how the invention of various tools throughout history has changed the world for the better, in many cases despite the best efforts of bureaucrats and politicians. He also gives general remarks about the libertarian movement and gives advice regarding his own brand of simple, harmonious living.
View full post on Libertarianism.org
Many libertarians believe that the whole of their political philosophy can be summed up in a single, simple principle. This principle—the “non-aggression principle” or “non-aggression axiom” (hereafter “NAP”)—holds that aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.
From this principle, many libertarians believe, the rest of libertarianism can be deduced as a matter of mere logic. What is the proper libertarian stance on minimum wage laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. What about anti-discrimination laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. Public schools? Same answer. Public roads? Same answer. The libertarian armed with the NAP has little need for the close study of history, sociology, or empirical economics. With a little logic and a lot of faith in this basic axiom of morality, virtually any political problem can be neatly solved from the armchair.
On its face, the NAP’s prohibition of aggression falls nicely in line with common sense. After all, who doesn’t think it’s wrong to steal someone else’s property, to club some innocent person over the head, or to force others to labor for one’s own private benefit? And if it’s wrong for us to do these things as individuals, why would it be any less wrong for us to do it as a group – as a club, a gang, or…a state?
But the NAP’s plausibility is superficial. It is, of course, common sense to think that aggression is a bad thing. But it is far from common sense to think that its badness is absolute, such that the wrongness of aggression always trumps any other possible consideration of justice or political morality. There is a vast difference between a strong but defeasible presumption against the justice of aggression, and an absolute, universal prohibition. As Bryan Caplan has said, if you can’t think of counterexamples to the latter, you’re not trying hard enough. But I’m here to help.
In the remainder of this essay, I want to present six reasons why libertarians should reject the NAP. None of them are original to me. Each is logically independent of the others. Taken together, I think, they make a fairly overwhelming case.
- Prohibits All Pollution – As I noted in my last post, Rothbard himself recognized that industrial pollution violates the NAP and must therefore be prohibited. But Rothbard did not draw the full implications of his principle. Not just industrial pollution, but personal pollution produced by driving, burning wood in one’s fireplace, smoking, etc., runs afoul of NAP. The NAP implies that all of these activities must be prohibited, no matter how beneficial they may be in other respects, and no matter how essential they our to daily life in the modern industrialized world. And this is deeply implausible.
- Prohibits Small Harms for Large Benefits – The NAP prohibits all pollution because its prohibition on aggression is absolute. No amount of aggression, no matter how small, is morally permissible. And no amount of offsetting benefits can change this fact. But suppose, to borrow a thought from Hume, that I could prevent the destruction of the whole world by lightly scratching your finger? Or, to take a perhaps more plausible example, suppose that by imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires, I could provide life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children? Even if we grant that taxation is aggression, and that aggression is generally wrong, is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous benefit it produces?
- All-or-Nothing Attitude Toward Risk – The NAP clearly implies that it’s wrong for me to shoot you in the head. But, to borrow an example from David Friedman, what if I merely run the risk of shooting you by putting one bullet in a six-shot revolver, spinner the cylinder, aiming it at your head, and squeezing the trigger? What if it is not one bullet but five? Of course, almost everything we do imposes some risk of harm on innocent persons. We run this risk when we drive on the highway (what if we suffer a heart attack, or become distracted), or when we fly airplanes over populated areas. Most of us think that some of these risks are justifiable, while others are not, and that the difference between them has something to do with the size and likelihood of the risked harm, the importance of the risky activity, and the availability and cost of less risky activities. But considerations like this carry zero weight in the NAP’s absolute prohibition on aggression. That principle seems compatible with only two possible rules: either all risks are permissible (because they are not really aggression until they actually result in a harm), or none are (because they are). And neither of these seems sensible.
- No Prohibition of Fraud – Libertarians usually say that violence may legitimately be used to prevent either force or fraud. But according to NAP, the only legitimate use of force is to prevent or punish the initiatory use of physical violence by others. And fraud is not physical violence. If I tell you that the painting you want to buy is a genuine Renoir, and it’s not, I have not physically aggressed against you. But if you buy it, find out it’s a fake, and then send the police (or your protective agency) over to my house to get your money back, then you are aggressing against me. So not only does a prohibition on fraud not follow from the NAP, it is not even compatible with it, since the use of force to prohibit fraud itself constitutes the initiation of physical violence.
- Parasitic on a Theory of Property – Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics, because its meaning and normative force are entirely parasitic on an underlying theory of property. Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.” But if this is true, then the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.
- What About the Children??? – It’s one thing to say that aggression against others is wrong. It’s quite another to say that it’s the only thing that’s wrong – or the only wrong that is properly subject to prevention or rectification by force. But taken to its consistent extreme, as Murray Rothbard took it, the NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death, so long as you do not forcibly prevent him from obtaining food on his own. Or, at least, it implies that it would be wrong for others to, say, trespass on your property in order to give the child you’re deliberately starving a piece of bread. This, I think, is a fairly devastating reductio of the view that positive duties may never be coercively enforced. That it was Rothbard himself who presented the reductio, without, apparently, realizing the absurdity into which he had walked, rather boggles the mind.
There’s more to be said about each of these, of course. Libertarians haven’t written much about the issue of pollution. But they have been aware of the problem about fraud at least since James Child published his justly famous article in Ethics on the subject in 1994, and both Bryan Caplan and Stephan Kinsella have tried (unsatisfactorily, to my mind) to address it. Similarly, Roderick Long has some characteristically thoughtful and intelligent things to say about the issue of children and positive rights.
Libertarians are ingenious folk. And I have no doubt that, given sufficient time, they can think up a host of ways to tweak, tinker, and contextualize the NAP in a way that makes some progress in dealing with the problems I have raised in this essay. But there comes a point where adding another layer of epicycles to one’s theory seems no longer to be the best way to proceed. There comes a point where what you need is not another refinement to the definition of “aggression” but a radical paradigm shift in which we put aside the idea that non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe. Libertarianism needs its own Copernican Revolution.
View full post on Libertarianism.org
Right-to-work laws are back in the news after the one-time union stronghold of Michigan passed one.
Vinnie Vernuccio and Joe Lehman of Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy take a victory lap in the Wall Street Journal, agreeing with Governor Rick Snyder in calling the bill “pro-worker”:
Right to work does not change any aspect of collective bargaining other than preventing employees from getting fired for choosing not to join or remain in a union and pay union dues or agency fees, which may go toward political causes they don’t support. Collective bargaining still exists in right-to-work states, and workers are of course free to organize.
But not all libertarians agree. In the same day’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Holman Jenkins notes that
right-to-work laws are designed to restrict an employer’s freedom of contract. They prohibit an employer from making union membership a condition of employment.
Jenkins sees this restriction of contract as a “bad fix trying to compensate for a prior bad law,” the 1935 Wagner Act. Jenkins prefers what he calls a “principled” approach to the problem of worker-employer freedom – the “deregulation of labor relations.” That would allow employers the ability to make union membership a condition for employment if they so choose. Or not.
Sheldon Richman, a longtime libertarian who was for many years editor of the Freeman at the Foundation for Economic Education and is now vice president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, similarly views right-to-work laws as a bad intervention trying to counterbalance another bad intervention. He quotes Percy Greaves Jr., a student of Ludwig von Mises: “Intervention creates problems that, unless the original intervention is repealed, beget further intervention, and so on.” Richman urges instead that we “let states opt out of the Wagner regime….Rather than prohibiting voluntary union-shop agreements between employers and unions, a state legislature could pass a bill simply declaring that the NLRB had no jurisdiction in that state.” He also examines the views of scholars such as Hayek and Mises on right-to-work laws.
Gary Chartier, whose book Anarchy and Legal Order: Law and Politics for a Stateless Society, is about to come out from Cambridge University Press, also says, “Right-to-work laws limit workers’ and employers’ freedom of contract. They prevent workers and employers from making mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t belong in a free society.”
Economist David Henderson counters with an argument about second-best solutions:
Gary avoids mention of the word “monopoly.” He recognizes that federal labor law gives unions the power to negotiate for the whole labor force in a plant or a firm. That’s monopoly. Many libertarians, including me, have looked much more favorably on “right to work” laws as an offset to this illegitimate government-created monopoly. It’s only a small offset, as we’ll see.
So what do you do, given that we have this federal law that Gary and I agree is a bad law? Try to abolish it, of course. But what do you do meanwhile? Many libertarians have argued that you work within the existing law to try to minimize the harm done by monopoly unionism. And a way to do that is with right-to-work laws.
It’s true that such laws make it illegal for employers to do what some of them mightwant to do: namely hire only union workers, require everyone who works for them to join unions, or require everyone who works for them to pay dues to a union. But are there really likely to be many such employers? I don’t think so.
Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation hammers home that point:
To oppose all reform that does not deliver total freedom in one fell swoop is a recipe for policy paralysis. Right-to-work laws are desirable because, although they are partial, they are still pareto-optimal: By limiting the powers of union bosses, they leave employers no worse off and workers somewhat better off.
Once again, there are disagreements about policy among libertarians who share very similar economic and philosophical principles.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
By Jim Harper
Last week, an influential House Republican group made a feint toward supporting revamp of copyright law. On Friday, the Republican Study Committee issued a paper harshly criticizing copyright law as it stands today and calling for a variety of reforms. Then it quickly retracted the paper. On Saturday, the paper came down from the RSC site, and RSC Executive Director Paul Teller issued a statement saying that the paper had been issued “without adequate review.”
Today, it’s hard to find a source on the tech policy beat that isn’t writing about it: Politico, Hillicon Valley, C|Net, TechDirt, Ars Technica, and TechCrunch, for example. The American Conservative was on the story early, coming out with a highly laudatory comments on the RSC policy brief.
That was the beginning of the conversation. It continues on Thursday, December 6th when we’ll be hosting a book forum on the topic of copyright here at Cato.
The Mercatus Center’s Jerry Brito has edited a volume the thesis of which is evident in the title: Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess. In addition to Brito, contributor (and Cato alum) Tom W. Bell will speak. And we’ll have able response and counterpoint given by Mitch Glazier, Senior Executive Vice President at the Recording Industry Association of America.
View full post on Cato @ Liberty
Your company, a large conglomerate, is in trouble. Its products and services aren’t satisfying their consumers, it’s bleeding money, and the management structure is totally dysfunctional.
In an effort to turn things around, the company establishes a committee to come up with new corporate strategies and policies. You’re a member of that committee. One of the first things you do, knowing how much it would help to get a third-party perspective, is to bring in three consultants. The committee asks each to draw up a plan for fixing the company’s problems.
The consultants—Adam, Barney, and Charles—carefully study your company, interview its employees, spend time with top-level management, watch the various production processes, and so on. Then, each writes his comprehensive recommendations and seals them in an envelope.
Your committee now has the three envelopes on the table in front of you, unopened.
At the moment, you’ve no details about the proposals. What you do have is a psychological profile of each consultant. Here’s what you know:
Adam cares deeply about loyalty, authority, preserving sanctity. He has high empathy—though not as high as Barney. He scores low on systematic thinking—but this time not as low as Barney.
Barney values fairness and caring, but doesn’t care as much about loyalty, authority, and sanctity as Adam. Barney has high empathy. He’s also the worst of the three at systematizing.
Charles scores low on fairness and caring, and particularly low on loyalty and respect for authority. He’s worse than Adam when it comes to empathy, but is by a wide margin the best at systematic thinking.
Now, just based on these character traits, which of the three consultants do you think is most likely to have come up with a good answer for why your company’s failing and what you can do about it?
Adam concerns you because, with high loyalty, he may not be willing to make the tough decisions that, while they might save the company, would also mean upsetting his peers. And with the value he places on authority, can you trust him to not just take whatever path those already in power might prefer?
Barney concerns you too, though for different reasons. He’ll likely be more independent in his thinking than Adam, but he’s particularly weak as a systematic thinker. This means he’s unlikely to deeply understand the company and its problems. And his preference for fairness and caring might mean that he’ll avoid the hard choices.
Compared to the other two, then, Charles looks pretty good. He won’t let authority or loyalty get in the way of turning the company around. Nor will he sacrifice the company’s future in order to prevent any sacrifice on the part of everyone involved.
So what’s all this got to do with libertarianism? At an event at the Cato Institute back in October, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt shared research he’s done on the psychological profiles of self-identified liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.
What he found is that Adam looks much like the typical conservative, Barney like the typical liberal, and Charles like the typical libertarian.
If Haidt’s findings are right—and that’s an enormous “if”1—then it appears libertarians possess just those personality traits we’d value most in looking for people to best solve policy problems. When it comes to addressing the budget deficit or deciding to go to war, we don’t want people making those decisions who are in the thrall of authority figures. We don’t want people who will place too much concern on hurt feelings or on doing things the way they’ve always been done. What we want are rational, independent thinkers, people inclined to approach problems systematically and thoroughly, learning the ins and outs before drawing non-biased conclusions.
In other words, we want libertarians.
I have a number of concerns with Haidt’s methods. One, having to do with the way he gets at moral differences, I explored in an earlier blog post..
But there are other problems, particularly because Haidt’s data depends entirely on self-identification. The only libertarians he’s drawing conclusions from are those who consciously identify as libertarians. But as my colleague David Boaz has shown, quite a lot of people are in fact libertarians without knowing it. ↩
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By David Kirby
Last week, I posted data from the latest Reason-Rupe poll showing 77 percent of libertarians supporting Romney—the highest percentage share of the libertarian vote of any Republican presidential candidate since 1980.
Many commenters on Twitter and Facebook were horrified! Surely, many reasoned, this large vote share is a measure of antipathy for Obama rather than affinity for Romney. Others commented that any libertarian supporting Romney doesn’t deserve to be considered a “true” libertarian.
I wanted to reflect on this last comment. Who should count as a libertarian?
In our Cato research, David Boaz, Emily Ekins and I have taken to using a relatively broad definition of a libertarian. Why? Compared to other political words like “capitalism” or “socialism,” fewer know the word “libertarian.” Many who hold libertarian views call themselves “moderate” or “independent” or even “conservative.” Few polls even offer respondents an option to identify themselves as “libertarian.” Those that do reveal confusion about what the word means.
Given all this, we have preferred to probe respondents’ basic background beliefs about the role of government, using questions commonly asked on national polls. Libertarians give different answers than liberals or conservatives. For instance, in the Reason-Rupe poll, we chose three questions to screen libertarians. This gives us a 20 percent group of libertarian likely voters. Other methods and questions produce slightly higher or lower estimates.
But what if you look deeper—at say, only libertarians who self-identify as such? Or libertarians who prioritize civil liberties, like support for the legalization of marijuana? Or libertarian independents? Or tea party libertarians? The chart below breaks out these different segments of the broader libertarian vote.* (Thanks again to Emily Ekins for sharing the crosstabs.)
- Civil liberties libertarians: Among libertarians (by our broader definition) who favor “legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use,” Romney support drops, but only to 63 percent. While many civil libertarians held out hope for Obama, he has continued many of the Bush era drug policies. For instance, Obama’s Justice Department continues to raid medical marijuana dispensaries in California and support Bush era surveillance policies.
- Tea party libertarians: The data show that half of the tea party movement is libertarian. Among libertarians who also support the tea party, Romney would win his largest percentage vote share at 93 percent. Though interestingly, tea party libertarians seem as willing as other libertarians to consider voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Johnson wins 13 percent of tea party libertarians if you add him to the candidate list.
- Libertarian independents: Among libertarians who consider themselves “independent” (like the voters Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie profile in their book Declaration of Independents), 71 percent would vote for Romney, 23 percent for Obama. Interestingly, among libertarian independents, Gary Johnson pulls a larger share away from Obama voters than Romney voters.
- Self-identified libertarians: Among those who self-identify as “libertarian”—the smallest of these groups at only 4 percent of likely votes—Romney would win 66 percent of the vote and Obama 32 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, self-identified libertarians are most willing to consider voting for a Libertarian Party candidate, with 51 percent saying they’d vote for Johnson if he is offered as an option.
So who are the true libertarians? Take your pick!
My own perspective is that the libertarian “brand” seems broader and more self-aware today than ever before—and that’s a good thing. Ron Paul has certainly played a big role in this. It also may be that in confusing economic times, people are more open to the libertarian ideas long espoused by Cato, Reason, FreedomWorks, and other free-market organizations. In interviews at the grassroots level, Emily and I found more and more voters who act like libertarians, talk like libertarians, and reason like libertarians.
And who knows—as pollsters, strategists, and pundits pick up on the importance of the libertarian vote, more politicians may start to behave like libertarians.
*Note: One should be cautious when comparing such small subsets of voters, as the statistical margin of error increases, making comparisons problematic. For instance, Reason polled only 787 likely voters with a margin of error of +/- 4%. Among the broadest 20 percent of libertarians, the margin of error increases to +/- 7%. Among self-identified “libertarians,” who represent only 4 percent of likely voters, the margin of error increases to +/- 15%. For instance, given this large margin of error, we cannot say that Romney’s vote share among self-identified libertarians is really different than Romney’s vote share among libertarians more broadly. But the jump in support for Johnson is definitely statistically significant.
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