Monday, June 20, 2016

Libertarianism as a Cease-Fire

I could be wrong about this, but I strongly suspect that most people dislike having bad policies imposed on them more than they like imposing their favored polices on unwilling citizens. Most Hilary voters dislike Trump more than they like Hilary, and vice versa. Most secular liberals would like the option of escaping a religious indoctrination of their children *more* than they like being able to impose a secular education on their religious neighbors’ children. Likewise, most religious parents would prefer the ability to escape a secular indoctrination for their children over the ability to impose a religious education on their neighbors’ children. Many of us harbor authoritarian attitudes, but mostly we prefer the preservation of our own freedom over the ability to restrict other people’s freedom.  Unfortunately, voting is cheap. If people could charge for the privilege of imposing hated policies on them, and we had to pay for that privilege, most of us wouldn’t pony up. We’d for the most part leave our neighbors in peace. Since voting for a controversial policy is so inexpensive compared to  the actual cost (as judged by those who would rather not bear that cost), society as a whole ends up with more government than it collectively wants.  

Libertarianism is a truce. We could have a big fight over what policies will be imposed on everyone and bitterly contest every little issue that comes up in this fight. Or we can avoid the fight altogether, at least for those cases where there’s no need to have one single policy for everyone. We don’t all need to have the same health insurance plan with all the exact same terms (possibly provided by a single shared insurer, as many have proposed). We don’t all need to have the same schooling with the same curriculum. We don’t all have to be subject to the same “protections” from potential employers. You can always insist on your own employment terms that are stricter or less strict (corresponding to a lower or greater chance, respectively, of getting hired) than some default set of protections.

So why do we have to fight over all these issues? Why don’t we just call the cease-fire, given that we mostly prefer our own freedom if it's purchased at the tiny cost of granting other people their freedom? What’s going on here?

Perhaps there are some cases where we all have to share the same policy, and I’ll grant that for the moment. We as a nation all need to have the same shared “nuclear deterrence” policy, and I probably need to share the same environmental policies as my immediate neighbor (though certainly not with someone a few states over). Sure, there are “public goods” issues like these, where some kind of coordination (perhaps even forced coordination) is required. But this describes a tiny fraction of what the government actually does. And many of these public goods issues are very localized, at the state or city or even subdivision level. There is no role for a federal government, and indeed a single federal rule is inappropriate for diverse communities with diverging needs.

Perhaps people are extremely cynical when it comes to their voting behaviors. Suppose team red and team blue sense when they are likely to get their way. Why bother calling a cease-fire when you can just have your way? As in, “We *could* grant religious parents the freedom that we want for ourselves, but we’re so likely to get our policy of ‘secular education for all’ that it makes no sense to grant this concession.” But in this case, there’s still an opportunity for a general cease-fire, as opposed to a one-off cease-fire. The cynical secular liberal in this example says to the conservative religious parent, “We’ll grant you the freedom to educate your children as you please and you’ll grant us the freedom to ingest whatever chemicals we like without police interference.” Even if one team senses that they are likely to get their way on a majority of policies, a cease-fire still makes sense. The pendulum swings both ways, so a general, long-term cease-fire makes sense as a way to prevent future removals of liberty.  Seen this way, imposing unwanted policy on your neighbors from the opposite team sets you up for an everlasting cycle of recriminations and retributions. They’ll get you back when it’s their turn. Even if one team senses that they will mostly get their way for a very long time, a ceasefire might still make sense as an insurance policy against a few really bad reversals where the other team gets its way. Also, most people find themselves in the minority on *some* issues, where they prefer to keep their freedom while a majority (perhaps even a large majority, perhaps crossing over traditional left-right/conservative-progressive lines) prefers to deprive them of that freedom. I don’t know how most people value “taking away other people’s freedom” compared to “losing my own freedom,” but I suspect it would require a very large amount of the former to compensate for a small amount of the latter. A cease-fire still probably makes sense unless you are nearly certain of maintaining total hegemony for several decades. Libertarianism offers us a fair truce. Simply limit the power of government to a few very basic functions, and you won’t have most of these conflicts.

Maybe people simply don’t give any thought to these things. Perhaps every political question gets its own ad hoc answer, with no sense of internal consistency whatsoever. Perhaps there is no consideration for opposing policy preferences, as in “My policy is plainly ‘right’ and yours is plainly ‘wrong.’ Any ‘preference’ for something else deserves no consideration at all.” While a person exhibiting this behavior in normal life would be considered a narcissist and a sociopath, it’s fairly common in politics (the personal politics of voters and the “professional” politics of politicians). In this kind of environment, where people have the attention span and the manners of small children, it may be impossible to call upon voters to sign a general cease-fire. Even so, here is the grand compromise, if anyone wants it. It's essentially a variant of "live and let live" or "do unto others," applied to politics.

Am I being unfair in framing my policy prescriptions as “neutral” and the mainstream left vs. right policy prescriptions as warring factions? I don’t think I am. I’m merely choosing “government activism requires overwhelming justification” as my default position, along with agnosticism over which of two warring factions is really “right” in some theological sense. I don't think any other default position makes a lot of sense. If A wants to impose a hated educational regime on B’s children, and B wants to impose a hated educational regime on A’s children, then splitting the difference means getting the government out of education. It doesn’t mean taking some kind of “average” of A and B’s policy regimes and imposing the middle ground policy on everyone. Libertarianism gets unfairly tagged as some kind of extreme outlier, but in reality it’s the most neutral possible territory for many policy conflicts. Many of these conflicts can be entirely avoided with a libertarian truce. The conflict makes us all worse off, and often so do the resulting policies. 

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