Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Libertarian Approach Thought Through

Recently, on a forum that I have participated in a lot over the years, there was a person who was strongly promoting the Libertarian party.

If I may be allowed to summarize their position in a nutshell, this is the party that suggests that the current government is too large, too out of control, and not responsive to the needs of the voting public, and irresponsible about how they spend our tax dollars. So they believe that the government should be drastically reduced in size and their roles and responsibilities drastically reduced as well. "Every man for himself" as it were. They generally believe that each person should provide their own retirement funds, and medical coverage, and unemployment contingencies. They do not feel a social safety net is a good thing and that it fosters laziness and lack of responsibility in the public.

I hope that was a fair representation. I think it was. My response to the discussion is as follows:

I think that private industry is better at operating more efficiently than the government, because they are used to operating in a competitive environment.
However, I think we still need government agencies and programs to safeguard the interests of the public in general because private industry operates purely out of self interest.

Someone has to create and enforce rules about pollution and safety. If left to their own, chemical companies would all pollute the planet until it was unliveable, car companies would make unsafe vehicles to save money, there would be no national parks, or any interstate highways. No subdivision developer is going to create a big highway system at a cost of billions of dollars. And finally, who would fight our fires, police our streets, or defend our country? Private industry? I don't think so.

The trick is to find a balance between government and industry. A good balance that both serves the need for efficiency in operating as well as the need to treat everyone fairly and uphold the interests of the general public.

I think that the current political system is too flawed. The Electoral College approach seems crazy to me. It was built to accommodate a population of uneducated farmers that could not understand issues. The current party system is also wrong and broken. It allows and reinforces all the bad aspects of politics and control and power - I don't need to list them here, we all know the back-room politics and lobbyist things that happen.

Why in the world is it necessary to claim a whole state as being either red or blue? If it's a federal election for a president, why can't we just make a popular vote for the president we like? Don't just discount all the votes in a state that didn't vote for the party that won that state.

If the Democrats won by a large majority in some states, but lost by a narrow margin in more states, then the Rebublicans win the election even though the Democrats got more votes. That is the DEFINITION of a broken system.

AND - we allow the politicians in charge to redraw the boundaries of districts, and thereby carve up the districts containing demographic groups that would traditionally vote for the other party. That then splits up their vote so the other party loses. That is why Texas is a RED state. Because the Republicans carved up the ethnic communities of blacks and Mexican voters so that they would not have enough votes within their new re-drawn districts to be able to vote a Democrat into office.
It's called Jerrymandering, and to me this just seems criminal. It IS organized crime in control when they do things like this.

The irony is that we have the chutspa and unmitigated gall to go tell other countries how to create a fair democratic system in their countries, and then rate them and rank them according to our criteria. And yet we do things like these. What incredible, unfathomable arrogance!

We need a better system, but getting rid of government altogether, or weakening it too much does NOT lead to more power for the people. It does NOT lead to freedom, wealth, comfort, or peace. Instead, it creates a vacuum that sucks in organized crime.

Organized crime is a powerful force in the world. They tend to take over any country that does not have a strong enough government to resist them. Witness Russia as a prime example. Most of the organized crime websites in the world right now are all based in Russia, or other countries of the former USSR. Once that strong government broke down, then organized crime took over. Philosophically speaking, this is because the power of organization and planning will always beat anarchy and non-direction.

So pick your poison. Strong government with internal controls, voting and processes and a system you can enter and work within - or organized crime. Some cynics would argue that our current government IS already very much like organized crime! Wink

Is that our only choice? Maybe not. There are two other ways to go, as far as I can tell. Create a much more muscular United nations, which keeps all the national governments accountable to the rest of the world, so there are no crazed renegade dictators and power-mongers, war mongers out there, and it also keeps them in line with how they govern their charges. Keep the people happy and productive. Don't kill them and starve them. But this is difficult to do this when there are no countries that can counter-balance the US military superpower supremacy. It's hard to get people to surrender a lead position.

But there is another way to make our system fair, reasonable, and yet keep it strong and resilient to organized crime takeover.

Simply change how the legislation is voted on. Instead of having the politicians vote on the bill, have the public vote on the bill. The politicians can draft the legislation, and the people vote on it.

If they can take votes from millions of people on American Idol, then they can do it for voting on our nations issues. Could be online. Could be over the phone. Everyone gets a vote. Obviously measures have to be taken to ensure security and accuracy, but that is a detail, that I could describe separately (and did in the article I wrote about this a while back on my blog)

Think what the ramifications of this approach are:
People who have skills at drafting legislation do just that. People who are affected by the legislation actually get to vote on it.
There is no more vote-buying by lobbyists on Capitol Hill, because there are no real votes to buy anymore. The whole Jack Abramoff approach to politics goes away because the system has changed and there are no longer incentives to cheat. No power brokers. No kingpins.

This would be a MUCH better system - but how to get the existing politicians to relinquish their power. THAT is the thorny problem to solve.

I believe that if you remove the social safety net that provides for the disenfranchized and unfortunate people in this country, then you are asking for a whole different kind of trouble.

According to some quick research I just did a moment ago, we had about 2 million people remaining on welfare across the US by 2000. This was reduced by one third by the welfare reform bill that president Clinton put in place in 1996.
Of course that number may well have gone back up since president Bush took office because of the 4 year major recession, the outsourcing of our jobs to India and other countries, the 2 million bankruptcies per year that we now have, and natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina. I wouldn't doubt it if we are now at 4 million people on welfare, although that's just a guess. It could easily be higher. And that doesn't include those people on Social Security. That's another large group of people.

Welfare is how these people survive. Should we just assume that if we stopped their welfare checks they would suddenly all find jobs that allow them to support their families? That doesn't seem practical or reasonable or even possible for many reasons.

This is similar to the people who want no one to hire or continue paying any undocumented immigrant workers. That's roughly 12 million people who would suddenly have no way to survive.

The reality of the situation is that none of these people simply evaporate into thin air the moment you kick them off whatever program that sustains them today. You cannot find them and ship them elsewhere to other countries because no one has their names, addresses and phone numbers - that's part of what "undocumented" means. And, together with all the people formerly on welfare, they would comprise a force of perhaps 16 million people.

Then there are the armed forces. The US spends more than the entire rest of the world combined on military expenditures. If a Libertarian government is put in place, they would no doubt want to bring that spending down drastically by eliminating most of those troops off the payroll, and slashing military spending on equipment and weapons systems. So what happens to the companies that form the industrial complex that sells to the military? What happens to their workers and jobs? What happens to all the soldiers suddenly out of work with no jobs to go to, and no social safety net to keep them from starving to death? There are millions more people affected in this area as well. Let's take a wild guess at perhaps another 4 million people affected in total.

So now we have a total of about 20 million people with no way to support themselves. Do we expect them to lie quietly and starve - or kill themselves voluntarily?

If they could no longer maintain their living honestly, what other option do you suppose they might have?


Does it seem wise to remove the only means of support for 20 million people and force them into a life of crime to survive?

The US already has the highest incarceration rate of all developed countries in the world. We have more prisoners than communist China, even though they have 5-6 times our population. Our overcrowded prisons now contain about 3 million prisoners. There is no capacity to handle a large new group. We certainly could not suddenly double, triple, quadruple, or quintuple our national prison capacity.

20 million people is more than half the population of Canada. It's more than the entire population of Australia. It's more than the populations of Greece, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, and many other well-known European countries.

How do you suppose our society would deal with 20 million new desperate criminals? Well, the main thrust of Libertarian philosophy is to reduce or eliminate taxes by reducing or eliminating government services. That doesn't allow for new prisons that would contain millions of new prisoners. Police are part of the government services. Do we create 20 million new criminals, and then also remove or reduce the already insufficient police forces across the country?

How many of us should expect to be killed in our sleep? Shocked

Also, at first glimpse it might seem fine at the high level to say that everyone has to pull their own weight, and we need to eliminate those who don't, but that perspective seems okay only if you yourself are fit and prepared to work. What happens when you become one of the ones who are too old to work, or are incapacitated by long illness. Eventually, most of us get sick, and ALL of us get old. There will come a time for most of us when we may need a social safety net. Have you looked at the price of nursing homes and other old age care facilities lately?

This is part of what civilization itself is all about. We work as a group to pull the whole group forward. A rising tide lifts all boats. A civilized and enlightened society can lift the tide for everyone.
Otherwise, we end up in a world where the few strong ones are walled up and surrounded by the savage world outside their gates. They must be constantly vigilant against the desperate ones who try to survive by looking for ways to attack the wealthy ones and take what they have. That sounds like a fallback from civilization to savagery. I have a number of friends who are from South Africa. Their stories are similar to that. There are 2 million whites and 42 million blacks, and the whites mostly live in houses with high cement walls around them and barbed wire, and trained killer guard dogs, etc. They have told me many stories of incredible crime and violence.

It doesn't sound like a world I'd like to live in. And these friends that I know and work with have all managed to escape from SA, and they tell me the other whites in South Africa seem eager to get their chance to do the same as soon as possible. To them, this country, just as it is now, is like paradise by comparison.

Of course, not everyone who is unemployed becomes a criminal. Only the ones who cannot get work or find some other way to survive. Only if you take away Social Security and welfare and the safety net to allow them to survive and feed their families.
But let's think for a minute about the other effects on us besides the potential for exploding crime around us. If the Libertarians have their way and eliminate the big government we have now, what happens to all those people that work for the government today? They become unemployed, right?

Let's continue this logical cause and effect process a little further. Let's say there are 10 job openings for an accountant right this moment in your city. If you are the only accountant looking for a job in your city, you would probably have a choice of jobs, right? How much salary could you demand if you were the only person with that skill set available? You would do very well, wouldn't you?
Well, how about when the economy is a little tougher and there are 100 people with your qualifications competing for that same job in that same city? What does that do to your chances of getting a job, and how much would the employer have to pay you if there are 99 other people competing for the same position?
Now imagine that 2/3rds of the government jobs across the country are eliminated. How many thousands of people are you now competing with for that same job? People from all over the country would be trying to get at the jobs in your town. D.C. would virtually shut down and the people would be everywhere else in every other town scouring the streets for work. What are your chances of getting a job then? How much less would you be willing to take for a salary to compete with the thousands of other available and desperate workers?

But what if you are already employed and don't need to get a new job? Then you're safe, right?
Hardly. If your employer is paying you the average median salary of roughly $70,000 today, and he sees that he can replace you with someone else for half the salary, what do you think he would do? In fact the goal of all companies is to make a profit. What do you suppose happens when their executives realize they could churn their staff and cut payroll by 50%?
You would find yourself on the street in a flash, and competing with all those displaced government workers who by now are desperate to work for a lot less money.
Think about this. How many months of salary do you have saved up right now to pay the bills if you lost your job today? How long would it take to find another job? How long would you hold out for a job that pays your existing income before you decide you have to drop your expectations to compete to get a job? If you had not worked in a year, would you take a job at half your old salary just to get working again and get some bills paid and keep your skills up? Of course you would - so would all the others. This is what happened in this last recession we had. Many people who had computer-related jobs were unemployed for more than 2 years even. Now, the few remaining are working for a lot less money than they once were. Just imagine if they were also trying to compete with a few million laid off government workers at the same time?

And what happens when suddenly you have massive unemployment and those who ARE employed are employed at such a low salary that they cannot afford to buy the products and services that keep the engine of our economy turning? What happens when no one can afford new cars or houses, or refrigerators, microwave ovens, or toasters, or clothes? What happens to the companies when they can't sell their goods and services? They go out of business. What happens to their employees? They join the exploding ranks of those already unemployed and the situation continues to feed itself into an accelerating downward spiral.

It is called "total economic collapse". It's already happened before elsewhere. It could easily happen here. An economy is like an ecosystem. There is a delicate balance, you can only screw with it so much before it just falls apart in your hands.

This is simply the reality of a capitalist society and a free market economy driven by supply and demand. And this is what would happen if we suddenly dropped the size of our government and military, took people off welfare and cutoff undocumented immigrant workers.

Some things sound like they make sense until you start to work out all the details and the ripple effects.

Somehow, it seems like this Libertarian philosophy may not have been thought all the way through to it's eventual conclusion yet.

By comparison to Canada with over 50% income tax, and other countries in Europe that are even higher, our 29% income tax here in the US seems small. Especially when we can claim mortgage interest, health care costs, etc. as deductibles. Speaking for myself, I am happy to pay my fair share of taxes in order to maintain a civilized society with it's infrastructure intact and manageable unemployment, relatively safe streets, and a social services safety net that takes care of my less capable or less fortunate brothers and sisters. I'd like to know there is a plan that might take of me too if I needed it someday. But while I can, I will help support and help those I can. I am happy to do my part. Life here is generally quite good. It can always be tweaked and improved, but let's not break it, shall we?

Of course that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.


At 9/23/2006 10:42 PM, Blogger Igor said...

Val, I think you are absolutely right in your opinion about Libertarians.

BTW, 100 years ago they were called (and they called themselves) as Anarchists. But, as the society became aware of their ideas, the word "anarchy" changed its meaning to what it is today; and they now call themselves libertarians. Using a word related to the sacred word "liberty" is .... wiser, politically speaking.

But, back to your post. As I said, I agree with you 110%, because I witnessed how reality did prove you right in Russia. If not for (thanks, god!) influence - cultural, moral, political, by example - from Europe (god bless europeans (not brits)!) - Russia would probably hit the bottom. BTW, US governments were more than eager to push Russia into that abyss...

But, again, back to your post. Even though I agree with you totally, still, upon finishing reading, I feel un-satisfyed. Why ?

Because 90% of your arguments address not the Ideal Libertarian World (to be called ILW below), but the transitional period from today to ILW. And the problem with that is, if you use those arguments in a dicussion with a libertarian, you would get bogged in discussing the different ways of the transition. Obviously, there are many ways to do any thing, and, as we talk about Ideal Worlds, it is feasible to concoct an Ideal Transition.

No, if I may, I would put my line of reasoning differently: forget about the transition. Ok, let's accept libertarian promises, let's imagine we live in ILW. Everybody's pulling his/her own weight, everybody's happy, etc. Ok.

Now: all people are different, right? So, someday, in this ILW, in some family a boy is born. Happy parents give him name: Tony. The family name: Soprano. (you get the idea? :-))))) Tony grows up and becomes .... a libertarian would argue that "society" won't allow this to happen... Good! We are on the track: now I ask: exactly how? Someone in ILW is deciding what others can/cannot do? How? Who are those "deciders"? How a person became a decider? Who decide about deciders? and so on, and so on.

It is rather easy exercise to show that ILW is inherently unstable, even if it somehow came into existance, it would soon collapse, unless it has more-or-less our's government.

This is the common problem with Ideal Societies. Their creators think that humans are like bricks - you just put them into places to create an Ideal Cathedral. Alas, humans are bricks with their own intentions as to where they want to be. They are not going to lay meekly in the places the Cathedral Creator put them in. They have their own ideas about what they want.

The Founding Fathers knew that, they called it "pursue of happiness". To have any chance, an Ideal World must be able to accommodate that human desire. And the problem in accommodating it is that one person's happiness is another's unhappiness...


At 9/24/2006 8:31 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

You are right, Igor.
Regardless of the probloems of the transition to the Ideal Libertarian World, the basic premise of that ILW is fundamentally flawed as well, and for reasons like the one you just mentioned.

It is human nature to want to live close to the village but not in it. You want the freedom to do your own thing and live your life as you want and pay no attention or allegiance to the rules and conditions and restrictions and taxes of the town.... but then if your house catches fire, you would sure appreciate a firetruck to come and help put the fire out. And it sure would be nice to have an ambulance to take your burned children to the hospital to have them mended and helped.
Like children, they want freedom and liberty, but somehow they just expect all the amenities and infrastructure to be in place to help them when they need it. They perhaps expect someone else to pay for it?

I say this is like children, but I really mean like teenagers. They are at the age when they start to reject the rules and control of parents and living in their parent's house, and they long for their own place. Their own house where they make their own rules.
They have no idea what it takes to create their own life. To pay for their own place. Not yet at least.

When you warn them that they have to shoulder all their own responsibilities, they think that means they have to wash their own dishes, do their own laundry, make their own bed, take out their own trash.
They really have no idea about what it takes to make enough money to pay the mortgage or rent. Or to pay when their car breaks down. Mine is in the shop getting fixed right now. A small hydraulic cylinder for the latch on the convertible roof has leaked. The repair costs $1300. When the teenager makes a budget do they allow for this? Never. Or gifts for people, or clothes, or furniture, or ketchup.
They have a very limited view of what it takes to make everything actually work. And that is my point about Libertarian philosophy.
To me, they are like teenagers wanting their freedom from Mom and Dad and not understand what is required to make it all work on their own. And not understanding that once they ARE on their own, they have no real freedom because their own situation locks them in.
Once you are burdened to pay for everything, you must work long hard hours, you noi longer have the time, money, or energy to chase all those things that were you goals as part of your mental image of freedom.
Another example is the employee who longs to run his own company so that finally he will no longer have a boss to report to - only to realize once he DOES get his own business that, he does not have one boss, but hundreds or thousands - because now every customer is his boss.

Ir is a cruel irony. But hey - that's what growing up is all about. To me, the Libertarian view is similar to that naive perspective.
If they think that everyone is responsible for their own with no shared responsibility, no authority, no rules, no taxes, and that somehow organized crime will not step in and take over, they are living in a dream world.
But let them dream. It harms none.

That dream has no chance of ever coming true anyway, because there will always be those who want the power and they will take it one way or another, and that very thing, the concentration of power and authority in one place is what the Libertarians fear and despise, yet it is inevitable.


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