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Jon Stewart’s questions to libertarians

May 3, 2012

Last year, American funny-man Jon Stewart asked a series of questions to libertarians. Since then, plenty of people have responded, giving fairly comprehensive answers. I agree with some of those answers, but I thought I’d put together my own “short answers” anyway… only six months late.

1. Is government the antithesis of liberty?

We need definitions. If “liberty” means people being allowed to act voluntarily with each other (as I define it) then the antithesis is involuntary behaviour — e.g. violence, coercion, theft, murder. The government certainly does all of that, but they are not the only example (eg mafia, rapists). Further, some libertarians will suggest that if a limited government is able to decrease “private” violence & coercion, then they might even be a force for good. (This idea is known as the “night-watchman government” or “minarchism”.)

It’s worth quickly noting that government does not mean “governance”. You would still have much governance in a libertarian society (for example, cricket rules).

2. One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.

Definitions again. You call these things “freedoms” but that expands the meaning of freedom to include everything, and therefore makes the word meaningless. Things like roads, infrastructure and social security are all good things, but the word “freedom” does not mean “good”.

Secondly, a voluntary society would provide roads, infrastructure and social security. Indeed, the market and community groups provided these things before the government got involved, and they often did it better, and at a lower cost, and without using coercion. Win-win-win. Given that the voluntary solution is inherently more moral (ie no coercion) and has historically worked better than the government, then surely the burden of proof rests on the statists to prove that their coercive approach works. That proof doesn’t exist.

3. What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?

First, the “market” doesn’t pick anything as it doesn’t have consciousness. It is dangerous to anthropomorphise in social science as it leads to weird and silly conclusions. The market is simply the voluntary interaction of free people.

Also, it isn’t clear what is meant by “losing”. It would be strange to insist that income or wealth is the only indication of “winning” since most people care about much more than money. It is certainly true that in a free society, some people would be sad and would fail to reach their goals in life. But that is true of all social systems, and from all available evidence, it is a voluntary society that best allows people to live a rich and meaningful life.

4. Do we live in a society or don’t we? Are we a collective? Everybody’s success is predicated on the hard work of all of us; nobody gets there on their own. Why should it be that the people who lose are hung out to dry? For a group that doesn’t believe in evolution, it’s awfully Darwinian.

Yes, we live in a society. Libertarians have never been against “society” or “community” and that is a false choice created by the left to make themselves look kind-hearted. We all believe in society, the real choice is whether we should live in a voluntary society (as preferred by libertarians) or whether we should live in a government-controlled society, carefully regulated and micro-managed by politicians and bureaucrats.

Humans are fundamentally social animals, and our interactions with others can be either “voluntary” or “involuntary”. Both morally, and looking at the evidence about what works best for human welfare, voluntary society is the better option.

It is a fallacy to suggest that a government run system protects everybody, or else the government run programs of the past would have already solved homelessness, depression, suicide, illiteracy, etc. A voluntary society is less likely to leave people “hung out to dry” since nearly everybody has friends and family, not to mention the millions of people and billions of dollars spent each year by people helping strangers. And these people who come together in voluntary society are much more likely to have the right incentives and right information to be able to help those genuinely in need. It is no coincidence that social capital has decreased as the size of government has increased.

5. In a representative democracy, we are the government. We have work to do, and we have a business to run, and we have children to raise. We elect you as our representatives to look after our interests within a democratic system.

Just plain wrong. You might as well say that we are also dinosaurs. The government is a very specific entity, and it does not mean the same thing as society. Indeed, the common leftist mistake of confusing “society” with “government” indicates a very shallow view of society. The simple fact is that “government” claims the right to initiate violence & coercion, while the rest of us are not allowed.

Just because a “representative democracy” type of government has politicians who tell us pretty stories about how much they care, that doesn’t not change the fundamental point that government (of any variety) is coercive and generally ineffective. Democracy may be better than some other forms of government, but that doesn’t justify bad public policy.

As for the morality of the system, it is very strange to insist that there is any morality in two rapists and a woman in a dark alley voting on whether to have sex. A more moral position is that action should be voluntary.

6. Is government inherently evil?

Depends on what you mean by evil, but I would say “yes” since it is by definition an organisation that commits violence, coercion, theft, etc. But I don’t rule out the possibility that sometimes evil acts are necessary. The more interesting question is whether government is a “necessary evil” or an “unnecessary evil”… and about that question libertarians will often disagree, and my most honest answer is that I simply don’t know.

7. Sometimes to protect the greater liberty you have to do things like form an army, or gather a group together to build a wall or levy.

True. Sometimes we also form unions or sporting teams or neighbourhood watch groups or friendly societies or churches or food co-ops. Libertarians fully support the idea of peoplevoluntarily coming together to achieve common goals. Lighthouses were often given as an example of a good that could only be produced by government, but the first lighthouses were actually privately made & run. If wars had to be privately financed, then we would have fewer wars… which might be a good thing.

It may be true that some things the government can do better. Libertarians will often debate about the role of government (from “none” to “nearly nothing” to “these few things”) but the important point to remember is that the burden of proof rests with the person who wants to advocate violence. Just like with starting a war, or putting somebody in jail, the starting assumption should be peace and freedom… and only with a very strong case should we consider the possibility of violence or coercion.

8. As soon as you’ve built an army, you’ve now said government isn’t always inherently evil because we need it to help us sometimes, so now… it’s that old joke: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? How about a dollar? — Who do you think I am? — We already decided who you are, now we’re just negotiating. 

First, many libertarians don’t concede the need for a government army. But second, even if you do accept that the argument regarding government coercion for national defense has strong evidence, that doesn’t automatically mean that the argument for all other government coercion automatically passes. The starting assumption should always be for peace and freedom… and only with strong evidence should we consider violence. For the vast majority of government programs, there is little or no evidence of a net benefit (and often evidence of considerable harm).

9. You say: government which governs least governments best. But that were the Articles of Confederation. We tried that for 8 years, it didn’t work, and went to the Constitution. 


10. You give money to the IRS because you think they’re gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.

Maybe that’s why you give money to the IRS, but most people give the money because if they don’t then people with guns will put them in a jail.

If you think the case for giving money to the IRS is strong, then there is a simple win-win idea… we make it voluntary. You can pay income tax for your fire-fighting benefits, while others may choose to not pay income tax and buy their fire-fighting services elsewhere. To each their own… without violence or coercion. Nobody imposing their religion or personal morality on others, and tolerance of diversity and choice. Beautiful stuff.

11. Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative seems insane. 

In a free world, you don’t have to “give up” your liberty at all. But if you do want to give up your liberty to a politician (or a religious leader, or anybody else) then in a free society that is your choice. If you want to let others make your decisions for you, then go ahead… the problem comes when you want to force others to follow your leader.

Libertarians do not trust corporations any more than other people. But we do recognise that interaction with business is voluntary which is a very different word to involuntary. At no time in history has Walmart invaded Iraq… or McDonalds taken 50% of your income against your will… or Nike put you in jail for smoking a joint… or Citibank banned gay marriage.

Finally, if you are worried about big business, then you should want to see smaller governmentsince it is government rules and regulations that help protect big business from competition. Regulation is particularly burdensome on small and new businesses and community groups, and government often prop up or bail out big business. A libertarian society would still see some big businesses… but there would be far more opportunity for new entrants and niche markets, which would increase innovation and force the big businesses to be more responsive to customer needs or lose out.

12. Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? … and there are choices within the education system. 

Well yes, there was choice of sorts in Soviet Russia too… that doesn’t make it libertarian. Both health and education are massively government controlled, both in America and Australia and in nearly all developed countries now.

13. Would you go back to 1890?

If time travel was possible, I’d like to visit lots of different times.

Regarding the rules of the 1890s, some of them were better and some of them were worse than what we have today. I would like to “go back” to more economic freedom and jurisdictional competition, but I would not want to “go back” to the laws regarding racism & sexism & homophobia.

Of course, nobody is arguing that we should return to the technology of the 1890s (and nobody sane is pretending that government created the technology of the last 100 years).

14. If we didn’t have government, we’d all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream. 

If broccoli was ice-cream, then would it really be broccoli? And cancer is not relevant anymore, because the government has already cured it. But seriously, in a free society, there would be many different types of communities trying out many different lifestyle choices. Diversity & tolerance are good things… right?

15. Unregulated markets have been tried. the 80′s and the 90′s were the robber baron age. These regulations didn’t come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn’t fight back against.

The 1980s and 1990s had a huge amount of regulation and taxes. Do you really not know this? The regulation was (and still is) so stifling that it prevents thousands of small businesses from competing against the big business you pretend to oppose but actually end up protecting.

I agree that people don’t introduce bad policy out of malice, but that doesn’t turn it into good policy. Poor people can’t eat good intentions. There is a seemingly natural instinct that people have to try to regulate the risk out of life, but that isn’t possible… and in most instances those regulations will drive up prices for consumers, drive down wages for workers, drive down returns for savers and retirees, and then they might even make the problem worse by creating “moral hazard’ by distorting our perception of risk. Indeed, this was a major cause of the American housing bubble & bust.

16. Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?

Because it enhanced their bargaining power. Voluntary unions are a good thing, just like the rest of voluntary society and voluntary business.

17. Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government. 

You just wrote that without government the unions would be smashed by the government. You might want to re-phrase that. And the allegation that unions wouldn’t exist in a free society is disproved by history. It is true that when the government supports something (like unions, or excessive risk taking by banks) then they get more of it… but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Just because voluntary unions are a good thing, that doesn’t mean that involuntary unions are a good thing.

18. Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Marten Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not.. The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.

In America, you had government mandated segregation and then government mandated integration… you never tried “free choice”. Before MLK it was the government that enforced racist policies. If there was a free market instead, then many businesses would have been racist (like the government) but some would have pursued more “progressive” policies, and those examples would likely have sped up the changing attitudes towards more tolerance. Consider that it was in semi-libertarian UK that slavery was first abolished.

Note that it was only after most people had changed their minds that the government “did the right thing”. They did not lead anything… they simply followed a social change that was happening outside of the government, being led by people in voluntary society. And since society was changing, business practices would have had to change also (unless the businesses were being protected by the government you so love).

Consider this — anti-racism policies will only be implemented once they are politically popular, but once they are politically popular, then they aren’t really necessary since it shows that most people are already against racism. If you look at the last 200 years, there is no doubt that racial minorities in America would have been better off without government involvement.

19. Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions. 

Lol… yeah, good luck with that.

Go ahead trying to turn government into the magical mystical machine of love and wisdom, but when you notice 20 years later that you’re still failing (like the people in the thousands of years before you) then perhaps you should pause and consider whether maybe freedom works better than violence?

Sadly, while you continue experimenting with failure after failure, you aren’t just trying that experiment out for yourself. You also want to force it on everybody else too… using violence & coercion.

This article was cross-posted at the ALS blog: thoughts on freedom

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