Sunday, January 13, 2008

Freedom, Michael Kinsley and a ham sandwich

Michael Kinsley is generally a thoughtful writer who at least tries to take his opponents' arguments seriously rather than fulminating from the ramparts about the evils of those who disagree with him. Specifically, he's been somewhat more receptive to libertarian arguments than many of his "liberal" colleagues, even going so far as, at one point, to argue that libertarians should join him in the Democratic Party. But his latest column makes you wonder if he's been reading his own arguments over the years. It's patronizing toward people who advocate letting people run their own lives, and raises some hoary old arguments against the spontaneous order that arises from freely made choices.

Part of his argument is simply an authoritarian dismissal of preferences he doesn't understand. For instance, he criticizes the idea of letting people purchase and drink unpasteurized milk because he thinks it's just a wacky idea. "No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does."

But there are people who prefer raw (unpasteurized) milk, claiming it has all sorts of benefits. Are they correctly assessing the benefits they perceive against the risks of raw milk? Libertarians say that's an analysis they have the right to make for themselves. Kinsley would substitute his judgment for theirs, just because he doesn't share their preferences.

Kinsley also asserts that authoritarian policies such as income redistribution are OK because they express values of which he does approve -- equality-of-result, in particular. He chastises libertarians who consider such policies immoral because they violate the fundamental right to be free and enjoy the fruits of one's own labor -- that's a mere preference, he would have us believe, that overlooks "some degree of material equality as a necessary basis for political equality; the huge role of luck in getting each of us to our relative stations in life."

But there's a huge moral issue that he blithely dismisses; he entirely overlooks the libertarian opposition to achieving goals by initiating force. Libertarians oppose the initiation of force on principle, seeing it as a violation of the autonomy of the individual -- and as a sure path to the transformation of state power into a bludgeon to be used to enforce the preferred values of whoever manages to win temporary control -- values such as equality-of-result. But would he want those raw-milk drinkers banning pasteurized milk should they win political power? Kinsley oddly ignores this issue even as he acknowledges that:
... democracy and majority rule are no answers. Tyranny of the majority is a constant danger. How would you like a law requiring people with odd Social Security numbers to give $1,000 to people with even Social Security numbers? To libertarians, much of what government does is essentially just that.
In an ancient, moldy and long-discredited criticism of letting people make their own arrangements to produce and distribute products and services that people want and need, Kinsley argues that libertarians just make things too complicated where simple mandates would do.
Libertarians have a fondness for complex arrangements to make markets work in situations where the textbooks say they can't. Hey, let's issue stamps, y'see, and use the revenue to form a corporation that sells stock to buy military equipment, then the government leases the equipment and the stockholders vote on whether to use it ... and so on. The point becomes proving a point, not economic or government efficiency. ...

Sometimes libertarians end up reinventing the wheel. My favorite example is an article I read years ago advocating privatization of highways. This is a classic libertarian fantasy: government auctions off the land, private enterprise pays for construction and maintenance, tolls cover the cost, competing routes keep it all efficient.

And what about, uh, intersections? Well, markets would recognize that it is more efficient for one company to own the intersections, but it would have an incentive to strike the right balance between customers on each highway. And stoplights? Ultimately, the author had worked his way up to a giant monopoly that would build, own and maintain all the roads and charge an annual fee to people who wanted to use them. None dare call it government.
Kinsley takes an (I assume) speculative article in which the author contemplates how roads might arise in a free society and takes that as a prescription for how things would be arranged. That's a classic error repeatedly made by people who can't understand how matters can arrange themselves -- and fear the complex decision-making involved in such a process -- even as they live in the midst of a society largely organized along precisely those free-wheeling lines.

Hmmm ...

Imagine, for example, two people raised in a society where food is a government monopoly. They sit in State Cafeteria No. 67, eating ham sandwiches for lunch and bullshitting about the way things are -- and ought to be.

Rachel: Oh no. Ham sandwiches again. I would love to eat something else -- anything else -- for lunch.

Bob: It's only a matter of time. Just last year they changed the name of the Ham Sandwich Office to the Office of Sandwiches, Soups and Salads.

Rachel: But we're still eating ham sandwiches.

Bob: Well ... It takes a lot of work. They have to make sure that the state farms can produce enough vegetables for salads and soup in addition to the lettuce and tomato for the sandwiches. And they don't want there to be a glut of ham if lots of people prefer salads and soup. It has to be done right.

Rachel: I think we'd be a lot better off if the government got out of the food business.

Bob: What? You mean, privatize the state cafeterias?

Rachel: No, go for broke! Close the cafeterias and see what private businesses take their place. I bet lots of people would open restaurants. Some would serve soup, some salad, some sandwiches -- and maybe other things too. Maybe you could even get ethnic food. And gourmet food. And if you were on the run, you could stop by a cart on a street corner or in a restaurant that promised fast service.

Bob: Where would they get their supplies? The state cafeterias have enough trouble setting production schedules with the state farms now.

Rachel: Let people open private farms, too. The farmers could sell their produce and meat to markets, which would sell it to the restaurants. Some farms might specialize, just like the restaurants -- chemical-free produce at one, exotic fruits or meats at another.

Bob: But what about mustard? And pickles?

Rachel: Private companies could make those, too.

Bob: It sounds like you're leaving an awful lot to chance. What if nobody wants to make bread for the sandwiches? The whole arrangement is awfully complicated. At least with the state cafeteria, I know I'll get lunch.

Bob is right: arrangements in free societies are complicated -- and rich and diverse. They're also decentralized and much more nimble than command-driven arrangements, because they're driven by millions of individual decision-makers rather than top-down policy. And free, market-driven arrangements work a lot better than government-dominated arrangements; somebody always makes the bread, because there's a buck to be had in doing so.

That's not always clear to people who are accustomed to being told what to do, but it should be apparent to Michael Kinsley as he sits typing at his privately manufactured computer, sipping (I imagine) a cup of Fair Trade coffee purchased at a premium because it's what he prefers, and preparing to submit his column to an independent, for-profit newspaper.

Life in a free society is chaotic and complicated. It also allows people to make decision of which you disapprove -- in return for you being allowed to make decisions of which they disapprove. It's imperfect, but efficient. It's sometimes aggravating, but it's vibrant.

Freedom even allows room for people like Michael Kinsley to have at us for wanting to apply the same freedom he enjoys as a pundit to all areas of life, so that everybody can share in the benefits. I just wish that Kinsley could understand why sharing the benefits of freedom is a good thing.

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Blogger Al said...

Oh, you stinking Libertarians and your pie-in-the-sky castles in the air!

Just kidding.

January 14, 2008 1:09 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Oh, the complex solutions we offer for simple problems ...


January 15, 2008 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 18, 2009 11:46 PM  

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