Libertarianism

Libertarianism for Beginners

Markets work better than governments.

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It took me years to figure out that markets work better than government.

I started out as a typical Ralph Nader-influenced consumer reporter, convinced that companies constantly rip us off. To me and most of my fellow left-leaning reporters, the answer was always: more regulation.

Gradually, I figured out that regulation causes many more problems than the occasional rip-off artist does. Companies that served customers well prospered, while market competition meant cheaters seldom got away with cheating for long.

Regulation, by contrast, lasted forever. It punished innovation, making it harder for good people to offer better alternatives.

How do I spare people the long learning process I went through?

A former producer of mine, Todd Seavey, has written a book called Libertarianism for Beginners. It lays down a few basic principles that make it easier to understand what a free market is—and how everything government does interferes with that market.

"Your body, like all your property, should be yours to do with as you please so long as you do not harm the body or property of others without their permission," writes Seavey. That means government can't tell people what to do unless those people threaten harm.

Seavey didn't come up with that idea himself, of course. In the book, he describes the history of philosophers and economists who've urged people to follow that rule for some 200 years.

That rule helped make America the most prosperous and productive country in the world.

Unfortunately, while those libertarian ideas allowed innovation to flourish, government and regulation grew even faster.

A century ago in the U.S., government at all levels took up about 8 percent of the economy. Now it takes up about 40 percent. It regulates everything from the size of beverage containers to what questions must not be asked in job interviews.

How can people be expected to keep up with it all?

Seavey points out that it's backward to expect them to try. Instead of just looking at the complicated mess government makes, we need to review the basic rules that got us here.

Instead of the rule being "government knows best" or "vote for the best leader," says Seavey, what if the basic legal rules were just: no assault, no theft, no fraud? Then most waste and bureaucracy that we fight about year after year wouldn't exist in the first place.

To most people, it sounds easier to leave big policy decisions—about complex things like wages, food production and roads—to government. Having to make our own decisions about everything and trade for everything in the marketplace sounds complicated.

But Seavey argues that the "hands off other people's stuff" rule would feel like second-nature if we were more consistent about enforcing it. "Even chimpanzees are capable of being outraged if other chimpanzees take their food so the basic impulses to defend property and to resist assault," he writes, "no doubt predate human history."

It's when politicians convince people that those simple rules aren't enough that voters decide to let bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians make the decisions instead. Then the public loses track of the complicated rules. Even the full-time media can't keep up with all the trickery.

We can—and should—keep reporting on government's broken promises and endless scandals. But to teach people they shouldn't count on government to produce good things in the first place, they need some basic philosophy.

Seavey's book may help, which is why I wrote the foreword to it. I like that the book has cartoons, making it more fun than dull economics textbooks. I hope it provides a model for looking at the world to people confused by stupid things government does.

But Seavey is too much the open-minded intellectual. He writes, "It may turn out that the system of control and redistribution that we thought was working to solve our problems was the real problem all along."

No. There's no "may turn out" about it. Forty-five years of watching government "solutions" go bad has taught me that state control rarely works, and it usually makes problems worse. Government control and redistribution is definitely the real problem.

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  1. Have I mentioned that I like Stossel?

  2. “what if the basic legal rules were just: no assault, no theft, no fraud?”

    Here’s the problem: “Progressives” think that fraud and force include much more than they actually do. We’ve all heard them use the term “wage slavery” – what is that but an implication that it’s some kind of aggression to pay a lower wage than they think appropriate? “Limit the law to fraud and force” sounds great to those who are already libertarians, but it’s not going to do much good if the “progressives” still believe that high prices for Internet constitute fraud and that challenging “climate change” is an outright aggression.

    1. Which is why they call it social “justice”. To dress it up as something it is not.

      1. Social justice is the opposite of actual justice. It is known.

    2. Here is a lesson that I learned when debating a different topic. Just as you don’t preach to the choir, you don’t try to save Satan. There will always be unreachable people, so when you debate them, you tailor your arguments not to sway them, but instead to sway any fence-sitters who are paying attention.

      1. This.

        But I think fence-sitters in this case has already taken some conscious steps to get up on that fence, and that this side of the fence is a lot easier to get down from than it is to get up on it from the other side.

        Most people seem to have an intuitive understanding of negative rights as applied to their own person and property, but also appear biased against applying those same standards to other individuals. At the same time there is a culture out there of regarding “freedom from responsibility” as true freedom. So the deck is stacked in favor of popularizing positive rights.

        So your ability to get them to understand the moral core arguments for libertarianism before even introducing it as such, is pretty important. I find this part of advocacy absurdly difficult.

      2. What I’ve been trying to do with the “progressives” I know is introduce them to some libertarian issues, but never use the word “libertarianism”. Too many of their media idols have already smeared libertarianism as some kind of Somalian barbarism. When you say the L word, they picture unlicensed food trucks roaming the streets forcing people at gunpoint to buy their cyanide tacos.

        I typically bring up the case of some people who were fucked over by the government in some way. It’s easy to do when the victim is a small business owner; most “progressives” can at least empathize with them a little bit since they’re not running a Fortune 500 company or something. Police violence is another good issue, since there’s no possible way that can be blamed on corporations (although I’m sure that a few people try). I try to finish the conversation with, “well, that’s what happens when you give the government unlimited authority in a certain area.”

        I’ve gotten a lot of agreement on most of these issues as long as I don’t mention that I learned about them on Reason.com (a KOCH funded propaganda outlet!!!!!1111). I even got one “progressive” to admit that “the Democrats suck on most issues”. He still votes Democrat under the premise that the Republicans are intolerably worse, but at least he’s not fawning over them like he was in 2008. Baby steps.

    3. Yeah, as soon as I saw “fraud”, I thought – “well, progs can justify 90% of the current G as fighting ‘fraud'”.

    4. “Limit the law to fraud and force” sounds great to those who are already libertarians, but it’s not going to do much good if the “progressives” still believe that high prices for Internet constitute fraud and that challenging “climate change” is an outright aggression.

      Exactly so. This is not a message illiberals will hear. Either everything is fraud and force – therefore limited government is impossible and you are being silly for suggesting a paradox – or limiting the choice of Things Wot The People Can’t Do means we hamstring government such that nothing good ever gets done.

      It’s possible that there’s a linguistic crack in these people’s heads that one could jam libertarianism into, but I haven’t found it yet.

    5. If Clinton is elected I can see her going full guns against ‘deniers’. If successful, who would be next? The NRA? Reason writers? Car companies? Any number of troublesome congresscritters? I am sure she would get around to all of them eventually.

      1. If successful, who would be next?

        *consults history*

        First she would need to cement her shaky position. Some patriotic furor would do the trick. Declare war on some foreign boogeyman – doesn’t matter which one.

        At that point, going after political dissidents and enemies to the consolidation of power will be as effortless as beads falling off a string. “We are at WAR, man!”

        Listen for the drums.

        1. I guess I better get busy and finish watching all of Larry Potterfield’s videos while they are still available.

          1. His [Midway] shipping costs suck.

        2. Russia’s looking awfully boogeymanish these days. Plus Pooty-poot seems to lean Trumpward, so that’s two birds with one stone if you’re Hillary. The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

      2. Top of my head a list of things she could do:

        1. Rally the watermelons and death cultists in her base by going after the oil companies and all think-tanks that publish climate change skepticism.

        2 Strip the gun manufacturers of their protection from frivolous lawsuits and come down hard on them with ATF for any imagined violations of Federal law

        3 Censor the internet on the pretense of fighting terrorism, make the law sufficiently nebulous so that it can be applied to domestic entities and US citizens and not just the Islamic crazies.

        All these things will be possible because Team Stupid nominated Donald Trump, who is going to lose to Hillary in a landslide (albeit with massive discontent and probably less than 50% of the pop vote) and possibly bring down the GOP House with him. Because it doesn’t matter how brazenly corrupt Hillary is, Trump is unhinged and everyone knows it and will not let him take control over the military.

        1. All these things will be possible because Team Stupid nominated Donald Trump

          You give too much credit to the drooling morons who Trump defeated. I do not see how any of them would have defeated Hillary. I’d like to think Rand could, but that is just wishful thinking.

        2. Team Stupid [assume you mean the Republican Party] did in fact not nominate Trump, nor do they want to; he was given the majority of delegates by pissed off Republican voters and out of work [and formerly Democrat] miners and such.

          Unless of course you mean team stupid are those folks themselves…

          1. To be fair, the folks who vote for team stupid did a different stupid thing this time. They learned that the establishment candidate is awful, so they went for a non-establishment candidate.

            The obvious flaw in the logic is that for any problem, there are a handful of smart things to do and near infinite stupid things. The opposite of a stupid thing is usually another stupid thing. So we got Trump. Yay?

      3. “If successful, who would be next? The NRA? Reason writers? Car companies? Any number of troublesome congresscritters?”

        Yes.

    6. The devil is always in the details. Plus, you assume that progressives argue in good faith – they do not.

    7. That’s why fraud has no meaning as a crime.

      If your fraud harms someone, such as lying about the car you sold or adding a clause to a contract after it is signed, then that harm alone is the crime; the fraud is just evidence of intent and pre-meditation.

      If your fraud harms no one, such as no one buying the car you brag about, then what crime has been committed?

      Everything comes down to restitution — even assault can have restitution above and beyond medical bills and lost wages, such as loss of companionship, psychological damage, etc. If there is no possible restitution, there is no harm and there is no crime.

      You could get picky. If someone lies about the car he is selling and you waste 5 minutes discovering there are holes in the muffler, go ahead and sue for the lost time. Since proper restitution should include all case and court costs, and include loser pays, you should be able to recover your 5 minutes lost time + costs. But the fraud itself is not criminal.

      1. That requires first that your basis for justice and the legal system is restitution.

        It’s not. At best, it’s a weird mix of straight-up punishment, rehabilitation, locking away for other people’s good (“keeping dangerous people off the streets” and the like), with restitution a very low priority. Restitution also presumes that the person who did the crime can pay, which often isn’t true either.

        I’m not saying the idea is unworkable, but that our justice system in America, or English common-law before that, has never been set up that way.

        1. Every existing legal system has far more to do with State control over people than justice.

          As for the rest of redress in my libertopia, unpaid verdict debt turns one into an outlaw, who cannot file complaints for less restitution than the owed restitution. This means that verdict creditors, meaning victims or the bounty hunters they sold the debt to, can legally steal from the verdict debtors. Very few thieves have no possessions; at the very least, most people have some kind of TV and vehicle. In the worst case, some outlaw will commit so many crimes and owe so much restitution that he won’t be able to complain about being kidnapped and locked up. My experience with friends who were burgled and had cars stolen is that almost everybody has some family or friends who help them up to a point; they would be reluctant to resupply an outlaw with goodies which can be legally stolen, again.

          Read up on Xeer justice. It’s sort of similar, in a crude goat herding way. If a thief can’t get family to pay his restitution, he can’t ask the Xeer system for justice when he is wronged. Family who help out watch the helpee like a hawk, riding his ass to reform and straighten up, and I suspect they won’t bail him out very often before just giving up.

          Incentives are incredibly powerful; they are best used when connected as closely as possible to the behavior at issue.

          1. So does this only apply to malicious crimes? Or if some college kid in a fourty-year old truck accudentally rear-ends your fancy sports car and wrecks it, is that kid screwed for life if his family isn’t willing to pay the costs?

            1. How is your scenario any different from what happens now with government prosecution, jail, and fines which go to the government?

              As for the kid, if he caused the accident and owes the money, what is wrong with him being screwed for life if he can’t pay it? And again, how is it any different from the current situation? That’s why people have insurance.

              Stop wasting your time with strawmen and think for reals.

              1. First up, if you’re proposing an alternative to a system, you don’t get to hand-wave away parts saying “alternatives are bad too”. You have to look at the good and the bad.

                That said, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of someone sent to prison because they can’t pay the settlement in a civil case. As much as this country is trying to bring back debtor’s prisons, it’s for people unable to pay fines for criminal cases.

                If you just owe some rich asshole a bunch of money? You aren’t going to prison for that. You might get a lien placed on you, but nothing so dramatic as your version of “justice”. Further, in the real world if you couldn’t pay up that would either force you into bankruptcy (and erase the debt), or you would wind-up back in court and negotiating on what you could pay via a judge. If your idea of “justice” allows those things, then your system is not nearly as simple as you portrayed.

        2. I’m not saying the idea is unworkable, but that our justice system in America, or English common-law before that, has never been set up that way.

          False. The focus of the courts in matters of citizens vs. citizens was originally on restitution. Punishment was meted out socially, not governmentally. The monopolization of the enforcement of order by the government came later.

          1. Prisons as punishment are only a couple hundred years old. Before 1066 and the Normans, English justice was much more restitution-based, primarily because society wasn’t rich enough to afford the luxury of paying good money just to lock up bad guys. The Normans gradually co-opted the justice system so they could charge for it and make money.

            But I took his comment to mean any time recently, which is more-or-less true.

    8. Words must be defined carefully. Communication relies on people using the same definitions, but this can’t always be taken for granted. Can’t ‘force’ refer to more than just physical force? What of slander? This is force against someone’s reputation. Is “intellectual property” non-existent? What is the incentive for businesses to developer new products if someone can just copy them for free? How about mental or emotional trauma?

  3. Libertarianism: don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.

    1. “But some people have more stuff than others, and that’s not fair. So we have to have armed agents of the government take the stuff from those who have too much and give it to those who have too little, and to hurt anyone who interferes with this scheme. That way, everything is fair and equal!”

      /progressive

  4. You cannot introduce libertarianism to progs. They already know everything.

  5. I used to complain that Stossel’s articles are too ‘Libertarianism 101’.

    But, given recent developments, perhaps we could use a bit of that around here.

    1. Recent developments like the Libertarian Party presidential nominee not comprehending the basics of libertarian philosophy?

  6. A dinner time discussion with a Ivy league educated, well respected Doctor (who LOVES Hillary) turned to politics. I was told, ” What does it matter what the Founding Father’s thought, ” (it wasn’t a question). I don’t remember much after that as I blacked out, but I was told afterwards I wasn’t very nice.

    1. I guess its a matter of one’s basic disposition; if you believe people are generally too dumb to manage their own affairs, at increasingly micro levels, then you are a progressive. The good of the many outweighs the interest of the few [Mill, Benthem, normative ethics, utilitarianism etc.]. If however you choose to identify as an individualist and believe your ethics are the source of human interest [Kant, Deontology, etc.] then I suppose libertarianism works for you. One favors collectivism and the other individualism.

      I suspect your Hippocratic friend is pretty comfortable and thus happy to decide for others what is in their best interest, while not applying the remedy for the great unwashed to himself.

      I did say Hippocratic…

      1. “That’s a Bingo.”

  7. How can people be expected to keep up with it all?

    Nobody really needs to keep up with it all. I don’t know squat about RVs, and I can go to my grave in that state since I don’t intend to buy an RV. If I change my mind later, I’ll make it a point to learn before I buy.

    I did this recently with sound equipment. A couple of years ago I knew nothing about mixers, powered speakers, etc. I didn’t need to. Now I use such things, so I made it a point to get better educated on the matter. I’m not an expert by any means, but I learned enough to make purchases that suited my needs. It’s not that hard and it’s not that horrible.

    1. which makes you an “economic man” in that you rationally pursue what is in your best interest, and make the market go round. Elizabeth Warren would put you in a camp for that kind of toxic thinking; how can you possibly think you are smart enough to not need her?

      1. You are clearly in need of protection from yourself [you really don’t “need” all that fancy sound stuff, and besides it might make you or, horror of horrors, your children, or somebody else’s children tone deaf or otherwise damaged].

        So, why do you hate children?

      2. How can this be? I’ve been informed over and over recently that the economic man does not really exist as he was just made up by evil economists. Top Men need to decide what you should have/want after all. I mean all those deodorants!

    2. Do you know exactly how every mixer or speaker produced in the world is put together? What every single component goes in to each one? Of course not. You learned a bare minimum and the same applies to laws.

  8. How do you introduce someone to libertarianism?

    Have them read a Robby Soave article, followed by some from Steve Chapman and Shikha Dalmia.

    1. And whatever you do, don’t let them read the comments.

  9. Here’s the question I always ask libertarians and have yet to get a decent answer. What are you going to do about private abuses of power? How are you going to protect me from having my insurance yanked if I file a claim? How are you going to protect me from being crushed financially in court if I take on a more powerful adversary? How are you going to protect me from bogus RIAA and MPAA takedowns and lawsuits? For that matter, why should my tax dollars go toward protecting their patents anyway? What are you going to do about someone like Martin Shkreli buying the rights to a cheap invention and jacking the price through the roof? If there’s a huge tract of land I can’t access because the government says “No Trespassing,” and right next door another one where a private landowner says “No Trespassing?” what’s the difference? Both are equally infringing on my liberty.

    1. What are you going to do about private abuses of power?

      Define.

      How are you going to protect me from having my insurance yanked if I file a claim?

      It’s not libertarian’s job to file a civil suit, what you need is a lawyer.

      How are you going to protect me from being crushed financially in court if I take on a more powerful adversary?

      I’m not.

      How are you going to protect me from bogus RIAA and MPAA takedowns and lawsuits?

      Libertarianism is not the reason IP law is what it is.

      For that matter, why should my tax dollars go toward protecting their patents anyway?

      They shouldn’t. I’ll take it a step further and advocate that you not be taxed to begin with.

      What are you going to do about someone like Martin Shkreli buying the rights to a cheap invention and jacking the price through the roof?

      Short of starting my own biomedical firm to produce the drug, nothing. As for other companies being prohibited form doing so because of IP law, that’s not one to lay at the doorstep of liberty.

    2. If there’s a huge tract of land I can’t access because the government says “No Trespassing,” and right next door another one where a private landowner says “No Trespassing?” what’s the difference? Both are equally infringing on my liberty.

      What’s your address? I plan to come to your house and eat all the food in your refrigerator and then take a dump in your kitchen sink. Oh am I not allowed to do that? WHY NOT? STOP INFRINGING ON MY LIBERTY!

    3. Here’s the question I always ask libertarians and have yet to get a decent answer.

      I’m sure you got plenty of decent answers. Hell, you got plenty of them in this thread in response to your questions.

      “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves if we are underlings.”

    4. I’m not sure why you ask libertarians about these things. These things are happening now, even though we have a huge expensive government with powers that in a practical sense are unlimited. What are they going to do about it?

      This is the thing that always bothers me about this kind of question. If libertarians can’t instantly create utopia, libertarianism is dismissed as completely wrong. But government is never held to that standard, or any standard at all. If I say that I just want the government to follow its own laws I’m an “extremist”.

      1. You know what you’re getting into when the guy starts off his statement with:

        Here’s the question I always ask libertarians and have yet to get a decent answer.

        Like we haven’t heard that line repeated a thousand times by the most ill-informed people on the planet.

    5. And that’s not even getting into ROADZZZZZZ!!!!!

  10. Took me a while to get it: roadblocks.

  11. My introduction to Libertarianism.

    There is only one human right, to not have force initiated against you.
    All actions are allowed except those involving the initiatory use of force, threats of force or fraud.
    The function of government is to defend individual negative liberty with the retaliatory use of force.

    1. Unfortunately most people don’t share your definition of “force”, “liberty”, or “defend”. They also have no idea what makes a “negative right”.

      So all they hear is “The function of government is to provide everyone with basic human rights like housing, health care, and protection from toy manufacturers who want nothing more than to see your children choking to death on their lead filled products.”

      Then they will act all smug as if they’ve used your own arguments against what they perceive as your selfish, psychopathic desires. At least if you lead the conversation with “I’m a libertarian.”

      1. “The function of government is to provide everyone with basic human rights like housing, health care, high-speed Internet, free college, retirement savings, maternity leave, wedding cakes from people who don’t want to provide them, safe spaces, trigger warnings, green energy sources, freedom from the scourge of GMOs, and instant prosecution of anyone merely accused of rape.”

        It’s just basic human rights, dude.

  12. Libertarianism for Beginners began 20 Centuries ago when a lowly carpenter’s son began “preaching” to the clergy, and then to the masses, about Individual Liberty, Compassion, and Personal Responsibility.
    The “government” at that time was so incensed they put Him to death. And government today still seems to resent that kind of talk.

  13. “We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.” ~Bastiat

  14. RE: Libertarianism for Beginners
    Markets work better than governments.

    This is blasphemy at its apex.
    We all know the all too numerous failures of capitalism and how it increases poverty, economic stagnation and limits freedom.
    Conversely, one only has to cast their inquisitive eyes to Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela to discover how well a centrally planned economy works via government apparatchiks and their wise and noble totalitarian leaders.
    The best things in life never change.

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