Monday, March 06, 2006

Harry Browne and the libertarian legacy

First of all, once again, my apologies for falling so far behind on the blog. Things got rather hectic after my return from vacation.

Today's Boston Globe column examines libertarianism as an alternative to conservatism and liberalism. The sad occasion is the death of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne.

HARRY BROWNE, once a successful author and later an unsuccessful presidential candidate, died last week at 72 from Lou Gehrig's disease. He was a man for whom I never voted, but sometimes wish I had -- though only as long as I could be sure he wasn't going to win.

Browne ran for president twice on the Libertarian Party ticket and was probably its best-known nominee (because of his books on investment). He got about half of 1 percent of the vote in 1996, and even fewer in 2000. Yet he represented something important in American political culture, something increasingly disappearing from its mainstream: the Jeffersonian belief in a small government that intervenes minimally in people's lives.

''Democratic and Republican politicians believe Americans are dysfunctional children who need government to act as their parents," Browne wrote on his website. ''Both parties seek to impose their values and recognize no limits on their authority."

It's hard to argue against this description. The Republican Party has long claimed to be the party of small government, and in the 1980s Ronald Reagan made strides in lessening the tax burden on Americans and deregulating the economy. But Reagan's Republican coalition included social conservatives whose agenda was to regulate personal morality.

The congressional Republicans who came to power in 1994 likewise talked about getting the government off our backs, but most of them also wanted it in our bedrooms -- sometimes even to the extent of supporting antisodomy laws.

Meanwhile, most Democrats who support choice on abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to manage their retirement or their children's daycare and schooling. They support not only greater government reach into the economy but their own version of government-imposed morality (through workplace diversity measures, for example).

Under President Bush, the Republican Party seems to be losing its connections to small-government ideals. Republicans now control all three branches of the federal government, yet spending still skyrockets. Bush openly embraces the use of big government to further conservative goals -- including the promotion of faith and marriage. As much as I dislike the hysterical cries that Bush is presiding over a fascist state, the open defense of encroachments on privacy and liberty in the name of security is deeply troubling.

The Republican slide from small government to nanny state makes me look back rather fondly on the Libertarians, and wish I could change my 2000 vote for Bush to a symbolic one for Browne.

Symbolic only, of course. Browne's vision of minimal government allowed for no state role in environmental protection, health and safety regulations, or building and maintaining highways. His platform included immediate repeal of the federal income tax and dismantling of Social Security. In a 1996 article in Reason, editor Nick Gillespie criticized Browne, noting that his vision of a radical transformation of society from above involved the same arrogance for which classical, limited-government liberals such as Friedrich A. Hayek had assailed big-government liberals.

In its own way, purist libertarianism is no less utopian than communism, and no less naïve in its apparent faith in the fairness of markets and the goodness of humankind. This is particularly evident in foreign policy, where Libertarian doctrine boils down to the isolationist belief that we would face no dangers abroad if we just stopped meddling. Browne's recent writings illustrate this naïveté. Much of his criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq rings depressingly true; yet he also saw fit to downplay Saddam Hussein's atrocities and declared the war on terrorism a ''War on Strawmen."

It's unlikely that Browne's radical philosophy could have attracted the support of more than 2 or 3 percent of Americans. A true alternative to the twin leviathans of the two-party system would have required a more moderate and realistic libertarianism. Nonetheless, it's often the radicals who pave the way for moderates. And in our day and age, Browne's warnings about expansionist government and the loss of personal freedoms seem more relevant than ever.


An embarrassing revelation: I may have voted for Harry Browne in the 1996 presidential race, but I don't remember for sure. A friend tells me that at the time I told him that I had, or that I was going to. I know I was considering it at the time, since I wasn't going to vote for Clinton and I didn't find Dole particularly appealing. Of course, I live in New Jersey, where the Democrats have a lock on the presidential race anyway and it is safe to throw away a vote. I know I was still thinking about it on my way to the polling station. But what happened after that curtain was drawn is a complete black hole.

If I did vote for Browne, I am not embarrassed about it, vehemently though I may disagree with many of his position. Browne was a rebel with a cause; and we need more of those, in the dreary landscape of today's American politics.

Browne's website is here; his last article, "Why You Are a Libertarian" -- dated December 18 -- has an eerie feel to it, since its summary says, "In the final analysis, your reasons are very simple, and they apply to almost everyone in the world." I wonder if the very ill Browne meant it as his legacy. I don't, incidentally, find the article particularly convincing; it requires a logical leap "almost everyone in the world" is not willing to make -- the assumption that some degree of coercion by a democratically elected government (e.g. requiring people to pay taxes to support common social projects) is absolutely no different from violent coercion by individuals or groups of individuals. Nonetheless, it is at the very least a point worth pondering, at a time when so many of us uncritically accept a definition of "compassion" as "spending other people's money to help the needy."

This is the article I cited in my column, in which Browne downplays Hussein's atrocities (and, for good measure, repeats the "no mass graves found in Kosovo" canard with a citation to a 1999 article -- when, in fact, a number of mass graves have been found since then). This piece is actually a good illustration of the complex figure that was Browne; in this same article, he makes what I increasingly believe is an eminently sensible prescription:

Iraq should really be three different nations — Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish. Instead, the three should-be nations have been joined at the hip and are expected to operate a British-style parliament.

Sadly, he also renders his own case irrelevant with needless (and disturbing) attempts to minimize the evil that was the Hussein regime. He also seems to take the position, rather odd for a libertarian, that loss of life as the price of the overthrow of a tyrannical regime can never be worthwhile. Like quite a few libertarians, Browne was led down some strange paths by his vehement opposition to American policy.

More about Browne can be found in this post at Reason's Hit & Run (lots of links).

38 comments:

Revenant said...

I may have voted for Harry Browne in the 1996 presidential race, but I don't remember for sure

Heh! I'm in exactly the same position -- I know I was thinking about a Browne vote in 1996, but I can't remember if I bothered to actually vote, as I live in a state Clinton was guaranteed to win anyway.

Browne's writing appealed to me when I was younger and more ideology-driven. Today it seems, like Ayn Rand's work, profoundly unserious when compared to the actual world we live in. In a way, Browne exemplified the Libertarian Party's obsession with being morally correct at the expense of ever engaging with the real world enough to make some positive changes.

Luke said...

I know little about libertarianism, but I've always had the vague since that it was a half-truth masquerading as a whole one. Not sure what the other half is though. Maybe equity concerns.

Rainsborough said...

"Democrats who support choice on abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to manage their retirement or their children's daycare and schooling."

Liberarians who support choice n abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to decide what retirement insurance they would like the federal government to provide.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Ravenant sums up my own experience with the LP. Initial infatuation followed by major qualms. Cathy's right about the utopianism and radicalism. For me the final straw was when the LP ran the publisher of "Screw" magazine for political office in Florida. Incredibly bad judgement, sensible people might think, but apparently the LP had some moral charge to challenge mainstream sexual norms. (The contrast with Hayek could not have been more striking.)

But to its credit, libertarian thinking (as opposed to the political party) did help dislodge entrenched assumptions inherited from my prior leftist mindset, even if I did wind up rejecting some of its tenets. And I agree with Ravenant: libertarian foreign policy advice in particular strikes me as wishful handwaving.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

"Liberarians who support choice in abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to decide what retirement insurance they would like the federal government to provide."

I'll see you, and I'll raise you: ...seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to decide when to impede the ability of other Americans to make their own decisions.

Revenant said...

Liberarians who support choice n abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to decide what retirement insurance they would like the federal government to provide

No, that's the Democratic position. The libertarian position is that everyone should be free to decide whether or not to pay into a retirement insurance program, and which kind they pay into. Right now we have only one "choice" -- the Ponzi scheme known as Social Security. As a small-l libertarian I have no problem with letting people with a weak grasp of economics "invest" in Social Security, provided that *I* don't have to pay for its inevitable collapse.

I'd love to have an actual choice in retirement insurance. I'd choose "none", and keep the money.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, that is also the Republican position. They have a slightly different scheme in mind, but no intention of granting any kind of choice about participation.

Anonymous said...

Liberarians who support choice n abortion also seem to believe that Americans aren't smart enough to decide what retirement insurance they would like the federal government to provide.

Libertarians are smart enough to distinguish individual action from group action (and prefer the former).

Revenant said...

To be fair, that is also the Republican position

Didn't the Bush plan propose allowing people to choice between "SS Classic" and "SS with Private Investment"? No option to stay out of the system entirely, of course, but at least there was some choice. Then again I might be misremembering.

Of course, a fair amount of opposition to eliminating Social Security comes from the fact that Congress knows the "trust fund" is a sham -- they can't let people stop paying into Social Security, because current investors are paying for current retirees. If people were allowed to keep their money either taxes or deficits would have to skyrocket to make up the difference.

Lori Heine said...

As both a large- and a small-l libertarian, I have struggled with a few of the party's positions. But as I agree with them far more often than I do either the Republicans or the Democrats, I decided that joining the Libertarian Party was the decision of the greatest integrity.

I voted for Bob Dole in 1996, because I was disgusted with Bill Clinton (for whom I'd pulled the lever in '92). I don't think that back then, I even knew who Harry Browne was. And that was probably a shame.

I've read many of Browne's writings, and he had a real knack for making sense of what libertarians believe. What the Big-L Party needs is more candidates who can articulate our convictions in a sensible and understandable way.

Cathy does an excellent job of that. Perhaps we should run her for President in '08.

Rainsborough said...

I agree with Revenant that the Republicans would take down social security if they could.

I understand that he believes that his freedom to invest the money that goes into the FICA tax is more important than the freedom others find in the secure retirement social security provides them. And I understand that it's no fun being in the minority when a democratic decision is taken. But whether majorities are smart or dumb, their decisions are to be respected in a democratic society. Democratic decisions may be perceived by some to violate individual freedom. They still are to be respected.

Revenant said...

I understand that he believes that his freedom to invest the money that goes into the FICA tax is more important than the freedom others find in the secure retirement social security provides them.

Like I said, rainsborough, if you want to "invest" in Social Security, knock yourself out. All I'm asking for is the right to opt out -- to deny myself all Social Security benefits, forever, in exchange for not having to pay into the system.

Right now the government takes my money, spends it on pointless bullshit, and promises to eventually pay for my retirement by taxing my kids and grandkids. That's Social Security. What I'm asking for is the right to invest my money so I can pay for my OWN retirement, and leave the remainer of my wealth to the aforementioned kids and grandkids. Your attempt to spin that as me being selfish is just silly.

And I understand that it's no fun being in the minority when a democratic decision is taken.

Yeah, like a gang rape, for example -- four men who want to have sex and one woman who doesn't. That's democracy! :)

Rainsborough said...

"Your attempt to spin that as me being selfish is just silly."

I hope I wasn't doing that (attempting to spin, being silly). I'm not that concerned with the merits of the dispute, much more with its politics. And with the notion that majority rule in the legislative arena is the fairest way to resolve disputes--including disputes about what is to be decided collectively.

Lori Heine said...

Nobody has a moral right to decide what to do with somebody else's money. Of course all robbers THINK they do. Go to any prison in this country and just ask 'em. The rationale of "citizens" who think they have the right to determine who makes too much money, and how much they may take from them, is no different, morally, if it is done in the ballot box than it is if it is done while holding a gun.

My friends, I have just described the income tax. What a surprise that some of us would prefer not being robbed in the first place!

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Lori says: "as I agree with them far more often than I do either the Republicans or the Democrats"... In general, true for me too on some major domestic issues. But I find the things I disagree with are so tremendous as to obviate other areas of agreement. For example, the prohibition on involuntary commitment to mental institutions. (Having dealt with a relative who needs to stay medicated to avoid psychosis, this is where I get off the bus.) Also, I understand the LP jettisoned a more sweeping platform item recognizing full children's rights, but the current language is still worrisome. On the one hand, "parents have the right to raise their children according to their own standards and beliefs" (excepting abuse), but on the other, they're worthy of condemnation if they "force children to conform to any religious views." Force? And the LP would still allow children to opt out of their families in non-abusive situations. Whoever comes up with this stuff is more interested in being consistent than in addressing realty.

Lori Heine said...

I certainly agree that there is some real nuttiness in the Libertarian Party. Were I to insist upon belonging to a party that agreed with EVERYTHING I believe, I'd probably be the only one in it.

What I am hoping is that an infusion of normal and reasonable people into the Libertarian Party will squeeze some of the nuttiness out of it. The verdict is out on whether that's gonna happen or not.
Third parties are doomed to permanent third-partyhood if they let the lunatics run the asylum.

Synova said...

This last time I moved I registered to vote as a Libertarian. Like someone else said, neither of the other parties fit. I can't see myself voting for Democrats, but it would be wrong to say I'm a Republican, because I'm not. The difference is in the underlying ideas about government and human nature. I might vote Republican but at least I can feel like I've taken some sort of stand.

I know that the Libertarian Party resembles the Loony Bin and I'm okay with that. I don't know just how Loony the local party is and unfortunately the New Mexico state convention is this weekend and I can't go.

I'm with Lori(again!). If reasonable people join the party, and I know that there are a lot of very reasonable, rational, sane, libertarians and objectivists in this country, the party will reflect that.

W.B. Reeves said...

Since my affinity for libertarian thought draws on its original 19th century roots, I've never considered either Rand or her acolytes in the LP to be true Libertarians. In the context of its historical developement, the intrinsic value of the individual human being has always been central to Libertarianism. Though Rand and likewise the LP attempt to claim this as true for themselves, it simply isn't so.

What Rand and the LP preach is more properly identified as radical economic individualism. Like Marxism, it is an economic reductionist theory. Both Marxists and the LP theorist see economics as the determining fact of human existence. How this works out in Marxist theory and practice is well known. The ramifications for LP theory are less appreciated.

Most voters, as opposed to true believers, are drawn to the LP by its quasi-Libertarian stances on particular issues of personal interest. (drug policy, sexual liberty, etc.)These folk's conception of individual liberties encompasses the traditional American view of inalienable rights. That is, liberty is intrinsic to the individual from birth, independent of social position or any other material factor.

By contrast, the theory propounded by the ostensible libertarians of the LP is that the right of property preceeds and is the foundation of, all other liberties. This is why, in practically every instance where property rights conflict with the interests or liberties of a particular individual or group of individuals, LP theorists can be relied upon to take the side of the propertied.

An illustration of this is the way in which such folks condemn actions taken by the government or other publicly accountable entities that they would accept without a quibble if they were carried out by private entities.

Even more glaring, for an ideology that supposedly champions individual liberty against the depredations of the state, is the insistence that the only legitimate powers of government are its military and police functions. These are the most coercive powers that the state possesses, validating as they do, the government's monopoly of violence and deadly force in pursuit of its aims. LP theorist have no problem with this monopoly so long as it is not hostile to their theory of property as the basis of liberty.

When voters discover the full ramifications of LP theory and how it deviates from the traditional view of individual liberties, they tend to shear off and either return to the traditional parties or drop electoral politics altogether.

Given this, I doubt that the LP will ever amount to more than it is at present. It has nothing to offer the working poor or economically disadvantaged. The centers of Corporate wealth and power are wedded to the state by virtue of their ability to manipulate it for their own benefit. The so-called middle class likewise has no problem with activist government so long as they are the beneficiaries of state largesse. There really isn't any substantial constituency for a Political Party whose governing policy amounts to "root hog or die."

Synova said...

If the Libertarian Party has nothing for the poor then they need someone with the ability to communicate and repudiate the constant accusations that libertarianism means wanting poor people to just die.

And no, the folks who join for the drugs or as tax protests aren't going to do that. The anarchists aren't going to do that.

Dang anyhow... I wish I could attend this weekend. The convention starts today but I have kids birthday parties and girl scout cookie sales. Ack!

Lori Heine said...

I find interesting the conventional attacks on libertarianism, which presuppose that if the government does not force compassionate action it can in no way come to pass.

My respect for individual property rights is in no way logically opposed to my concern for the poor. Nor can anybody credibly demonstrate to the contrary.

Why, pray tell me, is it more "compassionate" to delegate the care of the unfortunate to those perhaps hundreds of miles distant from them? Why would it not be better for volunteers (who, unlike government "welfare" officials, need not be paid) to put one hundred percent of the available funds to work helping the poor instead of skimming much of it off the top to pay themselves?

Local-level volunteers, who actually see the faces of the folks they are helping, know their names and are familiar with their stories, stand a far better chance of actually doing them some real good.

Furthermore, I wish someone could explain to me how taxing those in povery -- then giving them back, in "welfare," a tiny fraction of what's been taken from them -- is better for them than private charity would be. Some explanation besides standard-issue liberal hysteria and cant would be illuminating.

Libertarians are routinely slandered about their position on helping the poor. How much more constructive it would be -- especially for the poor -- if Americans could discuss this issue in a manner that concretely considers actual human lives.

Rainsborough said...

There's an article up at the New Republic attacking the religious right for its opposition to making the HPV vaccine as near mandatory as can be.

Isn't being obliged to get a vaccine even more invasive than being obliged to pay taxes? So are libertarians in league with the religious right on this issue? That is, do they favor a significantly higher incidence of cervical cancer?

P.S. Taxes are essential to government, are they not? Are libertarians then anarchists?)

Revenant said...

So are libertarians in league with the religious right on this issue?

I'm not sure what percentage of the religous right wants the vaccine to be legally available but non-mandatory. It would be more accurate to say that the religious right is in league with libertarians on that issue, though, since it is the libertarian position which has remained constant.

That is, do they favor a significantly higher incidence of cervical cancer?

Yes, libertarians support the right of people to control their own bodies because we want them to get cancer and die. How clever of you to figure it out.

W.B. Reeves said...

I find interesting the conventional attacks on libertarianism, which presuppose that if the government does not force compassionate action it can in no way come to pass.

Who has done this?

My respect for individual property rights is in no way logically opposed to my concern for the poor. Nor can anybody credibly demonstrate to the contrary.

This appears to be a reference to my post but since I never made the argument that you're attempting to refute I can't be certain.

Why, pray tell me, is it more "compassionate" to delegate the care of the unfortunate to those perhaps hundreds of miles distant from them? Why would it not be better for volunteers (who, unlike government "welfare" officials, need not be paid) to put one hundred percent of the available funds to work helping the poor instead of skimming much of it off the top to pay themselves?

Has anyone even used the word "compassionate" in this thread before you did? Again, it's a bit difficult to see who it is you're arguing with.

Can you point to a single private charity, outside of religious orders, that operates with no paid staff?

Libertarians are routinely slandered about their position on helping the poor. How much more constructive it would be -- especially for the poor -- if Americans could discuss this issue in a manner that concretely considers actual human lives.

Slander? There is nothing slanderous about recognizing or even publicizing the fact that the LP and its adherents are opposed on principle to government assistance to the poor. Pointing out that this position is unlikely to win the votes of those dependent on such assistance is merely a recognition of political reality. As is recognizing the disinterest of either the Corporate elite or the vast, amorphic "middle class" in abolishing the government trough in which they have their snouts firmly planted.

The last fourty years of anti-tax agitation in this country has not resulted in enshrining the principle of TANSTAAFL in our government. Quite the contrary. The current level of spending combined with the astronomical deficit make it clear that "Free Lunch" is the order of the day. People don't want to get rid of activist government where they perceive it as benefitting themselves, they just don't want to pay for it.

If the LP is really concerned about not being seen as hating the poor, I would suggest that they not invite the likes of Neil Boortz to address their gatherings. Touting a professional gasbag who routinely refers to the poor as "unproductive elements" is unlikely to convince anyone of their good intentions. I suspect that's the sort of language that made Whittaker Chambers scent the Zyklon B.

Lori Heine said...

Whittaker Chambers' reference to Zyklon B was specifically aimed at Ayn Rand (he thought she was saying "to the gas chamber -- go!" or some such thing). Rand was not only an atheist (something in itself certainly not incompatible with altruism), but a social darwinist who hated anything having to do with Christianity. As I am a Christian as well as a Libertarian, I do not share her view that Christian altruism weakens society or that the poor are in any sense inherently parasitic. I don't know what Boortz's religious worldview is, but though I find much of what he says very sensible I would certainly have to disagree with his comments about the poor.

Of course I failed to mention that many charities have paid staffs. They also, however, have a track record on managing their funds that knocks the heck out of anything the government has ever been able to do. And a lot of charitable organizations DO depend fairly heavily on volunteers to round out their staff. Many church-related organizations involved with helping the poor use lay volunteers almost exclusively.

Synova, you said:

"If the Libertarian Party has nothing for the poor then they need someone with the ability to communicate and repudiate the constant accusations that libertarianism means wanting poor people to just die."

My remarks were not directed at you, since you were speaking about other people's opinions rather than your own. Who was I "arguing with?" I was answering the criticism to which you alluded.

There are many different viewpoints in the libertarian movement. Sure, there are some people who say dumb things about the poor and seem to wish that all poor people would die. But in and of itself, libertarianism has no particular "position" on the poor. We simply believe that whatever may best be done for them is better done by private entities.

It defies logic to suggest that we have become a more compassionate society simply because we pay other people to be compassionate for us. If anything, this seems to have drained a good deal of the genuine compassion out of us. And again, I am answering opinions expressed not by anybody on this thread, but alluded to here as belonging to critics of libertarianism. If these critics are claiming that libertarians lack compassion, they are also, by implication, claiming that those who believe in statist welfare are somehow morally superior. I, for one, fail to see any authentic moral superiority in them.

Lori Heine said...

Just a P.S.

Many libertarians see tax-funded welfare as an infringement on their religious liberty. Those who don't believe in keeping generations of poor people on the government dole resent being told, by religious Leftists, that they have some moral duty to do so.

I can understand this. It's kinda like how I feel when a Religious-Right type Christian tries to pass a law that would send me to jail for being in bed with a consenting adult of the same sex. Even within a particular religion, there may be a wide variety of different -- and very passionately-held -- points of view on particular issues.

Many libertarians look at Northern Ireland, or Iraq, or some of the other hot-spots in the world where religious lunacy reigns, and we don't want that happening in America. Those who would use the brawn of government to force their religious views on others -- be they on the Left or Right -- don't seem to understand why the Founders tried to keep religion and politics from corrupting each other.

W.B. Reeves said...

As I am a Christian as well as a Libertarian, I do not share her view that Christian altruism weakens society or that the poor are in any sense inherently parasitic. Congratulations, you are the second person I have met in three decades of political life that styles themselves a "Christian Libertarian." Doubtless we disagree on the definition of Christianity as much as we disagree on the definition of libertarianism.

Your self identification explains why you felt it necessary to inject the, to my argument, extraneous issue of "compassion". For you, the conditions of the poor and economically disadvantaged are a matter of charitable giving rather than social policy.

For the record, I was not alluding to any such criticism of LP supporters. I was registering what I take to be a plain political reality. The poor and economically disadvantage are unlikely to be enthused by a party seeking to abolish all government assistance to them in favor of rosey scenarios of private giving. Likewise, the Corporate elite and the so-called middle class who are not interested in giving up Government mandated goodies that come their way.

I understand the centrality of compassion and charity to the Christian perspective. "Faith, Hope and Charity. But the greatest of these is Charity." as the the Apostle Paul wrote. (As well he might have. Few could be in greater need of charity than Saul of Tarsus.) However, while it may be central to you, don't presume that everyone approaches the issue in the same fashion.

If you honestly believe that taxation is a form of theft, then I'm afraid you must reconcile yourself to the fact that all governments are a form of organized banditry. No government will ever divest itself of the power to tax anymore than it would willingly divest itself of the power to seize property. Certainly the founders of the American Republic had no such intention.

Further, the population in general isn't interested in either abolishing or privatizing such amenities as the national parks, public health, sanitation or roadways. Again, popular anti-tax sentiment isn't about ideological principle, it's simply the all too human desire to get the maximum personal benefit for the minimum outlay.

It defies logic to suggest that we have become a more compassionate society simply because we pay other people to be compassionate for us.

Sorry but I think it's this passage that defies logic. What is the difference between paying taxes to meet human needs and giving a donation to a charitable institution? In both instances, by your standard, the giver would be "paying" someone to "act" compassionately for them. I have the impression that you view compassion as primarily a matter of personal spiritual witness rather than the actual alleviation of human misery.

Addendum: Yes, I know that you have asserted that private charities are more efficient than government programs. This is an article of faith among the LP. My own observation is that this assertion is entirely dependent on which programs are being compared to which charities. There is so much waste and fraud amongst private charities that it has become necessary for watchdog groups to issue lists ranking charities according to their degree of profligacy and adminstrative corruption. Caveat Emptor.

Lori Heine said...

W.B., I'm well aware that there are a lot of libertarians who think that all government services and programs should be abolished. I don't happen to be one of them. There are many people (including quite a few libertarians) who don't understand the difference between "libertarian" and "anarchist." Whatever my deficiencies may be, I labor under no such misunderstanding.

If you want to hear the viewpoints of a few other Christian Libertarians (big "L" and small), Lew Rockwell.com will get you oodles and scads of 'em. That you've heard of only two of us in twenty years (?!) suggests that you might need to get out more.

We will simply have to agree to disagree as to whether private charities are more frequently mismanaged than public. Because the private organizations must compete with one another for funds, it seems to me the wheat gets separated from the chaff pretty efficiently. And of course there are always those "watchdog groups" you mentioned to look after us.

When I say that people pay others to be compassionate for them, I'm not trying to imply that, were there no government welfare, we'd all be trooping out like the March sisters in Little Women to visit the nearest hovel with basketsful of home-baked rolls. But there's something to be said for (A) CHOOSING to help the poor (which I have enough faith in basic human decency to believe an adequate number of us would do)and (B) do one's own shopping for charities.

I believe it was Ronald Reagan who said that whatever the taxpayers subsidize, we only end up with more of. And I know it was he who said that, though we had spent decades fighting a "war on poverty," poverty had won.

Having spoken with a number of libertarians (both Christian and non) on the subject, I have found quite a few who agree with me that helping provide a safety-net for the poor is good policy for reasons that need have nothing to do with religion. To me, it is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. I would not want to live in a society that cast the poor aside to die instead of giving them a hand up. A society with no compassion at all would not be a very nice place to be.

We owe it to those less fortunate to entrust our safety-net to somebody -- just about ANYBODY -- other than a gaggle of fickle, grandstanding and self-promoting politicians.

Revenant said...

We will simply have to agree to disagree as to whether private charities are more frequently mismanaged than public.

It is fair to say that N of the X private charities out there are mismanaged, with the values of N and X being, respectively, debatable and hard to count. On the other hand, 1 of the 1 governments we have badly mismanage the allocation of aid money.

The advantage of private charity isn't that any given private charity is guaranteed to be better, but rather that with private charities you have options.

W.B. Reeves said...

There are many people (including quite a few libertarians) who don't understand the difference between "libertarian" and "anarchist."

This distinction is of recent vintage. Prior to the advent of Rand, the terms were treated as practically synonymous. In Europe this is still largely the case.

If you want to hear the viewpoints of a few other Christian Libertarians (big "L" and small), Lew Rockwell.com will get you oodles and scads of 'em. That you've heard of only two of us in twenty years (?!) suggests that you might need to get out more

Thanks for the pointer. I'm aware of Lew Rockwell but I didn't realize the site was a Libertarian catacomb. I'll have to take another look.

I believe it was Ronald Reagan who said that whatever the taxpayers subsidize, we only end up with more of. And I know it was he who said that, though we had spent decades fighting a "war on poverty," poverty had won.

I would agree with the first as well. It's too bad that he didn't apply that maxim to military spending.

As for the second, I don't know if you were actually alive at the time of the "War On Poverty" but I was. While the WOP could be justly critized for many things, increasing the level of poverty is not one of them.

To me, it is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. I would not want to live in a society that cast the poor aside to die instead of giving them a hand up. A society with no compassion at all would not be a very nice place to be.


I agree with you here as well. The question is whether this reflects the actual positions of the LP and a majority of its adherents. It seems to me that you deviate substantially from accepted doctrine.

I wish I could share your optimism about the efficacy of private charity. However, it isn't as though we have no experience with such a set up. If private giving in absence of public expenditure is the measure of a compassionate society, the societies of the 19th century were the most compassionate the world has seen.

We owe it to those less fortunate to entrust our safety-net to somebody -- just about ANYBODY -- other than a gaggle of fickle, grandstanding and self-promoting politicians.

The flaw here being that the "less fortunate" prefer the politicians to private charities for the perfectly sensible reason that the franchise gives them some say with the former whereas they would be, at best, hapless dependents of the latter.

BTW, you haven't challenged my points about the corporate elite and the inchoate "middle class." How do you propose getting them to give up the immediate advantages gained from Government largess in favor of the LP's imagined privatized utopia?

Revenant said...

The flaw here being that the "less fortunate" prefer the politicians to private charities for the perfectly sensible reason that the franchise gives them some say with the former whereas they would be, at best, hapless dependents of the latter.

That's not a flaw; that's a feature. It is, to put it mildly, a bad idea to give the recipients of charity a say in how much charity they should receive. The answer will, inevitably, be "more than we need or deserve".

W.B. Reeves said...

That's not a flaw; that's a feature. It is, to put it mildly, a bad idea to give the recipients of charity a say in how much charity they should receive. The answer will, inevitably, be "more than we need or deserve".

Which is precisely why the LP will get no more traction with this constituency than it will with the other two constituencies mentioned. The LP has no mass base and nothing to build one on. No one wants to give up their slice of the pie, however slim. The tragedy of the LP is that it believes US politics are a matter of abstract principle rather than the business of deciding who gets what and how much.

Revenant said...

Which is precisely why the LP will get no more traction with this constituency than it will with the other two constituencies mentioned.

Nah, that's not the reason. Only a tiny portion of the American public lives off charity -- the rest contribute to it. The people the libertarian charity argument needs to convince aren't the people who receive charity, but the people who fund it. Pointing out to them that they'd get a better bang for their buck from the private sector is quite possible (as the welfare reform experiment of the mid-90s showed).

The LP has no mass base and nothing to build one on.

The LP's problem is that it is composed of people who are too uncompromising to belong to a real political party. The ideas aren't the problem -- much of the Republican "Contract with America" was libertarian. Most libertarian principles, taken individually, have broad appeal. What is missing is the willingness to put together a coalition in support of some of those ideas while letting others take a back seat. The Republican and Democratic parties wouldn't work either, if they constantly pushed for each and every principle that each of their coalitions wanted.

And of course, even if the LP had the best ideas in the world, you can't build a viable third party in a winner-take-all system like ours.

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