I’ve become thoroughly sick and disgusted at the continual perpetuation of the libertarian straw man. The straw man is an image of libertarians, put forth mostly by liberals, as not caring about important issues and being nothing more than shills for corporate power and political control.
Recently, our colleague Ed Brayton wrote a post about “Regulation vs. No Regulation vs. Smart Regulation, in which a fairly predictable discussion ensued about the virtues of regulation in general, and specific types of regulation in particular. Not a stupid discussion by any means, just fairly predictable for those who’ve engaged in such discussions before.
But at the very end, there was this comment.
Anyway Offshore oil liability is legally limited to 75 million dollars. That is pretty small compared to the amount of damages likely. … This is why I constantly point out how the “less regulation” argument is used to make rational regulation of real externalities impossible. My problem with libertarians is that they debate endlessly on the merits of licensing haircut providers while oil is washing up on the beach.
Libertarians do indeed debate the merits of licensing haircuts, because it’s an example of a set of pretty silly regulations–an attempt to protect our precious womenfolk from the horrors of finger curls gone wrong. But libertarians (at least those who know what they’re talking about) really dislike negative externalities, because negative externalities are costs imposed on others against their will, and libertarians don’t think it’s legitimate to impose costs on other people. Another way of putting it is that libertarians like markets, but negative externalities are a market failure, and an appreciation for markets does not logically lead to an acceptance or approval of market failures.
So it seemed to me that surely I could find some libertarians who were discussing the oil spill instead of haircuts. Cato being chock full of libertarians, that’s where I turned first. I googled, “reason magazine” and “oil spill,” and lo and behold the first result was a “Reason: Hit and Run” blogpost titled, “Limited Liability, Oil Spills, and Moral Hazard.”
Not only is the author, Jesse Walker, talking about oil spills, he’s talking about the very same problem, limited liability, that the Dispatches commenter was complaining about. He doesn’t discuss it in detail, primarily just citing a New York Times article that explains the liability cap, but the mention of moral hazard in the title clearly indicates that he recognizes the problem created by the cap.
Walker then linked to a response by Steven Horwitz, who wrote:
…with a liability cap (beyond the clean up costs), the costs of any spill are less than they would be otherwise, giving firms reason, at least on the margin, to be willing to tolerate more risk of such a spill and reducing their expenditures on prevention measures, again at least on the margin.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it looks like it works much like bank deposit insurance does. Each bank pays premiums to the FDIC which in turn caps the liability banks face to their depositors if they should fail. There’s a nice long literature on the incentive effects of deposit insurance and the “heads I win, tails I don’t lose” nature of the deal. … It would seem reasonable, without having looked at the empirical data, that this Fund would have similar effects…
If we’re really interested in preventing oil spills and bank failures, punishing to the fullest those who screw up would seem to be a very effective way of doing so. Why doing so isn’t in play in both cases might have something to do with the political pull of large banks and oil companies. Crony capitalism/corporatism strikes again.
So not only are libertarians in fact talking about the oil spill (and other issues of more significance than haircuts, like banking regulations), they’re talking explicitly about the very problem the commenter bemoans, the liability cap. And not only that, it’s really easy to find the places they’re discussing these things. And not only that, their critique of the liability cap is perfectly congruent with what the liberals believe.
Thios dovetails nicely with what Ed Brayton and I discussed on his radio show–which was in fact a part of the basis of his post–about the potential for agreement between liberals and libertarians. It’s evident that there is room for agreement between them, not just on civil liberties issues, but to a greater extent than normally recognized, on economic issues.*
But do I expect that liberals will stop trotting out their libertarian strawman anytime soon? No. Do I expect even that the commenter in question will recognize his error and do some quick and easy internet research before he trots it out the next time? No.
Commenters at Dispatches are fond of saying, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” When I critiqued that, I was assured that they only meant it tongue-in-cheek, not seriously. I’m not actually persuaded. I think liberals do believe that,** and I think their confidence in that belief leads them to assume that any ideological view that doesn’t call itself liberal is, of logical necessity, wrong. And since it’s wrong, why would they need to take it seriously enough to pay real attention to it and actually understand it? Especially as Libertarian Party presidential candidates regularly get less than 1% of the votes, libertarians can be dismissed as a side show, wacky people with wacky ideas not worthy of serious consideration.
Whatever the reason for their persistent refusal to honestly engage libertarianism, that refusal means liberals persistently misrepresent libertarianism. When they do bother to give it any attention, they engage only a strawman. As one of the people hidden behind that strawman, as one who is consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented because liberals see nothing but that strawman,*** I’m damned sick and tired of it.
I don’t count myself as a Will Wilkinson-type liberaltarian, but I do think I have far more in common with liberals than with conservatives. My only conservative leaning values are that I’m a little bit Burkean in my approach to social/political change, pro-gun rights, and mildly hawkish in foreign policy (although I’m lightyears away from neocon hawkishness). On the other side, I’m pro-choice, pro-legalization, anti-religion in schools, pro-environment, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-due process rights, etc. Most importantly, for this discussion at least, I’m anti-government/corporation cronyism, as is every single libertarian I know. And that, specifically, is the strawman.
It’s ok if liberals disagree with us about the effect of free markets. We think it will restrict that cronyism, they think it will cause it. I think they’re wrong about how to prevent it, but I recognize that they still oppose it. They don’t grant us that same recognition. They not only think our approach would cause cronyism, they think we want that effect. My perspective is that they’re misguided, but not evil. Their perspective is that I’m not just misguided, but that I am evil.
It’s hard to carry on a reasonable conversation with someone who has preemptively assumed you’re a monstrous person. But the only monster is the strawman. And if liberals really want to be biased towards reality, they’ll need to learn to recognize strawmen and reject them. It would be good for both sides.
*Although certainly not complete agreement on economic issues. By “greater than normally recognized,” I mean greater than one would expect from liberals’ gross misrepresentation of libertarians as pro-corporate/government cronyism.
**Just as conservatives believe reality has a conservative bias and, I’m sure, we libertarians believe it has a libertarian bias.
***We don’t get many liberals commenting on this blog, but those who do are ones who do see beyond the strawman. They are not the target of my ire.