Sunday, August 10, 2008

Response to Shane's Response to Lewis

Shane brought up some very good points in response to Cheryl's quote from C.S. Lewis that I posted yesterday. His points and my responses were really far too long to molder in the comments, so I post them here.
I largely agree - I still love reading what the libertarians at Cato are publishing, and generally prefer non-interference in other people's matters. The main thing that still makes me a liberal who thinks that government does have a role to play in pushing health and safety because:

a) current government policies of subsidies and spending promote unhealthy habits (for example, corn subsidies and sugar tariffs have spawned an industry pushing cheap HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup] as sweetener, leading companies like Coca-Cola to make the average serving size from 8 oz to 20 oz, while government subsidizes driving and discourages walking by building highways instead of mass transit and bicycle lanes).
Absolutely. If a government policy (particularly an already dubious one like massively distortionary ag subsidies) is demonstrably detrimental to the health of citizens, I can't see how any reasonable person could defend it on libertarian grounds: "It offends the dignity of my humanity to pay the market price for unhealthful sweeteners!" Yeah, not so much. As for the driving subsidy, that's a tricky one, isn't it? Clearly, building highways is overwhelmingly more popular with the voting public than trains and bicycle lanes, and it's pretty tempting to believe the public just doesn't know what's best for them in this case. It's also tricky in that transit is extremely messy to privatize; there's no way to accurately judge the market for trains where there simply aren't any. So again, in this case, subsidizing mass transit or bicycle lanes or providing kickbacks to pedestrians or what-have-you to provide some sort of counterweight to all the money going to highways doesn't offend my sensibilities a bit, especially when transit availability is such a liberalizing factor in broadening access to job markets and essential goods and services, particularly for the poor. I've got no problem with subsidies per se, so long as there's transparency as to what we're really paying for, and an awareness that any subsidy will distort incentives and have unintended consequences. There are few cases of an unqualified good in public policy, very few win-win situations, and I wish politicians would acknowledge that.
b) In some cases the public is ignorant, misinformed, or outright deceived of some sources of harm. I can't see how the FDA's core functions can be successfully privatized. I also support laws requiring restaurant chains to publish nutrition facts and disclose their usage of trans fats, etc. In most of these cases, I'd prefer transparency over outright bans, though.
True. On the whole, however, I'll take the harm we can do ourselves through ignorance over the harm we can do each other through creeping totalitarianism any day. And no, the FDA probably couldn't be privatized, but its approvals need not be 100% binding, for example by allowing desperately ill people to give informed consent to use experimental and unapproved medications. It of course follows that I'm completely with you on transparency vs. prohibition. To me, the role of government in this situation is simply ensuring that citizens have the information available to make informed decisions.
c) Some issues are just collective action problems, and pragmatically speaking, the government might be the most efficient coordinator of aggregate behavior.
Yes, sometimes. The earlier example of transit is a great one; do the libertarians honestly yearn for a world in which every road and sidewalk is subject to toll and could be closed and opened at the owner's whim? The issue here, of course, just comes down to deciding which issues are best solved by civil and market forces vs. by government intervention.

In summary of this sprawling treatise, I don't take Lewis's quote to be an indictment of collective action in general -- his politics were never so strident as that -- but rather an admonition to always be on guard against creeping authoritarianism, however it may be disguised. Americans are pretty quick to recognize wanton powerlust in its traditional cloaks of nationalism, militarism, and greed (indeed, some tend to see it so pretty much everywhere), but the same motivating force also veils itself as charity, as genuine concern for public health and the environment. For that matter, "national security" falls into the same category and hides similarly insidious dangers. I don't think "liberal" totalitarianism is any worse than the old-fashioned types, I just think it's more dangerous because America today is mostly blind to it.


Shane said...

You're right in that the transit issue is a very tricky subject that many smart people have thought about and fail to come into agreement about.

So I think the single largest issue where government overregulates to the detriment of the public good is licensing. I think it's too hard to open a restaurant (especially if you want to serve beer or liquor) in most cities in the U.S. I think that it's ridiculous that some states are starting to require a license to move around furniture or make color recommendations in someone else's house. And sometimes the ADA and the AMA seem to be more interested in protecting their economic interests than in protecting the public health.

I love that Houston doesn't have zoning restrictions and its commercial/residential real estate market is booming while the rest of the country's real estate values are falling apart.

Yes, another long comment - I just get really excited about excessive regulation, too. So I guess I am still a bit of a libertarian/liberal hybrid, if forced to choose a label that blunts the nuance of my actual views.

Evan said...

I once saw a bumper sticker:


I wish I could find it...

Flession said...

Here you are, Evan:

Evan said...

It's the Internet fairy, delivering links I couldn't dig up myself!

Thanks for visiting and finding that link! I can't believe I didn't remember it was from Wondermark.