Arguments against libertarianism


Regressives (aka “conservatives”) say that guns don’t kill, people do. So, despite the many deaths caused by easy access to guns, most regressives continue to oppose gun control, even for rapid-fire weapons. And they’re willing to pay for guns, because they think guns serve a valuable purpose.

On the other hand, regressives generally dislike government. They blame it for corruption and waste. They complain that government takes away their freedoms. They don’t like paying taxes. They want to shrink government and drown it in the bathtub.

But if regressives really believe that guns don’t kill, then by the same reasoning, they should really believe that government doesn’t waste their money and take away their freedoms; people do. Specifically, corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate “people” subvert government and use it to enrich themselves.

Government itself is just a tool, and it can be used either for good or for bad. Just like guns.

How government is like a gun

One of the primary roles of government — some regressives would say the only legitimate role — is law enforcement and defense. That role is similar to the role played by guns. So on that score, you’d think that right wingers would love government.

But regressives see only the bad that government does and overlook all the good that it does and can do. They want citizens to use guns to protect themselves from criminals but downplay government’s role in fighting crime. They even imagine using guns to fight the evil government — though I’ve always wondered how they expect to fight the US Army. Alas, oftentimes private citizens are better armed than the local police.

Moreover, regressives are choosy about which law enforcement roles they want government to engage in. They’re presumably OK with government defending us against murders and against property crimes. But they’re generally not OK with government defending us against environmental crimes or against many white-collar crimes. For such cases, they’d say that government is infringing on their so-called “freedoms.”

What’s all this talk about freedom?

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of press are legitimate freedoms. I believe too in the freedom to own property and to accumulate money — provided that you pay your fair share in taxes and don’t subvert the rules to concentrate power and money into your own hands.

But not all freedoms are legitimate. Nobody should have the freedom to steal, murder, or rape, or the freedom to foul the air, water, and land with poisons. Nobody should have the freedom to stash money overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Bankers should not have the freedom to gamble with depositors’ money. Rich people should not have the freedom to corrupt Congress and rewrite the laws to favor themselves. Corporations should not have the freedom to profit from good investments but have the public pay for bad investments (the bailouts).

The freedom from taxation that so many regressives want is illegitimate given the $17 trillion dollars in debt that the US has accumulated — largely from unfunded wars and from the Bush tax cuts, but also from out of control medical spending due to exorbitant drug costs, perverse incentives, and high overheads of private insurance companies. (Social Security contributes not a penny to the national debt.) The freedom from taxation that regressives want is illegitimate also because of the increasing concentration of wealth and the historically low tax rates that corporations and the rich now enjoy.

How government isn’t like a gun

Earlier we compared government to a gun. But the analogy between governments and guns goes only so far. Guns have mostly a negative role. That is, guns are used to kill and protect, and for sport, but not for much else. Government has a similar negative role as we saw — national defense and law enforcement, including various regulatory functions. But government also has many positive roles to play — if it’s not corrupted by private interests or intentionally mismanaged and underfunded. Moreover, the regulatory and law enforcement roles of government are a lot subtler and more varied than the crude deterrent role that comes from packing heat.

What’s government good for?

Let’s remind ourselves of the various regulatory and positive functions of government.

Government runs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the EPA, and the FDA, to protect our health and safety. The FAA regulates air travel. The NOAA forecasts weather. FEMA is tasked with coming to the rescue in case of natural disasters.

Government regulates finance through the SEC, the FDIC, and the now expired Glass-Stegall Act; reckless deregulation was a major cause of the subprime loan disaster and ongoing financial chaos.

Government maintains national parks and supports conservation and smart transportation. It funds fundamental and applied research that benefits industry and humanity. It teaches our children and takes care of elderly, sick, and indigent citizens’ medical needs.

Thanks to government we have fuel efficiency standards. Think how much better off we’d all be if 20 years ago Congress had instituted more stringent standards. We’d have saved many billions of additional dollars in oil costs and would have reduced the trade deficit and greenhouse gas emissions.

Thanks to government we are not in a deep depression. When the economy crashed in 2008 and banks and insurance companies were on the verge of insolvency, the capitalists went running to government to be saved.  (Yes, they should have bailed out homeowners more than the banks.)

Thanks to government we still have GM producing cars.

In The Horrifying Hidden Story Behind Drug Company Profits and The Truth about the Drug Companies, a former Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine writes of the drug industry, “Instead of being an engine of innovation, it is a vast marketing machine. Instead of being a free market success story, it lives off government-funded research and monopoly rights.”

Moreover, government can be more efficient than the market system. This is especially true for health care. The U.S. pays far more per capita than other industrialized countries but leaves tens of millions without coverage and lags in many measures of health.

Government provides real jobs and real services, despite regressives’ common claim that only the private sector generates jobs.

Heck, without government we’d be hunter-gatherers: no laws, no sanitation, no commerce, no childhood immunization, no civil rights, no seat belts, and surely no Internet.

We the Government built all these

Government is like a computer operating system

The best analogy for the role of government in society is the role of a computer operating system in a computer.

Without an operating system, your computer would be a useless hunk of metal and plastic. The operating system provides the basic rules, conventions, protections, and services necessary for the functioning of application programs such as editors, spreadsheets, browsers, and games.

Government plays a similar role in the functioning of a modern society. Government furnishes the rules, conventions, protections, and basic services necessary for the smooth functioning and interactions of businesses and individuals.

Sometimes computer viruses, spybots, malware, and other undesirable programs invade your operating system. They suck up resources, steal private information, and destroy data. To guard against such undesirables the operating system has protections, such as firewalls and security levels. Furthermore, you can install anti-virus programs that will scan your computer and protect you from suspicious programs.

In a similar way, government is sometimes co-opted by special interests who twist the rules, corrupt the lawmakers, and get laws written to their own benefit. Corporations, labor groups, teachers, government workers, rich people, poor people: everybody tries to make government serve their own interests.

One protection against government abuse is election finance laws. Publicly funded elections would make it harder for private interests to buy the votes of lawmakers.

Another protection is investigative journalism. Journalists are like anti-virus programs for government: journalists scan the actions of legislators and government workers, looking for wasteful or fraudulent behaviors. It is to society’s benefit to fund independent investigative journalism, as well as to give tax incentives to privately run news organizations. The US spends a small fraction as much on public journalism as most other industrial nations.

Libertarian fantasies

Libertarians are right that too much government is usually a bad thing. Fascism is oppressive and Soviet-style Socialism is both oppressive and inefficient. But the only alternative to such Socialism isn’t laissez-faire capitalism. Libertarians like to imagine that individuals can thrive in modern society without the structure and guidance of a strong central government. This is idle fantasy. When the economy crashed a few years ago, corporations came running to the government to bail them out.  Without regulation of complex financial markets, monopolies and corrupt practices would flourish, and further market crashes will be inevitable. Without the organizing role of a strong central government, commerce and trade would not function.

But, yes, we do need to beware of socialism in America –especially of socialism for the rich.

In short, society needs a strong central government as a brake on the excesses of capitalism and as a means for assuring the general Welfare.

The wisdom of the founders

Indeed, the founders crafted a Federal system, with a strong central government, because small-government society under the Articles of Confederation wasn’t working well. (See this history.) The founders realized they needed Big Government to have a modern nation. The Constitution asks the Federal government to provide for the general Welfare and to do lots of other things to secure our safety and well-being.

The Preamble to the United States Constitution states

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What was true in the late 18th century is even more true now, with the significantly more complex issues facing the nation.

But do I believe that guns don’t kill?

There’s one potential problem with my argument.   I used the right wing mantra “guns don’t kill, people do” to try to argue that government doesn’t take away our freedoms, etc.   But as a good liberal, do I really believe that guns don’t kill?

Not in any significant way. In other words, I believe that guns, under the control of nasty people, too often kill innocent people.  And indeed, I fully admit that government often abuses people too, when its purpose is subverted by corrupt people and corporations.   And, yes, there should be limits to the power of government, just as there should be limits to the availability of guns.  The difference between guns and governments is that guns have few productive uses aside from killing (or threatening to kill), whereas government is essential and extremely beneficial in positive ways.

Uncle Sam Drowned by Republicans

Further reading

For more about the good things governments do see Bring on the Reagan Counterrevolution, http://GovernmentIsGood.org, and http://TheGeneralWelfare.us.

For more about the analogy between governments and operating systems see Government is like a computer’s operating system: a response to libertarians.