Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Am I Really a Libertarian?

I have been questioned several times by other libertarians on Twitter as to whether I'm really a libertarian or not. My answer to this is a resounding, "I don't know. I think so." Without a doubt, my default position on a new subject starts with individual rights - freedom and liberty for the individual. After this initial position, issues can become more nuanced to me. This can lead me down a wishy-washy path of exceptions and sometimes hypocrisy.

I discuss politics with a libertarian co-worker of mine with some regularity. He finds that the libertarian fundamentals allows a neat bucketing of issues through a sieve of individual rights. If it passes this test, it's right. Otherwise, it's wrong. Outcome is not particularly relevant; right and wrong is. In discussions, I find it hard to disagree with the logic, even though the "right thing" may feel like it is somewhere else. What that means is that I end up trying to reconcile logic and feelings because they can be mutually exclusive. What feels right isn't necessarily what is correct. What's good in the short term may not be good in the long term. Conversely, what seems to make sense with respecting individual rights might end up infringing on the individual rights of millions of others.

For example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act seems like a slam dunk to most Americans. It was with the exception of one area: forcing desegregation on private businesses. Doing this did not respect the individual's right to run their business as they see fit. That's the theoretical answer though. The reality is that what was going on in the South was despicable. It was an affront to the individual rights of millions to have access to common things like restaurants, hotels, hospitals, etc. So, even though most of these were privately owned, and the government overstepped its legal bounds under our Constitution, I don't care. If someone says that makes me not a libertarian, maybe I'm not.

Gun restrictions are another example. I support the 2nd Amendment, but I don't think that it's untouchable. We've accepted limitations to other freedoms contained in the Constitution, but there should be absolutely no limitations on what kind of weaponry can be owned and who can own it? I have no problem with some common sense limitations - criminal background checks, waiting periods, no howitzers. Should the average citizen be able to have a weapon comparable to an individual soldier? I don't see why this should be limited, but I'm not going to make a mountain out of a mole hill for a reasonable argument.

At the end of the day, we don't live in theoretical world. Outcomes matter to me. Doing the right thing matters to me. Individual rights matter to me. Society matters to me. The conflict of these is where I end up off track to the purists, but I'm not sure I care. Like anything, placing a label on yourself gives the appearance that you've accepted all of that label's dogma. I don't accept the dogma if it doesn't work for me. The world is complicated. Government is complicated. Individual rights crossed with 300 million US citizens and 7 billion world citizens is complicated. Respect for individual rights is a key component on which to build a republic. It isn't the only factor. If that makes me unfit to wear the libertarian moniker, I can live with that.


David Ellis said...

If it passes this test, it's right. Otherwise, it's wrong. Outcome is not particularly relevant; right and wrong is.

The likely consequences are extremely important in any sensible approach to ethics. If the likely outcome is bad and you know it, follow this course is probably both wrong and foolish.

It seems to me that you're instinctively somewhat a consequentialist in ethics---which makes you vastly more reasonable than more dogmatic libertarians.

Rob said...

I'm definitely interested in the consequences, but estimating them is what makes things complicated. Without going too far down a Star Trek geek path, the Prime Directive comes to mind. When the government intervenes, the unintended side effects can ripple through the years – both positive and negative. I’m not against the government getting involved, but I definitely lean to letting the individual and/or the private sector handle something first.

David B. Ellis said...

I’m not against the government getting involved, but I definitely lean to letting the individual and/or the private sector handle something first.

Why? We, for example, leave health care to the private sector here in the US and it's pretty much a disaster.

Rob said...

I don't want to go down the healthcare rat hole too much because I don't have a definitive position.

The private sector and the government are very intertwined - research, regulation, Medicare/Medicaid, etc. I assert that it's a hybrid disaster and will continue to be.

Source of National Healthcare Spending

I briefly skied the content of the link, but assuming the chart is correct, 47% of all healthcare spending was provided by the government in 2008. Even though the lion's share of the care is provided by the private sector, it massively skews the market.

The employer-based insurance system we have was heavily influenced by government intervention over the years. I'm making an assumption that this very high level history is decently accurate.

Employer Health Insurance

Still, it doesn't address the millions of people that have been left out in the cold in the richest country in the world. Going back to the outcome-based discussion, it's clearly a mess.

As long as we don't stifle the profit-driven innovations that have put medicine where it is today (for those that can afford it), I don't have a problem with some subsidizing for those that need it.

As with all government spending/programs though, I'm always left with, "Where do we draw the line?"

David B. Ellis said...

Correct me if I'm wrong (and I'm no expert on the topic) but don't most the the nations with universal healthcare have both lower costs and better healthcare outcomes? If so, the question of where we draw the line seems rather moot---we already seem to be spending more than others for worse outcomes. Perhaps the most rational option is to look at what the nations who have low spending and strong health statistics are doing and go in that direction.

For example, the world health organization ranked France number 1 in healthcare while it spend 11.2% of GDP (according to the most recent statistic I could find) on healthcare compared to the US spending 15.2% for the same year.

Rob said...

Ramble alert - busy this week and trying to respond, but limited time to proof over this. :)

I'm no expert either, but it seems a lot more complicated than spending to outcome. If there are spending caps in a country (which is what most gov't program do, including Medicare/Medicaid in the US), costs will be down. Does that mean that companies will continue to provide research and products if the prices are held down too much? What if the companies that provide products (medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, etc.) weren't able to leverage the higher profit margins in the U.S.? Would they make/provide as many price-capped products in socialized medicine countries? As far as outcomes, do these other countries eat the heart-exploding diets that Americans do?

R&D to improve medicine is a big part of the equation. A lot is done at university research facilities with public and private dollars. Some is done wholly in the private sector. I once read/heard a discussion (can't remember) of AIDS medication and how much the medication costs. The quote was something like, "Yes, each dose costs less than $1. The first dose cost $4 billion though."

Another big chunk is access and outcome. I think, given what we do to our bodies, the American health system provides great outcomes for those that are covered. The real problem lies with the millions that aren't.