Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another word for 'nothing left to lose'

Freedom worked as Mel Gibson's last breath in Braveheart, and it worked for Janice Joplin (sort of, she apparently died shortly after recording the famous cover of Bobby McGee).

As a political philosophy though, not so much. If Buddhism is the serious pursuit of happiness, libertarianism is the serious pursuit of freedom.

And it's pretty unpopular. What's going on here?

Well, there are two strains of libertarianism that can get mixed up for one another: the ideological and the practical/pragmatic.

The ideological strain is pretty rare. Pretty much no one is actually committed to the idea of liberty for its own sake. Find someone who says they're pro-freedom. Then ask if they support the right to smoke crack on a park bench. Or sell a drug that wasn't approved by the FDA, or a car that wasn't approved by the NHTSA, etc. The folks who are all about sending soldiers to defend "freedom" aren't exactly talking about Freedom with a capital 'F.' I mean, abortions, gay marriage, these aren't part of their picture.

Now, there are some famous ideological libertarians. Patrick Henry, for one. Thomas Jefferson is popular in some circles. These are not people who would be popular today. Someone who argued for the liberty vs death dichotomy probably wouldn't support a citywide ban on trans fats. TJ wouldn't get caught up in the various models for whether or not single payer health care would work. He'd reject the very notion out of hand.

The pragmatics now, they can kind of fit in. These are economists like Tyler Cowen who note the inconvenient truth that free trade results in things like... prosperity. It's the pragmatic view that Yglesias attempts to espouse in his summary. This view focuses on the fact that economic growth is very good. So good that in the medium- to long-run, the absolute gains coming from compounded growth dwarf any concerns about relative inequality at any point in time.

The central thesis to the pragmatic view runs like so: The poorest among us now is better off than the richest a few generations ago. Today we're complaining that some folks can't afford medical treatments that couldn't have been purchased with the crown jewels 20 years ago. These treatments don't exist without economic growth, and economies grow in proportion to the degree of economic freedom in a society.

Now, there are two major quibbles with this thesis. First, some folks reject the primacy of absolute over relative prosperity. There's all this happiness research you see, that seems to suggest that seeing folks who are way richer than you makes it difficult to enjoy the fact that you have access to things that your great grandparents could never have dreamt of .

Second, some folks reject this idea that, at any point in the scale, more economic freedom will result in more economic growth. No one used to take this quibble very seriously. The US was more economically libertarian than Europe, and grew at a faster rate. The Asian tigers were more libertarian than the US and grew at a faster rate. Europe was more libertarian than USSR... and grew at a faster rate. North Korea vs South Korea. You get the picture. Then the Asian currency collapse happened, and the dot com bubble burst, and the US started financing some expensive wars, and the sub-prime derivatives market popped... and this second quibble started looking a bit more valid.

Neither of those two quibbles, mind you, matter in the least to an ideological libertarian. The trouble of course comes in when you've got a libertarian who's in both camps: sympathetic to the ideological claim, but also to the practical benefits. Such a libertarian is very vulnerable to confirmation bias. Since their desire for freedom is axiomatic, they tend to ignore any evidence that their system isn't also optimal from a utilitarian perspective as well. Many Randians fall into this camp, and they're the ones that have, by and large, made libertarianism a dirty word.

Of course they're not alone. Almost everyone who gets picks a political side for ideological reasons falls victim to confirmation bias. Most fall victim very quickly, and very spectacularly. If you don't believe me, pick a position that you absolutely disagree with, find a blog supporting that position, and read the comments. The folks supporting the hated position are morons, aren't they? Hypocritical arguments, logical fallacies, cherry picking. Yuck. Now go to a site that you agree with and look at the comments... carefully...

Anyway, there are two questions here: would you rather be comfy than free? And, can you be comfy without being free?

Bonus question for another day: which do you fear more: concentrated power in the hands of corporations, or concentrated power in the hands of the government? Why, and what's the difference?

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