November 3, 2015

Brian Micklethwait explains why libertarians love Uber

Filed under: Business, Economics, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait discusses why Uber comes up in conversation with libertarians … constantly:

I and my libertarian friends all love Uber. By that I don’t just mean that we love using Uber, the service, although I am sure that just like many others, we do. I mean that we love talking about Uber, as a libertarian issue, as an issue that nicely illustrates what libertarianism is all about and the sorts of things that libertarians believe in. In particular, we believe in: technological innovation and the freedom to do it, for the benefit of all, except those in the immediate vicinity of it and overtaken by it, because they make a living from the technology that is being overtaken.


To me, the really interesting thing about Uber as an issue is how it makes a nonsense of the old Public Choice dilemma in pro-free market lobbying and opinion-mongering. I’m talking about the fact, which it does often tend to be, that when there is a lurch, proposed or actual, towards a free market, unleashed either by politics or by technology or by a mixture of the two, the people who suffer or who look like they will soon suffer are highly concentrated and easily organised and know exactly who they are. However, those who will benefit from the new dispensation are dispersed and hard to organise and tend not to know who they are. Consequently you get this imbalance in the political argument, in favour of the status quo, even if, in the longer run, many more people would benefit from the new dispensation than the old, and would like it very much, in the event that that ever discovered that they were benefiting from it.

Uber might have been invented to solve the above problem.

Thought: maybe there is a sense in which it was invented to solve this problem. Discuss.

October 28, 2015

QotD: Libertarian politics

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I have long argued that the real function of libertarian involvement in politics, including the Libertarian Party, is not to get libertarians elected. It is to get libertarian policies to the point where the major parties will find it in their interest to adopt them — the strategy followed with striking success by the U.S. Socialist party over the first half of the 20th century.

David Friedman, “Good News for Libertarians”, Ideas, 2014-10-30.

October 13, 2015

Gary Johnson might end up being the “non-weird candidate for whom America has been waiting”

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The US Libertarian Party’s nomination race won’t make much of a splash in the media (for the usual reasons all minor parties encounter), but if Gary Johnson wins the nomination again he might be the most normal candidate in 2016:

Gary Johnson, not yet an official 2016 Libertarian Party candidate for president, spoke to the two-day LibertyFest 2015 at the Warsaw hall in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City this weekend. He defended freedom in all its forms, from the unregulated entrepreneurship of Uber and Lyft to marijuana, reduced taxes, and reduced warfare.

Yet even I — an anarcho-capitalist, as you may recall — am beginning to wonder if it’s necessary to emphasize philosophy for Johnson to shine in the strange setting of the 2016 race. I mean, if the Republicans end up offering someone as odd as Trump or Carson, and the Democrats offer a criminal such as Clinton or a socialist such as Sanders … couldn’t Johnson plausibly just run as the non-weird candidate for whom America has been waiting?

And believe me, I know how strange it sounds to be talking about the Libertarian as the normal one for a change. (Jimmy McMillan, the “Rent Is Too Damn High” guy, spoke on the same stage a couple hours before Johnson, and it’s not clear McMillan is even a full-fledged libertarian — maybe more of a Georgist? Or just an interesting, earnest character?)

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Johnson beats other would-be Libertarian Party nominees including Austin Petersen, who gave an energetic LibertyFest speech about mobilizing libertarian activists as if for war and hopes he’ll one day get the chance to institute a flat tax. Much as Libertarians usually worry about having a candidate who lacks the guts to push their philosophy in a full-throated way (witness their occasional wariness about Rand Paul), might this be a good year in which to skip ideology and use mere sanity as a wedge issue?

September 23, 2015

New libertarian books of interest

Filed under: Books, Economics, Law — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the Washington Post, Ilya Somin draws attention to two new books of interest to libertarians:

Two exciting new books have just come out that are likely to be of great interest to readers interested in libertarianism, and political and legal theory. They are Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests, by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, and Justice at a Distance: Extending Freedom Globally, by Loren Lomasky and Fernando Teson. As the titles imply, both books have a libertarian orientation. But you don’t have to be a libertarian (or close to it) to agree with the authors’ positions on these issues, and even those interested readers who ultimately reject the authors’ conclusions can learn a lot from them.

In Markets Without Limits, Brennan and Jaworski argue that anything you should be allowed to do for free, you should also be allowed to do for money. They do not claim that markets should be completely unconstrained, merely that we should not ban any otherwise permissible transaction solely because money has been exchanged. Thus, for example, they agree that murder for hire should be illegal. But only because it should also be illegal to commit murder for free. Their thesis is also potentially compatible with a wide range of regulations of various markets to prevent fraud, deception, and the like. Nonetheless, their thesis is both radical and important. The world is filled with policies that ban selling of goods and services that can nonetheless be given away for free. Consider such cases as bans on organ markets, prostitution, and ticket-scalping. Perhaps the most notable aspects of the book are that the authors don’t shy away from hard cases (see, e.g., this summary of their discussion of the sale of adoption rights), and that they thoroughly address a wide range of possible objections from both left and right. The issue addressed by the book has enormous practical significance, in addition to its theoretical importance. To take just one example, the ban on organ markets condemns thousands of people to death every year, because it leads to a severe shortage of transplantable kidneys relative to the number of people who need them.

September 1, 2015

Cultural libertarians

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Allum Bokhari claims to see a rising tide of cultural libertarians in our future:

A new force is emerging in the culture wars. Authoritarians of all stripes, from religious reactionaries to left-wing “social justice warriors,” are coming under fire from a new wave of thinkers, commentators, and new media stars who reject virtually all of their political values.

From the banning of Charlie Hebdo magazine across British university campuses on the grounds that it promoted islamophobia, to the removal of the video game Grand Theft Auto V from major retailers in Australia on the grounds that it promoted sexism, threats to cultural freedom proliferate.

But a growing number of commentators, media personalities and academics reject the arguments that underpin these assaults on free expression, in particular the idea that people are either too emotionally fragile to deal with “offence” or too corruptible to be exposed to dangerous ideas.

In a recent co-authored feature for Breitbart, I coined a term to describe this new trend: cultural libertarianism. The concept was critically discussed by Daniel Pryor at the Centre for a Stateless Society, who drew attention to the increasing viciousness of cultural politics in the internet age.

There is a reason for the sound and fury. Like all insurgent movements, the emergence of cultural libertarianism is creating tensions, border skirmishes, and even the occasional war with lazy incumbent elites. Some of these rows can be breathtakingly vitriolic, as self-righteous anger from social justice types collides with mocking and occasionally caustic humour from cultural libertarians.

August 20, 2015

It’s safe to come out now … the “libertarian moment” is over

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Well, that’s what the Washington Post says anyway. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie disagrees:

There’s no question that Rand Paul’s presidential campaign has hit a soft patch. He got the least amount of air time in the first GOP debate and his numbers have been slipping for a long time. I’ve been critical of some of his positions over the past few months but Weigel quotes me this way:

    “It’s a mistake to conflate Rand Paul’s electoral success with that of the libertarian moment,” said Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com. (Disclosure: I worked for Reason from 2006 to 2008.) “Rand Paul’s high visibility is better understood as a consequence of the libertarian moment than its cause. There’s a reason why he’s been at his most electrifying and popular precisely when he is at his most libertarian: calling out the surveillance state, for instance, and leading the charge against reckless interventions in Syria and Libya.”

Libertarians such as Lawson Bader, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and David Boaz, vice president of The Cato Institute, note that on fronts such as gay marriage, pot legalization, gun rights, criminal justice reform, general distrust of government, and more, things are going in the libertarian direction.

Full Weigel/Post piece here.

More important, broad indicators that Americans prefer social tolerance and fiscal responsibility continue to grow:

    According to a composite index of libertarian views on social and economic issues developed by pollsters at CNN, something clearly is afoot. The pollsters look at whether people believe that government is trying to do too many things individuals should be doing and whether or not people think government should enforce a particular set of morals. In 1992, the index of libertarian belief stood at 92 points. It’s now at 113 points. Virtually all surveys show trends of people thinking the government is doing too much, is incompetent or untrustworthy, or represents a larger threat to the future than big labor or big business.

As Matt Welch and I argued in The Declaration of Independents, politics is and always will be a “crippled, lagging indicator” of where the country is trendng.

It certainly doesn’t help that the American political scene has been rigged in so many different ways to be a duopoly of the two major parties … very few political issues are binary, yet that is the only way American voters are presented with a “choice” every election. Vote for the Red Faction of the Boot-on-your-neck party … or vote for the Blue Faction of the Boot-on-your-neck party. No matter who you choose, the government always gets in.

August 13, 2015

QotD: Libertarianism

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

Libertarianism is not the claim that individuals are always rational, or that markets are always efficient, or that the distribution of income under laissez-faire capitalism is always “fair.” Rather, it is the claim that, despite the imperfections of private arrangements, government interventions usually make things worse. Thus, non-intervention is the better policy.

Jeffrey Miron, “A case for the libertarian: Neither liberals nor conservatives recognize their inconsistencies”, Washington Times, 2014-07-17.

June 21, 2015

“Why libertarianism is closer to Stalinism than you think” … unless you actually know anything about libertarianism, of course

Filed under: Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Alan Wolfe, I’m reliably informed, is a highly respected sociologist and political scientist at Boston College. If this kind of thing is typical of his output, I’m inclined to doubt my sources:

“Libertarianism has a complicated history, and it is by and large a sordid one,” charges Wolfe. It is “a secular substitute for religion, complete with its own conception of the city of God, a utopia of pure laissez-faire and the city of man, a place where envy and short-sightedness hinder creative geniuses from carrying out their visions.”

I’d call him the Hitler of Hyperbole, but that seems, I don’t know, a tad over the top. Sort of like equating a live-and-let-live philosophy such as libertarianism to Stalinism. Which I confess it totally is. Except for the gulags, the mass murders, the forced relocations, the belief in statism, a demonstrably insane economic policy — I’m probably forgetting one or two other points of similarity.

Predictably, Wolfe disinters the corpse of Ayn Rand and insists not only was the Atlas Shrugged author “an authoritarian at heart” but that she remains the beating heart of an intellectual, philosophical, and cultural movement that includes a fistful of Nobel Prize winners (Friedman, Buchanan, Smith, Hayek, Vargas Llosa, etc.); thinkers such as Robert Nozick and Camille Paglia; businessmen such as Whole Foods’ John Mackey, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Overstock’s Patrick Byrne; and creative types ranging from Rose Wilder Lane to the creators of South Park to Vince Vaughn. Sound the alarum, folks! Team America: World Police and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story are running on Comedy Central again!

June 12, 2015

Reason becomes a DOJ target because commenters disrespected a judge

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Every now and again, it’s easy to believe that we’ve somehow slipped down a hole in time to a less free, more authoritarian time. This is the kind of thing you could easily imagine happening in Fascist Italy or Franco’s Spain rather than in the United States in 2015:

The United States Department of Justice is using federal grand jury subpoenas to identify anonymous commenters engaged in typical internet bluster and hyperbole in connection with the Silk Road prosecution. DOJ is targeting Reason.com, a leading libertarian website whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.

Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet?

Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.

Last week, a source provided me with a federal grand jury subpoena. The subpoena, issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, is directed to Reason.com in Washington, D.C.. The subpoena commands Reason to provide the grand jury “any and all identifying information” Reason has about participants in what the subpoena calls a “chat.”


Regrettably, The Government Can Probably Abuse the Grand Jury Subpoena Power This Way

The grand jury’s investigative power — exercised nominally on its behalf by the U.S. Attorney’s office — is nearly unchecked. It’s not like a stop-and-frisk or search; the government doesn’t need reasonable suspicion or probable case to use grand jury subpoenas to seek information. In general, one can only challenge grand jury subpoenas when they are irrationally burdensome (like demanding that Apple produce every document about iPhones in its possession) or for an improper purpose (like using the grand jury to improve trial evidence after an indictment has already been returned) or, very rarely, when privacy or constitutional issues are in play.

Reason.com — or the anonymous commenters — could file an action in federal court seeking to quash this subpoena. We know how that would likely come out, because someone recently did it. During the 2012 election cycle a juvenile but prolific Twitter personality named “Mr. X” tweeted “I want to fuck Michelle Bachman in the ass with a Vietnam era machete.” The government subpoenaed Twitter for Mr. X’s identifying information; Mr. X filed a motion to quash the subpoena. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the motion.

April 19, 2015

We must reject Rand Paul for his lack of libertarian consistency

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

No matter what, we must ensure that Rand Paul does not get support from small-L libertarians because he has not sufficiently supported large-L libertarian issues! Purity above all electoral considerations!

Rand Paul is the Republican son of a longtime Republican House member, but let it never be said that he is not open-minded. In 2013, he confided to Sean Hannity, “I’ve been kind of disappointed, because honestly there were certain aspects of President Obama that I wanted to like.”

I know how he feels. That’s how I feel about Rand Paul.

My old friend David Boaz, author of the excellent new book The Libertarian Mind, told NPR that Paul is “the most libertarian major presidential candidate that I can remember seeing.” I’m a more moderate libertarian than Boaz — or a squishier one — but my general framework is the same. I have a strong preference for free markets, civil liberties, personal autonomy, limited government and a foreign policy of restraint.

I’ve voted for several Libertarian presidential candidates. The biggest single influence on my policy views is Milton Friedman. I absorbed Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand in college. My columns appear regularly on the website of Reason, the nation’s premier libertarian publication.

So I should not be a tough sell for Paul. He sounds pretty libertarian when he says, in reference to the National Security Agency, “the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business.” He shows a refreshing open-mindedness on criminal justice by envisioning an America where “any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.”

Libertarians are their own worst enemies when it comes to actual political campaigns. Rand Paul probably wouldn’t win the US Libertarian Party’s nomination as he’s not “pure” enough (and his chances of winning the Republican Party nomination are thin enough as it is). Yet he’s the most prominent enunciator and exemplar of the small-L libertarian vision in the current electoral cycle. And libertarians are already denouncing him for his deviationism. Remind me again why we bother with election campaigns if appealing to a wider voting base with more freedom-oriented issues is somehow “anti-libertarian”? Rand Paul probably won’t win the Republican nomination — this isn’t exactly news. Even if he did win, the establishment GOP would probably do to Rand Paul what they did to Barry Goldwater. The raison d’etre of the party hierarchy is to ensure that the “fringe elements” don’t raise too much of a ruckus or (far worse) get their own candidates on the ballot.

I’m not an American, but given the choice of voting for Barack Obama or John McCain, I’d have voted for Obama without hesitation … McCain was almost the perfect anti-libertarian candidate for that electoral cycle. In the next presidential election, could the GOP have come up with a more inappropriate candidate than Romney? I don’t think so, unless they’d somehow nominated a Grand Dragon of the KKK (and I think Senator Byrd was dead by that point). And who does the establishment want as their presidential candidate this coming election? Jeb Bush? Ugh!

April 13, 2015

Will it be principle or will it be power?

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At National Review, Kevin D. Williamson looks at the Rand Paul campaign:

The question before Senator Rand Paul is whether Republican primary voters — and voters in the general electorate, if it should come to that — are in the market for libertarianism by the bushel or measured out with coffee spoons.

For those seeking a general validation of libertarian principle as the guiding light of the Republican party and the conservative movement, there’s no improving on a man called “Rand” who launched his campaign at a hotel called “Galt.” But the fact that there is no improving on him is no guarantee that Senator Paul can count on the enthusiastic support of doctrinaire libertarians, who are a cranky bunch, extraordinarily particular and already grumbling that the gentleman from Kentucky is not ready to go the full Rothbard — or even as far as his cult-figure father did.

There are several reasons for Senator Paul’s moderation — or deviation, as the hardliners would have it, from the pure faith of his father. One is that he is not a crank; another is that he does not want to finish in third place, well behind Rick Santorum; a third is that he can tell a windmill from a marauding giant; a fourth is that he understands that in the context of a democratic republic a leader leads and is led in turn.

When my friend Ramesh Ponnuru writes that the senator seems to be “of two minds” about judicial power — and when similar, more worrisome criticisms are made of Senator Paul’s foreign-policy views — that seems to me correct, but as a purely political matter not necessarily a bad thing. The American public is of two minds about a great many things, too, and has rarely punished a candidate for lack of absolute intellectual consistency. Pandering and flip-flopping? That’s one way to put it. But only the most hopeless sort of ideologue refuses to accommodate the fact that there is a limited real range for effective political action, and that range is defined by what the electorate is willing to accept. There is much to be done, and one can hardly blame Senator Paul for fishing where they’re biting.

February 22, 2015

Obamacare’s externalities

Filed under: Economics, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle on just what externalities are and why we pay attention to them:

For those who might not know the term, “externality” is economist-speak, and it means about what it sounds like: an effect that your action has on others. An externality can be positive or negative, and obviously, we as a society would like to have as many as possible of the former and as few as possible of the latter. In other words, “Your right to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose.”

I’m a libertarian, and libertarians love talking about externalities. They give us a (relatively) clear way to define what are and are not legitimate scopes of public action. Whatever you’re doing in the privacy of your own bedroom with another consenting adult is really none of my business, even if I think you oughtn’t to be doing it. On the other hand, if you’re breeding rats and cockroaches in there, and they’re coming through the shared wall of our respective row houses, then I have the right to get the law involved.

Framing things as “externalities” is therefore a good way to get a libertarian, or someone who leans that way, on your side. And such frames have come up over and over in the debate over Obamacare, which has been variously justified by the cost to the state of emergency room care; the cost to society of free-riding young folks who don’t buy insurance until they get sick; the public health cost of people who don’t go to the doctor and get really, expensively sick; an unhealthy workforce that is less productive; and the cost to friends and relatives who have to chip in to cover uninsured medical expenses.

I didn’t find any of those arguments particularly convincing. The third can just be dispensed with on the grounds of accuracy: In general, preventive medicine does not save money. Oh, it may save money in the particular case of someone whose diabetes or cancer went long undiagnosed. The problem is, you can’t just look at the cost of sick folks who would have been a lot cheaper to treat if their conditions had been caught earlier. You also have to include the cost of all the healthy people you had to screen in order to catch that one case of disease. And with limited exceptions, the cost of screening the healthy generally outweighs the cost of treating the chronically ill. Now, you can certainly argue for preventive care on other grounds — for example, that it makes people healthier (though even then you have to add the cost of unnecessary medical procedures, such as biopsies following a false positive on a blood test, which is why we do not, say, give annual mammograms to every American woman). But it’s not generally a money saver, so this particular externality doesn’t exist.

The rest of the arguments have some weight, but in the end, I don’t think they’re weighty enough. Let me explain.

January 28, 2015

QotD: The libertarian movement

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The libertarian or “freedom movement” is a loose and baggy monster that includes the Libertarian Party; Ron Paul fans of all ages; Reason magazine subscribers; glad-handers at Cato Institute’s free-lunch events in D.C.; Ayn Rand obsessives and Robert Heinlein buffs; the curmudgeons at Antiwar.com; most of the economics department at George Mason University and up to about one-third of all Nobel Prize winners in economics; the beautiful mad dreamers at The Free State Project; and many others. As with all movements, there’s never a single nerve center or brain that controls everything. There’s an endless amount of in-fighting among factions […] On issues such as economic regulation, public spending, and taxes, libertarians tend to roll with the conservative right. On other issues — such as civil liberties, gay marriage, and drug legalization, we find more common ground with the progressive left.

Nick Gillespie, “Libertarianism 3.0; Koch And A Smile”, The Daily Beast, 2014-05-30.

December 8, 2014

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch did an AMA at Reddit

Filed under: Liberty, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:04

The two Reason stalwarts did an “Ask Me Anything” session at Reddit last week:

Hello reddit.

We’re Matt Welch (/u/MattWelchReason) and Nick Gillespie (/u/Nick_Gillespie), the editors of Reason magazine, Reason.com and Reason TV and co-authors of 2011’s The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America.

Matt’s also the co-host of The Independents on Fox Business Network and Nick is a columnist for The Daily Beast and Time.com.

Go ahead and ask us anything about politics, culture, and ideas and the libertarian movement, 2016, you name it. But we’ve got to warn you that quite probably the toughest question — “Ever wonder what it’d look like if you switched faces?” — has already been asked and answered #triggerwarning

Proof: Matt and Nick

November 25, 2014

Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty fails to persuade

Filed under: Books, Britain, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Tim Black thinks John Stuart Mill (were he still alive) would be within his rights to sue Chakrabarti for mis-appropriating the title of his famous book:

Given the eponymous nod to John Stuart Mill, Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty promises to be a tribute to individual freedom. It promises to be a stirring defence of liberty written by someone who, as the head of the 80-year-old civil-rights campaign group Liberty, has been knee-deep, holding back the tide of aggressive, illiberal legislation. It promises to be an unbowed affirmation of freedom at a time when it has rarely been more devalued.

But the reality of Chakrabarti’s On Liberty, an awkward amalgam of the semi-personal and the mainstream political, never even comes close to realising the promise. Instead, it turns out to be a desperately dull encomium to the human-rights industry, a verveless trudge down Good Cause lane, with every battle against New Labour anti-terror legislation, each scuffle with the ASBO-happy authorities, eventually turning into a victory for the indispensable European Court of Human Rights. Hooray for Strasbourg! If John Stuart Mill wasn’t so liberal (and dead), he’d be within his rights to sue Chakrabarti for calumny.

But first, the prose. Whatever vital impulse there was behind writing this book must have expired long before it reached the page. There’s no life here, no spirit. It as if Chakrabarti has barely thought about the words she’s using. Even when she’s describing the frustrations of her ‘university-educated’ mum, held back ‘by a lack of affordable childcare’, she sounds as if she’s dashing off a policy document, not portraying a loved one. Admittedly, she does prove capable of a geekish whimsy at points — ‘You might say that I am a Jedi Knight who began on the dark side of the force’, she writes of her career beginnings at the UK Home Office. But On Liberty is mainly composed of dead phrases and, worse still, argument-averse legalese. ‘This type of administrative detention by the UK secretary of state’, she writes of the internment of foreign terror suspects at Belmarsh, ‘is not incompatible with the right to personal liberty and the right against arbitrary detention under Article 5 of the Human Rights Convention, as long as it is necessary to the stated purpose, provided for in legislation and subject to scrutiny and appeals in the appropriate courts and tribunals’. Magical stuff.

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