A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance

I am a pro-defense, conservative libertarian.

By conservative libertarian, I mean that I am a libertarian who understands that liberty depends on the preservation of the traditional institutions of civil society (e.g., marriage, religion, voluntary charity) because it is those institutions that make possible mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. And it is those things that enable a people to coexist peacefully and cooperatively, to their mutual benefit. It is those things — not the statutes, ordinances, codes, and regulations that may be overlaid on them — which constitute the rule of law. Without the rule of law, liberty and the enjoyment of its fruits is impossible.

The alternatives to a robust civil society are chaos, from which warlordism springs, and the police state. Police and courts are a necessary evil, because bad things happen, even where civil society is strong. But, as civil society is weakened by the intrusions of government, police and courts become more necessary because dependence on police and courts to maintain the rule of law further weakens civil society, which leads to the need for even more intrusion by police and courts, and so on, toward the dark night of oppression.

In any event, I part company with those libertarians who believe that private agencies can and should perform the functions of police forces and courts. Private agencies, each acting on behalf of their clients, will sooner or later clash, warlord-style. Or the vacuum of statelessness will be filled by those who seek power for its own sake and for the riches it can bring them. Better an accountable state than an unaccountable warlord.

The same is true when it comes to defense against foreign powers — whether they are states or terrorist groups. Yes, some very wealthy Americans might pool their resources and provide defense, from which everyone might benefit. But the might of a defense force can easily be turned inward and aimed at particular individuals and groups who are out of favor with the proprietors of the defense force.

An accountable, state-run defense force, on the other hand, should be used to defend Americans and their legitimate overseas interests, and to do that decisively. Either get in and win, or stay out. But always remember that staying out — or delaying action — enables an actual or potential enemy to gather strength.

Enough of that. How did I become a libertarian, of the kind that I am?

My disillusionment with the predictably “liberal” worldview that I acquired as an undergraduate came in stages, beginning in the late 1960s. The urban riots that had begun earlier in the decade and reached a zenith in 1968 were evidence of the futility of solving the “black problem” by throwing tax dollars at it. What was needed instead of welfare was robust economic growth and jobs — especially for black males. The intellectual clincher came for me in the mid-1970s, when — as a defense analyst — I grasped the limitations of warfare models.

What is the connection between the limitations of warfare models and the proper role of government? A mathematical model of a fairly well-defined phenomenon — combat involving certain types of weapons — is unlikely to yield an accurate prediction of the outcome of combat. Therefore, it is even more unlikely that emotionally justified government programs — designed mainly to benefit this and that interest group — will perform as predicted. Or, even if they deliver something like the expected benefits, they will also have unanticipated, negative side effects.

The evidence against social and economic engineering is staggering. See, for example, the 144 issues of Regulation that have been published since the magazine’s inception in 1977. Or consider just four salient examples of the social and economic engineering that have had untoward results:

1. Social Security. On the surface, this seems to have helped millions of old persons live more comfortably. It has in fact led people to save less for their retirement, causing them to be more dependent on Social Security and reducing the nation’s rate of saving, with adverse consequences for growth-inducing capital investment. Add to that the inevitable political consequences of a popular program that brings in revenue — the expansion of benefits as a vote-getting measure and the expenditure of “contributions” on other government programs — and you have an explanation for a large chunk of the burgeoning federal deficit.

2. Health care. The creation and expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, coupled with employer-supported health insurance (a result of tax policy), have led to the over-consumption of health-care services with little effect on health. (There is an authoritative, scientific RAND study to support that contention.) It is therefore largely because of government actions that drugs and medical services have become so expensive in the U.S. Another contributor to the apparently high cost of health-care in the U.S. has been the invention and improvement of life- and health-saving drugs, procedures, and equipment. Such things do not come cheaply. But put them all together and you have what the proponents of government intervention like to call a “broken” system. That it is “broken” largely because of government intervention does not faze the proponents of still more intervention.

3. Welfare. Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained well the contributions of government welfare programs to what he called “he cycle of poverty and disadvantage” among urban blacks. For his pains, he was labeled a “racist” and accused of “blaming the victim.” The evidence of subsequent history is on Moynihan’s side.

4. Deficit spending. This canon of Keynesian orthodoxy has led to bouts of wasteful spending and a larger federal debt, both of which cause the displacement of private outlays on consumption goods (including health care) and job-producing, growth-enhancing capital investments. Deficit spending is stoutly defended by believers in big government, even though (a) it did not cure the Great Depression (conventional wisdom to the contrary), (b) its sudden withdrawal at the end of World War II did not cause a new depression (despite “authoritative” predictions to the contrary), and its recurrence in the form of “stimulus” did not alleviate the Great Recession. There are many reasons that deficit spending does not work as advertised, but its defenders will hear none of them because they are persons of faith in big government, not facts and reason.

Were it not for these and other government interventions, Americans — even the poorest ones — would be much better off than than they are, because they would strive to do better for themselves and because they would earn much more from their striving. In addition, there would be significantly more voluntary charity for those many fewer persons who really need it. That is a real “social safety net.”

Despite the foregoing, social and economic engineering by government persists for five reasons:

  • Ignorance — which includes the kind of blind faith in the power of government to do “the right thing,” as discussed above.
  • Smugness — the self-satisfaction that comes from having supported or voted for a certain cause as a token of one’s “enlightenment,” “open-mindedness,” or “compassion.”
  • Power-seeking — as politicians cater to and shape the preferences of certain voting blocs, for the sake of gaining and holding office and the power that goes with it.
  • Rent-seeking — the effort to gain an economic or social advantage at the expense of others, an advantage that is mainly illusory because one group’s gains must be paid for, politically, by supporting the efforts of other groups to acquire gains.

Appeals to “fairness,” “social justice,” “equality,” and other such high-flown concepts are good indicators of ignorance, smugness, power-seeking, and rent-seeking.

Am I right about the essential bankruptcy of social and economic engineering by government? All I can say is that I came to my views as a result of observation and reflection. I did not inherit them from my parents (who were inarticulate in such matters), nor did I absorb them from my professors (who, if anything led me in the opposite direction). I believe in the rightness of my views — of course. But whether I am right or wrong is not for me to say. What I could say has been said well by an economist named Russell Roberts that I will quote him:

I am willing to admit that I have trouble thinking of a natural experiment that would get me to change my worldview. It would take a lot of natural experiments in lots of different settings before I became convinced, for example, that government can spend our way out of a recession or that bailouts are a good way to deal with systemic risk. I have a worldview. I’m an ideologue. I have a philosophy of what makes the world a better place. I stand by that philosophy because I think its principles if implemented more widely would actually make the world a better place. It would take a lot of evidence to dissuade me from my views on economic freedom and the proper role of government. Those principles color the way I see the world. I think that’s true for almost all of us. What distinguishes is honesty about what we believe and why.

Now you have a good idea — if you didn’t already — of what I believe and why I believe it.

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