Higgs on Leviathan

There are excellent writers and there are excellent economists and in that intersection there are none better than Bob Higgs:

Until more people come to a more realistic, fact-based understanding of the government and the economy, little hope exists of tearing them away from their quasi-religious attachment to a government they view with misplaced reverence and unrealistic hopes. Lacking a true religious faith yet craving one, many Americans have turned to the state as a substitute god, endowed with the divine omnipotence required to shower the public with something for nothing in every department – free health care, free retirement security, free protection from hazardous consumer products and workplace accidents, free protection from the Islamic maniacs the U.S. government stirs up with its misadventures in the Muslim world, and so forth. If you take the government to be Santa Claus, you naturally want every day to be Christmas; and the bigger the Santa, the bigger his sack of goodies.

Comments

Sometimes I click over from RSS just to make sure that Alex has posted something and not Tyler.

bearmish: Google reader will identify the poster. I highly recommend it.

@dvb: Hear hear!

"Reminds me of the idea that tax cuts will pay for themselves"

Or the idea that "fiscal stimulus" will work as an "investment," no? They're the same basic idea.

Here's one list of libertarian health care ideas. Here's a link to another paper. Here's John Mackey discussing his suggestions.

Here's an article noting that everything that the Democrats are proposing has been tried in other states and failed.

Why do Democrats ignore any alternative ideas and refuse to engage them? Why do they persist in trying policies that have been shown to fail?

...And others lacking a true religious faith yet craving one, have turned to the market as a substitute god, endowed with the divine omnipotence that will shower the public happiness in every department – health care, retirement security, protection from hazardous consumer products and workplace accidents, protection from the Islamic maniacs the U.S. government stirs up at the behest of Big Oil, and so forth.

Wait, progressives are responsible for the drug war? The bag of weed on my dresser says otherwise. Progressives want to sacrifice quality or coverage or cost? The excellent, affordable healthcare I've had all my life as a Canadian begs to differ. Except for weed. That's not covered under our prescription drug plan, even though it can be prescribed medically. (Wait, is that what you mean by sacrifices of quality?)

Sorry, but I do find libertarians hard to take seriously, maybe because I've visited countries with bad or little government and the people there are not nearly as well off as the publicly-educated, public-infrastructure-using libertarians in the US - you know, the ones who don't live in toxic waste dumps and who enjoy public parks and whose parents went to college on the GI bill. You know, the ones that write all those books decrying public spending and taxation.

"When Progressives end the Drug War I think libertarians will take them seriously. This ought to be the number #1 concern that Progressives should have. The level of human rights abuse associated with it alone merits such. "

I agree with you 100% about the drug war, but its not progressives who are pushing the drug war. Think of a list of the most progressive cities in America; San Francisco, Portland, Madison etc. All of these communities have substantially more liberal drug laws than the country as a whole.

This is what is so maddening about the libertarian movement, if libertarians hadn't married themselves to conservatives, they would recognize substantial areas of agreement with progressives. Drugs, sexual freedom, ag subsidies, military adventurism to name a few.

I hope everyone stops to think about how rhetoric can make you stop thinking.

For that reason I subsituted for the word "government" the word "market" in Dr. Higgs polemic.

I hope reason works over rhetoric. Here is the rewrite (except for Big Oil (couldn't help it, sorry)):

...And others lacking a true religious faith yet craving one, have turned to the market as a substitute god, endowed with the divine omnipotence that will shower the public happiness in every department – health care, retirement security, protection from hazardous consumer products and workplace accidents, protection from the Islamic maniacs the U.S. government stirs up at the behest of Big Oil, and so forth.

I think it reads better and raises the question: if government doesn't do some of this, who does and how well.

dvb & Chuck,

Your reasoning is exactly the point that Bob Higgs is making. You are simply stating the confirmation bias that is the underpinning of a religious ideology. If government works, it's because of you & all the smart & sincere people you support. If it doesn't work, it's because of all those people outside your identity group who keep messing it up. Never mind all the problems with the lack of accountability, influence peddling, etc. that are right there in plain sight for anyone to see.
And, I'd suggest that it's mixed in with some American exceptionalism. Because, it just might be the case that when it comes to the federal government, it is institutionally much worse at governing than all of those other OECD governments are. It might have been good once at basic law, but it's ineffectual at the kind of active government modern progressives keep demanding. The current health bill is a perfect example of what our federal government is very ineffective at doing. No amount of wishing or dialog is going to change that.

Zoe,

Wait, progressives are responsible for the drug war?

I stated nothing like that.

The excellent, affordable healthcare I've had all my life as a Canadian begs to differ

If it is so excellent why did the Canadian Supreme Court declare in 2005 that it violates your own constitution? I mean Canada is a nice country, I've vacationed there, but there is no way I would want to get health care there and be put on one of your very long waiting lists. A waiting list is not the same thing as health care.

dvb,

This is what is so maddening about the libertarian movement, if libertarians hadn't married themselves to conservatives...

Most libertarians want nothing to do with conservatives. I mean I certainly don't and never have. And of course the drug war, etc. are all of a piece with government control of health care and other areas of our lives. It is really no coincidence that the rise of the federal state as nanny over food safety, etc. came with all manner of controls over sexual, etc. freedom. These things are married at the hip. I mean, it isn't like any European nation with their plethora of government interventionism has ended the drug war (not even the Netherlands), except of course Portugal, and that is largely due to the fact that the drug war was bankrupting them not out of some enlightened interest in individual freedom.

mk,

How honestly can healthcare be a "right?" How do I have a "right" to the services of someone else? On its face it makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot morally demand that someone treat me or pay for my treatment.

Kebko,

I am well aware of the flaws in our political system and have no illusions about its ability to produce perfect policy. However, I am unwilling to give up hope and except inevitable decline in US. We have big problems in this country that need to be addressed. Simply, throwing up your hands and declaring that we have bad institutions accomplishes nothing.

Would you disagree that it is possible to produce better legislation and worse legislation even given the constraints of the system. On the healthcare debate any option is going to require tradeoffs between cost coverage and quality,but healthy debate could produce a better outcome.

The natural divide should be between conservatives pushing to reduce cost and liberals pushing to expand coverage. Both sides would have had to make sacrifices,but a solution better than the status quo could have been reached. But thats not the debate that was had.

The comments about drug policy emphasized the unwillingness of libertarians to see the debate as it actually stands. Everywhere they can at the local level progressives have pushed for looser drug laws. Yet libertarians seem to be so married to their status on the right that they don't recognize who their allies are.

Eh? The OP is just typical content-free anti-government pablum. I could find more insightful libertarian commentary by randomly picking a Julian Sanchez blog post. It isn't even about libertarianism or government. It's about liberals (or in the conceit of the author, 'Americans', by which he clearly means those suffering from liberalism). Which is to say, it's mostly just a flame, and I'm curious why Alex considers starting flamewars productive.

dvb,

Stewart?

If libertarians were equally critical of conservative views as progressive views...

I'd say that they are equally critical of such. That is from my own direct experience of what happened during the Bush administration. See the Schiavo affair for an example of such (which ended many, many friendships between conservatives and libertarians).

The key to the quote, in my mind, is the idea of "something for nothing." Indeed, many people do think that way. "Free" health care, that's easy to get behind, isn't it? But it's not free.

Cliff,

Well, that's one of the reasons why you see claims that this will be budget neutral, which we all know to be very skeptical of.

Seems like a testable hypothesis. Look at change in government over time compared to change in religious belief. One could look across cities, states, and countries. If someone with a testable hypothesis wants people to take their hypothesis seriously, they should test it. I think there might be a significant negative correlation between religion and gov't, but I would guess it doesn't have oompf.

I'm a conservative and I agree with dvb about libertarians.

The vast majority of libertarians have internalized the lessons of perfect competition and function at the level of Ayn Rand. Every argument is met with a priori reasoning based on incentives and supply and demand which internalize a competitive equilibrium. Then having done that they launch into second-order discussion about government being a religion.

What surprises me is that someone as bright and thoughtful as Alex would even post that excerpt. It's what you expect from John Stossel, not a sophisticated thinker.

I think libertarians need to make themselves comfortable in the world of imperfect competition and principle-agent problems, where self-regarding actors cannot always reach cooperative outcomes, and yes, where government has its massively distorted incentives, and argue from there.

How honestly can healthcare be a "right?" How do I have a "right" to the services of someone else? On its face it makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot morally demand that someone treat me or pay for my treatment.

Why not? How can you morally demand that someone not stick a knife in your chest? Is there some proof for the non-aggression principle that does not apply to other ethics?

Justin Martyr,

I'd say that the vast majority of libertarians reject the notion of perfect competition entirely, particularly libertarians of the Austrian variety. Indeed, I find the assumptions of perfect to be rather, well, bizarre and out of step with reality.

Anyway, there is a significant difference between telling someone that they may not do something to me and telling someone that they must do something for me.

I often disagree with Alex, but I'd have thought he was too intelligent for this kind of argument. It's easy to come up with a superficially plausible theory identifying the underlying flaw that your political opponents share. We ought to view such "explanations" with suspicion. Unless Higgs cares to bring some serious empirical analysis to defend his theory that atheists believe the government can solve all our problems I can see no reason to take his obnoxious and uncharitable pontification seriously.

Is it relevant that the US is much more religiously oriented and in fundamenatlist ways than other
high income countries? Last time I checked, the only other OECD country with a higher percentage than
our roughly 40% of the population not accepting the theory of evolution is Turkey.

Barkley,

Well, the U.S. does have from what I can tell the most free market in religion in the world, thus the diversity of our religious experience in the U.S. Then again, there is a whole heck of a lot of mystical belief, anti-scientific notions, etc. in other OECD countries as well that a lot of American liberals buy into and thus criticize far less. Take the over the top rhetoric one sees against GMOs in Europe as an example.

Full-disclosure: I am a non-evangelical atheist.

"What surprises me is that someone as bright and thoughtful as Alex would even post that excerpt. It's what you expect from John Stossel, not a sophisticated thinker."

yeah, agreed. that excerpt was pretty ridiculous, which may have been the point. there's nothing like a wildly blinkered reading of objective circumstances to get traffic up. and then, a lot of hand-waving and claptrap.

Yet the Democrats were forced to abandon most of the ideas to bring about real cost reductions when faced with complete and total scorched earth tactics of the Republicans.

LOL!

If anything Godwins a thread, it's the silliness of using the "minority wrecks it for the majority" logic.

It is irritating to hear progresives ignorantly equate the current health care system with "libertarianism" and then proceed with the logic of: the current health sytem is bad therefore libertarianism is bad.....all while ignoring the libertarian criticisms of our curent health care system.

While I am sure that many progressives would agree with me on what a better world would be if we actually got there, the progressives I come into contact with seem to have a irrational religous like faith that the actual politicians they entrust give a damn about broad based utility measures.

The politicians care about increasing their power. They decrease individual liberty if it gets in the way of their power growth. They will pay off their financial supporters with political favors at the expense of everyone who doesn't support them politically. They see this as a virtue!

People like me are no more important to a politician(progresive or neo-con) than the "collateral damage" that Bush and Obama so light-heartedly murder with their bombs and missiles everyday.

If Bush or Obama had to torture one of us on this blog in order to decrease unemplyment by 4%...and thus increase their re-election probability...they would have no problem doing so.

And Higgs wasn't saying that atheist are for big government. There are plenty of atheist libertarians around. He was just saying that the "progressive" variety of atheist are sufferring in the same logic vacuum that the worst religous fundamentalist put themselves in.

Odograph, you're like the creationist that says evolution is just another faith based idea. Unfortunately for you, after more than 50 comments, I think you'd have a hard time finding a single comment that suggests free markets are perfect problem-solvers.

Dan,

For minarchists (which aptly describes roughly 90% of libetarians) there is a limit to what the markets can do. For interventionists there is no limit to what the state can do. I think that is the essential difference.

Your reasoning is exactly the point that Bob Higgs is making. You are simply stating the confirmation bias that is the underpinning of a religious ideology. If government works, it's because of you & all the smart & sincere people you support. If it doesn't work, it's because of all those people outside your identity group who keep messing it up. Never mind all the problems with the lack of accountability, influence peddling, etc. that are right there in plain sight for anyone to see.

replace government with market here, as someone suggested above, and you have accurately described the opposite side of the political expression.

however, something tells me from the tone of your post that you have your intellectual blinders on a bit too tight and are incapable of seeing things from another perspective.

Re;Dr Rigg's commentary about folks confusing government and Santa Claus.Bob Dylan's latest Christmas song (yes that does sound strange) about Santa Claus has a verse with a listing of several of the U.S. presidents.You never known with Dylan,(and he sure won't tell you)but might he have the same idea as Riggs?

For minarchists (which aptly describes roughly 90% of libetarians) there is a limit to what the markets can do. For interventionists there is no limit to what the state can do.

Or:
"[people who agree with me] hold reasonable beliefs, but [people who don't agree with me] hold absurd exaggerated beliefs (for which I won't bother providing evidence)".

Thanks for that powerful, unique insight.

Alex, is the turd-slinging you initiated all that you'd hoped for?

Lacking a true religious faith yet craving one, many Americans have turned to the state as a substitute god, endowed with the divine omnipotence .... blah, blah, blah.

I have no familiarity with Higgs' work as an economist, but he would do well to stay away from foolish generalities about psychology and the basis of people's political ideas. The quoted passage is blather.

DVB,

The President is a Democrat. Both Houses of Congress are controlled by Democrats. Apart from Fox news and the WSJ every other major media outletis on their news blowing Obama 8 days a week. Who needs Republicans? Who needs Olympia Snowe?? Why don't u just pass universal health care, pass a carbon tax, and withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan ?? DO WHATEVER U WANNA DO. WHAT R U AFRAID OF?? STOP WHINING ALREADY. OBAMA is an empty suit. He's an opportunist who makes a nice speech. Hey come to think of it since Copenhagen he's been layin' a little low. If universal health care is obviously needed and popular just pass it already and take the credit for it in 2010, 2012 with no republicans on board. And if it's so popular why do u have to cough up $250 a head ?? Bunch of freakin' wa wa's...............

As Coase noted, all mechanisms for ordering social relations - markets, firms, and governments - fail all the time. Therefore, pointing out the failings of any one cannot automatically justify preferring another. Based on a comparative institutional analysis, we should choose that mechanism that, in the circumstances, fails least!

When I started reading this I thought this was leading to a statement that won't don't know everything about the economy so we shouldn't hold such strong positions. That would be good advice for everyone.

Instead its just a long-winded rant about how Democrats are evil.

Seward: when are you moving to Somalia? Surely you feel that it won't be long before it is an idyllic libertarian state?

Surely you want to ensure it remains libertarian and doesn't turn into the jack boot liberty stealing governments of these United States. And the US governments were always jack boot land stealing and redistributing with government handouts to immigrants kleptocracies, so if anything, the US has moved to a position of greater respect for rights and trimmed the government wealth transfers.

mulp,

If socialism is so great why don't you move to North Korea?

seriously, is this an argument? Sounds like playground bickering.

Did you read your own post? I don't think any pro-market argument has ever blamed poor market outcomes on people with differing ideologies.

You must live under a rock or in a cave if you haven't seen all the posts blaming any and all market failures or negative outcome in the market on the "liberals" and "leftists" and their policy of government intervention. if you read the posts on this website at all you would have noticed that any and all negative outcomes is blamed on the government no matter what.

"Until more people come to a more realistic, fact-based understanding of the market and the economy, little hope exists of tearing them away from their quasi-religious attachment to a free State with less private investment that they view with misplaced reverence and unrealistic hopes."

John Williams, comparing countries based on your data is meaningless. Life longetivity is biased by too many other variables. Birth mortality may be as well influenced by ethnicity, income spread (% of people with low income) etc. Many variables concerning quality of life but not affecting length of life are ignored. If you are going to have a cancer, you'd better be in USA...

There is one factor which IMO is not considered by many libertarians (and others argumenting by comparing USA health-care as a "private" option) partial regulation may be worse then total government control; if you force tragedy of commons on people, the result may easily be worse then state provision.

Yodaki,

Like most of the comments made against libertarianism here, yours is a caricature of libertarianism.

So long as a democratic system and basic human freedoms are protected, democratic citizens have the right to expand their government should they choose.

This is basically the crux of the problem. What is a basic freedom exactly? To be blunt, you act like this is a problem-free endeavor.

The number one problem with Libertarian thought is that it believes that we can live side by side with each other in a moral and political vacuum, so long as we can trade our beads with each other.

This has got to be the dumbest statement about libertarians I've seen in a while; one of the main reasons why libertarians are skeptical of government is largely because they know that no such moral vacuum exists and groups and individuals will use the state as a means to punish those they view as morally, etc. unworthy.

The ideal of "Libertarianism" itself could not be promoted in the absence of this rule-based commons.

No duh. Which is why of course libertarians talk about voluntary institutions, the development of organic rules, etc. all the time.

John Williams,

One last criticism of contemporary libertarian ideology is that it always has a bias towards a free market that includes business but arbitrarily rules out government competing in the same system on an equal footing.

Pretty clearly because governments will not compete on an equal footing. The state makes the rules obviously and it is not going to allow the rules to get in the way of its creatures - state companies - being "successful." When the state has its own companies it plays favorites.

Pretty clearly because governments will not compete on an equal footing. The state makes the rules obviously and it is not going to allow the rules to get in the way of its creatures - state companies - being "successful." When the state has its own companies it plays favorites.

It is not clear to me at all especially if I allow myself to think outside of the "box". The problem is the framework of the current system and not necessarily an indictment of human nature in my opinion. The ability of lobbyists to bend laws to the advantage of the corporations they represent through "favors" to politicians seems like a bigger problem than a government official creating laws to benefit a non-profit government run program where there would be no monetary motive. In communist Russia you may have a point but that is because there would be no checks and balances to point out corruption. In my opinion non-profit government programs would be a check to private business and vice versa both of them and their customers pointing out when the other was creating an unfair advantage and no matter what being able to choose whichever one is more efficient. My opinion is the more choice the better and the more diversity, checks and balances the better.
Your argument applies just as much to private corporations colluding with government to give themselves unfair advantages over time no matter how ideal the starting point with the history of America as a very good case in point. Arbitrarily deciding competition stops where Government starts does not seem consistent to me and also limits Governments ability to become more efficient over time since it essentially becomes a socialist bureaucracy with no incentive to become more efficient and improve.

for most people what the government provides is free

Its the lament of anyone who is dissatisfied with the status quo. Such people are naturally a minority, since situations where the majority are dissatisfied tend to be unstable.

Up until the 18th century (and for some time after in most places) most people were perfectly satisfied with slavery, established religion and the Divine Right of Kings. Conflating popularity and rectitude is a classic logical fallacy.

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