Libertarianism will become less popular as government grows larger

A friend who works with a lot of libertarians says “most of them are weird and socially awkward”. My explanation was that when nearly 50 percent of the economy is run by the government or is government-funded, advocating libertarian ideas at a social gathering would be extremely rude.

At first glance, you’d think that most people would be okay with the core libertarian idea that they could keep 90+ percent of their income and spend it however seemed best, rather than hand over what may soon be the majority of their income to a governing elite that will ladle it out to politically powerful interest groups. Suppose, however, that in a gathering of 20 adults, one is a medical doctor, one is a schoolteacher, one is a 50-year-old retired police officer, one is an engineer at a defense contractor, one is a prison guard, and four hold administrative positions at local, state, and federal agencies. Will the doctor want to hear that young people should not be taxed to pay for a 90-year-old’s $500,000 death in the ICU? Will the schoolteacher want to hear that schools should be privatized and her $200,000 in compensation (salary, health care, pension commitment, etc.) for 9 months of work subjected to market forces? Will the 50-year-old retiree want to hear the suggestion that politicians should not be allowed to promise public employee unions pensions in exchange for votes? Or hear that taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to pay him an inflation-adjusted $130,000 per year until his death? Will the defense contractor want to hear that we should only have a large enough armed force to prevent Canada and Mexico from invading? Will the prison guard want to hear that drugs should be legal and that most of the people he is paid to incarcerate should be free? Will the administrators want to hear that their agencies shouldn’t exist at all?

Given the social awkwardness of this kind of encounter, which becomes ever more likely as government consumes an ever-larger percentage of GDP, I am predicting a decline in the popularity of libertarianism (not that it has ever been popular or advocated by more than a handful of elected politicians). People can live with the government taking 50 percent of their income and wasting it; that would simply set Americans back to the standard of living enjoyed in the 1950s. People cannot live with never being invited to another social gathering.

20 thoughts on “Libertarianism will become less popular as government grows larger

  1. As a friend of mine said, Ron Paul is trying to sell freedom to people who don’t want it. And what you describe is why the talking heads can openly chortle about how Helicopter Ben is simply going to print more money to pay for all this. Everybody wants and needs more inflation – house inflation, stock inflation, government budget inflation, FDIC inflation, pension bailout inflation, you name it – and they all figure it’s “the other guy” who’s going to get screwed.

  2. Everytime I read your site I find myself more and more libertarian leaning. But then again, I’m already socially weird and awkward, (and so are most of my friends), so I suppose it fits me.

    I’d just like to add, all of the straight Republicans I know, that is, people who hate Democrats, (unlike Mods/Libertarians who think most of what anyone in government does is stupid), would argue against everything you’d think we should change (so you have to wonder what they hate about Democrats).

    They would argue to keep teachers public, are for stricter punishment for drug users, and that police officers deserve that pension – or, maybe not deserve, but if you mention lowering it or taking away a majority of it, would completely disagree. Don’t ever get rid of one cent of military spending; everything we ever did in Iraq was obviously useful.

    And of course, death panels.

  3. I think you are right, but since Atlas Shrugged is at #188 of Amazon Best Seller, it may be just more closeted libertarian.

  4. Jean-Francois: I don’t think Atlas Shrugged is very representative of a modern libertarian’s point of view. Also, Ayn Rand had a much broader personal philosophy that she was trying to promote. A true libertarian, for example, would probably support a person’s right to be fat, dumb, happy, and lazy. Ayn Rand’s characters are good-looking, hard-working, ambitious, and striving for excellence (though I guess an Edith Wharton-style excellence in crafting prose was not a virtue in her mind). http://www.amazon.com/Libertarianism-Primer-David-Boaz/dp/068484768X/ is a little more serious and it is #523,946 on Amazon’s list. Boaz’s book covers dull stuff like the percentage of children who were in school, with tuition paid privately by their parents, prior to the government introducing taxpayer-funded schools (the answer, which surprised me, is “over 90 percent”; it turns out that the most popular government programs are those that relieve people from paying for something that they’re already paying for). Boaz also has some dull stuff about markets being relatively prejudice-free places because, e.g., even if you preferred to socialize with people of Race X rather than Race Y, you probably wouldn’t agree to pay a vendor of Race X more money for the same product. (Or you might be anti-Walmart, but still not want to pay 2X the price for the same bottle of aspirin.)

  5. I’m a libertarian and I basically gotta hide the fact all the time. It’s hard to not open my mouth when a social worker at a party says “Without me, the homeless would multiply.” Almost recommended that Travels with Lizbeth, but then bit my tongue.

    Being in a science career is a pretty bad spot for libertarians IMO. Despite the logical nature of scientists, they tend to think nothing will ever get done without govt funding and rules. They also feel so important, that it is their right to tax you more for their useless wind/solar/hydrogen power doohickey, that the free market is obviously not providing for a reason….Their whole lives have been dictated to them by superior govt authorities all the way into their thirties. The motto is don’t point at govt, hold your hand out.

    Despite the U.S. constitution being created with what seems as close to a libertarian ideal as I have seen, it’s signers would be widely regarded as pedantic, retarded, heartless fools with no moral compass. They would be immediately laughed off the stage for trying to use a census to apportion taxes, so EVERYONE, not just the rich, would feel the burden of govt.

  6. Anon: I believe the basic scientific research is one of the goods that classical economics suggests government should fund. Because it isn’t possible for a single company to capture all of the benefits from a scientific advance, companies will tend to invest less in basic research than is optimum for the entire economy. (Though really the very best strategy may be to invest $0 and let other countries shoulder the burden, as we are now doing with experimental physics (mostly funded and carried out by the EU).)

    Of course, much of the wind/solar/hydrogen stuff that you cite is engineering rather than science and economists would suggest that profit-seeking companies will already invest as much in research in those areas as makes sense.

    It could be philosophically consistent for a free market advocate to advocate the continued budgeting of the National Science Foundation at $6.9 billion per year but yet oppose most of the $3.7 trillion in federal spending budgeted for the 2010 fiscal year (against $2.1 trillion in revenue, i.e., almost half the money being spent is borrowed! See http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy11/pdf/budget.pdf for more details) and most of the state and local government spending.

    [I think the pure libertarian point of view, as expressed in Boaz’s Libertarianism, for example, is that coalitions of private enterprises, if relieved of their crushing burden of taxation, might well cooperate to fund scientific research. Boaz cites ship owners cooperating to pay for private lighthouses in England, for example, though lighthouses are cited by economists as a perfect example of an externality problem (ships who don’t pay can still see the light, so why should anyone pay?). He also cites apple growers and beekeepers in Washington State cooperating. An English biochemist makes a coherent argument, with data, for why we should get government out of the science funding business: http://oxlib.blogspot.com/2009/05/myth-of-science-as-public-good.html ; a simpler argument might be that the market is indeed inefficient and will underfund science, but government bureaucrats are capable of wasting money on a vastly larger scale than economists ever anticipated.]

  7. The phrase: “It’s hard to convince a man that something is true when his paycheck depends on it not being true.” comes to mind.

    Having attended more than a couple of social events where the attendees are all active or retired schoolteachers, I can vouch for the basic premise of this posting.

  8. ‘It’s hard to not open my mouth when a social worker at a party says “Without me, the homeless would multiply.”’

    I have a friend who was going to be a social worker and had the attitude that the government should just get off its ass and fix all social ills (I don’t blame him; he’s young and that just seems to be how they’re programmed these days). Then he very unexpectedly came into a pile of money and now his problem is – guess what? – dealing with government obstructions to his trying to fix social ills. I don’t know if he’s a libertarian yet though.

  9. Phil,

    I would have agreed with the “free market underfunds science” idea many years ago.There is some point to be made about that earlier in history. Human beings are not forward thinking sometimes and the rat race can definitely kill creativity. However, a lot of the fundamentals have been solved to such an extent that if the free market could profit off of R&D, it would. They have done wonders with transistors. Though Bell Labs is closed 🙁 However, we do have those XPrizes now. I think the market place of today is much more receptive to basic science than before.

    I don’t think govt is a good idea for precisely the reason you say at the end. It’s terribly inefficient. Take University of California for example. If an institution gets a science grant, 50-56% goes directly to the institution. The rest is gobbled up by salary and more taxation of those salaries. By the time the money reaches the actual science part, there is little. Labs are often decades behind in technology and their graduates have little to offer society upon graduation. The fad that swept them into a research area (med chem, genomics, nuclear, etc.) is over by the time they are done. Americans get terribly little from their govt science these days and it just seems to be subsidizing the scientific training for other nations.

    CCG,

    I know too many people that are going into social work, it’s just scary. The holier than thou attitude is also growing. What’s really bad is that I came from a dirt poor area and saw the damage that social and economic policies had on the people. I couldn’t get anyone to believe that there may be bad consequences and I could actually show them, they just wouldn’t have it. I used my own family as an example. One side had got taken in by those progressive policies, they never got anywhere, neither did their kids and neither did their grand kids. The other side? Came to the U.S. at a time with NO welfare, no drug wars, little education and no medicare. They are all homeowners.

  10. Anon @ 7:45:

    Another friend of mine also wants to go into social work and what baffles me is that the things she wants to do – crisis counseling, hospice work, organizing, etc – all DEMAND a bachelor’s or even a master’s in social work. She’s talked to people in some of these jobs and they freely admit that basic project management and computer skills are more than sufficient for what they do. I keep asking, where are the lines of people waiting to do these $10/hour jobs that justifies setting the bar so high? Maybe because a mountain of certification is needed to keep from getting sued? Seems like a huge bubble to me.

  11. I don’t gather socially with people who consider rational argument and exchange of opposing views “rude.”

    When those are the only kind of people left, I will be delighted never to be invited to another social gathering.

  12. John: A government employee has only a 0.2% chance of quitting his or her job in any given month, which is 1/8th the rate of a private sector worker (see http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/07/inflated-federal-pay-how-americans-are-overtaxed-to-overpay-the-civil-service ). Therefore it is safe to say that the government workers at a party would have almost no chance of getting an equally well-paid job in the private sector should the government shrink. It may be rational to suggest that people who never quit their jobs, no matter how pointless and dull, are overpaid, but I think there is no getting around the fact that it is rude. Despite the fact that our economy is now roughly 50% centrally planned, most of us still believe that our salaries are somehow market-based and a reflection of our skills and effort. To tell someone that he should be paid less is therefore equivalent to saying “you are unskilled and lazy”.

    CCG: Why does social work require advanced degrees? The actual work is something that people will often volunteer to do, e.g., listen sympathetically to a neighbor, push unwanted advice onto a fellow human being, or go into a poor neighborhood as a do-gooder. Studies have shown that good listeners with minimal training are just as effective as therapists as those with advanced degrees ad years of training. The only way to keep the compensation in social work from crashing down to minimum wage, aside from unionization, is to establish a guild.

  13. Heh. Your point is well taken. Often political opinions depend on whose ox is being gored.

    One of the most volatile political arguments I’ve had recently was with a couple of 70-year-olds who were inveighing against those damnable welfare recipients breaking the budget. I made the unpardonable mistake of pointing out that welfare is about 6% of the federal budget, but medicaid/social security together are a little over 40%. “I worked for that money!” Sure you did buddy, but you got paid money at the time you worked.

  14. The education required for social work is ludicrous. A total waste of four good years of life on a useless degree. My cousin is getting a bachelors in this area and is afraid of not getting job telling people to get a job. lol.

  15. Hi Phil,

    Not directly related, but tangentially, I recently ran across a book, “Dying of Money: Lessons of the Great German and American Inflations,” by Jens O. Parsson, from 1974. Although I’m only partially through the book, I’m finding it fascinating and a (surprisingly) well-written history of inflation in Germany (after WW1) and in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It touches on a lot of the governmental policies that we see similarly in place today.

    I found the book as a single web page, and decided to create better formatted and laid-out PDF and ePub versions, which I’ve made available here:

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/91582/books/Dying-of-Money.pdf

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/91582/books/DyingofMoney.zip

    If you decide to have a read of the book, it’d be great to hear your thoughts, perhaps in the form of a review, as you’ve done with some other books recently.

  16. Phil,

    Also, in your opinion, should us libertarians just stop thinking and join the welfare or warfare party? What I mean is, I’m trying to get a job in the private sector and be a good libertarian, but it just isn’t happening. The prospects for my profession just keep getting worse. My family members who have all went to public service (prisons, military, education) make substantially more, have more security and are just plain happier. Why blow time like I do even thinking about this stuff? Sure, a lot of people are getting hurt by govt, but as a smart guy with no way to influence policy anyways, why not just take the govt pay? Even a CNN article shows we libertarians are the least happy.

    http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/01/money-and-happiness-over-75k-doesnt-matter/

    It just doesn’t seem worth it. Maybe what I could do is just nod yes at everything, take the middle ground, not vote and take a cushy government job and ignore any signs of collapse. It does seem like a better deal. If the U.S. economy finally collapses into some chaotic free-market everyone for themself situation, than I haven’t wasted much time.

  17. Anon: I personally am not predicting any big collapse nor any big improvement in the U.S. economy. We are implementing basically the same policies as England post-WWII and should expect basically the same result (see http://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2009/01/28/is-the-us-turning-into-the-uk/ and also http://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2009/03/16/how-rich-countries-die/ ), i.e., a few decades of stagnation relative to countries where entrenched interests are not as lavishly protected.

    I think it is philosophically consistent for a person to believe that the U.S. would be better off under a free market system yet make the best personal choice under the planned economy that we have. As you note, being one voice among 310 million does not constitute significant political power, so you are unlikely to effect any change. The positive psychologists that you cite have found that family and friends are what make people happy. A government worker may be able to earn a comfortable living working only 10 or 15 hours/week (though probably has to stay at his or her desk for 35 or 40), which leaves a tremendous amount of time available for satisfying social activities. A government worker will be able to retire with a comfortable inflation-adjusted pension at a young age (as young as 41 here in Boston for bus drivers), after which 100 percent of his or her time may be spent on athletics, family, and friends.

    Another plus of government employment is that you can express your political views freely on your own time. At a private non-union employer there might be pressure to conform to the manager’s personal political agenda. Advocating a free market system for the U.S. might result in termination or denial of promotions.

    So take the government job! As an FAA employee once said, “It is great once you accept the fact that you can never change or accomplish anything.”

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