Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review (#16 of 2011)

What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation by Charles Murray.

Since the M. Douglas Meeks' book I just reviewed made an argument that classical liberalism was incompatible with Christian thought, I wanted to read a modern espousal of the philosophy of classical liberals and then use it as a springboard for general comparison of Christian views on political economy. (I could compare philosophies better if I had read these books in an e-book format where my notes could be saved in the cloud for all time. One book's binding fell apart while reading it.)

Murray makes it clear he's not a "capital l" Libertarian--he's a classical liberal. His primary heroes are Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, Robert Nozick, Richard Epstein, Friedrich von Hayek, and Milton Friedman. He finds overlap with the work of the Austrian economists and the Ayn Rand-ites, but acknowledges that Rand's philosophy is "distinct from the classical liberal tradition and at outright odds with much of this book" (172).

(It's worth noting now that Chuck Colson has repeatedly warned Christians that Rand's "Objectivist" Libertarian philosophy is anti-biblical, important because certain Republicans may or may not be influenced by her writing.)

Murray is Harvard and MIT educated. I'm well aware that he is openly called a "cross-burner" by some on the left, and has been recently taken to task by other libertarians for some sloppy writing, and I remembering piling on as well at the time.

Classical liberals believe (Pgs 6-7):
  • "Each person owns himself" (italics the author's)
  • “In a free society individuals may not initiate the use of force against any other individual or group”
  • Voluntary exchange benefits both parties so people in a free society may not be impeded from engaging in voluntary and informed transactions.
  • Everyone has the freedom to associate without whoever they would like, no exceptions.
Classical liberals (CLs, henceforth) ascribe the government three legitimate uses:
  • Restraining others from injuring each other.
  • Enforcement of contracts and property rights.
  • Provision of pure public goods and regulation of natural monopolies.
  • (National defense is given by Smith and others as a proper role, but Murray doesn't broach the subject. It basically falls under the first two categories above.)
So, the first quarter of the book reads like any Principles of Microeconomics text. Murray deals with the standard difficulties of defining pure public goods (which Austrians and capital L Libertarians deny exist) and problems of regulating natural monopolies.

CLs believe that “Mindful human beings require freedom and personal responsibility to live satisfying lives” (Pg. 18). This would seem to jive with Meeks and is almost a universal idea. God created us with active and creative minds, and gave Adam and Eve freedom of choice even in the absence of sin. Israel in the absence of a king had more freedom than when it submitted to a king. Individual liberty is a recurring theme in the NT. Love requires freedom for it to truly be love, and the Bible makes clear that we are all personally responsible-- no matter our lot.

Murray makes the argument that where freedom flourishes, so does personal responsibility, including the responsibility of taking care of the less fortunate:
"The genius of free human beings is that, given responsibility, they join together to take care of each other-- to be their brothers' keepers when their brother needs help" (Pg. 138)

Personal responsibility reaps satisfaction that endures. Progress only comes when government gets out of the way so that people are given the freedom to fulfill their own potential as individuals. "Responsibility is not the 'price' of freedom, but its reward" (Pg. 31).

Murray bemoans America's abandonment of that path. Rather than allowing our society to work out its issues over time, we have slowly built a government that we expect to solve our problems for us. We have created a government that crowds out private giving by providing for social needs itself. And it funds this activity by coercion--forcing the payment of taxes, and then limiting the freedom of how the recipients can use those funds (like food stamps). (Note: Murray does not say "all taxation is theft" like hard-core Libertarians and Austrians do.)

The government has engaged in these egalitarian efforts with good intentions but bad consequences: The data say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had no effect on the trend of minority employment. Lowering the national speed limit to 55 mph in 1974 correlated with a slowing of the decline of automobile deaths, while raising the limit correlated with a decline in deaths. Murray nicely discusses the problems of analyzing effects vis-a-vis univariate and multivariate regressions, his point is that it's not obvious that any Progressive policies have led to obviously better outcomes.

Murray gives his basic outline of an "ideal" government. The EPA, Justice Department, and State Department still exist but little else. The EPA would set emission limits and fines but it would be up to the companies to decide how to meet them. The Justice Department would perform a similar role to today, but there would be no prosecution of discrimination (freedom of association also means freedom to not associate). The U.S. would greatly increase education funding, but it would do so with a $3,000 (or more) voucher for every child to give to the school of his own choice. Schools could organize themselves independently or by community, whatever the locals prefer, but locals would no longer fund schools through property taxes. There would be no regulation of private monopolies unless they qualify as a natural monopoly. All efforts would be made to increase competition as a first resort.

Murray points to the 19th century as a time of great cultural richness in the U.S., with enclaves of all races and stripes, which he feels the modern welfare state has probably quelled by its laws encroaching on freedom of association (and disassociation). Drug use was common and legal then, but there was no national epidemic of concern. Private charities were perhaps more numerous and active than today given the size of the population and level of income. The government was small and not expected to do much, therefore economic progress and innovation was rapid.

Where Murray differs from Christian libertarians is where to draw the line at what is considered a harmful act against society. Murray contends that people "must" be allowed to harm, even kill, themselves (Pg. 102). To override another's preferences is "totalitarianism," because we do not know what is best for any other person. While some self-interested behavior is truly harmful to society, Murray says these can only be prevented in either a totalitarian or a completely free one, but since we live in the middle we're going to have some problems deciding on those behaviors.

The issue of freedom and assisted suicide came up recently in the media and blogosphere. Ross Douthat, a practicing Catholic, argued that a person who wants to die may suffer from a mental illness like clinical depression and not be thinking rationally. She might not always wish to die, and allowing her to die might be a serious mistake-- something she would have changed her mind on later. It also hurts society-- the mourning friends and family--so, government outlawing their option would be the same as government outlawing, say, battery. Douthat:

"Absent a totalitarian police state (and not really even then), a presumption against suicide doesn’t usually prevent people who really, really want to kill themselves from finding a way to do it. But neither does it empower any authority, whether public or private, to claim that they know the last word about any human heart."

This gets to an important crux of the matter-- libertarianism assumes that "mindful" adults are rational in their behavior and reach the correct conclusions. Even when I think someone else's behavior is irrational, I have no way of knowing for certain and therefore no right to tell them what they are doing is wrong. The assumption of responsible behavior follows closely to this. Can we assume that a free people will always be responsible to work together to build a better society?

As Meeks points out, the CLs also depend on perfect competition, and this is always in the background of Murray's book. Murray assumes workers will always be free to choose a new job of equal quality, and employers new employees if the government just gets out of the way. That only works in perfect competition, which we never see in real life, no matter the level of government. Monopolistic competition prevails and information asymmetries abound, therefore the level of output and the price may not necessarily be "right," even given freedom by all parties. People may not always be rational, so resources may not be allocated efficiently, wages may be slow to adjust to shocks, unemployment and other issues still exist...the libertarian world is still no economic utopia.

Murray explains recent financial crises as the result of partial deregulation. The government took away limits on what risks banks could take while also leaving in government-licensed deposit insurance, creating a moral hazard disaster. This conceivably could have been prevented if the government had gotten rid of both sides of the regulation-- the banks would have taken less risk because they would have properly aligned incentives to do so. But if you've seen the move "Inside Job," you know that many Wall Street execs are Type A and power-driven, pushing the limits of risk in their own lives with prostitution and cocaine in an ego-trip competition against competing executives. Rational behavior is a lot to ask of those types of people.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Succinct in its explanation, a pretty easy read.

Since this post went so long, I will do one last post comparing the differing Christian systems of political economy that have been presented at some point in the future.

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