Saturday, August 7, 2010

Slapped by the "Invisible Hand"

Traveling in Skeptic circles as I have now for some years I have taken note of the number of my skeptical compatriots who openly admit to being Libertarians. This connection between Skeptics and Libertarianism became particularly evident during James Randi’s TAM-5 conference in Las Vegas I attended a few years back. (TAM stands for “The Amazing Meeting”). One of the conference speakers was Dr. Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, the Libertarian magazine. Many of the other presenters, such as Michael Shermer and Penn and Teller, made clear their Libertarian stance. A copy of Reason magazine was even included in the welcome packet to the conference.

Some days after the conference a bit of “blow-back” appeared on Randi’s skeptic web site forum – some heavy controversy regarding the connection between Skeptics and Libertarians. The views were hotly debated at the time.

Yet I confess to having periodically visited the Libertarian web site myself and taken their “test” – each time, though, my test results peg me as a “Liberal”.

Some of the positions of the Libertarian party do resonate strongly with me; their stance on personal freedoms and against any form of censorship, for example. I recall once Michael Shermer being asked a question during a debate where an audience member expressed their religious opposition to gay marriage. “Why do you care? Why don’t you mind your own business!” was Shermer’s response. I agree.

On a cursory level, Libertarianism seems pretty rational; free markets, lower taxes, less government. But like with so many things, the Devil is in the details. Free markets for whom? Just what would you have government NOT do; no regulations perhaps? Less taxes; which ones – like sales, income or capital gain and just who ends up paying even more taxes? I believe that often the US the tax code has been used to ingratiate some while shifting the burden to others.

Why, for example, are businesses allowed to deduct the cost of operating a vehicle from their gross income but a wage earner cannot deduct similar costs of using a vehicle to get to work? Well a business is “different” you might say – yet the law routinely considers businesses as “individuals”, at least for the purposes of exercising rights of free expression.

Still, we Americans do love our “you can be anything you want to be” potential. Indeed, we seem to have an almost unlimited opportunity to be successful in this country – but conversely one also has the more likely opportunity to fail and go bankrupt.

But this is where the “I got mine, you go get yours” philosophy of the Libertarian party bothers me – It smacks of Meritocracy. It reserves bounty for those who have the resources, the education and the connections to play at the Market table. But for those who can’t – it’s though shit! What about the segment of the population, with neither the skills nor the resources, for whom participation in The Market is completely out of their reach? What of them?

Here are just a couple of issues from the Libertarian web site:
Replace government welfare with private charity.
Having spent a good deal of my career working as a Welfare Caseworker, this position naively underestimates the volume of demand for assistance that government provides. Private charities do sometimes fill the void where government does not provide, but only a tiny fraction of the need can be met by these organizations. Under-funded and potentially mismanaged, they often lack the ability to effectively assess needs. Most food banks, for example, have no test for “need”; anybody can obtain free food simply by showing up. In our community, the very first house built by Habitat for Humanity was awarded to a woman who had earlier been convicted of the largest welfare fraud in the county. Amateurs and volunteers running charitable organizations can be easily manipulated by system-savvy clients into extending benefits to those who would not be otherwise eligible.

As a Welfare worker, it was my job to ensure that people were able to document and prove their need. Benefits were awarded only after meeting the strict guidelines for eligibility. There were conditional requirements as well to receiving assistance, such as work search activities and/or participation in training or drug assessment programs. Private charities generally have neither the resources nor expertise to provide effective and consistent (emphasis) LONG-TERM need management. Worse still, the indigent are more likely to be proselytized by religiously-based charities as a condition for receiving help.
Let people control their own retirement; privatize Social Security.
This position is jaw to dropping – have the Libertarians been picnicking on Mars over the last four years? Company pension plans have been raided by other companies or gone broke; private investment firms have crashed and burned. Where did the only stable form of financial relief come from? Government!

I recall hearing many so called “free market” advocates complain that AIG, for example, should have been allowed to fail rather than be bailed out by the government. I am sure they were picturing fat cat investors having to sell their yachts and Manhattan townhouses. But consider that AIG happened to be one of the largest managers of municipal, government, and private company retirement pension plans. Had AIG not been propped up by the government it would instead have been grandma no longer able to pay her rent or grandpa unable to buy groceries.

It is significant that well over half the aged population rely on the dependability of Social Security to maintain survival. Imagine what the effect on The Market would have been had suddenly MILLIONS of people lost their pension income? I believe we would have seen another Great Depression with untold suffering by individuals and businesses alike.
Replace Medicare and Medicaid with private insurers.
I’m wondering if the Libertarians ran this idea by any of their corporate buddies in the health insurance industry? How many private insurance companies do you think would be lining up to stake their profit margin on the most health risky and COSTLY customer demographic: older and disabled adults?

The Cato Institute is the Libertarian’s “think tank” located in Washington DC. But if this is the best their party can come up with, they need to do a lot more “thinking” and a lot less “tanking”. Until the Libertarian party can come up with a platform, at least regarding social issues, that is less purely theoretical and more pragmatic, I will likely remain a moderate Liberal AND a Skeptic.
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.Yogi Berra


Penny said...

This is a well-written essay.
I took the test linked to, and 'discovered' I am Liberal. Never would've guessed ;)

As you say, their views on personal freedoms may be right on, but their views on economics are questionable.

And Libertarians, sadly, don't seem to have ever met any actual needy people.

Our "Green Party" here are libertarians. In the last election, in 2007, they got about 7.9% of the vote. I don't see that percentage changing, frankly.(The next national elections are this month, on August 20.)

The Mother said...

Libertarian. Sorry.

Certainly I disagree on the issue of the charitable process--there are folks in serious need of help. I don't see why the 'party line' can't be adjusted.

But as a doc, I detest the government intervention in health care. The whole third party system is a mess, yes, but the govt way of doing things just makes it worse. As medicare goes, so go the insurers. There has to be a better way.

There is no party line that's perfect. They all have massive faults and weaknesses, largely because there are no perfect situations to attach political stances to. The world isn't black and white; it's full of shades of grey.

Which is why I tend to vote for the PERSON, not the party. Give me a principled politician who can make the proper decisions in a pinch (PLEASE???), rather than a long list of party platforms that don't bend to the situation.

TechnoBabe said...

While in the shelter I filled out many applications for housing. Various organizations sponsored just as many various programs. Several were asking questions in the application if I would be willing to attend mandatory church meetings twice a week. That was a surprise to me. I happen to be in agreement with your paragraph of "I got mine, you go get yours".

Anonymous said...

My brother-in-law professes to be Libertarian. I think that this is in direct response to the "I've got mine, you go get yours" mantra. In fact, the thinking actally includes includes an addendum that "Because I've got mine, and you don't have as much, I am a better person, and you don't deserve as much". Libertarian theory requires someone to have a lot, and others to always have much less, even less than required to meet basic needs.
Unacceptable to me.


Robert the Skeptic said...

Penny Your comment about Libertarians not having any contact with truly "needy" people is quite relevant. I had my own stereotypical opinions about the poorer classes; my vision was rudely awakened when my career changed and I actually had daily contact with them.

I often refer to the phrase often touted of expecting people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps - except many don't have bootstraps. This Free Market idea is a wonderful concept, but to many this market is not available to them. A market has to be open to all to participate fairly.

Dr. Mom You would be more well versed in the medical delivery system than I. Still, my premiums go up 13 to 15% each year to where I now pay $1,200 for medical insurance. That is just the premium, add on copays and deductibles. It is the LARGEST draw on my income bar none.

Whatever you say about government-managed health care, it's simple math: if medical insurance is a profit-making enterprise, it is going to cost more. The motive will be to increase profits, at the expense of delivering (costly) service. That simple. The European system is not perfect, but it is better than what we have now, in my opinion.

TechnoBabe This is the dark side of the "Faith Based Initiatives" started by GW Bush. I have already seen people denied services because they were deemed not "sufficiently moral" in the eyes of these (supposed) charities. Government must serve everyone in need, not pick and choose.

BackRow I think the cat in the cartoon makes the point. Indeed I have blogged about this attitude people have about the apparent "deservedness" of one over another.

Many well off people believe they got there by their own hard work, when in reality other outside factors helped them along, often fortunate circumstances which they had no control over (luck).

I will make a stereotypical statement here: I have yet to meet a POOR Libertarian.

Jerry said...

I am right in your thinking footsteps. I do agree with their attitude on personal freedom but sometimes they run to the extreme regarding government limitations. The idea of lesser government dovetails so neatly with personal freedom, but when it is explained the notion crumbles. You helped explain it.

Kay Dennison said...

You have said it well.

While I've flirted a tad with Libertarian but I think they are naive.

Love the Yogi Berea quote.

The Mother said...

Is the European health care system better than what we have? In some ways. Not all. Not the best possible, either.

I have this dream. It's where we get a bunch of economists and a bunch of doctors and a bunch of public health specialists in a room, lock them in, and let them come up with a workable, useful, excellent plan. No politicians allowed.

I don't know exactly what it would look like, but it would absolutely have to address three elements that so far have not been included in the US debate:

End of life care
Malpractice abuse
Insulation of the patient from responsibility for his/her own health

I know it's just a dream. But I'm an optimist, even if I am a skeptic. Is that too much of a contradiction?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay Yogi certainly knew how to turn a phrase... even if he bent it a little.

Dr. Mom I'm not saying we should adopt the European system but we can certainly adopt the best aspects of it. I kind of like their citizens not going bankrupt due to medical bills; here it's the second highest cause of bankruptcy.

I like the idea of assembling a task force (sans politicians) to hammer out a plan. Though I feel the private insurers will always have a conflict of interest between profits and service deliver.

Yes, being an optimist and a skeptic "can" be contradictory. To me it is depressing sometimes to deal with the stark "realities" of some situations. But the alternative is to cling to cling to secure-feeling myths as so many do. I can't.

Marylinn Kelly said...

It may have been Jefferson who said, The purpose of government is to make people's lives better. Without taking the test, I know I would be found liberal. All people, which really comes to mean, in my interpretation, the ones with the least...especially those without bootstraps...have been promised certain things which our country no long seems to value or honor. I have a strict definition of what makes a country great (something which we always seem to say about America) which requires all to be fed, housed, educated, have access to health care and be treated with dignity. If we have not addressed those things first, how can we call ourselves great?

Rain said...

I took the test and came out further into the liberal side than I would have expected although I knew I leaned liberal. I am realistic about the needs of some kind of power to balance things and hence cannot really buy into libertarianism although I am sympathetic to the idea of minding one's own business unless the activity of someone else is harmful to others.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I have heard some libertarians are even opposed to a police force. This is very silly! Any country has a minority of evildoers to whom a firm spanking must be delivered by the iron hand of justice. There's no point having money and social security if some contemptible thief can deprive you of it.

Mary Witzl said...

I was pretty sure I was going to be a liberal too, but I took the test anyway. It's nice to have reached predictable middle age.

The Libertarians seem to have all sorts of good intentions, but they obviously trust too much in the inherent goodness of humanity. Some of us, sadly, are just greedy shits.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn There are those who would say that even these basic rights should be "earned". One of the huge areas of contention when talking about medical reform in this country was the question of "is there a right to health care". Many argued no. The selfishness of the individual here bothers me quite a bit. Do people not see that there is benefit to them personally by providing benefit to society as a whole? Apparently not.

Rain Exactly. The Libertarian position is too extreme for me, at least regarding social issues.

Bananas No they are not against law enforcement; quite the contrary, they want THEIR property and possession protected. But they would decriminalize crimes such as prostitution and drug use. On those I am in agreement.

Mary The road to hell is paved with good intentions, it's said. If I imagine the country as a group of unsupervised teen-agers, it is easier for me to understand the need for rules and regulations. Left to our own devices people tend to gravitate to the lowest common denominator. As I say, the Libertarian perspective suffers from naivety.

secret agent woman said...

That very linited "test" pegged me as a centrist, while I consider myself very much a liberal. I think what they may have been coding was my belief that your "freedom" ends when it imposes on me. So censorship of books and speech? No. But should anybody be allowed to put anything where I have to see it (eg., porn?) I say no. So that question got a maybe from me.

And I am a personal victim of the privatization of access to health care, leaving me and my children unable to get decent coverage. Last year, in addition to my very high insurance premiums, I paid $7000 out of my own pocket for a needed surgery. And I am, if anything, an underutilizer of medical care as well as committed to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is one healthcare provider who is all for nationalized healthcare. And it would be patently absurd to have all social assistance rely on the limited charity of our citizens. In general, if people are not required to help others, through taxes, most will not. So, Libertarian, not me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a single-payer not-for-profit health care system is the best way to go. As Dr. Mom alludes, there would need to be some type of cap on medical malpractice claims; the premiums they must pay are outlandish.

The sad aspect of our political system is that we often have to pick from a two-size-fits-all set of limited choices. There are aspects of the Republican party I could support (not many, but some) and even the Libertarians have some valid points.

In the end we really make choices about the representation we believe we will get in our political process; the man or woman who we believe will speak for us. Occasionally we get lucky and get it right... but only occasionally.

John Myste said...

I followed you back to your site from wherever I was when I clicked a link and ended up here.

Now that I cleared that up, this has always especially annoyed me:

Replace government welfare with private charity.

It annoys me because they know this won't solve the problems entitlements solve. They are lying when they imply that it will, and its one of their main talking points.

When you find them intentionally promoting solutions they know will not solve the problem, it discredits there whole philosophy. It also proves that they are content to live with the problem or that they do not see it as a problem.

Embracing a corrupt deceitful ideology is much worse than embracing a bad ideology.

In my opinion, libertarians who promote this are just scumbags.