Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.

2/25/2005

Libertarians, not Democrats, want to restrict the choices people make

The Unrepentant Individual makes the argument that the primary difference between liberals and libertarians is the amount of trust they place in ordinary people:

As near as I can tell, the theory behind libertarianism and free-market capitalism is that people, left to their own devices, will usually make the right choices. Those right choices may not be the desired behavior of the nanny state, but will be rationally best for the individual. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to believe that individuals are one government decree away from throwing their lives down the tubes, and thus government needs to step in and manage and watch over to make sure we don't hurt ourselves.


A few comments. First, I think that to assume that "people, left to their own devices, will usually make the right choices" is a huge mistake. People constantly make awful choices, choices totally contrary to their own self-interest. Battered wives stay with their husbands. High-school seniors drop out with two months to go til graduation. Poor teenagers have children. All kinds of people engage in risky sex, poison their bodies with excessive use of alcohol and tobacco and other drugs, and make terrible financial decisions. Try as they might, libertarians cannot blame all of this on the state.

Now, it doesn't follow from the fact that people make bad decisions that the state should therefore step in and prevent them from making those decisions. But it does mean that the libertarian cannot justify his view on the basis of the fundamental wisdom of ordinary folk, because that is surely a myth.

Another bone I have to pick with Brad is the examples he uses:

The left doesn't think you can be trusted with your own retirement, so they'll handle it for you. Likewise, you can't be trusted with healthcare, so the government will handle that. You can't argue with your employer for benefits or working conditions, so they'll mandate those.


This is, IMO, a mischaracterization of Democratic policies. Social Security is not based on a mistrust of individuals' ability to handle their money. This gets things exactly backward. To the extent that the U.S. is a functioning democracy (in some respects it is, in others not), policies are enacted according to the will of the people. So the people have decided that Social Security itself is the best way to handle their own retirement. The libertarians seem to be the ones who don't trust the people, since they continue to insist on the abolition of Social Security, which is the people's preferred method of providing for their retirement.

The same thing goes for healthcare. It's not that Democrats don't trust people to "handle" their own healthcare; it's that they believe the best way in which to handle it simply is a nationalized healthcare program. And guess what--a significant majority of Americans agree with them.

And again, the same goes for labor issues. Brad says that Dems think "You can't argue with your employer for benefits or working conditions," but that's exactly what people have been doing--via things like OSHA and minimum wage laws. A libertarian might object that this goes beyond "arguing" with your employer, but it would be naive to suppose that workers could "argue" their way into higher paychecks, shorter work weeks, etc. Rather, they've found that the best way to ensure the guarantees they want is via labor laws.

Democrats and other lefties do not wish to "take over" personal decision-making; they do, however, want to prevent the Right from placing undue limitations on it, which is what denying the legitimacy of government programs that address these issues would do. People should be able to choose for themselves; but when they decide that the best way to get what they want is through the state, those on the Right should respect that choice.

For better or worse, the state exists right now. It makes no sense to prohibit the less-privileged from using the state to guarantee certain rights that would otherwise be ignored and violated. Why should the powerless be denied the power of the state to improve their lot?

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