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Posted at 10:37 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Is a 'libertarianized' welfare state better than libertarianism?

By Ezra Klein

That's what card-carrying libertarian Will Wilkinson thinks:

Libertarian influence on Republican thinking about social policy often does hurt the poor. Libertarians are politically most constructive when offering “second-best” welfare-state alternatives to the status quo -- social security personal accounts, education voucher schemes, etc. -- and most destructive when pushing their ideas about “first-best” policy. One way to be a liberaltarian is to just forget about utopian libertarian “first-best” targets and promote “second-best” policies to the top spot. An analogy: hardcore socialists thought social democrats were selling out the revolution by offering half-measures, but it turned out that social democracy is just a hell of a lot better than full-on socialism in terms of liberty, equality, wealth, health, happiness … everything. But I digress.

By Ezra Klein  | January 31, 2011; 10:37 AM ET
 
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Next: 'The Great Stagnation,' Part II

Comments

There is a term for what he calls "second-best" libertarianism. That term is liberalism.

So many self proclaimed libertarians are just liberals in denial.

Posted by: theamazingjex | January 31, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

"There is a term for what he calls "second-best" libertarianism. That term is liberalism."

Most liberals aren't in favor of "social security personal accounts, education voucher schemes", are they?

There is a difference between modern American liberals and liberaltarians such as Wilkinson, though it's a difference in approach rather than in principles.

Posted by: justin84 | January 31, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

That's true justin, although it seems liberals are more likely to compromise on their approaches in order to pursue their principles. Health reform is the primary example.

So it seems that while there is still a difference between liberals and liberaltarians when it comes to maintaining current social insurance programs, new social policy initiatives are likely to be cast in the liberaltarian mold.

Posted by: MattMilholland | January 31, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Social Security personal vouchers would be "second best" to what? Beating the elderly to death with truncheons and harvesting them for nutrients? Education vouchers are "second best" to, I don't know, forcing poor kids to work in coal mines? Yeah, that's the libertarian way "forward" all right.

Posted by: parke022 | January 31, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

In the quoted passage, Wilkinson doesn't attempt to make the case that a libertarianized welfare state is better than an unlibertarianized welfare state.

Private accounts involve heavy administrative costs and individuals bearing risk for no good reason (he should check what's happening down in Chile). The whole set of data available lead to estimates that the benefits from school vouchers are approximately zero.

Wilkinson is a very smart, informed and thoughtful person. What is a nice guy like that doing in a movement like libertarianism ? My guess is that he will never say he has abandoned libertarianism, but will end up with the same views on policy as you. I won't try to guess what those views will be, but I suspect they will be supported by evidence (I'm old enough to be sure that both of you will still be learning long after I'm dead).

Posted by: rjw88 | January 31, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

"Social Security personal vouchers would be "second best" to what? Beating the elderly to death with truncheons and harvesting them for nutrients? Education vouchers are "second best" to, I don't know, forcing poor kids to work in coal mines? Yeah, that's the libertarian way "forward" all right."

That straw man took quite the beating...

Posted by: justin84 | January 31, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Full-on nonsense that suggests that private accounts or education vouchers are "second-best" solutions that should be explored as serious policy options doesn't deserve much more than a strawman in response. Either one of these "second best solutions" would fail completely and leave us in worse shape than the status quo. They're only "second best" in the realm of libertarian fantasy huffing where the "first best" solution is to eliminate public education and the safety net altogether. Neither one of these sets of solutions would be "best"--first or second--for anything other than increasing the suffering of the poor and working classes.

Posted by: parke022 | January 31, 2011 2:39 PM | Report abuse

"Full-on nonsense that suggests that private accounts or education vouchers are "second-best" solutions that should be explored as serious policy options doesn't deserve much more than a strawman in response."

If it was really full-on nonsense as you assert, you wouldn't have to resort to strawmen.

So seriously, why should we support the failing public school system?

Only 53% of urban kids graduate from High School, and graduation from an urban school district isn't really much of an achievement.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/education/22dropout.html

Over 42 million American adults can't read, period, and another 50 million can't read above a 5th grade level. That's over 40 percent of the adult population.

http://education-portal.com/articles/Grim_Illiteracy_Statistics_Indicate_Americans_Have_a_Reading_Problem.html

Literacy rates were arguably higher several centuries ago.

http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/education-in-colonial-america/

One of my favorite quotes from Thomas Sowell:

"A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like "arraigned," "curried" and "exculpate" meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today's expensively under-educated generation."

And it's more than just literacy. Consider history.

Nearly a quarter of 17-year-olds don't know who Adolf Hitler was.

Forty percent don't know what the Renaissance was.

Forty percent didn't know World War I took place between 1900-1950, and sixty percent didn't know that the Civl War took place between 1850-1900.

Half do not know why the Federalist Papers were written.

http://www.commoncore.org/_docs/CCreport_stillatrisk.pdf

Same issues in science:

One in five Americans believes in a geocentric model of the solar system.

Ninety percent do not know what radiation is.

Less than one in three understand DNA as the key to heredity.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/science/30profile.html?pagewanted=print

These educational results cost around $200,000 per child.

Why on Earth should I support public schools? Why should I accept having money taken from myself and others, at gunpoint, for this purpose?

Posted by: justin84 | January 31, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

For what Libertarians are actually doing see http://www.Libertarian-International.org especially articles on Friedman.

Considering that the main Libertarian concern is that people have the ability to refuse participation in any given program, the amount of effort to distort or re-define Libertarianism is really something IMHO.

Posted by: RalphKSwanson | February 1, 2011 8:55 AM | Report abuse

The trouble with most people calling themselves "libertarians", the problem with most people identifying themselves as being of any one political ideology at all, is they are so bound up in ideology that they cannot even recognize that the words "ideology" and "ideal" share the same root for a reason.

The real world is not an ideal place, it never was, and it's never going to be. The free market never existed as anything more than a thought experiment. Our version of capitalism is not, has never been, and never will be, truly "free", or truly a "market", and there is no "invisible hand", except that wielded by the more powerful actors in the market to manipulate the market in their favor at the expense of everyone else.

I call myself a "left-leaning libertarian". What this means in short is that I believe that any capitalistic system is inherently a positive feedback loop system that will spiral out of control and consume itself in the absence of good governmental regulation. Capitalism is amoral. Not immoral, you understand, amoral...it has absolutely no moral rules whatsoever, despite what Ayn Rand, in what I believe was her greatest failing as a philosopher, would have had us believe, and the only truly effective limit on capitalism is morality, the idea that one ought not to do a particular thing because it is the "wrong" thing to do.

If you prefer, you may think of Rand's conception of self-interest as the absolute lowest form of morality. Heinlein's conception of a scientific theory of morality, which builds upon the survival instinct (and thus, self-interest), adding layers of successively higher morality based on increasingly wide group interests is much more useful as a moral compass.

Government, on the other hand, is the civic embodiment of morality. The role of a libertarian government is to prevent interference with the rights, liberties, and freedoms of others. In terms of economic policies, such a government should prevent more powerful players from exploiting the less powerful and infringing upon their rights, because this is the moral imperative.

We have lost the balance of morality and greed in this country, and it is well past time for us to right the ship before we all go under.

I am a libertarian. I support Universal Healthcare, Universal Education (including Universal Daycare), and a strong social welfare safety net, all of which should be run by government, because all of these things have been proven all over the world to be most efficiently, most effectively, and most equally handled by government. I am aware that the United States Constitution does not empower the federal government, currently, to do these things, which is why I support passing Constitutional Amendments to specifically authorize them.

Some people may find these things to be inconsistent with strict libertarian principles. They are. If you want to live in the real world, you cannot blindly adhere to every ideal. That would be utopianism.

Posted by: yin-haan | February 1, 2011 1:43 PM | Report abuse

The short answer is "no", both strict libertarianism and half-hearted libertarianism as described in the article are equally failed concepts.

To expand a bit on the short answer, a "libertarianized" welfare state gives us the worst of both worlds. Governmental interference multiplied by private sector inefficiency. At least with a strict libertarian ideal, we only have the worst of one world.

Further reading vis a vis Rand: Ilya Somin had a good post on The Volokh Conspiracy recently regarding Michael Heumer's critique of Rand.

http://volokh.com/2010/02/06/debating-ayn-rands-philosophy/

Posted by: yin-haan | February 1, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"I am a libertarian. I support Universal Healthcare, Universal Education (including Universal Daycare), and a strong social welfare safety net, all of which should be run by government, because all of these things have been proven all over the world to be most efficiently, most effectively, and most equally handled by government."

That's quite a bit of confusion. You are actually a liberal. Calling yourself a libertarian does not make it so.

"Some people may find these things to be inconsistent with [edit] libertarian principles. They are."

There you go.

Posted by: justin84 | February 1, 2011 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for proving my point, Justin84. Your blind adherence to ideological purity serves you, and everyone else, poorly.

Posted by: yin-haan | February 1, 2011 5:14 PM | Report abuse

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