Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Playing a libertarian’s game: Radley Balko’s “State your limits” challenge (UPDATED)

This post is dedicated to Dane who clued me into Radley Balko’s blog, and originally told me about Balko’s “State Your Limits” challenge yesterday afternoon. The challenge in general terms is as follows:

…Every initiative announced by the Obama administration pushes us further into uncharted territory on both fronts [“the growth and size of government”], so it would be interesting to see what if any actual limits lefty opinion makers would put on the size, cost, and influence of the federal government. At what point would you be willing to finally say, “Okay, we’ve gone far enough”?Note that the intent here is to find your limits, not what you consider to be ideal.

I’m hardly an “opinion maker,” and I’m not really comfortable with the  “lefty” label, though I acknowledge I tend to have centre-left sensibilities and I’ve spent a lot of the last week arguing with “righties,” so… close enough. But I’m going to respond anyway.

He breaks his challenge down into 8 questions. I’ll make an effort to answer them as best I can, and then give a general comment on why I think this whole exercise is dumb.

Progressive Taxation

Currently, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans make 19 percent of the country’s income and pay 37 percent of the taxes. The top 10 percent pay 68 percent. The bottom 50 percent of earners pay 3 percent of taxes. (Note: These figures don’t include payroll taxes.) Most on the left believe the current tax system isn’t progressive enough, so they’d presumably favor shifting the tax burden up the income scale. But what is  your limit? Should the top 1 percent pay 60 or more percent of the government’s costs? More than 80? What’s the maximum percentage of earners who should pay no income tax at all?

Looking at this with my liberal hat on (a hat critical theory has me almost convinced to give to good will), what’s hard about this question is that it’s completely impossible to tackle using a Rawlsian thought experiment.

The original position is oriented completely in the opposite direction: because behind the veil of ignorance you recognize that you could just as easily be in, or have been born into, any social position in a given society, you will tend to be most concerned, not with how a policy affects the best off, but by how a policy affects the worst off. Therefore, accepting for the sake of argument the premises of trickle down economics, if, looking at things reasonably, one was to conclude that flattening the tax code will actually sustainably make the worst off in society better off—however one defines “better off”—then great. Or, by the same token, if by further “progressivizing” the tax code one will actually harm (again, however one defines that) the worst off in society in the long term, then doing so is immoral. But because everything has to do with the actual material conditions of the worst off you can’t just say “the top 1% should pay no more than 79.234% of their income in taxes and the bottom 12.43129% should pay none of their income in taxes, and beyond those lines we shall not cross!” because that doesn’t tell you anything about what making the tax code produce that outcome would do for the worst off in society, where “do” is understood expansively to be a question of their overall well being as persons subject to and participating in society.

A critical theoretic critique of the question would be even more dismissive of its abstractness, rejecting the possibility of even taking the abstract position that one would need to take in order to conceive of any kind of answer (in terms of the worse off or otherwise). For critical theory, changing the tax code can only be reasonably discussed in terms of how doing so will tangibly change society and the experience of people living in society. Without discussing something specific there’s no means of assessing that, and hence… nothing to say.

But anyway, if I have to answer… the top 1% should pay no more than 79.234% of their income in taxes and no more than the bottom 12.43129% should pay none of their income in taxes, and beyond those lines we shall not cross!

• Inflation

What’s the maximum acceptable rate of inflation? How high would the inflation rate need to be for you to say, “This new government program is great, but we can’t print anymore money to pay for it”?

It would have everything to do with how the proposed government program benefited society vs. how much the increased inflation harmed society (again however a society comes to weigh these benefits and harms).

But again if I have to answer… let me think about this for a second… 67.2398436398272-2387fkjlhglksjdfh%. Obviously.

• National Debt as a Percentage of GDP

Currently, the federal debt stands at about 80 percent of GDP. That’s the highest percentage since the early 1950s. What is the maximum percentage of debt related to GDP that you’d be willing to accept?

I’m bored with this, and at this point you can probably predict my answer. >COPY<

• Federal Spending as a Percentage of GDP

For most of the last 50 years, annual federal spending has held at about 20 percent of GDP, the annual deficit at 2 percent. The CBO projects that by 2020, spending will soar to 26 percent of GDP, and the annual deficit to 7 percent. This is before factoring in the cost of Obama’s health care plan. What percentage of spending with respect to GDP would you consider too high? The annual federal deficit?

>PASTE< I’m bored with this, and at this point you can probably predict my answer.

• Unfunded Liability of Entitlement Programs

Right now, Social Security and Medicare face a $106.4 trillion future liability above and beyond what current payroll taxes would be able to fund. Before we start talking about new entitlements, where should we put the celing on unfunded future entitlement liability? That is, how much higher can that $106.4 trillion figure rise before you’d be willing to say, “Hold on, great as this new entitlement idea sounds, I’m not sure we can afford it”?

>PASTE< I’m bored with this, and at this point you can probably predict my answer.

• Income Equality

As noted above, currently the richest 1 percent of Americans earn about 19 percent of the country’s income. The bottom 50 percent of earners make 13 percent. Most on the left believe these figures are too lopsided. So where should they be? Presumably, the answer is somewhere between where they are now and the point at which every earner in the country makes the same amount of money. To phrase the question another way, at what point would you be willing to say the government has gone far enough when it comes to redistributing income? What is an acceptable level of income inequality?

>PASTE< I’m bored with this, and at this point you can probably predict my answer.

• Individual Tax Rates

The top federal income tax bracket currently stands at 35 percent. What’s the maximum top tax rate you’d be willing to endorse? Where should the cutoff be for the top bracket (it’s currently $372,950)? Factoring in state and local taxes, the average tax burden on the wealthiest Americans in some states will approach 60 percent if the Democrats’ health plan passes. What’s an appropriate upper limit on that figure?

>PASTE< I’m bored with this, and at this point you can probably predict my answer.

• Average Tax Rate

According to a new World Bank report (PDF), the average U.S. tax rate is 46.2 percent, putting us 102 out of 178 countries (meaning 101 countries have a lower total tax burden than the U.S.). Again, how high would you be willing to let that figure climb?

>PASTE< I’m bored with this, and at this point you can probably predict my answer.

~

Anyway Mr. Balko, I’m sorry. Unless you’ve stumbled onto a metaphysical system that contemporary Western philosophy hasn’t managed to think of or problematize, I’m fairly certain that we don’t live in a world in which we can speak abstractly in absolutes . This exercise is dumb, and anyone who tries to answer these questions seriously will sound like an idiot (as I’m sure you’ve noticed).

People will tolerate what they have to tolerate. Whether or not they think there should be change is not oriented by abstract guesses that have no bearing on the situation in which they live, but on the basis of a social calculus on particular opportunities to change as they come. This criticism applies no less to Matt Welch’s original “pro-war libertarian quiz” from which Balko draws his inspiration. I don’t think either exercise is informative. [Update: I made this judgment based on Balko’s characterization of the quiz. Having now read Welch’s quiz, I retract the previous sentence. He lays out a specific problem (the threat of terrorism) and specific policy changes many of which, we’ve since found out, were de facto, or close to de facto, in place under Bush. His subject is the policy changes, and not the abstract costs of enacting or not enacting them. Were his quiz to be analogous to Balko’s, it would focus on questions like “what is the maximum tolerable number of annual American casualties from terrorism?” or “What is the maximum tolerable percentage of innocent people among incarcerated terrorist suspects?”]

The system we live in is in many ways deeply irrational (both from a participants’ perspective and from an abstract perspective), and grossly inequitable. How about we start from there and work our way out.

~

UPDATE I: Had a conversation about my response with Dane last night and wanted to add a thought or two. There’s a lot that I agree with about the spirit of Balko’s intention with this challenge. Of course we can’t have a conversation about policy that increases the size and cost of public institutions without thinking reasonably about whether or not they’re going to be sustainable and non-exploitatative. And I agree that many people hear phrases like “universal health care,” “abolishing poverty,” “free university education for all,” etc., and go “it’ll-all-just-work-itself-out” starry eyed. They need to be snapped out of it.

But one puts the cart before the mule in talking tangibly about costs while only abstractly alluding to what would incur them. I would not support a 10% increase in taxes for the wealthiest .01% if the revenue was used in such a way that it meant social collapse. Conversely, if I thought a 100% tax on everyone was going to be used to create a sustainable Star Trek-style utopia in which everyone had the freedom to pursue what projects they wished without fear of want, then I would cetainly give it serious consideration.

My point is that there are an infinite number of contingencies that one could put after the “if” of which the two examples I’ve just given are extremes, and its only a study of a given contingency that can determine whether it’s worth the costs society would have to pay for it—costs that could take any number of forms, by the way, beyond the immediately fiscal / monetary ones that are the subject of Balko’s questions.

From whatever political perspective that claims to adhere to reason, the only thing that one can reasonably say in the abstract in response to his questions is “the cost—as one understands that cost—isn’t worth it when it outweighs the societal benefit—as one understands that benefit—of the thing that would incur it.” Hence why this is an empty and uninformative waste of time.

~

UPDATE II: Andrew, commenting below, brought up two objections to the above that are worth responding to. The first is that he thinks that asserting that people will tolerate what they need to tolerate damns me to quietist relativism. The second is with my acknowledging a possibility of a good society in which there was a 100% tax rate (for the details, read Andrew’s comments below, but essentially he rejects that on the grounds of a larger rejection of the idea of human perfectibility).

Anyway, I responded in comment form, but figure I might as well throw it up on the main text as well as it hopefully clears up some ambiguities with the above:

Andrew,

In your interpretation of my assertion that people will tolerate what they need to tolerate, you’re misreading my meaning. If revolution is possible the status quo need not be tolerated by the could-be revolutionaries. Conversely, people in Auschwitz tolerated insane cruelty because their only other option was suicide (on the limits of human toleration I recommend Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning).

Libertarianism shoots itself in the foot by thinking about the good in terms of perfection or nothing—you say “The human species cannot be perfected in libertarian thought.” Obviously we can’t conceive of how to achieve what could be universally agreed to be a perfect society, otherwise we would have done it. But as you admit, we can’t conceive of the future clearly enough to reject the possibility of the “good society” either. Because it’s so far away from reality, and we’ve been burned so often by idealists who’ve jumped the gun, we can’t really talk about those things meaningfully. What we can conceive of rationally though are proposals to incrementally make society better (more emancipated, more reasonable, more meaningful, less arbitrary, more just, etc. etc.) Those are the conversations that are worth having.

Taking it a step further, any political ideology that completely abandons the possibility of an orienting notion of a social good in favour of focusing solely on “mitigating our vices” has some very serious theoretical problems to contend with. First and foremost, without a notion of the social good, you’re left to ground your definitions of those vices in systemic inefficiency, which, as Leo Strauss demonstrates in his essay “What is Political Philosophy?”, is a road to the evaporation of morality whole hog.

Your ventriloquizing that Balko would see a 100% tax rate as in itself oppressive reveals another essentializing assumption. If a 100% tax rate is necessarily, under all possible circumstances oppressive, then that means that money has some sort of independent moral status (or value) that isn’t defined by what it instrumentally enables people or society to do. Max Weber traced that kind of idolatry from the protestant work ethic to an iron cage.

~

UPDATE III: Response to Andrew’s response to my response to his response (find his response in the comments below):

By Balko’s instructions, we’re not talking about “should”:

Note that the intent here is to find your limits, not what you consider to be ideal.

…and it seems that one can’t talk about “limits” without going extreme, so I take as implicit in Balko’s challenge a recognition that Godwin’s probability is probably more of a certainty.

My point in bringing up Auschwitz is that one can’t just casually talk about or know your limits from the comfort of ones first world, upper class, well fed life. I don’t know if I would have strived to survive in (i.e. “tolerated”) Auschwitz or not. People aren’t oriented by their limits (which they can’t know until they’re confronted with them). They’re oriented by their realities and their opportunities.

On the rest of your first paragraph (and a lot of the rest of your response), now you’re essentializing ‘government.’ The Nazi *government* should unequivocally not have been “granted” (weird verb) the level of power it wielded. But in terms of capacity (economically, technologically, militarily, etc.), the Nazis didn’t wield a fraction of the “power” that the American government currently does, yet I would say that I’m not nearly as opposed to the American government’s possession of the power that it has then had I had the opportunity to oppose the Nazis.

As with money, government power is again an instrument… it’s how that instrument is used that defines its moral status. And how it’s used is a function of society. The root problem of Naziism wasn’t that the German state had power, it was that German society elevated Hitler to wield that power the way that he did. Society and government may be two very different animals, but you can’t talk about government independently of society and expect to make much sense.

By the by. Libertarians make a big fuss about how they oppose the undue use of government compulsion. I’m sorry to break it to them, but not a lot of people on the left or right will disagree. No one’s for the “undue” use of anything. That doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what is “due” or “undue” in a given circumstance, or any more reasonable to talk about what’s “due” or “undue” without mention of circumstance. How people adjudicate what is “due” and “undue” is a function of their values, which are generated intersubjectively and materially (i.e. circumstantially).

In your examples you’ve changed and expanded how we’re defining “tax.” In light of Balko’s questions, up until now I’ve been defining tax in terms of capital, not labour. When I say that I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand a 100% tax if I thought it would result in a Star Trek-style utopia, I didn’t mean a 100% tax on labour. Labour and capital are not the same thing, and equating them is a mistake. Labour is immediate, qualitative, and particularistic. Capital is abstract, quantitative, and systemically generalized. Wage labour and commodification tie the two concepts, but their incongruity is manifested in the perverse extremes of our economic system; extremes that make sense from a systemic observer perspective, but not from the perspective of, say, the best and hardest working high school teacher in the country who, watching an episode of NYC Prep, says “WTF?!”

If I thought it plausible that a given set of policies could take capital out of the equation, and allow us all, without material want, to labour at what projects we chose for the immediate joys of the labour and its products, I would gladly fork over all of my money to it. Problem is, society’s not in a place where that step is possible.

Incidental question: What’s a *real* libertarian? (”I’m not sure how many real libertarians would agree with this…”). Isn’t there a level of social compulsion implicit in the kind of dogmatism that produces such categories? Doesn’t that in turn make *real* libertarians’ ostentatious claim to being the “most” freedom loving a bit tenuous? For an ideology that’s all about leaving people to their own devices, I’m always surprised by how preachy libertarians tend to be—no offense but I don’t find your last paragraph to be “quasi-” anything. To quote:

Allow me, if I may be so bold, to sum it up in a quasi-religious way Caesar’s (Government’s) tools are those of compulsion: confiscation, imprisonment, execution – he runs the courts, balances the fisc, and repels invaders, while God’s (Society’s) tools are those of persuasion: he requests donations and self-sacrifice, and may offer you the esteem and respect of your fellows in return – and it is his work to care for the poor, heal the sick, and edify the soul. But we ought, libertarianism believes, to do God’s work with God’s tools and Caesar’s with Caesar’s. Even when we attempt to do social good with Caesar’s tools – that is by means of threats, confiscation, or bodily harm – they posit, we have already done something quite perverse, regardless of the outcome.

I don’t know how you could not see that your God uses tools of coercion all the time. And as for Caesar, Caesar is what God made him.

~

UPDATE IV: This one’s in response to Dane, who just hit me with a barrage (which you can find in the comments below):

Sir,

First: My “ou”s stay. God save the Queen.

(1) “Get real”

You get real. It’s 100% unreasonable to ask whether I support a tax increase, or higher inflation, etc. etc. without reference to what it would pay for. And, yes, there are effectively an infinite number of things and permutations of things that it could pay for, and an equal number of diverse consequences. Money’s useful like that.

You give me a policy proposal and I’ll tell you whether I think its benefits are worth its cost, which will inevitably be disputable. Why? I don’t know if you’ve noticed as a social scientist, but society and the economy are both very complex and only somewhat predictable, even given the most specific proposals for systemic reform. Maybe you know enough about the dynamics of society and the economy to say beyond dispute, regarding, for example, Senator Wyden’s health care reform proposal, how it will affect inflation over the medium and long terms, exactly how that in turn will affect the different sectors of the economy, exactly how the health plan will affect the different sectors of the economy, how the health plan will affect quality of life more broadly understood in the various different sectors of society, and how people will feel about those economic and quality of life effects. If you do, it’ll make the debate much easier.

My point is that isn’t it hard enough to make intelligent claims when dealing with one immediate proposal without venturing off into the abstract? Sure, it doesn’t provide the same opportunities for ideological grandstanding, and I’m glad that libertarians get so much satisfaction from that activity, but it’s tiresome for the rest of us.

Re: “(your fake percentages and “boredom” comments are not helpful, by the way)” — They match the questions.

(2) “Libertarianism is what now?”

“Libertarianism orients social good in terms of personal freedom – a concept most often and easily achieved by limiting what the government and others are allowed to take from you by force (life, money, property, the pursuit of happiness at no one’s expense but your own, etc)”

Libertarianism, ironically, is dogmatic. And because it glosses over how thicker social and cultural notions of the good are generated, it treats as magically universal a notion of freedom that tries and fails to buttress itself against historical and cultural contingency by voiding itself of meaningful content (defining freedom only negatively as “freedom from…”). It fails in that only an impoverished, atomized, and paranoid culture could think that “freedom from” is all that freedom is. Or that “freedom from” can be maximized by abandoning society to market forces in all respects except defense, policing, and criminal justice.

This seems like an appropriate place for the Weber quote I was alluding to:

For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic condtions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”. But Fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

…To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer… Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all…. the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

Re: “Well that’s an error on your part. Both [capital and labour] should always be considered.”

How trite. And how easy. Thanks Dane for that thoughtful response to a complex point that is a perfect example of me presenting you with a theoretical problem with libertarianism, as you requested in your previous comment.

I wasn’t arguing that they shouldn’t both be considered. I was arguing that they should be distinguished, and that libertarianism tends to put too much trust in capital as a heuristic for labour. I am specifically saying—listen up Balko—that a Sisyphean 100% tax on labour would be pretty hard if not impossible to justify… I think Camus tried once. But who is proposing anything like that?

Re: God and Caesar.

I’m fine with distinguishing between free interaction organized by persuasion, and interaction organized by coercion. In fact, I think that such a distinction is absolutely necessary to any critical social theory that wants to retain reason. My issue is that the God : Caesar :: Society : Government :: Good : Necessary Evil set of binaries is reductive and misleading. Coercion—let’s define it as the forcible narrowing of an individual’s range of otherwise possible free choice—can take myriad soft and hard forms and is far from the exclusive domain of government. In fact the economic system is responsible for a great deal of systemic coercion owing to strategic action by corrupt and immoral individuals, and to failures of markets to effectively commodify essential goods (education, health care, art…) in a way that is rational from a societal perspective (one that takes into accounts goods and ills beyond purely monetary profits and costs).

These failures occur because these are fundamentally difficult goods to commodify (they’re hard to generalize, their “purchasers”—because they’re so immediate—can’t coldly weigh their purchases on the margin, it’s particularly problematic to assume “perfect information” among their purchasers, etc.). These social goods, “lefties” believe, can be far better and more rationally administered outside of the market. Yes, taking them out of the market will require “confiscation” (or whatever) from entrenched insurance industry interests (among other interests). It’s the calculus of which coercion is worse that determines, to me, which should be allowed to persist.

Re: your “Aha see?”

Even if you can’t have 0 or 1, there are an infinite number of values >0 and <1.

Re: “And again, this is really not about un-proposed theoretical social programs. What are Lefty Blogger X’s acceptable limits for inflation, debt, gov. % of gdp, for the programs already proposed or endorsed by him/her.”

For the tangible clause after the comma specifying what the bloggers are being asked to weigh the costs against, that’s a far better question than the questions Balko actually asks, and one that I support whole heartedly.

If you’re going to issue a challenge, you oughtn’t hide your “real” questions in implication, especially if you intend the challenge earnestly for people who haven’t already drunk your Kool-Aid (and not merely as a means of setting yourself up to sanctimoniously showboat in front of those who have).

Re: The Nazis

I agree with you. Wild tangents are stupid. But they’re what follows from asking indefinite questions, or trying to operationalize vague but uncompromising principles.

~

I should not still be awake right now.

~

UPDATE… what number are we up to now?: The conversation continues… see the comments under this post, and then under this one.

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23 Responses to “Playing a libertarian’s game: Radley Balko’s “State your limits” challenge (UPDATED)”

  1. I’m a friend of Dane’s and fan of Balko, so for that you must forgive me. You’re right that Balko has made the assumption that at some point, too much government is bad.

    But you’ve made a lovely assumption of your own, to wit: “People will tolerate what they have to tolerate.” Perhaps you are being glib (not unlikely), but I urge caution. For that seems to imply that no governmental system is better than another – that no people would ever want to change their government for any reason- and that any lengths a government goes to is A-OK, so long as their defense is “we’re making it better for the worst-off”. Let us be sure to deal not with intentions, but with results.

    • Thanks for your comment Andrew. As a fellow friend of Dane’s I can’t but forgive you lest I not be able to forgive myself, heh.

      I can see how you could take that phrase as you do, but that’s not what I intend by it. I agree that at a lot of points too much government is bad. But what those points are defined by is what the government is doing and how it’s affecting the systems that structure society. How society measures those affects is contingent on the nature of that society itself. It seems pretty obvious that you can’t say anything with any content or meaning in this kind of conversation without reference to the realities of society or reference to an actual plausible change that one can grasp in terms of how it would affect that society.

      By rejecting what I find to be Balko’s reductive abstract absolutism I don’t mean to suggest abandoning the whole project to relativism. I think that’s a false dichotomy. What I’m saying is that both fail to be engage meaningfully with how value is generated and understood (which is with direct reference to social reality).

      My issue with Rawls is that the floaty legislator position he creates with the original position isn’t one that is meaningful in non-abstract discussion. Further, a lot of the conclusions he derives from that position are contingent on there existing an “overlapping consensus” on value that is decidedly late-20th century American. Anyway, in non-abstract discussion it is vulnerable to the kind of bad faith distortion that you subject it to when you suggest that governments can use it as carte-blanche (though one could only do so cynically—using it to make legitimacy claims while not buying the philosophy that underlies those claims—people these days are cynical).

      But my original point, I think, stands… not only does Balko not make any tangible reference to anything that could be weighed in terms of its benefits and costs for “the worst off,” his questions aren’t tangible at all.

      • On second reading of your comment, I don’t think I actually understand at all how you get from “people will tolerate what they need to tolerate” to “no governmental system is better than an other.” Seems like a Hulk-like, asphalt-destroying leap to me.

  2. Yeah, I’ve gotta say that the thought experiment doesn’t make much in the way of sense. That said, I’d be willing to tax the top 1% of earners in the US at a 99.999999999999999% rate. They’d get their accountants to write most of it off anyway. [Lest this comment elicit any wrath, that number is hyperbolic. The real number is 99.9999999997%]

  3. Let me explain. People will tolerate what they have to tolerate. Who is making them tolerate it? Presumably those in their government? But you make no distinction between what sort of government or what means it employs to force them to tolerate ‘it’. Had you simply said “people will tolerate whatever they choose to” I would have no problem. But as it currently stands, every revolution in history would seem to fly in the face of that sentence – those revolutionaries chose not to tolerate that government any longer. And yes, presumably they did a rudimentary “cost-benefit analysis” of that government before doing so.

    But more revealing and interesting, I think, is your update. You see absolutely no limit to the size or scope of government, provided you are convinced the (admittedly, predicted) benefits are great enough. But I think, push comes to shove, no libertarian would believe that a “star trek utopia” is even possible. The human species cannot be perfected in libertarian thought. Instead, government must be constituted to mitigate our vices rather than to bolster our virtues. That, as a matter of course, means granting magistrates the absolute least amount of authority and power necessary to perform their assigned duties; for he will tend to use it for his own advantage. And that, I think, is the primary divergence between modern liberalism and libertarianism.

    You and Balko similarly diverge. Where he sees a 100% tax rate as on its face oppressive and destructive of human liberty and freedom of choice, you see a chance at utopia. I happen to side with Balko – but of course I can’t prove, though I do strongly suspect, that utopia is impossible.

  4. See Update II on the main post.

  5. boy howdy, we are on completely different planes here. Forgive the length of my comments.

    I only wanted you to take caution in using such sentences as “people will tolerate what they have to tolerate,” especially when we are talking about ways government ‘should’ (not could) be constituted. Your Auschwitz example is pertinent in that with enough force people can be compelled to endure horrific suffering. But should we grant government that much authority?, allow it to apply so much force? Even if it claims it is building a ‘perfect society’ (As the Reich certainly did)?

    Libertarianism does not think of society in terms of perfect or nothing. Society can certainly be made better. But Society and Government are two very different animals. Society, in general, is constituted by various voluntary relationships of people. It is, for that reason, without any centralized direction – one can have a variety of loyalties and duties within society: family, friends, church, clubs, occupation. But all of these duties are taken on voluntarily, as and to the extent that each citizen may desire. Libertarianism thinks that such decisions: where to work, whom to associate with, etc should be, as much as possible, left up to the participants and not determined by governmental authority. I’m not sure how many real libertarians would agree with this, but I think the heart of libertarianism is freedom to choose, a government that employs the least amount of compulsion possible in safeguarding the common good.

    Nevertheless, a given body politic must protect itself from various threats: external invasion and criminal behavior spring to mind. Why? In essence, because such actions constitute a threat to the freedom (to choose and determine their own lives) of all the citizens. And so Governments are established and granted compulsory power. They are empowered to threaten, coerce, and compel the citizens themselves to take certain actions necessary for their own collective good. This includes taxation.

    You might ask how or assert that taxes do not interfere with a person’s right to lead his life as he chooses. But, in libertarian thinking, it does. It’s not money that he is deprived of (money is simply a medium of exchange), it is the labor that that money symbolizes and the choices it would grant him. A man ought, they posit, to be free to work in whatever way he pleases and to enjoy the fruit of that labor as freely as possible. Taxes deprive him of some part of that labor, for the common good of course, and thereby alter his freedom to determine his own life. A simple example: a farmer who is taxed 20% of his crop might have to work harder to grow enough for his family than he would without the tax. Thus it deprives him of the leisure he would choose.

    So while taxes are necessary for the common good, libertarians believe they should be minimized in order to allow the greatest amount of freedom in the body politic. That is the social good that libertarians work for: freedom of choice.

    It is for this reason they reject such various projects as social security (people should be free to keep their own earnings and to save as they please towards their own retirement), college loans (even when you encourage people to do things, you alter their freedom to live as they choose – as well as deprive others of the fruit of their labor to fund your program), and the drug war (people should be free to smoke, drink, inject whatever they want into their bodies).

    This is also why I think Balko would reject a 100% tax rate out of hand. It would mean that no one would be free to enjoy his labor as he chose- instead a group of his fellow citizens would dictate entirely in what ways, to what extent, and in what places he might enjoy himself, obtain his meals, shelter himself, etc. He might be granted a few options, but not true freedom from compulsion. Indeed, nearly every parameter of his life would have to be determined by others.

    So while libertarians realize that some complusory power must be granted to government (they are not anarchists), it ought to be used only to protect citizens from compulsion, theft, or bodily harm. Otherwise, it should be used as sparingly as possible.

    Thus even supposed social goods (one must always ask, cui bono?) would not be encouraged or funded by a truly libertarian government. They would be an infringement upon the rights of all to determine their own lives. One might then object that this philosophy is heartless, cold, and unmerciful towards the poor. It may seem so. But it is a philosophy only of government, not society. Some people may choose to found, manage, and work for charitable organizations – and they would be left as free as possible to do so. (But not, notably, encouraged in any way by their government – such action is left entirely up to them)

    Allow me, if I may be so bold, to sum it up in a quasi-religious way Caesar’s (Government’s) tools are those of compulsion: confiscation, imprisonment, execution – he runs the courts, balances the fisc, and repels invaders, while God’s (Society’s) tools are those of persuasion: he requests donations and self-sacrifice, and may offer you the esteem and respect of your fellows in return – and it is his work to care for the poor, heal the sick, and edify the soul. But we ought, libertarianism believes, to do God’s work with God’s tools and Caesar’s with Caesar’s. Even when we attempt to do social good with Caesar’s tools – that is by means of threats, confiscation, or bodily harm – they posit, we have already done something quite perverse, regardless of the outcome.

    With that overlong comment I will let it go. We’ve already Godwinned this sucker. My apologies.

    I await Dane’s contribution.

  6. See Update III

  7. I just wrote this… then refreshed the page to see you’ve posted an update III, which I haven’t read. I’m still posting it, and will get to the third update next. Also, does anyone know how to italicize font in here? or bold things? it would help

    Comment 1: Get Real

    “My point is that there are an infinite number of contingencies that one could put after the “if” of which the two examples I’ve just given are extremes, and its only a study of a given contingency that can determine whether it’s worth the costs society would have to pay for it—costs that could take any number of forms, by the way, beyond the immediately fiscal / monetary ones that are the subject of Balko’s questions.”

    Ben, this is simply a cop out. You know for damn sure there aren’t an “infinite number” of realistic contingencies (in other words, government program options) necessary to consider in order to state an opinion on the limits to the size of government. Let’s take the inflation question of Balko’s, for example. Name me a realistic government program, which you in reasonable faith believe would be executed successfully (no “US government grants us all eternal life” programs etc.), that would be worth say, 50% inflation in one year.

    We know the consequences to society of inflation, and we know the ramifications of too much government debt in the hands of foreign countries, and we can make plausible guesses towards the ramifications of over-taxing certain groups of society (they get pissy or stop being productive or leave or MOST likely resort to corruption and crime to hide their money, etc).

    Balko’s question to leftist bloggers is simple and answerable. At what level are those consequences too high for the bloggers pet social project. If we start paying for bread with wheelbarrows of cash, is that universal government healthcare plan you (blogger X) want still worth it? When powerful foreign nations with global ambitions counter to our own control much of our debt, is it still worth it? What about when we corrupt/run off the most successful members of our economy?

    You don’t even need an exact number (your fake percentages and “boredom” comments are not helpful, by the way). A reasonable answer for a lefty blogger would be to say I support increasing inflation (by printing money) or increasing taxes to pay for a universal healthcare plan, as long as it is clear these funding measures are sustainable, and 1) this is why I think they would be, 2) these are the rough levels in which I think they would be, and 3) this is what I think we should do if the program overruns its project costs in this analysis. I find it so abhorrent when bloggers and individuals so voraciously demand social program X (and demonize those who don’t) without a thorough discussion of its costs and what to do if those costs are overrun (as is so very often the case).

    “Conversely, if I thought a 100% tax on everyone was going to be used to create a sustainable Star Trek-style utopia in which everyone had the freedom to pursue what projects they wished without fear of want, then I would certainly give it serious consideration.”

    Great example of what I mean when I urge you to “get real.” You can’t honestly think the end result of 100% taxation rates would be the United Federation of Planets. We should have learned enough by now to realize that the likeliest path would be 1950s China, and be able to thus write off this level of taxation as not worth the price of any left blogger’s pet government projects. See, now look at that. We already have an upper bound to your infinite contingencies without even trying.

    This exercise is extremely informative, particularly for those of us who read accounts of lefty bloggers (or anyone) promoting various spending programs. I want to see that they’ve actually thought about the ramifications of what they propose. And when their pet project starts overrunning their cost thresholds (which they almost always do), I want to call them out if they still support their project for whatever bullshit “greater good” reason they supply.

    Comment 2: Libertarianism is what now?

    “Taking it a step further, any political ideology that completely abandons the possibility of an orienting notion of a social good in favour of focusing solely on “mitigating our vices” has some very serious theoretical problems to contend with. First and foremost, without a notion of the social good, you’re left to ground your definitions of those vices in systemic inefficiency, which, as Leo Strauss demonstrates in his essay “What is Political Philosophy?”, is a road to the evaporation of morality whole hog.”

    Problem 1: you misspelled “favor.” 😛
    Problem 2: you have misrepresented and maligned the philosophy of libertarianism.

    I see Andrew has replied to this in his discussion of freedom as the primary social good sought by libertarianism (as opposed to this “inefficiency” nonsense you spout above). I want to second his reply. Libertarianism orients social good in terms of personal freedom – a concept most often and easily achieved by limiting what the government and others are allowed to take from you by force (life, money, property, the pursuit of happiness at no one’s expense but your own, etc).

    Now, what on earth are all these other “serious theoretical problems?” It’s unfair to our discussion to suggest a belief is crap and not provide compelling evidence. And don’t start quoting random philosophers and give me “suggested reading.” Clearly write the critique, rather than boldly asserting and insinuating that libertarianism is somehow more deeply flawed than liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, or whatever ism you fancy.

  8. “In your examples you’ve changed and expanded how we’re defining “tax.” In light of Balko’s questions, up until now I’ve been defining tax in terms of capital, not labour. When I say that I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand a 100% tax if I thought it would result in a Star Trek-style utopia, I didn’t mean a 100% tax on labour.”

    Well that’s an error on your part. Both should always be considered.

    “I don’t know how you could not see that your God uses tools of coercion all the time. And as for Caesar, Caesar is what God made him.”

    I feel you’re being unusually dense not to see this analogy. Southern Lynching has nothing to do with Andrew’s definition of “God’s tools.” Compulsion/coercion by society in a manner that robs someone else of life is obviously something that libertarians are against, and would sanction the government to combat (see Caesar’s powers: repelling invaders). Combating lynching falls under repelling invaders, as does domestic law enforcement in general.

  9. “If I thought it plausible that a given set of policies could take capital out of the equation, and allow us all, without material want, to labour at what projects we chose for the immediate joys of the labour and its products, I would gladly fork over all of my money to it. Problem is, society’s not in a place where that step is possible.”

    Aha. see? Right there. A limit to your “infinite contingencies” problem. no plausible social program would create that outcome.

    And again, this is really not about un-proposed theoretical social programs. What are Lefty Blogger X’s acceptable limits for inflation, debt, gov. % of gdp, for the programs already proposed or endorsed by him/her.

    At this point, Balko would be happy for just that from prominent lefties.

  10. “The Nazi *government* should unequivocally not have been “granted” (weird verb) the level of power it wielded. But in terms of capacity (economically, technologically, militarily, etc.), the Nazis didn’t wield a fraction of the “power” that the American government currently does, yet I would say that I’m not nearly as opposed to the American government’s possession of the power that it has then had I had the opportunity to oppose the Nazis.”

    We appear to be going off on wild tangents now. Capacity should always be discussed in relative terms. Relative to their respective points in history, The Nazi’s were probably as powerful in terms of military, technology, and economy as the US today. Definitely arguable, depending on how you define power in these areas. But really let’s not get lost in that please.

  11. My Objections: First, Balko is talking about ‘should.’ He posits that at some point too high a tax rate becomes unacceptable – presumably even a liberal ideal would be lower. But where is the limit – where does a tax rate, for instance, become so high that it is inimical to human freedom? What I think he wanted is what you gave him – the assertion that it isn’t necessarily.

    Undue compulsion – I don’t believe I used that term. I should check, but… lazy. If I did, I ought to have said “minimize compulsion.” Again, the goal is to use the least amount that is absolutely necessary.

    If labor earns me capital, and capital can buy me labor, I don’t see how your distinction changes my point. A 100% tax rate means all your ‘earnings,’ in whatever form they might take, would go into a central pot to be re-allocated by others.

    Real Libertarian = professional writer or researcher in politics. I am a classicist and hesitate to speak for others more qualified than myself in this field. I can persuade other libertarians or be persuaded by them to certain views as to what is real libertarianism – I cannot imprison, threaten, or harm them for disagreeing with me. (True compulsion)

    Finally, Social Compulsion does not equal Governmental Compulsion. Government ought to have a monopoly on offensive force and any true private Compulsion (i.e. lynching, threats, assault, imprisonment) would be outlawed and punished under a libertarian government.

    I am not religious. I use the analogy of God and Caesar only because it is powerful and, I think, apt. It well illustrates, in my mind, the difference between coercive action and persuasive action and their appropriate domains in libertarian thought.

    • Andrew I do want to respond to you, but have a thesis due in 72 hours that I have more than 72 hours of work to do on. If you’re still interested, Check back on Friday for a continuation.

      Before leaving though: don’t worry about Dane’s vitriol. It’s hard having one’s basic concepts of reality problematized, especially when one had been convinced that one’s ideological opponents could be so stupid as to not acknowledge that it’s important to consider costs (some people don’t, but stupidity isn’t a monopoly of the left). The Inquisition’s Qualifiers were similarly vitriolic when they were first confronted with heleo-centrism, and I’m not just saying that to provoke him ;).

      • especially when one had been convinced that one’s ideological opponents could be so stupid as to not acknowledge that it’s important to consider costs (some people don’t, but stupidity isn’t a monopoly of the left)

        It’s easy to be convinced with what is simple reality. I don’t have time to go back and find all the leftist commentary where these bloggers gleefully cheer on social programs with little to no honest discussion of their monetary or social costs. But, here are just two memorable examples, and I’d bet you money I could find another dozen just by going through your own blog roll.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/opinion/22krugman.html?_r=1

        “I’m not that worried about the issue of costs. Yes, the Congressional Budget Office’s preliminary cost estimates for Senate plans were higher than expected, and caused considerable consternation last week. But the fundamental fact is that we can afford universal health insurance — even those high estimates were less than the $1.8 trillion cost of the Bush tax cuts”

        See mom? we can afford that new swimming pool because we already just bought a limited edition sports car.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/opinion/30krugman.html

        It’s true that the cost of universal health care will be a continuing expense, reaching far into the future. But that has always been true, and Mr. Obama has always claimed that his health care plan was affordable.The temporary expenses of his stimulus plan shouldn’t change that calculation.

        Don’t worry. Just trust Obama. It will all work out, I promise!

        don’t worry about Dane’s vitriol. It’s hard having one’s basic concepts of reality problematized

        Wow, this is vitriol? I was holding back punches, and responding in kind to your own flippant tone. And I’m still waiting for a legible explanation of libertarianism’s so-called theoretical flaws. Maybe it’s your rhetorical style, but what you’ve said so far is not convincing in the slightest. I will have a longer post after croquet on this. Until then, see you on the field, sir.

  12. Having now read Dane’s respons and Ben’s response to Dane…

    Ben, I see your point (in the response to Dane) that some goods are difficult to commodify (education, health care, etc.) – but isn’t that also an argument for leaving such choices in the hands of the people themselves? After all, they know their own situation better than any government could and must estimate, then, how much they are willing to pay to acquire such uncommodifiable goods in light of their own situation, i.e. in light of many such ‘uncommodifiable’ circumstances.

    An admittedly silly and tendentious Health Care example: A man learns he has a terminal illness and will die within 2 years. There is a treatment available with a 50% chance of success that costs 60 grand. Let us say he has the 60 grand. Even so, he would have to make a choice based on his own circumstances: does he have children or a family and would like to leave them the money? Does he have some goal he desperately needs to accomplish before he dies? Would he rather give the 60 grand to charity in his will than get the procedure? Is he afraid of the suffering he might endure? All these might change his eventual choice of whether or not to spend the money.

    A government program, even a good one, cannot take note of all these circumstances as he would. It cannot know his life as well as he does, it can only allow or deny him the care based on its own calculus. (And lord only knows what political agenda that will be based on, but that is an aside) And it will have been taxing him and many others (by coercive action perhaps should go unsaid) throughout their entire lives in case of such an eventuality. Should it award him the money, he would almost certainly take it. Should it deny him the procedure, he would almost certainly feel angry and resentful.

    I would also like to say that I have enjoyed this honest conversation, Ben, though I haven’t even met you before. I appreciate the time you have taken in responding to my, a poor layman’s, concerns. Dane, you have also raised some good points – I too think Balko’s questions are, broadly, quite answerable. Of course, specifics are impossible here – but that should not bar us from taking a guess. I caution you, however, not to be so forward in making them. (Unusually dense? Direct your vitriol away from the man you are trying to persuade, my friend.)

  13. […] Radley Balko who’s ignoring me either because he has no response to my iron clad arguments, or because he has better things to do than respond to two-bit bloggers whose readership is […]

  14. I know I said I wouldn’t but it’s just too tempting.

    Dane:

    When Krugman dismisses a cost as affordable it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been considered. If anything it’s a straight up answer to the question that Balko should have asked: Krugman thinks the cost of such a program is worth the benefit.

    Further weakening your point, you’ve cherry-picked quotes to straw-man Krugman’s macro-economic arguments, which you then judge based on principles of micro-economics. Even putting aside how much you’ve straw manned him, you’re effectively criticizing a catcher for not throwing good drop pitches.

    …but, I suppose, why make an effort to understand an ideological opponent’s theoretical foundation on its own terms when it’s obviously not libertarian and so obviously incorrect? “What? Dogmatic? Me?!” And then you get mad at me for answer Balko’s questions as they were asked, and not as they were “really” meant… sheesh!

    PS – sorry for the delay in your comment being posted… my spam filter picked it up… I think because it contained the phrase “See mom? we can afford that new swimming pool…”

    • Re: “Well that’s an error on your part. Both [capital and labour] should always be considered.”

      How trite. And how easy. Thanks Dane for that thoughtful response to a complex point that is a perfect example of me presenting you with a theoretical problem with libertarianism, as you requested in your previous comment.

      A perfect example? This isn’t even an example of a problem libertarianism faces, much less a perfect one. Libertarians recognize the various forms of capital just fine, as evident by Andrew bringing up labor to begin with.

      Labor and capital aren’t equal, sure, but that wasn’t what Andrew was talking about at all. Taxing someone’s earnings (capital) forces that person to spend more time laboring to make up the lost cash, and thus less time doing anything else he might want to do. Thus taxes inherently reduce personal freedom, even if indirectly. And that is something that people other than libertarians often forget.

  15. nonono, Krugman does not offer a straight up answer to the costs of his pet social project — he dismisses them flippantly by saying they’ll be magically solved by unspecified higher taxes and cost-saving measures. That’s not a serious analysis of the monetary/social impact of a policy. What would Chad think if we responded to the possible critiques of our theses like that?

    Further weakening your point, you’ve cherry-picked quotes to straw-man Krugman’s macro-economic arguments, which you then judge based on principles of micro-economics. Even putting aside how much you’ve straw manned him, you’re effectively criticizing a catcher for not throwing good drop pitches.

    I have no clue what you’re talking about with the macro-micro babble. My critique is valid at either level. And hey, this is real vitriol, buddy. I don’t cherry-pick or straw-man anyone. That’s hurtful. You don’t think those two articles I cited are representative of the way Krugman always dismisses the costs of his pet projects? Here is a brief content analysis of every relevant NYT column Krugman has written about the healthcare plan since November. Not that many – there are only four of them.

    I’ve included the link, a relevant citation, and my annoyed reaction to the way he glosses over the discussion of costs. I alternated bolding each one, for easier reading.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/opinion/22krugman.html

    I’m not that worried about the issue of costs. Yes, the Congressional Budget Office’s preliminary cost estimates for Senate plans were higher than expected, and caused considerable consternation last week. But the fundamental fact is that we can afford universal health insurance — even those high estimates were less than the $1.8 trillion cost of the Bush tax cuts. Furthermore, Democratic leaders know that they have to pass a health care bill for the sake of their own survival. One way or another, the numbers will be brought in line.

    I’ve already mentioned this one in my previous comment. But the “just trust me” attitude is worth repeating.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/opinion/24krugman.html?_r=1

    “Well, in the case of health care, one pill means continuing on our current path — a path along which health care premiums will continue to soar, the number of uninsured Americans will skyrocket and Medicare costs will break the federal budget. The other pill means reforming our system, guaranteeing health care for all Americans at the same time we make medicine more cost-effective.”

    An entire article focused on how universal health care coverage might reduce health care costs, which misleadingly doesn’t discuss the cost of the program itself, or the proposals to pay for it.

    It’s ironic that Krugman mentions the Massachusetts experiment in this article, since that policy is a perfect example of a program where politicians worried about the costs after the fact, and saw the costs of their program rise above their projections.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/opinion/27krugman.html

    “The subsidy portion of health reform would cost around a trillion dollars over the next decade. In all the plans currently on the table, this expense would be offset with a combination of cost savings elsewhere and additional taxes, so that there would be no overall effect on the federal deficit”

    Right, because budget projections of government projects are famous for their accuracy. Regardless, this is not the in-depth analysis I expect. What taxes? How realistic are these sudden cost-savings, and if they’re real, why haven’t private-insurance companies implemented them already?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/opinion/06krugman.html

    “There are a number of ways to look at this number, but maybe the best is to point out that it’s less than 4 percent of the $33 trillion the U.S. government predicts we’ll spend on health care over the next decade. And that in turn means that much of the expense can be offset with straightforward cost-saving measures, like ending Medicare overpayments to private health insurers and reining in spending on medical procedures with no demonstrated health benefits.”

    Not at all helpful. Where does the $33 trillion come from? Does it factor in the fact that by creating a competing public option, private insurers will be forced to lower prices or go under, and as many do go under, the number of individuals switching to the public plan will rise, and thus the cost of the public program increases?

    Here he provides some details at least on what “cost saving measures” entails, but again I’m skeptical that doctors and insurance companies are spending sooo much money on allegedly irrelevant medical procedures. Unnecessary medical procedures (and the fabled/alleged long waiting lines they create) are the theoretical outcome of universal healthcare systems, not private ones.

    None of these articles offers more than a gloss-over analysis of the costs of the health care bill. All I want is an honest analysis of where his numbers come from, why he’s so confident in these alleged “cost-saving measures” materializing, why he’s so confident in the program remaining on budget, or any decent discussion of its actual monetary costs. You know, all that evidencey stuff any responsible scientist brings with them, so you don’t just have to take them at his/her word.

    Before leaving though: don’t worry about Dane’s vitriol. It’s hard having one’s basic concepts of reality problematized, especially when one had been convinced that one’s ideological opponents could be so stupid as to not acknowledge that it’s important to consider costs (some people don’t, but stupidity isn’t a monopoly of the left).

    So yeah, Ben, I’m constantly reminded that my ideological opponents are stupid enough to not properly acknowledge costs. Their eyes are always bigger than their stomachs.

    • Again, thesis writing, so this is going to be shorter than I would like.

      My micro-macro “babble” was an attempt to give you the benefit of the doubt that in comparing Krugman’s reasoning to the reasoning of a household, you intended that government should always act with its own bottom line as its overriding concern within the broader economic system (in the way that a firm or household is expected to do). What I’m saying is that that improperly applies micro-economics to a macro-economic problem. The government’s trust is not that it will maximize its own best interests within the larger system. A government’s trust is that it will ensure that the system functions optimally so that it’s constituents can best go about seeking their micro-level interests. Sure it has to be solvent, but very different cost-benefit logics apply.

      I’m sorry if I’ve hurt your feelings, but you are straw manning Krugman. Chad’s not editing our mainstream op-ed pieces. He’s editing our academic theses. In fact, judging from Krugman’s blog, which is much more wonky, my guess is that it’s Krugman’s Chad (his editor) on the op-ed page who takes out the details (which I think is dumb too, but then I think a lot of things are dumb about the media). That’s one factor. Another he talks about today, making the point that the conversation about health economics has become so distorted that he uses shorthand for established facts when he shouldn’t, assuming his shorthand is obvious (for being familiar with the health economics literature, and for having often addressed their referents before… how many times does someone need to cite Kenneth Arrow before people read him?). A third reason why he glosses over costs in his short pieces is because his ideological opponents refuse to do his arguments justice; hear the word “tax” and announce”SEE? HE AMITTED IT!” I’m not a fan of this rationale, and it was at the core of my critique of Krugman in my debate with Tom. That said I understand it.

      And most importantly, you’re making the same mistake in your expectations that Balko made in his questions: expecting Krugman to be able to talk concretely about costs without talking concretely about a settled proposal. That taxes and cost-savings measures are mentioned in the abstract in these pieces is because the proposed policy hadn’t (and still hasn’t) cohered (Obama hasn’t gone the Clinton route and imposed a pre-defined plan on Congress for them to stamp… he’s letting Congress do the designing, and that process is far from complete). So he addresses them in theoretical terms. That’s reasonable.

      Going through your examples 1 by 1:

      (1) “i’m not worried about costs… Bush’s tax cut was expensive”: The op-ed isn’t about the economics of healthcare. He mentions the economics of health care in an op-ed about the politics of health care. If you wanted to argue with him about his health economics ideas, that’s the flimsiest presentation of his arguments that you could have chosen to rumble with. Hence: straw-manning.

      (2) “Well, in the case of health care, one pill means…”: What program? That said, I agree with you that Krugman is too hung up on how shitty Bush was. He’s gone now, and it would be more informative and helpful to address the present realities. That said, he’s right to point to the GOP’s corrupt hypocricy “govenment spending is great so long as it’s not in the public interest!”

      (3) “The subsidy portion of health reform would cost around a trillion dollars over the next decade. In all the plans currently on the table, this expense would be offset with a combination of cost savings elsewhere and additional taxes, so that there would be no overall effect on the federal deficit.”: This is a piece about the incoherence and political games of the Bluedog Dems. Again, note that “a program” hadn’t yet cohered. He was talking about what a good proposal could and should cost on the metric of whether or not it would add to the deficit. If it’s deficit neutral, for Krugman it’s a no brainer. The CBO since found that the dominant proposal that emerged would not be deficit neutral. Krugman still thinks it’s worth it because the benefits of which still far outweigh, to him the costs, though if the proposal can be restructured to improve it on the cost metrics without seriously crippling the public benefits, do you really think he would be opposed? What kind of motives do you think that he has?

      (4) “There are a number of ways to look at this number…”: My guess is he has not only considered your first point (about switchers), but is hoping for it. As he has said routinely, government administered insurance has administrative overhead a fraction of the cost of private companies (cutting that 30 trillion number significantly, though necessarily shifting the mode of payment from health premiums to payroll taxes), and you don’t have to be worried about being kicked out of the program based on fine print as soon as you actually need insurance support (see Act III of this week’s This American Life). Unnecessary procedures are not just a theoretical outcome of a profit based system with vast information asymmetries, as Atul Gawande documented last month, they’re a demonstrable truth.

      What public coverage “theoretically” leads to, is people going in to get themselves checked out when they think, but are not sure that they’re sick. Treating these people is far cheaper than treating people who avoid the doctor until their conditioned has worsened to a degree that their sickness is undeniable, and there’s much more damage to repair. You’re right though… for those weird minority who “love” to undergo expensive, non-cosmetic medical procedures, they won’t be so powerfully disincented. Weirdly enough these people haven’t brough about social and economic collapse in every other developed country in the world (all of which have a strong public presence in healthcare… even Hong Kong, your libertarian paradise).

      Anyway, when you assume your opponents are stupid you’re going to see what you expect (my general problem with self-definition in terms of ideology—it puts in-group / out-group dynamics into what should be reasoned debate). But on the bright side, no one could accuse you of being “scientific” either.

      I’ll address the fairly obvious flaws in reasoning in your “rebuttal” of my positing that the distinction between labour and capital is problematic for libertarians after my thesis is in (morning of the 30th).

  16. […] leave a comment » Thought I’d throw a log on the pyre (does one throw logs onto pyre’s?…) on which I’ve been burning libertarianism’s corpse. […]

  17. […] note that intelligent does not equal positive. At it’s barest, the definition I settled on in my debate with Dane and Andrew was that libertarianism is a form of self-denying orthodox positivism. For an elaboration, see the […]


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