|A few notes in defense of libertarianism:|
In response to the recent slew of articles posted to HN criticizing libertarianism, I have decided to jot down a few points that I think were overlooked.
First, George W. Bush and the Republican party are NOT libertarians. Zed's argument was essentially this, and it's about as logical as declaring that you're going to write an essay about the flaws of vegetarianism and then proceeding to mention a bunch of bad things about pepperoni.
Republicans occasionally use some libertarian rhetoric, but they do not follow it at all. George W. Bush has increased the size of government tremendously, and he's intervened in international affairs and created all kinds of entangling alliances, etc. Libertarians are also strongly opposed to the "family values" rhetoric used mostly by Republicans and by some democrats. Libertarians have been opposed to nearly everything Dubya has done, from No Child Left Behind to the Iraq war to the Treasury's bailout of wall street.
Before we continue, I'd like to recommend two books for those curious about what libertarianism actually is -- Milton Friedman's "Capitalism and Freedom" and David Boaz's "Libertarianism: A Primer". Both articulate a lot of the philosophical and pragmatic aspects. Of course, Atlas Shrugged is interesting for its presentation of a moral argument in favor of capitalism. Notably, it is mainly a critique of crony capitalism, something I think most people would agree is quite different from what capitalism should be.
I've found that many times, people stop at the superficial goal of a government program when determining how they feel about it. Social Security is an example: The idea of everyone paying 1% and then being able to offer everyone basic financial security in old age is not controversial -- I'd say most libertarians would consider it very low on the list of programs that ought to be changed. However may people seem to stop with the program's initial goal and forget about the trends -- increasing costs and increasing retirement age, and no guarantee that the congress (and the public) will support the necessary tax increases needed to keep benefits remotely the same.
So some consider the program "good" because it has a noble end, and others express scepticism because of the various deficiencies.
It's worth noting that if we judged all programs by the nobility of the proposed end, there would be absolutely no reason to think any of them would be successful.
One argument I am quite sympathetic to is that with federalism we get "50 experiments in democracy" to paraphrase the Federalist Papers. Doing a program at the federal level is like using 1 Petri dish, and doing it at the state level is like having 50... which seems more scientific to you?
I'd like to see state legislatures, governors, etc., challenged to come up with creative ways of solving the nation's great problems... this doesn't really happen today. Instead, both parties raise vast sums of money fighting over "wedge issues" that are extremely unlikely to change any time soon. It would take a 2/3 majority to create any of the amendments that the parties promise/refuse, and that's just not likely to happen the way congress is at present. Federalism is a good example of a concept embraced by libertarians -- it respects the basic "engineering" that the legislative process actually is, and recognizes that the first solution may not be the best one. I think it's hard to read the Federalist papers without seeing the whole process as a massive engineering work in progress. So it's just good QA to have a lot of tests running simultaneously.
It's probably not necessary to mention this, but libertarians aren't opposed to regulation, they just try to have a clear-headed view of the actual outcome regulation without getting attached to the stated goal of the regulation. One study that was done by Regulation magazine (affiliated with Cato) showed how an EPA law about polution failed to account for how wind blows pollution between municipalities. Anyone who cares about the planet would hope that environmental regulation be as effective as possible. Cato wasn't throwing stones at the idea behind the regulation, just the alpha version of it (which was the first and only attempt, and current law). Critics would claim that Cato's critique proves that the institute opposes environmental regulation of all kinds, an assumption which couldn't be further from the truth.
People respond to incentives, and every law or regulation creates winners and losers and sets in motion incentives that will have effects over time. Libertarianism is about having a scientific view of this and not getting attached to the first attempt. I see how this is possible when everything seems like it's winner take all, which it is at the federal level, which is yet another reason why it would make more sense to focus on state laws as trial versions of important regulation, so that after a few years other states would modify their laws to include the best ideas of other states, not just on paper but the ideas that actually got the best results and lent themselves to the most effective enforcement.
I should add that libertarianism does try to maximize freedom, both social and economic. People should be able to have adult sex lives free from government intervention -- anal sex, oral sex, gay sex, etc. But they should also be free to engage in whatever they want to do economically -- buy some marijuana, take a job that pays $1 per hour, invest in risky stocks, etc.
Compared to libertarians, those in both parties are extremely paternalistic about some or all of these things. Paternalism is the idea that someone sitting on high is in a better position to decide what you should be ALLOWED to do than you are.
Part of the allure of many politicians is, I think, the "Frodo Baggins" similarity -- an inexperienced yet pure of heart leader to vanquish evil and usher in drastic change. Ironically both George W. Bush and Obama fit into this mold. Libertarians are skeptical of this top-down wisdom and are hesitant to put too much power in the hands of one person. I forget who said this, but "power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely". One question to ask is, if people had trusted George W. Bush less or if he'd had less power, would we have had a hugely expensive, wasteful, futile war?
Bottom line: libertarianism is about economic and social freedom, an engineering approach to legislative problem solving, and a scientific assessment of the actual effects that regulations cause. Ironically, libertarianism is painted as extreme when it's actually the least dogmatic of the major political persuasions. Note that you may have gotten quite irate at the mention of states deciding Roe v Wade, at the thought of discontinuing social security, etc. If you did, it's because you are reacting in a dogmatic, not a scientific way. Libertarians have the courage (and the philosophical obligation) to continue to question reality at the expense of loyalty to the grand causes of either party.