Libertarians, in a panoply of forms, emphasize individual liberty over group control. Even I, your favorite blogger (right?), am somewhat Libertarian, leaning in the direction of Egalitarianism and Pragmatism. During recent political events, the most-publicized form has been Conservative Libertarianism.
A frequently-asserted mantra of Conservative Libertarianism has been that less (preferably zero) government involvement leads to more rational and inherently altruistic choices. This is especially consistent with the laissez-faire business ethic, which insists that businesses will not act in ways which are self-injurious or inconsiderate of broader needs of society. Laissez-faire is extended to individuals as an argument against government-sponsored social support. For instance, it has been claimed that people would rather languish (or here) on unemployment compensation benefits than work. It is also claimed that these benefits make some workers too expensive, according to a simplistic view of supply and demand that an undergraduate college economics class disproves. This overly-broad hypothesis asserts that providing no unemployment benefits is the best way to get people back to work. Recent extended unemployment for many Americans (with brief benefits) contradicts much of this: the jobs have not existed in this recessionary cycle.
Politicians such as Rand Paul are ardent Libertarians, except for when they aren’t. Many advocate interventionist government policies that directly impinge upon individual liberty. This blog will not attempt to add comments about this Libertarian treason. They are noted for the purpose of distinguishing real Libertarians from those who blatantly follow political expedience.
I offer a few examples of how real-world decisions have had consequences that were not merely non-optimal, but actually disastrous.
The American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was our largest environmental disaster. The effects of a prolonged drought would have been terrible, but not unprecedented. Poor tillage and crop practices made a natural event into a man-made disaster. The fledgling Roosevelt administration started immediate government intervention. It was in the form of farm programs which changed these poor practices (including paying enducements) and several coordinated environmental measures, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps planting of millions of windbreaks. The loss of soil was effectively mitigated, providing a basis for improved farm yields in the 1940’s.
There is now a comparable Central Asia Dust Bowl, despite good farm practices being well-known. Farmers have been unimpressed with the implications of these practices for their future, choosing instead the immediate benefits of practices which maximize income. Human nature belies the claims of Libertarianism, that unregulated markets can be optimal.
Saddam Hussein was an example of a comparable myopia. He chose to not acknowledge his lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction – WMDs. The needs of domestic & regional politics conflicted with global politics. He was much more concerned with bluffing Iran (which continues to pose a substantial threat to Iraq) than with heeding the blustering of his dear (former) friends, the Americans.
Before Saddam was a Bad Guy, the Shuttle Challenger disaster provided a lesson in delusional or superstitious thinking. If Libertarian philosophy is good for government policy, it should be just as good for individual government agencies. In this case, the agency was NASA.
The disintegration of Challenger was completely the responsibility of management decisions. Engineering had established safe-certain launch temperatures. When launches nudged the lower limit, management pressured Engineering to modify the guidelines. The political ratcheting which progressed for 2 years ended with the launch of a vehicle which have icicles hanging from it. The temperature at launch was below the operating specification for the O-ring engine seal which failed.
There was a degree of superstition at work also. Thoughts such as, ‘We launched before at 36 degrees, what difference can 2 degrees make?’ were self-reinforcing with successful launches at succeedingly lower temperatures.
The NASA (and Morton-Thiokol, the engine contractor) managers made judgements which were not effective in risk management. Their performance was evaluated by such tangible metrics as launching on-schedule. Intangibles, such as risk probabilities and avoidance of catastrophe, have only poor means for being used in evaluation of managers. This resulted in tunnel vision.
Free-market environmentalism offers the same level of hubris in risk management. It is significant for extending this hubris to considerations which have the potential for regional and global disaster.
The BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill looks, from interim testimony in the investigation, to be comparable to the Shuttle Challenger disaster in basic cause. Managers placed expedience and profit ahead of risk management. We shall (I hope) soon learn the extent and specifics of the government-regulation-free decisions that produced this mammoth disaster.
Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is an actively-fought concept by advocates of free-market environmentalism. They are making the same mistake, a mistake allowed by Libertarian philosophy, as was made in the Dust Bowls, Iraq War I, the Challenger Disaster, and the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
If (and this is a rapidly shrinking if) climate scientists are incorrect, what will we lose, and how will we recover those losses? We will lose some capital, spent to ameliorate, in addition to CO2 emissions, energy dependence and other urgent concerns. If advocates of free-market environmentalism are incorrect, what will we have left to recover? We do not have the luxury of rolling the die a statistically-confident number of times with Anthropogenic Global Warming. AGW now has 5 sides of that die. It will have to come up ‘6’ for us to survive without major disruption in the world. We don’t really have that slim luxury. The die will be rolled just once. We must manage the risk.