Libertarianism vs. Man-Made Disaster

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.


5 Responses to “Libertarianism vs. Man-Made Disaster”

  1. December 3, 2010 at 1:38 pm


    Just this morning, I heard two different Republicans making the “unemployment benefits breed unemployment” argument. And these days, it frequently goes unrefuted, because it is often said with such authority and force.
    You correctly point out that the jobs simply don’t exist in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but it’s also important to note that the ones that do exist require far more education and training than most of the unemployed presently have. This fact is frequently overlooked in the discussion.

    Also, your mention of the Dust Bowl and the farming practices that exacerbated the effects of the drought reminded me of what I read in the Sunday New York Times. An article by Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, echoed what you wrote, in the context of the effects of climate change on the weather:

    THE news from this Midwestern farm is not good. The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.

    He goes on to remark that “the weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture,” and quotes the state’s climatologist as saying that “no fewer than three ‘thousand-year rains’ have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state.”
    But what is relevant to your point about the Dust Bowl is this:

    To make things worse, I see fewer acres in our area now planted with erosion-preventing techniques, like perennial contour strips, than there were a decade ago. I believe that federal agriculture policy is largely responsible, because it rewards the quantity of acres planted rather than the quality of practices employed.

    Mr. Hedin does go on to say that it’s not all the fault of government, that “all farmers have an interest in adopting better farming techniques,” but I think he points out very well what you call the tendency toward “tunnel vision.”

    You are correct in pointing out the risks of ignoring AGW, but I’m afraid the public has tunnel vision in these challenging times and won’t tolerate any ameliorative action that has a cost attached to it. And the folks on the right are very good at exploiting the public angst, and their success is reflected in polls that show a declining number of people who even think there is such a thing as AGW.

    I’m afraid it doesn’t look good. I’m of the mind that any action will have to be demanded by the younger folks, who have much to lose in the global warming game of craps we are playing.


  2. December 1, 2010 at 10:53 am


    Seems to me that comparing Libertarianism on a family level to government-style is apples to oranges thinking. The maturation of brains takes about 28 years, during which time they need nurture and asymptotically-diminishing guidance.

    Also, in re-reading Jim’s post I thought of several examples where government has successfully taken a far-sighted approach to our collective benefit. These include the EPA, CDC, and the NIH. I believe these have been successful because they are less controversial than other efforts, such as dealing with AGW. However, with the new fervor for reduction of government sweeping Washington I fear that zealots may mistake muscle for fat in their trimming. The bulk of the fiscal problem is Medicare and Medicaid. (Even Social Security only needs some small adjustments.)

    As for drawing the line fairly for social justice, that issue will never be settled in our lifetimes. It is too subjective and varies in direct proportion to the intensity of external threats such as Pearl Harbors and 9/11s. It’s the yin and yang of representative of democracy, the worst system of government except for all the others.


  3. 3 Carroll Boswell
    November 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    What about libertarianism on a small scale? Are there any libertarian parents who run their families on the same principle that they want the country run? What would such a family look like? Will laissez-faire parenting work? Will children not act in ways that are ultimately injurious to the family? I suppose the argument could be made that children are immature and need firm guidance, dare we say “regulation”, whereas the average American citizen and businessman is mature. There seems little evidence in support of such an argument.
    At what point do we become the UNITED States, as opposed to every man for himself? And if we are united, where does the union stop? When someone loses his job and can’t find one? Does helping a neighbor always mean that he is just going to hang out from now on and become our dependent? And if one neighbor does, should we then quit helping neighbors in general?
    It seems to me that Christian principles for a country start with the idea that we are neighbors to each other and then there is no knowing where it might stop.

  4. 4 Jim
    November 28, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    I have read examples from a few other countries about unemployment. Countries with substantial compensation for long periods have seen effects of deferred job-seeking. The meager compensation in America is substantially different in its motivating force. My 18 weeks at $200(?) did not encourage laxity – it’s not exactly a living wage. As with many political discussions of economic policy, the situation is highly non-linear and dependent on multiple variables. Simplistic doctrines have only simplicity as a virtue.

    I have repeatedly faced, during 28 years of electronics design Engineering, conflicts between management and myself regarding risk management. Except for one small, excellent Joplin company, there is a tendency for management to want Engineering to design according to average conditions and characteristics, rather than according to assured performance under all specified conditions. Such thinking leads to proportionately higher costs for risk remediation.

  5. November 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    You make good points in this post, Jim. Since I started blogging last March I have found myself moving politically from right-center, tinged Libertarian, to left-center. Some of the positions I previously held included a sneaking suspicion that unemployment compensation did deter seeking employment, but I don’t feel so strongly that way now. (Still, landscaping work is probably a bad example – it is hard physical labor, usually in adverse weather conditions.)

    Your post here dovetails nicely with my latest post, “How Gratifying!” in that much of what you discuss relates to difficulties with deferred gratification. Does that mean society is not mature? Surely not!

    LINK: http://jwheeler59.wordpress.com/



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