May 13, 2015
Yesterday I paid about thirty dollars at
the local service station and bought ten gallons of gas..
At least I believe I did.
But why not suspect that the manager of
the gas station cheated me? Might he not have rigged the pump to show more
gallons than I actually got? How would I know that he had not done so?
Well, actually I do know that I wasn't
cheated. And why? Because of a label attached to the gas pump. That label
tells me that The State of California has examined and validated the
accuracy of the pump. And the station manager knows full well that if he
nonetheless attempts to override that inspection and thus to cheat his
customers, he might be spending considerable time in the state slammer.
Most ordinary citizens would call this
threat of sanction as a legitimate function of government, as so-called
Conversely, libertarians, and their
fellow-travelers in the right wing of the Republican Party, might regard
this as "big government regulation of the free market." No need for that
inspection, they tell me. “The invisible hand of the free market” will see
to it that I am not cheated.
Thus we arrive at the huge divide in
American politics today: government as protector versus government as
oppressor. Both views, as gross oversimplifications, are false. Those
inclined to regard the government as protector, let's call them "liberals,"
recognize that governments can at times be fraudulent, wasteful and abusive.
Their remedy: improve the government.
On the other hand, those who regard the
government as an oppressor, call them "libertarians," will nonetheless
concede that there are at least three indispensable functions of government,
namely the protections of individual life, liberty and property. However,
all other functions are illegitimate restrictions on individual "liberty"
and thus should be eliminated.
So which is it? Is Government a protector
or an oppressor? Is Government good or is it evil?
What a silly question!
It's like asking, "is fire good or is fire bad"?
The only sensible answer to both questions
is: "sometimes good and sometimes bad." Or simply, "it depends."
The founders of our Republic were well
aware of this: When government is good, it is fulfilling the functions
enumerated in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “to
form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,
provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the
blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,...”
And when government is bad, the
Declaration of Independence provides a remedy: “To secure these Rights,
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the
consent of the governed, That, whenever any Form of Government becomes
destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to
abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Governments are never perfect – no human
institution is. The libertarian’s answer: reduce government to the essential
function of protecting life, liberty and property – nothing more. Taxation
to support any other governmental activity – education, unemployment
insurance, scientific research, infrastructure investment, national parks
and forests, etc. – amounts to an illegitimate “taking” of property, or
simply put, “theft.”
The liberal’s remedy for governmental
imperfections: improve it or, if necessary, replace it.
One of the foundational principles of
libertarianism was articulated by John Stuart Mill: “over himself, over his
own mind body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (“On Liberty”).
According to this principle, it is no business of government to interfere
with one’s choice of religion (or no religion), with what one might read,
with who one chooses to marry, or with a woman’s right to control her own
body. I have little dispute with this aspect of libertarianism.
But the libertarians also endorse the
“like liberty principle:” This is “the right to live your life as you choose
so long as you don’t infringe on the equal rights of others.” (David Boaz,
Libertarianism, a Primer, 59). Similarly, William Bayes:
Where do my rights end? Where yours
begin. I may do anything I wish with my own life, liberty and property
without your consent; but I may do nothing with your life, liberty
and property without your consent.... (“What is Property?”, The
Freeman, July 1970, p. 348. My emphasis, EP).
Again, a commendable principle. However,
while libertarians endorse the “like liberty principle” in the abstract, they
fail to do so in their economic policies. For if the libertarians
scrupulously followed the like liberty principle, they would cease to be
libertarians. The economic “liberty” that they promote, along with the
Republican Right, exacts “liberty costs” in others.
Food and Drugs. “Free” of
government regulation, corporations are free to manufacture, and
merchants are free to sell, contaminated and spoiled food, and harmful
or ineffective drugs – as they did prior to the establishment of the
federal Food and Drug Administration.
Air and water pollution. Absent
environmental protection laws, the general public is poisoned by toxic
substances are “freely” tossed into our waterways and released into our
common atmosphere. The remedy? The Environmental Protection Agency.
Work safety (e.g. mines).
Before “big government” constrained the “liberty” of mine owners and
mill workers with work safety regulation, mine workers died young with
black lung disease and textile mills employed children in sweat shops.
Consumer protection. Without
government regulation, the individual has no recourse when injured by a
faulty product. Example: the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pintos.
Investment protection. With the
repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, investment bankers are now “at
liberty” to gamble with your money. Your savings are still protected by
the New Deal FDIC. But for how long?
Free Markets (yes, I said “free
markets’). The libertarians will not tell you this, but “the free
market” can only function under government regulation, without which
fraud, monopolization, and bribery proliferate. As history once again
teaches us an unregulated market contains the seeds of its own
destruction. Furthermore, the “totally free” market is a myth,
as I explain
Summing up: “liberty” and “freedom” for
“the one-percent” is obtained at the cost of the liberty and freedom of the
A young person from a poor family who
does not need to incur crippling debt to attend university is a freer
person. A low-income mother who cannot afford to pay the doctor attains
a new degree of freedom when she and her children are covered by
Medicaid. A worker who might be compelled to choose between his job and
his physical safety becomes freer if government health and safety
regulations are enforced. The employee of a big-box store who can take
paid family leave when a child gets sick is freer than one whose entire
life is at the whim of the boss; likewise a worker with a union contract
that provides protection from arbitrary dismissal or theft of wages.
The need for “big government regulation”
was not decided in academic seminar rooms or derived from dogmatic “first
principles.” These protections did not appear “spontaneously” (“as if by an
invisible hand”) out of the aggregate activities of “utility maximizing”
individuals. They were imposed by law (i.e., government) and enforce by
sanctions (government again), following the demand of the general public –
i.e., the victims of previously unregulated “free” activity of individuals
and corporations. History provides the proof, for history has shown us, time
and again, that when privileged individuals and corporations are unconstrained
(i.e. “free”) there are victims: unconsenting and innocent individuals whose
liberties are sacrificed.
But aren’t governments always corrupted by
waste, fraud and abuse?
No argument here. As noted above,
governments, like all human institutions are imperfect. At worst,
governments are tyrannical, in which case the only recourse might be
revolution. But following a revolution, the tyranny must be replaced by a
new government, hopefully benign but nonetheless necessary.
Consider an analogy: no community is
completely free of crime or without accidental fires, which means that the
police and fire departments are never completely effective. So what is the
rational response? Abolition of police and fire department? Of course not!
The rational response is to improve these services. Even the most
doctrinaire libertarian would agree, according to the principle that
governments legitimately protect life, liberty and property. Libertarians
are minimalists, not anarchists.
Even so, the minimal government of the
libertarians, and this includes perhaps most of the Republican members of
Congress and state legislatures, exacts unjust “liberty costs” on the
Their libertarian “liberty” is the liberty
of the burglar in the town without locks on the doors and with no police
To be fair, libertarians advise door locks
and approve of police protection – of those basic rights to life, liberty
and property. They are not pro-burglary. That’s the theory. But to our
sorrow, we are discovering today that in practice, the so-called “night
watchman” minimal government promoted by today’s Republicans does not
protect the freedoms of the poor, the workers, children, among others –
arguably, most ordinary citizens.
In theory, the libertarians tell us, if a
business is unscrupulous, the customers will shun it and the business will
fail. It is all nicely automatic -- "by the invisible hand" -- no need for
government regulation and enforcement. This may be true of barber shops and
restaurants in a small town. But it is not true when the negative effects of
the business activities are delayed or the causes are less than certain.
Examples: the effects of tainted food, harmful drugs, and tobacco use.
Neither does the unregulated free market prevent so-called “negative
externalities” – harms to innocent and unconsenting “third parties.”
How do we know all this? Again, not merely
“in theory.” We are instructed by history.
In addition, the libertarians assure us,
harmful business practices will be deterred by law suits. Not so, when
purchased legislators enact so-called “tort reform” that reduces maximum
allowable damages to “the cost of doing business.” And this is just one of
many reasons why “torts and courts” deterrence fails, as I explain at some
length in my “With
Liberty for Some” (Section IV).
Why do we have regulations? Because we
have tried minimal government and have found out that it doesn't work.
Without rule of law and effective enforcement thereof, we got drugs that
were harmful or ineffective, tainted meat, financial fraud, dangerous
consumer products, polluted air and water, and now climate change.
And yet, notwithstanding the historically
proven necessity of government regulation, the incessant anti-government
message of “the one-percent” and their clients in Congress, state
legislatures and the media, has enjoyed spectacular success.
reports that public trust in government [is] at historic lows.”
Gallup organization confirms this finding, adding that confidence the
Supreme Court and the Presidency ranks behind the military, small business,
the police, and organized religion. Congress, at seven percent approval, is
at the bottom of the list of seventeen institutions.
The libertarians and their GOP disciples,
it seems, are striving to fire “the night watchmen” and leave the public at
the unregulated mercies of the corporate and financial oligarchy.
If they succeed, that would be good news
for the one-percent and bad news for the rest of us.
All this despite the plain fact that the
foundational ideology of the one-percent -- libertarian theory and
neo-classical economics, "trickle down," anti-regulation, market
fundamentalism and all that -- fails the reality test.
And so, when the right-wing politicians
and corporate media talk of "liberty” and “freedom,” remember this: Your
"liberty" and “freedom” are not what they are talking about.
And that's not just "theory," that's
Copyright 2015 by Ernest Partridge