James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, January 14, 2008

Knowing What's Best For You

I'll give Michael Kinsley some credit in his piece on libertarianism. One can't be fair to libertarian arguments and proceed to refute them in one newspaper column, but at least Kinsley doesn't resort to the finger-wagging about morality from the Right and the "corporate greed! corporate greed!" mantra of the Left. (When will the Left realize that the modern Corporation is an invention of government?)

A case for libertarianism can be derived from David R. Henderson's article "The Fatal Conceit in Foreign Policy." Henderson takes the Mises-Hayek Knowledge Problem - government managers lack the enough information to allocate resources wisely or efficiently - and applies it to foreign policy. That is, our government doesn't have enough knowledge of the conditions of another country, such as Pakistan, to control its affairs wisely.

Indeed, once one grasps the Knowledge Problem, it is easily to apply it not only to economics and foreign affairs, but to domestic social policy as well. When the government steps in with general laws that prohibit certain substances, it fails to recognize that they can be beneficial to some people. Indeed, government is incapable of knowing each individual body chemistry and personality to know exactly what is "good" for each person. The government-approved drug could fail where a banned drug may work. Government can't possibly know what is "good" for each individual; it doesn't have enough information.

And this goes back to Kinsley:
No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does. [Ron] Paul himself doesn't. But it bothers him that the government tells people they cannot do something they shouldn't do. Libertarians would say that if most people want pasteurized milk, the market will supply it. Firms will emerge to certify that milk has been pasteurized. These firms will compete, keeping them honest.

So yes, a Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism could replace a straightforward government regulation. But what if you aren't interested in turning your grocery shopping into an ideological adventure? All that is lost by letting the government take care of it is the right of a few idiots to be idiots. That right deserves respect. But not much.
Except, some people do want unpasteurized milk and some farms do make a living supplying it. How is it a crime for someone to sell a product that has been bought and sold for centuries? Why should that matter to you or me, or to the government?

The point is that a "Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism" won't violate the rights of innocent people as a government regulation does. And frankly, the odds are better that the people will be better protected from danger, at lower cost. Sellers of insurance are in the business of making sure nothing bad happens, so they will suit their requirements to the property and products they are insuring, whereas the universal nature of government codes force businesses to conform to requirements that may have no relevance to their particular business or property.

It is unlikely that government regulation makes things more efficient, or more convenient, for the majority. But even if government "worked" in that regard, this doesn't justify the loss of the freedom of minorities who want to live differently. And if minorities aren't free, then nobody's free.

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