At Huffington Post, Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, has written an article criticizing Ron Paul, in particular, and libertarianism in general. His criticism, however, targets an incredibly thick libertarian straw man and betrays a lack of any serious understanding of libertarian philosophy. Most of Mr. Sachs' arguments either ignore the reasoning behind libertarian positions or display a misunderstanding of the arguments.
Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable -- all are to take a back seat.
While it is true that libertarians hold that liberty should never be sacrificed, it is not because libertarians do not care about other values and causes. It is, rather, because liberty best fosters an environment conducive to the pursuit of honorable values and causes. As the French classical economist Frederic Bastiat wrote:
Between [man's] destitution and the satisfaction of his wants there is a multitude of obstacles, which it is the goal of labor to surmount.
The division of labor, which results from the opportunity to engage in exchange, makes it possible for each man, instead of struggling on his own behalf to overcome all the obstacles that stand in his way, to struggle against only one, not solely on his own account, but for the benefit of his fellow men, who in turn perform the same service for him.
Now, the result is that each man sees the immediate cause of his prosperity in the obstacle that he makes it his business to struggle against for the benefit of others. The larger the obstacle, the more important and more intensely felt it is, then the more his fellow men are disposed to pay him for having overcome it, that is, the readier they are to remove on his behalf the obstacles that stand in his way.
As Bastiat explains, everyone faces obstacles in life (hunger and thirst, injury and illness, the elements, boredom, dissatisfaction), since resources and their products are scarce, and labor is required for these obstacles to be overcome. A free market creates the incentives for people to specialize in the occupations through which they can be most effective in removing the obstacles faced by other people. As Bastiat explains in this essay, scarcity is the very reason that markets exist. Government intervention in the economy perverts market incentives, causing resources to be used less productively than they could be, and this hampers the fight against scarcity. Mr. Sachs, however, does not even attempt to explain why he believes that the state can better promote societal values. Instead, he turns to demagoguery:
By taking an extreme view -- that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society's values -- libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person's life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.
It is common for those making political arguments to appeal to hypothetical situations. Mr. Sachs, here, is attempting to illustrate a scenario in which the rights of one person conflict with the life of another person. He does not explain how this situation, wherein there is a starving man and only one other person available to help him, might have arisen in the first place. Most Americans live within walking distance of a charitable organization. Most have relatives and friends who would be willing to help them. Free markets tend to be fully employed, so the poor man should be able to find a job. In addition, as Bastiat explained above, a free market is most beneficial in the fight against scarcity. Since the poor man's predicament would not exist without scarcity, the free market helps to prevent such situations from arising. However, some free market economists, as Mr. Sachs points out, have supported limited welfare programs.
Economic libertarianism claims a more pragmatic position, that economic freedom in the marketplace is the sole true source of prosperity. Yet economic theory dating back to Adam Smith and up to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman has explained why society should turn to government when the conditions of market competition do not apply. The affirmative role of government includes public education, promotion of science and technology, environmental protection, and the provision of infrastructure. Friedman and Hayek both championed a state guarantee of basic needs for all citizens.
It is true that many people who are known for generally supporting free markets have yielded a bit. Their reasons for doing so may be that they failed to follow their theories through to the logical conclusions of those theories. Arguments in favor of government provision of various goods and services only focus on the need for such things and fail to consider how the government is to know how to provide them. As one Facebook commenter once said, "Even at their worst, socialist countries were able to distribute their resources very equitably. Whenever there has been hunger in socialist countries, it was during times when there simply wasn't enough food." One must ask why such shortages existed, and the answer is simple. Governments are not subject to the incentives that markets provide for entrepreneurs. These incentives tell entrepreneurs how best to invest their resources. Without them, resources are wasted, and goods and services are produced in lesser quantities and with poorer quality.
Yet political libertarianism is not much of a guide to real-world politics. Modern history has shown that activist democratic governments, ones that provide public goods and help for the poor, do not really threaten liberty. In Scandinavia, for example, where the governments are much more activist than in the United States, democracy is very vibrant and far less corrupt than in the U.S. In fact, by keeping mega-income under control, the Scandinavian countries have avoided the kind of plutocracy -- government by the rich -- that has engulfed Washington.
First, the claim that the United States government is less activist than Scandinavian governments is dubious. On Heritage's Index of Economic Freedom, Denmark actually scores better than the United States, and Sweden and Norway are not that far behind. The types of intervention are different, however. The United States has fewer social welfare programs and lower taxes, but it has much more regulation. Since regulations usually distort market signals more heavily than welfare programs, and since regulations often benefit large businesses at the expense of small ones, the intervention, rather than the lack thereof, should be blamed for much of the poverty that exists in America.
Mr. Sachs really only attacks the outward appearance of libertarian philosophy without spending any time addressing the countless economic arguments made by libertarians. Instead, Mr. Sachs relies on a demagoguery and a straw man representation of libertarianism. He assumes things which are not true of libertarianism, and his justifications of state intervention rest only upon hypothetical scenarios and provide no explanation for how the state can provide anything better than the market.