Stupid Things Libertarians Say, Part I
Well, I’ve already got one series going here (and there will be a new installment of that ASAP) so I might as well start another one. We’ll call this one “Stupid things Libertarians say.” Now let me make one thing crystal clear. Not all Libertarians are bad and stupid people. Only most of them.
That’s a joke, son.
To be serious, I have empathy for libertarians. Perhaps it’s the effect of too many John Wayne movies on my febrile mind, perhaps it’s some rogue masculine gene that wants to pack up a covered wagon and a pistol and head out for Oregon. But I feel the same instinctive pull in the idea of making it or breaking it on my own. And I think this is a deeply human instinct.
At root, we are pack animals, but we have, thanks to that big ol’ wrinkly brain of ours, a deeply rooted sense of the individual. It is possible to create a human whose will is reflexively conditioned to see the group first and the individual second. It’s not easy though, just ask Jim Jones. Or the Marines. For the most part we’re a cantankerous bunch of apes with nothing on our minds but getting more bananas and more poon than the guy next door. (And we painted the Sistine Chapel and wrote Moby Dick too, so don’t go all high school nihilist on me, Jack.)
The fundamental reason that we have governments is that we can’t do it on our own, so we create an overreaching organization to act impartially. In theory, no man is beyond the law, though man made it. Kings and peasants alike are bound by the law, because we accept that to not be bound by our law is to be bound by the jungles.
And then you’ve got this schmuck. You’ve probably encountered them before, the people so into capitalism you have a sneaking suspicion they jerk off to the Wall Street Journal. And they say things like this:
“I’m sure the bleeding hearts are going to hate me for saying this, but the only way to really create a “green economy” is for government to get out of the way.”
Direct quote folks.
And I know that it’s like wrestling like a pig, but what the hell. Let’s shred this quote-unquote idea, shall we.
First of all, do you know why there is an EPA? Because in 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Yes, you read that correctly. The RIVER was so polluted it burned. Several times, actually, but 1969 was the worst. Around the same time, the smog deaths in LA lead to the creation of the Clean Air Act. Let me make this clear. That wasn’t “Got lung cancer after twenty years” smog deaths. That was “This smog is so bad people just died” smog deaths.
Now, these two events neatly illustrate two separate and stupid misconceptions that lead to the statement above. The Cuyahoga River fires were a direct result of industrial polluters being absolutely incapable or unwilling to regulate themselves. A simple free market analysis shows why. I run company X. You run company Y. We’re both steel mills. You are a responsible mill owner, and have your toxic chemicals hauled away and disposed of, using a (now) basic, standard “Cradle to Grave” tracking system. I run a pipe to the river. Gee, I wonder which is cheaper?
The second, the LA smog deaths, illustrates the other problem. I have the right, in our capitalistic society, to buy a car. You have the right to buy a car. EVERYBODY has the right to buy a car, and, with the proper certification, drive. Grand. The issue that we run into is that when five million people within the same couple hundred square miles decide to buy and drive a car, it starts killing people. There is NO WAY for this problem to self regulate, because everyone is 1/5,000,000,000th of the problem. What’s more, at the time, there WAS NO WAY TO SELF REGULATE. There wasn’t an SUV/hybrid continuum of fuel efficiency. There were 8mpg cars and 7mpg cars, and that was about it. So the only way the problem got alleviated at all was by the government stepping in, including at the source of the problem, the car companies. Blah blah blah, catalytic converters, mileage standards, you get the picture.
HAH! the libertarian shouts. That is one situation, you cannot extrapolate from the specific to the general. Or, at least, they would say that if they had any idea how extrapolation works. Seeing as they are Libertarians, they probably can’t. So, to continue our trip down memory lane, look at the food and drug situation in the country before the FDA.
Again, let me illustrate my point with a simple example. You run 1890 Drug Company X and I run 1890 Drug Company Y. Lil’ Upton Sinclair hasn’t yet started to think about what he eats for breakfast. Now, you are a responsible drug company, ad you decide to test these new compounds using (now) standard LD50 tests, wide spectrum animal testing (with a special focus on using whichever animal is most similar to human beings in the particular organ system that the drug affects) and double-blind human testing.
I notice that when I give my patients this magical stuff called “heroin,” they have no more pain.
Again, which one of us is cashing in, which one of us is still trying to figure out what the LD50 for laudanum in rats is when we have to close our doors?
Or what about the rifle companies that knowingly sold sub-standard rifles to the US Army in the Civil War because there was no such thing as standardization or quality control inspectors? Or the ones that sold bad tinned beef to the US Army in the Spanish-American war and WWI? Or the factory workers pre-1920 and pre-union?
The simple fact is that a business exists for one reason- to make money. To make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, it turns out that when you use sub-standard products, and stop caring about quality, you cut your bottom line and make more money. Which means that the purely free market ends up being a race to the bottom.
The job of the government is to set up an artificial bottom. This is the lowest quality X you can use, this is the oldest Y you can sell, it has to be this clean, this sanitized, etc. etc. etc. Many companies have made a killing, and will continue to make a killing, advertising their higher quality products-Tyson Chicken’s new ad campaign springs to mind. But it means that you, the consumer, can safely buy and use any product on the market, knowing that it meets certain minimum requirements. The job of a business is to make money. The job of a government is to protect its citizens. By farming quality control out to the businesses themselves, you make quality control a cost. When you have a cost, you have a cost that can be cut.
All of which is to say that there is currently no money in making a green economy, because the bottom is still cheap plastic and cheap oil. Until the government creates an artificial bottom, you will see no progress in this area because there is no. damn. PROFIT. Companies that are seriously trying to go green (and I mean seriously, not like Pampers and their 50% recycled thin plastic wrapping) are finding themselves the equivalent of the responsible business owners in my examples above, spending money to do good while their competitors happily profit from poisoning the earth. The good companies get eliminated-either through losing all their money, or because they give up in disgust. Long story short: you want a green economy? Make it profitable. And the only way to do that is to make pollution unprofitable. And the only way to do THAT is through government regulations.
And of course, the Libertarian will come back and point out that businesses that make defective products go out of business, or are at least punished. Toyota! they will cry, small bubbles forming at the corner of their mouths. BP!
And yeah, sure. If anyone knows that you’re selling a defective product. But in 1910, “Milk” was often chalk and water. You really, really, REALLY don’t want to know about sausage. Or about the amount of fecal matter in beef. Or the people who occasionally fell into the rendering pits for lard and got sold along with it. (OSHA? Government agency.)
But now, thanks to government laws passed by government officials who work for the government, there are watchdog groups. Like the FDA, the EPA, OSHA, CDC…I could go on.
But another example. You want to know HOW recalls happen? They are, it’s true, sometimes at the behest of the company, and good for them. But let’s say Jimmy Dean accidentally sent out tainted sausage. And no one noticed. Well, Jimmy Dean ships everywhere, so you might have the same batch infecting people in Missouri, Texas, Maine, and Florida. Fortunately, there is a group called the CDC that monitors little things like E. Coli, salmonella, botulism, etc. And they send government doctors and government scientists all over the country with government plane tickets and staying in government hotel rooms. And their job is to talk to people who suddenly get E. Coli. And they discover that the people in Missouri, Texas, Maine, and Florida have all eaten Jimmy Dean Breakfast Sausage, and they have them a recall.
And in our enlightened age, you can’t just sell Doctor Trustworthy’s Liver Cure and Goodforwhatailsya. (which, back in the good old free market days, was usually grain alcohol, food coloring, and occasionally laudanum) There is another group called the FDA that does a shit ton of testing so you know a new drug is safe.
See, here is the problem. Even with the internet, most people don’t have the time or ability to run down these patterns. The most notable case of amateur work in that field was probably Love Canal. In that case, a small, isolated area, with highly noticeable physiological effects caused by chemical contamination, in a fairly closely knit community. The doctors didn’t notice it, no one figured it out for years, until a few private people took it upon themselves to get it sorted. It took them years to put together the evidence right in front of them.
So I could pull out the usual old saws about how are you gonna pay for the roads without a government, or do national defense without a government, but there’s my question instead. And the next time a Libertarian, or Republican, starts blathering on about Big Government or Progressivist Socialist Nazi Kenyan Death Camp Government, ask them this: what is the free market gonna do about the Jimmy Dean Sausage?