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2007/02/05 - Albert Esplugas Boter

Ten Easy Arguments against Government Intervention

Below, I lay out ten easy libertarian arguments to use during debates around the coffee table. It is worth having a few arguments at the ready that, because of their simplicity, overwhelming logic and visual power, appeal directly to a person's common sense and are able, at least, to plant a seed of doubt. The ten arguments listed are, of course, not the only or even the best ones. They are a small sample of what should be in our easy-access dialectic arsenal:

  1. In the words of Butler Shaffer, if drinking a liter of whisky a day causes cirrhosis, the solution isn't changing the brand of whisky, but changing one's habits. When the State, however, persists in failure (education, health care, the war on drugs) many people demand more public funding (more whisky) while expecting different results. It is as if a company repeatedly defrauded us, but instead of taking our business to the competition, we wrote it a bigger check.
  2. The expression "the market will take care of it" is not as dogmatic as "the State will take care of it." With the market, you recognize the limits of your own knowledge and place your trust in the entrepreneurial creativity of millions of individuals risking their own resources and reputations within the framework of a competitive and decentralized system. With the state, you look to a few bureaucrats lacking the incentives (they answer to voters not consumers or shareholders, and they are not managing their own resources but those of taxpayers), the omniscience and the mechanism to discover and test solutions (the price system). The market, as Boudreaux explains, is a simple and reasonable rule for a complex world. The state is a simple act of faith.
  3. To justify public sector intervention from an economic perspective, it is not enough to demonstrate theoretically that the State can correct supposed market failures. It is necessary to also demonstrate the State, in the real world, will tend to act exactly as the theorists want it to act. Allowing, for argument's sake, that the market has its shortcomings, the costs of unleashing the beast (granting power to the State) might outweigh any benefits, making it preferable to restrict the State’s activities as much as possible and learn to live with the market's imperfections.
  4. Democratic paternalism is incongruent: if we are not sufficiently enlightened or responsible to decide what to do with our money, bodies and lives, how can we be sufficiently enlightened or responsible to vote for someone to decide for us?
  5. If protectionism (keeping foreign imports out) is beneficial, why do states at war impose protectionism against their enemies through blockades and trade embargos? And if it is good for the country, why not for a city or a town or a neighborhood…or in our own home?
  6. For businessmen, labor is a commodity and like all commodities it obeys the law of supply and demand. If the price of apples rises, consumers buy fewer apples. If the price of labor rises (because of minimum wage laws and workplace regulations) businessmen hire fewer workers and unemployment increases.
  7. A mugger attacks someone in the street, next to the Parliament building, and shouts: "give me all your money!" The victim responds: "do you know who I am? I am a member of Parliament." The mugger answers: "Then give me all my money."
  8. Wealth is not a pre-existing cake with a fixed size to be distributed among the world's population in such a way that if a few people get a bigger serving others will have to survive with smaller servings. Wealth is a cake that we create and enlarge constantly thanks to the market process. What we must ask is how people increase their wealth: distributing equal portions of a static cake or allowing individuals through the market process to obtain unequal portions of an ever-expanding cake?
  9. If we tend to reject laws that discriminate according to race, religion or gender, why do some accept laws that discriminate according to wealth? As Robert Nozick pointed out, people are discriminated against based on their preferences: someone who wants to see a movie (and must work to buy a ticket) is forced to pay taxes to the State while someone who prefers to watch the sunset does not. Taxes do not penalize the act of watching a sunset, but they do penalize the act of serving others to earn extra money to buy a ticket thereby undermining the incentive to be productive.
  10. History and empirical data. People emigrate from Cuba to Miami, not the other way round. The beaches surrounded by fencing are in North not South Korea. On one side of the Berlin Wall they shot people who came too close it, on the other side people could paint graffiti. Dynamic Ireland has overtaken rigid Sweden and Finland. Government spending in the 10 fastest growing economies during the 1980s and ‘90s was around 25 percent of GDP (about half what European governments spend). Vietnam, China and India have prospered since opening up to the market. There is an unmistakable correlation between economic freedom and prosperity.

What other easy libertarian arguments do you suggest?


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