What’s wrong with liberty?

On his blog, The Pretense of Knowledge, Speedmaster points to Dr. Robert Higgs‘ acceptance speech for the Alexis de Tocqueville Award.

In it, Higgs eloquently describes the same two reasons (though only one is sufficient) why I appreciate liberty.  This is from his speech.

For one of the ways in which I have made myself obnoxious, however, I make no apology: I have forthrightly raised the banner of individual liberty again and again, even among associates and fellow citizens who esteemed other values much more than they esteemed liberty. Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived. In contrast, I unashamedly love liberty. For society as a whole, I wish nothing more fervently than I wish that it should be as free as possible. For me, freedom is not simply the highest-ranked value with regard to public affairs; it stands on a level by itself, far above all the others.

I espouse individual liberty in this “extreme” fashion for two reasons, which in my mind complement one another. The first is that freedom is the optimal condition for each individual’s engagement in society. To be driven, bullied, abused, disregarded, treated with contempt and dishonor―these are bad things in themselves, not only for me, but for every human being. We ought to recoil from them, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a local cop or the government in Washington. Yet all too many of us become accustomed to such official cruelties and take them in stride without much conscious thought that they are wrongs and ought to be stopped, regardless of their source.

Individual liberty, however, is also an instrument for the creation of many of the conditions, goods, and services that constitute material abundance and relieve many of the anxieties and pains that once accompanied social life for almost everyone. Virtually everyone favors economic development, especially inasmuch as it reduces or eliminates extreme poverty. Individual liberty is a necessary condition for sustained economic progress. The specific conditions of a free society―private property rights, secure contracts, a reliable rule of law―are prerequisites for the ongoing creation of wealth in the long run. At this late date, after we have witnessed the personal horrors and economic disasters brought about by socialist central planning, it should not be necessary to go on preaching the gospel of private property and the market economy, yet we all know that many people still do not understand these essential matters and often act politically to thwart the operation of a genuinely free society.

To summarize, liberty is good because it seems morally right and it produces the best outcomes for everyone.

It took me far too long to learn these lessons.

For me, this was the key sentence of the excerpt:

Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived.

I use to be one of these Americans.

Liberty was good, until I thought it got in the way of some desired outcome.   I’m afraid it took a good deal of life experience and thinking to overcome the reflexive reaction to get the desired outcome with waves a government wand.

It took a long time to learn that my desired outcomes maybe weren’t so desirable after all and that waving the government wand was usually not the best way to achieve better results.

And, even if my desired outcomes were desirable and we could get there with government, was it worth infringing on the liberty of others to do so?

Dr. Higgs and I might be wrong about why liberty is good. I try to keep myself open to that possibility.

I was wrong about an awful lot before I arrived at my position on liberty.  And, it took me being willing to admit I was wrong to get here.

I’ve actively sought out arguments that proved my current position wrong, but I have not encountered anything remotely persuasive yet.

So far, the arguments are the same that I held at some point previous in my life.

“Liberty prevents some desired outcome.”  “Government is required to get there.”


Suggestion: Stop protesting and demanding and do something productive

Here are a couple interesting videos.  Thanks to Mark Perry at Carpe Diem.

Video 1: Stratification in the OWS society

Apparently, in the OWS society in Zucotti Park, enclaves formed that were reminiscent of the classes in society that OWS was protesting.  I love the we-should-all-have-access-to-iPads, but-not-my-iPad guy.

Video 2: “Patriotic” Millionaires demand higher taxes, but are unwilling to pay up

Here’s the video (thanks to W.E. Heasley for pointing me to the Youtube version):

In this video, reporter Michelle Fields asks millionaires if they’d like to make a voluntary donation to the Treasury, since they are demanding their taxes be raised.

Unsurprisingly, they all said no.  “It wouldn’t make a big enough difference to solve the problem.”

Great job Michelle!

If the 1 Percenters who appeared in this video are out there somewhere, I’d like to pose these follow up questions:

1.  What “problem” exactly are you hoping to solve?

a. Deficit

b. Income inequality

c. Paying your “fair share”

d. Other?

2.  Don’t you think it’s important to lead by example? Maybe if you made a donation that would lead others to make donations and that could help, couldn’t it?

3.  What keeps you from using this same logic (“my contribution won’t make a difference”) when donating to charity?  After all, a contribution of $100,000 to charity will have the same impact of $100,000 to government, right?  Why or why not?

4.  By how much do you think taxes should be raised and specifically on who (e.g. income over $1 million)?

4a.  If taxes are raised by that amount on that group, how much extra government revenue will that generate?  How does that compare to the size of the deficit?

4b.  What’s to keep government from raising taxes on you, spending that extra money (if it generates extra money) and not reducing the deficit by a penny?

5.  Do you have any thoughts on how large a percentage government spending should be of the economy?

6.  Are you also asking your politicians to exercise more fiscal responsibility in spending?

Bureaucrats and innovators, part two

This is from Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal today:

Then he turned to the rise and fall of various businesses. He has a theory about “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.” IBM and Xerox, Jobs said, faltered in precisely this way. The salesmen who led the companies were smart and eloquent, but “they didn’t know anything about the product.” In the end this can doom a great company, because what consumers want is good products.

I agree.  This reminds me of a few of my previous posts where I write about the secret of good business, bureaucrats vs. innovators and bureaucrats and innovators.

Jobs just uses the term salesman in place of bureaucrat and product engineers in place of innovator.

Salesmen stifle innovation by favoring their own projects and restricting other projects.  That lowers the chance that the company will discover something truly valuable for customers.

I’ve witnessed projects that showed early promise get nixed because they weren’t the saleman’s project.  I’ve also seen projects that show no signs of promise continue to get resources, because it is the salesman’s project.  The salesman can sell others (for awhile) that the project is working, even when all measures suggest it is not.


Something that has never impressed me about the global warming crowd is their under appreciation of the human’s ability to adapt — especially to relatively slow changing things like climate.

This shows a lack of depth in thinking about history and even modern day events.  For example, Detroit shrunk quickly as people left it in search of better opportunity.

I saw another example recently on a trip to New Orleans.  Where I live, advertising for local dry basement companies is typical.

The New Orleans equivalent seems to be elevation companies.  These companies will raise your home to keep it dry during floods.

Community Education

In a recent discussion about college, I mentioned that many college courses and degree programs would have been (or could be) adult education courses taught at the local community center for $20.

My counterpart bristled with superiority.  What college courses have you taken that could be adult education classes?

Quite a few, actually.

One summer during my pursuit of an engineering degree, I took a basic accounting course offered through adult education to see what that was like.  It was taught by a guy who kept the books for some car dealerships.  It cost about $40.

When I went back for my MBA I had to take basic accounting course.  I expected it to be much more in depth and sophisticated than the adult education class I took.  After all, it costs $1,200 and was taught by a tenured professor.

I was wrong.  It was the same course.

My counterpart’s challenge got me thinking.  What other college courses did I take that could be (or are) also offered in some form or fashion through community education?

Quite a few, it turns out.

These are off the top of my head:

Undergrad courses that I took that could be offered as community education include: technical writing, childhood development, U.S. history, economics, weightlifting, psychology, computer programming, circuits, electronics and logic.

In my graduate business education:  Basic accounting, finance, stock market investing, real estate investing, organizational development and entrepreneurship.

What courses did you take that could be taught in community education?

What’s a libertarian?

In this post at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux points us to a 1 and a half minute long video of himself describing why he is a Libertarian.

He cites two reasons:

1) The way he was raised — don’t be envious, make no excuses, be responsible for yourself.

2) His exposure to economics — Supply and demand curves showed him how the government imposition of price ceilings on oil caused him to have to wait in long lines at gas stations in the 70s.

If these two things led naturally to libertarianism, like Boudreaux indicates in the video, I would expect there to be many more libertarians out there.  I would especially expect there to be more libertarian economists.

A self-described “left-of-center” commenter made the observation that he could agree with almost everything Don said in the video, but not be libertarian.

I tend to agree with this commenter.  Maybe Don is trying to get the point across that libertarians aren’t extremist hermits.  That most anyone right of “left of center” have a great deal in common with libertarians.  Perhaps, even if they were to take a blind political challenge that many would fall out as libertarians — and they don’t now because of branding (libertarianism isn’t cool) or misunderstanding (libertarianism doesn’t mean an ‘on your own society’).

But, I do think that Don leaves out a key element of what causes one to appreciate liberty.  I think there are many good reasons for liberty.  It seems morally right.  It also generally results in better outcomes than other things.

But, the key difference I see in libertarians and others is when they feel the use of force is warranted.

Libertarians (though they come in many flavors) tend to think the use of force is warranted only to prevent someone from infringing on the liberty of others.

Your wealth does not creat my poverty, part two

In the most recent EcontTalk podcast, host Russ Roberts interviews Steve Kaplan of the University of Chicago about income inequality.

I recommend it.

Early in the podcast, Roberts quips:

Recessions are bad for the rich. If you care about inequality per se, recessions are great.