Challenge accepted

I found the following comment from Gunteh on the Idiot’s Collective blog post about Michael Sandel that I linked to here (square brackets are Gunteh’s):

I recently came across a particular individual on Youtube who makes a living by debating libertarians in spontaneous and live radio format.
[He is a self-proclaimed leftist, believes that libertarians are idealistic albeit aloof, and argues on the following argument pattern]:
-There has “never” been historical context for a purely free-market system, both economically/morally.
-There are rules/interventions that are mandatory in order for society to run (laws, subsidies)
-There are always winners and losers, and whether or not government has a responsibility to that, we ourselves pick and “subsidize” businesses/moral opinions relatively. Therefore, there is no reason for government not to do that as well if human beings innately make choices.

I’m not sure who this individual is and I’m not sure I’d be willing to debate him on his home turf. I don’t have much experience with live radio. But, I would be willing to discuss his views on a blog post.

To the specific argument pattern that Gunteh lays out, I would likely respond as follows:

“There has ‘never’ been historical context for a purely free-market system, both economically/morally.”

First, I don’t think there are many libertarians who don’t think there is a role for limited government. Though, there might be some.  But, I think this person paints with too broad of stroke.

Second, and more important, there doesn’t have to be a historical context for a purely free-market system since we have plenty of historical contexts, and current contexts, for “systems” (that is, groups of people) with vibrant free markets and systems without.

Even within these “systems” there are subsystems that we can look at. Within the U.S., for example, there are other organizations of people. Cities, businesses, chess clubs, Home Owners Associations, families, charities, hospitals, states, churches, AA, AAA, crime syndicates, lobbies and so forth.

So, if we are interested, we can look at countries and subgroups and see which ones seem to do better and why. Not doing so, lacks imagination. This has been something that has interested me from an early age. For example, I wondered how two neighboring public school districts could be so different as to prompt my parents to undertake the cost of moving from one district to the other.

In my view, the case is strong that systems that allow people to make the choices that are right for them, within their set of constraints and consequences, produce better results over time.

Granted, it is hard to untangle that and we often confuse cause and effect. Folks often look at the success story of the U.S. and assume that all that government has done has been a cause for the success, rather than a result of the wealth created in the free market.

I think it’s more productive to discuss the features of these groups and subgroups and what makes them different, rather than discuss whether a pure free market system has ever existed or is desirable.

To use an old and tired quip, there was nary a historical context against slavery before that was largely abolished, either, as slavery existed in some shape or form just about every in the world up to that point. That, in itself, did not prove that abolishing slavery wouldn’t be good.

“There are rules/interventions that are mandatory in order for society to run (laws, subsidies)”

The question I would have this radio host to consider is where these rules come from. Did they evolve from emerging practice or were they conjured up by a small group of people?

I’d be looking for more specific examples here, though, before I engage beyond this.

‘There are always winners and losers, and whether or not government has a responsibility to that, we ourselves pick and “subsidize” businesses/moral opinions relatively. Therefore, there is no reason for government not to do that as well if human beings innately make choices.’

I’d argue that government is a poor mechanism for picking winners and losers because its feedback loops are less effective, and sometimes backwards, from market feedback loops.

My post, Profits and Ballot Boxes, summarizes a few key reasons why government feedback loops are bad.

There are more reasons, like the knowledge problem, that Steven Landsburg explains wellAnd, it’s important to understand the only four ways to spend money. The way government spends money (spending other people’s money on other people) ends up being the least careful way to spend it.

It’s also good to remember that government tends to reward failure. Finally, when we discuss private vs. public, it seems we often assume politicians are saints, not subject to the same incentives as other people, which is a rotten assumption.