Sunday, February 28, 2010

On libertarians and the right to bear arms

I had a rather heated online discussion the other day at the blog Cafe Hayek. Entries on this particular blog vary from poignant economic insight, to sheer partisan drivel. But if you can excuse some of the quizzical rants, you can actually find some good libertarian/conservative arguments. My discussion the other day started because the author linked to an article ranting about the right to bear arms and this raised a few issues with me, most of which remain unresolved.

1) If you believe that the constitution grants you the right to bear arms, and that this right should not be impinged in any way, my argument is essentially that you logically must believe that every single citizen has the right to build a nuclear warhead in their back yard, drive an abram's tank on the D.C. beltway, walk around NYC with a pocket full of anthrax, take assault rifles into public schools, etc. Any law preventing either of these scenarios would surely violate the "right to bear arms" tenet that you so strongly believe in. I'm taking extreme examples here, but any strict constitutional or libertarian argument would have to agree with this and any reasonable thinking human being realizes that this would be sheer lunacy and our country would be in ruins in no time.

So, if we throw away the purely libertarian argument, we essentially have to draw a line in the sand that says what arms we truly have the right to bear. I don't claim to know the answer to that, but I'm pretty sure that intra-continental ballistic missiles should be banned, and bb-guns should not. In between is an enormous gulf which I don't wish to get into, but this is where serious arguments can happen.

Should we ban any item that has the potential to kill more then 10 people in 60 seconds? How about anything that can be concealed? Explosives? Projectiles? The ways that you slice up 'arms' could be infinite but I trust that some ways of slicing can strike a reasonable balance between individual liberty and societal welfare. That's a scary thought to libertarians, and if you take a stance on either end of this spectrum I'll grant that your argument is logically consistent. If you however give an inch by agreeing that c-4 explosives shouldn't be allowed on airplanes, you leave yourself open to virtually any attack on the 'right to bear arms' because you clearly don't stand behind that right with all your weight.

2) I have even less patience for the logic behind the constitutional argument than I do for the libertarian viewpoint which I attempted to deconstruct above. Quite frankly, the constitution is wrong. It has been wrong in the past (3/5ths law anyone?), and will be wrong in the future. That's why we have amendments, and I feel strongly that the current incarnation of the US constitution is far better with amendments than it was in its initial framing. As a document, it has surely held up fantastically well over the years, but the day we treat it as scripture is the day when this country is left standing still in an otherwise moving world. How I loathe religious like deference to the constitution....

3) Of course, not all arguments about the right to bear arms defer to the constitutional or libertarian reasoning highlighted above. A well armed populace really might be the best deterrent to crime. While I don't necessarily agree, we could have a lot of heated discussions looking at facts, figures, and natural experiments to see how safe loose gun laws really make us. Depending on what those studies say, I'd have a very open mind. This is a discussion worth having, but best left to another day.

4) Trying to look at the libertarian argument in this one case was kind of illuminating and made me realize that I'm not at all sure of the difference between libertarianism and anarchy (aside from the fact that one sounds so much more academic and intelligent). I fail to see how a single law would pass were it to be judged against the criteria that if it restricts an individuals freedom it is not worth having.

Libertarians avoid potentially calamitous claims about murder or theft by saying that you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others, but I'd love to hear cogent deconstructions of drunk driving, smoking, speeding, etc. All of these cases can potentially be areas where you harm someone else, so do we allow them? Do we allow some, but not others? Where do we draw the line?

What about wearing a seatbelt or a helmet? By not wearing a seatbelt you're sure to need more medical care when you get into an accident and the costs of this will rarely be recovered from the individual. Make no mistake about it, we all pay more whether its through taxes or insurance premiums to subsidize foolish choices such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet or eating McDonald's 5 days a week. Isn't this an infringement on my rights which in turn could lead to laws to limit this behavior?

5) I've been told that: "A true libertarian asks one question, and one question only about a political policy: does it increase individual liberty? If yes, then a libertarian is for it. No, against."

Presumably restricting the freedom of individuals to restrict their own freedom if they so choose is the one exception...

6) All this criticism and I consider myself a libertarian. Just not a crazy one.

*posted on my blog, fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

Friday, February 12, 2010

On free trade

After listening to this weeks EconTalk, which is essentially a lecture on the merits of free trade that I recommend to anyone who still has doubts, I felt compelled to write a response to Russ Roberts on where I see his analysis falling short.

I'm not going to summarize his argument, but rest assured he makes a compelling, albeit tried and tested case, for why trade helps everyone in the long run and that 'self sufficiency is the road to poverty'. In simple thought experiments, as well as practical real world examples, the benefits of trade are virtually indisputable; my qualm comes when we try to extrapolate these findings to a global scale.

The global marketplace is filled with individuals and groups that not only speak different languages, but also have drastically different cultural norms as well as varying degrees of governmental regulation and support. Recognizing that governments are imperfect (as they are made up of imperfect individuals), we have to account for the fact that conflicts will inevitably arise. In a truly interconnected idealized global economy with high degrees of specialization, countries of the world would be mutually dependent on one another to potentially damaging degrees. This dependence wouldn't necessarily be even as some goods are quite frankly more important to immediate survival than others. Markets provide a way to equate goods by differential valuation, but this doesn't change the fact that humans have several absolute necessities such as food, water and shelter which will always take economic priority over iPods and mattresses.

Let me expand on this thought: Japan has emerged over the past decade as the global leader in automobile sales. It makes economic sense to say: if Japan can produce better automobiles for cheaper, Detroit should close down and there would be no need to produce cars in America. We could instead focus on something that we do well, say harvesting corn. However, if for some unforeseen reason Japan stopped exporting cars to the US, a large sector on which our economy depends would come to a stand still causing massive disruption. And without existing factories, no matter how inefficient they may be, the US would have a several year lag time until they would be able to start producing cars on their own. In this respect, I can see an argument for why we would keep subsidizing a failing industry that is crucial to our economy.

The US could tolerate a lag time in automobile production, but in the case of more essential goods like raw building materials (concrete, steel, plastics, etc.), medicine, and food, any trade disruptions would have absolutely devastating consequences for the country who is on the losing end. To overcome this possibility, countries specializing in relatively low priority goods would have to find other ways to make up for their clear lack of economic power that arises from the inherent inequity of goods. How they do so could involve physical defense in the form of weapons, or pacts with other countries neither of which are ideal options for economically disadvantaged countries that with to retain a certain amount of political autonomy.

To put it bluntly: small, poor countries hardly get a fantastic deal out of this situation. They may benefit greatly from free trade in lieu of disruptions, but when conflicts arise the well diversified rich countries can weather the storm leaving nations that are unable to produce their own food to fall into ruin.

In an interconnected world, economic sanctions could be far more devastating than any bomb. This is not an issue amongst a tribe of traders, or even between states and nations where well designed social and political institutions can easily handle conflicts. Yet, as the circle of free trade grows, so to does the potential for conflict and disruption. Why we can't all just get along is more an issue for philosophers and political scientists but it has real ramifications for the economics of globalization when we realize that there is not a serious institution that can be deferred to in order to solve conflicts on a global scale. When distances expand and trading partners become a number rather than a face, there is a much greater potential for fraud and misrepresentation. Designing efficient conduits for information exchange can help alleviate some of these problems, but cultural barriers may still lead to misunderstandings and outright acts of aggression between trading partners.

In reality, I'm still a staunch supporter of open borders and tariff free goods and I see trade friendly policies as being crucial to economic development and technological advancement across the world. However, serious information/transparency problems as well as cultural/linguistic divides invariably emerge between economic actors as interactions are scaled to the global arena.

Though the costs might not outweigh the obvious benefits, at very least we need to recognize that trade occurs in an imperfect political environment. Therefore there are costs which could outweigh the benefits in certain situations, whether real or hypothetical, and lead to protectionist policies being reasonable options. I don't claim to be able to predict those situations, but as a scientist I recognize that all theories must be falsifiable and we all benefit from further investigation and tests to our theories.

*posted on my blog: fingerprints.and.snowflakes

Friday, February 5, 2010

On why I don't hate the tea party movement

And by don't hate, i mean kind of like. Kind of.

My political views over the past several years can be summed up by saying that I loathe the Republican party ever so slightly more than the Democratic party. My free-market ideology heavily favors economic libertarianism and is therefore more closely aligned to textbook 'small-government' conservatism but unfortunately I find Republican stances on social issues such as abortion, immigration, privacy, gun control, defense spending, executive power, and gay rights as falling somewhere between misguided to utterly abhorrent. My passionate disagreements on these latter issues has regrettably forced me to swallow my economic misgivings and side with the Democrats in most elections.

But perhaps change is afoot. The tea party movement firmly values fiscal conservatism and smaller government in general (read: libertarianism) and as this party grows in size several possible outcomes could happen:

1) Most likely, it will fizzle out and die leaving little to no lasting impact; no one wins and all the outrage is for naught. I'm left hating Democratic economic practices and Republican social/international practices alike.

2) By emphasizing what was once the core ideology of the Republican party above all else, I hold out hope that perhaps Republicans will be persuaded to suspend their unrelenting assault on social issues which has so scorned me over the years. Pro-life, anti-immigration, and pro-war are just a handful of issues that are ideologically unrelated to the issue of small governance and fiscal conservatism but these issues dominate party rhetoric and policy on virtually all fronts.

However, and this is an enormous however, I maintain a lasting skepticism that the tea-party is really only about fiscal conservatism and libertarian economic policies as opposed to the traditional god-fearing, gay-hating, gun-touting, war-hawk evangelical conservatism that I so despise. They've made the populist argument of less government, but time will tell if they stick to such a limited scope.

3) Almost a non-existent but ever-so-delightful chance is that the Republican party could split from the pressure resulting in a clear distinction between Republican moderates and hard-line conservatives. I cherish the thought and would further love to see the Democratic party split into two parties as well. Ideally, this would leave a ruling coalition of moderates at the center with each party having their fringe activists that lose and gain in popularity creating slight shifts in how the ruling center buffers popular opinion and thus governs.

4) Rather than split the Republican party, there is a chance that Republicans could instead be pulled further to the right. Democrats could thus move rightward which would shift the entire spectrum to the right or they could react by moving leftward creating a rapidly polarized government. On the surface, this would be awful but perhaps if it were to occur the outcome could look somewhat like number 3 whereby a vacuum in the center brings moderates together as a reaction against policy crippling polarization that has slowly been occurring.

Of all those options, most sound pretty okay to me except for the dreadful thought of the fiscal conservatism movement morphing into a growing evangelical conservatism movement. As long as that doesn't happen, some intelligent shifts in economic policy and decreasing emphasis on social issues would be a breath of fresh air potentially benefiting both parties.

The Democrats are succeeding in getting people incensed at the growing size of government, and perhaps this can be placated in exchange for a Republican easing on the social front. Any movement that brings this about, no matter how convoluted the means, garners my undying support.

*posted on my blog: fingerprints.and.snowflakes*