Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Arguing with the Left: Some recent examples.

This last week I was in Los Angeles for the Atheist Alliance International meeting with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others. In general, the politics of the people in attendance was pretty much what I expected. About a quarter of the people seemed to be libertarian while most the rest defined themselves as “liberals,” in the modern sense of the word.

Dr. Michael Shermer told me that he once surveyed a large audience at James Randi’s annual event and that about a fourth of the audience identified as libertarian with one soul brave enough to claim to be a conservative. Of the “liberals” in attendance most were friendly. A few of the more extreme Leftists were not so friendly and not polite. And quite a few libertarians outed themselves during the course of the conference. But it is the arguments of the Left that I want to focus upon.

One man argued with me that the State must take care of everyone. I was pretty much unable to say anything in response since he tended to shout me down the moment I started to speak. I would say: “If you aren’t going to let me say anything then the conversation is over.” He would insist that he’d let me speak and then halfway through my first sentence start shouting again. He finally stormed off. Now and then he’d pass by me and couldn’t resist flinging an insult each time. The oddest one was he walked past and shouted to an oncoming individual, who had no part of the previous “discussion,” that: “Libertarians are just people who refuse to grow up.”

Considering how strenuously he was arguing that the State must care for us, due to our own inabilities to take care of ourselves, I found the argument a bit odd. He wanted a government babysitter but I was the one who refused to grow up! And to prove I was immature he yelled this remark loudly to a complete stranger for the sole purpose of insulting me. How mature is that?

Two different individuals, in two separate conversations, argued that America is rich because regulations make us rich. I have to admit that remark left me gobsmacked. I’ve never heard something so inane in my life. The proof was that America is today one of the richest countries in the world due to all the regulations. I asked one how he knew America is richer now than it would be in a more deregulated climate only to be told that this was a “God of the gap” argument. Actually it was a question and a rather revealing one.

I say it is revealing because he said that I couldn’t possible know that a freer economy would be more prosperous than the one we have. Yet he was arguing that he could know that a freer economy would be poorer. Supposedly our inability to know what a freer economy would be like only applies to one person in the discussion. He, on the other hand, is quite capable of projecting precisely what a freer society would be like.

While a few of the Left argued that government controls made America wealthy I ran into others who said that America is having financial problems today because it isn’t regulated enough. So we are regulated and it produces wealth but, at the same time, we are not regulated enough and that brings poverty. Apparently we are regulated and unregulated, wealthy and poor, at precisely the same time. We are better than what it was like in the past, because of regulations, while we have seen a steady decline in individual average wealth.

A variation of this argument was presented to me when it was claimed that today we are wealthier than humans were a thousand years ago. The presumption is that we had free markets for all of human history and lived in poverty. Then the benevolent state came along, regulated things, and wealth creation took off. The error is that this person assumes that I was arguing that free markets are the only necessary requirement for prosperity. I have not argued that position because I don’t believe it. Much more is needed. Economic development was extremely slow in the past, until the Age of Enlightenment. With the rise of classical liberalism, reforms were implemented and market controls were loosened. Economic growth followed. The modern regulatory craze came AFTER the West became wealthy not before.

A free market, with people who refuse to work, will not produce wealth. People have to choose to produce. Simply being free is not a sufficient cause of wealth creation. It is a necessary cause, but not a sufficient one. Trust is important in markets, so are property rights, the rule of law, equality of rights, ambition and a host of other things. I don’t actually know any libertarian who says that simply having a free market is all that is needed for people to be wealthy. Markets are important to wealth creation but libertarians are not so naive as to think that markets are the only factor in wealth creation. Consider Hernando de Soto’s work, The Mystery of Capital, as proof. DeSoto uses his book to show how property rights, or the lack thereof, impact on the ability to create wealth.

One person claimed that Africa is a “free market” continent and impoverished because of it. He refused to believe that the African continent is a heavily regulated one. He was completely unaware that trade tariffs in Africa are twice as high as those in the developed world. And when I asked him about Agricultural Marketing Boards he had no idea what they were. They force African farmers to sell products to the State at below-market rates but he didn’t know that. And apparently what he doesn’t know about, doesn’t exist.

The current World Development Report of the World Bank has a chart on tariff rates in various regions of the world on page 99. According to this chart, out of the six regions in the world with the highest tariff rates, five are in Africa. The report specifically says that “Tariffs are highest in Africa” while they are “lowest in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.” The UN also says: “Using tariff and nontariff barriers, poor countries restrict trade more than rich countries.” The World Bank also says that the flow of capital is more regulated in the poor nations than in rich nations. “Restrictions on capital flows in 2005 are lower in industrial than in developing countries and are greatest in Africa.” (p. 99) Last I heard no one was accusing the bank of being a libertarian puppet that “refuses to grow up.”

Numerous people, more than I remembered, assured me that government controlled health care is superior because nations with such care have higher life expectancy than does the United States. That life expectancy doesn’t measure health care didn’t seem to matter. And when I mentioned studies that showed the US has higher treatment rates than does Canada, and higher survival rates for cancer, than does Europe, they simply dismissed the claims as being a lie. That life expectancy measures the impact of issues, unrelated to the quality of health care—such as obesity, smoking rates, accident rates, crime rates, war, etc.,—was glossed over. See here and here. Also quoted to me was the matter of infant mortality, which is also heavily influenced by factors not related to health care.

To say the least, I didn’t find these arguments particularly overwhelming.

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