This started out as a comment, but as my comments are wont to do, it turned into something of a mini-essay.
A newcomer to BlueNC, savvysooner, showed up in my old My Dinner with Munger post with an impassioned, if qualified, defense of the Libertarian Party.
This offered me an opportunity to explain where I think the Libertarian Party is failing to meet the political and philosophical needs of people who, like them, are not content with the two-party system.
Things started from my (implied) assertion that government-administered social welfare programs are not a categorical evil.
By social welfare programs you mean government administered and tax financed rationing of selected goods and services, is that correct? I will assume, for now. it is.
The LP is opposed to one class of people ( government officials) confiscating the resources of another class of people (non-officials) and re-directing those resources in ways and to people who the officials regard as preferred. The LP position is the modern application of the classical liberals objection to feudalism and aristocracy.
Libertarians predominantly do not object to voluntary welfare programs or actions. A few militant Objectivists oppose most anything other than token gift-giving as irrational altruism.
This is where you and I part company, though I suspect we're on roads that don't diverge too greatly.
I'm familiar with the traditional analysis of coercive government confiscation, which you neatly summarized. I discern a few problems with it.
First, let's consider externalities (positive and negative) and free-rider problems. Bryan Caplan's paper, "Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist", raises a positive externality scenario that, to me, is novel and insightful.
The negative ones are perhaps more familiar, though, so let me give you an example. Pegasus Gold, a private mining corporation, not only massively polluted the ground water at its sites in several western states, but went bankrupt, leaving the taxpayers to foot the very large bill for environmental cleanup. (More information can be found in this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article and in Jared Diamond's book Collapse, which is what first brought Pegasus Gold to my attention.)
Pollutants are a textbook example of a negative externality, but look here at how many problems this real-world scenario exposes not just in current policy but in those proposed by laissez-faire capitalists and LP libertarians.
I don't hear any LP libertarians railing against the universally (if wrongly) held dicta of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Maybe in some cases this is for philosophical reasons ("yes, of course a corporation should be treated as a natural person, and the government shouldn't be taxing either one"), and in others it's for pragmatic ones (if you think the LP can't raise money now, wait until they add this plank to the platform).
Next, corporations have limited liability and their principals can just walk away from situations like this. We may agree the sins of the father should not be visited upon the son, but should the sins of the corporation not be visited upon the executives and major shareholders? LP libertarians and Objectivists who sass and blather that there's "no such thing as 'the public'; only individuals have objective existence" seem pretty quick to forget this principle when the socially constructed concept of the corporation comes into play. (To add another layer of hypocrisy, actual community co-operatives appear to be viewed by the entire economic right as some disgusting form of proto-communism. So much for tolerance and voluntarism.)
So, in the LP libertarian wold-view as I understand it, the answer to the groundwater contamination problems is "tough titty".
It would beggar my belief if there weren't actually some LP libertarians who have big problems with the concept of limited liability, and who also think co-operatives are hunky-dory. But they're not controlling the LP narrative. The parts of the LP philosophical corpus that aren't occupied by Rand and Rothbard are being squatted on by the disciples of Leo Strauss (as Professor Munger pointed out in reference to the Liberty Fund, in another thread).
I do not see where there is any room left in the LP for people who have, in their own individual rational judgment (you know, the thing one was supposed to simultaneously celebrate and abandon as a member of NBI), come to identify problems that LP libertarian philosophy doesn't appear to solve.
The bottom line is that, you—the embodiment of "the government"—either let the (man-made!) environmental disaster sit there and wreak its havoc, you chase down Pegasus Gold's principals and make them pay for it—while hoping that the none of the grizzled old geezers dies off before you can collect on the meticulously calculated fair share you assessed against them—or you coercively extract money from some segment of the population and distort the market in environmental cleanup services for a while (either by contracting it out or entering the field as a competitor by establishing an agency to do it).
There are more nuanced arguments to be made, perhaps, about what should be done in the wake of natural disasters like an F5 tornado, or Hurricane Katrina, or Western wildfires, or record-setting floods along major rivers. The primary LP libertarian response appears to be "you're fucked". But there is no place on the planet that is immune from disaster, so even the usual glib advice of "so just relocate yourself and your family" (with the obligatory provisos that a relocation of any distance is a trivial expense and that a near-perfect market in transport services exists) will not stand. There's no place to relocate to that enables you to check out of the risk game.
I think we must begin from the relationship of parenting as a social welfare program. Parents must 'subsidize' the children they are responsible for creating. But there are limits to the demands that children can make on parents just as there are limits on what parents can demand of children. Where those limits should be vary greatly over time and cultures. Libertarians tend to be very permissive about the scope of such limits.
I do agree that it can be useful to think of parenting as a social welfare program. Chomsky does something similar to this, in fact, but in so doing he assails the principle of non-aggression, so beloved by LP libertarians (and so spectacularly rejected by their allies of convenience in the GOP). If your child is about to run out into oncoming traffic, you don't stop and reason with him. You snatch him up and ensure he or she remains in a place of safety until the danger has passed. From a puritanical perspective, this is assault and battery (and possibly some form of criminal confinement). From a practical perspective, this is not only good parenting but nearly instinctual. (Anyone who cries out "naturalistic fallacy" here loses their discussion privileges for one year. :-P)
Still, the fact that the principle of non-aggression shows flaws when adopted as an absolutist position doesn't mean that coercion is something to be blindly embraced. One thing I think libertarians of all stripes, even those way far on the Left like myself, agree upon is that voluntarism and volition are virtuous. (Sorry, just watched V for Vendetta on Blu-Ray last night.) Aggression and coercion are to be guarded against more vigilantly than perhaps any other human activity.
So, let's get back to governmental social welfare programs. I submit that it is LP libertarian theory that must flex on this, but I'll admit that I don't have a well-developed alternative to offer. If empiricism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, I will reveal my handlebar moustache now by pointing out that Western democracies generally possess generous social welfare programs, that their existence is negatively correlated with military adventurism, and that their presence, despite the disgusting "welfare queen" rhetoric peddled by Ronald Reagan and his australopithecine acolytes, does not measurably rob psychologically healthy individuals of their drive to achieve. I cite Sweden (IKEA), Finland (Nokia), the former West Germany (Mercedes-Benz), and Japan (no one needs my help on this one).
(What about Britain and France? Consider the fact that they, unlike all of the foregoing examples, have had colonial obligations since the end of World War II, and continue to have much larger military budgets than their European neighbors. Ergo, they sit farther towards the "warfare" end of the welfare-warfare public spending continuum.)
It seems basically unjust to the libertarian that a person with no children should be compelled to subsidize the children (minors or adults) of other people.
This is an interesting point, but I disagree. We are stewards of this planet and it is our descendants who will inherit it. I am passionately sympathetic to the goal of getting the hell off this rock on a permanent basis, but our species has not achieved it yet. My sense of solidarity with my fellow human beings compels me to conclude that I should advocate policies that will maximize our chances of future success in that endeavor. Viewed from that perspective, it is perfectly sensible that the childless should subsidize the children of others. We are all subject to—coerced by, if you will—the dictum of our genes: "Get busy breedin', or get busy dyin'."
(Relatedly, I suspect the lessons in environment conservation that we will have to learn in the coming decades will be even more critical to successful space colonization. Ayn Rand exhorted her followers to check their premises. Like J. Michael Straczynski's Shadows, I ask people "What do you want?" Do you want an L5 or Lunar colony by 2015 or do you want a society compatible with the platform of the Libertarian Party? Sure, you want both. Which is more important to you? You're entitled to say that it depends on what kind of society exists on that colony—a Lunar gulag for Osama bin Laden's driver and other NLECs would be a profound squandering of the space-colonization dream. But just as in real markets, you may have to make tradeoffs. You may not be able to buy the product you want at the price you want. You'll have to make decisions.)
No one can know how much distortion of the social order (poverty and broken families) results from these coercive reallocation among favored and disfavored persons. The rent-seeking behavior rewarded by such coercive allocations is inherently corrupting of all involved - confiscatees, official confiscators, and recipients of the loot.
I'll agree with you here. But the lesson I take away from history that we are all ethically delicate beings. I'm not sure there can exist a world with no sources of corruption, and if it could exist it might not be a very happy place. I submit that we need to measure just how corrosive social welfare programs are to one's moral compass. Then let us compare that to the bombing of Dresden, My Lai, Abu Grahib, and so forth. Again, I must point out that by giving ideological cover to the Republican Party, especially over the past seven years, the LP exposes itself as willing to tolerate a hell of a lot of moral corruption—just so long as its source is militaristic and (socially) authoritarian.
Private or interfamilial welfare can also induce rent-seeking behavior, but it can be quickly and easily limited unless there is some element of extortion involved.
I'm glad you brought this up. I once got into a humdinger of a fight with some "I lifted myself up by my own god damned bootstraps" conservatives when I pointed out that by opposing estate taxes they were aggressively seeking to deny their own offspring a similar opportunity for virtue.
It can be quickly and easily limited? How? If you tell me the LP (or you personally) supports estate taxes I may need some smelling salts. :)
So we are all welfare recipients.
I agree with this, too. Every one of that lives in a community does so through the sufferance and forebearance of our neighbors, who refrain from slaughtering us on the spot.
This is why I lament the disappearance of frontier societies on this planet. There are way too many goddamned people who falsely ascribe a self-made status to themselves; they all need to experience some real frontier life. I submit that a high percentage of these pasty GOP voters would be dead within a week.
The leap to make here is that the Rothbardian Robinson Crusoe scenario is, well, bullshit (to be more generous, of greatly limited applicability). We did not evolve as solitary creatures, but as tool-users in highly organized societies. If only LP libertarians weren't so tolerant of dope-smoking and titty magazines, the party would be a happy home for young-Earth Creationists. Has anyone ever heard of a Libertarian primatologist or anthropologist? (And no, the speculative forays of David Friedman, the economist, into Icelandic history do not constitute anthropological scholarship. If they did he could get published in the relevant academic journals.)
It much easier to be a benefactor to another if one has not been mugged in advance. A system of public mugging makes private beneficence harder to practice.
This metaphor just does not persuade me in the least. Before I paid a cent in taxes in my life, I was the beneficiary of public roads, public utilities, the regulatory efforts of the Food and Drug Administration (they fuckin' well were not and are not perfect, but the fact remains that I did not die in childhood from tainted food or medicine, and that my parents had neither the equipment nor the training to independently provide a comparable service), and so on and so forth.
I haven't been mugged, but I have paid taxes, and I have bitched about paying them. Were I to be mugged, particularly in the company of my wife, I can imagine which experience I would prefer.
Are there undesirable things about taxation? Abso-frickin'-lutely. We should watch the hell out of our watchers. But I am going to be much more impressed with a political movement that A) has a plausibly implementable alternative to offer, and B) in the meantime, performs the public service of improving oversight of tax collection and public spending processes.
Yes, admittedly, by doing B), the LP might undermine its hopes of achieving A). If their palliative efforts towards reforming taxation are successful, the electorate might not have the stomach to implement a new revolutionary policy.
But I trust I do not need to call out the numerous negative examples, in history and in art, of self-proclaimed saviors who rode to the rescue when a polity faced a crisis, and left misery in their wake. Mikhail Bakunin saw what would happen if Revolutionary Marxists got a hold of real political power, and when they did, many years later, they did their damnedest to prove him guilty of understatement. Why would the Libertarian Party do any better? (Remember, Marxist theory was also highly skeptical of the State.) Would you trust Bob Fucking Barr, of all people?
So my advice to the Libertarian Party is this: do people some good. Today. Only then will you earn their trust, and their votes.
I know the deck is stacked against third parties. Kenneth Arrow proved it mathematically. Between ballot access laws and the First-Past-the-Post election method, the LP's prospects are grim no matter how much good they actually do. That's why I think the best vehicle for reform in the real world at present is the Democratic Party. I freely admit that the Democrats have a lot of shit (and blood) on their hands, and this attitude constitutes a compromise.
But I have trouble imagining how the Libertarian Party could be an even less compelling alternative than they actually are. I guess they don't want to reach out to people like me. That's fine. They have better things to do. Texas LP chairman Patrick Dixon, for example, evidently sees further growth in Republican Party control of all government apparatus as preferable. Good for him. I hope you can understand why I want to keep a lot of daylight between myself and that sort of fuckwittedness.