Libertarianism, from A to Z by Jeffrey A. Miron
(New York: Basic Books, 2010); 198 pages.
More and more Americans are coming to realize that the liberal/conservative paradigm is deeply flawed. Disillusionment with Washington is at an all-time high. The old adage that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties has never seemed more true. The political philosophy of libertarianism is an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional Left/Right trajectory. Yet libertarianism is often misunderstood and mischaracterized by its opponents as discounting human nature and disdaining morality while being grossly naive and overly utopian. That is no doubt in part owing to the failure of proponents of libertarianism to properly understand and clearly articulate the libertarian philosophy.
Harvard University has never been known as a bastion of libertarianism. But Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior lecturer and the director of undergraduate studies in the Harvard economics department, is also a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. His new book, Libertarianism, from A to Z, is an introduction to libertarianism in the form of a very readable dictionary of libertarian perspectives on government policies and key issues.
Miron was not always a libertarian. His “doorway” to libertarianism was the realization, after undertaking several research projects on drug prohibition, that “legalization made more sense than prohibition.” That was followed by his conclusion on other issues that “small government is the right approach.” Libertarianism, from A to Z grew out of lecture notes from his Harvard course, “A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy.”
There are 105 entries included in Libertarianism, from A to Z. Each letter of the alphabet (except J, K, Q, X, and Y) has from one to fourteen topics ranging from government policies (such as affirmative action) to philosophical concepts (such as federalism) to social concerns (such as abortion) to specific practices (such as employee drug testing). Government-related issues constitute the bulk of the entries, just as most of the entries, and rightly so, focus on the role of government. The entries range from less than a page (arts and culture, and 11 others) to five complete pages (subsidizing education).
After a very personal preface, there is an introduction that explains not only the book’s format but also its plan (analyze government policy), purpose (provide a balanced introduction to libertarianism), tone (part advocacy, part explanation), focus (federal rather than state), perspective (minarchist rather than anarchist), and approach (consequential rather than rights-based). Because of the nature of the book, there are no footnotes or an index. Instead of a bibliography, there is a section at the book’s end called “The Intellectual Foundations of the Libertarian Perspective” in which nine libertarian thinkers and their works are briefly introduced, though a notable omission from the list is Murray Rothbard. The book also has a conclusion. The strength of the book is its format. It is reminiscent of, and improves upon, Mary J. Ruwart’s Short Answers to the Tough Questions (SunStar Press, 1999).
In addition to providing “a balanced introduction to libertarianism,” Libertarianism, from A to Z “tries both to indicate in a concise way what the standard libertarian positions are and to outline the main reasons for those positions.” It is designed to help a reader “learn to think like a Libertarian” and inspire him to “think and talk clearly and honestly about the role of government.” Although those are noble goals, a good format does not alone a good book make.
The entries in Libertarianism, from A to Z are uneven, often overlap, and have mixed presentations of libertarianism. Exactly what the author’s position or the libertarian position is on a particular issue is sometimes unclear. At other times he implies that something is the libertarian position on a subject when it seems rather to be merely his own. In the end, Miron not only accepts, but suggests, too much of a role for the state. He is also an advocate for school vouchers, a decidedly unlibertarian idea.
Miron does a good-to-excellent job on many entries, such as affirmative action, agricultural subsidies, anti-poverty programs, antitrust policy, arts and culture, bank regulation and deposit insurance, bans on discrimination, campaign-finance regulation, central banks, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, consumer protection, corporate income tax, corruption, criminal justice, democracy and capitalism, disaster relief, discrimination, disrespect for the law, employee drug testing, endangered species, enforcing contracts, the estate tax, externalities, false or misleading advertising, fiscal stimulus, fixed versus flexible exchange rates, funding scientific research, the Great Depression, health-care costs, mandatory savings programs, medications, minimum legal drinking age, minimum wages, moral hazard, mutually beneficial exchange, organ sales, paternalism, polarization, private (personal) accounts, product liability, professional licensure, prostitution, public-health campaigns, recycling, self-reliance, sin taxes, slippery slopes, stabilization policies, thought control, “too big to fail,” unintended consequences, unions, utilitarianism, and the war on terrorism.
Although his discussions on these subjects are standard libertarian fare, Miron does make some notable points. On corruption he courageously points out that “there may be, in some situations, an optimum level of bribery.” On discrimination he explains not only that the wage gap between men and women is not caused by discrimination, but that “governments themselves have generated much discrimination.” On false or misleading advertising, he doesn’t equivocate: “Restrictions on advertising are infringements of free speech.” He terms the distinction between commercial speech and political speech “meaningless.” In his entry on the Great Depression, he rightly has Herbert Hoover sharing the blame for policies that were “a recipe for economic disaster.” Regarding the issue of professional licensure, Miron explains that “the net effect of licensing doctors may therefore be to reduce the health of the population rather than increase it.” Echoing Julian Simon, Miron says of recycling, “The prices of raw materials show, if anything, downward trends over time, the opposite of what should occur if these resources were becoming more scarce.” Although, as I point out below, Miron proposes sin taxes in some instances, he does make the good statement that “sin taxation also means that governments promote sin even while trying to discourage it (e.g., by banning private gambling while airing television ads that glamorize government lotteries).”
There are 12 entries that, although good, fall short of what they could be: foreign aid, children, global warming, environmental policies, trade, health insurance, funding scientific research, gun control, national defense, public television and radio, sports stadiums, and subsidizing education.
It is certainly true that “foreign aid does little to help developing countries and might even contribute to worse outcomes.” However, there is no mention of the fact that foreign aid — whatever its purpose or effect — is simply theft from American taxpayers on a grand scale and indefensible under any circumstances.
Under the entry for children, Miron ends some good remarks on parental choice with a reserved defense of mandatory child restraints and free vaccinations and what seems to be too much of a defense of minimum work ages.
At the end of the entry on global warming, he recommends that instead of the government’s spending money on global-warming policies “it makes more sense to spend the same money in other ways, such as slowing the spread of malaria or improving the education systems in developing countries.” Actually, it makes more sense for the government not to spend the money at all.
I am not sure I agree with Miron’s assertion under his otherwise good discussion of environmental policies that “automobile emissions might easily be excessive unless government intervenes.”
I strongly disagree with Miron’s proposal that a country can promote free trade “by entering multilateral trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or by joining international organizations like the World Trade Organization.” All that promotes is managed trade. Just look at the size of the NAFTA agreement. A country’s “eliminating all its trade barriers unilaterally” is not just “a better approach,” it is the only truly libertarian approach. Even a unilateral reduction in trade barriers would be more libertarian than entering into any managed-trade agreements.
The entry for health insurance is really about government’s subsidizing health insurance. At four and a half pages, it is detailed and compelling, but falls short when it recommends that governments should transfer income to help the poor purchase health insurance.
Although Miron makes a good point under “funding scientific research” that “government funding has minimal impact on technological progress,” he erroneously maintains, “The fundamental problem is that if government funds science, it must choose which science to fund. This means politics, rather than science, can determine the choices.” The fundamental problem is rather that government has no business funding scientific research of any kind for any reason.
Miron’s entries for gun control, public television and radio, and sports stadiums are all accurate and clearly written, but they lack a truly libertarian analysis. It is just not the business of government to have public television and radio stations or to build sports stadiums, no matter what benefits they may bring to the nation or a local community. And there is not even a hint that gun control is wrong because it violates natural rights, property rights, and constitutional principles.
Miron has some helpful criticisms of preemptive attacks “as in the U.S. invasion of Iraq” and U.S. military humanitarian and nation-building efforts in his entry on national defense. He correctly points out that “nations perform many inappropriate actions under the mantle of self-defense, most of them harmful.” However, his blanket opening statement that libertarians accept the government policy of providing national defense, “since no private solution is likely to prove satisfactory,” is simply not true: a growing body of libertarian studies continue to show otherwise.
In the entry on subsidizing education, which, at five pages, is the longest entry in the book, Miron ends his otherwise good analysis with the claim that an “appropriate subsidy” is “far lower than in most economies, and perhaps zero.” He mentions specifically “children who might not otherwise get an education.” To the libertarian, there is never an appropriate subsidy for education. In the absence of government subsidies for education, low-income families would have to look to relatives, churches, corporate interests, local businesses, private voucher plans, and charitable organizations for education funding.
There are a few entries in Libertarianism, from A to Z that, in my opinion, are less than satisfactory. Some entries, such as federalism, morality, nuclear power, and property rights, are incomplete or not well written. I have mixed feelings about Miron’s entries on capital punishment, religion, immigration, gays in the military, abortion, partial-birth abortion, and RU-486. In his entry on the gold standard and fiat money, Miron spends the whole time criticizing a gold standard and never talking about the evils of fiat money. And it is not true that “drunk driving laws are acceptable to libertarians in principle,” since they presume government-owned streets and highways, which libertarians oppose.
On budget deficits Miron makes the surprising statement, “If government spends its revenue on productive activities that the private sector does not undertake, then this spending makes sense whether the current deficit is large or small.” One question is: How does the state determine what is productive? More fundamentally, why should the state be spending money on free-market activity at all? Why shouldn’t those decisions be left entirely to the private sector?
The entries on anti-poverty programs, redistributing income, and government vouchers, as opposed to redistribution in cash or in kind, are too much of a defense of redistributing income to the poor by means of vouchers. Miron is to be commended for his discussion of Social Security, and especially for his insistence that “the dismal picture painted by Social Security advocates, in which millions of elderly starve in the street, is a grotesque exaggeration.” However, instead of calling for the program’s complete demise, he advocates a negative income tax “to alleviate elderly poverty,” posits ways to reduce Social Security’s costs, and discusses other changes that could be made to the system.
There are several entries in Libertarianism, from A to Z on the subject of taxes. That it is one of Miron’s weak areas can be seen in his opening sentence in the entry for taxes: “Even small governments require some expenditure, so taxes are necessary in every society.” In his discussion of drug prohibition, he says that sin taxes “might make sense” if they are “moderate.” Likewise, in his entry on gambling, he posits that “rather than operating lotteries, state governments could legalize all gambling and then impose a sin tax.” He makes those proposals in spite of the good entry he has on sin taxes.
Miron talks about the advantages of consumption taxation relative to income taxation, but only presents in opposition that “some object to consumption taxation because it falls more heavily on the poor than does income taxation.” His solution is to “make the tax rates on consumption increase with the amount of income (that is, make them progressive rather than proportional).” Miron extols the virtues of a flat tax, but once again mentions that “the main criticism levied at a flat tax is that it requires people with low incomes to pay positive amounts in taxes.” His solution is to “incorporate a negative income tax, which would guarantee a minimum income while taxing earned income at the flat rate.”
He makes the same suggestion to the same dilemma he raises about the poor in his entry on personal income taxation. There Miron disdains exemptions, deductions, and credits in the name of efficiency and because of the potential for political manipulation. But then he remarks that “favored tax treatment of a few activities might have a plausible justification.” That does not, however, include employer-provided health insurance. In the entry on that subject he calls for the elimination of the employer deduction for health-insurance premiums paid in behalf of employees. To maintain revenue neutrality, he calls for a decrease in “some other tax.” A better idea would be to just get rid of the corporate income tax — a tax that Miron says nothing but negative things about in his entry on the subject. He explains his endorsement of a negative income tax in more detail in its own entry. He acknowledges his debt to Milton Friedman there and in the book’s dedication.
The worst entries in Libertarianism, from A to Z are those on educational vouchers, another unlibertarian idea that was endorsed by Friedman. Miron endorses vouchers not only in the entry on vouchers for education, but also in more than half of the entry on public schools. It is even advanced on the first page of the introduction and in some other entries that have nothing to do with education. Miron considers vouchers to be a fundamental reform of education, on par with the elimination of teachers’ unions.
Conservatism and liberalism
It is Miron’s perspective of libertarianism that accounts for his less than satisfactory and occasionally bad entries in Libertarianism, from A to Z. In his entries on conservatism and liberalism and contrasting them with libertarianism, he rightly concludes that both conservatism and liberalism are in essence paternalistic positions that assume “government knows better than the people being governed.” However, in those sections he maintains that “roughly, conservatism and libertarianism tend to overlap regarding economic issues but not on social or foreign policy issues” and similarly that “liberalism and libertarianism tend to overlap regarding social and foreign policy issues but not economic issues.”
That Miron reaches this simplistic conclusion is no surprise, because in the first paragraph of his introduction he states, “Roughly, liberals support economic regulation while conservatives favor social and foreign policy intervention.” He then goes on in the introduction to define libertarianism as being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” instead of defining it in terms of the nonaggression principle that it is wrong to defraud or initiate force against another person. Although it may not be his intention, Miron is presenting libertarianism as some sort of a fusion of liberalism and conservatism.
Taking just foreign policy as an example, we can see that his characterizations of liberals and conservatives are not accurate. A Democratic majority in Congress under a Democratic president (Obama) did absolutely nothing to change U.S. foreign policy from what it was under a Republican majority in Congress with a Republican president (Bush). And even worse, Obama escalated the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and expanded the war to Pakistan.
Another problem with Miron’s perspective of libertarianism is his consequentialist approach. Because he believes that “the cost-benefit framework, broadly interpreted, is nevertheless the heart of the libertarian perspective on government policy,” Miron takes a consequentialist approach to libertarianism instead of a philosophical one. “Consequentialism,” he says, “argues that most government interventions are undesirable because they fail to achieve their stated goals or because they generate costs that are worse than the problems they purport to fix.” This approach “permits reasoned compromise” and “does not rule out redistribution a priori.”
Therefore, when Miron says that “under libertarianism government would take part in national defense, criminal justice, and contract enforcement, but little else,” his “little else” turns out to be a great deal, as we have seen in his support for vouchers and a negative income tax. The problem with this consequentialist approach can really be seen by looking at two entries in the book. In the entry contrasting conservatism and libertarianism, Miron writes, “Conservatives want to prohibit marijuana but not alcohol even though any objective accounting suggests alcohol is the more dangerous substance. Libertarians want both goods to be legal, not because either is benign but because the consequences of prohibition are worse than the consequences of legal availability.” But what if the consequences of prohibition are not worse than the consequences of legal availability? Would Miron support prohibition? Libertarians want marijuana and alcohol to be legal because everyone has the natural right and should have the liberty to consume whatever substance he chooses without interference from the government. The cost, benefits, and consequences have nothing to do with it.
And in the entry on abortion, Miron writes, “Thus, even if a fetus is a human life, abortion should be morally tolerable if the benefits of terminating a pregnancy exceed the negatives, taking into account the impact on the pregnant woman, her existing and future children, and society generally.” The same argument could be used to justify infanticide or euthanasia.
Needless to say, I have some reservations about the libertarianism presented in Libertarianism, from A to Z. I think a book on libertarianism in a dictionary-style format is a wonderfully practical teaching tool. Although Miron’s book comes up a little short, it is still a good addition to the literature of libertarianism.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.