Saturday, December 30, 2006

Lazy Thinking

Statism and Lazy Thinking
John Markley

It is a common failing of many advocates of statism, frequently noted by libertarians, that they cannot see past the immediate and obvious results of a measure to less immediately obvious consequences. The great majority of those who supported alcohol prohibition probably never thought about the results of black markets, just as most modern supporters of drug prohibition are oblivious to the effects of pushing narcotics into the criminal sector. They think, "Great, we’ll discourage the use of these harmful substances," without thinking through the unintended effects – gang violence, organized crime, tainted products that kill their users. These results are not hard to foresee, but most people don’t think past step one.

Likewise, most people who thought the modern welfare state was a good idea surely didn’t anticipate the social breakdown and dependency created by the Great Society. They simply thought, "Great, poor people will have more money that they need" and thought no further than that. Again, the destructive effects were not unforeseeable, but for those who never thought past the first step it must have come as a rude shock.

This is not new; libertarians have been commenting on this intellectual failing at least as far back as Frédéric Bastiat. Less commented on by libertarians, but in my opinion equally important, is the way in which many statists fail to think past the first step when considering the results of libertarian proposals. They assume that even with a major change in government policy, everything else will remain static, with disastrous results.

Consider the example mentioned previously, drug laws. In my experience, many prohibitionists, ignorant of the way that prohibition has affected the drug market, are horrified by the idea of legalization because they assume a situation that is otherwise completely static – laws will change, but society will otherwise stay the same. Drug users will still buy the same tainted products from the same violent, unsavory characters.

Now, an examination of another formerly illegal and potentially toxic product, alcohol, makes the problems with this obvious. I don’t buy pints of Guinness on street corners from members of the Crips. The bottle of whiskey I received for Christmas was not distilled in a filthy bathtub and flavored with antifreeze. Shootouts between employees of Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker are fairly rare nowadays.

Why? Because dealers in legal products can have their contracts enforced without shooting at each other, they can be sued if they poison customers with tainted products, and they don’t attract a disproportionate number of violent and dangerous people to their industries. There’s nothing magical about narcotics that would make them different, but many people assume that a legal drug industry would have all the social pathologies of an illegal one, because they fail to think past the obvious.

Education is another good example. A depressingly common response to a proposal to get the government out of education is to point out that there is nowhere near enough capacity in the private school system, as if no entrepreneur would think to try to fill this gap and satisfy the demand. A slightly more sophisticated criticism is that private schools are costly, or often don’t accept students with poor grades or behavioral records, or are usually affiliated with religious groups that many parents are not members of.

Once again, the lazy assumption that society and the economy would remain static in the face of a fairly major change in government appears. If one thinks things through, and considers the example of other areas of the economy, it becomes obvious that a free market in education would quickly result in entrepreneurs offering schools with a broad array of different disciplinary environments, student bodies, religious/philosophical orientations, and price levels, just as any other area of the economy offers a wide array of products if allowed to.

This failure to think past what seems like the obvious effects of a proposed policy is endemic to many areas of politics. The typical responses to many libertarian ideas, from cutting welfare ("The poor will starve to death in the streets!") to ending occupational licensure ("No one will know who’s a competent doctor!") are in large part manifestations of this mental laziness. The assumption of a static society naturally encourages statism. If voluntary society currently isn’t doing something (for instance, certifying the safety of products or businesses) because the government has crowded out such efforts, anyone who doesn’t bother to think past the immediate and obvious will of course be horrified by the prospect of removing the government from that area of society; in his mind, doing so leaves us with nothing at all! Recognizing the ability of a free society to carry out functions currently filled by government requires an investment of mental effort that many people don’t bother with.

Thus, while a great deal of statism arises from collectivist or elitist philosophical premises, a great deal is also the product of sheer sloth. This is a depressing thought, in a way, but it is also a heartening one. Convincing someone who is a committed philosophical collectivist to value liberty is terribly difficult; guiding someone who hasn’t given the issues enough thought through a few extra mental steps to see the power of free societies is child’s play by comparison. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible.

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