Taxing luxury goods Monday, Nov 23 2009 

A little less polemical I hope, I’ve been thinking about sales taxes on luxury goods. Daniel Hamermesh has a post about this topic at the Freakonomics blog. His discussion is of college textbooks and a proposal to cut the sales tax on them (currently at 9%). Why cut taxes on a good that the wealthy disproportionately buy (“because college education is disproportionately undertaken by the offspring of higher-income families”)? This would be tantamount to “more tax breaks for the rich,” Hamermesh argues. (You might want to check out my post on whether college education is actually inferior.)

It is, of course, not true that only the wealthy pay for textbooks (or other luxury goods, for that matter). Reducing the cost of a good, including luxury goods, means people at lower incomes that were previously priced out of the market are now able to afford that good. Removing the sales tax on Rolls-Royces probably does nothing to help the poor. Textbooks, however, are goods that the poor are sometimes likely to buy, thanks to financial aid and other subsidies that help them afford university (you won’t find the poor getting aid to buy high-end luxury automobiles). Increasing the availability of higher education, I think, is a definite improvement for the poor. I think the argument that lowering the sales tax on textbooks is a bad idea is rather dubious.

Also, here is a good article by Aaron Edlin and Ian Ayres published on the Freakonomics blog regarding the recent tuition hikes in California (an astounding 32% by next fall), which students there have been protesting. Edlin and Ayres argue the tuition hike isn’t so bad—so long as there is a similar increase in financial aid going to the poor to help them afford it. It makes things fairer, they say. The rich, who were disproportionately benefited by the low tuition, now “pay a tuition much more commensurate with what he or she can afford.” The poor, on the other hand, are shielded from the tuition hike by the (supposed) increase in financial aid they’re receiving (the rich, of course, are not usually eligible for financial aid). (Whether California will be increasing financial aid is an entirely different story.)

This makes one wonder: are students who are protesting the tuition hikes in California only the rich students who are disproportionately benefited by low tuition? I suspect not. One reason might be the lack of increase in financial aid, another might be the increase in debt associated with higher use of financial aid (loans), and yet another might be the perception of really high tuition rates (e.g. at Yale and other private universities) that dissuade the poor to begin with (there seems to be information asymmetry). I suspect it’s probably not true that raising state tuition in this way is a “good thing.”


The profit motive Friday, Nov 20 2009 

In my global marketing strategy class the other day, instructor David Thomsen showed two pretty shocking videos in discussing public relations. One was on the Bhopal disaster of 1984. The Bhopal gas tragedy is the worst industrial disaster in human history, leaving 8,000 dead within hours of the gas leak in the Indian city, 25,000 dead since the disaster, hundreds of thousands adversely affected by the chemicals, continuing side effects on humans and other animals, and environmental damage that persists today. The “compensation” the video talks about was less than $900 per injured person. Union Carbide, the corporation responsible for the leak, denied any culpability. The Dow Chemical Company later bought them in 2001. The CEO of the company at the time, Warren Anderson, was charged with homicide and manslaughter. He left the country and fled to the United States, where he currently resides, and refuses to appear before Indian courts.

The second video was a report by Australia’s Channel 7 revealing that Nike, a corporation marred by its human rights violations and despicable working conditions in Third World countries, continued to engage in forced labor practices in sweatshops in Malaysia as late as 2008. Note this is after they claimed to have cleaned up their act.

There is a simple reason these types of actions, and others like them, occur, which is what’s called the profit motive. When profit-maximization is the creed, what happens to people is only incidental. There is a whole generation of businesspeople who have been influenced by the work of people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, whose principle message is that the only socially responsible (and indeed morally right) action is to maximize self-interest by way of profits. These ideas are justified by ethical egoism, a morally bankrupt and vacuous theory that says the only morally right actions are actions that maximize the acting agent’s self-interest. That’s what’s called “the moral economy.” The right, in their usual perversion of Smithian theory, always tries to defend this on economic grounds, appealing to what they refer to as “the invisible hand,” a term meant to describe the unintentional benefit to society that corporations bring about through acting in their self-interest. Adam Smith, of course, only used the term once in his The Wealth Nations and only as a “casual metaphor” for risk-adverse merchants wary of foreign exchange who inadvertently help their own countries. Smith, like many of the other great anti- and pre-capitalist Enlightenment thinkers, denounced greed and selfishness. As most serious scholars of Smith recognize, Smith never saw the “invisible hand” as a reality or “law” of markets. As Joseph Stiglitz puts it, “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”

As ethical egoism posits to us, there is a certain calculus all moral agents are supposed to undertake in their actions. Namely, they are to ascertain which actions will ultimately lead to profit maximization and undertake those actions. For Union Carbide, that meant denying responsibility for the worst industrial disaster in human history and paying its victims an inconsequential and truly unjust fraction of its coffers. For Nike, that meant finding the cheapest source of labor and exploiting them in the worst kinds of ways—that is, until they’re caught. And while these might indeed be the profit-maximizing choices, surely nobody agrees they have improved the lot of all. When we ignore the rights of people and the laws that regulate acceptable behavior (as, indeed, ethical egoism asks us to do when it is profitable), the necessary result is an abject and deplorable world. The fact that the far-right advocates the abolition of regulations intended to safeguard against such massive injustices from ever happening is justified, they say, by a certain euphemism they call “market democracy” (the idea that ordinary market participants, like you or me, can shape business behavior—but you more than me, because I’m poor). The sobering reality: Dow’s revenues in 2008 totaled more than $57.5 billion, and over $16.6 billion for Nike.

So long as corporations continue to operate within the framework of this “moral economy,” justified by Friedman, Rand and others, we will continue to witness the tragedies and corruption that we hear about on an everyday basis. What is needed instead, at the most minimal level, is a better consideration for those other than the self, as advocated in theories like stakeholder theory, and better regulations and stiffer penalties to ensure “profit over people” (what Smith described to as “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”) does not become the norm.

A new era: worth its weight in lead Sunday, Nov 15 2009 

The last 35 years or so, an era of liberalization and “globalization,” has been hailed as an era of fantastic growth and economic prosperity. Thanks to Reagan and his economic reforms, we currently live in an era of magnificent economic conditions. Is it true? Is all the triumphalism merited? Well, as usual, it depends on who we’re talking about. It’s true that there has been outstanding performance of the economy, but it’s a very narrow part of the economy. It’s quite true that the ultra-rich have been making out like bandits. We get to read about their euphoria all the time. For the ordinary American, however, the story is quite different.

In my post on what are called “economic miracles,” I noted that the ordinary worker in America has been working harder and longer hours only to see their wages stagnant or decline. Most people have actually seen their wealth go away, not accumulate. The poor have been getting poorer (and the rich, richer). On my post on what’s being called “globalization,” I pointed to data to shows world GDP growth rates have slowed nearly 40% in this new era compared to the era before, which was called the Golden Age (Robert Skidelsky also discusses this in his book, Keynes: The Return of the Master). Poverty rates were steadily declining right through the early 1970s; since then, the poverty rate has either increase or stagnated. The same is true of unemployment rates, but instead of staying stagnant after the early ’70s they soared to unprecedented levels and today we are again approaching the levels we saw under Reagan.

Just about on every measure, this “Golden Age of Capitalism”—the Bretton Woods era—has outperformed this new era, which is now being dubbed the “Leaden Age.” Writes David Harvey, “The only general point of agreement is that something significant has changed in the way capitalism has been working since about 1970.” In The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of our Times, Giovanni Arrighi explains: “Rigidities increased further, real growth ceased, inflationary tendencies got out of hand, and the system of fixed exchange rates, which had sustained and regulated post-war expansion, collapsed. Since that time, all states have been at the mercy of financial discipline, either through the effects of capital flight or direct institutional pressures.” That is, states have been undermined by “the empowerment of financial capital” and economies have gone out of control.

The Golden Age of Capitalism (by “capitalism,” it’s understood we mean “state capitalism”), unlike the current Leaden Age, was marked by economic growth that was egalitarian, less severe business cycles, and overall stabilization. The dismantling of the Bretton Woods system and the descent into the Leaden Age has brought about rampant speculation, loss of capital controls, and unregulated exchange rates, all resulting in volatility, severe business cycles (take now, for example), slower growth, higher interest rates, worker insecurity (or, more euphemistically, “labor market flexibility”), and all the rest described above. (This descent is also discussed in John Eatwell and Lance Taylor’s book, Global Finance at Risk.) Now Paul Krugman, an economics professor at Princeton University and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008, has been doing some Reagan mythbusting of his own. First, he debunks the idea that growth was greater in the Leaden Age than in the Golden Age. Next, he dispels myths about Reagan policies creating greater growth on a per capita basis. Finally, he goes on to explain productivity growth was more rapid during the Golden Age, not during the era of Reaganomics.

Now I’m sure some people may not be happy with the foregoing arguments, even though I find them more descriptive than normative. They might see it as an attack on free markets, but I don’t think it is. In fact, the Bretton Woods system was built around the idea that free trade was good but there needed to be some regulations on finance. Those arguments are not novel and you don’t need to read Keynes to find them. And while Reagan certainly liberalized the economy in some senses, for example through deregulation, Reagen really had no faith at all in free markets. He was, in fact, a big-time state capitalist; take, for example, James Baker who boasted to business groups that the Reagan administration has offered more protection to American business than any post-war presidency (it was, in fact, more than all of them combined). Today, we continue to operate on the idea which is that you socialize risk and costs and privatize profits—the idea of lemon socialism. Contemporary examples stare us right in the face. But Bush’s idea of abandoning “free market principles to save the free market system” is not new by any means. The point I wish to make, if any, is that these ideas are not healthy for democracy are not, as shown above, particularly conducive to economic growth in any meaningful sense.

Does the state have the right to murder? Thursday, Nov 12 2009 

As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Ezekiel 33:11

I remember very clearly the state of terror that gripped the East Coast during fall of 2002. I was only just entering high school then, but the atrocities taking place along the Eastern Seaboard were so jarring to me. The atrocities I’m speaking about are the murders committed by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who shot 13 people and killed 10 of them. Last night, Muhammad, dubbed the “D.C. Sniper,” was put to death last night via lethal injection in the state of Virginia for the heinous crimes he committed.

The question I want to focus on is whether the death penalty is ever justified, even for decidedly evil people like Muhammad. In 2008, the United States put to death 37 people, the fifth most just after North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. That’s quite the distinguished neighborhood we’re in, to say the least. Each of these nations (including the U.S.) is known for their human rights violations, which should not come as a surprise. The U.S. is surpassed only by Pakistan for the most prisoners on death row awaiting their “imminent deaths” that can take up to 20 years to come. All of the West, with the exception of the U.S., has outlawed capital punishment. The United States is the only developed nation, outside of Japan and Singapore, to still execute people. In the EU, Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union outlaws the barbaric practice.

The conservative right in this country has always perplexed me with their unwavering commitment to the sanctity of life when it comes to the unborn but, at the same time, almost reflexively support the state’s right to murder human beings. This is evidenced by the fact that an overwhelming majority (95% last year) of executions in the United States occur in the South, with Texas being the leader.

Some may state that my use of the word “murder” here is unfair, biased, etc. However, let’s consider the conditions under which people are being killed by the state: the person is incapacitated, restrained, and no longer a threat. Let’s say someone invades your house, but you are able to capture him and tie him up. You are not then allowed to shoot the person once you have him under your control. That would be murder. Specifically, murder is the unjustified “killing of another human being with intent.” Therefore, capital punishment is unambiguously murder. In order for this to be so, we must explain why it is unjustified.

Now that we’ve seen that we are in isolation within the West on this issue, that conservatives are the biggest supporters and perpetrators of capital punishment, and that this constitutes murder, let’s try to evaluate some of the claims. One of main justifications given for capital punishment is the so-called “deterrent effect.” If the state puts to death a murderer, this disincentivizes (deters) would-be murderers because they are fearful of being put to death by the state if they are caught. Of course, this has been the justification for all sorts of draconian practices. “If we want to stop a practice, we can murder whoever does it and it will stop.” (If we want to stop robbery, why don’t we just impale robbers, as Draco did?) As one might expect, this theory falls flat on its face as soon any empirical data are examined. The “deterrence effect” is a myth. A review of the scholarly literature by Bailey and Peterson published in the 1997 book “The Death Penalty in America” (Chapter 9) emphatically affirms there exists no “deterrent effect.” Just a cursory survey shows that murder rates are higher in states that have the death penalty than in those that do not. That’s the correlation. What’s the causation? Well, there are obviously many factors, but one interesting one is what’s called the “brutalization effect.” This hypothesis says that when the state kills human beings, it sends the opposite message that it intended: the deliberate killing of human beings is acceptable and there exists no inherent sanctity in life. In effect, the death penalty brutalizes society and homicide rates go up. That is to say, executions dehumanize people and sends the message that human beings are mere instruments. Interrupted time-series analyses from Oklahoma have found a brutalization effect for homicide of strangers. Older studies find a similar effect in New York and Arizona.

Supporters also claim executions create a “specific deterrent,” i.e. those put to death are deterred from committing future crimes because they are dead. We could therefore claim that if we wanted to stop a robber from robbing again, we could kill him. Does anyone accept that argument? No one does. Moreover, life in prison for murderers is also a “specific deterrent” (as well a general deterrence). There is no reason to take the unnecessary step of execution.

But what if executions deterred? It is the utilitarian argument that killing human beings is okay because it may save the lives of would-be victims from would-be murderers. Since it is utilitarian, it is concerned with the consequences of actions, not the principles on which they are based. It follows from this theory, if we assume executions deter future crime, that the execution of innocent prisoners is in fact moral because it deterred future crimes. That is one of the many “repugnant conclusions” that practitioners of utilitarianism must accept. Further, if we are truly committed to deterring future crimes, we should be impaling or burning prisoners at the stake, which would surely deter would-be criminals. But no one accepts this, because it is an elementary moral principle that humans are not mere tools for creating some desired end. We accept that there are things we simply do not tolerate as moral beings, even against the most reprehensible of people.

It might be argued that it simply isn’t the case that innocent people would be executed. This is also another interesting argument coming from the conservative right; for all their contempt and distrust of government, they also almost reflexively assume the judiciary gets it right and the criminal justice system is inherently efficient and just. The sobering fact is that, “since 1973, 139 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence” (source). This fact alone, that the criminal justice system in the United States is prone to errors of enormous consequence, demolishes any conceived justification for capital punishment (if we agree putting innocent people to death is wrong). Unfortunately, once prisoners are executed, there is no longer any effort to examine their guilt. The aforementioned source mentions at least eight executed prisoners whose guilt has been seriously doubted. They also note two people who have pardoned or exonerated after their execution.

Furthermore, the use of capital punishment is discriminatory. The race of the victim murdered is the greatest predictor of whether the person who committed the murder will be executed. According to a 2003 report by Amnesty International that explores the role of race in the judicial system, “Blacks and whites were the victims of these murders in almost equal numbers. Yet 80 per cent of the people executed since 1977 were convicted of murders involving white victims.” The report also finds that minorities are also underrepresented in juries, which may skew the result of convictions and sentences. Explains Justice Scalia, “the unconscious operation of irrational sympathies and antipathies, including racial, upon jury decisions and (hence) prosecutorial decisions is real, acknowledged in the decisions of this court, and ineradicable.” Justice Scalia neglects to mention, however, that the death penalty is not ineradicable. In the words of Senator Feingold, “We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment.”

In the United States, this “ultimate punishment” is most often manifested in lethal ejections. In their dubious quest to find more “humane” and efficient ways to kill human beings, practitioners of executions have settled on a lethal cocktail of drugs meant to swiftly and painlessly kill its victim. The effectiveness of this practice has been highly criticized. It is argued that the anesthetic used, a short-acting barbiturate, quickly wears off and leads to a very painful death for the prisoner. The prisoner, however, is unable to communicate this pain as the pancuronium bromide, a paralytic muscle relaxant, has paralyzed the prisoner. The attempts to make executions look like medical procedures have had, in Dr. Groner’s words, the purpose of making them “socially more acceptable.” A 2007 study found that current procedures “may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended” and that prisoners may in fact be fully aware and suffering painful asphyxiation rather than the intended cardiac arrest. To wit, a prisoner named Angel Diaz who was put to death in 2006 required two doses of the lethal cocktail because the first was insufficient to kill than man within 35 minutes. A list of further botched executions can be found here.

Additionally, from a purely economical standpoint, executions are more costly than life in prison. Eliminating the death penalty could save the public hundreds of millions of dollars, which could be better spent on public safety and efforts that actually succeed in reducing murder and other crime. Saving money alone should not be the sole purpose of abolishing the death penalty, but if we accept the argument I have made above then we get the benefit of increased efficiency and a better utilization of scarce resources.

A natural question that remains is, Why does capital punishment still exist in the United States? There may well be a rational explanation, which is that “The death penalty has served the political class at great expense to the greater society.” Politicians benefit from supporting the death penalty because it helps them win elections. It will only be after the American public realizes, as they increasingly are, that death penalty is inherently wrong that policymakers will stop clinging to the antiquated practice.

As we remember the moments of terror that shocked the nation seven years ago, let us reflect on the statement of those who protested the execution of even the most reprehensible kind of person: “We remember the victims, but not with more killing.”

The cost of production and living standards Saturday, Nov 7 2009 

Updated below

There’s an interesting discussion at the SCSU scholars blog regarding capital and labor (click comments). Classical economic theory tells us that firms are (or at least seek to be) profit-maximizing (whether or not that is true will be ignored here). Profits, remember, are revenues minus (economic) costs. So one way firms can increase profits is by lowering the costs of production. Classical analysis states there are three factors of production: land and natural resources, labor, and capital (sometimes referred to as “the means of production”). It follows, as Dr. Banaian points out, that when the cost of labor relative to the cost of capital goes up, firms will substitute capital for labor when possible. That is, firms will attempt to increase profits by using the cheaper factor of production. (Of course, the decisions a firm can make in the long-term and in the short-term differ, but that will be ignored here. It is also important to note whether the market for labor and capital are perfectly competitive; it’s dubious, but I assume they are here for simplification.) Theoretically, a firm can look at their isocost and isoquant curves to determine the cost-minimizing combination of labor and capital, but we don’t need to get into that level of technical analysis.

Anyway, we might just assume firms will choose to replace capital with labor when it becomes cheaper to do so. Does this make cheap labor a bad thing, as “spencer” posits? He claims the move to labor-saving capital has been the key to rising standards of living (apparently the “liberal” position). Therefore, labor-intensity is a bad thing and high capital-to-labor ratios are a good thing. I don’t think it matters. In my mind, and I’m sure in the firm’s, what matters is what’s cheaper. If the cost of production is lower by increasing capital, then increase capital. If the cost of production is lower by increasing labor, then increase labor. That’s how I see it. That’s how you increase profits, which is assumed to be a good thing. Still others disagree, arguing that labor retention is a higher moral obligation than profit maximization (apparently the “conservative” position). In particular, the “radical perspective” in labor relations sees a conflict between capital and labor wherein organized labor fights against their exploitation by capital. The importance of the mobility of labor and the mobility capital is highlighted here, with the argument that capital is mobile and labor is more immobile (for example, a firm can lower wages just by threatening to move its manufacturing).

What I want to focus on, though, is the point that spencer makes. It reminded me of a passage I read from “Cannibals and Kings” by Marvin Harris (I’ve referenced the book on previous occasions—see here). Here is a somewhat long passage from pages 266-271—the end of Chapter 14 (“The Origin of Capitalism”) and the beginning of Chapter 15:

Capitalism, then, is a system that is committed to an unbounded increase in the production in the name of an unbounded increase in profits. Production, however, cannot be increased in an unbounded way. Freed from the restraints of despots and paupers, capitalist entrepreneurs still have to confront the restraints of nature. The profitability of production cannot expand indefinitely. Any increase in the quantity of soil, water, minerals, or plants put into a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification. It has been the burden of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies. That declining efficiencies have adverse effects upon the average standard of living cannot be doubted.

What must be made clear is that environmental depletions also lead to declining profits. The relationship is not easily understood because, according to the laws of supply and demand, scarcities lead to higher prices. Higher prices, however, tend to lower consumption per capita (the market symptom of declining living standards). Profits can be sustained temporarily if the drop in per capita consumption is compensated for by an expansion in total sales based on population growth or the conquest of international markets. But sooner or later the curve of rising prices caused by environmental depletions will begin to rise faster than the curve of rising consumption and the rate of profit must begin to fall.

The classic entrepreneurial response to a fall in the rate of profit is exactly the same as under any mode of production that has been overintensified. To compensate for environmental depletions and declining efficiencies (which manifest themselves as falling rates of profit), the entrepreneur seeks to lower the cost of production by introducing labor-saving machines. Although these machines require more capital and hence usually have higher start-up costs, they result in lowering the unit cost of production.

Thus a system that is committed to perpetual intensification can survive only if it is equally committed to perpetual technological change. Its ability to maintain living standards depends on the outcome of a race between technological advance and the relentless deterioration of the conditions of production. Under the present circumstances, technology is about to lose that race.

Chapter 15: The Industrial Bubble

All rapidly intensifying systems of production, whether they be socialist, capitalist, hydraulic, neolithic, or paleolithic, face a common dilemma. The increment in energy invested per unit time in production will inevitably overburden the self-renewing, self-cleansing, self-generating capacities of the ecosystem. Regardless of which mode of production is involved, there is only one means of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of declining efficiencies: to shift to more efficient technologies. For the past 500 years Western scientific technology has been competing against the most rapidly and relentlessly intensifying system of production in the history of our species.

Thanks to science and engineering, the average standard of living in the industrial nations is higher than at any time in the past. This fact, more than any other, bolsters our faith that progress is inevitable—a faith, incidentally, shared as much by the Comintern as by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What I want to emphasize here is that the rise in living standards began only 150 years ago, while the race between rapid technological change and intensification has been going on for 500 years. During most of the post-feudal epoch, living standards hovered close to pauperdom and frequently fell to unprecedented depths despite the introduction of an unbroken series of ingenious labor-saving machines.

I’ll leave analysis of the above excerpt up to the reader (keep in mind this was written in 1977).

Update: The Becker-Posner blog has a post about the recent upshoot in production vis-a-vis higher unemployment. Dr. Becker, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, argues that the increase in productivity is, in the long-run, a good thing despite the higher unemployment. His argument is that it will ultimately lead to higher employment, in the same way the advent of the computer, the Internet, biotechnology, or supermarkets have. He is assuming here, like “spencer” does at SCSU Scholars, that technological advances have been the source of the recent spike in productivity.

Posner’s response, however, is that technological innovations have not been the cause of increased productivity over the past two quarters. “More likely they have been due to old-fashioned cost cutting spurred not by technological advances but by economic distress. The only explanations I have seen offered for the productivity surge is cutting wages and working the workers harder. I have found no suggestion of any technological change that might be responsible for such a large, sudden surge in productivity,” he states. The optimism, then, that Dr. Becker displays seems to be unfounded. If firms are merely adapting to the dire economic situation simply by old-fashioned cost-cutting techniques, the spurt in productivity is not likely to last and not likely to result in increased employment.

Libertarianism. What’s in a name? Sunday, Nov 1 2009 

I just got done reading an excellent article by Kerry Howley in Reason, a libertarian magazine. I think the article raises some very thought-provoking questions concerning libertarianism.

What exactly is libertarianism, and what does it entail? Is it, as the article asks, the opposition to coercion and authority only by the state? Or does it entail opposition to other forms of coercion and authority outside of the state, such as that coming from cultural norms, societal practices, traditions, or other institutionalized structures and conventions? If libertarianism is concerned with liberty, particularly individual liberty, do we define it only as liberty from the state? Are there other ways individual liberty is restrained that libertarians ought to care about? Are there practices and norms all people calling themselves libertarians ought to fight against, “even if no one has bothered to codify the rules in an Important Book and call them ‘laws'”?

A central question for left-libertarians or leftist anarchists is whether private power is just as bad (or even worse) than state power. To them, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” This is why, for example, they oppose capitalistic economic orders that act to propagate “unaccountable private tyrannies” (corporations) and private property. Traditionally, libertarianism was associated with these leftists. Today, and most notably in the United States, “libertarianism” is associated with rightist libertarians—those who advocate free markets and the protection of private poverty. American libertarianism, most closely associated with the Libertarian Party, is very much a part of the Lockean imagination. To quote Ayn Rand:

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

These are profound remarks. According to Rand, “Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights.” Similarly, as Murray Rothbard states, “Capitalism is the fullest expression of anarchism, and anarchism is the fullest expression of capitalism.” As Howley explains, however, free markets and anti-statism are only one part of the story. “It’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty,” she writes.

According to Howley, “libertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. . . . when a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content—has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians—he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state.” As I said, I think this raises many interesting questions. Particularly, if we see a social injustice that we perceive to be limiting the individual liberty of certain people, is it our moral obligation to attempt to change that? If a particular society’s mores dictate that women should be restricted to the confines of the home, is it the libertarian’s job to fight against it? Importantly, would that not entail forcing our cultural preferences and ideals on others whom we might consider “backward”? As the response by Todd Seavey to Howley’s article strongly proclaims, “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Kerry Howley’s Preferences.”

Truly, all libertarians should be concerned with the exercise of authority, in any context. As the left-anarchist Noam Chomsky posits, “The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.” To wit, it is not enough to simply confront political and economic orders that restrict individual liberty; rather, it is required of us to oppose even the social and cultural orders that act similarly, working under the basis that power is illegitimate by assumption. Writes Howley, “In turning so definitively from the left, libertarians denied themselves a powerful vocabulary with which to engage discussions of individualism.” Even those libertarians concerned with free markets and other rightist agendas ought to concern themselves with other institutionalized forms of coercion and authority. The answer to the question “Are Property Rights Enough?”, I believe, is “No.”

Your own thoughts about the nature of libertarianism are invited.