04 May 2006


Over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton has had several posts (see here, here, and here) that deal in whole or in part with libertarian political philosophy. As a teenager, I felt strongly that libertarian philosophy was the most self-consistent and logical political stance one could take, and that as such it should be the political philosophy of choice for any reasoning person (in other words, I was caught up in the works of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein), but as I have gotten older I have moved further away from such a position.

Now, this is no way invalidates the concept of self-consistency or logic in judging the worth of political theory, not in the slightest. Indeed, I feel that many of the mistakes that our government makes (particularly under the oh-so-inspired leadership of Shrub) could be remedied --or at least mediated-- by properly involving a bit more logic and self-consistency. However, I feel that many of the claims of libertarian philosophy are based more on a Socratic or more properly Scholastic methodology instead of an empical one.

By a Scholastic methodology, determining truth or falsity of a particular statement (in modern-day logical terms) is to be done by examining a set series of writings, such as the works of Aristotle, and simply uncoverng hidden truths about the subject being studied through introspection and interpretation of the ancient text. Likewise, as Michael Shermer so ably demonstrated here, many of the modern-day libertarian thinkers (who oh-so-ironically call themselves Objectivists) take exactly this approach to the works of Ayn Rand and other (very few!) libertarian thinkers. A strange phenomenon indeed for a group that insists on its own independent thought and individual reasoning.

It is actually perhaps a bit unfair to compare all libertarian thinkers with the cult-like mentality exposed by Shermer -- after all Brayton himself is by no means beholden to the texts of Rand, and neither are those at The Cato Institute. However, such cult-like activity by those extreme libertarians holding to the Holy Texts of Ayn Rand are, I feel, a fairly reasonable symptom of the thought of other libertarians who are so enraptured in their own political philosophy that they lose touch with reality.

An example, not from Brayton, but from a commenter on one of the entries above.
Not only would I legalize drugs like cocaine, but I would also legalize all prescription drugs. At the same time, I would make the FDA approval process voluntary. If a pharma company decides to obtain FDA approval, it would receive qualified immunity from product liability suits. Fraud/failure to disclose during the approval process would of course, negate any immunity.

The government simply should not have the right to tell me what I can legally ingest. If I am suffering from MS and I find that Tysarbi (or marijuana or Vioxx or whatever) works for me, I should be able to use it. Banning a drug because of rare, fatal side effects is not a choice for the government. I should be able to make that risk assessment myself.

Now, of course, I agree that the "War-on-Drugs" is a terrible policy debacle that should be ended, and I am generally in support of allowing people to make up their own minds. But gutting the FDA (or at least declawing it)? It sounds good on paper, but as other commenters in the thread demonstrate, such an idea really leads us back to something like the olden days of snake-oil salesmen, in that medical doctors suddenly have no independent body doing research into a drug's efficacy for them. In short, consumers get screwed because large-scale organizations (namely, pharmaceutical corporations) have the money and power to keep truth out of the hands of ordinary individuals, and even have the civil right to not have to share information.

One could possibly get around this with independent accrediting bodies for pharmaceuticals, but don't we then run into the problem of collusion amongst the accrediting agencies and the manufacturers of drugs?

I think that an objective, empirical view of these matters indicates that there are certain functions (namely, I would argue, regulation, healthcare, and education, among others) that corporations simply don't do well, due to the difficulty in maintaining profit margins in these areas. I hate paying taxes as much as the next guy, but for those taxes the government provides me with safety, with infrastructure, with regulation insuring the meat I buy, the drugs I take, the air I breathe, et cetera will be clean and safe to use, and many other functions.

I say let all the real hard-core libertarians go set up shop in the newly-unoccupied areas of Iraq or Afghanistan and set up Libertopia over there. When I've seen it work on a non-trivial level, I'd be happy to try to enact reforms over here. Until then, some "big government" regulatory and functional bodies are necessary.

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