Making the Case for Libertarianism

Article excerpt


In Libertarianism From A to Z, Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron wastes no time. In roughly 200 short pages, he explains and advocates libertarian points of view on more than 100 issues, from agricultural subsidies to organ sales and government funding of zoos. The encyclopedic organization combined with Mr. Miron's concise and straightforward writing style make for a condensed yet highly accessible read.

Mr. Miron calls himself a consequentialist libertarian, distinguishing himself from philosophical libertarians. He considers the costs and benefits of individual government policies rather than simply making broad arguments against them on the basis of natural rights. However, the inclusion of some statistics would help give precision to his assertions.

Each topic is begun with a layout of the major arguments for government involvement, which are, for the most part, not watered down. Mr. Miron's fair presentation of reasons for opposing viewpoints ultimately makes his case for libertarianism more convincing.

According to Mr. Miron, many of these arguments are based on the belief that government should subsidize activities that generate positive externalities (indirect benefits) for society, such as education, and tax those that create negative ones, such as pollution. Government subsidizes recycling, for instance, on the basis that it decreases water contamination, reduces pollution, prevents exhaustion of natural resources and preserves space for landfills.

However, these positive externalities are largely imaginary, he asserts, claiming that collecting, hauling, sorting and cleaning recyclables can, in fact, generate more pollution than does the production of new goods. Further, he thinks higher prices already create the necessary incentives in the free market for conserving resources and, suggesting that a landfill approximately 10 miles square would be able to hold all of the United States' trash for the next 100 years, he says running out of landfill space is a virtual nonissue.

On issue after issue, Mr. Miron tries to show that externalities-based arguments often fall flat when subject to scrutiny. He recognizes that externalities do exist and the fact that they're so common makes it hard to quantify the effects of something, such as recycling.

On global warming, Mr. Miron correctly points out that it's not at all clear how much some additional quantity of carbon emissions will increase temperatures and even whether that increase is more detrimental than beneficial. He also asserts that politicians don't necessarily have the right incentives to decide on the most appropriate tax rate - after all, higher taxes mean more responsibility and power for the government.

Government justifies subsidies for many things deemed to have artistic, cultural or educational value by suggesting that individuals directly benefiting from the programs will spread those benefits in their interactions with others. For instance, giving someone a better education will tend to make that person a better parent, in turn benefiting his children.

Examples of subsidized programs include public education, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), museums and even zoos, many of which are publicly owned. While schooling perhaps has clear positive externalities (part of the reason why libertarians support school vouchers), Mr. …