On the Nature of the Cyberselfish

In reading a law review last week, I saw a footnote to a booked called Cyberselfish, A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech. Intrigued, I purchased it immediately and have been reading it the law few nights. The author, Paulina Borsook, wrote for Wired and yet was shocked by some of the socioretardation in the Silicon Valley tech community. She published this book in 2000; it’s a significant expansion of her 1996 Mother Jones article on the same topic, which concludes:

…Just as 19th-century timber and cattle and mining robber barons made their fortunes from public resources, so are technolibertarians creaming the profits from public resources — from the orderly society that has resulted from the wise use of regulation and public spending. And they have neither the wisdom nor the manners nor the mindset to give anything that’s not electronic back.

Her point is the technolibertarians are some of the biggest benefactors of government largess (Arpanet, aerospace/defense spending, UC Berkeley, etc), they are a generation that was never really mistreated by the government (no draft, major wars, etc), and yet they are bizarrely anti-government. Switching back to the book, she describes this philosophy as:

…the most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism. It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human…As many political schools of thought do, these technolibertarians make a philosophy out of a personality defect.

Ouch! And right on! MarkH and I encountered many such things at a party several years ago in DC. MarkH, being MarkH, spent the night engaging with these creeps, to find the core of their objection to humanity. I just wanted to take a shower. I’ve had enough.

If you’re interested in the technolibertarian form of denialism, pick up Borsook’s book. Sciblings would probably be most interested in her description of the social darwinist attitudes among the technolibertarians (these people would be the first to die under rugged individualism), and their pseudosciency belief in the market functioning as a biological system (something called Bionomics, the 1990s, Silicon Valley version of The Secret).


  1. It’s almost impossible to attend a science fiction convention of any size (except for those with a deliberate liberal bent) without finding knots of these guys engaging in loud mutual and self-congratulation. All black chaos/anarchy t-shirts and former-trenchcoat-mafia ponytails they are, with the occasional lone female dressed for attention. They’re stunningly conformist for people advocating no rules.

    SF fandom is notoriously welcoming of social dysfunction, though. I had no idea they were widespread enough to be taken general note of. Thanks for the book recommendation.

  2. I had a brief love affair with libertarianism. Like any love affair, it was tempestuous and passionate- until it collapsed out of one party’s better judgment. I have to agree, at its core is a completely misanthropic perspective.

    The reason I agree is that I was openly and proudly misanthropic. However where libertarianism fails is the same place communism fails- the promise of Utopia. Both these systems (though both will argue they are not systems, require perfect adherence to a vaguely defined principles to work. They look good on paper, but don’t work out so well when you through highly imperfect variables (like say… human beings). I’ve read Thoreau, who was really co-opted by libertarians rather than being a libertarian in the sense we understand the term today. I’ve read Rand, who is really just a despicable human being who tended to expound on the obvious.

    However what really yanked me out of libertarianism is learning more about economics and acquiring the understanding that capitalism is not an ideology- it’s a system. Laissez-faire or Keynesian, there are variations on that system. There are no inherently superior systems because there are no inherently superior human beings or inherently superior human priorities. Reality may indeed be objective as Rand so brilliantly plagiarized from others of higher intellectual stature, but human priorities will always be subjective. Each system must be constantly adjusted and calibrated to achieve dynamic equilibrium with the present day priorities of mankind- whatever they may be.

    Taking that into consideration, libertarianism comes off as the fulfillment of a means to a Hobbesian end for humanity: Nasty, brutish, and short.

    All of that said, my use of the word “libertarianism” may as well be “forms of libertarianism”. This is not because my criticism is imprecise, but because the ideology is so scattershot and ill-defined. It has become an umbrella term for people who like the idea of freedom, but who aren’t sure where to go from there, as well as the more religious adherents who hold strictly to a set of primitive axioms that can never be contradicted.

    Now I just have to wait for a bunch of people to march in and vociferously get to the business of moving goalposts. Hop to it! I’ll be disappointed if you don’t.

  3. They look good on paper, but don’t work out so well when you through highly imperfect variables (like say… human beings).

    Haven’t had my coffee yet, should be:

    They look good on paper, but don’t work out so well when you throw in highly imperfect variables (like say… human beings).

  4. Trin Tragula

    Many people with elite status, whether it be in technology, finance, whatever have a curious blindness in that they see all the success they accomplish as due to their own efforts, whereas all their failures are somebody else’s fault.

  5. The ability of libertarians to ignore the practicalities of things like gun control or the Fairness Doctrine is, to me, utterly mindboggling. Only in politics and religion can someone ignore reality in favor of principle and somehow be respected for it. In fact, lots of libertarians are mindbendingly inflexible — I know one whose philosophy of diplomacy is “I should bite my tongue because some people just want to be wrong.”

  6. llewelly

    People with autism and other social disorders don’t deserve to be compared with techno libertarians.

  7. Simon Lefaux

    So the only proper way to embrace humanity is to embrace government programs?

  8. Lefaux:

    It’s not even a question of embracing them. It’s simply admitting they’re sometimes necessary.

  9. @Lefaux, that’s not her argument. It’s the demonization of government by the people who have profited handsomely from it. The .com boom and tech booms could not have happened without the presence of heavily tax subsidized entities like Standford and UC Berkeley and NASA (basic science research) etc etc etc.

  10. And going beyond that, the libertarians opposed public education when states began offering it hundreds of years ago. Forget about the enlightenment power of education…just imagine where our country (our businesses) would be if we didn’t have basic, publicly supported eduction! We’d be the country that wanted to prosper, but couldn’t, because its people simply lacked the basic knowledge to do things.

  11. Snort.. The “usual” argument runs something like: Liberals don’t want to have to control their “behavior”, but want to control everything else, like **Gasp!** businesses, while the Conservative wants to control how people think, but want businesses to have free reign to do what ever they want. Libertarians, one could argue, or dead center in this, in that they generally can’t comprehend why its bad to either A) yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or B) yell, “Sell it all!”, on wall street. Somehow they can’t grasp, at all, the fact that some behaviors are dangerous, for both people and businesses, and you need a cop some place to, at minimum, slap people’s hands once in a while.

    Unfortunately, one could also argue that there are “certain” segments of the other two political sides in the issue that go completely insane too, and think 100% like a Libertarian with respect to businesses (as long as they don’t sell something that doesn’t conform to their narrow interpretation of right and wrong), but think “people” need to be forced to all think alike, and on the liberal side, those that would like to see everyone “protected” from businesses doing anything wrong, but have no grasp why any “human” behaviors might be “objectionable”, or even dangerous.

    Most people, don’t fall in any of those three categories of extremism, including, I suspect, most of the ones calling themselves Libertarians. But, they “generally” agree with some entirely “superficial” distinctions made by those three philosophies, or with the demonization of the entirely superficial distinctions they “think” exemplify the other parties. And that is the real problem. Instead of looking for someone that has a clue, people look for someone that “sounds” like they have some generally good views on what they might be *superficially* right about, and can give vague, but believable sounding, negative excuses for why everyone else is wrong. Most of them are probably “all” wrong, on some key issues, but if they “dared” to admit it, would get their carriers handed to them in a heart beat, so we pick leaders who are insane, and can’t admit being wrong, because they literally can’t imagine being so, all too often, as a “better” option, than the guy that can admit its all idiotic labeling, and that the people that actually “believe in” these political views, unconditionally, as absolutes, are are completely fracking nuts.

  12. Simon Lefaux

    But isn’t this just the “Fire Department Canard”, the idea that it’s hypocritical that a “libertarian” should call the Fire Department to put out a fire, even though it’s because there’s a government monopoly on the service a private equivalent is impossible?

    Do the so-called “cyberselfish” benefit from government subsidized programs because those are the only ones that exist?

  13. The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
    -John Kenneth Galbraith

  14. khan,

    Conservatism is not a synonym for libertarianism.

  15. But isn’t this just the “Fire Department Canard”, the idea that it’s hypocritical that a “libertarian” should call the Fire Department to put out a fire, even though it’s because there’s a government monopoly on the service a private equivalent is impossible?

    No, unless you want to argue that research and development is a government monopoly. NASA is a good example of this; NASA does not have a “monopoly” on aerospace research, and there are private corporations now trying to get into space. NASA has them beat by decades however, and the actions of NASA have allowed corporate interests to build upon their success (I.e. through the launching of satellites). This is an area where the collective goal of national security pushed research into space travel, then remained both as an academic research facility, as well as a service for private corporations.

    Similarly the internet began as a national security infrastructure project, expanded into an academic research tool, then was released into the wild for corporations to build on, develop and exploit. Certainly, a company like IBM or AT&T might have had the capability of creating such a network, but it took a government initiative to create such a thing.

    These are both areas where government intervention, by simple virtue of having different goals than private corporations and a wider base of capital, have created new forms of technology that advanced the private sector. The argument being made is NOT that government is superior to business, but that it serves a different and vital set of demands than business does, and the interactions between business and government can in fact be beneficial to both systems.

  16. It is little surprise that people that have advanced by virtue of their own talents and industry should value a libertarian perspective.

    It is also unsurprising that a law professor from Berkley, dependent on the state for his livelihood, would deride it.

    Those that belittle libertarianism show their contempt for the potential of the common man. They imagine that these “commoners” would be unable to succeed by their own efforts without the guidance and oversight of a protectionist state.

    A state that would, of course, embrace the policies of these self-imagined elites.

  17. A.Lizard

    Hey, Lance.

    “Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than speak and prove it beyond all doubt.”

    How much of your education was partially or completely tax-subsidized?

    Did you go to school via public roads or did your parents fly you to school every day in a UFO?

    Do you have a technology career that’s based on microprocessor-based computers or the Internet? Both are a direct result of taxpayer-paid public subsidies.

    The sole evidence I know of that the money was wasted is postings whining about public subsidies from liber-tards and the published rants from other “people of faith” like the Religious Right. But that simply means that technology can’t be made affordable to the masses without its misuse in empowering the occasional drooling idiot. Like you.

    It is little surprise that people that have advanced by virtue of their own talents and industry should value a libertarian perspective.

    It is little surprise that your claims to have advanced entirely due to your own talent and industry are a steaming mass of bullshit.

    There are places where there is no significant public investment in infrastructure, including educational. What we call “Third World shitholes” or more politely, failed states are Libertarian paradises. So why don’t you move your worthless ass to Africa and stop whining about statists?

  18. How much of your education was partially or completely tax-subsidized?

    Did you go to school via public roads or did your parents fly you to school every day in a UFO?

    Do you have a technology career that’s based on microprocessor-based computers or the Internet? Both are a direct result of taxpayer-paid public subsidies.

    A.Lizard, have you read Simon Lefaux’ comments above?

    I see this kind of sloppy argumentation all over the place, and I think it’s one of the major reasons (cyber-)libertarianism has taken off. If the thoughtful arguments of those intelligent, highly educated people are not taken seriously, it’s only natural that they would feel vindicated.

  19. Mike Huben

    If anybody’s interested in in more Critiques Of Libertarianism, my web site is 14 years old tomorrow. It has roughly 500 links critical of libertarianism organized in many indexes.

    Allow me to recommend the introductory features, and (if you want to laugh) especially Libertarianism in One Lesson and Libertarianism in One Lesson; The Second Lesson.

  20. @Lance, I’m a revenue positive, soft money employee. The state does not support my salary or benefits. Believe me, I could make A LOT more in the private sector, if I were inclined to be around people who wear sweater sets.

  21. lukas, do you mean to suggest that the government has a monopoly on education? And you do understand, don’t you, that this country’s roads and internet infrastructure were mostly built by the government because no one else wanted the job? They didn’t think they could make it pay. Same with microprocessors. The government doesn’t just step in and start offering subsidies for things everyone is doing already (except having kids).

    I’ve generally found that libertarians feel vindicated in their thinking because they tend to walk away before stop laughing and can answer them.

  22. @Stephanie Z: OK, I’ll bite. I’m on the fence on a lot of those issues and I’ve devoted some time to studying them, so I’ll be able to make some counterpoints. I hope I won’t make you laugh too much 🙂

    Of course the government doesn’t have a monopoly on education, or even roads… but government has interfered in the market for those services to the point that private entities have little incentive to get into the business, unless they can be drawn in by government funding. You may or may not think that that’s a good thing, but there’s no denying it.

    No one else wanted the job? You mean no one else wanted the job at the price the government was willing to do the job for. It’s hard to make a living competing against free highways or free (and more or less compulsory) public education.

    And while it’s very hard to say where the Internet or microprocessor technology would be today without the various impacts that governments have had on their development, the claim that such technology wouldn’t exist at all seems ludicrous to me… Remember, IBM has been around for more than a century now, and they have been in that game from the very start.

    Incidentally, this country’s roads were built by governments because car manufacturers and automobilists’ associations lobbied governments into building them so they wouldn’t have to pay for it.

  23. and their pseudosciency belief in the market functioning as a biological system

    Michael Shermer, please report to the white courtesy phone. . . .

  24. LanceR, JSG

    @Lukas: you really need to read things other than libertarian screeds.

    The largest road project in the world (US Interstate system) was built entirely as a Defense project.

    IBM had no desire to enter the microprocessor market. They built *BIG* computers, and thought the home market was a myth.

    The biggest problem with private schools is that they can pick and choose who to educate. Society has a vested interest in making every citizen as productive as they can be, and education/vocational ed is the key to that success. Private schools will not keep the mentally ill, the severely handicapped, or most behavior disorder kids. If they did, they might not have such great test scores, and wouldn’t be able to bring in the big bucks.

    Government is *US*. There is a social contract inherent in living here. If you don’t like it, stop being a part of the society.

    Reading assignment: look up Social Contract, read the first several links on this search. I’m not asking you to agree with them, just to read them. Be prepared to discuss.

    This is the problem most people have with the new Cyber Libertarians. They never read anything else, they just smugly assume everything else is bullshit.

  25. So you’re saying that we should be paying far more for things like roads and education, just so they can be private rather than public?

    And the firefighting canard isn’t one at all; a true libertarian would give their neighbours money to form a bucket-chain before phoning 911, or install a sprinkler system.

    Asimov said it best: “He always pictured himself a libertarian, which to my way of thinking means ‘I want the liberty to grow rich and you can have the liberty to starve.’ It’s easy to believe that no one should depend on society for help when you yourself happen not to need such help.”

  26. Interestingly Lukas, you still haven’t explained why or how a system that “doesn’t want to” or “can’t see a profit from”, or just simply refuses to invest in, technologies or infrastructure would or could produce what the government does fund. One of my favorite idiocies is stuff like “basic research” vs. “directed/applied research”. Someone asked recently what the hell good things like the LHC ever did for the rest of us. 24 hours later there was, ironically, an article on a science news sight stating that, without the technology developed for accelerating particles, we wouldn’t have proton acceleration based technology for treatment of cancer, which **relies** on that technology. Or, more to the point, if we did, it might not have been built for 50+ more years, and thousands more people would be dying each year from what was “previously” incurable, or dangerous cancers, from which the prior “treatments” tended to kill as many of them as the disease.

    Businesses look only at their own interests and bottom lines. If you want to wait 100 years for someone to “imagine” building the Hoover Dam, or 150 years for someone to invent the internet we have today..

    Hell, just look at the internet. Its original mandate was to be a robust system that, if one link went down, wouldn’t take down the entire network. We now have a system that, due to business interests, opted not to improve the “technology”, but to go the cheaper path, and instead “optimize” the system. What does that mean? It means that, instead of being a bit inefficient, but quick to handle failures in the backbones, its very fast, as long as everything is working right, but the moment certain key servers go down, it may take minutes, hours, days, or even **never** to get the system to send your message from where you are to a server that is behind the point that failed. A few years back that happened in Northern California. By interesting coincidence, everything “south” of the router that was disconnected, during wire work, which meant Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona, where “unable” to access *any* system north of that point, and this remained the case for close to six months, possibly longer. As long as you where North of that point, or some place that didn’t rely on the LA network or routers to connect to those servers, you could get there, at all, and, as far as everyone in the other 47 states, or the rest of the world, where concerned, there wasn’t a problem. What caused this? Simple, **businesses** running the system figured that the most “efficient” method to route all traffic from those three states was to go through the LA grid.

    This is the kind of thing you get from businesses. Junk that works, **for them**, which they often don’t understand themselves, and which, when it breaks, can’t be fixed, because its all been “streamlined” to make things more efficient, rather than “stable”.

    Guess who has been working on the new concepts for “improving” the internet systems, speeding up the technology, and making it work better? Yep, despite the fact that companies are working on it, its the same “government funded” groups that are trying to fix the mess now as made it in the first place.

    Look, its simple. Government is supposed to look at the “big” picture and handle funding things that people who can’t see past the next board meeting, or maybe, at most, 10 years ahead, don’t, can’t, or “won’t” see. Often it fails to do that, because too many people get into it to screw around with pet issues, stupid pet projects, and short sighted support for their own interests. But, companies are supposed to look short term, improve things for themselves, etc., and they do that **too well** some times, to the point where a tiny number of people that think farther ahead than that, and “do” the sort of things that usually end up being funded and pushed by governments, are actually considered eccentric, odd, crazy, or dangerous to the interests of the stock holders, in the more extreme cases of short sightedness on the part of those boards. In other words, the sort of people you “think” an entirely “free” system would produce are the “aberrations”, not the norm, and there has never been any point in history ***ever***, in which those people where **not** outnumbered significantly by those that simply lacked such vision at all, or actively sought greed and self interest, over the greater good.

    Show me “any” case, other than in your own fracking heads, where it has, or does, work, and I will show you “some sort” of governing body, or principle, or law, which mandates that people “behave” sanely, a large body of people that mostly don’t care, as long as they get to do what they want, and some morons that want to screw up the system, solely for their own profit. The key point being, someone, some place, is still regulating things.

  27. All, I’m sorry that this post has dissolved into this mess. I guess it was entirely predictable.

    BTW, the Postal Service is an example of a government program that was created because multiple private-sector attempts failed. So there.

  28. LanceR, JSG

    the Postal Service is an example of a government program that was created because multiple private-sector attempts failed.

    And two major companies came around to fill in the gaps that the USPS didn’t cover well: UPS to handle larger packages, and FedEx to handle rapid delivery. Both fill a valuable niche, and both, outside of their narrow focus, are *much* more expensive than USPS. This is a great example of government and private cooperation. (Interesting note: Quite a lot of UPS and FedEx shipments actually travel via USPS.)

  29. @Lance, what’s interesting about Fedex and UPS is that they have a statutory right to object to USPS rates. And they do. They lobby to increase USPS rates, because USPS is statutorily barred from using its monopoly on mail to subsidize overnight service and the like.

  30. But actually I would privatize the mail at this point, so long as private providers had to guarantee universal service. The private sector was not up to the task in the 17th & 18th centuries. They’re up to it now.

  31. @LanceR, I do read other things than libertarian screeds, but I was trying to argue a point here. I think that the libertarians do have good points that are not addressed by the usual responses, but it’s also very evident that some of their proposed solutions are utopian… Especially when it comes to internalizing externalities.

    To address your points, while the Interstate system may have been a defense project in name, it was heavily lobbied for by automobile manufacturers, and it did for long-distance travel what GM’s NCL scheme had done for urban travel: kill off all alternatives to using cars.

    Granted, IBM had no desire to enter the microprocessor market at first, development there was driven by other companies such as Intel.

    OK, so private schools can pick and choose who to educate. But are you going to tell me that public schools are doing a great job with the mentally ill, severely handicapped or behavior disordered kids? They can barely handle the “normal” ones! On the contrary, private schools often pride themselves on their inclusiveness and apply novel pedagogic concepts. For some parents, test scores aren’t the only school choice criterion.

    Government is us? In an ideal world, yes, but in the world I live in, that statement is as utopian as the most radical libertarian pipe dream. Have you looked up the approval rating of Congress lately? How can it be that an institution that is supposed to represent the people has not managed to get the approval of even half the population for quite a few years now? One particularly disgusting example of how the system works has been the hugely unpopular $700bn bailout bill. It got passed after it was stuffed with enough pork to buy enough reluctant Congressmen.

    I’ve been through social contract theory since high school civics class and it never seemed very convincing to me: it can be used to justify the most tyrannical of governments. “There is a social contract inherent in living here. If you don’t like it, stop being a part of the society”: Would you tell that to a political prisoner in China, too? To a Russian conscripted off the streets of Moscow into Chechnya? To an American arrested because he dared to ingest substances that his government does not approve of? Who does it apply to?

    @wazza: We agree that privatization and deregulation can never be an end in themselves… But in many cases they actually make services more affordable and efficient. As an example, look at how air travel prices dropped after deregulation. Or long-distance phone charges. Monopolies or cartels, even benevolent ones, have precious little real incentives to improve their services for their customers.

  32. Oh, damn, I’ve gone way off topic here… sorry about that, I got carried away. I care about those issues, and the answers I get from both sides are very unsatisfactory.

  33. Lukas: you tell me that deregulation and privatisation make the price go down… but we’ve discussed examples where private enterprise could have gotten into it but didn’t because the government was doing it cheaper. And where’s the profit motive in extinguishing the fire burning down a poor man’s house, or giving an education to a struggling family’s average-intelligence child?

    The only reason the public schooling system in the US fails kids is because market advocates like you, who only want people to have an education if they can pay for it, won’t provide schools with decent funding and a clear mandate to educate kids, rather than just pumping them full of a few key facts. In more leftist nations, like the one I count myself fortunate to come from, an effort is made to engage in – and give grades for – real creativity.

    Moreover, the institution of public enterprises like fire, police and ambulance services, the roading system, and even government-controlled banks and railroads (Kiwibank stood firm when all the banks took a hit not too long ago) don’t necessarily get in the way of business. Roads, and even the security of the basic emergency services, provide a security and substrate on which business can be built. With a social safety net for the unemployed, more tax dollars are pumped into basic necessities, stimulating competition and thus greater efficiency in that market, and the safety net itself provides an impetus to take more calculated risks on the market, knowing even if you fail you won’t starve. Regulation in business, far from stifling the market, provides an extra layer of trust, making consumers more confident in their investments and purchases, stimulating the market better than allowing fly-by-nighters to operate ever could.

    Shall I go on?

  34. The problem with the fracking bail out wasn’t that we where bailing them out. Any halfwit could tell that without that it would screw up every economy in the world, and its almost doing that, even with it, because there is a “lot” of interconnection. The problem, in case you missed it, was Republican “deregulation”, which led to lending institutions, and other such businesses, lending out money they didn’t have, would **never** be paid back, and to people that had no way to do so, in absurdly stupid numbers, combined with a Utopian idiocy that the housing values, for one, would just keep going up, and up, and up, without ever stopping, even as the number of people buying, and the number “able” to do so, and actually pay off any of it, kept falling. The problem with the bail out was that they did a very libertarian thing, they shoved a lot of money in the the laps of companies, to shore them up, so as to try to save the economy from collapse, **but** refused to re-regulate any of the things that caused it in the first place. So.. Since handing some clueless idiot that can’t add 2+2, and reliably get 4 from it, 16 credit cards, *caused the problem*, what is the result? Well, some companies are, maybe, getting smart any only issuing 10 to them? I pretty much guarantee you that you could “still” go to some place, right now, fill out an application, and they would still be using the same BS formula to determine if you should get it as a month ago. Hell, they wouldn’t even tell congress what the formula was, or how they determined who are “safe” to lend to. You think their going to tell me, you, or anyone else, unless forced to? Or, believe for one damn moment, given how it helped “create” this mess, that they are going to a) change it, b) forgive any of the billions of “unpayable” loans (the people that have them not having a dime to their name that isn’t in someone Else’s credit card), or c) stop issuing them “at all” to complete fools?

    No, they made money of that BS, right up until it blew up in their faces. We don’t need economics by experimental explosion, like some amateur rocket maker, we need economics based on known patterns, tested results, and someone watching over their shoulder to make sure they don’t stuff fracking rocket fuel in the passenger cabin, because they figured no one would notice, and they imagine it makes it go a bit faster with the extra fuel.

    The point, which I tried to point out before, is that most of their “good ideas” are ones also understood, but within limits, by the very people they constantly insist don’t “get it”. Libertarians tend to, rather than exemplifying the *best* ideas of such principles, are **far** too prone to exemplify the worst, most unstable and irrational, forms of those ideas. Their valid points are overshadowed by the complete failure to recognize that they either have, could, or would take them “too far”, or what too far actually means. In other words, I personally think they have a disproportionately larger number of complete “nuts” in their numbers, than, ironically, either of the other major political parties.

  35. Azkyroth

    and on the liberal side, those that would like to see everyone “protected” from businesses doing anything wrong, but have no grasp why any “human” behaviors might be “objectionable”, or even dangerous.

    Such as?

  36. Azkyroth

    Of course the government doesn’t have a monopoly on education, or even roads… but government has interfered in the market for those services to the point that private entities have little incentive to get into the business, unless they can be drawn in by government funding. You may or may not think that that’s a good thing, but there’s no denying it.

    Given that, in the case of roads and especially education, there was a significant gap between the time such things came to exist and the time the government saw fit to start providing and maintaining them, and thus there was a significant time period where the government was not interfering in the market for roads or education, one wonders why private enterprise, for the most part, didn’t get into the business back then.

  37. But in many cases they actually make services more affordable and efficient. As an example, look at how air travel prices dropped after deregulation.

    And how much service improved.

  38. I thought the rise of the government postal monopoly was an attempt to suppress the Trystero!

  39. “and on the liberal side, those that would like to see everyone “protected” from businesses doing anything wrong, but have no grasp why any “human” behaviors might be “objectionable”, or even dangerous.”

    Such as?

    You serious? Well… Lets see, brainwashing, institutional ignorance, altie medicine lies, selling gibberish like “The Secret”, and just generally screwing people out of money, livelihood and even life, via gibberish, are things *I* would like to see something done about. A lot of other things are more of a grey area, where “excess” is dangerous, but the arbitrary lines placed in them to curtail such excess are often causing worse problems, instead of curing the original one. But, hell yes there are things we need regulation and laws for. Most people don’t discount this, though they can and do consider some extremes in regulation to be either too limited, or too excessive. Mostly, I tend to find them too excessive, or based on bullshit “magical” thinking, not facts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with any of them, just that I disagree with many of them, and think others need to be better defined and understood before we make arbitrary boogie man style, “Well, we need to prevent X because I **imagine** it produces Y.”, bullshit decisions.

  40. @wazza: Yes, the government is doing it cheaper, but only because it can afford to offer those services at a loss. The rise of inefficiency and bureaucracy are the logical consequences.

    Where’s the profit motive in extinguishing the fire burning down a poor man’s house? If he, or his landlord, bought insurance, the insurer has a profit motive right there. In giving education to a struggling family’s kid? Well, one day the kid is going to put this education to good use and earn more than what they would earn without it. Whoever educates the kid could draw up a contract and claim a part of this future profit, for example. It’s not that I don’t want people that can’t pay for it not to have an education at all, but I don’t see why some of the main beneficiaries of public education — employers of highly qualified personnel — should get a free ride on the educational system.

    @Kagehi: I’d discuss the bailout, but that would lead us even further off topic here… I was just using it as an example for the absurdity of the claim that “government is us”. When very unpopular laws like this one can get passed, how can anyone claim that “government is us”?

    @Azkyroth: But private enterprise did get into the business… In the US, private roads were operated by entities such as the Ohio Company. And even before there was a public school system, near universal literacy was achieved (at least among the white population, racism being near universal too at the time). The public school system was introduced because of concerns over the integration of immigrants, in order to make good Americans out of all those little Catholics.

    @khan: I’ll take the $200 Southwest Airlines round trip, thank you very much. It’s not my fault that you hate poor people who can’t afford the caviar that used to be included in the $800 ticket /snark

  41. Yes, the government is doing it cheaper, but only because it can afford to offer those services at a loss.

    lukas, congratulations. That is the single most mind-numbing statement I have encountered this week. I’ll be kind and not ask you to explain the accounting by which tax revenue is used to prop up insufficient tax revenue.

  42. Stephanie, you didn’t even notice where he advocated indentured servitude (“Whoever educates the kid could draw up a contract and claim a part of this future profit”). The beneficiaries don’t get a free ride… the company pays taxes, reducing the amount you have to pay to have your child educated.

    Lukas, if the private companies got in first and could do it better, why aren’t they still doing it better? Because the government got in and forced them out of business? Isn’t that just a form of competition, in that the government can do it cheapest so they forced them out?

    And I did specifically say a poor person’s house… they might well not be able to afford fire insurance. And if the fire service is going to wait until they get confirmation that the house is insured before leaving the station, they’re going to leave a lot of scared children to die surrounded by flames. And police? Would you trust a privatised police force? The only reason we can trust them now is that they get paid to be fair and fired if they go bent. Would a subsidiary of a multinational have the same qualms?

    and you know khan was just making the point that the price going down when the regulations disappeared might have been due to factors other than the deregulation.

    Kagehi: Those things you discuss, the alt-med and “self-help” and such, are things that could also be defeated by better education and rational argument, without having to regulate behaviour at all.

  43. I think The Chemist settled this discussion right at the beginning of it. Props to him.

  44. wazza, I did notice (and wonder how it was different from taxes, aside from an increased potential for abuse). I just had to purge some of the stupid from the first sentence before I could let more in.

  45. I should have phrased that as a question…

    Compared to creationists, libertarians are lightweight stupid.

  46. @Stephanie Z: sorry, I should have been clearer in expressing my point: public schools, unlike private enterprises, can never be judged by their balance sheet, because they are not supposed to run a profit. Their net benefit to society is not measurable, of course, and may well be positive, but in and of themselves, they have to supplied with huge amounts of money by the government to be kept alive. So yes, regarding public schools as government-run enterprises, they are incurring huge losses, which is why private schools are few and far between.

    @wazza: As Stephanie Z said, if the business model I proposed for schools implies indentured servitude, so does taxation.

    And of course beneficiaries get a free ride… Businesses that employ mostly high school dropouts have to pay the same taxes as businesses that employ mostly college graduates.

    The private companies aren’t still doing it because the government used literal force to keep them from doing business in some cases, such as with public schools or the postal service. But even where that did not happen, the playing field is not level, because government can use its monopoly of taxation to get additional revenues that private actors do not have access to.

    Well, maybe the poor person can’t afford fire insurance… but what makes fire insurance so fundamentally different from electricity bills, house upkeep costs or the like, that it should be provided at no cost by the government? This even benefits rich people more than the poor!

    I have to admit that I find it very hard to follow the hardcore libertarian argument on law enforcement… but some of the ways in which our police system is run by the government are truly perverse (think of traffic ticket quotas, the war on some drugs…)

    And true, some of the price drops was certainly due to factors other than deregulation, but I see a pattern here, and it’s consistent with economic theory.

  47. Lukas: firefighting prevents the destruction of property. Other costs are more about using the property to the full. It’s the sudden, random destruction which is so harmful.

    And I don’t see how firefighting benefits rich people more than poor people… poor people, if they lose one house, are on the street or at the mercy of friends. Rich people just move to another house or rent while they rebuild.

    Taxation isn’t indentured servitude because of the social contract. We’re part of the government; we vote for our representatives, we have a part in deciding its laws. With a private company, only the rich can afford to be shareholders and so only the rich can be a part in making decisions. The american revolution was, in part, about only being taxed when you have a part in deciding how much tax and what for.

    In NZ, there are several private postal companies. Some roads are constructed privately. But the NZ post and Transit still have the lion’s share of the business. And they do a better job. Having those services funded by taxpayers benefits all taxpayers, even if the benefit is sometimes at two or three removes.

    Libertarians really do amaze me:

    “Their net benefit to society is not measurable, of course, and may well be positive, but in and of themselves, they have to supplied with huge amounts of money by the government to be kept alive. So yes, regarding public schools as government-run enterprises, they are incurring huge losses, which is why private schools are few and far between.”

    Try to imagine a society where only the top ten percent in terms of money have a high school education. How can that possibly be of more benefit than a sustainable level of taxation (ie one that the economy can still manage to flourish under) and at least 90% having a high school education?

    Deregulation, to answer your last point, virtually always leads to corporate corruption. It’s destroying the US economy right now. Don’t try and tell me it’s a good thing. Obviously companies need some freedom from regulation to be able to grow, but letting them off the leash entirely is even worse that reigning them in too far.

  48. @wazza: Yes, this is why humans have invented the concept of insurance: to transform sudden, random risks into manageable, constant costs.

    Firefighting benefits rich people more than the poor because the rich, have more to lose, in absolute terms. Why shouldn’t those that can afford their own fire protection pay for it?

    So taxation isn’t indentured servitude because of the social contract. But then, even assuming social contract theory was sound, paying for your education when it earns you money isn’t servitude either: You have signed an actual, black-on-white education/student loan contract.

    And sorry, but I am not part of the government. My “representative” doesn’t represent me most of the times that he casts a vote, so I have no part whatsoever in deciding the laws that govern me. Now you are going to tell me that I should get involved in the political process, but I just don’t have the time and money needed…

    Immediately after the American Revolution, taxes were higher than ever before, prompting numerous revolts across the newly independent US. These revolts, of course, were promptly crushed. No taxation of rich white men without representation, indeed.

    And again, you are begging the question by assuming that only 10% of the population would go to high school if they had to pay for it themselves. Please explain to me why that would be…

    I would argue that what happened in the US was half-hearted deregulation, only removing the regulations that impeded bank activity, while conserving the regulations that benefited them: Examples of that would be the unsustainably low federal funds rate (in essence, the Fed printed free money for their preferred banks) or the implicit promise to bail out any institution that was “too connected to fail”, both of which encouraged reckless risk taking and enriched the banks at the expense of the people. Even after this crisis is over, most banksters will come out of it with a handsome profit.

  49. Argh, replace “federal funds rate” by “discount rate”.

  50. So someone with seven fantastic houses has lost more than someone who loses the one roof they have to shelter their family?

    I’d prefer an answer in detail to that one point, rather than endless regurgitation of the party lines (yes, I know I’m doing it too, but I think my position is better supported). I want you to really think about the consequences in both cases, and then tell me who has more to lose.

    One person has a yearly income so high they could lose nine-tenths of it and still be in the top 0.1% for quality of life. They might not even notice the difference. The other can barely manage to feed their family and keep up with the rent payments. I want you to explain to me, in terms of consequences, who would be hurt more by losing one (1) house, of any value, to a fire. Think before you answer.

  51. @wazza, yes, someone with seven fantastic houses has lost more than someone who loses the one roof they have to shelter their family, in terms of net worth. So yes, rich people derive a greater benefit from those free services, because they would have to pay more for them if government didn’t provide them for free, and this difference in price is all I’m arguing. Of course the poor person is hurt more by the loss of his home, but it would still cost him less to protect himself against that loss than it would cost the rich guy to protect himself against his loss.

    I hope I could make myself clear.

  52. LanceR, JSG

    Of course the rich guy deserves more protection! He’s *RICH*, and we *ALL* know the rich are better than everyone else!


    Equal protection before the law, right?

  53. The rich person can also replace what they’ve lost easier.

    And your stunning callousness towards poor people really outlines why I don’t like the libertarian position.

  54. @LanceR: Read again, that is not my position. I’m not the one that argues handouts to the rich here.

    @wazza: My history of (mostly failed, it’s not like I wasn’t ever poor 🙂 start up businesses has taught me to judge an economic situation by the numbers. Call me callous, but that is the way of the world: it’s only after we have established the facts that we can start to evaluate moral options. And since we disagree on the facts, I have tried to explain why I think that free fire protection benefits the rich more than it does the poor (or, to put it another way, the government is missing out on more potential revenue by providing this service at no cost to the rich than it does by providing it to the poor).

  55. Then you establish a rule where people with an income over a certain amount have to pay part or all of the costs of their fire rescue, or they can opt out and use a private company instead, but don’t get rid of the government-run service.

    Or you could use progressive taxes, which are always poo-pooed by libertarians and conservatives as “penalising our most productive citizens” but could simply be regarded as charging people in line with the amount they have to lose.

    My point is that these services benefit everyone, and maybe privatising would make them more efficient for some, but in the long run it’s better for everyone if we extend these benefits to all, which I can guarantee you a privatised version would not do; there will always be someone on the margins who can’t quite afford it.

  56. I’m not against progressive taxation: Taxes are a necessary evil and a manageable tax system can’t possibly be “just”, but I think that, in general, the rich benefit way more from government activity than the poor, and they should be paying according to that.

    Strangely, only a few people suggest that the government should run our agriculture and food supply, which are even more vital… By your argument, a privately-run food supply system necessarily leads to mass starvation, but I don’t see that happening in our cities.

  57. Now I remember why choof always gets an invite to any cocktail party I might be hosting. Speaking as a self-reliant technolibertarian (gasp!), I loved the post.

    I’m planning to get out west to see a show when possible. This isn’t facebook, so I’ll bug you in email.

    Keep up the good work.

  58. The food supply IS heavily regulated. Libertarians don’t like regulations, but they’re what keeps them from getting salmonella. In the US, food is also heavily subsidised.

    And we’ve found, with a relatively free market here in NZ, that the food prices go up because they can get better prices overseas, so NZ has an artificially low food supply. Take away all regulations, and the price would probably go up further, because we can sell for a lot more overseas.

  59. wazza, stop moving the goalposts, please. Agriculture is run by private businesses, isn’t it?

  60. LanceR, JSG

    Actually, lukas, *YOU* brought up the food industry, so the moving goalposts are on *YOUR* wheelbarrow. I agree, the food industry is completely irrelevant to this discussion, as it is not, and will never be, a monopoly. Most of the services that the government provides are monopolies. It does not make economic sense to have multiple competing roadways, multiple competing electric companies with their own transmission lines, multiple competing fire departments, etc. In a “natural monopoly” (look that up, it’s an important concept) the government can usually provide better service than a for-profit company simply by virtue of not paying million dollar bonuses and golden parachutes.

  61. There’s also a difference between the food supply and other things which points out why a government monopoly isn’t needed there: you need food. You don’t need an education just to survive. A company can make a lot of money off a worker even if they can’t read, but if that worker doesn’t eat, that worker is useless. So even Libertarians have to see that if you raise the price of food, sooner or later no one’s going to be able to pay it. Whereas if you raise the price of an education, it quickly becomes a way the rich can control the poor.

  62. Hah… this conversation has got me thinking like a hard-core leftist. Mostly it annoys me when people get all conspiratorial about the rich. They are human, after all… but they’re also rich, and either they’ve had to make the kind of decisions you have to make to be rich, or you get taught about those decisions by your parents. I’m not against rich people being rich or having privileges; they’ve earned it. But I think that government should be there to speak for the voiceless, to be a force on the side of the weak… not just some emasculated border-guard.

  63. It is little surprise that people that have advanced by virtue of their own talents and industry should value a libertarian perspective.

    Unless they were abandoned in the woods as infants and entirely rediscovered all human knowledge by themselves from first principles, they didn’t advance solely by virtue of the own talents and industry.

  64. @LanceR: The food industry is relevant, since wazza has stated that there will always be some people who find themselves unable to afford the products of a privately run industry. In disputing his thesis, I have provided an example where it is clearly untrue, and that is a logically sound argument. Monopolies are irrelevant to this.

    You think “natural monopoly” is an important concept, I think it’s a smokescreen used by those who benefit from the absence of competition. Bring it on.

    @wazza: You don’t need to buy your food from the agricultural industry. If you want to, you can go out and be a subsistence farmer with an abysmal standard of living. The same would be true for primary (and, to a lesser degree, secondary) education: You can certainly get by without it, but you would severely limit your own opportunities by doing so.

    Oh, and the rich do not get to set/raise prices as they please.

  65. LanceR, JSG

    Bring it on? Is that really the image you want to portray? Arrogant ignorance? Really?

    Sheesh. Scratch a libertarian, find a four-year-old who wants his cookie NOW!

  66. You accuse me of arrogance? Wow. Pot, meet kettle…

    I’m trying to have a honest debate here, and so is wazza, I assume. If name calling and telling me to look up fancy terms without actually engaging in an argument is all you are going to do, you’re not contributing.

  67. LanceR, JSG

    Let’s recap, shall we?

    1. Discussion about government provided services vs the same services provided privately.

    2. You change the subject to food production.

    3. wazza challenges your statements on food production.

    4. You accuse wazza of moving the goalposts.

    5. I make the point that you moved the goalposts, and that certain things were natural monopolies.

    6. You pop off with “bring it on”, reminiscent of Bush’s comment to the terrorists.

    7. Now you want to whine at *me* about name calling and not engaging in argument? Fine.

    What is a “natural monopoly” and why do you think it is “a smokescreen used by those who benefit from the absence of competition.”? Do you disagree that it would be pointless to dig multiple tunnels to bury natural gas lines for several different companies? Would it be “efficient” to have three or four different power companies stringing poles across the landscape?

    You don’t get to just dismiss an argument because you don’t like it. Cracking tough-guy with “bring it on” only appears juvenile, just like the post we’re allegedly discussing.

    Comments? Answers? Anyone care for a mint?*

    *actual mint prize for anyone who can identify that quote**

    **you have to come to my house to pick it up.

  68. I have already explained that I talked about the food industry as a counterexample in order to disprove one of wazza’s assertions. Dismissing a counterexample just by claiming that I changed the subject is faulty reasoning.

    On to your point about “natural monopolies”. A natural monopoly is claimed to exist for those services where fixed costs of production are so high that any competition would raise, not lower costs to the consumer due to the loss of economies of scale. Classic examples of this state of affairs are the so-called public utilities: water/electricity/gas supply and sewage — some would include telephone and postal services, radio and TV, mass transit, roads, railroads, canals, airports, health care or education in that list as well.

    This theory has been used to justify government intervention into the market for those services in order to replace emerging natural monopolies with legally enforced, but regulated monopolies. This is said to benefit consumers: they profit from the low prices made possible by the absence of competition while being protected from monopoly abuses.

    Would you agree with this definition of natural monopoly or do you think I missed an essential point?

    I think this theory is flawed: even if one firm establishes a monopoly, which is what must happen if there is a natural monopoly situation, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing: the mere threat of competition will be enough to prevent it from charging monopolistic prices and abusing its monopoly. This analysis of the behavior of electric utility companies (“What Can Regulators Regulate? The Case of Electricity” by George J. Stigler and Claire Friedland, Journal of Law and Economics, 5, 10/1962, 1-16) finds that regulation did not significantly affect electricity prices.

  69. “The threat of competition”?


    When the competition has to raise in the order of millions of dollars, make a loss for years after starting up just to pay back its startup costs while still competing in the market… how can any competition come along?

  70. Competition can come along, for example, by moving in from neighboring markets. Recently, this has happened a lot with Cable TV where legal monopoly protection has been abolished, and prices have gone down or service has improved as a consequence.

    If consumer prices did not sink after monopoly regulation, that means that either the existing monopolies did not abuse their position before regulation, or that regulation was ineffective in curbing abuse.

  71. Where I come from, there are no neighbouring markets. We’re an island. Who should have the monopoly in that market?

    And this isn’t a special case; globalization is making the world into one island. Water supplies, for example, are almost a global monopoly with devastating consequences for poor communities with no recourse to government regulation.

  72. Even on an island there are multiple geographic markets, and in any event a neighboring market is only one example for a source of capital. In our modern economy, it’s pretty easy to attract some capital if you have a solid business plan.

    This could work in a number of different ways, but what I would consider a realistic example would be the following: Imagine a water company that has a monopoly in some geographical area and abuses that monopoly by charging prices that are too high. Now the citizens of this area have no individual bargaining power, but if they associate, they can exert considerable pressure on the monopoly supplier. They can either raise the capital for a competing enterprise themselves, or they can try to attract outside investors by offering a great number of long-term contracts that will ensure a return on investment.

    Besides, the claim that water supply is a natural monopoly at all has come under scrutiny recently, and the evidence that has been gathered so far is very inconclusive.

    Water supplies worldwide are a monopoly in the sense that most of them are, at least de jure, controlled by governments, especially in developing countries. If the quality of service is lower than it could be, it’s due to rampant corruption and inefficiency.

  73. Ugh

    Ever heard of Hydraulic Economy? Water’s the classic case. If you control water, you control the people who need water. If you control oil, you control the people who need oil. They won’t stand up to you if you have the means to protect your monopoly, because they need what you can give them and if you cut it off they’ll die, or at least have a lot of trouble.

    I don’t even know where to start on your comment. None of it accords with the facts ANYWHERE, except under the light of a fiscal conservative ideology.

  74. You are assuming that a monopolist would be free to cut off its service to its customers at any moment… I think it would be more likely that the monopolist would enter into long-term (say, at the very least a year) contractual commitments to their customers. So if the monopolist decided to cut of its water supply in violation of their agreement, the contract could be enforced by a court order.

    A similar system is operating in some parts of France: The actual water supply infrastructure is owned by citizens collectives at the local level, and every 10-20 years, they advertise for bids on a limited duration lease contract to service it.

  75. Lose their payments in the paperwork and claim they weren’t holding up their side of the contract. If you’re found out, it’s an honest mistake. And remember… this is under the libertarian regime, so it’s not like there are any government regulations covering how rigorous they have to be with their paperwork.

  76. Andrea

    “I should bite my tongue because some people just want to be wrong.”

    This is a fine sentiment as long as it’s applied to ourselves as well.

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