There seems to have been quite a few angry reactions, which I will partially address in this post.
MethodologyAll ways of discussing politics are flawed, and so was the method I used. But it was hopefully flawed in a different way. It was a methodological experiment.
As my attitude towards libertarianism is not difficult to figure out, I tried to limit my bias by relying on someone else's list of top libertarian blogs, and use transparent selection procedure. At first I wanted to just take the most recent 5 posts from each blog, but there were too many link-only posts, personal stuff, meta-information, and such, which I believed would only introduce noise to the results. I didn't establish clean-cut criteria for selecting which posts qualify for inclusion, so a few decisions might have been somewhat dubious. It's inevitable when something new is tried, and I don't think it affects the results significantly. From one of the comments:
I can only assume that a certain amount of skimming was involved in garnering your links as it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that smoking would feature high. Freedom2Choose is a grass roots pro-choice organisation, set up with the express purpose of opposing bans on lifestyle choices (and before you follow the usual line - no, no funding except from working class members who are angry about the increasing restrictions and bans). The subject would therefore be naturally prominent. The Frank Davis blog was set up expressly in anger at the smoking ban (the clue is the fact that his sub-title is "Banging on about the smoking ban"), and seeing as libertarians oppose authoritarianism, and that the UK ban is as authoritarian a policy as we have seen recently, of course it's going to figure.
I assume the top 20 list is representative of libertarian blogosphere. Pro-smoking articles appeared on 4 different blogs on this list, so it's not accidental inclusion of just one or two smoking-centric blogs. And unlike with climate change which is in news right now, and therefore overrepresented, nothing new is happening that's related to smoking, so I doubt this is an artifact - smoking seems to be quite solidly one of the big libertarian subjects.
Externality denialismOne thing which I observed in both original posts, and in feedback comments I got was persistent denial of existence of externalities.
Libertarians are really uncomfortable with economics - at least with anything resembling modern science - they sure have their own folk version of it. They pretend that red part of the diagram doesn't exist. The thinking seems to be something like:
- I feel that governments are always and without exceptions evil
- If externalities existed, governments would actually be useful
- So I won't believe in existence of externalities
It starts with values, and ends with statement about reality, as if the nature cared about your values. It is of course logically invalid, but humans are extremely prone to this kind of rationalizations.
Disregarding artificial controversy influenced to large extent by industrial interests (tobacco industry was the leader of this, and this is extremely well documented), science is quite sure about existence of health risks of second hand smoking, anthropogenic climate change, and such. And equally real is plain irritation of non-smokers due to people smoking in their faces. But these facts are very uncomfortable to libertarian position, so you can find arguments like these:
You will also not find one of those posts disputing the link between smoking and cancer. Passive smoking and cancer, yes, simply for the reason that there are hugely more studies showing it to be a construct of the hysterical anti-smoking lobby shilling for the superrich pharmaceutical companies (thought you were against such things?). That debate is nowhere near over as many would have you believe.
Not one post I have read on any of the aforementioned blogs talks of non-smokers being denied the right 'not to have smoke blown in their faces'.
The fact that you use the phrase "climate change denial" shows that you believe the AGW hypothesis. Fair enough. However, if you do not believe the hypothesis (or think that it is pretty darn suspect) then cap-and-trade—for all its internalising of externalities—is a total nonsense because CO2 does not do damage to the environment (in fact, it's actively beneficial because it helps trees and plants grow). Do you see?They not only disagree with particular solutions, such as smoking bans, or cap&trade - but deny existence of externalities in the first place.
Externalities and the Pigou Club
The mainstream economic position is that externalities are not only real but very important, and the best way to deal with them is internalizing them, usually by appropriate taxes or subsidies, or mostly equivalent ways such as cap&trade, which strangely some consider Pigovian, and some don't:
Transaction costsNow I'll get quite far away from the main subject. Smoking is harmful to others, but amount of harm depends on circumstances - smoking in your own home without anyone around is less harmful than smoking inside a train filled with people. Standard Pigovian solution would be taxing different contexts of smoking at different levels, but such scheme would be highly impractical.
Driving is also harmful to others - not only due to greenhouse gases emissions and straightforward pollution, but also because of traffic congestion it generates. Taxing driving on a rural road differently from driving in rush hours in Central London would be a good idea, and it would also be highly impractical. This is actually attempted in spite of impracticality, and very high costs of running the system with the scheme barely breaking even if capital costs are included.
So every now and then economic analysis would advise doing something more brutal than just taxation - like an outright smoking ban in public places, ban on leaded gasoline, or my favourite ban on leaded solders. Sometimes no realistic method of Pigovian taxation can be implemented, and so direct regulation is necessary.
Standard anti-Pigovian arguments
Mankiw described 4 basic reasons why someone could be against Pigovian Taxation in a logical flowchart.
1. You deny the existence of these externalities as a type of market failure. Perhaps you think you live in a Coasian fantasy world where people bargain without transaction costs to reach efficient allocations. (Note: I am not suggesting that Coase himself thought we lived in such a world—he considered it only a useful thought experiment.)
2. You recognize the externalities but you don’t think the government should try to respond to them. You are such a believer in small government that you are willing to live with inferior economic outcomes, such as pollution and congestion.
3. You recognize the externalities, think the government should try to correct them, but think the current low taxes we put on gasoline are sufficient. In this case, you have weighed and rejected the evidence, such as that of Parry and Small, that higher Pigovian would be optimal. (Parry and Small calculate an optimal tax of $1.01 for the United States in today's dollars. After my proposed phase-in of a $1 hike, the U.S. tax would be $1.40. Assuming 10 years of 3 percent inflation, the tax in real terms would approach almost exactly what Parry and Small recommend. By the way, the published version of Parry and Small was in the American Economic Review, September 2005.)It's definitely possible to make an intelligent case against Pigovian taxes, based on #2, #3, #4, or some more creative argument - here's one by Bryan Caplan, here's another by Arnold Kling. My problem is not libertarian conclusions (that internalizing externalities is bad), but that they take the #1 route of living in fantasy land in which externalities don't exist.
4. You recognize the externalities but think the government should try to correct the market failure through regulations (such as CAFE standards) or through market-based solutions that do not raise government revenue (such as cap-and-trade systems). Perhaps you are concerned that government would waste the extra revenue on useless government programs.
Back on-topicI strayed quite far off-topic, but off-topic asides are as central to my blogging as cats. This extended writing on externalities is due to libertarian blogosphere's obsession with externality denial - climate and smoking posts together constitute 41% of all posts.
The second most popular subject is taxation - quite related to the first one, as the point of government is largely taxing and subsidizing in a way that corrects market failures, and running parts of the economy which market is particularly bad at running - such as police, healthcare, pensions, social security and such. And at least in Britain the train system, which seems private companies seems to be completely incapable of running compared to Deutsche Bahn or even TFL.
Now it's perfectly fine position to support lower or higher levels of taxation, deficits, or spending. But what libertarians care most about?
- Lowering taxes on rich bankers, and other super-rich, even though their very jobs exist only thanks to taxpayers' bailouts. This increases deficits, which leads to...
- lowering deficits by layoffs and pay cuts in public sector, reducing welfare payments and such.
By the way I'm surprised that my post was misunderstood - I wasn't trying to find out if libertarian blogosphere is any good, but mainly what it writes about. My finding that I find it boring was coincidental.