The best kittens, technology, and video games blog in the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Libertarianism is externality denialism

...non fidarsi è meglio - my scared cat / gatto by Paolo Màrgari from flickr (CC-NC-ND)
Yesterday I wrote about libertarian blogosphere, skimming 5 posts each from what is supposedly top 20 libertarian blogs.

There seems to have been quite a few angry reactions, which I will partially address in this post.


All 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 denialism

One thing which I observed in both original posts, and in feedback comments I got was persistent denial of existence of externalities.

This is economics 101 diagram of any economic activity - a firm produces a product, which it gives to consumer for their money. Both production and consumption have some external costs and benefits, which they impose on others regardless of their wishes.

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:

While Pigovian taxes are economically-preferred way to deal with externalities, they're not the only way and that's due to the second big concept which libertarians pretend doesn't exist - transaction costs.

Transaction costs

Now 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.)

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.
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.

Back on-topic

I 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.
And we end up with massive transfer of wealth from everyone else to the super-rich. If that's not shilling, what is it?

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.


John Demetriou said...

Your concepts of what it is to be a libertarian are wrong, and not just wrong, but baseless and packed with prejudice.

You oversimplify what is in effect a highly diverse political philosophy that is noted for its internal conflict because libertarianism is not an ideology but a philosophy that spreads from left to right, across the spectrum.

A minarchist or a classical liberal, even in the right wing sphere you talk about, would never agree with the way you have described libertarianism, particularly your jibes about fanatical support for the super rich and fanatical opposition to all forms of state.

I have no idea where you have got so many of these preconceptions from? Libertarians are uncomfortable with economics? Sorry, have you not heard of Friedman or Hayek then?

Your dip sample of articles doesn't ring true, either. I read most libertarian blogs, and while some talk about climate change (well it is topical) and smoking, most articles tend to be about current political events, how the state is behaving in relation to recent news and other topics like foreign policy, domestic policy, tax, crime and punishment.

Well, the sorts of things that bloggers talk about.

Go visit some left wing blogs, and try and prove that they are more intellectual and diverse in debate. I doubt you'd prove it. You'll find obsessives going on about US imperialism, Israel/Palestine, western foreign policy, aid in Africa and poverty. A lot. All the time in fact.

Are those empirically or demonstrably any more valid as topics of discussion than those chosen by some libertarians? Who is to judge? You, armed with some clever graphs and catchy pseudo-scientific phrases?

I wonder what compelled you to write this rude, fatuous and abusive attack on 20 libertarian bloggers and libertarianism in general.

What are your politics, 'TAW'?

taw said...

Your dip sample of articles doesn't ring true, either.

J Demetriou: These are the blogs from "Top 20 libertarian blogs" list. This is the highest google hit which said anything about its methodology (that is voting).

I assumed the list was representative of what libertarian blogs are about - if it's not so, then analysis will be skewed.

Feel free to make similar analysis of conservative, leftist, or whatever other point of view you feel like describing, and I'll link to it. Or I might do so at some point in the future, but probably not too soon.

John Demetriou said...

There's nothing wrong with your dip sample of blogs. That's not what I said. Read it again...

"Your dip sample of articles doesn't ring true, either."

ARTICLES. Not blogs. ARTICLES. I don't think your dip sample of articles rings true or is particularly reflective or fair on the blogs you have identified.

A lot of articles talk about climate change, when there is something in the bloody news about climate change. Last May, a lot of us guys wrote about MPs expenses. Care to offer a guess as to why that might be?

Smoking is written about as often as things like laws on alcohol and drugs and the use of taxation and the legislature to curtain freedom of choice. It's part and parcel of the same sort of thing.

You can't disprove a philosophy, as though it were a scientific paradigm, capable of being brought to its knees as though you were Copernicus and us libertarians all flat earth knuckle heads.

It is impossible. You are not right and us axiomatically wrong, just because you have cut and pasted some pretty graphs from an online text book.

You also need to learn some manners, because your bumptious assault on the libertarian blogosphere is nothing short of breath-takingly arrogant.

Leg-iron said...

Couple of quickies because it's late.

1 - Government. Libertarians are not anarchists. Government is necessary to run a country. A government does not need to concern itself with every single bite we eat, whether we drink, smoke, worship God, Allah, a pixie named Bill who lives in a mushroom or nothing at all. Government should be running a country's essential services and that is all. Government is not, in itself, evil. This one is.

2. Smoking. Libertarians neither support nor promote smoking. Libertarians promote freedom to choose as long as it doesn't affect anyone else's freedom to choose. So if you don't want to smoke and want non-smoking pubs, clubs, restaurants, that's no problem. When you want them all, even the ones you'll never go to, that's a problem.

As the current smoking ban stands, it is not possible to set up a private club called 'Smoke' which is staffed by smokers and has only smokers as members because anyone lighting up inside will trigger a cascade of fines.

You'd never go there anyway, so what's your objection to that?

Well, now I'm an externality denier. Makes a change from climate heretic I suppose.

I'll sleep easier knowing there's nothing outside.

Tarquin said...

Damn I just wrote on your original post because I was linked to that..

in short I think you are failing to grasp what libertarianism is - there is no strict ideology, just a general belief in liberty, you could be anarchist, but most are not - and we disagree on many things

...Such as global warming - showing a high level of scepticism within 'libertarian' blogs proves nothing unless the blog is specifically written for a libertarian audience, which they aren't - as there are varying degrees of libertarians in the top 20, (eg. Guido has a libertarian view but is devoted to exposing politicians, not the philosophy of libertarianism) the fact that scepticism comes up a lot is simply coincidental, it could in fact be why these are the most popular blogs - it's totally irrelevant aside from finding out what the most popular blogs labelled 'libertarian' write about - belief in climate change has nothing to do with views on liberty

and of course, using the most recent entries was totally unscientific, unless you wanted to find out what was popular solely during a climate meeting

in short what you are missing is that these bloggers are independent individuals, they don't represent a specific movement or party view, or even share aims, nor do they write exclusively on libertarianism - they just happen to express libertarian views to some degree, and can be broadly labelled as such - they could be labelled libertarian even if they wrote a film review blog, and they certain don't represent the views of any collective

it's not the same as being in Labour

The Paragnostic said...

I'm not a libertarian - I'm just an old fashioned anarchist who is slowly turning that way as I get older.

Externalities are important - true. More important and immediate to those who resent state intrusion into our lives are matters such as AGW and the smoking ban, because they impact immediately on our life.

On AGW - I'm happy to be called a skeptic, or a denier, or whatever phrase the Pharisees and Saducees of today choose to use. The facts are there - the primary source of data (on which the other three main sources used by the IPCC depend) has been put into question, and that leads me to question whether the proposed actions of our lords and masters are appropriate.

On the smoking ban - if there is indeed a risk from second-hand smoke, then the proper solution is to ventilate pubs properly, and to relegate the smokers to the last stage of the air filtering.

I'm acutely aware of the costs of my actions, and wish to reduce their effects on others. But can't the proppagandists come up with something better than 'denial'?

I feel like Galileo, ffs.

Giggety said...

What's the opposite of libertarianism? Authoritarianism.

If you are happy to have all your decisions made by some jobsworth in Whitehall, fine. Just don't complain when they decide that you have to have a licence to breed, can only watch party political propaganda on t'telly, have to walk everywhere and can only eat Brussels sprouts.

The rest of us will have moved away by then, providing we can fight our way past the razor wire meant to keep us in.

Obnoxio The Clown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Obnoxio The Clown said...

I'm sure that if you did a bit more reading, you'd find that most of the blogs you attack for denying externalities all accept to some degree or another, the issue of externalities.

The LPUK have an explicit policy of minarchism, not anarchy.

I know B&D, for example, are much more comfortable with accepting a need for government than I am, but even I accept that there are a very few things which make it convenient to accept a degree of government - and I think I'm the most anti-government libertarian blogger in your list.

So your experiment is entirely flawed from the outset.

Still, I'm sure you're enjoying having five readers a day.

[Duplicate comment removed by me.]

Obnoxio The Clown said...

If you wanted to read something really trenchant on externality denialism, you could try this.

Quickshot said...

Hmmm, the type of responses I see here follow in to three categories roughly I guess, ones who deny that what is described is Libertarianism, secondly those who do off base attacks on some or the other political faction which have absolutely nothing to do with the point at hand. Thirdly those who respond to specific subpoints, but typically not to the overall described issue.

In this the ones responding to global warming and smoke do indeed seem to continue the full load of externalities, or don't consider it unimportant compared to the issues of government restrictions. Those who are saying this isn't Libertarianism could further help their case by referring to some kind of standard position for Libertarianism overall or suggesting a way to get a better overall picture of the movement, this is because explaining only part of the issues just won't sufficiently clarify the whole. As for the offbase attacks... those I guess are people who think the person writing this blog must be from some specific philosophy or political line of reasoning and think he's just attacking for the sake of attacking I guess...

On a side note, you can disprove a philosophy the moment you want to apply it to the real world. After all, real world factors then come in to play and it is rather easy for a philosophy to be completely divorced from how reality truly works.

Unknown said...

As a matter of interest the Freedom2Choose you link to is NOT a blog, it is their website. This is MY blog: but you are in good company Iain effing Dale got it wrong too.

Vladimir said...

TAW, your posts remind me of a few arguments I recently had with self-described liberal left-wing Guardian-reading people.

I find it very hard to perceive New Labour as anything other than a liberal left-wing party. But the aforementioned group will get very annoyed at the suggestion that they are in any way responsible for New Labour. That's because there is not one type of "liberal" or "leftie", there are many types, and this makes it quite easy to completely disown political movements that may once have been regarded as left-liberal or at least progressive, but which are now regarded as something quite nasty. New Labour is the archetypal example from modern times; older examples might include Marxism and Fascism.

You seem to be doing exactly the same thing here. You've picked out a few cliches about Libertarianism and you've applied them to all of us. I am sure that if someone accused you of being exactly like Gordon Brown or Jack Straw, or of advocating Stalinism or Nazism, you would be pissed off. You would feel that they were arguing from a position of ignorance and this would be quite justified.

Anonymous said...

I think Mr. Tourettes said it best:

"Are you some kind of cunt?"

underground said...

The problem is a common one among both liberals and conservatives: they will often attempt to understand the libertarian position as a set of policy prescriptions. There should be no taxes, smoking should be legal, etc...

But it can't be adequately summarized this way because libertarianism is a philosophical approach to politics and it doesn't come with a set beliefs about specific issues. Any good libertarian forum will provide a wealth of debates on education, healthcare, crime, prisons, and all of the social functions that other political factions debate about too.

The philosophical underpinning is non-aggression, or the ideal that participation in civilization and all human interaction should be a voluntary thing. But it isn't pure pacifism, because there has to be some way to defend or retaliate against those who use force or damage property. And yes, this even means a tendency to support a common-law approach to pollution that holds polluters directly accountable for the costs and damages caused by their actions. But even from common perspectives of voluntarism and non-aggression, individuals can reach very different conclusions about what liberty means.

Fundamentally, liberty is a relative thing to authority. A society with a pure absence of libertarian influence is literally totalitarian, and that spectrum goes a long way in the other direction before it hits total statelessness.

GrassyKnollington said...

My lunch hour is due to finish shortly so I won't bother taking apart this ill-informed, graph-assisted diatribe. Instead, I shall only make a couple of brief points- your problem generally seems to be with people who are suspicious of what they're told by the Government and the, largely, populist-leftist press. What exactly is it about reasoned and moderate dissent and scepticism that has driven you to devoting a blog to this anti-classic-liberal codswallop?

And as my fellow liberals have stated above- Libertarianism is not one thing, it's a loose consensus arranged around a belief in minimal-government. Thereafter it’s up to you as a person to decide your own stances on particular issues. Surely much better, and infinitely more interesting, than the absolute consensus that seems to grip the left?

Grishnav said...

Just because libertarians don't believe that the best way to deal with externalities is government doesn't mean that they assume that they don't exist. They just believe that there are other, better ways to deal with them.

Arbitration is often cited as the way to manage pollution. In the case of "smoking on a train," the answer is all too easy: Competing firms would run different trains with different policies (some smoking, some non) to meet consumer demand. Some might even have designated smoking and non smoking cars, which you could select before-hand when purchasing a ticket. You might even be able to rent smoking rooms, similar to the way you might rent a sleeper, if you want to smoke but not breath other smoke.

It would be up to the individual to "defend" -- for lack of a better term -- themselves from the various negative effects of other people's actions, either by suing, or by choosing a different train car.

Granted, it's not the end-all, be-all, as there are still some very complicated questions that need to be answered, such as, who sues for damage to the ozone layer? But the bottom line is, Libertarians have enough faith in humanity to believe that these problems that face us all can be solved without using force against unwilling individuals. You, apparently, do not.

Keith Sader said...

I'm still enjoying this series of postings taw; modern libertarianism is great because it works in neither theory nor practice.

Perhaps even more interesting is that any critiques of it will be met with either the "that's not *true* libertarianism" or a very vocal defense of something unrelated to the topic at hand.

Remember, libertarianism never fails, it's people that fail libertarianism.

Christopher Peters said...

I think it's great that you're attempting to address the political concept of libertarianism, but you have many things wrong.

May I suggest that you saunter on by for a WEALTH of information on the economic school of thought that is the sister of libertarianism, the Austrian School of Economics.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant piece. You managed to completely destroy Austrian school economics within a paragraph. When are you going to do a piece rubbishing Ayn Rand and objectivism; I can't wait.

ModerateLibertarian said...

This blog is reality denialism. Your conclusion is easily obviated by the existence of a substantial number of libertarians (and likely most) that admit the existence of externalities and have contributed to the discussion of various solutions.

Clearly, your theory is false. I would suggest revising it.

Peter Risdon said...

I don't think there was much wrong with your methodology, really. I read most of these blogs fairly regularly and suggest that while you do have a point here and there, on the whole your prior assumptions have directed your conclusions.

For example, while it's quite true that there's some shilling for the rich going on, and a conspicuous lack of concern for the disadvantaged (unlike what you'll find in the ideas found in the intellectual heritage of libertarianism, from Adam Smith to Friedman), to suggest there's a denial of externalities in these blogs is bizarre. Externalities are one of the most commonly discussed aspects of economics among libertarians.

Of course the smoking ban is a preoccupation for people who find individual freedom and private property important (pubs are private property). You're criticising libertarians for being libertarian here, which is silly.

As for climate... I can't be bothered. Even George Monbiot thought the CRU leaks were noteworthy. If you don't, that's just your priors again.

John Demetriou said...

I find this 'shilling for the rich' argument insulting and false.

I have often written staunchly libertarian articles defending the poor and attacking the cult of the corporate state and irresponsible big business. I have also written pieces discussing the importance and superiority of charity as a means of protecting the interests of those who cannot afford things.

My views are not inconsistent with libertarianism, but are rather a strand of the philosophy, based on historic thinking.

I am no rich man's running dog. And neither am I a selfish libertine, as social conservatives would have some of us down as. For I am teetotal, I don't gamble (anymore) and I've never taken drugs. My diet consists of 1,500 calories a day, strictly, and I approve of good manners (something this blog appears to lack) and traditional family set ups.

Any more stereotypes you'd like to dispense with, now we've got on this subject, TAW?

Jamie said...

you should read the more intellectual libertarian blogs-reason, cato, jim manzi, etc. those guys tend to admit the existence of externalities. i mean, even mankiw is really a libertarian at heart.

Anonymous said...

The first thing I noticed while reading this is that you absolutely do not understand what libertarianism is. I think you have it confused with anarchy.

Glen said...

Whatever conclusions you reached might be specific to UK libertarianism. I'm an American libertarian/anarchocapitalist and I'd only heard of one of your "top 20" blogs and had read exactly none of them. This list of top 100 libertarian blogs/sites is almost all familiar to me and appears to have no overlap with your list of 20.

Meanwhile the blogs I do read include several you've mentioned. One can hardly accuse Arnold Kling or Tyler Cowen or David Friedman or Robin Hanson or even Megan McArdle of being economically illiterate or disbelieving in externalities. I tend to think of a libertarian as "a liberal who has learned some economics" (at least enough to reject price controls, at any rate), but mostly because that was my own path - by way of Milton Friedman and then David Friedman.

I can't speak to the blogs you've looked at since I've not read them but my impression is that informed, economically-literate libertarians (in the American sense of the world) sometimes accept regulatory taxes as the lesser evil but at other times reject them due to a keen sensitivity to the negative externalities and the public goods problems that are associated with government provision of services.

To wit: the traditional Econ 1 analysis of externalities tends to take for granted the existence of bureaucrat-gods. If you have available to you a government regulator who is perfectly omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent, that regulator might be trusted to correctly estimate the exactly-appropriate tax, to pass a law that charges and enforces that tax in an efficient and even-handed manner, and to remove or adjust the tax as appropriate as conditions change in the future such that the tax is no longer as necessary as it was.

In the real world, we don't have any bureacrat-gods. Rather, if we give government the power to inflict a tax on a particular group we can be absolutely certain it will not just charge the economically efficient tax but will also take this as an opportunity to right various other perceived wrongs. The amount of the tax will be based on political negotiations that involve carving out exceptions and subsidies for favored consituencies and punishing or soliciting new contributions from disfavored ones. To get the legislation passed will involve various compromises that create their own new inefficiencies and at the end of the process you will have a bureaucracy devoted to collecting and distributing the tax which can never be gotten rid of even if it turns out we no longer need it.

In short, public choice theory combined with a certain amount of cynicism brings one to doubt that telling legislators to go ahead and apply a tax in the amount of X to behavior Y is likely to on net result in the world becoming more efficient than it was before you told them to do that. It might do so if you naively assumed they would just do the exact thing you asked them to do and nothing more.

taw said...

Glen: I blame Google for returning this top 20 list so high in the results.

Pigou Club lists Tyler Cowen as member. I doubt many of the economists you mention would have kind words about big L libertarians.

Arguing that Pigovian solutions might not deal with externalities too well due to public choice issues etc. (what Arnold Kling etc. does) is one thing, but my point is that libertarians from the top 20 list disagree that externalities even *exist* in the first place - denying AGW, second hand smoking risks etc.

Anonymous said...

I was slightly disturbed when I saw this blog. Not because of the content (which I agree with), but because of the name.
The letters TAW are my initials. Freaked me out for a second. XD

John Demetriou said...

" point is that libertarians from the top 20 list disagree that externalities even *exist* in the first place - denying AGW, second hand smoking risks etc."

Would you care to qualify that statement?

All, or some, of the top 20 list, TAW?

Anonymous said...


I am posting this in multiple parts owing to a 4096 character limit on your blog.

Your failure to properly investigate a given proposition betrays your lack of attention to detail. This is not a characteristic sought after in the field of Information technology.

I have managed in Corporate IT departments for 25 years and currently operate my own software development business. I do not smoke, nor have I ever smoked. However, I do consider myself to fall within the Libertarian political spectrum.

I often conduct detailed examinations within fields of interest that do not reflect my personal preferences but contain the characteristic aroma of fraudulent activity which directly impinges upon the lives of many others. This may be a fairly common characteristic easily identified in many other Libertarians.

The purported health hazards associated with environmental tobacco smoke represents a case in point. Open your mind, remove your own personal prejudices and look more closely. Here is an opportunity for you to get a headstart :-

American antismoking campaigners enlisted the aid of institutions such as the CDC and EPA who went to the trouble of committing gross statistical fraud to accomplish their ends. I will leave this for you to investigate the resultant EPA report which allowed ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke) to earn its classification as a class "A" carcinogen and became the "point document" upon which all early smoking bans were justified. You should follow this story through the Federal courts, paying particularly close attention to what is meant by statistical significance in the context of epidemiological studies.

Other significant studies (and the only large substantive ones) are covered nicely in this article by Christopher Booker. Here is what Christopher had to say.

Anti-smoking activists can celebrate today one of the most remarkable lobbying campaigns in modern politics. The statutory no-smoking signs outside every "enclosed public space", including churches, synagogues, mosques and Buckingham Palace, will always remind us how they find the smell of other people's smoke offensive. One thing they cannot claim, though, is that protecting people from others' smoke will save thousands of lives.
The scientific evidence to support their belief that inhaling other people's smoke causes cancer simply does not exist. In the course of writing a book on "scares", I recently trawled through all the scientific literature on the health risks of tobacco, ever since Richard Doll's seminal paper in 1950 alerted the world to the link between smoking and lung cancer (when 82 per cent of British men were smokers). Over the next 30 years, the realisation that smokers risked serious damage to their health led to a 50 per cent drop in the habit. But this divided people into three groups: more or less addicted smokers, generally tolerant non-smokers and fiercely intolerant anti-smokers.
At the end of the Seventies, the anti-smokers first seriously turned their attention to what they called "passive smoking". Over the next decade, it is fascinating to follow how, try as they might, they could not come up with the evidence they wanted to prove that "environmental tobacco smoke" was directly harming non-smokers' health. They became greatly excited by a series of studies which purported to show a link between smoking and cot deaths. But these somehow managed to ignore the fact that, in the very years when cot deaths were rising by 500 per cent, the incidence of smoking had halved.


Anonymous said...


A further series of studies in the Nineties, mainly in the US, claimed to have found that passive smoking was causing thousands of deaths a year. But however much the researchers tried to manipulate the evidence, none could come up with an increased risk of cancer that, by the strict rules of epidemiology, was "statistically significant".
In 1998 and 2003 came the results of by far the biggest studies of passive smoking ever carried out. One was conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation. The other, run by Prof James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat for the American Cancer Society, was a mammoth 40-year-long study of 35,000 non-smokers living with smokers. In each case, when the sponsors saw the results they were horrified. The evidence inescapably showed that passive smoking posed no significant risk. This confirmed Sir Richard Doll's own comment in 2001: "The effects of other people's smoking in my presence is so small it doesn't worry me".
In each case, the sponsors tried to suppress the results, which were only with difficulty made public (the fact that Enstrom and Kabat, both non-smokers, could only get their results published with help from the tobacco industry was inevitably used to discredit them, even though all their research had been financed by the anti-tobacco cancer charity).
In the early years of this decade, the anti-smokers had become so carried away by the rightness of their cause that they no longer worried about finding disciplined evidence for their statistical claims. One notorious but widely-quoted study commissioned by 33 councils campaigning for a "smoke-free London" came up with the wonderfully precise claim that 617 Britons die each year from passive smoking in the workplace. No longer was there any pretence at serious debate. This was a propaganda war, in which statistics could be manufactured at will. (The European Commission's 2006 figure for annual deaths from passive smoking in the UK was around 12,000, some 20 times higher than the figure quoted by the British Government itself.)
By the time the Commons pushed through the smoking ban in February 2006, a kind of collective hysteria had taken over. MPs fell over themselves in boasting how many lives they were about to save. One Department of Health official was quoted as equating its significance to the Act setting up the National Health Service in 1948.
As clouds of self-righteousness billow out over England this weekend, the anti-smokers may be entitled to give us their view that smoking is a thoroughly noxious and nasty habit, even that it can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis arising from other causes. They can even claim that the ban will save lives by persuading smokers to give up. But the one thing they cannot claim is any reliable evidence for their belief that passive smoking is responsible for killing people. Sir Richard Doll was right. It is merely a sanctimonious act of faith.

TAW - Do not take any of the above on faith. Look for yourself as I did some years ago.

Another topic discussed in your posting relates to Anthropogenic Global Warming. I am very definitely sceptical on this issue. Given the complexity of climate behaviour, I could not possibly be unequivocal on this topic. The world's best scientists will admit privately that too many global climate influences are not well understood (Like for example water vapour/cloud influences). To me, it beggars belief that prognostications are currently being made with such confidence when clearly this is not a sensible position to take.

Please feel free to undertake an investigation into this one, it is almost a bottomless pit where opposing sides can spin you from one side to the other. However it is a bottomless pit into which we may be throwing trillions of taxpayer dollars for no good reason.

If you are interested, I do not work for an Oil company.

Nigel Winterbottom (Canada)

Anonymous said...

Nigel Winterbottom again...


I took a look at the Frank Davis Blog. You have incorrectly identified Frank as a Libertarian. He admits to a Left wing political preference but feels angry and betrayed because his government have impinged severely upon his lifestyle choices.


Anonymous said...


All this talk of externalities denial is making me ill.

Libertarians and traditional Conservatives (Not counting Cameroid) are often the only groups to generally correctly identify externalities. Liberals (or illiberals as we Libertarians currently perceive them to act) do not understand how to correctly evaluate externalities and the Lefties have no clue. To pick an example you seem to be harping on about, try smoking. It seems to me that massive tobacco taxes cover off more than all other cost related externalities associated with smoking. Also, when smokers die earlier, does this not relieve the health services of a significant portion of costs associated with an ageing population. Most health care costs are incurred by those over 70 years of age, with those costs increasing disproportionally for even older patient groups. Do smokers recoup their fair share of pension contributions - not really because they die younger.

You may be a confirmed antismoker but does this have to preclude using your brain when thinking about the issue.

Your views on diet seem strange insofar as many libertarians would agree with your stance, yet most left and liberal positions would view your comments as polically incorrect or "Inappropriate" to use incumbent "New-Speak" terminology.


Anonymous said...

Your article takes the fine, complex topic of economic discourse and treats it with the bludgeon of gross generalization and several glaring logical fallacies.

First, a random sampling of posts from libertarian (small "l") blogs does not logically equal Libertarianism. Your sample pool is far too small and concentrated to be considered representative.

Second, equivocating Libertarianism with denial of negative externalities then introducing Pigouian analysis as the only alternative is deceptive and dishonest. It is a classic false dilemma, and textbook straw-man bait and switch. A cursory background in critical analysis would revel these flaws.

Were this article truly intellectually honest, it would acknowledge the argument made by Mr. Caplan in the linked article. (...and made by Libertarian thinkers the world round) Libertarians do not deny externalities or transaction costs. In fact, they tend to hold their estimates of these factors higher then your average statist. Libertarians say that, given a choice between free markets and state fiat, markets will more often produce more efficient results in mitigating externalities and lowing transaction costs. The classic Public Choice argument says that government actors often (if not always) fail to recognize the true external repercussions and costs of their actions. Government action is often much worse than market failure.

Your parting shot about libertarians supporting the super-rich is yet another example of inverting the truth to forward your skewed view of reality. Even a brief review of economic legislative history in the modern western world would reveal that most entrenched corporate business interests are NOT for the free market. More often than not, they use their considerable influence to gain a political edge in supposedly "public interest" legislation. Regulations which purportedly limit externalities end up serving the interests of those who they are supposed to limit. For an example, please read and understand the implications of any current carbon-trading legislation today.

SorenK said...

"# 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"

This is called: Reductio ad absurdum

You're just not very bright are you?

Patri Friedman said...

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.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Libertarianism talks about and values economics so much less than other political ideologies. And libertarians like Milton Friedman are really uncomfortable with economics.

There are many good critiques of libertarianism to be made. But yours is not among them.

US said...

That's 10-15 minutes of my life I'll never get back. I demand compensation!

Being against politicians deciding where people can or can't smoke and being 'pro smoking' are two very, very, very different things. The fact that you can't separate them from each other tells me a lot about you. It basically tells me I shouldn't take you seriously, because you probably have no idea what motivates people to subscribe to some form of libertarianism in the first place.

Also, "Libertarians are really uncomfortable with economics"???

That's a little bit like screaming "I don't have a clue what I'm talking about" from the roof-tops. After I'd read that sentence, I skimmed the rest of the piece and then looked down at the number of comments. I then realised that a lot of people must read your blog. Otherwise I can't quite figure out why any grown up libertarian with an IQ above 70 would even comment on this piece.

Anonymous said...

TAW has never been the smartest guy in the blogosphere. But the responses here to his article are unwarranted. Did any of you actually read his article? Furthermore did you read your incoherent comments?

Keep up your one-true-scotsman rhetoric guys.

Anonymous said...

"Libertarians and traditional Conservatives (Not counting Cameroid) are often the only groups to generally correctly identify externalities."

Libertarians and traditional Conservatives identified financial assistance for the poor as the primary cause of the recession, rather than the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act which allowed banks to play with people's money and offer subprime loans knowing that the people taking those loans are not going to be as savvy.

My girlfriend had to spend literally every waking moment studying for six months to pass a certification exam that stated she was prepared to sell home loans. Expecting consumers who aren't in the finance industry to do the same amount of legwork just to satisfy a baseline prerequisite of life is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Just thought you and your angry shouty commenters might like this from the Fank Davis Blog (26th June 2014):

"But why does almost everybody believe that ‘smoking kills’? Particularly when their own lifetime experience of smoking has been that it hasn’t killed them. And hasn’t killed anybody else either. And is in fact completely harmless.

I think there’s a wider problem here than just smoking. Because the same thing is happening with global warming. Why does half the population believe the human-produced carbon dioxide is causing dangerous global warming? Why do they believe this when their own personal experience should be telling them that the climate is much the same as it always has been?"

Batty little chappy, ain't he?