Tag Archive for 'Libertarianism'

A pragmatic libertarian defense of the bank bailouts

Tyler Cowen is defending the bank bailouts in America: 25 Aug, 27 Aug, 28 Aug.  I generally like what he says.  I want to highlight the third post in particular:

General pro-market or anti-government arguments don’t rule out the recent bailouts.  Let’s take the hardest, least Friedman-friendly case, the insolvent banks.  For insolvent banks (and for some of the illiquid banks, which might have failed without bailouts), the alternative to those bailouts is calling in deposit insurance and the bankruptcy courts, both of which are, for better or worse, forms of government intervention.  In particular today’s bankruptcy procedures are ill-suited for disposing of a large financial institution in a timely manner and this can be considered a form of gross government failure.

Note that even when the Fed “bails out” a large investment bank, or insurance company, they are checking a chain reaction which would likely spread to some commercial banks, thus bringing in deposit insurance as well, not to mention further bankruptcies.  And that’s not even considering that Congress probably would have stepped in, I’m just looking at laws already on the books.

So if you’re “opposed to financial bailouts,” as a libertarian, you’re not for the market.  You’re saying that one scheme for governmental disposition is better than another.  Of course you are entitled to that opinion but the sheer force of libertarian doctrine is not necessarily on your side.  The general pro-market and anti-government arguments are not necessarily on your side.  I think it is quite plausible for a libertarian to believe that the Fed is “less bad” than the bankruptcy courts and the FDIC.

Now, all things considered, I don’t see why this “libertarian two-step” move should be needed.  I think it’s enough to simply ask whether the bailouts were a good idea and proceed accordingly.  But if you’re concerned about compatibility with libertarian principle, this is one simple way of seeing why my view fits right in.  In fact I think it is the more libertarian of the views under consideration, as it keeps the very worst of the government interventions on the table at bay.

No doubt some libertarians will counter that the FDIC and bankruptcy courts ought not to exist either (I disagree with that – while neither is perfect, they’re both needed.  But then, I’m hardly a libertarian), but that misses the point of Tyler’s title for the post:  “A second-best theory of libertarian bailouts”.  The world of second-best is the real world.  It accepts that things are currently as they are and asks what is best given the current state of the world, not in all possible worlds.

Libertarianism, inequality and cultural homogeneity

Andrew Norton doesn’t think much of this article by Christine Wallace in the Griffith Review, in which she argues that the Coalition under Howard has instigated libertarian policies by stealth. He calls it “a dozen or so pages of ignorance and silliness,” citing this paragraph from page 8 in particular:

The libertarian logic is that, since personal freedom and the existence of free markets are inextricably entwined, and since – as Bork puts it – “vigorous” economies are vulnerable to being “enfeebled” by particular cultural practices, then the champions of personal freedom have a licence to police cultural practices – in the interests of freedom and economic vigour. Thus libertarians can reason that difference (for example, multiculturalism, homosexuality) must be eliminated so that the economy can function better – reasoning that is absurd, to say the least.

A commenter on Andrew’s blog also highlighted this bit on the previous page:

The central difference between the Howard Government and the Hawke/Keating Governments is that the Labor governments saw a crucial role for the public sector … especially in relation to issues of economic inequality; about which libertarians are unconcerned.

First a confession: I’ve not read more than two or three pages of Christine’s article. Still, if the blogosphere isn’t a place for partially informed comment, I don’t know what is. In the interests of fairness, though, I will disagree (slightly) once with Andrew and once with Christine …

In the paragraph that drew Andrew’s ire, Christine argues that the libertarian pursuit of free markets justifies cultural homogeneity. Andrew’s implicit criticism certainly seems to make sense: why should free markets and cultural heterogeneity be mutually exclusive? But it is worth noting that Christine may – at least to some extent – have an unpleasant point. For a market to operate efficiently requires trust between its participants. A market can certainly operate without trust if institutions are sufficiently advanced and corruption-free, but the enforcement costs they impose are a classic form of market failure, along with moral hazard and adverse selection. Even with good institutions, market efficiency is optimised by increasing trust. However, as Andrew Leigh has observed for Australia [here and here] and Robert Putnam has found for the USA [here], ethno-linguistic diversity breeds mistrust. In so far as they proxy for culture, Chrstine’s point at least partially stands.

Now back to Christine. She reckons that libertarians are unconcerned about inequality. It’s obviously a generalisation, but even in general, it’s misleading. While I’m sure that libertarians are not concerned about inequality per se, I’m equally sure that they are concerned with unwarranted inequality. Classic theory of the firm suggests that in perfectly competitive markets, a person’s wage will equal the value of their marginal product. Presuming (safely enough) that different occupations have different marginal products (so an engineer will contribute more to a firm’s profits than a cleaner), if people at the top of the pile are being paid more than their marginal product and people at the bottom are being paid less than theirs, a libertarian would oppose the excess inequality that resulted.