Libertarianism, again

With the exception of Chris Bertram, participants on all sides of the debate over libertarianism kicked off by Ken Parish seem to regard refuting Robert Nozick as being a bit of a cheap shot. As Perry de Havillard says in Brian Weatherson’s comments thread

Nozick√Ęs are the weakest arguments for the whole libertarian edifice so don√Ęt congratulate yourself all too much on hitting such a large slow moving target.

So I think this is a good time to move on to more serious objections to libertarianism.

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Deja vu

A piece in today’s Oz opens with a slab that looks as if it’s been cut and pasted from a dozen previous outings

WHOM does the ALP represent and what is its core constituency?

Historically, the answer was the working class represented by the so-called Howard battlers in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Since the Whitlam ascendancy, this is no longer the case. Beginning in the 1970s and ’80s, the ALP, in Kim Beazley Sr’s colourful phrase, turned its back on the cream of the working class in its rush to embrace the dregs of the middle class.

What’s striking about this set of boilerplate is that it’s often, as in the present case, used in a piece advocating neoliberal policies that the pre-Whitlam Labor party would have rejected instinctively. I reviewed another example here.

In this case, Kevin Donnelly is advocating voucher-based support for private schools and up-front university fees. He says that these policies would benefit the working class and that it’s the middle-class nature of Labor’s current leadership that makes them oppose it.

It is a matter of historical record that the pre-Whitlam Labor party was bitterly opposed to any form of aid to private schools. More generally, it’s worth reading Donnelly (and other articles taking the same line) then trying to imagine the reaction of say, Ben Chifley or Arthur Calwell.

Donnelly may have some good arguments in favor of the policies he proposes, though they are not evident in this article. But he is either ignorant or dishonest in claiming that they represent traditional Labor policy.

The trend to renationalization

The New Zealand Labour government has confirmed that it will renationalise the country’s rail network. The Blair government in Britain did the same thing last year. In both cases, the decision reflected the failure of the private operator to deliver the expected outcomes rather than an ideological commitment to public ownership.

It is becoming increasingly clear that attempts to determine the optimal role of the public sector on the basis of an a priori ideology, such as old-style socialism or neoliberalism, are bound to result in bad policy decisions.

New blog

Brian Weatherson announces

A New Blog!

A new group blog, Crooked Timber, has just been born. So far the group is Chris Bertram, Henry Farrell, Maria Farrell, Kieran Healy and moi.

There will be others appearing on the scene in the near future – to a first approximation Crooked Timber will be a broad-based leftie academic blog. But we’re open-minded about what counts as leftie, and as what counts as academic. To mangle a cliche or two, the party is meant to be more prominent than the party line. It’s a very exciting project, and I was rather honoured to be asked to join it.

Brian’s first entry joins the Nozick debate, with partial endorsement of the argument I presented against Nozick.

Notes on Nozick

Ken Parish links to various critiques of Nozick’s arguments in support of libertarianism. Broadly speaking, Nozick claims that libertarianism is right not because it produces good outcomes (he doesn’t argue one way of the other on this) but because a requirement for just process implies that property rights should be inviolable. Nozick’s position has been criticized in various ways, often focusing on the fact that he never specifies a just starting point. I want to present a different argument: that given any plausible starting point, Nozick’s approach leads to the conclusion that the status quo, including taxes, regulations and other government interventions is just. I illustrate this point with a story.

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Scaling error

This CS Monitor story reports that morale among US troops in Iraq has “hit rock bottom”. I used to use this phrase in relation to the university I worked at during the Kemp-Vanstone era, but then realised it was a mistaken metaphor, since it implies a zero level. In fact, no matter how low morale is, it can always go lower.

In relation to Iraq, the inapplicbility of the metaphor the current situation is clear. The griping reported in the story is nothing compared to, say, Vietnam, where desertion and ‘fragging’ (murder of officers, with the weapon of choice being a fragmentation grenade) were routine events [there was an isolated case of this kind during the Iraq war, but nothing since].

But it’s hard to see any alternative to a long occupation or any way that morale among the occupying forces can go, other than down. For a successful war of liberation, what was needed was multilateral support, ideally including support from Islamic countries willing to supply peacekeeping forces, and an internationally recognised alternative government ready to take over in a relatively short period.