Thursday, 18 March 2004

Libertarians versus public policy

Liberals sometimes see libertarians as stingy—and thus in league with conservatives—because of a rather curious phenomenon: libertarians don’t believe in public policy. Sure, there are the cute kids over at Cato and RPPI who try to pretend they believe in public policy, so as to curry favor with the political establishment, but any respectable libertarian won’t start with the premise that “problems” are matters to be solved by public policy. (Politics is classically defined as the science of “who gets what, when, and how”; libertarians inherently reject non-market allocation of resources, and thus don’t believe in politics at all in the “resource allocation” sense of the term.)

But, to the extent libertarians do advocate public policy, they tend to agree with fiscal conservatives, for the simple reason that the practical effect of most conservative initiatives is to minimize the amount of resource allocation done by the government, and they tend to agree with social liberals, because the practical effect of social liberalism is to reduce the amount of stuff the government does. Still, libertarians reject public policy—so “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger are not really any more libertarian than Nancy Pelosi or Rick Santorum; Arnie just agrees with libertarians more often than Pelosi or Santorum do.

Case in point: health care. Matt Yglesias says universal healthcare (presumably a single-payer scheme) would be a good thing. Libertarians, of course, would reject single-payer, and thus side with conservatives. On the other hand, if conservatives proposed some other universal coverage scheme—say employer-mandated coverage—libertarians would probably side with liberals. For a libertarian, the absence of public policy is preferable to the presence of public policy.

Now, the question is: assume we’re going to have a public policy, and that’s a given. Libertarianism stops giving useful answers at that point, except possibly to say “less interference is better.” In 20 years, we are going to have universal health care—like it or not. And, in a lot of ways, society would be better off if the funding mechanism were government single-payer than employer-sponsored: single-payer eliminates perverse incentives for employers to hire as many young people as they can, and it is less likely to be regressive in its effects (if Wal-Mart has to buy health insurance for all its employees, Wal-Mart customers are going to be paying for that—and Wal-Mart customers don’t include folks like John Kerry and George Bush). The downside of single-payer is that ensuring cost-containment without rationing is a lot harder (or, at least, a lot harder to get right—you don’t want patients waiting 6 months for MRIs, but you don’t want people getting 30 doses of Viagra for free each day either).

Of course, the beauty of being a libertarian is that you don’t have to worry about such things; you can just sit back, point, laugh, and say “see, I told you so” while the lines for CT scans circle around the block (which is the most likely outcome regardless). Because you didn’t believe in the public policy in the first place.