The biggest problem for libertarians
By Alberto Mingardi
A couple of years ago, John Stossel wrote a brilliant essay for Reason, aptly entitled “Why We’re Losing“. Stossel’s main point was that
Liberty is counterintuitive. It takes hard work to overcome the brain’s attraction to simple-sounding solutions. It’s not easy to convince people that sometimes the best way for governments to address a problem is to do less, not more. It’s easier to admire the activist or politician who talks about helping the less fortunate than it is to cheer on a hustler who wants to get rich by selling you stuff. Those of us who see expanding the private sphere as the best way to help the most people have an uphill battle in making our case.
I won’t argue with that, but I would add that the biggest problems libertarians–or, more generally, people who argue for a broader scope for the market economy–have, is that human beings are extremely reluctant to develop political ideas based upon their own experience.
Let me give an example of that. A couple of weeks ago I was in New York and I had a rather tight agenda. There were many people I wanted to see, and not enough time to see them all. So, on a Friday, I ended up having drinks in lower Manhattan, and a dinner in the Upper East Side. Being Friday night, I stood on a corner in vain for a good twenty minutes, looking at more taxi cabs that I have ever seen, none of which was apparently free to pick me up. Then, all of the sudden, a black car noticed me, and the driver asked where I needed to go. Upon my answer, he immediately figured out the price he would charge me: a price that was far higher than the usual taxi fare.
I was late, and somehow grateful that the car stopped by, so I jumped in.
I then had a quick chat with the driver, and asked immediately if he was just working on his own, or also occasionally with Uber and Lyft. He does, and he generally praised both services, with some qualifications. In particular, he explained to me that he thought Uber was unfair because of its “Surge pricing,” i.e. the mechanism by which Uber increases prices during busier times. Perhaps that needed to be regulated. Now, this man, who was charging me a very high price because he correctly estimated I would be fine with that if I was really running late, criticized a similar strategy when deployed by an impersonal mechanism and not by his own judgment. I have reacted charging him with a sermon on his inconsistency, which obviously didn’t buy me a special discount.
You may find tons of examples. The beauty of the market process is that, after all, you do not need to understand it to use it shrewdly. The world is full of perfectly cautious and careful customers, who believe nobody else is and thus contend that stricter regulations are needed. Most people are hardly patient with the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies, but this very fact doesn’t seem to prevent them to preach for greater government interventions.
Indeed, you reach a paradox when it comes to politics. The late Ken Minogue nailed it in his marvelous “The Servile Mind“:
Public respect for politicians has long been declining, even as the population at large has been seduced into responding to each new problem by demanding that the government act. That we should be constantly demanding that an institution we rather despise should solve large problems argues a notable lack of logic in the demos.