Search This Blog


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Frogs, Cigarettes, and Libertarians

I often ask my friends of the Libertarian persuasion,
Question: 'What do you call a Libertarian who wants to get elected?'
Answer: 'A Republican.'
Of course most Republicans are not Libertarians, but the GOP is far and away the natural home for any rational Libertarian. The Republican Liberty Caucus is the home of one subgroup of self identified libertarian Republicans. I have detailed aspects of both my philosophical differences and my agreements with the Libertarians in numerous posts such as Libertarians vs Conservatives, Steepest Descent, Vouchers, Libertarians, and Our Failing Public Schools. Despite my differences with my libertarian colleagues, I am probably viewed by them as a fellow traveler or an ally and am occasionally invited to Libertarian functions. Last week, I attended a state Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) function and left the event with a burning question: are Libertarians disproportionately smokers? In (American!) Mathematics circles, I do not encounter many smokers and was under the impression that the habit was dying among professionals and, perhaps even more generally, among the college educated. In fact, a quick Googling asserts that smoking has dropped to around 9% of college grads (vs. 27% for high school grads). Yet, at the state RLC function, interesting conversations were frequently interrupted by the departure of one or more participants, heading outside to smoke. (No. They were not simply fleeing me.) At the one district GOP convention I have attended, RLC delegates pushed resolutions attacking smoking bans. The erosion of our liberties at the hands of the nanny state, although upsetting, is still somewhat abstract to me. This week I finally realized the obvious: the erosion of liberty is very real to smokers. Laws have been passed greatly restricting their rights. I greatly enjoy the consequences of these laws, no longer encountering smoking in public places, but here, I use the term public loosely, including privately owned restaurants which are not allowed to permit smoking on their premises (and which I am free to avoid should smoking be permitted there).

Seeing how strongly smokers feel the curtailment of their freedom, I wondered what abridgement of liberty would pinch me similarly. What current painful abridgements can I identify? According to another quick Google, I work from 1/3 to 1/2 or more of the year for the federal government. Since I love my work (and often work through vacations if I am not careful), I don't resent this loss of my time. If I translate this loss of time into a loss of income, the loss remains abstract unless I think about how I might have spent money lost to excessive taxes. The first thought that came to mind was how nice it would have been to send my children to excellent private schools with the taxes spent to maintain bad public schools. This example is not compelling, however, because (i) I could have always sacrificed some other good in order to send my children to a good private school, and (ii) there were not any obviously excellent private schools available. The first weakness illustrates the fact that infringement of liberty by means of taxation is the optimal means of infringement because it allows the victim/taxpayer to forfeit what he values least rather than having the government decide what material good (can a good education be called a material good since it costs money?) he must forfeit. The impending loss of my freedom to allocate as much of my income as I desire to pay for healthcare for my family will likely be my first exposure to a loss of liberty sharp enough to cause strong discomfort. I imagine small business owners have no end of more immediate examples.

Republican speakers endlessly repeat the metaphor of boiling a live frog in a pot to describe the gradual erosion of our liberties. They assert that if you put a frog in a pot of warm water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will not jump out, whereas he will jump immediately if thrown into a pot of hot water. This sounds unlikely to me, and I don't know why Republican speakers spend so much time boiling live frogs (having steadfastly declined my French hosts' occasional offers of frog legs). Nonetheless, it is clear that if erosion of liberty occurs through taxation, the taxpayer will always eliminate his least valued good first, and is thus more easily lured into accepting ever increasing encroachments on his sphere of activity.

No comments:

Post a Comment