Libertarianism and Rent Control

June 24, 2014

ImageI’ve long ago abandoned the notion that Libertarianism is anything other than a deeply flawed ego-driven ideology, contrary to its adherents’ insistence of its basis in pure rationality. But as much as I try to avoid it, sometimes I get sucked into an online debate on social media and find myself wanting to preserve some of the debate.

Today, a libertarian friend mine posted the following on their Facebook wall:

Obnoxious-sounding-but-honest question of the day:

Why do we push for low-income housing in NYC (rent control, stabilization, etc)? It seems a strangely-specific attempt at wealth redistribution that can’t possibly be allocated fairly. What’s wrong with unrestrained real estate prices that mean the ‘good’ neighborhoods end up being exclusively rich? Why do we treat that luxury as something everyone should get…why not insist cars are sold at a loss to low income drivers (for example)? The end result would be that poorer people would have to find housing further out, and their commutes would be longer. But that’s already the case, for the most part, and is a generally-accepted aspect of wealth disparity.

Of course one would likely argue that humanity is improved by a shrinking of said wealth disparity, but this doesn’t change it, it just masks it for a lucky tiny percentage of the population. Doesn’t it?

I assume there’s a good answer for this, considering how widespread the acceptance of the practice.

This post was met with numerous responses including this thoughtful one from someone else:

There’s also the downside of gentrification as produced by market forces.

As rents in crease the poorer members of the neighbourhood have to move out and further away from the jobs they have, resulting in a higher and higher share of their income going to commute & transportation costs, forcing more and more of even those with good budgeting skills to live month-to-month with no savings. While the metro system of NYC and associated bus routes help mitigate that, it does not reduce it completely. Further, think of the shitty public transit in most places and how that affects this problem. Because when those people have to move out of their neighbourhood the only options open to them are low-rent, residential-only neighbourhoods with no jobs in them and further away from any jobs open to them. Neighbourhoods with jobs means those neighbourhoods have services which are convenient which means they cost more to rent or buy in. Vicious cycle.

Also, it’s not about everybody being able to have luxury, it’s about what we are willing to accept as the minimum decent standard of living for everybody. We’re not talking about everybody being able to have the latest octo-core 64gigs of ram gamer’s delight PC and vacationing in southern France every year, but rather a $300 laptop less than 5 years old and a week renting a cottage with friends upstate every couple of years. 

Rent control and affordable housing are two of the tools that can be used to at least slow down gentrification and at least help with giving the less well-off a chance at that minimum decent standard of living.

My libertarian friend responded:

OK, I’ve gotten a pretty good feeling for the benefits of artificially manipulating housing costs for the purported benefit of community and social cohesion (and stability, for the revolution-minded).

Now I’d like to hear from the other side. Where my libertarians at? Tell me why the benefits aren’t as good as we think, or why even if the benefits are real the cost is too high, or something.

As I stand now I’m pretty convinced the upside is real and good. I’m less convinced it’s actually feasible and even less convinced we’re doing it well. Perhaps those are really the only objections and this is an optimization problem. But I’d be interested in hearing out those who think it’s a fundamental bad, too.

A bunch of people posted some great arguments, and I chimed in with this:

Also leads to this, allegedly perfectly good restaurants who would certainly thrive if it was merely a matter of market forces but are going out of business anyway simply because of obscenely high rent:http://www.nytimes.com/…/union-square-cafe-joins-other…

After it was suggested high rent was a market force, I made this correction:

Correction: I meant in terms of competition exclusively. One business could prove superior to its competition and still lose for reasons almost completely out of its control.

To which my friend responded:

I am completely unmoved by the plight of Union Square Cafe. They could double their prices to afford to stay, but presumably they would lose customers to cheaper places. So…they’re in a neighborhood where rich people want to eat cheaply, and they must close. That’s the way businesses work. I fail to see a problem here.

My response was:

It’s not about one restaurant but the entire neighborhood. If none of the businesses can afford to supply the demand, the customers will spend their money elsewhere, which is detrimental to the entire neighborhood, not just one single business. Now I personally haven’t encountered many libertarians who’d argue something like “then screw the whole neighborhood.” Rather, I’d expect libertarianism to be able to present some kind of solution that would save a neighborhood from losing all its business other than the Kobayoshi Mari scenario of raise your prices and kiss your customers goodbye.

To which he responded:

That doesn’t make sense. If it’s detrimental to the whole neighborhood, the property values fall, and the restaurants can afford to operate once again. It’s exactly how markets are supposed to work. Why does that equilibrium fail to establish here? Do we know it doesn’t? Is it possible this is just a transitional period where we’re hearing from a segment of the population that feels adversely affected by an equalizing market?

And this led me to make this broader point about Libertarianism as a whole:

It seems to underscore the dehumanizing foundation of libertarian argument where people are merely abstractions or data points. What you’re describing can only be viewed as equilibrium if you’re looking at it from afar over a long enough timeline of decades or centuries. Up close, on the month-to-month or year-to-year scale, it’s perpetual instability as a neighborhood gradually moves from one socioeconomic extreme to another and back again over and over again as many thousands of people suffer. I fail to see the human benefit of maintaining a state of constant instability over trying to employ sensible regulations. Given the human cost of instability, if rent control prevents erratic fluctuations in the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood and the trade-off is a mild imposition on property-owners that sill allows them to prosper, there seems to be value in it that can’t just be written off by libertarianism as irrational sentimentality. Of course it always depends on the size of the imposition versus the size of the overall benefit to the community but pretty much all human interaction is compromise or negotiation in one form or another. Inevitably, there will be cases that err on one side of that equation or the other, but the alternative seems like the naturalistic fallacy to me. If everyone else has to suffer so that a few people aren’t impositioned, then what good is it? Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance seems like a better starting foundation for a society than Eric Cartman’s “Whateva, I do what I want” model.

There were some other people that made lengthy and very interesting points on both sides of the rent control issue, but I didn’t want to copy even more extensive quotes than what I have already without proper attribution. And I don’t feel right broadcasting who is saying what on social media. I think it’s reasonable to try to preserve some privacy on Facebook. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting topic and I hope this adds to the discussion. 

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Libertarians don’t understand the ‘game of thrones’

May 26, 2013

One of my Facebook friends posted the following image on their wall:

libertarian

This prompted a commenter to call libertarianism “pure selfishness,” and well, you’ve been on the internet. You know where these things go. Both parties found common ground and readers were witness to a pleasant rational and academic discourse on topic of governance.

Just kidding.

That didn’t happen. No. Instead, the original poster replied: “how is it selfish to want people to be free?” This led to the objector calling libertarianism “selfishness distilled,” which in turn led to the libertarian declaring ” its about choice over force,” which I can only conclude must be true because it rhymes. And as we all know, all slogans that rhyme… are true all of the time.

Well since it seems like forever that I’ve ranted about some of the many ways I think Libertarianism is bullshit, and since it’s been forever since I’ve even written anything here (and my sincere apologies to my readers for that), without further ado, here’s yet another attempt by me to distill some of my thoughts on this nauseating topic…

All these utopian pipe dreams are just a shell game. You can say getting government out of our lives is freedom but historically, it’s never worked out that way for the vast majority of the populous Ultimately, you can’t have a functioning society without establishing certain ground rules, aka compromises on one’s freedom. Otherwise, what you have fails to even be a society in any meaningful sense. That means someone or ones are going to have to step up to take some form of leadership role to make up those rules. And then those rules are meaningless unless someone enforces them. These are the basic building blocks of any social contract.

Government at its absolute idealized best serves to ensure fairness between parties under its governance. Government at its absolute worst is fascism. Now what you get when you have government at its most inept is functionally identical to a hard Libertarian state, where the vast majority–and certainly anyone with the great misfortune to be born into a marginalized outgroup–are at the complete mercy of whoever wields the most might, be it through wealth, arms, influence, whatever. And so, while this utopian vision with its grand pronouncements of “freedom” sounds lovely, in actual practice, they’re no less naive as the utopian promises of hard Communists who also built an ideology around getting powerful forces off their backs. I always find it funny that the very tyrants Communists found too oppressive are seen as liberators by Libertarians, and vice versa.

Ultimately, neither utopian fantasy solves the fundamental problem of power dynamics. In arguably every social interaction, one party has more power than another party. On a macro-scale we just call that government. And whether that government is made up of elected officials, military conquerors, robber barons, or just charismatic people with social influence, it all, by any other name, still functions in the role of government.

Interaction with others simply necessitates rules and compromises…compromises on one’s freedom. But hey, you can always break away from society and go it alone. Then you’ll really be free, right? Nope. Nothing interferes with one’s wants more than the constant demands on one’s time that is securing, maintaining, and protecting their necessities and resources.

Sorry, but there simply is no end to the game of thrones. I for one would prefer a society that functioned more like John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” where the rules are designed in such a way that one would deem them fair prior to any knowledge of what one’s own social position in said society would be. Of course that’s just a thought experiment, but it still sounds like a far more rational way of at least approaching these issues of governance than the extreme polar ideologies of Communism and Libertarianism, who think the solution is trading one form of oppressor with another.


Question for Penn Jillette

June 4, 2012

Hemant Mehta is looking for questions to ask Penn Jillette and I have one I’d really like to ask him:

How can you justify the position that the free market free of governmental oversight serves as an effective solution to corporate malfeasance when even your own show has demonstrated time and time again (such as the shows on new age medicine, bottled water, and environmentalism when people signed petitions to ban water from the environment) that consumers are easily fooled by dishonest marketing, consumers often don’t act in their own best interests, and that corporations rarely voluntarily choose to be responsible citizens and act in the best interests of their communities?

In the following clip, Penn directly states that he thinks “that nobody wants to be more careful about how they treat their customers than business people”:

He couches his rhetoric in words like “I like to think”, which seems to be to just another way of saying “I have faith in X” and I’m willing to risk human lives on that faith. Even his own show demonstrates this claim is plainly false. Tobacco companies are looking out for their customers? Ridiculous! And this is the kind of myth perpetuated by the corporations themselves, such as Big Tobacco. There’s a funny clip from the film Thank You For Smoking where a tobacco lobbyist says the same thing, that it’s in the best interest of Big Tobacco to keep their customers alive and healthy:

If Penn believes that sort of bullshit, I think that makes him a lousy skeptic.

Besides, doesn’t the whole democratic process contain a component of free market thinking. Penn doesn’t seem to trust politicians very much (nor should he), but by his reasoning, nobody should be more concerned with keeping us safe and happy than a politician wanting to be reelected. Why is money a sufficient incentive but maintaining power not sufficient? The answer is it’s the same thing. Politicians AND corporations lie, cheat, and steal for their own benefits. But if you ask a politician, they’ll tell you it’s in their best interests to serve the people well if they want to get reelected. And if you ask the corporate lobbyists, they’ll say it’s in the financial interests of the companies they represent to keep their customers safe and happy too. Tell that to Goldman and Sacks or JP Morgan or BP, or Toyota.

Another great film clip is Edward Norton explaining “The Formula” in Fight Club:

 


Why I won’t be voting for Ron Paul…ever

August 22, 2011

Okay, this one’s about politics, so if that’s a problem with you, feel free to ignore it.

 

Still here? Once again, it seems I’m surrounded by talk about how libertarianism is the great solution to our problems and arguments why I should support Ron Paul as a presidential candidate. And while politics deals much more with subjective values than objective facts, I do feel that there’s enough of what can legitimately be called bunk in the discussion to justify talking about it here.

This isn’t the first time I’ve stepped into the arena of libertarian criticism. I’ve previously posted a piece over at my old Examiner page here. And typos aside, I’m still very proud of that piece. Though I do have more to say on the topic, particularly in relation to Ron Paul, who is treated by many in this country as the libertarian messiah. And that’s perhaps the thing that troubles me as well as many of his critics the most. His often otherwise rational disciples seem to support him no matter what and have demonstrated they’ll happily overlook his preposterous positions on major life and death issues.

For instance, despite being a medical doctor, Ron Paul is an unapologetic creationist. He denies evolution, the unifying theory of all of modern biology. This also means he pretty much rejects all of geology, paleontology, and genetics to name a few other relevant fields for which evidence for evolution springs. I yet otherwise rational atheists and skeptics who abhor creationism and recognize its harmful effects in science education seem willing to overlook Ron Paul’s creationist status because they claim to  agree with him on “more important issues.”

Then there’s Paul’s position on church-state separation. Again, atheists and skeptics who care passionately about maintaining Jefferson’s famous wall say they’re willing to overlook Ron Paul undeniable rejection of it along with his overall religiosity because they claim to agree with him on “more important issues.”

Next, there’s Paul’s desire to reverse Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. Paul’s main argument is the very same we hear from most anti-abortion activists, that a fetus is a life worthy of being granted full human status. Ron Paul’s position is not based on science but on religion. Now we already know what the consequences of such a decision would be because we’ve already lived it. If Ron Paul gets his way on this issue, thousands of women will in fact die from unsafe back alley abortions just as they did before because abortion isn’t a luxury but rather serves an important public need.

And that is why this makes a great example of Ron Paul’s hypocrisy. Every other sentence out of his mouth is typically about protecting individual freedom or condemning big government. But when he has to choose between his libertarianism and his religious beliefs, he proves he’ll happily sell out individual liberty for Jesus. While I recognize that libertarians can come in many flavors, based on the basic tenets, the clear libertarian position should be to protect free market abortions from big government regulations. That should be a no-brainer for a libertarian. But not Ron Paul who apparently feels big government should have the power to control a woman’s body.

Ron Paul has also suggested that he thinks big government should decide who you can and can’t marry. Though he’s gone back and forth in his public rhetoric, it’s quite clear that under President Ron Paul, same-sex unions would not be welcomed in the United States of America and he even praised Don’t Ask Don’t Tell:

In a 2007 interview with John Stossel, Paul stated that he supported the right of gay couples to marry, so long as they didn’t “impose” their relationship on anyone else, on the grounds of supporting voluntary associations.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

In the third Republican debate on June 5, 2007, Paul said about the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy:

I think the current policy is a decent policy. And the problem that we have with dealing with this subject is we see people as groups, as they belong to certain groups and that they derive their rights as belonging to groups. We don’t get our rights because we’re gays or women or minorities. We get our rights from our Creator as individuals. So every individual should be treated the same way. So if there is homosexual behavior in the military that is disruptive, it should be dealt with. But if there’s heterosexual behavior that is disruptive, it should be dealt with. So it isn’t the issue of homosexuality. It’s the concept and the understanding of individual rights. If we understood that, we would not be dealing with this very important problem.[195]

Now to be fair, he later voted down DADT when it became popular to do so, but anyone should be able to see the horrific implications of his quotes above. What does it even mean to “impose” one’s gay relationship on anyone else? Does he mean not going out of one’s way to hide that he or she is in a same-sex relationship? It sounds like the typical double standard where homophobic bigots claim even the most basic public displays of affection like kissing is “shoving it down our throats.” And under President Ron Paul, without proper anti-discrimination policies, military officials would be free to call anything “disruptive” behavior in order to keep gay troops from getting promoted or to justify severe harassment. Ron Paul is saying he thinks all soldiers should be treated the same…unless a soldier makes their differences known. Then it’s THEIR FAULT if they suffer disciplinary action based because of it. This is like saying that we shouldn’t discriminate against black people so long as they behave like white people. Well that’s not really tolerance, now is it?

But it does bring me to another problem with Ron Paul. After dancing around the elephant in the room for a long time, he eventually did publicly state that he would have voted against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would voted against state laws requiring segregation of the races. And while the inevitable consequences of his position would be further racial injustice, he maintains that he is not a racist and insists that anyone criticizing his position on this issue is calling him one. He also maintains that is position is built on protecting property rights…which he apparently feels are more important than promoting a society of social justice and equality for everyone. I can picture Mel Gibson playing Ron Paul in a future film: “You may take away our lives, our dignity, and our equal rights…but you’ll never take–our property?? Really?” The article linked to above does a great job of highlighting the absurdity of Paul’s position on this issue.Suffice it to say though, there’s an excellent reason why Ron Paul is the candidate of choice among many white supremists, regardless of whether he is one himself or not.

Then there’s the issue of the environment. Ron Paul strongly opposes polluters. But don’t worry. It’s not out of any concern for our safety. Nah. It’s because of how pollution can affect other people’s property. Let no one ever say Ron Paul doesn’t have his priorities. He also asserts that climate change is not a “major problem threatening civilization.” This is no doubt based on his decades of research as a climatologist. Oh, wait. That’s right. He’s a medical practitioner. I always get those two mixed up.

He declined to name any particular environmental heroes and affirmed no special environmental achievements other than his educating the people about free-market solutions rather than “government expenditures and special-interest politics”.

And therein lies the fundamental reason why libertarians tend towards denial of man-made global warming. Ron Paul’s claims that AGW is not a serious problem and that we don’t need big government to solve it come not from any science but from ideological necessity. While there is a tiny bit of debate among climatologists as to just how serious the problem is, there is simply no disagreement among the experts that it is indeed a very serious crisis that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. And it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a problem that requires governmental bodies launching large initiatives and passing regulations that will affect businesses. There is simply no libertarian solution to this problem and the free market will only make the situation worse as corporate allegiance is to the stockholders, not to mother nature. There is no free market solution to combat global warming and there never will be. Which is why cognitive dissonance requires Ron Paul to put his head in the sand and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Because if it does exist, under President Ron Paul, we’re all doomed.

Finally, there’s the economy, the one thing many of Paul’s supporters cling to even when I admit to disagreeing with him on just about everything else. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have to call him out as failing on this issue as well. Here lies the fundamental flaws of libertarianism itself:

Among many others, three astonishing principles underly the model of a libertarian economic system:

 

  • That consumers can have perfect knowledge of the marketplace and that businesses will withhold no information that consumers need.
  • People will always act in their best interests.
  • Businesses will voluntarily be responsible citizens and act in the best interests of their communities.

These are necessary conditions for libertarian economic systems to avoid descending into chaos, but none of these things are true.  Nevertheless, libertarians believe that they are or, at least, can be true without substantial regulation.

Ron Paul’s entire economic philosophy is built upon extraordinarily naive assumptions about how people will behave, assumptions that all evidence tells us are demonstrably out of touch with reality. In recent years, we only need to look at the scandals involving Enron, Toyota, BP, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman & Sachs to name only a few. Corporations are not honest agents even under the threat of competition and having their scandals exposed. There’s one goal and one goal only: make profit by any means necessary. Corporations are just as prone to corruption as government officials, and that is why we need each to serve as a check on the other to help keep them both honest.

I could go on but I feel I’ve sufficiently made my point, as have others whom I’ve linked to. Incidentally, Ron Paul and his disciples have been complaining lately how the media has been ignoring him. To which I say it’s not big government that’s ignoring Ron Paul; it’s the free market that’s ignoring Ron Paul. So he really has to either stop bitching about it or admit the free market sucks. As for me, I care too much about science, civil rights, the environment, and the economy to ever vote for Ron Paul.

And just for fun, here’s a video criticizing Ron Paul disciples for defending him no matter what, followed by a Ron Paul disciple’s response video reinforcing the first video’s point:

 

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An epic fail that’s closer to home

February 11, 2010

Yesterday, when I posted about several stories that I grouped under the collective category of epic fails, one commenter pointed out one that I’d forgotten to include, one within the skeptical community. The other day, Michael Shermer posted his semi-regular column on Skepticblog, a blog hosted by those involved in the yet-to-be-sold pilot episode of The Skepologists.

The problem is that Shermer used Skepticblog to once again promote his libertarian politics. Now I recognize that the skeptical community largely consists of two political persuasions, liberals and libertarians. And while I happen to belong to the former, I also recognize that some of the best skeptics I know are libertarians. However, I personally find libertarianism to be a very flawed ideology that takes a lot more on faith than otherwise rational libertarian skeptics would like to admit. And I feel that some skeptics have done an excellent job rationally dissecting and critiquing libertarianism, particularly when it seems to hinder the critical thinking of otherwise good skeptics.

But that’s not my objection to Shermer’s piece.

Not at all.

If he had posted a well-written critique of big government that included appropriate facts that were backed by evidence, I’d be a little concerned about his bringing politics into skepticism but would ultimately accept it as I too am prone to bringing abortion, gay marriage, public health care, religion, etc into skepticism when I feel that specific claims made by public figures are objectively false.

Again, while I don’t share Shermer’s politics, that is not the reason why I feel this is an inappropriate entry on Skepticblog. If he were to address finance from a science-based perspective or at least an evidence-based one, that would have been fine. However, that’s not the piece that Shermer had written. Instead, his piece on Skepticblog was an incoherent, logical-fallacy-filled rant about how much money is being spent by the Obama Administration.

One commenter using the name Ebenezer Clipperlock did a great job pointing out Shermer’s fallacies:

“Well, I am a skeptic, and I can find “appeal to emotion”, “a.o. incredulity”, “pulling out of context”, “association / causation” and “comparing apples with oranges”. I wonder if there are more. Interestingly, three of those are not on the oft cited list at http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx.

But sadly, many commenters have sided with Shermer. Though I couldn’t find one that supported the entry but said they disagreed with its subject matter. In fact, at least most of those supporting the piece not surprisingly happen to agree with his position. I’m not making an argument here. It’s just an observation, a depressing one considering one would expect readers of a skeptical blog to be more objective in their assessments.

Shermer’s rant is not a skeptical article and does not belong on a skeptical blog. Skeptics could sit around and argue politics till the apocalypse but that’s counterproductive and not the purpose Skepticblog is supposed to serve. It’s supposed to be promoting critical and evidence-based thinking.

I’m all for critiquing religion in skepticism from an evidence-based perspective and I’m all for critiquing political claims from an evidence-based perspective, whether it’s a position I agree with or not. But inserting one’s subjective political diatribes unbacked by evidential claims hurts not only Shermer’s own reputation but also hurts the credibility of the entire blog because if Shermer turns people off with his politics, the site might lose some readers entirely.

And lastly, to those who are cheering Shermer’s piece who happen to also share his position, please explain to me precisely how turning this forum into a political shouting match furthers the cause of skepticism? I really would like to know.