Sunday, May 12, 2013

What a libertarian is worth


Viking farmers were about the most self-sufficient imaginable. They tilled their own lands (ignoring the system of thralls and slavery), defended their own homes, and even made their own iron. A Viking farm could exist all by itself indefinitely. The ultimate libertarian dream.

Using Viking technology, a farmer can harvest about 3 tons of wheat. Which at the current spot price is less than a thousand dollars a year.

You can live off of three tons of wheat. You can even support a family. Vikings had decent lives, for medieval peasants, but the point is they were medieval peasants You can't support iPhones or heart-transplant surgery or jet airliners on three tons of wheat per farmer. If you want those things, you need to specialize. And specialization means each of us depends on the other, for everything from luxuries to basic necessities like food and janitorial service.

And if you're going to depend on other people for things, then you're going to have to give them an incentive to be dependable. You can't just go off and make your millions on hedge-fund strategies and then tell the janitors to suck it up. After all, the janitors can go back to three tons of wheat; heck, for a lot of people in the world that might be an improvement.

Civilization is a group enterprise. It depends on everyone from the top to the bottom. It doesn't even make sense to say that some people are more important than others: which brick in your house is "more important?" Removing any of them threatens the structural integrity of the entire edifice.

Libertarians are addicted to this ideal of self-reliance. But we know what self-reliance looks like; it looks like three tons of wheat a year. Agreeing to a collective strategy, accepting that people will contribute different things and possibly even amounts and yet everyone will benefit, is not a radical socialist idea: it's simply civilization. Obviously there are right ways and wrong ways to go about wealth redistribution, ways that are fairer and more effective versus ways that are less fair and horrifically inept, but the essence of wealth redistribution itself is far too necessary to even question its fundamental fairness.

At least, if you're willing to trade hysterical notions of moral hazard for iPhones, heart surgery, and jet airliners. I am sure there are a few idealists who would rather live in moral purity however penurious than sybaritic luxury at the cost of vague notions of property rights: but those societies always lose to the army that has jet fighters.

If this sounds like I'm defending Communism, in a sense I am: the Communist empire, as horrific as it was, was still a marked improvement over the Tsarist empire. Communism, as dreadful as it is, is still better than medieval peasantry.

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