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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When Libertarians Like Big Government

On my article entitled "NASA Budget Cuts Are A Good Thing," reader wurzel left the following comment, a really great question for libertarians to consider:

You know, I'm really trying to make the complete mindshift towards libertarianism, or something close to it, and your site has been helping a lot, but I have to admit that two of the hardest things for me to give up are NASA and National Parks. I'm a nerd so I'm very entranced by basic research, even if it's basic research with no possibility of a financial return.

And as far as parks, I've visited many national parks, and also private parks like Meteor Crater. At Meteor Crater, you can't go "hike the rim" without hiring one of their off-duty tour guides to take you. If all the parks and open space were privately owned, I'm afraid they'd all be like this -- their liability insurance would require them to keep all patrons supervised so they could keep their rates as low as possible. But sometimes being at risk of death (changing weather, no cell phone coverage, difficult terrain) is what makes being in the outdoors enjoyable and rewarding.

I don't want to have to sign a 10-page release form every time I want to go hiking the way I have to now to go skydiving! [and yes, I realize I've just given you the perfect setup to ask why I don't demand government-supplied skydiving as well....]

But seriously, in the libertarian world, what becomes of missions to impact asteroids, large hadron colliders, and Arches National Park?

And I wanted to share my response with all of you:

Hey I totally feel the same way you do. For instance, my four years at a public high school were positively wonderful. I wouldn't trade them for anything. I learned a ton and grew a lot in that public school. I also love driving on the government-created interstate highway system- like, really love it.

But I can do without these things when I remember their existence is morally outrageous. I won't have my pleasures at someone else's expense. While my school experience was great, landowners in Nashville were made- by threat of force- to pay for it.

And other children haven't had good experiences in our public school system. In addition to the ones who are unable to read or find America on a map, sexual abuse of students in public schools is reaching horrendous proportions (though it's never reported).

And our highways were likewise built with money looted from people by threat of force (if they didn't pay their income tax, they got hauled to jail). And for all my good experiences and pure joy when I sail down I-40, it crushes my heart to consider the literally millions of people who have died on government roads in the last century, a situation that would not have been tolerated from or ever arisen in a privately-run transportation industry.

As for all those fun things like hadron colliders and space exploration- wealthy capitalists will always fund the ideas of enterprising innovators and curious scientists. In fact, imagine the kind of unprecedented, explosive wealth and prosperity of a truly unregulated, open market. Imagine the kind of Golden Age that would be?

The Apple iPod would never have been invented in Soviet Russia- and even if it did, who would be able to afford it (or a loaf of bread for that matter)? That's one of the main beauties of a free society- it's not just enlightened, it's fun.


PS: You only need to sign a 10-page release because of frivolous lawsuits, which are a result of poor government policy. Pass a "loser pays" bill for civil suits, and that should clear things up.


  1. I just got back from a tour of national parks and I have to make the following observations, confirmed by over 40 years of visiting national parks, forests and monuments:

    They are country clubs for White folk. You will almost never see a black, brown or red face in them, and the only yellow faces are those of Japanese tourists with cameras.

    In Mesa Verde: Zero non-white faces of some 250 visitors.

    In Everglades Park: Zero non-white faces of some 50 visitors.

    Great Sand Dunes: Zero non-white faces of some 50 visitors.

    1814 Battlefield (New Orleans): 4 black faces among 50 visitors, 25 of whom were white European tourists.

    Kennedy Space Center (publicly owned, privately run): only several black faces (most of Caribbeans) among 5000 visitors. Half were foreigners (lots of Chinese and Japanese) and half were White Americans.

    Disney World (privately owned, privately run): a mixture of races, nationalities and colors from all over the world.

    Walmarts (privately owned, privately run): a mixture of races and colors.

    What we need is a conservationist like Ted Turner or a entrepeneur like Disney or Walton to open our parks and forests for protection from environmental degradation and for enjoyment by all without racism.

  2. Another important thing to note is that these things have already seen the private sector manage them better, we don't have to assume what the market could do (though we still haven't seen the market at it full uninhibited potential). I truly believe if a need is there and the gov't gets out of the way, the private sector will provide it.

    Sir Richard Branson has taken the future of space travel quite far quite fast with Virgin Galactic. He has done it with less money than NASA and more efficiently than NASA. Yeah, NASA has given us some cool things, but who is to say that the private sector could not have discovered the same things and more? We've already seen the private sector perfect those things. I've used a NASA microwave...I'll stick to my Japanese model.

    Likewise, National Parks can just as easily be bought up and managed by environmentally minded cooperatives. Those who care get to invest in their passion.

    My Alma mater, The University of the South in Sewanee, TN, is a prime example. Though it is a small, private liberal arts university, it is the largest college in land area. The Domain as it is called is massive collection of pristine forests, mountains, and natural wonders which provide for recreation, scientific research, and environmental preservation. It acts as is it were a nation park, though actually better maintained, but it is completely privately owned. This is just one example among many.

    The same goes for roads, bridges, museums, ect. Just because the government is not involved that does not mean we must go without things we treasure. It merely means each has the liberty to determine where his funds will go.

  3. I could see National Parks owned and run privately. But, I do think that there would be a need to have some government standards as businesses do nowadays. I have a hard time with seeing places like NASA owned and run privately. It takes an awful lot of money to keep NASA running and I can't see one person or even a few private people able to fund it and able to pay all the employees a good liveable wage (close to the wage the employees receive from the govt. now). I know that their are companies who are investing in space exploration now but that is so they can get paid for helping people go to space instead of the sole purpose being funding space exploration out of their own pockets. Maybe, their could be some private/government competition somehow?

  4. The reason why most people think libertarians are a bunch or cranks and cooks is exactly this: most libertarians suffer a complete inability to see reality and to find practical ways of doing things... not really (laughs) it is just that a good idea is sometimes an unpopular one.

    Although it would be nice to live in a world where charities could manage parks and other non-revenue generating activities most people are not behind us. It would require a fundamental change in the way everybody thinks about parks and would be a lengthy transition. The good news is that it is practicable for parks to be privately managed because there is more than one.

    However, when it comes to the transportation system that is an issue so complicated that it would take a book (thank you Wes, for the recommendation) to fully understand how such a system would work. I have not done much research into the issue, but I would wonder some key things: where does the money come from (tolls?); how would we prevent monopolies or exploitation? (usually the government handles monopolies because competition is impractical)

    Keep in mind that neither party fully supports these ideas. We libertarians have such good (and populist) ideas: balanced budgets, leaner and more strategic foreign presence of our military and a different tax structure (Can you have a progressive tax structure without having to give up so much information?) However: when people hear ideas such as closing public libraries and schools: they think we're anarchists and are scared to the two parties.

    Also: EVERYBODY uses the transportation system. I don't know anybody who hasn't done one of the following: walked/rode on a sidewalk, walked/drove/rode on a paved road, rode a subway/bus/train (I myself have done ALL of the above) so shouldn't EVERYBODY help pay for it? Everybody eats too, but we all eat different things at different places in different amounts, but we all use the SAME transportation system.

    The books Wes recommended are linked here:

  5. It's most important to note that it does not matter if one wants something or even if many want something; it only matters what the law allows. If we force folks to pay for things they don't want (and that are not agreed upon in the Constitution), that is a violation of an individual's liberty. NASA cannot be justified by the Constitution. And I don't want a single dime of mine to go toward space exploration...not a dime. Therefore, making me pay for it violates my liberty by taxing me for funds I could have used according to my own desires.

    The solution to this all is usury fees. If I want it, I pay for it.

    As far as the transportation system. We already all pay usury fees taxed onto our fuel charges. However, it is highly flawed with no way of fairly dividing the burden to make people pay their fair share according to usage.

    Public transit is another thing all together. I know neither of my parents have ever used any type of public transportation in their entire lives; I hadn't myself until last May when I rode the DC metro the first time.

    Finally, I know people where I live (rural Southern Middle TN) who don't even use public roads but a few times every couple of months--the interstate never. Why should they pay the same as someone who uses it daily?

  6. I am merely referring to the ideal in a free society, by the way. We have tread so far down the road to serfdom that we could only take baby steps toward these goals. I understand that.

  7. I would totally agree that we don't need NASA. The only reason we went into space was to showboat against the Russians during the Cold War. If there was money in space, there would be more private ventures there.
    However, I disagree about the transportation system as that is infrastructure and a proper use of government. However I will say our current government has done a very poor job of maintaining our highway system because they have turned their attention to too many things that are outside the scope of reasonable government. A small tax on fuel that would only go to maintain roads and bridges would be fair because fuel is consumed by the mile but I question how much fuel tax really goes into highways and is rather diverted to special interests. In my opinion basic infrastructure provides for the general welfare of the country. Even if you don't drive on an interstate highway you buy goods from stores that are transported in trucks that drive on highways and the interstate system greatly reduces these costs therefore those who don't benefit from this are virtually negligible.

  8. Wow, jimbino and Daryl! I should have let you two respond to wurzel. What excellent thoughts!

    Teresa, I can totally see why you feel that- NASA and other government projects seem impossibly huge! But really if you consider it, NASA used $17 billion in taxpayer dollars in 2009, but Nike brought in $18 billion in revenues just the year before (if Wikipedia is right, lol), and that's just one shoe company.

    There are plenty of private investors who stand to make a profit from continued space travel and exploration. As for pure science, there are also tons of non-profits that benefit from the private donations of wealthy philanthropists who are interested in gathering knowledge for its own sake. We'll get along okay :)

    ...and just imagine how much more efficiently private organizations would use that money so that it could go farther (or else do the same amount of good with less money).


    You've got a lot of great thoughts in your comment- to hit on just one, your concern about monopolies brings up a bigger question, which is what causes monopolies? I actually think an unregulated market would be much more free of monopolies.

    In fact, I believe it is only by an act of coercion (e.g. government regulations, subsidies, etc.) that a true monopoly can be established, not due to a lack of regulation or the operations of a free and unconstrained market.

    To use an example in the field of transportation, many cities regulate the number of taxis by requiring them to get a license or "medallion" to conduct their taxi business (of which there are usually a limited number, or for which the price is usually prohibitive). As a result, there are fewer taxis, with lower quality, and higher prices because they are protected from competition by the government- they have a cartel or a monopoly.

    It's actually very interesting that you are concerned about monopolies in a free market for transportation, because this is an industry that is rampantly subject to the inefficiencies of monopolies due to the heavy government regulation thereof. Indeed, I'd say the biggest, baddest monopoly on transportation is the government and its special interest private contractors.

    Ayn Rand has some great, succinct thoughts on monopolies here:

  9. Daryl, your comments make a lot of sense. I'd never thought about it before, but the area I live in has a number of areas of green space. Those areas were set up by CC&Rs when our area was developed by a private group of investors -- minimal government involvement. It'd be great if things could work like that on a larger scale.

    Jimbino, one of my favorite things about visiting national parks is brushing up on my German and Japanese from college with all the tourists there. And I agree with your general observations about the number of black and latino people at national parks, but I don't know what evidence you have to associate that with racism by the government? I've always assumed it had more to do with interest, or family traditions, or what they'd rather spend their vacation funds on. Are you arguing that people drive up to the gate of Yosemite and the ranger turns them away because of their color?

    I do know there are some cultural conflicts between those who like to get out into nature to quietly enjoy nature itself vs. those who are looking for a new place to hold their loud parties that's a little farther from the police. When I used to camp in Angeles Crest near LA, gunshots in the night were common. When I camp in Utah or Nevada far from population centers, people all appreciate 9pm quiet times. :-)

    Daryl again, I think user fees are the worst of both worlds. You have the totally inefficient government performing the service as a monopoly, AND you have them sticking you for it each time you use it. I'm a pilot, and I pay fuel taxes to pay for ATC and airports. Fuel usage is a nice approximation for how "heavily" I use the system and is very easy to collect. If I had to start reading my credit card number over the air every time I wanted an in-flight weather briefing, things would get very unwieldy. I know they've "privatized" air traffic control in Canada, but if you privatize something that is still heavily regulated and still a monopoly, does that really do any good?

  10. Alex, the transportation system is such an interesting example. I agree with you that all of us (except those who are truly off the grid in the middle of nowhere and don't make any cash income anyway) "use" the transportation system in some way. However, I think the problem is that since it's free for every use, prices for other things don't take into account their real transportation costs.

    It's kind of ironic to think of all the green progressives who try to "eat local" and reduce the carbon footprint of their foods and yet would be totally against privatizing transportation. And yet, privatizing that transport and having more toll roads would lead to food prices that reflect the full transportation costs, thus moving the market closer to what they want!

    Oh, and I know the same argument about "that which is underpriced will be overconsumed" applies to my point about aviation as well. I've already paid for the infrastructure when I bought the gas. So, often, when I give a lesson, I'll get a weather briefing on the drive in and have my student get one themselves, then we compare notes. If we were paying by the briefing, I'm sure we'd huddle together next to a phone at the same time and split the bill. :-)

  11. Wurzel - you don't give those up, you just think about how they could be done better or done *within* the confines of a smaller government and freer society.

    National Parks? If the federal government were to get out of the park business I imagine most of parklands should/would be turned over to the states they are in. Could the state not do just as well? Ever stay in a hotel at a state or national park? Golf there? Those facilities are almost always run by a contractor. If parks operated on a usage fee most libertarians would be happy and people who don't go to parks would be happy too.

  12. Not to downplay Teresa's thoughts but to think that most of what we got from a trip to the moon and the Hubble telescope is, at least to me, neat science studies a lot trivia and a ton of national pride.

    But the cost for all that? How many houses could have been bought an paid for in America with that kind of money? Which use of a billion dollars would have improved the most lives? I'm only using that as an illustration of how money could be better used, not that we should give houses to people. Wes' $17B figure equates to over 100,000 houses at $150,000 each!! That's only the 2009 budget! Imagine the power of that money for a decade. Or if we'd just stopped after the moon landing 40 years ago and our national debt was all that much lessened.

    Someone else already mentioned Virgin Galactic. That and groups like the "X prize" are great combinations of business and well healed people who put *their* money into those things.

    Look at what some hobbiests here in Middle Tennessee have done with just a small amount of their own money-

  13. Hey Anon- thanks for your comments! Great thoughts. That Middle Tennessee Balloon Group link totally rocked my world! And yeah... NASA as with most coerced spending, represents some pretty serious malinvestments.