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What It Means To Be A Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation by Charles Murray

The Mises Review

Tags Political Theory

07/01/1997David Gordon

Nationalize Education and Other Libertarian Ideas

Mises Review 3, No. 2 (Summer 1997)

Charles Murray
Broadway Books, 1997, xiii + 178 pgs.

Unless you agree with Emerson that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, you will find little in this ill- thought-out book to like. Ostensibly a brief introduction to libertarianism, Murray's book fuses contradictory principles in an unstable amalgam. The result, disclosed in the work's lengthiest section, "How It Would Work," is warmed-over statism.

Our author begins auspiciously. He tells us that "each person owns himself" (p. 6). Accordingly, it "is wrong for me to use force against you, because it violates your right to the control of your person.... In a free society individuals may not initiate the use of force against any other individual or group" (p. 6).

Not even the strictest libertarian could object: these sentences might have come right from Rothbard. (Oddly, Rothbard's name appears only once: he is among those important libertarians "I haven't even mentioned" [p. 172].)

Trouble enters the scene almost at once. Murray thinks it a proper function of government to supply public goods. These he first characterizes in the way standard in economics: they cannot be provided selectively to individuals and consumption of the good by one person does not prevent others from consuming as well. Our author recognizes that the "strictest libertarians" dissent from his view that government should supply these goods. But he thinks it within the bounds of classical liberalism to allow government to provide them.

Murray's point may readily be granted. Some classical liberals, e.g., Hayek and Friedman, do indeed support a public goods rationale for governments to act. But our author passes by the difficulty that stares him in the face. According to the principles he has set forward, government lacks any justification for coercing individuals to pay for public goods. To take money from someone against his will, even to provide a good with the magical properties of nonexclusivity and jointness of consumption, contradicts self-ownership. Either an exchange is voluntary or it is not. Tertium non datur.

My criticism should not be misunderstood. I have not assumed that "pure" libertarianism is true and on that basis cast Murray into outer darkness for heresy. Rather, I have here confined myself to noting a contradiction. Contrary to Murray, you cannot get anywhere in political philosophy by tacking on to the principle of non-coercion a view at odds with it.

A sympathizer with Murray has endeavored to come to our author's aid. (Murray himself stands unaware of his predicament.) His commitment to self-ownership and non-aggression is no more than a "rule of thumb": thus he can consistently support voluntary exchange overall but allow a few exceptions. This "solution," though, generates a problem of its own.

On what basis does one make exceptions to the rule of thumb? Are we to presume some utilitarian framework, in which recognition of self-ownership usually, but not invariably, promotes welfare? We are not told. Besides, the suggested rescue has no support in Murray's text.

Unfortunately, Murray's confusions have by no means ended. He acknowledges that appeal to public goods can mask massive government intervention. To limit the danger from this score, he suggests three test questions to help stop the "slippery slope" to government control of the economy: "Is the good something that cannot be provided by individuals on their own? Am I asking my neighbor to pay for a government service that he doesn't want? Am I asking my neighbor to pay for a government service that benefits me, or people whom I favor, more than it benefits him" (p. 13, emphasis omitted)?

These questions strike me as excellent. But Murray regrettably fails to notice that no public good passes their scrutiny. The standard argument for governmental provision of public goods claims that the market undersupplies them, not that it cannot supply the goods at all. Where is Murray's argument for even a single case of a good the market cannot supply? And what does Murray mean by "individuals on their own"? Does this include voluntary agreements to pay for public goods? If it does, Murray has given us no reason to think that these agreements must be supplemented by government action. If the phrase does not include these agreements, why not?

Murray's second and third questions pose even more serious problems for public goods. They succeed entirely in stopping the "slippery slope" to intervention: but is Murray willing to pay the price? Every instance of compulsory taxation compels someone to pay for a government service he does not want. And what public good benefits even all those who want it equally? Had Murray devoted even the slightest attention to what his questions imply, he would have seen that his whole discussion is pointless. He allows the government to provide public goods under conditions that cannot be satisfied.

Perhaps, though, Murray has an escape. My attempt to trap Murray in contradiction rests on an unstated assumption. I took him to mean that a good that fails any of his three questions ought not to be supplied by the government. But perhaps he does not mean this. He may mean only that negative responses to his queries count against the public provision of the good: they do not at once block it. If he means this, though, he has given us no usable criteria. How much do negative answers count? He does not tell us. He leaves us in confusion and the slippery slope remains unstopped.

As my readers will know, I cannot leave a bad thing alone. Murray, not one to disappoint, gets worse. He includes education as a public good the government is to supply. "An activity may legitimately be treated as a public good when individuals are called on to do things that benefit the whole community. For example, a democracy cannot function without an educated electorate. The cost of providing an educated electorate should be spread over all those who benefit, which means initially everyone who lives in a democracy" (pp. 11 12).

In Wolfgang Pauli's phrase, this is so bad it's not even wrong. Individuals themselves benefit economically from education, since education correlates positively with income. To the extent that individuals gain benefits from the education that they themselves (or their families) finance, education is not a public good. At most, Murray's argument applies to extra benefits from having an educated electorate than those individuals themselves secure from education.

But has Murray shown that these benefits mandate a greater supply of education than the market supplies? He makes not the slightest attempt to do so. Even if an educated electorate is desirable, it does not follow that the more education, the better. Would democracy (conceding for the moment that this is good) benefit if everyone had a doctorate? Given the existence of limits, then, why not assume that the benefits of education for democracy arise in sufficient quantity as a side effect of individual spending?

Oddly enough, Murray himself at one point recognizes the issue: "Education is a public good insofar as an educated electorate is essential for a democracy to function. But that doesn't necessarily mean that public financing is needed. Some extremely high proportion of children would be educated even if the government got out of the education business altogether. As this proportion approaches 100 percent, the public good justification goes to zero. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that the proportion would be close to 100 percent" (p. 95).

I cannot offhand recall another case in which an author has so thoroughly demolished his own argument. Murray, faced with disaster, presses bravely on: "But we cannot know precisely what proportion of children would go to school, and the prospect of any children at all without access to education is troubling" (p. 96). And so education is a public good, requiring government provision. And if you don't follow that "logic," you are no doubt a dread libertarian "purist."

And Murray's argument stands vulnerable at another point. Why is an educated electorate needed for a democracy? A democracy governs by majority vote: it is not a requirement of that system that the voters be educated.

The response to this objection is obvious. No doubt the formal requirements of democracy may be fulfilled by an ignorant electorate; but for a democracy to run well, its citizens must be able to deliberate in an informed way on political issues. Lacking education, they cannot do so.

This reply serves only to expose a more fundamental misconception in Murray's account. Why, in a libertarian society, do we need a democracy that runs well in the sense just described? To debate important political issues in a society, there must be important political issues. But just what libertarianism does is to evacuate the political sphere, leaving all essential matters to the voluntary acts of individuals. A libertarian society does not require an educated electorate or even, I would hazard, an electorate at all. Murray wishes inconsistently to fuse libertarianism with an opposed political system.

Murray's mistake is no mere theoretical lapse. Because he thinks education a public good, he calls for massive government spending on its behalf: "My own preference is to end all state financing. Parents of every school-age child would be given a chit worth a certain sum of money that they could take to any school they wanted.... How big should the voucher be? About $3,000 a year seems right, though the amount is open to discussion" (p. 96). Thus in Murray's "classical liberal" world, the federal government engages in redistribution on a scale that dwarfs the New Deal.

What if the subsidy fails to achieve its goal? What if citizens remain insufficiently educated for democracy? Murray is undaunted: "If $3,000 turned out to be too low to achieve the desired effects, it could be increased. The nation currently spends about $6,000 a year on each pupil attending the public system, giving considerable room to fine-tune the size of the voucher without increasing total spending on schools" (p. 97). If enormous federal spending does not work, the solution is obvious: more federal spending. How libertarian!

I am not sure why Murray claims that total spending will not increase. Under his system, local communities could add even further to the tax burden: "The locality could augment the school budget with tax dollars, spending as much money per pupil as it wished" (p. 96).

I know what suspicious readers are thinking. With my customary unfairness, I have concentrated on Murray's weakest area. The accusation is, of course, true. But education does not stand alone: our author offers evidence elsewhere that his "libertarianism" is bogus.

Environmental issues are not, in Murray's world, to be left to the free market, under a system of well-defined property rights. Why not? You guessed it public goods. "The transaction costs of solving the problem [of air pollution] through common law become so high that the tort solution no longer works.... The protection of the clean air has become an authentic public good, and under these circumstances government legitimately acts as a forum for deciding how clean is clean enough and for crafting legislation to produce the desired result" (p. 115).

Murray once again jumps too fast from public goods to government intervention. Has he heard of market solutions to public goods problems? What has happened to Ronald Coase? Had our author paid attention to Rothbard, he could not have so readily cast aside the common-law approach. Once more our supposed libertarian author has labeled a statist proposal libertarian.

But I risk being unfair to Mr. Murray once more. His deviations from the free market by no means stem entirely from his misguided embrace of public goods. "Natural monopolies represent a reason why something not technically a public good may justify government action" (p. 14). Murray recognizes, commendably, that natural monopolies do not require such action: they only allow it as an alternative. Sadly, he neglects to tell us why the existence of a single seller generates a problem. Is it that the monopolist may charge a monopoly price? Murray does not inform us: we are apparently supposed to see immediately that a single seller creates trouble. I fear that Murray's mind races too fast for me: I should like the steps of his argument set out.

Further, Murray leaves unmentioned a crucial area. As Randolph Bourne long ago noted, "war is the health of the state," and military buildups have often undermined free societies. Murray says nothing about foreign policy. Does he support a non- interventionist position, or may the non-aggression principle be cast aside in the name of "defense"? He does not tell us.

Again the charge of unfairness may be pressed against me. Murray favors the abolition of a host of government programs and regulations, not least among them Social Security and Medicare. Does he not deserve credit for his boldness? Instead, I have damned him as a statist.

The indictment does not lack substance, but I cannot think that Murray's support for free-market measures contributes much to the cause. His principal mode of argument relies on "trendlines." He examines the statistical trend in problems that government is alleged to have helped solve. In each case, he claims, government has had either little effect or an effect in the wrong direction.

"Among trendlines involving social indicators crime, the family, community, education, welfare deterioration has been the rule and improvement is the exception. Among trendlines involving safety and health by far the most common result is...nothing. Whatever was happening before the government got involved continued to happen after the government got involved" (p. 50).

But, contrary to Murray's apparent assumption, statistical evidence does not speak for itself. It demands interpretation using theory. Would the trend toward reduction in poverty have gone on without Johnson's War on Poverty? The drawing of a chart does not suffice to show this: perhaps the trend would have changed without the War. I hasten to add that I do not endorse the War on Poverty, but to refute it one needs to do more than draw a picture.

As in his earlier tome, In Pursuit, Murray harps on the ineffectiveness of the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit in saving lives. Why does he do so? This is no libertarian issue: roads ought to be made private, but their owners would remain free to impose safety regulations as they wish. Why, given the existence of public roads, can the government not do likewise? But Murray's comments on the highway fatality statistics nevertheless are valuable. You see? I'm not unfair to him at all.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David. "Nationalize Education and Other Libertarian Ideas." What It Means To Be A Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation by Charles Murray. The Mises Review 3, No. 2 (Summer 1997).