5 Questions For a Skeptical Libertarian: Drugs, Climate, and Utopia

I recently got an email from a student from Norway with five questions about libertarianism that I thought were worth a response. They cover a broad range of subjects, so I’ll try to be brief. My answers are not intended be definitive of “the” libertarian position, but they represent my current thinking on a number of issues that frequently come up when discussing what it means to be libertarian today. (Questions have been edited slightly for clarity.)

1) “In a free market, would advertisements for heroin, cocaine, etc. be allowed?”

It depends on what you mean by “free market.” The United States has a somewhat free market in pharmaceuticals, but there is still tons of regulation on how they are developed, marketed, and administered. In a perfectly free society, it would certainly be legal.

It’s pretty unlikely local communities would be okay with putting billboards for crack cocaine outside of schools, and there’s a variety of plausible ways advertising for dangerous products could be restricted or discouraged, without empowering state censorship. There have been many successful public shaming campaigns and boycotts, for instance.

Ultimately, kids will have access to drugs, regardless of what the law proscribes: it’s up to parents and civil society institutions to help them make responsible choices when they are ready, and to prevent them from hurting themselves before they are.

In any case, you don’t really need to think advertising for meth during Sesame Street is a good idea in order to favor legalizing drugs.

2) “Who will take care of the poor, homeless, drug addicts, handicapped, etc.? Wouldn’t at least some government involvement, such as state sponsored treatment, be a good solution? (Please don’t say ‘there’ll be no poor in a free society’ or ‘churches/charities will take care of that.’)”

Regarding your anticipated objections, I agree: I won’t say “charities will fix everything” or “there won’t be poor people.” That’s just not true. But I want to point out some things you’re missing behind those ideas.

Community organizations and charities (some religious, some secular, some neighborhood organizations) did a huge amount to help take care of those who could not take care of themselves, both before the welfare state and even to the present day. Some questions I would ask are: “Who is doing a better job of caring for the poor?”, “Is there are a way to make sure public programs don’t undermine private charity?”, and “Are these programs long-term solutions or dependency traps?”

The second point, about there still being poor people in a free society, is also true. But why are some countries, like the US and western Europe, so much richer than others? Why is being (relatively) poor here so much better than being the median individual most everywhere else on earth, for most of human history? The answer isn’t government welfare programs: it’s economic freedom, which generates huge amounts of wealth, investment, creativity, and life improving products and technologies. Poverty needs no explanation–it is the natural state of mankind. As Adam Smith noted, wealth is the rare thing, the unusual thing, that demands explanation. We should focus on how to create more of it for everyone, rather than how to shuffle it around.

But directly to your point, very few libertarian thinkers categorically reject a minimal social safety net for the poor (see F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman). I would simply point out that there are better and worse ways to do this (e.g., a negative income tax vs. food stamps and Medicaid), and to do this effectively, you first need the huge wealth generated by capitalism and free markets.

3) “Who will build the roads?”

Roads are a valuable service and commodity. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that people will stop wanting roads if governments stop subsidizing them or funding them with inefficient (and unfair) methods like sales or gas taxes.

There’s a number of ways to introduce private investment and competition to the market for roads. Toll roads, private highways, express lanes, managed arterials, mileage-based user fees, and public-private partnerships are revolutionizing surface transportation today. The answer to the question, “Without government, who will build the roads?” is “We will.”

Moreover, most libertarians are not anarchists. Even if you do think taxes should subsidize road construction, that just is not a serious challenge to the idea of a minimal state.

4) “What about climate change?”

This question is very hard to answer. I say this both in humility and also in accusation to those who think the answer is simple. There are several scientific and policy questions we have to answer about climate change. Here’s my best understanding of the facts presently known:

- Is climate change happening?


- Is human activity contributing to it?


- How serious will it be, and what are the particular effects (sea level, severe weather, acidification, etc.) that we can expect and plan for?

This is much less certain, as far as I can tell. Climate models are in their infancy in early stages and are still being refined, and predicting the effect of changes in a single variable on a complex system like global climate is extremely difficult. There’s a lot of confounding factors we have to disentangle.

For instance, are the last ten years of relatively little slow temperature change the result of incorrect assumptions in the models, additional heat absorbed into the oceans, or aerosols temporarily suppressing temperature? By how much? How can we tell? Scientists have been updating models to take into account these factors.

We also have a degree of uncertainty about how much warming we can expect in the next century, how quickly, as well as how much damage this will cause and how. These questions are extremely important and need to be investigated.

- What policies will actually mitigate climate change and which will be most cost effective?

This also seems highly uncertain. Carbon taxes of varying amounts, cap-and-trade systems, outright emission caps, and a variety of other schemes have a million devilish details that will make or break the whole system.

The most reliable bet for dealing with human induced warming at the moment seems to be new low-carbon technologies and incentives to increase energy efficiency. Natural gas and nuclear power seem poised to overtake coal and oil plants as cheap, low-carbon alternatives, and solar power may eventually become competitive as well. Investing in carbon-capture tech might also be worthwhile.

But the proposition that democratic or bureaucratic processes are capable of overcoming the public choice problems inherent with climate change and energy regulation is dubious, at best. Getting this right is absolutely crucial — and at the moment, I’m very skeptical of the ability of UN bureaucrats or US congressmen to centrally plan the future of the global energy market, much less the climate of the entire planet.

- What are the opportunity costs of our policies?

This really matters. Resources are limited, and there are thousands of pressing environmental and economic issues we could be spending those resources on. Should we eradicate malaria, or reduce global temperature increases by 10% over the next 100 years? Which will have a bigger improvement for human life? We can’t pretend like the answer doesn’t matter: it will literally save or destroy millions of lives.

There’s a second concern here: restricting access to cheap fossil fuels in the developing world will have huge economic costs for the poorest people on the planet. Under the IPCC’s worst case warming scenario, the prediction for CO2 output assumes levels of wealth in Africa in 100 years equivalent that of America today. Are we willing to impoverish people to mitigate climate change?

Finally, there’s the matter of whether could we get the developing world on board with drastic fossil fuel restrictions, even if we wanted to. It is the iron law of climate policy that when climate change agendas conflict with economic growth, developing nations will always choose economic growth. Given that they are poised to overtake the West as the biggest continuing emitters of carbon, without their cooperation, no effort combat climate change stands a chance. We have to find a way to make economic growth compatible with mitigation–otherwise nothing we do is going to make a difference.

5) “A libertarian society sounds like a utopia.”

The utopia criticism is only valid if you deal in absolutes: perfect anarcho-capitalism or bust. I think about problems on a case by case basis: how can we improve human life on the margins? I see freedom — free markets and personal liberty — and peace as the best ways yet discovered for improving the lot of the common man.

The charge of utopianism is rather stronger against those who blindly trust the government to fix all the problems in their life. You can point to market failures, sure, but what about government failures? Markets have massive, unprecedented successes to their credit, which are rarely acknowledged, and governments have huge, devastating failures to theirs, which are also rarely acknowledged. You have to ask whether the proposed government solution is likely to make things better or worse (in the long run) than competition, consumer choice, and entrepreneurship in free markets.

Libertarianism offers no particular vision of what society will have to be like–no central plan that people have to be coerced into following. Instead, it offers what the philosopher Robert Nozick called a “framework for utopia.” Each person is free to pursue their own individual vision of what constitutes a good life, free from interference with or by anyone else’s equal right to do the same. I’ll close with Nozick’s own words in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

This morally favored state, the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one, we now see is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries. It preserves what we all can keep from the utopian tradition and opens the rest of that tradition to our individual aspirations. … Is not the minimal state, the framework for utopia, an inspiring vision?

The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the founder and editor-at-large of The Skeptical Libertarian. He writes on issues relating to science, skepticism, and economic freedom, focusing on the role of evolution in social and economic development.