Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How can you debate Ayn Rand?

You know them. They are some your good friends. Very intelligent… favorite politicians are Ron Paul and Bob Barr… usually call themselves libertarians. Points out the many benefits of free markets and failures of government policies. Consider themselves above the fray of partisan politics. No fan of Republicans and especially George W. Bush but if they hear the words “socialism!” or “big government takeover!” they start piling on the Democratic party like the most devoted Fox News slurping Rush Limbaugh fan.

Their intellectual wiring is no different from biblical Christians. Everyone thinks that their beliefs are the truth. What distinguishes these two groups is their belief that they have the ENTIRE truth. To the Christian every single mystery of the universe has been revealed in the bible. To the market worshipper every single mystery of economics has been revealed by Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. But don’t take Ayn’s word for it they say, just look around you! The omnipotence of free markets is based on airtight, infallible, never proven wrong logic, and is backed by the events of the entire history of human civilization. They will confidently challenge you to provide even a single counter-example.

Child sweatshops, dangerous work environments, discrimination, unsafe consumer products, unregulated derivatives markets that blew up the world economy? Easily dismissed. Government intervention caused the problems, and more intervention will only exacerbate them. Child labor laws did not end child labor… growing real wages brought on by economic growth did. Ralph Nader didn’t make us safer by spearheading consumer protection laws, the market responding to a demand for safer products did. Same goes for lead-based paints. Either that or the lead in the paints can be traced back to some government sponsored monopoly. Anti-discrimination laws didn’t end discrimination, discrimination is a drag on good labor markets, the market ended it itself. Government intervention into the private economy, no matter how well intentioned, is at best unnecessary, and at worst filled with unintended consequences. Just look at Prohibition.

I now debate with these people using two words: smoking bans. A libertarian HATES laws forcing private establishments to ban smoking. It’s a classic case of tyranny by the majority. Why should the majority of the population who are non-smokers assert their preference over the minority when the market is perfectly capable of accommodating both? Why not have smoking bars for smokers, non-smoking bars for non-smokers, and let employees with health concerns protect themselves by picking where to work. Why have a one-size fits all top down economic solution that will have unintended consequences?


How do we know? Because smoking bans are a gigantic success. Not only are employees and customers healthier, but the owners who were terrified this would hurt business are actually reporting higher revenues! Turns out smokers were driving away other customers. This was never a mystery to non-smokers, but it eluded the mystical free market. We are all better off because citizens didn’t wait around for the market to provide smoke-free establishments that Ayn Rand said would come into existence on their own if they were desirable.

One example, but one example is all it takes to disprove “the market will always reach a better solution without government intervention” thesis. Drop the example of smoking bans on your free market worshiping friends. It's doubtful, but maybe they will say something like Ayn Rand disciple Alan Greenspan did after the world economy blew up: "[There was] a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”



  1. You have to realize sir that some libertarians view human liberty as and end in itself rather than a means to an end.

    How would you know that a government enforced smoking ban is a "gigantic success"? Because business revenues are higher and the employees and customers are healthier? The business owner who loses his right to what he will with his property and those customers who are smokers probably don't view the law as "success".

    I personally don't smoke and I don't like second hand smoke so to me the law is a "success" in sense that I will benefit from it. But to call is a "gigantic success" is purely subjective.

    There are libertarians out there that will argue that a society with no government will always reach a better solution that one decided by govenment fiat. But I would say that most are not nearly that naive. The second type argue that human liberty itself is a valuable good and usually not worth giving up no matter the justifications.

    Your example may prove that a smoking bans will lead to some better outcomes in terms of health and revenues. So you have out argued the first type of libertarian ( who has little difference from the communist that argues pure communism = utopia ). But you have failed in your arguement against the second type. You must prove that these benifits in health and revenue are worth the trade off of the loss of liberty to the property owner and those that he would allow to smoke on his property. This is impossible. Value is subjective.

  2. You managed to find the one issue where libertarians have it exactly right and profess that it's discrediting proof of their ideology. The "success" of smoking bans is highly questionable on its face (the only bars in the rural Upper Midwest that have any people on a Saturday night post-smoking ban are the bars that ignore the smoking ban), but even if they were the blistering success you portray them as, it's still an epic overreach of government to enact prohibitionary laws against consumption of a legal product on private property.

  3. Raymond: of course it's subjective, one factor you didn't note in your calculus was MY LIBERTY to enjoy a night out without breathing in tons of smoke. This was literally IMPOSSIBLE for me pre-smoking ban. I know it was theoretically possible in the unregulated system, but it simply was NOT in reality.

    Mark (translated): I've lost my right to pollute everyones air at public gathering spots! Tyranny! CRY ABOUT IT MARK!

  4. Jay writes "I've lost my right to pollute everyones air at public gathering spots."

    We're talking about privately owned property.

    No one is forcing you to walk onto someone's property where people are allowed to smoke.

  5. Yes Josh, and privately owned property like bars and restaurants are what we call "public gathering spots". Pre-smoking ban it was IMPOSSIBLE to go out without swimming in smoke.

    The free marketers said this was because there was no market for smoke-free establishments.

    This was wrong.

  6. My theory on why the free market never gave us smoke-free nightlife options:

    If you walk into a bar that has good prices, good music, good ambiance, and clean air, but it's empty, you're leaving... probably before even noting its positive characteristics. The first thing a bar needs to be successful is a critical mass of customers.

    Smokers are disproportionately represented in the groups that help a bar achieve this critical mass. A new bar voluntarily going smoke-free would flop. You need to cater to smokers to hit critical mass.

    A successful bar could make the switch to smoke-free, but why would they? They're successful, why spit on the faces of your core customers?

    A struggling bar can't go smoke free, a successful bar has no reason to go smoke free - successful bars become struggling bars, struggling bars become successful bars - the end result is there wasn't a single smoke free bar in America pre-ban even though though people clearly enjoy them.

  7. Jay, your hair-splitting about "public gathering spots" effectively the very concept of private property. In the context of property rights, a government-mandated smoking ban in a bar is identical to a government-mandated smoking ban's in one home.

    You do yourself no favors whatsoever by consistently reminding us that business owners usually choose to allow their patrons to smoke unless they're coerced into submission by the police state. If the opportunity to restore smoking rights in bars were to emerge tomorrow, I'd bet you $1,000 that the vast majority of bar owners would choose to allow smoking.

  8. "In the context of property rights, a government-mandated smoking ban in a bar is identical to a government-mandated smoking ban's in one home."

    Mark have you ever heard of residential zoning? Commercial zoning? All private property - all subject to different sets of regulations.

    A fire extinguisher isn't mandated in your home kitchen, but it is mandated in a restaurant kitchen.

    Endless case laws have backed up the legitimacy of government distinguishing between different types of private property.