First, I happily accept Roderick’s certification as a “non-vulgar libertarian.” I’m hoping he’ll get me the keys to the secret restroom, which I’m sure is cleaner than those in regular libertarian organizations (and certainly cleaner than those in the statist status quo) because these are cleaned by the owner-worker-managers themselves, rather than through hierarchical job assignments.
More seriously, he raises the question of whether my “playing defense” perspective runs the risk of minimizing the problems that really exist in a statist society. Specifically, he wonders whether pointing to the real gains of the poor leaves me and others open to other ways in which the poor have become worse off in recent years, thanks to various state policies. He also suggests that as far as left-libertarian dialogue goes, it might be more constructive to find places of agreement on the ways in which inequalities pervade the current system.
Again, I think Roderick and I have a disagreement of degrees, not principle. I also think it’s centrally important that libertarians point to the variety of injustices and inequalities that pervade the current system. For example, in my own work on gender and the family, I have pointed to the ways in which the current income tax system in the United States, through its combination of progressivity and not allowing married couples to treat each one’s income separately, is extremely biased against the labor force participation of secondary earners. Their first dollar gets taxed at the highest rate paid by the primary earner. Given that women are more likely to be the secondary earners (for cultural reasons that a thicker libertarianism could join with the left in trying to change), this ends up punishing married women who wish to work. That punishment is even greater when one considers the other costs associated with working (e.g., finding affordable day care in a highly regulated market). Simple changes to the tax system, or even going to a low and flat tax, would rectify this situation and help to put the genders on more equal ground in the labor market. Here’s a case where libertarians could join with the feminist left in working to change the tax system in a way that reduces a state-created gender inequity.
Even as we agree with the left about the existence of real inequalities in the status quo, sometimes one of the most effective things libertarians can do is to identify how market processes might better serve the left’s stated ends than their own preferred policies do. For me, this is one of the advantages of the data showing the better consumption possibilities for the poor. Most of that growth, I would argue, has come from the underlying market processes that have reduced the prices of new innovations and made luxuries into basics, all while the same processes have generally raised the value of human labor so that all of these goods can be afforded. Markets, including Wal-Mart, have done more for poor Americans than any government program, at least in the long run if not the short run. As I’ve said elsewhere, given Wal-Mart’s success in improving the living standards of poorer Americans, through both jobs and cheaper goods, if it were a government program, it would be the greatest anti-poverty program ever (and it would be cheered by the left for the same reasons it should be today, even as one recognizes its imperfections).
By the same token, libertarians can also point to government interventions such as minimum wage laws and occupational licensure laws that limit the labor market opportunities of the poor, particularly those of color, and engage the left in conversation about whether such policies really do serve their ends better than the results of free(d) markets.
Finally, let me note, and I know Roderick agrees with me here, that libertarians have paid far too little attention to the ways in which state intervention is a source of racial and gender inequities. That’s not to say we have paid no attention to them, but it is to say that if we are going to engage the conversations over policy that are taking place on the left (and among many academics), we are going to have to pay more attention to them.
More importantly, if libertarian ideas are ever going to be significantly attractive to more women and people of color, and perhaps more young people regardless of race and gender, we are going to have to do a lot better in showing how our ideas can speak to their concerns and their rightful claims of historical injustice. Aside from the fact that white men are becoming even more of a minority themselves so appealing to women and people of color is no long optional, much earlier in its history, libertarianism stood in solidarity with the concerns of these groups, who they rightly saw as victims of state oppression and for whom freed markets and freedom in general would go a long way in helping.
Nothing makes me prouder to be a free-market economist than knowing that the epithet “the dismal science” was coined by people like Ruskin and Carlyle who complained that a world of laissez-faire as defended by economists such as J. S. Mill and others would undermine the racial hierarchies of Victorian England. The “dismalness” of economics was that it saw a future of racial equality and leveled hierarchies thanks to the results of the free market. I wish more of my libertarian colleagues would recognize our past identity being at the forefront of concerns about issues of race and gender and engage with our friends on the left about the best means to achieve so many ends that we share. Much as we should reject corporatism in favor of truly freed markets, libertarians should push ourselves away from the right’s reflexive rejection of the discussion of race and gender as “political correctness” and realize that for most of our history our opposition to corporate-state power and our sympathy for the victims of state-caused inequalities of race and gender made us the “politically correct” ones.