14 March 2018

The Libertarian Philosophy - A Truth (often ignored) and a Misconception (largely embraced)

Libertarians advocate one thing that seems to me obviously right (but is often resisted) and another obviously wrong (but nonetheless wins the approval of most Americans).

A general trust in markets seems to me the most important thing they get right. Market solutions don't require consensus or bringing along committees and citizen action groups or the popular vote. An entrepreneur can just try something and assuming they can convince the right mix of investors and employees to go along, they have a chance to change how we live. That's pretty cool and the libertarians' trust in individuals seems to me repeatedly justified by the on-going success of entrepreneurs whose success may never have been predicted by any majority opinion.

The problem with market-driven progress is that it blows in on gales of creative destruction. Solar power can close down coal mines; digital photography can close down picture development kiosks. The status quo has a lot of wealth and power and part of what libertarians get right is that because of this power, government tends towards crony capitalism that protects existing industries in order to protect those investors and employees rather than forcing them to respond to the market. Government can become an obstacle to progress. Look at the coal miners in West Virginia, an industry that began in 1740. If we protect the 44 year old miner today, how much longer do we need to save his job? For two more generations? Two more years? What is society's obligation to protect him? Some politicians will say that for as many generations as he'll vote for you to go to DC to protect him and as long as the coal mining investors will fund your political campaign. Industries that would have a rough time getting thousands from a venture capitalist are sometimes successful at getting billions from governments.

Libertarians' belief that we should let markets disrupt and create new wealth and jobs even while eradicating old jobs and wealth is something I think is right. Still, it seems easy to find programs that protect industries (think of our enormous subsidies to farming and oil). This feel likes a truth often ignored.

So what do I think they get obviously wrong? This notion that government should then be small. I believe that successful markets depend on robust government programs in at least two ways. People always want protection and security. If you are not going to protect their jobs and industries, you need to offer them some personal protection. This, to me, means healthy unemployment insurance, jobs retraining and really hefty subsidies to kindergarten through grad school education, among other things. I also believe that we can hardly spend too much on research at places like the Center for Disease Control or National Health Institute or the National Science Foundation.

I have worked with hundreds of product development firms within companies, from startups funding only one project to Fortune 50 firms with thousands of projects. They develop new products. They need a product that can launch soon. The pharmaceutical companies have the longest development window - about a decade - but most target product launches within about 2 to 4 years. You've heard of R&D, research and development? This is D, the development. It's important. It's crucial. As cliche as it sounds, it can change the lives of investors and consumers. The iPhone is an example of development. The rightful focus of private companies is the D in R&D.

Research is hugely uncertain, though. It will probably result in nothing. If it does result in something cool it may happen a decade or three later than you expected. Not every cool thing becomes profitable. Because of this, corporations rarely finance research and it needs to be heavily funded by government, by groups like DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or the University of California. This research - the R - is crucial to corporations' later development - the D. "The parts of the smart phone that make it smart—GPS, touch screens, the Internet—were advanced by the Defense Department," as Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. Corporations try to find a way to translate R that has taken one to two decades into D that takes two to four years. It's a pretty cool system.

The libertarian fantasy that communities work well with lean governments is wrong on two counts: a community that learns to sail the gales of creative destruction makes its people feel secure with change rather than resistant to it (which requires a strong welfare state) and getting the research to the point that companies can make it profitable takes considerable public sector leadership.

James Watt, employee at University
of  Glasgow, the same university that
employed professor Adam Smith
The contest between the public and private sector is not zero sum. A strong public sector can make the private sector healthier, and vice versa. (And obviously by strong I don't mean power over, the power of corporate lobbyists to choke government or for governments agencies to choke corporations. Instead, I mean power to, the way that advances in one lead to advances in the other, each enabling the other.)

When a libertarian talks about how markets are more innovative than government programs and how individuals should be given freedom to pursue what they think will make them happy, nod knowingly and agree with him. (Libertarians are twice as likely to be men, so this is probably a "him" you're talking to.)  Say something like, "Yeah. The pursuit of happiness. It's literally in our founding documents."  

When he tells you that this means governments should be much smaller, laugh at his naivete. (Libertarian men love when you do that because then they chuckle with you and say, "Well, you can't blame me for wanting lower taxes.") 

The formula that has seemed to work for progress is to let entrepreneurs and companies rapidly change our world while funding the cost of their creativity with research and education and then funding the cost of their disruption with welfare, unemployment insurance, universal healthcare and - yep - more education and jobs training. Who pays for those government programs? Everyone, but the ones who pay the most are the ones who succeed the most: those successful entrepreneurs and companies who so benefit from being part of a system that knows how to create and then harness the gales of creative destruction.

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