23 Oct 2008

The Problem With Minarchist Analogies

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This post will be critical of John Stossel, so I just want to make clear that he is awesome and is doing a lot to spread free market ideas. Now then…

In a recent WSJ op ed, Stossel compares society to an ice skating rink, and explains that he filmed an attempt to “centrally plan” 100 skaters using a bullhorn. (This was Daniel Klein’s idea.) Then they even got Brian Boitano to try it as well, and even here the outcome was obviously inferior to a “deregulated” skating environment.

Well, in today’s WSJ, there were a bunch of cynics pointing out that if you slightly changed the analogy to make it closer to the financial bailout, then Stossel would obviously want a “referee.” (E.g. if there were so many skaters that if they piled onto one area of the rink, the whole building would collapse and kill the spectators.) And then someone else sarcastically agreed with Stossel, and said he also thought we should get rid of stoplights. Somebody else said you need referees in professional ice hockey.

Now, I’m sure Stossel’s TV show was worth doing; it sounds like they did it pretty cleverly, and bringing the “expert planner” Boitano in was a great twist. (I must confess that I can’t hear that guy’s name without thinking of South Park.)

This exchange of views illustrates the difficulties of minarchism. A Rothbardian anarchist can quite consistently say, “Yes, it’s not whether there are ‘rules’ or not, it’s that owners should set the rules on their property. So darn tootin you get rid of government streetlights and stop signs, and you sell the roads to the private sector. Let them decide how to provide the best service to their customers.”

If you are a consistent champion of the free market, then all these nagging problems fall away. You’re not in the awkward position of having to say that the financial bailout is wicked and stupid, but the Pentagon and Supreme Court are virtuous and brilliant.

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