Review of Freiman’s defense of libertarian theory

In this post, we will begin our review of 11 essays published in The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism, a collection of new works edited by Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz. Without further ado, let’s begin with Christopher Freiman’s excellent essay on “Libertarianism, Selfishness, and Public Goods.” (For your reference, Professor Freiman is a professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary.) 

In his essay, Prof Freiman repeats a point associated with the great economist Ronald Coase and with “public choice theory” generally: there is an asymmetry in most calls for public regulation of the economy. (Consider, for example, the clamor for some form of government regulation of Internet giants like Google and Facebook.) Specifically, defenders of government intervention in x area of the economy tend to focus on the existing set of problems created by private actors in that area of the economy, but at the same time, they tend to ignore the new set of problems that will be created by public actors if those public actors are indeed allowed to regulate that area of the economy. As Prof Freiman correctly notes, public actors are NOT immune from the same imperfections that plague private actors and private action (e.g. externalities, short-term thinking, free riding, etc.). As a result, instead of positing ideal public actors, we must consider the possibility of selfish, unjust, or ignorant public actors.

What does all this have to do with libertarian theory? Everything. Libertarian or laissez-faire policies may produce suboptimal outcomes, but so what? Government regulation might produce even worse outcomes, or to borrow Prof Freiman’s own eloquent example:

Think of it this way. All-Star and MVP baseball player Bryce Harper only gets a hit on about 1/3 of his at bats. Failing 2/3 of the time is pretty bad in absolute terms. So should the Washington Nationals cut him? Of course not. The reason is simple: the next best alternative to Harper is an even worse hitter. The standard for judging athletes isn’t perfection but rather the other available options. It turns out that Harper is about as good as it gets. The same can be said of the private sector; it’s often the least flawed of our nothing-but-flawed options.

Although we agree with Prof Freiman, we would also note that some forms of government intervention are not only a necessary evil, but also the lesser evil when compared with laissez-faire. By way of example, consider the brawl between between Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland that occurred earlier this season. (See film clip below.) What would have happened had there been no umpires to stop the fight?

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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