Last night, I posted a response to Lynn Stuart Parramore’s Salon.com/AlterNet.org article that claimed she had three facts that would make “libertarian heads explode.” While none of her facts provided evidence to prove anything about libertarianism incorrect, I chose to focus on one topic in particular: Parramore’s claim that streetlights were a public good that would not be provided in a free market because of the free rider problem.
Parramore responded to my tweet that I linked my article to this morning. I’m always happy when the people I critique respond to me as it shows that they’re willing to actually defend their views and commentary, so I do credit Parramore for that. Unfortunately, she ended up tweeting herself into a bit of a contradiction:
Parramore rejects the idea of free markets that are absent of the influence of government because she thinks she can see potential problems and claims that libertarians believe they can create some sort of utopia as evidenced by her lines “in the libertarian utopia” and “libertarians tend to ride on theoretical unicorns that don’t take them too far in the real world.” First of all, dismissing an argument because it is not perfect is the Nirvana fallacy. Anyway, she does not seem to understand that libertarians are not trying to claim that in a system of free markets everyone can get exactly what they want. In reality, libertarians tend to believe that voluntary transactions and associations are the best way to give everyone the best opportunity to get what they want by way of a more ethical system where violence is not institutionalized. It would be nice if people like Parramore didn’t rely on straw men to argue a point.
What is so absurd about Parramore’s claim about streetlights is that in our current government system not all the roads and walkways are lit at night. Not every house has a streetlight in front of it, so her question of “What shall you do with the fellow in the neighborhood who won’t put up a streetlight?” is silly. Because of this, I asked her what she does now when lights aren’t provided, and then she admits that the government doesn’t solve the problem either by saying, “When I’m in a place where the gov isn’t providing streetlights, I just can’t go out.”
Let’s show Parramore’s admitted logic:
- I reject X.
- Argument A has X, so therefore, I reject it.
- Argument B has X, yet I accept it.
This is a clear contradiction. So I ask Parramore, if you reject the market control of streetlights (Argument A) because there will be spots that don’t have streetlights (X), why do you accept the government control of streetlights (Argument B) when you admit that there are spots that don’t have streetlights (X)?
Let’s generalize this a little more. Let’s call Argument A “free markets” and Argument B “government control.” And we’ll make X be “free riders.” So someone like Parramore believes they have this:
- I reject a system that creates free riders.
- Because free markets create a situation where free riders exist, I reject free markets.
- Because government control creates a situation where free riders don’t exist, I can accept government control.
Ignoring the fact that free riders don’t represent much of an actual problem, Parramore is begging the question that government control will not result in goods or services with free riders. This is simply not true. According to Parramore in this case, a free ride happens because “every person who walks down a street benefits from the streetlight, and there is no way to take the light away from one particular person.” Does this change when someone who lives under a government that didn’t pay for the streetlight walks under it? If Parramore comes to visit me in my town and walks under streetlights that are paid for by my taxes (and not hers), does it make her a free rider? And shouldn’t that cause her to reject such a system? Unless these “public goods” were paid for by everyone who would ever use them (which is pretty impractical), won’t there be free riders?
So tell me, who tends to ride on theoretical unicorns that don’t take them too far in the real world?