I’m not up on my libertarian wonkery

I’m not up on my libertarian wonkery November 1, 2012

Is everybody who works for the Cato Institute barking mad or just this O’Toole dude?

Libertarianism is medicine, not food.  It’s good for treating the fever of nanny statism when taken in small doses.  But unfortunately, many buy libertarianism on street corners and from creepy drug lords like Ayn Rand, who lace it with all sorts of powerful and addictive toxins that warp the mind and heart and make its slaves insane.

If you must do Libertarianism, use it responsibly and let someone else drive the state while you are high, detoxing, or in rehab. Also, as reader Deacon Nathan Allen, use only with guidance of a Doctor–of the Church.

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  • If that’s barking mad, they all are, Mark.

    I doubt ripping up rails and paving for buses would be any cheaper than fixing the subways that were damaged, but other than that, I don’t see what’s so mad about the proposal.

    But I don’t have any attachment to the NY subway system either. I understand though that, even among NYers who don’t use them, their is a strong attachment.

    • They’re not going to rip up the rails, they’ll give the buses some all-terrain monster tires!

      (which will be the first time public transport is badass)

    • Well, among those New Yorkers who, like myself, ride (or used to ride) the subways every day, there is indeed a strong attachment, but I wouldn’t exactly call it love. Need, yes. One that’s not exactly being satisfied because the system was on its last legs even before the storm.
      For instance, on the line that services the station a block from my apt. building, there is a 60% chance of no downtown trains on any given day after rush hour is over, because the track is constantly being repaired. You have to go all the way to the top of the line and come down on the opposite track. This adds up to an hour of travel time. I can barely even go downtown on weekends, because of the unpredictable service changes due to repairs on other parts of the system. They’ve been keeping it functional for morning and evening rush hour and that’s about it.
      The pumps that are trying to remove the water from the tunnels are over a hundred years old; they’ve never been renovated since the system began (I found this out from discussions at work during a previous storm).
      The city would indeed have to spend billions to fix the system, if want to commit the money. I feel certain they won’t and things will get worse — and more dangerous.
      So glad I work at home now.

  • CJ

    Did you stop reading at the headline? He wants to replace the trains with buses. I don’t know if that’s feasible or not, but he isn’t advocating the abandonment of mass transit.

    • Yeah I don’t know what Shea is going on about since this is BARELY libertarianism of any kind and all the original article did was propose a cheaper alternative to a potential massive-boondoggle.

      Maybe Shea just really needs his boogeymen?

    • Dan

      Problem: there aren’t enough roads for buses to replace all the subway lines. Not unless you ban automobiles from Manhattan (and maybe from the rest of the city as well).

      • jcb

        The proposal is to use the subway tunnels as bus routes.

      • There’s always the Chicago solution of lifting all the buildings up and adding a new set of roads elevated over the existing ground level roads. How much it would cost and would the benefit outweigh that cost would be an interesting study.

  • Noah D

    Speaking as someone who used to abuse Libertarianism on a daily basis, this ain’t it.

    The only part of his suggestions that could be considered Libertarian are ‘learn to get along without it’. To a True Libertarian, replacing the State-run trains with State-run buses is anathema. Sell off the whole thing, and let private industry figure out a way to move people en masse to where they want to go.

    I’ll agree that Libertarianism is medicine, not food – and I’ll add this: like crack cocaine and coca leaves, Libertarianism seems to be the super-refined, terribly concentrated form of the original, natural source, Subsidiarity. Sorta like Socialism and Solidarity. When you start snorting the pure stuff, made possible by mixing a natural thing with horrible chemicals, you get concentrated, grade-A, piles-of-bodies, how-could-we-have-known Stupid.

    • I have to agree with Noah on this one. I’m not sure that O’Toole’s suggestion would actually be more efficient, cheaper to create and with lower maintenance than the current NY Subway system but I don’t think the proposal is crazy on its face.

  • Carl

    The big problem with Libertarianism, while it adheres to the principle of Subsidiarity, completely ignores the principle of Solidarity. Libertarianism is the opposite extreme from Socialism, and as an extreme position, must be avoided.

    • There is nothing about extreme positions per se that mean they should be avoided. Moderate pro-life positions are regularly excoriated by Catholics, including the proprietor of this blog. So what makes economics something that must be done in moderation?

  • MarylandBill

    Actually there are a couple of different articles to read, the first things article that Mark links too, and then the piece that Mr. O’Toole wrote. Yes, he is advocating buses as opposed to rails. But as you delve deeper into his article he implies that the subways are responsible for the damage that Sandy caused to New York. The argument goes something like this. The subways allow New York to maintain an extremely high density of population and infrastructure. The high density of New York is directly responsible for the level of damage it sustained. Therefore the subways are responsible for the damage.

    I don’t doubt his first proposition. I am not sure about his second proposition. Sandy was such a large storm, that I suspect that even if New York was 10 times its current physical size that it would have still sustained massive damage. Further, a city that physically large simply would be another L.A., but worse.

    • Ted Seeber

      With modern telecommuting and shipping technology, why are we still bothering with cities at all?

  • Mark R

    As a former doctrinnaire libertarian, this is what rigid consistency of principles leads to…and you know what O.W. Holmes said about consistency.

  • Lukus

    O’Toole’s proposal has nothing whatsoever to do with libertarianism per se. He’s just stating his personal opinion, which really isn’t all that helpful. The libertarian response would simply be that no person or central planning organization can non-arbitrarily determine the “best” balance of transportation options. Rather, it takes the interactions of consumers and entrepreneurs on the free market to allocate resources in the manner that most accurately reflects society’s needs and most efficiently utilizes its scarce resources.

  • Deacon Nathan Allen

    I would add, if you must use libertarianism, do so only under a Doctor’s (of the Church) orders.

    • Mark Shea


    • Noah D

      Well played, sir. 🙂

  • The Deuce

    I don’t get it. O’Toole is accused of saying we should “leave the subway system to rot”, but in the quote, he’s actually suggesting that it could be turned into an underground busing system. That might not be a good idea, but it doesn’t sound to me like “rotting.” Also, I don’t see what’s supposed to be so “libertarian” about replacing a government-run subway system with a government-run busing system.

  • Miguel

    All it seems is like an alternative proposal to make repairs more efficient. Probably not as efficient as he claims, but I agree with other commenters that I don’t see what’s so insane about it. Dedicated lanes for buses have been used in various cities in the world as a *much* cheaper and efficient alternative to a rail system. There’s nothing intrinsically better about rail, so Mark should explain what he means.

  • Ted Seeber

    I think either O’Toole personally, or the Cato Institute Generally, must be invested in Michelin stock. That’s the only group I can see who would benefit from this proposal.

  • Bob

    Interesting..I’d suggest that they connect about 9 to 10 buses together and put really wide doors (well, as wide as subway doors) and use the platform to pre-board people to save time; so they can move about 2500 people in 3 minutes. Wait, isn’t that what trains do now? So the battery and the driving computer is only difference ? At least it serves the symbolic function of being ‘unplugged from the grid’ ! There’s something very Andrew Sullivan-esque about this, you wonder whether peple are just saying things because they like the sound of it; sorry could not resist it..

  • yan

    ‘Libertarianism is medicine, not food. It’s good for treating the fever of nanny statism when taken in small doses.’
    Perfect summary of the morally permissible uses of, and character of, libertarianism. Bravo Mr. Shea.

  • Lizzie

    There is nothing about this proposal that is the slightest bit libertarian. But I have come to believe, because he does so pretty much every time the opportunity arises, that Mark feels the need to intentionally misunderstand what libertarianism actually is, because if he recognized libertarianism for what it is, and not what all its detractors claim it to be, he might actually find himself having to admit he IS a libertarian. He espouses the idea of liberty in hundreds of ways, but for someone reason feels loathe to put a name to it. The moral equivalent of a self-hating Jew, or before I am falsely accused of being anti-semitic, how about a self-hating Catholic? Mark Shea: the self-hating libertarian. 🙂

    • Ted Seeber

      Ok, then explain the odd missing element of the gravitational constant of interest from Hayek’s equations.

  • Libertarianism generally believes that just about everything can be done privately, if not now, eventually. So a more significant than usual amount of time is spent playing what if games, of which this article is one. It’s not published by CATO but on the guy’s own blog “The Antiplanner”. Just by that, you can tell that this is fringe, speculative stuff for those willing to hang out on the wild edge of what might be possible. And for libertarianism, that’s pretty wild.

    There is a fact of the world that may or may not be true to which the Church is indifferent as it is irrelevant to its central task of saving souls and being the bride of Christ, but which, nevertheless, is important to keep track of, the mean rate of improvement over time in the private sector vs the public sector. If the public sector improves faster, eventually everything will be done better by the state, we should all become religious communists and get rid of capitalism. If the private sector improves faster, eventually everything will be done better privately, etc., etc.

    The overwhelming evidence to date is that private efficiency is improving faster and that there are few, if any, exceptions to this. As we all live in a time of transition and we’re likely to have our kids still living in that time, we should engage in responsible speculation on the timing and sequence of transitions and whether crisis points are a good time to make lemonade out of lemons and move over to the new dispensation.

    Thus, this wild and wooly proposal isn’t at heart, insane. Its presentation is done in jargon and shorthand that has obviously left non-libertarians in the dust. It’s also deliberately disrespectful of the field’s pieties and an attempt to force people not to assume but to actually demonstrate that the conventional options are the best. In some cases, the conventional options won’t be the best and without brickbat throwers like O’Toole, that might not come out in the public policy debate.

    • Ted Seeber

      The problem is the word “improvement”. I don’t think it means what progressives and libertarians seem to think it means.

      • The only relevant sense for an agreed good to improve is to increase the quantity received for the price paid or (same thing really) lower the price paid for the same amount. Everybody agrees it’s good to have food. Is private provision or public provision going to provide more and which is going to have a steeper rate of improvement over time? If public provision provides more now but private provision is getting better, faster, then the logical choice is public provision now and private provision when the two swap places.

        Nobody really knows when the two methods swap places for a particular good except to do what if exercises, thus libertarianism’s love with what if exercises. In the real world, I’ve seen libertarian ridiculous what ifs on private road provision turn into real roads getting built and a growing consensus that this is the way of the future.

  • Peggy R

    CATO has lots of smart economists. I suppose they are generally libertarian. They are free marketeers and proponents of fiscal and regulatory prudence, if government must be involved. I read several papers there and at the Heritage Foundation to understand what the market failures were in medical insurance and retail medical services markets. I was able to see those facts through my economic training in industrial org to develop some ideas of what an appropriate role for government and how to construct efficient and effective markets for insurance and medical services.

    IN this case, the headline is the shock line, but the detail of the article is less shocking and describes a more approachable idea.

  • Evan Rogers

    Headline: “I don’t know WTF I’m talking about”
    Article: “I’m still going to talk about it!”
    Everyone reading: “That was a waste of time. Mark Shea and Patheos will be forever ignored by me!”

    • Mark Shea

      Wow. Do you make draconian decisions like that all the time? All of Patheos shall be punished with your non-readership?

      We all mourn your just wrath.