- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010



By Jeffrey A. Miron

Basic Books $24.95,

224 pages

Reviewed by Roger Lott

In “Libertarianism From A to Z,” Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron wastes no time. In roughly 200 short pages, he explains and advocates libertarian points of view on more than 100 issues, from agricultural subsidies to organ sales and government funding of zoos. The encyclopedic organization combined with Mr. Miron’s concise and straightforward writing style make for a condensed yet highly accessible read.

Mr. Miron calls himself a “consequentialist libertarian,” distinguishing himself from “philosophical libertarians.” He considers the costs and benefits of individual government policies rather than simply making broad arguments against them on the basis of natural rights. However, the inclusion of some statistics would help give precision to his assertions.

Each topic is begun with a layout of the major arguments for government involvement, which are, for the most part, not watered down. Mr. Miron’s fair presentation of reasons for opposing viewpoints ultimately makes his case for libertarianism more convincing.

According to Mr. Miron, many of these arguments are based on the belief that government should subsidize activities that generate positive externalities (indirect benefits) for society, such as education, and tax those that create negative ones, such as pollution. Government subsidizes recycling, for instance, on the basis that it decreases water contamination, reduces pollution, prevents exhaustion of natural resources and preserves space for landfills.

However, these positive externalities are largely imaginary, he asserts, claiming that collecting, hauling, sorting and cleaning recyclables can, in fact, generate more pollution than does the production of new goods. Further, he thinks higher prices already create the necessary incentives in the free market for conserving resources and, suggesting that a landfill approximately 10 miles square would be able to hold all of the United States’ trash for the next 100 years, he says running out of landfill space is a virtual nonissue.

On issue after issue, Mr. Miron tries to show that externalities-based arguments often fall flat when subject to scrutiny. He recognizes that externalities do exist and the fact that they’re so common makes it hard to quantify the effects of something, such as recycling.

On global warming, Mr. Miron correctly points out that it’s not at all clear how much some additional quantity of carbon emissions will increase temperatures and even whether that increase is more detrimental than beneficial. He also asserts that politicians don’t necessarily have the right incentives to decide on the most appropriate tax rate - after all, higher taxes mean more responsibility and power for the government.

Government justifies subsidies for many things deemed to have artistic, cultural or educational value by suggesting that individuals directly benefiting from the programs will spread those benefits in their interactions with others. For instance, giving someone a better education will tend to make that person a better parent, in turn benefiting his children.

Examples of subsidized programs include public education, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), museums and even zoos, many of which are publicly owned. While schooling perhaps has clear positive externalities (part of the reason why libertarians support school vouchers), Mr. Miron is correct to question whether there are significant spillover effects from the other programs.

A big problem, Mr. Miron says, is that government inevitably has to choose what curriculum to teach at public schools and which television shows, radio programs and museums to fund. Politically left-leaning NPR and PBS use tax dollars to advocate, although perhaps not overtly. Government also has to decide whether to teach evolution or global warming in classrooms, making taxpayers support beliefs they do not hold.

Mr. Miron argues strongly for returning power to state and local governments, saying that will decrease national polarization because people will be more likely to get the laws they want. In the case of abortion, for instance, one-size-fits-all federal laws are a source of broad discontent. States, unlike the national government, have to be careful not to enact regulations for fear of driving individuals and businesses away.

Even when a majority of people look down on something as immoral, banning it, Mr. Miron says, can have severe unintended consequences. Bans on drugs and prostitution push both industries underground, meaning that drug dealers and those in the prostitution business cannot resolve disputes with lawsuits and instead resort to violence. “Prohibitions of consensual adult activity do little to reduce the negatives associated with these activities while creating black markets that have large, undesired side effects,” Mr. Miron says.

The death penalty is a mere distraction to the issues of legalizing drugs and prostitution because it has far less effect on crime, Mr. Miron claims. He worries about wrongly executing somebody and says the cost savings of not having to imprison someone for life would be offset by the massive costs of appeals in death-penalty cases, although those probably would decrease if people were executed more often.

Mr. Miron also says capital punishment is not a significant deterrent to crime because many murderers are not forward-looking and those who are correctly think their chances of execution to be slim.

The reality, however, is that the states that adopted the death penalty in 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional, saw by 1998 a 38 percent larger drop in murder rates than the states that had not instituted it. Additionally, Mr. Miron fails to mention that capital punishment is an issue on which libertarians disagree and gives the impression that his is the only libertarian position.

The lack of empirical evidence, especially on highly controversial issues such as the death penalty, makes the book a far cry from being a decisive authority on the advantages of libertarianism. Indeed, it would have been impossible to write such a book in so few pages.

All in all, however, Mr. Miron is successful in introducing readers to the coldly rational perspectives of libertarianism on a wide range of issues. Those who finish the book should at least walk away with a greater awareness of unintended consequences of policies and will, hopefully, cast a more skeptical eye on government interventions.

Roger Lott is a writer in Pennsylvania.

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