Does Libertarianism Mean We Have to Pay for Everything?

I don’t know the answer to the question, but NoahOpinion seems to:

Since the dawn of time, libertarians have equated property rights with freedom. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: if the government can come and confiscate your stuff, or tell you what to do with it, you don’t feel very free at all. But libertarians tend to take this basic concept to its maximal extent; the more things are brought within the cash nexus, the more free we become. No limits, no exceptions. A direct implication is that the more government functions we can privatize, the more free we will be.

But is that right? What would it really feel like to live in a society where almost every single thing is privately owned and priced?

Walking around urban Japan, I feel like I am seeing a society that is several steps closer to that ideal than the United States. You may have heard that Japan is a government-directed society, and in many ways it is. But in terms of the constituents of daily life being privately owned and marginally priced, it is a libertarian’s dream world.

For example, there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). On the streets, there are very few trashcans; people respond to this in the way libertarians would want, by exercising personal responsibility and carrying their trash home with them in little baggies. There are also very few public benches. In cafes, each customer must order something promptly or be kicked out; outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that!

Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite – the lack of a “commons” makes me feel constrained. It forces me to expend a constant stream of mental effort, calculating whether it’s worth it to spend $4 to sit and rest for 10 minutes, whether it’s worth $2 to get a drink.

I just spent 12 days in Italy, and it reminded me a bit of this description of Japan.  (And about every 15 minutes my wife said something reminded her of China.)

1.  Lots of pay toilets.

2.  No free museums.

3.  Admission to some parks.

4.  More toll roads than America.

5.  You pay for rolls at restaurants.  Ditto for water.

6.  Use of beach chairs at resorts cost money.

7.  Many churches charge admission.

Now some of these apply to the US as well–most of our museums charge admission.  But many don’t, and some are voluntary.

Both Italy and Japan are much more statist than the US, by almost any ranking.  This made me wonder whether “charging for stuff that should be free” was actually an attribute of libertarianism.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of income–both Japan and Italy are poorer than the US.  I recall that the US had pay toilets when I was a kid (when were about as rich as Japan and Italy are now.)

Perhaps resorts in Hawaii don’t charge for use of beach chairs because we are so rich, and pay so much for hotel use, that it isn’t worth the bother of trying to prevent non-hotel residents from using the chairs.

Consider the shopping mall, a quintessentially American invention, and also a quite libertarian model of the “town square.”  Unlike in an Italian shopping street, when you are thirsty you don’t have to buy a 2 euro bottle of water, you can just use the drinking fountain.  In a mall restaurant they’ll bring you water and rolls without asking.  If you are tired the shopping mall will provide a bench to sit on for free.  You don’t have to pay to use the toilets in shopping malls.  You can park for free.  It seems like “the market” tells developers of big real estate projects that Americans don’t want to be constantly fishing out money for every little thing.  Disney uses the same procedure–you pay to get in, and then everything is free.  I’ve seen new planned towns in Texas that come with bike lanes, benches, parks, etc.

I’m not saying Noah is completely wrong.  I favor toll roads and congestion pricing, at least in a few limited cases.  I am sure that a libertarian society would charge for at least a few things that are currently free.  But I think it’s wrong to jump to the conclusion that you know exactly what a libertarian society would look like.  Libertarianism is about letting the market discover optimal financing arrangements.

About Scott Sumner 490 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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