September 2014
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Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. Send your comments to me at jw@bway.net. I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. I have gotten into the habit of leaving out full names and email addresses; I have had too many people think better of something they said fifteen years ago. If you want your name and email included, let me know. Flames, however, will be published with full name and email address.


Hello,

I read with great interest and appreciation your 1997 piece on Why I Am Not a Libertarian. I'm impressed by your wisdom and honesty in discussing your political predilections and their logical, practical, and ethical limitations. This kind of well-considered dialog (monolog?) seems almost wholly absent from the public sphere these days.

I think we might some day profitably have a discussion about how effective and efficient government really is in some of the domains where its endeavors overlap with private industry; but I wrote to comment on another matter, which may even be directly related to that conversation.

Regarding the Second Law of Thermodynamics: To the best of current scientific thinking, there is no battling this Law. In a closed system, entropy increases, full stop. I refer here to your lines, "There is a lot of truth in this; most of the progress we have made is the result of just letting people work out convenient schemes while forbidding the use of force. In that sense, the libertarian free market scheme mirrors nature, where complex structures build up over time, and then die off if surrounding conditions change so that they are no longer warranted. Life is a battle against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, seeking to build up structures and resist decay.Does the Second Law have its equivalent in the business world? And should it?"

The reason why life exists, and order appears to increase, is solely because of energy inputs from outside the seeming closed system. In the case of life as we know it, the main contributor is obviously energy in the form of sunlight. I would contend that economies are also not closed systems; necessary external inputs allow order to emerge. One such input would clearly have to be many kinds of natural resources, for instance the commons, that your piece so cogently addresses. But it seems clear to me that another input is in fact government programs themselves, which create conditions for the economy to thrive that no private entity could accomplish.

The interstate highway system, the internet, rocket and space technology, and many others; without massive public investment into the public good, we would have a very limited economy indeed. And though it makes sense for private industry to invest in and innovate around these technologies now, when they are firmly established, any private concern that tried to develop these structures in their infancy would surely have over invested, under delivered, and gone broke. I would even argue that the USPS deserves to be listed here, in that while its monopoly on private first class mail is undeniably inefficient and unpleasant in some ways, its establishment of expectations for nationwide shipping at reasonable rates and in reasonable timeframes supported the later success of UPS et al, who might not have had a model to work from without it. And in the days pre-private parcel delivery it was irreplaceable, of course.

The government doesn't just protect the ability of private enterprise to succeed without damaging others' private interests, it creates the conditions for that enterprise to succeed in the first place.

Regardless, I would like to thank you very much for an insightful and thought-provoking read. I hadn't seen your site before; I'll be back.

Warm regards,

Nat