Loyal UP reader Dink sends me this article that I sent him a couple days ago about a new law from the US Department of Transportation mandating rear-visibility cameras in new cars in 2018. A few things to mention, based on this article entirely:

  • This law will cost more than its benefits, according to the government’s own calculations.
  • This could give people a fall sense of security and be even more reckless in that they are now assuming they will see anything behind them. Because of this, estimates of lives saved could be overstating the benefits.
  • It’s hard to put a $ value on personal liberty when thinking about a cost-benefit analysis like this. For something like airport security, in a hypothetical world where we had perfect information, we could weigh the costs of the extra time and staffing extra security takes and weigh it against the (alleged) lives saved and see if it’s worth it. But of course the analysis shouldn’t stop there. We value personal liberty, and we can’t put a dollar value on it.
Take this hypothetical: I have this new law up my sleeve that will a) reduce our dependency on foreign oil, b) reduce greenhouse gases by making cars perform at a more fuel-efficient level and c) save possibly thousands of lives per year. Sounds good, right? Well this law is mandating a national speed limit of 40 miles an hour. When evaluating the cost-benefit of this law, we don’t stop at the benefits of a, b, and c and weigh it against the value of the extra time spent under this new speed limit. We place value on the ability to go a speed limit that might be inefficient by fuel standards, dangerous, and decrease our energy security. Similarly, if the NSA actually saved lives through its monitoring, we wouldn’t just analyze the cost of the NSA vs the lives saved.
The point is that we value personal liberty, everyone values it in different magnitudes, and not including it in an analysis like this is misleading. The explicit cost of this law might only be between $44 and $142 per car, but the mandate in itself is not an insignificant cost.

(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine.  I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).

Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership.  The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.

The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”.  This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions.  Would policy x move us closer to libertopia?  Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion?  The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.

But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia.  They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom.  The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom.  A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).

A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?).  More on this soon.