Bill Maher Criticizes Libertarians, Ignores Costs

Facebook: the ceaseless source of late-night blogfodder. I caught this post from Progressive Libertarianism and I had to investigate:

Screenshot from 2013-04-06 23:56:23

Those who follow the Progressive Libertarian page long enough discover that the people behind it are very thoughtful, apparently Austrian-inspired libertarians who regularly post progressive-inspired criticisms and interrogatories of libertarianism. It is a great page to follow for libertarians who are interested in isolating their core beliefs and discovering where they stand on various issues of contention among the libertarian community. Very well done, and kudos to them.

Regarding the above comment, I was immediately skeptical of Edgardo’s claim that intellectual superiority “does not matter when it comes to life itself”. Forget about whether libertarians are actually intellectually superior to anyone. I’m not vain enough to comment on that issue, but does intelligence generally carry no substance? If a guy happens to be intellectually superior to other people, and he uses his smarts to, say, invent something that millions of people find useful—perhaps something that makes acquiring food easier for millions of people—I would say that that “matters when it comes to life itself”, wouldn’t you? So I had trouble making sense of this criticism. It seemed to me like a particularly inept variation on the common anti-libertarian theme that libertarians are too logical, tend to oversimplify, and fail to appreciate the complexities of reality.

To get a better sense of the criticism, I sought the original video. I believe it is here:

Bill Maher evidently didn’t think he needed the full four minutes to dismantle libertarianism, so he wastes the first two-and-a-half minutes on ad-hominem garbage and jokes that do not merit response. The more-or-less valid criticisms come after 2:30.  One of the more serious of these is his concern for the quality of meat in the absence of a government inspection agency:

Same with meat inspectors. Who needs ’em? Pfft. People can sniff their own meat. And if a few die, the word will get around town: “Don’t order the t-bone at the Ponderosa.” And then the Ponderosa closes. Problem solved, thanks to the free market.

He was being sarcastic, of course. The benefits of meat inspection are undeniable, but the reality that Bill Maher fails to confront—the reality that self-righteous progressives like Bill Maher routinely fail to confront—is that these benefits come at a cost. Bill Maher does not labor a single breath to confront the costs of these programs.

There is a tax cost to the program. The government does have to pay people to inspect these meat-packing plants, but that’s not my main concern. I’m more concerned about the meat, that many people could have used, which will never be produced because the government drives out of business anyone who can not afford to meet it’s standard. Here, again, is my favorite video clip that demonstrates this exact point. It is from, of all places, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. I continue to post it on this blog because it continues to be relevant:

This woman had made a business providing meat for herself and her neighbors. Whether anyone fell ill after eating this meat is impossible to tell from the video, but the woman said that her meat “usually went”, suggesting that her neighbors appreciated the product. Someone—probably either a concerned do-gooder or a competitor—informed the health inspectors, who then shut down her business, thereby depriving her impoverished neighbors of a source of food. She feeds herself only at her peril, and nervously looks over her shoulder, as she prepares her own food, for the health inspectors who might return to issue further citations. As supply decreases, costs increase. As these operations are shut down, meat becomes more scarce and therefore more expensive. The poor are priced out of the meat market.

I commented under the video about this hidden cost of mandated food inspection. The video’s poster replied quickly. This happened:

Screenshot from 2013-04-07 01:30:36

I’m fascinated: When Bryan Anthony, the apparently liberal-progressive poster of the Bill Maher video, deigned to attempt the cost-benefit analysis that Bill Maher neglected, he discovered, paradoxically, that hunger is no longer a problem in America“If safer food costs more,” his argument runs, “you just eat less. …” It’s that simple, in Bryan’s view. Now, what do you suppose is more likely: that Americans are no longer concerned about the affordability of food, or that Bryan Anthony somehow botched this cost/benefit analysis? I suspected the latter, so I responded with another comment, which has since been deleted. No loss, however. I remember it verbatim, and, had it been allowed to remain, it would by now have been completely lost down the YouTube comment feed memory hole.  Here is what I wrote:

People often ask libertarians: “What will you do to help the poor?” One response to this question is that libertarians will make things more affordable by removing quality mandates. I would be embarrassed to say to a poor person, “If safer food means it costs more, you just eat less.” Going hungry isn’t safe, either.


Kosher labels, or Hechshers, indicating that food bearing them has been inspected. Choose your price point. Quality varies.

Bryan Anthony responded here, and here with the buckshot approach of  condemning “corporations run wild”, which running wild entailed fighting unions, paying low minimum wages, monopolizing markets, outsourcing labor, and the like. Each of these issues is important and worthy of discussion, but I’d prefer to come to a resolution on one issue before hopping to another. Alas, not a further word was to be squandered on the economic consequences to the poor of mandating high quality on food producers. Ralph Raico recounted Robert Nozick’s observation of this diversionary form of damage control. I can tell just as easily when I’m dealing with a befuddled excuse-maker:


Those interested in winning back libertarians would do well to stay on topic.

Of course, anyone who wants safe, well-inspected meat in a libertarian society will always be welcome to have it—so long as they pay for it. Rabbis have served the public by certifying meat and other foods as kosher since well before your state’s department of health was even born. Oregon Tilth is a young, hip, private organic certification service that has been around in one form or other, since the 1970s. But the certification services these agencies provide are not free. As certifying food entails a certain amount of effort, and as meeting the requirements of certification carries a cost, and as fewer certified goods make it to market, the prices of these goods are naturally higher. To believe that the safety and quality of all food will increase costlessly at the wave of a politician’s pen, or to fail entirely to consider the question, is folly.

Look for the Oregon Tilth logo on your high-quality organic foods.

Look for the Oregon Tilth logo on your high-quality organic foods.

Many Americans struggle to put food on the table. That’s “life itself”. The likes of Bill Maher, who would mandate high quality without discussing costs, offer these struggling Americans two choices: Either pay your utilities bills and go hungry or skip the utilities and pay through the schnoz for high quality, well-inspected food. Libertarians would not remove either of these choices. On the contrary, we would offer a third choice: Take your chances on affordable food and pay your utilities bills. I understand that this is not a panacea. I understand that this will not solve everyone’s problems. But it’s something small we can do now right now to ease the financial pressure on America’s struggling families.

Bill Maher runs through several other issues over which he prefers mandated government oversight: banks, guns, schools, civil rights, the environment, natural disasters, etc. I agree with Bill that some form of oversight will laudably improve these facets of life, but those who fail to asses the oft-hidden costs of having government mandate these programs are having only half of the conversation. It sounds to me almost as an inconsiderate bus rider, jabbering away on a cell phone. In my opinion, costs do matter “when it comes to life itself,” so I would prefer to hear that half of the conversation.

Bill Maher wraps with a costless assessment of Medicare and Social Security:

Libertarians also hate Medicare and Social Security, and there are problems with those programs, but here’s the thing: It beats stepping over lepers and watching human skeletons shit in the river, and I also like not seeing those. I’m selfish that way.

Who knows what Bill Maher is talking about when he mentions “problems with those programs”? He could be talking about Medicare’s grotesque balance sheet, loaded with trillions of dollars worth of unfunded promises. But again, that’s not even my main concern. I’d rather discuss how Medicare is the government’s attempted solution to the price problems it created after several decades of mandating high quality and pricing the poor out of the health care market. To help us understand these issues, I’ll leave you with two videos from that wild-eyed libertarian extremist, Stefan Molyneux. Enjoy and be well:


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