Warning: This post is just as wonky and boring as the title makes it sound.

This essay by Jerry Taylor and Peter VanDoren of the Cato Institute perfectly captures a real confusion I have about libertarians.

They discuss the two versions of the energy bill — House and Senate — and say pretty much what you’d expect libertarians to say: Every provision that has government giving money to a market actor, taking money from a market actor, or restricting the behavior of a market actor is bad, bad, bad.

Okay, fine. But what’s the motivation?

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Here are the two possible versions of libertarianism:

  • On the one hand, a libertarian might care foremost about market fairness. The preference would be for no government interference in the market at all — the ultimate in impartial fairness. However, failing that, the preference would be that tax breaks, subsidies, or regulations applying to one market actor apply to all equally. The idea is that a level market playing field allows investors and consumers to decide on winners and losers without any structural disparities distorting their decisions.
  • On the other hand, the libertarian might simply oppose government intervention in the market, of any kind, period. On this view government intervention, government power, is the primary evil and its absence the primary good; market fairness is a possible but not necessary result of reducing gov’t power.

So, how would the difference play out? Energy markets offer a great example.

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Right now, the oil industry benefits from numerous government-dependent features of the market. It doesn’t have to pay for the massive military costs of intervening and maintaining bases in oil-rich countries. It doesn’t have to pay for the health care costs arising from its pollution, from the car-happy suburban lifestyle it makes possible, from the processed, fat-and-corn-syrup-heavy foods it makes possible (thanks to petroleum fertilizers). It doesn’t have to pay for the infrastructure, land-use, and appropriations decisions gov’t makes on its behalf. It doesn’t have to pay for global warming. And of course, it receives billions in direct subsidies and tax breaks. It is extraordinarily privileged.

So the libertarian faces a decision. A libertarian who first and foremost despises gov’t intervention will wage war on these various direct and indirect subsidies. A libertarian who first and foremost seeks market fairness — and acknowledges the immense political power of the oil lobby — might advocate for some subsidies for clean energy, to attempt to level the playing field.

But Taylor and VanDoren do neither. They do not acknowledge the market distortions favoring oil at all. They simply decry any attempt by government to boost renewable energy, reduce oil use through efficiency, or regulate energy companies.

In fact, they even go so far as to say the House version is better than the Senate version, even though the former contains much more pork — the pork is just directed to oil and gas companies.

One is tempted to conclude that libertarianism has nothing to do with it — that Taylor and VanDoren are not advocating for a free market but simply shilling for the fossil fuel industry.

And that’s what bugs me about libertarianism in general. In theory it has equal hostility to all market distortions, but in practice it reserves its hostility for attempts to rebalance a market already heavily weighted to favor the powerful.

I don’t want to come to this conclusion. I’m desperate to find principled arguments in today’s political climate, even arguments I disagree with.

Can someone — in the unlikely event that anyone’s read this far — explain why I’m wrong about Taylor and VanDoren?