Libertarian Medved Response Team
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[Mr. Jensen taped the cited program, and transcribed the dialogue]

by Phil Jensen; copyright 2002, all rights reserved. (posted March 28, 2002)

Dubbing himself  "America's cultural crusader", syndicated talk show host, Michael Medved, has expressed his hostility toward libertarians many times over the years, blaming libertarians for political upsets, and treating libertarian callers with disdain and empty derision. His hour-long attack on libertarianism on May 22, 2001 prompted me to record and respond to his inconsistent and almost hysterical assault on libertarians and their ideas.

Now Medved admittedly poses himself as a commentator on pop-culture and politics. Perhaps it is there he should stay. He often gives lip service to liberty, but his true focus is on today's politics. Often touted as an extremely brilliant guy, he demonstrated profound ignorance when he devoted this hour to his idea that "One of the most influential, philosophical and political positions in this country is the position of libertarians...a philosophy that I don't think works very well."  It is true that he does seem to know a lot of stuff, but he is inconsistent in his approach on the appropriate or most suitable role and function of government in society—definitely a libertarian issue.  Too, his responses to callers reveal his failure to understand the importance of ideas and the underlying workings of the market.

Mr. Medved's know-it-all demeanor betrays the reality that he is not a listener. He has already made up his mind about a great many things, and no amount of reason will sway him if his ears, and their connection to real considerations, are not receptive. Although he claims to be a reformed liberal-turned conservative, his know-it-all attitude could explain why he remains strongly statist in his approach to dealing with the means he sees in responding to desired ends.

Medved has not yet figured out that all needs and wants represent market demand. He has not yet learned that liberty, rather than government, can be expanded into many areas to allow the market to respond to those needs and wants. He flatly assumed that we need government to give us police and fire protection, parks and national defense, and added, "Should the government be absolutely limited to those endeavors?" He then offered even more examples of present public functions, like the dispensing of vaccinations, inspecting restaurants and enforcing health standards. And on the FAA: "I, I, I do want government to check out airplanes before I get on them please, and to try to make sure they're safe. But would I feel comfortable, for one, with a totally free-market aviation system? Good Luck! Wha, what do you do about air traffic control if it's totally free-market?" My question is: How can you possibly think that responding to the need for air traffic control—or any of those public functions mentioned—which require creative and innovative energies, can only be accomplished by applying uncreative force?

I'll admit, it does bother me that this man receives such alleged high acclaim from his audience. Now I can get past the annoying little high-brow "H"s he inserts in his speaking (it's Seattle, Mr. Medved, not Seatt-hle), and his incessant stuttering, which I think is quite a curious trait for a talk-show host and public speaker. But, like Rush Limbaugh's "talent on loan from GaaaawwwwDDuh!", those are personal issues that can be dismissed by the careful thinker as part of the delivery of ideas. The ideas themselves are what require scrutiny and questioning, and incorrect ideas should not be left alone without being exposed for what they are. I should say up front that herein I include Mr. Medved's stuttering in his quotes not to belittle him, but only to be accurate.

Mr. Medved started off fairly well in this particular program by loosely defining the libertarian philosophy "...that government should only be there to protect you, and protect your property; that a great deal of what government does is inappropriate." He gave a more nebulous characterization of a "Libertarian, meaning people who want government to absolutely pull back from nearly everything that government does." The operative word here is "nearly". He made no attempt to clearly define the specific scope of human exchange beyond which government intervention is inappropriate—that is, that all voluntary exchange (absent of force or fraud) ought to be free from government interference.

But he attempted to qualify his position, and carried on throughout the hour referring to "pure libertarians" and "pure libertarian philosophy". He continued by telling a recent story about a Seattle man stabbed over a complaint about another's loud music:  "I think this illustrates one of the reasons that we have government—is to sett-hle disputes like this." (That's "settle", Mr. Medved, not "sett-hle"). He checked with the Libertarian Party, who of course had no objection to noise ordinances. Yet he insisted otherwise: "But I think a lot of people who believe in a pure libertarian philosophy would have objections to that kind of ordinance. Why? Because it's some kind of infringement on freedom." Mr. Medved seems to think that to be libertarian is to believe in "total" freedom—that is, unrestrained by self-responsibility. He didn't listen.

"[T]here are all kinds of areas where you do need government,"  he stated,  "and think it ought to be possible to be a conservative who believes in limited government, without being a 'pure libertarian' who believes in no government."  The very next caller, identifying himself as a libertarian Republican, advised Medved, "Libertarians don't advocate no government; that's dishonest to say that."

"I said pure libertarians do," Medved retorted, and made references to exclude members of the Libertarian Party, but maintained—at least in his own mind—the existence of these "pure libertarians" of whom he seems to confuse with anarchists.  Again, he didn't listen—it is not in his interest to listen, because to himself he has nothing to learn from others on this subject or many others.

Perhaps he uses his qualifier "pure" to make his contention without actually offending or insulting anyone. At any rate, there is almost as wide a spectrum of thought among the libertarians as among conservatives and today's liberals. It makes as much sense to speak of "pure libertarians" as it does to speak of pure conservatives or of pure liberals.

At the opening of his program, he showed his first loyalty to politics, saying, "I don't mean here members of the Libertarian Party; they tend to be a handful of 'fringies' who have no real impact on politics, other than to defeat Republicans, and to mess things up." The impact of libertarians in politics is perhaps still relatively small simply because the game of politics today is based upon the principle of  "might makes right". The Libertarians simply have not yet gathered the "might"—the number of constituent voters. And I believe it may be fair to say that libertarians try to defeat Democrats more than Republicans. Medved's problem is essentially one of numbers: he sees only the growing number of libertarians representing a lesser number of Republican votes, thereby threatening Republicans.  He would rather vote for a popular "winner" than one who holds to principles.

Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, once said that the advancement of liberty is not a numbers problem; it is not a selling proposition. It is a problem of enlightenment, and it happens one by one, individual by individual. Politics today is precisely a matter of selling  a bill of goods. To say that the libertarians "mess things up" in the political arena is short-sighted, and comes solely from a sore-losing political position rather than from the perspective of the advancement of liberty. Lord Acton once reminded us that liberty is not the means to a higher political end; it is itself the highest political end. Our politics today is sliding to the other end.

At one point Medved illustrated his crass political bent by inviting a caller from "wandering through the libertarian purgatory" to "come home to a party that can actually impact real-world choices in this country." That statement is revealing. Medved is either unaware or in denial of the Republican Party's track record, through the expansion of government, in reducing "real world choices" of individuals practically as much as the Democrats.  He seems to be unable to consistently draw the line beyond which the force of government does not belong.

Now he did actually claim on this show, "So where do you draw the line?...My answer to that would be you do a cost/benefit analysis. Is the sacrifice of liberty, is the expansion of government you're supporting, worth it? I think that national parks are worth it. I think that police departments are worth it...but, uh, does that mean that every government activity is worth it? No...But , uh, does that mean that it's worth actually looking at where an intelligent balance can be drawn? Yeah, I think it is." He makes another similar claim in the hour that building roads and highways are appropriate functions of government if the benefit is greater than the cost of liberty. This is a sad joke. His so-called cost/benefit analysis is purely subjective, and does not take into account all of the unseen costs of which, to be fair, no one can possibly count. Such costs can only be qualitatively realized, if at all, as they represent alternate decisions and actions people would have made then had they the liberty that never came to be.

It is interesting that toward the beginning of his program he mentioned a debate he once had with Charles Murray, author of  The Bell Curve, and a strong libertarian, on privatizing national parks, saying only "...I happen to think that's a ridiculous position, but uh, uh, okay." No explanation. No reason. No intelligent balance drawn. Nothing to back up his claim. Just a subjective statement. Without serious discussion and reason applied, I expect that many people go along with him, unquestioning. He seems to think he can simply dismiss ideas of which he disagrees without any explanation whatsoever.

Why is Michael Medved such a mixture of confusion, inconsistency and insight? One who is studied in the Austrian school of economics can readily see that Mr. Medved is not aware or appreciative of  the methodological differences between the physical sciences and praxeology, the science of human action (from the Greek, praxis— action)* . In all fairness, he seemed to have a clue in his second hour, on a different topic, when he said, "Economics bases its—um—oh—the whole science really—if it is a science, it's a dismal science—is based on the notion that people are fairly rational in pursuing wealth, because wealth makes them happier." Now, there is probably a vast consensus that the old economics, primarily based upon the empirical method, is pretty dismal. In many ways, that so-called economics that includes all the models and graphs is not economics at all. It is merely a pseudo-science that lends itself to the notions that governments need only to interfere with exchange—thereby tweaking the graph here or fudging the equation there—to try (and then try again) to achieve what the master planners had in mind. The empirical method depends upon mere observation and  historical data, which works fine for the physical sciences. Mr. Medved often relies upon statistics—historical data—to make his case. This data is good for not much more than anecdotal evidence. Historical data cannot include the millions of unseen factors that led up to and explain those specific actions that have already taken place, or that may take place in the future.

And so Mr. Medved carries on, as do many of the callers, empirically compiling lists of  "real-world" examples to make his case. Without the tools of a priori insights to aid his reasoning (upon which Austrian economics is based), he can only lean on empiricism. As today's economy is such a contaminated mixture of relative liberty—with every aspect of living touched in some way by the consequences of government interference—no "real-world" examples can alone make the case for either the free market nor for socialism. Praxeology explains why the empirical method keeps offering confusing conclusions, why the old adage seems true, that so many economists stretched end to end will not reach a conclusion.  For the reason that the old classical schools, and the so-called "macro" schools of today, are based upon empiricism, they produce inconsistent conclusions. Moreover, these conclusions are made in terms of collectives, not understanding the significance of individual actions . This is why we keep going around in circles, trying variations on the same old collective theme:  If we just had one more law; if we just got the right people in office; if we just raised taxes a little bit more; if we could just regulate it; if there were more efficiency and accountability in government; if only...

In contrast, conclusions of Austrian economists—based upon the praxeological approach—are reliably consistent. Praxeology deals with looking at how people are thinking and adjusting to ever-changing situations. From the a priori , the characteristic ideas and subsequent actions of everyone as individuals are deduced. This cannot be captured by observation. Mere observation cannot get there. Empiricism does not deal with ideas, for they cannot be seen. Praxeology offers insights on the ideas and human spirit that precede actions . Indeed, far from any dismal connotation, Austrian economics and its deductions and insights are exciting on both an intellectual and even spiritual level, as they provide a truly solid and logical foundation for faith in the prospects of liberty and free individuals.

Mr. Medved does seem to get it right at times—almost. At one point on his show, he actually stated,  "I mean, uh, y, you see, part of—I think what one needs to recognize is that part of the good life—that many Americans—not all Americans—but that many Americans lead is made possible by constructive uses of government. Now, does that mean that it is appropriate for government to take money from party A and pay it to party B, because party B is poor? No, I think that is confiscatory; I think that's socialism. I think that's theft, frankly." Well, he's right there. If he really understands this though, why did he advocate government schools several times during the hour? And on what basis? Medved asked a caller, "How, how, what would you do about educating poor kids without government schools?"  Well, Mr. Medved, does that mean that it is appropriate for government to take money from party A and pay it to party B, because party B is poor?

Another time Medved asked on schools: "How would you do it? Who would pay for it, other than religious organizations?

Caller: "Charities, and neighborhoods and corporations."
Medved: "I, I understand, but you see, I think you have a real problem, particularly when you talk about kids from difficult homes with learning challenges...1-800-955-1776", not letting the caller respond. This seems to be a part of Medved's method of escape from tough questions he cannot or will not explain: always bring in another "what if", but don't let the caller respond to it, as if Medved's last word will "sett-hle" the argument in his favor. Too, if he has to recite the number for callers to call in, would that not indicate that his phone lines are empty? If his phone lines are not full of callers, should he not spend more time in depth with the present caller precisely at the moment when the thinking really begins?

Now one caller, Dan, cornered Mr. Medved, that an imperfect world leaves Medved in fear of  "what about, what about, what about", that there are always those who are happy to spend other people's money—through government—to address a whole variety of issues they believe are more important than others'.
Medved changed the subject: "What about the FAA?" Do you feel comfortable allowing airlines to entirely regulate themselves?"
Dan: "No, because they wouldn't; they never have. The insurance companies have regulated them because they don't want to lose money....[E]very time you say, 'what about this' or 'what about that', what you're saying is that a few people might fall through the cracks; we have to turn the entire society into a giant sinkhole..."
Medved interrupted: "The insurance companies are not sufficient to regulate it and I don't think there's a single entrepreneur who says, 'I would like to run an airline without federal interference'."
Dan: "That's because (he laughs), then it would mean more competition for them. Of course they won't...Every time you pass a law, it's not gonna be what you or I want. It's what people with the most political influence—the lobbyists and the politicians—work together, and they have a little game going, and it keeps competition out of very many industries. And when you look at the industries that are least regulated, like the computer industry, we have the higher quality and the lower price."

Medved just doesn't see that there is a market for "regulation" like everything else: "I, I, look, I, I'm all for reducing regulations; I'm not for eliminating regulation; I think that the airline industry is a terrific example of an industry that needs to be regulated. We need some banking regulation, wouldn't  you think so? Or do you want your deposits to be insured or not—federally?" It looks like Medved has learned neither the market-origin of money nor what government has done to our money as well. And he wants to regulate it further?

Talking at one point about $7,000 per pupil per year spent on government schools, Medved said "I believe in choice in education. I don't support the current public school system. I think that you ought to be able to chose where your children go to school, but there will still need to be public schools, because not everybody is capable of funding and handling that kind of choice, and by the way, the choice in education that I talk about, the government would still pay for it... How do you-how do you pay for it with privatization if you're poor?...I understand the inefficiency of public schools systems, but Catholic schools typically spend $3,000 to $4,000 teaching kids—and that's even with a lot of free teaching services from nuns. Okay? Eh, y, y, y, you have to spend real money on this." Or so it appears with mere observation.

I already mentioned the impossibility of calculating the costs in Medved's cost/benefit analysis. On the benefit side, he gives only subjective benefits as well. There is no real analysis here at all: "And it seems to me reasonable for society to say that everybody who lives in that society—if I live in a neighborhood, I get a benefit from the public school in that neighborhood, even if I don't send my kids to it. And I'm glad to pay for it!" Of course, part of the "benefit" of the government school is also the degeneration of fundamental knowledge and attitudes that wear away at the foundations of our society, as well as the often overt indoctrination of our children in statist doctrine. Mr. Medved fails to see that the government schools as the main purveyors of the socialist and confused ideas so prevalent today. He continues to finish the hour:  "I mean, and, and, and everybody should be [glad to pay for it], because to say that education should be totally privatized—it shows, again—it seems to me—some of the absolute limitation in "pure libertarian" philosophy. Less government? Sure. Less regulation? Absolutely. More freedom? Certainly. Eliminate government? Uh-uh. Not in the greatest nation on God's green earth."

It is one thing for Mr. Medved to criticize the libertarian philosophy, but to do so without understanding its basics seems to indicate a strange pride in his ignorance. It is one thing to make analyses on economic matters, but to do so without understanding consistent economic theory, and passing subjective judgment off as analysis, is dishonest and not helpful in the advancement of ideas. If the thinking listeners of his program, who are not already tired of him by now, are careful to listen where he does not, his bluff will eventually be called, his true ignorance will be revealed.

As a "cultural crusader", perhaps Michael Medved should best stick to his movie criticism, where subjectivity and opinion are within their realm—and his—and is understood as such.

* Praxeological or Austrian economics ...
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... breaks free from Thomas Carlyle's popular "dismal" characteristic because it recognizes that the old empirical scientific method of the physical sciences does not apply to human actions. While it is not intended here to expound on a lengthy introduction of Austrian economics, it is important enough to point out that the foundation of praxeological studies is a priori (Latin, meaning "from the former" or "preceding") knowledge—that is, knowledge that is understood by reason alone without relying on empirical observation or experience. While sounding complex, the praxeological method is quite simple (My economics teacher believes that it should be taught in kindergarten). The reasoning and insights that are developed and deduced from its study are not only consistent with the principles of liberty, they explain precisely why liberty is more suitable for the achievement of man's desired ends than are government interventions, government programs, master plans and regulations. Although this breakthrough in economic thought is only about a hundred years old now, it has been slow to catch on, most likely due to lack of exposure. The chances of learning it in government schools over the last forty years or so have been, of course, pretty slim.
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