Thursday, June 07, 2007

I would abuse my blogging license horribly

According to Reason, the new owner of a drug store in Montana has announced that he will no longer sell birth control pills. This has caused an uproar among some groups, with a Planned Parenthood representative calling it a violation of a woman’s right to birth control.

This is to be expected; while most libertarians are pro-choice, most pro-choicers are not even remotely libertarian, and often have the assumption that if you have a right to do something, you have the right to make others provide it for you. What is surprising, though, is that I have heard some ostensible libertarians claim, in that post’s comment thread among other places, that pharmacists should be legally required to carry these products.

The argument, in its more sophisticated form, goes like this. In a free market in medicine, it would be wrong to force pharmacy owners to sell products they don’t want to sell. But pharmacists are beneficiaries of state privilege, since only they can dispense prescription drugs. This gives them an unjust amount of control over the distribution of prescription drugs, which includes oral contraceptives. Therefore, since we’re not going to get the ideal situation of a free market in medicine in the immediate future, forcing state-licensed pharmacists to sell birth control in privately owned pharmacies is legitimate, since they shouldn’t be allowed to abuse their monopoly privileges.

The first objectionable thing about this is that I see no reason why the logic of it wouldn’t also apply to medical procedures; if this line of argument is valid, it would also be illegitimate for hospitals and doctors to refuse to perform abortions, for instance, and it would be okay to conscript doctors to perform them if you can’t find someone to do it willingly. There are probably people on the left who would like that, but it certainly wouldn’t be a libertarian outcome.

But it has problems that go beyond medicine. By this principle, the government could legitimately control any profession or business if it first required a license for that field, since such licenses would give illegitimate and potentially abusable powers to the licensed.

Suppose we licensed publishers in this country, the way we licensed doctors, so that only they could print and sell books. And suppose a publisher decided that it would no longer publish any book that promoted Christianity. Under the principle described above, it would be legitimate, from a libertarian point of view, to force the company to start printing Bibles and Jack Chick tracts, in order to stop them from abusing the power that state licensing gives and ensure that such materials remain available.

That is where the argument leads, and it goes to similar places in any other field. Licensed professors would lose the right to teach what they want, and refrain from teaching as they wished. Licensed newspapers could be compelled to cover certain stories. Licensed bloggers could be required to blog on particular topics. We can’t have any of them abusing the powers government licensing brings, can we?

Like the notion that the government has the right to control activities it subsidizes, this is a potential backdoor to total government control. (Albeit one less likely to be embraced by statists, since to use it you have to acknowledge that government licensure is a form of monopolistic privilege.) Both arguments use the destructive effects of past statism to justify even more statism. It’s troubling to see people who identify as libertarians embracing this sort of thing.

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Kn@ppster said...

I have to admit, I've fallen for the "if they get a state privilege ..." argument too many times to count. Thanks for exploding it.

Mupetblast said...


And of course the existence of the licensing regime is not necessarily the fault of the person needing the license to operate legally. Same goes for the existence of subsidies, say, for college students. Actively encouraging more licensing and subsidies, however, puts a given individual in a different moral light.