Paul Krugman exposes libertarianism's "foolish fantasy"

The New York Times columnist says the water contamination crisis in Toledo shows libertarianism's fatal flaw

Published August 11, 2014 4:35PM (EDT)

Paul Krugman                                                                                                                                                                     (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Paul Krugman (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

In his latest column for the New York Times, best-selling author and award-winning economist Paul Krugman argues that the water contamination crisis in Toledo, Ohio, is a case-in-point for why libertarianism is fundamentally flawed, relying as it does on the "foolish fantasy" of overreaching Big Government.

"Is libertarian economics at all realistic?" Krugman asks, responding to yet another essay about libertarianism's supposedly imminent takeover of American politics. "The answer is no," he continues. "And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus."

Krugman then turns his eyes toward Toledo, where residents are being discouraged from drinking their water due to phosphorus-caused toxic algae blooms in Lake Eerie. How'd the phosphorus get in there to begin with? Runoff from underregulated farms.

"The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering," Krugman writes. "Pollution controls are the simplest example" of justifiable government regulation, Krugman says, but it's hardly alone.

Acknowledging that regulations are often, if not always, the result of genuine problems that individuals cannot fix themselves, Krugman argues, is anathema to libertarianism. A view of the government as bloated and poorly functioning is too central to the libertarian ideology to be discarded.

The result, Krugman writes, is an entire political program that's founded on "a foolish fantasy":

As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t believe talk of a rising libertarian tide; despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers. But libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Free-market Paul Krugman Phosphorous Pollution Red State Regulation The New York Times