Submitted by Svetlana Wasserman
Anyone who receives State Representative Kimberly Fiorello’s Capitol Update knows that when faced with how to vote on a proposed bill, Fiorello is guided by two questions: first, will this bill enhance individual freedoms or diminish them? And second, will this bill empower government or weaken it?
In Fiorello’s eyes, government is “overarching” and “unaccountable.” Fiorello writes, “I do not believe we need government legislation, i.e. new laws, to do what needs to be done. We, the people, can and ought to just do it.” Fiorello sees government as composed of unelected bureaucrats akin to parasites feeding on taxpayer dollars. The solution, she believes, lies in enhancing individual freedoms.
This libertarian view of the world, fed by the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, reveres the market as the most optimal decision-maker, not only for economic growth, but for all social needs. In this view, the best outcomes will be achieved if each person is allowed to pursue his or her self-interest without interference or direction from governing elites.
Fiorello’s idée fixe on unrestricted individual freedom ignores decades of economic research about market failures, which can occur when the unregulated pursuit of individual self-interest leads to worse outcomes for the community at large. Fiorello believes that government has no role in solving market failures, and sees any regulation as a step to becoming North Korea or Cuba. In her un-nuanced world, there is only room for totalitarianism or individual freedoms, and nothing in between. But a market tuned only to maximizing individual self-interest cannot look out for the public good.
Today’s most pressing example of market failure is illustrated by the tragedy of the commons, in which individuals have access to a shared resource. By acting in their self-interest, the result is overconsumption, depletion and underinvestment. For example, individual fishermen will catch fish to the point of extinction, leaving all fishermen worse off. While every fisherman recognizes that limits must be set in place, there is no incentive for any individual to restrict his catch because he can’t be assured that others will do the same. Only the regulation of fishing by a government can preserve the long term survival of all fishermens’ livelihoods.
There are examples of small tight-knit communities agreeing on rules to limit the tragedy of the commons, but the scale of today’s problems far exceeds that possibility. The tragedy of the commons that we face is the degradation of our planet–deforestation, the collapse of biodiversity, pollution, excessive carbon emissions – all contributing to our global existential crisis. The pollution in our oceans is a perfect example of market failure. While governments can regulate the waters off their coasts, no governing entity exists for all the oceans. The ocean is an environment where individuals are free to act in their self-interest without regulation. This has resulted in an obscene amount of plastic pollution, with a plastic island three times the size of France circulating in the ocean currents and causing havoc on marine life.
Another market failure is the concept of negative externalities, whereby the prices charged by producers do not reflect the true cost of the damage they cause. Addiction to tobacco and opiates is a negative externality of the products sold by these companies. Left to their own devices, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies would continue to deny responsibility.
Climate change and environmental damage are also negative externalities. For decades, oil companies knowingly hid research showing that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. Prior to government regulation, industries routinely dumped their waste into rivers and forests. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that it spontaneously burst into flames. Negative externalities such as these can result in public health crises, and without regulation, the industries responsible for causing the problems will pass on the cost of dealing with them to municipal governments and individuals. Individuals pursuing profit as their self-interest cannot be relied on to look out for the common good, and governments are needed to protect public and environmental health.
Fiorello’s trust in individuals as the best decision-makers is the cornerstone of libertarian economics. Libertarians believe that individuals act in their self-interest and that allowing them to act without interference will produce the best result for everyone. Yet we see all the time how people make terrible choices, such as gathering in large groups during COVID or storming the Capital, when they are fed a steady diet of lies and disinformation. Individual choice can be effective in managing idiosyncratic market risks, but it is powerless to address systemic market failures such as climate change, income inequality and racial injustice.
Fiorello’s unquestioning placement of individual rights over the common good explains much of her extremist voting record. She has voted against every piece of civil rights legislation because she believes that racism lives in people’s hearts and government has no role in mitigating it. Embracing the libertarian goal of replacing public schools with private ones, she introduced a bill to divert public school funding to charter schools. Charter schools, which masquerade as public schools because they are paid for with our tax dollars, do not have to meet the same state certification requirements as public schools, and are not subject to local control.
Fiorello has been at the forefront of the protest against requiring vaccines for public school students, claiming that individual liberty trumps public health. She has spoken out against every piece of climate legislation introduced in the Assembly, opposes any kind of gun regulation, and voted against a ban on importing trophies from the killing of critically endangered African big-6 animals. Yet oddly, despite her belief in individual choice, she has opposed letting the people of CT vote on a referendum of whether they would like to have the option of early voting or no-excuse absentee voting.
Fiorello’s simplistic libertarian views are hopelessly out of date for dealing with the complex problems our state faces. The challenges of addressing the climate crisis, educating our students for jobs in the information age, modernizing our infrastructure, and combating decades of institutional racism can only be solved by people who believe that government can be a force for good when markets fail.