Libertarianism as Ten Questions Rather Than Ten Answers

Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party candidate for President, is polling extremely well for someone who isn't a Republican or Democrat. That will likely revive the questions "what is the Libertarian Party," anyway?" and "what is a libertarian, anyway?" It is traditional for those questions to be answered snidely, contemptuously, or with a disturbing degree of uncombed mania.

I'm not very interested in the first question. I'm a sort-of small-l libertarian, not a large-L Libertarian. And I'm deeply uncomfortable about labeling myself as even a small-l libertarian. I've explained why before: I think that embracing political labels leads to bad behavior. I ought to support something because I have thought it through and think it's right, not because members of my tribe support it and insecurity and cognitive dissonance will set in if I disagree with them.

That makes it awfully difficult to explain what libertarianism is when people ask because they're wondering if there's some sort of alternative to the horror show the major parties have served up this year. Nobody wants to sit through my discourse on what I think on a long series of issues, and then stick around while people bicker over whether that's libertarian or not. Yet I believe there are values underlying "libertarianism" that are worth promoting, and that the label might be a useful shorthand for defending them. So what to do? Accept a label with the baggage and thought distortions and compromises that it brings, or abandon concise and effective advocacy?

Maybe there's another way.

I'd like to propose presenting libertarianism as a series of questions rather than a series of answers or policy positions. Even if I don't agree with people's answers to these questions, getting them to ask the questions and confront the issues reflected in the questions would promote the values that I care about.

These are all questions that I think ought to be asked whenever we, as a society, decide whether to task and empower the government to do a thing.

Does the United States Constitution permit the government to do this?

This is the fundamental question. The Constitution is the rulebook. If it doesn't give the government power to do something, or doesn't let it do something to you, then we shouldn't do it unless we amend the Constitution first. You might think that's obvious. It's not. Taking the question seriously is important even when we don't agree on the answer or even the methodology. The norm is to invoke the Constitution only when you don't like a proposed law, and to scorn constitutional inquiry when it's an impediment.

What would this power look like if it were expanded dramatically in scope or in time?

Power given to the government tends to grow, not shrink. Folks don't give up power or money easily. What does the power you offer to the government look like if government actors fight to widen its scope?

Tell me if this sounds familiar: terrorists attack, citizens are killed, property is destroyed, the nation's confidence is severely shaken, and leaders propose a law dramatically expanding the power of the state temporarily to address the crisis. I'm not talking about 2001 and the PATRIOT ACT. I'm talking about 68 B.C. and the lex Gabinia, proposed to give Pompey extraordinary powers to fight pirates. That power led, some assert, to the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome.

Laws passed "temporarily" are often not temporary at all. Laws passed ostensibly for one purpose are often twisted to other purposes.

What would this obligation look like if exercised indifferently by unaccountable people?

We owe a debt to our veterans and the proposition that we're responsible for their health care is an appealing one, particularly when their health problems result from their service to our country. The question is how to provide that health care. Should we make the government a direct provider? Well, what would it look like if we charged a gigantic government bureaucracy to provide it, and maintained a civil service political and legal culture that made the bureaucrats almost completely unaccountable for how they run it? It turns out we already know the answer to that one.

What would your worst enemy do with this power?

Aye, there's the rub. Think of the politician you hate and mistrust most. Do you want that politician administering enforcement of the law you propose, particularly in a time when other branches of government are aligned or weak?

Does this power make a choice about morals, ethics, or risk that individuals ought to make?

Consider C.S. Lewis:

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Does your proposed law empower the government to make the sort of moral, ethical, or risk-assessment decisions that individuals ought to be making for themselves? To combine this question with the last one: if you are empowering the government to make moral, ethical, or risk-assessment judgments for you, are you comfortable with that power being wielded by people with moral, ethical, and risk viewpoints you hate?

Here's another way to ask this question: how does this law treat you with respect to your ability to make decisions, and are you happy with the government constantly treating you that way with respect to other decisions?

Does this power represent the government putting its thumb on the scales to prefer some competitors over others, perhaps based on their relative power and influence?

Or, to use a specific example: if you make monks who hand-carve wooden caskets to support themselves take years of training to learn how to embalm bodies even though they don't have anything to do with dead bodies, are you working for the common good, or are you the puppet of mortuary owners seeking to manipulate the law to discourage competition?

Does this power set up a conflict between laws and rights?

The Constitution creates negative rights — things the government can't do to us. Laws sometimes create positive rights — our privilege to demand something from the government or each other. Does this proposed power set up a conflict between those rights? Does the law purport to give me the power to demand something from you that you have the right not to give?

Are we giving this power to the right level of government?

If we must give the government the power to do this, what part of the government should get it?

Are we acting out of fear, anger, or self-promotion?

Is this law named after a dead kid? Is it named in a way calculated to suggest somebody is awful and we're a-gonna kick their asses? Is it named to promote a politician? Is it named to promote our self-esteem? Is this law the equivalent of grocery shopping when we're hungry? Is it the equivalent of liquor shopping when we just caught our significant other in bed with our best friend? Are we too angry, tired, or scared to think clearly about this law right now? is the person proposing this law in a difficult re-election contest?

Is there any evidence the government is any good at this?

Say you've got a problem at work and you need someone to fix it. You'll probably give some thought to who is best suited for the job. If the server's down you're not going to send Ethel at reception who once tried to send an email from the fax machine. If you need someone to calm the boss down you're not going to send Wayne from sales who prides himself on "saying what people think." You give a shit about how it's going to turn out so you evaluate who has the skillset.

Often we don't do that with the government. We assume, based on habit or ideology, that if there's a problem that the government ought to solve it. Should we? Possibly. But not obviously, not definitely. So ask: what's the specific, evidence-and-experience-founded basis for thinking the government will make this better rather than worse?

Even if people don't agree with my answers to these questions, I think that the country would be a lot more libertarian — as I like to use that term — if people got interested in asking them.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. Barry Melton says

    "I think that embracing political labels leads to bad behavior. I ought to support something because I have thought it through and think it's right, not because members of my tribe support it and insecurity and cognitive dissonance will set in if I disagree with them."

    That is generally more true for Democrats and Republicans, though I would garner that more 'pure' ideological party affiliations tend to value first principles, and derives their decision-making from there, rather than tribalism. Of course, nothing is perfect without hyper-specification, but derivative libertarianism is at least predictable, if a few variables are known (where does someone define life, etc.), while those on the left-right spectrum tend to be predictable mostly by the stance of their opposition party.

  2. says

    While I'm never going to be a Libertarian, reading your work makes it easier to respect them. Someday, I wish to write half as well as you.

    I think, as an unrepentant Democrat, I need sites like this, with people who can argue from a different perspective than me. Plus, your position on ponies is hilarious. I'll have to write a counter-argument sometime.

  3. Daniel Weber says

    Does the United States Constitution permit the government to do this?

    Are you serious? Are you serious?

  4. says

    I would make the case that libertarianism = the presumption of innocence, applied not only to criminal trials but to law in general, including statutory / constitutional interpretation and public policy / legislation. And I would suggest that a much more "fundamental" question than the question of whether something is permitted by the Constition is the question of whether the Consitution itself has any authority at all and if so how much? I suggest the answer to that question gets us as close to bridging the gap between "is" and "ought" as we're likely to get. The fact that I have no "authority" to impose my will on another person is a pretty good reason not to do it, although I might do it anyways if it is Necessary and Proper to do it.

  5. Kevin says

    I would propose an additional question, one the Penn Jillette has put forth frequently. Would I use a gun to accomplish this? Since all government power ultimately comes down to force, are you okay using force to achieve some goal. The example Penn uses frequently is building libraries. He is a big fan of books and loves libraries but he wouldn't use a gun to build one.

    And if you personally wouldn't use force to achieve something, are you okay with allowing the government to do so on your behalf?

  6. Aaron says

    Some good questions indeed. Unfortunately good questions means applying critical thinking. Sadly lacking in the majority of Americans, especially when it comes to their few voting issues.

  7. Steve says

    My problem with all of these questions are they presume that the citizenry is more competent than the government. The authors of the constitution did not believe that. Hence the ability to create a strong federal government, and why the 10th amendment was largely supplanted by the 13th, 14th, 15th, et al.

  8. Psmith says

    Daily reminder that Johnson would force you to bake the cake and Bill Weld pushed for an AWB and is still a massive fudd.

  9. JB says

    Beautifully written. I am forwarding it to my various debate partners.

    I have a simpler version I often fall back on when explaining left-libertarianism:

    1) Does the law forbid/reduce a specific form of fraud?
    *If so, it's probably OK

    2) Does the law forbid/reduce a specific form of coercion(force)?
    *If so, it's probably OK

    3) Does the law restrict freedom of contract in any other way?
    *If so, it's probably bad

    4) Does the law generally further an atmosphere that minimizes force or fraud?
    *If so, it's probably OK unless it egregiously violates question 3
    *Here is where right-libertarians get off, or they tend to answer "No" to this question about any law that they haven't answered "yes" to question 1 or 2 about. This is also the one that justifies the existence of, say, the FDA, Department of Education, and some sort of minimum wage, despite the fact that all of those run afoul of question 3.

  10. David Aitken says

    Kevin said "… Would I use a gun to accomplish this? …". That's the BIG question. The government has a monopoly on the legal use of force and violence. When should that be used? Most people don't get that.

  11. David C says

    @Steve: The 13/14/15th amendments were not written by the authors of the Constitution – I'd be shocked if any original authors were even still alive in 1865. And those amendments, as intended, would no more supplant the 10th than the constitutional prohibition on states making ex post facto laws would. Of course, as interpreted by the Supreme Court a hundred years later, the 14th might be doing some supplanting, but that's due to the courts and not really the amendment itself, and is exactly the reason why libertarians are necessary.

    The 10th, on the other hand, WAS written by some of the original authors of the Constitution, and any criticism of it at the time was that it was unnecessary because it was already implied by the Constitution itself. I'm frankly confused by your apparent belief that the 13-15th have something to do with the authors but the 10th does not.

  12. Patrick Henry, the 2nd says

    Would I use a gun to accomplish this?

    @Kevin- I like this one a lot. It forces people to think about the consequences of their ideas.

  13. Zem says

    I would add.

    Does a right under the constitution come unburdened with responsibility?

  14. Castaigne says

    These are excellent questions. Bravo, Ken.

    ===

    @Kevin:

    I would propose an additional question, one the Penn Jillette has put forth frequently. Would I use a gun to accomplish this?

    I don't think that's a good question, because it really depends on how one views force and aggression. My answer to that question would be "If it's practical, expedient, and legal, then yes, I would." After all, why wouldn't I? Force is just a tool, like anything else. It has no moral value assigned to it.

    Someone who's all pacifistic or NAP would answer it differently, of course.

  15. Scott C says

    @ Castainge,

    ===

    @Kevin:
    I would propose an additional question, one the Penn Jillette has put forth frequently. Would I use a gun to accomplish this?
    I don't think that's a good question, because it really depends on how one views force and aggression. My answer to that question would be "If it's practical, expedient, and legal, then yes, I would." After all, why wouldn't I? Force is just a tool, like anything else. It has no moral value assigned to it.

    Someone who's all pacifistic or NAP would answer it differently, of course.

    I think you miss the thrust of the question. You're assuming that the answer is supposed to be no. The point of the question is that the government often accomplishes its objectives by the use of force. If you're comfortable with that, or, as you said, if you think it would be practical, expedient, and legal (that last one is a bit circular) to allow the government to use force to accomplish some objective, then you would be fine giving the government that power. If you are uncomfortable with the government accomplishing that objective by threat of force at the end of a gun, then you might think more carefully before ceding that power to the government.

  16. PonyAdvocate says

    Here is a question about which libertarians seem often to be curiously indifferent: What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it?

  17. says

    I like this post. Only one commenter has made reference to the "Non-Aggression Principle" (or NAP), and I am interested to know how Ken feels about that as a unifying libertarian principle. The people I hear referring to the NAP tend to be anarchists, and in my view they are addicted to consistency to the point of excluding common sense. I think Ken's approach is closer to mine. But the NAP, while people can debate its contours, tends to be a fairly useful concept to serve as a focal point of discussion. I don't think it necessarily requires one to believe in anarchism or a pure pacifism as the anarchists seem to espouse.

    Together with the NAP is the concept that government cannot do what individuals cannot morally do. This can be a radical concept if taken to its extreme, but even if one disagrees with it, the argument forces you to really think hard about why we allow government to engage in the use of coercive force . . . and perhaps narrows one's conception of when such force is permissible.

  18. Mike Lorrey says

    The Constitution doesn't create any rights, negative or otherwise. Negative rights are more well known as natural rights, because they exist whether or not you believe in them, or whether your government recognizes them or not. The Constitution merely says the government can't trample on them.

  19. En Passant says

    Ken White wrote:

    What would your worst enemy do with this power?

    Aye, there's the rub. Think of the politician you hate and mistrust most. Do you want that politician administering enforcement of the law you propose, particularly in a time when other branches of government are aligned or weak?

    I'm inclined to define "worst enemy" more drastically.

    Think of the worst enemy you've ever encountered in your life with power to enforce this law you propose. He started in childhood, beating you up on the playground and stealing your lunch money. He's barking moonbat crazy obsessed with getting even with you for something that never even happened. He swears he will use any law against you if there is any possible way to do so. He has lots of friends in government who owe him favors, including judges. Do you still think this is a good law?

  20. says

    The Constitution doesn't create any rights, negative or otherwise. Negative rights are more well known as natural rights, because they exist whether or not you believe in them, or whether your government recognizes them or not. The Constitution merely says the government can't trample on them.

    I think the Founders would have agreed. However, that quibble aside, I appreciate Ken's addressing the issue of negative vs. positive rights, and correctly characterizing the latter as oppression — especially since we hear so many positive "rights" declared these days (health care, e.g.).

  21. says

    Not the main point, but fax machines have sent emails for a couple of decades now. I don't think you can still buy fax machines that aren't email enabled.

  22. piperTom says

    Libertarian Mike Munger suggested a three part analysis:

    1)Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
    2)Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said "the State," delete that phrase and replace it with "politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist."
    3)If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

  23. joshua says

    i think the problem with framing a debate as a series of questions is it only extends and reaffirms the argument in most cases. there's only so much value that can be had in the idea that, in the end, we're all asking the right questions.

  24. says

    I just ask myself: Does this law protect an individual's rights/freedom?

    The government's duty should be to protect individuals. We recognize that governments should protect individuals from coercion from other individuals, except for when it happens through government. This is a grave error.

    Groups/society/etc. don't have rights. Only individuals do. I shiver when someone mentions the "common good" because I know it will come at the expense of the rights of individuals.

  25. Salem says

    I've always liked the idea that the NAP should be treated as a rebuttable presumption, rather than an axiom. If there's good evidence that following the NAP in a particular case would lead to serious adverse consequences, then let's not follow it in that case. But it's striking to me (no libertarian I) how rare those cases are. It's a very good rule of thumb.

  26. Bryan C. Winter says

    Here is a question about which libertarians seem often to be curiously indifferent: What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it?

    Your confusing diffrent kinds of strength. Strong goverment can certainly restrain the power of corporate intrests. However a strong goverment is not what we have. What we have is a goverment that weak against influence, but strong in terms of action. So that great wealth ends up buying the goverment and corrupting it.

    Libertarians would reverse that equation. Goverment should be weak to act, but also strong against the influence of money. A more republic style goverment, (seperation of powers, clearly defined roles, requirements for super majorities for certain major actions) is strong against this kind of influence, but a more democratic style goverment( direct democracy, refurendums, poll questions), is weak against it.

    To the founding fathers, democracy was actually a bit of a dirty word. They worried greatly abot mob rule, because the mob can be manipulated. They favored a 'representative' model, where leaders get a mandate for a general set of changes, but the leaders day to day action was restrained by other branches of goverment.

    We aren't indiffrent to that problem. We simply approach it another way. It's totally possible to solve most problems of monopolies by opening up competition, and most monoplies today hold their power due to regulatory capture of a 'strong goverment' that is bribable.

  27. Brian Z says

    Would you use a gun to build a courthouse? If no, I don't see how any of this is going to work. If yes, is it really so unreasonable that someone might answer 'yes' to whether they would use a gun to build a library?

    I don't think the use-a-gun metric is useful at all.

  28. Argentina Orange says

    @pony advocate

    When Nike can throw you in prison for buying Reeboks, let me know.

  29. Argentina Orange says

    @Ken,

    I know from firsthand experience how depressive episodes can turn you into a completely different person, values-wise. The Ken that wrote this post is a vastly better human being than the one who wrote the series of "Gibbergoobers are Roosh V!!!!!!!" ones.

    Although they both have a truly extraordinary collection of hand-crocheted g-string panties.

  30. Slocum says

    "Here is a question about which libertarians seem often to be curiously indifferent: What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it?"

    I would say that libertarians are not indifferent and do have a ready answer — which is that your big government cure is not only worse than the disease but actually makes the disease worse. Which is to say, the pattern in the US (and almost everywhere else) is that wealthy powerful individuals are able to gain control of government to further their own ends. They're able to 1) increase their own wealth (via sweetheart deals, protective tariffs, regulatory restraint of competitors, etc) and sometimes even 2) use their influence to turn government's criminal justice powers against their rivals.

    Consider Trump. He's been a friend and partner of big government all his life. Navigating the NY/NJ regulatory thicket via bought-and-paid-for influence has been his approach to 'business'. He is completely a creature of your approach to 'solving' the 'problem' of private wealth and power via ever more government.

  31. Scott C says

    @Brian Z

    Would you use a gun to build a courthouse? If no, I don't see how any of this is going to work. If yes, is it really so unreasonable that someone might answer 'yes' to whether they would use a gun to build a library?

    I don't think the use-a-gun metric is useful at all.

    Not every question has to apply to every issue. When considering whether the government should enact a new law or regulation proscribing some behavior, are you comfortable with armed agents enforcing that law/regulation? Do you want armed agents raiding farms to prevent Amish from selling unauthorized raw milk, do you want people put in jail for selling pumpkins or Christmas trees outside city limits, etc.? These are the types of questions I believe were intended to be addressed by the use-a-gun metric.

  32. Josh says

    Brian Z, I think the correct question (with respect to the original point) would be "would you use a gun to secure the funds to build a courthouse"?

  33. says

    Castaigne: "Force is just a tool, like anything else."
    When competent adults agree to something, it's because they both think to gain from the deal. When force is used, it seems that somebody is worse off. What kind of society do you want to live in?

  34. bearing says

    "Here is a question about which libertarians seem often to be curiously indifferent: What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it?"

    A "what if" question isn't in quite the same category as the questions Ken White has categorized here.

    "What if" questions like yours are answered like this: "If an abuse is happening, let us propose a new government power to restrain the abuse."

    Ken's questions are meant to help us evaluate that proposed power to decide if it will be effective and if it will not cause more problems than it purports to solve. Because I think we should have the goal of avoiding actions that are cost-ineffective and/or that make more problems.

    But I get that not everybody agrees with me, and some people reflexively believe that doing something (or appearing to) is always better than doing nothing, even if nothing would accomplish just as much or more.

  35. En Passant says

    Scott C says June 3, 2016 at 6:39 am:

    Not every question has to apply to every issue. When considering whether the government should enact a new law or regulation proscribing some behavior, are you comfortable with armed agents enforcing that law/regulation?

    This, Every law and every regulation by every government agency, however benign that law or regulation might seem, is ultimately enforced by armed government agents.

  36. PonyAdvocate says

    @Argentina Orange

    Your example is interesting, but one that is, I think, not terribly realistic. There are lots of large and blindingly obvious actual examples of what my question describes. For one such example from real life that is smaller in scale, but perhaps the more obvious for being so, see

    Upper Big Branch Mine disaster
    Massey Energy (section Upper Big Branch mine disaster)
    Don Blankenship (section Upper Big Branch explosion)

    and the references therein. Yes, I realize that Massey and Blankenship eventually got in a lot of trouble, but this was only after their behavior became so brazen and outrageous, and eventually caused such a large number of needless fatalities in a single tragic incident, that the relevant authorities could no longer ignore it. Prior to that, ME and DB operated with utter impunity. Such examples are legion.

  37. PonyAdvocate says

    @bearing

    I don't quite understand your comment, so I'm not sure if your reformulation of Mr. White's questions, or of mine, is accurate. I will say that I think most of Mr. White's questions are sensible ones to ask about government action (at least in the US, since other countries' governmnts are organized differently) always, and by everyone, not just libertarians.

  38. AH says

    Scott C:

    But the point is, it does apply to everything. Take building a courthouse, the funds for that come from taxes, eventually if you don't pay taxes long enough, someone with a gun is going to show up and take umbrage to that. The same holds true for making a library (if said library is funded by the state).

    Where the two differ (at least to my mind) is that the court house already had guns in every level of the operation. I have police guarding the entrance, armed. Police who will come and pick you up if you don't show up for a criminal matter, armed. You've got the arresting officer, who's armed. Clearly we've, as a society, come to the conclusion that "Enforcement of laws is a reasonable usage of weapons." In addition, the benefits of a ordered society are conferred to everyone in it, so it's worthwhile for that to be in the "public sector."

    Libraries are a different matter. Other than (possibly) funding, at no point is a gun required in their operation. The beneficiaries of the library can be easily defined as it's partons. Because of this, it's relatively easy for us to say "give to the library, or you will not have access to it's services." That's not something we can reasonably say about the courthouse.

    That's the brilliant part of phrasing these as questions, not only does it NOT imply an answer, it implies that there are situations where each of these ARE (both Ken's White's 10 questions, and Penn Jillette's gun question) acceptable. What it does is make you think about it. Is this one of those times, or is it unnecessary?

    Full disclosure: I consider myself to be a (small-l) libertarian.

  39. George William Herbert says

    The justice system is predicated on the idea that the State and Juries are better to adjudicate things than leaving it to individuals or Mobs potentially with guns. Vigilantism and mob justice are not a better answer unless the State has truly failed…

  40. Daniel Weber says

    I think the "use-a-gun" rule is "how do I feel about lethal force being used to enforce this if someone resists?"

    It's not necessarily a black-and-white thing. Should the state be allowed to use eminent domain to expand a road? What if the guy who needs to lose 10 feet of his yard puts up a fight? Does that mean we shouldn't do it?

  41. Lokiwi says

    You could cut off most people's questions about libertarianism with two answers:

    1. No, I am not an anarchist.

    2. Yes, I am ok with the government building roads.

  42. FreeRadical says

    I think a really good foundational question is: what is government? I suspect very few people think about that.

    I define government as a group of people who are the only ones in society that are allowed to initiate force against another.

    That could lead in nicely to the gun question.

  43. Brian Z says

    @Scott C

    I think most use-a-gun arguments are begging the question, but it gets us no closer to an answer. Since government guns sometimes result in death (bad), but sometimes government inaction also results in death (bad)….

    Would I use guns/government to ensure all cars manufactured for sale in this country have airbags? Sure. Would I use guns/government to ensure meat sold by my grocery store is inspected? Yep.

    Hey, this looks like a pattern. According to my knee-jerk reaction, it seems I'm the kind of citizen who is okay with using government power to ensure consumer safety. According to the pattern, I suppose I'm okay with government enforcing raw milk bans and pumpkin regulations.

    But wait:

    Does this power represent the government putting its thumb on the scales to prefer some competitors over others, perhaps based on their relative power and influence?

    Does this power make a choice about morals, ethics, or risk that individuals ought to make?

    Is there any evidence the government is any good at this?

    OMG. I suspect selling pumpkins outside city limits isn't about consumer safety at all, but rather about a powerful local farmer with a vested interest. Or maybe not. Maybe localities should actually regulate what vegetation should and shouldn't enter the area–especially if the government has proven to be effective in the past at limiting deleterious effects from foreign contamination. Hmm, now I'm thinking about whether an individual choice to procure a foreign pumpkin might carry group risk, and whether or not we should allow that. Now I suppose I can gather and weigh evidence. I might even start to question whether my initial answers regarding air bags and meat inspections were correct!

    An actual framework for exploring issues is superior to a bumper sticker? Who knew? Also, governance is hard.

  44. robbbbbb says

    @Steve: You say, "My problem with all of these questions are they presume that the citizenry is more competent than the government."

    The government is the same stupid people, with bad incentives*.

    *I stole this from Megan McArdle's old blog, long ago.

  45. Viss3r says

    i think the problem with framing a debate as a series of questions is it only extends and reaffirms the argument in most cases. there's only so much value that can be had in the idea that, in the end, we're all asking the right questions.

    To be fair, this isn't meant to be a debate, but rather, this is an illustration of how the Libertarian view should be described.

    In the case of 'How do (x group) make decisions,' I think that a series of questions is a great way to describe it.

    My question about the constitution – Does that preclude amending the constitution if you see a need?

  46. JohnBalog says

    I like some (not all) libertarian policy prescriptions. But the issue comes not so much from the proposed policy but from the first principles they are based on. The heart of libertarian doctrine is just as utopian as Marxism. Most people who call themselves libertarians escape this trap by being intellectually inconsistent and ignoring their own first principles in favor of the policy prescriptions. Which, again, are often quite good.

  47. Jonathan Richter says

    Psmith says
    JUNE 2, 2016 AT 1:24 PM

    Daily reminder that Johnson would force you to bake the cake and Bill Weld pushed for an AWB and is still a massive fudd.

    You're being ridiculous. You're going to use a complete non-issue – Jewish bakers making Nazi cakes – and say that for that reason you would rather not have a President who is 90-95% libertarian? You do realize that this was just a hypothetical scenario?That there are not actually any Jewish bakers being asked to bake Nazi cakes? Guys like you are why the LP never gets anywhere.

    Try focusing on the important issues. Would Johnson reduce federal spending? Unquestionably. Would he get behind a major restructuring of our tax code so that we stop penalizing productive behavior like working and saving? Absolutely. Would he immediately reschedule MJ and start a national debate about repealing drug prohibition? Certainly. Would he push to rescue Social Security by turning it into a system of private savings accounts rather than a government controlled Ponzi scheme? Definitely. Would he pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and stop the practice of meddling in crises around the world that have nothing to do with US security? No doubt.

    But that cake! Yeah, I just can't get past that cake! So I guess I'll vote for a guy who will do NONE of the things we want, many of whose supporters really are Nazis, who he refuses to denounce, because at least we wouldn't have Nazi cakes.Or more likely we'd be seeing tons of Nazi cakes, but they wouldn't be made by Jewish bakers because their bakeries were burned down by Trump supporters.

    You, sir, are a moron.

  48. Castaigne says

    @ScottC:

    You're assuming that the answer is supposed to be no.

    With libertarians, yeah. Saying yes is a violation of the NAP axiom. That's a huge big no-no in libertarianism; see Rothbard, Hayek, etc.

    The point of the question is that the government often accomplishes its objectives by the use of force. If you're comfortable with that…

    Always. But more on that further down.

    =====

    @PonyAdvocate:

    What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it?

    I believe the official libertarian answer on that, philosophically, would that it's all good, so long as NAP isn't violated.

    ====

    @Mike Lorrey:

    Negative rights are more well known as natural rights, because they exist whether or not you believe in them, or whether your government recognizes them or not.

    I disagree entirely. In nature, absent of any law or society or government, I have no right to being tried by a jury of my peers. I have no right to free speech. I have no right to worship as I please.

    Nature provides ONE right – that you will die someday, and the method and time will not be of your choice. Nature, "red in tooth and claw", does not give a shit about your free speech, free religion, NAP, or anything else.

    =====

    @piperTom:

    When force is used, it seems that somebody is worse off. What kind of society do you want to live in?

    An orderly one that maintains industrialization and continual technological advancement. But primarily, real fucking orderly.

    Also, I hold that there are always losers, so somebody being worse off…as my father put it, sounds like a personal problem.

    =====

    @FreeRadical:

    I think a really good foundational question is: what is government?

    I define government as the authoritative group that provides order in a particular society/nation via enforcement of law by use of force (or threat of force).

  49. PonyAdvocate says

    @Argentina Orange

    I responded to your comment in a manner that was substantive and civil, I think, but apparently the moderator disagreed. I'm not sure what rule I broke: perhaps it was the links to some Wikipedia articles? Anyway, I did not ignore you.

    @Castaigne

    I posted a follow-up that I think addresses your point, I think, but see above.

  50. Tim! says

    @BrianZ: you don't need a gun to build a courthouse. But you do need a gun to run a courthouse. Otherwise any given defendant judged guilty would just walk out.

    And for that matter, to some extent you need a 'gun' qua late/missing fines to run a library or you will steadily lose your stock of books. The stakes are much lower in the library case so the force required is much less deadly.

  51. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I like that last question. I mean, REALLY like it. My (mostly Liberal) in-laws were all excited about Obamacare. I asked them then, "Is there any evidence from history that adding government oversight or control to the health care system can IMPROVE matters?"

    They tended to stare at me as if I was sprouting horns.

    I have another, basic, question that I ask these days;

    "If the matter at issue is at all complicated, is the government already keeping up with its simpler responsibilities to an acceptable level?"

    Or, to put it another way, I would dearly like to see the government demonstrating a basic level of competence at, say, maintaining the roads before we allow it to tackle something complex and nuanced like health care.

  52. Brian Z says

    @C. S. P. Schofield

    [I]s the government already keeping up with its simpler responsibilities to an acceptable level?

    I suppose you think the answer is 'no,' and I'm further supposing that you think the answer is self-evident.

    @Tim!

    I certainly do need guns to build a courthouse. I have neither the skills nor the materials to build it. I'd have to tax others (theft) in order to accomplish the feat.

  53. Matt W says

    @Brian Z

    An actual framework for exploring issues is superior to a bumper sticker? Who knew? Also, governance is hard.

    Quoted hard for truth. I read Ken's list and the "gun rule" and I can't help but sigh. Those are trying to reduce the hard, messy, complex problem of existing together to first principles that aren't even first principles. I mean I disagree that the government does what it does principally by force. How do I know you don't need guns to build a library? Because the government doesn't use guns to build libraries. QED. No gun has ever been deployed in the collection of my property taxes. And if you're arguing that behind all the trappings of escrow and auto-deductions and possible payroll garnishing and civic responsibility and etc. that a gun is lurking in the darkness, you are missing the point. All of that is precisely what society is; the edifice of culture and values and laws and custom we erect so that we can cooperate on worthwhile endeavors and don't have to point guns at each other to live in peace.

    Libertarianism is too much in its head. Ken's argument is basically: consider the worst that could happen. OK, but I'd argue that what actually happens is usually not the worst, and that there's a serious opportunity cost for always thinking about it. You can't reason your way to utopia; you have to build it.

  54. Matt W says

    C. S. P. Schofield

    "Is there any evidence from history that adding government oversight or control to the health care system can IMPROVE matters?"

    So Medicare has lower overall costs, higher patient satisfaction, and is cheaper for patients than private health plans for similar demographics. Almost every other OECD country in the world has more oversight, lower costs and generally similar or better health outcomes than we do. The uphill climb argument is that the private sector can do this better.

  55. FreeRadical says

    Matt W said

    So Medicare has lower overall costs, higher patient satisfaction, and is cheaper for patients than private health plans for similar demographics.

    Talk about missing the elephant in the room! Medicare also has trillions in unfunded future obligations and a trust fund full of nothing but government debt.

    But no worry, says Matt, as long as it looks good right at this instant, there's nothing to worry about.

  56. Brian Z says

    @Matt W

    To be clear, I personally make a huge distinction between Ken's list of questions vice garbage like the "gun rule." I love simplification and I hate oversimplification.

    I read Ken's essay which said: here are some starting points for how to approach issues from a libertarian mindset. I liked it. [Maybe not point 1 but my qualms were somewhat assuaged by point 8.] I suppose I disagree with your notion that exploring any/all of these questions bears a too-high opportunity cost because you get much faster at exploring these kinds of questions the more practice you have.

    Nobody wants to sit through my discourse on what I think on a long series of issues, and then stick around while people bicker over whether that's libertarian or not.

    It seems Ken was right: it's way easier to say shit like "government = force" and be done with it. I don't mind when people ask questions, even if they want to rehash from first principles–I really don't. But I hate when people disingenuously "ask" rhetorical questions and pretend to be philosophers. I don't think that's what Ken is doing, but I do think that's what some Libertarians do.

    *Feeling very cranky today. Sorry.*

  57. libarbarian says

    @PonyAdvocate

    What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it?

    Ah. Now THIS is a very under-appreciated aspect in the rise of strong, centralized monarchies in Europe in the late middle ages and early modern period.

    To listen to modern Libertarians and (many) Conservatives, you might think that the middling classes, such as they were, would have been opposed to those Monarchs who were expanding their own powers at the expense of the nobility. You might think that they would have seen their own liberty better preserved by having power be divided among a competing nobility than concentrated into the hands of a single monarch … just as modern Libertarians say it is.

    That's why it was actually rather surprising to learn that, on the contrary, the "middle class" almost always supported the Monarch and opposed the Nobility. Turns out, the presence of multiple contending private powers made oppression worse rather than better. These competing nobles constantly needed cash and resources and they got it by constantly squeezing anyone, no matter how lowly or poor, who was, however temporarily, subject to their power. The same was true towards the end of the Roman Republic. The intense competition among ambitious men of rank meant that they had to take any opportunity to squeeze every penny from anyone who could be squeezed.

    On the other hand, the Kings and Emperors, with their monopoly on power, had the ability to take a more long-term view and balance the short-term take with the long-term benefits of stability and commerce.

    So, yeah. I think of this whenever someone says that rule by many competing Corporations would logically be better than rule by a single Government. Maybe. But there is plenty of empirical evidence to the contrary as well.

  58. FreeRadical says

    libarbarian,

    Your example has nothing at all to do with libertarian thought on large corporations or other large "private parties" that liberals fear so much.

    In your example, the nobility committed crimes against the peasants and took their money. They were able to do this because of the absence of effective government.

    The purpose of government is help extend the right of self defense of individuals and protect them from aggression. So in a free society with a properly constituted government, there are checks against the powers of private entities. Libertarians support common-law liability and trespassing, and of course laws against force and fraud.

    Libertarians, however, would be much more vigilant than liberals or conservatives about preventing crony capitalism. That is, the capture of government power and privileges by large corporations. The two establishment parties both cash in on this. This is what Bernie supporters are talking about when they pop a vein railing about corporations.

  59. libarbarian says

    The "Nonaggression Principle" is a load of pedantic bullshit.

    Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics, because its meaning and normative force are entirely parasitic on an underlying theory of property. Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.” But if this is true, then the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading.

    ie. ….

    The word “aggression” is just defined as violence used contrary to some theory of entitlement. The word “defense” is just defined as violence used consistent with some theory of entitlement. If there is an underlying dispute about entitlement, talking about aggression versus defense literally tells you nothing.

  60. Matt W says

    @FreeRadical

    Talk about missing the elephant in the room! Medicare also has trillions in unfunded future obligations and a trust fund full of nothing but government debt.

    1) Medicare's future obligations have nothing to do with how cost effective it is, nor its health outcomes, nor patient satisfaction. If the government gave the money to private insurers rather than managing the program itself, all evidence says it would cost more and produce worse outcomes.

    2) "a trust fund full of nothing but government debt" is pure polemic. A portion of my long-term savings is comprised of government bonds. Is it also full of 'nothing but government debt'?

  61. FreeRadical says

    The bonds you have in your savings are "debt held by the public", and the turn over there is pretty small.

    In the trust funds, an enormous demographic tidal wave is coming, and bonds in the trust funds will have to be "cashed in". This is already happening in Social Security, I'm not sure about Medicare.

    So what happens when a bond is cashed in? Well, it can come from 3 sources: 1) new taxes, 2) reduced spending in other parts of the budget, or 3) being moved to a new debt instrument. Number 3 will happen which will almost assuredly mean monetary expansion by the Federal Reserve. The trust funds are in a slow-motion default right now due to inflation. The Fed creates money to keep about 2-3% annual inflation. This reduces the future value of the trust funds, and makes everyone in the future depending on them poorer.

  62. libarbarian says

    @FreeRadical

    Libertarians, however, would be much more vigilant than liberals or conservatives about preventing crony capitalism. That is, the capture of government power and privileges by large corporations. The two establishment parties both cash in on this.

    Exactly why am I to believe that Libertarians would be immune to the same incentives that have corrupted everyone else? Because of their professed beliefs and the purity of their abstract "principles"?

  63. FreeRadical says

    @libarbarian

    Because of their professed beliefs and the purity of their abstract "principles"?

    My answer is yes. However, I agree with the gist of your questions and it would be temporary. How long, I don't know. I think of these things as perhaps sawtooth functions. An event happens, and value you are after shoots up to a high point. Then, it degrades until an event causes it to shoot up again.

  64. Matt W says

    The bonds you have in your savings are "debt held by the public", and the turn over there is pretty small.

    Daily trading volume of U.S. government securities is on the order of $500 billion. Turnover is not small.

    3) being moved to a new debt instrument. Number 3 will happen which will almost assuredly mean monetary expansion by the Federal Reserve. The trust funds are in a slow-motion default right now due to inflation.

    If I issue a $1000 bond and use the proceeds to redeem another $1000 bond, how does that change the monetary base at all? In fact, new bonds that are issued right now have a lower rate than bonds issued 10 or 15 years ago, so bond turnover actually lowers debt service. I'm not sure what you mean by 'slow motion default'. Who is defaulting on what? Are you suggesting that the government is going to refuse to pay claims against Medicare at some point in the future? Are you saying that the trust fund will try to cash a bond and not be able to? I can't envision how either of these would occur unless a suicidal Congress decides it wants them to occur. It's a political, not economic problem.

  65. FreeRadical says

    Your example of cashing a bond and purchasing a new one with the money doesn't expand the monetary base. However, that is not what happens when a Medicare bond is cashed-in. In that case the debt is both liquidated (paid out) and created anew. So it's like you cashing the bond, getting $1000 cash, and then still having a new bond for $1000 dollars in your account. That definitely expands the monetary base, since the Federal Reserve will just buy those bonds with new money.

    What I mean by "slow motion default" is that when a bond is cashed-in in the future, it will have the same face value as it did at the beginning, but it will now purchase much less.

    If payouts are fixed (kind of like they are for Social Security), then people are getting less out in terms of purchasing power than when they started. The devalued bonds are much easier to pay off for the government due to inflation and monetary expansion. I think of this as a slow-motion default.

  66. Daniel Weber says

    "Medicare is cheap for its users" is an amazing game of redirect. Workers are paying for it. Of course retirees like it. Sheesh.

    Most people have no idea how to measure medical results. They don't even know that they don't know. And they don't give a shit because they like what reinforces their priors. Like saying "dildo" about Trump's court case, they'll lap up what they want to hear.

  67. Do u even Britain bro? says

    @Libarbarian 12:09

    To listen to modern Libertarians and (many) Conservatives, you might think that the middling classes, such as they were, would have been opposed to those Monarchs who were expanding their own powers at the expense of the nobility. You might think that they would have seen their own liberty better preserved by having power be divided among a competing nobility than concentrated into the hands of a single monarch … just as modern Libertarians say it is.

    That's why it was actually rather surprising to learn that, on the contrary, the "middle class" almost always supported the Monarch and opposed the Nobility. Turns out, the presence of multiple contending private powers made oppression worse rather than better. These competing nobles constantly needed cash and resources and they got it by constantly squeezing anyone, no matter how lowly or poor, who was, however temporarily, subject to their power. The same was true towards the end of the Roman Republic. The intense competition among ambitious men of rank meant that they had to take any opportunity to squeeze every penny from anyone who could be squeezed.

    On the other hand, the Kings and Emperors, with their monopoly on power, had the ability to take a more long-term view and balance the short-term take with the long-term benefits of stability and commerce.

    Funny, I don't see "nobles" as "multiple competing PRIVATE" powers — they're another branch of government. You know, the reason that there is the House of LORDS in the British Parliament.

    Rather, in a feudal system, nobles were still government, not private entities, akin to the states in the federal system, under the authority of the king to lesser or greater degree in name and in fact.

    And your assertion, again with respect to England, is completely contradicted by the Stuarts, and the gradual accretion of power away from the monarch and to other elements of society in Magna Carta and other foundational documents.

  68. David C says

    @Matt W:

    I mean I disagree that the government does what it does principally by force. How do I know you don't need guns to build a library? Because the government doesn't use guns to build libraries. QED. No gun has ever been deployed in the collection of my property taxes.

    Taxes aside, eminent domain has been used to evict people to build libraries. I'd be surprised if a gun was never used to enforce such an eviction – and even if not, that would only be because of the threat of the gun.

    And if you're arguing that behind all the trappings of escrow and auto-deductions and possible payroll garnishing and civic responsibility and etc. that a gun is lurking in the darkness, you are missing the point. All of that is precisely what society is; the edifice of culture and values and laws and custom we erect so that we can cooperate on worthwhile endeavors and don't have to point guns at each other to live in peace

    So when Jimmy the Scar "asks" you for protection money, that's just "society" as long as the gun isn't actually deployed? Yeah, it's better if the gun isn't out, but exactly how much better is it when everyone still knows it's there?

  69. says

    The "Nonaggression Principle" is a load of pedantic bullshit.

    Libarbarian,

    It's perfectly obvious that people have disputes over the precise nature and extent of property rights, but unless you're of the same mind as that Vox guy that just got suspended, you're not in favor of abolishing all property rights. (If you are, please send me your address, please and thank you.) Taking my stuff or trespassing on my property is wrong, and while it may not justify my instantly clubbing you over the head, it justifies defensive action. This is all common sense. So your example merely shows that there are gray areas, not that the concept of non-aggression is "pedantic bullshit."

  70. says

    I mean I disagree that the government does what it does principally by force. How do I know you don't need guns to build a library? Because the government doesn't use guns to build libraries. QED. No gun has ever been deployed in the collection of my property taxes.

    Yay for you. Try not paying them. Oh, we can do that peacefully through garnishing your wages? What if you don't have a job?

    Get real. All government is ultimately enforced through pointing a gun at those who do not comply, even if (for most) the mere threat is enough.

  71. says

    Absolutely none of that matters

    There is a mathematical reality to our voting system that makes the two party system mandatory. Not by intent mind you, but buy accident. The math necessary to prevent the two party system simply didn't exist when the rules were drawn up.

    Because we have a single choice, one vote, with no way to rank preference, our voting has an "arity" of 1. It's binary. It can only tolerate a condition with one winner, one loser, and some noise-value also-rans.

    Look at what happens if no one candidate gets more than half the (electoral) votes. The speaker of the house just appoints someone.

    So a fair three way race actually just gives the race to the speaker.

    The GOP wackos long since figured out that you have to take one of the two parties before your run Means anything.

    The progressives dream of a white knight takeover, but it literally cannot happen.

    This may seem odd but it's by design. James Madison set the house to recycle every two years, but the Senate to need TEN.

    The system intentionally resists the "fecklessness and passions" of the polity so that we would have stable governance year after year.

    You want a liberation president, your going to have to siren a good twenty years to get one.

  72. Ronnie says

    > So when Jimmy the Scar "asks" you for protection money, that's just "society" as long as the gun isn't actually deployed? Yeah, it's better if the gun isn't out, but exactly how much better is it when everyone still knows it's there?

    This is a ridiculous argument, a willful and dishonest conflation of two unlike things, specifically legitimate and illegitimate force. Jimmy the Scar isn't "society" because Jimmy isn't acting in the public good. The policeman who protects you from Jimmy the Scar, meanwhile, exists because the government has used force to extract your money and use it to pay the policeman for his service. If you don't like that, you can go back to getting shaken down by Jimmy the Scar.

    And hey, maybe that's what you want. Maybe both uses of force are equally repugnant to you. Regardless, the use of force to establish a basic framework of governance obviously has not a damn thing to do with our friend Jimmy taking money for his own benefit. Taxes are in fact "society" and Jimmy is not.

  73. David C says

    Jimmy the Scar isn't "society" because Jimmy isn't acting in the public good.

    Is that how you determine it? Because certain organized crime groups were actually known for helping their neighborhoods in at least some ways, to get on the good side of the residents. And I'm sure you can find plenty of examples of government NOT working towards the public good.

    If you don't like that, you can go back to getting shaken down by Jimmy the Scar.

    No, I don't like that. But also, no, I can't – taxes are forced regardless of my opinion on the matter.

    Maybe both uses of force are equally repugnant to you.

    No, the gangsters are clearly worse. But I was responding to a claim of "society means we don't have to point guns at each other to live in peace", and I used this example to show that this can't be the criteria. Sometimes the "bad guys" don't explicitly use guns. Sometimes the "good guys" do.

  74. David C says

    Absolutely none of that matters

    It actually does matter. If enough of the electorate shows it cares about certain issues, one party or the other is going to adopt those issues in its platform. If neither does, then eventually one of them will be supplanted.

    James Madison set the house to recycle every two years, but the Senate to need TEN.

    If by "TEN" you mean "six", then yes? I'm not sure how you get that number wrong; it's right there in the Constitution. But it only takes four years to recycle a 2/3 majority in the Senate, the Presidency, and the entire House.

    The GOP wackos long since figured out that you have to take one of the two parties before your run Means anything.

    Pretty sure the Democrats have known this for just as long – or longer, since their party is older.

  75. AlphaCentauri says

    This all sounds good in theory, but it seems a lot of libertarians also choose to live in communities with strong zoning regulations. Under what theory does Libertarianism consider my neighbor's right to raise a couple dozen hogs on his quarter-acre lot next door to me?

  76. Rich Rostrom says

    Do u even Britain bro? says

    in a feudal system, nobles were still government… under the authority of the king to lesser or greater degree…

    The point is that in the Dark Ages, while nobles were nominally subordinate to the crown, they had their own troops and fortresses, and obeyed the crown only when it suited them politically. They fought each other, plundered each others' lands, and squeezed the peasants and merchants at will. This ended when centralized states developed that could effectively control the nobles, and stripped them of their private armies. (The key development was siege cannons, which easily breached the thin, high walls of medieval castles. Only the crown could afford them.)

  77. Jerry says

    @Ronnie: "Jimmy the Scar isn't "society" because Jimmy isn't acting in the public good"

    Indeed, though I'd put this a bit differently. The fundamental difference isn't "the public good" so much as "the consent of the governed". We have tons of discussion here about how government power ultimately comes from force – and yet history, even very recent history, is full of examples of governments able and willing to use force, with an apparently complete monopoly on force, which nevertheless have been overthrown when enough of the populace has decided they've lost their legitimacy.

    It's a delicate matter. What seems to be most fundamental is that force can impose negative requirements almost indefinitely, but absent consent, it will eventually fail to impose positive requirements. And when enough of the population stops making efforts to keep the government going, it tends to fall.

    In a society where the government is perceived by most as legitimate, most members will obey the laws without having to be forced. Oh, sure, you can always say the guns are there in the background – but that's abstract theory, it's not what keeps the vast majority of people acting according to the laws the vast majority of the time.

    Now, mind you. "consent of the governed" cannot be the only basis for a legitimate government. People have consented to slavery (of "others"), to mass murder (of "others"), and to any number of other evils. The whole "others" business is a fundamental problem: Who exactly are the "governed" who have to "consent"? And what kind of consent? Most blacks in the South through much of the period of "separate but equal" "consented" – having been given a lifetime of very hard lessons – to white supremacy. Revolutions in society require revolutions in personal attitudes first.

    — Jerry

  78. jdgalt says

    Definitely the best post I've ever seen here.

    I would add Penn's question about violence, and I would clarify #1 because current readings of the Constitution are badly skewed in favor of too much power for the federal government. In particular, the principal authors of the Constitution state in Federalist #39, 41, and 43-45 exactly how "interstate commerce", the "general welfare" clause, and the "necessary and proper" clause are supposed to be read. It's inexcusable that the courts do not follow them.

  79. mythago says

    These are good questions to provoke thought, rather than assume a yes-or-no answer that tells you whether government is good or bad, but you've put your thumb on the scales rather a bit with that last one. Government is sometimes not particularly 'good' at a thing but far better than the alternative, c.f. the quotes about democracy and capitalism being the worst systems except for all the others. Government is sometimes capable of being good at a thing, but 'capable' and 'currently is' are of course not the same.

    The question about using a gun, while an interesting thought experiment in being OK with the use of force, is a bit muddy because people's own comfort levels with direct violence are different with their comfort levels about coercion, and not necessarily as a result of hypocrisy. I'm sure you've heard people say that they don't carry guns because they'd be terrified they wouldn't be able to shoot, or that they know themselves to be personally incapable of violence for reasons ranging from moral to physical capabilities.

    I also find it a tad puzzling to omit State constitutions, because while those are often batshit crazy in parts, they are, in fact, the governing law of the various States.

  80. Sami says

    I have said to friends, in discussion of political topics, that I tend to hate Libertarianism more than I do actual Fascism. In saying that, I'm not actually being hyperbolic – while corporate-state authoritarianism is, to put it mildly, deeply flawed, suffice to say that if I were given my choice of science fiction universes in which to live, I would prefer Star Trek to EVE Online. (The Enterprise-D is something of a small-scale/idealised fascist society; you have children and civilians attached, yet under total authority of the Captain.)

    The thing is, though, with the exception of the first question, which I think is entirely valid but not universally applicable because the US Constitution only applies to, you know, the US, I think that is a set of questions that absolutely definitely applies in general terms to lawmaking and governance everywhere.

    It's a more detailed, specifics-oriented breakdown of what I feel like the fundamental question of governance should always be: will this make people's lives better, or worse?

    I think there's a lot of moral dimension in government, but it's mostly about choosing which people's "better" and "worse" matter more, and how. Like, legislating against discrimination makes things worse for bigots, but tough shit.

    My own personal philosophy on Rights And Liberties can, I think, be shown with one issue. If I ruled the world, cannabis possession would be completely legal, and people could ingest it by a range of means at their own discretion, but smoking it would be entirely criminal and rigidly prosecuted. Tobacco would fall into the exact same category.

    Because I am totally okay with people making their own decisions about drug use, but not so much with people making their own decisions about air pollution. Someone else's right to use drugs should not overrule my right to choose not to, let alone my right to choose not to nearly die of asthma that, until secondary damage kicked in, I only even had when exposed to cigarette smoke.

    The issue, I guess, that I think is sometimes missed: if the government is prevented from exercising authority, does that, by its very exclusion, impose harm on some part of the population? If the government doesn't ban drinking and driving, my right not to be mowed down by a drunken driver is infringed. Since the government doesn't ban smoking, my right to breathe air is infringed. Etc.

  81. McMike says

    Interesting. The Constitution is a Julia Child recipe for our flavor of Democracy – add this, don't add that; mix now, for this long. Makes French cuisine every time, if you follow it closely (and lived in France for a big chunk of your life). It's long struck me; however, that the Constitution (at least coming at it from the Bill of Rights), is pretty much akin to the 10 commandments for government, and phrased perhaps by no coincidence as a series of "thou shalt nots".

    Considering these rights as a unit, it becomes clear that it's really a laundry list of what the British government of the 1770's was doing at that time to try and keep its local subjects in line. I once evaluated a contract from a local concrete contractor; it was four pages long. A friend remarked that it was a actually a laundry list of the ways this guy had been screwed in the past. Each time he got screwed in a new way, I imagine he added another paragraph to his agreement. The Bill of Rights strikes me like that. I mean, it's a pretty clear and not very imaginative list of the British Government's counterinsurgency tactics circa 1776.

    What would the bill of rights look like if written today? Heavy on private bail companies, asset forfeiture, police assassinations, arbitration, drones, eavesdropping, conspiracy laws, supermax, isolation, kettling, free speech zones, and gerrymandering.

    To that point, it seems to me that this part ought to be pretty clear: whatever the government does to keep the citizens from trying to change it ought to be prohibited. I mean, short of killing people. Oh wait, our founding fathers killed people. And of course Jefferson famously reminded us not to take that arrow out of our quiver.

    Okay then, but anyone who watched later John Wayne or Eastwood movies well knows, the first thing a frontier town did once people with children and businesses started moving in was to incorporate, pass a crapload of laws, and drive the original settlers out of town. Then they busied themselves trying to get a subsidized rail line into town, trying to get their local army fort expanded, and eventually begging the Federal Government to build them a giant reservoir. (I know that's not history. Except it is.)

    We didn't really turn to our Federal Government for help in a big way until it became clear that the local/state model wasn't getting the job done. Whether it was the slavery, massive business trusts, the crime syndicates, wall street excess, labor-crushing company towns, Jim Crow, rural electivity and phone, preserving our special landscapes, earth-denuding toxic pollution, chronic poverty, or any in a number of hurricanes that made landfall. Not to mention inventing the internet. We eventually turned to big government to sort it out. And they did.

    And they did.

    Look, I am not a fan of big government, or our current incarnation in particular. But we do need to be honest about how we got here. We asked for it. I'm just sayin'

    To that point, I like your list. More or less. But I would nuance one point: what we do when we are scared is often dumb. What we do when we need a helping hand, not so clearly.

    And for a government that has imposed some of the gravest injustices ever in the history of Mankind; it's solved a few too.

    I also didn't see my favorite libertarian meme in your list: about how my right to swing my fist ends at your face.

  82. says

    @patterico: Unfortunately, all the areas we care about are gray, so NAP doesn't help us. For example, using tax dollars to build libraries — is that force? Well, if the tax receipts are justly the property of the government, then no.

    The NAP says nothing more nor less than that property rights must be respected. Force and fraud are justified when they're used in defense of property rights and only unjustified when they violate them.

  83. Noah Callaway says

    @David C

    Taxes aside, eminent domain has been used to evict people to build libraries. I'd be surprised if a gun was never used to enforce such an eviction – and even if not, that would only be because of the threat of the gun.

    This seems more like a problem with eminent domain, than with building libraries. Much in the same way that I support the existence of a government-run police force, but am strongly opposed to funding that police force through the concept and implementation of civil forfeiture.

  84. Cactus says

    "It's a more detailed, specifics-oriented breakdown of what I feel like the fundamental question of governance should always be: will this make people's lives better, or worse?"

    Only that's exactly the point, who says that should be the question? It talks purely of motive and ignores implementation, which is where most complaints about government come from. (Not to mention the lack of definition of "people", "lives" and even "better")

    Everybody wants to feel safe, yet we still end up with a criminal justice system that routinely accomplishes the exact opposite, often based on changes made irrespective of the actual danger. Everybody wants their country to have a value of fairness, yet when two people's rights collide against one another there's rarely an "everybody wins" position.

    After 9/11 we decided to "stand against terror", which is a noble ambition that still ended up turning into 2 wars, a torture program, warrantless domestic surveillance and for all that a far greater risk of terrorism than ever before.

    From good intentions and "the end justifies the means" many of the most horrible things in the world have come about, see colonialism, or collectivisation

    My question would be: "Will the benefit of helping these people outweigh the costs it places on others?" and I can give a thousand examples of when

  85. says

    If something is a just exercise, there's no reason we shouldn't be willing to use force to stop people who wrongfully interfere with that just exercise, no matter how trivial. If eminent domain doesn't violate rights, then people who interfere with the exercise of eminent domain are trying to take property that no longer belongs to them. It's perfectly justifiable to use guns to stop them.

    These libertarian arguments just don't work. They just don't.

    If the government has no right to exercise eminent domain, then we're done. If it does, then those who stand in the way of eminent domain are the ones using force and we are entirely justified in using force to stop them.

    The "are you willing to use force to do it" argument is silly. I'm not willing to use force to do anything that isn't a proper exercise of rights. And I'm willing to use force to stop anyone from interfering in a proper exercise of rights.

  86. Richard says

    @PonyAdvocate:

    From my previous experience, any post with two (or more) links in it is automatically sent to the moderators for review. That's probably what happened to yours.

  87. Gerard O says

    Let's be frank here: the typical human being is really stupid. They don't know what is good for them, they need an elite to handle their affairs.

    This shouldn't be a capitalist elite, however. You need a revolutionary vanguard to protect the interest of the people, with a brilliant and ruthless leader (someone like Trotsky springs to mind).

    This elite should show no mercy to its opponents. There are really only three political movements I have any respect for: the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and the Nazis.*
    Why? Because they are the only ones who understand the logic of political discourse. That is
    you don't argue with your enemies, you liquidate them
    everyone else is just playing games.

    *Muslims also kill their enemies, but given that this is a stupid ideology created by ignorant and racially inferior creatures like Bedouins & Turks I reject putting it in the same category as the other three.

  88. James McCardle says

    This post is exactly why my dream government is a majority heavily progressive borderline socialist group and a minority libertarian opposition. I think there's a lot of good our government could be doing that it currently isn't because we have this awkward democrat/republican dance, but it would be nice to have the opposition to "Let's give everyone healthcare!" be "wait, are we sure that the way we're doing this won't ever bite us in the ass later? Let's triple check." rather than "YOU ARE A GODLESS COMMUNIST FOR WANTING TO LET POOR PEOPLE HAVE MEDICINE AND ALSO YOUR PRESIDENT IS A BLACK MUSLIM HILTER"

  89. Argentina Orange says

    @Sami:

    It's a more detailed, specifics-oriented breakdown of what I feel like the fundamental question of governance should always be: will this make people's lives better, or worse?

    The problem is that this question is almost always unanswerable. If that question was answerable even a little bit, then there wouldn't be arguments about politics or economics. There would be demonstrated solutions. Then there's that whole "seen v. unseen" thing, but that's not terribly relevant because it was written down by a dead white guy in some weird language that nobody speaks like a thousand years ago and can't possibly be applicable to today's technocyberinterwebbedsmaartphone world.

  90. MS says

    @Gerard O

    Re Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Nazis: I can't believe I actually get a chance to use this argument for real, but here goes… (clears throat) "If they're so smart, how come they're dead?"

    Seriously, I'm actually stunned that someone tried to make the argument that the only sensible way to engage in politics is to win by any means necessary, and then cited to three political movements that all lost (and pretty dramatically, at that). Internet comment sections typically have a low bar for internal coherence, but as self-owns go, this one really stands out. Bravo.

  91. Tim! says

    @MS: Thanks for your response. When I find posts like Gerard's, I'm torn between the philosophies "Don't feed the trolls" and "Don't let that bullshit stand unopposed."

  92. Doug says

    @JamesMcCardle

    This discussion is exactly why my dream government is the mirror image of yours. I want a libertarian majority that makes sure we're only doing the things we ought do, can do well, and are allowed to do under our government framework (and I think the 10+1 questions do a lot to figuring out what that looks like). This with a prog/soc minority that makes sure the anarchists and the '"F"-em-if-they-can't-keep-up' instincts in parts of the modern libertarian thought, don't make it a really wonderful libertarian paradise that nobody really is able to live in.

  93. JuanPeron says

    @JB

    Thank you for your question four; it's the clearest test I've seen to identify my complicated feelings on libertarianism.

    By questions 1-3, I'm clearly a small-l libertarian, and indeed I feel and act accordingly on most issues (not only do I agree with the questions, I actually use them). Question 4, though, brings out some differences. I have relatively little faith that free markets, left to their own devices, stay that way. As a result, I support some interventions that are not obviously anti-fraud or Pigouvian because they appear necessary to maintain an efficient market economy in the face of collusion, social pressures, or other powers that are major risk factors for future fraud and force.

  94. anne mouse says

    mcMike said

    What would the bill of rights look like if written today?

    This isn't entirely hypothetical. There are plenty of recently-written constitutions we can peruse, most of them produced by Enlightenment-influenced cultures. Some countries rewrite their constitutions somewhat frequently, and there are plenty of brand-new nations in Europe (not to mention the EU, which has an approach to federalism rather distinct from that of the US).

    I'm particularly fond of the 1999 Cape Verde constitution's Article 44, which creates a right of habeas data.

  95. Peter says

    My gripe with libertarianism is the usually overt (sometimes tacit and hedged) implication that limited liability, transnational corporations–usually styled conceptually, though misleadingly, after a small businesses–are the ticket to liberty. A government–even the most corrupt–has some obligation to it citizens. If it didn't have some legitimacy people'd revolt. Corporate power is much more opaque. The notation that corporations don't do central planning or that they are magically free of (even exhibit less of) bureaucracy is pretty ironic, as well–haggling with an insurance company to get your medical bills is perhaps the pinnacle of bureaucracy. Not to mention the fact that half the staff in US medical practices are there for bill collection, not to provide healthcare.

  96. SlimTim says

    @Peter
    Businesses are accountable to their customers. If there is too much overhead/bureaucracy in a business their products will suffer. This will eventually result in customers spending their money elsewhere.

    haggling with an insurance company to get your medical bills is perhaps the pinnacle of bureaucracy. Not to mention the fact that half the staff in US medical practices are there for bill collection, not to provide healthcare.

    Don't blame the medical practices. If they take health insurance (ether government or private) they really don't have much of a choice in the matter due to the extraordinary amount of paperwork required when billing.

    As a consequence of this, some medical practices have switched to billing their patients directly and they are able to spend more time and resources on patient care http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/11/news/economy/cash-only-doctors/.

    Also, government policies limit competition in the health insurance market. We should allow health insurance companies to sell polices across state lines.

  97. says

    Just echoing SlimTim. I've seen how that particular sausage is made (medical billing from inside a healthcare provider). Submit a batch of claims. Expect to get a certain number rejected on average for reasons ranging from reasonable to ridiculous. Correct, resubmit, and wait for the next rejection.

    It's a bureaucracy that has risen up in response to the bureaucracy on the insurance companies' end. It's not possible to convince me, at this point, that health insurance as it currently works is doing us any favors. I see costs escalating and doctor's who are forced to see many patients just to keep up with those costs.

  98. Robert White says

    "If by "TEN" you mean "six", then yes?"

    No David C., ten. With six year terms, in three blocks, separated by two years, it takes 6+2+2 = 10 years to completely replace the senate in such a way that nobody seated in the senate at the end was directly influenced by anybody sitting on the senate at the beginning.

    So assuming the electorate decides to replace the entire senate, and they make this decision on the least optimal day, it takes ten years to recycle the senate such that nobody serving now was a direct report (indoctrinated trainee) to any existing senator.

    So if I start on any given start of term, the longest possessors of a seat leave in six years. But they got to train and mold the two fresh incoming classes, so their direct reach, their "good old boy" value, if you will, will extend to the two other classes.

    You have to think of it in terms not just of seating but of influence.

    So we switch out all the bodies in six years, but we don't get the influence out for ten because "I worked with Bob, Bob was a great man, I don't want to trash Bob's legacy" is commutative not constrained.

    In shorter order, Bob uses his last day (six years from now) to do some deed, and all the people who voted with Bob on that day are going to want to uphold their previous actions, which extends Bob's taint for four more years.

    Basically the longest serving group (those who are out in six years) will be forced for the first four years, to put in with their elders. That will cement their voting records and their institutional positions, and it will rain down on those who come later.

    So, by design, it takes ten years to _completely_ _change_ _direction_ in the Senate (even though it only takes six to completely change its population).

    "Just the way we do things around here" is a massively underestimated force, even if it's got a good share of "George Washington's Axe".

  99. says

    We already know Libertarianism doesn't work at the Federal level. We tried it for eight terrible years. Look up "The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union", which was the first organizing document of the secessionist colonies. It's the government under which we prosecuted the Revolutionary War. It had no President, no Federal Bench and so on.

    It was a _disaster_. It was the "less perfect union" that the U. S. Constitution's "more perfect union" was designed to prevent.

    So you want a question that proved Libertarianism _can't_ work? That it's economically unsound?…

    Walk to the edge of your property and look at the road fronting your property. Imagine that _I_ own that road and I decide to toll you $10 for every time you use it.

    The libertarian arguer will then say, "I'll get someone else to build a road and use it instead and let the market figure it out".

    Here's the question: Where are you going to put _that_ second road? If it's across my road from your house, you are going to have to pay me my $10 anyway, and _then_ you're going to have to pay the toll for the other road.

    And if I own the entire grid of roads near your home, your new road is going to have to cross my roads many times, so instead of paying $10 to leave your house, it may cost you $90 in my tolls alone for you to leave your house _once_.

    So you decide to sue me…? Where? What court? And how do you prevent me from charging you $100 per use instead of $10 to recover my court costs? And are you going to sue again?

    See the average Libertarian isn't familiar with "Game Theory", so they presume that life would be the same but for the pay-as-you-go parts. But they haven't played the right games that simulate things from the "Good Old Days" they imagine. Settlers of Catan. Empire Builder. Railroad Tycoon. There are countless games built on the real-world observations that demonstrate why we evolved governments in the first place.

    And we _did_ "evolve" governments. We _need_ protections. The "Free Market" approach to air and water quality _created_ the EPA and the clean air and water acts because without them we had _burning_ _rivers_ and the sun was a little orange dot in most cities. I'm that old. I remember that shit.

    Need another example? If you broke your leg _right_ _now_, do you have cash on hand to pay for a life-flight helicopter ride to the nearest trauma center? If you do, do you have the spare time to wait for that center to be built and stocked?

    The average emergency room has millions of dollars of stuff on hand to deal with whatever comes through the door. In the free market ideal who paid for all that? Who do they charge for the medicines that expire waiting for someone to need them.

    Perhaps you'll start a little co-op to _insure_ someone has funds on hand if you break your leg… "insure"… get it?

    I could type all year and not cover all the reasons that we, as a species, systematically abandoned libertarianism. Or I could sit down, one on one, and use a velvet sledge hammer to crush your dreams one at a time with historical precedent.

    All those cool ideas. All that crap you read from Ayn Rand. It's all been tried before and history is littered with the dismembered corpses of people who misunderstood the bargain they sought.

    The rule of unintended consequences. The economy of scale. The facts of history.

    I've sat down with _many_ Libertarians and challenged them to a game of "and then what?" and they always get frustrated and quit.

    How do you collect tolls without a regulated banking system?
    How do you identify cars without the DMV and license plates?
    How do you assess the tolls? One toll taker every house? Automated sensors that can be set off by anyone including people using your driveway to turn around?
    How do you enforce the tolls? Some private police force?
    How do you _price_ the tolls now that each toll operator needs his own army of police and toll assessors?
    Does each toll road owner have a staff of road workers just sitting around? If not, then who soaks the cost of that company's profit margin?

    Try to buy a libertarian bowl of corn flakes and count the tolls from seed purchase, farmer's road usage while growing, farmer's shipment to the grain elevator, shipment from elevator to mill, shipment from mill to bakery, shipment of the salt likewise, shipment of the empty boxes likewise, shipment of the filled boxes to the disribution center, shipment to the store, your toll cost to get to the store and get back home. We'll skip the milk for brevity…

    All those individual tolls, and the takers and enforcers of those tolls and the profits taken at those steps… they are all _new_ costs that don't currently exist. They come into existence because we discard the economies of scale in just taxing everybody and apportioning the funds for the otherwise "free" roads.

    And "the market will fix it" doesn't work. If I have a hundred possible customers and only one of them lives down stream from me, well fark that guy. I'll only build ninety-nine units and that down-stream guy can drink my polluted water and boycott my product. I already wrote him off when I decided his single purchase wasn't enough to offest my sewage treatment expenses.

    The list goes on _forever_.

    We evolved governments and regulations _repeatedly_ throughout all of human history because we need it. Dunbar's Number alone gives us neurological impulses to screw the anonymous masses. We _imagine_ our lives under libertarian conditions, but we fail to imagine everyone else there along with us. It's all fine and dandy to want the government to stay off your lawn, but when the government also stay's off your next door neighbor's lawn while he has metal head-banger parties and band practice day and night I bet you're not that happy. And if the neighbor on the other side is running the nations biggest and least safe refinery and dumping their waste at the edge of their property, which is ever-so-slightly uphill from your own? And the guy across the street is running a meth empire to keep that party house supplied? And every time you walk over there to complain you have to pay me $20 (one trip out and one trip back)?

    Libertarianism is the perfect form of government if you are the single person allowed to practice it and you already have a lifetime supply of corn flakes and ammo in your basement.

    Otherwise it's a disaster every time.

    P.S. And I'm all _for_ limited government intrusion and the constant struggle to push back against government creep and influence. Government is a vicious beast that must be tended constantly. But it's absence is a death sentence for just about everyone.

  100. says

    Just curious, do you think those questions are ones that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might apply to policies and legislation? That they might agree that they should be asked?

    Personally I think they do. But I'm curious if you see that as well.

  101. says

    The problem is that there is no conceivable set of questions that give closure on the problematic domain.

    The answers to those questions over time, as they have been asked and answered, _is_ _the_ _government_ that we've got so far.

    There are some horrible missteps, particularly the DMCA and the USA PATRIOT Act.

    But the idea that "smaller government" is, a priori, better, is flawed at inception. And those flaws ride hand in hand with the "fecklessness and passions" of the populist notions of the age and moment.

    Do we need to "Fix Social Security"? No, not really. The Social Security Trust Fund has _lent_ the U. S. Government a _lot_ of money. Now those Borrow and Spend policies (such as mongering a war while excluding it from the budget) are facing the fact that they have to pay back this creditor. And the politicians on the "fiscally conservative" right are suggesting that the best way to deal with this debt is to slay the creditor.

    We could indeed get rid of a _lot_ of U.S. Debt if we just killed everyone who's got a T-Bill or U.S. Savings Bond, but finding ways to kill one's creditors is not the same as fiscal responsibility.

    Only "beggared questions" masquerade as answers. People mistake Socratic education, which plays out as question and answer, for the idea that the right questions lead to the right answers. Questions can't _really_ define a cause unless you assume everyone else is going to assume the same answers. Questions do not inform.

    So sure, I have a set of questions, but _those_ just tend to hold back the flood of mistakes, and only when you can get your opposition to actually consider and answer them. Our current political climate both _hates_ answers, _and_ assumes them.

    Example: I just watched a video clip where a gun shop owner asked (parapharased) "why can't we treat gun ownership with the same common sense as other things like driving?".

    The question is fine, but Obama _didn't_ ask him to pull out the license and proof of insurance he carries for driving… He didn't ask because he's a savvy politician and he _knew_ the point would be lost on the asker. Why _don't_ we require license and insurance for gun ownership? That's what the fully transitive version of the question would be, but it's not what the asker _thought_ he was asking because he'd already begged his question by assuming the answer would support his preconceptions.

    So think back ten years. All those people saying that asking questions of a war-time president was toxicity liberal and un american while Bush the lesser is in the office. Then think back over the last eight where the same people questioned Obama to death over everything because it's their patriotic duty (backed by a stiff belt of racism). In the entire spectrum there, the questions all had assumed answers in the askers head.

    So sure, I'll add my simple question to your list, if you commit to answering it iteratively and to completion before you try to influence policy.

    Question: "And Then What?"

    Want to cut medicare? And then what? Who's going to take care of those sick people? Should we move them into your house or will that give you the rare opportunity to plead the third amendment?

    Want to cut food stamps? And then what? Who's going to pay for the increase of starvation, starvation related medical problems? Starvation related crime? (is $4.50 a year in taxes for a household making $75,000.00 a year _really_ that much of an onerous burden to stop that crime and suffering?)

    Democrats "tax and spend", but Republicans _borrow_ and spend, and the reason that "spend" is part of both of those positions is that social order _costs_.

    The libertarian fantasy of "pay as you go" is a _fantasy_ precisely because the average libertarian hasn't properly accounted for everywhere they and their interest go. They haven't taken the time to know why their world needs to know about cow farts. They generally don't know why science double-checks the "obvious" or how often the obvious turns out to be incorrect. They believe in mythical creatures like "Job Creators" without understanding that those same people are the job _destroyers_ by definition.

    The reason we have, and need, a pretty large government is simple…

    A person can be smart, but people collectively are dumb, panic-ridden animals who have no idea how the world functions beyond a handful of topics each.

    Government is how we hire people to look at the topics we have no time for, and its how we force people to pay for stuff they don't understand that they need.

    A regulation for the ph of galvanizing reagents in manufacturing? Yes, you need that to keep the washers in your kitchen sink's faucet valves from leaching lead into your water. Dont think you should have to pitch in for interstate highways in Hawaii? Well you do, it's a vital defense infrastructure item (most people don't know that the interstate system includes regulations that mandate straight sections and minimum loading so that the highways can be used as airfields.)

    The government is an chaotic structure made out of the sum total of learned information. Sure special interests tend to pull it into convoluted shapes, but the core relies on the principle of the wisdom of crowds and Markov Chains of incremental change.

    Suggesting that someone come through and cut it up like the Gordian Knot is pipe-dream logic and belies rationality.

    And we have pictures and accounts from here and now, and recent history, and ancient history, and predictive models of the future that tell us that "free market economies" kill, and the principle of American Libertarianism _must_ fail.

    Still and Again, we must fight to hold our government in check. The dam must push against the water just as the water pushes against the dam. We must be vigilant of undesirable mutation in government. But our current government, not counting the bloated military spending, is _dangerously_ lean. The protections and supports for _people_ have been stolen away while the corporatism is forming a lopsided cancerous growth down one whole side. So like any edifice it needs constant maintenance. But at our current ratios we are still getting bargain basement prices for decent service from our government. Cutting government the way the American Libertarian movements suggest is a formula for losing our first-world status.

  102. says

    TL;DR :: The missing question is "What is the basic social contract?"

    In my humble opinion that contract is "You will not prey on others, and we others, in return, will not abandon you to circumstances where preying on others is your only or even best option."

    This is a contract of adhesion because you either accept it or leave (or go to jail) and the fact that you can walk out and enjoy your rights without fear of reprisal is your submission to that contract.

    To that end we _owe_ everyone in this country food, shelter, and nominal safety. We owe it to them particularly because those poor, working or not, are _not_ preying on others, they are just trying to get along and live their lives.

    Every day that a person goes hungry or lives on the street, we have reneged on our responsibilities under that contract who's benefits we _insist_ on reaping.

    If you want to cut welfare, cut science, and generally say fuck the poor (etc) then you are a freeloader.

    It's "ourselves and our posterity" not "ourselves and our heirs". The benefits of this country are _not_ supposed to be insular dick moves and profiteering.

  103. SlimTIm says

    @Robert White

    To that end we _owe_ everyone in this country food, shelter, and nominal safety. We owe it to them particularly because those poor, working or not, are _not_ preying on others, they are just trying to get along and live their lives.

    There is a big difference between helping the poor obtain food and shelter in compassion (or prudence) and everyone being owed food and shelter.

    If everyone was entitled to food and shelter from the government indefinitely there would be less incentive for people to work. This is why welfare recipients are limited to 5 years on welfare.

  104. Steve S says

    @PonyAdvocate

    "Here is a question about which libertarians seem often to be curiously indifferent: What if a very powerful private party, such as a person or corporation that possesses great wealth, were able to exercise its power, possibly to the detriment of other private parties, without a government that, at least theoretically, can restrain it"

    I think that

    1) equating wealth and power is not quite right to me. If somebody offers me $1 million to hit myself in the head with a baseball bat, do they have "power" over me? Not really, I chose to do it. It's not like these private parties perform their dastardly deeds and then dump a pile of cash on the ground as they exit. Somebody agreed to take the money. I would agree with you if there is some kind of threat of force tied to the payment, but then there are already laws against that and I don't think libertarians would disagree with them.

    2) the mine disaster you linked to explicitly stated that the Mine Health and Safety Association failed in their government entrusted duty of enforcing safety laws and fining the company appropriately. That's not to say the root cause is their fault, but if we have mine safety laws and they aren't enforced, what real-world mechanism do you choose to make sure that they are? Who watches the watchmen?

  105. Tim! says

    If everyone was entitled to food and shelter from the government indefinitely there would be less incentive for people to work.

    This makes some sense in theory, but we don't really know this, because it has never actually been tested. That is, not until the current experiments kicking off in Oakland and Finland.

    I expect that on the whole, folks will actually be more productive when they're less stressed about making rent, feeding their families, and addressing medical issues. I also expect that their children will do better in school and grow up to perform more complex and useful jobs as adults.

  106. Tim! says

    If somebody offers me $1 million to hit myself in the head with a baseball bat, do they have "power" over me?

    The point is not that this person has power over you. The point is that this person has more power than the next guy who can only offer you $5 and a strawberry in exchange for you bashing your own skull.

    Now replace "hit myself in the head with a baseball bat" with "write and pass legislation that affects everyone in the country" or "build a factory that discharges solvents into the drinking water" or "bury the exposé I wrote."

  107. SlimTim says

    @Tim!
    The guaranteed income experiments look interesting, but they are not entirely applicable because the food and shelter aren't provided directly.

    A better experiment would be seeing how people behave when room and board are guaranteed indefinitely. I can't help but think of people who live with their parents after college for years without looking for a job or even helping out around the house much.

  108. SlimTim says

    @Tim!

    Now replace "hit myself in the head with a baseball bat" with "write and pass legislation that affects everyone in the country"

    This is one reason why libertarians want the government to have limited powers.

  109. Tim! says

    @SlimTim: I too want the government to have limited powers. More than that though, I want giant transnational corporations to have limited powers. At least the government nominally represents and works toward the interest and well-being of its citizens. The corporation nominally represents sociopathy and works toward nothing other than more money this quarter.

    I can't help but think of people who live with their parents after college for years without looking for a job or even helping out around the house much.

    Absent data, this stereotype is fiction. In my experience the vast majority of people would prefer to doing something interesting and valuable to others over lazing around in their bathrobe all day every day, and the folks who prefer the bathrobe every day have untreated depression.

  110. SlimTim says

    @Tim!
    There is a limit to the power of giant transnational corporations in the US. They make their money via selling products. An individual can choose to buy their products or not. Government mandates/regulations usually don't end up helping small businesses. One example that Ken mentioned in this post was the requirement to be a funeral director in order to sell caskets in Louisiana. That regulation was not needed for health/safety it was solely to prevent competition.

    As you yourself mentioned government officials aren't always motivated by the public good and they can be influenced by giant transnational corporations' lobbying. The odds are roughly 50/50 that Trump will be president. If he is elected, how much power do you want him to have?

  111. PonyAdvocate says

    @Steve S

    equating wealth and power is not quite right to me.

    Although wealth and power are not identical, and wealth is not the only source of power, I think that to anyone with average powers of observation, it's self-evident that wealth does confer power. In any event, my point was about private entities possessing great power, possibly, but not necessarily, conferred by great wealth.

    If somebody offers me $1 million to hit myself in the head with a baseball bat, do they have "power" over me?

    This example doesn't make much sense to me. If a wealthy person wanted to exert his power over you — for example, to induce (compel?) you to do something you do not want to do — he probably would use his wealth to make your life miserable, or to make the lives of your wife or children miserable, until you have complied with his wishes. I'm sure you can imagine the suffering a wealthy person can inflict on someone else, completely legally. A current example: Peter Thiel and Gawker. I do not here choose sides in this dispute: I will simply point out that Peter Thiel is using his wealth to inflict pain on Gawker to an extent that would be impossible for him to do were he not wealthy.

    the Mine Health and Safety Association failed in their government entrusted duty of enforcing safety laws and fining the company appropriately.

    And this is largely because Massey Energy and its CEO, Don Blankenship, were able to use their power to subvert the regulators, or the laws that empowered the regulators. If you're interested in how an industry can use its wealth and power literally to get away with what some consider murder, see NPR's series Mine Safety In America. And if you think mining (or Big Oil, or Big Pharma, or Big Tobacco) is the only industry in which large, powerful companies get away with such shit, just read the news occasionally: another example will be along shortly.

  112. markm says

    @PonyAdvocate

    A current example: Peter Thiel and Gawker. I do not here choose sides in this dispute: I will simply point out that Peter Thiel is using his wealth to inflict pain on Gawker to an extent that would be impossible for him to do were he not wealthy.

    When Thiel pays for lawsuits against Gawker, he is using his wealth to buy government harassment of Gawker.

  113. PonyAdvocate says

    @ markm

    When Thiel pays for lawsuits against Gawker, he is using his wealth to buy government harassment of Gawker.

    I can see how one can manufacture such a conclusion, but I think it requires some unusual — even tortured — use of fact and logic. I think my viewpoint is more reasonable, and one with which most observers would agree.

  114. markm says

    @PonyAdvocate: Do you think the courts aren't part of government? If the courts did not have the power to punish alleged libel and defamation, the only thing Thiel could do to Gawker was to try to fund a competitor. Or lawfare like this would be more costly and less effective if the libel and defamation laws and court procedures had not been designed – by legislatures of mostly lawyers and judges who are nearly all lawyers – to extract large amounts of legal fees even from innocent defendants.

  115. PonyAdvocate says

    @markm

    I see your point — it's just that I disagree with it. In civil disputes between private parties, the courts are adjudicators, not disputants. In theory, and (I think and hope) mostly in practice, a court does not have an interest in a dispute; rather, it is a forum in which the parties can resolve their dispute using rules and procedures that allow for a fair outcome. Ideally, a court itself does not care which party prevails, only that the process leading to the outcome is fair, as defined by historical and current attitudes about what "fair" means (due process and all that). Resolving a dispute is not much use without the ability to enforce the resolution, so yes, government enforcement of the resolution may come into play. But I think most will agree that this form of dispute resolution between private parties is better than having disputants meet for a gunfight at high noon on the main street of town, or having them raise private armies to meet in battle, or trying a case through ordeal by fire. Yes, the civil legal system can be weaponized, but I don't think the solution is to discard the legal system. A better approach would be to reform it so that it can not so easily be weaponized.

    This discussion about the courts is a bit of a distraction from one of the points I have tried to make: that powerful private parties, without a government that can, at least in theory, keep them in check might be even more deleterious to society than government itself. My example of Peter Thiel using the legal system to get back at Gawker was that, and only that: an example. Wealthy and powerful persons have other means at their disposal to inflict suffering on their perceived enemies that do not involve any government institutions. From what I have seen, many libertarians have a blind spot about this issue.

  116. Jerry says

    The level of naiveté in some of the responses here is breathtaking. Great inequality in resources can only be turned into power through government? Really?

    Let's give a concrete example. Ken and I live in a libertarian paradise. I don't like Ken. He's an ordinary millionaire. I have a few billions. I want Ken dead.

    I hire a couple of guys to follow Ken around 24 hours a day. Every time Ken tries to buy food, they outbid him. For them, cost is no object: $100,000 for a tomato? Done. Oh, and as part of the deal, you agree not to sell him anything else this month, or talk about the deal. Agreed, signed penalty for violation is twice what you were paid. We're in a libertarian paradise, so this is just ordinary business – anyone can bid for anything, and contracts are sacrosanct and fully enforceable.

    Another couple of guys hang around his home, his office, anywhere he might order food to be delivered. They buy any food being brought to him, under the same terms.

    If Ken has close friends and family who aren't "rational economic actors" – i.e., they refuse to take my better offer – I extend my attack to them.

    A couple of weeks later, living among plenty, Ken has quietly starved to death.

    Now, sure, if we apply pure economic theory, the entire world will see the great deal I'm offering and will start offering Ken food. I'll have to buy them all off. But here's where pure economic theory rubs up against the real, finite world. How many people can actually physically get to Ken before it's too late? Anyone in the world can offer to sell food, but someone has to physically deliver it – and there are only so many local delivery guys, and so many incoming planes, trains, roads, trucks, cars.

    I can, of course, outbid Ken on plane or train tickets or gasoline – he's not going anywhere.

    Just what, in our libertarian paradise, prevents this outcome? I'm spending my own money, engaging in run of the mill commercial transactions.

    This kind of thing, when done at scale, is "cornering the market" – reasonably common historically, illegal in most places today, but not the kind of thing a libertarian would consider a legitimate target of regulation. But even in our non-libertarian world, something effectively equivalent is legal and actually happens. When Apple produced the first SSD-based iPods, it effectively bought up the world's productive capacity for SSD's. Others, who didn't see the value about to emerge in SSD-based music players, were caught flat-footed, unable to get enough drives to build competitive devices. Supplies eventually adjusted, but it took months.

    Apple allegedly did the same thing with air cargo capacity from China to the US on at least one holiday season. (I don't know exactly how laws against corners are written, but I'm guessing they don't apply here since Apple actually bought only what it itself was able to use – it didn't try to sell back SSD's or space on planes at inflated prices. Small comfort to its competitors.)

    — Jerry

  117. says

    @SlimTIm

    I used the word owed and I meant the word owed.

    The entire "less incentive to work" argument is based on some mighty questionable (dare I even say racist with respect to the "Lazy N***er" stereotype that the "Welfare Queen" et al was born in) understandings of human nature.

    Meanwhile, since society _insists_ that people not prey on one another, society owes recompense.

    Once we invoked overwhelming force, with the police or the town watch or the council of elders (depending on how far back you go) we created the social obligation that accompanies the dictate of law.

    We just then reneged. And you are used to a government that imposes dictates without making good on its obligations.

    And you (apparently) believe in the fairy story that starving a person and depriving them of shelter is "good motivation" for them to find a job even if the economy isn't hiring; when it fact it just creates a circumstance from which they are unlikely to recover since a wet, homeless, and starving applicant rarely gets hired.

    Every time you walk out in public and are not assaulted you take a dividend from the social contract. Why are you so unwilling to pay your share? Why must you freeload.

    You've been duped into imagining that feeding and sheltering people would be some huge and onerous expense. It's not. If you made $75k (before tax) in 2011, less that $5 of the tax you paid that year went to SNAP (food stamps). And lots of those food stamps, almost all of them in fact, went to people who worked 40 or more hours a week. So imagine if the business that weren't paying a living wage were required to pay that living wage… or imagine the horror of paying $15 that year and eliminating domestic starvation entirely. What a horror.

    Feeding everyone would not be that expensive. Punishing people for living in an unfair society, where a person can work constantly and not be able to feed and house themselves and an average of two children is just unsustainably unjustifiable.

    That same year you paid $4k in corporate welfare and god knows how much in military spending. But sure, it's the $5 that's killing you come tax time…

    Noblesse Oblige… in a democracy of the people, it's the people who are obliged.

  118. SlimTim says

    @Robert White
    To be clear, I am not saying that all assistance to the poor should be ended. I am saying that it is not a legal obligation of government (citizens can't sue the government for not providing them with food/shelter).

    You keep mentioning a "social contract" that places obligations on me. However, contracts are only valid if they are agreed on by all involved parties. My only legal obligation to society is to follow its laws as written. Anything I do in addition to that is my own choice.

    You are asserting that I am obligated to provide for individuals in exchange for them not assaulting and robbing me. Frankly, that is no different from being obligated to pay the mafia for "protection".

  119. Jerry Leichter says

    @SlimTim:

    You keep mentioning a "social contract" that places obligations on me. However, contracts are only valid if they are agreed on by all involved parties. My only legal obligation to society is to follow its laws as written. Anything I do in addition to that is my own choice.

    "Social contract" theories have all kinds of limitations. For one thing, the relationship between you and "the polity" which itself provides the enforcement mechanisms that make contracts useful can't be a contract in the usual sense. But … let's run with it.

    You walk into a barber shop, sit down in a chair, and sit there quietly as the barber cuts your hair. When he's done, he tells you "$10." You respond "Hey, neither of us ever said a word. We had no agreement; there's no contract here. I don't owe you anything."

    You lose. Welcome to the world of the implicit contract. You made use of all kinds of services that society provided to you. In the US as it exists today, that includes everything from publicly funded roads (without which none of the stuff you buy in stores would likely be there); to water that miraculously comes out of your tap; to reasonably clean air; and so on. By using those, you entered into an implicit contract to help pay for them. Much of this stuff was paid for by entering into debt (e.g, bonds for road building). That still has to be paid off; you don't get to walk away by simply saying "From now on, I won't use anything that the government provides" – not that that's very realistic anyway.

    You may not like the terms of the deal, but you're stuck with them.

    You are asserting that I am obligated to provide for individuals in exchange for them not assaulting and robbing me. Frankly, that is no different from being obligated to pay the mafia for "protection".

    For this assertion to make much sense, you need to have some way of claiming that you have an inherent right to whatever property you have – even when it leads to jailing a starving man for stealing bread.

    What's to keep the starving man from himself citing contract theory: You claim that I'm under an obligation not to steal. But where's the contract? Where's my consideration? I get nothing – I don't even have piece of bread to eat. Why should I feel bound to respect a contract to let you hold on to all your cake?

    — Jerry

  120. SlimTim says

    @Jerry Leichter
    I never said that I refuse to pay taxes. I fully agree that I am legally required to follow society's laws as written. However, anything I do in addition to that is of my own free will and NOT a legal obligation.

    What's to keep the starving man from himself citing contract theory: You claim that I'm under an obligation not to steal. But where's the contract? Where's my consideration? I get nothing – I don't even have piece of bread to eat. Why should I feel bound to respect a contract to let you hold on to all your cake?

    The starving man is legally obligated under the same social contract that I am. Following the laws of society as written. If he does not like society's laws he can ether advocate changing them or leave and join a different society.

    Again, to be clear, I am not saying that all assistance to the poor should be ended. I am saying that it is not a legal obligation of government (i.e. citizens can't sue the government for not providing them with food/shelter).

  121. Piper says

    @ Ken – I'd really be interested in your expansion of this segment:

    Is there any evidence the government is any good at this?

    Particularly in regards to efficiency vs. transparency/accountability/constitutional rights/checks & balances

    IMHO, the sources of the greatest inefficiencies in Government tend to be because the Government has to do the things it does in such a way that it ensures against corruption while treating citizens as equally as possible. Both of these caveats cause massive inefficiencies, but which are compatible with Constitutional Rights.

    A Prime example being the Post Office – it would be far cheaper not to serve Rural Areas, but completely incompatible with the actual goals of the Post Office. Similarly, Environmental regulation, Public Education, the Armed Forces, the Justice System etc. all have huge inefficiencies related to the above requirements.

    Therefore, at least when considering whether the Government is any good at it, an adequate accounting of the necessary bureaucracy to maintain American Ideals and Values with regards to the aforementioned factors must be taken into account.

  122. Brooks says

    So Ken just argued against the judicial branch existing.

    Its power could be abused. People can settle disputes amongst themselves. Judges have been wrong, and the system has been systemically biased.

    Libertarians (small or big L) exemplify juvenile absolutism. If authority can be bad, it is always bad. If individuals can negotiate fair exchanges, they can always negotiate fair exchanges.

    It's a naive and sociopathic viewpoint that most people grow out of in their mid 20's.

  123. says

    Is there any evidence the government is any good at this?

    That is the one that I think is important when thinking about the war on drugs. The law does not seem to be the tool we should use to suppress drug use.

Trackbacks