December 18, 2014

A response to libertarians and anarcho-capitalists

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:34 pm

I recently called into a libertarian radio show to discuss my views, and after the call, one of the hosts, Christopher Cantwell, wrote a very thoughtful piece discussing what I said. This is my response to that. As he rightly pointed out, it’s difficult to solve anything meaningful in a 5-10 minute phonecall to a radio show, and so I think this format is much better for that sort of thing.

My overall point of view is this: people maintain lots of different types of organizations. A state is an organization, and so is a city, a company, a co-op, and so forth. These organizations have to be run somehow. The government of a state is analogous to the management team of a co-op: the state “owns” the land, the government is set up to manage the organization.

In a co-op, people may vote for a board, which then votes in policies, which may not be unanimously favored. If you don’t like the policies, you should be free to move out, but as an ancap I doubt you’d argue that people should be able to stay in their apartment without paying rent, violating a “no pets” policy, and not expect to encounter any force. You wouldn’t call rent “theft”. But, when it comes to a larger organization such as a city or state, you call the taxes theft and nearly any law enforcement illegitimate.

Why the special pleading in the case of states? My contention is that the main difference is just one of scale and switching costs. The state as an organization is just too big and it is just too expensive to move to some other states, similar to how it’s hard to leave facebook and not see all those photos from your friends anymore. That doesn’t mean facebook can be run in a way that makes everyone perfectly happy and free to do whatever they want.

Let’s look at other possible reasons you might bring up. The “Lysander Spooner” argument that you didn’t sign a contract with a state but you did with a co-op when you moved in. Well, actually, when your parents or whoever cane physically moved to the state, or set up a business interacting with people living there, etc. they did in fact make numerous agreements and covenants. So at least for businesses paying taxes to their city, I think the situation is quite analogous to, say, a store paying rent to a mall and complying with its policies. You can always NOT run a business in that city or state. Secondly, I doubt you would argue that if you were born in an apartment and inherited it from your parents without ever signing a single agreement with the co-op, the co-op therefore has to let you have the apartment completely for free, never evict you and take pains not to restrict your freedom in any way by requiring you to follow policies the rest of the people signed. Why is that? You didn’t sign any contract but somewhere you realize that the co-op is a community and your de facto guarantees and protections are extended by the co-op itself. For practical reasons, it is more a question of being within their jurisdiction, than signing an agreement. Perhaps one day technology will obviate the need for jurisdictions in more areas of life. It already has done that in some. But until then, for practical reasons, we have jurisdictions and organizations with overlapping jurisdictions make agreements between each other about how they will handle their internal matters. Now, the reason this “inheriting” happens much more often in a state, is the scale of the state. You are simply less likely to live your whole life in an apartment until your parents leave it to you, than you are in a country. And frankly, if the States of the US all required you to sign documents when traveling between them or establishing a business within the state, it’s likely that the “contract difference” would be completely eliminated.

You may say that the state has a “monopoly in violence” but in fact, in many parts of the world, it does not. In the USA, the federal government is arguably the organization whose laws trump state law (in view of the 10th and 14th amendments this is debatable). And yet it’s very rare that federal law enforcement officers or bureaucrats would be the ones dealing with you if you were arrested on the street. The organization using force locally is the city, and each city is a separate organization from every other city. You are subject, in fact, to overlapping jurisdictions of your county/city, state, and federal governments. Some corporations may hire armed guards. Some county sheriff may arrest you and put you in a county prison as a completely local matter. So there is no monopoly of force in the USA at least. However you want to organize society, someone will always be enforcing some laws enacted by some organization or in accordance with some agreement between organizations. Whether it’s an armed guard in a building, or a police department of a city.

It is only by singling out states for special treatment over every other type of organization that one can make accusations and ivory-tower pontifications of the type libertarians make, and I want to explore the real factors behind the difference. I think you’ll find that, if “the state” was removed, then this wouldn’t get rid of use of force, or any of the other “bad” things. It would just take another form. For example, in tribal Scotland, highland clans weren’t any less violent than a unified Kingdom was internally. In fact, violence around the world has been going down on every scale (millennia, hundreds of years, decades) “despite” larger and more sophisticated states forming.

In view of this, using morality as our guide isn’t always guaranteed to give any consistent answers. Is copyright protection morally good or bad? Even libertarians are divided on that. How about owning land? What is “ownership” anyway? It is an expression of property rights, as determined by the rules and laws involved. These vary from place to place, and just like the expression “human nature” – when you get down to it – the more universal you want your statement to be the less traits you have to require in common. There is no “universal law of property” that covers all contingencies the same equally. There are issues of religion (eg usury), shared use (eg easements), risk (eg fractional reserve requirements) time (eg adverse possession) liability (eg bankruptcy protection) practicality (eg predatory lending restrictions) and much more.

In fact, the whole distinction between “negative” rights (freedom From) and “positive” rights (freedom To) is spurious. In the jungle they are respected exactly the same. Human civilization is all about establishing frameworks for ensuring some degree of guarantee and assurance of various conditions that people have come to expect. These days we have drinkable water running to our sink and emergency rooms that by law must try to save our life regardless of ability to pay. All these things are the result of progress, a gift you receive just by virtue of being alive now and not 2000 years ago. Previous generations have spent a lot of resources to get it to you. Those people are no longer on the planet and therefore your notions of paying everyone for their contribution doesn’t apply here. Billions benefit from the intential and sometimes accidental innovations and wealth creation of the past millions. It is a free gift. You take these for granted and divide them into “positive rights” and “negative rights” and look for morality as the sole guide to how to structure today’s organizations. I simply observe what is happening and want to focus on maximizing outcomes such as overall health, wealth, satisfaction, happiness and actual freedom. I worry about questions like, what kinds of things can organizations do in order to achieve these goals? Both at the level of a state or a school. While we’re at it protecting property with courts, is there a limit to the enforcement of property rights or are they absolute? On the Laffer curve for taxation does zero wealth redistribution really achieve the best, or even close to the best, outcomes? Look at the first-order effect welfare had on poverty, before the diminishing returns. Having a safety net also makes everyone more free to take risks. They are able to afford switching costs that otherwise would restrict them from making informed choices, rendering their freedom in name only.

There’s plenty to think about there, in fact these have always been the major subject of political and organizational innovation. In some of my other posts I tackle these kinds of questions.

We can all get caught in our favorite political philosophies, but history has shown one of the most dangerous types of people is someone in power who puts their ideology before the lives and welfare of their fellow human beings. So keep an open mind, and don’t think your political philosophy is the “only” and “best” way to run things, at any cost. No one is perfect, and “we are all stupid, just on different subjects.”

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