Tilly on Government as Organized Crime

The argument that government is a bit like an extremely-successful mob isn’t new, but Charles Tilly makes the argument better than most:

Apologists for particular governments and for government in general commonly argue, precisely, that they offer protection from local and external violence. They claim that the prices they charge barely cover the costs of protection. They call people who complain about the price of protection “anarchists,” “subversives,” or both at once. But consider the definition of a racketeer as someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction. Governments’ provision of protection, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering. To the extent that the threats against which a given government protects its citizens are imaginary or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket. Since governments themselves commonly simulate, stimulate, or even fabricate threats of external war and since the repressive and extractive activities of governments often constitute the largest current threats to the livelihoods of their own citizens, many governments operate in essentially the same ways as racketeers. There is, of course, a difference: Racketeers, by the conventional definition, operate without the sanctity of governments.

Yep.

Democraphobia Goes Mainstream (Sort of)

This op-ed from Tapu Misa contains an odd mix of democraphobia (yay!) and statophilia (boo!). First the good:

The catalyst for the march was the Government daring to ignore the result of the recent ambiguously worded citizens-initiated referendum on the child discipline law.

Which means the Government is clearly undemocratic. “The people are the boss and the Government has to listen to them,” said Craig.

Well, yes and no.

The trouble with the might-is-right, majority rules brand of democracy has always been painfully obvious for those of us accustomed to occupying minority perches.

As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” In a straight-out numbers game, the lamb always loses.

I couldn’t agree more. She goes on, however, to defend a utopian version of representative democracy:

But representative democracy, as advanced by 18th century British MP Edmund Burke, promotes a higher ideal built on notions of the common good.

Burke felt MPs weren’t just delegates, elected to do their constituents’ every bidding. While “their wishes ought to have great weight”, he argued that an MP’s “unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” ought not to be sacrificed in the process.

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

True to his convictions, Burke backed several unpopular causes during his time in Parliament, knowing that it would probably cost him his seat (which it did), but determined to show “that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”.

He was right. Sometimes, the people can get it badly wrong.

Yes, they can. But so can those representatives they elect to lead. Afterall, they are elected by those same people who sometimes get it badly wrong. Representative democracy does have the capacity to mitigate the effects of moral panics and other short-term fluctuations in preferences. It does this by introducing some inefficiency into the transmission of preferences into policy, however, rather than by electing noble leaders.

There’s simply no justification for the assumption that politicians will be better than the rest of us. Sometimes politicians will make better decisions than the majority; sometimes worse. Representative democracy is still two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, but with some slack in decision-making that may occasionally save the lamb when the wolves have only a fleeting craving.

As Crampton has argued, government implies a trade-off between the costs of populist democracy and self-serving politicians. When we give politicians more power in an attempt to reduce the mob-rule nature of democracy, we enable them to take advantage of the rest of us. As long as we have government, we can only ever strike a balance between these problems, never avoid both (unless we can elect wise and benevolent philosopher kings, of course, which seems to be the preferred option of many).

Still, it’s nice to see something other than democratic cheerleading from the MSM. I particularly like Misa’s conclusion:

As the philosopher and writer Ayn Rand observed, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by the majority (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

I find her proposed solution (and Rand’s, for that matter) hopelessly utopian, however. As long as we have government, there’s no way to navigate between the problems of mob rule and arbitrary power and have an acceptable degree of freedom.

Sounds like a good reason not to have government to me.

Bailouts and Capitalism

The G-20 protesters in Pittsburgh seem to have some interesting political views:

The marchers included small groups of self-described anarchists, some wearing dark clothes and bandanas and carrying black flags. Others wore helmets and safety goggles.

One banner read, “No borders, no banks,” another, “No hope in capitalism.” A few minutes into the march, protesters unfurled a large banner reading “NO BAILOUT NO CAPITALISM” with an encircled “A,” a recognized sign of anarchists.

The “NO BAILOUT NO CAPITALISM” sign raises some interesting questions about the word “capitalism.” Many self-described leftists (some of whom I come very close to agreeing with) see bailouts and other forms of corporate privilege as part and parcel of capitalism. Many non-left libertarians see bailouts as antithetical to capitalism. Both groups are wrong.

The only useful definition of capitalism in line with its historical and contemporary usage is a system which allows the private ownership and alienation of property. This definition can accommodate a wide variety of institutional arrangements, from a market-anarchism to fascism: there are both good and bad forms of capitalism (full book here!).

By that definition, I am completely and utterly pro-capitalist in the sense that I think any system without private property would be irredeemably awful. History hasn’t exhausted the design-space of propertyless social systems (and I, for one, hope it never does), but it teaches some valuable lessons.  At the same time, I’m completely and utterly opposed to some forms of capitalism. Government funds lining the pockets of well-connecting firms is neither essential to nor inconsistent with capitalism. It is essential to some kinds of capitalism and inconsistent with others.

Where my Georgists at?

Many libertarians accept that government, and therefore taxation, is necessary. If taxation is unavoidable, the economically literate libertarian should prefer a tax system with minimal distortionary effect and injustice. I think the Georgist idea of a single tax on the unimproved value of land is clearly the best tax on both counts, but is seldom discussed by economists or policy wonks.

Taxation distorts economic activity by discouraging the taxed activity. If we tax income, people will work less. That’s bad. Given that (almost) all the land there’s ever going to be is already in existence and can’t be destroyed, a tax on the unimproved value of land wouldn’t have these distortionary effects. Of course, there’s really no such thing as the unimproved value of land: the value of a particular piece of land depends on improvements made in neighbouring areas. Still, such a tax would surely be less distortionary than other forms of taxation.

Many libertarians will object that efficient theft is still theft, and therefore wrong. I’ve never completely bought in to the taxation is theft line, since I think property rights are themselves morally problematic. I really like property rights, and I think it’s pretty indisputable that we’d all be poor and miserable in a world without them.

I don’t like the quasi-mystical overtones of the “mixing one’s labour” metaphor, but I think some version of homesteading principle is the only way to think about just and reasonable acquisition. The Lockean proviso that we leave enough and as good for others, though, is never completely met in reality. Even if there’s an abundance of unclaimed land, location remains important. If I claim exclusive right to a piece of land, I am reducing the options available to everyone else.

I don’t like Nozick’s move of interpreting the Lockean proviso as being met if everybody is better off in a system of private property rights than the alternative. This neglects the intermediate possibility of attenuated property rights. It seems fairly plausible that everyone would prefer a system in which people could claim private ownership of land, but only on the condition that they compensate others – in Georgist terms, paying rent to the community. There are some problems in terms of justice, but, to me, there much less serious than the problems of current tax systems.

Milton Friedman once called it “the least-bad tax” (but to my knowledge never discussed the possibility in any depth). I’d go further and say it could be a positively good tax. If we could design a government and ensured it remained within predefined bounds, a nightwatchman state funded by a single land tax could be preferable (in expected value terms) to anarchism. (Constraining government in this way is impossible, though, which is why I’m an anarchist. Still, the “imagine a perfect government; wish really hard” approach is the dominant one in political discourse.)

Why, then, is the idea largely confined the certain portions of the left-libertarian fringe? With few exceptions, free market economists have neglected the possibility of replacing income or consumption taxes with land taxes. Fred Foldvary has done some great work, but that’s about it.

I don’t get it. Any ideas?

Philip Zimbardo Interview

Believer Magazine has a very interesting interview with Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the Stanford prison experiment. There’s a lot of great stuff, but I particularly liked Zimbardo’s emphasis of the inertia of institutions:

Yes, even there, you know, what comes out of that is the guilt or innocence of each of the leaders. So tribunals say, “We have the power to put leaders on trial, even though they in fact—none of them actually killed anybody—it’s just they created a policy, they created a system.” But I would hope they would go to the next level and make explicit: “In punishing this person we are really publicly declaring that this ideology produced the crimes against humanity. And so we, as an international body of humanists, of jurists, decry the horrors of this kind of system.” So you’re really sending out a message: it’s the system that’s wrong, and these people helped create it. Hitler helped create it, and Pol Pot.… But once it’s created, once the Stanford Prison Experiment was created, I’m irrelevant. If I had died during the thing, it would have gone on. The guards would have been happier. If Hitler had been killed, the whole thing would have gone on only because it had already corrupted the legal system, the educational system, the business system. With all these mechanisms in place, he became irrelevant. In fact, he would have been a big martyr.

There’s also a lot of talk about the implications of Zimbardo’s situational theory of evil for moral responsibility, how Zimbardo was sucked into the situation and became evil himself, and the war on terror.

Read the whole thing, especially if you enjoy despair.

Minority Rights are Anti-Democratic

Robert Dahl knows his democratic theory, so we should take notice when he argues that the protection of minority interests conflicts with democratic ideals. Writing in 1957 [gated], he says:

One problem, which is essentially ideological in character, is the difficulty of reconciling such an interpretation [of the US Supreme Court as protecting minorities] with the existence of a democratic polity, for it is not at all difficult to show by appeals to authorities as various and imposing as Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Lincoln that the term democracy means, among other things, that the power to rule resides in popular majorities and their representatives. Moreover, from entirely reasonable and traditional definitions of popular sovereignty and political equality, the principle of majority rule can be shown to follow by logical necessity. Thus to affirm that the Court supports minority preferences against majorities is to deny that popular sovereignty and political equality, at least in the traditional sense, exist in the United States; and to affirm that the Court ought to act in this way is to deny that popular sovereignty and political equality ought to prevail in this country. In a country that glories in its democratic tradition, this is not a happy state of affairs for the Court’s defenders; and it is no wonder that a great deal of effort has gone into the enterprise of proving that, even if the Court consistently defends minorities against majorities, nonetheless it is a thoroughly “democratic” institution. But no amount of tampering with democratic theory can conceal the fact that a system in which the policy preferences of minorities prevail over majorities is at odds with the traditional criteria for distinguishing a democracy from other political systems.

Why are so many unwilling to admit the conflict between liberalism and democracy? I’m bloody sick of “democracy” being used as a synonym for “good.”

Individual Rights: Minority Imposing its Views on Majority

This from Jesse Reynolds at Biopolitical Times (repsonding to this from Ron Bailey) is one of the more stupid democratic totalitarian arguments I’ve heard (and yes, it does mention the Peter “The Root of All Evil” Thiel):

Public opinion surveys show that an overwhelming 85 to 90 percent of Americans are opposed to human reproductive cloning and would like to see it banned, whereas only a tiny percentage would like to engage in the activity. This opposition is certainly not a radical ideology.

Furthermore, the US’s lack of any governance of powerful reproductive and genetic technologies–a remarkable exception among industrialized nations–is praised by Bailey as

a good thing too, since lack of government intrusion allows for the expression of moral pluralism. So far, at least, with regard to many biotechnical advances, the majority in the U.S. doesn’t get to impose its values on the minority, as has happened in many other countries.

In other words: Fortunately, with regard to many biotechnical advances, the minority in the US has so far been able to impose its values on the majority, unlike what has happened in many other countries.

Such opposition to democracy is not surprising, given Bailey’s transhumanist agenda. He knows that his vision is not popular. In order to implement it, experts such as himself and fellow anti-democratic libertarian Peter Thiel must be trusted and given authority, lest the wishes of the unreliable and ideological masses actually be enacted.

If I’m reading this correctly, Reynolds sees the maintenance of a private sphere beyond the reach of majoritarian interference as repression of the majority by the minority. That seems to be a pretty common, and utterly insane, view among democraphiles.

Do these people really not see the difference between denying a person the right to live her own life and denying the majority, acting through the state, the right to control the lives of others? Bailey and Thiel don’t want “authority” over anything except their own lives.

Exit, Voice, and Liberty

There’s been some interesting, and heated, debate in the libertarian blogosphere about the importance of democracy to freedom. Will Wilkinson suggests that since charter cities (and presumably seasteads) are undemocratic, they might allow rulers of authoritarian regimes to reap the benefits of high economic growth without giving their subjects “real freedom.” I think Will’s point that charter cities may allow illiberal regimes to create market-facilitating institutions and increase economic freedom (most often good for dictators) while ignoring civil liberties (most often bad for dictators) is important.

Will seems to think that an important aspect of freedom is democracy, though, and that’s what has caused the debate. Arnold Kling argues that real freedom is exit, not voice. Charter cities and seasteading aim to make exit easier and thus remove the need for democratic voice:

The exercise of voice, including the right to vote, is not the ultimate expression of freedom. Rather, it is the last refuge of those who suffer under a monopoly. If we take it as given that the political jurisdiction where I reside is a monopoly, then perhaps I will have more influence over that monopoly if I have a right to vote and a right to organize opposition than if I do not.

The idea of charter cities (or seasteading) will be a success to the extent that it creates a viable exit option vis-a-vis government. … In fact, if we had real competitive government, then we would be no more interested in elections and speaking out to government officials than we are in holding elections and town-hall meetings at the supermarket.

Will Chamberlain and Patri Friedman expand upon Arnold’s argument at A Thousand Nations; Wilkinson responds to Arnold here. All of these posts, including the comments, are well worth reading. I’m with Arnold and the other competitive government types and I have little to add to their joint efforts.

As a side note to the debate, though, I think Wilkinson is right to suggest that exit, narrowly conceived, is not enough to produce real freedom. Seasteading aims to do more than simply make exit easier; it’s about producing the technology to lower barriers to entry in the governance market.

Most people are free to exit their jurisdictions (county, state, country) and move to another (albeit at a fairly large cost). What they are not free to do, though, is to start their own country. This is why Will’s second-guessing of Arnold’s commitment to exit as freedom on the basis that he hasn’t left his county are so off-base. A major reason for jurisdictional exit’s failure to do much to enhance freedom today is the poor selection of products in the governance market. Even with zero relocation costs, I only have the choice among some really bad autocracies and a fairly homogenous set of liberal democracies. It’s not simply freedom of movement (exit, narrowly conceived) which enhances freedom, but meaningful choice.

The only way I can see of getting meaningful choice of government is to lower the barriers to entry.  When there are literally a thousand forms of government from which to choose – and the possibility of creating your own if none are quite right – you’re surely orders of magnitude freer than you are today, even with freedom of movement and the cost of relocation remaining constant.

You think voice is important for liberty? Fine! Go somewhere with voice. I disagree, and strongly suspect that the bloated and liberty-restricting governments (relative to my standard of what a government should be, not to any actually existing governments) that we see today are pretty much an inevitable outcome of democratic decision-making. The only places to which I can currently relocate in order to get away from democracy, though, are even worse.

I don’t much care for voting and would prefer to live under a government run like an insurance firm. I think even voluntary governments run democratically will be subject to the problems of expressive voting and rational irrationality (see my somewhat related arguments here and here), and will therefore fail to satisfy people’s true preferences. If I’m right, we won’t see too many democratic seasteads survive too long: people will voice their prejudices and then exit once they realise they have to pay the cost.

The beautiful thing about competitive government is that we don’t need to argue about who’s right. I could be wrong, and maybe voting will prove to be an important part of freedom. I just don’t see, though, how one can maintain that voice is just as fundamental as exit (defined widely as freedom of movement combined with low barriers to entry in the market for governance). If you start with only the capacity for exit, you can move somewhere which gives you voice. If you begin only with the capacity for voice, there’s no obvious way to get the capacity for exit. This asymmetry is crucial: exit can give you any other freedom, including voice. Competitive government isn’t about securing any particular freedom, but giving people the freedom to choose whether or not they want other freedoms. Exit, thus conceived, is the most fundamental freedom.

Hobbesian Government

In Federalist 51, James Madison puts the problems of the tyranny of the majority and the rent-seeking in an interesting way:

In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.

By anarchy, of course, Madison means Hobbesian anarchy. Unrestrained government, like the Hobbesian state of nature, traps everyone in an n-person prisoner’s dilemma. If everyone can expect to be a victim of factionalized politics (i.e. the tyranny of majority or well-organized interest groups) some of the time, everyone would prefer to live in a world in which the machinery of the state could not be used for plunder. When it comes to playing the actual political game, however, every player’s dominant strategy is to prey upon others when part of the winning coalition and everybody winds up worse off.

Alfred Cuzán makes a similar but distinct point when he argues that we can never really get out of anarchy. He sees the state as subjecting relations among citizens to the control of a third party, but relations within government remain anarchic (i.e. bilateral, without external control). I prefer Madison’s way of looking at things: the state is never completely external to men, and can be used as an instrument of factional predation. It’s a different set of rules in which people relate to one another rather than an organization per se. People can be trapped in the Hobbesian war of all against all with or without the state.

Some see the constitution as a way of escaping the disorder of Hobbesian government. My current view on this is that constitutions can somewhat mitigate, but never come close to eliminating, the expression of factional violence through the state. Government will always be a war of all against all, with lobbyists replacing guns. The best we can hope for from government is the avoidance of total war.

Libertarianism and Beneficiary-Bashing

There has been much chatter in the New Zealand blogosphere about “beneficiary bashing” after the Minster of Social Development Paula Bennett released details on how much two solo mothers who complained about some of their benefits being reduced were still receiving from the state.

I don’t find the privacy issues particularly interesting, but the issue of whether those on welfare are receiving too much is important. As a libertarian, my first-best set of policies would not include welfare payments (in fact, it would not include government). This is not because I hate the poor and want to see them starve, or becuase I assume that they would all be able to look after themselves in the market. I think many people do need assistance and should receive it, but I am not willing to forcibly take from the rich to give to the poor. I think voluntary charity in a free society would be entirely adequate to address genuine cases of poverty.

Even so, I do not advocate a general reduction in benefits given the current set of policies. I certainly think there are better ways to provide welfare, but I don’t think it’s fair or helpful to complain about dole-bludgers and insist they just need to get a job. I think there is a very strong moral second-best argument for significant rich-to-poor redistribution in the presence of significant (stupid) government intervention. To my mind, the most just system would be a completely free market; but removing some types of government intervention can make the system less just.

Much government policy today disproportionately harms the poor. Mandated minimum levels of safety and quality on housing and other goods outlaws the products many poor people would choose to consume, and barriers to starting a business (such as licensure) or employing low-skilled workers (such as the minimum wage) reduce the opportunities for gainful employment. For the most vulnerable, this increases costs and decreases income. Given that this is happening, I’m glad that there’s a little more coercive taxation going on in order to stop the poor from starving.

If we were to remove all welfare benefits today, we would move from a system which forces people into welfare dependency (which is very bad) to a system in which takes away their options and doesn’t offer them any assistance (which is downright horrible). A system which effectively prohibits certain people from making a living and doesn’t offer them any compensation seems like the worst of all possible worlds to me.

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