Bryan Caplan  

Unbundling the Warlord

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Arnold (see here and here) bundles together several distinct claims about government.

1. Society is better off if somebody - anybody - stops the "war of all against all":

Once one warlord becomes successful, then it is easy for a second warlord to recruit followers, because people either envy or fear the followers of the first warlord. This process continues until everyone is driven to follow warlords.

To break a warlord equilibrium, you need government. That is the Hobbesian solution--a Leviathan that is capable of suppressing the "war of all against all."

This is an historically important but deeply flawed argument. There is an obvious reply: "Once the Leviathan suppresses the war of all against all, why won't it treat its subjects like slaves? Who guards the guardians?"

2. Government by a committee with formal procedures, including procedures for removing the current leader, is fundamentally different from government by one man.

I see government as an institutional arrangement. It is implemented by many individuals, with competing interests. The difference between government and warlordism is that these competing interests are resolved using rules that are viewed as more important than any one individual.

The problem with this argument is that committees can and do implement monstrous policies, and the main function of formal procedures is just to make whatever policies you have run more smoothly. For example, the Soviet Union from 1956 on was clearly an institutional arrangement, run by many individuals with competing interests, which were resolved using rules that were viewed as more important than any one individual. Khrushchev was peacefully removed from power and died of old age.

Thus, contrary to Arnold, I don't literally think that government is a "single warlord." I just think that rule by a committee according to formal procedures is not fundamentally different from rule by a single man. Committees and procedures are more predictable than individuals and case-by-case decision-making. But neither is predictably better.

3. Governments that do not personally enrich the leadership are fundamentally different from those that do.

Does paying taxes represent the same type of shakedown? I would say that it does not. With the Mafia, most of the money goes for the personal benefit of gang leaders, who hold their personal positions by threat of force. With the government, most of the money gets recycled back to people, and the government's leaders can be peacefully removed.

By most accounts, Lenin and Stalin lived like monks. Did that make their policies any less monstrous? Would they be any less monstrous if their colleagues were able to peacefully remove them from power - but chose not to? Similarly, why should I care if the government transfers my assets to the leadership, or someone else who isn't me?

My point, of course, is that whether or not you agree with Arnold's view that government is a good idea, he needs better arguments. I suggest the simplest: For reasons that remain poorly understood, the status quo in the Western democracies currently provides the highest standard of living in human history, and any radical change has a serious risk of ending in disaster.

That's a tough one.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/413
The author at No Treason in a related article titled A Consequentialist Argument For Government writes:
    Via Bryan Caplan: My point, of course, is that whether or not you agree with Arnold [Kling's] view that government is a good idea, he needs better arguments. I suggest the simplest: For reasons that remain poorly understood, the status quo in the W... [Tracked on December 24, 2005 3:19 PM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
HUICHIEH LOY writes:

For 1. I'm not sure if you actually disagree with Arnold, as in you believe that

Society is not better off if somebody - anybody - stops the "war of all against all"

Or merely that even if someone/something does stop the war of all against all, we may not be out of the woods quite yet. That is, the someone or something may be the source of other troubles (the who guards the guardians issue). The former position doesn't seem plausible. On the other hand, I doubt that Arnold needs disagree with the latter, nor does 1. entail the denial of the latter.

In other words, some form of Leviathan may be a necessary condition of commodious living; but the argument does not yet specify what form (remember that for Hobbes, monarchy, oligarchy and democracy can all be equally serve). I don't see Arnold's argument as entailing a complete agreement with Hobbes' claim that unlimited and unlimitable sovereign is the only consistent solution to the war of all against all.

For 2, my own suspicion is that Arnold's case is better served not by a contrast between rule by one and rule by committee, but by a contrast between 'rule' by procedures (or rule of law) and rule by people--whether one, few or many.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

For reasons that remain poorly understood, the status quo in the Western democracies currently provides the highest standard of living in human history, and any radical change has a serious risk of ending in disaster.

Surely the rule of law, on which I agree with Arnold, plays an important part.

Anyway, I'm glad to read this. With all this AC lunacy, I was beginning to think you were totally insane. I still wonder about many of the commenters. Who would rather live in a warlord society than in one of these democracies? Let them go to Afghanistan or Colombia, or Somalia.

why should I care if the government transfers my assets to the leadership, or someone else who isn't me?

Doesn't that depend on the ex ante agreements that are in place? For example, I don't object if the insurance company "transfers my assets" to someone whose house has burned, since I have agreed to make assets available for this purpose, on the condition that others' assets are transferred to me if my house burns. Yes, I know that government transfers are not unanimously agreed to.

anon writes:

Poorly understood? Yeah, I suppose so. My stab at it would be that, recent rise of the American Taliban/Religious Right aside, The US and Western Europe have(since the end of the middle ages anyhow) relatively minimized the influence of religious nuts, and have found somewhat of a healthy balance between a free market system and one with too much gov't interference. I'll throw in a plug for a humanist view, and one of respect for individual freedoms. It's not perfect, but it works. It's provided the greatest good for the greatest number.

The anarcho-capitalists I've talked to at GMU have some nice ideas, and maybe if we could blow the planet up and rebuild it from scratch exactly as they envision it it could work. But, yes, there is that one sticking point that right now we have more "stuff" than anyone's ever had before, and people like stuff, and chances of success or failure aside it's hard to *persuade* people to try a radically different system. The only people who really don't have much of a stake in the system-the very poor-seem like they'd be more disposed to leftist ideas if they're inclined towards something ultra radical.

Politics is the art of the possible.

John P. writes:

I certainly agree with Bryan's italicized point. To try to smoke out the "reasons that remain poorly understood" is part of my purpose in reading what Bryan and Arnold write.

Roger M writes:

For reasons that remain poorly understood

I think that if one pays attention to the New Institutional School, the reasons become more clear. In short, economic growth requires investment, but the insecurity of property rights encourages investors to hide their money under a mattress and/or bribe powerful people to protect it. The rule of law and the rationalization of government and society by the Protestant revolution provided unparalleled security for property. As a result, investment and innovation exploded. By the way, the Protestant Dutch Replublic gave the world the first state to allow religious freedom. It also gave us the first true form of capitalism, which offered far greater individual freedom than the US does today.

John P. writes:

Roger M. -- Can you recommend any good written work dealing with the issues in your post? Thanks.

Roger M writes:

John,
Philip Gorski's "The Disciplinary Revolution" updates Max Weber's thesis on the impact of Protestantism on government after the Protestant Reformation, with implications about economics. Jonathan Israel has one of the best histories of the Dutch Republic. Jan De Vries's "The First Modern Economy" has the best economic history of the Dutch Republic, but he doesn't place much emphasis on institutions. For the impact of institutions on economic performance, see the Journal of Institutional Economics. Douglass North is the grandfather of the New Institutional school and has written a lot about property rights, development, and the Dutch Republic. I have a great paper by Gorski that ties all of this together, but it's at home. I'll try to remember to post the URL for it tomorrow.

John P. writes:

Thanks very much.

Chris Bolts writes:
Poorly understood? Yeah, I suppose so. My stab at it would be that, recent rise of the American Taliban/Religious Right aside, The US and Western Europe have(since the end of the middle ages anyhow) relatively minimized the influence of religious nuts, and have found somewhat of a healthy balance between a free market system and one with too much gov't interference. I'll throw in a plug for a humanist view, and one of respect for individual freedoms. It's not perfect, but it works. It's provided the greatest good for the greatest number.

Isn't it ironic, then, that the societies that were fervently religious in the beginning are also the ones that are thriving democracies, whereas the ones that were fervently atheistic or humanistic are the ones that are struggling to cope with democracy? The point is that one size-fits-all arguments like the one above that simplistic and don't consider a variety of factors: surely we can all say that the Middle East is something we don't want to happen anytime soon in our country, but at the same time we run the danger of going completely in the opposite direction where we suppress people's religious freedoms and create environments that become hostile to one another.

Roger M writes:

Here are two good articles on the internet about institutions and development:

The Protestant Reformation and
Economic Hegemony: Religion and the
Rise of Holland and England
Phil Gorski
University of Wisconsin

http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=uclasoc

Paradox of the West by North
http://econwpa.wustl.edu:8089/eps/eh/papers/9309/9309005.pdf

John S Bolton writes:

The libertarian and anarchist have the burden of proof, to demonstrate why a cession of sovereignty is valuable and not traitorous. It is also for them to prove that a lasting statelessness can exist, and be more than just freedom for aggression.

jaimito writes:

Aristoteles had a theory: Goverment changes in cycles. Democracy, aristocracy, dictatorship, etc.

John writes:

For reasons that remain poorly understood, the status quo in the Western democracies currently provides the highest standard of living in human history, and any radical change has a serious risk of ending in disaster.
That's a tough one.

Actually there's a similarly short response to this objection as well, which is that monarchies in the 17th and 18th centuries said the same things about monarchy vs. democracy. Arguing from ignorance proves nothing, which is exactly what it starts with: nothing.

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