Arnold Kling  

Another Herring

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Bryan writes,


Suppose that in Libertopia, you're extremely undesirable, so no woman will marry you. In Paterfascista, you're extremely desirable, but it's illegal to marry you.

In both Libertopia and Paterfascista, you're not able to marry. So you could say that both systems are equally objectionable.


That is not what I am saying at all. I object to Paterfascista, in all of the examples that I give. But my grounds for objection is not that laws have the power of force behind them. My grounds for objection is that Paterfascista extends its jurisdiction where it does not belong.

Suppose your employer threatens to fire you for getting married, even though this has no impact on your performance or the employer's cost of compensation--the employer just does not like the idea of your getting married. I think that it is objectionable for an employer to claim that kind of jurisdiction over your personal life. Similarly, it is objectionable for Paterfascista to claim such jurisdiction. But if it is less costly for you to leave Paterfascista than to leave your job, then your employer causes more harm, regardless of the fact that Paterfascista has a police force and your employer does not.

I want government around to settle private disputes when they get out of hand. I think we need a judiciary to rule on disputes, and we need a police force to ensure that the judiciary's rulings are obeyed. In the absence of co-ordination problems, it is not even clear to me that we need a legislative function at all.

An example of a co-ordination problem would be rules of the road. Assume that all roads are private. In theory, some owners might enforce drive-on-right, and others might enforce drive-on-left, causing confusion. Or they might enact dysfunctional policies with regard to transitions between roads. My guess is that in practice these co-ordination problems could be dealt with without formal legislation (the Internet manages quite well, for example). But if private arrangements are insufficient, then perhaps legislation is needed.

So I do not think that co-ordination problems are serious enough to warrant keeping a sitting legislature. In my idea of Libertopia, legislative bodies would only meet in the case of emergencies.

In this Libertopia, private security forces are widespread. But, given the potential for disputes to arise between security forces (or the potential for a security force to become aggressive rather than defensive), Libertopia would have a government. The challenge is to rein in the legislative function, a challenge that wiser men than I have not been able to solve.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Karl Smith writes:

I think your objection holds even in the marriage case. The key is identifying the underlying actions that constitute "marriage."

Suppose, we wanted to use sharing a domicile. The in Libertopia the claim is "if you share a domicile with this person without their consent you then the police will imprison you for breaking and entering or assault"

In Paterfascista the claim is "if you share a domicile with this person you will be imprisoned for violating the marriage laws"

In both cases your actions are prevented by force of law and ultimately threat of death. In libertopia, however, you merely have to convince one person to allow you to share the domicile. In paterfacsita you have to convince the government/majority.

blink writes:

"I think that it is objectionable for an employer to claim that kind of jurisdiction over your personal life."

While I would not choose to work for an employer who forbids me to marry, I disagree that such a policy is objectionable. (Considering priests and nuns, one might argue that the Catholic church presently practices this "objectionable" policy.) To me, the problem with a government imposing such a restriction is that the government does not bear the cost of its prohibitions and interdictions. The source of the problem is, as noted in the TCS essay, a lack of effective competion among government entities.

MattS writes:

"My grounds for objection is that Paterfascista extends its jurisdiction where it does not belong."

One might ask, how do we know how far any government should extend its jurisdiction?

Matt (#2) writes:

In Texas, our legislature meets for 4-5 months every other year. It wasn't until after WW2 that Congress was in session more or less year-round.


"Suppose your employer threatens to fire you for getting married, even though this has no impact on your performance or the employer's cost of compensation--the employer just does not like the idea of your getting married. I think that it is objectionable for an employer to claim that kind of jurisdiction over your personal life."

Admittedly, your employer in this case is being a jackass, but here's the problem- if you deny the employer his right to hire or fire you for whatever reason tickles his fancy, you're essentially denying the right of free association. In the libertarian world, the labor market is just like any other market, and yet by and large we don't force people to transact against their will, without complaining that this gives other parties "jurisdiction over your personal life". In fact, pretty much every time we do force people to transact against their will, it involves factors which a person can't control, like race, sex, etc.

This is one of my problems with Libertarians- while all agree that the government shouldn't be able to treat you adversely on account of your personal choices, there are far too many who really think no one should be able to, which ultimately sabotages the entire Libertarian ethos, as that involves a government poking its nose into every private transaction and non-transaction and trying to divine the motives of all involved.

Arnold Kling writes:

I am not using my example to argue that employers should be restricted from being able to fire employees for getting married. If you read it that way, you miss the point.

Matt (#2) writes:

I see the point you're making, which is just a measure of how much harm an employer is doing vs. the gov't, which is the relative difficulty of voting with your feet. I just get a twitch every time I see libertarians applying phrases like "jurisdiction over your personal life" to private parties.

James writes:

"An example of a co-ordination problem would be rules of the road. Assume that all roads are private. In theory, some owners might enforce drive-on-right, and others might enforce drive-on-left, causing confusion. Or they might enact dysfunctional policies with regard to transitions between roads."

But Arnold, this merely replaces one coordination problem, establishing good traffic rules, with another, making sure that those licensed to coerce are using that license to solve coordination problems rather than providing private benefits to themselves friends at public expense. Which coordination problem do you think is the bigger one?

Do you really think coercion is needed to reach a solution to coordination problems? So far as I know, there is no coercive mechanism to prevent e.g. a variety of differently sized ATM cards, but the banks seem to have figured that out.

Regardless, the argument you are trying to make is a non-sequitur: Some problem exists, therefore, it's fine for James to coerce Arnold. Of course here I'm sure you can recognize that the stuff on back side of the "therefore" doesn't follow from the stuff in front. When you make the argument that you are making here, you might have some other party in mind to do the coercing, but the illogic is the same.

Brad Hutchings writes:

What about the harm of robbing the market of the opportunity to discover a happy medium? Or for it to be able to evolve unrestricted by legislation? For example, take the smoking ban in California... It was sold to us as a health issue for 55 year old women who worked in bars their whole lives. It was not sold to us with jokes starting with "Rob Reiner walks into a bar...". It's a freakin' bar. People (used to) like to smoke while the drink and play pool.

This all goes back to whether the minimum wage is coercive, with Arnold arguing against that view (right?). I'll concede, it's not coercive in the Jack Bauer sense on torturing individuals. But it robs the market of choices by forcing employers' hands at certain thresholds. If it becomes easier or cheaper to outsource or deploy technology to replace people, then employers will do that and low wage workers lose jobs. If coercion isn't the word for that dynamic, we need a word, and it needs to convey the pernicious effects of unintended consequences.

Michael Sullivan writes:

I don't think Arnold is arguing that the minimum wage (or any law) is not coercive. He's saying (if I read him correctly) that coercive/not-coercive is a false dichotomy and that even Libertopia will involve coercion.

There are some situations where it is legitimate to coerce or enlist some authority in coercion on your behalf, and some where it is not.

Libertarians draw that line in a different place from others, but it will always be a fuzzy line on a vast spectrum rather than some clear question of yes or no. Private property is inherently coercive, it's just one of the least bad forms of coercion (in that as best we know today -- its acceptance by a whole society tends to help maximize a lot of plausible utility functions where coercion is bad and economic growth is good).

But the whole point is that in trying to design a free society, you're trying to minimize the area beneath a hard to manage rubbery curve/surface, and pushing down in some places may just push up even further in others. Assuming that we could actually eliminate coercion entirely is no different than the Marxist claim that if only humans were better, communism would work wonderfully. And the corrollary is that you can't assume that eliminating any particular instance of coercion is automatically a net good.

If you eliminate my ability to keep people from smoking in or vandalizing my house, then my property rights are less meaningful. But if you don't, then I can exert a large measure of coercion over anyone who wants access to me or my property. We have to choose the lesser of evils, and that choice is all about deciding appropriate jurisdictions.

TGGP writes:

I think coercion that a person agrees to (by signing a contract) can be considered different from that which one does not. An immigrant that has "voted with their feet" might be said to have agreed to abide by a government's policies, but the majority are not immigrants and never made any such agreement (I believe this is what Lysander Spooner was getting at in "No Treason: Constitution of No Authority" but I haven't read it).

Nathan Smith writes:

If you want a political philosophy-- if it can be called that-- that completely rejects coercion, it's not libertarianism but what might be called pacifist-anarchism, two advocates of which were Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi. This idea is also implicit in certain teachings of Jesus Christ: "Do not resist the wicked man!... If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek!..." The pacifist-anarchist would have us have no security against crime or predation except the sad, reproachful eyes of moral suasion. But if you believe that martyrs will inherit a crown of glory after the Resurrection, that may be good enough.

Now, here's the interesting question: Can libertarians and pacifist-anarchists get along? The libertarian will defend his private property by force, or wants the state to do so for him; the pacifist-anarchist will not. But the pacifist-anarchist will also not use force to prevent the libertarian from using force. The libertarian has no obvious reason to object to the pacifist-anarchist, and the pacifist-anarchist will, at most, object morally, not forcefully, to the libertarian. So in a way, yes they do.

If this sounds like idle theorizing, I think it actually has historical significance. An objection to coercion rooted in pacifist-anarchism evolved into the objections to coercion that inform modern libertariansim. Call that a hunch. To demonstrate this would require more knowledge of intellectual history than I can muster.

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