Arnold Kling  

Two Metaphors for Government

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On our left, we have George Lakoff, discussing the way taxes ought to be framed.

Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It's about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn't pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It's the same thing with our country — the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation.

On our right, we have Robert Higgs.

The state cannot refrain from crime because it is an inherently criminal enterprise, living by robbery (which it relabels taxation) and retaining its turf by mass murder (which it relabels war).

On the one hand, the state is a country club, and our taxes are the dues we pay for the privilege of membership. On the other hand, it is a criminal enterprise.

Neither metaphor is entirely wrong. I pay my membership dues to the Maryland and U.S. governments because the other criminal enterprises offer an even less attractive package of benefits and dues.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Maniakes writes:

If the state were a country club, membership dues would be a flat fee. And if you can't afford the fee, you can't come it. Not a very liberal viewpoint.

Scott Scheule writes:

The difference between the metaphors is the voluntary nature of the clubs. I join a country club--I don't join a country. Now in some sense, I have a choice--I could always leave the country. But of course I also could always leave the territory of the Mafia.

Which organization provides the better metaphor is the question. Nozick answered this at length: he found the state legitimate, but only in its minimal form: the state could arise without violating of rights (and thus, it could be a non-criminal enterprise), but once it began redistributing, et al, it was no longer non-criminal.

I suppose neither metaphor is a proper fit then. The state isn't a country-club--it's non-voluntary. But simply being non-voluntary does not, according to Nozick, render it criminal.

Alex J. writes:

Consider a Georgian paying membership dues to the federal government in 1870. Does he pay them because the federal government offers a more attractive package of benefits than other criminal enterprises, or does he pay them because of Sherman's march to the sea? The federal government's current primacy (in the South for sure, everywhere else by implication) is founded on the threat of raping, looting, burning and killing. Of course, "experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." The benefits package can make government more endurable, but many states, even ours at times, exist because they can threaten to make peoples lives much worse instead of actually making them better.

Lord writes:

How democratic are criminal organizations, not just among entitled members but among others under its purview? The club association may arise organically, but that hardly means it is involuntary, although in places where it comes closer to a criminal organization like North Korea, it does. Only the simplest organizations charge flat fees.

Matt writes:

The state is a natural result of quantum effects to the far right of our income distribution.

The number of players out there are small, wealthy and the transactions limited. It is impossible to get that small number of transactios to obey binomial aproximations in their market. Hence, to keep the big players in their comfort zone, we have to shift wealth among them at various, long, time periods; their markets have long update cycles.

The state, in particular, exists because adding the next big thing on the distribution reguires it move father right, and must be appreciably more wealthy then the next thing on its left.

It is the herding constant again.

Bill Stepp writes:

There are so many things wrong with the state-as-country club analogy that one scarcely knows where to begin. The biggest problem, though, it that a country club is a voluntary organization,
that obtains its money through the economic means. No one is force to join, and a member can quit at any time. The State, on the other hand, is an organization that maintains a legalized monopoly of coercive force over an arbitrarily circumscribed geographical area, and that gains its income through compulsion, i.e., theft.
Murray Rothbard called the State "the biggest mass murderer, armed robber, enslaver, and parasite in all of human history." I wonder what he really thought of it.
He also wrote the two best essays on the State ever penned, "The Anatomy of the State," and "War, Peace, and the State." Both are reprinted in his book _Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature and other Essays_.
These two essays, along with his essay "Justice and Property Rights," are the best foundational essays on society and the State.
They should be top of everyone's reading list.

Lord writes:

I guess you have never belonged to a country club. Many are geographically based, and no there is nothing voluntary about receiving benefits without paying the costs, and yes, they can place a lien on your residence and sell it for unpaid dues. The worse countries are like criminal enterprises even to the extent of forced labor while the best are like clubs even though some powerful members keep wanting to turn it into a forced labor camp.

Chris writes:

Beyond the stretch of voluntary dues being somehow equated to mandatory taxes, I can't think of a single similarity between a club and government. Not only can I choose not to join a club, I can choose to not belong to any club.
Now if government allowed us to opt out of all of these supposed 'safety nets' then the analogy would play out a bit better.

Lord writes:

There are generally governance issues involved. You can opt out of the country club by moving, but only if you have another club willing to accept you. Why should they accept you on your terms? A bit arrogant on your part isn't it? You might be able to find an undiscovered island, buy one from a club willing to sell, good luck with those, or move to antarctica undersea, or outer space. No, there is no real option to belonging to a club, only which club to belong to, but that is a decision your parents made, and one you make every day you choose to stay. You do have the choice persuade others to vote your way, but if you can't don't say it was involuntary, only that you were unmotivated by your convictions and weren't able to motivate others to them either.

FC writes:

You can't be a criminal if you make the laws.

Kimmitt writes:

Alex J. -- a white Georgian or a black Georgian?

JP writes:

There is nothing metaphorical about Robert Higgs' description of the state.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

Neither of those views is of value.

The determninative is how individuals perceive their relation within groups. Whatever effects groups have, once formed, on those within them, groups don't generate the individuals within them, individuals generate the groups.

Do the bulk of individuals draw their sense of "identity," that is, what they are, and what their existence signifies to them: the "why" of work, effort, worry, etc., from being part of some common whole?


Do the bulk of them perceive the common whole as nothing more than the effects of their own and all the other individual's work, efforts, worry, etc.

Sociologicaly, individuals seek affiliations inter alia for the reinforcing effects of commonalities; all sorts of organizations, military service, clubs, churches, faiths, a myriad of groupings. But, so far as history provides observations, individuals resist or respond unfavorably to having affiliations thrust upon them.

Collectivism vs.Individualism needs more careful distinctions.

R. Richard Schweitzer

MT57 writes:

I agree with all the posters re the weakness of those metaphors. I would go further and say that there really is no metaphor, including contractarian or "family" paradigms, that comprehensively and accuately describe either the actual state/individual relationship or any realistically possible one for a country of 300 million people, and it would be best to stop trying to invent or argue metaphors and stay locked in the reality-based community.

Lakoff of course has devoted his career to trying to teach how to frame left/right issues in language that appears simple and even-handed but in fact subliminally drives the audience to the result he prefers.

Steph2614 writes:

It is my belief that most Politicians must think a lot like George Lakoff. No wonder every time you turn around you are being threatened with having to pay even more taxes, while still working for the same salary or hourly pay as the last time taxes went up. Of course thats not a problem for those in congress who have voted to raise their pay something like the last 9 out of 11 years? I may be off on that number but I promise it ist by much. And to go a little further with that, those the are the same people who worked only around 180 days last year while making top pay. Must be nice, right?

George Lakoff seems to think that paying taxes is just like paying your dues at a country club. Well last time i looked, most people living in country clubs make pretty good money and drive very nice cars. Now look around America, most people dont make good money and most that drive around in very nice cars are in debt up to their eye balls. So it is easy to assume that those who make great money do not have much problem paying their dues at their country club, otherwise they wouldn't have joined a country club to begin with. Of course these are the same people who have money to spare so paying taxes doesn't really hurt them too much. But then you have those who can barely afford to put food on the table and pay the rent all while working 3 jobs to get by. Doubt a person in that position is trying to join a country club.

Personally, I have no problem paying taxes when I feel like the money I am paying is going towards what it should. However when my hard earned money is taken away in order for me to pay my "due's" and it goes to "fix" a road that has nothing wrong with it, it just kind of bothers me a little bit. I'm in college and every little bit I make, makes a difference. Those who pay their due's at the Country Club get access to pools and tennis courts and what not and the money I pay in taxes goes to fix a road that has nothing wrong with it. Definitely not the same thing. I suppose I agree with Robert Higgs because taking my money and spending it on something that doesn't need to be done is pretty much like robbing me. It is just sad to think that the way our country opperates really makes it appear to be more like a criminal enterprise than a Country club which are far cries from one another.

Alex J. writes:



The Union argued that USAians owed an involuntary allegiance to the federal government. The Confederates argued that they owed an involuntary alliegience to the many state goverments. In both cases, this allegiance was enforced by arms, most dramatically by Sherman's march to the sea, but also by the slave patrols as you imply. My position, is that the occupants of the USA do not owe any allegiance to either the state or the federal governments.

zmbroyhill1 writes:

The Left side of the argument more accurately describes America. The government provides protection of every individual's rights and means for financial opportunity for all citizens. Taxes are al small fee to pay for the benefit or living in such a peaceful nation, even if the peace is due to making our military stronger than the others.

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