Arnold Kling  

The Trouble with Minarchism

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Anthony de Jasay writes,


To the extent that the collective choice rule can define or by a rule-change amend the frontier, its zone may encroach on the zone of individual choices, while the reverse is of course not the case; individuals have no rule-making power enabling them to encroach on the collective zone. Much of the problem of limited government is summed up by this sentence...

From the conquering war band and its leader we have moved to a looser feudal structure, to absolute monarchy, to constitutional monarchy, representative government (either unelected or elected on a restricted franchise), and finally to simple majority rule and universal suffrage with constitutional limits or with absolute sovereignty. The latter may well be a rule-of-thumb approximation of some optimum compromise between the two contradictory objectives of maximum gain for the winning coalition and maximum security of its tenure. With a touch of good-natured irony, we might say that if this is the optimum combination, it is the “end of history.”

...rising taxes trigger two streams of exit: a “brain drain” typically composed of the most enterprising, ablest, and best-trained members of society, as well as a flight of capital in the form of money, and of going concerns that “de-localize” to low-tax jurisdictions.

...Unreasoning, even plainly unreasonable standards can effectively limit government if they are widely followed. For about a century and a half before Keynes’s General Theory became common currency for the literate and the semi-literate, it was widely believed that repeated deficits in the state household were mortally dangerous, liable to lead to the country’s ruin and to be countenanced only in desperate circumstances.


He is concerned with a deep problem. Those of us who are "minarchists," meaning that we favor government that is limited to adjudicating conflict, have no reliable mechanism for restraining government.

His point is that government can use its rule-making power to remake any rules that were used to create it. Certainly, we have seen this in the United States, where I would say that the original Constitution lies in shreds.

He concludes that only irrational standards or taboos can constrain the power of government. I tend to agree. If there is no taboo against government interference with activity X, then as long as it is in the interests of the governing coalition to interfere with activity X, that will happen.

I call these irrational standards and taboos folk beliefs. In my view, the real political contest in America is not between Republicans and Democrats but between a folk Locke-ism which restrains government and other folk beliefs, such as folk Marxism of college campuses or the collectivist religion that Daniel Klein calls the people's romance.

Responding to de Jasay's essay, Gerald Gaus writes,


The mass of recent evidence from evolutionary biologists, cognitive psychologists, and sociologists is that human ordered anarchy is structured not simply by “conventional rules banning torts against life, limb and property, nuisances and incivilities” but by moral rules (or norms). Certainly moral rules include various prohibitions against harming others and some types of deception. Although there is dispute about this, I think there is also considerable evidence that these moral rules include some standards of fair distribution. The norms that enabled human groups to survive and thrive during most of our evolutionary history were not simply coordination rules, but also norms about the fair sharing of goods. As Cristina Bicchieri (2006: ch. 3) has shown, fairness norms are fundamental to social life and we now have a deep “taste for fairness.”

...We now see the deep problem for the classical liberal project of holding back the state. If the rules that are fundamental, according to classical liberals, are merely conventional, then citizens will see them revisable by authority. The legitimacy of democratic authority and its laws will override the authority of the conventional rules classical liberals so stress. We do not need an account of how the interests of the state cannot be constrained: it the weakness of conventional rules that is the real culprit. Of course, if the basic normative commitments of classical liberals were widely conceived of as moral rules, then there would be much deeper resistance to government-made rules that seek to cancel or override them...The welfare state reigns supreme not because the state and it allies have tricked the rest of us in a power grab; it reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans (Fong, Bowles, and Gintis, 2005). Classical liberals who convince themselves that the New Deal is best explained as a power grab by Roosevelt and his allies are manifestly deluded: it was (and still is) very widely seen as demanded by our sense of fairness.

...Some apparently obvious applications of our moral concepts — such a treating a far-flung economic order in which each must have an incentive to find his place as if it was a tribe in which the hunt must be fairly shared — are misguided and end up violating other moral notions about freedom and fairness to individuals. The debate is complex, concerning both empirical and moral issues. Few proponents of classical liberalism are willing to engage the debate on these complex grounds (my colleague David Schmidtz is a notable exception), preferring instead to ignore our complex pluralistic moral sentiments by building their case only on self-interest, or retreating to a narrow “natural rights theory” of morality shared by few. It is no wonder that classical liberals are losing the debate about the limits of the justified state. The state grows to a large extent because most citizens think that fair dealing, as well as the protection of everyone’s basic interests, requires it. Until they are willing to engage the moral sense of their fellows, classical liberals worried about the unbound state should look no further then their own failure to convince the vast majority of their fellow citizens that morality does not endorse it.


In other words, the irrational standards and taboos that undergird our political system are likely to reflect, for better or worse, our moral sense that evolved under tribal conditions. Hence, the "people's romance" comes from a (misguided) attempt to apply tribal morals to complex nation-states. So you get Senator McCain arguing that highly-paid individuals in the private sector are not doing their part to serve the tribe.


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The author at Megan McArdle in a related article titled We must compel them to be free! writes:
    Arnold Kling writes, of Anthony De Jasay's essay in Cato Unbound: He is concerned with a deep problem. Those of us who are "minarchists," meaning that we favor government that is limited to adjudicating conflict, have no reliable mechanism... [Tracked on February 14, 2008 2:38 PM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
8 writes:

This is what nearly all the anti-illegal immigration folks have been arguing.

It also explains what's the matter with Kansas.

Josh writes:

I think the key problem for government is how to balance one person's moral judgements against another's when they conflict. Some are easy (a serial killer's moral judgement that killing is ok is trumped by a potential victim's moral judgement that they should be allowed to live, etc.). But some are not, and this difference between fairness and freedom is a classic case. But to say that fairness trumps freedom simply because more people reach that judgement seems to be begging the question since the morality of majority rule is itself in question (and is often in direct conflict with "freedom").

Dain writes:

I think the book cited in the Gaus commentary is Moral Sentiments and Material Interests. The experiments explained in the book revealed that people do in fact think of reciprocity in a way not so unfamiliar to libertarians. They take the more or less Victorian sense of interpersonal justice and apply it to stereotypes in the broader social realm. Many Americans don't like "Welfare" because it violates their sense of the work ethic (lazy, "drunken bums"), though Social Security and welfare for farmers is thought to be proper compensation for social actors that have contributed to the health of the nation. There is plenty to criticize here, seeing as how stereotypes are often profoundly off the mark, but the above knowledge gets us somewhere, at least.

Understanding the nuances of just why lay people have the public policy positions would go a long way in the classical liberal battle for the public imagination.

TGGP writes:

I've been discussing the issue elsewhere and don't feel like giving the whole roundup of links here because I already did so there.

Bill Stepp writes:

Those of us who are "minarchists," meaning that we favor government that is limited to adjudicating conflict, have no reliable mechanism for restraining government.

Rothbard pointed this out in his book _For a New Liberty_ and his essay "The Anatomy of the State."

As for irrational standards or taboos constraining the power of government, more generally public opinion constrains the power of government. This was the subject of Etienne la Boetie's _The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude_, for which Rothbard wrote a fine introduction.

You say the original Constitution lies in shreds, but as a constraint on the power of the State and the inevitable tendency of that institution to burst its bonds, it was always a paper tiger.
Worse, it warranted criminal action, such as taxation, slavery and monopolies (e.g., "intellectual property"), to name three.
Art. 1, sect. 8, a to-do list and open sesame for the State, should be repealed, for starters.

RL writes:

"To the extent that the collective choice rule can define or by a rule-change amend the frontier, its zone may encroach on the zone of individual choices, while the reverse is of course not the case; individuals have no rule-making power enabling them to encroach on the collective zone. Much of the problem of limited government is summed up by this sentence."

Easy for him to say...

Randy writes:

Perhaps public choice theory has the answer to restraining government. Public officials acting in their own interest will be interested in a tribal view of fairness only to the extent that playing to it will get them into office. But once in office, their concern shifts to profiting from the office. As the profit opportunities aren't going to come from the tribes but from the wealth creating individualists, the political class will always be willing to deal with the individualists. There is no point in holding office if they don't. This doesn't present much in the way of hope for those who imagine a government "of the people, by the people, for the people", but it does create a de-facto limit on government.

liberty writes:

His point is that government can use its rule-making power to remake any rules that were used to create it. Certainly, we have seen this in the United States, where I would say that the original Constitution lies in shreds.

But if the rules that define the rules (i.e. the constitution) define how you may change rules and say clearly that it is difficult to alter this fact (e.g. constitutional amendments are tough to pass) then:

1. It takes longer and requires more effort (and indeed it has taken a couple centuries to get as far as we have from the original intent).

2. The pride of the people in their nation (another one of these moral sentiments) prevents people from being okay with such alterations without very good arguments.

I agree with much of what was said, but I think that the American people are not quite as populist as they are made out here. Along with a national pride, people here also have an individualist pride. And that was part of the anti-communist feeling, along with the frontiersmen mentality, the pro-gun-rights sentiment, etc. Having lived out west, I can tell you that the individual responsibility and freedom moral sense is still strong.

The problem is that there is also the sentiment described above, and the two clash. Only economic understanding (and moral reckoning) can help to resolve the conflict.

One final quibble: Classical liberals who convince themselves that the New Deal is best explained as a power grab by Roosevelt and his allies are manifestly deluded: it was (and still is) very widely seen as demanded by our sense of fairness.

It is now seen that way- but FDR was elected on a platform of cutting government spending and cutting taxes. He only got away with what he did because people were in an acute fright. The measures were supposed to be temporary (see Road to Serfdom) and the people were swindled. There was popular support for rolling back his excesses - some of which seem trivial now.

fundamentalist writes:

I have as much respect for evolutionary psychology as I do for shamans. It's simply stupid to think that we are slaves to evolutionary events that took place millions of years ago. Ideas matter. They change the way people think today and overpower any biological events from millions of years ago.

The dominant idea in economics has been the limited wealth belief that people have held for millenia. Most people have believed that wealth in the world is limited, so that one person can become richer only by making another person poorer. It's the old "the rich get richer and poor get poorer" routine. I call it "poker economics" because poker is a zero sum game.

For most of history, poker econ was true because most people enriched themselves by theft, war, ransom or monopoly. Capitalism changed that, making possible for the first time in history the creation of wealth through increases in productivity. Beginning first in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, total wealth grew instead of simply being re-distributed. But few people realized that the paradigm had changed, and those who did realize it did a poor job of explaining it and selling it.

In addition, the early capitalists were for the most part protestants, who provided a moral foundation for capitalism in the Biblical commandments against theft, envy and covetousness. Capitalism thrived as long as traditional Christianity remained strong. Although most traditional Christians still believed in poker econ, they also believed that God had determined who would be poor and who would be wealthy, so they didn't try to redistribute wealth.

Then, in the late 19th century, traditional Christianity lost out to "modernism", which denied the fundamental truths of tradition Christianity, but relevant to econ, they discounted the commands to not steal, envy, or covet while reviving ancient poker econ. Now if you're a poker economist, you believe that the rich have gotten their wealth by taking it from the poor. And if you don't believe the Bible any more, then envy and covetousness are OK, and redistributing wealth is no longer theft, it's justice correcting a previous wrong.

Traditional Christianity gave birth to capitalism and provided its moral foundation. Capitalism will never have a moral foundation without traditional Christianity. On the other hand, socialists enjoy the logical power of poker econ, and the moral authority of justice in redistributing wealth, without the restraint of traditional Christianity's prohibition of envy and covetousness. It's no wonder that appeals to self-interest, or freedom, or it works better than socialism have failed to win many convets.

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

Sorry, I can't by the connection you try to make between christianity and capitalism. Free markets were functioning thousands of years before Christ. By way of example, many of the ten commandments have to do with property rights, though the Hebrews certainly didn't invent the idea. But "Poker Economics", that's good. Its a great visual.

fundamentalist writes:

Randy,
There is a difference between free markets and capitalism. You're right that free markets have existed for millenia, but has capitalism? Of course, some will say yes; it depends on how you define capitalism. But even Marx didn't believe capitalism appeared until about the 16th century. As support for my position, check out Jan de Vries book "The First Modern Economy," which is about the Dutch Republic. What de Vries calls a "modern economy" is what most people think of as capitalism. Also, if you follow the New Institutional School of economics, the institutions that make up capitalism were first implemented nation-wide in the Dutch Republic. Finally, Adam Smith cites the Dutch Republic in "Wealth of Nations" as the greatest embodiment of the principles of natural freedom. Other economists credit the Dutch Republic for implementing the first laws to seriously protect property in Europe.

Why did the Dutch make such a radical break with the rest of Europe on economic policy? I think it's pretty clear that they inherited the economic thinking of the School of Salamanca in Spain, which advocated free markets and private property. (Rothbard has some good material on the School of Salamanca in economic history.) That scholastic philosophy was based on natural law and the Bible. They saw free markets as just an extension of property rights, and property was based on the Biblical injunction against theft. Their teachings entered the Dutch Republic through Lessius and Grotius.

No authoritative definition of capitalism exists, but if you use the criteria above, I think it's clear that it saw it's first implementation in the Dutch Republic, although glimpses of it can be found in the past, especially in Venice.

The Church had taught the basic principles of capitalism for millenia, but they had never been able to implement them as public policy. The Reformation provided the opportunity because it disrupted society all across Northern Europe. The Reformation was especially strong in the Spanish Netherlands before the revolt. After the Dutch gained their independence, Reformation fervor empowered them to change many aspects of their society. The nobility lost much of their power as equality before the law was implemented. Women gained a great deal of power. Of course, religious freedom and freedom of conscience was first permitted there, too.

In addition to de Vries, Israel's "The Dutch Republic" is a good source.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Actually, contrary to the article, it is hunter-gatherers, nomads and steppe warriors that have a tribal morality. The christian european morality you refer to is one of universalist farmers not tribes, and the contrasting eastern morality is one of families of farmers, rather than of tribes. (This is a very difficult social order to construct, and is uncommon.)

Higher Tribalism is a different thing altogether. The idea that the basic tribes of the world are still in competition with each other, and that certain diasporic tribes (armenians, english, jews, chinese) are spreading capitalism and are highly successful. There appears to be a great deal legitimacy to this set of ideas. Each higher tribe has very similar properties, which are embeded in the languages as much as the moral codes and social orders.

Taboos can be manufactured and retained as long as there are not too many people in the population. Because taboos or moral codes are economic in nature, they cannot easily cross boundaries. The primary means of enforcing taboos is by shunning, which is economically dangerous in primitive societies. It is somewhat harmful in advanced societies but it is not the death sentence that it is to those less reliant on capital movement.

Moral systems are extensions of the economic systems people live within. They are very difficult to change POSITIVELY (for economic growth) without institutions (property and banking and contracts and elimination of corruption) but very easy to change negatively (civil war and destruction of economic relationships and mores).

The great shift in moral systems since the industrial revolution has been caused by dense urban living and the relative increase in stimuli that makes invisible the actions that farmers are sensitized to. (Oceans of data on this - simple example is Jewish urban morality and christian farmer morality. Money versus land simply because of the ability to defend land or not.) Farmers can shun and share, loan and not, and it is hard to be anonymous, just as it is hard to be anonymous in a band of hunter gatherers.

In cities, one can be anonymous, and the problem becomes one of entering a social or employment network, and the micro-economy and micro-morality of that network rather than adhering to a homogenous set of rules. These urban networks are aware of each other but are tolerant of each other to a point. (Seattle for example has many 'communities' of people with similar economic, intellectual, and social preferences -from Madrona's wealth to Belletown's alternative lifestyles, and membership in geography is effectively tribal membership.) This is very different from the homogenous farmer morality. (It is different from New York's level of intermingling as well). While we know we can live WITH the farmer morality. The problem is, that we don't know what happens under the URBAN NETWORK morality if it has sufficient density to neutralize the capital conservation and homogenity of the farmer morality. Durant, Spengler, Toynbee and Quigley would probably all argue that this is how civilizations die. (I would as well, but we have invented a number of institutions along the way.) An Austrian economist in the Hayekian tradition would argue that this population density would create an informtaion problem for the urbanites, or would argue that the pricing system is sufficient, which would be a very hard argument to make, and one not likely to succeed. An ideological Rothbardian might argue that that these considerations are not our purpose - which I would argue is specious.

The problem we face today is that we HAVE NO IDEA what moral code is needed for an urban world -- where for the first time most people live in cities. It may be possible that the farmer moral code is an optimum, and urban life simply makes it invisible in the same way the pricing system, money and accounting made previous social contracts invisible, and we simply need to invent institutions, instruments or processes to affirm it. Or it may be that the risk mitigation provided by the farming moral code is no longer necessary, and we need a new one for cities where people have less ability to apply social pressure in order to ensure economic conformity. Or it may be that we have transcended the need for economic conformity (I don't see any evidence of this however - just the opposite.) It is certainly true that the level of stress people in the industrialized world feel because their information systems and philosophies leave them with a constant sense of uncertainty, is approaching the intolerable.

So, it is not that people from Kansas are wrong: they are farmers. It is not that New Yorkers are wrong: they are urbanites. The question is which moral philosophy creates durable prosperity (if that is what you seek, and I cannot understand why ask a question about forms of government otherwise.)

Through this lens, Minarchism is not invalidated, but supported, in that the problem with codifying morality in law, is dependent upon the economic methods available to the populace. And therefore, the Minarchist solution is superior to all others as long as each governmnet is in turn geographically small, people can move between them, and they all can have different moral codes, not universal codes. (Federalist Papers #10 warns of this.) Note, that federating risk across minarchist states is not impossible. There is no reason why unemployment, medical, and eductaional assistance cannot be spread across a federation of minarchical states, as long as it is in the form of insurance and not the form of redistribution. This is is because redistribution is a political process and insurance a non-political process.

To skip a bit of debate and take this to its conclusion: Hereditary Kings who cannot make laws, only resolve conflicts, and whose ascent requires republican approval are the optimum minarchist state. The problem for us to resolve is not the form of government. The problem is the idea that men can make laws. They cannot (for very complex reasons). They can only make contracts. They can only observe and codify contractual standards. With the only law being property, and property the necessary feature that permits economic calculation and human cooperation.

The original purpose of laws was to create consistent penalties in order to reduce retaliation. This was a useful thing. However, once granted this ability, governments of all kinds became a threat to their people. Minarchisim is the answer. Kings are the best method of Minarchy (because of their familial incentive to defend their property). The only purpose of kings is to resolve differences. Laws cannot be made, only contracts. There is only one law, and that is property. Long term protection of the society from concentration of wealth in the hands of a few can be offset by opportunity redistribution using institutions, but political organizations exist only to steal and justify theft, and therefore are of no value, and in particular any form of redistribution must be isolated from any political process, since it is the use of laws to force redistribution that is the origin of the sickness we call "government".

Randy writes:

Great post, Curt!

fundamentalist writes:

Curt: Moral systems are extensions of the economic systems people live within.

For the sake of clarity, morals cannot be specific to a particular group of people, or they're not morals. Morals are those judgments of right and wrong that apply to all men for all times, such as prohibitions of rape, theft and murder. Ideas about lesser crimes should be called mores, or possibly ethics, or codes of conduct. I'll call them tribal rules.

Morals must come from God, because no man has moral authority over another man. Without God, morals cease to exist, as many of the great philosophers of the past have recognized and lamented. On the other hand, tribal rules are just that, rules agreed upon by the tribe, city, group, etc. to help them get along better. But one group has no authority to criticize the rules of another. For example, Muslim rules say that they can have up to four wives. Western rules allow just one wife at a time. As tribal rules, neither is superior to the other.

So morals can't be the extension of economic systems, while tribal rules can be, but they lack universal authority.

Curt: The great shift in moral systems since the industrial revolution has been caused by dense urban living and the relative increase in stimuli that makes invisible the actions that farmers are sensitized to.

Dense urban living has existed for millenia. Athen, Rome, Constantinople, etc. had very dense populations. Rather than causing changes in morals, it may be that people with similar morals like to live close to each other.

Curt: The problem we face today is that we HAVE NO IDEA what moral code is needed for an urban world

In that case, I believe Hayek would advise caution and to look to traditional values, if I understood his message in "Fatal Conceit." Hayek described as false reasoning that kind of reasoning which works only by logical syllogisms and ignores the wisdom of generations of experience found in tradition. And Hayek saw the fatal conceit in the belief that we can predict all of the outcomes of changes to social rules.

Curt: So, it is not that people from Kansas are wrong: they are farmers.

Less than 10% of Kansans earn a living from farming. Most of the population in Kansas live in or near the major urban centers and know nothing about farming.

Curt: The question is which moral philosophy creates durable prosperity

It's clear to libertarians which government will produce durable prosperity, but that's the problem, isn't it? Only libertarians believe it. How do you convince socialists, Keynesians, and the general public who still cling to poker economics? And if morals are man-made, as most Americans seem to believe, then the socialists, Keynesians and the generally envious will simply make it moral to steal from the rich and give their wealth to the rest of us. It may not work in the long run, but then in the long run we're all dead, right?

The US enjoyed a form of minarchy before the Keynesian revolution, as de Jasay wrote. And it wasn't the fact that more people lived in cities than in the country that caused people to believe Keynes. As one Austrian (possibly Garrison) wrote, Keynes simply listened to the businessmen around him and gave them what they wanted. Of course, most of them were mercantilists, so it's not strange that Keynesian econ looks very much like mercantilism. American businessmen were no different. A lot of economists became Keynesians because it made them popular with the left and with businessmen.

The crux of the matter is that it's human nature to envy the wealthy and covet their wealth. Traditional Christianity held that part of human nature in check for centuries. The collapse of traditional Christianity made envy and covetousness laudable, while socialism and Keynesian econ encourage both.

Based on your post, I would guess that you adhere to the Rothbard/Hoppe ethic of property. But look at how few converts you have. Even devout Rothbardians have a hard time understanding it. How are you going to convince enough other people to change society?

Traditional Christianity provided a solid basis (command of God) for property, while checking envy, and it was widely followed, so that it was possible to create a capitalist society. But traditional Christianity will never have the wide-spread acceptance in the West that it enjoyed in the 17th thru the 19th centuries when capitalism flourished. I'm afraid we will always look back on the true capitalism of those centuries in the same way that European's dreamed about the vanished Roman Empire.

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