Arnold Kling  

Daniel Klein on Libertarianism

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For an encyclopedia, he writes,


In the eyes of the libertarian, everything the government does that would be deemed coercive and criminal if done by any other party in society is still coercive. For example, imagine that a neighbor decided to impose a minimum-wage law on you. Since most government action, including taxation, is of that nature, libertarians see government as a unique kind of organization engaged in wholesale coercion, and coercion is the treading on liberty.

I think this gets to the essential disagreement between libertarians and others. Everyone else sees the government, at least implicitly, as having some higher moral status. No one would grant that I, as an individual, have the right to walk up to you and demanded a percentage of your income. Or to threatened you with fines and imprisonment for giving a professional haircut without a license. But if I were a politician, most people would grant me the right to do these sorts of things because government has a higher moral status. See Klein's longer essay, The People's Romance.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (29 to date)
Jason Briggeman writes:

Be careful not to oversimplify Klein here. He is simply saying that, for libertarians, coercion is (still) coercion no matter who does it -- which is not the same as saying that coercion is (always) immoral not matter who does it.

Note this quote from his entry: "In judging where coercive government policy should be accepted or even deemed desirable, the 'maxim' libertarians appeal to broad sensibilities about consequences, including moral and cultural consequences, of alternative policy arrangements." These "maxim" libertarians (of whom Klein is one) do not rule all coercions to be morally impermissible.

Chuck writes:

I believe that libertarian thinking about economics are based on a presumption that economic transactions are not coerced.

For example, as long as one is not forced to work at a given job, then if you haven't quit you are consenting freely to all of the employer's policies, so therefore you are not coerced by that employer.

Why can't we apply this assumption to government? As long as a person is not prevented from leaving a country and becoming a citizen of another country, then we presume that the laws and rules of the country are consented to by the citizen.

How are those two notions different?

liberty writes:

Indeed, often to a frightening extent. I wrote about that here.

Someone, I think it was at MR, said something that really stuck with me- without realizing it, the commenter had said that he would go about raping women if it were legal. But, because government had made it legal in his scenario, he didn't seem to think it was immoral. And the others commenting didn't seem to catch it either. I was mocked for pointing out that it would still be rape.

We are so used to seeing government as the moral authority many people do not even realize that they have ceded that kind of tyrannical power, nor that they could become monsters if the government allowed it.

Jody writes:

How are those two notions different?
You can't freely immigrate to another country.

This is why many libertarians (though not this one*) are in favor of open borders.

*In short I think most of the world is anti-libertarian and the best chance I have of living in a libertarian society comes from selective screening.

Anthony writes:

"In the eyes of the libertarian, everything the government does that would be deemed coercive and criminal if done by any other party in society is still coercive."

But that's pretty much the definition of "authority", which is pretty much the defining characteristic of government. It seems to me you're describing the beliefs of an anarchist, not those of all libertarians.

For instance, no one would grant that I, as an individual, have the right to walk up to my neighbor, declare that he violated a contractual agreement, and therefore had to pay damages to my other neighbor. So why can the government do that? (Or, if only juries can do that, fine, but why does the government get to organize the juries?)

"But if I were a politician, most people would grant me the right to do these sorts of things because government has a higher moral status."

No, individual politicians are not granted the power to collect taxes, to fine people, or to imprison people. That requires a consensus of the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive.

I do think one problem with the US approach to government is that the legislature is said to "make the law", when really their job description should really be to "determine the law" or maybe to "codify the law".

In a similar vein, it's unfortunate that the judiciary has become the only branch of government that cares about the Constitution. It's nice that the judiciary can strike down unconstitutional federal laws, but the legislature should be more careful not to pass them in the first place.

Badger writes:

Well, I migrated to the US due to many disagreements with the policies of my previous home country and the beliefs of my previous compatriots.

Bob writes:

Why can't we apply this assumption to government? As long as a person is not prevented from leaving a country and becoming a citizen of another country, then we presume that the laws and rules of the country are consented to by the citizen.

Would you be comfortable with your neighbor saying to you, "I am going to protect you and your family. For that service I'm going to charge you $1,000 per year. If you do not move away, I assume you consent to this service and fee agreement. Should you fail to pay, I will forcably detain you until you do."

Anthony writes:

Would you be comfortable with your neighbor saying to you, "I am going to protect you and your family. For that service I'm going to charge you $1,000 per year. If you do not move away, I assume you consent to this service and fee agreement. Should you fail to pay, I will forcably detain you until you do."

No, I wouldn't be comfortable with that. But I can't help but wonder if that's only because the government already does it.

$1000 a year would be damn cheap for decent protection services, if there were no government.

dcpi writes:

I frequently hear the argument that people who do not want to give consent to the laws they disagree with can just move away. There is something very insidious in that argument, but my rebuttal is still inchoate.

At the topmost level, that argument seems to miss an important point that was obvious to the framers of the constitution; there are some fundamental rights that cannot be legislated away by majority rule. Of course, just what those rights are and should be is something that we are still arguing about.

On a deeper level the "just move" argument fails to recognize that we are all as much tribal and familial in our nature as individualist. To tell people you disagree with that they should move is reminiscent of calling for self-exile. It is not an argument conducive to civil society.

liberty writes:

Entering voluntarily into an agreement (such as a work agreement) and being told at gunpoint to "leave if you don't like it" are not equivalent.

One is voluntary exchange, the other is thuggery.

The primary causes of the distinction I think are two:

1. You can't choose your homeland and enter into it voluntarily, choosing your constitution and your location. The reason for this is that you are born somewhere, into a family, and you have no choice about that. In addition, you can't choose the constitution for the place. Even if you could it wouldn't be a contract written for you alone, it would be a set of rules for the whole society which you voted on, but you may be in the minority. etc.

2. Your society and constitution are all encompassing- it isn't just a contract governing one thing; it is your whole life. This is similar to the distinction between a single monopoly in one industry and a state monopoly on everything - socialism.

Blackadder writes:

I think that the "if you don't like it, you can leave" argument presupposes that the government owns all the land in the given country it governs. Otherwise, the proper response would be something like, "no, if I don't like it, *you* can leave, now get the hell off my property."

Grant writes:

The key difference between leaving one's job and leaving one's country are how the job and country were created. Businesses are usually collections of individuals voluntarily interacting, and any property owned by that business is generally acquired through trade.

Nations, on the other hand, almost universally spread via conquest. I'm not aware of any nation which exists due to expressed consent of its citizens, past or present. Because of this, nations can reach sizes no firm could ever hope to. This makes them a lot more difficult to leave.

People also cannot chose the property they are born on, but we recognize it is the responsibility of the parents to provide for their children until they are capable of acquiring property of their own (or not, as the case may be). But parents have no say in and no way of effecting their government like they do their own property.

However, I think this moral theorizing misses a key point between most libertarians and normal people. The later seem to view government as a completely different beast, one who's effects are dependent upon who is in office, how many people vote, and that sort of thing. They see government as being almost completely mutable.

Libertarians tend to see government as a process governed by the same sort of rules that govern other social processes. They rarely call for government to deal with externalities, because they believe government generally creates more externalities than it mitigates (democracy itself could be the biggest externality of all to libertarians). They rarely believe any amount of political action can make much of a difference, because they often see the results of political processes to be as inevitable as the result of the supply intersecting with demand.

Matt writes:

The evil of government comes from its monopoly. But there can be no other way, for government sits where only one wealthy organization can sit. It sits where the wealth distribution is at the tail and only one or two at a time fit along the tail.

I think to refine the libertarian view, we would prefer a judicial monopoly if we have to have one. A judiciary which is big as necessary but whose function is the arbitration of rights.

Craig J. Bolton writes:

I think that you comment about the perspective of many [or most] Americans is correct, and for the life of me I can't figure out why most Americans have such a perspective. Such an attitude is particularly hard to justify since most Americans correctly believe that politicians are notoriously of low moral character, that they would typically sell their grandmother for another hundred votes, and that government never gets anything right [at least from the standpoint of its announced objectives].

The only rationale I can isolate for this "government is essential good" attitude is that many bureaucrats try to present themselves as underpaid and dutious public servants who are sacrificing their lives on the alter of public benefit. Perhaps we need to shift our focus to a more close examination of how bureaucracies actually function?

Randy writes:

Anthony,

"$1000 a year would be damn cheap for decent protection services, if there were no government."

The thing is, no one except the government has ever taken anything from me. Well, I'm pretty sure that a guy I knew did take a couple of 20s out of my wallet once, but the government that takes roughly 50% out of every paycheck to "protect" me certainly didn't do anything to prevent it.

spencer writes:

Yes, government is unique in that it has a monopoly on violence. But that does not mean that government is completely evil. A civilized society requires government and the government use of force is largely one of enforcing the norms of society.
Yes, you may not agree with some of the norms of society but you still require them.

As I see it the difference between libertarians and other is that others see government as a necessary force that does both good and bad and things I like and dislike. But libertarians believe they have the revealed truth and that everything they disagree with is bad.

The worse thing a society can experience is someone who things they have the revealed truth whether they are some fundamentalist minister or some libertarian academic. There is no difference.

Your preaching to the youths at one of our schools is just the same as letting some religious sect into the tax supported class room.

John h writes:

This argument is total nonsense. Libertarians need to ditch the idea that their philsophy is based around being coercion-free. Unless you are an anarchist this is not your view.
The very act of protecting property is coercive, by violently excluding another person from what you own.
fact is we dont have natural rights. The idea is garbage. just aas it seems garbage when people talk about basic human right like healthcare is garbage as well.


even if we are to accept as below that we need to find a maxim of the right level of coercion then this is just pure question begging. Surely that is what any political philsophy will do?

i say this as a libertarian by the way. for better principles of protection of property see david hume.

Caliban Darklock writes:

The libertarian also makes an excellent point in that a major function of government is to coerce. Where he fails is in the conclusion that because coercion is bad when people do it, it is also bad when governments do it, and therefore a major function of government is to be bad - so government is bad. QED.

But all coercion is not bad. Most people are coerced to go to work every day because their employer pays them. They are coerced to obey the law, because they prefer not to be arrested. They are coerced to pay their bills, because they prefer not to have their goods repossessed or their service interrupted.

Coercion is simply diplomacy under another name; we choose to use the word "coercion" when we do not approve, in order to prejudice the listener against the action in question. Coercion is not bad by nature, but because when the same class of behavior is not bad, we don't call it coercion. We call it persuasion, negotiation, and compromise.

The libertarian wants you to believe that the government asks of you things that it should not ask, because his fundamental premise is that government should shut up and go away. He also wants you to believe that his political position is insusceptible to analysis, because there is nothing to analyse - the government does X, and X is bad. The argument tactic in response is to demand that you either deny the government does X, or deny that it would be bad for a private citizen to do X.

The income tax question, for example: the government takes some of your money every year, and this is bad. Can you deny that the government takes your money? No, of course not. Would it be okay if I walked up to you on the street and took your money? No, of course not.

But the question isn't that simple. The government doesn't just take your money, it takes your money under a contractual agreement that obligates the government to perform certain services. You may end this contract at any time by leaving the United States and renouncing your citizenship - in essence, by signing a different contract with a different government. You don't do that, because you don't want to do that, largely because it would be arduous.

The libertarian seems to rail against his choices because he does not like them, and therefore sees them as no choice at all. One might as well rail against life as being "coerced", because people prefer not to die. While libertarian ideas are certainly valuable, a libertarian's discourse generally leaves a lot to be desired.

ryan writes:

That coercion should be a principle of good or bad politics is too broad. That coercion is called leverage, negotiation, repossession, fear, defence of property basically means that it applies to both the market and the gov. This is because gov. coerces by using armies and trade embargos and it uses police and the threat of death to enforce laws. Markets coerce by having people pay fees and obey their boss. So the priniciple cuts both ways unless coercion is meant differently than the way it is stated above. Personally I think that there is an argument to be made about gov. taxes equalling theft. For instance, some thievery is the taking of another's money to use as your income. All congressmen, welfare recipients, bureacrats, etc. are paid through taxes but taxes are just taking another's money. Hence all gov. officials subsist through thievery. But in any case I think the argument that gov. is an inefficient monopoly is the most convincing.

James writes:

"As long as a person is not prevented from leaving a country and becoming a citizen of another country, then we presume that the laws and rules of the country are consented to by the citizen.

How are those two notions different?"

Would any private thief even consider such a defense as "I told him he could give me his cash OR leave the country, your honor?" I think the people's romance runs deeper than even Klein realizes.

John h writes:

ryan. taxes are the takinf of money. but property is a convention enforced by the state. if the stae did not protect your property then you would not have it at all because someoen would steal it. taxation is not theft. the only way there can be theft is if there is some convention prescribing what someone owns. govenrment reiinforces the socila convention of settled possession.
tax might be morally questionable in excess in not letting peopel live their lives n their own way but the term 'theft' is totally meaningless and absurd in your sense.

james, people do not consent to obey the laws. not uinless oyu are willing to do great abuse to the term consent. but your following arguemtn is total nonsense. government is useful in its actions. thieves are not. that is the difference. you must be an anrachist to hold this line of reasoning. most libertarians are nto anarchists so you need something other than the doctrine of coercion and natural rights because they are nonsense.

Anthony writes:

The thing is, no one except the government has ever taken anything from me. Well, I'm pretty sure that a guy I knew did take a couple of 20s out of my wallet once, but the government that takes roughly 50% out of every paycheck to "protect" me certainly didn't do anything to prevent it.

Has the government *actually* taken anything from you, or have you voluntarily given it to them under the *threat* of them taking it from you? Assuming the latter, I'm sure you can come up with lots of examples of others who have done so. Ever pay for a hotel room, or to watch a movie, or pay for satellite television?

If you really do have roughly 50% taken out of your pay then apparently you get paid quite a bit, and probably spend quite a bit as well. Surely you've entered into lots of contracts - surely you don't carry all your possessions with you everywhere you go (or have a guard watch over them). It's only the government that allows you to live the kind of life you live.

I'm all for smaller government and lower taxes, but I think we've got a lot of innovation ahead of us before it's even realistic to eliminate taxes altogether. Zero taxation is a worthy goal, but obviously society currently can't yet handle it - if it could, it would be so.

James writes:

John h,

I'm not advancing any new argument, only pointing out the special pleading in invoking the "but you had the option to leave" defense. Your explanation, that government is different because it is "useful" is not much better. Would you consider usefulness be a defense of private theft?

Anthony,

I bought my door lock, firearm and car insurance from private firms, not from the government. I'd buy all of my security privately if it were not a crime to do so.

Robbie writes:

Has the government *actually* taken anything from you, or have you voluntarily given it to them under the *threat* of them taking it from you? Assuming the latter, I'm sure you can come up with lots of examples of others who have done so. Ever pay for a hotel room, or to watch a movie, or pay for satellite television?

Only government provides you with services and bills you (at gunpoint) whether you wanted their services or not.

If a satellite TV provider installed a dish on your property without your permission and then started charging you for a service you never wanted from them, would this be a fair deal? Of course not; contracts in a free market must be entered into voluntarily.

john h writes:

james.

my argument that government is useful is much better. the fact is that society would collapse totally without government. seems a strong recommendation to me.
the reason we have a monopoly of violence is that there are certain massive downsides to having private security. e.g. the richest person gets the best private force and so can effectively invade poorer people. with no central state this is what happens. e.g. there would be no equal treatment. e.g if someoen robbed from me, my ability to bring them to justice would be determined by how much money he has or i have.

your argument about whether i would think private theft useful is question begging. private theft is not useful because it violates the convention of private property. that is by definition. If we dont have the concept of property we dont have the concept of theft. the government reinforces the convention of private property. without government you would not have the property that yiou claim is your right. therefore the government has left you better off.

i think you might want to take a step back and actually look at the practical consequences of the anarchy you appear to desire.
you seem to think every institution that affects our lives has to be based on consent. it doesnt. e.g. money. i cannot just get out of the system of money that i am born into. there is no way for me to opt out. where is the consent here?

Anthony writes:

"I bought my door lock, firearm and car insurance from private firms, not from the government."

Neither your door lock nor your firearm will do you any good when you're not home. Door locks in particular are fairly useless except for the fact that they alert the neighbors to call the police.

"I'd buy all of my security privately if it were not a crime to do so."

What security would you like to buy that is a crime to do so? Electrified fence?

Anthony writes:

"Only government provides you with services and bills you (at gunpoint) whether you wanted their services or not."

I've never been billed at gunpoint by the government, so no, that's not true. In fact, I generally don't pay any money at all to the government. My employer pays me less, and stores charge me more, than they theoretically would have in the absence of taxation, but there have never been any guns involved at all. My property taxes are escrowed, so I don't actually pay them to the government, but to the mortgage company, but property taxes more than anything are clearly a payment for services - I pay for the service of keeping others out of my house and off my land. I pay some fees for stuff like a drivers license and auto registration, but then again were it not for public roads I'd probably have to pay a lot more. I pay for auto insurance and homeowners insurance, two services which I don't want, but I don't pay either to the government.

If you want to dream about a utopia where everyone thinks and behaves like you, that's fine. But it's not reality. Here in reality, if you eliminate one government, you're just going to watch another one form. You can't just eliminate government because then there'd be no way to enforce the rule that there be no government. I do agree that we can and should educate people about the fact that government isn't needed to solve many of the problems that it currently addresses. And I'm fully in favor of developing new technologies (both tangible and intangible) to reduce the reliance on government for those problems that remain. I'm even in favor of eliminating sales taxes and income taxes and relying instead on property taxes and Pigovian taxes. But right here and now, today, government is a necessary institution.

mtraven writes:

If the government did not have different rights, roles, and responsibilities from other entities, then it wouldn't be the government. Duh. It has nothing to with "higher moral status". Klein is actually an interesting writer; but you seem to have utterly failed to understand his point.

[Comment edited--Econlib Ed.]

solibertarianimacentrist writes:

Your neighbor does impose a minimum wage on you, and you on her, through democracy. Libertarian dogma, as near as I can tell, gaurantees its own failure. I observe as follows:

I don't know if many libertarians have thought this through, but they neccessarily want the government to consist of a small group of armed men and women, whose sole occupation is to coerce people into following the law. Talk about giving government too much power. How long do you think before that government, the one you want, starts accumulating more money and power for itself? The big bloated bureacracy we have right now protects you; its too busy messing around with itself to seize absolute power, but it would, as soon as you enable it by cutting off all of the parts of it that regulate the other parts and help the poor and the sick, and free the few people at the top who run this new government of yours to use all the tax money and all the guns.

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