Bryan Caplan  

EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 3

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Summary
Rothbard now applies the normative standards developed in chapter 2 to explain what libertarians have against government (or as Rothbard, inspired by Germanic capitalization, calls it, "the State"). 

The argument is simple: If a private individual did what governments do, almost everyone would call him a criminal.  If I took your money without your consent, I'd be a thief.  If I forced you to work for me, I'd be slaver.  If I killed you, I'd be a murderer - even if you "provoked" me by resisting my demands for your money and labor.  Note further: We'd still make these judgments even if I was acting if "for your own good" or "to help the poor." (scare quotes optional!)  But somehow when government does it, we change the names and our moral evaluation:
The distinctive feature of libertarians is that they coolly and uncompromisingly apply the general moral law to people acting in their roles as members of the State apparatus. Libertarians make no exceptions. For centuries, the State (or more strictly, individuals acting in their roles as "members of the government") has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric.  For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it "war"; then ennobled the mass slaughter that "war" involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it "conscription" in the "national service." For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it "taxation." In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.
Rothbard scoffs at the "it's democratic" defense of seemingly wrongful state action:
The government does not in any accurate sense "represent" the majority of the people, but even if it did, even if 90% of the people decided to murder or enslave the, other 10%, this would still be murder and slavery, and would not be voluntary suicide or enslavement on the part of the oppressed minority. Crime is crime, aggression against rights is aggression, no matter how many citizens agree to the oppression.  There is nothing sacrosanct about the majority; the lynch mob, too, is the majority in its own domain.
After touching on Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy, and Spooner's blunt denunciation of all governments as gangs of criminals, The chapter turns to Hume's take on civil obedience.  If government is so bad, why does almost everyone accept it?  Rothbard's solution: They've been brainwashed by statist intellectuals:
[S]ince the early origins of the State, its rulers have always turned, as a necessary bolster to their rule, to an alliance with society's class of intellectuals. The masses do not create their own abstract ideas, or indeed think through these ideas independently; they follow passively the ideas adopted and promulgated by the body of intellectuals, who become the effective "opinion moulders" in society. And since it is precisely a moulding of opinion on behalf of the rulers that the State almost desperately needs, this forms a firm basis for the age-old alliance of the intellectuals and the ruling classes of the State.  The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the State and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the State incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security.
Rothbard then reviews the standard-issue intellectual toolkit of statist intellectuals, including their talent for transforming limits on state power into rationalizations for its expansion.

Critical Comments
Twenty years after I read these words, they still strike me as a tour de force of iconoclasm.  If you put aside all the propaganda, states are gangs of glorified criminals.  I still remember arguing about this with an economist who was working for Clinton, and was shocked when he accepted the Rothbardian story for the vast majority of governments, past and present.  But he was sure that the Western democracies were in a league of their own.  But how so?  Because they think they're working for the "good of the people"?  Isn't this excuse ubiquitous in almost every dictatorship?

Emotionally, I also find it hard to resist Rothbard's attack on statist intellectuals.  But when I put emotion aside and focus on the facts, he's really going overboard.  Intellectuals are far less persuasive than Rothbard imagines.  Two centuries of economic consensus in favor of free trade still hasn't converted the man in the street; religion is still going strong, despite modern intellectuals' secular humanism.  In any case, as statist as intellectuals are, the man in the street is probably worse.

Another big problem with this chapter: In Western democracies, rulers and intellectuals rarely get rich off the public.  Sure, they draw nice salaries, but if money is their goal, there are easier ways to get it.  Rothbard's "exploitation" theory fails to explain key facts about modern democracies.  My alternative view is that something much more twisted predominates: Dogmatic waste. 

Take organ selling.  An "exploitative" government might try to monopolize the market, but it wouldn't ban it.  That would be great compared to what we've got - pig-headed refusal to let people who desperately need organs buy them from people who desperately need money.  The same goes for immigration.  An Exploitative State would happily admit guest workers who agreed to pay extra taxes and forego benefits.  But the Dogmatic Waste State we live under stubbornly says, "No deal."


Comments and Sharing


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COMMENTS (34 to date)
Kurbla writes:

(1) Again, I think the main Rothbard's arguments are arguments against property in general, but selectively applied against state. I'll again start with claim that state is equivalent to hotel one is happened to be born in. Pretty large hotel, but that's it. Rothbard mentions few crucial distinctions between state and other organization, and look how hotel satisfy all of these:

    "First, every other person or group receives its income by voluntary payment... Only the government obtains its income by coercion and violence—i.e., by the direct threat of confiscation or imprisonment if payment is not forthcoming."
What about hotel? As long as you want to be in, you have to pay. You can leave the hotel whenever you want? You can leave the state whenever you want.


    "A second distinction is that, apart from criminal outlaws, only the government can use its funds to commit violence against its own or any other subjects; only the government can prohibit pornography, compel a religious observance..."
Try to sell pornography, food or mostly anything in the hotel room or hall and see whether hotel security will allow you.


    "For another critical distinction of the State is that it compels the monopolization of the service of protection; the State arrogates to itself a virtual monopoly of violence in society. "
Try to practice violence in hotel and see what hotel management and security think about that.


    ... even if 90% of the people decided to murder or enslave the other 10%, this would still be murder and slavery, and would not be voluntary suicide or enslavement on the part of the oppressed minority..
True, but it is not less crime if hotel owner decides to murder some of his guests.

Etc. It always works like this. The point is - not that Rothbard's claims are invalid, but they are equally valid against private property.


(2) Rothbard accusses states for the worst criminal acts like wars, genocides etc. Really, states were involved in all these. However, by same logic, one could accuse - all individuals for all violence. It means Rothbard needs more arguments. I can offer two arguments against claim that state itself is especially violent institution:

    (2a) There are numerous examples of relatively non-violent states. In modern European states, state officers contribute ~1% to total number of murders; 99% of murders are committed by individuals. During bad weekends drunk drivers kill more people than state police in ten years. It means - don't believe to individuals more than you believe to state.
    (2b) If huge crimes are committed, it is not always clear that state as institution is responsible. Comparing Third Reich and modern Sweden, the institution is almost same - parties, army, police ..., difference must be in people who populate the institution.

    It doesn't apply only on elite. Hitler wasn't isolated lunatic fallen from the sky. People voted for him. Again, it doesn't mean that state is innocent, but that many individuals have their share of responsibility. The critical question is: what would happen if those evil individuals - theoretically - had no state on their side? This is excellent historical example, because we know what would happen - it already happened, SA and SS, formed in early 1920's.

(3) .. Oppenheimer pointed out that there are two and only two mutually exclusive means for man to obtain wealth. One, the method of production and voluntary exchange, the method of the free market, Oppenheimer termed the “economic means”; the other, the method of robbery by the use of violence, he called the “political means.”...

Few people would say that politicians are great examples of the morality. However, quantifying the wealth of these two groups, it turns that top 10 000 of "robbers by use of violence" combined earn less than single top "production and voluntary exchange" capitalist, supposedly their terrorized victim, and that US president, uberrober of all of them earns 100 times less than professional golf player or guy who created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Something is wrong here.

Arare Litus writes:

The State as evil in two parts: aggressor, and his shills. Overall, a good chapter, in that it is always good to hear views strongly divergent from the common wisdom, although I thought that it was not as tight as it should have been and was somewhat bored at times while at other times confused that Rothbard was making the argument he was making.

Part 1: Aggressor! Suggesting government not only can be evil, but is necessarily so, is a great counter argument to what is commonly proclaimed, it was especially nice to see some slamming of our holy grail: democracy. The observation that the state can essentially act as a stabilizer and growth medium of criminal elements is a nice point. His intended knock out punch “How can you define taxation in a way which makes it different from robbery?”, misses as Rothbard did not shore up the 100% ownership claim in the previous chapter. A liberal would simply say, you do not own all of a resource, and you owe the fraction of value that is not yours to “the collective”: we call that debt “tax”, not to pay it is robbery. They then might thrown in some fancy language, talk about being stewards to property, blah blah blah. It is belief versus belief, self evident to both sides – can there be a meaningful discussion between these sides? Not if each side simply clings to their assertion (“full vs. partial ownership rights”) without either (or both) (1) shoring up evidence for their base axiom, or, (2) demonstrating better outcomes from one assumption versus the other. I’m hoping Rothbard does more of (2) in the coming chapters, after all, if you want to convince people to change something that is (at least partially) working and risk bad outcomes you better have a good argument.

Part 2: Shills! Intellectuals trade their manipulative propaganda in exchange for women and cash, well, cash at least. I thought that this was a bit overblown. The general idea is sound, but is it the sharp extreme suggested? Wouldn’t a simple explanation be that the intellectuals are arrogant and full of hubris, and really do believe they know better than the general public? And isn’t Rothbard somewhat guilty of this when he talks about the “masses who follow”? Or take his “Many and subtle are the ideological weapons the State and its intellectuals have used over the centuries to induce their subjects to accept their rule.”, doesn’t this imply that (1) the “masses” are stupid (an assumption that then suggests paternalism and statism as good policy), and (2) that the “State and its intellectuals” are consciously and maliciously manipulating the populace. Are they truly evil geniuses, or just arrogant and overly confident in their ideas and ability to intentionally run the show? Other statements such as “One excellent weapon has been the power of tradition.” defy belief – are these evil geniuses actually so powerful as to be able to single handedly form and shape tradition into a weapon for their use? A Hayekian would likely laugh at this point. How about “the first task of the […] State and its intellectuals is to convince the people […] that the attack is really upon them, and not simply upon their ruling class. In this way, a war between rulers is converted into a war between peoples,”, hmmm. Looking at history and the news suggest there is a lot of nationalism, racism, ethnicism (a word?), and tribalism in the world – do the masses have to be duped on this point, or is a healthy common sense going to tell you that you are likely to be exploited even more by an outsider who probably considers you beneath a full human? Even stranger, Rothbard latter makes the argument that states arose out of enslaving and exploiting peoples conquered in war – why does he argue essentially the opposite here?

I found some entertainment in how the world has changed since Rothbard wrote this book: “No one, for example, is surprised or horrified to learn that businessmen are seeking higher profits. […]. All this is considered proper and normal behavior.” Not anymore – I would guess a majority of university students think seeking higher profits is evil; “But when this same theory is clothed in Keynesian mathematical equations and impressive references to the “multiplier effect,” it carries far more conviction with a bamboozled public.”, it is pretty funny (in a sad way) that this example is timely again, after Keynesian theory seemed to have faded into the dustbin of history.

Overall, the message is an important one, and having the status quo questioned is always a good thing. But I find Rothbard is assuming a malicious intent on the part of “the state” and its “intellectuals” that is overreaching. Sure, some in the mix will be bad people trying to get all they can and taking glee in ruining peoples lives while they do so (this alone is a good reason to limit government size, to keep such malicious, or merely incompetent, people from doing damage), but isn’t it more likely that this is a small subset and most people really do believe that “the system” is best and for the good? Rothbard also seems to have a lot of faith in the ability of the state and its intellectuals, if these people really are of such high skill then it suggests that the government really can make good decisions, if we could only control their incentives. Again, a Hayekian would chuckle at the nativity of this thought.

Rothbard seems not even to consider the possibility that something can be a sham, yet be believed by the people propagating that sham. I don’t see evil geniuses. I see flawed people in a flawed world, all with different priors and poor information.

Kurbla writes:

But you cannot see evil geniuses - they wouldn't be geniuses then, except if you are good genius.

My experience from life in Communist country is that people easily reject the strongest propaganda if they do not want to believe. And contrary, if they want to believe, it is very hard to explain their mistakes. That is the main reason for the success of the religion and failure of communism.

Rothbard even positively speaks about German tribes that destroyed Roman Empire, and their leaders who rule only in some tribal wars.

Tribes can be seen as the first states - they had territories and their members have obligations. These, first tribes are consensual, i.e. individual was always able to search another territory for living - Earth was huge, and there was not many people. We can say that states are older than humanity.

(BTW, my first post was "triggered for moderation," can someone check it? Administrator?)

Franklin Harris writes:

This is the strongest chapter so far, for exactly the reason Bryan cites, i.e., Rothbard's uncompromising application of commonsense morality to the State (let's here it for Germanic capitalization!) and its agents. But, as Bryan also contends, Rothbard does put too much stock in the power of intellectuals to shape public opinion, even, I'd argue, over long periods of time.

Arare, I think, is exactly right to cite a Hayekean alternative. Intellectuals are certainly as much (more likely more) influenced by an evolving, bottom-up cultural zeitgeist as they are shapers of it. And we as humans have conflicting normative drives that go all the way back to our hunter-gather days, when the initiation of force was not generally frowned upon, so long at it was directed against competing tribes or fellow tribe members whose behavior threatened the tribe.

Those norms, while we would not endorse them today, made a certain kind of sense in a pre-industrial world, but made increasingly less sense in an increasingly extended order, in which trade and a division of labor replaced competition. And, intellectually, most everyone in the West now sees that our cooperative norms trump our primitive, non-cooperative ones.

Still, we have that non-cooperative instinct (whether biological or cultural, as I don't plan to fight Greg Clark's battle here), reasserting itself all too frequently with calls for state action, as Rothbard says, for the general good or people's own good, as if we're still a prehistoric tribe always teetering on the brink of extinction. And here, I think you could justifiably say intellectuals do like to exploit that instinct by falsely warning of existential threats.

But, still, you don't need a cabal of intellectuals to explain why most people, even in societies with strong classical liberal traditions, are not libertarians.

Grant writes:

Rothbard is great in pointing out our biases when comparing state to non-state actors, but I agree with Bryan that much of his other reasoning is quite flawed.

I'll offer an alternative theory to the existence of the state: simple microeconomics.

If the cost to extract taxes is less than the revenue gained by doing so, taxes will be extracted as an entrepreneurial (arbitrage) opportunity. The fact that some individuals get rich (or don't) doing so is irrelevant. Profits are subjective (the benefits of power and respect are hard to measure), and the existence of a "market" (for taxes, in this case) doesn't imply that anyone in that market gets filthy rich. Political actors with the know-how can invest in taxation and turn a profit.

History seems to show that the only way the cost of taxation can be lowered enough for it to be profitable over a long period of time is if it is legitimized. Once you have legitimized taxation, you have a state. This does often require employing people who can sway public opinion, though they may not necessarily be intellectuals.

As information technology increases, it becomes harder to legitimize coercion (the "divine right of kings" line no longer works). Democracy can then be seen as simply a way to lower the cost of taxation further, by adding legitimization to the government. The fact that it disperses power and reduces the wealth of individual members of the state is irrelevant, because competition (not only between states, but also between political actors in a state; democrats tend to be supported over dictators) insures that the most profitable enterprise will prevail. The fact that governments may also provide useful and desired services is also irrelevant to their existence: it helps legitimize them if they do, but that isn't why they exist (any more than a corporation exists to make its customers happy; they don't exist for normative reasons, but rather because they are able to turn a profit).

Of course, one of the primary cost-reducers of taxation is the prisoner's dilemma or coordination problem associated with opposing the state. If the state is doing evil, then it is a public good to oppose it. The high transaction costs associated with such a huge public good mean opposing taxation can easily be more expensive than simply paying taxes (and it doesn't help that states tend to discourage the sort of transactions needed to oppose them: rebellious conspiracies and coups). As we get richer via economic growth, the amount of money we are willing and able to give up to avoid coercion increases, so I don't think it is at all surprising that states tax more now than they did in the past.

I believe Rothbard's flaw is his normative reasoning. He tries to show why the state is evil, but so what? Murder is evil too, but calling it that doesn't make it go away. States exist for positive reasons, just like solar systems, atoms, and Kool-Aid. What I'm wondering is how the Internet, and its ability to lower transaction costs of all sorts, may play in future politics.

Bill R writes:

What, no reponse to Wilkinson in the other thread?

"In any case, as statist as intellectuals are, the man in the street is probably worse."

Yeah but isn't your point that people are willing to be rationally irrational and indulge in their biases in a democracy. Take Paul Krugman for example. Yes he may indeed believe in free trade but I doubt the average layman knows that. I don't read him regularly so I may be wrong, but the only things you associate with him are more taxes on the rich and more public spending. You mention in MRV that, given the incentives in academia, many economists make careers based on exceptions to the rule. let's apply this to other fields. Would it ethical for a doctor to prescribe a placebo almost every time based on only the few cases where it's really a mental phenomena?

The doctor would go out of business eventually but because it wouldn't cure the problem. The state however can trot out "experts" like Krugman who proclaim that more spending by government is the answer. Or that free trade doesn't work all the time. That's enough of a push for a rationally irrational biased person.

As you show in the market they would fail miserably i.e.the household stills buy its clothes and doesn't manufacture them. But the coercive state fills in every information gap with it's experts that cater to the exception in each of their respective fields. Spending: Keynesians, Terrorism: despite the chances in "Overblown"...mostly hawks, trade: trade deficit numbers every month etc. I too don't see the average person spending twice what they earn on people digging up their backyard, or constructing bomb shelters, or lamenting their deficit with the grocery store.

Is the state in control of our minds, no but like the doctor it uses it's "legitimate" authority and removes all competing remedies and only offers the placebo. In many cases in our history it's worse...look at the Holocaust. Did the average German wake up one day and say "I shall murder a Jew today". No they were rationally irrational...and prodded along by propagandists and intellectuals. I URGE ALL TO LOOK at the compelling case made HERE about the role of the economists in the death camps. I think it's pretty damning and consistent with Caplan's model.

In a democracy you have the same thing: Take a bias and use it to propagandize for or against a measure. This can work for or against your case but hardly ever on it's merits. Take the "stimulus" bill, whatever it's merits the pols are pounding their fists about the Wall Street exec pay (anti market bias) and condoms (declinism) which make up less than 1% of the trillion dollar bill! And in what household would Brinks be given more money in failure of its alarms to work (9/11), or given more deposits when it failed (the meltdown). In many cases the responsible politicians too were rewarded...Bush and his party gained seats and approval ratings and Barney Frank, Chris Dodd get chairmanships with wider majorities!

So I charge that the state whatever it's form is the equivalent of a quack doctor with no competition. When a crisis or failure happens it fills the vacuum(of which in many cases has the only expertise ie we don't have personal CIA's) with its pliant propagandists and naturally interprets events in its favor. It only blatantly uses its stick to get established and only again when things have deteriorated to the point when the cost of the individual biases become greater than the cost of allowing the state to continue its predation (ie peroidic fits of "throw the bums out")

So I think Caplan and others are undervaluing the intellectuals for the very reasons they should fear them (that in democracy they are more needed to provide rationale. They are selectively placed (ie Monetarists at the Fed, Keynesians in presidential advisory roles, alarmists at the EPA) in areas that augment their professional expertise in favor of the state. Rothbard perhaps is overall correct about the extent of their influence but for the wrong reasons (ie less of a conspiracy against freedom but rather a conspiracy to control the presentation of information in a favorable light)

On another vein... I think Rothbard makes a great point about how the written compacts that were intended to limit the state are then transformed into a "legitimate" instrument of oppression by the political class that by definition comes to control them. So despite Caplan's moderate appreciation of institutions like the WTO I am still wary of eventual capture and it may be used as an extended arm of select states for political sanctions as opposed to "cool headed" expansion of trade. Remember the Founders of the country were well learned and in some cases scholars.

Now take a gander at the make up of our current rulers.

Gil writes:

This article inevitably raises the eyebrow - how does the state become invalid without presuming it in the first place? Why can't the State take money and cite it for 'services rendered' and chase up those who refuse to pay? Or the State can't really force you to work it's just that your options aren't very crash hot and it's the best of terrible options? And what if the provocations was dangerous to warrant death?

Perhaps another way of viewing it is one of - is the State doing anything a private entity can't do? Why can't a private person or business assume control of parcel of land and lease it out to people in exchange for rent? Why can't private landowners set rules and regulation as to the behaviour of the landtenants and if the landtenants don't like it they're shown the exit?

On the other hand, doesn't 'Intellectual' mean 'someone who theorises about this or that and shares their ideas with other' regardless if their view is Left or Right, Socialist or Capitalist? Rothbard's definition seems to be 'Left-wing Socialist Environmentalist Cheerleader For Government'.

Randy writes:

Bryan,

"In Western democracies, rulers and intellectuals rarely get rich off the public. Sure, they draw nice salaries, but if money is their goal, there are easier ways to get it."

Are you kidding me? They make 6 or 7 figures without producing anything of value. How could it get any easier?

Randy writes:

Arare Litus,

"A liberal would simply say, you do not own all of a resource, and you owe the fraction of value that is not yours to “the collective”..."

Interesting. So who is the collective? - not in theory, but in reality? - who? Why should they collect while I pay? Why can't I collect?

"I find Rothbard is assuming a malicious intent on the part of “the state” and its “intellectuals” that is overreaching."

Malicious is as malicious does.

cvd writes:

By what metric are today's democratic leaders not rich? They're all certainly well into the top 5% by any metric I can discover. Daschle and Geithner were both able to cough up well over $100,000 on short notice. I doubt it hurt either of them very much.

Are there really lots of other alternative paths to wealth that don't require much more work and different sets of skills?

If so, pray tell, what are they? Perhaps I'm due for a career change.

Isaac K. writes:

"For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it "war"; then ennobled the mass slaughter that "war" involves."

For centuries before the State, individuals have committed mass murder and called it "war"; and then ennobled the mass slaughter that "war" involves.

Glorification, or 'ennoblement,' of war and violence is not an engine of the state -- it existed millenia beforehand. This is very faulty logic.

What bothers me most about Rothbard is that while his rhetoric is strong and sweeping, he sweeps away facts, reality, and logic as well.
Not that I disagree with EVERYTHING he says, but I still have yet to reach a satisfactory answer to my questions on autonomous collectives.

If a group of people agree to form a collective and spend resources to accquire goods and services for the individuals on a large scale (think collaboration in anything -- science, technology, medicine, music, etc.), they form a contractual agreement to enforce the temrs of that collaboration.
If an individual spontaneously decides to "out" the contract, what can the collective do? If the contract had a clause that enables the "forcing" of an individual resource to be used by the collective in case of refusal - information, research, or resource - is it a libertarian violation of aggression if the collective (which they opted into, and contract which they agreed to) preforms aggression against the individual by taxation?
The individual agreed to be taxed!
Refusal to collaborate as per contract is an aggression against everyone else in the group!
Exile is an overly extreme form of aggression to be suggested - everything you can't move, you lose?
How does it work in real life?
When does this form of collaboration become a system of government?

Kurbla writes:

cvd

You said "democratic leaders", very few achieve that status. Compare them with other elites, primarily capitalists. It is 500 000 vs 10 billions.

Randy writes:

Isaac K,

You say you have no answer. I've tried. I'll try once more. Let's begin at the beginning.

"If a group of people agree to form a collective..."

What evidence can you present that such an agreement exists? Hobbes tried and failed. Let's see if you can do any better. If you have no evidence, then the idea of a social contract is simply the propaganda of the political class, and the use of force by the political class is simply exploitation.

P.S. And let me be clear. By evidence, I don't mean theories of compliance or any other such propaganda. I mean show me my signature on a contract designating a voluntary and reasonable exchange of value for value.

Zac writes:

I think Rothbard is basically spot-on with regard to intellectuals.

Bryan talks about "two centuries of economic consensus" but how about thousands of years of anti-market thought before that? A few hundred years of economists' (not exactly)-consensus doesn't override the anti-market meme from way-way back. Plus there are a lot of other kinds of "intellectuals" that are not economists - from political scientists to religious leaders. Most of them have been much more influential on the public than economists.

Among Western democracies, for sure, I think the biggest offender is Christianity. The judeo-christian anti-market, anti-profit, anti-human worldview has profoundly affected our culture. The statist intellectuals who are at fault here are more likely to have lived in 1000 AD than 2000 AD.

Of the modern economists who have been given the highest pulpits, and most cushy positions within the establishment, you find much more sympathy for statism, protectionism, etc. Even though the enlightenment happened hundreds of years ago, Liberalism has failed to really take hold of the hearts and minds of the man on the street.

Politicians and statist intellectuals are not always motivated by money. They are more likely to be motivated by a desire for prestige and political power. But I agree with Bryan that there are other things at work.

All in all, I find this to be one of the better chapters of FANL. The "statist intellectual" argument really hits home for me, if you think about how they have affected majority thought over time.

Kurbla writes:

I'm not Isaac K, but Randy - everything you require from state, you should consistently require from other individuals or organizations.

Lets say you own some land - and you find me sleeping in the tent on your land. Normally, you become libertarian immediately :-) and you want that I pay you something - or go away. I say "Randy, did I sign any contract that I accept your private property? I didn't? So, go away." Do you accept my defense? I bet you do not. Then, why do you want that state show you written contract?

It is not naive question. Whatever organization, whatever property, majority of the people didn't signed contract that they'll obey the rules - but you still cannot advocate that they have the right to break your rules, do you? It is not the problem of the concept of the state, it is problem of the concept of the property.

;----

As far as I read Isaac K, his point is different - he claims that even if organizations are formed with explicit contracts, they'd behave on same way as they do now.


Randy writes:

Kurbla,

I would very likely sign a contract with the a state organization to enforce and defend property rights in accordance with a charter in return for an established price. That would be a voluntary exchange of value for value. I think most people would sign such a contract. But the fact that I signed that contract would not create any other obligation. For example, it would not allow the state organization to create a social safety net system and require my participation - not without my signature on a new contract or a modification of the existing contract.

But for you and for Isaac K, let's not get ahead of ourselves. I can't have you running around proclaiming the existence of an agreement that clearly does not exist. If you've got some evidence, then trot it out. Otherwise, lets just drop the propaganda and deal with the reality that government is an enterprise of exploitation.

Gil writes:

Heck! A burglar didn't sign any contract with the homeowner therefore he hasn't committed any crime. Why should the burglar be forced to abide any social contract reasoning that the homeowner was merely there 'first'?

James writes:

Kurbla,

Your seem to be criticizing a position that can be summed up as, "The government is the rightful owner of the country but should not impose rules on people who choose to remain in the country. Other parties are rightful owners of other property and they should impose rules on people who choose to remain on the property they own."

You are right to criticize that position, but you are not right to think that libertarians actually believe it.

Libertarians believe that no one is exempt from the moral law. This includes: (1) No one has a right to control what they do not rightfully own. (2) In cases where a government has not met the necessary and sufficient conditions to rightfully own the country, the government has no right to control it. (3) Most, if not all governments have gained control of the countries they occupy through methods that do not satisfy the necessary and sufficient conditions to rightfully own things.

Richard writes:

"The argument is simple: If a private individual did what governments do, almost everyone would call him a criminal."

But cf. Libertarian Parables.

Randy writes:

Gil,

"Why should the burglar be forced to abide any social contract..."

There is no such contract. The political class does what it likes because it has the power to do so, and the burgler does precisely the same.

Gil writes:

Alternatively why should the burglar respect the right of the homeowner's ownership rights any more than a Libertarian does towards their concept of government? A burglar might argue the homeowner didn't get his home honestly and his backyard was the site of the natives who were forced off their land a couples of centuries and so forth. You might as well argue that 'possession is 9/10ths of the law' and that the homeowner can't truly prove honest acquisition but has sufficient force to drive off intruders who say otherwise. And then the argument starts getting circular . . .

Hume writes:

Gil,

You can argue anything. The point is that there are certain rights that individuals possess. If a burglar does not respect these rights, he is wrong. He might argue otherwise, but this does not change the fact that he has violated an individual's rights. The discussion should focus on whether or not these rights exist, what are the nature of such rights, etc. Whether or not people respect these rights is irrelevant to whether or not such rights exist in the first place.

Franklin Harris writes:

"Heck! A burglar didn't sign any contract with the homeowner therefore he hasn't committed any crime. Why should the burglar be forced to abide any social contract reasoning that the homeowner was merely there 'first'?"

By that logic, the burglar also can't argue against being punished since no one signed a contract saying they wouldn't punish him.

Arare Litus writes:

Randy,

""A liberal would simply say, you do not own all of a resource, and you owe the fraction of value that is not yours to “the collective”..."

Interesting. So who is the collective? - not in theory, but in reality? - who? Why should they collect while I pay? Why can't I collect?"

For now I'll just say "the entire social group" for "the collective", and say a little bit more near the end.

I imagine one answer would address who the representatives, i.e. beneficiaries of taxes, are:

- you can join government, that is one of defining principles of democracy (open access to power), you can also work for the tax agency or police if you want to be more involved in the mechanics of collecting,
- you can do even better, and just get the proceeds (become a teacher, professor, doctor, scientist, etc.) and the state will send you money after collecting it for you.

But this doesn't really answer the question in a meaningful way, though it gives you a hint why democracy is supported by many - it is lucrative, in the sense that above average wages can be made with nice job stability, benefits, etc. and without extreme efforts needed. A quite nice reward to effort ratio. Most of the positions are also "service" and "educational" positions, so the people who fill these roles will feel virtuous and better informed for making decisions; i.e. this will tend to discourage thought alone the lines of "hey, I'm a parasite!" and "I'm sure evil!", and instead channel it to "wow, I'm sure helping people!" and also "gee, I'm way smarter than average folk". Of course they do help people, the question should be if it more effective than markets, and morally legitimate, instead of just looking at a binary "yes/no" in terms of help.

Instead of who in reality is a representative - anyone who wants, and can pass the various barriers in place - I think theory and "folk theory" (how the average pro-state person justifies things) is more interesting, in that if one can sweep away the supporting justifications it becomes much harder for people to ignore alternative views, such as libertarianism. I think it goes much beyond economic issues, which are incentive enough to help one hold this view if you gain, and into perceived moral high-ground: those that directly gain see themselves are helping "society" and likely even see themselves as sacrificing in their efforts (talking to public school teachers is illuminating for "socialist folk theory" - Bryan, this might be an interesting study, especially since school teachers will promote their views in many ways beyond the curricula).

So to bring some order to this incoherent ramble I'll say that "the collective" is seen as everyone, that government and others provide "services" to society that they justify as (and really believe, and to some extent are) useful, and the people receiving the services are considered better off, for both paternalistic and "market failure" reasons. The fact that access to the tax cash spigot is opened up to a fairly large number of people will ensure self-interested support, and a fairly consistent voting base. Note that the majority of people who turn to this supply of money will really believe they are helping society to a great extent: both moral feelings (positive) and economic fear (negative) forces will tend to keep beneficiaries from critical thought against the state, and the fact that the idea of the state is fairly natural will also reinforce things.

However, I don't want to sound too negative against socialists. They are sincere, and they have one key advantage: we know the current system works, at least to some extent, so their theory works, to some extent. One can always argue the only reason things work are markets, etc. and that socialism is simple one huge drain with no positive effect whatsoever - but this will not be convincing without clear arguments. Rothbard gives some good arguments, but his rhetoric definitely will not win over anyone that isn't in partial agreement to begin with - especially since he overstates things often, so it would be easy to justifying ignoring his other arguments, or just giving up reading his work, if you started too far away from his thesis.

Also note that Rothbard and libertarians also depends on a collective, not for cash, but for accepting and enacting their theory - and since land and property are productive it is sort of like depending on the collective "giving you title to a cash cow". To a socialist this would seem backwards, as you are depending on a group for something but returning nothing of value. You are taking from the group (who you depend on to back up your moral claims on property), do you not owe some sort of debt? So that is another criteria you would have to chip away at - convincing a socialist that giving 100% of something to an individual can actually work out in societies best interest.

So, as promised, here is a definition of the collective that should work for all schools of thought: they are the group that gives legitimacy to claims, i.e. simply a cohesive group that aggregates morality. A libertarian wants to convince the collective of the superior morality of the two ownership axioms (I'm assuming Rothbard giving a fairly broadly accepted definition of libertarianism, let me know if there is a lot of differing base assumptions between flavours...), a liberal wants to convince the collective the you own your body but not resources (and not your body as a resource, when it comes to selling kidneys, etc.), a conservative wants to convince the collective you own resources by not your body, etc. etc. It is all about convincing the collective, and for that you need careful and convincing arguments, evidence, propaganda, factions on your side, etc.

Grant writes:

Arare Litus, it is all about convincing the people with power, physical force and violence. Sometimes this is "the collective", sometimes it is not. An understanding of economics (specifically public goods problems and externalities) leads me to believe that certain people rise to power for positive reasons, not normative ones (as I mentioned in my post above).

I agree with your assessment of government spending. Much of it does net positive returns, but that does not mean it is the best use of resources at the margin. Markets must take transaction costs into account when providing public goods, which means they often appear under-provided when compared to government proposals. Unfortunately its very difficult to weigh the benefits of public vs. private investment. For example, do we need better schools and medical care, or better cars, cell phones and more open-source software projects? Without market prices to guide us, we can't compare alternatives like this.

Kurbla writes:

James:

    Libertarians believe that no one is exempt from the moral law. This includes: (1) No one has a right to control what they do not rightfully own. (2) In cases where a government has not met the necessary and sufficient conditions to rightfully own the country, the government has no right to control it. (3) Most, if not all governments have gained control of the countries they occupy through methods that do not satisfy the necessary and sufficient conditions to rightfully own things.

I understand libertarian position. I do not claim that government rights cannot be criticized, but I claim that in most cases, exactly SAME argument can be used against individual property rights. Including this one.

If you want to go back in past, you'll find that both states and individuals occur as homesteaders and conquerors.

Just for example, state I live in was conqueror in past, but my ancestors were exactly that same conquerors as well. In between conquests, some of them were just thefts. Typical for most of the world. So, if you criticize the rights of my state, it might be justified criticism, but you should apply same criticism against my private property as well.


Randy writes:

Gil,

"You might as well argue that 'possession is 9/10ths of the law'"

Good point. Actually, my argument is that possession is 10/10ths of the law.

Randy writes:

Arare Litus,

Great post. Sorry to have to choose. But to keep this short I'll just hit a couple of main points.

"you can join government"

True. I can become a member of the political class and obtain a share of the loot in proportion to my contribution to the interests of the political class. Similarly, I can study for the priesthood and maybe someday be the pope.

"We know the current system works, at least to some extent, so their theory works, to some extent."

True. And there will always be libertarians to the extent that it doesn't work. The Catholics and the Kings said the same thing at their time in history.

Kurbla writes:

Randy

    But for you and for Isaac K, let's not get ahead of ourselves. I can't have you running around proclaiming the existence of an agreement that clearly does not exist. If you've got some evidence, then trot it out. Otherwise, lets just drop the propaganda and deal with the reality that government is an enterprise of exploitation.

You do not understand my argument. It is not that I claim you signed contract with state, but that you behave just like state does.

If you find me sleeping in your hotel, you will request that I register and play bill - or that I go away. I didn't signed any contract with you. Why you claim you have that right to tax me or throw me out, and why state has not that right? What is the difference?

Randy writes:

Kurbla,

Okay, interesting. But let's leave "rights" out of it entirely. There is no such thing as "rights". What we have is an exercise of power.

So, I stake out a territory and you enter it without reaching an agreement for compensation. If I have superior fighting skills, or a good missile weapon and a clear line of sight, I will probably just enforce my claim on my own. If I have neither, I may appeal to a superior force to support my claim. The superior force will certainly demand payment of some sort, and if you offer more in payment than I am willing to offer, then the superior force will support your claim over mine.

Now we can toss in all kinds of propaganda, infinite pages of rationalizations and justifications, but none of it will change the basic equation.

James writes:

Kurbla,

You write, "I understand libertarian position. I do not claim that government rights cannot be criticized, but I claim that in most cases, exactly SAME argument can be used against individual property rights. Including this one."

Your claim is false.

The argument being used here is "You don't rightfully own what you are trying to control, so it's not right for you to try to control it."

Maybe an example will help. Suppose that you are in a hotel and some drunken guest demands that you either pay or leave. He insists that he is entitled to make this demand. You respond by saying "You don't rightfully own what you are trying to control, so it's not right for you to try to control it."

Now suppose the hotel's rightful owner demands that you either pay or leave. The response you gave to the drunken guest doesn't work here.

Clearly, that same argument is not an argument in against property in general.

The reason libertarians' different reactions to the use of force by government and by property owners seem inconsistent to you is because you start from the position that the government is equivalent to the hotel owner, not the drunken guest. You may be right but that's the subject of debate. You can't just assume your conclusion to prove it.

Incidentally, it doesn't show that libertarians are inconsistent when you point out that lots of privately held property was taken from a previous owner at some point. Libertarians don't hold a belief that any property which was taken by force can never be rightfully owned by anyone. Rather, on the libertarian view, property previously taken by force from previous owners can become rightfully owned by others, but the conditions for new legitimate ownership are conditions which governments haven't met.

Another example: If the drunken guest kills the hotel owner and takes over the front desk, he doesn't become the rightful owner of the hotel just by hanging around. At the same time, that doesn't mean nobody can ever be the rightful owner of the hotel.

Similarly, if a gang kills a third of the people in a country, calls itself a government and takes those people's land, that gang doesn't become a rightful owner of that land just by hanging around. But that doesn't mean no one can ever become the rightful owners of that land.

A further example: I might demand that you either give me some of your money or leave your country or suffer my violence. I bet you would think it immoral for me to make that demand. I also bet you wouldn't think it any less immoral to make that demand if I proved that I had killed most of the population and all of the army the night before. And I'll bet you wouldn't think that no one could ever rightfully own the land that once belonged to the victims.

If you judge your government by the same standard of right and wrong which you'd apply to me, you'd reach the same conclusion.

Gil writes:

"The reason libertarians' different reactions to the use of force by government and by property owners seem inconsistent to you is because you start from the position that the government is equivalent to the hotel owner, not the drunken guest. You may be right but that's the subject of debate. You can't just assume your conclusion to prove it."

Or by the same token Libertarians can't exactly prove government is invalid except to themselves because they are trying to prove what they already believe. You might as well say the U.S. Founding Fathers did amounted to nothing because the U.S.A. was founded on displacing the native landowners therefore even the original U.S. Constitution and everything since holds no validity. But then what if the previous inhabitants used conquest to get their lands? If C displaces B for B's land, can B really complain because their ancestors displaced A in kind?

Kurbla writes:

James,

You say:

    "The reason libertarians' different reactions to the use of force by government and by property owners seem inconsistent to you is because you start from the position that the government is equivalent to the hotel owner, not the drunken guest. You may be right but that's the subject of debate. You can't just assume your conclusion to prove it."

You're good. But don't hurry. Look why I do not need to PROVE that government is equivalent to the hotel owner:

Rothbard claims that state property should be abolished, and private property shouldn't. Fine, I say "let me hear the arguments".

Rothbard says "State should be abolished because of X." And I say "Then the hotel should be also abolished because hotel owner also X."

What happened when I said that? I didn't proved that state is equivalent to hotel owner - maybe it is not. Maybe differences are huge, indeed. Nevertheless, that particular X is not good reason. Rothbard has to find new argument Y, or refine existing one.

Hypothetically, what would happen if I proved that hotel owner and state ARE equivalent, as you believe I should? In that case, it wouldn't be "Rothbard has to find new argument" but "Rothbard cannot find new argument."

Randy writes:

All arguments as to "right" are propaganda or counter-propaganda. The purpose of propaganda is to gather power.

The statist supports the propaganda because it is in his or her interest to support it. The anti-statist supports the counter-propaganda because it is in his or her interest to support it.

Neither interest is incorrect.

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