Arnold Kling  

The Government/Slavery Analogy

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Reacting to my recent post on the analogy Robert Higgs drew between libertarianism and abolitionism, a commenter wrote,

Hans Hoppe, hardcore libertarian, once described what may be the crucial difference between a democratic state and slavery: the latter was private and thus unequal. It is a major departure from such private and unequal slavery to posit that everyone can own each other, (even if 'own' is not an attractive word to use, but for analogy's sake). In theory, in a democracy everyone is both 'slave' and 'slavemaster' to everyone else, rendering the concept of 'slave' basically meaningless.

Actually, I do not think that the point of Higgs' analogy is to claim that government is as immoral as slavery (although he might make that argument separately). Instead, the point of the analogy is that government shares with slavery the fact that many people see its elimination as unthinkable. That is, when slavery was widespread, people thought either that a world without slaves was inconceivable or that freeing slaves would lead to chaos.

Similarly, many people think that the abolition of government would be unworkable. I put myself in that camp. I think that humans are status-seeking animals, which gives them a tremendous propensity for disputes, most of which are wildly irrational apart from the status issues involved. In the absence of a hegemonic power, I believe that these disputes will escalate into violence.

I call myself a civil societarian. I believe that almost every problem that people look to government to solve could instead be solved by other institutions of civil society. I only want a government that can umpire disputes. The question for someone like me is what stops this umpire from claiming an ever-expanding jurisdiction.

Because I accept this umpiring role as necessary, as far as government goes, I am one of the rationalizers. If abolition of government is the libertarian ideal, then I am a hopeless reactionary.

On the other hand, I am nowhere close to being as romantic about democratic government as the commenter quoted above. Democracy does not mean that everyone is slave and slavemaster to everyone else, as if we have perfect political equality. In the United States today, democracy means that most people have essentially zero political power, and a relative handful of people have almost unimaginable power. The central point of Unchecked and Unbalanced is to call attention to the extreme political inequality that has emerged in the United States, particularly over the past fifty years.

Higgs' analogy appeals to me because I find it totally baffling that so many self-styled progressives are vociferously rooting for this political inequality to increase. They want technocrats making even more decisions, with even fewer political checks and balances. Given my opposition to this growth in political inequality, I find progressive ideology as jawdroppingly appalling as if I had been a 19th-century abolitionist encountering an ideology that says that what the world needs is a lot more slavery.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
david writes:


Do you really find it baffling? I recall your earlier 'most generous' interpretation of progressivism:

Progressives are the proud heirs to a tradition of experiments in public policy that brought about significant social improvements. Its antecedents go back before the Civil War to the anti-slavery, temperance, and women's movements. They continue forward with a focus on civil rights, women's rights, birth control, public health, anti-trust, economic justice, central banking, business cycle management, and ecology. Society today is much better because of the policies that progressives promoted in these areas.

All along the way, progressives met opposition from conservatives and libertarians. Yet few would now step forward to try to reverse progressive policy successes. The arguments against civil rights legislation made by Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman in the 1960's clearly put them on the wrong side of history as well as the wrong side of today's generally accepted morality.

And many of these changes were top-down and imposed by faraway bureaucrats. The Civil Rights Act was, after all, the federal government telling segregation states who would democratically prefer otherwise to shut up - a reduction in inter-government competition!

Disagree, yes, but baffling?

manuelg writes:

> I only want a government that can umpire disputes.

Why does *anyone* need to umpire disputes? Life is not fair, and the concept of "fairness" was invented by those who desired for the power of the umpire.

That is the most confusing thing to me about libertarians. Why the need for a third party to enforce contracts? 4 billion years of life without the need of an umpire, then, less than 10,000 years ago, some umpires talked themselves into a job and never left. And they guard their position jealously.

I am supposed to be grateful to these umpires for the lack of anarchy around my person, ignoring the fact that I have exactly as much anarchy around my person as I can stand to tolerate. I don't remember any useful order around my person that I didn't have to work and plan for, at great cost to my own leisure.

Rajeev writes:

Manuelg, how many countries in South America, Asia, and Africa have you lived in? Better yet, have you lived in any of the inner cities of the US? Have you been bullied in kindergarten? I live in South Asia, and I can assure you that you have inherited, not created, most of the useful order around your person. If you lived in some parts here, you would quickly find you need an umpire, or suffer severe physical violence.

Dain writes:

That commenter is me.

I don't actually believe that, I was only putting forth another generous interpretation of the progressive (or social democratic) worldview. It'd be pretty unusual, actually, for someone to write those words, believe them, and know who Hans Hoppe is, lol.

Sometimes my efforts to take the 'outside' view confuse even me.


There is definitely tension in the social democratic view between participatory, substantive democracy and the technocratic, distant state they often rationalize, even if only implicitly.

Then again when you conceptualize democracy the way, say, Amy Guttman does, you realize that 'democracy' just is a social (ends oriented) rather than procedural (means oriented) ideal after all, in which case political inequality isn't so bad if the holders of political power have the correct prescriptions for society.

Jim writes:

Mancur Olsen had a lot to say about the phenomenon of government; special interests eventually take over, whether they be large business and banking, farmers or unions, all at the expense of the citizen and ultimately emergence. BTW, why didn't he win a Nobel?

But the evidence does not need to be read from a book. Any regular visitor to Europe in the last 20 years has witnessed the decline there, about to speed up in dramatic fashion.

Here in the USA we had the perfect Constitution to battle special interests and the congregation of power. Since the New Deal and the creation of the Fed, the Constitution actually stands in the way of reform.

Free markets demand fair barter and can not print counterfeit money. Therefore all economics and politics are local. Anything else leads to serfdom and ruin. Hayek and Mises were exactly right.

Barring the discovery of say, free energy, there is only one outcome now to western civilization, although in the last twenty years Canada makes a middling refutation.

manuelg writes:

> If you lived in some parts here, you would quickly find you need an umpire, or suffer severe physical violence.

How shall I distinguish these helpful umpires from the other potential bullies? Hold out hope that whomever isn't assaulting me physically - at just that very moment - is in fact a well disguised blessed umpire with only my best interests at heart? I do not possess infinite stores of credulity.

I see stationary bandits exacting protection monies from those under threat from roving bandits. The monies seem to be enough - I will deny them my gratitude.

[ I maintain this extreme position as an intellectual exercise. Only to remind myself what I must give up when I _choose_ not to live my life like Diogenes the Cynic - in a gutter, living off of wild onions, with wild dogs. I cast no judgment on a man who chooses to be grateful to the agents of justice and equity, even though I, personally, am cynical. Cheers. ]

steve writes:

I think the analogy of government equals slavery is apt but not exact. I think serf is a closer analogy.

I don't have much choice but to buy food. Yet I am not a slave of the grocery store since i can easily switch to another.

Likewise I have a similiar need for courts and laws if not quite so absolutely as food. Again it is possible to move permanently from one government's jurisdictian to another's but only with the permission of both governments. I think this is closer to the lot of a serf.

I don't think the endgame is to eliminate governments but to somehow arrange a situation where governments literally compete for citizens just like a grocery store competes for customers.

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