Arnold Kling  

Unchecked and Unbalanced Watch

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Robert Higgs writes,


Slavery existed for thousands of years, in all sorts of societies and all parts of the world. To imagine human social life without it required an extraordinary effort. Yet, from time to time, eccentrics emerged to oppose it, most of them arguing that slavery is a moral monstrosity and therefore people should get rid of it. Such advocates generally elicited reactions ranging from gentle amusement to harsh scorn and even violent assault.

He goes on to list ten rationalizations for slavery that he has found from defenders of the institution. The punch line: in Higgs' view, the rationalizations for slavery are parallel to the rationalizations for

government as we know it--monopolistic, individually nonconsensual rule by an armed group that demands obedience and payment of taxes

In Unchecked and Unbalanced, I also argue against monopoly government. However, I stop short of advocating wholesale abolition. Instead, I describe ways in which individuals could be given more choice of the jurisdictions under which they live. As Higgs recognizes, any approach that envisions something other than our large monopoly government looks pretty radical, given how steeped we are in rationalizations for government as we know it.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
MTP writes:

There are some interesting questions pointed at monopoly government raised in the documentary film "Us Now", which I believe is freely available online. The film examines on the surface ideas like participatory budgeting and the potential through technology for massive population involvement in policy creation and debate, leading to larger questions about the role of government in society, at least in the traditional bureaucratic form.

Neverfox writes:
In Unchecked and Unbalanced, I also argue against monopoly government. However, I stop short of advocating wholesale abolition. Instead, I describe ways in which individuals could be given more choice of the jurisdictions under which they live.
How is that not anarchism? Who decides how far level of competition can develop? And if someone is deciding, how is that not a de facto monopoly government?
david writes:

You can advance all ten rationalizations against the concept of the private corporation, so Higg's ten reasons aren't exactly persuasive on their own. The concept of a private corporation even predates the concept of a nation-state (roughly 15th century vs. 19th).

I'm sure libertarian anarchists have an elaborate defense of their case, but tossing out a vague analogy to slavery doesn't quite cut it in this case.

Also, for the interested, here's Kling's 2005 argument against anarchy. Here's Caplan's comment on the idea. Tyler Cowen @ MR and Bryan Caplan have also written academically on the problem of defense and collusion, but I cannot find an ungated copy.

I am partial to Kling's 2005 argument, myself - observing areas in developing nations where states suddenly lose their grips doesn't suggest growth and prosperity. What we instead see is a proliferation of minor warlords, especially if cheap weapons are readily available. I've seen people suggest Mexico and Somalia, but this is clearest in (for example) 1999 Argentina, where the state weakened suddenly for reasons unrelated to military conflict.

Dain writes:

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.

wm13 writes:

The factual claim here, about the pervasiveness of slavery before, say, 1800, is greatly overstated. Late medieval and early modern Europe knew many varieties of personal unfreedom (serfdom, apprenticeship, military captivity, etc.), but nothing much like chattel slavery on either the ancient or the new world model.

Neverfox writes:

With all due respect for his regular contributions to the blogosphere, Kling's 2005 argument against anarchy is a mess really. He hasn't offered a compelling answer to many of the comments that quickly and correctly pointed out that he was effectively arguing against himself (because despite his protestations, government is a super-warlord, unless you want to deny that we live in a world of warring nations or that warlords can never be at peace or provide benefits to followers).

These Hobbesean style objections to anarchy are nothing new and there are many rebuttals available that predate his 2005 post. I have to wonder if he's read them. Here are a few:

"Libertarian Anarchism: Responses to Ten Objections" by Roderick T. Long

"Objections to Anarchism" By Michael E. Coughlin

I'll add that Kling makes a common mistake: comparing best-case statism with worst-case anarchy. He also fails to argue his case from the point of view of what is justified. Arguments of feasibility ultimately ring hollow because they don't involve appeals to justice (the very rule of law that he holds dear) and don't acknowledge that society isn't static.

His argument, even if successful, points only to the possibility of anarchism now and anarchists don't really disagree. Part of the philosophy of anarchism is one of psychological change and the demonstration of alternatives to domination. It's about holding up standard institutions to the light of law. The state fails because it us ultimately based on force. The anarchist position is the rule of law and is capable of being a framework from which to criticize both the state and warlords. We may never eliminate murder, for example, but it doesn't follow that moving towards the elimination of murder shouldn't be the goal.

This is precisely why failed state examples are so irrelevant. No anarchist expects great shining examples of philosophical anarchism to emerge in Somalia (for many good reasons). No thoughtful anarchist I know would "push the proverbial button" to end the state today because the point is not statelessness but a lack of rulership. Rulership is a way of living even among the ruled. It's a state of mind.

Anarchism is about what is and isn't justified and demonstrating and persuading others to follow that model and making it possible for them to follow that model. That ties right into Higgs' point and it also is the same standard that Kling probably holds for states. Do states have a great track record of springing ex nihilo right into liberal utopias? No. You had to let society catch up to the ideas of the more visionary among us. People have ideals and they share them and try to get them to become part of the fabric of society. Until those ideas spread and people become aware of what is possible, I wouldn't expect either a fresh state or a fresh anarchy to turn out well.

agnostic writes:

The real answer, according to North, Wallis, and Weingast would be the fear of violence breaking out. After all, slavery was only abolished by open access orders -- Western Europe circa the mid-19th C. Before that, owning slaves was a means of rent-creation.

Threaten that source of rent-creation, and you threaten the stability of the dominant coalition. The slave-owners would resort to violence to protect their rents, and even if they lost, there would be a violent struggle among other factions of the dominant coalition to fill the vacuum left by the dispossessed slave-owners.

That also explains why large-scale slave revolts are so rare. Even the slaves would have preferred to live as they did with some measure of physical security and social predictability, rather than face the uncertainty of a struggle for power and the certainly higher chance of getting caught in the attendant violence.

The cost is your sense of pride and dignity, but most people would rather be somewhat safe and grumbling about their status than enjoy the dignity of freedom in the midst of violent chaos.

Randy writes:

David,

"a vague analogy to slavery"

What's vague about it? A simple recognition that "representation" is a myth makes the case.

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