Arnold Kling  

The Role of the State: Who Decides?

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Martin Wolf writes,


[Libertarianism] is hopeless intellectually, because the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not "wrong". The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values. Libertarians argue that the only relevant wrong is coercion by the state. Others disagree and are entitled to do so.

It is hopeless politically, because democracy necessitates debate among widely divergent opinions. Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail. Under enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.

Thanks to Mark Thoma for the pointer.

Wolf writes as if these decisions are made communally, like we all get to sit around a campfire and decide what government should do. The reality is that people in office have much more influence than the rest of us. And they are inclined to think that the optimal scope of government is always larger than whatever it is now. They are never-enoughers.

Libertarians are people who see the game for what it is and want to change the rules.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (24 to date)
Chris W writes:

"Libertarians are people who see the game for what it is and want to change the rules."

Replace "libertarians" with "marxists" and you start to see how similar all ideologies can be.

Zdeno0601 writes:

Correction: Libertarians are people who see the game for what it is and want to redouble their efforts at playing by their opponents' rules.

Liam writes:
Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail. Under enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.

That is actually the beauty of Libertarianism in my opinion. The Freedom to make adjustments in an ever changing world. It's when we allow our emotions to drive our decisions and not the underlying values of freedom and liberty that we falter. The Patriot Act is a perfect example. Even the name is emotional.

@Chris. You can substitute any ideology and the effect is the same. Tea Party, Democrat, Parliamentarian, Facism, you name it.

Rob writes:

It's hilarious that this post comes on the same day as an excellent quote from Tyler Cowen: "It's very important to have a theory of public choice which consists of more than simply criticizing the politicians, parties, and voters you do not agree with."

Cowen > Kling.

ThomasL writes:

It is a little odd that it is "hopeless politically" since "democracy necessitates..."

As if democracy were the only political system it were even possible to conceive of with the mind's eye.

Jason Brennan writes:

This makes me think of Jeremy Waldron's paper, "Participation: The Right of Rights".

Here's a cartoon summary: Waldron doesn't believe in constitutional limits for demcracies--he thinks democracies should decide what rights people have. He claims that what rights we have is precisely one of the things reasonable people dispute, and so we need a fair resolution procedure to decide the dispute, and democracy is the needed procedure.

My reaction to this idea, that people (even reasonable people) dispute what rights we have, is the opposite: this is why it's so important that some issues be removed from the political bargaining table.

Mercer writes:

"Wolf writes as if these decisions are made communally, like we all get to sit around a campfire and decide what government should do."

Well we do have elections. Some states even have ballot initiatives that directly decide issues.

" The reality is that people in office have much more influence than the rest of us. And they are inclined to think that the optimal scope of government is always larger than whatever it is now. They are never-enoughers."

Five years ago the people in office wanted to reduce the scope of government by privatizing the biggest federal program. Despite months of speeches by the President the effort failed because it was unpopular so there are limits to how much influence the people in office have.

Hugh Watkins writes:

The biggest problem with the libertarian nation is that.......there isn't one (sigh).

So before sounding off on how awful and unhealthy freedom is, Martin Wolf should have written a 5,000 essay defining what his idea of a libertarian state is. Others might have radically different concepts of what is involved.

Nico writes:

Isn't Wolf's point that it's not politically feasible to have libertarian "rules of the game" , given that so many people don't see those rules as legitimate? That strikes me as a fairly good point, one that I have not heard libertarians address in a satisfying way. The only way I see is to convince lots of other people to be libertarians, either through argument, or by having a good example to point to.
This not to say libertarian policy prescriptions are wrong- I think many of them are right on, but I still haven't heard a solution to this problem of political economy.

Bob Layson writes:

My values determine what I do with my property and with the property and persons of those who freely wish to associate with me. That values are not equally shared is true. That some values must be voted supreme, whilst a transient majority prevails in office, and backed by state force is not obvious.

Values no more clash that do cube roots. Value holders need not clash. They can live and let live. For it is possible to have country-wide economic integration along with complete politcal disintegration into as many jurisdictions as there are gas stations.

Michael W writes:
[Libertarianism] is hopeless intellectually, because the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not "wrong". The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values. Libertarians argue that the only relevant wrong is coercion by the state. Others disagree and are entitled to do so.
Wolf tries to make it seem like libertarianism is a rejection of certain values, e.g. protection of the weak. But this is a mistake: libertarians do not reject those values, but the means chosen to achieve them. Libertarians claim that the free market is the best means to achieving protection of the weak, and that government is actually counterproductive. The debate is fundamentally about means, not ends.
Greg writes:

"Libertarians claim that the free market is the best means to achieving protection of the weak, and that government is actually counterproductive. The debate is fundamentally about means, not ends"

Yes and if the means dont end up with the "ends" the Libertarian says "So what, its all about the means!"

"The reality is that people in office have much more influence than the rest of us."


Very true. The OTHER reality is that those who, according to libertarians, are the high achievers and winners of our "little games we play with money" get to BUY way more control than they should have.

Yancey Ward writes:

From Greg:

The OTHER reality is that those who, according to libertarians, are the high achievers and winners of our "little games we play with money" get to BUY way more control than they should have.

Buy from whom?

David C writes:

"some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people."

This seems like a strange value to have. I can understand believing we should protect the weak at all costs, and I can understand believing that government is the best means to do it, but why believe that the government has to do it? Also, this would be easier to swallow if foreign aid weren't the least popular item on the budget. The welfare state is mostly about voters taking from others to give to themselves.

Philo writes:

Wolf writes: "[S]ome of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people." But the strength of these values declines as the group expands, from *fellow citizens* through *fellow legal residents of one's country* (including resident aliens) and *fellow residents of one's country (including even illegal aliens)* all the way to *fellow human beings*. So would Wolf also hold that anti-nationalism (cosmopolitanism) is "hopeless intellectually." Is his underlying principle that anything you can't sell to the masses is "hopeless intellectually"?

Not quite. His key additional premise is: ". . . such values [concerning the weak, vulnerable, and unfortunate] are not 'wrong'." (But he really needs to say: ". . . such values are not wrong," without the shudder-quotes; I shall so interpret him.) If he tried to defend this undefended premise, I think he would fail.

He adds: "Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail." But that's what a constitution is *for*!

Greg writes:

Yancey


I know where your going with this. They buy from the government so therefore, you say, have no govt for them to buy from!!

Yeah, aint it easy. Get rid of govt and get rid of rich interests control of govt.

Really the answer is to get rid of money. Money is a govt creation anyway so get rid of it. Or, put the issuance of money in control of the public not via private banks.

Money and govt are both man made creations that DO serve a purpose, however just like everything man made they can be man corrupted too.

mdc writes:

"The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values."

To my mind this is the strongest argument for libertarianism: it demarcates a personal sphere in which we may justly impose our values by force (ie. on ourselves, and our property). This means statists don't get exactly what they want, but only in so far as getting what they want would deny others the same opportunity. The statist view, on the other hand, seems to be "might makes right", and to hell with the losing viewpoints.

Yancey Ward writes:

Greg,

If you are advocating the abolishment of legal tender laws, I am in full support. However, if you think money is a creation of government, then you are mistaken.

Greg writes:

Yancey

What, you think a man was walking down the road one day thousands of years ago, looked off to the side and said "Hey, there's some money, I'm gonna buy me some wheat and a tunic with that"?

We invented money. It is not OF nature. States started requiring certain things to be used as money and today they are a complete result of state control. The state gets to say what is and isnt money.

You may not like it but thats how it is. There are some good things about this reality and some bad things. Not much different than anything else in this regard. Money is as natural as government, all societies have developed both eventually.

No, I'm not in favor of abolishing legal tender laws at this time. Could I be persuaded that this might be a good thing under certain circumstances, maybe, but in general I dont think legal tender laws are THE PROBLEM.

Its you who is mistaken.

Yancey Ward writes:

Greg,

No state ever invented the concept money. How could you have read anything else into my point, I have no idea. Sure, governments from time immemorial have tried to control what is used as money- it is the prime lever of state power. What is amusing to me is that you on the one hand lament the power of money, then don't seem to support the removal of this power from the state. Your position is unintelligible. Can you clarify your first and last comments?

Greg writes:

Yancey

Modern money is a state creation. States decide what is legal tender what is necessary for tax settlements etc.

All early societies discovered a type of money, but only states have been able to take it to the level we have today.

I lament the power of money when it is not controlled by the people (thru their elected state). It has been turned over to private interests who insist all kinds of stupid debt ceilings and requirements that spending is offset $4$ with bond issuance. The bond markets and private banks are now able to tell Greece that they are paying their workers too much while they push for higher interest rates (so they can make more money without doing any "work") This is the travesty. This is the control that has been bought.

So, I want the state to use its monetary powers for the people and not just for a select few bond traders. The state has a responsibility to all people, not just those who have accumulated much (by hook or by crook). We will not get rid of the state, lets make it work for us and not work us over.

Yancey Ward writes:

Greg wrote:

So, I want the state to use its monetary powers for the people and not just for a select few bond traders.

Then you are going to be waiting a very, very long time. If you were truly serious about freeing the people from monetary control, you would be more willing to consider actually removing the power of legal tender from the state altogether. It is the state's control of money that is being bought by those with the state's money. My very first question to you is now still unanswered, it appears.

Patri Friedman writes:

Rob - I took Kling as making exactly the same point as Cowen. Parts of Wolf's critique may hold for libertarianism as a moral philosophy, but none of it contradicts the libertarian conclusions of public choice theory. Once again, consequentalism wins.

Babinich writes:
If you are advocating the abolishment of legal tender laws, I am in full support.

How do you propose to repay debt?

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