Arnold Kling  

Does Liberty Come from the State?

Morality, Rhetoric, and Politi... Behaviorism Works Because It's...

Daniel B. Klein writes,

I believe that President Obama sees himself as the duly appointed officer of the overlord. This overlord is the collectivity called "the people" or "the state." It is one big voluntary club. Its officers are government officials. Its central apparatus consists of governmental institutions. Its official expression is government law: legislation, regulations, executive orders, and court rulings.

It's actually a difficult essay to excerpt. One could say that the gist of it is to say, Lose the "we." One more quote:

My marijuana is my marijuana, and I have not entered any contract with "the people" or any other overlord not to smoke it.

Part of Klein's goal is to state the philosophy of government that enables progressives to justify their policies. My guess is that modern progressives will not agree with Klein's formulation. In general, I find that progressives prefer not to define their beliefs as a philosophy. They do not want to start out with a discussion of first principles.

Instead, my impression is that progressives prefer to start talking about what makes their views good and what makes other views bad. I think they would view all this libertarian philosophy stuff as just mumbo-jumbo that papers over an ideology that tramples the poor and justifies privilege.

I myself am not such an ardent philosopher. I am willing to start with a discussion of how to benefit the poor and get rid of unjustified privilege. Where I refuse to give ground is on making the assumption that government technocrats are wise and that we can elect politicians who are benevolent.

Ask the question about how much freedom you would be willing to give up in order to achieve some other social goal. (Of course, at a personal level, I give up a lot of freedoms that I might otherwise wish to exercise because I want to stay out of jail.) For example, how much freedom would you give up in order to have medical research that finds cures for awful diseases?

In theory, I would be willing to trade-off some freedom for some social goals. However, in practice, I see us as being on the far end of a Laffer Curve. That is, given what technocrats really know and how politicians really behave, I think most of the social goals that I would be rooting for would be better achieved if government were dramatically smaller. Given where we are, adding to government power is lose-lose by my reckoning.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (27 to date)
rapscallion writes:

There's a pretty basic point that undermines most libertarian objections to government actions on the basis that they are coercive and as such violate individual rights: most of us are free to move. As such, government actions aren't really forced on us. We could leave the club if we really wanted to.

Yes, the fact that there is no currently no Libertopia means that libertarians are frustrated in the market for public goods. But as they themselves often stridently insist, being under served in a market doesn't give one the right to force others to provide you with the services you want, which is what resisting the government amounts to given that we have the freedom to leave.

hp writes:


There is a place for people who try to "leave the club," it's called prison. Income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes are not optional. Drug laws are not optional. Minimum wage laws are not optional. Trade tariffs are not optional.

This post is right on the mark. There is no "first principles" defense of modern liberalism and there never will be.

stubydoo writes:

I view the libertarian philosophy stuff in the quoted Klein passage as pure mumbo-jumbo, and I don't remotely consider myself a progressive.

Not that all libertarian philosophy is mumbo-jumbo - substantial portions of it are actually either right or wrong. But this putting of "the people" and "the state" into irony quotes just doesn't quite register. When you think about what characteristics should distinguish our society from pure anarcy, it seems pretty unhelpful to me.

jsalvatier writes:

In other contexts I am critical of you, but I agree completely with your philosophy here.

dmitchell writes:


I am afraid not. Just think through what you are claiming. You claim that by electing not to move, I somehow consent and legitimize the state's exercise of power over me. So according to you the state's exercise of power over me becomes legitimate after I elect not to move. Therefore it is not legitimate before. Therefore by what right does the state's representative demand that I consent or move? He has no legitimate power over me, no just authority to make such a demand. To me he is just a man with a gun. If you think he does have such power, then you are begging the question.

rapscallion writes:


Prison is what you get if you try to cheat by agreeing to be a member of the club, but breaking its rules. It's no more a violation of liberty to send a club member to prison than for a lender to foreclose on a house when the borrower can't make the payments that were agreed upon.

Essentially, all the nations of the world to which one can emigrate constitute what the market is offering in terms of public goods packages. Yes, I agree, it sucks that no nation offers the Libertopian package, but libertarians are no more justified in demanding Libertopia than poor people are justified in demanding loans with interest rates below what the market offers.

rapscallion writes:


I think that you are basically making a natural rights argument; I understand it like this:

Initially, you have your stuff, and then the state comes and says, “give us some of your stuff or we’ll take it, and beat you up, or you can leave.” This is unjust because the state has no right to make such a demand against stuff that is initially yours.

I’m willing to concede that the state has no right to, say, kill you when you are born, but all the stuff that you might have at whatever time we might want to define as the “initial time” (e.g. birth, puberty, drinking age, etc.), in the modern world, can only be yours because of the state administration of property rights among club members. That is, the car your parents give you on your Sweet 16 is not in any natural, fundamental way yours because your parents are also members of the club. Again, there are limits: the state can’t demand a pound of flesh as the price for leaving, but just about everything beyond life’s basics is fair game.

To be clear: I don’t want to make claims about whether or not the origins of the state were just or not or argue that in a primitive society property rights in some ways aren’t fundamental and natural. I’m just pointing out that in modern society one’s initial non-basic endowment is a state dependent one.

hsearles writes:

"There's a pretty basic point that undermines most libertarian objections to government actions on the basis that they are coercive and as such violate individual rights: most of us are free to move."

To paraphrase Hume, to say that a man, tied to his location by a job and family, consents to the actions of the state because he does not move elsewhere is like saying that a man pressed into service on a ship sailing upon the open ocean consents to the orders he is given because he does not leave that ship.

rapscallion writes:

There’s no doubt that leaving friends and family is hard, but if you want to hold people responsible for their actions you’ve got to be consistent about how you define freedom and agency. If leaving friends and family is such a great a price that having to pay it is morally equivalent to being forced into something, then people born into criminal families and in bad neighborhoods are not responsible for their actions. Are you going to not punish the 20 year-old from the ghetto who steals your car because all of his friends and family are thugs and criminals and would ostracize him if he got a decent job?

Dare I bring up Nazis? Oh yes, I dare: were the Nazis whose family members were all Nazis not responsible for what they did?

It’s a craptacular world and often we’ve got to make craptacular choices, but those choices are still choices.

dmitchell writes:


1. Think about the assumptions you made in your first post. You wrote that government actions are not coercive because we give consent by not moving. So if anyone here believes that consent is necessary for just government action, you do. I don't know if that is because you believe in natural rights or if it is for another reason. Whatever reason you have for believing that, that is the reason I appeal to. You are caught in self-contradiction.

2. It may or may not be true that what is mine can only be mine because of the state. Yet that is not my problem. Even if true this places no obligation on me. Whatever the state may be said to have done for me, I did not ask it to do. I did not agree to abide by its dictates as a condition for obtaining these alleged benefits.

3. It is always helpful in these situations to consider the interaction as if it took place between private citizens. Suppose a man approaches me and claims that he has been protecting my neighborhood. Suppose he claims that everything I enjoy I enjoy by his efforts. Suppose he claims that because of this, I must either pay him a portion of my property or pack up and leave. Just?

Hyena writes:

Most people don't have a philosophy of government anyway. They won't state their "philosophy" because they don't actually have one. They have a set of beliefs which tend to occur together but few, if any, logical ties between them and almost certainly none to any deeper principle.

Philosophical density in libertarianism is higher. It's an atypical belief, so a self-identifying libertarian probably had to look somewhere. He wasn't just defining himself as part of a larger group. I suspect there is a core/periphery model of philosopher-members to every political group; atypical beliefs probably have a philosophical core and a social periphery, common ones likely reversed.

My problem with property rights was well-expressed by G. A. Cohen in "Freedom and Money". Every negative freedom has a positive, coercive version. I've still not decided how this problem should be resolved, though I lean towards a virtual commons in all natural resources.

Kurbla writes:

Libertarians arguments against state property are essentially communist arguments against property in general, just selectively applied against state, and not against private property. But, they only rarely discuss "prime principles" seriously.

In practice, libertarians usually advocate pro-capitalist position, and they try to present it as pro-liberty and pro-property. But they'd support pro-capitalist position even if it is contra-private property. For instance, Dwight R. Lee, in article recently cited by Arnold, advocated pollution as a solution of the problem of unemployment. It didn't came across his mind that pollution breaks property rights. David recently advocated state control over airspace.

It is true that from consistent libertarian position, libertarians should be satisfied with right to move. From my position, however, I think they should have the right on secession as well. Let them try their ideas - and states should intervene only if experiment turns into slavery or worse.

Kurbla writes:

Arnold's position is, however, typical classical liberal position. It is much harder to argue against, and easier to live with. Maybe because Arnold has lot of leftists in the family.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

kurbla -
Arnold's position (and Klein's position, for that matter) is typical libertarianism. I wish libertarians would stop using "classical liberalism" and "libertarianism" as synonyms.

Aaron writes:


Moving is difficult, if not impossible for most people. Not only is it very expensive, but most governments are extrememly restrictive when it comes to the right to work or stay for more than a short period of time. I don't know why you're not considering this fact.

JP98 writes:
I think most of the social goals that I would be rooting for would be better achieved if government were dramatically smaller. Given where we are, adding to government power is lose-lose by my reckoning.

I agree. But in my experience, once a progressive interlocutor sees this point, the discussion devolves into "Well, then, what functions of government should we do away with?" followed by "Oh no, we need Department X because otherwise [people would be dying in the streets, etc.]."

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

"Leave the club" is what Arnold calls the "Exit option".

The left tries to expand the club to make it harder to leave. Hence merely moving from Vermont to Alabama will not leave you free to buy incandescent lightbulbs.

Ironically, rich people have more freedom to "leave the club" than poor people. Thus, the more draconian the measures the overlord uses to help the poor, the less stuff there will be to distribute to the poor.

If what I just wrote makes sense to you, you are probably conservative. If it doesn't matter whether the poor are helped or hurt, only whether the rich pay their due, then you are probably liberal.

rapscallion writes:


I don’t see what contradiction you are alluding to in 1. Could you be more explicit, using quotes perhaps?

I think this example might answer some of your other points: imagine that babies popped out of wombs as fully autonomous, intelligent adults. Let’s say I own a house with 2 other adults and the two of them have a baby. As soon as the baby pops out, we all 3 say:

Hey baby, welcome to the world! You can stay or leave. If you stay we’ll give you a room, but you have to abide by the rules of house—so the room is contingent on accepting certain obligations. If you leave, you won’t be subject to any of the rules of this house, but you don’t get any of the benefits either.

In a sense the baby never “owns” anything even if he agrees to live in the house; he’s been offered and accepted a benefits/obligations package: “ownership” is just a sort of vague term we find useful. Well, the 3 people and the house are the state and the baby is in a position analogous to that of almost every citizen in countries that allow emigration. Do you not agree that the baby is not being coerced? Do you think there is some salient difference that makes the baby free but citizens not free?


My contention is simply that it’s inconsistent for libertarians to label state action, “coercive.” I agree that emigration is costly for most people even in first world nations, although I’d contend it’s impossible for very few. After all, dirt poor 3rd worlders immigrate to the 1st world in huge numbers every year. However, costly~=coercion; if it did, than not being able to afford an expensive house would constitute coercion.

As I wrote above, since we have freedom to move among many different nations, we have a lot of different suppliers of public goods from which to choose. Unfortunately, none of the suppliers currently offer the Libertopian package. However, people are no more justified in saying that their states coerce/force them to abide by their laws than homeowners are justified in saying that they are “forced” to pay high prices for their nice homes.

Aaron writes:


I won't address the part of the argument related to expense (although I don't think you can equate owning a large home with not having your rights violated), but in most cases governments actively prohibit people from immigrating. For example, in 2009 about 9 million people applied to the US green card lottery, which makes 50,000 visas available each year. Even if you can immigrate via family ties, you're loking at a wait time of years, or even decades.

"Huge" numbers of people may emigrate from the third world each year, but I think you need to put it in context by looking at the number of people who are trying. I recognize that there are other ways to emigrate, and you can increase your odds by applying to multiple countries. This does not change the fact that there are significant legal barriers to moving.

Ted writes:

In my view, liberty does come from the state. Nothing is a "right" in the sense it is exogenously imposed. A right is merely something that the individual has decided they feel is proper and should be held as extremely important to preserve - and it is enforced as a right if the majority of the society agrees. So, if we broadly interpret government, then yes, liberty does come from government.

Now, on the issue of progressives and first principle - I think their first principles are really identical to that of libertarians. In fact, I think most political philosophy really reduces to the same axiom. The axiom being that the proper role of government is that which maximizes aggregate happiness without imposing extraodinary costs on negatively effected individuals in pursuit of that goal. For libertarians, we find the best way to achieve this goal is through emphasis on liberty and freedom. For progressives, they find the best way to achieve their goal is through regulation and re-distribution (as they do not find mild re-distribution from the wealthy to the less well as imposing large costs on those individuals). For conservatives, it's a weird mix of both - they find spying on domestic citiziens is not very costly relative to the alleged gains from protecting them, but they find re-distribution somehow barbaric.

I think libertarians have the best case for maximizing aggregate happinness with little costs imposd on others in pursuit of that goal - but the three philosophies largely degenerate to the same first principal.

By the way, this is connected to my believe that no libertarian really values liberty in the abstract. If you were given total liberty, but were horribly miserable and found out by sacrificing substantial amounts of it you'd be happy - then I bet you would give up most of your liberty. Liberty is really just a mean to an end -the end being happiness.

Also, I would indeed give up some liberty in exchange for some social goals since my goal is to maximize happinness.

dmitchell writes:


In your first post you argue that government actions do not violate individual rights because we consent to them by not moving. It is clear that you believe consent is a necessary element of just government action. I believe that too.

Then you make a weird argument that property we accumulate before adulthood is "fair game" for confiscation by the state, with or without consent. (Except, for some unspecified reason, the unspecified property you call "life's basics.") This contradicts your earlier argument that consent is necessary.

Essentially you are arguing that consent is unnecessary unless it has been given, but that destroys the idea of consent.

The bottom line here is that you begged the question. You said (in your first post) that government has rightful authority only when consent exists. It follows that when consent does not exist, government has no rightful authority. In particular, it has no authority to demand I obey or relocate. By asserting that it does have such authority, you beg the question: you assume what you are trying to prove.

Yancey Ward writes:

Last night I was watching Chris Matthew's show, and he and his two guests were discussing the 9th Circuit Court's hearing, from earlier in the day, on the challenge to California's ban on gay marriage. One of the guests made the statement that he didn't think his civil rights (in this case, who he could marry in a legal sense) should be decided majority vote of the population.

That statement is a first principle, and I have no doubt that he was a political progressive in good standing. The problem is that this first principle is infinitely malleable. For example, I don't doubt for a second that he doesn't consider it a civil right to not have to purchase a health insurance policy from Aetna, or that it is not a civil right to spend an unlimited amount in the support of a candidate for political office, and so on. First principles are rarely invoked honestly because they the put restrictions on policies of coercion one favors in addition to providing philosophical bases for those one doesn't favor.

dmitchell writes:


To answer your hypothetical: the country is not the private property of the government. The analogy fails. Again you are begging the question, assuming authority in order to prove it.

hsearles writes:

"There’s no doubt that leaving friends and family is hard, but if you want to hold people responsible for their actions you’ve got to be consistent about how you define freedom and agency. If leaving friends and family is such a great a price that having to pay it is morally equivalent to being forced into something, then people born into criminal families and in bad neighborhoods are not responsible for their actions. Are you going to not punish the 20 year-old from the ghetto who steals your car because all of his friends and family are thugs and criminals and would ostracize him if he got a decent job?"
How is having to leave one's home taking
responsibility for one's actions when one does not consent to what the state is doing? That is like saying I have to move out of the way of a bullet if I do not consent to being shot. Taking responsibility for one's actions is taking responsibility for what one does, not doing so for what is done unto me.

In a similar vein, he who desires to live a decent, and crime-free existence even if his associates are all gang-bangers must take responsibility for what he positively does (e.g. work a legal job). But it does not follow that he has the obligation to leave if a gang-banger throws a Molotov cocktail through his window, and tells him to.

"My contention is simply that it’s inconsistent for libertarians to label state action, 'coercive.'"
Hmmm, I wonder what will happen if I refuse to pay my taxes, and then proceed to make a fortress out of my house. For some reason I doubt that the government will be sending me a bouquet of flowers. Rather, my bet would be there will be some coercion coming in my direction, but I suppose that's just my own libertarian prediction.

rapscallion writes:


In both my 1st and 2nd responses I’m relying on the idea that our traditional concept of ownership requires a certain degree of maturity, so you can’t by definition “own” anything before becoming sufficiently mature (i.e. 5-year-old’s can’t “own” cars). I was trying to elucidate precisely when you are first given the freedom to choose which state you belong to, and said that it occurred when you became an adult, someone capable of “ownership”. Since you don’t really “own” anything in the traditional sense before you reach adulthood, it’s not the case that the state can be said to be taking away your property should it deprive of you anything before adulthood, since you by definition don’t “own” any property. You do, however, have a natural right to what you came into the world with—your body. The right not to have your body violated by the state is “life’s basics.”

To simplify things and ignore side issues like when adulthood should be defined, in my 2nd response I offered a simplified analogy where babies pop out of the womb as fully-formed adults. I argued that since the baby was free to leave or follow the club rules, the club rules are not coercive. In the same way, the state's laws are not coercive.

I think our key disagreement is on the concept of ownership. You appear to think that your property is your own in a natural or transcendental sense, so that the state can make no claims or conditions upon its use, whereas I am contending that you only “own” your goods in the sense that you’ve entered into a contract with the state to use them according to its policies, and that you originally entered into this contract when you became an adult and continually affirm it by remaining.

If you really think that you own your property in a more fundamental sense, I’m not clear how you distinguish between the laws you ought to follow and the laws you do in fact follow. Also, I’m curious as to when and how you think individuals give their consent to the state, since apparently according to you it is not upon reaching adulthood. How exactly do you think it works?


In your first post you appear to argue that citizens cannot be said to grant their consent to the government just by staying in the country because having to leave one’s friends and family by emigrating is so horrible that it’s not really a choice, (i.e. it’s like asking a man to jump into the ocean). My response pointed out that we often hold people responsible for their actions even though if they had acted differently they would have had to leave their friends and family.

dmitchell writes:


This discussion of property is interesting but ultimately beside the point. It is beside the point because even if I accept what you are saying about property, it doesn't answer the objection I raised. Fine, when I come of age I have no property. So what? That doesn't give anyone a right to demand my obedience and interfere with my future economic activities. It remains the case that if I have not yet given my consent to the government, it cannot rightfully demand I obey it. By assuming that it can, you beg the question.

As for how people could give consent to the state, they could do it the same way they join any private organization: by voluntarily signing a contract to abide by certain rules in exchange for certain benefits. You are the one who called the state a club, remember? If it is a club, then it should follow the same rules as other clubs--that means not threatening violence if I don't join or relocate.

Julien Couvreur writes:

I would summarize Klein's essay as follows:

Underlying many arguments is an often unspoken assumption about what ownership and rights mean. On one hand, progressives or "social-democrats" think that ownership and rights derive from government authority (ie. government is the fundamental owner, or "overlord"). On the other hand, classical liberals think that they derive from individuals.

He calls this distinction the "configuration of ownership". He points out that semantics are affected by that configuration, and that this shift needs to be rectified to have a shot at liberty. "All of the changes in meanings come down to the one linchpin: the shift from the individualist to the collectivist configuration of ownership."

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top