Arnold Kling  

Reflections on a Metaphor

PRINT
The Age of Relationships... Wilson, the Decider...

On p. 114 of The Symbolic Uses of Politics, Murray Edelman writes,


Force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex.

Some reactions to this metaphor:

1. This suggests that there is political power that is not based on force, but is based on consent. Dan Klein's essay on Overlordship touches on this issue.


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.

1. Perhaps the libertarian view, that government involves the initiation of force, is as extreme as saying that all sex is rape. What would it take for a libertarian to view government action as consensual? My answer would be government funded by donations and open to competition. How would non-libertarians draw the line between consensual government and non-consensual government?

2. In what sense is the relationship between citizens and government analogous to a marriage? That is, is it a mutual relationship, in which people want to be ruled as much as the rulers want to rule them? Should divorce be available as an option?

3. Economic regulations, such as a mandate to purchase health insurance, are

(a) the government's prerogative, in the sense that one might claim that it is the man's prerogative to have sex with his wife.

(b) nonconsensual infringement, in the sense that one might argue that a husband has no right to rape his wife

(c) consensual, in the sense that if the wife does not appeal to the authorities for help or sue for divorce, we infer that she does not really object.

(d) consensual, in the sense that Congress and the President represent the people, so that any laws that are enacted constitute consent by definition. Klein, in the passage quoted above, is suggesting that progressive ideology seems to make this sort of assumption.

Returning to Edelman, he seems to think that "symbolic reassurance" acts somewhat like a drug to achieve "quiescence" (interesting that he uses that term, rather than the more familiar "acquiescence"). But he hardly leaves one thinking of the political process as consensual.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Political Economy



TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/4406
The author at Why I am not... in a related article titled Force, Power and Consent writes:
    Arnold Kling quotes Murray Edelman: Force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex. I’m less interested in the sex analogy; I question the assumption. To me, it depends on who is using the force, why, and in what circumstances. A governm... [Tracked on December 19, 2010 5:18 PM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
Lori writes:

The relationship between state and citizens is in no way analogous to a marriage. The former is a one-to-many relationship, while the latter is a one-to-one relationship. The former is between an institution and individuals, and the latter between two individuals. The former is a power matrix, while the latter is a partnership of equals.

My main objection to libertarianism is their dogmatic insistence on a stark dichotomy between coercion and consent. I don't think reality is quite that simple. I perceive it more as a continuum, perhaps from deadly force to implied threats to intimidation to leverage to manipulation to subconscious dominance/submission behaviors, finally to substantive freedom.

I don't believe that it is possible to pry power apart from force. I consider both to be undesireable, for the same reasons. Power ALWAYS corrupts.

MikeP writes:

In addition to easy exit and voluntary funding, I would add unanimity to the list of factors that would make government more palatable to libertarians (or at least to this libertarian).

If every law and every rule had to have complete agreement of all those in a polity, I think we'd quickly find a government limited to just its core functions.

Well spoken, Prof. Kling and MikeP. I couldn't disagree more with Lori.

Compulsion of another human is immoral. Compulsion of another is at the base of every act that is immoral.

For Lori, I would paraphrase the question asked by the professor in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Under what conditions do two people have the right to do to another what everyone agrees one person has no right to do to another? In Threesville, would Bob and Mary have warrant to enslave Joe?

The one-to-many claim is a distinction without a moral difference. Compulsory taxation is theft. Compulsion in any context other than to resist compulsion is immoral.

That "government" is the name of the collective noun doing the compelling makes it all the worse, because the word "government" merely hides the names and faces of the individuals actually involved.

Hyena writes:

All government is formed from the language of property rights with respect to territories. Those claims are backed by chains of title stretching beyond memory.

That is the only argument needed to bind a libertarian to the state and subordinate them to its will.

Randy writes:

"What would it take for a libertarian to view government action as consensual?"

Some sort of brain disease that would cause me to forget everything I know about the history of political organizations, followed by a reindoctrination of the kind experienced by school children, and completed by a ban on all literature which even hinted at the possibility that the political organization is not godlike in its objectives and methods.

I have no choice but to tolerate them, but I don't have to buy their rationalizations.

Allan Walstad writes:

I think the main focus of Klein's essay is not on the common collectivist claim that government is consensual, but rather on the totality of what is, to the left, the proper scope of government power. Here's the key quote, in my view:

Although they may not be fully conscious of it, progressives and social democrats are saying that everything is owned by the state.

You may think you own your house, but all you have is an always-revocable lease from the state. You may think your earnings are yours, but consider the increasingly common prattle about how tax cuts must be "paid for," or how the extension of tax cuts comes with an $800 billion price tag. It's only a price tag for the government if it was really the government's money. The unspoken and largely unacknowledged assumption is that letting people keep more of their earnings is just another way for the government to allocate the resources it owns: namely, everything.

Doc Merlin writes:

'Returning to Edelman, he seems to think that "symbolic reassurance" acts somewhat like a drug to achieve "quiescence" (interesting that he uses that term, rather than the more familiar "acquiescence"). But he hardly leaves one thinking of the political process as consensual.'

It is not an uncommon theory that the reason that democracy exists is so that the public can vent their frustrations uselessly at the ballot bot (instead of resorting to the ammo box) while still allowing the ruling class to continue to extract their rents by force.

I am unsure what I think of this theory.

Robert Johnson writes:

"Compulsion of another human is immoral."

Always? Even when I compel you to stop doing me harm?


Prof. Kling, in the case of competitive government funded through donation, do you think the free-rider problem is significant? Solvable?

joecushing writes:

I agree with mikep, you have consent when all 300 millon of us agree. Otherwise all govenment action is the use of force. To anyone who says otherwise: try not doing what the government tells you to do. Then keep not doing it when they notice you are not going along. Chances are strong that guns will be drawn and/or you will be tackled, cuffed, and put into a cage. This is true of even the most minor infractions. It is this force that backs up everything govenment does.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top