David R. Henderson  

Friday Night Video: Why Libertarianism is So Dangerous

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I highly recommend this. Warning: some language.


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CATEGORIES: Liberty




COMMENTS (20 to date)
Richard writes:

The "worst case scenario" in a world without government isn't the establishment of some gang ruling over us and providing a semblance of order, it's anarchy, the kind we see in Somalia, Iraq, and western countries before the establishment of states (see Better Angels of Our Nature). History seems to teach that almost any government is better than none, with obvious exceptions for the Khmer Rouge, etc.

E. Harding writes:

Richard is right. Government quality varies, and no developed country has no government at all.

Andrew_FL writes:

I've never understood the idea that without the government we'd become Somalia overnight. Are people just going to, what, blow up all the roads, destroy all the buildings, burn all the fields, and destroy all the machinery? People are just itching to go crazy and destroy everything?

Most of what's bad about Somalia is called poverty, not anarchy. For America to become Somalia would take more than abolishing the government. It would take some actual destructive effort.

Richard writes:

@ Andrew_FL

Pretty much, yes. There are street gangs that already make parts of the country unlivable, and without government I think they'd be the dominant force in society. Why would anyone believe otherwise?

Andrew_FL writes:

@Richard-Most of America does not consist of the parts of the country controlled by street gangs. Those areas seem like they should be pretty much fine, or at least not nearly as bad as you're suggesting.

Richard writes:
Most of America does not consist of the parts of the country controlled by street gangs

Right, which I think is because of government, at least in part. Gangs currently flourish in areas where police can't do their jobs because of community hostility to policing and a "no snitch" culture.

Take away government, and those willing to organize and use violence to achieve their ends would find plenty of sitting ducks outside their home turf. At the same time, without the threat of arrest or jail time, other opportunists would pop up, smarter, more competent and more disciplined than our current gang members.

Sieben writes:

No one would tolerate gangs running wild in the streets, government notwithstanding. If HOA and PDA like entities don't do it, major corporations will. 99.99% of the civilized world has an incentive to prevent chaos.

Government may currently be the easiest (read: intellectually laziest) method of providing a modicum or order, but it doesn't have to be the only one.

Steve writes:

Richard, your claim is in part exactly the thesis of the video. In a hypothetical of no government, you've acknowledged up to the point that gangs would get much more powerful than they already are. What you're missing is that gangs have gotten so powerful that they've become the government and we've all convinced ourselves that they're not gangs and don't have violence monopolies in the first place. So what your claim is really saying is that because one particular gang got so incredibly powerful, we don't have multiple less powerful gangs.

The video doesn't even address what would likely happen if government ceased to exist. Instead it addresses the logic of statists and shows how it fails. What would likely happen in a world with suddenly no government is that the productive people would stop the rise of gangs in the first place. This likely didn't happen in original civilizations due to such extreme poverty and low levels of technology. The concept of the state is a legacy from back when people weren't productive and had no choice but to have violent government gangs. But today the modern world is the opposite. The incentive and capacity for individuals and communities and corporations to deter the rise of violence would be incredible.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Control of violence in social order does not necessarily result in what we today regard as government in the form of a "State" with Weberian monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.

Warring or hostile clans have not always (perhaps not usually) created "governments" to eliminate the threats of violence to their relative benefits as dominant parties.

Most violence has been contained and maintained by establishing "balance of powers" by which it is materially advantageous to avoid the use of violence.

Kenneth A. Regas writes:

In the major democracies references to the gang, as opposed to the peaceable peoples it preys upon, fall apart. Who, exactly, are the gang members? Dr. Henderson, who teaches economics to young officers of the Naval Service? Or his hypothetical sister, who writes software, a few copies of which are used to make the bombs those young officers do violence with, or his hypothetical brother the police officer? Are we to believe that some or all of these are predators sucking the blood of their hypothetical parents, who are farmers?

We are all the gang, and we are the peaceable folks who are preyed upon.

Ken

Rick writes:

Libertarianism does not necessarily equate to anarchism. The concept of a state is compatible with the ideals of classical liberal philosophies as long as the state only represents a collectivization of individual rights.

The state can maintain a police force and army because these are collective extensions of an individual right to self defense. The state can maintain a court system as an extension of property rights (including the right to self-ownership). The state can even run a welfare system consisting of unconditional direct cash transfers.

Jonathan writes:

Regarding Somalia, see this paper by Peter Leeson, http://www.peterleeson.com/Better_Off_Stateless.pdf

While it is true that governance quality in Somalia is lower than it is in the U.S., it is also true that governance quality in Somalia was higher under anarchy than under statehood.

Richard writes:
What would likely happen in a world with suddenly no government is that the productive people would stop the rise of gangs in the first place. This likely didn't happen in original civilizations due to such extreme poverty and low levels of technology.
The argument makes sense, but there's nothing in history that indicates that's how things would unfold. You take one scenario out of a hundred potential ones and say that's how things would logically go. My inclination is to believe that under anarchy, the strongest gang would be those who overcame the collective action problem, which would probably be the craziest religious fundamentalists.

The government may be a "gang", but I don't believe that those on the top are sadists, or religious extremists, or pure evil. And I think that being ruled by such people is the best possible arrangement, until history shows otherwise.

Let's take a humble position. Order is breaking down in Somalia, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere. Let's wait and see. When anarchy actually works in one of those places, then maybe we can eliminate western states and replace them with a system of no government.

Jim Glass writes:

"you've acknowledged up to the point that gangs would get much more powerful than they already are. What you're missing is that gangs have gotten so powerful that they've become the government and we've all convinced ourselves that they're not gangs and don't have violence monopolies in the first place."

So, what is this constant point about the evil of government having a monopoly over violence if *that's what reduces violence*?

Violence has fallen, plunged, to an all-time historic low in our time -- including violence at all levels, from wars to interpersonal, and even in forms of entertainment -- a process that accelerated rapidly with modern governments expanding their power over violence. So what is so *bad* about creating a monopoly over violence to *successfully* slash the level of violence in society?

The monopoly over violence for this purpose is the primary *good* of government in the minds of those who've thought about it from Aristotle to Jefferson. (In "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness", "Life" is first for a reason. Jefferson said "the great justification for government is to keep my neighbor from knocking me down and emptying my pockets".) Now this good is a bad?

You want to talk about gangs becoming government? That is very literally true in many cases. Here in NYC early 19th Century streets were ruled by gangs like the Pug Uglies (who got their name from blocking fire hydrants to extort those whose buildings were burning, often after setting the fire) ... the gangs were co-opted into being tools of the infamously corrupt Tammany Hall ... which in turn was co-opted by the expanded New Deal programs of the LaGuardia era, etc. One can trace the whole process.

Yes, the gangs literally moved into the hugely larger government which obtained massively larger power over violence -- and the amount of violence in the city plunged across the board, violence by gangs, criminals, citizens, government actors, all of it, to a small fraction of what it used to be. Which is good!
So what's the point?

Do we really prefer competitive sources of violence, each trying to top the other. There are lots of examples of that. Not good.

This is *not* the problem with government, and everyone who is not a member of this little church knows it. Which is why this "government monopoly of violence" rhetoric wins so few converts, and smugly cutesy patronizing yet sophomoric videos like this actual repel even people like me who have strong libertarian tendencies. I call myself a classical liberal, but never a "libertarian", in no small part because I don't want to be associated with stuff like this. And I know a bunch of people like me.

It would be nice if libertarians who wish to shrink government could junk this junk meme and embrace reality as per North, Pinker, Acemoglu et al, with an argument along the lines of....

"Government monopoly over violence has hugely reduced the amount of violence in societies, producing great welfare gains, thus explaining the universal presence of government across societies through time. But it has given governmental actors the power to extort steep monopoly rents in countless ways, a power that impoverishes many societies, which must be reduced everywhere for social welfare to advance, and the actual reduction of which marks the various degrees of success or failure in advancing of different societies today...."

I mean, the DiBlasio administration trying, and failing, to block Uber here in NYC certainly is a testament to the willingness of big government to help crony interests ahead of the public good -- but hardly much of one to its immense power of violence. Uber is driving on. In the days when Tammany was selling taxi medallions Uber would have had its legs broken and the cops would have looked they other way, if they weren't the ones breaking them. And Tammany was *small* government.

BTW, I didn't much like the video.

heiner writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve writes:

Richard,

The capacity for effective self defense is far greater today than it has ever been, and the incentive to initiate violence to accrue wealth is far less than it has ever been. Capitalism has changed the game and the more it is embraced the more it continues to change the game. I don't think it's unreasonable to think that productive people, from the largest companies to the smallest homes, would have more than ample capacity to thwart an uprising of gangs.

Back when we were all poor farmers, tough luck. The gangs won, easily. But now that we've got mountains of technology, the gangs have more than mountains to climb. Gangs are no longer cost-effective like they used to be, and defense of production is easily the most cost-effective thing there is. An economy so sophisticated that it can insure accidents for a profit is more than capable to insure security.


Jim Glass,

You claim that violence has decreased under secure states. I wouldn't be so sure. Millions abused and imprisoned for smoking weed is an unquantifiable amount of state violence.

In the examples you give of gangs "becoming" government, IIRC they did so by using property that was technically enforced by the government, not private entities. When the government owns the streets and doesn't enforce the laws well, you can bet your bottom dollar it's going to become chaotic or unruly. But if people are responsible for themselves and the protection of their property, I think we'd find it much more difficult for organized crime to operate.

You say "Do we really prefer competitive sources of violence, each trying to top the other. There are lots of examples of that. Not good."

YES! We do prefer competitive sources of violence. Otherwise we're not playing economist very well. I have a hard time reconciling the undisputed concepts we all hold that monopolies pretty much always make things worse with the concept of a monopoly on violence making things better. We would never advocate for a monopoly on food, shelter, transportation, education, or anything else. Except a monopoly on violence, apparently.

Just like how a competitive market increases cooperation and the quantity and quality of goods and services, it is logically consistent to believe that a market on security would do the same.

To conclude, your point about Uber and Tammany is reliant on the assumption of a government violence monopoly. You even said "cops would have looked the other way". Yep. If Uber drivers are reliant on the government for security but that government is incompetent or corrupt, then we'd get a bunch of mob rule. But if you take the government out of the equation, Uber drivers would become reliant on themselves and other competent sources of security that they would gladly pay for.

The state does not protect us. It often tacitly or overtly endorses thugs' capacity to cause violence and often prohibits our abilities to protect ourselves.

Jim Glass writes:

"Jim Glass, You claim that violence has decreased under secure states. I wouldn't be so sure."

It's not a matter of opinion. Look at the data.

I suggest, as one strongly sympathetic with the ideals and goals of libertarianism: No libertarian should be allowed to happily invoke the "violence" trope without actually knowing and demonstrating familiarity with *the facts* of violence, e.g. as per Pinker's important and hugely informative book on the historical decline of violence from the huge heights of earliest (pre-government) days until right now -- re both the fact of the decline *and* its causes. (Ted talk intro).

Starting point: "the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot." -- Jared Diamond

From that massive "normal" pre-state level, violence has trended steadily downward through all the history of state societies, the long decline accelerating into a steep plunge in our recent modern era. This decline has occurred 'fractally' at all social levels -- in warfare, terrorism, criminal, civil, family, and anti-child violence, even violence against animals. Across the whole world.

Now, socialists and big-government conservatives who spin tales that please their choirs, but who have to defy factual reality to do so, become self-discrediting in the eyes of the larger world. Not good for recruiting the public to the side. The same is no less true with libertarians. So while the liberty to spin tales that conflict with reality shouldn't be denied to libertarians any more than to anyone else, I would suggest that their fellow libertarians ask those with the urge to do so invoking this violence trope to restrain themselves, and 'book up' a bit instead, for the sake of the cause.

That video promised a surprise ending, though I saw it coming at minute 4:00. A *real* surprise ending would have been something more along the lines of...

"with violent predator gangs now in control everywhere all over the entire world (under the new name they've given themselves) a good person, a hardworking and peaceful person who just wanted to live a life free of coercion, could expect to do so enjoying a far longer life with far more peace, security and freedom than at any preceding time in all human history."
… ah, surprise!!! And one squaring fully with factual reality. Except the video-maker couldn’t use it, because it conflicts entirely with the message he was trying to market.

When one’s marketing message conflicts with factual reality there’s a problem with one’s marketing. Perhaps this is part of why libertarianism recruits so few and is openly ridiculed by so many. I would say off my experience it is so, and to the extent it is “the danger of libertarianism” as presented in messages like this video is one entirely to itself.

As Pinker says, “The decline of violence means we have been doing something right, and we should pay more attention to what it is.”

Steve writes:

Jim,

I don't disagree with your statements on violence. But I also wasn't making the argument that aspects of quantifiable violence you reference have not changed.

"Violence" by itself enters abstract territory. There is no way to quantify the difference in violence between a death and a lifetime in prison. There also isn't much evidence to support that the state is the cause of reductions in types of violence like war deaths. For all we know a reduction in poverty is more closely causative.

As you seem a fan of history, it should be noted that the state is responsible for the vast majority of violence at just about any point in history. Reduction in violence doesn't correlate with the expansion of the state, but it does correlate with the expansion of the market.

As to the contradiction you think the video-maker makes: when somebody thinks a reduction in violence isn't caused by an increase in state intervention, it doesn't mean they're contradicting themselves when they admit a reduction in violence.

As to conjecture on why libertarians recruit so few, my guess is that the state is so deeply embedded in our individual and cultural psyches that, well, it's really hard to reevaluate.

Jim Glass writes:

Jim,... "Violence" by itself enters abstract territory. There is no way to quantify the difference in violence between a death and a lifetime in prison.

Aw, Pinker shows a *two order of magnitude* (99%) reduction in homicide during the last few hundred years of the state era. Too abstract? Of not of enough value for a libertarian to mention when considering the state's relation to violence?

As you seem a fan of history, it should be noted that the state is responsible for the vast majority of violence at just about any point in history.

Really? Who says? This is the lesson you drew from the aforementioned...

"the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot." -- Jared Diamond
... and from Pinker's chart showing those big long red bars for death-by-violence rates in non-state societies today versus the short little blue bar for the European 20thC death rate including WWI & II?

You say states are responsible for the vastly higher levels of violence always existing in non-state societies throughout all history? Really?? How about this…

"Hunter-gatherer societies are scrupulously egalitarian, but not harmoniously so. They are violently egalitarian." - Herbert Gitnis.

... with no state, where's all that violence come from?

If you truly mean the "states are responsible" for the level of violence in their societies, then you must mean they are responsible for the *great reduction* of violence from the level of those non-state societies, and the continuing great reduction of it through their own histories. QED.

Reduction in violence doesn't correlate with the expansion of the state, but it does correlate with the expansion of the market.

OK, let's look at an example of 'expansion' and see what is "responsible" for what.

Acemoglu draws a line in Africa on one side of which a king arose by gaining a monopoly over violence to secure his person and extract wealth from others, while on the other side "free" clan and tribal violence continued unabated (as per Diamond). Hundreds of years later social welfare is still markedly higher on the king's side of the line, because e.g. people knowing they weren't going to be killed on the road increased travel & commerce and deepened social structures, which created new surplus that the king could extract in part but nowhere near in whole. So the king's entirely selfish and cutthroat elimination of violence (other than his own) gave the people greater safety and prosperity, benefiting their descendants to this day.

Is a policy that increases a peoples' safety and prosperity for generations to come "good" or "bad"? How did commerce and 'the market' do on the side of the line across from the king's?

Your error of logic, I suggest, is that you look at the king's side, see accurately that as the monopolist over violence he is "responsible" for all the violence there, then conclude that without him there would be no violence -- instead of continuing clan and tribal violence producing death at a higher rate than "even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot". And how well does commerce do with *that*?

I want to be positive about all this, sympathetic to libertarian ideals as I am. As Pinker says, “we have been doing something right” in so greatly reducing violence, and we should respect that. North et. al. point to the advancing society two-step (1) establishing a monopoly of violence to slash it initially with major social benefits, then, (2) creating competition *within* (not between!) regimes holding a monopoly of violence to continually further reduce their rent extraction and violence used to get it. (See: "Violence and Social Orders").

Then, in the lucky cases where this process continues far enough, we end up with the state’s awesome monopoly power over violence being insufficient even for the NYC govt to stop Uber, because its “monopoly” over power is also divvied up over the Governor and Comptroller, who both have pro-Uber backers, and even with the entire voting general public that likes using Uber. Now there’s a “monopoly”, eh? (Not that North & Co. invented this concept for dealing with government monopoly of power, does anyone read the Federalist Papers anymore?)

Note well: There is NO "monopoly power over violence" in this society -- because nobody has anywhere near monopoly power over the state. Nobody even has enough monopoly state power to block a car service! But all the actors do have a common interest in reducing crime and civil violence, so the levels of crime *and* violence by both criminals *and* state actors (police) *and* of incarceration(!) have been reduced to all-time lows and continue to fall.

Now there's a surprise *horror ending* the vid maker could have used, if he were willing to spell out the end point of the "gangs becoming government" in a little more detail, eh?

IMHO, here’s realistic and practical policy: We should highly value and respect the great success we’ve had in reducing violence, what we’ve done right, and keep doing it! If we do, and keep incrementally building upon success, we’ll keep making the world better and someday might actually approach in real-world practice the libertarian ideals.

If that’s not scary enough, if recruiting to the cause actually requires scare tales of the “oooh, the government is so dangerously powerful!” sort, then I suggest The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (a multi-time guest at Econtalk). It’s full of true-life horror stories of government that libertarians could never imagine on their own, but squares full with reality and shows the course for reducing them. Told for a general audience.

Truth convinces better than fiction – and is more fun too! Enjoy.

One person’s over-long final opinion statement, FWIW.

Steve writes:

Jim,

The Pinker data you cite for reduction in violence over the centuries correlates with market capitalism, not the state. It correlates with other stuff as well, but there is no correlation that shows that where we find the state we also find reductions in violence over time. You could probably say that about a single entity stable state though. But this does little to direct us towards cause.

The Diamond comment may be true, but I thought it was inherent in my comment that I was referring to post-foraging civilization and total quantities.

Anthropologists have become skeptical of the claims of extreme natural violence of foragers. A lot of the data they relied upon is now thought to be misleading.

The claim that there is no violence monopoly isnt true because no individual has the power is simply not true. The philosophical foundation of the state is thought to be the violence monopoly, and it does not matter who wields it. What matters is that the law is given by one authority.

You say several times that what we've been doing has been providing good results, so we should keep doing it. I agree. But a stable society is not the same thing as a stable state. I would never argue for a market approach to security if I thought it would reduce stability.

Anyways I'll just end it here. It's been fun.

BTW you're probably my favorite poster in these threads. I know I will always learn something insightful when I see you commented.

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