Archive for August, 2009

No, You Are Not America

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, many people have grown accustomed to judging whether government action is right by looking to its societal consequences. This method of judgment is so commonly accepted that many people would be surprised to learn that another method exists. People are used to consequence-driven decision-making; they are accustomed to making decisions by determining whether a particular course of action will produce the consequences they desire. In microeconomics this feature of human behavior is called “rational choice theory” or “rational action theory.” However, this consequence-driven method of judgment undermines individual liberty when it is used in government decision-making.

It is not offensive for an individual to choose his course of action by attempting to predict what will promote his personal values and goals. People commonly accept the idea that an individual is entitled to choose for himself how he wishes to spend his time and resources. And it is now almost a cultural heresy to tell someone else what his goals or values ought to be. Strangely, though, these principles are forgotten in the political arena. When individuals discuss government action they suddenly assume that they have the right to impose their values and goals on the rest of the nation. I call this the “I am America” mentality (no reference is intended to Steven Colbert’s book).

The “I am America” mentality expresses itself in policies that restrict the liberty of individuals who have not violated anyone’s rights for the supposed good of the community/nation/world. A few examples of such policies are government health care, public education, social security, financial regulations, and licensing laws. Proponents of these policies seek to excuse using force to redistribute wealth or restrict liberty by claiming that the harm to those whose wealth/liberty is taken is outweighed by the overall societal benefits that result. In other words, the “I am America” mentality adopts a variation on Spock’s line in The Wrath of Khan: “the needs of the many outweigh the [liberty] of the few. Or the one.” The theory of ethics that supports this moral philosophy is called Utilitarianism.

John Stuart Mill, the philosopher who named Utilitarianism, explained it as follows:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 9-10 (4th ed. 1871). In other words, if an action promotes happiness or pleasure it is morally right. Notice that Utilitarianism looks to the consequences of an action (does it promote happiness or not) to determine its morality. This begs the question, consequences for whom? Whose happiness is the benchmark of morality for Utilitarianism? Mill goes on to explain, “that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” Id. at 16. He elaborates further, “the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” Id. at 24.

I have no objection to Utilitarianism as a system of ethics for individual action, but its application as a tool for determining government action threatens individual liberty. It is this misuse of Utilitarianism—as a tool for determining government action—that I call the “I am America” mentality. Here is why. Those who espouse Utilitarianism in government decision-making audaciously presume to enforce their conception of what is good and what brings happiness on everyone else. The thought process goes something like this. “I think that it is good for children to receive an education, so it is alright to force everyone to pay for it.” Or, “I think it is good to provide care for the elderly and the poor, so it is alright to force everyone to pay for it.” Or, “I think is good to regulate risk in the financial industry, so it is alright to force financiers to adopt a level of risk that I think is reasonable.” Of course when pitched over the politician’s pulpit the “I think” is left off, giving the statement the sound of an indisputable truth (e.g. “It is good to regulate the financial industry”), but the “I think” should always be impliedly appended.

There are two glaring problems with the “I am America” mentality: foreseeability and responsibility.

The “I am America” mentality in government is only possible to the extent that the consequences of a particular government policy are foreseeable. Like the primitive kings, politicians gather around themselves wizards and prognosticators (modernly called by the less interesting titles of economist and expert) to foretell the outcome of various courses of action. At least this is what the honest ones do. More frequently, politicians surround themselves with yes-men and public relations specialists. That way they can avoid any objective challenge to their personal goals and values and focus on foisting their ideology on the voters. But even the honest policy advocate—voter or political leader—is engaging in a dangerous business when seeking to predict whether a government policy will produce “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” The success of government Utilitarianism is especially dubious in light of the fact that many of the details necessary to predict what will bring an individual happiness are known only to that individual. This alone is a compelling reason why decisions should be left in the hands of individuals.

The second problem with the “I am America” mentality is related to the first: the consequences of the ideology of those in power are borne by many people who do not share that ideology. In other words, when a government policy fails, the consequences fall on individuals who are in no way responsible for selecting the policy. Conversely, in a minimal government, economic, moral, and lifestyle decisions are made by the individuals who will bear the consequences of them.

In short, my response to those with the “I am America” mindset is this: You are no better equipped to know what is right and good than anyone else. That which makes you happy might very well make someone else miserable. You are only an individual, and as such you have no right to impose your morality or ideas about happiness on the rest of the nation. You are not America.

Of course I am not the first to voice these sentiments. Frédéric Bastiat offered a powerful criticism along the same vein in the closing lines of his magnificent work The Law:

God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! A way with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.

Frédéric Bastiat, The Law 76 (trans. Dean Russell 2nd ed. 1998).


More on the Possibility of Legitimate Government

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Last month I wrote a short post about reconciling natural law property rights and government. After receiving a couple of emails from friends about the post being dense and unreadable, I have decided to attempt to clarify my argument.

Natural rights adherents usually ground their property rights theories in John Locke’s philosophy. Locke argued that every individual exclusively owned his own body and the that labor he performed with his body. Lock used labor as the foundation for property rights: specifically that property rights originated in the mixing of labor with unclaimed natural resources. Speaking of things appropriated from a state of nature, he wrote, labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right.” John Locke, Two Treatises of Government 217 (Thomas Hollis ed. 6th ed. 1764).

One consequence of a Lockean theory of property rights is that there is no justification for taking the property of an individual unless that individual violated the rights of another or consented to the taking. This means that unless an individual consents to be taxed, there is no justification for taxation—even for the purpose of supporting a police force, a court system, or a defensive military. Murray Rothbard, one of the intellectual lights of the libertarian movement, passionately argued this point:

[T]he State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming. That coercion is known as ‘taxation,’ although in less regularized epochs it was often known as ‘tribute.’ Taxation is theft, purely and simply even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the property of the State’s inhabitants, or subjects.

Thus, the State is a coercive criminal organization that subsists by a regularized large-scale system of taxation-theft, and which gets away with it by engineering the support of the majority (not, again, of everyone) through securing an alliance with a group of opinion-moulding intellectuals whom it rewards with a share in its power and pelf.

Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty 162, 172 (1982).

This is a compelling argument. What justifies taxation? How can an individual who believes in principled government and robust individual property rights escape the conclusion that any government that relies on compelled taxation is simply “a coercive criminal organization”? I believe the key lies in recognizing a questionable assumption in Locke’s philosophy of property rights.

Locke assumes that the first person to mix labor with a piece of property acquires an absolute right to that property. He makes this assumption even though he believes that before an individual appropriates a resource by mixing labor with it, “the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men”. Locke, supra, at 216. Locke’s equation doesn’t work. Adding labor, which is the sole property of the claimant, to a resource that is owned in common by all mankind doesn’t clearly grant the claimant absolute ownership over the resource. How did the claimant’s labor extinguish the claims of others who potentially could have claimed the resource through labor? Labor certainly gives the claimant a far stronger right to the resource than any other individual, but that doesn’t make the right absolute.

But if the claimant’s right is not absolute, then what residual rights remain to those others who could have claimed the resource?

I have not yet worked out all the details of these residual rights, but I am convinced of the following principles. These residual rights must not impose a burden on the claimant that is greater than the burden that the claimant causes by his claim. That would violate the principle of proportionality. Furthermore, these residual rights could only be applied for the equal benefit of all potential claimants. Since all potential claimants are burdened by the diminution of available resources, all of them must benefit from the exercise of the resulting residual right.

Thus these residual rights may properly take the form of minimal taxation in support of a limited representative government. It is not my purpose in this post to work through all of the details of such a government. That is not necessary to show that Lockean property rights and government are compatible. However, this limited government could certainly include a court system and a police force to protect against local threats and a military to protect against foreign threats. Notice that these services protect the rights of every member of the society equally and guard against the conflict often caused by scarcity of resources.

Finally, it is important to add that a government that imposes a burden on individuals beyond what is justified by these residual rights becomes precisely the coercive criminal organization that Rothbard warned about.