The argument minarchists ought to make Saturday, July 24, 2010My last post before this one dealt with the three arguments for minarchism that I've encountered most frequently. I see these trotted out all the time, often by people who identify as libertarians but more frequently lately by people who identify as conservatives. This post is about the argument that these people ought to make.
First, these people ought to take into account the positions that they are responding to.
Moral libertarians have a pretty straightforward position: I oppose all policies which call upon the people in the government to do things that I regard as immoral. Almost every government policy calls upon the government to do things that I regard as immoral.2 So I oppose nearly all government policies. For the few policies that remain, I have no moral objection but a government which limited itself strictly to policies that I don't regard as immoral wouldn't really look anything like a government. The core of the matter is that if moral constraints pertain to all persons, then one cannot favor any sort of statism without simultaneously favoring immorality.
In most cases, minarchists respond to this argument by ignoring it, but how ought a minarchist to respond? A far better approach would begin with something like "While you take it as given that moral constrains pertain to all persons, I don't. I regard actions committed by people acting on behalf of governments as constituting a separate moral category from actions committed by people not acting on behalf of governments. Literally, there are acts which are moral just in case the person commiting them is a government employee." This doesn't sound good, but it's an improvement over what currently passes for state of the art in among arguments for minarchism.
Consequentialist libertarians generally tend to be minarchists, but exceptions exist. Their position is straightforward as well: The overwhelming balance of the empirical evidence is that governments do more harm than good. Even statists have to cherry pick their examples when they want to claim that governments make people better off. The best theoretical arguments for the state presume that the people in the state will act in an idealized way, while also assuming that the people outside of the state are primarily concerned with their own well being, willing to harm others to benefit themselves, prone to all sorts of cognitive errors, etc. The reality is that all people share these flaws. Calling some people a government and having them boss everyone else around does not constitute an improvement.
Again, minarchists generally respond to this argument by ignoring it, but how then should a minarchist respond? Why not come clean from the start and say "I believe, despite the incredible odds, that the peopel within a government will begin to behave according to my stylized model rather than how most people in governments have tended to behave throughout the whole of human history..." Again, this doesn't sound good, but at least it's honest.
Do I expect that any minarchist will actually take this advice? No way. Not in a thousand years. The assumptions that one needs to make to defend minarchism are so extreme that no minarchist is likely to ever want to state those assumptions explicitly. But that's kind of the point. Why bother clinging to positions that based on premises which are too embarassing to state explicitly?
 That is, things that I (and nearly everyone else) would regard as immoral if done by people outside of the government.
 To this day, I've never met anyone who even entertained the notion that it would be moral for me to hire a prostitute in bad faith with the intent to bind her wrist, drive her to a place where she deosn't want to go and lock her in a cage for a year. I've never met anyone who might consider it moral for me to print money and use it to manipulate the bond market. And so on...
 One example is the plain act of delivering mail for customerrs who choose to hire the government for this purpose, not including the enforced monopoly on first class mail and the means by which the USPS covers its losses.
 In any case, historical examples of governments making people better off are really examples of some governments making people better off than other governments. This is absolutely uncontroversial but it doesn't address the issue of whether being subject to a government actually makes people better off than they would be if they were not subject to that government.
 I'm all for simplifying assumptions, so long as they do not drive the conclusion. Assuming a state made of people that deliberately and successfully maximizes social welfare in order to make a case for the state is akin to assuming a society made of persons that deliberately and successfully maximize social welfare in order to make a case against the state.
Please put these away... Monday, July 19, 2010I'm aware of a number of arguments that minarchist libertarians offer against their anarchist friends. For whatever reason, the arguments which minarchists mention most frequently happen to be the least persuasive. Here's one:
"Without a state, people might mistreat other people. So we need a state."
It's not very compelling when expressed so succinctly. It doesn't even follow. In order to reach a conclusion about states, you need a premise about states. One might claim, for example, that people are less likely to be mistreated when a government is involved. A few thousand years of human history indicate otherwise, however.
Here's another one:
"Anarchy is unlikely. So we should favor a state."
This one doesn't follow either. Whether or not anarchy is likely is a positive fact about the world. It has no bearing on the normative question of whether or not anyone should favor a state. Indeed, the only statistically likely arrangement is tyranny. I've yet to meet anyone who would cite this as evidence in favor of tyranny.
"Without a state, markets would be inefficient due to collective action problems, asymmetrical information, moral hazard, and the like. Se we should favor a state."
Again, this doesn't follow. It doesn't even make sense. If people tend to commit those resources at their disposal to their own selfish concerns, it's just wishful thinking to suppose that those same people, if organized into a state, would begin to commit the resources at their disposal to the resolution of economic inefficiencies. In a world with more than a hundred governments, without exception the tendency has been for heads of state to live well at the expense of their subjects while implementing policies that make markets even less efficient.
Dear minarchists: Please retire these arguments. Don't bother trying to rehabilitate them, or to pad them out with more verbiage. If you have any better arguments, great, but let go of these. They aren't worth hanging on to.