The barrel of a gun

The United States has a massive nuclear arsenal and the best-equipped, best-trained military the world has ever seen. It is an awesome, fearsome machine that can rain down inexorable death from the heavens.

But that’s not why I drive on the right side of the road.

I drive on the right side of the road for a whole host of reasons — practical, prudential, even moral I suppose. (Prudential and moral often overlap where safety is concerned. Plus Not Being an Asshole is a kind of moral reason.) All of those reasons precede the merely legal reasons for doing so. I’m certainly aware of those legal reasons as well. And in some vague sense I suppose I’m aware that there could be legal consequences for driving on the wrong side of the road and that those legal consequences, if it came to it and if I somehow survived to face them, would ultimately be enforced by armed agents of the government.

But it has never occurred to me that the possibility of violent coercion on the part of the state was among the most important, relevant or meaningful reasons for driving on the right side of the road. Nor has it ever occurred to me that such basic traffic laws are an undue restriction on my personal liberty — or even worse, a kind of “taking.” (If I can only drive on half the road, then my car is only worth half as much — it’s theft I tell you, theft of my car’s full potential value!)

This is something I just don’t understand about my libertarian friends here in cyberspace. For them, the menacing threat of armed government tyranny seems to be the only reason they can conceive of for complying with any law, rule, regulation or — heaven forfend! — tax.

And that’s just, well, odd.

The good news is that I’m fairly sure they don’t really mean it. The trajectory of their slogans forces them to argue some odd things, but most of them don’t really seem to live that way. “Taxation is theft,” they’ll shout, and thus they wind up arguing that the only reason they pay their taxes is because the jackbooted thugs from the IRS have pried it from their hands at gunpoint. But that’s not really the case any more than it’s true that the only reason they send their kids to school is because the jackbooted truant officers have forced them to do that at gunpoint. Or that the only reason they do not embezzle, default on loans, defraud their neighbors or prey on the weak is fear of legal reprisal. If the state and the police and every coercive mechanism for law enforcement were to evaporate overnight, they would not take to the streets in a lawless rampage of rioting and pillaging.

Not most of them, at least.

They’re not really the Nietzschean little sociopaths their arguments are always trapping them into claiming to be. If they met such a person, in fact, they’d probably do just what you or I would do — call the police.

Participating in civilization — particularly in a democratic civilization, a civil society — requires accepting certain rules, regulations, mores, laws, and, yes, taxes in your own best interest and the best interests of others, i.e., for the common good. It also requires that we constantly and vigilantly question every rule, regulation, more, law or tax to evaluate whether it is necessary, fair, wise, efficient, effective, useful, proportionate, etc. But once we accept that as our task — evaluating each on its merits and demerits in accord with the common good rather than dismissing them all, categorically, as by definition illegitimate — then we become liberals and not libertarians.

And one of the nice things about being a liberal is that you never need to pretend that you’re actually a barbaric hoodlum who only behaves civilly due to fear of punishment from the 101st Airborne.

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  • Jordan

    I always sigh at how even the most cogent critiques of libertarianism always attack the Ayn Rand (straw man) aesthetic of monadic individualism and never the philosophic premise of individual rights
    You’ll notice that anyone who attacks liberty and individual freedom invariably segues into tangential attacks on the straw man I call the “Sociopathic Hermit”–as if people who don’t want an overbearing government are either anti-social, sociopathic or both. These wretches are unfeeling, uncaring, greedy, selfish, mentally disturbed and socially challenged misanthropes–and they want to either destroy society or turn it into a reflection of them. The philosophy of individualism, (a semantic label meant only to describe the libertarian belief in the universality of individual rights), is misconstrued as being a justification for the supremacy of the singular, monadic individual–at the cost and detriment of “the weak”, and society as a whole. It is seen to be an endorsement of all the worst associations we have with the words “greed” and “selfishness”, and a celebration of a merciless brand of social Darwinism. This is either a gross misunderstanding or a shameless smear, and represents a wholly inaccurate portrait of libertarianism.
    How did “we all have equal rights, and mine end where yours begin” become synonymous with greedy, immoral, cut-throat self-centeredness? Where did this straw man come from? Never is a critique of libertarianism based on the validity of actual libertarian philosophy; i.e. the non-aggression principle and individual rights derived from universal principles of reciprocity. There’s a reason for this. Liberals and Conservatives can’t acknowledge the validity of a worldview that can support and celebrate their values provided that they are pursued voluntarily. To acknowledge this would undermine both the Liberal and Conservative arguments for communitarianism (the “collective” before the “self”) being naturally preferential to individualism under a rubric of freedom.
    Incidentally, I know of no libertarian who denies that society is essentially non-voluntary and that multiple “common goods” exist—we just believe that in order for a good to be truly common, it must spontaneously emerge out of a natural social order; a good can’t really be “common” if you have to use the aggression of the State to compel its manifestation. Honestly, the term “common good” itself is so vague as to be rendered meaningless—mostly taken for granted as a representation of the subjective social values of the advocate. Since no two descriptions of a common good will be identical in detail, its definition becomes arbitrary and vague. A collective action only retains its value content through the expression of true preferences if it is undertaken voluntarily, rather than being superimposed on unwilling parties. Otherwise, you wind up defending things like the Spanish Inquisition on principle if not practice or intention, opening the door to be imposed upon yourself by those you disagree with.
    Social cooperation and interdependence is a natural societal phenomenon bourn of individual and communal self-interest. It is the Liberal’s prejudice to interpret self-interest as exclusionary and self-centered, when the far more realistic and common expression is inclusionary and mutually beneficial. Everyone is constantly compromising and negotiating with other members of society in their everyday lives. The liberal misconception is that Society = Government. Even in the only system of government for which this claim could be tenuously made, a democracy, this is certainly not the case–just count the number of things our government does that, if done by a member of society, would land him/her in jail. The state is, after all, just a collection of people who have a monopolistic apparatus of violence at their disposal to achieve objectives that ostensibly cannot be achieved in the context of voluntarism. Shouldn’t the moral burden of proof be on those who suggest that coercion is a useful mechanism to achieve social goals, rather than those who seek to preserve the autonomy such coercive programs destroy? Why does the libertarian have to defend freedom, while the aggrandizement of government for liberal or conservative ends is taken for granted? Where is the acknowledgement that methods carry as much if not more moral weight than objectives? Evil is almost never done for evil’s sake. Contrivances such as “the Greater Good” have always been used as excuses for tyranny and inhumanity. Does it matter if the despot is benevolent and well intentioned?
    Since libertarians are essentially advocates for Free Will and self-determination within the boundaries of a legally codified reciprocity-based morality (non-aggression etc.) Liberals should have more faith in their own ability to persuade free people to voluntarily subordinate their “selfish” interests to their brand of “common good” if it is indeed in their own best interest to operate through a precise, planned communal design. If Liberals can convince people of this, no genuine libertarian could object. After all, any person who participates in society willingly volunteers an extent of conformity (which is different from abdicating autonomy) to societal expectations.
    But again, social cooperation, interaction and interdependence is always ultimately governed and motivated by individual self-interest. By not allowing for people to freely choose, endorse and consent to a voluntary collectivism, collectivists of all stripes are either admitting to the unpersuasiveness of their ideology, or simply asserting that the common folk cannot realize their best interests independently, so they must be herded, coercively, into obedience by a wise, enlightened elite. Unfortunately, imposing collectivism (or any other “ism”, including libertarianism) by violent mandate, through dictatorship or political democracy, has always been and will always be illegitimate and immoral (methods having moral content too, or the ends justify ANY means)
    Basically, The Statist assumption is that if people were not forced, herded and corralled into interacting with each other, helping each other, caring about each other and forming social bonds and institutions, society would fly apart at the seams, all morality would disappear and we would all be besieged by (previously well adjusted), sociopathic hermits and other selfish, perverted hedonists of all kinds. (You’ll notice that this is a concern shared by both “conservatives” and “progressives”, calling into question the usefulness of these labels).
    In short, the implication of mandatory collectivism is that people cannot be trusted with Free Will, or that Free Will is somehow an obstacle to a social good superior to it; therefore, a referee government is not sufficient–society needs an authoritarian, interventionist, paternal government and a committee of enlightened bureaucrats and social engineers to manage it. (If human beings are so bad that we need to be significantly managed and regulated, are not our managers and regulators cut from the same cloth? Or are they a special category of people with no self-interest, just merely an innocent desire for coercive power with which they’ll help other people…right)? Terms such as “left-wing” and “right-wing” are irrelevant to the underlying collectivist worldview. Any ideology that implicitly or explicitly supports a dictatorial, non-consensual social contract that exceeds the authority derived from a direct extrapolation of individual human rights is a tyranny to some degree. A single tyrant, or a committee of tyrants, or a popular majority of little tyrants all represent a rejection of Locke, Mill, Bastiat and others, and a return to ancient, pre-enlightenment justifications for the necessity of tyranny in some form.
    It is a psychological projection of a dark, delusional and thoroughly unreal fantasy, propped up by red herrings and straw men, and based on a distrust of free people, fear of the uncertainty and responsibility that comes with freedom and hysteria over the specter of this manufactured boogeyman called the sociopathic hermit.
    “Timid men preferr the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty”
    Thomas Jefferson

  • hapax

    Jordan: Where did this straw man come from? Never is a critique of libertarianism based on the validity of actual libertarian philosophy
    It came from close observation of actual libertarian politicians.
    This has been another addition of short answers to long posts. (h/t Atrios)

  • Froborr

    Jordan: The reason nobody attacks the principle of individual rights is because liberals and libertarians agree on that principle. Where we disagree is on what takes priority when rights clash, and on how best to guarantee individuals’ rights.
    Liberals see people dying from diseases we know how to cure and have the resources to treat, and say “That’s a violation of their rights. We need to create a system that guarantees that never happens.” Libertarians pay taxes, and say “That’s a violation of my rights. We need to destroy the system that makes that happen.”

  • Jeff

    How did “we all have equal rights, and mine end where yours begin” become synonymous with greedy, immoral, cut-throat self-centeredness?
    Because [a] it admits for no overlap — I might have rights that impinge on yours (my right to safety vs your right of free speech, frex; or my right to sell what I wish vs your right to know what’s in what I’m selling) and [b] it admits for no other actors — as more are added, the lines that mark “your rights” vs “my rights” vs “his rights” vs the rights of you and her, and so on.
    Thus, libertarians feel they can do whatever they please, because asserting their rights **really** doesn’t hurt someone (even when it does, as with regulating industries).
    Incidentally, I know of no libertarian who denies that society is essentially non-voluntary and that multiple “common goods” exist
    I know of very few who do. Once you admit that “common goods” exist, you admit that they must be funded; and therefore, you make yourself in favor of taxes, which must be collected “at the barrel of a gun”.

  • Jordan

    “Liberals see people dying from diseases we know how to cure and have the resources to treat, and say “That’s a violation of their rights. We need to create a system that guarantees that never happens.” Libertarians pay taxes, and say “That’s a violation of my rights. We need to destroy the system that makes that happen.”
    “I know of very few who do. Once you admit that “common goods” exist, you admit that they must be funded; and therefore, you make yourself in favor of taxes, which must be collected “at the barrel of a gun”.
    I think you guys missed two important points that I made sure to bring up. #1: The only way to have a common good be non-arbitrary is if people endorse it freely. You automatically assume that if a common good exists, that JUSTIFIES taxation and mandates. But there is no “if A, then B” causal relationship there, and I challenge you logically demonstrate one. If a million progressives all have the same vision of a common good, there is nothing to stop them from getting together and making it real–but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to force everyone to participate without respect to their consent and endorsement of your agenda. It seems you just want it that way for the things YOU want.
    You say that people have a “right” to medical care, and I’m supposing you derive this from our right to “life”. But health care is not manna from heaven–it is the service of another human being, and we have a supposed consensus than no one has the right to the labor of another person…that’s called slavery.
    The implication of health care being a “right” is that doctors, (or at least their labor) are property of the State, or “owned” by the people, and that a refusal to treat a sick person is grounds for punishment, up to and including harm to one’s person. Sorry, this is a violation of every original notion of liberal justice that I can think of. If you think notions of “social justice” can trump the classical rights of individuals, especially the right to defend against aggression, then you support a philosophy of tyranny. Once you legitimize such a principle, where do you draw the line, or is democracy supposed to be the last word? Neoconservatives think a police state is a common good; Religious theocrats want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. On what principled basis do you reject these definitions of common goods? “I don’t like that” isn’t a reason. Or are you so committed to a total democracy that you’d be fine if there were a referendum on the Bill of Rights?
    Of course, you’ll make the typical assumption that because I don’t believe in mandatory common goods, that means I don’t believe in the “good” at issue. But I’m talking about means and not ends. Just because I don’t support mandatory public education, doesn’t mean that I want everybody to be ignorant, uneducated fools, nor does it mean that I don’t care about those who would “fall through the cracks” I just believe that any safety net should be based on voluntary mutual aid, rather than mandatory, unaccountable, centrally planned and executed programs with weak feedback mechanisms and no room for personal prerogatives. You act as if centrally planned mandates is the only way to realize social goods, which is ridiculous. It makes libertarians wonder whether what really motivates liberals is not compassion, but a rationalistic, arrogant elitism that makes you see society as clay to be molded by enlighten potters, such as yourselves. Is it not compassionate to want your fellow citizens to have the personal freedom to control their own destiny, and not attempt to undermine it with political power, even if you think its in their “best interest”?
    You also make a point to illustrate that in the economic sphere, sometimes rights overlap. Ahem, there are things called externalities and liability, which, if you believe in strict property rights, the costs of which must be internalized by the responsible party. There are several legal and contractual mechanisms that can be deployed as preventive measures to abate such problems. You use the word “regulation” incorrectly, as a vague one-size-fits-all description of measures taken to protect the public from harm and fraud. In fact regulation is a very specific method of economic intervention of which the vast majority is done on the behalf of business interests to either seek government rents or damage their competitors. Libertarians are baffled that liberals haven’t realized that by now, especially over the last 8 years, but perhaps the corporations have fooled you by giving lip service to “jobs” and “public safety”.
    Admittedly, in our current rubric of State Capitalism, much economic and legal framework required for the applicability of market forces, do not exist. However, Liberal ignorance of free-market economics (knowing only fraudulent GOP rhetoric and the negative portrayals of the Chicago school presented to you by other Liberals), makes you think that contemporary capitalism is what libertarians are defending. Not So, (We’re not really defending 19th century capitalism either BTW) although it’s hard to explain the nuances when you guys think that “Capitalism” is some enclosed, monolithic, homogenic system. Market dynamism depends on several factors, including and not limited to: barriers to competitive entry, elasticity of supply and demand, scarcity, liability, liquidity, transaction costs, information disparities and, of course, stable property rights. These things, and much else, must be understood and considered before “The Market” is condemned as inadequate to serve social needs. The “Market” cannot be blamed if there is no “Market” to begin with, or if it’s reaction and calculation mechanisms have been irrepairably damaged by government intervention.
    In the end, libertarians think personal freedom is more important than egalitarianism, and liberals essentially believe the opposite. (never mind that freedom actually makes life worth living, while artifical egalitarianism reduces life to the preferences of central planners). Our notion of justice revolves around the harm principle and causal responsibility. While you agree with this selectively, Your main notion of justice revolves around an ambiguous, subjective notion of “fairness”, which like art, is in the eye of the beholder. These may be irreconcilable differences, but as a former progressive myself, thinking in terms of means, and not ends, and reciprocity, rather than authority, requires a questioning of one’s underlying assumptions.

  • Froborr

    Oh, where to start? How about the notion of rights.
    Libertarians believe only in negative rights. You have the right not to be assaulted, for example. Liberals believe in negative rights, but they also believe in positive rights, also known as entitlements. For example, the right to life.
    Libertarians believe that all rights are absolute. If you have the right to property, then you always have the right to property, and nobody can take away your property, ever, for any reason. In this respect, they are like conservatives: they are incapable of comprehending that a rule can have exceptions and still be a rule, or that one can weigh the merits of a situation and balance different principles against one another to arrive at a conclusion. They call this “situational ethics” and see know distinction between it and doing whatever you want.
    In the case of libertarians, they see no distinction between a government that weighs different rights against one another and comes, after much deliberation, to a conclusion about what it’s going to enforce and how, and a government that does whatever it wants whenever it wants. To them, there is no difference between a tax imposed by a government elected by the people, subject to revision or repeal by whoever the people decide to elect next go-round, and a tax imposed by a dictator-for-life.
    Liberals believe that rights interact in complex ways. For example, there is a fundamental right to do as you please (actually a negative right to not be coerced). There is also a fundamental right to life (positive life). When does my right to life override another’s right to do as he pleases? Well, in the case of doctors, we have medical licenses. It’s illegal to claim to be a doctor and treat patients if you don’t have a medical license because, through the collective decision-making apparatus of democracy, we have decided that the patient’s right to know that the person treating him is actually qualified supercedes the right of the “doctor” to practice medicine incompetently.
    There is also a fundamental right to freedom of conscience. However, a doctor’s freedom of conscience — for example, moral opposition to a particular treatment — must be balanced against the patient’s right to life. Ultimately, the patient’s right to life takes precedence, but that does not mean that the doctor can be compelled to do the procedure in any way the patient or the government happens to feel like compelling him. For example, nobody can put a gun to his head and say, “Perform the procedure!” The reason is that we have rules against punishing people for things they haven’t yet done. So, *after* he refuses to perform the procedure, the patient can report him to the medical board, which revokes his license. He can’t be sent to jail for it, either, because we have rules against disproportionate punishment.
    Libertarians focus on a different right: they believe in a fundamental, inviolate, negative right to property (e.g., my stuff is my stuff and nobody can take it away from me). Nonetheless, their attitude is much the same: they don’t see (or pretend not to see) the distinction between, on the one hand, the government taking a small proportion of your wealth (which, since donations are tax-exempt, you have already chosen *not* to spend on a “voluntary safety net”) under carefully controlled and legally prescribed circumstances subject to review and revision by *your* democratically elected representatives, and, on the other hand, a bunch of armed soldiers marching onto your land and taking whatever they like.
    Your argument above — that a right to health leads necessarily to the enslavement of doctors — assumes that the right to healthcare is absolute. It’s not. A doctor is still free to exercise his right to refuse to retreat any patient, at any time. Of course, as in all cases of competing rights, an impartial third party is needed to decide whose rights win out this time — in this case, the medical board. There’s no need to decide in advance that one right always wins over the other; that’s what we have courts, and legislatures, and review boards, and lawsuits, and all the rest of the (largely tax-supported, incidentally) structure for settling disputes.
    Of course, there’s another major distinction here between libertarian and liberal principles: liberals do not believe in a negative right to property. There is a *positive* right to enjoy the fruits of your labor, but that’s a very different proposition. A proportional, progressive income tax does not violate this right in the slightest. Consider (making up the numbers, since I don’t have the tax brackets memorized): Person A’s labor has a market value of $10,000/year, putting all of A’s income in the 10% tax bracket. Person B’s labor is valued at $10,001, putting B in the 10% bracket for the first $10,000 and the 15% bracket for the remaining $1. B has a right to enjoy the fact that his labor is more valuable than A’s (maybe B works harder, or for longer hours, or has rarer or more valued skills, or engages in a more dangerous occupation — doesn’t matter). After taxes, A makes $9,000; B makes $9,000.85. B *still* makes more than A, and therefore reaps greater fruit for more valuable labor.
    Of course, all of this is pure opinion. Libertarians have a particular set of arbitrarily selected principles, which I arbitrarily regard as both absurd and abhorrent. I have another set of arbitrarily chosen principles, largely in line with what one might regard as a typically liberal set, and you are free to regard those principles however you please. We compete in any of the several collective decision-making apparati of our society (such as elections, the market, public debate, and so on), and decisions emerge and hold sway for a time before public opinion (or party dominance, or the market, or, most likely, some complex interaction of all of them and other forces besides) changes.
    Now on to the one question of actual fact, namely the validity of economics in general and the Chicago School in particular.
    Prescriptive economics (e.g., using economics as a basis for political arguments) is predicated on the assumption that wealth and utility are strongly correlated. In other words, that rich people are happier. This turns out not to be the case. Repeated major studies of happiness (see Frey & Stutzer, 2001 for a survey of the literature) have shown that every economic class above the poverty line has roughly *the same* distribution curve for happiness.
    I know, I know, using actual real-world data is against the rules in economics, which all takes place in Magical Fantasy Land, where all markets are at equilibrium and all the information about a good is encoded in its price. Sorry, soon as you start making prescriptive arguments based on economics, you open yourself up to it.
    We won’t even get into the growing research that the assumption of rationality is deeply flawed, or the fact that nobody has ever demonstrated that any real-world market is actually at equilibrium, or that, starting with Nash, there is good reason to believe that a market not at equilibrium can never reach equilibrium, and that therefore the underlying conditions necessary for Chicago School economics to apply can never occur. It’s not necessary. The point is, even in an equilibrium market that works exactly the way the Chicago School asserts one would, increased wealth does not correspond to increased utility. Thus, even if we take both utilitarianism and Chicago School economics as a given, following the advice of the Chicago School does not correlate to a better society.
    We’ll end with your straw man about egalitarianism. It is simply not true that liberals emphasize equality over liberty. Egalitarianism is “Either everyone lives in mansions or no one does.” I don’t believe that at all. I have no problem with some people living in mansions while other people live in trailer parks. I *do* have a problem with some people living in mansions while other people live in cardboard boxes, however.
    Poverty is a question of liberty, not equality. A person in imminent danger of death is in a state of automatic coercion. They must accept *any* offer of help, no matter the terms, or else die. It is no different from holding a gun to their heads. Thus, to maximize liberty, it is necessary to ensure that they receive help without attached conditions, even if that requires coercing others to a small degree (and it is, of course, incumbent upon us to use the absolute least amount of coercion that works).

  • Jeff

    Froborr, you’re trying to talk sense to a libertarian (albeit one much more verbose than Our Scott). Has that **ever** worked?
    Until they themselves need government aid (and sometimes not even then — I saw one blogger refusing aid even from liberals, to prove some point or another; that he’d rather die than show he was wrong, I guess), they’ll continue to feed at the public trough while yammering through their mouth full of food about how bad the Gummint is.

  • Froborr

    Froborr, you’re trying to talk sense to a libertarian (albeit one much more verbose than Our Scott). Has that **ever** worked?
    I used to be a libertarian. So, yes.

  • People don’t naturally have the right to take property from others.

    Many many moral philsophers would disagree with you: They would say that your excess is owed, it is due to those who need it.