Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Libertarian Parables

Many libertarians have a fondness for parables involving private actors performing immoral coercive acts, and inviting us to conclude that government is essentially no different. Arnold Kling offers a succinct setup:
One child describes his parent, and the teacher concludes that this parent is a fine philanthropist. Eventually, however, the teacher learns that the parent is giving away other people's property. So the teacher concludes that her student's parent is a thief. The punch line is that the parent is the mayor.

To which I responded with a succinct comment:
Mayor:thief :: juror:vigilante

Institutions make a difference.

He never did reply. Perhaps the thought requires further unpacking. See my discussion of three conceptual errors of libertarian ideology:
(3) It conflates personal and institutional action. This is the difference between vigilantes and magistrates. Just because it would be illegitimate for your neighbour to do something in their role as an ordinary citizen, doesn't necessarily mean there's no legitimate way it could be done.

A well-ordered society is governed by the rule of law. This means that there are institutional processes to govern certain classes of action. The outcome of a just institutional process -- whether it be a guilty verdict, or minimum wage legislation -- has a different normative status than the corresponding action of a neighbour who takes it upon himself to unilaterally impose his will on others.

There are good pragmatic reasons to favour some libertarian policies. But the moral ideology ("taxation is theft") is obtuse.


  1. I consider myself to be a Libertarian, but I also think the ideas of people who disagree with you are the ones to worry, and think, about. So rather than reflexively defending the parable, I'll say you have a point but that it doesn't conflict with thoughtful and pragmatic knowledge-based libertarianism.

    If we're going to be able to live lives that are free from coercion, in practice, we need the state to act as guarantor of that freedom. That's something most libertarians tacitly accept when they talk about property rights or the law of contract, but it immediately concedes there is a difference between institutions and individuals, and that institutions can legitimately undertake actions that individuals can't.

    If people were less reflexive in their objections to this, they might realise that there's a strength for the libertarian position in this argument, because what really needs to be discussed are things like whether there are any legitimate limits, absolute limits, to the power of government. I think there are: people's consensual sex lives, for example. Get someone to concede that, and you have won the pass. At the moment the political divide between libertarians and others is not where the lines should be drawn but whether there are any lines.

    What we see in this case is a, not uncommon, situation where ultras discredit the mainstream of their ideas.

    The mainstream sources cited by libertarians, from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman (let's leave the Soviet Art kitsch of Ayn Rand and others out of this), all advocated government action. But points they raised, like the insupportable intrusion into personal privacy that is a tax return (Smith's arguments against income tax), are legitimate.

    A more reasoned approach by libertarians would expose the willingness of others to allow government intrusion into personal privacy that have no necessary role in the functioning of a state.

    Sometimes, in practice, the state is a thief, taking money from people and pouring it into a trough for the unscrupulous to snuffle in. Libertarians could, if they tell the ultras to p**s off, put the unqualified defenders of the state on the back foot. That's what we should be doing.

  2. Fundamental in your argument is that there are lines to be drawn somewhere, which is a moderate position among any political group or ideology, which means absolute fealty to libertarian thought isn't going to happen. Just so you know.

  3. Given this theory, it is hard to say that any action undertaken by any government could ever be considered wrong. As long as it's done by an "institution" and happens to be legal, it's ok and is nothing like individual action.

    Using the word "processes" and asserting that a different normative standard exists is just rephrasing the problem.

    1. "As long as it's done by an "institution" and happens to be legal, it's ok"

      That doesn't follow. Different normative standards doesn't mean no normative standards. Again, the key claim is: "Just because it would be illegitimate for your neighbour to do something in their role as an ordinary citizen, doesn't necessarily mean there's no legitimate way it could be done." That's obviously compatible with additionally holding that some institutional actions are (or would be) morally wrong.


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