Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Justification for Government

On Kent's "Hooligan Libertarian" Blog I was asked..."Do you have a justification for government?".  I'm guessing that the person who asked the question is an anarcho-capitalist so that's how I'll approach it.

The founder of anarcho-capitalism, Murray Rothbard, really hated the state.  He said if there was a button that would completely destroy all of government in an instant...then he would push that button until his thumb blistered.  If, after pushing that button, it turned out that a state was necessary…then what?  Do we just hit ctrl + z?

To his credit, Rothbard didn’t just hate the state because he hated paying taxes.  He wrote numerous books with detailed explanations how the free-market could provide all public goods better than the state.  Were his explanations any good?  Liberal academics didn’t think so…they were considerably more threatened by the limited government ideas of Robert Nozick.

If the free-market can provide all public goods better than the government can, then is government justified?  It’s a Catch 22 though because the only way we can truly know if government is redundant is by getting rid of government.  Most would agree this approach is too risky…and since we live in a democracy…we have to take the majority’s opinion into consideration.  

Rather than one button that would destroy government in one fell swoop…what if all tax payers had a button that when pushed would deprive redundant government organizations of their tax dollars?  This is the pragmatarian approach.

If a government organization is redundant…but none of your taxes fund its existence…is there any reason to hate that government organization?

I’d say that at least 99.9% of people think at least one government organization is absolutely necessary.  For you .1% of people that think otherwise…the solution is simply to work together to provide free-market alternatives to that one government organization.  

The more say people have how their taxes are spent the more justified a government is.  The American Revolution occurred because people were being taxed without representation.  

The current government is only partially justified because people only have a very imperfect say with regards to how their taxes are spent.  They lose their say if the person they vote for is not elected and there's no guarantee that a representative will accurately represent the interests of the people who voted for them.

Incidentally, in contrast to the anarcho-capitalist perspective of hating the state...Reason magazine shared five reasons why libertarians should love the state.  My favorite is number #4..."Government bashing alienates those you want to reach"...
Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.


  1. "If a government organization is redundant…but none of your taxes fund its existence…is there any reason to hate that government organization?"
    Yes. If it still uses coercion to stop you from living as you see fit when you are harming no other person. And that's just off the top of my head. I'm sure there are plenty more.

  2. Kent, that's a good point. For example, if somebody is pro-legalization then they could still hate the DEA...but at least their taxes wouldn't help support the DEA.

  3. Yet, for any government "function" or agency (War on [some] Drugs, BATFE, War on Terror, etc.), there are plenty of ignorant and fearful people who would be willing to fund it*, at least enough to keep it going, and it would still keep destroying lives and killing. No thanks.

    (*This doesn't even take into account "asset forfeiture" that could continue to fund some of the worst abusers.)

  4. I suggest you imagine your worst-case scenario of what would happen without The State- as you listen to this:

  5. Pragmatarianism would offer a check against the ignorant. Might want to read my post on uninformed tax payers.

    It's not hard to imagine a worst case scenario...I lived in Afghanistan for a year. Take away the state and all the "ignorant" people you mentioned would flock to leaders. Would those leaders be religious, ideological, ethnic...or just be able to secure the safety and security of their followers?

  6. Leaders are better than Rulers, but how would that differ negatively from the situation as it now exists?

    I can be pragmatic as long as it doesn't involve violating the rights and liberty of others. Every terrible holocaust and abuse was thought to be pragmatic, probably by a majority of the people, at the time it was being committed.

  7. Coexistence would not be peaceful. Anarcho-capitalists love to point out Medieval Iceland as an example of a stateless, harmonious coexistence but they were as homogeneous as we are heterogeneous.

    Pragmatarianism is all about ceteris paribus. By no means is it a moral theory...a pragmatarian can be a socialist, a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian or an anarcho-capitalist.

    The most moral aspect of pragmatarianism is that people should not have to fund public goods that they do not value.

  8. I coexist very peaceably with other private individuals regardless of whether there is a government gun pointed at me or not. And I have my whole life. I get along with anyone of any "race", religion, nationality, or native language, as long as they don't attack me or try to steal from me. And when they do, I have been able to handle it myself without getting The State involved. I can even step in if I see someone else being threatened.

    I don't expect to ever have a real problem with private individuals. I don't initiate force, and I believe most people instinctively know I won't stand for being attacked. If there is ever a serious problem in my future I expect it to come from agents of The State who expect me to comply with ridiculous violations of my rights.

    There shouldn't be any "public goods" so that efficiently eliminates any problem with funding any "public goods" that you don't value. If it is needed, someone will find a way to provide it at a profit, better and cheaper, and with the choices competition provides, better than the government monopoly. If it doesn't get provided by the market, it wasn't really needed.

    People shouldn't be violated by "services" that other people choose to fund that are outside their rights. No matter how much you may like or want a "service" or "public good", if it violates the rights of even one individual it is wrong to impose it upon them.

    PS: Despite the title of this post I still haven't seen anything in it that justifies the existence of government. Why is it (or why do you feel it is) necessary (or right) to have a group that enforces a monopoly of force over a given geographical region while using coercion and force to control the consensual behavior of people within that region who are harming no innocent person?

  9. The answer is in my post and it's in the website you linked me to...government is good.

    When a scientist looks at a leaf they see millions of years of evolution but when a Christian looks at the same leaf they see the hand of God.

    Have you seen this youtube video of Milton Friedman where he says which of the 14 cabinet departments should be kept or gotten rid of? It's pretty great.

    The interviewer starts to ask him a hypothetical..."if you were dictator for a day" question and Friedman interrupts him and strongly stresses the importance of democracy. He said, "If we can't persuade the public that it's desirable to do these things, then we have no right to impose them even if we had the power to do it." We already know how Rothbard would have responded if asked that same question.

    If the interviewer asked everybody in America those same questions then we would get a wide range of answers. What gives one person the right to impose her answers onto another person? The only legitimate way to settle on the answers is via democracy.

    Pragmatarianism, at least in terms of taxes, makes imposing your answers onto others a moot point. The question wouldn't be, "should we keep it or get rid of it?". Instead it would be, "what percentage of your taxes would you allocate to it?".

  10. If that is your justification for government, then our definitions of "good" are completely irreconcilable.

    Because in the leaf example- one opinion is based upon reality and the other is based upon superstition. It's as if the Christian is congratulating himself for believing that 2 + 3 = 27 in spite of what those "Satan-deluded" mathematicians think. Government is another superstition- or belief in its "good" is anyway. A belief held in spite of thousands of years of empirical evidence to the contrary.

    Nothing government does qualifies as "good" in my book. Even those things that it does that would be good if done without coercion lose any "good" when paid for with stolen money and imposed on those who, while harming no other person, are forced to go along.

    Democracy is wrong. It is no more right for a "majority" (even everyone minus one) to force their ways on a minority than for a dictator to force his will on everyone else. Wrong is wrong and numbers don't change that fact.

    This is why I don't put a lot of stock in what "The Big Names" in libertarianism think. If their opinions fail the test (Zero Aggression- no coercion- individual sovereignty), then they are not right no matter how influential they may be.

    I still think you are asking the wrong question in order to be able to claim that your answer is correct.

  11. MamaLiberty wrote me because she is unable to post a comment since she has none of the accounts that are required (she suggests you might enable the "name/url" option).

    She wished to say:
    "I don't care how many people want and need to be owned by someone else. Whatever form of master/slave relationship they want, they are welcome to it. That's their problem.

    I do not want to be owned by anyone else. I own myself and my body. I am responsible for them. All I want is to be left alone.

    That's the problem.


  12. Am I correct that your justification is wholly material? In other words, essentially what you are saying is that government-or more specifically the "State"(these are different things, my question should have been justification for "state", but no matter), facilitates technology, yes?

    I agree. True free-markets, to the extent they can really be called that, are technologically rather stagnant. Look to pre-civilized humans-they have free-markets. And while there is much to be said for that lifestyle, there certainly is no Nintendo Wii.

    Trinkets, toys, and even medicines, though do not justify anything-they are simply effects. Rather like murder cannot be justified by pointing to the charitable work done with the proceeds. Or perhaps to you it can be.

    In any event, rationally, this mad-capped drive to technology has a pragmatic downside. At this moment, on the whim of a handful of individuals-most of them of questionable stability, and all of them ruthless enough to hold the reins of a major "state"-humanity can be extinguished, or at the very least irrevocably altered. Even without nukes, the specter of modern conventional war is simply too hideous to contemplate-yet it goes on. There is your catch 22.

    So I'll ask again, can you justify government-or more specifically the rather new embodiment of the nation-state? Or are you simply amoral on the justification-which is fine, it seems to be what you are saying. I would note, however, that I doubt you'll be able to find any serious philosopher, political or otherwise, that would take such a stand-especially since the 1930's.

    Even Marxists justify the state by claiming that it is a tool for its own destruction. Machiavelli likely came closest to what you seem to be suggesting, but even he was compelled to give power a moral aspect. Plato as well, but again, for totally different reasons(Plato wanted stagnancy and a "state" for stability-also a pipe dream.)

    This is, at least entertaining. I am not, by the way, an Anarcho-capitalist-never have been, which I suppose places me in another court.

  13. Actually, now that I think of it, since you used the term you really ought to read "Catch 22"-or re-read it. I suspect it was not intended to mean quite what you think it means. Just an observation.

  14. “The more say people have in government, the more justified it is.”

    That’s not justification, that’s just placation.

    Also what about the basic economics of your idea? You say people have to pay taxes, that there is no choice there, so do the people who want a bunch of government stuff pay more than the person who wants only one?

    What about the problem of monopoly and lack of competition?

    And what about those who want no government service at all? If justification depends on the fact that you get to spend it on what you want to spend it on, then this person is completely left out of your argument.

    Besides, taxation is theft. :)

  15. There are some serious problems with your overall proposal to begin with:

    1. Money is fungible. This alone destroys the concept as anything other than a new way to shear the sheep, but it is only the beginning.

    2. Most taxes are not direct taxes upon an individual-there are myriad "hidden" taxes that individuals do pay-such as tariffs and especially corporate income taxes. This makes determining anyone's actual tax burden impossible(not to mention that many people-bond holders for instance-actually profit from spending no matter where it is directed.)

    3. All subdivisions of government in the US transfer money back and forth at will. So do the subdivision's of all other governments that I am aware.

    4. Monetary inflation-printing money-is currently one of the government's major ways of generating revenue, and it is a tax(no less a personage that the Quantitative Easer in chief Ben Bernanke admitted this on the floor of Congress a year or so ago), but there is no way to determine who ought to be able to allocate it.

    5. Politicians lie. They also have all of the really interesting weapons at their disposal.

    I'm not sure if you are sincere, playing the Devil's advocate...or just trying to come up with something unique(and this isn't), but this just doesn't hold water. Unless I've missed something?

    By the way, you have rather seriously misrepresented Rothbard's position on government-while he did indeed think that free-market's would be more productive, etc., his opposition to the State was ALWAYS a moral one-the non-aggression axiom. That such a system would be more efficient was, to him, just an added bonus and another argument to make. This is similar to all manner of anarchists-capitalist or not-and its a huuuuuge difference. A correction is in order.

  16. By the way, the only appropriate answer to a question like 'what would you do if dictator for a day?' is the same one von Mises gave..."Resign!"

    Milton Friedman did not say that did he? And that is a gulf I'm afraid you shall never cross.

  17. @Kent, what you consider to be "superstition" now was something that everybody considered to be "reality" in the past. Anarcho-capitalism could certainly be reality. If that's the case then pragmatarianism would help everybody gradually see the reality of your position. The proof is in the pudding. We can talk about the pudding untill the cows come home or we can eat the pudding.

    @MamaLiberty, my should be able to comment now. National defense, the police and courts all help ensure that you and your body are protected from others. Maybe you think those goods are made redundant by the private sector? If so, then you would just allocate your taxes to the least redundant public organizations.

    @Mike! You've written more here than on your entire blog! The comments are definitely appreciated but if you're going to write a blog's worth of comments then you might consider just writing a blog entry and sharing the link in a comment. Just a thought.

    For example, this entry is actually a response to your comment on Kent's blog. And here's my response to your comment on my response...department of redundant department.

    The thing you missed was the bulk of my argument. If pragmatarianism was about morality then it would just have to compete against all the other ideologies with moral justifications. Pragmatarianism just says that efficiency is good and we shouldn't have to fund public goods that we do not value. This does not conflict with the major political such it has a greater chance of being implemented.

    @Debbie, you're comparing pragmatarianism to your ideal when I'm comparing pragmatarianism to the current political reality. Pragmatarianism does not force you to stop valuing or striving towards your ideal. The important thing to consider is that with pragmatarianism we would have more freedom...which is consistent with nearly everybody's ideals.

  18. In response to MamaLiberty's comment, you reply: "National defense, the police and courts all help ensure that you and your body are protected from others."

    Are you being ironic? The agents of The State are the most serious and ubiquitous threat there is to me and my body. Nothing else "human" even comes close.

  19. "@Debbie, you're comparing pragmatarianism to your ideal when I'm comparing pragmatarianism to the current political reality. Pragmatarianism does not force you to stop valuing or striving towards your ideal. The important thing to consider is that with pragmatarianism we would have more freedom...which is consistent with nearly everybody's ideals."

    Well, if you only want to figure out how to make stealing be a tad less irritating to the victims of the theft, then go right ahead. But if you want to do that, you can't also claim that your ideas don't affect those who are striving for a voluntary society. Because your idea still requires coercion through the threat of violence on your neighbors.

  20. @Kent, having served with the Army and having had plenty of friends that were perspective is different than yours. We'll always debate whose reality is more "real" but maybe we can both agree that it's not ethical for your taxes to fund what you consider to be the most serious threat to our freedom.

    @Debbie, it wasn't my idea.

  21. Here's my justification of government.

    Basically, a central authority provides a valuable service as the arbiter of disputes; this it's only value. Anything else can be done better through free market.

    1. If everything else can be done better through the free market...then do you support the idea of allowing people to choose where their taxes go?