community

Government vs. Community

Tibor Machan reminds us that, contra Paul Krugman, government is not community:

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it….

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense….

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin….

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

Sharing at the point of a gun is not sharing, it is theft. When government forces “sharing,” it removes opportunities for true acts of kindness and charity. It is such acts that help to foster a sense of community. And a sense of community is essential to civility.

Government interventions in economic affairs are therefore destructive of the social bonds that inhibit anti-social and criminal conduct. It follows that government interventions in economic affairs lead to increasingly expensive and oppressive efforts by government to regulate social conduct.

Related posts:
Enough of Krugman
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
The Golden Rule and the State

Our Enemy, the State

I have written much about the economic and social damage wrought by state action. In this post, I step back from particular instances of state action to explain, in general terms, how it damages the economic and social infrastructure that it is supposed to protect, in a so-called free nation.

I begin with tutorials about economic and social behavior and their intertwining. When I have laid that groundwork, I explain the destructiveness of state action when it goes beyond the protection of life, liberty, and property.

ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR AND “ECONOMICS”

There is more to economic behavior than production and exchange, at arm’s length. But it is those aspects of economic behavior that usually come to mind when one refers to “economics.” In the narrow view, economic behavior has five facets:

  • Buyers allocate their disposable (after-tax) incomes among various goods (products and services, including forms of saving), according to their individual tastes and preferences, which are influenced by many things (e.g., socioeconomic status, family status, and cultural heritage).
  • Sellers choose the quantities and prices of goods that they offer to buyers, given the factors that affect their production costs and possibilities (e.g., resource prices, innovation, government intervention).
  • Buyers and sellers act — through the mechanism known as “the market,” which usually is not a physical place — to determine the mix of goods that changes hands.
  • The mix of goods exchanged varies across time, as tastes and preferences change; goods change because of  invention, innovation, and variations in resource prices; and government intervention varies in type and intensity (usually waxing rather than waning).
  • The general level of goods exchanged — as measured roughly by their aggregate monetary value — is affected by the foregoing.

All of these actions occur simultaneously and dynamically.

Aggregation has no validity unless it is grounded in an understanding and valid description of the disaggregated behavior of buyers and sellers. Even then, aggregation fails to depict the totality of economic activity because (a) much of it is unmeasured (e.g., so-called household production); (b) not all activity moves in the same direction at the same time; (c) tastes, preferences, and production possibilities are constantly changing; and, most importantly, (d) there is no valid way of aggregating the satisfaction, pleasure, happiness, or utility (call it what you will) that the fruits of economic activity impart to the unique individuals who partake of it.

In any event, the underlying characteristic of economic behavior is its transactional nature. Two or more parties agree to exchange things (goods, money, other stores of value) in an effort by each party to gain satisfaction, pleasure, happiness, or utility (call it what you will). Transactional behavior is a manifestation of social behavior, in that it is cooperative.

ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR AS SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

The kinds of economic behavior listed above typically are studied as “economics,” which — until recent decades — was limited mainly to the explicit exchange of goods for goods or goods for money. But such transactions are not the whole of economic behavior, and are far from the whole of social behavior.

Some kinds of transactional behavior are considered deeply personal — and they are deeply personal — but they involve exchange, nonetheless. One such behavior is friendship; another is sex; a third is loyalty:

  • Friendship is mutual, so its economic nature should need no explanation.
  • So is sex mutual, when it is consensual. It may be given for many reasons other than monetary gain, but its essential character is transactional: parties giving each other pleasure.
  • Loyalty arises from a kind of tacit exchange; that is, loyalty-inducing acts yield loyalty, which can be drawn upon (or not) at the behest of the person who commits loyalty-inducing acts. Loyalty may accompany friendship, but it also may exist apart from friendship.

These and other kinds of “personal” acts are not usually considered to be economic in nature, for three reasons: (a) the medium of exchange is far removed from money (or anything like it); (b) the transactions are so idiosyncratic as to defy the usual statistical-mathematical reductionism of economics; and (c) the transactions are far removed in character from, say, the buying and selling of potatoes.

The distinction between economic and social behavior has almost vanished in recent decades, with the rise of behavioral economics. This brand of economics focuses on the psychological determinants of economic behavior. There is much research and speculation about how and why individuals choose as they do, not only in the spending of money but also it other, more “personal,” types of social interaction.

Formal economics aside, the essential character of economic behavior is, as I have said, transactional. Economic transactions — even those that are deeply personal — are cooperative. But not all social behavior is transactional. In that subtle distinction lies the difference between economic behavior and “pure” social behavior.

“PURE” SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

What is “pure” social behavior? A good example can be found in religion. Certainly, religion has transactional aspects, as in the “giving” of one’s belief in the hope of a heavenly afterlife. But religion, for billions of persons, is much more than that. So is sex in a loving marriage. So friendship can be.

What is this deeper aspect of “pure,” non-transactional (non-economic) social behavior? It is rooted in the capacity of humans for self-generated emotional satisfaction. This can manifest itself as a uni-directional attachment to another person or being, an attachment that does not depend on the actions of its subject. A mundane but not all-encompassing term for it is “unconditional love.” A perhaps more apt term is “needing to belong” to someone or something.

A uni-directional attachment becomes a “pure” social relationship when individuals join to celebrate an attachment in common. To offer a short list of examples, the attachment may be to a family (nuclear or extended) as a family, apart from mutual attachments between individuals; religion; club; patriotic organization; or even a neighborhood, where the attachment is to the neighborhood itself, instead of or in addition to neighborly friendships. Membership in such organizations — the feeling of belonging to something “bigger” than oneself — can complement and heighten the underlying uni-directional attachment felt by each member.

POLITICS

Politics, as I use the term here, is simply an aspect of social behavior. It is the working out of the rules (signals, customs, taboos) and roles that individuals will follow and adopt in transactional and “pure” social relationships. Some rules may be confined to particular relationships; others may spread widely through emulation and necessity. Necessity arises when there is a network of transactional and “pure” social relationships that comprises disparate local sub-groups. Common rules, in such a case, help to ensure that members are recognized, and that their behavior is consistent with the purpose of the social network.

Rules range from the use of secret handshakes (to signal membership in a particular organization) to shunning (as a signal that the target has been ejected from a particular social organization). In between, there are things like the religious symbolism (e.g., the way in which the Sign of the Cross is made), deportment (stiff upper lip, and all that), the use of drugs (or not), and myriad other tokens of membership in the overlapping social groupings that comprise humanity. Such groupings include the fraternity of individualists, who despite their individualism, share an allegiance to it and variations on themes that justify it.

Roles denote one’s standing in a social group. Roles are determined by rules and signaled by the observance of certain of them. The role of a wife in many cultures, for example, was (and remains) overt subservience to the edicts of the husband. Subservience is signaled by the observance of rules that include, for example, standing while the husband eats his meal, and eating only when he has finished. The extent to which a particular wife is truly subservient to her husband — bowing to his political judgments or, alternatively, influencing them — is a political matter that lies between them and depends very much on the individuals involved.

Here, I must digress about the difference between voluntarily evolved social distinctions and dominance by force. Busybodies are quick to adopt the view that outward signs of subservience — and similar social phenomena that seem to create classes of individuals — indicate the forceful imposition of rules and roles. Busybodies, in other words, cannot (or do not wish to) tell the difference between something as abhorrent as slavery and a time-honored rule or role that, by facilitating social behavior, saves time and effort and reduces the likelihood of conflict. The role of a busybody is to question and challenge everything that is not done the way he would do it; a busybody, in other words, is a person of limited empathy and imagination. (For more about the proper role of the state with respect to social behavior, see “The Principles of Actionable Harm.”)

THE INDIVISIBILITY OF SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR

Everything I have discussed to this point involves real politics: transactions for mutual benefit, within a framework of voluntarily evolved rules and roles, without the imposition or threat of force by the state.

For example, the dietary laws of Judaism, when observed strictly (as they are in certain sects) affect the kinds of foodstuffs that observant Jews will grow, raise, or buy. Those of us who are old enough to remember when the three top-selling makes of automobile in the U.S. were Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth will also remember that the choice of which to buy was (in certain socioeconomic circles and age groups) a sign of membership in a loose affiliation of kindred auto owners. More generally, the demand for certain kinds of clothing, electronic equipment, beverages, automobiles, and so on is determined to some extent by socioeconomic status and group membership. Outsiders may mimic insiders in an effort to increase their standing with peers, to signal an aspiration to belong to a certain group, or as a sign of membership in an auxiliary group (e.g., a fan club, or whatever it is called now).

Thus we have real politics as the lubricant of social behavior. And we have economic behavior as an aspect of social behavior.

There is nevertheless a widely held view that economic behavior is distinct from social behavior. But when the state taxes or regulates “economic” activity, it shapes and channels related “social” activity. For example, the family that pays 25 percent of its income in taxes is that much less able to join and support organizations of its choice, to own and exhibit tokens of its socioeconomic status, to afford better education for its children, and so on. The immediate rejoinder will be that nothing has been changed if everyone is affected equally. But because of the complexity of tax laws and regulations, everyone is not affected equally. Moreover, even if everyone were deprived equally of the same kind of thing — a superior education, say — everyone would be that much worse off by having been deprived of opportunities to acquire remunerative knowledge and skills, productive relationships, and mental stimulation. Similarly, everyone would be that much worse off by being less well clothed, less well housed, and so on. Taxes and regulations, even if they could be applied in some absolutely neutral way (which they can’t be), have an inevitably deleterious effect on individuals.

In sum, there is no dividing line between economic and social behavior. What we call social and economic behavior are indivisible aspects of human striving to fulfill wants, both material and spiritual. The attempt to isolate and restrict one type of behavior is futile. It is all social behavior.

“POWER POLITICS”: OR, ENTER THE STATE

The activity that we usually call “politics” is not politics at all. Real politics, as I have said, is the voluntary working out of rules and roles, in the context of social behavior, which encompasses so-called economic behavior. With voice and exit, those who are unhappy with their lot can try to persuade the other members of their voluntary association to adopt different rules. If they fail, they can choose a more congenial social set (if one is available to them), which may involve moving to a different place. The ability to “vote with one’s feet” is an instrument of persuasion, as well, for it signals the group that one leaves (or credibly threatens to leave) of a defect that may cause others to leave, thus endangering the attainment  of the group’s common objective.

What we usually call “politics” is entirely different from true politics. I call it “power politics.” It amounts to this:

  • A state is established, either by force alone or through a combination of consent, by limited to certain social and/or interest groups, and force, imposed on dissenting and uninvolved persons.
  • The state enjoys a monopoly of force, which it may — in the beginning, at least — apply to limited purposes, usually the defense of its citizens from aggression, intimidation, fraud, and theft.
  • There is a constant struggle for control of the state, either by force or by the kind of “politics” endemic to the state. The “politics” amounts to non-violent contests between and among various social and/or interest groups. The contests are conducted according to formal rules established under the aegis of the state,  not a working-out of a modus vivendi in the normal course of real politics.
  • Control of the state enables the winners to override the rules that arise voluntarily through social cooperation. Rules imposed by the state come in the form of statutes, regulations, executive orders, judicial decrees, and administrative decisions (which may take a life of their own).
  • The effects of the various statutes, etc., are long-lasting because they often are not repealed when power changes hands. Instead, they remain in place, with the result that state power accrues and expands, while — as a result — the scope of social behavior shrinks and becomes less potent.

In other words, power in the hands of the state — and those who control it — is anti-social. Acts of the state are not acts of “society” or “community.” Those terms properly refer to consenting relationships among individuals — relationships that are shaped by real politics.

The state, in its ideal form, upholds and defends “society” and “community.” But when it oversteps its legitimate bounds, it commits the very acts of aggression, intimidation, fraud, and theft that it is supposed to deter and prevent. Moreover, it undoes the fabric of “society” and “community” by unraveling the voluntarily evolved social rules that bind them and guide them in peaceful cooperation.

An Encounter with a Marxist

A post by David Henderson at EconLog reminds me of an exchange I had with a former neighbor, who is among a circle of acquaintances whom my wife and I occasionally join for dinner. In the post, Henderson quotes Robert Heilbroner:

Indeed, the creation of socialism as a new mode of production can properly be compared to the moral equivalent of war–war against the old order, in this case–and will need to amass and apply the power commensurate with the requirements of a massive war. This need not entail the exercise of command in an arbitrary or dictatorial fashion, but certainly it requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor. [Italics added]

The former neighbor, who acquired a Ph.D. in economics in the early 1960s, is a Marxist who views the world through the lens of class conflict. His world is a world in which the “bad guys” — rich capitalists and their cronies in government — victimize the rest of us, often with the aid of duped victims.

Because, in the former neighbor’s view, everything is rigged by the “bad guys,” he is unable to acknowledge  that competition and mutually beneficial voluntary exchange, fueled by the continuous emergence of innovations and entrepreneurs,  prevents the very kind of rigged game that he rightly abhors. It is not free markets but state action — taxation and regulation — that stands in the way of economic progress and widespread prosperity

The former neighbor see the solution to the non-problem through his Marxist lens. That solution is to use the power of the state to do the right thing — as long as he is judge of what is right, of course.

I understand that point of view, even though I abhor and disrespect it. But my tolerance for Marxist rhetoric drops to zero when I am told — as the former neighbor told me — that state action to redistribute income (through Social Security, for example) is a matter of “sharing” within “the community.”

I pointed out, rather heatedly, that when government — which enjoys a monopoly of force — effectively puts a gun to my head and says “share,” that isn’t sharing. Nor does government represent a “community,” for a community — to be worthy of the name — must be a voluntary association, not a group of citizens bound by the power of government to compel “sharing.”

The discussion ended there. Not because I instantly converted a long-standing Marxist to libertarianism, but because he saw the fury in my eyes and the set of my jaw.

The quotation from Heilbroner reminded me of the contretemps with my former neighbor because of their shared attitude: We know what’s good for you, and we’re willing to use the power of the state to make it so. Such individuals can claim, with a straight face, to be on the side of “the people” only because their arrogance allows them to equate force with benevolence.

Down with “We”

Whenever a politician says “we,” I reach for my wallet to be sure his hand isn’t already in it.

Count me out of the “we.” I don’t expect the state to force others to take care of me, I don’t want the state to force me to take care of others. I’ll decide who is worthy of my help, thank you very much, and I will give them as much help as I can afford while taking care of myself and my immediate family.

Yes, there is a nation called the United States, which comprises the States and their political subdivisions. But none of those political entities is a family, a community (in the sense of a voluntary association of individuals with voice and exit), or a society bound by shared cultural traditions. Whatever their origins in history, the United States and its components are now nothing more than mere political contrivances, whose governments have usurped the functions of family, community, and society.

If there ever was a “we the people,” it was long ago and in a different America.

Related posts:
Is There Such a Thing as Society?
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, The Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Law and Liberty
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
Is Liberty Possible?
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars