conservative

Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

This is a work in progress. The first version is here. This version expands the range of political stances by adding Despotism to Anarchism, Minarchism, and Statism. Also, this version goes into more detail about the differences between various stances. I’m leaving the first version in place because I’ve linked to it and quoted from it often, and because some of the descriptive material complements this post.

INTRODUCTION

The aim of this post and its predecessor is to find more precise political labels than Democrat, Republican, left, right, center, liberal, conservative, and libertarian. I want to show, for example, the dimensions of agreement and disagreement between a so-called liberal who wants government to dictate certain aspects of human affairs, and a so-called conservative who wants government to dictate certain other aspects of human affairs. Are they not both statists who merely have different agendas, or are there deeper differences between them? And what about the so-called libertarian who espouses some views that are anathema to many on the left (e.g., free markets) and other views that are anathema to many on the right (e.g., legalization of marijuana and harder drugs)? Are such views coherent or merely provocative?

Any one person’s political philosophy — if he may be said to have one — is likely to consist of a set of attitudes, many of them logically irreconcilable. This, I believe, is due mainly to the influence of temperament on one’s political views. It is a rare human being who does not interpret the world through the lens of his preferences, and those preferences seem to be more a matter of temperament than of knowledge and reason. Even highly intelligent persons are capable of believing in the most outlandish things because they want to believe those things.

I therefore admit that my search for more precise political labels may be — and probably is — both quixotic and reductionist. But it can, at least, shed some light on real differences — and real similarities — among various lines of political thought.

THE ESSENCE OF POLITICS

Political views, and their essential differences, cannot be organized into a taxonomy without first defining politics and its essential issues.

Politics is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components. The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Some political stances are incoherent because their principles cannot yield the preferred outcomes (e.g., redistribution, a favored policy of left-statists, actually makes the poor worse off because it stifles economic growth). But incoherence does not prevent a political stance from becoming popular, or even dominant.

THE BASELINE POSITION: TRADITIONAL CONSERVATISM

The following sections of this post culminate in a taxonomy of political philosophies, which is given in a table at the end of the post. In that table, I take as a baseline a political stance that I call Right-Minarchism. It represents traditional conservatism, as it would have played out in practice under the kind of true federalism represented in the Articles of Confederation.

What is the traditional conservative position? I begin with a redaction of Russell Kirk’s “Six Canons of Conservative Thought“:

1. An understanding that political problems, at bottom, are moral problems.

2. A preference for tradition — which incorporates beneficial change — over the shackles of statism and the chaos that must ensue from anarchy.

3. Recognition that change is not the same thing as change for the better (reform), which emerges from tradition and is not imposed upon it.

4. An understanding that a flourishing civil society requires order, without which freedom is available only to despots and predators.

5. Faith in traditional mores and reliance upon them, in the main, to maintain a regimen of order that enables freedom — ordered liberty, in other words. Traditional mores are supplemented but not supplanted by the rule of law, impartially administered and no more intrusive than is required for ordered liberty.

6. Knowledge that property and liberty are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.

For an elaboration on the role of government, I turn to Michael Oakeshott:

Government, … as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection…. To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31)

In what follows, I synthesize Kirk and Oakeshott, and call the result Right-Minarchism.

A TAXONOMY OF PHILOSOPHIES

I begin with a rough sorting of political philosophies:

  • Anarchism is a fairly coherent (if implausible) philosophy of non-government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves anarcho-capitalists (probably because it seems a more respectable label than “anarchist”).
  • Minarchism is a somewhat more diffuse but still coherent philosophy of minimal government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves libertarians, over the objection of anarchists, who claim to be the only true libertarians.
  • Anarchists and minarchists dwell in the big tent of libertarianism.  Where anarchists are fairly monolithic in their views (government is evil because it must always be based on coercion), minarchists are of varied stripes, which I delineate below. My analyses of anarchism and minarchism span the range of libertarian ideas, so there is nothing more for me to say in this post about libertarianism as a political philosophy.
  • Statism comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority. Statism, because it is so powerful and pervasive a force, merits further analysis — more aptly, dissection — into its main types.
  • Despotism is perhaps the inevitable outcome of statism. Despotism may be “hard,” as with the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler, or “soft,” as with innumerable “social democrat” regimes, including the controlling regime of the United States. Under despotic rule there is no dividing line between the state’s power and individual liberty. The state can — and will — dictate to its subjects about anything.

Thus the four broad philosophies that I parse in this post are anarchism, minarchism, statism, and despotism. Here is more about each of them:

Anarchism

Anarchists believe that no one should govern others; rather, all human interactions and joint functions (e.g., a group’s efforts to defend itself against predators and enemies) should be undertaken through voluntary agreements, including contracts with private defense agencies.

Central to anarchism is the dual principle of non-coercion and non-aggression: conjoined prohibitions against the imposition of one’s will upon others and, therefore, the use of force except in self-defense or the defense of others. (Are there loopholes for dealing with imminent, predatory threats and teaching children to behave? Only an anarchist knows for sure.) Government, by definition, imposes its will by exerting superior force. Government, therefore, is illegitimate.

The non-aggression principle is the undoing of anarchism. Anarchy (purely consensual anarchy) cannot prevail. Non-aggression often is met with aggression. Anarchists (were there a viable group of them) would fall prey to well-armed aggressors (both from within the group and outside it). This inconvenient fact is of no account to doctrinaire anarchists. They are focused on the world as they would like it to be, and have little time for the world as it is, except to object when it isn’t to their liking — which is all of the time.

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitability of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and successfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Here is a small sample:

As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

What Hayek says is true not only of economic institutions but also of social ones. The seemingly uncoordinated price “system” guides economic actors toward better ways of meeting ever-changing human wants with limited resources. The social “system” accrues behavioral norms that guide individuals toward peaceful, constructive coexistence with their compatriots.

The Protection of Negative Rights

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.

More about Property Rights

Minarchists (like anarchists) are fierce defenders of property rights. Minarchists hold that we own what we earn (or what is given to us, freely, by others who have earned it). The right to property is a negative right, in that the enjoyment and use of that which is ours need not deny anyone else the right to enjoy and use that which is theirs. (Acts of enjoyment and use, however, must not infringe on the negative rights of others.) The denial of property rights (in whole or in part) is theft, whether committed by a private party or government. (The “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment is applied legitimately only when government must take property, with “just compensation” in order to execute one of the few legitimate functions of government.)

There is an economic justification, as well, for minarchists’ defense of property rights. People generally use that which they own more carefully and more productively than that which they do not own. This tendency — which springs from the same psychological source as the tendency of individuals to care more for those who are closest to them — yields less waste and greater output. That outcome benefits everyone, not just the owners of economic resources.

The Role of Civil Society

There can be more to minarchy than the protection of negative rights. In the view of some minarchists, government legitimately serves the broader (but related) purpose of protecting civil society. Other minarchists have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society. And it is civil society which, many minarchists aver, government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Moreover, some minarchists aver that government ought to tolerate a broad range of accepted behaviors across the various institutions of civil society, as long as government also protects the negative rights of association and exit: the right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, and the right to live and work where one prefers.

The centrality of family, church, club, and the like, to civil society reflects a fundamental fact of the human condition: We tend to care more for those who are close to us than we do for those who are unrelated to us by blood or a direct social bond of some kind. Charity and civilization begin at home.

A Note about Left-Minarchism

This branch of minarchism attracts pseudo-libertarians who proclaim their dedication to liberty from one side of the mouth while supporting statist restrictions on liberty from the other side. The hypocrisy of left-minarchism is discussed in the table below, and by Bill McMorris in “Conservatives Will Embrace Libertarians When Libertarians Stop Embracing Government” (The Federalist, February 26, 2014).

Statism

I come now to statism, about which less need be said than about minarchism. Statism is notable mainly for its failure to understand, respect, or protect negative rights and civil society.

The Essence of Statism: Control

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government. Statism is orthogonal to the libertarian worldview of anarchists and minarchists.

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist who happens to be expounding his views. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others. (Two excellent posts that spell out the essential sameness of statism, whether it comes from the “left” or the “right,” are John Ray’s “The American Roots of Fascism” and Eric Scheie’s “Rule by the Freest.”)

“Hard” statists thrive on the idea of a powerful state; control is their religion, pure and simple. “Soft” statists profess offense at the size, scope, and cost of government, but will go on to say “government should do such-and-such,” where “such-and such” usually consists of:

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do many things other than — and sometimes in lieu of — dispensing justice and defending the nation.

The distinctions between “hard” and “soft” are, for my purposes, less important than the particular kinds of positive rights and interventions preferred by statists of various stripes. I parse the variety of statists later in this post.

Feeble Excuses for Statism

Statists give various excuses for their statism. Here are three, the second and third of which are mentioned above:

  • Government is the community. (This is an odd thing to say, given that politicians elected by a minority of the populace, and often a bare majority of voters, are able to dictate to the non-voting majority. The main virtue of  many an appointed official is that he represents a particular interest group, which is a far cry from “the community.”)
  • People (or certain kinds of people) can’t do such-and-such for themselves. (This claim is credible only because government has destroyed much of civil society by fostering dependency instead of personal responsibility; by blunting entrepreneurship, business formation, and economic growth through taxation and regulation; by breaking up families through various welfare programs; by usurping many of civil society’s functions (education, care of the elderly, and charity being the three most obvious); and by heavily taxing those who would have the means to underwrite the educational and charitable institutions of civil society.)
  • Certain kinds of activities and industries must be regulated because we can’t trust certain so-an-so’s to do the right thing. (This claim is tantamount to saying that (a) only certain outcomes are acceptable, (b) risk — which is necessary to progress — can be controlled by politicians and bureaucrats, and (c) the superficial knowledge and judgments of those same politicians and bureaucrats are adequate substitutes for the vast amounts of knowledge resident in free markets and free social institutions.

The reality from which statists avert their eyes is this: Even in a “democracy” such as ours, where government is supposed to be the people’s servant, it is in fact operated by power-hungry politicians and their often-arrogant minions. The arrogant attitudes of elected and appointed officials toward the “communities” they supposedly serve are revealed by the lavish offices and perquisites they arrange for themselves. The higher they rise on the scale of political power, the more god-like they become, to themselves at least. Constituent service is a means of garnering votes — a necessary evil, handled by staffers whenever possible, and paid for by taxpayers. (A politician naturally take a more personal interest in big contributors seeking attention and favors.)

The Bottom Line about Statism

No recitation of the character and limitations of government really matters to a statist. Government is at once a statist’s god and bully of first resort.

Despotism

In “democratic” nations, despotism arrives as an outgrowth of statism. It arrives by stealth, as the state’s power becomes so pervasive and so entrenched in statutes, regulations, and judicial decrees that liberty becomes a hollow word. Every sphere of existence — religious, social, economic — is subject to interference and control by the state. The state may not exercise full control in every instance, but it has the power to do so, rhetoric about liberty to the contrary notwithstanding.

America’s despotism is “soft,” compared with the despotism of the USSR and Nazi Germany, but it is despotism, nonetheless. If you think it hyperbolic to call the America a despotism, think again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The dividing line between statism and despotism is a thin one, and if you will follow the links in the two preceding sentences, you will find many reasons to believe that America has crossed over into despotism. “Soft” verges on “hard” when myriad organs of the state — from the IRS to local zoning departments — can persecute and prosecute citizens on almost any pretext. The only saving grace is that the victims of America’s “soft” despotism still have recourse to the courts and sometimes find relief there.

REFINING THE TAXONOMY

These statements implicate several political issues:

1. Toward what social and economic outcomes ought human endeavor be aimed? The “aiming” need not be deliberate but, rather, the natural result of voluntary, cooperative action in accord with social norms.

2. Who should determine social norms, and how?

3. What behaviors should obtain?

4. How should norms be enforced?

5. What is the proper role of the state?

6. When the norms and actions of the people and the state are in conflict, how should the conflict be resolved?

7. Who benefits from the imposition of norms by the state, and who is harmed by those impositions?

8. Who should pay for functions of the state?

9. What should happen when the state exceeds its authority?

10. With respect to the foregoing matters, how should dissent acknowledged and accommodated?

The answers to those questions lead to a taxonomy in which Minarchism is divided into Right-Minarchism (the traditional conservative stance, fleshed out with its implications for governance), and Left-Minarchism. Statism is divided into Left-Statism and Right-Statism. I leave Despotism and Anarchism intact. Both stances have nuances, but both are baleful enough without being proliferated.

The following table delineates each of the six philosophies in terms of the ten questions listed above. I have placed Anarchism last, not only for convenience but also because it is the least probably of the six options.

Taxonomy of political philosophies

*     *     *

Related posts (mainly about America’s slide into statism and despotism, and the consequences thereof):
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
True Federalism
FDR and Fascism
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The People’s Romance
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Fascism
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Left
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Society and the State
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Is Taxation Slavery?
A Contrarian View of Universal Suffrage
Well-Founded Pessimism
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The World Turned Upside Down
Secession Made Easy
More about “Secession Made Easy”
A Better Constitution
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Defense Spending: One More Time
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament (see also the links at the bottom)

Conservatives vs. “Liberals”

David Brooks occasionally writes something with which I agree. For example, in “Hey Mets! I Just Can’t Quit You” (The New York Times, March 8, 2012) he says:

There’s a core American debate between [Jack Kerouac's] “On the Road” and [Frank Capra’s}“It’s a Wonderful Life.” “On the Road” suggests that happiness is to be found through freedom, wandering and autonomy. “It’s a Wonderful Life” suggests that happiness is found in the lifelong attachments that precede choice. It suggests that restraints can actually be blessings because they lead to connections that are deeper than temporary self-interest.

What Brooks didn’t say, but probably thought, is that “On the Road” is “liberal” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” is “conservative.” For, as Brooks observes in the next paragraph, “happiness research suggests that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is correct and ‘On the Road’ is an illusion.” That’s consistent with a point I make in “Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness,” namely, that persons of the right (which includes most libertarians) are happier than “liberals.”

But the happiness of persons of the right — and therefore most of the happiness that’s in the air — is threatened by the “liberal” agenda. And most conservatives are hard put to refute that agenda with reasoned argument. Maverick Philosopher explains, in “Why Are Conservatives Inarticulate?“:

Conservatives, by and large, are doers not thinkers, builders,  not scribblers.  They are at home on the terra firma of the concrete particular but at sea in the realm of abstraction.  The know in their dumb inarticulate way that killing infants is a moral outrage but they cannot argue it out with sophistication and nuance in a manner to command the respect of their opponents.  And that’s a serious problem.

To beat the Left we must out-argue them in the ivory towers and out-slug them in the trenches.  Since by Converse Clausewitz  politics is war conducted by other means, the trench-fighters need to employ the same tactics that lefties do: slanders, lies, smears, name-calling, shout-downs, pie-throwing, mockery, derision….

Politics is war and war is ugly.  We could avoid a lot of this nastiness if we adopted federalism and voluntary Balkanization.  But that is not likely to happen: the totalitarian Left won’t allow it.  So I predict things are going to get hot in the coming years.

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, inarticulateness in the defense of liberty is no virtue.

The intelligentsia of the right — a select group that includes George Will and does not include the likes of O’Reilly and Hannity — must arm themselves to do battle on the left’s terms. I would avoid slanders, lies, and smears, but name-calling, shout-downs, pie-throwing, mockery, and derision are certainly in order — as is the truth about the baneful effects of leftism on its supposed beneficiaries: the poor and (mostly imaginary) downtrodden. Their raison d’être, in the left’s scheme of things, has been to supply the votes that have enabled the left to exert its totalitarian will on all of us.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
The Left
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Undermining the Free Society
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
The Stagnation Thesis
The Left’s Agenda
The Public-School Swindle
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
Externalities and Statism
Taxes: Theft or Duty?
Society and the State
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
Are You in the Bubble?
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down

Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

REVISED AND UPDATED, 01/29/14

Are there such things? If there are, are they the same thing?

A prominent libertarian of my acquaintance once said to me that a libertarian may be a person of conservative mien. His implication was that a libertarian — one who favors (at most) a minimal, night-watchman state — might be conservative in his personal views about, say, the kinds of behavior in which he would engage, even while “tolerating” behavior, by others, in which he would not engage. A person of such character might be considered a conservative libertarian.  Such a “conservative” libertarian would not, for example, take a homosexual “marriage” partner or abet an abortion, even though he would (in all likelihood) insist that such things should be allowed by the state (as long as the state is in the business of allowing or disallowing such things).

What, then, is a libertarian conservative? Is he, in effect, the “conservative” libertarian of the preceding paragraph — unwilling to invoke the power of the state against acts in which he would not engage? Is that all there is to it?

Hardly. I have played fast and loose with the idea of conservatism by portraying it as a kind of prudishness or finickiness. Conservatism, properly understood, is not those things.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us begin with libertarianism. It is, as I say in “Parsing Political Philosophy (II),” a “big tent” that accommodates anarchists and minarchists. Later in that post — and in many others (e.g., here) — I dismiss anarchism as a viable political philosophy. Turning to minarchism, I write:

Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitabliity of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and successfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”…

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.

Does minarchism square with conservatism? It all depends on what one means by conservatism, and on the brand of minarchism one has in mind.

There is, in my view, a “core” conservatism, which Russell Kirk articulates in his six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

(1) …Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

Kirk’s canons, at first glance, seem orthogonal to minarchism, if not opposed to it.  But they are not they are compatible with right-minarchism (as defined here):

1. Political problems are moral problems. A right-minarchist would say that it is immoral to take from others what they have rightly earned. There are, of course, persons who profess to be religious and yet believe that it is right for government to take from the “rich” and give to the poor (or whatever group happens to find favor with those who control government at a particular time). But a truly conservative view of the matter is found in the Seventh Commandment: You shall not steal. A Christian is exhorted to do good with his income, sharing with others and being as open-handed as possible toward employees, while meeting his family’s needs and maintaining a viable business. The sharing of one’s income and the property that derives from it is a matter of conscience, not a matter for government to decide.

2. Right-minarchism is not in any way a “radical system.” The only kind of “equalitarianism” to be found in right-minarchism is the equality of rights, which are the same for all. Right-minarchists reject utilitarianism — the belief in a transcendent welfare function — as nothing more than an excuse for dictatorship in the name of “society.” Right-minarchists may even believe that tradition is essential to social cohesion, without which violence and suspicion would displace mutually beneficial coexistence and cooperation.

3. Orders and classes result naturally from spontaneous order,

those ‘natural processes’ which are not the product of reason or intention. The classic example is the free market economy in which the co-ordination of the aims and purposes of countless actors, who cannot know the aims and purposes of more than a handful of their fellow citizens, is achieved by the mechanism of prices. A change in the price of a commodity is simply a signal which feeds back information into the system enabling actors to ‘automatically’ produce that spontaneous co-ordination which appears to be the product of an omniscient mind. The repeated crises in dirigiste systems are in essence crises of information since the abolition of the market leaves the central planner bereft of that economic knowledge which is required for harmony. There is no greater example of the hubris of the constructivist than in this failure to envisage order in a natural process (which is not of a directly physical kind). As Hayek says in “Principles of a Liberal Social Order”:

Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.

Right-minarchism fosters spontaneous order, which benefits not only the form of social behavior known as economic activity but all forms of social behavior. Right-minarchism, in short, enables the cream to rise to the top, as the old (pre-homgenization) saying goes. This is true in the economic sphere, where rewards are in keeping with the value that willing buyers place on the products and services of sellers. It is true, also, in the social sphere, where institutions and persons are honored and respected for the value they add to the lives they touch. There are natural “orders and classes,” and they are preferable to the hereditary ones that are imposed by dirigiste systems.

4. Right-minarchism is founded on the intimate connection of freedom and property. There is no freedom without the right to acquire property, that is, to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. Leveling amount to theft, and it removes a vital incentive to act in economically and, therefore, socially beneficial ways.

5. Right-minarchists agree that civil order is an essential condition for productive economic and social intercourse. It therefore follows that free civil institutions — family, church, club, and so on — yield traditions that conduce to civil order. Those traditions may evolve with time, but only as their evolution is found to be beneficial.

6. Right-minarchism rules out change for the sake of a politician’s perceived need for change. It allows changes only where such change is beneficial to the parties affected by it.

In sum, there is no essential conflict between Kirk’s brand of Burkean conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism.

This brings me to Friedrich Hayek — a right-minarchist, in my view — who argued as persuasively as anyone against an intrusive state (though he was not averse to a “social safety net”), but who seemingly rejected conservatism. The famous postscript to Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty is called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” In the following excerpts, Hayek’s use of “liberal” should be understood as a reference to classical liberalism, the anti-statist position which is the antithesis of modern “liberalism” or “progressivism”:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt [by William F. Buckley Jr. et al.] to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character….

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving [i.e., toward socialism]. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,” I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists….

…Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers. To their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions we owe (at least outside the field of economics) some profound insights which are real contributions to our understanding of a free society. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge….

…It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change “orderly.”

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks….

[T]he main point … is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules….

Hayek’s mentor and colleague, Ludwig von Mises, immediately expressed his agreement with Hayek’s rejection of conservatism:

I completely agree with your rejection of conservatism. In his book Up from Liberalism, Buckley — as a person a fine and educated man — has clearly defined his standpoint: “Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.” (p. 154)….

I quite agree with Hayek and Mises, to the extent that their target is Buckley and his adherents, in whose “conservatism” I could never find a coherent principle, except the one identified by Mises. Buckley’s program, it seems to me, was always one of opposition, expressed so reconditely that it almost defies analysis and refutation. For example, Buckley rightly excoriates the infantile posturing of Murray Rothbard and his anarchistic ilk (here, at “The Right Anarchists”), while at the same time demonstrating the truth of Hayek’s charge that “the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds”; thus Buckley writes:

…The American conservative believes that the state is as often as not [emphasis added] an instrument of mischief as of good….

But no, children, one does not therefore argue against the existence of the state. The conservative harbors the presumption against any growth in state power….

But apparently not a presumption for the reduction of state power.

Returning to Kirk, we find an affirmation of liberty in his essay, “The Best Form of Government,” which he penned in the year that Hayek rejected conservatism (as he understood it). Kirk applies the idea of spontaneous order, of which Hayek was a leading exponent. But Kirk’s understanding of spontaneous order goes deeper than Hayek’s:

Good government is not of uniform design. Order and justice and freedom are found in diverse ways, and any government which intends to shelter the happiness of its people must be founded upon the moral convictions, the cultural inheritance, and the historic experience of that people. Theory divorced from experience is infinitely dangerous, the plaything of the ideologue….

I am saying this: governments are the offspring of religion and morals and philosophy and social experience; governments are not the source of civilization, nor the manufacturers of happiness. As Christianity embraces no especial scheme of politics, so various forms of government are best—under certain circumstances, in certain times and certain nations. And, far from being right to revolt against small imperfections in government, a people are fortunate if their political order maintains a tolerable degree of freedom and justice for the different interests in society. We are not made for perfect things, and if ever we found ourselves under the domination of the perfect government, we would make mincemeat of it, from pure boredom.

Hayek and Mises were right enough, as far as they went, but they failed to delve human nature as deeply as Kirk did.

Where does that leave the relationship between conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism? It is superficial to proclaim the virtues of individualism and spontaneous order while rejecting the indispensable, civilizing role of tradition. A libertarian who is not also a Burkean conservative is on a par with his ostensible opponent, the rationalist of the left:

How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply infected with Rationalism will the conversion of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources. (Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7)

What conclusions do I draw from the preceding tour of libertarianism and conservatism? These:

It is entirely possible to be a libertarian conservative, that is, a conservative (of Burkean stripe) who believes that humane values are most likely to survive and thrive under the aegis of a minimal state.  This kind of conservative is an adherent of right-minarchism, which is a species of libertarianism. And for my money, right-minarchism is the only kind of libertarianism that is both coherent and viable.

A libertarian of conservative mien — a so-called conservative libertarian — will favor a minimal state (if any), by definition. But such a person may be “conservative” only in matters of personal taste, and not because he subscribes to the conservatism of Burke and Kirk. He may in fact be in favor of governmental efforts to demolish long-standing social norms. He will give his support to such efforts in the name of liberty and without regard for the true bulwark of liberty: the restraining influence of voluntarily evolved norms of behavior.

In short, a “conservative” libertarian may well be what I call a left-minarchist. And if he is, he will be allied with other left-minarchists who are neither “conservative” in matters of personal taste nor attuned to the indispensable role of social norms.

Perversely, left-minarchists tend to dismiss the importance of social norms in binding a people together in mutual respect, trust, and forbearance. And it is that bond — far more than the threat of state action — which allows us to go about our daily lives in the peaceful pursuit of happiness.

That said, libertarians (of all stripes) and conservatives (“conservative” yahoos excepted) have a common political enemy: the over-reaching state. Libertarians who are tempted to make cause with “liberals” because they happen to agree with “liberals” about the permissibility of certain kinds of behavior should resist the temptation. There is nothing to be gained from an alliance with “liberals,” who will only use libertarian arguments cynically to advance measures that suppress liberty.

And what is liberty? It is not “do as you will as long as you don’t harm others.” That definition, adapted from John Stuart Mill’s oft-evoked “harm principle,” is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific, agreed definition of harm. Liberty — the absence of harm — is therefore a social construct. That is to say, liberty is a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. It comes down to this:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

What could be more conservative?

*     *     *

Related reading:
Carson Holloway, “Conservatism and Freedom,” Public Discourse, November 8, 2013
Jonathan Neumann, “God, Hayek, and the Conceit of Reason,” Standpoint, January/February 2014 (This is generally applicable to libertarians, though it misses Hayek’s defense of tradition; see this post, for example.)
Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism Is Very Strange,” Boston Review, January 27, 2014
Glenn Fairman, “Libertarianism and the Public Good,” American Thinker, January 29, 2014

*     *     *

Related posts:
Libertarianism and Conservatism
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?
The Meaning of Liberty
A Trichotomy of American Conservatism
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertarianism
On Liberty
What Is Conservatism?
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

Parsing Political Philosophy

A revised version of this post, expanded in scope but somewhat shorter, is here.

This is a work in progress. It is my attempt to replace vague terms like “conservative” and “liberal” with a more precise delineation of political viewpoints in the United States. Accurate as this taxonomy may be, it is not impartial, nor is it meant to be. I favor a particular branch of minarchism — and it shows.

TWO BASIC POLITICAL ISSUES

Politics, correctly understood, refers to the means by which human beings govern interpersonal behavior of various kinds (including commerce), and — in some cases — behavior that might be considered strictly personal (e.g., the kinds of material one chooses to read or view). There are two basic political issues:

  • who should govern (if anyone)
  • what they should govern (i.e., government’s proper role, if any, in the regulation of human affairs).

My purpose here is to classify the range of views about those issues in terms more meaningful than “Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and the like. Such terms no longer convey accurate information about a person’s stance on the basic issues (if they ever did).

THREE BASIC PHILOSOPHIES OF POLITICS

I begin with a rough sorting of political preferences:

  • Anarchism is a fairly coherent (if implausible) philosophy of non-government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves anarcho-capitalists (probably because it seems a more respectable label than “anarchist”).
  • Minarchism is a somewhat more diffuse but still coherent philosophy of minimal government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves libertarians, over the objection of anarchists, who claim to be the only true libertarians.
  • Anarchists and minarchists dwell in the big tent of libertarianism.  Where anarchists are fairly monolithic in their views (government is evil because it must always be based on coercion), minarchists are of varied stripes, which I delineate below. My analyses of anarchism and minarchism span the range of libertarian ideas, so there is nothing more for me to say in this post about libertarianism as a political philosophy.
  • Statism lives not in a big tent but in a  colossal coliseum. It comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority. Statism, because it is so powerful and pervasive a force, merits further analysis — more aptly, dissection — into its main types.

Thus the three broad philosophies that I parse in this post are anarchism, minarchism, and statism. Here’s a bit more about each of them:

Anarchism

Anarchists believe that no one should govern others; rather, all human interactions and joint functions (e.g., a group’s efforts to defend itself against predators and enemies) should be undertaken through voluntary agreements, including contracts with private defense agencies.

Central to anarchism is the dual principle of non-coercion and non-aggression: conjoined prohibitions against the imposition of one’s will upon others and, therefore, the use of force except in self-defense or the defense of others. (Are there loopholes for dealing with imminent, predatory threats and teaching children to behave? Only an anarchist knows for sure.) Government, by definition, imposes its will by exerting superior force. Government, therefore, is illegitimate.

The non-aggression principle is the undoing of anarchism. Anarchy (purely consensual anarchy) cannot prevail. Non-aggression often is met with aggression. Anarchists (were there a viable group of them) would fall prey to well-armed aggressors (both from within the group and outside it). This inconvenient fact is of no account to doctrinaire anarchists. They are focused on the world as they would like it to be, and have little time for the world as it is, except to object when it isn’t to their liking — which is all of the time.

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitabliity of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and succesfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Here is a small sample:

As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

What Hayek says is true not only of economic institutions but also of social ones. The seemingly uncoordinated price “system” guides economic actors toward better ways of meeting ever-changing human wants with limited resources. The social “system” accrues behavioral norms that guide individuals toward peaceful, constructive coexistence with their compatriots.

The Protection of Negative Rights

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.

More about Property Rights

Minarchists (like anarchists) are fierce defenders of property rights. Minarchists hold that we own what we earn (or what is given to us, freely, by others who have earned it). The right to property is a negative right, in that the enjoyment and use of that which is ours need not deny anyone else the right to enjoy and use that which is theirs. (Acts of enjoyment and use, however, must not infringe on the negative rights of others.) The denial of property rights (in whole or in part) is theft, whether committed by a private party or government. (The “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment is applied legitimately only when government must take property, with “just compensation” in order to execute one of the few legitimate functions of government.)

There is an economic justification, as well, for minarchists’ defense of property rights. People generally use that which they own more carefully and more productively than that which they do not own. This tendency — which springs from the same psychological source as the tendency of individuals to care more for those who are closest to them — yields less waste and greater output. That outcome benefits everyone, not just the owners of economic resources.

The Role of Civil Society

There can be more to minarchy than the protection of negative rights. In the view of some minarchists, government legitimately serves the broader (but related) purpose of protecting civil society. Other minarchists have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society. And it is civil society which, many minarchists aver, government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Moreover, some minarchists aver that government ought to tolerate a broad range of accepted behaviors across the various institutions of civil society, as long as government also protects the negative rights of association and exit: the right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, and the right to live and work where one prefers.

The centrality of family, church, club, and the like, to civil society reflects a fundamental fact of the human condition: We tend to care more for those who are close to us than we do for those who are unrelated to us by blood or a direct social bond of some kind. Charity and civilization begin at home.

Statism

We come now to statism, about which less need be said than about minarchism. Statism is notable mainly for its failure to understand, respect, or protect negative rights and civil society.

The Essence of Statism: Control

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government. Statism is orthogonal to the libertarian worldview of anarchists and minarchists.

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist who happens to be expounding his views. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others. (Two excellent posts that spell out the essential sameness of statism, whether it comes from the “left” or the “right,” are John Ray’s “The American Roots of Fascism” and Eric Scheie’s “Rule by the Freest.”)

“Hard” statists thrive on the idea of a powerful state; control is their religion, pure and simple. “Soft” statists profess offense at the size, scope, and cost of government, but will go on to say “government should do such-and-such,” where “such-and such” usually consists of:

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do many things other than — and sometimes in lieu of — dispensing justice and defending the nation.

The distinctions between “hard” and “soft” are, for my purposes, less important than the particular kinds of positive rights and interventions preferred by statists of various stripes. I parse the variety of statists later in this post.

Feeble Excuses for Statism

Statists give various excuses for their statism. Here are three, the second and third of which are mentioned above:

  • Government is the community. (This is an odd thing to say, given that politicians elected by a minority of the populace, and often a bare majority of voters, are able to dictate to the non-voting majority. The main virtue of  many an appointed official is that he represents a particular interest group, which is a far cry from “the community.”)
  • People (or certain kinds of people) can’t do such-and-such for themselves. (This claim is credible only because government has destroyed much of civil society by fostering dependency instead of personal responsibility; by blunting entrepreneurship, business formation, and economic growth through taxation and regulation; by breaking up families through various welfare programs; by usurping many of civil society’s functions (education, care of the elderly, and charity being the three most obvious); and by heavily taxing those who would have the means to underwrite the educational and charitable institutions of civil society.)
  • Certain kinds of activities and industries must be regulated because we can’t trust certain so-an-so’s to do the right thing. (This claim is tantamount to saying that (a) only certain outcomes are acceptable, (b) risk — which is necessary to progress — can be controlled by politicians and bureaucrats, and (c) the superficial knowledge and judgments of those same politicians and bureaucrats are adequate substitutes for the vast amounts of knowledge resident in free markets and free social institutions.

The reality from which statists avert their eyes is this: Even in a “democracy” such as ours, where government is supposed to be the people’s servant, it is in fact operated by power-hungry politicians and their often-arrogant minions. The arrogant attitudes of elected and appointed officials toward the “communities” they supposedly serve are revealed by the lavish offices and perquisites they arrange for themselves. The higher they rise on the scale of political power, the more god-like they become, to themselves at least. Constituent service is a means of garnering votes — a necessary evil, handled by staffers whenever possible, and paid for by taxpayers. (A politician naturally take a more personal interest in big contributors seeking attention and favors.)

The Bottom Line

No recitation of the character and limitations of government really matters to a statist. Government is at once a statist’s god and bully of first resort.

It is evident that we have come to statism as the ruling philosophy in America, for reasons I will detail in a future post.

REFINING THE TRIPARTITE TAXONOMY

To further distinguish anarchists, minarchists, and statists, and to delineate the varieties of minarchism and statism, I apply the following questions:

  1. Is there a need for government, that is, an institution empowered to impose rules of behavior on the populace? Or should human affairs be regulated (entirely or mainly) by voluntary agreements among individuals (say, adult individuals for the sake of simplicity)?
  2. If government is necessary, what control should it have of the affairs of citizens, with respect to (a) the types of affairs and (b) the degree of control?
  3. How should government be chosen?
  4. How should it be controlled?

The answers follow. For the sake of brevity, I generally use the following notation: A = anarchist(s), M = minarchist(s), S = statist(s).

1. Need for Government

Anarchists

A say “no” to government because, in their view, essential functions (e.g., justice and defense) can be accomplished through contracts with private agencies. Similarly, all other matters involving human interactions should be resolved by consenting individuals through voluntary agreements.

Given that A do not believe in the necessity of government, I have only one more thing to say about anarchists until the summing up: No anarchist who strives for consistency in his beliefs should have any views about the three questions yet to be addressed.

Minarchists and Statists

M and S say “yes” to government. M do so out of necessity (anarchy being impossible, in their view), or in the belief that it is possible and desirable to have a minimal government which only protects negative rights (including property rights) and civil society.

S say “yes” to government out of a desire to harness the power of government to their will. But the answers to questions 2 through 4 are fundamentally different as between M and S, and among S.

2. Government Control of the Affairs of Citizens

Minarchists

Somewhere on the political scale the must be a little room for those M who are anarchists at heart, but who accept the inevitability of government or flinch at the thought of anarchy. These tepid minarchists have little to contribute to political discourse. Their stock in trade is to point out that government always does the wrong thing, no matter what it does. I call them A-M, for anarcho-minarchists. And that is the end of them, for purposes of this post.

I turn now to those M who actually have ideas about what government should do within its proper sphere.

The main arguments among M have to do with defining negative rights and delineating government’s role in protecting those rights. The protection of negative rights requires that certain kinds of actions be prevented or punished. But there are gray areas, the most significant of which involve defense, crime, discrimination (on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation), and matters that come under the heading of self-ownership (e.g., abortion and homosexual “marriage”).

Some M are to the “left.” These  L-M (left-minarchists), as I call them, usually cluster around the following positions:

  • L-M embrace the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense, not because they believe in anarchy but because they simply wish that it weren’t necessary for America to be at war with anyone. They might consider it necessary to strike first at a potential enemy who is poised to strike us, but they would have to think long and hard about it.
  • For much the same reason, L-M tend toward a “soft on crime” stance and near-absolutism with respect to things like freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless searches and seizures, and freedom from self-incrimination. As with defense, L-M will admit the need for government action, but they mistrust the government that has the power to act.
  • L-M are sympathetic to “political correctness,” arguing that someone (perhaps government) must do something to quell impolite speech or to compensate blacks, women, etc., for the past behavior of those who discriminated against them. More generally, they are all for liberty, except when it is exercised in ways of which they disapprove.
  • Reverting to their embrace of the non-aggression principle, which they abandon when it comes to “political correctness,” L-M tend toward absolutism on such matters as abortion (“it’s a woman’s choice”) and homosexual “marriage” (“what’s different about it?”).

With respect to the first two points, L-M come very close to being anarchists. Government may be necessary, but it is very definitely an evil to be tolerated and restrained, perhaps even to the point of ineffectiveness in combating predators. As for the last two points, L-M come very close to being left-statists (who are discussed below). L-M fall in the M column mainly because of their general views about government: Less is better, and the only rights it should protect (with perhaps a few exceptions having to do with discrimination) are negative ones. Of course, in order to say that, you must count among negative rights the right to kill an unborn child.

It may come as a surprise to L-M, but it is possible to be a minarchist and hold views nearly opposite those of an L-M. The right-minarchists (R-M) who hold such views tend to cluster around these positions:

  • R-M reject the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense. They do so not because they favor aggression but because the principle, in its standard interpretation, is a non-action principle. It would not allow a preemptive attack on an antagonistic state that is armed, capable of striking us at any time, and known to be contemplating a strike. R-M, in other words, tend toward hawkishness when it comes to national defense.
  • R-M also tend toward a hawkish stance on crime. For example, some R-M have no sympathy for journalists who protect anonymous sources where those sources obtain their information by breaking the law. Other R-M reject the idea that the press should be allowed to print whatever information it may obtain about America’s defense forces, plans, and operation. R-M understand that liberty and the prosperity it brings are unattainable in a lawless, defenseless society.
  • R-M are unsympathetic to “political correctness,” arguing that government must not do anything to quell impolite speech or to compensate blacks, women, etc., for the past behavior of those who discriminated against them, because to do so penalizes persons now living who are innocent of discrimination. But more than that, R-M would give individuals and businesses broad latitude in their affairs, penalizing only acts traditionally understood as harmful (e.g., murder, rape, and theft).
  • R-M see “rights” like abortion and homosexual “marriage” as government-imposed social innovations with potentially harmful consequences for civil society. If social custom, as embodied in legislative acts, rejects such things as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” it does so because those things undermine the fabric of society — the bonds of mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual restraint that enable a people to live and work together in peace.

Obviously, there are other shades of M lying between L-M and R-M. I focus on those two varieties to illustrate the broad range of positions that can be encompassed in minarchism: from the radical posturings of L-M to the true conservativism (and true libertarianism) of R-M.

Statists

S are either to the left (L-S) or the right (R-S), depending on the the kinds of positive rights they want government to bestow, the kinds of property rights they would allow government to flout, and the ways in which they would use government to usurp and trample civil society.

L-S and R-S generally clamor for their own negative rights, but they are eager to deny the negative rights of others. L-S, for example, would like to muzzle global-warming skeptics and impose penalties for “hate crimes”; R-S would quell protests, even orderly, non-disruptive ones. (A minarchist would point out that there would be far fewer protests if protesters knew that government wouldn’t do anything about the matters being protested.)  The general point is that both L-S and R-S tend to be so intolerant of views they oppose that they would use government to quell those views. The use of government in that way bestows (or would bestow) a  positive right on S, in that it takes (or would take) something (e.g., freedom of speech) from some persons for the satisfaction of others (statists). (The use of government in that way, as in other illegitimate ways, merely authorizes reciprocal treatment from one’s opponents.)

Both L-S and R-S are  proponents of overtly positive rights, as well. L-S prefer such things as income redistribution, affirmative action, and the legitimation of gay marriage, whereas R-S are reliably on the opposing side of such issues. It other words, where L-S generally support positive rights for particular classes of individuals (e.g., the poor, blacks, homosexuals), R-S generally oppose such rights. The problem (from a minarchist’s standpoint) is that R-S often seem oblivious to the principle that government shouldn’t be in the business of granting positive rights; the R-S position too often seems based on animus toward the groups favored by L-S. That said, many R-S oppose the granting of positive rights for the perfectly valid reason that they (among others) will bear the costs associated with such rights. (It is consoling to an R-M when an R-S votes against L-S candidates for office, whatever his reasons for doing so.)

L-S prefer government intervention in the economy, not only for the purpose of redistributing income but also to provide goods and services that can be provided more efficiently by the private sector, to regulate what remains of the private sector, and to engage aggressively in monetary and fiscal measure to maintain “full employment.” It should be evident that L-S have no respect for property rights, given their willingness to allow government to tax and regulate at will.

R-S oppose government interventions, unless they stand to benefit from them, or happen to view them through the lens of nationalism (e.g., “protecting American jobs”).

The best-known differences between L-S and R-S are found in their attitudes toward crime, defense, and abortion. L-S tend toward leniency and forgiveness of criminals (unless the L-S or those close to him are the victims); R-S tend toward swift and sure punishment. On defense, L-S act as if they prefer Chamberlain to Churchill, their protestations to the contrary; R-S prefer Churchill to Chamberlain, and make no bones about it. Abortion (and kindred issues involving life and death) find L-S siding with L-M and R-S siding with R-M.

L-S have no room in their minds for civil society; government is their idea of “community.” R-S defend civil society, and would push government to the background — except when they want government to do something. Their willingness to allow more than a minimal government, for certain purposes, leads R-S into the trap of arguing about what government should do instead of arguing that it should do no more than protect negative rights (including property rights) and civil society.

3. How to Choose Government

The question of choosing government subsumes two issues:

  • the breadth of the franchise (assuming that something like representative democracy is the preferred form of government)
  • whether those who govern should be chosen or should choose themselves.

On the first issue, L-M generally align with L-S; R-M, with R-S. The first pairing usually opposes efforts to restrict voting (e.g., by requiring photo ID) that might restrain voting by certain groups (mainly poor blacks and Latinos). The second pairing is more vigilant against voter fraud (usually because the fraud usually cuts against their interests).

There are R-M (like me) and R-S who are less worried by voting fraud than by the extent to which the franchise has been broadened. This has nothing to do with gender or race (except perhaps in the part of some R-S) and much to do with keeping government on the straight-and-narrow. A good way to do that is to restrict the franchise to those persons who have acquired sufficient maturity, and who have a vested interest in the protection of property rights (which are central to economic well-being). My own modest proposal is to raise the voting age 30, and to restrict voting to persons who own their principal residence.

All of the preceding variations on the issue of franchise are minor when compared with the stark truths surrounding the issue whether those who govern should be chosen or should choose themselves. There are S who prefer dictatorship, even if they don’t call it that. I am referring to those L-S who have become shrill in their insistence on regulating the minutiae of our lives and livelihoods (from smoking to banking), suppressing dissent about certain issues (e.g., global warming and gay rights), and suppressing religious expression in the (spurious) cause of separating church and state. These L-S prefer to exercise their will through regulators and judges, inasmuch as we have come to think of powerful regulatory agencies and law-making judges as manifestations of representative democracy. But these are not proper manifestations of representative democracy, and should not be thought of as such. Regulatory agencies and judges (not to mention those many elected officials who seem to hold office for life) are not chosen by voters; they are foisted upon voters. (There is a strong case to be made for appointed judges, but appointed judges who make law instead of applying it are on the side of statism.)

Unfortunately, it is only in rare instances (as in the case of I.F. Stone) that these L-S are revealed for what they really are: tyrants cloaked in the language of democracy and compassion. L-S of the kind I have been discussing (which, unfortunately seems to be most of them), belong in a category by themselves. I hereby dub them and their branch of political thought T-L-S (for totalitarian-left-statists and totalitarian-left-statism).

Certainly, there are some T-R-S to be found among the ranks of white nationalists and their ilk. But T-R-S constitute a platoon, as against a legion of T-L-S.

4. How to Control Government

This question overlaps the previous question in one respect, it involves the right to vote, namely, who has it. Two other issues are the degree to which power is centralized, and how the central government’s power is checked. Casual observation suggests that the expansion of the franchise, the centralization of government power, and the expansion of the central government’s power are closely related. The more “democratic” we are, the less liberty we enjoy, thanks in part to the interest-group paradox, which has been a major cause of the death spiral of liberty.

The views of most M and S about centralization and checks on power are unsurprising:

  • L-M prefer less centralization and weak government all around.
  • R-M prefer less centralization and generally weak government, except in the areas of justice and defense.
  • L-S and T-L-S prefer more centralization and strong government all around, excepting defense and justice — criminal justice, that is. The laws and regulations that cabin our lives warrant strong enforcement, these statists would aver.
  • R-S and T-L-S prefer less centralization and strong government only in certain areas (e.g., justice, defense, immigration).

With respect to centralization and power, most M have been reduced to hoping for miracles from the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. But those miracles hinge on many things:

  • the election of Republican presidents (they do make a difference, when it comes to judges);
  • retirements of judges, especially Democrat appointees;
  • the ability of Republican presidents to select judges who would roll back the central government’s mandates and powers;
  • the willingness of the (usually) Democrat-controlled Senate to approve a Republican president’s nominees;
  • and the ability of those nominees (if they prove reliable) to make a difference, given the number of judges who seem to favor governmental power, of one kind or another, over private action.

That is a very high mountain of hope to climb. But there is another way, which involves the use of the Article V of the Constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress….

When the damage inflicted by statists upon this nation finally reaches the point of being unbearable, even by many statists, it might become possible to amend the Constitution to ameliorate the damage. In my decade of reading blogs and the like I have encountered only two serious proposals for using Article V to undo the mess we are in. Both are by persons whom I consider to be R-M: Profesor Randy Barnett and me.

Barnett proposes a “federalism amendment.” I propose something even more radical: a new constitution that includes, among many things, an Article VIII, Conventions of the States, which opens with this:

Delegations of the States shall convene every four years for the purpose of considering revisions to and revocations of acts of the government established by this Constitution. Such conventions (hereinafter “Convention of the States”) may revise and/or revoke any act or acts and/or any holding or holdings, in the sole discretion of a majority of State delegations present and voting.

These proposals, I believe, qualify Barnett and me as radical-right-minarchists (R-R-M), where “radical” means favoring the restoration of the Constitution to its original meaning. What sets R-R-M apart from other types of M is their understanding that it is no longer possible to slay or tame Leviathan through electoral politics-as-usual, that the Constitution itself must be reinvigorated. (There are more radical alternatives, a military coup and <a href=”http://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/secession/, neither of which has much chance of success, and both of which could backfire. Barnetts’s and my proposals would not, if adopted in the way outlined in the third through fifth paragraphs of Barnett’s article.)

A SUMMARY OF THE REFINED TAXONOMY

Regardless of the political label you apply to yourself, you probably are one of these:

Anarchist (A) – no government; justice and defense provided through contractual arrangements with private agencies, all other social and economic arrangements entirely consensual.

Minarchist (M) – limited government for the dispensation of justice and national defense, and the protection of negative rights (including property rights) and civil society; specifically:

Anarcho-minarchist (A-M) – a minarchist only because government seems inevitable; otherwise, a nay-saying anarchist.

Left-minarchist (L-M) – a quasi-anarchist on justice and defense; strong on negative rights and positive rights, but weak on civil society (leans toward “politically correct” statist views).

Right-minarchist (R-M) – strong on justice, defense, negative rights, property rights, and civil society.

Radical-right-minarchist (R-R-M) – same as a right-minarchist, but seeks a “constitutional revolution” to decentralize and weaken government.

Statist (S):

Left-statist (L-S) – weak on justice and defense, negative rights, property rights, and civil society.

Totalitarian-left-statist (T-L-S) – same as a left-statist, but prefers dictatorial ways of imposing his policy preferences.

Right-statist (R-S) – much like a right-minarchist in many respects, but over the top with respect to justice and defense and favors some positive rights and some degree of political repression (though never as much as a left- or totalitarian-left-statist).

Totalitarian-right statist (T-R-S) – the mirror image of T-L-S, but far fewer in numbers and relatively impotent, politically.

Which of the political philosophies represented by these types aligns most closely with liberty? Which is most inimical to liberty? I rank them as follows (the higher, the better):

R-R-M

R-M

R-S

L-M

A-M/A

L-S

T-L-S/T-R-S

R-R-M and R-M stand at the top of the class for their stalwart defense of liberty, up and down the line — from justice and defense to the protection of negative rights, property rights, and civil society. R-S rank above L-M because L-M, unlike R-S, disdain justice and defense — the bulwarks of liberty — though they might not neglect them altogether; both have their quirks when it comes to rights. M-M and A simply would leave us at the mercy of predators, which is a prescription for the opposite of liberty. But M-M and A are better than L-S and T-L-S because the former would not — in principle — subject others to the discipline of the state. L-S and especially T-L-S deserve a special place in my imaginary hell because their every political thought stands in opposition to liberty. Thankfully, T-R-S are impotent blowhards.