negative rights

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)

More about Merit Goods

This is a follow-up to “Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice.” That post was inspired by a post at Austin Frakt’s blog, The Incidental Economist, about which John Goodman had this to say:

Austin, on first reading, I thought you were saying that I (as a taxpayer) should help pay for your daughter’s asthma medication — even though you agree that you can afford to pay for it yourself. Disbelief overcame me, so I read your post a second time. Then I read it a third. Each time, the message was as incomprehensible as on the previous reading.

Is there a persuasive reason why I owe the Frakt household something? If so, it’s not in this post.

Frakt’s response to Goodman:

You owe me nothing. Follow the link to value-based insurance design or find the V-BID center at U Mich. I think you’re looking for trouble where none should exist.

Well, I followed the link, and came away unconvinced that Frakt wants nothing from Goodman or anyone else. Accordingly, I posted this comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):

Your post about value-based insurance — to which you refer John Goodman — suggests that by reducing the co-pay on asthma drugs, trips to the ER would be averted, thus reducing the insurance company’s total costs and (possibly) the premiums it must charge its policy holders. If I have that right, it explains your reply to Goodman that “You owe me nothing.” I suspect that what he reacted to — and I would have reacted to similarly — is your assertion that “breathing [is] a merit good, something we all have a right to enjoy.” That assertion is unnecessary to the discussion of value-based insurance. And your use of the term “merit good” strongly suggests that your statement “Asthma medication is exactly the type of health product that should be free, or nearly so, especially for low-income families” is not just a statement about the presumed efficacy of value-based insurance, but advocacy for income redistribution.

In that case, a modified version of Goodman’s reaction is entirely in order, and I subscribe to it: “Is there a persuasive reason why I owe other households something, and what qualifies you (or anyone else) to make that judgment?” The excuse that I might otherwise end up paying for ER services through my taxes or insurance premiums relies on the assumption that ER services are a merit good that ought to be covered by tax subsidies and/or mandated insurance coverage. There is no end to the number of things that can be called merit goods, but calling them merit goods does not disguise the fact that doing so is an excuse for imposing one person’s or group’s preferences and burdens on others.

Those impositions have led to the present state of affairs, in which myriad interest groups pick each others’ pockets — and the pockets of the unfortunate who are not well-represented by an interest group. One truly unfortunate result of that state of affairs — aside from the gross diminution of liberty — is the diversion of resources from uses that would foster greater economic growth and alleviate much of the poverty that provides an excuse, in the first place, for special pleading about merit goods.

Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice

A merit good is said to be something that

an individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than ability and willingness to pay…. [T]he concept … lies behind many economic actions by governments…. Examples include the provision of food stamps to support nutrition, the delivery of health services to improve quality of life and reduce morbidity, subsidized housing and arguably education….

Sometimes, merit … goods are simply seen as an extension of the idea of externalities. A merit good may be described as a good that has positive externalities associated with it. Thus, an inoculation against a contagious disease may be seen as a merit good. This is because others who may not now catch the disease from the inoculated person also benefit.

[M]erit … goods can be defined in a different way…. The essence of merit … goods is [has] do with … information failure…. This arises because consumer[s] do not perceive quite how good or bad the good is for them: either they do not have the right information or lack relevant information…. [A]merit good is [a] good that is better for a person than the person … realizes.

Other possible rationales for treating some commodities as merit … goods include public-goods aspects of a commodity…

A merit good, in short, is something that someone believes that the state should cause to be given to certain individuals, as a “positive right,” for various reasons: perceived need, externalities, and market failure among them.

But the “right” to something that is not earned or freely given is not a right, as the term is properly understood. It is an extortion by force or the threat of force, either directly (as in the case of outright theft) or though the coercive power of the state. Only a fool or a dishonest person can say that something obtained through extortion is obtained by right, unless that person believes that the victims of extortion are less deserving — less human — than the intended beneficiaries of extortion.

If a right is anything, it is something that all members of a polity can enjoy equally. If some members of a polity are placed above others through force or the threat of force, then the polity has no system of rights; it has a system of arbitrary privileges, dispensed by the state according to the whims of the faction then in power.

Given that a right must be something that all can enjoy equally, a right can only be negative:

  • the right not to have one’s life taken if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right not to be deprived of liberty if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right to the peaceful enjoyment and use of one’s property in the pursuit of one’s life and livelihood.

These negative rights come down to this: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone.

If “obligations” accompany the right to be left alone, they do so only in the context of voluntary social (and economic) relationships, wherein acts of kindness and charity flow readily among persons who trust and care for each other and do so, in good part, because they observe the right of others to be left alone. These “obligations” are incurred and honored voluntarily, not because a person or group invested with the power of the state decrees them.

Merit goods (“positive rights”), by contrast, are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

The list of “merit goods” that forms the basis for the many and various forms of state-sponsored coercion may not be infinite, but it is exceedingly long. And its length is limited only by the perverse ingenuity of the seekers of “cosmic justice.” What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome– and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success — especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control….

In a sense, proponents of “social justice” are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

To be a practitioner of cosmic justice, a person must set himself up as a judge of the merit of other persons, without really possessing more than superficial information about those other persons (e.g., that they are “rich” or “poor” by some standard). As I once said of two founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, they are

accountants of the soul….

…(presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up [or put them down] through the blunt instrument that is the state.

This is done on in the service of concepts that do not bear close examination, such as externalities, public goods, market failure, and social justice, social welfare, and positive rights. I will not repeat my asseessments of those concepts, but refer you to some of them instead:

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Social Justice
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Externalities and Statism

Positive Liberty vs. Liberty

There is a special kind of liberty known as “positive liberty,” which is inimical to “liberty,” as that term is properly understood. To show why, I begin by expanding on an earlier post, where I offer the following definition of liberty:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

Liberty, thus defined, is liberty — full stop. It is neither negative nor positive. It is a modus vivendi that is accepted and practiced by a social group, in keeping with the group’s behavioral norms. There is no liberty if those norms do not include voice and exit, because willing coexistence then becomes problematic. (For a further elaboration, see “On Liberty” and scroll down to “What Liberty Is.”)

However, peaceful, willing coexistence is likely (and perhaps only) to be found where a close-knit social group lives by the Golden Rule:

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself….

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.

However,

Self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by voluntary adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.  More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms; the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).

The attainment of something that all Americans would recognize as liberty is next to impossible. The United States does not comprise a single, close-knit social group, nor even a collection of close-knit social groups. It is a motley, shifting conglomeration of (mostly) loose-knit groups with widely varying social norms and conceptions of harm. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that America is a nation of strangers.

It follows that the only kind of state-sponsored liberty which is possible in America is so-called negative liberty, that is, a regime of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement.

But we are far from such a regime:

[M]ost government enactments deny negative rights; for example, they

  • compel the surrender of income to government agencies for non-protective purposes (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • compel the transfer of income to persons who did not earn the income (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • direct how business property may be used, through restrictions on the specifications to which goods must be manufactured (violating property ownership)
  • force the owners of businesses (in non-right-to-work-States) to recognize and bargain with labor unions (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to hire certain classes of persons (“protected groups”) and undertake additional expenses for the “accommodation” of handicapped persons (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to restrict or ban smoking (violating property rights and freedom of association)
  • mandate attendance at tax-funded schools and the subjects taught in those schools, even where those teachings run counter to the moral values that parents are trying to inculcate (violating freedom from force and freedom of association)
  • limit political speech through restrictions on political contributions and the publication of political advertisements (violating freedom from force and freedom of association).

On top of that,

[s]uch enactments also trample social norms. First, and fundamentally, they convey the message that government, not private social institutions, is the proper locus of moral instruction and interpersonal mediation. Persons who seek special treatment (privileges, a.k.a. positive rights) learn that they can resort to government for “solutions” to their “problems,” which encourages other persons to do the same thing, and so on. In the end — which we have not quite reached — social institutions lose their power to instruct and mediate, and become merely sources of solace and entertainment.

There is much more in the pages of this blog (e.g., here and here). The sum and substance of it all is that liberty is a dead letter in America. It has succumbed to a series of legislative, executive, and judicial acts that have, on the one hand, suppressed and distorted voluntary social and economic relationships and, on the other hand, bestowed positive rights on selected groups to the general detriment of liberty. Positive rights are grants of privilege that can come only at the expense of others, and which are therefore incompatible with the “willing” aspect of liberty.

The clamor for positive liberty ought to set off alarm bells in the minds of libertarians because positive liberty, wrongly understood, justifies positive rights. The last thing this nation needs is what passes for a philosophical justification of positive rights. The first thing this nation needs is a lot fewer positive rights.

Positive liberty is nevertheless on the agenda of the philosophers who blog at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. What is it? According to Wikipedia:

Positive liberty is defined as the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential (this may include freedom from internal constraints); as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint….

…Specifically, … in order to be free, a person should be free from inhibitions of the social structure in carrying out their free will. Structurally speaking classism, sexism or racism can inhibit a person’s freedom….

In other words, it is not enough to have “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.” That kind of liberty — liberty in the fullest sense — encompasses the acts of love, affection, friendship, neighborliness, and voluntary obligation that help individuals acquire the “power and resources” with which they may strive to attain the fruits of liberty, insofar as they are willing and able to do so.

That should be enough to satisfy the proponents of positive liberty at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but I suspect otherwise. I would be more sanguine were they proponents of a proper definition of liberty, but they are not. Thus, armed with an inchoate definition of liberty, they are prepared to do battle for positive liberty and, I fear, the positive rights that are easily claimed as necessary to it; to wit:

  • A lack of “power” entitles certain groups to be represented, as groups, in the councils of government (a right that is not extended to other groups).
  • A lack of “resources” becomes the welfare entitlements of various kinds — for personal characteristics ranging from low intelligence to old age — which threaten to suck ever more resources out the productive, growth-producing sectors of the economy.
  • The exercise of “free will” becomes the attainment of certain “willed” outcomes, regardless of one’s ability or effort, which then justifies such things as an affirmative-action job, admission to a university, a tax-subsidized house, etc.
  • “Classism,” “sexism,” “racism,” and now “beauty-ism” become excuses for discriminating against vast swaths of the populace who practice none of those things.

With respect to the final point, a certain degree of unpleasantness inevitably accompanies liberty. Legal attempts to stifle that unpleasantness simply spread injustice by fomenting resentment and covert resistance, while creating new, innocent victims who are deemed guilty until they can prove their innocence.

In sum, the line between positive liberty and positive rights is so fine that the advocacy of positive liberty, however well meant, easily becomes the basis for preserving and extending the burden of positive rights that Americans now carry.

The Meaning of Liberty

If you were a physicist who was writing about Einstein’s special theory of relativity, would you bother to list the ways in which non-physicists define the concept? I doubt it.

But at least one of the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians — a new group blog whose eight contributors (thus far) are professors of law and/or philosophy — advances the proposition that “liberty” means whatever non-philosophers think it means. The contributor in question, Jason Brennan, justifies his preference by saying  that liberty “is a concept philosophers are interested in, but it’s a not a philosopher’s technical term.”

That may be so, but I would think that philosophers who are going to use a term that is central to the theme of their blog — the connection of libertarianism to social justice — would begin by searching for a relevant and logically consistent definition of liberty. Brennan, instead, casts a wide net and hauls in a list of seven popular definitions, one of which (negative liberty) has three sub-definitions. That may be a useful starting point, but Brennan leaves it there, thus implying that liberty is whatever anyone thinks it is.

His evident purpose in doing so is to leave the door open to a positive definition of liberty, while dismissing those who maintain that logic demands a negative definition of liberty. Consider Brennan’s list, which he calls partial and in which he uses “freedom” for “liberty”:

  1. Freedom as Absence of Obstacles: Someone is free to the extent that no obstacles impede her ability to do as she pleases.

    [a.] Freedom as Absence of Deliberate Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one deliberately interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.
    [b.] Freedom as Absence of Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.
    [c.] Freedom as Absence of Wrongful Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one wrongfully interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.

  2. Freedom as Capacity: Someone is free to the extent that she has the power, ability, capacity, or means to do as she pleases.
  3. Freedom as Autonomous Self-Control: Someone is free to the extent that she exhibits sufficient deliberative self-control, such that she is authentically the author of her actions.
  4. Freedom as Non-Domination: A person is free to the extent she is not subject to another person’s or group’s arbitrary will.
  5. Freedom as Moral Virtue: A person is free to the extent she has the power to recognize and act upon her moral obligations.
  6. Freedom as Absence of Pressure: A person is free to the extent she feels no social pressure to do anything.
  7. Freedom as Absence of Reasons: A person is free to the extent she has no grounds or reasons for making decisions.

And so on. Notice that 1a­–1c are just more specific version[s] of 1.

[A person who insists on using the politically correct "she" in place of the traditional and, in truth, gender-neutral "he" is likely to be a person who is driving toward an acceptable answer instead of the right answer.]

I am struck by the fact that none of the definitions offered by Brennan is a good definition of liberty (about which, more below). This suggests to me that Brennan and (possibly) the other contributors to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism will offer views about the connection of libertarianism and social justice that have nothing to do with liberty, but which merely reflect their various visions of preferred socioeconomic arrangements* and the uses (or non-uses) of state power in the attainment thereof. I therefore humbly suggest that the next order of business at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism ought to be a concerted effort to define the concept that is part of the blog’s raison d’etre.

To help Brennan & Co. in their quest, I offer the following definition of liberty, which is from the first post at this blog, “On Liberty“:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

The problem with the definitions listed by Brennan should now be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of Brennan’s list — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

The implausibility of the second condition is critical to a proper understanding of liberty. Brennan says (in “Positive Liberty and Legal Guarantees“) that “[w]e often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; that is, compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of like minds about everything.

In sum, “peaceful, willing coexistence” does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of “beneficially cooperative behavior.” Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

The specific landscape of liberty — the rights and obligations of individuals with respect to one another — depends on the size and composition of the social group in question. It is there that the question of positive vs. negative liberty (really positive vs. negative rights) takes on importance. I will tackle that question in a future post.

__________

* Sure enough, only a few hours after I posted this, we hear from the newest recruit to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Roderick Long (a left-libertarian whom I have addressed before). Long’s is a left-libertarian because he is against state power but, at the same time, against outcomes that can occur in the absence of state power:

On the one hand, I’m committed to libertarianism in a fairly standard sense: self-ownership, the non-aggression principle, Lockean homesteading, private property, and free markets. On the other hand, I’m committed to a fairly standard set of traditionally leftist concerns, including opposition to such social evils as worker exploitation, plutocratic privilege, racism, homophobia, gender inequality, militarism, environmental degradation, and the prison-industrial complex. (Call them all “oppression” for short.)

“Worker exploitation” is what happens when workers and employers are free to agree about the terms and conditions of employment, which is good for competent, productive workers and bad for incompetent, unproductive ones (the ones that unions protect). “Plutocratic privilege” is bad only if it is the result of crony capitalism; otherwise, it is merely a case of well-to-do individuals enjoying the fruits of what they have earned. “Racism” is a inescapable aspect of human nature, and it cuts in all directions; typical efforts to compensate for it result in the theft of property rights and the hiring and promotion of less-qualified persons. “Homophobia” is a personal choice, and efforts by the state to squelch it will surely result in the theft of property rights and denial of freedom of speech. “Gender inequality” is mostly a figment of the imagination of leftists who always fail to take into account differences in age, experience, and aptitude when lamenting the fact that women generally earn less than men and are “underrepresented” in certain occupations. “Militarism” is what has kept many a Roderick Long from going to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the gulags of Soviet Russia. “Environmental degradation” is vastly overrated, to the point where Americans pay more for a lot of things than they should (oil among them), and is becoming an excuse for prohibitively costly and needless regulations aimed at fighting a myth and scientific fraud: anthropogenic global warming. The “prison-industrial complex” has, in fact, kept violent criminals off the streets and led to a reduction in the rate of violent crimes.

I am surprised that Long doesn’t have “universal health care” and “living wage” on his list.

Roderick Long is to libertarianism as Adolf Hitler was to capitalism. Long wants a stateless world, but only if the “free” people in it have “correct” attitudes and beliefs.

Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights” — Updated

The length of “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’” seems to have discouraged readers. In the hope of enticing you to venture below the fold, I have annotated the outline that appears above the fold. Also, there is now a direct link to the 31 related posts that are listed and linked to at the bottom of “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’.”

Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”

This post is so long that I have put the main text below the fold. The following annotated outline may tempt you to read on or prompt you to move along:

I. Why This Post: Background and Issues

Do humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution? If so, does this somehow imply the necessity of negative “natural rights”?

II. Natural Teleology –> Negative “Natural Rights”?

A. Evolution as God-Substitute

A supernatural explanation of “natural rights” will not do for skeptics and atheists, who find that such rights inhere in humans as products of evolution, and nothing more. Pardon a momentary lapse into cynicism, but this strikes me as a way of taking God out of the picture while preserving the “inalienable rights” of Locke and Jefferson.

B. Teleology as Tautology

Survival is the ultimate end of animate beings. Everything that survives has characteristics that helped to ensure its survival. What could be more obvious or more trivial?

C. Whence the Tautology?

Evolutionary teleology boils down to “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The term “natural selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

III. Persisting in the Search for Negative “Natural Rights” in Human Nature

A. Pro: Evolution Breeds Morality

“Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game…”

B. Con: Human Nature Is Too Complex and Contradictory to Support Biologically Determined Rights

The account of human nature drawn from evolutionary psychology suggests that there is much in human nature which conflicts with negative rights in general (whether or not they are “natural”). And who needs a treatise on evolutionary psychology to understand the depth of that conflict? All it takes is a quick perusal of a newspaper, a few minutes of exposure to broadcast news, or a drive on a crowded interstate highway.

IV. A Truly Natural Explanation of Negative Rights

A. The Explanation

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

B. The Role of Government

Government can provide “protective cover” for persons who try to live by the Golden Rule. This is especially important in a large and diverse political entity because the Golden Rule — as a code of self-governance — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons.

V. What Difference Does It Make?

The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

VI. Related Posts

See especially:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State

* * *

(more…)

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State

A right, as opposed to a privilege, is capable of universal application within a polity. The only true rights, therefore, are liberty rights, which are negative rights. So-called positive rights are privileges, not rights.

Liberty rights are represented in the Founders’ trinity of “unalienable Rights“: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These really constitute a unitary right, which I simply call liberty. The liberty right is unitary because liberty (as a separate right) is meaningless without life and the ability to pursue happiness. Thus we have this: rights ≡ liberty (rights and liberty are identical). The identity of rights and liberty is consistent with this definition of liberty:

3. A right or immunity to engage in certain actions without control or interference.

In essence, liberty consists of negative rights (the right not be attacked, robbed, etc.). Negative rights are true rights because they are capable of universal application: Leaving others alone (the essence of negative rights) costs each of us nothing and yields liberty for all.

Positive rights (the right to welfare benefits, a job based on one’s color or gender, etc.) are not rights, properly understood, because they are not capable of universal application: Taking from others (the requisite of positive rights) costs some of us something without an offsetting return. (Think, for example, of the redistributional effects of various taxes.) Positive rights cannot be had without engaging in actions that control or interfere with others. Positive rights are anti-libertarian privileges.

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

In civil society, exceptional behavior is dealt with by criticism and punishment (which may include ostracism). The exceptions usually are dealt with by codifying the myriad instances of the Golden Rule (e.g., do not steal, do not kill) and then enforcing those instances through communal action (i.e., justice and defense).

The exceptions that cannot be dealt with by civil society are the proper concern of the minimal state — one that is dedicated to the defense of its citizens from predators. But the state becomes illegitimate the moment it crosses the line from the enforcement of the Golden Rule (negative rights) to the granting of privileges (positive rights). For when the state does that, it is no longer dedicated to liberty.

Related posts:
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
Inventing “Liberalism”
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
A New (Cold) Civil War or Secession?
Civil War, Close Elections, and Voters’ Remorse
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism

Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution

In a recent post about negative rights, I quote Randy Barnett, who explains that such “rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act.” Well, not quite.

Think about it. A libertarian regime would protect these negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement.

But those rights enclose a cavernous “space,” within which human behavior can find many self-destructive outlets unless it is shaped by social norms — socially evolved rules (as opposed to government-dictated ones) which delineate morally and socially acceptable behavior. Think of the ways in which your present behavior is shaped by the moral lessons of your childhood and by your experiences as a child, student, spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, neighbor, church member, club member, team member, and the like.

In sum, negative rights are meaningless absent a framework of social norms that is consistent with negative rights and which directs behavior along constructive paths. Conversely, constructive social norms are undermined where government fails to protect negative rights or actively denies them. There is, for example, no right of freedom from force in a community where violence is the norm and government is unable to protect residents from violence; there is no right of property ownership in a community where government seizes property as it sees fit to do so; there is no right of freedom of movement for slaves; and so on. (Obviously, I am referring to rights as they are actually enjoyed, not “natural” rights.)

In the United States, the history of negative rights parallels the history of the Constitution:

The original Constitution protected the rights to life, liberty, and property against infringement by the federal government in two ways. First and foremost, Congress was not given a general legislative power but only those legislative powers “herein granted,” referring to those powers enumerated in Article I, section 8. It is striking how these powers avoid expressly restricting the rightful exercise of liberty. The power “to raise and support armies” does not include an express power of conscription, which would interfere with the property one has in one’s own person. The power to establish the post office does not expressly claim a power to make the government post office a monopoly, which would interfere with the freedom of contract of those who wish to contract with a private mail company of the sort founded by Lysander Spooner. (By contrast, the Articles of Confederation did accord the power in Congress to establish a postal monopoly.)…

Two years after its enactment, the Constitution was amended by the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments included several express guarantees of such liberties as the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and the right to keep and bear arms. The Bill of Rights barred takings for public use without just compensation. It provided additional procedural assurances that the laws would be applied accurately and fairly to particular individuals.
All of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are consistent with modern libertarian political philosophy. And to this list of rights was added the Ninth Amendment that said, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not
be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In this way, even liberty rights that were not listed were given express constitutional protection. Finally, the Tenth Amendment reaffirmed that Congress could exercise only those
powers to which it was delegated “by this Constitution.”…

While the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude expanded the Constitution’s protection of individual liberty against abuses by states, it was the Fourteenth Amendment that radically altered the federalism of the original
Constitution. For the first time, Congress and the courts could invalidate any state laws that “abridge[d] the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The original meaning of “privileges or immunities” included the same natural rights retained by the people to which the Ninth Amendment referred, but also the additional enumerated rights contained in the Bill of Rights. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment placed a federal check on how state laws are applied to particular persons, while the Equal Protection Clause imposed a duty on state executive branches to extend the protection of the law on all persons without
discrimination. (Randy Barnett, “Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 14-17)

However,

the Supreme Court has upheld countless federal laws restricting
liberty, primarily under the power of Congress “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states” combined with an open-ended reading of the Necessary and Proper Clause. Further it has upheld the power of Congress to spend tax revenue for purposes other than “for carrying into execution” its enumerated powers, thereby exceeding the scope of the Necessary and Proper Clause….

Beginning in the 1930s, the Supreme Court . . . adopted a presumption of constitutionality whenever a statute restricted unenumerated liberty rights. In the 1950s it made this presumption effectively irrebuttable. Now it will only protect those liberties that are listed, or a very few unenumerated rights such as the right of privacy. (op. cit., pp. 15, 17-18)

What the law giveth, the law taketh away. The power of the States, individually, to trample negative rights has been supplanted by the far greater power of the central government to trample negative rights.

Generally, negative rights are trampled by every government enactment that does more than protect negative rights.  Which is to say that most government enactments deny negative rights; for example, they

  • compel the surrender of income to government agencies for non-protective purposes (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • compel the transfer of income to persons who did not earn the income (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • direct how business property may be used, through restrictions on the specifications to which goods must be manufactured (violating property ownership)
  • force the owners of businesses (in non-right-to-work-States) to recognize and bargain with labor unions (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to hire certain classes of persons (“protected groups”) and undertake additional expenses for the “accommodation” of handicapped persons (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to restrict or ban smoking (violating property rights and freedom of association)
  • mandate attendance at tax-funded schools and the subjects taught in those schools, even where those teachings run counter to the moral values that parents are trying to inculcate (violating freedom from force and freedom of association)
  • limit political speech through restrictions on political contributions and the publication of political advertisements (violating freedom from force and freedom of association).

Such enactments also trample social norms. First, and fundamentally, they convey the message that government, not private social institutions, is the proper locus of moral instruction and interpersonal mediation. Persons who seek special treatment (privileges, a.k.a. positive rights) learn that they can resort to government for “solutions” to their “problems,” which encourages other persons to do the same thing, and so on. In the end — which we have not quite reached — social institutions lose their power to instruct and mediate, and become merely sources of solace and entertainment.

More specifically, government enactments have

  • engendered disrespect for life by authorizing abortion
  • legitimated lewd, lascivious, inconsiderate, and violent behavior in the name of “freedom of expression” and “freedom of speech,” even while distancing children from the moral lessons of religion by declaring freedom from religion where the Constitution only prohibits government establishment of religion
  • undermined the role of the family as a central civilizing force by encouraging the breakup of families (welfare rules, easy divorce)
  • usurped the authority of parents by usurping their authority to instill moral values (as mentioned above)
  • encouraged the absence of mothers from the home through subsidized day-care and “affirmative action”
  • engendered disrespect for constructive economic behavior by rewarding shiftlessness (welfare) and penalizing success (progressive income tax, the “death tax,” etc.)
  • shifted the burden of care for the elderly from families to “society” (i.e., taxpayers) through Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, thus teaching the wrong lessons about the value of life and respect for old persons.

I could go on and on, but I hope that I have made my point: Politicians — in their zeal to pander to special interests — have damaged the general interest through their disregard of negative rights and the framework of civilizing norms that transforms negative rights into constructive behavior.

How could this have happened? Here is my explanation:

The Framers underestimated the will to power that animates office-holders. The Constitution‘s wonderful design — horizontal and vertical separation of powers — which worked rather well until the late 1800s, cracked under the strain of populism, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The Framers’ design then broke under the burden of the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court of the 1930s (and since) has enabled the central government to impose its will at will. The Framers’ fundamental error can be found in Madison’s Federalist No. 51. Madison was correct in this:

. . . It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. . . .

But Madison then made the error of assuming that, under a central government, liberty is guarded by a diversity of interests:

[One method] of providing against this evil [is] . . . by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. . . . [This] method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased. . . .

Madison then went on to contradict what he said in Federalist No. 46 about the States being a bulwark of liberty:

It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the REPUBLICAN CAUSE, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.

Madison understood that a majority can tyrannize a minority. He understood that the States are better able to prevent the rise of tyranny if the powers of the central government are circumscribed. But he then assumed that the States themselves could not resist tyranny within their own borders. Madison overlooked the importance of exit as the ultimate check on tyranny. He assumed that, in creating a new central government with powers greatly exceeding those of the Confederacy, a majority of States would not tyrannize the minority and that minorities with overlapping interests would not concert to tyrannize the majority. Madison was so anxious to see the Constitution ratified that he oversold himself and the States’ ratifying conventions on the ability of the central government to hold itself in check. Thus the Constitution was lamentably silent on nullification and secession.

What has been done by presidents, Congresses, and courts will be very hard to undo. Too many interests are vested in the regulatory-welfare state that has usurped the Framers’ noble vision. Democracy (that is, vote-selling) and log-rolling are more powerful than words on paper. Even a Supreme Court majority of “strict constructionists” probably would decline to roll back the New Deal and most of what has come in its wake.

Negative Rights

I have written elsewhere that negative rights are those which

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).

[Negative] 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 [negative] rights.

I would add that the right to work for a wage means the right to seek employment and to accept employment on agreed terms. The right to work for a wage does not imply a right to employment, which is the aim of “affirmative action.” In fact, “affirmative action” denies the right to work for a wage because it victimizes the better-qualified in favor of the less-qualified and unqualified. By the same token, “affirmative action” violates property ownership because it dictates how business owners must conduct their businesses and robs them of earnings. Other kinds of government action also deny the right to work for a wage; for example

  • government favoritism toward labor unions, which usurps the contractual freedom of individual workers and businesses

Going further, here is a list of negative rights offered by Randy Barnett:

A libertarian … favors the rigorous protection of certain individual rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act. These fundamental rights consist of (1) the right of private property, which includes the property one has in one’s own person; (2) the right of freedom of contract by which rights are transferred by one person to another; (3) the right of first possession, by which property comes to be owned from an unowned state; (4) the right to defend oneself and others when fundamental rights are being threatened; and (5) the right to restitution or compensation from those who violate another’s fundamental rights. (“Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 3)

Barnett’s list overlaps with and complements mine. Combining the lists, I obtain the following set of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.

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.