Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No Liberty Tonight, Honey, I'm Tired

The Volokh Conspiracy and I are on a break.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I advocate reading, and politely participating in, blogs by people you disagree with politically. Though this approach doesn't always work, I did find that the Volokh Conspiracy, a site run by more than a dozen right-wing libertarian law professors, was open to outsiders with dissenting views, and that it had, and sometimes even enforced, a policy on civility. I have on several occasions used discussions I took part in there as a starting point for comments here. In fact, I found the whole thing a bit seductive.

The main reason I'm now taking a break is that I'm a slow typist, and it was eating up huge amounts of time. But I also had to ask myself whether it was really worth it, given how hard it was to really engage anyone in debate. One expects that most people who come to these sites do so to see their own views confirmed, and that faced with a good contrary argument or some hard facts, they are not going to slap their foreheads and say, "Of course! What a fool I've been!" But it was a bit wearing at times to have a long exchange with someone, and then have them change the subject or start name-calling when the going got tough. Both the right and the left tend to have their talking points, and stick to them.  I also got tired of people telling me what people like me really wanted (e.g., more bureaucracy for its own sake, the power to tell everyone what to do).

Still, I'm thinking of this as a break, rather than a breakup. To ease the separation, I want to discuss a few common libertarian arguments that come up a lot at VC. These are so deeply rooted in the right-wing libertarian worldview that you probably have run into them. Let's start by distinguishing a reasonable argument from others that are not.

Reasonable Libertarian Argument:

Activities of government involve compulsion, which limits freedom. Therefore these activities should be kept to a minimum.

This argument is reasonable if you make two important assumptions.

First, you must limit the definitions of compulsion and loss of freedom to those things that are caused by humans, rather than those things that arise from circumstances. Thus, Sasha Volokh, the less famous brother at the Volokh Conspiracy, caused some incredulity and derision recently when he said that the government would not be justified in spending tax money to prevent a catastrophic asteroid collision with Earth. (He said it might be justified if the ensuing chaos would cause some peoples' rights to be violated, but presumably this wouldn't apply if everyone dies immediately.)

Second, you must assume that compulsion is impossible in a market context, short of physical force. Thus, someone who acquired monopoly rights to the supply of water (a la Tank Girl) would not have any power of compulsion.

Come to think of it, this argument isn't really so reasonable, is it? But at least you couldn't call it dumb.

Dumb Libertarian Arguments:

1. Taxation is armed robbery. It's like taxation of serfs by the king: the taxpayers are serfs and the government is king.

This would be a good analogy if the king were elected by the serfs. But of course he wasn't, which is why we say they were oppressed.

As I have noted before, libertarians seem to attach much less importance to democracy than people in, say, Egypt. Or, for that matter, the Founders; the slogan of the original Tea Party was not "No taxation," but "No taxation without representation." Perhaps if they had known how their movement would later be misunderstood, they would have used the slogan "Taxation only with representation." Perhaps not, it's not very punchy.

Taxation entails the threat of coercion. So does every law that I can think of.

2. The public sector can't create wealth; only the private sector can.

This odd statement seems to go into the category of "proof by assertion," as I've never heard anyone offer an argument for it. Evidently, we're supposed to scratch our chins and say "Hmm, I never thought of that." However it's absurd on its face: What, then, are city streets, interstate highways, bridges, the Grand Coulee Dam, public education?

3. The public sector is therefore parasitic on the wealth created by the private sector. I earned my money all by myself.

Sorry, but you didn't. The easy thought-experiment here is to take an investment banker who earned half a million dollars over the past year, and to put him in a village in Congo. Do you think he'll earn half a million dollars over the coming year? Even if he's really smart and works really hard?

The amount workers earn is a function of their talents, their effort, their luck, and the society they find themselves in, including such items as public safety, the legal system, education, roads, and lots of other things. The latter things are what distinguish the United States from Congo, where average income is less than 1% of what it is here. It is delusional megalomania to think you did it all by yourself.

4. People have more freedom when power is shifted from the federal government to the states.

This assertion at least has some theory behind it, albeit of a vague kind about being "closer to the people." But evidence is another story. The fact is, the idea of "states' rights" has from the very beginning been about the right of some people to use the power of the state to oppress other people, without interference from the Federal government. In the cases of both slavery and Jim Crow, it has been the Federal government that has, eventually,  defended individual freedom. Indeed, Madison foresaw this as an advantage of a "large over a small republic" in the famous #10 of the Federalist Papers, although he did not connect this to slavery (and was of course himself a slaveowner).

Historically, states have been at least as great a threat to personal freedom as the Federal government. (Today, the Texas Republican Party, home of libertarian icon Ron Paul, wants to  somehow bring back the law against sodomy, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.) Many of the right-wing claims about the dangers of Federal power ignore the dangers of the same powers in the hands of the states.  For example, the health care debate has given rise to the rhetorical question, If the government has the power to make people buy health insurance, does it also have the right to make people eat broccoli? Yet Massachusetts has already passed a health-care mandate. What is being done to combat the possibility of a Massachusetts cruciferous-vegetables mandate? Why are libertarians silent?

If you're a better typist than I, and want to visit the Volokh Conspiracy, feel free to use any of these points.


  1. If some Americans want to live in a land without government so as to pursue their goals unfettered, perhaps they should give themselves that year you mentioned in any of the countries whose dictators U.S. taxpayers have been supporting for decades, since those countries are usually pretty light on actual governance.

  2. In response to your broccoli example: Some cities in Mass. have already banned trans fats! And bottled water.