The libertarian fallacy


Kevin Williamson at National Review online — the in-house newsletter of the U.S. conservative establishment (comments on columns may be made only during banking hours) – offers up this formulation, which I got to via Instapundit:

Some fellow at The Economist has taken me to task for my description of socialism and communism: “The difference between communism and socialism: Under communism, politics begins with a gun in your face; under socialism, politics ends with a gun in your face.” . . .
The resort to violence is what makes the question of what kind of things it is legitimate for states to do an important moral concern. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to stop him murdering, raping, or robbing. It seems to me entirely unreasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to extort from him money to fund a project to get monkeys high on cocaine. Those seem to me fairly reasonable distinctions. It is illegitimate for government to use force or the threat of force for projects that are not inherently public in character.

This is the fundamental libertarian fallacy: Government operates by coercion, not a social contract or even anything less readily amenable to facile analogy. Hence any policy must meet the test of whether coercion can be morally justified to be an appropriate exercise of government policy. Next comes resort to the typical libertarian black-and-white formulation, which I’ll repeat:

It seems to me perfectly reasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to stop him murdering, raping, or robbing. It seems to me entirely unreasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to extort from him money to fund a project to get monkeys high on cocaine.

Now of course a lot of premises and terms are unstated or undefined even in this seemingly unobjectionable proposed model. Let’s consider some:

  • “It seems to me” — Yes, it does.
    • But does it have to seem that way to everyone?
      • If so, why?
      • If not, why not
    • I am sure Kevin Williamson hates, hates, hates people who “legislate morality.” So: What is this “seem”?
      • Is it a “moral” principle?
      • Is it based “economics” or “social science”?
      • Am I free to disagree with the process by which these conclusions have been rendered so “self-evident”? Or is it a legitimate form of coercion to forbid me from doing so?
  • Everyone hates “murder, rape and robbery.” But is it so obvious what comprises these categories?
    • Murder
      • Is refusing to care for someone you have “moral” responsibility for murder?
      • Is poisoning my drinking water with your industrial chemical murder?
      • Is killing an unborn fetus murder?
      • Is killing a kind of born fetus murder?
      • Is killing a severely disabled person murder?
      • Is letting me die on the floor of an emergency room because I have no money murder?
    • Rape
      • Has the charge of rape ever been misused socially for illegitimate means?
      • Can one rape one’s spouse?
      • Is one guilty of rape if he is impaired or intoxicated?
      • Is one guilty of rape if the complainant was impaired or intoxicated and did not or could not clearly communicate assent or a lack of assent?
      • Should a conviction for rape be possible based solely on the alleged victim’s testimony?
      • What is the appropriate punishment for rape?
        • Aren’t most released rapists subsequent recidivists?
        • How about castration?
        • How about execution?
    • Robbery:
      • Is securities fraud — manipulating markets — robbery?
      • Is consumer fraud robbery?
      • Is taxing estates robbery?
      • Is all taxation robbery?
      • Is my not paying tax, while you do, robbery?
      • Is selling my organs after I’m dead robbery?
      • Should the doctrine of felony murder be applied in cases of robbery?
      • What is the appropriate punishment for robbery?
        • How about robbery with a deadly weapon?
        • How about robbery at night?
        • How about robbery committed while under the influence?

Obviously there’s not end to this pedantic exercise. But is there a point to it?
Yes, though that point could have been made a number of ways. It is that answering these questions is probably every bit as “reasonable” a basis for spending taxpayer money as the “obvious” ones of rape, murder and robbery prevention. In fact it may be the case that notwithstanding the simple-minded implication to the contrary, none of these those crimes can be prevented, or punished in a just fashion, or both, without answering these questions.
So does that mean I need to get monkeys high on cocaine to answer them? I doubt it, but it is hardly inconceivable. Is the problem with my formulation that it is in theory every bet as open-ended as Williamson’s is simple-minded? It may be.
But the moral here is that formulations such as his are no-nothing prescriptions for government. They are meaningless, impractical, and mere posing. Given any responsibility for governing, and actually taking the same seriously, no libertarian would last a week “governing” with such policies, or would even want to try.
They are, as I said, poses. Few libertarians really even pretend they think “coercion” — i.e., the collection of taxes, and enforcement mechanisms to ensure they are paid — should be limited to cardinal crimes and national defense. Glenn Reynolds, for example, is a huge space buff.
But repeating slogans such as these “It is illegitimate for government to use force or the threat of force for projects that are not inherently public in character” without, of course, defining “projects,” “inherently” or “public” are an easy to avoid the hard work of developing, defending and executing complex policies for a complex society. They appeal to a number of types: Some lack the intellectually equipment to do the heavy lifting of real governing. Others are contemptuous of those who have not “made it” as they have — and claim to believe they “made it” without the help of anyone else, any government program, any government-supported institution. And another group is made up merely of nasty, little, selfish little people who themselves have little “success” to their credit but will be damned if anyone else gets some on any portion of their nickel. Their heroes are fictional arrested adolescents such as Howard Roark and the bitter real arrested adolescent who created him.

They go nowhere and they will take us nowhere. They talk about monkeys on cocaine and creeping socialism — popular, funny and easy targets — but enjoy the Internet “invented by Al Gore,” the interstates built by Ike, the relatively poison-free food brought to them by Teddy Roosevelt, and all the other aspects of modern society built by common effort, typically led by “coercive” government.

Government doesn’t always act efficiently. Clearly it is frequently is the worst agency to get something done and should probably be the agency of last recourse in many endeavors. Its efforts often harm better solutions that can come via free enterprise or merely benign neglect. It is virtually impossible to roll the state back from areas in which it has taken an active involvement. Its employees, as we see, will, given any chance at no one noticing, vastly overcompensate themselves, and are relatively immune from unemployment concerns related to economic cycles. I’m for a lot less government in almost every area.

But these are policy problems. Rants about “sticking a gun in your face” as the criterion for policymaking in a complex, interdependent world are not the answer. But they’re a lot easier to get people excited about than trying to explain and implement policies that just might work to solve the problem of government overreaching, such as term limits, the line-item veto, the flat tax or another radical overhaul of the tax system.
We have seen repeatedly that that sort of radical conservatism isn’t coming from the GOP leadership in Congress or otherwise. Columns such as this one, though, sure make it seem unlikely that we’re going to see it from the self-appointed right-wing punditocracy or its fans either, no matter how good an opening the left gives us.
Where do the rest of us conservatives go to wait out this awful nadir in right wing discourse and leadership? Is there a bunker for the likes of us where we can stay, guns out of our faces, thank you, until it’s all over?
Cross-posted on Right Wing News.


Kevin Williamson at National Review online — the in-house newsletter of the U.S. conservative establishment (comments on columns may be made only during banking hours) – offers up this formulation, which I got to via Instapundit:

Some fellow at The Economist has taken me to task for my description of socialism and communism: “The difference between communism and socialism: Under communism, politics begins with a gun in your face; under socialism, politics ends with a gun in your face.” . . .
The resort to violence is what makes the question of what kind of things it is legitimate for states to do an important moral concern. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to stop him murdering, raping, or robbing. It seems to me entirely unreasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to extort from him money to fund a project to get monkeys high on cocaine. Those seem to me fairly reasonable distinctions. It is illegitimate for government to use force or the threat of force for projects that are not inherently public in character.

This is the fundamental libertarian fallacy: Government operates by coercion, not a social contract or even anything less readily amenable to facile analogy. Hence any policy must meet the test of whether coercion can be morally justified to be an appropriate exercise of government policy. Next comes resort to the typical libertarian black-and-white formulation, which I’ll repeat:

It seems to me perfectly reasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to stop him murdering, raping, or robbing. It seems to me entirely unreasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to extort from him money to fund a project to get monkeys high on cocaine.

Now of course a lot of premises and terms are unstated or undefined even in this seemingly unobjectionable proposed model. Let’s consider some:

  • “It seems to me” — Yes, it does.
    • But does it have to seem that way to everyone?
      • If so, why?
      • If not, why not
    • I am sure Kevin Williamson hates, hates, hates people who “legislate morality.” So: What is this “seem”?
      • Is it a “moral” principle?
      • Is it based “economics” or “social science”?
      • Am I free to disagree with the process by which these conclusions have been rendered so “self-evident”? Or is it a legitimate form of coercion to forbid me from doing so?
  • Everyone hates “murder, rape and robbery.” But is it so obvious what comprises these categories?
    • Murder
      • Is refusing to care for someone you have “moral” responsibility for murder?
      • Is poisoning my drinking water with your industrial chemical murder?
      • Is killing an unborn fetus murder?
      • Is killing a kind of born fetus murder?
      • Is killing a severely disabled person murder?
      • Is letting me die on the floor of an emergency room because I have no money murder?
    • Rape
      • Has the charge of rape ever been misused socially for illegitimate means?
      • Can one rape one’s spouse?
      • Is one guilty of rape if he is impaired or intoxicated?
      • Is one guilty of rape if the complainant was impaired or intoxicated and did not or could not clearly communicate assent or a lack of assent?
      • Should a conviction for rape be possible based solely on the alleged victim’s testimony?
      • What is the appropriate punishment for rape?
        • Aren’t most released rapists subsequent recidivists?
        • How about castration?
        • How about execution?
    • Robbery:
      • Is securities fraud — manipulating markets — robbery?
      • Is consumer fraud robbery?
      • Is taxing estates robbery?
      • Is all taxation robbery?
      • Is my not paying tax, while you do, robbery?
      • Is selling my organs after I’m dead robbery?
      • Should the doctrine of felony murder be applied in cases of robbery?
      • What is the appropriate punishment for robbery?
        • How about robbery with a deadly weapon?
        • How about robbery at night?
        • How about robbery committed while under the influence?

Obviously there’s not end to this pedantic exercise. But is there a point to it?
Yes, though that point could have been made a number of ways. It is that answering these questions is probably every bit as “reasonable” a basis for spending taxpayer money as the “obvious” ones of rape, murder and robbery prevention. In fact it may be the case that notwithstanding the simple-minded implication to the contrary, none of these those crimes can be prevented, or punished in a just fashion, or both, without answering these questions.

So does that mean I need to get monkeys high on cocaine to answer them? I doubt it, but it is hardly inconceivable. Is the problem with my formulation that it is in theory every bet as open-ended as Williamson’s is simple-minded? It may be.

But the moral here is that formulations such as his are no-nothing prescriptions for government. They are meaningless, impractical, and mere posing. Given any responsibility for governing, and actually taking the same seriously, no libertarian would last a week “governing” with such policies, or would even want to try.

They are, as I said, poses. Few libertarians really even pretend they think “coercion” — i.e., the collection of taxes, and enforcement mechanisms to ensure they are paid — should be limited to cardinal crimes and national defense. Glenn Reynolds, for example, is a huge space buff.

But repeating slogans such as these “It is illegitimate for government to use force or the threat of force for projects that are not inherently public in character” without, of course, defining “projects,” “inherently” or “public” are an easy to avoid the hard work of developing, defending and executing complex policies for a complex society. They appeal to a number of types: Some lack the intellectually equipment to do the heavy lifting of real governing. Others are contemptuous of those who have not “made it” as they have — and claim to believe they “made it” without the help of anyone else, any government program, any government-supported institution. And another group is made up merely of nasty, little, selfish little people who themselves have little “success” to their credit but will be damned if anyone else gets some on any portion of their nickel. Their heroes are fictional arrested adolescents such as Howard Roark and the bitter real arrested adolescent who created him.

They go nowhere and they will take us nowhere. They talk about monkeys on cocaine and creeping socialism — popular, funny and easy targets — but enjoy the Internet “invented by Al Gore,” the interstates built by Ike, the relatively poison-free food brought to them by Teddy Roosevelt, and all the other aspects of modern society built by common effort, typically led by “coercive” government.

Government doesn’t always act efficiently. Clearly it is frequently is the worst agency to get something done and should probably be the agency of last recourse in many endeavors. Its efforts often harm better solutions that can come via free enterprise or merely benign neglect. It is virtually impossible to roll the state back from areas in which it has taken an active involvement. Its employees, as we see, will, given any chance at no one noticing, vastly overcompensate themselves, and are relatively immune from unemployment concerns related to economic cycles. I’m for a lot less government in almost every area.

But these are policy problems. Rants about “sticking a gun in your face” as the criterion for policymaking in a complex, interdependent world are not the answer. But they’re a lot easier to get people excited about than trying to explain and implement policies that just might work to solve the problem of government overreaching, such as term limits, the line-item veto, the flat tax or another radical overhaul of the tax system.

We have seen repeatedly that that sort of radical conservatism isn’t coming from the GOP leadership in Congress or otherwise. Columns such as this one, though, sure make it seem unlikely that we’re going to see it from the self-appointed right-wing punditocracy or its fans either, no matter how good an opening the left gives us.

Where do the rest of us conservatives go to wait out this awful nadir in right wing discourse and leadership? Is there a bunker for the likes of us where we can stay, guns out of our faces, thank you, until it’s all over?

Cross-posted on Dean’s World. : Ron Coleman’s main blog is the law-related LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION:®. : He also recently published an article on the problem of judicial activism in the developing law of copyright and trademark in the Federalist Society’s Engage magazine.
Cross-posted on Right Wing News.

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