Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

Open This Content

Konrad Graf: Action-Based Jurisprudence (58m)

This episode features a lecture by author Konrad Graf from 2012 on a number of topics relating to action-based jurisprudence. Topics covered include: rights-violating rights protectors; law and ethics; legal theory; responses to aggression; rights-protecting legal institutions; and misplaced complexity. Purchase books by Konrad Graf on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (58m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

Open This Content

The Dissident Ambassador

In a new paper, Greg Mankiw shares some thoughtful reflections on teaching and heterodoxy:

I have always thought that instructors, especially in introductory courses, are like ambassadors for the economics profession. The role of ambassadors is not to represent their own views but to act as agents for their principal. Just as ambassadors are supposed to faithfully represent the perspective of their nations, the instructor in an introductory course (and intermediate courses as well) should faithfully represent the views shared by the majority of professional economists.


This perspective of instructor as ambassador raises the question of what instructors should do if they hold views far from the mainstream of the economics profession. If you are an Austrian or Marxist economist, for example, what should you do if asked to teach an introductory course? In my view, there are only two responsible courses of action. One is to sublimate your own views and spend most of the course teaching what the mainstream believes, even if you disagree with it. Because many introductory students will take only one or two courses in economics throughout their educations, it would be pedagogical malpractice, in my judgment, to focus on an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint. The other responsible course of action is to avoid teaching introductory (and even intermediate) courses entirely. In a more advanced elective, there is nothing wrong with teaching an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint, as long as students know what they are getting.

Mankiw’s view definitely resonates with me, but my position – and my practice – is rather different.  I say that a professor’s fundamental fiduciary duty is to teach their students about the world – not what his peers think about the world.  As long as your discipline is fundamentally sound, fortunately, these two goals closely overlap.  If your discipline is a corrupt pseudo-science, however, your obligations to your students require you to teach heterodoxy.  Sure, you’ll have to explain the normal view in the process of debunking it.   Yet it’s a dereliction of duty to teach nonsense as fact.

Analogously, by the way, it’s fine to act as a loyal ambassador for a fundamentally virtuous organization.  But if you’re the ambassador for North Korea, you have not only the right but the obligation to be a traitor.  “I’m just promoting my client’s interests” is as flimsy a defense as “I’m just following orders.”  See Mike Huemer on legal ethics for further discussion.

Since I am a professional economist, I’m happy to say that I don’t consider my discipline a corrupt pseudo-science.  However, economics is also far from “fundamentally sound.”  When I teach, then, I try to split the difference.  I spend about half of the time as Mankiw recommends: neutrally describing the economic consensus.  When the consensus is far from the truth, though, I go out of my way to amend it.

Yes, I try to plainly disclose whether I’m describing the research consensus or just telling them what’s actually reasonable to believe.  And no, I don’t penalize students for arguing that the consensus is right and Caplan is wrong.  Some of my exams even require students to disagree with me!  Still, my primary goal is to teach students how the economy works, not what most economists happen to believe.

Furthermore, the only economics students who really need to understand the current conventional wisdom of economics are… graduate students!  After all, no matter how misguided the research consensus happens to be, you can’t be a successful researcher unless you understand it.  Most Econ 1 students, in stark contrast, will never take another economics class.  So the sole economics instructor they’re ever going to have should rigidly focus on economic reality.  Thus, I essentially reverse Mankiw’s advice to confine “idiosyncratic minority viewpoints” to advanced students.  No matter what you think about Keynesianism, you have a fiduciary responsibility to teach your grad students all about it.  Otherwise, they’ll be at a severe professional handicap.  For undergrads, in contrast, the truth of Keynesianism is pivotal.  If your students’ lifetime commitment to economics comes to fifteen weeks, it would be silly to spend five weeks on an intellectual dead-end.

Am I saying that professors should teach whatever they feel is true?  No; a thousand times no.  If you use your “feelings” to form beliefs, you shouldn’t be a professor at all.  The first fiduciary duty of every intellectual is to set emotions aside, and calmly and patiently study a wide range of arguments and evidence.  Once you’ve done that, however, you owe it to your students to share the fruits of your labors.  And if, along the way, you discover that your discipline is misguided, you should let your students know that, too.

Open This Content

The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

Open This Content

Immoral Walls and Dishonest Manipulation

Sarcasm only works for me when you don’t demonstrate dishonesty while attempting it.

I listen to Scott Adams’ “periscopes” to keep an eye on what some of those on the pro-government side are thinking. He’s right about half the time– when he isn’t in his pro-government box, unable to see beyond its horizon. But sometimes it amazes me how dishonestly he frames an issue. I wonder if others notice.

Of course, since he is a trained hypnotist, it may be intentional on his part; an attempt to manipulate the opinions of his listeners. I don’t criticize him for that– it’s what I hope to do with my blog. But I hope to do it honestly, without deception. I am not trying to be sneaky about it.

A day or so ago he was mocking Nancy Pelosi’s absurd contention that “walls are immoral“.

I agree conditionally; walls are not, in and of themselves, immoral. Unless your particular morality is somehow anti-wall, which I seriously doubt. Morals being what they are (“situational ethics”) I can see how someone might have a set of morals which doesn’t allow for walls, but it’s not likely. It’s more likely to be political posturing.

The real question is whether or not walls are ethical. For simply being walls. The answer is: walls are ethically neutral.

You can almost always use your own money/resources to wall off your own property from adjacent property without any ethical problem.

Or you can help wall off “collective property” in the very rare cases where you have part-ownership in some actual collective property and there is unanimous consent to build and fund the wall.

There is an ethical problem if you wall off property which doesn’t belong to you, or if you force others to pay for a wall they don’t want to pay for.

If you wall off a neighbor’s property a few doors down, you have unethically built a wall.

If you force someone to help pay for a wall around your own property, you have unethically built a wall.

You could say those particular walls, under those circumstances, are unethical walls. Probably even immoral walls.

“Government land”– dishonestly referred to as “public land” in the same way kinderprisons are called “public schools”– is not yours to wall off. It isn’t true “collective property”, and there is not unanimous consent. Nor does it really belong to the government. Everything government claims it either stole from the rightful owner or bought (and maintains) with stolen or counterfeited money. A thief does not own the stolen goods he possesses, so government can not rightfully own anything. Any wall financed with stolen money is not an ethical wall.

A “border” wall fails on both accounts. No matter how “necessary” you believe it to be. It can not be done ethically under government.

You can sarcastically mock the truth, but the truth doesn’t change to suit your wishes. Not even if you are a president or Scott Adams.

Open This Content