This episode features an interview of economics and law professor Peter Leeson from 2017 by Trevor Burrus and Aaron Powell, hosts of the Free Thoughts podcast. They discuss rational choice theory as it applies to self-governance. What happens in the absence of government? They also discuss the difference between government and governance, what it means to be stateless, and how anarchy is perceived in the world today. Purchase books by Peter Leeson on Amazon here.Open This Content
The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.
Virtually everything the Founding Fathers sought to achieve by separating church and state has been undone by the apostles of modern medicine, whose zeal for creating a therapeutic state has remained unopposed by politicians, priests, professionals, journalists, civil libertarians, and the public.
Many people have legitimate complaints against the Food and Drug Administration. For example, during its long history, the FDA has delayed the marketing of badly needed drugs and medical devices, leading to unnecessary pain and death. Excessive bureaucratic requirements for testing have made drugs more expensive than they would have been otherwise. And, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, its regulation of tobacco and nicotine interferes with people’s enjoyment of those products.
I want to suggest, however, such isolated complaints fail to go to the heart of the matter. The problem is not this or that regulation. Nor is the problem even the FDA itself. The root problem is the government’s claim to jurisdiction over so-called “public health.” In the United States, once Congress assumed this power and created myriad regulatory agencies to exercise it, the door was opened to the kinds of mischief that Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) placed under the label “the Therapeutic State.” All manner of interference with individual freedom can be and has been presented in the name of safeguarding public health. It’s a Pandora’s box.
The ultimate question is: who owns you? The answer will determine who is to be in charge of health.
The courts have routinely affirmed that the government has a “substantial interest” in the “health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.” In other words, citizens are public property. It’s time that this currently uncontroversial premise was questioned.
The modern state’s “substantial interest” in the physical and mental welfare of its citizens is an echo of the pre-liberal era, when the sovereign was seen in part as the father and custodian of the physical and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Paternalism served the interests of the sovereign, of course: he needed healthy taxpayers and soldiers. But the relationship was bigger than that.
The liberal revolutions of the 18th century did not fully push aside that model of governance, and many vestiges of the old regime have remained. Whatever the rationalization, whatever the ostensible basis of authority, the state was (and is) about taboos and social control. Of course, the form changed — church and state have been more or less separated — but in many ways the substance has been unchanged. The power of state-related clergymen was succeeded by the power of state-related medical men (including psychiatrists) and putative scientists. As the theological state receded, the therapeutic state advanced. Illness (including so-called mental illness) came to play the role in public policy that sin once played. Health stands in public life where salvation once stood. Treatment is the modern way of redemption. The burning of witches was succeeded by, for example, the confinement in madhouses of people who had committed no crimes. Electroshock and lobotomy replaced the rack and thumbscrew. The pattern repeated itself in the United States; state governments involved themselves in public health from an early date, followed by the federal government. Drug dealers and users became the modern scapegoats who had to be cast out (imprisoned) to protect the public’s health, although drugs entered people’s bodies by volitional acts. (On the resemblance between the theological and therapeutic states, see the works of Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who made a career demonstrating the unappreciated parallels. Links to many articles are here.)
In the modern age, Szasz wrote, “To resolve human problems [e.g., “bad habits”], all we need to do is define them as the symptoms of diseases and, presto, they become maladies remediable by medical measures” — more precisely, political-medical measures. Doctors, having been deputized by the state, wield power they could have not obtained otherwise. (The head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, is a physician.) Thus we have (to use another phrase from Szasz, “the medicalization of everyday life.” For example, any disapproved behavior that anyone engages in repeatedly is branded an “addiction,” which is in turn defined as a disease, as though calling behavior, which has reasons not causes, a disease were not a category mistake. Never mind that metaphorical, or mythical, diseases are not real diseases. (Are substances or people habit-forming?) To say that an ascribed disease is a myth is not to deny the behavior or even to deny that the behavior may a problem for either the actor or the people around him. As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, “A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms belonging to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.”)
It is in this light that we should view the FDA and other government medical and scientific entities. They are part of a massive apparatus of social control, making their personnel agents of social control, not truth-seeking. Whether the FDA, for example, is a friend of industry or an adversary (at different times it’s been both), the public is ill-served precisely because the right of individual self-determination in a free market, including tort- and fraud-redress procedures, is undermined by prohibitions and restrictions. It is also ill-served by the monopolistic effects of centralized political authority over science and medicine. (On the FDA’s growth, see this.) Free competition is the universal solvent because facts emerge through rivalrous activity, both economic and intellectual.
Many people don’t see things that way, of course, and so government has increasingly controlled people’s choices with respect to health and science. On the basis of the fiction that the free market has failed in these realms — when has it actually been tried? — politicians, bureaucrats, and deputized practitioners have gained power. A gain in political power, Albert Jay Nock taught us, necessarily means a loss in “social power,” that is, self-control by individuals and their voluntary associations (including families). If self-control is denied in one area of life, we should not be surprised to see it fade from other areas of life. Today, the battle cry is “Medicare for all!” But if “the public” (the state) is to pay for everyone’s medical care collectively, won’t the public’s putative representatives want to impose restrictions on individuals’ risky behavior if for no other reason than to minimize the hit to the government’s budget? What then becomes of what’s left of individual freedom?
The coercion exercised by the government-medical complex is routinely defended as being for people’s own good: in this view, they are compelled to do only what they really wish to do but cannot because of addiction, mental illness, etc. To Szasz, this is “the authoritarian, religious-paternalistic outlook on life,” to which he responded: “I maintain that the only means we possess for ascertaining that a man wants to [for example] stop smoking more than he wants to enjoy smoking is by observing whether he stops or continues to smoke. Moreover, it is irresponsible for moral theorists to ignore that coercive sanctions aimed at protecting people from themselves are not only unenforceable but create black markets and horrifying legal abuse.”
Szasz added: “The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.”
We know how the “public health” lobby views the matter. When it panics over how much smokers “cost the economy” in lost productivity (through sick days and shorter lives), the lobby is proclaiming that Americans are indeed public property. How dare they enjoy themselves and risk their health at the expense of the economy, the people, the nation? (The Nazis and Bolsheviks followed this idea all the way.) In contrast, quaint classical liberals believe “the economy” — that is, the institutional framework for free exchange — exists to serve people. When the “public health” lobby advocates coercion for a person’s own good, in reality it does not speak of treatment and cure but of assault and battery — and perhaps torture. A medical relationship without consent is like a sexual relationship without consent. But few people understand that.
Perhaps sensing the flaw in the case for coercion based on preventing harm to self, much medical coercion is offered in the name of protecting others. There is a grain of truth here, of course. People can carry deadly communicable diseases. (Whether the state’s centralized bureaucracy is needed or competent to deal with this is another question.) But as the public-choice thinkers point out, state officials won’t be satisfied with such a narrow mission as protecting people from such diseases. Public-health jobs will tend to attract people dedicated to reforming other people’s “vices.” Inevitably, they will push the boundaries to acquire more power, money, staff, and prestige — all dedicated to breaking our “bad habits.” The alleged threat from second-hand smoke is in no way analogous to the immediate threat from a communicable disease. The former can easily be dealt with through contract and other voluntary arrangements but that doesn’t stop the public-health zealots from working to outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants, and even tobacco shops.
But what about the children? In a free society, families are responsible for raising children to be autonomous adults. Of course, this does not always happen, part of the reason being the government’s own obstacles, such as rotten schools for low-income kids. At any rate, history makes clear that government crusades, say to keep adolescents from doing “adult” things — such as drinking, smoking, and now vaping — only adds to their allure and has horrendous unintended consequences. Fruit is harder to resist when it is forbidden. Meanwhile, adults find themselves harassed — in the name of protecting the children — as they go about enjoying themselves.
Would life be perfect if “public health” were left to free and consenting adults in the free market? No, of course not. But a real-world free society should not be compared to an unreal and unrealizable utopia of all-wise, all-knowing, and all-good “public servants” who have only your health and welfare in mind. Rather, it should be compared to the real world of fallible, morally flawed, egotistical, self-serving, and centralized politicians and bureaucrats whose worldview is one where they give orders and you obey. Markets — which is to say, people in both profit-seeking and non-profit capacities — are capable of producing reliable consumer information and guidance, not to mention certifying the quality of products. They do it every day. Governments, after all, are comprised of nothing but human beings.
“Those who would give up essential liberty,” Benjamin Franklin might have said, “to purchase a little temporary health, deserve neither liberty nor health.”Open This Content
Episode 283 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: the good and bad of government and governance; how children and adults feel loved by others; the best way that he’s found to deal with children asking you to buy them stuff while you’re out shopping; the incredible intolerance of supposedly tolerant cities like London and New York; why America is neither the “land of the free” nor “the home of the brave”; and more.Open This Content
Episode 266 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: an article by C Jay Engel titled, “Governance As A Role Vs. The State As An Entity“; challenging jurisdiction; and more.Open This Content
Evil lives in dark corners. The more dark corners exist, the more it thrives. Competition tends to squeeze out dark corners. Monopolies on violence, backed by propaganda and fear, create more dark corners.
Anything deemed too important/necessary to question or face competition is a giant web of protected dark corners. This is why the myth of authority and the myth of the rule of law are so dangerous. They create shelters and havens for scoundrels.
The desire for openness and competitive governance isn’t borne out of a naive belief in the goodness of human nature or ignorance of the evil in the world. The opposite. It comes from recognition of evil, and the fact that markets allow fewer dark corners than monopolies.
A free world is not a perfect world. It’s a world with an incentive structure that makes it harder for evil to thrive than it can in an unfree world. It’s incumbent upon individuals to resist it in both cases. But one makes it harder than the other.
It’s too easy, and too dangerous, to be lured into the comforting fiction that some final arbitrator Leviathan will keep us safe. The creation of any such Final Authority enables more dark corners, not fewer.Open This Content
Last Tuesday, special day that it was, I awoke early and prepared to go out. By 7am, I was where I always go on this special day, eager to do my duty and exercise my sacred right to choose. Entering the warm, brightly lit building, I was greeted by friendly folks who make me feel welcome. Not many others were there yet.
I got down business and made quick work of it. Systematically, I scanned my alternatives in the various categories, now and then consulting the list on my mobile phone that I had earlier drawn up so I wouldn’t forget my game plan. Everything was just as I expected it to be, and so I executed my plan flawlessly. I made my picks and bypassed those that I saw no need for.
My choices made, I left content, confident I had achieved everything I had set out to achieve.
To be more precise: in each case, my choices counted; no, better: they were decisive. In other words, I got everything I wanted — on the spot.
Obviously, I was not at the polling place on Tuesday, which I hear was Election Day. I was at the supermarket. But I didn’t lie. Tuesdays are special: it’s the day my supermarket discounts all items for those they call “seniors.” The discount more than offsets the sales tax. That makes it a special day, though, alas, the state still takes it illicit cut.
The tip-off that I had not been at the polling place should have been my statement, “I got everything I wanted — on the spot.” This cannot happen at the polling place. There, my choices would have been limited to two or three or possibly four candidates, but only two had any real chance of winning since one of the dogmas of our civic religion is that any “third party” is somehow suspect.
True, the supermarket must limit the selection; shelf space is limited. But I usually see more than four choices in most categories, and store owners have a continuing incentive to expand their stocks to please their customers, who, unlike taxpayers, can say, “No thank you.” And I can always go someplace else where the stock is more to my liking. Yet I can go to only one polling place, which doesn’t matter because every polling place has the same limited stock — like the stores in the old Soviet Union.
Also at the polling place, no one’s choice is decisive; for many people, that’s a feature, but it looks like a bug to me. Unlike at the supermarket, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. At the supermarket, if I want bacon rather than sausage, I get bacon every time. But my preferring candidate Jones to candidate Smith for dog catcher does not mean I will get Jones. Sure, you make your “free” choice among the vetted candidates, but you don’t know what you’ll get until all the votes are counted. Despite that other constantly repeated dogma, your vote doesn’t really count. In nearly all cases, the chance of a tie is only insignificantly greater than zero. What matters is how a whole lot of other people voted, and what they do on election day has nothing to do with what I do. I have not lived through a single election the outcome of which would have differed had I done something other than what I actually did on that day. Last Tuesday was no different.
Since my “votes” are decisive in the supermarket, I have a natural incentive to think carefully about what I want, although, within limits, if I make a mistake, I can exchange what I choose for something else or even get my money back. Try that in an election. Candidates may say they favor this rather than that, but they might only be saying what they think the voters want to hear. What the winners end up doing could markedly diverge from what they promised to do or undo, but even in the most flagrant instances, you can’t get your vote (or money) back.
Another thing that gives me an incentive to choose with great care what I buy is that, for the most part, I will not only reap the benefits but also bear the costs of my own choices. That has a way of concentrating the mind. In an election, even under the best of circumstances, only a sliver of the costs will fall on any particular individual, although the total costs could be immense. Worse, most individuals probably won’t realize that the costs are attributable to what the victors have done. Tracing the consequences of much of what officeholders do requires at least a basic understanding of how markets and the price system work. Few understand economics.
In light of this, most people do no serious research about candidates. Candidates know this and exploit it to the hilt. That’s why election campaigns look more like theater — bad theater — than markets. The candidates seek to create atmospheres in hopes of emotionally motivating enough people to go to the polls and vote for them. Top among the emotions aimed at is fear, which makes for a proliferation of bogeymen (such as immigrant invaders and foreign manufacturers).
Now I know that the standard response here is that what we buy at the supermarket or bookshop or even the insurance agency and doctor’s office is not like the things that elections are concerned with, that is, those things known as indivisible and nonexcludable public goods. Fair enough — except that 1) government does lots of things that bear no resemblance whatever to classic public goods and 2) a voluminous historical and theoretical literature exists documenting that public services, including security and conflict resolution (assuming they really are public goods), have at one time or another been provided in what look awfully like … marketplaces.
So maybe we’ve been sold a bill of goods in the state. Let’s check our premises, shall we? (Here are more titles in addition to the archive linked to above: Harold Berman’s Law and Revolution, Peter Leeson’s Anarchy Unbound, Gary Chartier’s Anarchy and Legal Order, Edward Stringham’s Private Governance, and Robert Ellickson’s Order without Law.)
As for elections, I’d rather spend my time doing things that are likely to benefit myself and those I care about. Practicing rituals designed to make the predator state look like a saintly government of, by, and for the people is not among them.Open This Content