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.”

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Pangolins

Nobody asked but …

Once again, I have anecdotal evidence about humanity that is very dreary.  Mark Twain said, “Always do right.  This will gratify some, the rest will be astonished.”  The reason for astonishment seems to be that there are damned few who are compelled to do right — much fewer always to do right.

Take, for instance, the sad tale of the pangolin.  Statists will insist that we need states to prevent the illegal trade in pangolin scales, and consequently the extinction of the species.  I would ask, “How’s that working out for you?”

The thing is that it would be a long time before logic and order corrected the ills of the state — if ever.  But there is also the thing that statists are clueless about statism being necessary THOUGH evil.  Statism is useless AND evil.  Statism is wrong AND evil.  There is nothing that government does which non-government can’t do.

— Kilgore Forelle

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We’re Undecided Now, So What’re We Gonna Do?

Nobody asked but …

Reading, er listening to another audio book as written by James Bamford, Body of Secrets (subtitle: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century).  This is a belated follow-through on a published citation from Radley Balko.  I recommend the book highly both for the content on the stated subject, but more importantly for me, the implications about the basic nature of the state and its bureaucracy.  Sometimes Bamford supplies a heavy load of detail, but I honestly could not omit any of them.

This is a paraphrasing of Bamford’s account of the NSA during Nixon’s years — Nixon issued a directive approving of the most aggressive delineation of the USA’s meddling powers.  Some such as the NSA were delighted because it reinforced what they were already doing, while others such as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover were outraged because it revealed what they were already doing.  Five days later AG Mitchell talked Nixon into rescinding the directive as problematic under the Constitution.  Most in the cloak and dagger community were unaware of either directive.  Why?  Bureaucrats and their bureaus are born out of the spoils system, not out of concepts of good governance.  The ideation of any plan is to serve a special interest, to intervene where we have previously chosen, through logic or care or neglect, NOT to intervene.  Write it down!

The concern arises that 99 and 44/100ths% of the agenda of agencies are out of the control of anyone.  There is a “set it and forget it” syndrome with them all.  I have been in close proximity to the state, man and boy, for over 7 decades (haven’t we all, for varying lengths of time?), and I have never seen a bureau go out of existence.  Please tell me I am wrong, please, I beg you.  Though many instruments of the rulers are obsolete, they are no longer connected to their founding justification, and/or were never connected to their founding justification.

Obviously, the chief attribute of any society of human beings is to foul its own nest.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Why I’m an Economic Optimist but Happiness Pessimist

Seven years ago, my mentor Tyler Cowen did an interview with The Atlantic entitled, “Why I’m a Happiness Optimist but Economic Pessimist.”  His point: Though GDP growth has been disappointing low for decades, the internet does give us tons of free, fun stuff.  The more I reflect on the Paasche price index, though, the more I’m convinced that Tyler’s picture is exactly upside-down.  At least in the First World, the sensible position is economic optimism combined with happiness pessimism.

How so?  To repeat, we shouldn’t take the ultra-optimistic Paasche calculations of GDP at face value, but neither should we dismiss them.  The judicious position is that U.S. growth has been excellent, though not astronomical.  Even so, we’re way richer than we were in 1990. Yet sadly, Americans’ measured happiness has barely changed.  We have abundance, but not bliss.

What’s going on?  Well, we already knew that income has a very modest effect on happiness.  But when you upwardly revise your estimate of prosperity, you automatically downwardly revise your estimate of the effect of prosperity on happiness.  Such is life.

When I insist that standard measures sharply underestimate economic growth, it’s easy to accuse me of motivated reasoning.  Before you make this accusation, however, consider the whole picture.  What possible agenda could I advance by simultaneously claiming that GDP has greatly increased, but brought us little joy?

So what’s the real story?  Simple: I look at the world and see great economic growth.  I take a second look at the world and see that money doesn’t buy happiness.  Then I report my observations.  This picture isn’t ideologically convenient for me.  But when I put ideology aside and stare at the world, this picture is what I see.

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Compulsory Schooling Laws Aren’t Progressive, They’re Inhumane

Someone asked me recently if I could wave a magic wand and do one thing to improve American education what would it be. Without hesitation, I replied: Eliminate state compulsory schooling statutes. Stripping the state of its power to define and control education under a legal threat of force is a necessary step in pursuit of education freedom and parental empowerment.

Some argue that compulsory schooling laws are no big deal. After all, they say, private schooling and homeschooling are legal in all 50 states, so state control of education is limited. While it’s true that some parents may have access to government schooling alternatives, many states require private schools to receive authorization in order to operate. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school.Homeschoolers in most states must comply with state or local reporting mandates that in some areas require homeschoolers to take standardized tests or meet state-determined curriculum requirements.

These hoops are for those lucky enough to jump out of compulsory mass schooling. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tax-credit scholarship programs, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school. Even if their child is being relentlessly bullied, even if they don’t feel that the academic environment is rigorous enough, even if they may personally disagree with some of the district’s ideological underpinnings—these parents are required by law to send their child to the appointed public school.

And what if they don’t?

Truancy and Neglectful Parenting

Truancy laws, which originate from a state’s compulsory schooling statutes, grant the full power of the state to come after parents whose children may have spotty attendance records. An in-depth article in HuffPost recently revealed the damaging impact these laws can have on families and children, with parents being pulled out of their homes in handcuffs and sent to jail.

For Cheree Peoples, one of the parents spotlighted in the article whose daughter misses school frequently due to sickle cell anemia that frequently leaves her hospitalized and in pain, enforcement of these truancy laws has been extreme, adding to the stress of her already difficult life caring for a chronically ill child. Awakened in the early hours by police officers who arrested her for truancy, she told the HuffPost: “You would swear I had killed somebody.”

The HuffPost investigation revealed that Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris was responsible for much of the heightened aggression toward parents regarding truancy. As California’s attorney general, Harris was a crusader against truancy and was instrumental in toughening criminal prosecution of parents whose children missed too much school. According to HuffPost:

Harris’ innovation was that school authorities and the district attorney would work in concert, articulating the threat of prosecution much earlier in the process and keeping school officials involved long after a case was transferred to court.

Harris held firm to her belief that neglectful parenting was the root cause of truancy, ignoring other potential explanations like lack of education choice for parents whose children may be suffering in their assigned district school. Harris’s actions to aggressively prosecute parents for truancy “were cementing the idea that parents always were the ultimate source of the problem.”

This is all so familiar. Harris, who billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” for California, likely believed she was doing the right thing for children, saving them from their allegedly neglectful parents. Horace Mann, the “father of American public education” who is credited with helping to usher in the country’s first compulsory schooling statute in Massachusetts in 1852, also considered himself a progressive. At the time, Massachusetts was experiencing a massive immigration wave that, some lawmakers believed, threatened the current social fabric.

The History of Compulsory Schooling Laws

Indeed, between 1820 and 1840, Boston’s population more than doubled, and most of these newcomers were poor Irish Catholic immigrants escaping Ireland’s deadly potato famine. They challenged the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms of the time, prompting many state leaders to lobby for a new compulsory schooling statute that would mandate children’s attendance in state-controlled public schools. It was for the children’s own good, they said. As William Swan, editor of The Massachusetts Teacher wrote in 1851, just before the first compulsory schooling law was passed:

Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.

Prior to the 1852 compulsory schooling law, compulsory education laws were common throughout the country. Massachusetts again led the way, passing its first compulsory education laws in 1642 and 1647, respectively. These education laws differed fundamentally from compulsory schooling laws. The education laws indicated a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelled cities and towns of a certain size to hire a teacher and/or open and operate a grammar school. It was the town that was compelled to offer schooling, not the parents to send their children there.

This is a significant distinction. A state arguably has the authority to require its cities and towns to provide certain services, but compelling parents to partake of these services under a legal threat of force—as the 1852 compulsory schooling law ultimately did—crosses the line. As the HuffPost article makes abundantly clear, parents, particularly those who are disadvantaged, continue to bear the brunt of these archaic and deeply flawed compulsory schooling laws.

The Solution

The first step to restore education freedom and empower parents with choice and opportunity for their children is to eliminate compulsory schooling laws that authorize state control of education. States could still require cities and towns to provide public schools to those who want them, but the power to compel parents to send their children there would disappear. In its place, a decentralized network of educational opportunities (including, but not limited to, various types of schooling) would unfold, fueled by visionary parents, educators, and entrepreneurs.

Parents, not the state, would decide how and where their children are educated. New possibilities for education innovation would emerge as the shadow of forced schooling waned. Education freedom begins when government compulsion ends.

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The Depression Preference

When I describe mental illness as “an extreme, socially disapproved preference,” the most convincing counter-example people offer is depression.  Do I really think people “want to be depressed” or choose depression as a bizarre alternative lifestyle?

My quick answer: These objections confuse preferences with meta-preferences.

No one chooses to have the gene for cilantro aversion.  Yet people with the cilantro aversion gene are perfectly able to eat this vegetable.  They just strongly prefer not to.

Similarly, when I say that alcoholics are people who value heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages more than family harmony, this doesn’t mean that they like having these priorities.  If they could press a button which would eliminate their craving for alcohol, I bet many alcoholics would press it.  But given their actual cravings, they prefer to keep drinking heavily despite the suffering of their families.

The same holds even more strongly for the typical person diagnosed with clinical depression.  Most people with loving families and successful careers are happy.  Clinically depressed people, however, often have both loving families and successful careers, yet still want to kill themselves.  Their preference is so extreme that it confuses the rest of us.  They’d almost surely rather have a different preference.  But it is their preference nonetheless.

Not convinced?  Think back to the early 1970s, when psychiatrists still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.  I object, “Mental disorder?  No, it’s just an extreme, socially disapproved preference.”  When critics incredulously respond, “Do you really think people choose to be gay?,” I say they’re confusing preferences with meta-preferences.  To be gay is to sexually prefer people of your own gender.  This doesn’t mean that gays want to feel this way.  If a gay-to-straight conversion button existed in the intolerant world of 1960, I bet that most gays would have gladly pushed it for themselves.  Even today, I think many gay teens would press the conversion button to fit in and avoid conflict.  But so what?  Hypothetical buttons can’t transform a preference into a disorder.

Is this all just a word game?  No.  The economic distinction between preferences and constraints that I’m drawing upon has three big substantive implications here.

First, people with extreme preferences could make different choices.  People with cilantro aversion are able to eat cilantro.  Alcoholics are able to stop drinking.  The depressed can refrain from suicide.  And so on.  This is fundamentally different from my inability to bench press 300 pounds – or live to be 150 years old.

Second, as a corollary, people with extreme preferences can – and routinely do – respond to incentives.  People with cilantro aversion are more likely to eat cilantro if other foods are expensive or inconvenient.  Alcoholics respond to alcohol taxes – and family pressure.  Depressed parents may delay suicide until their kids are grown.  Even in a tragic situation, incentives matter.*

Third, as a further corollary, people with extreme preferences can – and routinely do – find better ways to cope.  People reshape their own preferences all the time; perhaps you can do the same.  Failing that, perhaps you can discover more constructive ways to satisfy the preferences that you’re stuck with.  For example, if you’re extremely depressed despite great career success, you really should try some experiments in living.  Perhaps you’ll be miserable whatever you do.  But if you’ve only experienced one narrow lifestyle, how do you know?  Maybe you’d feel better if you tried putting friendship or hobbies above “achievement.”

It’s tempting to insist that there’s something pathological about having conflicting preferences and meta-preferences.  On reflection, however, these conflicts are a ubiquitous feature of human existence.  Almost everyone would like to feel differently in some important dimension.  Almost everyone reading this probably wishes they were less lazy, more patient, more outgoing, more loving, more ambitious, or more persistent.  But you still are the preferences you really have.  There’s plenty of room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean you’re sick.

* I’m well-aware that many physical symptoms also respond to incentives.  You can pressure a diabetic to lose weight, which in turn reverses his diabetes.  But all of these incentive effects require time to work.  The symptoms of mental illness, in contrast, can and often do respond to incentives instantly, because they are choices that are always within your grasp.  “I’m divorcing you unless you stop drinking right now” is a viable threat.  “I’m divorcing you unless you stop being diabetic right now” is silly one.

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