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

Giving Up on Alchemy

A show I was watching on Netflix, showing an alchemist at work, gave me an idea.

I could be wrong, but I suspect alchemy gradually evolved into science because of alchemists keeping the stuff that worked and tossing out the stuff that didn’t. The magic failed, but the occasional experiment succeeded, It was a process. No one intended to abandon alchemy; it just happened over time.

I can even imagine some people clinging to hope, still searching for the Elixir of Life, the philosopher’s stone, or a way to (easily and cheaply) turn lead into gold, as others were pursuing the more realistic natural sciences.

In a parallel way, politics is alchemy; libertarianism is science.

I can see how politics slowly evolved into libertarianism over the centuries as smart people tossed out the stuff which didn’t work and kept doing the stuff which did. Getting closer to anarchy with each winnowing. I believe the Tao Te Ching shows some early faltering steps in that direction from around 2600 years ago. It takes time to get things right.

Yet, there are still a lot of delusionally hopeful alchemists still searching for the best kind of government, the right people to run it, and the law which will solve a problem. The shocking thing is that anyone takes them seriously.

Open This Content

Paasche Says Progress

When economists debate economic stagnation, I routinely recall my undergraduate macroeconomics textbook, Dornbusch and Fischer’s Macroeconomics (5th edition). In Appendix 2-1, these famed economists introduce readers to two main contrasting price indices: the Laspeyres, or base-weighted, and the Paasche, or current-weighted:

While this may seem technical, much is at stake. Suppose a stagnationist belittles the economic importance of the internet. “So we get some free stuff. How much can it possibly shift official GDP calculations?” The answer: Tremendously.  Why?  Because calculations of real GDP use the GDP deflator, and the GDP deflator uses a Paasche price index.

Let’s set our base year to 1990 – the very year my old textbook was published. Now consider Youtube. Its measured annual contribution to GDP is about $15 billion. Relative to GDP, that’s a pittance, right? But Youtube consumption is about 1.5 billion hours per day. Back in 1990, a typical video rental cost $2.49. So even ignoring the massive increase in consumer choice and convenience, the annual contribution of Youtube measured in base year prices is 1.5B*$2.49*365.  That’s roughly $1.4 trillion dollars.  Paasche power!

The results for Google are even more dramatic. People run an average of 3.5 billion searches a day. Back in 1990, you would have been lucky to get comparable service for $20 – perhaps by hiring someone to spend a couple hours pouring through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. So while the value of Google’s services in current prices is about $100B a year, the value in base year prices comes to over $25 trillion dollars.

You can see where this is going. If we sum the current revenue of the top internet companies, it’s probably well under $1T per year. However, if we sum the value in 1990 prices of the cornucopia they provide, it easily exceeds $50 trillion a year. Yes, much of this consumption happens abroad, increasing Gross World Product rather than U.S. Gross Domestic Product.  Yet using a Paasche price index, there’s still no doubt that the GDP deflator has sharply fallen since 1990. That means decades of non-stop deflation. This in turn implies that real GDP has risen far more than almost any respectable economist will admit.

Switching to the Laspeyres price index naturally makes this stunning result go away. If we take 1990 output at today’s prices and divide it by 1990 output at 1990 prices, we’ll only see modest progress. A few sectors – like video rental – will basically vanish from the numerator, but they’re only a small component of the denominator.  For example, using a base-weighted index, the value of video rentals in 1990 at today’s prices is roughly zero because video is now virtually free.  But the value of video rentals in 1990 prices is also modest, because when video was $2.49 a pop, total consumption was modest.

So which method of price indexation is correct?  Once they understand what’s at stake, dogmatic optimists will say, “Paasche!” Dogmatic pessimists will naturally answer, “Laspeyres, of course.” I say both sides should be more broad-minded.  Yes, there is a sense in which progress since 1990 has been modest. However, there is another important sense in which progress since 1990 has been astoundingly awesome.

If you don’t remember 1990, the modern world is easy to take for granted. The rest of us, however, know – or at least ought to know – that modernity is a living miracle. Though we don’t own fifty cars each, we still enjoy fabulous luxuries beyond of the budget of the richest residents of 1990. Stagnationists live to belittle these gains, but that’s not science; it’s perspective. Paasche points the way to a radically different yet equally scientific conclusion. The judicious approach, though, is not to pick a side, but to triangulate. Economic progress is complex. In some major ways, it’s been slow; in other major ways, it’s supersonic. And overall? Seems speedy to me – and not because I don’t know the numbers.

Open This Content

Words Poorly Used #140 — Corporatism

In its worst misuse, “corporatism” is given as a synonym for capitalism.  Corporatism is made of fictions, while capitalism is a natural economic occurrence.  Corporatism is the case where statism is used to control purely natural market activities.  When well-meaning people complain about the excesses of capitalism, they are usually resenting the dodging of responsibility, legislatively by the state-licensed corporation or illegally by the marauder.

In free markets, where individual actors make economic choices, interchange will be optimized — both parties will approach satisfaction with the transaction because that was their intent on entering the engagement.  One or both parties may be dissatisfied, to some degree, with some outcomes.  This is a critical point.  The partners in the transaction may realize that dissatisfaction is part of the risk of free exchange, or a partner may feel that she needs help from some authority, some corporate protection from the state.  The alternative may be that an aggrieved party will violate laws to seek adjustment.  When this type of crime is organized we have another form of corporatism — Might makes right.

The capitalist, however, underwrites risk.  She understands that her best interests are served by the risk management that is typical of her field of endeavor.  The finest example of risk management is in maintaining cordial, voluntary exchange.

— Kilgore Forelle

Open This Content

Randolph Bourne

Nobody asked but …

This morning I listened to Jeff Riggenbach’s podcast, The Libertarian Tradition.  In particular, I heard the episode covering Randolph Bourne’s life and his contribution to the cause of individualism.  The text of Riggenbach‘s presentation is also found at the Randolph Bourne Institute’s web pages.  I realized, too late, that I had failed to mark the 100th year since Bourne’s untimely* death in December 1918.

Bourne packed a lot of ideas into his short life, and did much writing for someone who was repeatedly canned for being so forthright with his ideas.  Today, his legacy includes the Randolph Bourne Institute and its instrument, Antiwar.com.  Furthermore, Bourne is famous for the very durable quote, “War is the health of the State.”  I urge you to read Wendy McElroy’s exploration of this phrase.

But we would be remiss in ignoring others of Bourne’s observations.  To wit:

The American intellectuals, in their preoccupation with reality, seem to have forgotten that the real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany. There is work to be done to prevent this war of ours from passing into popular mythology as a holy crusade.

The ironist is ironical not because he does not care, but because he cares too much.

Really to believe in human nature while striving to know the thousand forces that warp it from its ideal development-to call for and expect much from men and women, and not to be disappointed and embittered if they fall short- to try to do good with people rather than to them- this is my religion on its human side.

For we do not do what we want to do, but what is easiest and most natural for us to do, and if it is easy for us to do the wrong thing, it is that that we will do.

In America our radicalism is still simply amateurish and incompetent.

In your reaction to an imagined attack on your country or an insult to its government, you draw closer to the herd for protection, you conform in word and deed, and you insist vehemently that everybody else shall think, speak, and act together. And you fix your adoring gaze upon the State, with a truly filial look, as upon the Father of the flock.

The State is not the nation, and the State can be modified and even abolished in its present form, without harming the nation. On the contrary, with the passing of the dominance of the State, the genuine life-enhancing forces of the nation will be liberated.

We can easily become as much slaves to precaution as we can to fear.

With the shock of war the state comes into its own again.

I had nearly let Randolph Bourne slip into obscurity.  I now make it one of my life’s purposes to keep that from happening.  I heartily commend Bourne to your attention in that spirit.

— Kilgore Forelle

* Bourne was only 32 when he died in 1918’s flu epidemic.

Open This Content

You Can’t Have Civil Rights Both Ways

It’s interesting to me how many people want their own rights respected, while also wanting other people’s rights to be violated.

People who want their rights as gun owners respected often advocate a massive government welfare program, carried out through taxation and land theft, in order to build a border wall, which violates the right of association and the right of people to move about freely. They also demand a police state where you can be stopped and checked for your papers.

To justify these violations, they’ll insist it’s necessary because of other kinds of welfare and because of laws that all but criminalize self-defense and the uninterrupted possession of the proper tools with which to carry it out. To abolish any violations appears unthinkable.

On the other hand, those who oppose a rights-violating border wall want to continue to violate everyone by funding government handouts and usually want the rights of gun owners to be violated more than they already are.

Then you have those who seem happy to violate themselves. They’ll demand their right to marry whoever they want to marry, but want government permission — even licenses — to do so. Or they want to have their right to use cannabis respected while they beg for this right to be violated through taxation and regulation.

Did I say it’s interesting? I meant disappointing.

It makes one thing perfectly clear: People either don’t understand rights or they don’t respect them.

People aren’t good at consistency, especially when they don’t realize that all rights are connected so thoroughly they might as well be one and the same. How can you expect your rights to be respected if you refuse to respect the rights of everyone else? How much do you really value your own rights if you’ll let others treat them as privileges?

I want your rights respected, no matter who you are.

I don’t want you robbed to fund things I believe are necessary. I don’t want your real estate stolen for projects I want. I won’t hire armed agents to impose things on you that violate your life, liberty, or property even if I suspect you are up to no good. I won’t impose licensing on you.

If you violate me, I have the natural human right to defend myself. Laws can’t change this.

It’s one reason I will never compromise on gun rights.

I’ll stand up for all your rights, consistently.

Your rights matter to me.

Do they matter to you?

Open This Content