In the last chapter we discussed briefly the difference between legitimate government actions and those which I term "interventionism." At the time I did not care to go into a lengthy justification of the difference, but such a distinction is necessary if we are to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate uses of government power. Without such a distinction, we are left choosing between a government of unlimited powers and justifying anarchy. And while both positions have been adopted by some thinkers, the only true way to distinguish between proper government and the abuse of power is to determine what is and is not a proper use of power.
Before we begin, let us look at the alternative. Let us assume, as many modern political theories do, that there is no way to distinguish objectively between proper government functions and improper. While these "pragmatic" theories try to draw lines base don their idea of proper goals, or some vaguely defined image of human rights, the truth is, once we allow that the government has the right to do anything, and is limited only by the limits it chooses to impose on itself, we have effectively allowed the government unlimited power. And that is why on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum we see today an inability to distinguish between excessive use of government power and the proper use of those same powers. It is also why we often have so much difficulty distinguishing between liberal and conservative positions, as, with both granting government absolute power, the details of their beliefs become irrelevant. Once government has the opportunity to exercise a power, eventually it will. And thus, if it has the opportunity to exercise unlimited power, it will as well. And unlimited power, whether it originates on the right or left, always ends up looking the same. For example, outside of incidental features, there was very little difference between the USSR and Nazi Germany.
The only alternative for such pragmatists is the position which has often passed for libertarian thought, best characterized by the statement that "government is a necessary evil." This belief also originates in the "practical" view that there are no objectively proper uses of government power. Seeing things just slightly more clearly than the more mainstream thinkers, "pragmatists" of a more liberal bent can see that granting government any powers will inevitably lead to it assuming absolute power, and so they adopt the libertarian position of hostility to government, as well as fear of government. This is the reason we find so many libertarians open to insane conspiracy theories, or fighting on behalf of murderers such as Mumia and Peltier. Unable to conceive of government as a tool, as a proper means for achieving specific ends which has been misused and stretched to fit all functions, they instead choose to see government as the enemy and thus end up embracing something akin to anarchy. They imagine this makes them friends of the common man, struggling for his liberation, but, in truth, they are as much an enemy of mankind as those who fight for unlimited government. Both are inimical to man's needs.
Allow me to explain. The point can easily be seen by examining two examples. First, let us ask what would happen if we truly embraced the libertarian fear of government. (I here exclude the handful of libertarians who adopt the true 19th century liberal position, and understand the point I will make later, that government has a proper function which can be defined objectively.) Second, let us reject the notion that the abuse of government power proves that government is inherently hostile to freedom. I will do so by showing that harmful consequences would attend any attempt to apply the wrong tool to a given problem.
Actually, we don't even need to create a hypothetical example of how libertarian hostility to government would work out, we have seen the consequences in the related liberal hostility to some aspects of government. For example, the left wing tendency to assume that any police action is illegitimate. Look at the many cities which has routinely accused their police of racism, or worse, subjected them to politicized, hostile "citizen oversight boards". Have they resulted in greater safety for citizens? or have they resulted in a reluctance for the police to act and a decline in the number of those even willing to join the police? Similarly, did our post Vietnam hostility to the military result in a better or worse national defense? I could go on, but the point should be obvious, if we expect any sort of service on the part of the government, hostility toward government will result in that either the lack of that service, or, at best, that service being provided in the most minimal, desultory fashion.
Which brings me to my second point, that, yes, government can easily be the enemy of freedom when used to solve problems for which it is ill suited, but that is true of any tool which has been misused. Let us ask, for example, if we tried to use psychiatry to resolve crime. Let us suppose rather than courts and jails, we decided psychiatrists could cure all criminals. Would that work? Let us ask, what f a psychiatrist could tell some criminals were "sane", yet likely to commit crimes? Would he not likely fake diagnoses to keep his fellow citizens safe? And would not, in the end, psychiatry be perverted into a sort of tyranny, diagnosing on fraudulent pretexts those they consider dangerous? In fact, would this misuse not create many of the problems we find coming from the misuse of government?
I could go into more detail here, but as part of this argument rests on defining what is and is not a proper use of government, perhaps it is time to move on to our argument proper and ask ourselves, what is a proper use of government, and what is not? And, more importantly, is it possible to define them with specificity on a rational basis? Until we have so divided the uses of power, our entire premise, that liberalism rests on a set of beliefs which result in justifications for improper uses of government, is impossible to argue, as what is improper or not must first be determined.
Obviously, any theory of government will rest on some basic assumptions, so there is no theory which would be accepted by everyone. Some beliefs are simply incompatible with any theory of elective government, not to mention beliefs which are inimical to freedom, or even to mankind in general. If you think freedom is irrelevant, or the betterment of the conditions of mankind is a goal to be avoided, then no agreement will be possible between us. And so, the best I can do here is to present my premises and the conclusions to which they lead. You can then decide if you agree with my premises, and accept or reject my argument on that basis.
However, I think my basic premises are those upon which most of my fellow citizens agree, even if in practice they often act otherwise. That they are inconsistent in applying them does not mean they do not believe them to be true, only that many individuals are not logically consistent in the application of their beliefs, or even that some hold inconsistent beliefs (as future chapters will show). Still, as I think most agree with my ideas, I have no fear that my arguments will be reject based upon their foundations. If anything, I expect any dispute to be based upon the conclusions to which those premises lead, though viewed objectively, I see no other results if we consistently apply our beliefs.
The basic premise is that government is a contractual relation between the individuals comprising it, either literally or at least conceptually. Even if there is no real possibility of an individual withdrawing his support should the government become more burdensome than beneficial, we still tend to choose to view government in those terms, and consider government proper when membership involved more benefit than burden. And, in truth, it likely is a pragmatic view as well, as should a government become more burdensome than beneficial in the eyes of even a significant minority, that government will likely suffer instability and possible overthrow. Even if it does not, a burdensome government cannot rely on strong report and so an internal crisis or external threat may not be met with sufficient resolve, resulting in collapse more easily than for a more popular government.
In any case, whether a useful fiction, a reality, or something in between, perhaps a useful analogy which allows us to understand political realities, most individuals think of government in terms of some sort of social contract, and thus imagines government as the product of individuals surrendering some of the license of a state of nature in return for the benefits of communal life.
And what is it that draws man into communal existence? And how does simple coexistence differ from government?
Clearly, cooperative existence can exist without government. We could imagine individuals coexisting without government. However, even there the lack of government would cause some issues. For instance, trade. Even if all exchanges take place immediately through simultaneous swaps of goods, what if the good I receive is not as I asked? We would need an arbitrator, and one with the ability to enforce decisions. I have proposed elsewhere that one could imagine civil courts without government, basically working by citizens providing some sort of surety in advance to ensure they would behave as expected, and to ensure there are funds to pay their fines, but that still presents problems, such as what to do when judgments exceed the value of the bond provided by each citizen?
However, civil adjudication is effectively part of civil life. It can be made easier by being associated with the government, and so can be viewed as properly part of cooperative life. Government is a different breed.
As I conceive it, government is the organized body to which man deputizes his rights to self-defense. I have made these arguments elsewhere at great length, so I won't go into it quite as much here, but there are a few points one must bear in mind. First, to give a government a right, man must possess it already, so he cannot grant it a right he does not have. Second, man cannot surrender his rights, as rights are absolute. As we discussed before, adding an exception makes a right no longer a right, and so, if they are inviolable, absolute, and inalienable, then man can only deputize government, not give them away.
Which brings us to the on remaining question, what is a right. A right, properly is an individual property, as it exists independent of the group. So such things as a "right to an education" or "right to health care" cannot be imagined, as they require someone else provide the service in question. Proper rights are simply the ability to exercise our own abilities or retain our own property. It also includes our ability to enter into voluntary relationships with others. Thus we have, for example, the right of association or the right to contract. However, at the most basic, rights are the right to life, liberty and property, which imply all the other rights, such as speech, movement, contract and so on.
And that helps us to establish what the proper function of government is. Government exists to protect individual rights, and so the functions of government which do so are proper. That alone allows us to draw some simple limits. Rights can only be violated by another, there is no way we can violate our own rights. Thus any law which prohibits us from making a decision which effects us alone cannot protect our rights. Laws to "save us from ourselves" are improper. Let us make this even more simple. If a law does not involve two parties, there is clearly no violation of rights, and thus it cannot be proper.
As second set of laws which cannot be proper are those which prevent voluntary exchanges, be they laws against paying "too little" or prostitution, preventing voluntary agreements cannot prevent the violation of rights, are themselves violations of the right to contract and property rights.
Which brings us to the simplest definition of proper activity for government. Laws which protect one individual from acts of force, theft or fraud are proper uses of government power. Of course, this needs to be dealt with using some discretion, as many improper uses are justified as attempts to "prevent harm" or to "stop fraud", so we need to define these with precision. Fraud means only immediately deceptive exchanges, not any act which may be in some way seen as fraudulent. Similarly, the potential for harm is not enough, one individual has to clearly do harm to another to be a violation of rights.
Obviously, the argument here is but a cursory one, I have spent hundreds of thousands of words in the past justifying such arguments, and doubt I could do it justice in this short space. However, I like to think that at least I have explained here the foundation of my beliefs and drawn a clear line between legitimate uses and illegitimate. Government, viewed properly, is a tool allowing for the collective protection of individual rights, but that is its only proper function. (Excluding the adjudication of civil disputes and negotiation of treaties with foreign government, as well as defending against foreign threats, though that last is an extension of the protection of individual rights.)
And so we can also define which laws fall under the rubric "interventionist". Those laws are the ones which go beyond the protection of individual rights, which attempt to protect an individual from bad judgment, either by preventing him from making choices seen as inappropriate, or in some cases, preventing others from offering those choices to him. Any law which tries to protect an individual from anything other than a direct violation of his rights is one which may be called interventionist.
Which brings us back to our intitial question, the way in which the liberal philosophy justifies such intervention, and what consequences those premises entail. Having established the type of laws which constitute intervention, we can now return to our original inquiry and look at each of the three premises, before moving along to the consequences.
Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 3 - The Truth is Out There"
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".
Some of my examples of misusing a tool come from "An Analogy For Government". I discussed shortsighted "pragmatic" approaches to government in "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited" and "Pragmatism Revistied, Again".In addition, I illustrated some misuses of government power in "The Problem of Pornography", "Free Speech, Absolute Rights and the Absurdity of "Balancing Tests"" and "Asking the Wrong Question". I also discussed the way that granting a basic premise is the same as granting its most extreme consequence in "Inescapable Logic" and "The Endless Cycle of Intervention". I discussed something akin to the hostility toward government in my analysis of racially motivated distrust of police in "How to Become a Victim of Crime". Most of the articles upporting my theory of government were cite din the notes to the previous chapter, but the two most relevant are likely "Negative and Positive Rights" and "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government".
Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/05/16.