The problem is that such arguments do not go over well in modern popular governments. Some may cynically accept that government does what it can get away with doing, and a few may believe that the strong will inevitably exploit the weak, but when it comes to speaking of government, to formulating theories of government, western popular governments tend to favor idealist theories. If you doubt this, look at the totalitarian movements of the 30's and earlier. Even the Nazis, Communists and Fascists tried, with varying success, to argue that their absolute states represented some "higher form" of freedom, that the individual, in giving up his "bourgeois freedom" gained some "deeper" freedom. (I once called this the "Story of O School of Political Science.") There are, I grant, some political "realists", be they ward healers, union goons, or intellectual brutes, who adopt the position that force is all that matters, but such theories do not enjoy anything approaching broad support. The public, for better or worse, retains enough Enlightenment philosophy to conceive of the state as a tool intended to better their lot in life, and so they cannot resist asking why they should accept a state, what benefit it brings to its citizens.
(There is a second factor at work in the United States missing in many other nations. We lack any sort of nationalism. Yes, there are those who attempt to shoehorn nationalism into US politics, be it in opposition to immigration, in support of European over other cultural origins, or favoring white over non-white citizens, but they simply find little support. Unlike many European nations, we never had a single national identity, even very early in our history, when we still contained a mix of English, Welsh, Scott, Irish, German, French, Spanish and Dutch. Even the rest of the Americas was more homogeneous, with nations settled largely by a single European power, but the US was always something of a heterogeneous nation, and so we have no real nationalist identity. Without any concept of nationalism, we lack the "nation-state" concept, the volkish ideal, which allows some to postulate a state which exists in Hegelian independence from its citizens. And so, thanks to an accident of history, we have been spared the worst of bad political philosophy, and managed to retain Enlightenment era beliefs even as they were lost in many European nations during the early to mid 20th century.)
Since modern states insist that a state must justify its actions as being for the benefit of its citizens, it follows that government intervention, be it in matters economic, social, or other, would have to be justified by some such explanation. And that is why I argue that the three basic beliefs underlying all interventionist theories, but especially liberalism, and not only necessary for liberalism, but are inevitable given the need to justify intervention. In other words, given our political system and our beliefs about government, it was inevitable that a political theory justifying government intervention would postulate the fundamental trinity underlying liberalism, they are the only way to excuse such meddling.
That does not imply that liberalism, or liberalism in its present form, was unavoidable. As I shall show, the trinity of beliefs can be used, and are used, to justify a range of beliefs from moderate conservatives to communists, paleo-cons to LaRouchers, liberals to social conservatives arguing for censorship. All base their beliefs on the same trinity in one form or another. While many historical influences (as we shall discuss in later chapters) came together to give liberalism its present form, there us nothing inevitable about it. It is inevitable that justifying intervention by a popular government will result in the beliefs which form the foundation of liberalism, but those beliefs can also form the basis of many completely different political theories. Doubtless, having the same basic beliefs, such theories would share some traits with liberalism. In fact, as I will show later, some outcomes are inevitable given those premises. But beyond those similarities, there is nothing necessary about the specific form modern liberalism took. (Later we will examine which are essential and which accidental traits, that is what aspects of liberalism are the inevitable outcome of the basic beliefs, and which are mere accidents. But that discussion will come much later.)
So, what are these three basic beliefs of liberalism? And, more importantly, what makes them inevitable? Why do I say that arguing for intervention by the government requires adopting such beliefs? Are there no alternative arguments? And, equally important, is the converse true, if intervention makes these arguments necessary, does accepting these arguments make support for intervention inevitable?
First, let us lay out the beliefs which form the foundation of liberalism. We have discussed them briefly in the introduction, and will cover each in great detail in the following three chapters, so for now let us just offer a sentence for each, hopefully providing a succinct definition of the premise.
1. There is a set of behaviors which are, by some measure, optimal for all people, the adoption of which would be universally beneficial.This short list of postulates are all that one needs to believe to embrace modern liberalism, at least its essential aspects, or, for that matter, to embrace any modern interventionist theory. Yes, there are a host of specific beliefs that are not covered by these statements, but, if we ignore the minor details, all liberal beliefs are founded upon these three premises.
1A. As a corollary, there are a set of actions which should be prevented lest those taking such actions prevent others from choosing the optimal set of behaviors. (This is really only relevant for those theories which blame bad choices on external malice rather than ignorance or incompetence.)
2. Left on their own, the majority of people, through ignorance, incompetence, lack of information, or the intervention of selfish or malicious outside forces, will fail to choose the optimal behaviors postulated in premise #1, nor will they use the experience of past mistakes to improve their future decisions (or perhaps circumstances make such learning impossible -- either because outside forces manipulate circumstances to make learned behaviors a poor guide, or because real life circumstances do not provide sufficient patterns to form the basis for identifying abstract similarities needed for such learning [all of which will be explained in a future chapter]).
3.There exist a number of individuals, by definition contained in postulate #2 they must be a minority, who either know the set of optimal behaviors, or are capable of determining them.
But, before we get to the premises themselves, let us finish this chapter by answering the question implied in the chapter title. I have said that these premises are the only possible justification for government intervention, at least given the assumptions of modern popular government. But why? Why are these arguments necessary? And, equally important, why can there be no alternative arguments? Finally, coming at the question from the other side, what is it about these premises that make me argue they make the belief in intervention inevitable. After all, not all arguments require such symmetry. For example, to believe in the divinity of Jesus, Christians must believe in G-d, but one can believe in the existence of G-d without also believing in the divinity of Jesus. So, why do these arguments have such symmetry? Why are they not only necessary to justify intervention, but why is it necessary to support intervention if one accepts them?
Let us start with the easier of the two, and show how the argument for interventionist government requires adopting these three beliefs. We can then examine how holding these three beliefs requires one adopt a belief in interventionist government.
There are two points to bear in mind during this discussion. The first is something we have established already. As I said elsewhere, modern Western governments, or at least those who develop theories about government and live in modern western societies, have generally accepted the Enlightenment Era belief that government exists to serve citizens. This makes it necessary for any action to be justified in terms of some benefit. Usually this takes the form of a benefit to the citizen, be it all citizens or some subset. However, in other cases, having established that government is beneficial in general, it is possible to argue that measures which keep government working are, as they maintain the general benefits of government, also beneficial to citizens. However, outside of simple administrative measures, and rudimentary arguments for military self-defense, such arguments remain relatively unpopular, making it inevitable arguments almost always rest on the benefits citizens will enjoy.
The second important point to bear in mind is equally obvious. Though there exists some societies where freedom is not so firmly entrenched, in the US and western Europe, and to a lesser degree in the rest of the world, the assumption is made that freedom is inherently good. That is that freedom has some value regardless of our ability to demonstrate its objective usefulness. Granted, in any given group there will be some who dismiss specific freedoms. Some who don't care about religious freedoms, some who would be fine with removing freedom of speech, and still others who would dismiss the value of any freedom you could name. However, taken as a whole, it is unlikely anyone could find a large group in these societies which uniformly deprecate a specific freedom.And so, even if some individuals might be fine with restrictions being imposed on certain freedoms, taken as a whole, society in aggregate requires that any loss of freedom, any government intervention or restriction, in other words, must be justified by some corresponding value, as the loss of freedom is seen as inherently negative.
That may sound simple, and that is a good thing, as those premises are all we need to understand why liberalism, in fact all interventionist theories, require our trinity of beliefs.
The basic premise is simple. Given any circumstance, any situation, we can create a simple binary choice. In terms of decision A, government can allow citizens X to make his decisions, or they can interfere. How they interfere is irrelevant in this case, that comes later, deciding whether they limit his choices by disallowing one or more, or possibly allow only a very limited number, or even decide for him. That is irrelevant. What matters is whether the decision itself is left in the private realm or brought into the world of public choices.
Now, if all decisions were left private, clearly there would be no government. I suppose we could still have a military, as they tend to restrict decisions by non-citizens. But if we allow for police, or courts, there must be some restrictions. And that leaves me to explain how I distinguish between the decisions made, how I differentiate between "interventionist" government and the legitimate interference of the state. It is a topic I have covered many times, and which the next chapter will cover in much greater detail, but the basic premise is the dividing lime is the same one which divides minimalist government from the larger forms. And that is, is the government keeping you from violating the rights of another? Or is it intervening when another's rights are not at risk? As the interventionists often try to blur this line by redefining rights (which will also be discussed in the next chapter), for purposes of this definition, rights include only life, liberty and property, though liberty likely includes such things as movement and speech. Basically, anything which would violate the old "Mr & MRS LAMB" common law felonies would be a good candidate for a violation of rights. (For those unfamiliar with the term, MR & MRS LAND is an acronym for "Murder, Rape, Manslaughter, Robbery, Sodomy, Larceny, Arson, Maiming/Mayhem, and Burglary".)
As I said, the discussion of this distinction will take place in the next chapter, so, for the moment, let us just accept the distinction so we can move along. Any questions will hopefully be resolved shortly.
If we draw the distinction I have provided, it is easy to see how legitimate intervention is justified. You are prevented from violating the rights of another because the same protection is extended to you. As I argued elsewhere:
Obviously, like anyone else, I would find ideal a system which allowed me to do whatever I wanted without consequence, while providing enough punishment to everyone else that it prevents them from harming me. Of course, no one would agree to allow me that freedom, and I would allow it to no one. So, the only choice which would be acceptable to all is a system where punishment is applied uniformly.And that, in a nutshell, is the argument for symmetrical protection of rights. You would enjoy a system which favored you, but no one else would agree to it, you can only find agreement for a restrictive or permissive system. A permissive system, which allows much, presents much more risk of harm than it provides benefits (as every "Mad Max" type film has struggled to demonstrate). So the only rational choice is to abandon one's opportunity to violate the rights of others in exchange for protection of one's own rights.
The next question is whether the system will punish everyone or forgive everyone. The forgiving system will allow me any crime, but will allow the same to everyone else. As I expect to benefit less from my own freedom than I would suffer from the freedom allowed others, it makes sense to opt for the system that punishes everyone. The loss from giving up the freedom to commit crime is small, while the protection is great.
The problem arises when we reach the second sort of interference, the ones I have labeled "interventionist", where the rights of another are not clearly violated. Be it censorship or licensing of taxis, minimum wage laws or social security, ObamaCare or building codes, these laws all seek to interfere in decisions which do not violate another's right to life, liberty or property. As they do not, and so do not provide a nice symmetrical system (e.g. "We stop him from killing you, and stop you from killing him"), they require some other justification.
And that justification is found, generally, in the prevention of some sort of harm. It is sometimes explicit, sometimes vague, but in all cases, the argument is, without these sort of laws, individuals will come to harm. And as they will be hurt, it is the duty of the government to intervene, and to prevent that harm. And, in general, this works as a justification. Provided the harm prevented is severe enough, or the loss of freedom small enough, or restricted to a small enough number of individuals, the threat of harm is taken as an adequate justification for the government to intervene.
But why? Not only why does the fear of harm justify surrendering freedom, but why is this argument about these laws preventing harm accepted at all? Why do voters, the general public, anyone, accept these arguments?
(Before we move on, I must point out that there is a second argument sometimes used, that failure to intervene will result in inefficient, rather than harmful, results. Outside of academic economic, these arguments do not enjoy much popularity, however. It seems, for most, the risk of economic inefficiency is not enough to justify losing one's freedom.)
The argument rests on two premises, which happen to be two of our three foundation statements. These two statements are required to make the prediction of harm make any sense.
First we must postulate there are "good" and "bad" choices, in fact a handful of good choices. How these are defined vary from argument to argument, from individual to individual, but they are always based upon some sort of objectively knowable value. The basic idea is that there are certain choices which can be shown to be harmful or dangerous or inefficient, choices which may fail to meet needs or may deprive an individual of a necessity. It may be a refined enough system to allow for a set of choices, allowing various "correct" choices, broken down to apply to different groups, but the system will never allow for any subjective valuation. If it does, then it will contrast the subjective system, which they often dismiss as "wants", with an objective system, "needs".
The necessity of this postulate is obvious. If we cannot show that there is a right and wrong choice, then we can't show that people are doing themselves harm. If I cannot objectively rank the choices other make, how can I say they are doing themselves harm? More importantly, as I am about to show, by postulating an objective system, one standing apart even from their professed wishes in many cases, they can invalidate the arguments of subjective value theory, and even deny the ability to self correct (which we will discuss later).
The reason they cannot accept subjective value theory is obvious. If the value of any good is what an individual thinks to to be at that precise moment. And even more than that, if it only exists as a relative ranking in an ordinal system without cardinal values, there is no way to say an individual choice is wrong. If I trade $10 for a piece of food, obviously I valued the food more than the money. Only if we postulate that by some objective standard the food is less valuable (or necessary, or some other standard) than the money, only then can I say that you made the wrong choice. So long as values are constantly shifting and based on nothing but subjective desires, it is impossible to argue that the outcomes are wrong. And so the system must rely upon the presumption of an objective system of valuation, and often upon some system of ranking other than the satisfaction of individual wants.
Which brings me to the second necessary argument, that individuals will make the wrong choices more often than not. But, not only will they make the wrong choices, but they will persist in doing so. That is, we also need to postulate, explicitly or implicitly that learning or some form of self-correction, is impossible.
The free market theories all rest upon self-correction mechanisms. Individuals may make mistakes, but having done so, they correct. Those who correct faster are more satisfied and retain more resources, those who do not tend to lose resources and make fewer decisions. As a result, the system tends toward the optimum over time.
The interventionist theory must deny the ability to learn. Even if we assume stupid individual who pick wrong 100% of the time on the first choice, if we allow for learning there is still little argument for intervention. With that much error on which to base corrections, a 100% error rate would swiftly return to an error rate similar to a much less defective system. Only by denying the possibility of self correction can we justify intervention, as that is the only way to make government involvement necessary.
There are three ways in which learning is made impossible, or three general categories. We will discuss all three in a chapter of their own, but for now I will provide very quick descriptions. First, there is the sinister force argument. That argues that an outside force, often the businesses which are seen as exploiting and misleading consumers, manage to distort the market signals, and so even if individuals could learn, the market signals are not there to allow them to do so. Second, there is the theory which sees desires as being unrelated to true "worth", as I described above. If we accept this theory, the price, based upon subjective value, would be unrelated to the true "worth". As the "worth" is some abstract value, unknowable for most (sort of like a Platonic ideal), there is no means by which learning could be possible. Finally, there are those who argue that learning is possible, but because of market complexity, constant shifting of prices, and the fact that "no two situations are identical", that individuals cannot abstract sufficiently from reality to properly form the needed hypotheses. (This theory would, if taken literally, actually argue against any learning from experience, but we will discuss that later as well.) And, of course, many theories use parts of two or even all three theories, combining them into a single hybrid explanation.
Whichever theory, or theories, are used, the argument is the same. Individuals will choose badly, and continue to choose badly, and, as the wrong decision is knowable and demonstrably harmful, those wrong decisions can be shown to be harmful.
And that brings us to our third premise. This is not necessary to demonstrate the need to intervene, but to explain how intervention will help. As I mentioned at the beginning of this whole essay, if we postulate a public incapable of deciding properly, then we are left without hope for elective government, as the elected official will be just as hapless as the electors, leaving us with the choice of individuals making their own bad decisions, or a selection of those same individuals making the same bad decisions for everyone. And so, to make intervention work, we have to postulate a group which can see the objectively good decisions. Most modern theories find these enlightened souls among academic experts, but any group would. So long as one can argue, from some justification, that this group has knowledge the rest lack, and that their insight will guide the new government, then their existence justifies intervention, as it explains why the government decisions may be better than the original individual choices.
Of course, very rarely is the plan sold in this manner. Those seeking office are not very likely to tell the electorate "vote for me, as I am smarter than you and will tell you what to do." Instead they talk of "working with the experts" or "seeking the best minds in government, academia and business." Or maybe, "putting together a blue ribbon panel." There are countless ways to say "I am going to gather a lot of smart people," but the point is the same in every case. The idea is that individuals are incapable of deciding for themselves, and so,m to keep them from harm, they must be told what to do or not do by those smarter than the general public. It is obvious why some of this argument is downplayed in elections, but that, in plain English is the argument, whether those presenting it admit so or not.
Having shown that this is the only way a modern state might be induced to accept intervention, let us now look at the other side. What beliefs are possible for those holding these premises to be true?
It should be obvious that the arguments above work almost as well here. If there are choice clearly right and wrong, and individuals are both inclined to bad choices and unable to learn, there is no hope that elective government might work on its own. Leaving such individuals in charge of their own decisions would be suicidal. The only hope is that there are some individuals who are competent, who can be put in charge. Only then can we believe things might get better.
The only place where the logical necessities of these postulate differ from the beliefs of liberalism is in the type of government to favor. Logically, if we have a mob of incompetents and a handful of elites, the rational choice is to place a dictatorship of the elites over the mob. Elections raise the risk of the mob voting out the elites, ending up ruled by one of their own, and all the disastrous results that implies. That modern liberalism has maintained a dedication to elective government seems inconsistent.
However, that is something we will explore later, and at that time we will see that it is not as inconsistent as it seems. For example, we will see that many liberals are dismissive of elective politics and personal freedom (as are many others as well, including many nominal conservatives). In addition, with the growth of bureaucratic agencies and other power centers outside of legislature, the role of elected officials has diminished, making it possible to conceive of a continuity of "expert" government despite the regular turnover of elected offices. And finally, historical accident, personal beliefs, and a host of other factors have also shaped liberalism so that it might not always follow the logical results of its beliefs, or not yet, anyway.
Which brings us to the end of this section. We have taken a very cursory look at the outlines of the first half of our argument, the trinity of fundamental beliefs, their justifications and the manner in which they make interventionism unavoidable. We have not yet touched upon the second half, the beliefs, other than interventionism itself, those premises will demand. That argument will need to wait for a while, as next we want to take a look at this argument in more detail. First we will look at each of the three premises in detail, after which we will look at specific issues, such as the differences between the postulate that citizens are incompetent and that they are manipulated by outside forces, or the many arguments used to support the impossibility of learning. Only after all of that will we begin the second half of our argument, the outcomes of such premises, before wrapping everything up by examining a number of specific details, actual cases and unusual examples. Before all that, however, we will spend the next chapter examining the differences between interventionist and legitimate government, which will include a short discussion of what are and are not rights as well.
Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 2 - Saving You From Yourself".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".
Again I could probably fill several paragraphs with related links, but I will spare you most of them. The discussion above concerning absolute values can be understood better by reading "Absolute Values", "The Right Way" and "Greed Versus Evil". The specific arguments about subjective values are related to my posts "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Most Misleading Word" and "Bad Economics Part 16" about the difference between legitimate and illegitimate intervention. The quote comes from "A Rational Approach to Punishment". You can also find much related material in "Negative and Positive Rights", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "Man's Nature and Government" and "Prelude". I know many of these have been linked before, but I include them for those who have not read earlier installments.
Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/05/10.