Monday, September 27, 2010

Violence and the State

What do people think of this point that if you're not willing to haul someone off at gunpoint for something then it's not a legitimate concern of the state? For the life of me I can't understand why everyone is so impressed with this blog post. Kevin Williamson starts out whining about a dissenting letter to the editor in The Economist. He then goes on to say that if you won't use violence for something the state shouldn't do it.

That seems absurd. Violence is an extreme recourse, even for a state, isn't it? What about private citizens that own guns? Ultimately, when the cards are down, they'll put someone at gunpoint to get something they want. It's an extreme reaction and it's a reaction that they rarely engage in, but ultimately the use of violence is the ultimate defense and enforcer for a private citizen, is it not? That's why we have the Second Amendment - so the government can't weaken that absolutely essential method of recourse. But you don't say "if a private family isn't willing to get something at gunpoint they have no business doing it". Kevin Williamson is suggesting that the law of the jungle is all there is and that we should judge institutions by the absolute most extreme action they might take. What a poorly reasoned argument!

Why don't we talk that way about private citizens? Why don't we say that private citizens should only be doing what they're willing to defend at gunpoint? Because we live in a society governed by contract, institutions, and norms of behavior. That's what allows us to transcend the law of the jungle. The thing is, the government exists in that society as well. Indeed, with the police force and the courts the government is part of the vast web of emergent institutions that make things like contracts possible.

Kevin Williamson's intellectual sloppiness reveals one of the biggest problems with modern libertarianism: it's obsession with "the state". Nobody talks about government more than libertarians. Why? Because they see it as some sort of alien institution rather than an emergent institution. They think about the state categorically, that blunts their arguments, and they sound ridiculous in the process and don't even realize it; instead, they think stuff like this is deep and insightful.

This is the problem with "road to serfdom" type thinking as well. As soon as you let this piece of categorical confusion in "the road to serfdom" follows easily - it's not exactly a tough argument to piece together. And you get people like Kevin Williamson sputtering about social democracies and Economist letter writers: "Well, bully for northern Europe and journalists with anecdotes! It’s not as though gunpoint politics has no history in Europe: Wait for the next all-European war and let me know how the Dutch and the Danes do."

Now he's just sounding like a garden variety conservative. I'll acknowledge good libertarian arguments when I hear one. There's a lot about the state that cannot be defended and I don't try. This isn't one of those good arguments and I'm baffled that so many people are linking it favorably.


  1. As a libertarian, I agree wholeheartedly with your argument here. Libertarians worry almost exclusively about the way their freedom is impinged upon by the state, but very little about how it is impinged upon by non-state actors. At extremes, they fail to recognize that the imposition of law and order is itself a valuable thing.

    So what is an appropriate answer to Williamson's intended thrust - that the state is useful for police and military work but ought not to involve itself in the more trivial details of private life? Certainly, he takes it too far, as you say. But what do you say to a more rational phrasing of essentially the same argument, something like: I'm a capable and responsible individual, why should I have to carry such a heavy burden in taxation and regulation? Can't I just be left alone to work and care for myself, my friends, and my family? I'm willing to pay my share for police and courts and military, but I don't feel I am capturing much value from most other government activities.

    At the bottom, this is the sentiment that many libertarians are embracing.

  2. The only reason libertarians harp on government and not the occasional private aggression is simply because governments are inherently aggressive and inherently coercive. We oppose private aggression just as much, but to focus on that is to ignore the elephant in the room.

  3. I've always understood this to be the major criticism of the modern, American(?) strand of libertarianism by "classic" (i.e. socialist) libertarians: There's a fixiation with government coercion and theft, all the while ignoring the causes and consequences of private tyranny. From someone who clearly isn't a Murray Rothbard fan :
    "To demonise state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst.
    "[T]he libertarian phobia as to the state reflects and reproduces a profound misunderstanding of the operative forces which make for social control in the modern world. If — and this is a big “if,” especially where bourgeois libertarians are concerned — what you want is to maximize individual autonomy, then it is quite clear that the state is the least of the phenomena which stand in your way."

    As far as I can recall, Noam Chomsky framed it less rabidly, saying something along the lines of: At least public institutions are accountable to us; we have very little recourse to the tyrannies of private corporations (apart from weak regulatory requirements).

  4. Looks like my attempted hyperlink for the source of that first quote didn't work out... Anyway, if you're interested, it's here:

  5. Last thing, I've been reading Thomas Schelling's classic "Micromotives and Macrobehavior" again recently.

    It essentially deals with the unexpected (and often perverse) social outcomes that arise from individuals making isolated decisions. (In other words, how seemingly mundane and separate actions lead to unintended collective consequences.)

    I recommend it for anyone interested in behavioural and institutional economics:

  6. It's interesting the direction this conversation has gone in! My initial point was more that we don't use that standard to evaluate private citizens so why is it considered such a reasonable standard for government? It doesn't seem to make sense. It's definitely not what I think makes the most sense as a definition of "how do you define what is appropriate for the state to do".

    I actually don't have a clear answer to that. I think in all cases the state should focus only on collective action or genuinely social problems. It should focus on action where legal individual decision making would impose upon people by virtue of the structure of property rights. That doesn't mean ALL action like this is appropriate, but that is absolutely necessary. Whether societies want to depart from that or restrict it further is a question of constitution-writing (which I think is essential for appropriately circumscribing a state). I haven't put much thought into it - but that's where I would have gone. I would not have used violent action as some sort of arbiter for what state action makes sense. I'm not sure why Williamson went for that, even if he believes (as Mattheus points out) that the state is uinquely defined by what has been called it's "monopoly on violent force" (sort of a mixed metaphor, but oh well). I certainly agree with Mattheus that that characterizes states and that's why we should stay vigilant - but I don't think it follows that that defines what is appropriate for a state to do.

    Characteristics of a state and rules of engagement for a state are two very different things, in other words.

  7. I think the so-called "libertarian socialists" have a lot of good points to make. I've never thought of myself as one, but I suppose I do coincide with them in a lot of important respects. Most of my justification for state action comes out of instances where ostensibly "voluntary exchange" isn't all that voluntary. When we talk about "voluntary exchange" we are actually only talking about the parties to the exchange. Any other consequences of that exchange are involuntary for those who are not a party to the exchange. That's just another way of framing the externality argument. That seems similar to the sort of stuff that stickman quoted.

    I also strongly, strongly recommend Schelling's Micromotives and Macrobehavior, although it's been years since I've read it myself.

  8. Hmm, I'm not sure I really see the problem. If you think of the question of what constitutes just and unjust state action as a question of what sorts of things you can legitimately coerce others into doing, then it just looks like Willamson's suggestion is a way to elicit moral intuitions in order to answer that question. If I remember correctly, that's how Robert Nozick characterized the central concern of political philosophy. It's not a particularly weird way to approach things; it's standard libertarian stuff. Actually, this seems to me like a pretty standard way of demarcating between just and unjust action per se, and not necessarily state action. I think the way Williamson characterized the issue was sloppy. Maybe I am too thick to really see your point.

  9. Christopher -
    Well first, welcome to the blog, and thanks for commenting.

    What I'm just unclear on (and perhaps Nozick explains it better) is how he gets from that single quality of the state (it's coercion) to a standard for judging what is right for a state to do. I could see how it would make sense to say "you should only accept something that the state uses violence to accomplish if you think it is worth being violent over", but that's very different from saying that any state action should be worth using violence for.

    This is why I give the example of the private family. Presumably private families are also characterized by the willingness at some point to use violence to achieve their ends. But the mere existence of that quality of the private family doesn't lead us to define what is ethical for a private family on the basis of violence. On what grounds does Williamson do that for the state?

  10. When private entities incarcerate millions of people for things they should not be incarcerated I will concern myself with them more.

  11. I think the main argument is that since the state can only get revenue from private citizens in a process that is coercive (you can argue this point but the argument is strong regardless), anything this revenue is spent on should be considered in terms of the means to obtain it.

    A good analogue would be someone who is paid an hourly wage considering his or her expenditures not in terms of money, but in terms of hours worked. I did this all the time back when I was working a minimum wage job that I hated, and I'm sure many others have as well.


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