A Consequentialist Argument For Government

Via Bryan Caplan:

My point, of course, is that whether or not you agree with Arnold [Kling’s] view that government is a good idea, he needs better arguments. I suggest the simplest: For reasons that remain poorly understood, the status quo in the Western democracies currently provides the highest standard of living in human history, and any radical change has a serious risk of ending in disaster.

I think that this statement presents consequentialist libertarians with a problem: why fix what isn’t broken? Can consequentialist libertarians guarantee that their proposed changes will in fact result in better consequences for the folks they’re seeking to persuade? At the very least, can they promise that their proposed changes won’t make folks worse off? The answer, of course, is that they can’t make any such promise. They can’t even provide probabilities.

In fact, the most persuasive consequentialist argument is that since Western democracies, despite their warts, have consistently produced the best living conditions in human histroy, no changes should be made whatsoever unless and until something better proves itself. To claim otherwise is to risk throwing away the most desireable consequences in all of human history.

This leaves consequentialist libertarians with very little to do except wait around for something better than Western democracies to emerge, and to argue against any changes to Western democracies in the meantime.

After all, welfare states are the best thing there ever was.

11 thoughts on “A Consequentialist Argument For Government

  1. George Weinberg says:

    Not to defend consequentialism, but I think that’s a bogus argument for two reasons:
    1) it should be pretty obvious to everyone that improvements in the standard of living in the last few centuries were primarily due to technological advancement, not to improvements to the nature of the state.
    2) The “dire consequences” argument only makes sense when contemplating radical, irreversible changes.

    The fatal flaw with consequentialism is that, when contemplating tradeoffs between freedom and prosperity, you’ll always have a large number of people eager to sacrifice your freedom for their prosperity.

  2. John Lopez says:

    it should be pretty obvious to everyone that improvements in the standard of living in the last few centuries were primarily due to technological advancement, not to improvements to the nature of the state.

    It’s impossible to claim that Western welfare states don’t affect their people differently than other forms of government do. I point to the fact that the vast majority of technological advancements were made under democratic welfare states as proof. Therefore Western welfare states are, in some poorly-understood way, responsible for the standard-of-living differential between them and every other form of government.

    The “dire consequences” argument only makes sense when contemplating radical, irreversible changes.

    But you can’t know ahead of time what consequences even the smallest of proposed changes will bring about. The only way to find out is to implement them, and that means risking (however the odds) some sort of fundamental change in Western welfare states.

    Do libertarian consequentialists claim that they are somehow embued with the ability to centrally plan societies? No? Then their best bet is to let well enough alone. They’ve got their good consequences (the best consequences ever!), and monkeying with things just unnecessarily risks making things worse.

  3. all libertarian philosophies in the end are consequentialist.

  4. Black Guile says:

    As a consequentialist left-libertarian, I think I can answer that question. Yes, modern Western liberal democracies have the highest living standards in human history. They also approach a state of Liberty more closely than most societies. Therefore, if they were to approach Liberty more exactly – or even better, attain it – they would be even more prosperous.

  5. John Lopez says:

    BG,

    Therefore, if they were to approach Liberty more exactly – or even better, attain it – they would be even more prosperous.

    Societies with more liberty aren’t necessarily more prosperous than those with less, and certainly don’t necessarily produce better consequences than those with less.

    An example would be a liberal democracy that funds a defensive war with taxes and supplies troops with a draft. Not much liberty, but probably better consequences than letting itself be overrun by a totalitarian government.

    You aren’t going to find too many consequentialist libertarians arguing in favor of taxes and the draft, yet it’s pretty clear that those things have been partly responsible for the best consequences in history.

    Thus my question as to why consequentialist libertarians want to risk upsetting the applecart.

  6. Black Guile says:

    An example would be a liberal democracy that funds a defensive war with taxes and supplies troops with a draft. Not much liberty, but probably better consequences than letting itself be overrun by a totalitarian government.

    What society would be better off letting itself be overrun by a totalitarian government? Again, the regime that approaches liberty more exactly (lib. dems with draft) is likely to prosper more than the regime that does not approach liberty (totalitarian puppet state).

  7. John Lopez says:

    Black Guile,

    You aren’t really answering the question as to why a libertarian consequentialist ought to be advocating that any changes be made to a modern welfare state.

    Are you in favor of taxation and a draft?

    If you are, it’s a rather odd position for a black-flag libertarian to take. If you are not, then it’s an odd position for a consequentialist libertarian to take, as I’ve just demonstrated (and you’ve affirmed) that such measures serve to prevent horrible consequences.

  8. Black Guile says:

    In point of fact, I don’t consider liberal democracy with taxation and draft to be especially effective in repelling totalitarian invasion. A better thought experiment would be this:

    There are three countries: Totalistan, Libdemistan and Anarchistan. Totalistan is just like North Korea or Cuba. Libdemistan has a conventional cartel-capitalist economy and a tax-funded conscript army. Anarchistan is an autonomous zone of small entrepeneurs and cooperative workers’ syndicates, with a well-armed and freedom-jealous populace.

    I believe that Anarchistan is going to have highest level of general utility in its economy. Also, it is in my view more likely than Libdemistan to repel invasion from Totalistan. (The most likely scenario is that Libdemistan and Totalistan team up to invade Anarchistan).

    Liberal democracies have folded before totalitarian threats more times than can be counted. The only sure means to freedom is decentralized economic resistance and guerilla warfare.

  9. Stefan says:

    I believe that Anarchistan is going to have highest level of general utility in its economy. Also, it is in my view more likely than Libdemistan to repel invasion from Totalistan. (The most likely scenario is that Libdemistan and Totalistan team up to invade Anarchistan).

    This sounds like the good setup for a story, or at the very least an online real-time strategy game. “Take on the role of Anarchistan’s greatest Ayn Rand-style heroes, as you coordinate the actions of the many private defense agencies and mercenaries to battle the evil statist hordes.”

  10. John Lopez says:

    BG,

    In point of fact, I don’t consider liberal democracy with taxation and draft to be especially effective in repelling totalitarian invasion.

    It’s worked before and likely would again. Straightforward empirical evidence.

    And lest we stray too far off topic, note once again that welfare states have produced the best consequences in all of human history. Taxation and (to a lesser extent) a draft are inherent parts of modern welfare states. So do you support those things? Yes or no, please.

    Liberal democracies have folded before totalitarian threats more times than can be counted. The only sure means to freedom is decentralized economic resistance and guerilla warfare.

    That’s akin to the old joke: “The white horses eat more than the black horses. That’ because there are more white horses than black horses”.

    Functional anarchies are few and far between indeed, democracies are abundant. Thus it’s invalid to talk about numbers, percentages are a better metric. And good consequences are produced by exactly 0% of the functioning anarchies out there. Western welfare states, on the other hand, are responsible for the best consequences in history.

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