Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave. (part 3)

Consider three characters in The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne, the innocent inmate; Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, the convicted murderer; Brooks Halten, the longest-serving inmate.

Andy is innocent and wants to be free.  During his long escape, he suffers a lot of brutality, but he submits to it in the service of his long-term goal (as well as trying to preserve his own sense of humanity).

Red is guilty and has served a long while, but he would like to be paroled and go free again.  He very dutifully recites his confession of remorse at each parole hearing and is always rejected, except for the last one.

Brooks is guilty of something, but it was a long time ago, and at this point, he has known the inside of the prison far more than anything outside the prison.  He does not want to be paroled.  He would much rather live in the prison for the rest of his life.  When he is paroled, he commits suicide rather than face a life on the outside.

Now, this may be a strange question to ask, but bear with me.  Is Brooks actually in prison at all in the film?  I don’t mean, is he physically inside of a prison building.  Obviously, he is.  But if a prison is a coercive institution, one that exerts control over people and prevents them from leaving, then Brooks is not in a prison.  He would never try to leave.  No one would ever be called upon to forcefully keep him there.  It’s a completely irrelevant consideration.  So, if that’s what prison is, he’s not in one.

On the other hand, maybe prison shouldn’t be understood in terms of coercion.  Maybe we’ve been suckered into thinking of it that way because of the clever propaganda of libertarians over the years who point out all the bars and guards and fences and razor wire, and so on.  But really, all that is secondary.  A prison, like society in general, does not rely on coercion.  Prisoners are not routinely trying to escape.  Guards are not routinely gunning them down or tackling them as they try to scale the fences.  It happens, but it’s very rare and can’t be the underlying cause of what makes a prison function.  What really makes a prison function is authority.  Prisoners respect authority.  They have buy-in.  They see that their lives function better when they don’t cause disruptions.  When they cooperate, they don’t even have to worry about being stuck in solitary.

So on that account, Brooks is actually in prison, and that makes a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it?  And similarly, we can say that Andy and Red are in prison, too, because they largely cooperate and voluntarily submit to authority.  There were a couple misunderstandings that occurred here and there, but those were clearly the exceptions, not the rule.

Do you find any of that remotely convincing?  Well, you shouldn’t because clearly prisons are coercive institutions by design.  And anyone who says otherwise is making an elaborate joke or they’ve gone down a very weird philosophical path.

And there’s nothing different conceptually about how society at large operates than a prison.  It may be a very low-security prison, one with a tremendous amount of freedom compared to Guantanamo.  But if political authority is at the base of each, then it means the only difference between the two is the likelihood of coming to the attention of those coercive authorities.

The reasons for people giving their consent to such institutions, whether it’s a literal prison facility or a fairly liberal country with an unreviewable presidential kill list, is a combination of what Orwell and Huxley taught.  People are conditioned in ways that make certain concepts literally inconceivable and to face the threat of punishment if they disobey (the stick), and they’re also conditioned to gain pleasure from feeling part of a larger project and feeling that they can pursue their own meaningful goals if they stay mentally dulled in the process.  Both aspects are a part of the social conditioning that makes hundreds of millions of people here and billions around the world ‘buy-in’ to the idea that submitting to others is in their own best interest.


Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave. (part 2)

The question of how society functions in relation to authority is not a new one, of course.  Wilkinson’s conclusion is that coercion does not really explain why society holds together most of the time.  And I think he’s actually right, but for a different reason than he thinks.

Étienne de La Boétie, a 16th-century jurist and writer, considered the question of how authority can be so effective when it’s so weak.  In “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Against-One,” he asks how it comes to be that tyrants, who are only men, not much stronger than any other man, can hold sway over entire populations, even populations that don’t especially like being ruled by a tyrant.

“FOR THE PRESENT I should to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger.”

Now, Wilkinson has a ready answer for this, I think.  Clearly, the oppressed multitudes have a lot of “buy-in” to tyrannical rule.  They recognize the tremendous benefits that authority provides in coordinating complex social activities.  Of course, being thrown into a dungeon is inconvenient, but they should look at the big picture and not get fixated on such coercion as the explanation.

And indeed, Boetie would agree on that point.  Most tyrants of the 16th century were not riding around in futuristic power armor.  They didn’t have magical swords that granted them protection from rebellion.  They didn’t have the ability to command dragons.  They were simply human beings like anyone else.  And even if you took into account the various people that carried out their orders, coercion itself would not explain the situation.  The whole of government was always outnumbered by orders of magnitude, and yet, people voluntarily complied with even terrible regimes.

I think that this agreement from Boetie actually shows how little Wilkinson can explain, though.  Because he’s right that our current society doesn’t function because the government sends thugs to your house to intimidate you into complying.  (People pay their taxes without a lot of grumbling, and many would feel guilty if they seriously considered cheating on them.  Only a few truly do it out of fear of the consequences.)  It functions because people voluntarily comply with it and believe at some level that it makes sense to do so.  But if that’s the same explanation for the rule of brutally coercive regimes as well, and I think Boetie’s clearly right on that, then Wilkinson doesn’t really have much argument against brutal regimes.  If people have ‘buy-in,’ then clearly coercion is not a key explanation for the success of brutal regimes, and it would be silly to sit there and criticize their coercion as if it had much of anything to do with how society actually functions.

If, instead, he can recognize that coercion requires more than the buy-in of those receiving it to be justified, then he could also understand why fairly liberal countries like the United States and France and Japan are as unjustified in the use of coercion as North Korea is.

Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave.

In “Authority! How the #@%$! Does It Work?”  Will Wilkinson deploys the following argument to convince people that the state’s authority is legitimate:


  1. People want to engage in complex social projects of many kinds.
  2. Complex social projects require a certain amount of coordination in order to succeed.
  3. Authority of some kind is required for the right kind of coordination to occur.
  4. Because people recognize (1), (2), and (3), they voluntarily submit to the relevant authority. Coercion is never required in ordinary cases. (Prime examples provided: parades; musical performances involving more than one musician; basketball teams have coaches.)
  5. Political authority is just a variety of authority in general.
  6. Since authority in general isn’t fundamentally coercive, political authority must not be fundamentally coercive.


[Note: Wilkinson is using ‘authority’ in the most general sense, and so I’m not going to spend time dissecting all the various ways we might account for it.  I accept his general characterization for the purposes of this analysis.]


But Wilkinson goes a step further and addresses cases where coercion *does* come into play.  Here, he seems to essentially be arguing that people are committed to accept coercion against them because of their buy-in to whatever complex social project they’re already engaged in.  So, for example, if you become part of a basketball team, you have committed to promoting the success of the team (i.e., winning games) and all that is required to achieve that goal, but primarily what you’ve committed to is to submit to the authority of the coach, or whoever else is properly authorized to coordinate your actions and the actions of your teammates to achieve this shared goal.


So then, Wilkinson’s move is to move from those projects that people voluntarily and actively commit to and suggest that being a part of society is pretty much exactly the same thing.  Therefore, you’ve already submitted to whatever the appropriate authority is for society as a whole by virtue of being a part of society.  It’s essentially social contract theory by the backdoor.  When the authorities use coercion on you, they’re really just saying, “This is what you’ve already agreed is for the best.  We’re just doing what you’ve asked us to do in order to achieve the complex social goals that you’re committed to.  You’re welcome.”


But I think there’s an easy way to test if Wilkinson is actually serious about this argument.  No doubt, he has participated in many complex social projects with various colleagues and/or friends over the years.  Let’s say that it’s contributing essays to a volume for publication.  It’s not the most complex project ever, but if it involves more than half a dozen people, it can definitely fall apart without some serious coordination and, yes, authority of some kind.  So, how about if one of the members of this team suggested the following.


We’re all committed to this project here, and we all agree that we need some kind of authority in place.  And any authority we have will need some way to actually enforce its judgments.  Otherwise, we might simply ignore it and attempt to proceed with the project however we each individually see fit.  Of course, we’re all committed to the success of this project, so I’m not suggesting that anyone would deliberately sabotage it.  But it seems best that we agree ahead of time that the authority we designate have the power to use whatever amount of force, up to and including lethal force, to compel us to coordinate our efforts in the most effective way.  How does that sound to everyone?


I’m sure that Wilkinson would have no interest in agreeing to such a thing.  It seems perfectly reasonable that he would much prefer to simply exit the project if it got to the point where he seriously disagreed with how it was turning out.  (Of course, there might be contractual obligations that would result, but that’s a far cry from being coerced into remaining and working on the project against one’s will.)  It’s hard to imagine that he would think that lethal coercion would actually *improve* the chances of the project’s success.  And it has nothing to do with the buy-in of each person involved.


Political authority is a different animal altogether because it disallows exit options that would be a natural part of every other kind of authority relationship.  If basketball coaches had the authority to lock up players who disagreed with them, or steal money from them, or even execute them, no one would seriously claim that this was good for basketball or that it was no big deal because players already had buy-in.  The truth is, no one would play on such a team (except possibly in North Korea).


The fact that Wilkinson doesn’t seek out coercive arrangements in his own voluntarily entered complex social projects indicates to me that he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.

Law and Order, Part 5

Here we are at the end of what essentially amounts to an apologetics guide to dealing with a particular type of heretic.  That is, as devout libertarians, we have a burning zeal to reach the heathen masses.  And some of the heathen are more heathen than others.  The law-and-order cult is a particularly virulent form, and it not only has a long history to it, but it also has some of the most vocal advocates in today’s political culture, especially at a grassroots level.

So, let me take a break from the dispassionate analysis for a moment and suggest that, to some degree, resorting to insults and ridicule may be one of the stronger strategies.  Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that anyone engage in ad hominem attacks as ordinarily understood.  Something like, “You support the cops only because you’re such a pathetic coward,” is not going to be effective, even if the person in question happens to be a pathetic coward.  One can be a pathetic coward and justifiably fear and detest the police, too.

But shaming and ridicule serve a useful function when they’re focused on identifying both how poorly the position is defended and how disgusting many of its conclusions are.  For example, people often reference Godwin’s Law as some kind of prohibition on comparing anyone’s ideas to those of the Nazis.  But obviously, if someone were to explicitly say, “Hey, let’s round up Jews and gypsies and homosexuals, brand them, and then ship them off to detention centers,” then clearly they should be compared to the Nazis and rejected and shamed for the same reasons.

What libertarians recognize better than anyone is that outright slavery, a la antebellum South, and today’s world, where people can spend decades in prison for possessing a plant (or selling a book; RIP Irwin Schiff), is on a continuum, not a distinctly different type of existence.  So, when you hear people advocate forcibly tattooing undocumented immigrants when they are arrested by the border patrol or ICE, it’s appropriate to call out the fascist nature of that act, even if you know the person saying it won’t support gas chambers and so on.

But that kind of comparison takes the right kind of person, the right kind of target, and the right set of circumstances to be really effective and not make one sound like an unhinged extremist (more so than usual).  More likely to hit home is to key in on aspects of the traditions that the law-and-order crowd are happy to associate with and then point out how they’re constantly on the wrong side of that history.  For example, the rhetoric of the British officials prior to the War of Independence is pretty standard law-and-order stuff, and it almost perfectly mirrors how modern-day conservatives talk about respect for the police, respect for the law, respect for authority in general, and so on.  Probably those who are more adept at marketing will come up with better means, but I’ll just suggest referring to such arguments as Redcoat logic.  Work within the system, don’t resist authority, submit to all orders immediately and without question, and generally just make sure that you know your place.

Of course, this is exactly what was said to the colonists even as they were doing the exact opposite.  Point this out relentlessly.  Force them to disavow their heritage if they want to hold on to this mentality.  Make it clear how much they have betrayed their own country’s history and turned the nation’s founders into traitors and scofflaws.  They’ll resist this, but unfortunately for them, the history is pretty clear here.

Another way of getting at this is to take their own rhetoric about the 2nd amendment and get them to see where it leads.  For conservatives of the Tea Party variety, the 2nd amendment is a bulwark against a corrupt government.  Its intent is to empower ordinary people to physically resist and threaten the power of the (federal) government if necessary.  And if the 2nd amendment were ever in jeopardy of being overturned (which it’s clearly not, nor will it be anytime soon, but they continually believe that it is, so this is perfectly legitimate speculation and nowhere near unrealistic from their perspective), ask them what would justify resisting gun confiscation at that point.  Most of them will ‘Like’ comments that imply (or outright state) that anyone coming to get their guns will pay the ultimate price for doing so.  Ask them how that fits with the rest of what they supposedly believe about the law and about their duty to comply with it at all times, no matter what.  This is very likely the one time they will have to admit to an exception.  That admission is a key to undermining the rest of what they think on this question.

The line of thought here is that Authority generates Order, and Order allows for the protection of important attributes of society (Sanctity) while also allowing for Liberty, provided that Liberty doesn’t conflict with any of the other three.  So, Liberty ends up dead last and always subordinate in relation to other commitments.  The real problem here is the causal understanding of how these elements relate.  Liberty ends up as an afterthought, something that you perhaps hope to get but that really has to wait for everyone else to get theirs first.  That’s nowhere near how LnO advocates would normally present themselves.  Get them to realize that they’ve placed Liberty as a consequence, rather than a foundation, of a healthy society.

Finally, you will occasionally run into people who openly recognize that what they’re advocating is a form of ‘might makes right.’  Not so much that they actually believe that might makes right, but that they realize that that is how things work, practically, and so, they have adjusted themselves to that world and are willing to figure out how things work best without getting deluded by some idealized view of the world.  These people are actually some of the easiest to deal with, even if you can’t convince them to change their mind.  They’re honest enough to recognize that the legal system and law enforcement in general amounts to bullying, and they don’t attempt to apply any shiny moral veneer to it.  It stinks, but it stinks less than all the alternatives.

These people are at least potentially open to being shown an alternative.  They don’t have an emotional investment in how things are.  They aren’t going to go through any life-shattering crisis if it turns out that the apparatus of arbitrary forces we live with doesn’t actually hold society back from the abyss.  Encourage them, don’t insult them, don’t try to shame them.  Praise them for their honesty.  And then give it time for them to open their eyes a bit.

Please feel free to share any success stories or any lessons on what not to do as you try to apply these ideas in the wild.

Thanks for reading.

Law and Order, Part 4

Even though we’ve shown that LnO advocates are really ethical subjectivists of some sort, it’s clear that they have a very different self-perception.  They are the most vocal critics of both moral and cultural relativism.  (Libertarians are generally opposed to both kinds of relativism as well, but it’s easy for non-libertarians to miss this because there is such a wide gap between what libertarians consider immoral and what they think should be unlawful.  So, libertarians can look like moral relativists to those who see little or no gap between those two categories.)  They have no problem criticizing other cultures and expressing grave concern that their own national culture will become contaminated or perverted by excessive tolerance for differing views and values.

But a funny thing happens when asked about their own national history.  Suddenly, things don’t sound so convincing.  Is slavery bad today?  Sure, obviously.  Was it bad that George Washington not only owned slaves but actively sent out bounty hunters to catch and retrieve runaway slaves?  Well, that was a different time, and you need to realize the context, and he did a lot of great things, and you really show your ignorance when you… blah, blah, blah.  Suddenly, the conservative sounds exactly like the stereotype of the typical relativist liberal, making excuses for the practices of a different culture or refusing to pass judgment on anyone except those interested in passing judgment.

But is it simply a bias regarding the past?  Not really.  To see this, compare the assessment of the Holocaust and of the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II.  In general, you will find very few Holocaust apologists in the LnO crowd.  (And those who are will probably identify as explicit racists or race-realists or something similar, so it has little to do with the LnO mindset itself.)  Nor would they defend the idea of simply locking people up because they’re Jewish, homosexual, atheist, or some other similar trait.  But when they examine the Japanese internment, we get a very similar tale as in the slavery case.  “You have to understand the context of those times.  They were acting based on the information that they had.  It was credible that there was a threat, and this was a reasonable and humane way of dealing with it.  Even if it turned out later to be incorrect, we weren’t there.  It’s too easy to pass judgment on people when you know more than they did.”  And so on.

So, it seems that there’s something else going on besides some irrational bias in favor of the past.  It also seems to align with geography and national identity.  (For example, abortion is almost always wrong and inexcusable, but killing the unborn is unproblematic if they happened to be living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Tokyo at certain specific dates in history.)  Is there some logic to this?  Not strictly, but it’s not entirely random, either.  What it reflects is mostly unspoken commitments that most LnO advocates either take for granted or don’t even consciously acknowledge as the basis for their beliefs.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has proposed a 6-base model for moral decisions that he believes provides the best explanation for the disconnect between conservatives and liberals when they discuss political matters.

Briefly, the 6 bases are: 1) Care/Harm; 2) Liberty/Oppression; 3) Fairness/Cheating; 4) Loyalty/Betrayal; 5) Authority/Subversion; 6) Sanctity/Degradation

Haidt believes that liberals value (1) and (2) primarily, with relatively little regard for the others, while conservatives value all of them more equally.  (And he sees libertarians as valuing only (2), with almost no regard for the other five.)  I think that Haidt’s interpretation is somewhat inaccurate, but I won’t spend a lot of time on that here.  The main point is that LnO advocates tend to be persuaded by the conservative biases, and this helps to explain their apparent inconsistency in evaluating the morality of various policies across time and geography.

For example, the conservative concern for Care/Harm is informed by their commitment to Loyalty, a sense of the value of the in-group as opposed to the out-group (with conservatives typically viewing the in-group in terms of national heritage and patriotism), and also by their commitment to the value of Authority, which we’ve clearly seen in earlier parts of this series leads them to view authority figures as semi-divine.  Thus, their understanding of what counts as a harm is almost always weighted by these other value commitments.  And so, they can be appalled if a foreign national beats one of their countrymen, but be not at all disturbed if a domestic authority figure beats a belligerent citizen to death.  The Harm assessed in each case is very dependent on the perception of who is part of the in-group and who has legitimate authority.  If you make the foreign national a police officer, then they end up having to decide which moral consideration trumps the other, but this just shows how flexible their understanding of Harm can be.

Another interesting example is how they view Liberty/Oppression.  In general, their commitment to Liberty is in tension with their commitment to Authority, and it is also biased by Loyalty, similarly to how they view Harm.  So, they give a lot of lip service to Liberty, especially as a reflection of how they perceive America as a land of freedom and overthrowing Oppression, but it’s very easy for Authority concerns to trump any particular expression of Liberty.  The biggest struggle should be in their attempts to justify the founding of the United States.  The colonists engaged in extremely disruptive acts that directly challenged Authority and made it nearly impossible to establish order, as conservatives would typically define it.  Smugglers were considered heroic, and public officials were terrorized, or even killed, by the irate colonists.  Yet, we typically hear the most praise for early Americans from conservatives because their commitment to national Loyalty is so strong, it is impossible for them to mount any serious critique of that history.

Finally, their strong commitment to Sanctity tends to make it difficult for conservatives to recognize the tremendous differences between current social institutions and those of the past.  For example, the myth that marriage as a social institution existed pretty much unchanging for thousands of years, right up until about a decade ago when suddenly, out of nowhere, same-sex marriage became a serious proposal.  The reality of how dramatically different current marriages are from even a century ago seems inconceivable to them.  The idea that a stable social arrangement, one that has some presumed blessing from God even, is actually rather malleable and changeable over time is a shocking claim.  Yet, we’ve already shown that they have no such qualms about embracing laws as they change repeatedly over time.  So, here we see that other commitments can actually trump their views on Authority, in the right context.

(I should note here that liberals actually have strong commitments to the various bases, and Haidt seems to not recognize this as clearly as I think he should.  For example, liberals are actually quite strongly focused on Sanctity.  It just takes a different form, usually related to the environment and nature or to certain social concepts like Equality.  They also have their own conception of the In-Group, but it tends to be more intellectual or class-based, rather than restricted by geography.  And they tend to invest Authority in experts, particularly scientists and doctors, rather than law enforcement, though they do view entities like the UN and the ICC as particularly important, too.)

So, what’s the upshot of all this?  We understand the LnO mentality a bit better by seeing that it’s driven by a lot of complex commitments, many of which are not explicitly acknowledged or recognized by those who have this view.  And we can see that there is going to be a lot of inconsistency, both in terms of application to specific events and in terms of consistency across individuals holding this view, as each person has to make those judgments about what commitment trumps what or what commitment reinforces/weakens another one.

I think that most LnO advocates would ideally view themselves as moral realists.  They would resist any suggestion that they engage in “situational ethics,” which is one of the worst things they can accuse someone else of doing.  So, here is where I want to show that they don’t have to give up their basic moral commitments in order to embrace moral realism.  Or, to put it another way, since they probably already believe they’re embracing it, here’s a better way of understanding the relationship between your commitments so that you don’t end up looking like the relativists you constantly accuse others of being.

There are really three commitments in (potential) conflict here: Liberty, Authority, and Loyalty.  As a libertarian, it’s not going to be any great surprise when I suggest that Liberty take priority.  But I don’t think this is that hard a case to make.  The founding of the United States was really a story of placing Liberty above both of the other two: the colonists actively defied British authority (in the name of a Higher Authority, whether you want to cash that out as God or as inalienable human rights or something else), and they rejected claims by British officials that they remain ‘loyal’ to King George and to the commonwealth that they were citizens of, instead choosing loyalty to their respective colonies or other relevant groups.

So, this is not some strange idea.  It’s just one that gets conveniently set aside as a historical exception or extreme circumstance rather than any kind of guide to future action.  There are indications that these ideas have sticking power, though, as the TEA Party explicitly references an act of anti-corporate-state violence, something that was clearly not lawful and not promoting “Order” or “Authority” or “Loyalty” as it was understood at the time.  The key may be tapping into that sentiment and asking people to view that rebellious attitude as more than a temporary excess or a kind of ‘lifeboat’/emergency response, but rather a mindset that should inform how they view government authority vs individual authority.

There is a natural appeal in a consistent moral framework, so it’s not difficult to convince people that consistency is good.  It’s difficult when they feel that they must have some kind of balancing mechanism to decide between multiple valid, but inconsistent, commitments.  They would be happy to find some consistency between them.  But failing that, they aren’t necessarily ready to jettison any of them.  The key is presenting a way to accommodate those concerns, not to tell them that those concerns are invalid.

I will go into more detail in the next and final portion of this series, where I’ll talk about what kinds of strategies might be most effective at convincing LnO advocates to re-assess their position and find a more consistent way of understanding (and embracing) Liberty as a primary value rather than a derivative one.


Law and Order, Part 3

Now that we’ve identified the Law-and-Order (LnO) position as a variant of Ethical Subjectivism (ES), let’s see what the inherent weaknesses of that meta-ethical position are. Whatever is true of the more general theory should also be true of the specific form we see in LnO theories. What is particularly interesting about the LnO position is that it manages to combine the weaknesses of several variants into one.

A. Circularity and Infinite Regress

A theory of obligation or justice should be able to tell us something about the nature of what we’re obligated to do or what counts as justice. One big problem with ES is that we have to define what is ‘good’ or ‘just’ in terms of itself. So, for example, if the law is just, by definition, then what is ‘justice’ itself? Answer: whatever the law says it is. If it’s not obvious why that’s a problem, consider this example.

A baseball umpire is supposed to declare which pitches are counted as ‘strikes’ and which as ‘balls’ so that the other players can determine when a particular batter is supposed to step down and allow the next one up to bat (or when the inning is at an end). But is a particular pitch a strike or ball because the umpire says it is? Or does the umpire call those pitches strikes or balls because they *are* a strike or ball? If the former, then we can’t really know what a strike or ball *is* in itself. (This also leads into the ‘infallibility’ problem below.) But if it’s the latter, then we are recognizing that there is something else, outside of the umpire’s judgment, that is supposed to be causing (or at least, significantly influencing) the umpire’s declaration.

So, we could then talk about how a strike is defined in terms of what boundary markers the ball is passing through, and that a ball is similarly defined as the negation of that definition. And we can understand that an umpire could make a mistake in calling something a strike that is really a ball, and vice versa, without encountering any logical paradox along the way. And even for those who would generally say that the umpire should be deferred to, even if it appears that a mistake was made, the idea of an external, objective standard that such calls can be measured against does not strike any baseball fan as problematic.

This is why Leslie Nielsen’s ridiculous umpire calls in The Naked Gun are so funny. If everyone took ‘ball’ and ‘strike’ to merely consist in what the umpire says they are, then there would be nothing particularly absurd about him making whatever calls would please the audience the most.

The infinite regress issue comes up this way. If we say that:

[x is just] = [the law says that x is just]

then, this implies that:

[the law says that x is just] = [the law says that [the law says that x is just]]

And the chain of inference can be extended indefinitely in this way.

B. Approval-based Justice

Of course, people may try to get out of it by suggesting that the law is just because it is declared so by the legislature or by The People. This either resolves back to the circular argument (such as, when the legislature simply says that ‘justice’ is whatever the law says it is) or it leads to identifying justice as mere approval. So, compare the following two statements:

  • The legislature and/or The People approved of forbidding inter-racial marriages at one time
  • Marrying someone not considered the same race was unjust or otherwise immoral until recently

The first seems trivially true (unless you’re deeply ignorant of American history), while the second seems obviously false to most people. So, grounding justice in terms of either the approval of elected officials or of The People, however defined, seems to lead to contradiction pretty quickly.

The other main problem with an approval-based view is that it’s extremely difficult to explain where disagreements about justice come from. If justice is simply a question of what the law says, then the proposition “this law is unjust” becomes nonsensical in the same sense as “this geometric figure is a square-circle.” At best, people can disagree about what the law is, in fact, saying. So, it becomes a pedantic exercise in legal exegesis. And here, we might see a glimmer of some objective analysis, where specific court decisions are cited, specific principles of legal analysis are invoked, and where specific facts may come into play in determining the ‘right’ application of a law. It sounds like people are indeed grappling with the definition of a strike as it matches some reality.

And yet, if the Supreme Court puts forth a judgment, but they get some aspect of the process just described wrong, it doesn’t matter in terms of what counts as ‘lawful,’ and those who are committed to the LnO position do not generally advocate that the judgment is invalid or should not be treated as a lawful judgment. So, it begs the question, what was it that they were debating beforehand? What standard were they appealing to if any such consideration would ultimately give way to the decision handed down, regardless of its content? And why abandon that standard post-judgment if it appears that the judgment itself has little or no connection to it?

One might say that the analysis was not so much about discovering something apart from the judgment, but rather, it was an attempt to influence the judgment in a certain direction. In that sense, one might count legal briefs as prayers. Not that we can know the divine will, but we hope to influence it through persuasion. But in that case, it’s not clear how to distinguish such arguments from wishes, dressed up in some formal language that satisfies some ritualistic function only.

I don’t think any of those ways of characterizing the various debates that take place is at all satisfying to those who participate, nor accurate to how they think of themselves and their activities. Yet, their position makes it difficult, if not impossible, to characterize it any other way.

C. Distinguishing pragmatic from moral

Let’s suppose that you disagree with the schedule that is used by the garbage trucks and want it changed. Instead of coming by on Tuesday and Friday, you think Monday and Thursday make more sense. There are various steps you would have to take in order to bring about this change. Those might include writing to your local city council, contacting a representative of the sanitation department, distributing a petition in your neighborhood, taking out a newspaper ad, making a speech in a public park, and so on. There are many ways that you can attempt to make this change. All-in-all, though, this is a relatively minor thing that you’re attempting to do, even if you think it’s a good idea.

Now consider if you disagree with the laws that govern abortion. There are a series of steps you would have to take in order to bring about that change, too. But they really don’t differ at all from what I’ve already mentioned. The only difference between the two cases will be the relative passion of the people involved in the issue and the particular groups you would have to coordinate with, but in practical terms of what methods you would use, they’re identical.

And in both cases, if you end up losing, you do the same thing. You abide by the existing law and decide whether it’s worth it to try changing it again. Or if you decide to break the law, you expect to be either fined or jailed or both for your efforts. And as far as the LnO position goes, you’d be in the wrong in both cases, and that’s true even for those who believe that abortion is a very serious moral wrong, but think trash pick-up days are entirely arbitrary.

So, we end up with a theory that makes it impossible for those who *do* recognize deep moral differences between various activities to actually treat them as different by their very own theory of justice. Imagine that we were looking in on an alien society that had a similar philosophy. We have no context for understanding their moral concerns and want to learn what they might be by studying their legal system. How would we be able to draw any conclusions from such an examination? Would the number of regulations for a particular topic be a clue? Would the relative stability or instability of various laws be a clue? I think it would be nearly impossible to tell the difference on that basis alone.

And that means, the LnO position commits one to treating moral commitments the same way as purely pragmatic concerns. If those who advocate LnO had relatively mild sentiments about morality and about its impact on society, that might be more understandable. One might expect that pure utilitarians wouldn’t be too troubled with such an approach. But that is not the typical profile for LnO advocates.

D. Infallibility

As alluded to above, one consequence of the subjectivist view is that it generates the absurd conclusion that laws are inherently just. One easy way to see this is to consider the following:

  1. It is unjust to take unjust actions
  2. It is wrong to disobey the law

Imagine that you are committed to both (a) and (b). Now imagine that the law commands an unjust action or forbids one to take action where inaction would be unjust. It would be impossible to live by both commitments. If you obey the law, you’d be committing an unjust action. Whereas, if you do what is just, you’d be disobeying the law, which is wrong. So, what is the proper course of action when faced with an unjust law?

There are two main answers given, neither of which are particularly convincing.

The first answer is that one should obey the law, even an unjust law, and work within the system to change it if you believe that it is unjust. Thus, if inter-racial cohabitation is illegal, then you should not attempt to break those laws but should, instead, seek to get them changed, even though you may live your entire life and not see such a change. Likewise, if you are a government official (or a jury member entrusted with passing judgment), you have a duty to enforce the laws, even the ones you consider unjust, as long as you remain in your position. So, if someone is on trial for breaking an unjust law, and you, as a juror, believe that they did, indeed, break that law, then you have a duty to vote for conviction.

One can understand this position a bit better if one considers the difference between act- and rule-utilitarianism. One acts in such a way such that the long-term, systemic good is served, not what serves the short-term, particular good. So, quite literally, some individuals must be sacrificed for the greater good because it leads to Order. It seems that such a system should be re-named then. Instead of a Justice System, we should simply refer to it as the Order System or similar.

The second answer is that one can break unjust laws, but that one is never justified in evading or otherwise failing to face the punishment attached to such disobedience. So, if a law were passed that forbid certain religious speech, then it would be fine to break that law, provided one did not resist when the police came to arrest you for it and that you did not attempt to escape jail if convicted. (I’m unclear whether it would be permissible to plead Not Guilty and attempt to avoid conviction, under this view, but I can imagine it going either way.)

What’s puzzling about this view is the idea of separating punishment from the law itself. Imagine a world with no penalties attached to any law. There are a million regulations and plenty of laws against theft, murder, fraud, drugs, prostitution, pornography, paying workers below a living wage, selling trans-fats, and so on, but absolutely no consequence for violating such laws. Would that even count as a legal system? It seems that there is no real meaning to a law apart from what consequence it entails.

But even if we could imagine such a thing, it doesn’t really make sense on its own terms. For example, you could imagine the following law:

It is illegal to preach a sermon on any day of the week besides Sunday, and anyone doing so will be imprisoned for 5 years.

By the above understanding, it would be fine to break this law, but it would not be fine to avoid the 5 years in prison.

But we can imagine this variant:

No one who preaches a sermon on any day of the week besides Sunday shall fail to submit to the police and reside in prison for 5 years thereafter. Anyone failing to abide by this will be imprisoned for 5 years.

Now, this is also an unjust law, and it has a penalty attached. And so, if you disobeyed the first, the second would get you since, for whatever reason, you can only dodge the first part of the law.

But then imagine the following two variants:

  1. No one who preaches a sermon on any day of the week besides Sunday shall fail to submit to the police and reside in prison for 5 years thereafter. There is no penalty for breaking this law.
  2. Harold Green must not resist being taken to prison for 5 years. The penalty for breaking this law is to be taken to prison for 5 years.

Now, in (a), we have the toothless law problem as above. You’re free to break the unjust law, and then, nothing happens. And in (b), you can apparently resist, but you also can’t resist. Or perhaps you get to resist once, but not twice. Or perhaps you can resist the initial arrest, but you can’t escape from prison. I’m not sure what the best reading would be, but the point is, it’s absurd no matter how you slice it.

Separating punishment from the law is to misunderstand what the law is. It’s an incoherent view that only serves to offer a rather poor version of protest to take place, as long as it’s not actually disruptive. In other words, go ahead and break laws you don’t like, as long as you agree to go to jail for it. And again, it means that there’s no way of distinguishing just from unjust laws in terms of how we treat them. The law is to treated as infallible at all times.

E. Conclusion

So, just briefly, these are the main failings of Subjectivism, and ones that show up in various ways in the LnO position.

  1. The Problem of Horrifying Laws – Any law, no matter its content, must be treated as valid and binding
  2. The Problem of Disagreements about Justice – There is no coherent account of what it is that people are disagreeing about when they debate laws
  3. The Problem of Arbitrariness – It is implausible to attach moral obligation to the arbitrary decisions of bureaucrats and politicians
  4. The Problem of Fallibility – It is implausible that one can believe that politicians are routinely wrong in their moral judgments and also believe that what they command is just


In Part 4, I will argue that LnO advocates generally reject Ethical Subjectivism in their daily lives and in their attitudes towards moral concerns and that they would more naturally be inclined towards some version of Moral Realism.

Law and Order, Part 2

What’s surprising about the law-and-order position is that those holding it have a relatively strong disposition for moral realism (if not full-blown, at least in the spirit of it) but end up having to embrace ethical subjectivism. They will ridicule ‘situational’ ethics, where moral judgments vary by factual context, and yet propose that moral judgments vary by arbitrary legal contexts. They talk about fairness and inalienable rights, yet see no problem granting special powers and privileges to police and military that routinely override such rights. (Compare, for example, principled positions on abortion that allow for no exceptions, even in the case of rape of a minor, with the support for military actions such as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, where unborn children were most certainly killed, and other minors were either killed or horribly mutilated.) So, what leads them to these mismatched positions, and why do they not feel the tension between them?

One motivation is the embrace of a Hobbesian view of society where people have no inherent capacity or motivation to peacefully cooperate. Even in situations where we stipulate that people are sufficiently motivated, they view the lack of central enforcement of laws (or rules, more generally) as making it impossible for people to peacefully resolve disputes. Without any clear guide, everyone will propose their own standard, none of which will be accepted by everyone else. Thus, conflict will increase at every turn, and society itself will crumble into some version of the war-of-all-against-all.

Whatever will save us from this horrible fate? Well, that’s a fairly familiar tale—at least, familiar to most market anarchists—by now. (Every dispute requires a third-party, and (obviously) it must be the same third-party every time (judicial). We require a set of rules that are public and agreed on, subject to change, but relatively stable (legislative). And enforcement of such decisions must be capable of overwhelming any resistance that might be offered by those who dislike the results of the other two processes (executive). There are variations, but that’s the general pattern.)

So, the real issue here is that agreement, even if it’s agreement to abide by arbitrary rules, is better than honest disagreement. Order is better than justice as an organizing principle. Or perhaps more accurately, order is a prerequisite for justice to emerge. And that means we are abandoning free market principles in order to save the free market—except replace ‘free market’ with ‘justice (system),’ and we see the foundation laid. The only difference is that Bush’s line about markets was perceived (wrongly) as a temporary deviation from some core principles, whereas this understanding of how laws work is the norm. It’s not a temporary condition on the way to something better.

Let’s very briefly go over the main features of moral realism (MR) and ethical subjectivism (ES) to see where the real tension is. Both MR and ES are meta-ethical views, which means, they are talking about what it means to have an ethical rule, not spelling out which ethical rules are true. So, the view that abortion is wrong, except in cases where the mother’s life is at stake, is an ethical position, but it’s one that could be held by either a moral realist or an ethical subjectivist. (It could not be held by a nihilist, but that’s only because they can’t hold that any action is morally wrong, not because they have a special belief about abortion.)

Both MR and ES agree that moral statements are meaningful. This sets them apart from non-cognitivists who maintain that “murder is wrong” is akin to nonsense. They also agree that there are at least some true moral statements. This sets them apart from nihilists because nihilists think that “X is wrong” is saying something, but it is just always false.

Where they diverge is on the question of what is the truth of moral statements dependent. For ES, it is dependent on the attitudes of a person or persons; MR rejects this. So, ES may ground it in individual perspectives (usually called moral relativism) or in cultures (cultural relativism). Two other alternatives that are less popular ground it in either a divine being or in an idealized human observer. The divine version, usually called Divine Command Theory, is the ultimate version of “because I said so.” To illustrate the difference, here is what a prohibition against rape is really saying, according to each version mentioned:

MR – slavery is always wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks about it

ES (individual) – slavery is wrong for me, but I can only speak for myself

ES (cultural) – slavery is wrong in this country now, but it wasn’t always that way (and that’s fine)

ES (DCT) – slavery is wrong for now because God says so, but it may have been right in the past, and it may be right again in the future

ES (IOT) – if someone were aware of all relevant facts about the world and had no prejudices or biases, they would conclude that slavery is wrong

To be clear, very few people actually express themselves in these ways. But these are the core of how they implicitly think about moral truths.

What I propose is that the law-and-order position is best understood as a hybrid of the ES (cultural) and ES (DCT) positions, where the state is a stand-in for ‘God.’ (One interesting difference is that ordinary people can become part of the ‘divine’ order. So, we’re dealing with some kind of panentheistic God perhaps.) But it’s worse than that because even those who make up the divine institution can disagree amongst themselves or act in contradictory ways. It might be more accurate to say that there are many gods, and all must be obeyed, even if this is impossible.

For example, a police officer may attempt to detain a person for an unlawful reason. Or they may try to detain a person for a lawful reason, but they apply the law in an unreasonable way. Or they may try to detain a person for a lawful reason and do so in a reasonable manner. The law-and-order position would assert that the duty of the potential detainee is identical in all those cases. Regardless of the legality and proportionality of the officer’s actions, the potential detainee has a duty to immediately and fully comply with all orders. Failure to do so poses a potential threat to the officer, even if the officer is acting unlawfully, and this means that any amount of force can (and should) potentially be used to enforce the detainment, including lethal force.

This attitude was on full display in the case of Eric Garner when a group of police officers attempted to detain a man known to them as a seller of loose cigs, the sale of which was seen as cutting into the tax revenue collected locally. The cigarettes would sell for anywhere from 50 cents to 75 cents a piece, and this was sufficient reason for the police to forcibly detain Garner. Having been harassed in this way several times previously, he decided to not cooperate. As a result, the police officers, working as a team, murdered him in broad daylight by choking off his airway, and they were even filmed doing so. (It was portrayed in the media that his death occurred later on during the ambulance ride perhaps, but it’s clear from the medical evidence and the behavior of medical personnel in the video that he was dead within moments. More disturbing and chilling is the total lack of concern expressed by either the police or the medical personnel during the incident.)

After this incident, there were many justifications given by law-and-order supporters, which mainly focused on Garner’s role in causing his own death. Specifically, his failure to immediately submit to the officers’ orders presented them with the imminent collapse of society itself. In the event that they had failed to completely subdue Mr. Garner, it would send a clear message that the law could not be enforced. Immediately following this revelation, chaos and anarchy would result as people decided to break any law at any time for any reason, knowing that there would be no consequences. The legislature would also shut down, knowing that their pronouncements were mere theater, and likewise, all judges, prosecutors, and other prison officials would simply walk off the job, realizing that they had lost all ability to regulate the behavior of others.

This may sound like some great sarcastic comment on my part, a bit of exaggeration or hyperbole to mock the position of others. But really, what I’ve said is almost literally the fear that was expressed by law-and-order advocates. Failure to subdue Garner would have been a slippery slope that would literally dismantle the entire fabric of law and society itself. This sounds fantastic, but it’s truly how they think about these things.

Never mind that laws are broken by almost everyone, just by the nature of regulation. Never mind that laws are enforced very selectively and have been for a very long time. Never mind that laws are enforced in contradictory ways quite often. For whatever reason, none of those features are enough, but a man who sells 75-cents worth of contraband is enough to bring down the whole house of cards if he’s not snuffed out.

So, we are to think of the police (and other relevant bureaucrats) as gods walking amongst us, or at least, avatars of the divine. What is right depends ultimately on the attitude and opinion of any/all of these gods, moment to moment, regardless of any other constraint.

This is a strange hybrid of Divine Command Theory and Cultural Relativism. In the next section, I will look at the general category of Ethical Subjectivism and point out the key weaknesses that any version of it faces. After that, I will return to the law-and-order position and apply those insights to its specific features.

Post-script: In case any readers think I am foolishly exaggerating when I say that the law-and-order position puts the police in the role of divine agents, or divine persons even, consider the following recent statement by a Texas sheriff:

Texas Sheriff Says You Have To Obey the Police Because Their ‘Authority Comes From God’


Law and Order, part 1

In recent years, there has been a greater awareness of the dynamics of the police, especially in relation to race, but also in regards to the militarization of the police over time and perceived abuses of police authority.  Sites like CopBlock, FilmingCops, TheFreeThoughtProject and others routinely collect and display audio/video, news stories, and public records that document these incidents.  Others are a continuation of efforts going back decades, such as Radley Balko’s ‘The Agitator’ blog.  (Balko is also the author of ‘The Rise of the Warrior Cop’ (2014).)

Libertarians are not new to this discussion by any means, and there are other political groups that have weighed in on these issues for many decades, even centuries.

The response from liberals and conservatives tends to follow certain predictable patterns.  The liberal response is a familiar “more regulation, better demographic representation, federal oversight of state and local police abuses,” while the conservative response tends to either deny that a problem exists or to blame victims of abuse (either individually or collectively, or both, depending on the circumstance), or even to suggest that the police are actually too weak.  (One can easily see the parallels to attitudes towards military action, though that’s not the direct subject of this series.)

What I want to focus on in this series is the particular attitude expressed by many conservatives about the role of law, of authority, of obedience, and of order.  In brief, there are several core beliefs that can be loosely described as a ‘law and order’ mentality.

1. Without law, people would act as they saw fit.

2. This would lead to chaos.

3. We need laws. (Derived from 1 and 2)

4. Fortunately (or providentially), we are a nation of laws.

5. Law is meaningless without enforcement.

6. Enforcement requires enforcers (which means, people invested with enforcement authority).

7. Disputes of law must take place in courts.  (Derived from 1 and 2)

8. Therefore, every citizen has a duty to submit to the authority of enforcers, even in cases where the enforcers are not actually obeying the law.

There are some unstated assumptions in here, as will be obvious to most libertarians who have dealt with Hobbesian arguments.  For example, it’s assumed that having law requires having a single source of law, a single enforcer of law, and a single interpreter of law.

Note also that this argument makes no reference whatsoever to the content of the law.  It does not require that the law be just.  In fact, it is often difficult to understand the concept of an ‘unjust law’ in this view as it is almost reduced to a contradiction in terms.  Justice is viewed as that which promotes order, and since laws promote order (and are very nearly treated as the only source of order), an unjust law would be something that both promotes and detracts from order.  At best, one could talk about a ‘bad’ law or an ‘ineffective’ law.

Of course, the natural counter-examples to this idea would be familiar ones that even conservatives readily acknowledge: the Fugitive Slave Law and the Nazi Jewish regulations.  In both cases, it seems obvious that no one had a duty to obey (or enforce) those laws, and indeed, it’s easy to view those who resisted them as heroes.

This is not a very effective way of casting doubt on the ‘law and order’ mentality, though, as they tend to simply dismiss such examples as outliers that should not be used as a basis for critiquing laws in general but, rather, oppressive regimes.  Similarly, pointing to North Korea or the Stasi does not seem to cause any doubt in their minds.  Perhaps the specter of anarchy and chaos is so apparent, and the distance between present circumstances in the West and those in North Korea so great, that this does little to unsettle their position.

Alternately, one can try to defeat this approach by embracing it.  Specifically, one could argue that the way that the police operate is actually against the Constitution and not a faithful representation of its principles.  (For example: http://www.constitution.org/lrev/roots/cops.htm)  Unfortunately, this approach requires convincing them of certain principles of Constitutional interpretation, and that may prove at least as difficult as any other approach.

Yet another method is the historical appeal, since conservatives are rhetorically wedded to the founding of the country and cannot easily dissociate themselves from the stated principles and actions of its founders.  Thus, one can show that many of the founders were, in fact, law breakers and saw no duty to comply with British law when it was deemed unjust.  In fact, it can easily be argued that the tradition of dissent and disobedience is far more American than that of compliance and obedience.  Most of the arguments listed at the beginning here are those that we see coming from the British officials at the time, not the American colonists.  And thus, the ‘law and order’ approach appears to be a Redcoat tradition, not a truly American one.

I think that can be a promising approach, but it can also be dismissed on various grounds.  Unfortunately, those grounds tend to be nativist, race-/culture-realist, or some other equally disturbing version.  The only good result of that response is that it exposes some of the underlying, unstated beliefs.  But ultimately, it tends to reduce to typical liberal-vs-conservative arguments over crime and race.

What I’m proposing to do instead of the approaches mentioned already is the following:

In Part 2, I will show that the ‘law and order’ argument is a subtle variation of the Divine Command Theory of ethics.

In Part 3, I will look at the broader category of Ethical Subjectivism, of which Divine Command Theory is an example, and what its key weaknesses are.

In Part 4, I will argue that most ‘law and order’ advocates would ordinarily reject Ethical Subjectivism and instead embrace some version of Moral Realism.

In Part 5, I will conclude by adapting the conclusions of Parts 3 and 4 to show that ‘law and order’ arguments put their advocates in a difficult position where embracing ‘order’ as an ultimate societal value is a genuine threat to the realization of other core values and beliefs that they hold and have even greater desire for society to embrace and reflect.

Taxation as Penalty

“That the power to tax involves the power to destroy; that the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create;”
– Chief Justice Marshall, McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

“Government taxes what it wants less of.”
– Commonly heard modern-day version

The first statement is generally true, while the second is generally not true, or at least, there is no necessary connection between the two things. Yet, the second is often stated as either a summary or a consequence of the first. Where is the difference exactly, and why do people who think they’re similar make this mistake?

First, why is the original statement true? Well, it’s mostly true, not strictly, axiomatically true in some lock-step logical manner. It’s true, to the extent that it is enforceable, because if taxation is increased to 100% on some product or activity, then there is no economic reason to produce that product or engage in that activity. A tax of 100% on income of any kind would effectively be slavery. (The history of tax revolts shows that you don’t need anywhere near a 100% tax rate to make taxation unenforceable. But there is as long a history of actual slavery, too.)

So, it’s easy to see that taxation can destroy an economic activity. Tax blueberry muffin income at 100%, and you won’t get very many blueberry muffins sold anywhere.

When we look at the second statement, though, we’ve moved from a statement about power and cause-and-effect to one about goals. In short, the first statement is one of means, and the second is one of ends.

Consider the story in The Seven Samurai (1954) by Akiro Kurosawa where a band of raiders plans to take most of the harvest of a local village. The first statement above could be re-stated as such: “The raiders have the power to destroy the village by taking all their food (or enough that they starve anyway).” But the second statement, similarly re-stated, makes little sense: “The raiders want the villagers to produce less food.”

Of course, it may be that the raiders are a combination of opportunistic and sadistic and would really like to see the villagers dead. But it’s easy to imagine that the raiders would be quite happy to have the villagers continue to produce food, even at a higher level, so that they might return season after season and steal from them. This makes perfect sense as a long-term plan, and if anything, the raiders should be quite happy to see the villagers produce more food than ever if that were possible.

Consider another story, that of Robin Hood, wherein a tyrannical usurper taxes the local populace mercilessly. As Rothbard says, the government is a gang of thieves writ large, and there is no essential difference between the two stories in that sense. And again, we don’t see the villainous king wishing for the population to have less income necessarily. He may wish it to the extent that a poorer population is less capable of fighting back, but this must be balanced against the fact that a starving population is not a great tax base, either. All else equal, he wants the tax revenue to increase.

Again, we see that the second statement is not necessarily true, even in cases where taxation is heavy-handed and vicious.

So, why does it seem like such an obvious conclusion to many?

At least partly, it stems from the idea of Pigouvian taxation of externalities. The actions of some (wrongly) impose costs on others. Taxing those actions will thereby reduce (or eliminate) those actions and thus reduce (or eliminate) the costs put on others. Here we have a clear connection between means and ends; taxes are the means, reduction of an activity is the end.  And with this connection, it’s easy for some to then view that means as essentially connected to that end. If you tax something, you must want less of it. Otherwise, why would you tax it? Don’t you know what that gets you?

Thus, for example, corporate taxation is intended to limit the number (and/or the power) of corporations. Taxing capital gains is intended to limit speculation. And so on.

While it’s possible that an individual politician has exactly that intent in mind, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that one implies the other. After all, there are many ways to limit an activity. Regulation is an obvious one. The number of doctors is limited primarily by the monopoly of the AMA and other enabling legislation, not by imposing a tax on doctors. The same goes for immigration, teaching, and so on.

Another reason for the conclusion is that most people assume that political planners intend most, if not all, of the consequences of their plans.  To take an action is to intend the consequences of that action.  But there are at least two problems with this.  One, government policies routinely result in unintended consequences.  In fact, this is unavoidable, not a matter of incompetence or lack of interest in forming good policy.  Two, politicians and bureaucrats have their own set of incentives that have little to do with the stated purposes of whatever legislation they put into place.  (Was the PATRIOT Act written by and voted for by patriots?  Of course not.)

To highlight this second point, consider the role of regulation.  In general, regulation can be thought of as a version of taxation because it imposes costs and can quite easily destroy an activity, either through an explicit ban or through the accumulation of indirect costs.  And so, people also tend to associate regulation with the desire to limit an activity.  However, regulation often tends to concentrate power in an industry, making it easier for certain dominant corporations to keep out rivals.  Often, the regulations are written and promoted by the industry itself in support of this end.  (Obamacare was primarily a gift to the insurance industry, even though it was portrayed as a way to rein in the power of the same industry.)

So, in conclusion, the fact that someone wants to tax something tells us very little indeed about their attitude towards it.  It’s theoretically possible that the intent is to destroy some activity, but given the array of other means available, the presumption should be the opposite until/unless some positive evidence is provided.  Just like regulation, both the intent and the result may be counterintuitive.