A Parliament of Whores?

[Originally published at anti-state.com on December 17, 2001]

Robert Vroman makes some good points about the unfairness of comparing government to the Mafia, but I find it even more offensive when government officials are likened to whores.

It’s terribly unfair to compare government officials to whores. It slanders whores. What have whores ever done to deserve being compared with government officials?

The oldest profession is an honorable one. Whores do honest business trading value for value. Can government officials honestly say the same? P.J. O’Rourke meant to criticize government when he called it a Parliament of Whores, but consider how much better off we would all be if government officials were as virtuous as whores.

If government officials were as virtuous as whores they wouldn’t force their services on you. Whores take no for an answer. If you tell a whore you’re not interested in her services she moves on and looks for someone who is. Try telling your government officials you’re not interested in the services of government. Do they move on? No, they slap you with a bill.

If government officials were as virtuous as whores they wouldn’t bill you for services you didn’t request. Whores never announce “From now on I’ll be providing you with a new service, and here’s how much you owe me for it.”

If government officials were as virtuous as whores they wouldn’t start from the premise that you’re born owing their business something. A whore will never argue “Everybody needs to get laid so it’s only fair for everyone to pay their share.”

If government officials were as virtuous as whores they’d never bill you for services they provided to somebody else. A whore won’t tell you “The guy down the block can’t afford my services but I serviced him anyway. Here’s how much you owe for it.”

If government officials were as virtuous as whores they would never need to know the depth of your pockets. Next time you’re filling out an income tax form remember that a whore’s price doesn’t depend on how much money you made last year.

Because that’s not the way an honest profession operates.

A Parliament of Whores? We should be so lucky.

Marketing Market Anarchism

[Originally published at anti-state.com on December 17, 2001]

In his article In Search of the Antimarx, Bob “Missing Loop” Murphy airs our disagreement over the merits of attempting to convert masses of people to anarcho-capitalism. Murphy characterizes my view fairly in his short summary of it; in another article I explain why I think rational evangelism won’t work. By this I mean simply that people are never going to be persuaded by rational argument to adopt anarcho-capitalism in numbers sufficient to dissolve government. Talk isn’t going to carry the day for us, and neither can force when we are so outnumbered.

But what I want to address here is Murphy’s intent to go beyond rational argument, to advance an anarcho-capitalist agenda by packaging the message.

First of all I think Murphy’s goal is unrealistic, indeed unattainable:

“I think the only hope for a stateless society is a population committed to true voluntarism, that is, to absolute and total freedom.”

Frankly I would despair if I thought this were true. And anyway, if such a population were so committed to freedom there wouldn’t be much reason to worry about limited government because it would work.

A common argument made against anarcho-capitalism is that it requires perfect people, or at least people far more virtuous than the general population is now. Murphy seems to accept this argument. The argument is wrong because, as David Friedman points out, imperfect people behave far more benignly in markets than they do when wielding government:

“I have encountered precisely the same error among libertarians who prefer limited government to anarcho-capitalism. Limited government, they say, can guarantee uniform justice based on objective principles. Under anarcho-capitalism, the law varies from place to place and person to person, according to the irrational desires and beliefs of the different customers that different protection and arbitration agencies must serve.

This argument assumes that the limited government is set up by a population most or all of whose members believe in the same just principles of law. Given such a population, anarcho-capitalism will produce that same uniform, just law; there will be no market for any other. But just as capitalism can accommodate to a diversity of individual ends, so anarcho-capitalism can accommodate to a diversity of individual judgments about justice.

An ideal objectivist society with a limited government is superior to an anarcho-capitalist society in precisely the same sense that an ideal socialist society is superior to a capitalist society. Socialism does better with perfect people than capitalism does with imperfect people; limited government does better with perfect people than anarcho-capitalism with imperfect. And it is better to wear a bikini with the sun shining than a raincoat when it is raining. That is no argument against carrying an umbrella.”

– from Socialism, Limited Government, Anarchy, and Bikinis
in The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman

The question of course is how to get from here to there. Murphy wants to do it by marketing a message. He admires Marx as a marketer of ideas:

“And you have to hand it to Marx. He sure as hell didn’t lead by example. (He himself was bourgeois and a scoundrel to boot.)

So how did he do it? His writing gave people an entire worldview. Marxism allows you to interpret history, economics, politics virtually everything. And it was all based on a basic human yearning: equality.”

But is equality a basic human yearning? I don’t yearn for it. I’d say the basic human vice Marx played upon was jealousy. And Murphy says it’s “far easier to dislodge an erroneous belief than a correct one”, but then how does one explain the success of Marx? America once had far more limited government and far freer markets but Marx’s false philosophy made great inroads against a more correct philosophy and continues to do so. It’s clear that false premises don’t prevent a philosophy from making great advances. Marxism advanced not by rational argument, not by being correct, but by irrational appeals and systematic incentives.

Murphy is ready to go beyond rational argument and seems to be willing to persuade people on the basis of false premises:

“Or, if you don’t believe in evolution, then (chances are) you’re a believer in one of the major religions. And then of course the popularity of your creed is an example that people can be inspired by the truth as well as by myths.”

What?

To convince religious people that truth can carry the day Murphy invites them to take their own creed as an example. But these creeds are contradictory which means at least some of them are wrong. In fact for any of them to be true most of them must be largely wrong. And since most of these people must be embracing creeds which are largely wrong their own creed is not a valid example of how people can be inspired by truth, quite the opposite. Yet Murphy invites them to accept it as a valid example.

I’m certainly not saying that such an argument cannot persuade many people, Marx demonstrated that false arguments can be very persuasive while appealing to the irrational. I just think such persuasion is worthless for the purpose of getting people to embrace truth, because while it is possible to arrive at a correct conclusion by an invalid argument it is not possible to apprehend truth by such means. I don’t trust someone who has reached a correct conclusion by invalid reasoning because if they’re vulnerable to one invalid argument they’re vulnerable to the next.

Being correct is only an advantage in argument if the audience you’re trying to persuade is competent to grasp a valid argument. The success of Marx’s collectivist philosophy argues very strongly against the idea that Murphy’s chosen audience is sufficiently competent.

To put it bluntly, collectivism can be advanced by “useful idiots” but incompetence can’t usefully advance rational individualism.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Government

[Originally published at anti-state.com on July 30, 2001]

Why do we need government?

Government is a monopoly of force. Why is it that most people favor such a monopoly?

The Declaration of Independence says:

We hold these truths to be self – evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Setting aside the question of a Creator, I agree in principle that first sentence. It says that there are values which are appropriate to men according to their nature and that rights are implicit in their relationship with those values.

The next sentence offers a reason why we are supposed to need government: We need government to secure rights. This quaint notion has gone a bit out of fashion with many advocates of government, today they typically want government to secure all kinds of things, many of which have nothing to do with rights, but they all want government to secure something. And they’re convinced that only government can do it.

Why can’t people secure their rights, or anything else they need, by voluntary means? Why can’t people freely contract to secure whatever they need to secure? Why is a government, a monopoly on force, necessary to secure anything essential?

The fundamental answer which advocates of government offer for these questions is that we need government to solve a public goods problem. We are told that there is something that we all need, but that we will not secure by voluntary means. Often the argument is used for defense. The argument is that we all need to be defended from foreign invaders but the necessary means to do so cannot be funded on a voluntary basis. If the funding of defense is to be voluntary, what incentive is there for the individual to fund it? After all, for the defense to be viable a large number of people must voluntarily contribute their resources to it, but the individual only controls the actions of one person. Thus the individual has substantial incentive to be a free rider, he’ll get the benefit of defense whether he contributes or not, and the defense will be funded or not regardless of whether the particular individual contributes or not.

I acknowledge this is a legitimate concern and I don’t offer any easy answers.

I just point out that the government as a cure is worse than the disease.

Government “solves” one public goods problem by creating another that cannot be solved. Let’s assume a government is instituted to solve the public goods problem of defense. A mandatory tax is imposed on everyone in the territory to fund defense. Of course force will be used to extract the taxes from any who would not pay voluntarily. But in the end we get the defense we all need by eliminating free riding.

So far so good?

Oops, there’s a catch.

You see, by instituting a monopoly of force you’ve created another threat that people need protection from – the government itself. How will people restrain that government? How can they prevent it from becoming a tyranny?

You have another public goods problem on your hands. And you can’t solve this one the way you “solved” the first. Everyone needs government restrained but that can only be achieved by the voluntary donation of efforts by a great many people. But government will be restrained or not regardless of what the individual does, so he has the very same incentive to be a free rider with respect to the restraint of government as he had with respect to defense. And while you can force people to fund defense you cannot even in principle force people to restrain government since the act of forcing them would be an act of governing.

So government can only be restrained by widespread voluntary donations of effort. But the argument for instituting this government in the first place was that individuals could not be relied on to make such voluntary donations of effort. If you can’t rely on people to voluntarily donate the effort required to repel a foreign invader, how can you rely upon them to voluntarily donate the effort to restrain government?

If voluntary effort can be relied upon to restrain government then you don’t need government because voluntary effort could then be relied upon to solve the problems that government is supposed to solve. In this case there is no justification for government since there is no public goods problem to be solved by a monopoly of force. There’s no way to justify forcing people to solve problems that they are perfectly capable of solving voluntarily.

And if voluntary effort cannot be relied upon to restrain government then there is no justification for government because you haven’t solved any public goods problem by instituting government, you’ve only made things worse by creating a public goods problem that cannot be solved.

In either case government makes things worse.

Sorry folks, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and the argument that government is necessary to secure something that we all need has never been anything but an argument for a free lunch.