There is No Moral Obligation to Obey the Regime in Liberalism

I recently watched the documentary “The United States vs John Lennon” which chronicled the US government’s attempt to deport John Lennon in the early 1970s. The ostensible reason behind the deportation proceedings was an obscure marijuana charge against Lennon stemming from his London days. The real reason was his involvement with radical elements of the early 1970s anti-war movement.

Lennon would survive the deportation attempt(in retrospect, of course, he would have lived longer if he had been deported) but the government intimidation permanently ended his flirtation with radical politics. As the documentary made clear, this was an escalation of a pattern of harassment and surveillance that finally dissuaded Lennon from any further involvement with the “left-wing fringe.” The objective was never really to deport him. It was to shut him up.

The documentary featured a wide range of talking heads across the political spectrum, but I was particularly struck by the interview with G. Gordon Liddy. To paraphrase Mr. Liddy, it wasn’t the “free speech” aspect per se that troubled the Nixon cabal, it was the fact that Lennon was saying these things despite the fact he was over here enjoying the benefits of wealth and culture the US Government was providing him. Lennon was free to speak his mind but only in Liverpool.

Of course, Liddy’s remarks perked my antennae. Hmmm, I’ve heard this argument–and its many variations–before. I’m hearing them now coming from the mouth of Chuck Schumer. It’s a type of argument that appeals to moral social obligation to justify a action/policy that is repellent to liberalism. In liberalism, institutions are supposed to serve humans and human ends. However, people like Liddy and Schumer(and pretty much everyone who plays the game of partisan politics) invert this: humans serve institutions and institutional ends.

The typical babble defense of the Liddy-Schumer moral obligation begins with the premise of humans as a “social product.” I won’t dispute the premise, but I will challenge the conclusion of the scope of the social obligation. For starters, much of the component of “social product” is social convention. But who exactly is supposed to be the debt collector for social convention? Frankly, the idea of a debt collector for social convention and custom is silly. If we acknowledge this, then we are left with the more artificial components of the “social product,” meaning the roads, the bridges, the electricity grids, the schools, the legal system, property rights, etc.

Anthony de Jasay in his essay, “Your Dog Owns Your House,” addressed the scope of the social obligation the arises from this artificial social product: the obligations terminate at the point of exchange. Otherwise, you can end up with an absurd moral claim that your dog–because it may serve a capacity as a watch dog, “securing” your property–owns your house. de Jasay’s point was that “society” can only function by operating at the point of exchange; it cannot function by means of “social accounting.” However, de Jasay duly noted that, historically, the liberal moral foundations for property have been weak and susceptible to the moralizing of these “social accounting” arguments.

I would add the oft overlooked asymmetrical nature of the social accounting assumption. So we have our dog who protects your house. The dog comes from the kennel. The kennel owner relies on the roads, the electricity grid, the farmer, the dog food manufacturer, etc. Each one of these points of contact are have their own points of contacts creating our geometrically progressive interrelated web of social dependency. No doubt. However, “accounting” consists of credits and debits. So, if our dog fails to protect the house(as advertised in this recent AllState Commercial) does the liability likewise flow down our interrelated web of social dependency? If the dog is successful as a watch dog, then the homeowner “owes” the kennel owner, the road construction worker, the farmer, the dog food plant worker, and so. But if the dog fails, then do these same agents “owe” the homeowner? Do they share the blame in the failure of the dog?

As absurd as the “social accounting” calculation is regarding the dog-owning the house, I think the absurdity of the moral obligation nonetheless is better illustrated on the liability side. If, say, the farmer shares in the “credit” of the dog’s success, then the farmer likewise must surely share the blame for any failures of the dog. Human moral foundations may be susceptible to the credit side of the social accounting argument, but they generally repel against any responsibility on the liability side.1 As the “AllState” commercial (linked above) illustrates, the failure of the dog is motivation for the homeowner to insure against the failure. The responsibility lies with the homeowner and the obligation terminates at the point of exchange. Very few question this, which is why you are seeing the likes of AllState advertising their services.

So, rather than attempt to normatively demonstrate the “credit” side of social accounting terminates at the point exchange via something like the “marginal productivity theory of distribution,” which is what, e.g, Robert Higgs attempts to do here(and thus repeating the same damn mistakes that classical liberal economists/theorists have been repeating for 150 + years: ref: Sean Gabb. NOTE: there exists an entire universe of an academic political class ready to pounce on normative divergences to justify moral ends), it simply suffices to point out that two most prominent promoters today of the Liddy-Schumer Moral Obligation, namely Schumer himself and Elizabeth Warren, both adamantly supported the ObamaCare Individual Mandate to “force” individual health liability to terminate at a point of exchange. They themselves have falsified their own claims. And that is sufficient.

Conclusion: Political Obligation is a Rational Calculation, not a Moral One

Liberal society by and large functions by the convention that obligations terminate at the point of exchange. Moral foundations added on top may attempt to morally collectivize the “credit” side of social accounting while more or less leaving the liability side of the social accounting ledger to convention. This is a natural conflict of liberalism: moral foundations vs convention/custom. In liberalism, there is never a “moral obligation” to obey the regime. Political obligation is a rational calculation, not a moral one. The liberal conflict between moral foundations and convention can survive a rational calculation until the moral foundation is collectivized as the Liddy-Schumer Moral Obligation. Then the moral obligation terminates the rational one.

The Liddy-Schumer Moral Obligation is the moral legitimacy of rent-seeking agents. And you can easily spot it by its arbitrary protectionist consequences. The same rationale to deport is the same rationale to prevent exit. If you “owe” taxes you cannot enter; if you owe taxes, neither can you leave. Chuck Schumer is the ultimate poster boy for State Capitalist Protectionism. He is a primary guardian of the banking oligarchy. The irony is that without the protectionism and the bailouts, there is likely no Facebook IPO. But defections by those who have gained from the State Capitalist Protectionism(the “brain drain” has just begun) will change the boundary constraints for all of us. This is an object lesson from the Total State model.

Oliver Wendell Holme’s famous dictum that “taxes are the price we pay for civilization” has to count as one of the great misnomers in liberal history. Taxes may be the cost of a given regime, but the regime never has been nor ever will be “civilization.”

1 Exception. Hoppe’s “invited-contractual” property rights model attempted to enforce a moral preference for immigration patterns hospitable to a status quo of Western Christian landowners by collectivizing any liabilities from social movement onto the property owners. That is, property owners could be liable for any future actions by anyone who has ever been invited onto their property. A throughly collectivist treatment of property that supposedly passes for libertarian. Anyone who subscribes to this more or less forfeits any real objection to collectivizing the “credit” side of the social accounting ledger.

2 thoughts on “There is No Moral Obligation to Obey the Regime in Liberalism

  1. “If the dog is successful as a watch dog, then the homeowner “owes” the kennel owner, the road construction worker, the farmer, the dog food plant worker, and so.”

    Just from arguments I’ve had with progressives this seems erroneous.

    If the dog helps out as a watch dog, then the homeowner “owes” the dog, the dog, “owes” the kennel owner, etc.

    • how does the dog “owe” the kennel owner? you are assigning the agency of the homeowner to that of the dog. The “homeowner’s” ends are being served, not the dog’s.

      Put differently, if a slave protected the house, would the slave owe the road construction worker? The homeowner “owes” the slave, the slave “owes” the farmer, etc…

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