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.

de Jasay and The Model of the Total State

Aschwin de Wolf recently posted a a couple of old reviews of Anthony de Jasay’s “The State”. de Jasay’s work is one of the few examples of the use of rational choice method to model the “total state” in liberal political theory. This approach is liable to get one branded a crank–as evidenced by the first review embedded at de Wolf’s site–but de Jasay is able to get away with it because he is independent of the academic establishment. The second review, penned by James Buchannan, takes de Jasay’s analysis more seriously. So much, in fact, that he suggests that a liberal model of refutation(of the total state model) should be a primary endeavor of the academic(liberal political philosophic) class.

de Jasay’s Model: The Assignment of Self-Interest Rationality to State Actors Extends to the Sphere of the Commitment Problem

A naive “first-order” rational choice analysis will argue the need for the State as means for a credible enforcement of commitments between rational, self-interested actors. A more realistic “second-order” analysis will also extend this same rational,self-interested agency to State actors. A second-order analysis is then concerned with examining the logic of an Agency that is endowed with the same properties of agency that supposedly necessitates its role of external Agency in the first place. In a sense, Thomas Hobbes, the pioneer of the liberal method, engaged in a “second-order” analysis to justify Leviathan. Hobbes did not exempt state actors from self-interested agency. Hence, the need for a state agency of “one”(the monarch as Leviathan) to prevent the “war of all against all” within the State agency itself(and between the State agency and its subjects). Later liberal philosophers, who had no interest in preserving the old order of the monarchies, would discount a second-order analysis of the State agency. Well, not entirely, of course. Standard liberal theory proposes the State agency bound by constitutional constraints and accountability to a democratic process. Breaches of these constraints are grounds for termination of political obligation.

de Jasay’s method in “The State” is to deconstruct the second-order commitment problem. Are “constitutional constraints and democratic accountability” credible mechanisms to enforce the commitment between the State and it’s subjects to ensure the ends of the State do not compete with the ends of its subjects? Alternatively, is there any credible enforcement of the commitment between the State and its subjects if we assign rational agency to both parties? In other words, who “enforces” the “social contract” if we assign rational, self-interested agency to both the State and its subjects? de Jasey argued that there is no credible enforcement of the second-order commitment problem. This condition leads to an inevitable “total state.”

One misconception I wish to clear up–and I’ve discussed this previously–is any explicit identification of Public Choice with libertarianism. Public Choice,as a discipline, is by and large unconcerned with the problem of political obligation vis a vis second-order commitment problems. The Public Choice method assigns rational agency to State actors and is a model of political failure. But this failure stops short of questioning political obligation. The model of failure is generally restricted to the problem of mapping democratic preference to public policy outcomes, particularly with respect to a policies of social welfare redistribution.

For example, naive neoclassical economics(which does not consider the second-order rationality of state actors) held that public policy redistribution was actually redistributing something. The cost of this redistribution was just a deadweight loss. Public Choice was saying something different: there is nothing being redistributed(in net rent terms). And it is a quite socially wasteful process. This is the argument that government intervention is socially wasteful. But it is not an argument that the failures of government intervention dissolve the social contract.

In the Buchannan review that I previously referenced, Buchannan is smart enough to realize that a model of political failure that relies on a method of second-order assignment of rationality to State actors not only takes out interventionist social welfare redistribution, it can also take out political obligation if the model is extended to the commitment problem. This is why Buchannan, who is obviously concerned with protecting the public choice method in the scope of liberalism, suggested the need of it to shore up its flanks against commitment problem attacks. Others, such as the first reviewer, would dismiss any extension of public choice to a second-order commitment problem, noting that the public choice method is a model of political competition that results in wasteful rent dissipation and not one that predicts a unitary rent redistributing actor.

The Empirical Collapse of the Traditional Models of Competitive Rent Dissipation

We should note that de Jasay’s book was published in the mid 1980s. The two reviews I have referenced were published during the same time period. At that time, the consensus model of the rent-seeking game was one of competitive entry among agents wasting real resources to transfer no rents. There were essentially two competing variants of this model. One we could loosely call the “Chicago” model. If we define a rent dissipation ratio, D=C/R, where C=total transaction costs of rent-seeking, R=total rent, then the “Chicago model” would be:

(i)In equilibrium, D =1. The rent-seeking game is one of free competitive entry among equal agents. Free entry will result in the cost of rent-seeking equaling the rent. In other words, full rent dissipation.

The other model would be the Virginia School(Tullock):

(i)In equilibrium, D > 1 is a possible solution set. The Tullock model is much more dependent on the returns of scale of rent-seeking technology. This “returns of scale” is parametrized as a mathematical exponent. If the value of this exponent exceeds the ratio (n/n-1), where n=the number of rent-seeking agents, then you will have over-dissipation of rents.

In the “Chicago model,” the amount of the social waste equals the rent. In the Tullock model, the social waste can exceed the “total rent,” depending on the returns of scale being captured by the rent-seeking technology.

However, by the late 1980s, Tullock began to tackle the empirical divergences from the classical theories: political competition was not fully dissipating exogenous rents. This was a serious problem that in the words of Charles Rowley threatened the entire public choice method(it actually only dooms the classical liberal model of it). Tullock attempted to reconcile facts with theory by proposing extreme and deliberate inefficiencies in the rent-seeking technology. However, in “Efficient Rent-Seeking: Chronicle of an Intellectual Quagmire,” Tullock conceded that the classic models of rent-seeking have no real equilibrium.

A Radical Public Choice Model

A Public Choice Model extended to the the second-order commitment problem can give us a radically different model of Political Competition. We can loosely identify one such example as the “de Jasay Model.” In this model, the State behaves as a unitary actor in the sense of:

(i) D < 1. Political competition does not dissipate exogenous rents.
(ii) The ends of the State Agency are in competition with the ends of the State’s subjects
(iii) democratic accountability is replaced with a churning of manufactured consent
(iv) the rational ends of the State Agency is the maximization of discretionary power

(i)-(iii) gives us a model of the State as a firm. The firm can be thought of as a form of economic governance(Oliver Williamson), a DRO. However, our Firm, which is in competition with its own citizens, is not really in the business of settling civil disputes. It is DRO organ for political competition. Our Firm, the State, is an agency for exogenous rents.

(iv) we have a firm but what does it seek to maximize? Utility, rents or wealth are not particularly explanatory nor predictive. de Jasay suggested the thing being maximized is “discretionary power.”

We thus pithily summarize our model:

The State as agency for exogenous rents whose ends are the maximization of discretionary power

The model can explain what we see with our own eyes: “how state and society interact to disappoint and render each other miserable.” It explains why even if 100% hate the State, the State can still persist. It explains why people like Henry Kissinger, a supposed crown prince of the ruling class, now has his dick fondled at the airports by the blue-collar plebes of the security apparatus. It explains why the supposed standard-bearer of “the first world economy” more and more resembles the wealth patterns of a third world country. It explains, as predicted, the burgeoning phenomenon of brain drain exit from the United States. It explains the otherwise utterly baffling and unexplainable phenomenon(in liberal political theory) of how an entire legislative and political class of the “world’s greatest democracy” serves as direct agency for the right-wing policy objectives of a foreign Apartheid State.

We can easily synthesize our Rational Choice model of the “Total State” with the classical libertarian class theory of the French liberals. The French Liberal treatment of class theory was tied to a political economy of a military industrial complex. It’s not difficult to see that political competition for exogenous rents in a political economy of a military industrial complex is likely to result in a maximization of discretionary power.


Everyone is Guilty

Just to note: 2 years ago, the self-proclaimed “Paul McCartney” of Agorism mocked my anonymity because it more or less denied him the ability to compare my relative status to his as means to dismiss my critique of his Glenn Beck shilling. Not only was this clown guilty of the logical fallacy of the argument from authority, but as someone who was at one time actively involved on the production side of “black market activity,” I found it a bit ironic that this supposed co-inventor of “agorism” was criticizing anonymity. Frankly, from my experience, if you wanted a profile template for people to avoid if you are actively engaged in the “production side” of things, that person would be it. It was just a reminder of why I have never been able to take agorism, promoted as a form of “revolutionary activity,” seriously.

Recently, it appears that a former contributor of c4SS had participated as a drug informant as a means to ameliorate possible punishment of a drug charge. This has brought out the wolves. Obviously, there are violations of personal duties this person had with respect to the people this person “ratted out” but violations to the “cause”? Please…Are you paying taxes? Do you maintain your proper papers, “drivers license, social security card, etc.? Do you have a bank account? Do you pay for your transactions in the state approved currency? Do you watch movies, TV, etc? In other words, are you more or less in compliance with the organs of the State. Of course you are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to operate. You would either be in jail or out in the woods somewhere. The very act of communicating with others on any meaningful scale is an indication that you are in compliance.

We all know that if that if a sufficient number of people refused compliance, then the State could not persist. But why does it continue to persist? Anthony de Jasay wrote a classic, “The State,” which tried to explain why the State persists even when everyone hates it, including the so-called “ruling class.” The reason why the State persists, the reason why you do not opt out of compliance(in any meaningful way) is the same reason why individual agents turn police informants. The problem of revolution(and reform) is very real and serious problem. It is largely an intractable problem. Any delusions of agorist revolution are comic book fantasies.

Indeed, the public pronouncement of agorism as a revolutionary strategy, a strategy predicated on “crime” as a means, and a publicly articulated orthodoxy of non-cooperative silence with the cops, sets it up as a trivial, slam dunk RICO Statute conspiracy case if agorism was ever deemed an actual threat by the State. In fact, it’s so easy, because it is so open, that it could be applied to take down the libertarian movement as a criminal conspiracy. Konkin was right about one thing: it would definitely be sold out by a professional libertarian class.

The over-arching theme of this blog is the empirical, positive problem with the State: it acts largely as a conspiracy against reform. And its ends(objective) largely appear to be to make revolution an intractable problem(self-preservation). The solution to the problem of revolution, I believe, is an entrepreneurial problem, but this solution is not agorism. That is, the solution is not to make “the market” an ends-related device, something as a device for a consistent application of theory to every action, as necessary means to bring about a “libertarian society.” It is this kind of stuff that turns something into a cult. And it explains why you have people ranting about people being a traitor to the cause, gossip about “slutty” sexual mores, moral self-righteous commentary about the incompatibility of “liberty and libertinism,” etc.

I’m not in the business of defending police informants, but I am in the business of cutting down bullshit impersonal moral obligation claims. People don’t engage in black market transactions(e.g. drugs) to demonstrate a principle of consistency or to play a role in bringing about a “free society. They do it to derive utility. In the case of drugs, they do it to get high. These are the ends of market agents….

Liberal Totalitarianism

The term “liberal totalitarianism” is certainly not new. However, it is typically bandied about by conservatives as a synonym for something called “cultural marxism.” I have no idea what this latter term is supposed to mean(at least what conservatives mean by it), but I can give you a good working idea of what I think “liberal totalitarianism” means. Indeed, I would suggest we have seen on it full display in the recent Cato Unbound discussion on liberalism and social justice.

The foundation of Liberal Totalitarianism can be simply stated: the unchallenged assumption that liberalism is exempt from liberalism.

The Cata Unbound discussion provides a concrete example of it in action. But just to once again define our terms, by liberalism, it is meant a methodological framework that attempts to provide a normative answer to what rational agents would consent to in terms of political obligation. The Social Contract is a type of hypothetical construct or argument that deduces said obligation from an initial state of non-obligation. The State is an artificial construct in that it secures (enforces compliance)–BUT DOES NOT PRODUCE– the ends that make it rational for agents to choose obligation over non-obligation.

The liberal social contract, to retain coherence, must include non-obligation in the possible set of decisons(the decision tree). If non-obligation, however, is not a legitimate agent state, then the agent rational calculation itself is rooted in illegitimacy. This is why liberalism, to retain coherence, must, in the end, be a political theory of justifiable revolution. The possibility of disqualification(of the State) defines the constraints on the degree of political obligation.

Methodologically speaking, classical and modern liberalism are the same thing. Rawls, for example, is more or less following the same methodology of the original liberal social contract theorists. The difference for Rawls(compared to, say, the classical liberals) is that Rawls forbids an agent’s knowledge of its own identity when making a rational calculation regarding political obligation. Per Rawls, if you don’t have knowledge of your actual identity in the political system you are hypothesizing obligation to, you will rationally consent to a type of political obligation that minimizes the worst possible outcome(from an institutional perspective. E.g., Rawls would derive a “first amendment” from his thick, risk-adverse veil of identity ignorance).

Given the methodological similarities, the only possible way to debate the ends(the primary goods) is to debate the nature and circumstance of the hypothetical initial condition of non-obligation. But this is an unresolvable debate. I should point out that within modern liberalism, Harsanyi vs Rawls was exactly this type of debate(thick vs thin versions of the “veil of ignorance”). The inability for normative resolution is partly responsible for Rawls retreat into “Public Reason,” or overlapping political consensus as the means to justify his principles of justice. Simply, if modern liberals diverged over the makeup of primary goods, then obviously there is no normative marriage between classical and modern liberals regarding a justifiable composition of our primary goods. These type of discussions are nothing but a type of academic recognition.

A loose analogy I would use is an opening gambit by player White in a game of chess that is guaranteed to devolve into a long draw if player Black plays the same move. However, there is a possible winning strategy that player Black can play that ends the game in two moves. But the obvious winning strategy is ignored as a valid strategy because it is not recognized by professional convention. So, it doesn’t count.

The analogy here should be plain: if a player is going to use liberal methodology to argue for a social justice account of primary goods(as the opening gambit), then to avoid the “draw,” the opponent should play a strategy demonstrating that the actions of the State disqualify it from being an enforcement mechanism for these primary goods. The obvious winning strategy is to demonstrate that the State has disqualified itself. Put differently, the winning strategy is to demonstrate that the opening gambit itself results in a forfeit.

Liberal Totalitarianism is a condition where the players, by mere professional convention–and not by logic/reason or methodology–reject the possibility of disqualification and exempt liberalism from liberalism. Liberal totalitarians employ a standard rebuttal against the charge of a liberal police state(whenever they are incoveniently pressed to actually have to address the charge): “Nazi Germany.” “Stalinist Russia.” Of course, from a dialectical point of view, this is a silly, middle-school rejoinder. 21st Century multi-cultural, post-industrial America is not going to follow the the ethnic Völkisch model of the early 20th century Nazi folk state or pre-industrial, agrarian Soviet model. Indeed, if these two models are the baseline for what constitutes “totalitarianism,” then liberalism(in particular, the United States) is forever exempt from totalitarianism. “Nazi Germany/Stalinist Russia” is how Matt Zwolinski dismissed my “Social Justice of a Police State” argument. Disqualification is almost an alien concept to the likes of Zwolinski. And it’s not like “liberal coherence” is off Zwolinski’s radar. He writes papers arguing that free speech protection and antidiscrimination laws are in a diametric opposition to one another. Liberal coherence within the system demands one be subjugated to the other–either way. But he is pretty reluctant to extend coherence to the methodological foundation of the system itself–disqualification is a necessary constraint in order to retain the methodological coherence of liberalism.

A more recent post at BHL regarding “May Day” elicited quite a bit of left-Libertarian outrage–outrage that was largely absent from this group in the earlier social justice debate. But that post managed to ferret out the same “vulgar dialectics” tendencies. If you use vulgar dialectics to dismiss the problems of totalitarianism in liberalism, then don’t be surprised when it pops up to dismiss things like “May Day” celebrations because of the historical spectre of Soviet Communism. When the discussion veered back toward a comparison of Communist totalitarianism vs liberal totalitarianism, the vulgar dialecticians dismissed the possibility of liberal totalitarianism. “Liberal governments cannot be police states because only non-liberal governments can be police states. Liberal governments cannot be totalitarian because only non-liberal governments can be totalitarian. Liberal governments are not guilty of the ‘Total State’ violation because only non-liberal governments can be guilty of such a thing.”

To be clear, I’m not solely picking on the Zwolinski contingent of BHL. The entire political economic system is corrupted and rife with the moral framework of liberal exemption, liberal exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism is the encompassing umbrella which envelopes all of it. To me, the problem is one of reform, and reform is only possible by directly attacking the moral framework of liberal exceptionalism. The BHL program is not about reform, but largely about recognition, which thusly puts it in the “Pink Police State” ends category as far as I am concerned.

In the end, “Liberal Totalitarianism,” is not liberal. Liberalism does not survive exempting itself from itself. What we end up with(I would argue) is a type of Hegelian communitarianism. I would point to Charles Taylor’s model of “recognition,” which is more or less the underpinning of “political correctness,” as the foundation for this. Taylor’s notion that identity is a function of group recognition–where recognition for a group is dependent on other groups’ recognition, meaning identity becomes a function of a type of recursive group recognition–has a sort of perverse implication in the rotting remains of liberal institutionalism. Identity and Group Recognition become a function of a recursive group recognition/affirmation of the institutions of a highly artificial political economy. What we end up with is a permanent communitarian war of recognition within an institutional status quo. Communitarianism has a Hegelian underpinning, but what we end up with is hardly Hegel(or marxist, for our 3rd grade partisan conservative warriors). It is Orwell(oligarchical collectivism) applied to our context: permanent war as the foundation of a de facto peace among a (multi-cultural) professional class forever perched on the (artificially preserved) capitalist event horizon. The de facto peace is the equilibrium of the “Pink Police State,” and liberal totalitarianism is this pink police state.