Why I’m Not a Bleeding-Heart Statist

Will Wilkinson’s latest statist declaration of principles and anti-principles, with respect to liberalism and libertarianism respectively, is another attempt by Wilkinson, who has “defected” from the “label,” to use the soft underbelly of the libertarian movement as an argument for the State.

I agree that the meaning of “libertarianism,” particularly in the American political context, is incoherent. But this is largely a product of trying to make it palatable with liberal democracy–in short, rebranding the libertarian meaning of liberty as a political value. I will flatly state that there is no normative case for liberty. But this is not an argument for the State because I also include the following addendum: neither is there a normative moral duty to obey the State.

Wilkinson seems preoccupied with mutable ideological labels and public connotations of conviction syndromes interrupting his ability to eclectically define himself. But we can easily separate the wheat from the chaff. If you ascribe to a moral duty to obey the State, then you are not a libertarian. If you deny this moral obligation, then you have at least satisfied a necessary condition for libertarianism.

Simple,succinct, and to the point.

Wilkinson, of course, accepts the moral obligation of obedience to the State. The first point of Wilkinson’s defense is a denial of the NAP “anti-principle.”

Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate.

I consider “coercion” to be a strawman argument. I’ve discussed this before on previous occasions, e.g: Free Markets and Coercion. All social interactions and contractual arrangements are coercive in the sense that they necessarily impose moral constraints on agents as pure maximizers. Non-coercion is useless as a basis for a social theory because agents are not single-variable max-min optimizers–“coercion” as the single variable–because the optimal social arrangement would then be defection.

Social cooperation necessarily entails moral constraints on the part of actors. We could alternatively use the language of “personal duties.” But personal duties do not demonstrate impersonal duties, or duties to no one. In my post, I used an example of uncertainty prompting payments to third parties to insure against transactions not being mutually beneficial. A moral claim on a carpenter to be bonded and insurance payments to third parties can be superficially equated with how the market produces “coercion,” taxes, and a State tax collector–that is, until we properly distinguish between taxes,rents and economic rents. If the insurance payments are composed of economic rent, then we would have an entrepreneurial opportunity to drive these rents to trade at opportunity costs. To abolish these rents and to treat them as “taxes” and as part of the tax code would incentivize a different type of entrepreneurial opportunity, one that would look to the tax code to create and persist artificial rents.

This was a simple economic example of how the moral constraints of social cooperation do not imply nor should imply an impersonal standardization. Almost always, an argument to impersonalize moral constraints is often a narrow self-interested one.

Wilkinson’s second point is a “principle,” namely the claim that the State has reduced violence. This is a reason why, for example, we should morally obey the State. Wilkinson appeals to Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” However, the claim of the role of the state in reducing violence can be easily questioned as an example of a “post hoc causal fallacy.” The immediate counter-problem with this claim that I would pose is to legitimately question why the liberal state is nonetheless morphing into a National Security State given it’s supposed rational role in reducing violence. If violence is at human historical lows, then why the need for CIAs, DHS, TSA,paramilitarized civilian police forces, secret police, and an unaccountable sprawling military/intelligence industrial complex? Of course, Wilkinson will simply ignore this obvious contradiction and instead can be counted on to blather on about how secure the State has made all of us while we are nonetheless forced to undergo anal cavity searches as a pre-condition to travel and buy goods/services at shopping malls.

Wilkinson’s third point of “principle” of why we should obey the state is that it legitimizes us to participate in the debate regarding “the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state.” Of course, the historical libertarian critique is that liberalism institutionally fails to provide this “settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state.”

In the classic sense, we can succinctly define liberalism as a political system whose ends are property and whose means are liberty. I will also include the modern update that adds an ends of justice and includes redistributive means that imposes a degree of positive constraint on liberty. The liberal legal model defines a constitutional framework of decision-making rules, justified by a hypothetical “social-contract,” that defines the constraints on what is legally recognizable within the system. In plain language, this means that legal recognition in the pursuit of property or justice cannot violate constitutional constraints. The constitutional constraints, which are decision-making rules, define the boundary conditions.

However, as I discussed in my previous post regarding the State of Nature, legal recognition, including the constitutional boundary conditions, or decision-making rules, are market goods, whether you like it or not. Specifically, economic rent-seeking of legal recognition via a monopoly price maker becomes a source of decision-making rules–that is, it changes the boundary constraints of the system. In Virginia School Public Choice terms, the equilibrium of the Tullock rent-seeking game is a union of the Redistributive State and the Protective State(the Constitutional agency). This, for example, explains the massive empirical discrepency between the magnitude of economic rents being created by the State vs the competitive outlays investing/bidding for such rents.

To restate: this is why using the Superpower US military/Intelligence apparatus as a means to protect economic rents results in the evisceration of the primary liberal legal restraint, the “Great Writ,” and why the Federal Government, in the office of the Executive Branch, as now legally sanctioned by the legislative branch, now declares itself arbitrarily outside the constraints of civilian court due process.

Wilkinson, as a liberal, should be supremely concerned with the fundamental liberal violations posed by such things as the National Defense Authorization Act. This is an example of an egregious violation of the supposed “settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state.” But I haven’t read a peep from Wilkinson addressing these profound violations, not in any serious way that he, as a liberal, should be addressing given that he is quite aware that these type of violations are at the core of the libertarian political critique.

Wilkinson’s fourth point, an “anti-principle point,” is a fine example of “applied selective consistency.” Granted, I agree that there are legitimate critiques of Ron Paul’s version of libertarianism, but if Wilkinson ascribes to the principle that past violations of the messenger discredit the current message, then Wilkinson necessarily must renounce the State as messenger. We can simply appeal to David Hume who pointed out the real-world problem with “social contract theory:” historically, states weren’t rational products of hypothetical consent; rather they were the products of conquest and pillage. The State wouldn’t be where it is today, in a position to be an arbiter of “justice,” without the conquest, mass murder and pillage of it’s past. In our modern context, Wilkinson doesn’t seem too bothered by a State that killed millions of Vietnamese, bombed who knows how many Cambodians, killed and displaced more than a million Iraqis, is the only State to directly use Nuclear WMDs against a civilian population and directly funded the other one that used chemical WMD(Iraq), financially supports authoritarian dictaroships across the world, locks more of it’s citizens, percentage-wise, than any other country in the world, sans perhaps North Korea, engineers a racist drug war to inflicts uncountable damage globally, etc, etc, etc….Yet, Wilkinson has no problem with this State(mind you, the same State which refuses to apologize for most of these atrocities) being an arbiter of justice; however, he is morally outraged over around five years of paleo, politically incorrect bullshit from Paul’s publishing enterprise from the early to mid 1990s. I wouldn’t quite characterize that as “decades of bilking paranoid bigots with bullshit prophesies of hyperinflationary race war. Is there any evidence of Paul’s publishing ventures printing decades(meaning twenty years or more) of race war articles or advertisements?

As a libertarian, one who doesn’t root moral outrage in communitarian recognition violations, but rather in actual moral and legal institutional injustices, particularly those injustices that persist without correction, I can’t take Wilkinson’s moral outrage and critique seriously.

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Rational Expectations

In my previous post, I discussed both the morality and rationality of voting, particularly as it pertained to Ron Paul. The conclusion was that there was no moral obligation to vote nor one not to vote. The rationality of voting is an entirely different consideration. This calculation boils down to the following factors: (i) the importance(payoff) of the best candidate winning, (ii) the probability that your vote will change the outcome.

Tom Woods’ characterization of the problem as an easy choice between prime rib vs gruel is not correct because he is assuming away the resolution of the public good problem of recognizing the “best candidate.” If everyone recognized the actual best candidate as the best candidate, then perhaps an argument could be made for the rationality of voting; but then we would also be treading on a doctrine that would have to view voting/democracy as an efficient selection mechanism for collective action/public policy.

I doubt Woods would accept such a view of Democracy and voting. So he is really restricting his “best candidate” recognition argument to a subset of us enlightened libertarians. But this immediately lead us the problem of (ii), the likelihood that the enlightened libertarian vote could change the outcome.

As a side problem, I noted that the uncertainty introduced by the principal-agent problem of Political Parties reduces the expected payoff of the best candidate winning.

Perhaps my greatest critique of Paul is his association with the GOP agency. To me, trying to change the ideology of a party that is so throughly statist is a tremendous waste of resources. If the goal is to actually change the policy and not the party, then it would be more rational to actually run as an independent or third party. Yes, I understand the barrier of entry problem, but this problem doesn’t apply to Paul any longer. He has the name recognition and the resources to overcome the ballot qualification problem and the debate inclusion problem. Typically Paul dismisses such a suggestion with an appeal to the generalized problem: yes, most politicians would be buried by the barrier of entry problem, but Paul has likely eclipsed this limiting constraint.

A discussion of the rationality of an independent run is a separate question, but I think a discussion of the relative rationality of an independent run vs trying to convert Santorum/Gingrich/Romney/Bush voters lends itself to an easy comparative call. All we have to is examine the voting statistics from last night’s Iowa Caucus. Among registered Republicans, Paul was just an also-ran. It was the inclusion of independents and democratic voters, captured overwhelmingly by Paul, that enabled him to be competitive within the so-called “top tier.”

The Iowa Caucus also served the purpose of once again demonstrating the miscalculation of the so-called “Paleo Strategy.” Santorum, like Huckabbe 4 years earlier, was able to rise methodically from obscurity by dominating the “evangelical epicenters” of Iowa. Paul’s best county again was Jefferson County, a haven for alternative religions such as Transcendental Meditation. As the saying goes, “ball don’t lie…”

Ron Paul and the Morality of Voting

Back in early summer, Tom Woods wrote a brief piece1 regarding the morality of voting for Ron Paul. The tone was one of moral recommendation and not obligation, but the piece itself was logically incoherent. The structure of the argument was a non sequitor. How does showing voting for Ron Paul is rational demonstrate that voting for Ron Paul is not “consenting to the system.”? To me, there was an obvious disconnect between the premise and the conclusion. If the argument started by addressing the moral premise that voting shows consent, you have to demonstrate the falseness of the premise. A separate argument that voting for Candidate A is in your best interest does not demonstrate this. The morality of voting and the rationality of voting are two separate issues.

Woods corrected this logical flaw in a subsequent post. 2 That post addressed the moral premise of voting and consent. Here, I’m in agreement with Woods. I have no idea who the “great Robert Fellner” is, but I can give the short reason why liberal political theory invalidates the voting and consent claim. Liberalism does not place the social contract in the legislature. The Social Contract sanctions the legal system, but it is not a product of it. To make a moral claim that voting demonstrates “consent,” from a social contractual stanspoint, serves to likewise validate, for example, the progressive/social democratic position that the social contract is rooted in the legislature. How many times have you heard “progressives” talk reverently about pieces of legislation, like “Social Security,” or the “New Deal,” constituting a “social contract.” This, of course, is a liberal violation, and progressives who talk like this are not liberals. But in a similar sense, anarchists who equate voting with social contractual consent, are implicitly granting social contractual sanction to the act of voting. Understand, of course, this is not an argument for a moral obligation to vote but rather an argument against any moral claim/obligation of not voting.

Once we have falsified any moral premise regarding voting–there is no moral obligation, pro or con, with respect to voting–we can turn to the rational argument. However, given that I ascribe to Rational Choice Methodology, I’m skeptical about any claims of rational demonstration of voting. Voting, from a rational choice perspective, is actually type of a “public goods” problem, implying it is rational not to vote. Put another way, there is an opportunity cost argument against determining/differentiating between who is a “good” and who is “bad,” in terms of the best candidate. If you rely on everyone acting on their own interest, then, because different people have different interests/objectives, elections likely then result in everyone being worse off. A strictly self-interested argument–that your vote matters–to the extent it motivates turnout, almost guarantees that your vote makes no difference.

Let us review Woods’ rational argument for voting for Ron Paul, and examine how that argument answers the rational choice critique against voting. Here are Woods’ reasons below:

(1) If you were stuck in a prison camp, and the guards let you vote on whether you were to have gruel or prime rib for dinner, would you be “consenting to the system” to vote for prime rib, or would you simply be doing the best you could under the circumstances to improve your material condition?

(2) Many Americans won’t consider even listening to a point of view that barely registers on the political radar screen. Whether out of intellectual laziness, cowardice, whatever, they just won’t. So it hurts us if Ron Paul gets 1% of the vote. But if he gets solid double digits, those people who might be faint of heart might realize they aren’t totally alone in supporting him, and will be more willing to do so. Yes, this is ridiculous and unjust, but that’s how it is. That’s why I think it hurts the cause of the free society not to vote for Ron Paul.

The problem is (1) establishes a principle why everyone “should” vote(improve your material condition), not just Paul voters. Everyone voting then implies a 100% turnout that guarantees Paul votes makes no difference. If you want to argue (2), you have to impose a constraint condition on (1) to produce a turnout that would perhaps allow Paul votes to matter. But this constraint would be a type of public good problem.

To demonstrate: to pit voting as a choice between (a) gruel vs (b) prime rib for dinner is the crass self-interest model. A rational agent, in the game theory sense, will not vote if that agent expects others to vote their own crass self-interest. If, however, the agent expects others the vote the best candidate, then it might be rational for that agent to invest resources to determine the best candidate to vote for and to actually vote. But there is no reason to actually expect others to invest the resources to determine the best candidate and vote the best candidate.

This type of problem perhaps suggests an agency as means of reducing uncertainty. And, of course, in this context, by agency, I mean Political Parties. But political parties introduce an obvious Principal agent problem. It is this principal agent problem that changes the payoff matrix. For example, we really have something like:

(a) gruel vs (b) (prime rib AND a kick upside the head that causes neurological damage so that you can no longer taste food)

So the reason I don’t particularly support Ron Paul is not so much because my disagreements with him on substantial issues like abortion and immigration, but rather because he is a member of the GOP. This membership substantially reduces any expected payoff because the GOP represents the kick upside the head. A Paul Admin would carry the GOP agency with it.

So, if we include Principal agent problem deductions in the expected payoff calculations for someone with a claimed high payof, such as Paul, we find that it is not rational to invest much resources in supporting Paul, given (i) the odds and (ii) the payoff is not as high as you think it is.

Of course, many may find great emotional utility in having “libertarian views” expressed on a national stage. There indeed likely value in having clear anti-war sentiment and anti-monopoly sentiment regarding money expressed on a national stage. But this is different than a moral or rational argument that demands voting for the candidate. However, Woods’ argument does not suggest obligation but merely recommendation. In this sense, there can be “gentlemenly” disagreement.

The Moral Obligation

It is Walter Block who provides us with the “moral obligation” argument regarding Paul as a “libertarian litmus test.” Block restates this litmus test in a recent article disqualifying Wendy McElroy from being a libertarian because of her refusal to support Paul’s candidacy. The best thing I can say about Block is that he clearly demonstrates the folly of treating libertarianism as a moral theory. Block introduces the moral category of “being libertarian” as some first order condition. To be a libertarian requires adherence to a first order moral condition of “being a libertarian,” which means acting in a way so as to promote liberty. Violations of this first order condition disqualify you from being a libertarian.

This kind of moral farcity is what inspires satirical comedies like, um, say, “Mozart Was a Red.” Instead now we replace Mozart with McElroy in the title and Rand with Block as our protagonist. Block sits authoritatively erect on the couch while passing out “What Would Ron Paul Do” wristbands to the tribe while earnest debate ensues regarding the the proper first order moral constraint on the number of times you should wipe your ass when you take a shit. After all, the declining marginal utility of ass wipes and the use of scare resources, such as toilet paper, suggest that deployed resources after, say, the fourth wipe would be better served–in the cause of liberty– by being redirected to Ron Paul Money bombs.

I’m not being facetious. I’m being crude to illustrate the point that “Being Libertarian” is not some libertarian moral constraint, but rather the moral foundation of a cult. “Being Libertarian” has nothing to do with the actual libertarian social problem, which is enforcing compliance to contractual arrangements. Compliance and/or the legal recognition of it, is a market good. It is not a moral good, meaning it does not serve any moral ends. A tribe of libertarians dedicated to abiding to the ends of “being libertarian” would still require a DRO mechanism to function as a social entity. How many times you wipe you ass is not an enforceable problem; put differently, you probably wouldn’t want to live in a social arrangement where it was treated as one. To extend this: you probably wouldn’t want to live in a social arrangement where Block’s first order condition was treated as a moral enforceable problem.

Here, I’m in agreement with Aschwin de Wolf who recently wrote:4

If you think of a libertarian society as an emergent outcome that arises from evolving social interaction between rational individuals instead of an “ideology” that requires people to conform to categorical imperatives like the non-aggression principle, a lot of the debate about the morality of voting is not useful.

In previous posts, I’ve addressed the scientific problem of moral foundations: namely, they cannot demonstrate their own consistency. Put differently, any moral foundation can be presented with a “liar’s paradox.” This includes NAP. Anyone who claims that a given moral foundation can demonstrate it’s own completeness and consistency is essentially making a totalitarian claim–meaning it can prove anything. The conclusion is that no formal moral System can trust itself.

Wendy McElroy, in past archived posts, has expressed reservations about libertarianism divorced from moral foundations. Block’s attack against her might suggest a greater reservation about the totalitarianism implied by the inevitable enforcement against a Liar’s Paradox.

Ron Paul and the Libertarian Moment

Walter Block’s Self-Hating Libertarian defense of Ron Paul is not compelling. The “Self Hating X” argument is nothing more than an accusation that the consequences of rejecting a claimed premise necessary for X implies you hate X. It originates with the derogatory label, “self-hating jew,” a label that could be applied to both Block and Rothbard.1

I have no idea idea why Block would wish to re-package that garbage label as a libertarian accusation, other than the fact he has no real libertarian defense of Paul against a logical critique. Indeed, Block’s accusation of Stephen Molyneux being a “State lover” because of his critique of Paul’s constitutional apologetics is nonsense. That claim is something that needs to be demonstrated, and not supposed.

The following Block claims can be readily challenged:

  • We are now at a point in time where, thanks to Dr. Ron Paul, people are hearing of libertarianism to a degree that possibly never before occurred in our entire history.
  • Ron Paul is from “flyover” country. He is not “sophisticated.” He is a rube. If you look closely, he has hay on his suit. Our sophisticated libertarians thus see him as an embarrassment.
  • Historically, I view libertarianism as three wings–capitalist(Bastiat), Socialist(Proudhon), and Communist(Déjacque)–that emerged from radical French liberalism. Immediately, we would have to qualify what “our history” means since there is an unequivocal case that from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century what we would call “social anarchism” was by far ascendant over what we would call liberal or individualist anarchism. Social anarchism was the “mass movement”(a labor movement) while liberal anarchism was much more of an intellectual movement(literary and journalist). It would be social anarchism that would challenge and rock the foundations of Western governments; liberal anarchism was more or less relegated to the east coast “literati”(to borrow a recent Newt Gingrich term).

    So let us dispense with the rube that we are in the midst of some unprecedented libertarian moment and drop the pretension of a “populist” appeal against “east-coast libertarianism.”

    Today, liberal anarchism is far ascendant to social anarchism as the primary challenge to the State. Social anarchism, which can be identified as a radical labor movement, was expropriated and assimilated into the progressive corporate liberal borg. Progressivism destroyed social anarchism. Social anarchism has never recovered from this and likely never will.

    Now, can we credit Ron Paul for the rise of today’s liberal anarchism? Hardly. This ascendancy is not rooted in liberal economic argument. Rather it is cultural, and we can perhaps best summarize it by the term, “lifestyle anarchism.” Lifestyle anarchism provides a path back to liberal individual autonomy, but the modern genesis of this was the 60s counter-culture movement, which itself was not a self-conscious libertarian movement.

    I credit the likes of Murray Rothbard for hooking a New Left class critique of American progressivism on top of the momentum of lifestyle anarchism to forge a second self-identified libertarian movement in the US. However, I also credit Murray Rothbard with attempting to later unhook libertarianism from lifestyle anarchism with the pursuit of the so-called “Paleo phase,” which was a disaster.

    In terms of Rothbardian proteges, I would associate Karl Hess with the earlier Rothbard and Ron Paul with the second, “Paleo” Rothbard.

    Paul represents a legitimate dilemma for liberal anarchism. He is not source of liberal anarchism’s rise but he is certainly capitalizing from it. On one hand, his non-interventionist challenge to the Orwellian Double-think of American Empire is invaluable. But on the other hand, his “sanctity of life” union with the libertarian principle, as means to gain majority traction within the GOP, utterly undermines the very lifestyle anarchist underpinning of modern liberal anarchism.

    The “Ron Paul Revolution,” as it pertains to assimilation into the GOP Borg, promises to do to liberal anarchism what the “progressive revolution” did to social anarchism.

    So, two cheers for Ron Paul, but death to the GOP. The consequences of the latter development do not finger me as a “self-hating libertarian.” Quite the contrary…

    1 Specifically, the term “Self-Hating Jew” refers to a baseless accusation that the consequences of rejecting Zionism means you hate Judaism. Certainly,Rothbard qualified as being guilty of this accusation.