29 December 2011

Government monopoly on force

Thanks to Ron Paul, I just had to explain to someone one of the reasons why libertarianism is stupid. So I'm sharing.

Libertarians will tell you that “behind every law is a man with a gun,” and I actually respect the hell out of the clear-eyed skepticism about violence which motivates this comment. But libertarians thus conclude that since violence is bad government is bad and we should eliminate it. Which is stupid.

I vigorously believe in the state's “monopoly on violence” ... provided the state in question is a liberal democracy.

The “liberal democracy” piece is key. That means not liberal in the sense of the liberal-conservative axis in American political discourse, I mean in the political science sense of Jefferson's “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, which hold their just powers by the consent of the governed”. A liberal democracy is a state constructed to protect the rights and liberties of its citizens and accountable to its citizens for its actions and institutions. Looking at our own government on those terms, it is easy to see that it is extraordinarily accountable and protective of individual rights if you compare it to most societies through the world and history, but is also well short of the ideal. I believe that it is possible to construct government institutions that deliver categorically better liberal democracy than we have now, and therefore it is more effective to work to build a better liberal democracy than to eliminate the state.

An accountable agent with a monopoly on violence is desirable for two reasons: some people are inclined to resort to violence, and some people are schmucks.

Because some people will resort to violence, you cannot eliminate the state. This is why those of us who dismiss libertarianism point to the Somalia example: in the absence of the state's public use of force, there is no check on personal use of force, which is a problem for all the familiar reasons.

Libertarians operate from the fantasy that we can wish that problem away. (And no, privately-employed security guards won't do the job as well as the state; the arguments why not should be familiar.)

Because some people are schmucks, you cannot eliminate the state. To have a functioning society, you have to make a million decisions about shared norms. Some of those norms are arbitrary: Either you drive on the left side of the street or the right. Some of them are about how you define property: Does someone own Harry Potter? Mickey Mouse? Sherlock Holmes? Hercules? Some of them are expressions of values: Do you allow advertisements to lie? How much pollution do you allow in a river?

Libertarians operate from the fantasy that it is most democratic to allow shared norms to emerge organically from a marketplace of individual actors. But in reality, schmucks can spoil the party by violating the norms that most people prefer: driving on the wrong side of the road to save a little time, publishing books they didn't write under their own byline, selling arsenic as penicillin, dumping toxic waste into that river. You need an agent of public will with the power to enforce norms, which requires the use of force.

It is right to find the use of force discomforting, but it is naïve to think we can wish it away. The solution is to make our agent of force institutionally limited and institutionally accountable to the populace: a liberal democratic government.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

At the risk of pointing out the obvious; stupid libertarianism is stupid. Much like stupid "there should be no borders and guns should be illegal" "liberalism" or "We have the right under God to dominate the planet" "Conservativism" is stupid.

The abridged version; "stupid is stupid".

For example, I could suggest that Anarchism is stupid. For the vast majority of Anarchists believe some frighteningly stupid things.

I could suggest that, but then, I'd miss some really good parties, and it would be a grotesque sweeping generalization.

Luckily, the vast majority of libertarians do not want to end the government, those are anarchists (the stupid ones, anyway).
-S

Jonathan Korman said...

There are smart libertarians who I agree with on a number of points. But any libertarian worthy of the name is critical of the government monopoly on force, and that's what I'm arguing for here.

Anonymous said...

Well, count me in on being critical of the monopoly (but not one who thinks there should be no law enforcement); for two reasons.

1) We simply don't live in a "liberal democratic state". Being "the closest on the block" to such is insufficient. The state regularly resorts to tyranny, particularly in the face of a disarmed population. (See most major cities, where legality infringes on the second amendment), in such places the law is most corrupt and takes the greatest liberties from the people.

2) were utopia to descend, and were we to live in a liberal democratic state, I should find it a great deal more difficult to fit one in my pocket than a .45. Additionally, the response time of the latter is much preferable.

Perhaps you use the term "monopoly of force" in some way that I am unfamiliar with? But if the suggestion is that the state be given the sole ability to use violence to protect people, and that I should be left with a prayer and a phone, well....
I am grateful that (So far) the law protects me from being forced into such social experiments.
-S

Jonathan Korman said...

Given the failure to have a fully satisfactory liberal democracy, I see the point of action as developing more liberal democracy, not weakening the state.

And you've caught me in a bit of sloppy language: force used in self-defense is rightly in a protected category. But an accountable state should have a monopoly on proactive use of force.

Anonymous said...

Well, Agreed on both points then! Not bad for a "stupid libertarian" ;)

I've gotta say though, the school of "thought" you are describing has nothing whatsoever to do with Ron Paul, or his beliefs.

Jonathan Korman said...

D'accord. The discussion which inspired this was with someone who thought Paul was a libertarian. I schooled 'em.

Anonymous said...

So heres something I've been thinking of around Ron Paul that opens up into a more general topic. "How much do you have to support a platform to still be 'part of the party'"

In other words, does a political party get to control the definition of a word. Say there was a "progressive party" that had platform elements you didn't agree with. Do you lose your "progressive cred" for lacking strict adherence? Why does the party have the authrity to define the term and you dont?

Can't Paul be a libertarian without agreeing with every aspect of the party platform?

Whats the percentage for cut-off?

no answers, just questions. It seems odd to me that one would say that PAul isn't a libertarian because he doesn't perfectly reflect the party lien in all cases (how many people do?) After all, the guy has been regarded as the standard bearer of all things libertarian for decades.

Jonathan Korman said...

Well, Paul is a Republican, not a Libertarian. And a Republican is defined by party membership, not by ideology, though obviously there's a close connection.

What Paul's supporters often say is that he's a small-l libertarian, which is a political philosophy.

A school like that may have some flexibility in its defining boundaries. For instance, I'm a progressive, but unlike most progressives I'm singularly unenthusiastic about gun control; I think I hew closely enough to the meaning of the term, though, that it's still a useful description.

But folks who have called Paul a libertarian just have a shallow understanding of him. He's actually something else. Something pretty creepy.

A Critic said...

"I vigorously believe in the state's “monopoly on violence” ... provided the state in question is a liberal democracy. "

The monopoly isn't on defensive violence which is often allowed by the state - the monopoly is on offensive violence, aka "crime".

No form of government can successfully control the power of crime. Once you embrace crime as the source and means of your power then you are corrupt and you will only grow more so.

"A liberal democratic state's monopoly on violence is desirable for two reasons: some people are inclined to resort to violence, and some people are schmucks. "

Why is it desirable to have the schmucks put the violent people in charge? Does not compute.

"Because some people will resort to violence, you cannot eliminate the state."

Yes you can. Rather than empowering these people, giving them a budget limited only by their greed, giving them unlimited arms, and giving them your allegiance....we could put them in prison where they belong!

"This is why those of us who dismiss libertarianism point to the Somalia example: in the absence of the state's public use of force, there is no check on personal use of force, which is a problem for all the familiar reasons. "

There is the traditional Somali stateless system of law called "xeer". It's most interesting, I recommend looking it up. I hope to go to Somalia at some point to study it in person.

"You need an agent of public will with the power to enforce norms, which requires the use of force."

The defining characteristic of the state though is that it is criminal. If you form a criminal organization to rule over everyone intending to only allow it to make sure people drive on the right side of the road, you should blame yourself when the same organization steals 50 bucks or more from all the black people (driving on the right side of the road) it pulls over.

"The solution is to make our agent of force institutionally limited and institutionally accountable to the populace: a liberal democratic government."

You are smart but corrupted by power, the power to commit crimes with immunity from prosecution. So long as you have a criminal government, it shall not be liberal nor democratic nor limited.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, you said, "This is why those of us who dismiss libertarianism point to the Somalia example: in the absence of the state's public use of force, there is no check on personal use of force, which is a problem for all the familiar reasons." Well, MAYBE you should do some research on this topic before you post lame inaccuracies like this.

The fact is that Somalia was a peaceful VERY lawful society until they were taken over by a violent dictatorship. Then after they overthrew this dictatorship, they had tons of 'warlords' causing violence because the UN KEEPS TRYING TO INSTITUTE DEMOCRACY and the tribal leaders keep fighting to become a dictator.

Now that the UN has left them alone, they are now a peaceful society again with less violence than any other country in Africa.

And the warlord idea is not mine, but a Dutch lawyer who wrote the book "The Law of the Somali". You might be interested in reading it since they state that their law is incompatible with democracy because it values individual rights.

Doug Voluntaryist said...

Jonathan, you might be interested in reading Leeson's work "Better off Stateless."

In it he shows the indicators for personal freedom to have vastly improved since the fall of the Barre regime in the 90s. In fact, freedom-wise they are better off than their statist neighbors. And to the above poster's point, Somali becomes totally unstable when the UN tries to impose a central government.

http://www.peterleeson.com/better_off_stateless.pdf

Also, I wanted to address some of the errors in your post. Libertarians do not believe all violence will magically go away, or that there won't be any more jerks and miscreants in society. We want defense, we want security, but keep in mind, they are just services. Who has the right to have a monopoly on a service and put via violent means the competition out of business?

Do you have the right to lock up your neighbor in a cell if he breaks your rules? If you don't have that right, how can you delegate that right? How can people gain special rights to harm others with immunity to their actions?

This is the trouble with any government--it creates a special class of people, and elite class, with the power of life and death over the rest of us.

It is wrong to vote to impose violence on other people who themselves have not imposed violence on others. Government is an outdated system based on the idea that people need to be ruled.

Cobb said...

'Just powers by the consent of the governed' is too narrow footing and does serve the interest of a monopoly on offensive violence. IT was rightly noticed that this will generate an elite class who enjoy the privilege without necessarily being adept or responsible but merely certified.

I think it is better to keep in mind 'government of the people by the people and for the people' which reminds us that there is no power the government may possess that cannot be possessed by its own citizens. Which is to say that the 'just powers' are a subset of all the powers of the people who retain a larger set of just powers. One cannot assume that the only powers citizens have outside of the state are criminal or unjust.

The point of the Constitution is to limit the powers of the state which history shows have been aggregated and abused. It is not to grant a monopoly on righteousness and institutionalize that in order to panoptically suppress schmucks.

Sean Deardorff said...

This funny: changing the definition of some thing in order to sound reasonable while calling the thing stupid. Is this post propaganda or an example of functional illiteracy?

Jonathan Korman said...

Sean, I cannot tell what "thing" you are talking about. That's not an argument; it's not even a clear assertion.

Sean Deardorff said...

"Thing" in this context = Libertarian

Sean Deardorff said...

...more accurately "thing" = Libertarianism

Jonathan Korman said...

I confess to mushing soft libertarianism and hard anarchism together in this commentary.

Sean Deardorff said...

lol....sorry I'm firing from the hip due to exigent circumstances....it is a very clear assertion; what was not clear, to you, was how the general assertion regarding principles of logic apply to your "argument" that is actually a bunch of false conclusions based on false premises (ie - the premise that libertarianism is the equivalent of anarchy, which is obviously false by definition; you even have a middle group that calls their philosophy "anarcho-libertarianism" to differentiate between anarchy and libertarianism on a political spectrum. There is no argument until all parties involved can agree on the fact that an apple is not an orange.

Sean Deardorff said...

This is a drunken rant for me, please forgive.

Sean Deardorff said...

I tried to +1 the below but Google didn't think to give me that option here in BloggerLand:

"Jonathan Korman said...
I confess to mushing soft libertarianism and hard anarchism together in this commentary.

Mon Jun 02, 08:33:00 PM"