Saturday, October 07, 2006

Why Libertarians have it wrong

Generally, I can appreciate the motives and designs of Libertarians. They're generally smart, and truly interested in extending Liberty - particularly free markets. In addition, someone I truly respect and admire would call himself a Libertarian, so I have a healthy amount of respect for them as a group.

But they're missing the boat when it comes to government, and here's why.

Take a gander at the Cato Institute web site (really: do it, it's very informative) and it won't take long to see what they are all about. Here's the mission:

"Cato's Mission

The Cato Institute seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace. Toward that goal, the Institute strives to achieve greater involvement of the intelligent, concerned lay public in questions of policy and the proper role of government." (emphasis mine)

On the surface, not so bad. But dig a little deeper and you'll see where Libertarians and Federalists differ (besides the fact that one of the lead articles on the Cato site is why Libertarians might consider breaking ties with the GOP and supporting... Democrats? Dear Lord!).

Now, there's no comparable Federalist think-tank, with perhaps the exception of the Federalist Society. That this is primarily a group of lawyers sort of makes it... less accessible than Cato. But here's the meat of their mission:

"The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be." (emphasis mine)

And here we have the crux of the issue: between limited government and balanced government, balance in government is primary in both order and importance. Balanced government, upon a thoughtful reflection, is the evident cause of a limited government; balanced government will lead naturally to limited government. The equation does not work in the inverse.

I've quoted Federalist 45 here before (most recently, here) but we'd do well to remember the importance of balance in government. If domestic matters are the sole domain of the states (limited exceptions apply; although this itself merits a separate discussion, suffice it to say in brief that in matters of inalienable rights, the general government is charged with the protection of our God-given rights), it follows that the relationship or interplay between taxation & spending and free markets will lead to a competition between the states for human capital.

Some states, of course, might wrongly choose to have unlimited government, and assume a great influence in the domestic matters of the people; however, such a burden - carried by the people of that state as it must be - will in short time become cumbersome and effect in the citizenry a fondness of and return to self-government. Such a sentiment will naturally lead to a change in elected governors who will promote this sentiment of the people.

Not to mention naturally leading to a government best described as limited.


ol' shep said...

"...balance in government is primary in both order and importance. Balanced government, upon a thoughtful reflection, is the evident cause of a limited government; balanced government will lead naturally to limited government."

Why is a limited government the natural result of a balanced government? It seems to me that a limited government would be far less likely to become cumbersome, no matter how out of balance it is.

One thing we Libertarians always try to do account for human nature and the role it will play. A limited government is by definition limited in the evil it can do, and that alone makes it a superior quality to balance.

Samuel Adams said...

Wait a minute, how did the government get evil? A race from another planet arrived and surreptitiously snatched away our good representatives and replaced them with nefarious goon look-alikes?

Which, of course, brings up a funny Simpsons reference...

Reporter at a post-debate press conference: "Senator Dole, why do you and your opponent constanly hold hands?"

Bob Dole who is actually Kodos in disguise (or is it Kang?): "How else do you expect us to exchange protien strains?"

Samuel Adams said...

Oh, and a bit later, another reporter gets frustrated, saying, "I can't tell you two apart! I'm voting for Perot."

Bill Clinton's replacement and Bob Dole's replacement reply in unison: "Go ahead, THROW YOUR VOTE AWAY."

The Monarchist said...

Hey ol Shep,

We had a limited government with the Articles of Confederation. The founders recognized the weakness of a government that is limited first and foremost. They worked to make the government more energetic and balanced (read: more effective). That it became imbalanced (and thus became unlimited) today is no reflection on the genius of the balanced system our founders created.

Government's scope is proportionate to the needs of the citizenry (how little self-governing it is). The means of returning to limited government isn't to one day up and take away everyone's entitlements (imagine riots, chaos), but rather to slowly return to proper balance the administration of government. The rest will take care of itself (free markets being what they are - efficient).


ol' shep said...

It isn't that government is evil, Mr. Adams, but that its effects often are. This is true regardless of how good the people are who represent us. In government, at all levels, scum rises to the top.

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite."
-- James Madison, Federal No. 45, January 26, 1788

Monarchist, I seem to be getting stuck on the word "balance," and I'm beginning to think maybe we are arguing the same point but using different terms. Could you clarify what you mean by "balance?"

Samuel Adams said...

Of course, Shep, but the scum got there somehow. How did he get there?

The Monarchist said...

ol' shep,

By balance in government, I'm referring to both the separation of powers and Madison's Federal/State balance illustrated in Federalist #45. Both are necessary.

I think balanced government is the means to limited government, the goal. Sort of like "peace through superior firepower" if you get my drift. Peace isn't a strategy, it's a goal.


Daniel Webster said...

Hey Shep, I have a question, and it relates to this idea of scum rising to the top in government, which I take to be a truth. But for the life of me, I can't seem to think of a real negative associated with that other than the fact that it gives off a putrid odor, and it ain't particularly appealing to look at, and so on.

My question is simply this...

What negatives, other than the incidentals I've identified, do you associate with government scum rising to the top? To my way of thinking, it gives us a pretty good indication of what lies beneath the surface and at the depths. And that ain't a bad thing when trying to identify the source of the problem.

ol' shep said...

Suppose I have a drainage ditch on my property and I decide to fill it in and turn it into something productive, like a gun range. Now suppose some government agency contacts me and instructs me to cease and desist because that drainage ditch is the home of some obscure species of bug. Since it's my property, I continue with my plans. What happens next is that I'll be threatened with legal action, fines, forfeiture of property, and imprisonment. Eventually someone will send the sherriffs out to arrest me, and since I consider the government's position morally wrong in the first place, I defend myself and ultimately get shot to death.

Now, the average person doesn't have the stomach to order the killing of another person just because he wanted to fill in a drainage ditch. Same goes with refusal to participate in the government's retirement system, and probably a few dozen other things.

If that ain't evil, I don't know what is.

Daniel Webster said...

I beg to differ....

History is replete with examples of individuals killing other individuals for no good reason at all, at least not to the masses who have no particular interest either way....which is the primary reason for government, and for which people willingly cede to it part of their natural rights.

What measure of their rights they're willing to cede to government seems the issue here. And once again, the volume and type of scum which rises to the top has a direct relationship to that.

Neither government, nor power, has any capability, in and of themselves, to effect evil of any kind.

ol' shep said...

"Neither government, nor power, has any capability, in and of themselves, to effect evil of any kind."

About 100 million dead Russians, Chinese, and Cambodians might disagree with you.

Are we playing word games here, Webster? Are you drawing a line between government and the people who comprise government? If so I'd like to point out that the Chicago Bears can't win a football game, but the players can. The Louisville Metro Police Dept. doesn't investigate crime, but the cops do. Etc., etc.

The Monarchist said...

Ol' Shep,

Using your example, let's incorporate balance and imbalance, shall we?

If the government agents in question are federal (distant, removed), I could see how a situation like that could escalate into violence. Clearly, there have been cases we could site as proof that this happens.

Now suppose the "government" is city or township, or even county. Those folks might be your neighbors. Certainly, given similar dispositions based on common ground (church community, went to the same high school, whatever) government will be more likely to understand and sympathize with people in their same community. Perhaps, even, such an interfering inclination won't exist (something about making rules that you have to enforce against your neighbor that you wouldn't stand for personally).

See how balanced government can be the means to limited government?


Daniel Webster said...

Do you not see the difference between arbitrary government, and a government founded on free elections, Shep?

Federalist no. 46

ol' shep said...

"Do you not see the difference between arbitrary government, and a government founded on free elections, Shep?"

Yes, I do. While the latter may be preferable to the former, both are capable of causing great harm. Your "government can't cause evil" comment drew no distinction between the two. Why do so now?

"See how balanced government can be the means to limited government?"

No, I don't. Well...that's not entirely true. I'm beginning to see what you mean even if I'm not quite ready to say I totally agree. One thing is certain: I hope I'm never so unfortunate as to have to rely upon the understanding and sympathy of my local government.

The Monarchist said...

Ol' Shep,

My point in all this, I guess, is this:

Today, unfortunately, a great degree of government is necessary. This is a result of the mindset of the people. We are less and less self-governing. How can this be changed? By adhering to the principles of balanced government as outlined in the Federalist papers (a couple of which have been quoted here). If a large government be necessary, better that it be a LOCAL government, as it will be one that is more effective (esp. cost-effective) in delivering services to those who need them. Big local government is also infinitely easier to escape than a big federal/general government. The competition for your tax dollars locally will thus foster an affinity for self-government, and, should logically follow that the goal of limited government is achieved.


Daniel Webster said...

"Yes, I do. While the latter may be preferable to the former, both are capable of causing great harm. Your "government can't cause evil" comment drew no distinction between the two. Why do so now?"

Obviously I drew a distinction between the two the second time because you weren't making the distinction in your rebuttals. To me that distinction should be obvious for someone who's never known anything but the latter. But the distinction I made in no way concedes the point. If anything, it reinforces it. In either case, the exercise of arbitrary power/government admits of an exerciser, or a few of 'em, or many. I reiterate -- government can no more act on its own to tyrannize a people, than a vehicle can to cause a wreck resulting in a hundred car pile-up.

Generally, the more widely distributed government power is, the less likely it is to consolidate and become despotic and tyrannical. The clear and indisputable difference between the two then is, that in arbitrary government the people have no power, whereas, in a government founded on laws and free elections, the people reserve ultimate and final authority to themselves. Let the government try to take it from them! If and when it does, it is with their blessings, and by their own sanction, active or passive. So long as they retain the power of being final arbiter, the power to check abuses, or to engage in them, remains in their hands. With that power comes responsibility.

But your answer to Hamilton calls for stiff rebuke...

Whether you recognize it or not, you rely on your local government (your friends and neighbors) to sympathize with you virtually every day. And they rely on you to exercise self-government, so it is an reciprocal relationship. A simple example might be driving over the speed limit in a neighborhood, or in the business section of your town. By law an officer entrusted with the duty to protect an unsuspecting public may fine you stiffly, or not. But even if he does, that's not necessarily the end of it -- you may appeal, taking your case before a local judge. Pray, if the judge agrees with the officer effectively wrenching your monetary property from your wallet, will you hunt him down and shoot him because you consider the government's position to be morally wrong???

BTW, if it is government that is responsible for the indiscriminate and unfortunate killings of so many souls, why did you not include in your list the government of the United States and the killings it is responsible for? I understand that your list was in no way meant to be exhaustive, but it seems to me, given the argument you're making, that an example of "arbitrary" government exercised by the people might have strengthened your point immeasurably...if it could be shown to be valid, of course.

ol' shep said...

"Big local government is also infinitely easier to escape than a big federal/general government."

Agreed. If I thought I had to, I could move to another state. Moving to another country would be out of the question. Sometimes I get stuck on a term and am unable to see the larger point, but I'm beginning to warm up to this "balance" thing.

Webster: I'll grant that a freely elected government can't murder its own citizens as easily, but that's all. On 3rd or 4th reading it appears that your point is that we Americans only have ourselves to blame for everything our government does to us. That's a very broad sense. The problem with such a claim is that you're holding people to a standard they are no longer able to meet. If you think that generation after generation of people in a rich and powerful nation such as ours will have the same attitude toward liberty that the Founders did, you know nothing of human nature. They will become fat and happy and easy prey for those whom they've trusted to public office. To expect anything else is silly.

My friends and neighbors aren't part of my local government. There may be an unspoken desire on their part for me to maintain some self control, but mostly I think they just want me to keep the grass cut and the music turned down to a low roar.

Receiving a speeding ticket is not a moral outrage. Being prosecuted for filling in a drainage ditch on my own property would be.

"But your answer to Hamilton calls for stiff rebuke..."

Let me know if you come up with one.

Daniel Webster said...

If all you want to factor in is human-nature, then I gotta tell ya, the dynamics have never materially changed from the inception of this country to the present. Our elected leaders are just as human, and therefore, subject to the same nature as the rest of us, last I checked. In fact, seeing as how they were chosen from the rest of us, I'd say they're subject to the same laws in exact proportion to.

Hence, when did We the People become victims....I mean, "easy prey" of our government, and the leaders we choose?

ol' shep said...

Human nature is the same now as it was then, Webster, but the circumstances are somewhat different, aren't they?

Human nature is predictable in a general sense. A nation that just barely won a costly war for its freedom is likely to be more protective of even the smallest freedom than that same nation two hundred years later when they are and have been for some time the world's most powerful country. Present circumstances are different, Webster, and you simply cannot expect people to respond to things the way they would have way back when. When you say the dynamics have not materially changed, you are so absolutely wrong that I have to wonder if you live in a cave or are in some way completely disconnected from what goes on in the world. Obviously you have a can you be so blind to the differences between now and then?

When did we become prey? At the moment when we turned our attention from liberty to prosperity. At that moment we became the prey of those who would give us prosperity in exchange for liberty.

Daniel Webster said...

Most of what you say here, Shep, simply goes without saying. It's a little insulting, which is the intent I guess, but now I'm really wondering whether you're truly interested in having a civil discussion on the matter, or you're just trying to catch me in as many mistatements as possible so you can...I dunno?

If that's the game we're going to play, then I'm afraid that each of us is just spitting in the wind.

Yes, I guess I have been living in a cave, or an echo-chamber, or something, which is probably the reason that only part of my words are getting out, so let me yell it out this time...

"IF ALL YOU WANT TO FACTOR IN IS HUMAN NATURE, then...." You take it from there.

Now, I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I refuse to cross certain lines, in this forum or any other, so don't even try it. But I can be provoked like anyone else. The difference being that rather than sink to your level and wrench statements outta context (you know what they say about that, and you know the type), I'm gonna lay open some of your own mistakes, which are numerous and fundamental, starting with this simple observation...

You expect the readership here to buy into the idea that government injected itself into the drainage ditch incident without having first been allerted by someone (probably a neighboring property owner) to the situation? What do you take them to be, morons?

If there's any moral outrage in your example it is that you exhibit no respect for the law, or for law enforcement, or for your neighbor's property - your character's temperament is, in a word, "ungovernable," therefore dangerous.

In this country we have due process, my friend, which is primarily intended to prevent the escalation of things like that, and to protect the innocent against the guilty, whichever is which, but it only has the potential to work for those who have, at very least, a semblance of common sense, and decency. So too is government there to act as an intermediary between you and your property owning neighbors. That's the reason they called the authorities, rather than confront you directly...because they have rights as well as you.

Yes; it's your property, but so is the gun you're so quick to pull. Ownership of something, anything, does not give you the right to destroy your neighbor, or his substance with it. And if you can't see where filling in the drainage ditch on your property has the potential of destroying your neighbor's property, or its value, then I'm afraid you're experiencing your own form of self-induced blindness.

And please don't bore us with specific examples of what you're talking about. At best we can only get a limited amount of information, thereby forming a conclusion based on a bunch of assumptions. Generally the system works pretty well if people'll let it.

Of course, we could all assume that the ditch in question is dead center on a 5000 acre plot. That being the case, who really cares until your original diversion of the water creates unintended consequences for yourself, forcing you to landscape and excavate to your neighbor's property edge. Then here we go again.

You probably shoulda checked out local zoning laws and such beforehand, thereby saving everyone involved a whole heapa trouble.

ol' shep said...

You've lost me, Webster. Completely lost me. You don't like the drainage ditch example? Fine. Change it to whatever suits you. The ditch wasn't the point anyway. I'd explain it again but I doubt it would help.

And what have I taken out of context? Show me. Perhaps if you could articulate you point a little better you could save everyone involved a whole heapa trouble.

The Monarchist said...

Dear Boys,

I'll send you both to your rooms if you keep up this nonsense.

I'll mediate this if I must, but I caution you: my per hour rates are a thing to behold, but you wouldn't want to behold them on an invoice.


ol' shep said...

Jeez, Webster. I didn't know you were gonna tell your dad. ;)

OK, where were we? Oh yeah, I was right and you were wrong.

Kidding, kidding.

A freely elected government is perfectly capable of visiting evil upon its citizens, and ours does so regularly. The more limited the government, the more limited the evil.

I think that was my main point.

Daniel Webster said...

I understood your point. And I agree, it can, it does (not of itself, mind you), and limitations on its ability to do so is certainly something to be desired.

However, this discussion is in the context of Hamilton's piece on balanced government as a means to limited government. In order to balance government, thereby limiting it in its ability to do evil, the people need to have a more balanced understanding of it. It ain't us vs. it, in other words, which seems to be the conventional way of thinking.

But maybe I'm just totally wrong.

Daniel Webster said...

Oh, and btw, Shep, I meant to apologize if I, in any way, have come across as condescending. It is in no way my intention to do so, I assure you...

Man!, I really gotta work on this. ;)

ol' shep said...

"I understood your point. And I agree, it can, it does (not of itself, mind you),..."


"It ain't us vs. it, in other words,..."

Yes it is. It's the story of human history, Webster: The State vs The Individual. No matter how free the society, it's only a matter of time before the State conditions the Individual, over the course of generations, to view his liberties as gifts instead of rights. You can lay the blame at the feet of The People, and in principle you're right, but in practice you're just pointing fingers, accomplishing nothing.

Even the suffering caused by the most oppressive regimes can ultimately be blamed on the ones doing the suffering. After all, why do they not fight back? Are they merely sheep? Is life so precious as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?

Knowledge and virtue eventually degenerate, Webster, and when they do, the only safeguards liberty has are the restrictions placed on government, the Big It.

Daniel Webster said...

"I understood your point. And I agree, it can, it does (not of itself, mind you),..."


1. elected governments can visit evil upon their citizens.

2. ours does regularly.

"You can lay the blame at the feet of The People, and in principle you're right, but in practice you're just pointing fingers, accomplishing nothing."

Okay, now you're losing me. What are you getting at, shep, that the government is going to restrict itself?

When you talk about limiting government, exactly how do you propose to go about do it?

ol' shep said...

I'm back now.

It was the "not of itself" part I didn't understand.

No , I don't think government is going to limit itself. Just the opposite, in fact. Actually, I'm kind of pessimistic about the whole thing, Webster. I doubt it's possible to put any limits on our government anymore. It'll just keep accruing power to itself, eliminating what little authority state legislatures have along the way. Liberty probably peaked shortly after the Revolutionary War.

If it was somehow possible to sell folks on the idea of having the various states take over much of what Washington does, it would help, but I just don't see it happening.

Daniel Webster said...

"It was the "not of itself" part I didn't understand."

I know. That's the reason I answered the way I did, not addressing that directly.

"If it was somehow possible to sell folks on the idea of having the various states take over much of what Washington does, it would help, but I just don't see it happening."

Understandable enough. It's an enormous elephant to devour either way (direct limits, or limits thru' balance). But I'm with you, the latter seems to me the more (actually the only) viable alternative.

And let's face it, shep, you've not abandoned all hope, else you wouldn't be politically active the way you are. Others have abandoned all hope, and from where I'm sitting those individuals can be credited with the greater sin...

And I'm talking about folks that don't even make an effort, for anyone who takes offense to that. In other words, if the shoe fits, wear it. And if you're here discussing these things with us, more than likely it don't fit you.

Now, I never brought it up before because we weren't getting anywhere as the conversation was going. But I don't believe governmental power can be limited anyhow... And while that statement probably elicits some strong feelings in you, consider: government power is what it is, nothing more, nothing less. It is more human nature that you're trying to place restrictions on, not government. I mean, without the power to enforce the laws, what good would laws be?

Rather than place artificial restrictions on government then, which can never hold, might it not be better to structure government in such a way as to let nature take its course? In other words, utilize human nature - which as you say is generally predictable - in such a way that the abuses (or tendencies to abuses) tend to cancel one-another.

Thanks for not bailing on me. This is very important. I'm not saying I have all the answers, of course, but I'd like us to put our differences aside, and our heads together.

Balance, brother, balance! ;), eh...ol' shep said...

"It is more human nature that you're trying to place restrictions on, not government."

Yeah, I'll buy that. I suppose you could say that government is simply the tool. Kind of like blaming the gun rather than the person pulling the trigger, eh?

It's funny how a thing can seem obvious in one context, but not in another. I can be a little thick that way, focusing on the trees and forgetting about the forest.

Daniel Webster said...

"I suppose you could say that government is simply the tool. Kind of like blaming the gun rather than the person pulling the trigger, eh?"

That is absolutely right, and a great analogy to use. I think I described it as a "vehicle" once. But the idea is exactly the same.

Restricting it might be something like removing the bullets, making it absolutely useless for what it's intended to do. Can you imagine fumbling around for the bullets at the very moment you need the thing! LOL

Probably not a perfect analogy, but you get the picture.

Samuel Adams said...

Shep: "I suppose you could say that government is simply the tool. Kind of like blaming the gun rather than the person pulling the trigger, eh?"

Ah, something has...umm...clicked! A person intent on killing you is not likely to change his mind about killing you simply because he can't make the gun go BANG; he will just find some other way to do it.

Webster: Methinks folks wished for a somewhat more unlimited government in December '41 (and even today in light of Hamdan), so I'd say that the gun/trigger-lock/ammunition analogy is adequate here.

The Monarchist said...


Exactly, Brother.

I attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting last night and a bunch of local pols were there speaking. There were a couple who brought up being for limited government, to the obvious applause of the sheeple present and the eye-rolling chagrin of yours truly. By sheer force of will alone, I resisted rushing forward, grabbing the microphone and asking: how do you propose we do that, considering that a great number of people are for unlimited government?

Respecting the intended balance between the federal and local, people can decide on a micro-level how much "government" they want (in domestic matters), which, after all, is the point of self-determination. I am sublimely confident that domestic matters funded in the appropriate local manner will result in unlimited government going the way of the dinosaur: dead, gone, history.

Ask me offline what the next steps are and I'll be happy to share that with you. ;)


Samuel Adams said...


The image of a glass is brought to mind. The top of the glass is open, so in essence the capacity for fluid input is unlimited--one could theoretically stack mollecules from the bottom of the cup upwards for miles and miles. Of course, if one attempts such a thing, it will spill over, and a great number of things will be ruined.

However, apply balance to the "unlimited" nature of the glass, and you have a well-ordered system. This includes gravity which holds the fluid down on the planet as well as a human holding the cup in such a way that the closed bottom of the cup is on the bottom, a human that has the hand-eye coordination to keep the fluid from spilling over the top. In short? Balance.