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July 03, 2014

Independence in the Age of Cynicism

The Editorial Staff are headed down to our nation's capital (aka, The Fount of All Evil) to celebrate the 4th of July. But before we go, we and our vast horde of itinerant Eskimo typists would like to wish the villainry - assembled or otherwise - a happy Independence Day.

On this holiday weekend, rather than boring you all senseless with our usual inane blathering, we'd like to leave you with three essays to think about. The first is one we have been pondering for some time, and about which we hope to have more to say later when time permits. After stipulating the usual complaints conservatives have voiced about big government and acknowledging that "being more like Europe" is not a desirable end state for a nation grounded in respect for individual liberties, Scruton makes a point that often gets lost in the digital food fight over too much/too little government:

The truth is that government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows. We have rights that shield us from those who are appointed to rule us—many of them ancient common-law rights, like that defined by habeas corpus. But those rights are real personal possessions only because government is there to enforce them—and if necessary to enforce them against itself. Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own—namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the “little platoons” extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow. For it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.

Rousseau told us that we are “born free,” arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the ’60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.

We are not, in the state of nature, free; still less are we individuals, endowed with rights and duties, and able to take charge of our lives. We are free by nature because we can become free, in the course of our development. And this development depends at every point upon the networks and relations that bind us to the larger social world. Only certain kinds of social networks encourage people to see themselves as individuals, shielded by their rights and bound together by their duties. Only in certain conditions are people united in society not by organic necessity but by free consent. To put it simply, the human individual is a social construct. And the emergence of the individual in the course of history is part of what distinguishes our civilization from so many of the other social ventures of mankind.

The second is something we wrote almost 10 years ago. As so often happens, it calls to mind a comment Tex made about the price of affluence being that we slowly stop building new things or striving for something better and begin to expend all our energy preserving what we already have. We believe she called it, "playing prevent defense", though this may be yet another of our amusingly clueless sports references. Still, watching what has become of our foreign policy, it often seems that we have become far too fond of running out the clock.

The third essay was written three years later for the 4th of July. It is a love letter to America. Not the sappy, naïve worship typical of infatuation, but more the deep, abiding affection of long association in which one has seen all the faults of the loved one but finds that even so, the good far outweighs both ancient hurts and the daily irritations we are resigned to bear with good grace:

I love my country not because she is perfect, but because she wants so badly to be. I even love her faults, even the kind of obsessive navel gazing angst that mistakes fallible humans and imperfect realization of our ideals for evidence of pervasive moral rot and in so doing, makes conscience the scourge that would make moral cowards of us all...

It is a dangerous moral equivalence which is so afraid of sinning that it would not kill a rabid wolf, lest it starve the flea on its back.

America is not a destination but a journey and in loving her, we must not become so firmly fixed upon the goal that we lose heart when we stumble a time or two upon the road. For stumble we will. After all, we are but human; all too imperfect clay with which to form the more perfect union our founding fathers envisioned.

I love this country because she was born in turmoil; baptized by fire and lighting; conceived from the highest aspirations of Enlightenment thinkers: words that ring as true today as they did over two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

After everything, those words can still bring tears to my eyes. America is a nation of idealists, founded by men who risked their lives and fortunes to reach for something the world had never known before. Something that is spreading like wildfire across the globe.

Democracy, with all its faults and upheavals and failures. And successes.

May it ever be so.

Posted by Cassandra at July 3, 2014 11:26 AM

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Comments

Cheers, Princess. Three Cheers! in fact.
I do so love this beautiful, revolutionary idea that we inhabit. And tomorrow I will once more sit down with my coffee and slowly read our Declaration of Independence, taking the time to reflect upon each grievance and savor the boldness of its assertions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

My God, it must having been terrifying to read those words in draft. Terrifying and thrilling. We owe them much. Too much that we should ever forget that their courage was, and remains, our birthright.

Hell yeah.

Posted by: spd rdr at July 3, 2014 02:13 PM

I'll drink to that, spd.
Happy Fourth!

*lifts glass*

Damn, that bottle's empty. Good thing there's another in the freezer.
heh
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at July 3, 2014 03:35 PM

"The truth is that government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows."

Now, there's a sentiment I'd could hardly disagree with more.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 3, 2014 03:51 PM

Why?

Posted by: Cass at July 3, 2014 04:13 PM

I can't answer for Texan99, but I suspect Scruton has in mind a much broader definition of "government", more in the nature of "self-control" or "self-discipline" than orders coming from above. (skims link; yes.)


Gunny Hart: "The ONLY control is self-control."


[taking deep breath, abandoning argument]


May all of you, whether I have agreed with you or not, have a glorious holiday weekend. I pray I'll see you all Monday or Tuesday.

Posted by: htom at July 3, 2014 06:06 PM

"..That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

Americans have been wont to say that we have a government of Laws, not Men. But we most certainly have a government of Men. Men and women certainly populate this land, are elected to office, and serve as employees of the Executive bureaucracy.

They are supposedly constrained by the Law, but how many of them, besides well trained lawyers, know much about the US Legal Code, the endless pages there of?

So in the end, we are a people with a government made up of people with their own self-conscious notion of just what the government is supposed to be. Power and authority, and some tyranny, have waxed and waned over 200 years, depending on the condition of the people and the country.

Will we be restrained by "the better angels of our nature", or are there really better angels of our nature available?

The future is the undiscovered country, to quote Shakespeare (always a good bet!). And it is up for grabs. Our President Obama and his administration have done their level best to stretch every bound we previously thought restrained the Executive (Wilson, T. and F. Roosevelt and Lincoln did much of the same, under different conditions and for different reasons).

Who will write the future then? Restoration of what we believed to be Constitutional norms, and government self -restraint, or has the age of a velvet Fascism truly begun?

The people will decide, as they always seem to do, in some inscrutable way.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at July 4, 2014 04:13 PM

htom, yep, judging by comments like this:

Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the “little platoons” extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow.

Arguing against an "anti-big-government" stance...as articulated by President Reagan or the TEA party, or classical liberals or libertarians or American conservatives....and then redefining "government" to include this sort of thing...is as fruitless as arguing about the usefulness of chivalry, when half the conversation is defining it as "the qualities of good horsemanship" and the other half is defining it as "fair fights and courtly manners." (Not that anything like that would ever happen.)

"Government" the way an American classical liberal, libertarian, or conservative will use the term....or even Thomas Paine in the first sentence of Common Sense...is defined by the fact that it uses force, and imposes its will by force. Blending it in with a vague, broad "search for order" or the general desirability of "holding each other to account"...conceals rather than illuminates what these people are talking about, and objecting to.

And it is easy to think that a similarly alien form of government is growing in America, as a result of the liberal policy of regimenting the American people according to moral beliefs that are to a certain measure alien, leading them to denounce government tout court.

So apparently this fellow figures the people he's arguing against have turned anarchist, and don't distinguish between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" functions of Government. Maybe he should try talking to some. I've only been hearing that strawman for 20 or 30 years now, but before that I wasn't paying attention.

During the twentieth century it became clear that many matters not previously considered by the political process had arrived on the public agenda. Politicians began to recognize that if government is to enjoy the consent of those who gain no comparative advantage from their social membership, it must offer some kind of quid pro quo. This became apparent in the two world wars, when people from all classes of society were required to fight and if necessary to die...The emergence of the welfare state was therefore a more or less inevitable result of popular democracy under the impact of total war.

Serious, serious misreading the history of welfare-statism...it's considerably older than the world wars (Bismarck created the term, Wohlfahrstaat, if I remember; Great Britain's Poor Laws had an interesting history for a century before the wars; interestingly, many European classical liberals, including Mises himself, didn't object to that extent of welfare-statism; in this country, federal welfare-statism came with the Depression, not the wars).

Posted by: Joseph W. at July 5, 2014 11:39 AM

So apparently this fellow figures the people he's arguing against have turned anarchist, and don't distinguish between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" functions of Government.

I didn't take that to be his argument, though. Else he would scarcely have written this:

There comes a point at which coordination cannot be achieved from below, by the natural willingness of citizens to accommodate the desires and plans of their neighbors. At this point coordination begins to require government from above, by which rules and regulations are laid down for the community as a whole, and enforced by what Weber called a “monopoly on violence”—a law-enforcing system that tolerates no rival. That describes our condition. Of course, to say as much is not to undermine the complaint against modern government, which has become too intrusive, too determined to impose habits, opinions, and values that are alien to many citizens, and too eager to place obstacles in the way of free enterprise and free association.

That hardly seems like he's saying conservatives can't tell the difference between legitimate and illegitimate exercises of government power. He's saying precisely the opposite -- that government force is being misused:

The business of conservatives is to criticize the ones who are misusing government, and who seek to extend its remit beyond the limits that the rest of us spontaneously recognize. Conservatism should be a defense of government against its abuse by liberals.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 5, 2014 01:20 PM

Also, I don't think he was redefining government at all - merely saying that government is not evil in itself (I think few reasonable persons would argue that it is, but there's definitely a "government is the enemy" strain to a lot of righty rhetoric these days.

I think he was placing our government (and Europe's, and informal local governments) on a continuum. Which seems quite reasonable, actually, for someone who also argued that good government is necessarily limited to only as much as is needed "for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order".

IOW, government scales according to what is needed by a society. It seems to me that he's arguing that our government has grown beyond that limit and it is the job of conservatives to point that out, but the argument would be more effective if we articulated the proper limit (IOW, don't argue that government is bad - argue that more government that is needed is bad - pretty much what the Framers wrote here:)

...all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure *these* rights [not the right to free birth control/Internet/cell phones or the right never to be offended or get our feeeeeeeeelings hurt], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 5, 2014 01:28 PM

I didn't take that to be his argument, though. Else he would scarcely have written this:

There comes a point at which coordination cannot be achieved from below... by the natural willingness of citizens to accommodate the desires and plans of their neighbors. At this point coordination begins to require government from above, by which rules and regulations are laid down for the community as a whole, and enforced by what Weber called a “monopoly on violence”—a law-enforcing system that tolerates no rival. That describes our condition. Of course, to say as much is not to undermine the complaint against modern government, which has become too intrusive, too determined to impose habits, opinions, and values that are alien to many citizens, and too eager to place obstacles in the way of free enterprise and free association.

Sure it is and sure he could. The problem is that he is ignoring the enormous moral difference -- one that conservatives and libertarians make, but that he glides over with his rhetoric -- between "doing things by force" and "doing things voluntarily."

Now if he thinks there is really no moral difference between the two, he ought to make the argument. I would be unlikely to agree with it but at least he would be making an argument. Instead he assumes it by folding the two things under the same words ("coordination" and "government") -- a cute rhetorical trick that is too common in politics, and he is not helping anyone understand anything by employing it. Remember the line about D.C. "asking for a contribution"? Regardless of whether you thought more taxation was good or bad, it was a dishonest way of describing it.

A long while ago I saw a pro-choice activist argue that the issue about abortion is whether the mother or child would "flourish"..."flourish" for the mother, presumably, meant "living a richer lifestyle"; for the child it meant "living at all." Regardless of whether her arguments were good ones, she was employing a low rhetorical trick, trying to make two things morally equivalent by giving them the same name. That's what this fellow Scruton is doing, and why it makes such a poor critique.

Posted by: Joseph W. at July 5, 2014 08:56 PM

As an example...suppose you and I and some neighbors make an agreement to plant dogwood trees in our front yards, to make it part of the local Dogwood Trail. According to Scruton's new definition, since this is a "voluntary association" and our neighborhood group is one of those "little platoons" of de Tocqueville...this is government action. (Or at least "government is in it"...he gets vague there, right when he needs to be clear.)

Now suppose that, instead, the city council or the legislature votes in a law that says we will plant dogwoods...and if we don't, we face $10,000 fines, jail time, or having our land confiscated without pay. To any of us, that is government action, and pernicious government action at that.

Using the words in the older sense, we can articulate a principled objection to this. It's not a proper function of government. Planting dogwoods has nothing to do with force or violence; it's wrong to force us to decorate your trail; so hands off!

Using Scruton's new definitions, well, it's all government anyway, whether we do it on our own or get forced to. The only problem is that someone has "organized" or "coordinated" things at too high a level in the second case. No principled objection - in his language they're really the same sort of thing. There's just a judgment call as to what's the right level for organizing things.

In addition to being deceptive rhetoric, his new formulation seems well designed to get us to sell the pass...to admit the statists can do what they like and only argue about the details of when and how. That's too easy to do in politics anyway. Language shouldn't be re-framed to make it easier.

Posted by: Joseph W. at July 6, 2014 01:27 AM

Do you really think that most people follow rules if there's no threat of enforcement?

That has never been my experience, whether it happens at the neighborhood, the town, city, state, or federal level.

It's not even true of small children. That's why you see so many kids who have no idea how to act around other people - their parents often *talk* about how they should behave, but there are no negative consequences.

I'm kind of surprised that we see this so differently. If you begin by arguing that there's something morally wrong with law enforcement, that doesn't leave much room for pretty much all of civilization since ancient times.

Coercion, in one form or another, is an element in most human interactions. It can range from extremely mild pressure (shaming, disapproval, refusing to associate or pay attention to someone who is acting badly) to stepped up pressure (if you can't follow rules, you're fired - which I ran into in my first job as a manager) to jail and even execution (if you murder someone, you lose your freedom and quite possibly your life).

I think it's a fantasy that people meekly fall in line with whatever line society is towing even if there are no negative consequences for not doing so. So I'm wondering if we're talking about two different things?

The downside of the social compact has always been that the majority can tyrannize the minority and misuse government to trample on their rights. This was a frequent topic of the Federalist papers. And it happened all the time throughout the first 200 years of our history. I'm surprised to see what look like suggestions that this wasn't a problem in the past. It was.

It's still a problem because human nature hasn't changed. I guess I don't understand the expectation that it isn't going to be a perennial hazard in any civilization.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 6, 2014 01:17 PM

Case in point: over the years, I have rarely had to ban commenters but there's always someone who won't heed repeated warnings. That's one reason we're able to talk about some of the subjects we discuss here without the comments section devolving into an insult-laden free for all.

Every time I've had to ban someone, I've felt bad about it. But I never thought I was doing anything wrong. I regretted the necessity, but there has to be a mechanism for enforcing the rules or people stop paying attention to them. It's a mechanism I've used very, very sparingly: as in Scruton's formulation, only as much as was needed.

I've seen other sites where one can be banned simply for disagreeing with the author. Some even allow other commenters to vote down (hide/delete) comments. That's a misuse (IMO) of the enforcement mechanism... unless of course the real rule is, "You can only comment here if you agree with everything I/we say". And I think there are sites where that's what everyone wants.

As an example...suppose you and I and some neighbors make an agreement to plant dogwood trees in our front yards, to make it part of the local Dogwood Trail. According to Scruton's new definition, since this is a "voluntary association" and our neighborhood group is one of those "little platoons" of de Tocqueville...this is government action. (Or at least "government is in it"...he gets vague there, right when he needs to be clear.)

In your example, aren't the neighbors agreeing on how the neighborhood should be managed? I can't imagine how anyone would enforce such an agreement, though, unless it had been formally agreed to in writing (as in a covenant one had to sign to buy into the neighborhood). I think there are aspects of government in such an agreement, but on the continuum it is pretty far over to the left (minimal) side.

I don't object to the idea of a continuum: that's how most things work. I don't see much uniformity in governments at any level: for the most part, they are shaped by what the people living there want *and* are willing to tolerate. So in Takoma Park, MD they declare themselves a "Sanctuary City" and refuse to enforce immigration laws.

Out where I live, most folks are more conservative and something like that would get laughed off the ballot.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 6, 2014 01:29 PM

Of course one must have government (I admit with sad regret and longing, after years of searching for a better alternative). Scruton may be at fault for conflating things like "church governance" (the Presbyterians take their name from their preferred form of government) with "political governance," and of conflating similarly the natural governance of a family with governing -- don't we try to live in peace with our relatives, after all?

The problem with the model isn't the idea that coercion must sometimes take place, but that it ought to be limited to political systems ('monopoly on violence' and all that Weberian nonsense). Parents must sometimes spank their children, the Church must sometimes excommunicate defiant abortionists, Baptists must split their congregations because they have no other method of resolving disputes over theology, and some sort of enforcement is necessary for the few laws that a society is obligated to carry. Citizens, meanwhile, must retain both the right and the tools to enforce the proper limits on a state that oversteps its bounds -- one occasion of which the holiday we are just celebrating was built around.

Still, Scruton's model isn't all that bad. He's a generally thoughtful guy, and a well-rounded intellectual. I normally find his thoughts worth considering carefully.

Posted by: Grim at July 6, 2014 06:09 PM

The problem with the model isn't the idea that coercion must sometimes take place, but that it ought to be limited to political systems ('monopoly on violence' and all that Weberian nonsense). Parents must sometimes spank their children, the Church must sometimes excommunicate defiant abortionists, Baptists must split their congregations because they have no other method of resolving disputes over theology, and some sort of enforcement is necessary for the few laws that a society is obligated to carry. Citizens, meanwhile, must retain both the right and the tools to enforce the proper limits on a state that oversteps its bounds -- one occasion of which the holiday we are just celebrating was built around.

GRIM :)

Do we actually agree on something? :p Hope you had a happy 4th.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 7, 2014 10:02 AM

It happens sometimes. :)

Posted by: Grim at July 7, 2014 10:20 AM

Well, you know I have to agree with you every now and then. Just to keep you on your toes... :)

Posted by: Cassandra at July 7, 2014 10:32 AM

I think the issue is in the use of one word with two distinct meanings. The same problem occurs with the word "regulated".

Do you mean regulated like a clock or regulated like an industry?

My CPAP machine regulates my breathing while I sleep. But it doesn't do so by sticking a person next to my bed threatening me with jailtime or fines if I stop breathing for too long.

That isn't a quantitative difference on a single continuum. Using the former to justify the latter will fall on deaf ears to those who view that as a distinct qualitative difference.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 7, 2014 12:29 PM

Do you really think that most people follow rules if there's no threat of enforcement?

Depends on what you mean by "enforcement!"

What I object to -- and what any libertarian would object to -- is saying that "enforcement by social pressure" or "enforcement by banning blog commenters" is the same kind of thing, morally or practically as "enforcement by men with guns, who will kill you and take your stuff if you resist." And government action, concealed or explicit, is always in the end about that.

Banning a commenter on a private weblog is nothing whatsoever like government action. As far as I'm concerned, it's your house here. If I go too far against your standards you throw me out; if I don't like your rules I don't come by. But neither of us is pointing a weapon at the other (or "hiring it done" by someone else). I don't think you should feel bad about it by the way; as too loose a policy can wreck the place.

Covering those things with the same word (be it "government" or "enforcement") is not the same as showing they are the same. It's papering over a real difference, pretending it doesn't exist, using one word to cover two things in the hopes that the listener will conflate those two things, or at least give them a moral equality they haven't earned.

And if people fall for Scruton's rhetorical tricks, that'll leave them less able to resist every kind of statism and tyranny. The Presbyterian says, "We believe in 'government,' and if a person blasphemes against our church, we don't invite him back anymore." And the ISIS member says, "Well, we're not so different. We believe in 'government' too! We just organize it at a higher level..."

Now if Scruton thinks charity ought to be done by force, by government men pointing guns, he ought to come out and say so and say why. There's a case to be made for it -- I don't agree with any version of that case that I've heard, but the case can be made. He doesn't make it. Instead he pretends that charity organized by the neighbors and "charity" extracted by force are really the same thing -- "government" -- only "organized at different levels." No difference on principle.

(The only real argument he makes for welfare-statism is that foolish one that "total war" implied it, because we had to hand out welfare benefits to get men to fight for their country. Even then he doesn't really reason it out, just saying that it "became clear" somehow. There's been a lot written about "why men fight"...but "out of gratitude for their welfare benefits" never made the list until now.

If he were right, the people's commitment to this nation's wars should've increased as the welfare state did. Instead, post-WWII, it did more the opposite. Also, the Civil War brought "total war" to North and South the way the World Wars never did...a lot more U.S. casualties, and both sides were invaded and had towns sacked; if his theory were right, there'd've been no volunteers for WWI, since there was no welfare state after the Civil War to inspire them.)

Posted by: Joseph W. at July 8, 2014 12:11 AM

Joseph, I understand what you're saying but don't agree that Scruton is conflating enforcement by social pressure with enforcement by men with guns.

First of all, I think it's highly inaccurate to characterize all government-based law enforcement as "men with guns". Like pretty much everything else in life, enforcement (government or otherwise) exists along a continuum. You can jaywalk to your heart's content and no "man with a gun" is likely to show up and stop you at gunpoint. I think this is exactly the same kind of error you're complaining about in Scruton's essay - treating things that are different in scope as though they were equivalent.

But his argument is that there *is* a continuum. How does one decide whether you're on the "too much government/force" end of the continuum? Essentially, when the power being exercised exceeds that needed to maintain order. That's a pretty low bar that would prohibit most enforcement you're objecting to :)

Of course "the minimum needed to maintain order" is a judgment call, but I've never seen anything dealing with human judgment and values that isn't! If you defined a principle tomorrow, people would STILL argue about what it meant. Kind of like the Constitution.

Or the infield fly rule :p We can't even agree what a 2 paragraph MLB definition actually says, yet somehow we expect bright lines and perfect clarity from a document written over 200 years ago? We all interpret. It's just that my interpretation is correct and yours sucks :p

I don't think there's a single bright-line principle that makes such calls easy or automatic. But just because there's no easy/automatic way to settle debates or draw bright lines doesn't mean there's no principle. The principle is flexible because people, cultures, values, and circumstances all change. And also because, as I've observed many times, it's easier to get consensus on loosely defined normative statements when neither the specific means nor the costs are identified (90% of Americans agree that X is a good law that should be enforced... well... somehow, but only 15% agree that capital punishment is the right remedy for breaching that law, only 20% agree jail is appropriate, only 5% agree that we should spend more of their tax dollars enforcing the law, etc.) Where does the enforcement mechanism for breaches of X generally come down? At the point of max support/least resistance.

Asking about X in isolation always produces skewed responses (what's the priority compared to Y or Z?), as does assessing general support for X without also assessing what people are willing to give up, to get X. So long as X appears to be free (in reality it never is, and prices function as signals) then people won't consider the value added or cost/benefit ratio carefully.

That's the reason I almost always object to bright line-type statements like"We ought to abolish Y because ANYTHING is better than Y".

Really? Is total anarchy better? Is "no Y" better than "some/too much Y"? If govt. stops supplying/subsidizing Y, will the Magical, Mythical Market provide Y and if so, will it provide as much Y as people want or need? What is life like in countries with little/no Y? What are the economic/moral/practical consequences of Too Much Y vs Not Enough Y? How much thought has the speaker devoted to considering the alternatives to Y? If a lot, great. Now all you have to do is get the rest of the country on board. If the answer's really as obvious and incontrovertible as it is often asserted to be, that should be easy to do.

Of course, I'm guessing it's not really that easy because Y hasn't already been abolished :p If the default answer is "Y Delenda Est" because.... IMPATIENCE with human error! then you can officially color me a skeptic who's willing to be convinced.

if Scruton thinks charity ought to be done by force, by government men pointing guns, he ought to come out and say so and say why. There's a case to be made for it -- I don't agree with any version of that case that I've heard, but the case can be made. He doesn't make it. Instead he pretends that charity organized by the neighbors and "charity" extracted by force are really the same thing -- "government" -- only "organized at different levels." No difference on principle.

I don't think that's what he's saying at all. Is force required to produce charity? Clearly not. So one could argue that forcing charity applies more power than is needed.

Is force required to produce as much charity as some people desire? Yes, almost certainly because people differ in their desire for charity. My "too much" is your "not nearly enough". Is force required to produce *any* Y? Not for the majority of folks, but for a minority I think the answer's still "yes". If you doubt that, just look at how people cut in line when a lane closes off on the freeway - it's every man for himself. Now add a police car on the side of the road and suddenly we're all taking turns letting people in and people move over a LOT farther from the merge point.

I think the minimal security net is a great example of "power only as needed to ensure order".

IOW, we don't want mothers and children and old folks begging on corners or starving in the public eye, so we provide enough charity to protect against mass starvation but not enough to produce income equality.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 08:08 AM

Sorry, Cass, didn't mean to ignore your question. Now that I've seen it and have read the rest of the comments, I see that most of what I'd have answered is already here.

I distinguish sharply between voluntary institutions and government, though both have a regulatory function. My ideal is voluntary associations that are made and broken as people do or do not live up to a standard of conduct. So if you're a crooked businessman, for example, your initial punishment is that people won't do business with you. Only if things get extreme must you be sued or arrested.

I acknowledge the need for an over-arching institution that can bring enormous force to bear in case of the most serious breaches of interpersonal responsibility: I call that over-arching force-wielding institution "government." I'd like to see it limited as much as humanly possible. That's why I object to the formulation that "government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows." I'd say that government is the unpleasant extremity we are driven to when the best tools for living in peace, which are voluntary institutions and self-control, break down. Just try living in a society where there are no such institutions, and only the power of government to create "peace"!

Increasing government's scope at the expense of private institutions is exactly the wrong direction to go, in my view. It is not a better way for us to live in peace with each other.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 8, 2014 10:53 AM

Is force required to produce as much charity as some people desire? Yes, almost certainly because people differ in their desire for charity. My "too much" is your "not nearly enough".

I think the qualitative vice quantitative distinction comes from viewing the issue in reverse. *If* you have to use force, *then* you require people to produce too much charity. That's not a gradiation, it's pretty binary. Under this rubric, there is no amount of force that is legitimate to increase charity.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 8, 2014 05:15 PM

I'm not sure I agree with that, Yu-Ain.

Let's apply that logic to national defense:

If you have to use force to collect income taxes (used to subsidize the military), then you are requiring people to produce/subsidize too much national defense.

Here again, I imagine there are some people who would not, left to themselves, provide a single penny for national defense. Does the fact that some folks would, if left to themselves, refuse to fund it mean that *any* funding of national defense is "too much"?

Do you think that, if we were to accept Grim's earlier suggestion that people be allowed to pick where their tax dollars go, that the basic functions government normally provides would be adequately funded? It's possible, but we began this nation with Articles of Confederation that allowed any state to - at its own discretion - ignore national treaties. That document proved too insubstantial an instrument upon which to found a government of all the states, and the states voluntarily created a more robust one: the Constitution (and in so doing, delegated MUCH more power to the federal government because they had *seen* that doing things the other way was a freaking disaster).

A *big* part of that delegated power was the power of the federal government to "compel" the states. Did that happen because "too much" government was being provided? Or because too little had been provided in the old way, and in the judgment of the several states, that weak government failed to produce enough order?

If we accept the "use of force proves too much is being demanded" formulation, there's no provision for handling free riders. The expectation and reciprocity and the punishment of free riders are two of the foundations of civilization.

If the rule of law is so weak that people can't trust each other to some elementary degree (knowing that the law will step in), poverty and violence become the norm rather than the exception. And if people who obey the law begin to see that others flagrantly violate the law with no consequences, their support for the social compact dissolves (as it should - the only reward for surrendering certain rights is that government protects other rights we value more).

To Tex's last point:

I'd say that government is the unpleasant extremity we are driven to when the best tools for living in peace, which are voluntary institutions and self-control, break down. Just try living in a society where there are no such institutions, and only the power of government to create "peace"! Increasing government's scope at the expense of private institutions is exactly the wrong direction to go, in my view.

I may be misinterpreting both your and YAG's arguments, but it seems to me that both of you are arguing for a blissful state of nature in which voluntary institutions and self control are sufficient to maintain order. I have never lived in such a world and my reading of history suggests that neither has anyone else.

I cannot think of a single great civilization that subsisted on "voluntariness" and private institutions. I realize that's classic libertarian thinking, but I've never seen a successful society modeled on it, and all I have to do is see what happens when the power goes out and the traffic lights stop working to know human nature hasn't changed one bit in all these years :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 05:54 PM

I think maybe the principle YAG is looking for is, "It is morally wrong to confiscate the fruits of one person's labor and give them to another" rather than, "It is wrong to force anyone to support any aspect of the government they don't personally care about (but often benefit from, nonetheless)".

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 05:56 PM

". . . you are arguing for a blissful state of nature in which voluntary institutions and self control are sufficient to maintain order."

Now, this confuses me. Didn't I say that we are driven to the extremity of relying on government to deal with people who won't live up to a voluntary standard of conduct necessary to preserve the peace? And that we start with ostracizing crooked businessmen, but eventually turn to civil or criminal lawsuits if necessary? I just think that we should rely as much as possible on voluntary institutions first. Government is the last resort.

It's like the difference between surgery and the maintenance of ordinary health. Surgery is necessary when all else fails, but no one would want everyday health to be dependent on surgery. Or divorce court may be a necessary backup when marriage goes south, but it's hardly the best tool for maintaining a marriage in the ordinary course of life. We wouldn't say surgery is at the root of all our efforts to be healthy, or divorce court is at the root of everything we do to live together as man and wife.

A totalitarian state tries to make government the answer to everything. It's peace of a sort, I suppose, but I prefer a tradition in which we exhaust the power of voluntary institutions before we resort to government. That's the whole point of a philosophy of limited government. But I'm not an anarchist. I do believe government has a function, even if I also believe it has a strong tendency to overgrow its ideal size, and that it's best to be pruning government back whenever possible.

So, no, I don't think voluntary institutions and self-control are enough to maintain order. By the same token, I don't believe government is enough to maintain order, in the absence of voluntary institutions and self-control--not even close.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 8, 2014 07:22 PM

So, no, I don't think voluntary institutions and self-control are enough to maintain order. By the same token, I don't believe government is enough to maintain order, in the absence of voluntary institutions and self-control--not even close.

I think I agree with this, but I didn't understand your comment (and also I was trying to tie it in with something I thought was similar in YAG's comment, which I took to be arguing that if you had to use force, that was a sign you were doing things wrong. So thanks for the clarification - I understand better now.

I guess the term "last resort" still doesn't sit right with me, but I think that's because in my mind, voluntary institutions and self-control will always fail at some point, so the idea of only turning to govt. "when all else fails" seems off kilter to me.

But I think this is not really a substantive disagreement, but more word choice :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 07:38 PM

Maybe this will help explain: I think of *some* government (not too little, not too much) as the sine qua non, without which a lot of those voluntary institutions and voluntary self control wouldn't exist to the degree that they do in civilized nations.

Not that they wouldn't exist at all. But I think the order and predictability provided by the rule of law make it easier for people to form instititutions: it's a supporting framework upon which other things may be built.

But you're right - it shouldn't replace those other things and when it ceases to provide good support, it has become destructive of the ends for which it was originally designed.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 07:42 PM

I think I'm with YAG generally, though, on the notion that if you have to use force you're somehow on the wrong track. At the same time, I hear what you're saying about the existence of the back-up system of force creating a safe zone in which voluntary institutions can flourish.

I suppose I would say that there is a narrow category of human behavior that, if you have to use force to stop it, the fault lies in the behavior and not in the decision to use force. I generally confine those categories to some kind of fraud or violence, or breach of a very clear duty. In the vast majority of human interactions, though, if you have to use force to make them happen, something's wrong with what you're trying to make happen.

So if government is the only way to stop a rapist, fine. But if someone can demonstrate to me a private institution that's equally successful as preventing a rape, I'll almost always opt for that first. It would take pointing out a very serious flaw in the operation of the private solution before I'd abandon it and go for the government solution.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 8, 2014 08:56 PM

In the vast majority of human interactions, though, if you have to use force to make them happen, something's wrong with what you're trying to make happen.

"Force" is another of those terms that is so poorly defined that it's hard to know if we're even discussing the same thing.

Elise had a post up many moons ago - I think it quoted Kevin Williamson - and said something like, "never pass a law unless you're willing to put a gun to someone's head to enforce it".

That just struck me as quite possibly the dumbest thing I had read in a long time - possibly in my entire lifetime, though that's a high bar :p So much so that I just kind of threw my hands up in the air. And yet I respect Elise, and don't think she's dumb. But honestly - never pass a single law unless you're willing to *shoot* anyone who violates it????

That kind of exaggerated logic is something I see everywhere on the right. I like to call it Internet logic - the kind of logic that results from a huge disconnect between theory and the way the world actually works. The number of laws we enforce in the real world by pulling guns on anyone is vanishingly small. True "force" (being willing to shoot someone, as opposed to warnings, fines, etc.) is a last resort to end all last resorts. You can't design your entire system around the most drastic enforcement method, or at least one shouldn't.

That's like saying, "Never order your child to do anything unless you're willing to beat him senseless with a belt." Never mind the sharp look, the "I'm ashamed of you" rebuke, the time out, restriction, loss of privileges.... nope, any rule that you're not willing to back up with violence shouldn't be made at all.

Does that really make sense to you? Again, I know it's classic libertarianism, and I keep waiting for someone - anyone! - to show me a single human society that has been built or has prospered that was based on such a notion.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 09:53 PM

It would take pointing out a very serious flaw in the operation of the private solution before I'd abandon it and go for the government solution.

How many private solutions like that do you know of? Who defends accused rapists against completely unaccountable (except to the purchaser, perhaps) private entities? They're not all guilty, you know. Market incentives aren't really the right ones, here. And that's probably why we don't see valid private solutions that punish rape (other than Uncle Vinny kneecapping your daughter's boyfriend without benefit of a trial)...

...oh, did it turn out that she lied b/c she didn't want to get into trouble? Oops.

Seems to me that even though government isn't perfect, the private solution has structural problems that would either require government oversight or we'd see a lot of revenge crimes where guilt was never even established by anything like an impartial trier of fact and an appeals process.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2014 10:01 PM

First of all, I think it's highly inaccurate to characterize all government-based law enforcement as "men with guns". Like pretty much everything else in life, enforcement (government or otherwise) exists along a continuum. You can jaywalk to your heart's content and no "man with a gun" is likely to show up and stop you at gunpoint. I think this is exactly the same kind of error you're complaining about in Scruton's essay - treating things that are different in scope as though they were equivalent.

That just struck me as quite possibly the dumbest thing I had read in a long time - possibly in my entire lifetime, though that's a high bar :p So much so that I just kind of threw my hands up in the air. And yet I respect Elise, and don't think she's dumb. But honestly - never pass a single law unless you're willing to *shoot* anyone who violates it????

I didn't see anyone else address the first point, and it ties into the second, so I will.

You can jaywalk to your heart's content. And rack up fine after fine after fine. And if you continue not to pay the fines, they will swear out a warrant for your arrest. And if you do not turn yourself in, they actually will send men with guns to come collect you. They are NOT equivalent (a ticket, warrant, or armed police officer), but they ARE on the continuum of what will happen if you disobey the government. Mind you, I believe that such measures can be necessary. If you are infringing on the rights, property, or liberty of another, then such measures are justified. But unfortunately, not all of the laws that our government has passed in our names are so justified.

And let's be clear. Fining an individual is violence. It is the taking of property against their will. If you or I were to do it, it would be called theft. If we were to do it by force of arms, it would be armed robbery. The government has been granted license by society to take the life, liberty, or property of individuals by us. By society. They do it (hopefully) in our name, for the good of society. There is no private enterprise authorized to deprive you of your life, liberty, or property (without your consent).

As for "never pass a law unless you're willing to shoot someone who violates it", it may be extreme, but it is not without merit. When the ACA (or Obamacare) passed, I had an argument with a friend who insisted that no one would go to jail if they didn't purchase healthcare insurance as mandated by the law. And so I asked what would happen if I were not to buy insurance, what would happen? "You'd just be fined!" And if I didn't pay the fine? "Well then you'd... it's not the same thing!" Except that it IS the same thing. If you are going to make something punishable by fine, then you are going to need to enforce that fine. And the ONLY method of enforcement truly available to the government is force. And if you're not willing to face the possibility that a law you pass might deprive someone of life, liberty, or property, then perhaps you shouldn't pass the law. That is the real meaning of the phrase Elise used.

Posted by: MikeD at July 9, 2014 08:50 AM

"That's like saying, 'Never order your child to do anything unless you're willing to beat him senseless with a belt.'"

I think it's a mistake to analogize to how to bring up a child. The relationship of the government to a citizen should not be viewed in that light. But to the extent the analogy holds true at all, look at it this way: you probably wouldn't be willing to beat your child senseless with a belt no matter what he'd done. But you also know better than to order him to do something and not be prepared to back up your order with whatever discipline you feel is warranted in raising a child. How far you're willing to go along your scale of permissible discipline will depend on how vehemently he defies the order. A little slow and sulky? Maybe he just gets a Look or some talking to. Total defiance and offers to hit you? You ramp up. But you wouldn't issue the order if you weren't serious, or at least I hope not. So I agree with MIke's point: we don't think about the government implicitly threatening armed violence for jaywalking because we assume that most people won't let it get that far, in part because they know the violence is there in the end, if they rack up 20 unpaid tickets, refuse the summons, and resist the eventual arrest. If we're not serious about following that path, we shouldn't pass the law in the first place. Look what happens at the border when we sort of mean a law and sort of don't.

I used rape as an extreme example because of course I support the use of government force, up to and including deadly violence in an emergency by any cop present, to prevent rape. I have a hard time imagining a private institution that could deal with the entire problem of rape all by itself without any help at all from a force-backed government power. At the same time, there are lots of private institutions that tend to prevent rape, and I think we lose sight of them to our great cost. There is a very strong social prohibition against rape, for instance, that kicks in most of the time long before anyone has to call a cop. Bystanders often will step in even at great risk to themselves. People will socially ostracize someone legitimately suspected of rape even if the law can't quite touch him. Societies in which these private institutions break down, like some college campuses, quickly become places where no one should want to live. The point is: if somehow someone could convince me that a private institution could get the job done, I'd opt for it first. In the case of rape, that's unlikely, but it's still my preference if it can be made to work without awful social side effects, such as (perhaps) prohibiting women from going outside without an armed escort. I put the government solution to a test rather than ever assuming it's the right answer. On some issues, the government usually passes this test with flying colors, which is why I say I favor government force to handle problems of violence and fraud, as well as national defense and a few other areas such as epidemiological emergencies.

In other areas it's a toss-up how well the government will do on the test. I question whether my county should abandon its privately operating emergency fire and ambulance service in favor of a county-operated tax-funded system. Our private system is not performing well at present, and there's a movement afoot to adopt an emergency services district. Maybe it will prove necessary. Nevertheless, I'm unlike many of my neighbors who hear the controversy and say, "Oh, of course the government should be in charge of the ambulances." I expect a convincing argument that we can't make the private system work.

Ditto for many business practices that lots of voters think should be regulated by government. If I can see a way to discipline a merchant with market forces, I'll opt for it. That's one reason I'm rarely in favor of government solutions such as minimum wage or compulsory union membership.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 9, 2014 09:47 AM

...up to and including deadly violence in an emergency by any cop present, to prevent rape.

Or anyone else. The law is structured in such a way that private citizens have every right to use lethal force, if necessary, to stop a rape in progress.

Posted by: Grim at July 9, 2014 11:35 AM

The point is: if somehow someone could convince me that a private institution could get the job done, I'd opt for it first. In the case of rape, that's unlikely...

Well, one of the private actors is the woman herself. Say she makes a habit of carrying a handgun in many ordinary cases where she thinks she may be in danger of rape (working a closing shift by herself, say).

The more private individuals who undertake to do this, the less rape becomes an attractive proposition in general. And the more the society will not need to use formal police powers to suppress rapists, or to try to catch and punish them.

Now this is all done as a matter of law, so in a way it's government. But you don't have to license the government to act forcefully to obtain the benefit. The law can be structured to support private coercion, too: and we can obtain a public benefit without having to use public force.

Posted by: Grim at July 9, 2014 11:55 AM

I think maybe the principle YAG is looking for is, "It is morally wrong to confiscate the fruits of one person's labor and give them to another" rather than, "It is wrong to force anyone to support any aspect of the government they don't personally care about (but often benefit from, nonetheless)".

Not quite. At this point I'm not really advocating a position or standard either way. Just positing how it would be possible for one person to view a situation as on a continuum while another sees the situation as categorical.

That is one sees the question as about "how much" and the other sees the question as about principle.

My own standards follow somewhat (though not perfectly) on a standard of "payment for serviced rendered to you". I receive a benefit from the military/police/courts/schools that I really can't opt out of. I've no "principal" based objections to those taxes. Those are questions of "how much". Charity does not fit under that standard. If it did, charity would be paid for by the people recieving it, which is non-sensical.

My objection the "gov't is in every human interaction" is because it does not distinquish between the continuum and categorical and treats everything as on a continuum.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 9, 2014 01:35 PM

Guys, good comments all.

Sorry I've been AWOL. I had to take a certification exam today and spent the last 2 days trying to cram 11 chapters of stuff I knew next-to-nothing about before Sunday into my pea sized noggin.

Took the test, passed with flying colors, and am about to...

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZz.... :)

Posted by: Cassandra at July 9, 2014 07:58 PM

Cassandra, not that I'd ever do such a wicked thing, but I should tell you that your weblog can't be accessed from my workplace...believe it or not they list it as a "dead site." Of course I only found this out during a well-controlled lunch break or after regular working hours or something.

Texan and MikeD made most of my points. In fact they made pretty well all of them.

And yet I respect Elise, and don't think she's dumb. But honestly - never pass a single law unless you're willing to *shoot* anyone who violates it????

You're arguing from incredulity (with boldface, yet!)...but this IS the basic moral distinction that most libertarians (and many conservatives) draw, and have drawn for centuries. (If you go to my favorites list at Grim's Hall, you'll find a link to Frederic Bastiat's The Law, which lays the idea out beautifully in an 1840's kind of way.)

You've said it yourself...whatever your law, especially in a big, diverse country, some character is going to want to break it and insist that he can, and it won't be a law unless there's a "threat of enforcement." It is going to be enforced with violence or else not be enforced at all. (In a different kind of society public order might be enforced with no laws at all...or with laws but no real government, as in rural Afghanistan or medieval Iceland...but even there "violence" comes as part of the deal, and laws per se rely upon it implicitly.)

This is very important for making a principled stand on things that matter to all of us. Take, for example, freedom of religion. What I say...and I think Thomas Jefferson would stand with me....is that government should stay out of the religion business - completely! But Scruton can't say that because, as far as he's concerned, the moment three people get together to decide when to have services, that is government. It's just "organized at a different level" from, say, the Iranian government. There's a "continuum" about what's "too much" and "too little," but everything is on the table and everything is negotiable. And since there are always a few people -- like the ones who want laws against anti-Islamic blasphemy -- who are pushing hard to change the rules, well, maybe it's easier to compromise with them...and a little bit more, after all, it might save us a few riots...and a little bit more, after all, why should anyone want to draw nasty pictures of the Prophet?...and a little bit more...

Scruton has articulated the credo of a squish! Conservatives have spent too much time as "beautiful losers" and do not need to commit themselves to more of that by listening to this man.

(btw, have you ever read P.J. O'Rourke's Parliament of Whores? Good ol' P.J. always had a strong libertarian streak....anyway that's pretty well the test he argued for the federal budget...would you put a gun to the head of your dear old mother to make her pay for this? He said "yes" for national defense, "C'mon, ma, if those bloodthirsty Canadians come pouring down over the border, we're all finished. Pony up...")

Posted by: Joseph W. at July 10, 2014 01:36 AM

I may be arguing over word choice, but I think there is a huge difference between "Don't make laws you're not willing to enforce" and "Don't make laws unless you're willing to put a gun to someone's head to enforce them."

The first is exactly how I raised my children: don't make a rule unless you're prepared to follow up violations with punishment/correction. Had I said to myself, "Don't make a rule unless you're prepared to spank to enforce it", there would have been FAR too few rules and my sons would have acted as through they had been raised by transgendered, feral Arctic wolverines.

The two suggestions are simply not the same. And I think the parenting metaphor is quite apt. The relationship doesn't have to be the same for it to apply.

The overwhelming majority of the time, minor infractions typically leading to fines or other minor punishments will not land anyone in jail (much less get them *shot*!) even if they are followed up by serial small acts of defiance, sometimes lasting years.

People amass thousands of dollars of parking tickets. They don't pay their taxes and it's a rare case where anyone goes to jail over that.

When's the last time you read about anyone being sentenced to be shot because they broke a law in America?

Hyperbole like "put a gun to their head" has no connection to the real world we live in. Even murderers and rapists don't generally get shot as punishment. You guys are enlarging an abstract theory (that the threat of force - that is almost NEVER actually used in real life - lies behind even the mildest law enforcement) far beyond the way law enforcement actually works.

So I'm not going to agree on this one.

The classic response to libertarianism is, "OK, you show me where your abstract theories have been used in real life with success."

I also think you're reading far too much into Scruton's essay - he isn't saying 3 people deciding to worship is the same as government. He isn't even saying all governments are the same!

As for fighting the idea that everything is negotiable, unless you're willing to impose your beliefs on the rest of the country by fiat (or violence), you *do* have to negotiate with your fellow Americans. That's the way our government is set up. You can change it, but to do that you're still going to have to get your hands dirty and negotiate.

If it weren't for negotiation, we wouldn't even have a Constitution. The whole document was a massive compromise.

Laws, like household rules, aren't all the same and it makes no sense to apply a standard that evokes a punishment so harsh that it is never actually used to evaluate the cost/benefit ratio of making a new law. It's a false standard - emotionally satisfying if what you're secretly arguing is that there should be almost no laws at all (that's how many we'd have if that standard were applied).

None of us has ever lived in such a world. It certainly would not resemble either earlier periods in American history or any other civilization worth the name. I don't understand the point of constructing utopian fantasies that willfully ignore history and real world experience. That's pretty much been my critique of liberalism - that it willfully ignore both history and human nature.

I have no more patience with conservative/libertarian utopianism. We've seen what happens when societies make public policy based on wishful thinking about economics and human nature and don't think introducing more of the same hope-over-experience based thinking (just with the right-leaning bent this time around) is the right response.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 07:22 AM

The overwhelming majority of the time, minor infractions typically leading to fines or other minor punishments will not land anyone in jail (much less get them *shot*!) even if they are followed up by serial small acts of defiance, sometimes lasting years.

And those should likely NOT be laws. If the government (and we) are not willing to punish someone for their infractions, then those should be infractions... warnings, "Hey buddy! It's not safe to cross the street there, go to the crosswalk!" But if you're willing to put someone in jail for it, then you MUST expect someone to refuse, necessitating the use of force. If you're not, then I posit you're potentially living in a utopian fantasy yourself.

So what do you do when someone refuses to go to jail? Just let them? No, you must utilize force to make them. That's the way it is. If you're unwilling to use force to send someone to jail, then it sounds like the government probably shouldn't make it a law.

Yes, it's true, the majority of citizens will pay their fines and not resist a summons to court, but that is precisely because they know the government has the power to make them. When they do not believe that is so, then they will ignore the law.

And let's bring it back to children for a moment. You would not dream (I assume) of spanking a child for leaving their socks on the floor. That's ridiculous! But what if they left their socks on the floor every day, refused to pick them up and when you send them to time out for refusing, they simply do not do it. "Well, that's different, because I WOULD spank a child for defiance and refusal to accept their punishments." That's what I'm talking about for laws and the government. No one would ever be "sentenced to death" for speeding tickets. But let that same person refuse a court summons, and barricade themselves in their home when the police came with a warrant, and resist arrest when the cops break down the door... you might actually see such a person get shot. It will not be a "death penalty" for speeding, but they'd be just as dead. Personally, I'd say it's their own fault for making so many bad decisions, but the fact is that is a possibility for refusing to bow to the power of government. But the whole chain begins because of a law that was passed that determines that the government will punish the violation of a speed limit.

And please note, I'm not saying "no speed limits". I'm simply saying that we must be cognizant of the fact that if we pass a law against something, someone somewhere will require force to be used to make them comply (even if that force is just handcuffs and a night in holding). If force is off the table, then it likely should not be a law.

Posted by: MikeD at July 10, 2014 09:29 AM

Shot is perhaps a bit hyperbolic (ask Gibson Guitars about that), but "can bring more violence to the party than you or those around you can withstand" is a little cumbersome.

Your stereotypical 88 year old little grandmother cheating on her taxes is unlikely to need to be shot by the 30 year old 6'2" 225lb police officer for not responding to your polite letters from the court asking for payment.

She'll submit peacefully.

But then, we all know that she has no ability to resist sucessfully either.

And if the police decide to ignore her directly and confiscate her bank accounts, the bank is hardly going to want a SWAT team showing up on their door to take it either.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 09:32 AM

Oh, and congrats on the cert test.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 09:37 AM

...please note, I'm not saying "no speed limits". I'm simply saying that we must be cognizant of the fact that if we pass a law against something, someone somewhere will require force to be used to make them comply (even if that force is just handcuffs and a night in holding).

Which is something else entirely from putting a gun to their head.

If force is off the table, then it likely should not be a law.

"Force on the table" and a "gun to the head" are not the same thing at all.

Shot is perhaps a bit hyperbolic (ask Gibson Guitars about that), but "can bring more violence to the party than you or those around you can withstand" is a little cumbersome.

Again, the threat of violence isn't the same as actual violence. When the likelihood of *actual* violence is extremely remote, people don't take it all that seriously (as the large number of folks who don't pay speeding tickets, etc. clearly shows). In a similar vein, when the actual likelihood of the bank repossessing your home if you don't pay your mortgage is low, defaults go up because a remote threat is just that: remote, and not terribly scary (especially to people who are irresponsible in the first place).

And if the actual chance you'll be deported decreases, more people take the risk of coming here illegally.

Mike says he's not suggesting that we have no speeding laws, but if we apply the "don't pass a law unless you're willing to actually put a gun to someone's head" rule, most laws like that would go away. Because most of us simply are not willing to put a gun to *anyone's* head, period. I'm not willing to shoot illegal immigrants on sight. I am willing to deport them.

I'm perfectly willing to fine speeders. If they drive recklessly and kill or seriously injure someone, I may even be willing to put them in jail. I'm willing to take their licenses away so they can't do it again. I am NOT willing to shoot them in the head, so by that test we couldn't have speeding or reckless driving laws.

The test should be, "Don't pass a law unless you're willing to enforce it using the statutory penalty outlined in the law", not "unless you're willing to do something the law doesn't even call for".

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 10:02 AM

...Oh, and congrats on the cert test.

Thanks :)

I feel free as a bird this morning.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 10:07 AM

The test should be, "Don't pass a law unless you're willing to enforce it using the statutory penalty outlined in the law", not "unless you're willing to do something the law doesn't even call for".

So since a speeding violation only calls for a fine, then if they refuse to pay the fines, then we should let it drop? Or should we punish that as a consequence of violating the law punishing those who refuse to pay fines? Doesn't the one lead to the other (for those who refuse to follow the law)? At what point is the chain broken? "Send someone to jail, but if they don't want to go, that's all the force that should be used if the original crime was speeding?"

You rightly say it's the threat of force that compels most citizens to comply. But a threat is useless without the willingness to carry out said threat. So the question remains, are you willing to punish someone who refuses to accept that violating the speed limit is against the law if they refuse to pay the fines, refuse to come to court, refuse to allow themselves to be arrested, and resist to the point where the police feel they must use lethal force? If not, then do you want the police to stop attempting to arrest such a person (thus make the threat of use of force empty)?

The whole "put a gun to the head of someone" is based upon the fact (not fear, not fantasy, but fact) that someone somewhere will refuse to comply with a law so strenuously that force (yes, perhaps even lethal force) may come into play. If that's a bridge too far, then be aware of that fact before agreeing that "there oughta be a law." Because that is the cost. I understand that someone who would resist unto the point of death to refuse a fine probably has more serious problems, and likely is going to be someone society has bigger problems with, but when we're talking about bending the awesome (as in the original definition, not the "this hotdog is awesome" meaning) power of government to bear, we should always know that this is possible.

At it's core, it's not that I think you're being naive or even unreasonable. I think instead that like most other people, we assume "it would be nice if people put on their seat belts" and pass a law to make it so, without contemplating that we're ultimately backing up our wishes to keep them safe with the use of force (and again, potentially lethal force) when we use the law to punish those who do not comply. It is a dreadful power, and I fear we (as a society) use it too lightly.

Posted by: MikeD at July 10, 2014 11:19 AM

I am willing to deport them

And what if they say 'no'?

"Oh, well, in that case I guess you can stay here, then"? That's what we are doing now. Can't say as I'm happy with the result, though.

Escalation stops when one party can bring more violence to bear than the other can tolerate. If you aren't willing to escalate beyond the other person's tolerance, I'm not sure you should play the game.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 11:31 AM

So since a speeding violation only calls for a fine, then if they refuse to pay the fines, then we should let it drop? Or should we punish that as a consequence of violating the law punishing those who refuse to pay fines?

I've already answered this - you punish them according to what is outlined in the statute. You don't pretend that punishment is equivalent to shooting someone in the head (or threatening to do so).

And what if they say 'no'? "Oh, well, in that case I guess you can stay here, then"? That's what we are doing now.

Again, nowhere have I argued this. And it's not even what the law says should happen, so I'm not sure how it's relevant. People are jailed before being deported all the time. We don't shoot them in the head, though, do we?

Should we line up all those children who are here illegally and shoot them all? Of course not. Yet we have laws against illegal immigration, don't we?

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 11:39 AM

So the question remains, are you willing to punish someone who refuses to accept that violating the speed limit is against the law if they refuse to pay the fines, refuse to come to court, refuse to allow themselves to be arrested, and resist to the point where the police feel they must use lethal force?

First of all, let's try staying with what I *am* arguing: I generally support applying the applicable statute as written. If they proceed to commit other offenses (like forcibly resisting arrest while armed with lethal force themselves, which is the ONLY scenario in which police should be using anything like lethal force), that's a different scenario, isn't it?

How often does this happen? How often do people go to jail for not paying their taxes? How often do they go to jail for not paying parking tickets?

If not, then do you want the police to stop attempting to arrest such a person (thus make the threat of use of force empty)?

I'm not sure that people are routinely being arrested for nonpayment of fines. Most governments don't think that rises to the level where arrests and jail are warranted. How often does this happen? That matters, because as I've previously argued, a remote threat isn't an effective deterrent.


Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 11:46 AM

I think instead that like most other people, we assume "it would be nice if people put on their seat belts" and pass a law to make it so, without contemplating that we're ultimately backing up our wishes to keep them safe with the use of force (and again, potentially lethal force) when we use the law to punish those who do not comply.

I can't speak to what other people assume, but I have never assumed anything of the sort.

When's the last time the police used lethal force on someone for refusing to wear a seat belt? You're treating extremely unlikely events as though they were common, and they're not. And I'm pretty sure any officer who did so would be violating the law himself.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 11:48 AM

People are jailed before being deported all the time.

And if they resist going to jail, what then?

Where do you draw the line and tell people "If you go beyond this line, I'll give up."

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 11:48 AM

And if they resist going to jail, what then?
Where do you draw the line and tell people "If you go beyond this line, I'll give up."

Once again, no one is suggesting that we just "give up". That's not what the laws say, and the police are not authorized to shoot people for simply resisting arrest. They are trained to handle people who resist arrest and do that all the time.

The only legal reason I can think of for shooting someone who is resisting arrest would be that they were aiming a lethal weapon at you. It's very much the same legal principle as self defense - you don't get to use disproportionate force and lethal force is justified only in the presence of matching lethal force. If someone is prepared to kill a police officer who is doing his job, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and say that person is more of a threat than your average jaywalker :p

As much as people like to pretend the police don't have to follow rules too, they do. They're human, and there have screw ups there just like there are screw ups in the military all the time that we never read about in the paper.

I saw 30 years worth of those, and for the most part the system handles them just fine. And then there are the exceptions that we read about in the paper because they *don't* happen all the time and they're shocking and upsetting. Pretty sure they aren't covered that way in countries where the police have carte blanche to brutalize citizens at will.

Transparency isn't exactly a hallmark of such countries.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 12:13 PM

They are trained to handle people who resist arrest and do that all the time.

And what if the person they are trying to arrest is better than they are?

Let's walk through this.

We pass a law saying that selling 32oz Cokes are illegal.

A store owner does it anyway. So we fine him.

He doesn't pay it. So we revoke his business license.

He doesn't close up the shop. So we send in a police officer.

The shop owner locks the door. So the police officer breaks the door down.

The shop owner refuses to give the officer his hands for the handcuffs. So the police officer grabs him.

The shop owner shrugs off the grab. So the police officer tackles him.

The shop owner fights back and is winning. So the officer calls for back-up.

Now that it's two (or more on one) the shop owner grabs a hammer. *Bang, Bang*

Now, we can console ourselves that the shop owner was shot for using lethal force against an officer, but as we set policy perhaps we really should ask ourselves if this trip was really necessary over a 32oz coke.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 12:32 PM

I think that if we always walked through the worst possible scenario that could possibly result from passing a law, we'd have no laws and we wouldn't be better off for that.

But in your scenario, it's very unlikely that things would come to that pass. First of all, the law against running a business without a license would have to specify that it's a crime serious enough to require arrest and forcible eviction.

I have my doubts there are too many laws like that on the books. But if there were, another thing would have to happen: the city would have to care about that offense enough to go after him. If you think that police departments who are short on staff (and most are) regularly take every offense to the max allowable by law, I can tell you that they don't. Some laws are badly written and they've learned by experience that they'll never get a conviction.

And they have to get a warrant for an arrest. The police don't routinely arrest people for nonviolent infractions of the law. If they did, the jails would be full.

You're constructing very unlikely scenarios and providing no evidence that they occur or are really a serious danger. We're having a conversation, so you can do that (and I think it can be valuable to walk through the logic) but I keep pointing out that this simply doesn't happen very often.

If you're suggesting that we never pass any laws that could possibly result in a rare tragedy, that's just way too high a bar. And if you're suggesting that we never pass any laws because even one death as a result of the law is too many, well, I'm going to say that's really too high a bar too.

That's the logic anti-gun activists use, and it's rightly dismissed in a risk/benefit calculation. I don't find it any more persuasive here.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 12:48 PM

And I should say that perhaps this trip really is necessary. Most people will give up long before it gets to this point because they know where it ends. I'm certainly not going to take such a stand with a wife and kids depending on me.

But someone, somewhere, sometime, will. And if we are OK with that because of its exceeding rarity, that's fine. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't confront the principle: we will escalate to whatever level it takes to gain compliance.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 12:50 PM

...we can console ourselves that the shop owner was shot for using lethal force against an officer, but as we set policy perhaps we really should ask ourselves if this trip was really necessary over a 32oz coke.

That has nothing to do with whether the law was a good idea in the first place, though. You can always construct chains of events where neither person acted reasonably, but they don't represent what happens most of the time.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 12:50 PM

..if we are OK with that because of its exceeding rarity, that's fine. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't confront the principle: we will escalate to whatever level it takes to gain compliance.

I agree with pretty much all of this comment :)

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 12:51 PM

And (if I can indulge YAG's patience for a moment and speak on his behalf) we're certainly not claiming this is common, uncommon, or even rare. But this is the logical outcome of "if this law is passed, recognize that you are enforcing it with the full power of government behind it" and all that the statement entails.

Clearly, you won't punish an embezzler by shooting him (provided he submits to arrest without incident) but it is because resisting arrest is a crime with a stiffer penalty, and resisting with deadly force is another crime with a stiffer penalty, and attempted murder of a police officer is another crime with yet a stiffer penalty... and so on. Because of this chain of force stretching from swearing out a warrant up to the full ultimate force if the criminal escalates, is compliance enforced. This is the power we're speaking of. That if people actually thought about the fact that just maybe utilizing the full power of the government and all that it entails to keep giant sugary sodas out of people's hands might be more than we really want... just maybe we'll decide not to pass such a law.

Posted by: MikeD at July 10, 2014 12:55 PM

Never mind, YAG got there a lot faster than I.

Posted by: MikeD at July 10, 2014 12:57 PM

Sorry, the previous was written before I saw your response.

the city would have to care about that offense enough to go after him.

This is actually what I was referring to with "If you resist this far, we'll give up." But that creates its own problem. You have an entire group of people who will then start flauting the law. We've seen how well that works with illegal immigration.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 12:59 PM

That if people actually thought about the fact that just maybe utilizing the full power of the government and all that it entails to keep giant sugary sodas out of people's hands might be more than we really want... just maybe we'll decide not to pass such a law.

I think that wouldn't be much of a deterrent unless they reasonably expected such escalations to occur frequently. Based on our experience so far, they don't occur that frequently.

I think that's the disconnect between what we're arguing, and moreover I really don't think imagining the (rare) Very Worst Case Scenario is a logical way to evaluate risk/benefit. It should be included, but the weight one places on it has to be rationally related to the likelihood of occurrence.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 01:00 PM

That has nothing to do with whether the law was a good idea in the first place, though.

I think it does though.

And specifically because of that principle. We will escalate unto death if necessary. If you can confront the principle and declare that you are OK with it because of its rarity, that's fine.

But you should confront it.

And if you can't get OK with that, then you shouldn't pass the law.

I'm OK with that principle on things like speeding. Increasing your speed beyond what is safe (which is not necessarily the same as what is often posted) increases the risk of injury and death to *other* motorists (if it only hurt/killed you, then well, it sucks to be you). If you are so adamant in making other people accept risk of injury and death that you would take it that far, then yeah, I'm OK with removing you from the gene pool.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 01:15 PM

Likewise, I can't get OK with it over 32oz Coke, no matter how rare it might be. Driking to much Coke may hurt you, but that's on you.

I'm not taking it out on some wacko shop owner whose drawn a ridiculous line in the sand.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 01:22 PM

*who's*

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 10, 2014 01:28 PM

I think there are better reasons not to pass a law stating a store owner can't sell 32 oz. Cokes than invoking the unlikely specter of store owners being killed by police.

It's a dumb law in the first place, but that's federalism for ya. States make all sorts of dumb laws, cities make dumb laws, towns make dumb laws (Salem witch hunts, anyone?) all the time. That's not "Big Government" it's "Government by human beings" at work.

The saving grace of federalism is it limits the damage of human stupidity... somewhat :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 03:37 PM

If you are so adamant in making other people accept risk of injury and death that you would take it that far, then yeah, I'm OK with removing you from the gene pool.

:)

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 03:37 PM

I don't think the Libertarian argument assumes that the very first response to an infraction will be capital punishment, only that (as others have already ably argued here) eventually that's what it comes to for someone who won't comply. Luckily, it is extremely rare for anyone to push it that far.

For that matter, "putting a gun to someone's head" isn't the same as fatally shooting him, by your same argument, because it normally doesn't come to that. The "gun to the head" is a metaphor for the threat of force. Force can be against one's body, or it can be the seizure of goods by armed people who won't take no for an answer.

I think there is a middle ground, for laws whose sole penalty is the withdrawal of some benefit that the government otherwise would bestow, like granting a license or issuing a check. (If the lawbreaker forges the license or steals the money from Fort Knox, we're enforcing a different law against him.) I wouldn't set as high a standard for laws enforced by penalties of this kind, and in fact would welcome the incentive for people to learn to get along without the government's boon, except of course where the government has a monopoly. The difference between a licensed and unlicensed business, for instance, shouldn't be whether the business can be lawfully conducted but whether it can credibly hold itself out to the public as licensed. Customers can then make up their own minds.

But such a thing isn't a "law" so much as a pricetag, which people are free to pay or not pay. Which is a much healthier relationship between government and governed, by the way.

Cassandra, one reason I think it's a poor idea to analogize to the parent-child relationship is that there are methods of discipline that can be used on a small, helpless creature who has learned to love you and depend on you from birth, and that cannot be applied between adults in government and adults in the citizenry. The habit of thinking of the government as Mommy and Daddy is enough of a temptation, what's more, without our exacerbating it.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 10, 2014 05:45 PM

I don't think the Libertarian argument assumes that the very first response to an infraction will be capital punishment, only that (as others have already ably argued here) eventually that's what it comes to for someone who won't comply.

So in other words, it's an inexact metaphor? Kind of like saying there's government in all our attempts to get along with our fellow humans?

Sorry :) Couldn't resist.

If we're willing to admit it's not a serious suggestion but just a metaphor, I"m OK with that. But I do think it's potentially very misleading even as a metaphor (which I think is the point you guys have been trying to make wrt Scruton's "governments in everything", which much resembles the "markets in everything" meme so popular amongst economists).

I will say that I think a gun to the head evokes extremely strong emotions that I don't think "governments in everything" really compares with, but I will cheerfully admit that part of why I decided to link to this is that I do sense in some ways that people are so fed up with Obama that even things that wouldn't normally evoke such a strong response do feel threatening.

That suggestion runs very strongly through Joseph's and a lot of you guy's comments, and because the "gun to the head" metaphor evokes similar feelings in me, I understand that.

As a general observation, I fear my fellow humans more than a lot of you do. I also fear big government. But I think there has to be a sane balance of competing interests here. I can accept that different people will draw the line in different places. But I think it's helpful to discuss the assumptions we all come into debates like this with.

Last Thursday (as you posted your first comment on this thread, Tex!) I was driving into DC with the Spousal Unit. There had been a big storm, and tree branches were down everywhere. Lots of roads were closed, and there were several traffic lights out due to power failures.

Out here in sleepy little Fredneck, such things are no big deal. But as you get into the city where things are more crowded, the entire atmosphere changes. Driving in to our hotel was incredibly frustrating - the GPS had routed us one way but that road was closed. So I suggested an alternate route (the way I used the few times I went to the White House during the Evil Bu$Hitler years) and we got off the highway. But that took us through downtown DC.

We're both fairly familiar with DC, but it's a confusicating place to drive even when you are familiar with it.

And in a few place, order had already completely broken down. People were blatantly ignoring even the traffic lights that *were* working - cutting other people off, really being jerks. I'm a fairly calm person by nature, and even I was getting angry watching the a**holes take over. My espoused one, being of a more competitive and aggressive bent, was downright PO'd.

I drive in DC all the time, and the whole atmosphere was different. I wasn't scared at all, but I absolutely did find myself thinking: "Isn't it amazing, how little it takes to stir up the anthill"?

Imagine a situation where it really mattered, how fast people got into or out of the city? The only thing I've seen like it recently was a few years ago when the derechos struck, and we spent over a week driving back and forth from Potomac to gas up the generator we bought for some elderly (and disabled) relatives. People got downright nasty at the gas stations - you could see the ugly streak in people that is mostly suppressed by civilization and the rule of law.

It makes you think.

If I had children or someone vulnerable to defend, I could easily shoot someone. But I"m not sure whether I'd be able to do that if I were the only one at risk. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not. Personally I have always thought we have different sorts of people for a reason: some to fight wars, some to keep the peace.

Maybe if I'd been raised in a different family, I'd be less concerned about what I see as the big picture and more "I'm in it for me - screw everyone else". There is definitely a bit of that in my personality, but I think there's also a very thick layer of civilization that my parents put there.

I mostly think that's a good thing. I love my parents and tried to raise my children the same way. It's a different world we live in - one in which we mostly aren't fighting each other tooth and nail just to survive. It requires different skills.

So I don't fear the submissive frame of mind so much. I thought about this long and hard (heh.. she said... oh, nevermind) when raising my boys, but my conception of human nature was that when you scratch that paper thin veneer of civilization, you'll find we haven't changed all that much from our forebears.

I think we've lost a sensible fear of what lies beneath that wafer thin veneer. And when I count my fears, I want them to reflect all the threats out there - not just the one in the newspapers.

Not sure this made much sense - forgive the rambling.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2014 07:05 PM

I may be arguing over word choice, but I think there is a huge difference between "Don't make laws you're not willing to enforce" and "Don't make laws unless you're willing to put a gun to someone's head to enforce them."

Maybe you are. But I think what you want to do is to draw a moral distinction between threatening force when the threatened party gives in and using force when the threatened party fails to give in.

Now I don't agree with this argument, but it is an argument and you are making it explicitly. This puts you a mile ahead of Scruton...he tries to conceal this important moral issue by pretending that "government is present in...free associations of neighbors." He's just defining the issue out of existence.

(Even that microcosm of "government," the lunch-money protection racket, works by force...no matter if all the smaller kids pay up every day to avoid being beaten up; the force is there and the racket depends on it. Is it morally better if the victims give in? No one is actually being beaten up. But I think the morality or immorality has more to do with why the money is being taken in the first place, rather than how often the fists come out of the pockets.)

I also think you're reading far too much into Scruton's essay - he isn't saying 3 people deciding to worship is the same as government. He isn't even saying all governments are the same!

You're right on one point...he is damnably vague about what he is saying, and his vagueness is pernicious. He says "Government...is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors..."

So, what does he mean? Is a free association of neighbors a government, or is government only "present in it" somehow? He doesn't tell us. He's trying to hide the moral difference between what a "free association of neighbors" does and what a "government" does...by pretending they are the same kind of thing, which they are not. (In fact, his vagueness parallels Mussolini's definition of fascism: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.")

As for fighting the idea that everything is negotiable, unless you're willing to impose your beliefs on the rest of the country by fiat (or violence), you *do* have to negotiate with your fellow Americans....

You know the difference between "everything is negotiable" and "some things are negotiable." Since you do know that difference, what you said makes no sense to me.

You've followed Mark Steyn's tribulations with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunals? A government effort to criminalize his writing -- to make it a crime to publish his writings on Islam. A recent development, a passing fancy, but that's what you get when the right to free speech on political topics is "negotiable."

We don't have that in the U.S. because of the First Amendment...because for all the harm we've done our constitution, at some level we still recognize that some things, like the right to have a vigorous public debate about religion and immigration, are and ought to be off the table. (The answers to that debate? Those are on. But not the right to have it! You agree? Then you don't believe everything is negotiable.)

The classic response to libertarianism is, "OK, you show me where your abstract theories have been used in real life with success."

In the economic sphere...the closest is probably 19th-century England and America, and economic growth was fast. Libertarian ideas like "free trade" were massively successful compared to the mercantilist system that came before (Adam Smith's "abstract ideas" on that subject were in fact based on a lifetime of study and observation). Taxes by modern standards were almost nonexistent - a libertarian policy. Wages and incomes rose fast, without the government setting minimum wages or finding new ways to make workers more expensive. Economic depressions both happened and ended without Hoover/Roosevelt-type interventions. Libertarian ideas like "no official state church" (even at the state level) worked at least as well as what came before; in the twentieth century, anti-libertarian ideas like "prohibition" brought more crime than sobriety. The libertarian idea of "legalizing marijuana" is just now being tried in a few states so let's see how it compares with drug prohibition. The anti-libertarian idea of the Entitlement State has given us a national debt unparalleled in human history, so let's see where that takes us.

(And note the word "closest." I know the difference between "many libertarian ideas being tried" and "all of them being tried at once." You might fail a libertarian purity test if you advocated for the Factory Acts or the Poor Laws...but I could understand a conservative saying that is a good use for force, when the idea is to prevent injuries and starvation.)

But this is getting very far from the problems I have with Scruton's essay, which is what I'm writing about here. There is a world of difference between saying, "I think it's okay for the government to force people to pay wages of $20/hour"....and to pretend, through vague language, that this is the same kind of thing as people "freely associating" in "little platoons." As I said before, there is a case to be made for whatever statist idea tickles your fancy. But defining the central moral issue out of existence is not the way to make that case.

Posted by: Joseph W. at July 10, 2014 11:51 PM

I think Joe is right about at least one thing here: there is a clear difference between family and government. Government is not present in the family, even though we presumably try to live in peace together. This is a different mode of human interaction than strangers (or collections of families) coming together.

For one thing, family is given by nature: it is not possible to come to be as a human being without a father and mother. Now modern thought differs from the ancient thought on whether government is natural: moderns don't think so (it is the movement out of the State of Nature or State of War in Locke/Hobbes), but the ancients typically did (Aristotle said that man was a political animal). Still, it is either not-natural, or natural in a very different way.

Second, family does not include issues of equality. People are not equals; they have roles that are naturally given. There is a father and a mother; children are older or younger, and have different duties relative to their different ages and capacities. Government is very much about the question of who is equal to whom: either that all should be, or most should be, or only a few should be (this form is aristocracy, or possibly the relationship between common and preferred stockholders in a corporate governance), or that none should be because only one has rightful power.

One of the things that we see the Left trying to do is to confuse the difference between the everything-is-negotiable relations in the world of governing with the natural relations of the family. Why a father and a mother? Why not two mothers? The child won't know the difference, and daddy was probably a bad person anyway. And why shouldn't the child have an equal vote in how things are run, anyway? Maybe they should be the ones who hold preferred stock in the 'company.' What if they don't like cleaning bathrooms?

Scruton should know that, and probably would admit it if asked about it directly. I doubt, given what I've read of him in the past, that he would disagree with the point.

Posted by: Grim at July 11, 2014 12:25 AM

So in other words, it's an inexact metaphor? Kind of like saying there's government in all our attempts to get along with our fellow humans?

Maybe.

Calling a tomato a vegetable is wrong. But is it the same kind of wrong as calling it a suspension bridge?

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 11, 2014 09:21 AM

Calling a tomato a vegetable is wrong. But is it the same kind of wrong as calling it a suspension bridge?

No, but I don't accept that "a gun to the head" being called the same thing as "maybe you'll get a parking ticket" is as big an error as calling a tomato a suspension bridge.

Nor do I consider "don't pass a law unless you're willing to put gun to someone's head to enforce it" to be substantially more wrong than this:

Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own—namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order, and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the “little platoons” extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow. For it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.

The first is an unqualified exaggeration. It is demonstrably true that the government does not, in fact, place guns to people's heads to enforce most laws. And in fact, were out government to begin doing so, it would be violating its own laws.

Now people can step in after the fact and say, "Oh, we didn't really *mean* a real gun! You weren't supposed to take that seriously!", but the suggestion wasn't phrased with any qualification or ambiguity at all. And if I'm not supposed to take it literally, of what use is it?

Scruton's formulation - that some form of government is present in all our attempts to get along with each other - is qualified right from the start: explicitly qualified, up front.

So he makes it clear that governments exist along a continuum.

Whereas the "gun to the head" formulation explicitly encourages people to view force NOT existing along a continuum (though it absolutely does in real life). Had it said, "Never make a law unless you're willing to employ some form of force to enforce it", it would be a good parallel to Scruton's thesis.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 11, 2014 09:47 AM

I would put "a gun to the head" being a closer metaphor than "The truth is that government, of one kind or another, is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows."

There is no govt, of any form, manifest in my neighbor letting me borrow his saw. If he refuses me, no matter how adamantly, the worst I can do is ignore any requests of me in the future. That isn't, in any form, government (as either a noun or a verb). It falls under the categorical distinction I've made above.

There is a very credible threat of death in law enforcement if you refuse adamantly enough.

They are both inexact. But not the same kind of inexact.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 11, 2014 10:19 AM

Perhaps more succintly: Government is a structure that has the power to compell behavior of a group of people over which it has authority through methods beyond persuasion.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 11, 2014 10:40 AM

"there's government in all our attempts to get along with our fellow humans" isn't much of a metaphor. Usually a metaphor is a vivid image that draws an analogy for a purpose. Is that what this author did? I'd say he just expressed a view that the only useful human combinations aimed at living in peace take the form of government. If "government" is a metaphor for anything people do in concert, or anything they do in concert to promote the public peace, then I guess it's an accurate metaphor--really a tautology--but it looks more like a simple mistake.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 12, 2014 09:35 AM

"I think we've lost a sensible fear of what lies beneath that wafer thin veneer."

I think many people have, but not libertarians, particularly. For one thing, that "thin veneer" arguments works just as well for government. For another, we'd look in vain to government to fix the problem if the thin veneer of civilization cracked. To my way of thinking, what keeps it from cracking is 99% voluntary institutions and 1% government. When that ratio gets too far off, you don't get peace, you get North Korea.

People live in peace when they trust each other to deal on a basis of consent. I don't put much effort into locking my stuff up here because I know my neighbors will enter into discussions with me before using it, and will wait till we come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement, or else do without my stuff. We all know no one's going to have to call the cops to mediate; we don't even take each other to court. If we got to the point where we had to call the cops and sue each other, government would be stepping in as a curative agent, but it would speak to the serious breakdown of the normal peacekeeping institutions in our lives. Luckily, we normally have such problems only with a small minority of total strangers who, for one reason or another, are living outside the bounds of civilized voluntary institutions.

I think somehow our discussion got off on the wrong track of trying to imagine peace without any government at all. I've never denied that government has a useful role, only that it's role should be a minor part of what really makes society work most of the time. Government should step in only when people have grossly failed the test of voluntary civilization. So: the force of law (and all it entails) to deal with muggings? Sure. The force of law to deal with whether my neighbor buys my cupcakes or my cow's milk, or whether we give enough to the approved forms of charity, or buy Big Gulps? No. I have a strong prejudice for limiting government and saving the police power for violence and fraud.

Obviously if I were present and armed I'd use a gun to stop a mugging or apprehend a mugger after the fact. That being the case, I have no problem with delegating the task to a cop. I don't at all feel the same way about much of what the IRS, the Department of Education, the USDA, the DHS, or the EPA does, which is simply using the police power to enforce a social or political agenda that would be better addressed by persuasion and consent, including the persuasion and consent inherent in the broad workings of the market. What's more, once you give people the idea that it's natural to use the police power that way, there seems no end to their appetite to expand it. The human urge to meddle and dominate in petty matters of preference and conscience is as strong as the urge to use violence--perhaps stronger--and is an equally pressing concern for civilization to address with strong institutions.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 12, 2014 10:00 AM

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