Monday, May 16, 2011

Volunteered slavery

I suppose if I didn't have a real job and a real life I might devote myself to critiquing the George Mason economics department. I already seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing that. My defense is that when it comes to bashing libertarians, at least I'm picking on some of the most prominent, ones who are well-respected academics as well as popular in the blogosphere, public intellectuals (of a sort). And they are also one tentacle of the Kochtopus, so there's that, I feel like I'm doing my small part to battle this fearsome monster. There's also the alarming fact that this libertarian tendency has been seeping into mainstream discourse for decades and is a large part of what is making the institutions of government completely dysfunctional.

Anyway: Bryan Caplan is one of those people who even when I agree with his conclusions, I feel like he's wrong. Here's a post where he asserts that "conscription is slavery" (echoed by Robin Hanson, my other bete noire). Now, I am no fan of conscription or the military. But there's clearly something wrong here, if only because this has exactly the same form as the standard libertarian assertion that "taxation is theft", and there's clearly something wrong with that. So I wrote in a comment:
Conscription is slavery in exactly the same way that taxation is theft: that is, it isn't really, except in the most superficial form of analysis. And just as your precious bank account is not really yours in some cosmic, absolute, and unqualified way, neither is your body or self, it turns out. The government gets to take a slice of both. Why? Because it's the government.

The way people around here and Hanson's blog use the idea of status is fairly obtuse. Instead of saying "people have a very strong innate bias for government over firms", maybe you should enquire as to why that is.

If you are an anarchist, then OK, you can complain about government all you want. If not, then you really can't whine when it comes around to collect the bill.
To expand on the cryptic second paragraph, Caplan should check out his colleague Daniel Klein's paper The People's Romance. He's just down the hall (I imagine). This paper outlines a reasonably good theory of why governments exist, why people align themselves to it, and why that's important to the functioning of society.

The larger point: the only reason libertarians can maintain their stupid ideology is because they are, almost uniformly, white middle-class suburbanites who are almost completely isolated from the violence necessary to prop up the state that maintains their pampered little lives. They don't go to prison, they don't go off to fight in wars. And they don't actually fight the government, as real radicals do, and thus they never feel its wrath.

The core of libertarianism (and most other anarchist tendencies) is to take the fact that modern societies have more or less granted government a monopoly of violence and "coercion", and reason from there that if only we got rid of government, we'd get rid of the violence. The error here is completely obvious once you've thought about it for ten seconds, yet the idea won't die. Anarchists are like atheists -- they define themselves by what they claim not to believe in.

Libertarianism always involves a corruption of language. They took the perfectly good word "libertarian" and co-opted it to mean an apologist for power, and Caplan is busy trying to do exactly the same thing for "pacifist", so that it no longer means someone deeply committed to non-violence, who will risk their life for the principle, but just someone who thinks in the abstract that war is bad. Is Caplan going to lie down in front of a troop transport? I think not.

So does the fact that Bryan Caplan doesn't like conscription mean I have to be for it? Not really. But there's one somewhat good argument for it -- it democratizes the costs of war, and thus may dampen the tendency of states to go to war. That dynamic certainly was active during the Vietnam War era, and is absent now. If states are inevitable, then wars are inevitable, and the best way to keep it in check might be to make sure everyone has a risk of being killed, or forced to kill. Or else forced to become actual pacifists, conscientious objectors who will actually risk something for their principles.

[update: some unrelated George Mason shenanigans. And it appears that the next Commerce Secretary may come out of the Mercatus Center? WTF?]

12 comments:

TGGP said...

Caplan is an anarchist. Hanson isn't (he holds utilitarianism above any principled rule) which is why he said "Conscription may be a good form of slavery – I for one do not accept a moral axiom that slavery must always be bad".

It seems to me that U.S has been less warlike and willing to incur casualties since switching to a volunteer military, but I can't easily disentangle causality there.

Peter Klein blogs at Organizations & Markets, the evil twin blog of OrgTheory. Dan Klein is a different fellow.

The folks behind the Motorhome Diaries get arrested pretty frequently, but I don't think they spend much time in prison (as opposed to jail). There was one Ron Paul fan who tried to shoot his way into the Pentagon, but that just illustrates the idiocy of fighting the man in a direct way.

mtraven said...

Caplan is no anarchist in my view. Real anarchists tend to be in jail or at least watched by the authorities. What threat does Caplan pose to power? He, like me, is basically a government employee, which makes posing as an anarchist somewhat difficult.

Corrected the Klein name, thanks.

Interesting to think that warlikeness is on the decline. I think the primary purpose of the military is to enrich its suppliers, so maybe they've figured out how to spend trillions of dollars without actually inflicting all that much violence, which is I guess is sort of a good thing.

TGGP said...

I agree with you and David Henderson that Caplan is misusing the term pacificism, and "anti-war" or "pro-peace" would be better descriptors. But your requirement that "real anarchists" must be in trouble with the authorities is ridiculous. William Godwin and Proudhon are considered the fathers of anarchism for their intellectual work, not viewing the "passion for destruction" as Bakunin did. Thoreau is famous for civil disobedience and going to jail, but he was mostly interested in the solitary "business of living" and rather passively declined to pay taxes. I would expect that academia is the place anarchism is most represented today (particularly since Marxism has lost its luster). Noam Chomsky seems content to "speak truth to power" rather than throwing his body on the gears of the machine.

I hope that the military-industrial complex evolves to the point of just being paid money to pretend to manufacture things. The major costs from our wars are actually the "boots on the ground", not the high margin stuff contractors love, which is why I buy Neumann's theory in "Victory and Recruitment" in CounterPunch rather than the ones that try to explain how the Iraq war made sense under any logic.

scw said...

Conscription is properly viewed as a tax, except that the government takes time out of the conscripts' lives and sends them into harm's way instead of merely taking their money. The corvée was a similar kind of tax, except that it did not place the corvéables in the line of fire.

Since neither a military conscript nor a corvéable can be bought or sold, and their servitude is for a set period rather than being permanent, it is exaggeration to call them slaves. The question ought rather to be, is either conscription or the corvée any more defensible than slavery, to which they both bear much similarity, even if they are not the same?

Similarly, taxation isn't exactly the same as theft - it bears much more similarity to extortion. What, really, is the difference between paying "protection money" to the Mafia, and paying it to the government? Refusal to pay, in each case, will have adverse consequences for the refuser; and the "protection" given the payer is mostly from the consequences. Many, perhaps most, activities of the state bring the ordinary taxpayer no more benefit than the activities of the Mafia do for the payer of protection money.

I don't believe most adherents of libertarianism want or expect the state to disappear; they just want to limit it to a few essential purposes. The opposing sentiment, which is that there almost nothing that falls outside the purview of the state, is a slippery slope into the abyss of totalitarianism. The failure of collectivism and dirigisme is that they deliver very few benefits to their subjects while oppressing them severely. Ultimately, they become unsustainable. We need only look to Cuba or North Korea for examples that are near or at the point of unsustainability.

What, exactly, is wrong with a government that serves the interests of "white, middle-class suburbanites"? Our government would be better, and better liked, if it made more effort to do so. As it is, white middle-class suburbanites foot the bill for a great many government activities that either do not serve them at all, or are actively harmful to their interests.

mtraven said...

TGGP: I think you take me too literally. Anyway, your examples aren't that great, since Thoreau did get jailed and I'm sure Chomsky has a hefty FBI file.

The point is, nobody in authority would ever consider Caplan any kind of a threat, because he is in fact a tool of authority. As is the entire libertarian movement, pretty much, but that's a longer discussion.

scw: hearing stuff like that from people like you is what cured me of my anarchism, long ago.

Obviously the point about white middle-class went right by you, as one might expect. The state's violence is largely directed at the poor (at home and abroad). The middle class in their suburbs are the beneficiaries of it. The modern state has evolved to the point where its operations are almost invisible to these beneficiaries, which allows people like Caplan to bleat about the state at the same time it props up his comfortable lifestyle.

This is the main reason I find libertarians infuriating, and the more so when they are allegedly intellectuals who ought to be able to think their way out of a paper bag.

scw said...

The criminal underclass deserves every bit of violence it gets from the state. Indeed, it deserves more. An active and armed border patrol that actually uses its guns, public hangings and floggings, and the reinstitution of debtors' prison, might make manifest to respectable citizens the benefits you allege they receive from the state. Rather than mollycoddling their underclass with generous welfare benefits at the expense of their productive citizens, the Spartans declared war annually on their Helots. We could well stand to do the same. Perhaps it might induce our undesirables to move to Canada!

scw said...

Further, I should be obliged if you could explain how "the middle class in their suburbs are the beneficiaries" of most of the state's violence "directed at the poor (at home and abroad)" apart from that specifically intended to protect respectable citizens from criminal depredations.

Let's take, as an example at home, the "war on drugs." Just how does this benefit the white suburban middle class? It has created a bloated police and prison establishment, paid for by taxes collected from the white suburban middle class, while dealing with a problem that would be self-limiting if it were merely let alone. The white suburban middle class would be far better off if the lumpen drug culture were allowed to narcotize itself into oblivion without state interference at extravagant cost to the taxpayer.

As an example abroad, how have the military adventures of the past twenty-odd years benefited the white suburban middle class? What did intervening in Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya do for that class? I can see that a quick punitive expedition to revenge the attacks of 9/11/2001 might have been emotionally satisfying, if nothing else, and possibly had some future deterrent effect - but what good has the extended U.S. military presence overseas devoted to 'nation building' done for America's taxpayers?

These adventures have wasted American lives and expanded the national debt significantly, jeopardizing the financial soundness of the government. The threatened monetization of the debt has diminished the purchasing power of the dollar, bringing about rises in the prices of commodities ranging from gold to oil to dairy products. The most fatuous claim of the left about the Iraq intervention was that it was about 'cheap oil.' Oil did nothing but rise in price after the invasion of Iraq; it has risen since the intervention in Libya. The region's despots have nothing of value but oil; and they have to sell it to the West, however much they detest us. If we wanted cheap oil, we'd have been far better off to have let them alone.

Finally, America's military activities abroad have failed to build nations. The countries in question are as inhospitable to that sacred cow of the chattering class, "demaaahcracy," as Antarctica is to a flower garden. Wilsonian internationalism has proven as great a disaster now as it did when the late unlamented Woodrow was alive and prating about it.

Pray tell, if you please, how the white suburban middle class has been the beneficiary of this misguided idealism. If the U.S. had not undertaken the wars on drugs, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, cut out 9/10 of the monies expended on them, and spent the remaining tenth of their cost on suppressing street crime, and on securing our borders and expelling illegal immigrants who came here to compete with the native-born for employment and to leech off of America's lavish social welfare system, the white suburban middle class would be far better off than it is today.

TGGP said...

Thoreau was arrested (I think a relative wound up paying his fine to get him out), but neither he nor Chomsky was any kind of threat. Revolutions and coups can be threats to a regime, but they are generally carried out by non-anarchists who want to run the state themselves!

I concur with scw that the many idiotic wars of our government do not benefit the public. The Swiss have done just fine without them.

mtraven said...

I concur with scw that the many idiotic wars of our government do not benefit the public.

Nice to know there is something we can all agree on.

scw: did you go off your meds or something? Subtract the racism, and you could pass for a leftist.

scw said...

I'm an old-fashioned isolationist. Pat Buchanan made the same points about military interventions in the middle east more than a decade ago, even as liberals were joining the clamour for them. So has Ron Paul on many occasions since then.

John Quincy Adams was not a "leftist" when he observed in 1821 that "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." It is in this spirit that Buchanan and Paul have opposed American military adventures abroad. The left has opposed them only out of its habitual sympathy for any perceived enemy of the United States.

What did I say that was "racist"? I did not make a single reference to anyone's race, other than to borrow your own phrase about "white middle-class suburbanites," and to dispute your unsupported contention that U.S. government violence at home or abroad somehow serves such persons' interests.

I have great respect and sympathy for the men of our armed forces, but I do not for a moment believe that the actions to which politicians have put them, at the very least since the end of the Cold War, have made Mr. and Mrs. White Middle-Class Suburbanite in any sense freer or more prosperous.

The oft-voiced claim that the soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq is somehow fighting for OUR freedom in those benighted places is a fatuous secular piety. He may be fighting for what someone in Washington sees as the freedom of the Afghans or Iraqis. They do not want that kind of freedom, and we can well do without such misguided altruistic notions.

Is advocating the suppression of street crime, or rigorous enforcement of laws against illegal immigration, now presumed prima facie to be a racist position? If so, how and why?

Veg said...

Often, when I hear right wingers (I'm trying not to say whackjobs... oops!), whether they're called libertarians, Tea Partyers, Republicans, GOPers, corporatists, or fascists, I find their vitriolic arguments so weak, so misguided, so selfish, so delusional, so paranoid, so off base, that I think of Wolfgang Pauli: "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!"

scw said...

Saying such things doesn't make them so. What substantiation has been presented here to support mtraven's claim that "the middle class in their suburbs are the beneficiaries of it [i.e., the state's violence]"?

Effusions about how right-wing arguments are "weak, misguided, selfish, deluded, paranoid" are not acceptable in lieu of evidence.