Monthly Archives: October 2013

Introducing Liberty Couch!


Yeah, it’s a pretty silly name and I’m not sure what we were thinking, but Liberty Couch is now the blog of the Boise State Students for Liberty. We wanted to have an outlet to publish our thoughts. Thank God for the Internet. We hope that eventually we will be able to print the best of what comes out of that blog and distribute it on campus, perhaps exposing people to some new ideas.

I had the honor of writing the inaugural post yesterday, responding to a New York Times Opinion piece called, “Questions for Free-Market Moralists.” You can check that out here.

Thank you for reading and please let me know what you think of the response and of Liberty Couch.

Steve McQueen - 1972

Steve McQueen – 1972

Libertarianism and Minarchism


The above link goes to an interesting piece by David Boaz of Cato, trying to explain why libertarians are not “anti-government.” Of course, the kind of libertarian to which he refers is the minarchist libertarian (and I think sometimes minarchists get a worse rap than they should from anarchists, who I don’t think should try to alienate those with whom we can make loose coalitions. However, pretty much every minarchist that I know of couches his or her justification for minarchism in the same type of language as most individualist anarchists: that no one ought to initiate force against another, consent, etc. Thus, they are not internally consistent, and that is what anarchists rag on them for. But, I don’t think the minarchist position is necessarily inconsistent if the justification changes. If, say, one instead justified their political system based on what kind of system minimized coercion overall and could show that a minarchist system did so, then they would be consistent. Of course, a big contributing factor for why many people believe the state should be abolished is that it is too dangerous to tolerate).

Boaz first deals with the idea that what libertarians want weak government, but rejects that because libertarians want a government strong enough “to carry out its legitimate functions,” which he sees as functions to “protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors…” How would the libertarian anarchist respond to this? A well known quote is “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” I think this same consideration applies to David Boaz’s “legitimate” government. A single entity powerful enough to deter or punish all criminals also has the power to become the greatest criminal. That is partially why market anarchists support a polycentric legal order: there would be multiple entities with the ability to deter and punish crime for their clients in their communities, but not so big or monopolized that they can force their customers to pay them with impunity.

Boaz then discusses the idea that what libertarians want is small government, but finds that that might confuse people:

Not “weak government,” then. How about “small government”? Lots of people, including many libertarians, like that phrase to describe libertarian views. And it has a certain plausibility. We rail against “big government,” so we must prefer small government, or “less government.” Of course, we wouldn’t want a government too small to deter military threats or apprehend criminals. And Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., offers us this comparison: “a dictatorship in which the government provides no social security, health, welfare or pension programs of any kind” and “levies relatively low taxes that go almost entirely toward the support of large military and secret police forces that regularly kill or jail people for their political or religious views” or “a democracy with open elections and full freedom of speech and religion [which] levies higher taxes than the dictatorship to support an extensive welfare state.”

“The first country might technically have a ‘smaller government,’” Dionne writes, “but it undoubtedly is not a free society. The second country would have a ‘bigger government,’ but it is indeed a free society.”

Now there are several problems with this comparison, not least Dionne’s apparent view that high taxes don’t limit the freedom of those forced to pay them. But our concern here is the term “smaller government.” Measured as a percentage of GDP or by the number of employees, the second government may well be larger than the first. Measured by its power and control over individuals and society, however, the first government is doubtless larger. Thus, as long as the term is properly understood, it’s reasonable for libertarians to endorse “smaller government.” But Dionne’s criticism should remind us that the term may not be well understood.

So, Boaz settles on the term that what libertarians generally want is limited, constitutional government formed by the consent of the governed. But what he doesn’t explain is why this has to be a single entity with monopoly powers. He says, “Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors— a government, in short” [emphasis added]. Why a single institution is necessary is not explained in the article, and is probably beyond its scope, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed.

But perhaps most important, Boaz’s definition of government can be satisfied by an anarchistic, polycentric legal order (indeed, I think that it the only system that can satisfy it). If we think of government as an entity or entities that provide protection from criminals and dispute resolution, and is something based on the consent of the governed, then a polycentric legal order fits that definition. It is limited because it can only do what individuals contract it to do, and has an actual limitation with teeth if people are able to take their business elsewhere relatively easily. It is constitutional because it is actually contractual, not based on some mythical social contract. And, finally, it is consensual because the individuals forming it are the ones living under it.

So, minarchists should take a closer look at polycentric legal orders, as they might like what they find.

Reserve your seat at Passport to Freedom

Should the Government Pay Its Debts?


I don’t want it to seem like I think of Bleeding Heart Libertarians as a punching bag. I think they often make interesting points and bring challenges to mainstream libertarianism that its adherents need to be able to grapple with. They also often make for interesting discussion.

An article I would like to discuss today is that of Andrew Cohen’s, called “Shutting Down.” Cohen makes the argument that the government should uphold its contracts to pay those it owes. He puts aside the idea that “taxation is theft” and starts with the premise that if harm prevention and rectification are legitimate functions of government, then taxation is necessary.

He compares government to an individual:

Agent A makes a contract with agent B, agreeing to pay B $X. A overspends and has difficulty paying B. A decides not to pay B. In many cases, we would say this is unacceptable and that A must pay B what is owed. At least, we think, A must go through the proper channels to declare bankruptcy if A is to not pay B what A owes B. This would be unfortunate, we are told, but bankruptcy law is needed to allow for the proper running of the economy.

Today, the U.S. government is agent A.

He goes on:

People who were promised paychecks will not get them. Some will get them late. Some will get smaller paychecks (due to furlough time). Some of these people will face tremendous difficulty. I think it fair to say they will be harmed–having planned their lives given the promise of a regular paycheck, they have legitimate expectations that are being set back. Perhaps the government should not have hired those people in the first place (after all, they are “non-essential” personnel!). But the fact is they were hired and treating them this way is wrong and makes a mockery of contract.

Cohen admits that most of what the government considers “essential” and therefore won’t be affected by the shutdown has little to do with harm prevention or rectification. I feel like that fact makes it so that the government is unjustified in taxing people to pay these debts, since the government is going beyond Cohen’s role for government. Clearly, if taxation is not theft if it pays for legitimate government functions, it ought to be considered theft if it pays for something outside legitimate functions.

But, for Cohen, even criminal enterprises ought to honor their contracts:

Put the point this way: a mobster might be wrong to extract protection money from a business, but that does not make it any less wrong for the mobster to fail to protect that business in time of need. We don’t say “wait, the mobster doesn’t have to live up to its agreement because it was wrong to make the agreement in the first place.” I think most of us think 2 things: (a) the mobster should not have extracted the protection money in the first place and (b) the mobster owes the business protection. Similarly, I think the government should not have hired people to do non-essential jobs (by which I mean any jobs not needed for harm prevention and rectification) in the first place but that because it did, the government* owes those people their salaries on the regular pay days.

I find this to be a tragically poor analogy. The protection money is involuntarily coming from a business (analogous to tax revenue) and the mobster ought to protect that business in exchange (but is that really analogous to what the federal government uses its money to do?). What if that tax revenue is to pay a federal employee for something nobody would voluntarily pay for, such as an NSA employee spying on the American people or a drone operator killing children overseas? A more accurate analogy would then be the mobster paying his hitmen for the contracts he made with them. Honestly, I am more than fine with NSA agents and drone operators not being paid.

Most would agree that people should pay their debts, but they wouldn’t approve of someone stealing from others in order to be able to do so. Even if we assume the idea that taxation is not theft, so much of what the federal government does has nothing to do with Cohen’s defined role for government (indeed, if we consider the US Constitution to be the federal government’s contract with the states regarding its role, it must honor that contract before it has any obligation to pay for employees whose jobs explicitly violate it). Thus,  Cohen’s point is rendered moot: in reality, the employees having delayed, reduced, or even no paychecks do not serve Cohen’s role for legitimate government functions. Even if government ought to honor its contracts with them, that does not give it the right to tax others to pay for its debts. Otherwise, the government is not limited in its powers.

On the Death of Krazy 8


Krazy 8After having watched the finale of Breaking Bad, William, Samuel, and I ended up discussing whether Walter’s killing of Krazy 8 was justified.

These are the facts of the case:

Krazy 8 and his cousin, Emilio, were led to Walter and Jesse’s mobile meth lab to make a deal. Instead, Krazy 8 and Emilio planned to rob and kill Walter and Jesse, but not until after being taught how to cook Walter’s special meth. Walter was able to poison them and escape. Believing both were dead, Walter and Jesse transported the bodies in the RV. However, only Emilio was deceased. Krazy 8 was able to escape temporarily, but was recaptured by Walter and locked up in Jesse’s basement. After some time, Walter desired to let Krazy 8 go, but was worried that harm would befall him and his family. After a long discussion with Krazy 8, Walter decided to free him. However, when Walter cleaned up a plate that he had dropped and broken, he discovered that Krazy 8 had kept a shard of it. As Walter was feigning unlocking him, he saw Krazy 8 reach for the shard and strangled him.

Was Walter justified in his killing of Krazy 8?

William’s argument could be summarized as follows: since Walter could reasonably expect Krazy 8 would perpetrate immediate violence against him and his family, his killing of Krazy 8 was justified in self-defense.

But for Samuel, this wasn’t in immediate self-defense as Krazy 8 was still locked to a pole in the basement and therefore incapacitated. Walter’s alternative of keeping him locked up until he dies of natural causes would also be unjustified according to Samuel. What Walter should do is call the police, who are looking for Krazy 8, and see what kind of deal he can make to minimize the penalties against himself.

William does not find this acceptable. Walter has no moral obligation to subject himself to the state, which will likely punish him for committing victimless crimes. However, it is possible for Walter to deliver Krazy 8 into police custody anonymously. But this runs into difficulties: Krazy 8 still has the ability to implicate Walter in illegal activity, and more importantly, still poses a threat to Walter and his family, either by waiting until he is out of police custody and exacting revenge himself, or by having one of his lieutenants or a hired hitman ensure vengeance against the Whites. For William, this is too high of a price to take.

The competing values here seem to be between 1) the safety of Walter and his family and 2) avoiding the perils of taking the law into one’s own hands. These two values seem to be quite difficult to weigh against one another, but I feel that more must be said about the latter. Since I can’t delve into the question too deeply here, we will just assume that, all else being equal, justice is preferable when provided through transparent institutions open to public scrutiny rather than exclusively by the victims themselves. Accepting this would appear to be a mark against Walter’s case. But it is my contention that this whole case is an indictment against the state criminal justice system as it currently exists.

Walt kills Krazy 8

But for the black market conditions that prevail surrounding meth, it is unlikely that anyone would decide to attempt to kill someone for his or her recipe. Secondly, it is because of drug prohibition that calling the police is a significantly less attractive option for Walt, in addition to the fact that they will most likely be unable to protect Walter and his family. Thirdly, the state’s monopoly justice system left Walter with no institutional alternative to taking the law into his own hands. It seems unfair to say he is morally obligated to subject himself to the institution that quite arguably put him in the predicament in the first place.

The rebuttal that Walter should have known this going in is no valid defense for the state. One might as well argue that a mugger has mitigating circumstances because his victims should have known they were walking into a bad neighborhood.

In my opinion, Walter did the best he could with the situation he found himself in. Krazy 8 presented a mortal threat to his family, and the costs of seeking justice from the state, which would unduly punish him and would still leave his family at risk, were too high. One can hardly blame Walter for taking the law into his own hands when the monopoly justice system leaves him with no better alternative, and if one truly cares about the rule of law prevailing, she must question whether the state ultimately helps or hinders that ideal.