Not Your Decision To Make

Despite being a libertarian for over a decade, I continue to be surprised at the sheer gall and error of paternalism and its reversal of responsibility.

Obama, calling for higher taxes:

If I am sitting pretty and you've got a waitress who is making minimum wage plus tips, and I can afford it (the tax hikes) but she can't, what's the big deal for me to say I'm going to pay a little bit more. That is neighborliness.

Of course, charity is a good thing. But forcing someone else to give to the poor at gunpoint is not charity - it is theft, the opposite of neighborliness. It is not your decision to make.

Mark Kleiman, on drug prohibition:

Still, I think Caulkins could make a plausible case that the decision to start to use alcohol or tobacco or cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine (in other than pill form) is an ex ante bad decision, because the relatively modest gain from successfully controlled use, multiplied by the probability of achieving controlled use, is outweighed by the very heavy losses from falling into even relatively transient abuse and the extreme losses from falling into chronic abuse, multiplied by those probabilities. The expected value of the gamble may well be negative, even if most people who take the gamble come out somewhat ahead of the game, because the average loser loses more than the average winner gains.

Thus Caulkins has a reasonable argument that voters might reasonably decide to protect their fellow citizens from the risk of falling into substance abuse disorder, even at the expense of missing the pleasures of moderate use.

No. It may be reasonable to abstain from alcohol or tobacco or cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine use. But this is not the same as saying voters can reasonably decide to make this decision for their neighbors. It is not their decision to make.

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why is it not their decision to make?

I say this as someone sympathetic to your side of the argument. However...

Why isn't it their decision to make? Let's take restricting drug use. What would you say to someone who just plainly stated that the anticipated damages of legalizing drug use exceed the costs of restricting those who would be responsible users? And that this was more important than whatever paternalism concerns there are.

bobvis, The main thing I

bobvis,

The main thing I wanted to point out with these two quotes is the subtle topic change. Even if you believe that the correct decision is to give more because your neighbor is poor, or to abstain from drug use, that is a different decision than the decision to make that decision for someone else. Both quotes confuse the issue, changing the topic from the most reasonable individual decision to a meta-decision.

As for why it isn't their decision to make, honestly, I think most people intuitively understand the problem with paternalism when it is spelled out clearly, rather than obscured through double talk as it was here.

Conflict of interest

I agree with your point on Obama. It's also worth looking at the demographics and realizing that not only are the rich unlikely to vote for Obama, and thus have their money taken against their will, but the poor are likely to vote for Obama exactly in the interest of increasing their own handout. Even if one thinks that redistribution is a moral outcome, it's doubly disingenuous for Obama to call it neighborliness when it is the recipient setting the amount and the net effect is more like bribery for votes using someone else's money.

The sad thing is very few

The sad thing is very few rich will be upfront and stand for their money. Fiscal conservatives will talk about government waste, about how welfare recipient ought to find a job etc, but will not simply defend their property.

When Obama and Clinton where still running against each other, there were people in the street telling you to choose Obama or choose Clinton (campaigning for McCain is a pure waste of time in NY). Unfortunately, I got this wonderful talk with an Obama guy... the great thing is that they can't get mad at you, it's deligthful

(Approximate words, I don't remember exactly, these are the ideas)

- Hi, yeah Obama (or something like this)
- Hum, no I don't want Obama to be president
- Why is that
- He will raise taxes
- Only on the rich, he will lower taxes for the poor
- I don't care I belong to the "rich", I will pay more taxes
- But, it's only fair that the rich pay their share to society, don't you think we should help the poor
- Not with my money

Fun, fun fun.

Since I'm already offtopic, I'll mention the time I got stopped in the street wearing a big "Enemy of the State" anarchist T-Shirt by the ACLU trying to raise my awareness about the constitution... they assumed legal positivism and priceless confusion ensued.

Sometimes I think the

Sometimes I think the libertarian's strongest argument is simply pointing out the definitional confusion others commit when they mention "selflessness," somehow mutated to a meaning I'd never known until I started listening to political pundits: "giving away other peoples' money."

Tax-code bribery is bipartisan

To be sure, by selling tax cuts to the bottom 95% of the income distribution, Obama is buying votes. But how is this different than Bush (and now McCain) selling tax cuts to the rich?

Well, one difference is clear: Bush was (and McCain is) offering a vastly larger bribe – larger in terms of consequences for the recipient, and in terms of consequences for the national treasury.

The difference likely to be cited by libertarians, however, is the notion that shifts in the distribution of wealth (relative to the status quo) caused by tax CUTS is ok, because people have a property interest in their untaxed revenues, whereas tax increases are not. I’ll address this theory below.

On taxation

I understand Micha Ghertner’s initial post to argue that progressive taxation is wrong. That’s largely a matter of religion – you believe or you don’t. But this simple argument has slipped into a discussion of the merits of taxation generally. Here's my view:

I value autonomy. If I'm simply relying on my own force to defend my autonomy, then I have no need to concern myself with "rights"; I'm free to employ my force for any purpose I choose, regardless of any sense of rights, up to the point I encounter a countervailing force, which will be similarly unconstrained by notions of rights.

But because I’m not persuaded that I could defend my autonomy all by myself – or that it would be efficient for me to do so – I value having government defend my autonomy on my behalf, even if I must surrender a portion of that autonomy in the process. Indeed, the whole concept of “rights” only arises in the context of providing guidance for a disinterested third party – “the state,” “society,” a philosopher – resolving disputes between rival claimants to autonomy.

But as the old saying goes, freedom isn’t free; defending autonomy requires resources. I kick in some resources, and others do as well.

What are the consequences when some official reduces the amount that any party must contribute to the maintenance of our common government? That’s the crux of the issue.

Some people argue that there is no consequence – that by excusing people from their duty to contribute to the maintenance of government, a head of state can create wealth by fiat.

In contrast, others argue that there is a link between government revenues and services, even if attenuated, and that a healthy, effective government is an implied aspect of every claim to every right. It is generally acknowledge that a head of government can buy darned near anything simply by printing money, but he will debase the currency. That is, this policy results in the leader gaining but the holders of the currency losing in the long run – a transfer of wealth from people to the head of state. It is also generally acknowledged that the head of a government can take funds intended for maintaining government and instead spend them to curry favor with various constituencies. It is less widely acknowledged that this practice has the same corrosive effect as debasing the currency, in that in the long run in undermines the people’s access to government services, including the defense of autonomy. Again, the policy reflects a choice by a head of state to benefit himself at the expense of the people. Reckless monetary policy and reckless fiscal policy are both attacks on the rights of citizens and should not be tolerated.

Economist David Bradford, the architect of the Reagan tax cuts, declared that he could not support Bush’s tax policies during Bush’s first term; by 2004 Bradford could no longer support Bush at all. He simply found Bush’s policies shortsighted and unsustainable. So does every economist of which I am aware, including McCain’s own economic advisor. The fiscal policies have resulted in a huge transfer of wealth out of the “commonwealth” into the pockets of the rich.

If you start from the assumption that we should expect to pay nothing for government services, then the analysis is simple: any tax is bad and any tax cut is good. But if you start from the assumption that we should expect to pay for governmental services, and those who shirk this duty are transferring wealth out of our collective pockets and into their own, then discussions of public finance become more complicated. So when anyone tells me that they agree or disagree with a tax cut, tax increase, or transfer program, I ask them to defend the current level of taxation, distribution and debt. Until I understand what your views of the status quo, I don’t know how to evaluate your complaint about any proposed change.

The US is currently running a huge debt, and that debt is expected to explode in the future. Implied in any criticism of any tax increase is some assumption about how to deal with this debt – or a big bunch of hot air. Until I know what underlies someone’s understanding of the status quo, I cannot evaluate the criticism.

Autonomy is as good as anomy

Autonomy is as good as anomy if it doesn't rely on an absolute. If you see no wrong with a serial killer skinning his victims alive and then killing them, then you are truly blind.

But because I’m not

But because I’m not persuaded that I could defend my autonomy all by myself – or that it would be efficient for me to do so – I value having government defend my autonomy on my behalf, even if I must surrender a portion of that autonomy in the process.

Nobody thinks that they can defend their own autonomy all by themselves, just as nobody thinks that they can grow all their own food or craft all their own clothes by themselves. But that isn't an argument for surrendering autonomy to the grocer or the tailor; it is an argument for trading with them for mutual advantage.

Here is Don Boudreaux, riffing off Anthony de Jasay's "Your Dog Owns Your House":

Even if we stipulate, for purposes of argument, that the state is the only possible, or the best possible, supplier of protection against violence and the best possible supplier of dispute-resolution services, society as we know it would nevertheless collapse were it not for farmers, tailors, home-builders, physicians, lawyers, stockbrokers, engineers,..... the list is long.

Get rid of any of these producer groups and people die by the millions. And yet, no one proclaims that "Justice is whatever farmers claim it to be" or "Because society cannot exist if people aren't clothed, then weavers and tailors are the foundation of society."

One of the beautiful facts about a great society such as ours is that no group of persons, no particular group of specialisst, plays a role that alone creates society. Each of many groups of specialists is necessary for society to exist; no single group of specialists -- not even that group specializing in protecting people from violence -- is sufficient.

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Indeed, the whole concept of “rights” only arises in the context of providing guidance for a disinterested third party – “the state,” “society,” a philosopher – resolving disputes between rival claimants to autonomy.

If this is the case, then a document like the Constitution is incoherent, for we can have no rights against the Federal Government (that is, we can have no rights that the Federal Government can be guilty of violating) since there is no disinterested third party beyond the Federal Government. If the government is the source of all rights, then it is not bound by them either.

Some people argue that there is no consequence – that by excusing people from their duty to contribute to the maintenance of government, a head of state can create wealth by fiat.

No, I don't think anyone actually reasons this way. Some reason that the optimal level of taxation and spending is far below the actual level of taxation and spending, and therefore cuts to either will create wealth by fiat. Supply siders may be wrong about whether the current level of taxation is more or less than the optimal level of taxation, and people can differ on what determines optimality (justice, revenue maximization, etc.) But your version of the argument sneaks in the conclusion you are trying to reach: that your opponents already agree with you about the proper level of "duty". They don't; if they did, they wouldn't disagree with you.

Reckless monetary policy and reckless fiscal policy are both attacks on the rights of citizens and should not be tolerated.

Where do these "rights of citizens" come from? How can a head of government attack the rights of citizens when the government is itself the source of those rights? If your dog owns your house, you can't complain when your dog shits on your carpet.

On rights

Indeed, the whole concept of "rights" only arises in the context of providing guidance for a disinterested third party – "the state," "society," a philosopher – resolving disputes between rival claimants to autonomy.

If this is the case, then a document like the Constitution is incoherent, for we can have no rights against the Federal Government (that is, we can have no rights that the Federal Government can be guilty of violating) since there is no disinterested third party beyond the Federal Government. If the government is the source of all rights, then it is not bound by them either.

It might well be said that no one has a right against the King because the King, as adjudicator of all claims, decided what is right and what is not.

But the US Constitution provides for separation of powers. Thus an Article III judge presumably has no special interest in seeing that the Article II executive prevails with respect to any specific claim. That's the theory, anyway – Bush v. Gore notwithstanding.

The point is that we can dispense with discussions of "rights" where we're not trying to appeal to some authority -- for example, when we're relying on force alone. Consider, for example, what sense it makes to discuss the "rights" a citizen has against rogue police officers, or a coup by the US military: "Rights" only become relevant to the extent that civil order prevails and a victim can allege a claim to some agent of that authority.

Reckless monetary policy and reckless fiscal policy are both attacks on the rights of citizens and should not be tolerated.

Where do these "rights of citizens" come from? How can a head of government attack the rights of citizens when the government is itself the source of those rights?

Admittedly, I don't need to complicate this part of the discussion with references to "rights." Permit me to rephrase: Reckless monetary policy and reckless fiscal policy are both attacks on the interests of citizens.

The point is to emphasize that the burden of national debt warrants consideration along with the burden of taxation. People who complain about the one while ignoring the other are ignoring the consequences of their policy preferences. I expect libertarians to be sensitive to the problems of externalities, and I'm always shocked to find how few recognize national debt as a big, fat externality.