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Government Is Good (Despite What Some Libertarians Say)

One Perspective On Government

Some libertarians oppose governments on the principle that they are organised gangs of thugs. They consider the defining characteristic of governments to be that governments claim the right to initiate force ... and people listen (whereas most thieves don't pretend to be legitimate and aren't considered as such). They point out that they never agreed to pay taxes, and don't want to, and don't like most of the stuff that taxes pay for, and consider that conclusive.

Some of these libertarians support the war on terrorism. They realise that terrorism is a great threat, and to wish see it fought against. Terrorism is so bad that anyone at all fighting it is good. I suppose they must see the matter as a powerful pickpocket guild beating up a renegade gang of murderers. A "lesser of two evils" situation.

(Some libertarians would oppose the war on terror, either because they figure "If we leave them alone, they'll leave us alone, and nevermind Israel," or "No collateral damage is ever acceptable, under any circumstances, for any purpose, even if it is only caused because the enemy is using human shields." But I won't go into how silly I think those approaches are right now.)

Some of these libertarians, if given the option, would be happy to see the US government disappear tomorrow. The institution, the knowledge of how to run it, the taxes, the laws, etc... This is absurd, notably, even within the pickpocket metaphor, as it means foregoing protection.

But there's more than that; there are good reasons to like our government and support it besides self-defense. Our government does various things, some important. Now, the libertarians will insist that all these functions could, in theory, be done by private companies. Well, yes, I agree. But so what? I don't see these companies. They don't exist (yet).

It's not as if an anarcho-capitalist society (in short: free market capitalism with all government functions replaced by private companies and taxes replaced by user fees for people who want the services) would simply come into being without our government. Anarcho-capitalism is not the natural state of affairs that once existed until it was destroyed when a group of evil thugs invented government and took over. It is, rather, a very advanced notion that requires lots of knowledge to implement. This knowledge must be created gradually, through the improvement of existing institutions. Government functions must not disappear overnight, but instead slowly be replaced by private institutions that function better. We need good traditions, not a revolution.

Why Government Is Good

Governments create consent. That's the reason in a nutshell, but of course it needs an explanation.

Let's imagine a group of people living somewhere with no government, and little knowledge. Some will be bad, and will want to dominate over the others. So most people will form mutual defense pacts. And somewhere not too far off, some bad person will have conquered an empire, and formed an army, and thus our people will want to form one big defensive pact, instead of lots of scattered ones, so that they can fend off the entire army if need be. So they will form institutions to cooperate in regional defense. When an invasion looms, there may be disagreements about how many soldiers are needed to fight it off, and who must become a soldier, and where their equipment will come from. Thus, a system to resolve these issues is needed.

And these people will also set up institutions for small-scale defense against criminals. And they will need some system of deciding who is and is not a criminal. The answer to this is not self-evident despite what some libertarians seem to think. There will be disagreements, and thus some way to resolve them will be needed.

One day, Joe's crop goes bad. He asks others for help. They form some food-sharing institutions. They create rules to govern these. The people all value security, and thus put in provisions to help anyone who does not have enough.

One day they invent medicine. They realise that if they only pay the doctor when they are sick, he will starve in the mean time. And also that he will have no motivation to help prevent people from becoming sick. So everyone pays a low price all the time, and the doctor helps whoever needs help at recovery and prevention both. Some people disagree about who the doctor should be helping, saying he favours his friends, and they create institutions to resolve disputes of that nature.

What will all these institutions look like? Well, at first they will be very crude. The defensive agreement might simply state that all able-bodied men must fight when there is a war, or be put to death. The food agreement might allow anyone who is starving to take food from his neighbor, "as long as he made a genuine effort to create his own food." And the system of resolving disputes might be to ask the town elder.

And, over time, people will come up with better ideas. And after a while, and a lot of progress, something like our current government and courts might form.

If this society (that we've imagined) progresses to use a completely voluntary army, that will be an amazing advance. And if it has elected leaders who consent to voluntarily step down when their term ends, that will be an amazing advance. And if criminals are presumed innocent until evidence is presented against them, that will be an amazing advance. And if there are property rights defended by law, and a system of consensual trade, that will be an amazing advance.

When we know how to do better than using government for these things, we will. But we do not. The path to a better society is not to rail against our government, but rather to acknowledge it for what it is: an imperfect, evolving tradition and a great force for good.


Elliot Temple on November 3, 2003

Comments (31)

Which people do you think are doing more to help the government evolve in the best direction?:



Those who have powerful theories about when collective force is appropriate and when it isn't; and loudly complain when they think the government is violating the liberties that decent people should respect?



Or



Those who repeat that the government is good, and evolving, and that those who think it is doing bad things and should change should shut the hell up.


Gil at 12:44 PM on November 3, 2003 | #564

My point is that I think that the path to a better society is to "rail against the government", when it's wrong and doing or threatening to do bad things.



It won't improve if those with the best ideas merely "Acknowledge it for what it is, an evolving tradition". It is only via valid and effective criticism that it can evolve in a better direction. There's a great danger of those with the most political pull using it to abuse the rights of others and consolidating more and more power.



And I think it's wrong (or at least misleading) to declare that government is "a great force for good." It's just as much "a great force for evil."



Which way it goes depends, largely, on who has the best ideas about which way it should go. Right now, like it or not, libertarians have better ideas about this than any other identifiable group.


Gil at 2:06 PM on November 3, 2003 | #565

It is good to *have* governments, but government itself should be being gradually reduced, ie withdrawn from areas of human life. If government in the second sense were good, it would not be right to gradually reduce it. So saying government is good as if *all* government was good, is a bit misleading. The truth is that good government is good, and bad government is bad. Age of consent laws are government, and (mostly/wholly? not sure which) of a bad kind.



One of the ways in which government should evolve is, it should be getting smaller. Governments should butt out of education, health, drugs, various other things fairly soon, I think, and ultimately be responsible only for state boundaries and armies. After that, I don't know.


Alice Bachini at 2:07 PM on November 3, 2003 | #566

"The truth is that good government is good, and bad government is bad."



I agree with this conclusion.



However, later on you say "One of the ways in which government should evolve is, it should be getting smaller." Is this not misleading in the same way you claimed Elliots statement was misleading and corrected it with the first statement above.



In other words, too big of government should be evolving smaller and too small of government should be evolving bigger.


Pat at 5:33 PM on November 3, 2003 | #567

Gil,



I meant to criticise those who rail against government in general, or against having one at all. I agree that we should criticise specific aspects of the government, and specific policies. But we should not say that because the government is wrong about some policies, that it is a bad thing. It isn't.



I still insist on saying government is *good*. I know it can be misused, but so can guns and even ambulances (as Arab terrorists have been showing us). These things all help people realise their intentions, and yes some people have bad intentions, but the things themselves cannot be blamed for that. They are just tools. And it's good that tools like these exist, not bad.


Elliot at 7:36 PM on November 3, 2003 | #568

Alice and Pat,



I agree with Pat's point, but wanted to expand on it. I believe that, in the (distant) future, government will get smaller and then go away entirely (replaced, in short, by institutions that do not initiate force). So, in a sense Alice is right that government ought to get smaller. But she is missing the 'eventually' part. Just because the road goes to somewhere with little and then no government does not mean there will be less and less government the whole way there. It could be that the path to anarcho-capitalism involves temporary increases in the size of government.



And in fact, we know that it has in the past. There used to be no government, and now we have more than that. And I think even Gil will agree the creation of some of the more-than-nothing government we have now was good. So, the path rightly involved an increased amount of government in the past. Perhaps it will again.



I also believe Alice somewhat misses the point about governments creating consent. This is because she complains about the existence of age of consent laws. I don't think we should complain about such laws directly. They are only a symptom of the real problem: an ageist society. This law, like many others, reflects what our society thinks is right. When our society has a different idea of what is right, the law will change. So to complain about the law, instead of the ageism in our society, is the wrong approach.



And I'd even go further. The existence of age of consent laws is, in a sense, *good*. Because, imagine what would happen if society remained the same, but the law was removed. We would suddenly have a state of the vast majority of people disagreeing with the law. That would be a crisis. And it would only be resolved when we created the law again. We need laws to say things that our society, on the whole, agrees with. We need laws our citizens can consent to follow. While some laws may seem bad to us, because we disagree, and may reflect a great moral flaw in our society, I believe we should criticise the moral flaw in society, not the law.


Elliot at 7:50 PM on November 3, 2003 | #569

Elliot,



Are you implying that anti-slavery laws should not have been imposed on a non-consenting South, but the moral flaws should have been addressed first?



Or, to put it another way, that the laws protecting slave-ownership should not have been removed without the general consent of southerners?


Gil at 8:11 PM on November 3, 2003 | #570

Gil,



I believe in the case of slavery, changing the laws to be anti-slavery, *and enforcing them that way*, was an important part of the fight against the moral flaw of slavery. This is because, in short, slavery involved large scale initiative of force, and defending the victims was right.



This analysis, however, would not hold in, say, cases of discrimination. For example, if a shopkeeper did not want to hire black people to work in his store, although this might be morally wrong, the appropriate response would not be to force him to do it (and if there were anti-discrimination laws, I would say they were indicative of a moral flaw in the society relating to how it treats using force against peaceful citizens).



Are age of consent laws an attack on minors that should be defended by force, or is it just discrimination? I believe it depends on the society. I could imagine a society where it would make sense to argue that age of consent laws were an attack on a group of people, that seriously hampered their ability to function in society by treating them as less than people, and an attack that could not be tolerated.



However, I don't believe that's the case in our society. In our society, almost all children live with their parents until they are 18 anyway. Yes, age of consent laws suck for some people, but I don't think they qualify as large scale initiation of force to defend against. I'd be happy to cheer on the few people who get screwed by that kind of law and want to fight it in court, and happy to vote for changing the law, and happy to explain why it reflects the wrong attitude towards young people, but that's about it.


Elliot at 9:57 PM on November 3, 2003 | #571

I'm confused.



Why would you vote for changing the law?



In your message to Alice and Pat you seemed to say it's bad to remove the law while the majority still favors it. Shouldn't you vote to keep it in place on those grounds, if you think that's what the majority wants? What if the majority stayed home and the law got repealed? Where would consent be then?



And, what do you mean "but, that's about it."?

As opposed to what other reactions? Do you see libertarians suggesting taking up arms to end smoking bans? Is your criticism just that libertarians are too passionate about getting rid of bad laws?


Gil at 11:08 PM on November 3, 2003 | #572

Gil,



I don't have perfect knowledge of what everyone else wants the law to say. That's what voting is for. We all come together to find out what laws we can consent to. I think to be consistent, all I have to do is not be particularly upset if what I vote for doesn't win (though I can still be upset that people are confused/dumb/whatever enough to think their rival policy is good). And if my selection does win the vote, well, then I'll have good reason to think it *wasn't* such a minority view after all.



It's possible that a minority view will get a higher voter turnout and win an election that it shouldn't. But if it's really a minority view, it'll just get changed next time there's a vote, and if people really care they'll be more encouraged to pay attention. The chances of this happening with something that would cause a crisis (something everyone cares tons about) seem very slim because something so important wouldn't get a low voter turnout.



You may say that even the presidential election gets a low voter turnout. Well, sort of. That's semantics. But it's high enough in the important sense: third party candidates can't win even if everyone who likes them shows up to vote.



As to, "But that's about it," that was meant in contrast to the slavery scenario, which I do think is worth fighting over.


Elliot at 3:58 AM on November 4, 2003 | #573

Elliot,



"Just because the road goes to somewhere with little and then no government does not mean there will be less and less government the whole way there." I entirely agree. I also agree with you about the age of consent laws. I ws trying to find an example of a law ripe for change, and I do think much of the consent laws are ripe for change, but I have no problem with the *existence* of age-of-consent laws per se, as libertarians might, for the reasons you give.


Alice Bachini at 4:54 AM on November 4, 2003 | #574

"Some libertarians oppose governments on the principle that they are organised gangs of thugs."

True, but some libertarians embrace the "gangs of thugs" model because of it's explanatory power. That it seems to better explain the way governments behave. (Certainly better than the high school civics model of government.) It also brings up some pertinent questions such as: How does a gang of thugs achieve legitimacy in the eyes of it's subjects? and how does one distinguish between a gang of thugs and something else?


FH at 8:24 PM on November 12, 2003 | #575

I agree the "gang of thugs" model is interesting and worth thinking about. It's also not the worst one around by any means. The leftist, statist politics taught in skool are certainly awful. However, I believe my model is more accurate than the "gang of thugs" one. Governments are different than gangs of robbers; they try to reach consent, and do their best. Yes, our *society* has some flawed, statist theories, and unsurprisingly our government reflects that. But if "gang of thugs" was literally accurate, we would be justified in shooting our government, and would have trouble seeing why ours is so much better than Iran's. Of course it's not.


Elliot at 8:31 PM on November 12, 2003 | #576

I don't think it would accomplish much to "shoot the government" . It might make sense if you thought a particular government agent or political party member viewed himself that way. But I don't think most government agents or political party members view themselves that way.

If one was to take the "gang of thugs" model seriously then it would make sense to demonstate to those participating in the political process that their behavior is very similar and, in some situations, indistinguishable from the behavior exhibited by a "gang of thugs". If they don't view their behavior as virtuous, most people have a hard time continuing with that behavior. Might it be a mistake to view the U.S. government as superior to the Iranian government? i.e. the culture in the U.S. is superior to the culture in Iran, which to some extent keeps in check such tyranny


FH at 9:17 PM on November 13, 2003 | #577

The US government is pretty good at creating consent. Most of our society consents to it (rightly, I might add). And its methods aren't so crude. For example, rather than resolve disputes by asking the town elder, or the absolute dictator, we have a court system. I can't say I've done much research on Iran, but I assume if they have courts at all, they're a poorly disguised sham. So I think failing to consider the US government far, far superior to the Iranian one is a grave mistake.


Elliot at 11:02 PM on November 13, 2003 | #578

Would you also say that most governments are good at creating the appearance of consent? and have an interest in doing so?


FH at 9:11 PM on November 14, 2003 | #579

most are bad at it, but yes would have an interest in doing so, sure (for example, most dictators very clearly don't have much consent to go with their rule).



but umm some countries aren't like that. here, the money bit is:



What will all these institutions look like? Well, at first they will be very crude. The defensive agreement might simply state that all able-bodied men must fight when there is a war, or be put to death. The food agreement might allow anyone who is starving to take food from his neighbor, "as long as he made a genuine effort to create his own food." And the system of resolving disputes might be to ask the town elder.



And, over time, people will come up with better ideas. And after a while, and a lot of progress, something like our current government and courts might form.



If this society (that we've imagined) progresses to use a completely voluntary army, that will be an amazing advance. And if it has elected leaders who consent to voluntarily step down when their term ends, that will be an amazing advance. And if criminals are presumed innocent until evidence is presented against them, that will be an amazing advance. And if there are property rights defended by law, and a system of consensual trade, that will be an amazing advance.



do you have an argument against this? if no, i assert that countries with advances *are* better than countries lacking those same advances.


Elliot at 9:25 PM on November 14, 2003 | #580

Maybe I should backtrack a little bit and ask you what your definition of consent is. Example: Someone once descibed democracy as "Two wolves and a lamb voting on what's for lunch." Did the lamb consent to being eaten since it participated in the voting?


FH at 1:07 PM on November 15, 2003 | #581

umm consent is like when people agree to stuff.



the lamb obviously didn't consent to that. but if a village held a town meeting a decided "we're gonna fight back these damn raiders. everyone grab your weapons." probably everyone *would* consent even though telling everyone what to do might be considered using force.



the reason we consent to government (or should) is it does useful things that are important to us, in the best way it can. it's trying to help, and it mostly does.


Elliot at 10:27 PM on November 15, 2003 | #582

Do you mean unanimous consent? The larger the village the more unlikely that would be. A village member might think her own lot would be:

A. Better

B. Worse

C .No different

with the raiders in charge. And the village member might think that the lot of the whole village would be:

A. Better

B. Worse

C .No different

with the raiders in charge. What becomes of the dissenters? Do they become the "lambs"? Historical example: Some of the Indians within the Aztec empire allied themselves with the Spaniards.


FH at 9:01 AM on November 16, 2003 | #583

consent is an individual thing. unanimous consent is if every individual consents.



OK suppose you're in such a society, and you want a defensive plan (everyone else, who'd rather be conquered next time raiders come, is asked to leave). Now, you realise that when the raiders come, there will be multiple ways to defend the town, and it'll be important to quickly agree on one. Everyone wants this.



So, they all consent to use a voting system. Now, they may not like the particular outcome that wins the vote, but they agreed to the system, knowing they might not win the vote. So, if plan B wins the vote, the rational ones will consent to use plan B to defend the town even though they think plan A is better.



BTW there are lots of voting systems. They will agree on which to use in advance.



And should there be a misfit problem in the future, people who can't seem to consent to this setup, won't we wonder what is wrong with them? Why the hell can't they?


Elliot at 9:22 AM on November 16, 2003 | #584

I think you might have a problem with asking everyone else to leave. Would you compensate them for their property? What if they refused to leave? What if they are willing to fight against raider group X but not against raider group Y? But lets assume you can solve this. You have a mutual defense agreement. Is this a government? If it is I doubt many anarcho-capitalists would object to it. But don't you think this model has been so idealized that it's questionable how well it describes how governments really behave?


FH at 1:18 PM on November 16, 2003 | #585

A government is any institution that claims the legitimate use of initial force (with some exceptions; if terrorists *said* that they wouldn't be considered governments). So, if it does taxes or draft by geographical area instead of subscribers, that's a government.



Do you understand why most of the town won't want people they see as traitors around? Do you think it's wrong to want traitors who won't consent to a voting system to go away, and make them go away?


Elliot at 1:32 PM on November 16, 2003 | #586

Sorry, your opening sentence was: "Some libertarians oppose governments on the principle that they are organised gangs of thugs. They consider the defining characteristic of governments to be that governments claim the right to initiate force ... and people listen" I thought you were critiquing this view.

But...I don't see how an organization that has the right to use force would be good at creating consent. I think it would be the opposite. If your main tool is a hammer you are probably going to see most problems as nails.


Unknown at 6:24 PM on November 17, 2003 | #587

well i agree that common sense is on your side. however, it's a little late to appeal to that after detailed arguments. it's like "oh, yeah, nice arguments, but wouldn't I be right?" ummm..... I've been explaining why governments actually do create consent. do you have a response to what i've said?



(strangely enough, if asked, most people would probably say common sense is on my side)



on another note, in the US we have guns. why don't we have a revolution? well, one possibility is that our government isn't like an organised gang of thugs and we actually like it (in other words, consent to it). or, i suppose you could say we're brainwashed. if we're brainwashed, umm how? is that just a fancy way to say you disagree? or what?


Elliot at 8:49 PM on November 17, 2003 | #588

No doubt most people in the US "consent" to the government They "consent" because they believe that it is, or can be made, virtuous. But is this belief based on an implicit version of your model?For a small percentage I would say yes. For the rest government virtue is based on something entirely different. For the fundamentalist Christian's it's virtue is that it enforces the ten commandments. E.g.: the shalt not kill and also...Remember the Sabbath (no liquor sales on Sundays) Of course Christians want to make government better...enforce sodomy laws, better drug enforcement etc. For the socialists it's virtue might be social welfare programs... but it could be made better by nationalized health care. It seems to me that the adherents to your model are at a decided disadvantage vs these "gangs?". Where you want to achieve consent thru an apparatus of coercion, they simply want to expand the coercive powers of that apparatus.


FH at 7:41 PM on November 18, 2003 | #589

Well, what I see, is these people have drastically different ideas of what is right, and most of them do not believe in the non-aggression principle, and yet we live together in peace. By being willing to try ideas from all the camps/factions, our government has gained consent from all the camps.



What if we didn't have our government? Do you think these masses of people who don't believe in the NAP but do believe in socialism or the 10 commandments would just leave us libertarians alone? Leaving us alone is only what *libertarians* think is right, not everyone else.



I agree some people want to make government worse. But it's far better they try to get their coercive ideas implemented by a government with checks and balances and error correction mechanisms than they get a some guns and some friends and get to work.



Today, some policies we disagree with are implemented by our government. That's ok, because we are fallibilists and know we could be wrong and do not have authority. In the future, if it turns out we are right, we can expect more and more people to be persuaded of our ideas. And once they are government will change to meet these new values.



(Whereas in Iran, if most people changed their values, the government would not change to do as they wanted, unless they used guns.)


Elliot at 12:19 AM on November 19, 2003 | #590

FH commented (and it was deleted by a harddrive crash, but fortunately emailed to me):



So why aren't the people that believe in the NAP the "lambs" in this system?



I took the liberty of editing part of your statement above: What if we didn't have the United Nations? Do you think these masses of people who don't believe in America but do believe in communism or fundamentalist Islam would just leave us Americans alone? Leaving us alone is only what Americans think is right, not everyone else.



I agree some people want to make the United Nations worse. But it's far better they try to get their coercive ideas implemented by a United Nations with it's checks and balances and error correction mechanisms than they get a some guns and some friends and get to work.



Today, some policies we disagree with are implemented by the United Nations. That's ok, because we Americans are fallibilists and know we could be wrong and do not have authority. In the future, if it turns out we are right, we can expect more and more people to be persuaded of our ideas. And once they are the United Nations will change to meet these new values.



Do you still agree with it as I have rephrased it?

If not why not?


Elliot at 10:16 AM on November 20, 2003 | #591

I don't agree with the rephrased version.



Suppose that representative governments, representing a generally good society, tend to be good, and representative governments, representing a generally bad society, tend to be bad.



I do not think the UN is a bad idea on principle, but I do think it's currently dominated badness. That's why we scorn it and act on our own.



In countries where most people are fairly bad, and this comes out in the government, I will not complain at all if the good people living there wish to revolt violently. I'm even down with helping if it's feasible.



I'd say a key difference between our debates with people who like taxes, and our "debate" with terrorists is that the pro-taxes people are peaceful (ok, you say they are thieves, and that's not peaceful, but if they limit themselves to that, they are certainly much more peaceful than those who would use murder). We can live with some taxes. We can't live with being killed.



"I may be wrong," is a good argument for caution, when possible. But it's simply insane to insist "maybe that guy with the gun and the angry look on his face who attends a Death To Jews lecture every Friday just wants a hug".



It's not insane to tolerate some taxes while private companies to do the same stuff better develop. And BTW I don't agree taxing to do stuff meant to help society is always a bad idea today. Some stuff I'd rather see done by taxes than not done. And if I take that view, how can I call thugs the people who take a similar one but disagree on which stuff is important?


Elliot at 10:29 AM on November 20, 2003 | #592

Let me try another example that may better demonstrate my point : Imagine a society consisting of five people, three men and two women. One of the men proposes that the men have sexual relations with the women. He also proposes that they vote to resolve the issue. Woman "A" vehement refuses to take part in such a vote and vows to fight tooth and nail it the men attempt such an act. Woman "B" believes that voting is a way to achieve consent within their society and so she participates. All three men vote to have sexual relations with the women. Woman "B" votes against the proposal. Perhaps both women will be raped, but woman "B" "consented" to it. Her belief in the "virtue" of consent thru democracy displaced the virtue of controlling her own body.. And what of the men? Any reservations they might have could be rationalized away by saying: "Well she consented to it."

This an extreme example, but I'm sure you could find real world situations that are similar


FH at 7:33 PM on November 21, 2003 | #593

i don't see informed consent. or perhaps she was wrong when she said she consented. why on earth would she agree to that?


Elliot at 3:13 PM on November 25, 2003 | #594

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)