Home > Government, liberalism, Morality > A monopoly for coercion

A monopoly for coercion

Following on my last post, I’d like to discuss an issue that I didn’t really get to (that post was already going far too long).   Libertarians at least have a theory, i.e. (as summarized by Holbo)

  1. maximize property and contract rights, so as to
  2. maximize “freedom”–especially for the worthy–whatever that is suppose to mean, for the purpose of
  3. maximizing human welfare

It’s a good theory:  intuitive and with a grain of truth to it.

I made the argument in my last post that regulation could in theory improve welfare and “freedom”.   I never got a chance to expound a political theory, however, on the limits–or possibly the lack thereof–of interventions.   After all, if you think that regulations (i.e. government coercion) are OK then why aren’t private forms of coercion?

This is the converse of the libertarian problem that I spent so many words on in that post.    I think libertarians are wrong, but what do I as a progressive believe which would make an intervention right?   Managers are people too, so why can I take away their options?

The problem as I see it, is succinctly explained by Keynes:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

Libertarians have ideas–they are wrong, but they are influential.   Yet it is not enough to fight the encroachment of libertarian ideas, we have to offer an alternative.

A few possibilities:

  • welfare/utilitarianism:  There is a declining marginal utility of options, to restrict options for those who have many and reallocate options to those with few is welfare improving.
  • the need to fight power and wealth as self-reinforcing phenomena:  I’ve made this point before.   Consider this.   Give 100 people each a $1 bill. Have them match up, and bet on a fair coin toss an amount equal to half the wealth of the poorer individual.   Repeat.   It is not hard to see that, asymptotically, all the wealth will be in the hands of a single individual.   This result is robust–as long as the coin toss is fair, it is truly unfair because those with more wealth can afford a loss.   The problem remains even if someone is more “skilled”–using an unfair coin–the wealth buffer matters more than a rigged coin toss.   You can apply this idea to an entire economy and get the same result.
  • coercion as a form of violence:  The government is the monopoly supplier of violence.   This has been the case for a long time as the alternative caused more problems than it solved.   But coercion is a form of violence, so why isn’t the government the  monopoly supplier of coercion?   Hence the title of the post.

A basic theory on the use of coercion in society

Like the libertarians, I want to be somewhat utilitarian–as an ultimate, but ultimately unreachable goal human welfare should be maximized.

However, unlike libertarians, I recognize that property and contract rights will not work.   In addition to the good they do, property rights protect the powerful and as such harm the rest of society, since wealth and power are self-reinforcing.

So here goes.

  1. Property and contracting are privileges given by the rest of society and may be revoked at any time by that society (which granted those privileges in the first place).
  2.  All forms of private coercion are anathema to a free and fair society.    I would accept this as a definition of “free and fair”, being that these ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ are hard to define otherwise.    Call this the “my right to swing my arms ends at your nose” principle.
  3. The government has a monopoly on the use of violence and hence coercion (as a form of violence).   It is not possible to have a society without the threat of both–there is a no-trade theorem (which should be the subject of another post)–so the provision must be relegated to someone.
  4. By 2 and 3 (and recognizing that governments are run, ultimately, by private individuals), a free and fair society is one run by the rule of law.
  5. By 2, and recognizing that laws are written by private individuals, a free and fair society is one in which all people must have the options of voice at all times over those laws which will apply to them and the right of exit must be respected.   Call this the democratic principle.   For example, the people of Hungary are less free than they used to be because they have less voice over new laws moving forward.   This, I hope, answers Hayek’s objection.

I think this sums up my political philosophy.   Its definitely not as sexy as the “contract and property rights = freedom = maximal human welfard”, but I think its more right.

If you have some objections/corrections, let me know.

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  1. July 15, 2012 at 12:15 pm

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