The popular slogan today is “Believe in science.” It’s often used as a weapon against people who reject not science in principle but rather one or another prominent scientific proposition, whether it be about the COVID-19 vaccine, climate change, nutrition (low-fat versus low-carb eating), to mention a few. My purpose here is not to defend or deny any particular scientific position but to question the model of science that the loudest self-declared believers in science seem to work from. Their model makes science seem almost identical to what they mean by, and attack as, religion. If that’s the case, we ought not to listen to them when they lecture the rest of us about heeding science.
The clearest problem with the admonition to “believe in science” is that it is of no help whatsoever when well-credentialed scientists–that is, bona fide experts–are found on both (or all) sides of a given empirical question. Dominant parts of the intelligentsia may prefer we not know this, but dissenting experts exist on many scientific questions that some blithely pronounce as “settled” by a “consensus,” that is, beyond debate. This is true regarding the precise nature and likely consequences of climate change and aspects of the coronavirus and its vaccine. Without real evidence, credentialed mavericks are often maligned as having been corrupted by industry, with the tacit faith that scientists who voice the established position are pure and incorruptible. It’s as though the quest for government money could not in itself bias scientific research. Moreover, no one, not even scientists, are immune from group-think and confirmation bias.
So the “believe the science” chorus gives the credentialed mavericks no notice unless it’s to defame them. Apparently, under the believers’ model of science, truth comes down from a secular Mount Sinai (Mount Science?) thanks to a set of anointed scientists, and those declarations are not to be questioned. The dissenters can be ignored because they are outside the elect. How did the elect achieve its exalted station? Often, but not always, it was through the political process: for example, appointment to a government agency or the awarding of prestigious grants. It may be that a scientist simply has won the adoration of the progressive intelligentsia because his or her views align easily with a particular policy agenda.
But that’s not science; it’s religion, or at least it’s the stereotype of religion that the “science believers” oppose in the name of enlightenment. What it yields is dogma and, in effect, accusations of heresy.
In real science no elect and no Mount Science exists. Real science is a rough-and-tumble process of hypothesizing, public testing, attempted replication, theory formation, dissent and rebuttal, refutation (perhaps), revision (perhaps), and confirmation (perhaps). It’s an unending process, as it obviously must be. Who knows what’s around the next corner? No empirical question can be declared settled by consensus once and for all, even if with time a theory has withstood enough competent challenges to warrant a high degree of confidence. (In a world of scarce resources, including time, not all questions can be pursued, so choices must be made.) The institutional power to declare matters settled by consensus opens the door to all kinds of mischief that violate the spirit of science and potentially harm the public financially and otherwise.
The weird thing is that “believers in science” sometimes show that they understand science correctly. Some celebrity atheists, for example, use a correct model of science when they insist to religious people that we can never achieve “absolute truth,” by which they mean infallibility is beyond reach. But they soon forget this principle when it comes to their pet scientific propositions. Then suddenly they sound like the people they were attacking in the previous hour.
Another problem with the dogmatic “believers in science” is that they assume that proper government policy, which is a normative matter, flows seamlessly from “the science,” which is a positive matter. If one knows the science, then one knows what everyone ought to do–or so the scientific dogmatists think. It’s as though scientists were uniquely qualified by virtue of their expertise to prescribe the best public-policy response.
But that is utterly false. Public policy is about moral judgment, trade-offs, and the justifiable use of coercion. Natural scientists are neither uniquely knowledgeable about those matters nor uniquely capable of making the right decisions for everyone. When medical scientists advised a lockdown of economic activity because of the pandemic, they were not speaking as scientists but as moralists (in scientists’ clothing). What are their special qualifications for that role? How could those scientists possibly have taken into account all of the serious consequences of a lockdown–psychological, domestic, social, economic, etc.–for the diverse individual human beings who would be subject to the policy? What qualifies natural scientists to decide that people who need screening for cancer or heart disease must wait indefinitely while people with an officially designated disease need not? (Politicians issue the formal prohibitions, but their scientific advisers provide apparent credibility.)
Here’s the relevant distinction: while we ought to favor science, we ought to reject scientism, the mistaken belief that the only questions worth asking are those amenable to the methods of the natural sciences and therefore all questions must either be recast appropriately or dismissed as gibberish. F. A. Hayek, in The Counter-Revolution of Science, defined scientism as the “slavish imitation of the method and language of Science.”
I like how the philosopher Gilbert Ryle put it in The Concept of Mind: “Physicists may one day have found the answers to all physical questions, but not all questions are physical questions. The laws they have found and will find may, in one sense of the metaphorical verb, govern everything that happens, but they do not ordain everything that happens. Indeed they do not ordain anything that happens. Laws of nature are not fiats.”
“How should we live?” is not one of those questions which natural scientists are specially qualified to answer, but it is certainly worth asking. Likewise, “What risks should you or I take or avoid?” There is a world of difference between a medical expert’s saying, “Vaccine X is generally safe and effective” and “Vaccination should be mandatory.” (One of the great critics of scientism was Thomas Szasz, M.D., who devoted his life to battling the medical profession’s, and especially psychiatry’s, crusade to recast moral issues as medical issues and thereby control people in the name of disinterested science.)
Most people are unqualified to judge most scientific conclusions, but they are qualified to live their lives reasonably. I’m highly confident the earth is a sphere and that a water molecule is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. But I do not know how to confirm those propositions. So we all need to rely on scientific and medical authorities–not in the sense of power but in the sense of expertise and reputation. (Even authorities in one area rely on authorities in others.)
But we must also remember that those authorities’ empirical claims are defeasible; that is, they are in principle open to rebuttal and perhaps refutation, that is, the scientific process. Aside from the indispensable and self-validating axioms of logic, all claims are open in this sense. That process is what gets us to the truth. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, even a dissenter who holds a demonstrably wrong view on a question might know something important on that very question that has been overlooked. To our peril do we shut people up or shout them down as heretics. That’s dogma, not science.
George Mason University Professor Donald J. Boudreaux has written an article worthy of everyone’s attention: “‘Externality’ Is No Good Excuse for Mandatory Vaccination.” Some people think the case for mandatory vaccination is irrefutably made by simply saying that the unvaccinated person presents a risk to people other than himself. No so, Boudreaux responds. Here’s a taste:
Shouting “externality!” is not the trump card that many economists (and non-economists) naïvely suppose it to be. In a world in which not every human being lives an isolated existence – that is, in our world – each of us incessantly acts in ways that affect strangers without thereby justifying government-imposed restrictions on the great majority of these actions. Therefore, justification of government obstruction of the ordinary affairs of life requires far more than an identification of the prospect of some interpersonal impact….
That the choice to remain unvaccinated against Covid creates some risks for strangers is indisputable. Yet this fact about this choice does not distinguish it from many other choices with similar consequences, nearly all of which choices, again, do not justify government intervention – a fact that holds true even if we confine our attention only to actions that put in greater jeopardy the physical health of others.
The government’s K-12 schools–aka “public schools–are once again a battleground on which a bitter dispute is playing out. Wait!–once again? The government’s schools have been a battleground since their inception in the 19th century. Since that’s where the children are, how could it have been otherwise? For an institution that was supposed to produce social unity, it’s done the exact opposite.
Today’s battle is over Critical Race Theory (CRT), which in one form or another is being pushed by a lobby that has a stake in having us believe that all of American history, up to the present, can be summed up in one phrase: racist oppression. Or as Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times 1619 Project puts it, white supremacy “runs in the very DNA of this country.” For my purpose today, though, I have no need to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of CRT. All we need to know is that it is a polarizing issue: some people very much want it to shape the K-12 curriculum, while others just as vigorously oppose it. Each side thinks that the future of America depends on its success. A couple of dozen red states have banned it from their schools, which in turn has set off a debate over whether the government should ban any ideas. The (classical) liberal tradition prizes free inquiry and free speech, so the thought of banning the teaching of a doctrine is abhorrent. But that’s far from the end of this story.
What I want to emphasize is that CRT joins a long list of causes that were fought over in the public-school arena. They include prayer, evolution, sex education, math and reading teaching methods, creation science, and Western civilization. The history of the government’s schools is a history of conflict, for the obvious reason I will discuss in a moment. The way to reduce such conflict is not to ban or promote particular ideas, but rather to stop the government from imposing ideas on unwilling people–or their children. The problem is not CRT or any other idea; it’s government control of schooling.
Let’s start by noting that the original purpose of government schooling, as I explained in Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families, was to promote unity by tamping down diversity. Few people today would believe this because diversity is supposedly what all enlightened people favor. (In fact, only superficial diversity is favored. Intellectual diversity is at least discouraged.) But back in the 19th century the founders of the “common school” movement feared that diversity, especially but not only religious diversity, would tear the young country apart. So the first government schools were designed to be a force for homogenization; they were to instill a nondenominational Protestantism in children in order to create a unified nation of model citizens. They would also dilute the influence of their gluttonous and slothful parents. When Jews and Catholics voiced their objections to the religious nature of the instruction, they were told shut up. So the dissenters set up their own schools.
As I say, conflict with respect to the schools is nothing new. It would have been amazing had this not been the case. It is in the very nature of government planners to expect that one size will fit all. If their plan doesn’t fit all naturally, they’ll make it fit, much like Procrustes. If it still does fit, they’ll blame the unenlightened subjects.
But in no way can one plan be right for everyone. This is particularly true in the education of children. Yet government-run schools are ill-suited to tailoring services to the varying requirements of children. They may try, but the results will be upsetting. One result will be conflict between groups of parents, some of whom will support and some of whom will oppose what is to be imposed on all. Conflicts between parents on the one hand and teachers and administrators on the other will also be provoked. People don’t like things shoved down their throats, particularly where their children are concerned.
It’s always appropriate to ask what the alternative to a government “solution” is. The answer should be obvious: free choice in an open marketplace. It is only in the marketplace that people are fully free to invent new ways of doing things and offering them to potential buyers, who are free to choose or reject what’s on offer. Some of those ideas will be defective–though it’s not as if the planners of government education have never come up with a bad idea. But it’s also the case that some of these ideas will be great and will benefit millions of children. The thing to remember is that no one can predict who will come up with the next great idea. But we can be sure that no school board or state education official will welcome an innovator who rejects the establishment’s views on education. Bureaucracies won’t act against their own self-preservation. Since government schools are compulsorily funded and most parents can’t pay taxes and private tuition, the schools are usually safe. (It’s been a rough road to even the limited choice that exists today.)
As I pointed out recently, advocates of full freedom in education have always emphasized that innovation and flexibility are features the government will never fully embrace. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) noted that to discover the best methods of doing anything, we need “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.” He added, “Now, of all arts, those stand the fairest chance of being brought to perfection, in which there is opportunity of making the most experiments and trials.”
Yes, trial and error has its risks; so does bureaucratic administration. But when government makes mistakes it exposes large numbers of people to danger and the impetus to correct errors is weak to nonexistent. In the marketplace, new ideas will be tried on a small scale, and consumers will be free to make their own decisions. Meanwhile others will be free to offer opposing approaches. When it comes to children’s education, it’s clear which system is superior.
Bringing this back to CRT, if people want to set up schools in which this outlook shapes the curriculum, they should be free to do so–and parents and children should be free to judge that approach for themselves. Let the verdict of the marketplace prevail. Will people always make wise choices? Of course not. But we know that bureaucrats will fail.
When a libertarian says that the most basic individual right is the right not to be aggressed against, a clever interlocutor may accuse the libertarian of begging the question, of stuffing the rabbit into the hat. The trick, the critic will say, is in the word aggress: libertarians allegedly rig the game by restricting the category of aggression to only the actions they disapprove of, thereby institutionalizing many corrupt activities.
For example, If Jones tells Smith to get off land to which Jones has legal title, is it really clear that Smith is in the wrong and Jones is in the right? The critic will offer a counter-narrative: it’s considered Jones’s land because the political system arbitrarily defines property rights in a certain way. It might have defined rights differently so that Smith could walk on the land as wishes. So why not see Jones as the aggressor against Smith?
If the libertarian responded that Jones transformed the hitherto unowned parcel by mixing his labor with it, perhaps by clearing and fencing it, the critic might respond that Jones’s act constituted aggression because, unlike yesterday and the day before, no one now may step on the land without Jones’s permission. Jones, in other words, restricts everyone else’s freedom. Who’s right and who’s wrong would depend on one’s point of view.
This case against libertarian property rights implies that land has never been unowned because it has always been owned by humanity in common. Such a position was taken most famously by Henry George. While George did not oppose individuals’ use of parcels of land, he said that users ought to have to pay land rent to the community, the true owners. This was George’s “single tax.” Murray Rothbard rebutted George’s case in both its moral and economic dimensions. (See also Rothbard’s Power and Market.)
If the point of rights theory is to enable human beings to flourish as they live side by side peacefully and cooperatively in society, then any theory that regards land and other scarce resources as jointly owned by all of humanity is in for problems. The moral is the practical. So imagine the impracticality of determining how a piece of land is to be used if everyone is to have a say in the matter. Yet if human beings are to prosper, decisions about how to use scarce resources are crucial. No one is infallible or has a monopoly of wisdom about the “best” use of resources, but we have the next best thing: the market and its price system. The market provides indispensable signals about ever-changing supplies and consumer preferences. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek made their marks as great economists by, among other things, showing that market prices are the only things we have to relieve, insofar as possible, our ignorance about how scarce resources can be used best to serve everyone’s welfare. Private property and free markets expand rather than contract the public’s access to resources.
The critic of libertarianism may listen and nod but continue to insist that we have no objective way to tell who is the aggressor: Smith or Jones. But maybe we do.
Life is not an abstraction. Individual people are beings who live day to day through the pursuit of projects, which usually involve the cooperation of others. Since we are physical beings, that pursuit requires control over things, including land, and therefore noninterference by other people. How could we live and plan long term if our activities could be interfered with and the fruits of our efforts could be appropriated by others? I take for granted that each person is a self-owner because denial of this principle collapses in absurdity. Lincoln wrote that “if slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.” Abolitionists called slave owners “man-stealers.” If self-ownership isn’t right, then nothing is right.
The principle of nonaggression is universal: you may not interfere with me, and I may not interfere with you. Liberty for all means no one is aggressed against. Society should be based on consent and cooperation.
In the story above, if we assume Jones acquired the land justly through homesteading, purchase, or gift, then the land is part of his project, and Smith’s trespass constitutes interference with Jones’s life. (Of course, trespass can be trivial, and methods of prevention or redress would have to be proportional to the offense. Put bluntly, Jones can’t shoot Smith merely for setting foot on his land.)
Yes, in a physical sense, Jones’s ownership “interferes” with Smith’s freedom, although not his ability to live as a human being (except perhaps in an emergency). But human action is never merely physical. Justice is relevant. The same physical act can be just or unjust depending on the circumstances.
I think this demonstrates that the libertarian case does not pack its conclusions into its definition of aggression. Hard cases of course can arise, but generally we can determine who is the rightful owner and who is wrongfully interfering.
Finally, I have not tried to sort out the case of ownership clouded by historical injustice, namely, theft. What to do about this is a complicated matter, in part because of the variety of cases, on which I claim no particular wisdom. Those who wish to delve into the problem can begin by looking at what Rothbard had to say in The Ethics of Liberty.
It’s always important not to miss the forest for the trees. U.S. government announcements, such as its report of the turnover to the Afghan government of the seventh and last military base in Afghanistan, Bagram, should lead no one to think that U.S. foreign policy has changed worldwide or even in that particular region. Far from it. This is true even if virtually all U.S. troops, except for 600 military personnel, most of them left to guard the U.S. embassy, have left Afghanistan, as reported by Politico. (Who knows what the special operations forces will be up to?)
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki (at 1:03) said, “We have every intention of continuing an ongoing presence in Kabul, which is continuing even after we bring our military who are serving home by the end of August.” But will those people come home or be redeployed? Can we expect cuts in the military budget? That may hold a clue.
A month earlier Psaki said, “The United States will remain deeply engaged with the Government of Afghanistan to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.” In part I translate this to mean that the U.S. military contractors need not lose any sleep.
Note that Psaki invoked the old “safe haven” case for being ready to do something more in Afghanistan–or anywhere else, really. This is the argument that if we aren’t careful, certain failing countries could become headquarters for terrorist groups bent on attacking America or Americans. Chief case in point, according to the convention wisdom, is Afghanistan after the Russians left and the U.S. government turned its attention elsewhere. Then came al Qaeda, supposedly given safe harbor by the Taliban.
But the “safe haven argument is a myth—a false but widely believed tale used to justify continuing a policy of perpetual failure,” Scott Horton has repeatedly pointed out. (See also Horton’s invaluable Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan.) As Horton summarized in The American Conservative in 2017, apart from the particular case of Afghanistan, from which the tiny remnant of al Qaeda has long departed, “terrorists don’t need safe havens from which to strike. As we’ve seen in recent attacks in the United States and Europe, one or two men with rifles or a truck can do plenty of damage with no more preparation space than a rented apartment.”
Moreover, he adds, “The few dozen core al Qaeda members who survived the initial Air Force bombing campaign in Afghanistan fled the country by the end of 2001 [largely to Pakistan]. They were a non-factor in the war against the Taliban regime, and at no point did they have major influence in the insurgency against the occupation that grew up in later years. If any did come back they would be irrelevant. Afghanistan is exile, as far as anyone can get from anywhere. It provides no special access to any Western target.” (Emphasis added.)
Just to drive the point home, Horton goes on: “The September 11 hijackers, none of whom were Afghans, gained entry to the United States under regular tourist and student visas. The terrorists launched the attacks from Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey. They had planned them in Malaysia, Germany, Spain, California, Florida, and Maryland.” (See the article and the book for details on how distant the Taliban was from Osama bin Laden, despite U.S. government efforts to conflate the two.)
Needless to say, the safe-have myth has cost many lives, Afghan and American. And the myth seems not to have outlived its usefulness. The case for the United States as guardian of the globe echoes the myth, even when it is not invoked outright. Never forgetting 9/11 apparently means that the U.S. military and CIA need to be ready to pounce anywhere and everywhere. Nothing that goes on the world can be allowed to escape the attention of our best and brightest, lest we are caught asleep again.
But as Horton points out in the case of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the allegedly vigilant policies are actually counterproductive: rather than avert threats, they produce threats that then are used to justify U.S. intervention. It’s been well-documented that 9/11 grew out of long years’ of American intervention in the Middle East, especially the close ties with Israel and the Saudi monarchy and the 1990s child-killing sanctions against the Iraqis. (For details, in addition to Fool’s Errand, also see Horton’s encyclopedic Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism.)
Provoking threats in order to respond to them is a very old game of state. Whenever U.S. troops suffer casualties in some remote place, I can almost hear a U.S. official saying, “That’s why we need U.S. troops there. Without them, who would defend the U.S. troops there?”
In our efforts to keep track of the details of particular interventions, we must not lose sight of the big picture: the U.S. government’s lethal and costly self-appointed mission to police the world and its rationalizations for that role. If liberty matters, it’s a “little America” policy that we must promote.
The libertarian philosophy is embedded in Enlightenment liberalism. This is clearly seen in its commitment to free inquiry (reason) and free speech, the full realization of which, I argue, requires complete respect for individual rights, including property rights.
Unfortunately we live at a time when those values are increasingly under assault from from a variety intellectuals and activists despite political and cultural differences among themselves. We hear prominent people ask–and it’s really an assertion disguised as a question–whether free inquiry and free speech are really all they have been cracked up to be in light of the American condition. This seems to be a change even from the recent past, when question like that would likely come only from the most authoritarian fringes of the left and right.
Advocates of individual liberty and the rich patterns of cooperation that liberty generates have reason worry. Nothing good would be gained from restrictions on those Enlightenment values–regardless of whether the restrictions came from the government or private sources. Nothing good at all.
Whatever one’s fears about the state of American culture, it is difficult to see how stifling inquiry and speech could improve matters. Whether one is a left-collectivist who believes Enlightenment values lock in white male supremacy or a right-collectivist who believes those values have allowed the left to control the culture’s commanding heights, the crushing of true liberalism can only lead to disaster, eventually for everyone.
You need not be a libertarian to see the point, and fortunately we see nonlibertarians all around the political spectrum expressing dismay about the new disparagement of free-wheeling inquiry and uninhibited expression of its findings.
This is not rocket science. Squelching speech does not make alleged bad thoughts go away. On the contrary, it may give them an illusion of legitimacy they would never have achieved in open discussion. When a subject becomes taboo, even good-faith people may reasonably ask, “What are the self-appointed censors so scared of? Does the forbidden claim have merit that I’ve overlooked?” How does that help the censors beat back ideas?
The value of the open competitive marketplace of ideas is so obvious that it ought not require repeating. We learn through the contest among ideas. The way to defeat an assertion is not to suppress it, but to rebut it. No idea is so dangerous that it has to be banned from the marketplace. A free society cannot tolerate thought police, whether political or private.
To cherish the intellectual marketplace, one only need realize that even someone who is thoroughly wrong about a particular matter or event (and perhaps even ill-intentioned) could contribute to our knowledge by stumbling on an overlooked truth. We just never known who might be the one to set the record straight in some way. (The leftist Norman Finkelstein has admirably made this point many times.)
Moreover, it’s important that the intellectual marketplace–like the commercial marketplace and for the same reasons–not be rigged by the state in any way. All intellectual products should have to compete in a just (that is, rights-respecting) arena. Force is to be barred. But that’s all that needs barring. Now may the best ideas win.
This does not mean that the common-sense rules of respect needn’t be observed or that those who violate the rules should never be called to account. But it does mean that toleration is also a virtue when directed at offenders. We are rightly uncomfortable when people lose their livelihoods for saying the “wrong” thing in the “wrong” way. It is difficult to confine this kind of punishment to only the worst offenders. Boomerangs have a way of coming back at you.
Does an open marketplace guarantee that the truth always always wins right away? Of course not. But it’s the best chance we have of rooting out error in the shortest time. The market certainly beats any imaginable alternative, which would have to be one form or another of authoritarianism. No thank you.
It’s in the nature of ideas, as with all tools, that they can be used for good or ill. Stifling discussion because bad people may capitalize on fact can hardly be grounds for shutting down the intellectual marketplace. One could think of no surer example of the cure being worse than the alleged disease.
It’s time for all true liberals, whatever their differences, unite to defend free inquiry and free speech.
Strictly speaking, liberty isn’t the solution to problems. It’s what creates the framework in which solutions can be discovered. That is an important distinction because it reminds us that advocates of full-blown liberty do not offer the world a problem-free society but “only” a society in which problems are discovered and problem-solvers are mobilized as quickly, fairly, and efficiently as impossible.
To get this point across to students in lectures, I used to quote the the title of a 1970 hit record: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” Social troubles will not disappear with the emergence of full freedom, but the chances of spotting and addressing them will be maximized in the most just way. That’s the best we can hope for in a world of scarcity and uncertainty. On the other hand, that’s not too shabby, is it?
What makes this happen? The answer can be captured in a single word: incentives. In a free society people are rewarded–they profit–by spotting and solving problems or correcting errors, before others have done so. Self-interest is further aligned with the interest of others.
This aspect of social life has been developed for many decades by the most important economists, among whom I would spotlight those of the Austrian school. In the 20th century they include Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, and Murray Rothbard, followed by a couple of later generations of social scientists who continue to work in this tradition.
If the incentive system is to work, people need to be free to offer solutions. The scientist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), in writing about education, wrote that to discover the best methods, we need an environment characterized by “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.” As Priestley also put it, “Now, of all arts, those stand the fairest chance of being brought to perfection, in which there is opportunity of making the most experiments and trials.” (I wrote about Priestley’s radical advocacy of freedom in education in Freedom and School Choice in American Education.)
The logic behind Priestley’s idea isn’t complicated. We don’t always know if a method of accomplishing something will work–however good it may look on paper. It has to be tried. Since that’s the case, we need a highly decentralized environment in which ideas can be tested. (I don’t like the word system for what I have in mind because that suggests an overall design rather than what Hayek called “spontaneous order.”) In a centralized system, trial and error would be dicey since the inevitable mistakes would be committed on a large scale, with little chance for individuals to opt out. But in a decentralized environment, mistakes are necessarily contained, readily observed by others, and then corrected by those who offer a different product or service.
Government agents face different incentives since government usually is the only game in town. In fact, they face perverse incentives: politicians and bureaucrats may prosper by the existence and even the exacerbation of problems. If an agency is failing, the solution most often is to appropriate more money! And since government centralizes approaches to problems, mistakes are committed on a large scale, especially when they are undertaken at the national level. Federalism can reduce the scale of error, but not nearly as much as the free market can because state and local governments lack other features of the marketplace.
This point turns the spotlight on another aspect of a free society: competition. Competition is what happens with one person thinks he or she has a better way of doing something than someone else does. The way to find out is to offer it to the public. This shows that competition and cooperation are two sides of the same coin, not opposites. But if the government erects obstacles to upstart competitors, the it throttles the process, and better ways of addressing problems are left on the shelf, if undiscovered at all.
Hayek called competition a “discovery procedure,” which gets at a crucial point. I call competition the “universal solvent.” We can find a similar idea in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, in which he extols the truth-discovering value of the radically free exchange of ideas. (My favorite line from that book: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”)
Freedom and competition make possible discoveries that would not have been found otherwise precisely because it is only in that environment–the market order–that people encounter circumstances and alternatives with respect to which they will demonstrate in action their true preferences–preferences they might not have expected to demonstrate. This is part of what is meant by “spontaneous order.” For this reason, government planners cannot hope to simulate market outcomes. The planners are barred from ever knowing what would have happened if people were left free. As James Buchanan pointed out:
I want to argue that the “order” of the market emerges only from the process of voluntary exchange among the participating individuals. The “order” is, itself, defined as the outcome of the process that generates it. The “it,” the allocation-distribution result, does not, and cannot, exist independently of the trading process. Absent this process, there is and can be no order.”
…Individuals do not act so as to maximize utilities described in independently-existing functions. They confront genuine choices, and the sequence of decisions taken may be conceptualized, ex post (after the choices), in terms of “as if” functions that are maximized. But these “as if” functions are, themselves, generated in the choosing process, not separately from such process. If viewed in this perspective, there is no means by which even the most idealized omniscient designer could duplicate the results of voluntary interchange. The potential participants do not know until they enter the process what their own choices will be. From this it follows that it is logically impossible for an omniscient designer to know, unless, of course, we are to preclude individual freedom of will.
Much more could be and has been said on this subject, but the upshot is this: the best way to expose and correct problems and errors is to leave people free.
American leaders and their loyal media pundits love to sit in judgment of other countries’ election, declaring them fair or rigged according to their seemingly meticulous standards. In fact, the real standard is that the regimes “we” like hold free and fair (enough) elections, while the regimes “we” dislike don’t. What about regimes “we” like that hold no national elections at all, like Saudi Arabia? They are forgotten whenever the loveliness of democracy is the topic of discussion.
Maybe a broader approach would shed light on the matter. We could ask: does any country have really free and fair elections? In other words, could an election be described that way even if the authorities did not engage in blatant voter or candidate suppression or outright vote fraud?
I’m not trying to be clever here. I am not one of those people who might say that since free will is an illusion, the idea of a free election must also be an illusion. Free will is real. To borrow a trope from philosopher Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), free always buries its undertakers. (Gilson said this about philosophy, though many people think he said it about metaphysics or natural law. What he said applies to these.)
I’m saying that other features intrinsic to political elections prevent them from being truly free and fair. First, the people who cast votes do so under duress. Not that armed agents of the state literally hold guns on to their heads as they go to the polls. It’s more subtle: opting out of an election is not the same as opting out of the consequences of the election. The latter cannot be done. Nonvoters are subject to the same impositions as voters are. If the winning candidate raises taxes and interferes with peaceful conduct, everyone will be caught in the net. The only way to escape is literally to leave the jurisdiction, which implies that government owns all property. Of course, one cannot leave a jurisdiction without entering another, which will likely have similar impositions. (Political competition among jurisdictions may provide some relief at the margin.)
Because of the duress under which people vote, Lysander Spooner acknowledged that a person might vote simply in self-defense: “In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former.”
I’m reminded of Herbert Spencer’s sarcastic comment on the popular idea that nonvoters are not entitled to complain about the outcome of elections. But, Spencer pointed out, according to the conventional wisdom, voters–no matter whom they voted for–are not entitled to complain either. Why not? Because those who backed the winner can hardly have grounds for dissatisfaction, and those who voted for the loser knew the risks when they chose to participate in the election. So everyone must shut up and do what they are told. How convenient!
We have other grounds for questioning the fairness and freedom of any election. Even if we concede that voters freely elect the officeholders by majority rule–ignoring all the obstacles to maverick parties and candidates–can we really say that voters select the policies that the resulting regime will carry out. I don’t think so. For one thing, the connection between what candidates say and what they do in office is extremely weak. Candidates are often vague about what they will do, but even when they aren’t, voters have no good reason to think the candidate will do more than make symbolic moves in the direction of keeping their promises. Voters have little and mostly no recourse. They cannot take back their votes or sue the candidate for breach of promise. (Some jurisdictions have recall procedures, but they are expensive and require a majority vote.) Voting is like buying a pig in a poke.
Another problem is that most voters most of the time vote behind a veil of ignorance. They not only do not know what a candidate will do if elected; they also don’t understand the issues that governments deal with. For example, if candidates differ on the minimum wage–whether to raise it or to have such a law at all–how are voters who know nothing about economics to make an intelligent choice? They will be unable to, so they will vote on the basis of feelings, a candidate’s campaign skill, or sheer tribal partisanship. (See Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.) That’s an unreliable way to make good decisions.
The same goes for foreign policy and any other area in which government officials act. Each of these areas require study, which requires time and resources. How many people will have the resources, not to mention the inclination, to acquire the knowledge needed to make good choices about all the things candidates promise to do?
A final problem is one that most people understand but don’t like to talk about: no single vote counts. People who have abstained from voting their whole lives can rest assured that no election would have come out differently had they voted. One thing that tells us is that each individual is free to vote on any basis they like because they know the consequences of that one vote are nil. In that sense, elections are free, but that’s not what the democracy advocates mean by free elections. We might call them free and irresponsible.
Critics of democracy are often accused of favoring authoritarianism because most people think that is the only alternative. Some people who dislike democracy indeed favor authoritarianism, but that certainly cannot be true of libertarians. The libertarian alternative to democracy is the removal of matters from the political sphere so that they can be addressed in the social sphere, that is, the sphere of consent, cooperation, and contract, where persuasion replaces force. That’s what created human progress in the first place.
On her recent trip to Guatemala she said, “I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come. I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
This is what passes for sensitivity to human rights in the post-Trump era. It’s the same attitude that marked not only the Trump years but also the pre-Trump era under Barack Obama, the deporter-in-chief, and Joe Biden.
Notice Harris mentioned the “dangerous trek” without acknowledging that the U.S government is a big reason for the danger. If immigrants were welcome, they would have safe ways to travel north to the United States with their children. It’s typical of government officials to create a peril and then pose as humanitarians in offering advice about safety.
What’s the Biden-Harris solution to the problems that Guatemalans are trying to escape from by migrating to America? Harris promised U.S. help in reforming the government there. “The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” she said. Her administration has about as much chance of doing that as it has to help Americans find hope at home.
The U.S. government would have a chance to improve conditions in Guatemala and other places, but that would require doing something it has no desire to do, namely, slash its power dramatically. It could start by permitting unconditional free trade and by ending the drug war, which has ravaged Guatemala and Latin America even worse than it has the United States. Do you think Biden-Harris would entertain that truly progressive program? Me neither.
But even if that were to happen and Guatemalans became much freer and safer, many might still want to come to the United States. Yet that would be none of the U.S. government’s business. Until someone has been proved to have violated someone else’s rights, they should be left unmolested by the state. That’s not just a right of Americans; it’s a right of all persons. The right to move is a natural individual right that in itself does no harm to others as physical force does. Accepting a job that an American wanted or affecting the culture doesn’t count as harm. We benefit from the countless people who have changed the culture over years and from the immigrants who have started businesses, invented products, and achieved great productivity. That some people fear change should not be allowed tilt government policy against immigrants.
All the fear-mongering about free immigration is nothing more than that: baseless attempts to scare Americans essentially into shutting the borders. To see this, one need only consult the heroic work of Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, who demolishes every bogey about open borders in blog posts, journal articles, and graphic nonfiction. Caplan shows that fear of immigrants–about wages, culture, politics, and more–is simply irrational. He also points out how much free movement would increase the wealth of the world, as people in low-productivity countries moved to high-productivity countries like the Unites States. He and others have emphasized that the best global antipoverty program would be open borders.
And as I pointed out recently, a new book emphasizes that restrictions on immigrants and would-be immigrants necessarily constitute restrictions on Americans. Chandran Kukathas writes in Immigration and Freedom: “It is difficult to control outsiders without also controlling insiders, since insiders are all too ready and willing to hire, teach, rent to, trade with, marry, and generally associate with outsiders. Moreover, insiders and outsiders are not readily distinguishable unless there are instruments of control in place to identify one or the other.”
Telling Guatemalans or anyone else “Do not come” is no different from telling them to stay in the place where they belong. The long-suffering victims of tyranny, corruption, and government planning are properly resentful of American officials who give them such a condescending admonition.
To better understand the nature of government, one can think of it as an agency that sells or, more precisely, rents power to others. The greater the power and the wider its scope, the more opportunities the state’s agents will have to sell access to it in return for favors. Of course the demand for that power will also be greater. This stands to reason. If the government is allowed to make many important decisions about private activity, people will want to influence or control that decision-making–and they’ll be willing to pay for that influence as long as the price is less than the expected payoff.
In other words, the supply of government power creates its own demand. This answers the concern over the corrupting influence influence of money in politics. If government has nothing to sell, no one will be trying to buy.
This not to say that all that government officials do is rent out power. Many activities can be attributed to their own agendas. Like all people, they are prone to various incentives and foibles that lead them to do things that others who are affected either do not like or approve only because they can’t imagine an alternative. The motives of state agents can vary: self-regard and paternalism, for two examples. Motives can be tricky to identify: a good deal of self-deception can always be involved, and words often parts ways with the truth.
Nevertheless, much of what state agents do constitutes in effect the renting out of power to well-connected private interests. The renting out of power can also have various motives. Power may be used to benefit special interests as a way to garner political support, financial and otherwise. Campaign finance is the most obvious example, though many more subtle ways also exist. Again, the motive for renting power to special interests could also have paternalist. Politicians could (erroneously) figure that for the good of all, certain people ought to have access to power that no one else has. Motives of course tell you nothing about the morality or effectiveness of any particular action.
Private interests that pay to get their hands on power can have various motives also, but I would guess that most of the time the motive is self-regard.
I should note that I am using the term rent idiosyncratically. Economists use the phrase rent-seeking to label the private pursuit of returns through government favors. By that they mean that private interests seek returns on investment that exceed what they would earn in the market without power being exercised on their behalf. I’m using rent in the colloquial sense in which people pay to use something (in this case) without acquiring ownership.
It’s easy to think of examples of what I’ve been saying here. When business firms lobby for a tariff or an import quota, they are seeking higher prices and profits through the state’s power to burden foreign competitors with taxes and import limits. Likewise, when firms seek licenses, subsidies, and other political favors, they grab for advantages that their competitors don’t have. Similarly, complicated financial regulations that burden smaller and potential upstart competitors are likely to be welcomed (if not written) by large dominant institutions. (When things go bust, uninformed people will readily blame the private firms without seeing the state’s essential culpability. See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.”)
Another source of extra-market advantage is government contracting. Why should a firm take chances in an uncertain marketplace with fickle consumers if it can obtain guarantees by selling things to government agencies? Military contractors come to mind immediately. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money go to such companies every year. Private companies can’t tax anyone, but government contractors in effect can do just that.
The more powerful the state, the more possibilities will exist for favoritism. And notice that favoritism breeds dependence on and support for the state. For obvious reasons military contractors are unlikely to be convinced by arguments for a noninterventionist foreign policy. Likewise, companies that rely on tariffs and import quotas probably won’t find inspiration in the great British free traders Richard Cobden and John Bright.
Understanding the state is the first step toward rethinking the state, which is necessary for changing one’s view about its value. If people think the government is nothing more than a well-intended social-service agency–the organizer of huge and benevolent mutual-aid society–their attitude will be favorable overall, even if they dislike some of what the state does. But if people come to see that the state exists to amass power and private resources in large part to distribute it to special interests, the majority who are victims might begin to object and demand change.
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