Home > A Theory of the State > Morality and Government Part II

Morality and Government Part II

There are two ways to think about government.  By far the most common is to think of government as a force over and above the citizens which has always just been there, which provides for them, which they are inherently bound and subject to, and which can be petitioned as one petitions God or a child petitions its parents for whatever they want by appealing to its morality.  This is a bad way to treat government and I’m sure my libertarian friends will agree.  The correct way of thinking about government, at least government among free people, is as a contracting problem.  Most people have trouble thinking of it this way because when they hear the word “contracting” they think of contracting in a legal sense.  This type of contracting requires a third-party enforcer (a government) to enforce the contract.  In the absence of a third-party enforcer, there is still the possibility for contracts but those contracts must be self-enforcing.  Consider some examples.

Contract 1: I come to you and ask for a loan.  You give me $100 today and I will give you $110 one year from today.  This contract is not self-enforcing because 1 year from now there is no incentive for me to pay you back.  I already got what I wanted out of it, why should I fulfill my end of the agreement?  If there is a third-party enforcer, it is in my interest to uphold the contract because if I don’t, then the enforcer will come and punish me.  But without a third-party enforcer, this contract will not be possible even if it would be mutually beneficial.

Contract 2: I am a farmer and you are a swineherd.  We agree that every autumn I will give you a portion of my crop and you will provide me with meat throughout the year.  This contract may be self-enforcing because the benefits to both parties are continuous.  This will be the case as long as the benefits to both of us from continuing the agreement are always greater than the benefits from breaking it.

The last post was intended to establish a framework for thinking about morality and ethics in the context of government.  The purpose of this post is to analyze the morality of a specific government action, namely taxation. [Editor: it actually goes a little beyond that…] In order to do this we must assume a few things.  Here’s the scenario we will consider: A group of people come together who want to form a libertarian government.  They believe it is immoral to initiate violence against another person.  So I aim to evaluate certain functions of government through this moral lens.  I’m not trying to argue that this morality is the one true correct morality but this post is intended for people who generally share my libertarian views.

Governments don’t come from God.  What I mean by that is that mankind did not come into existence with government nor did we have them imposed upon us by some outside force beyond our control.  They come from us.  We create them, preserve them and destroy them.  As I have said, we create them to serve some purpose and that purpose can be evaluated with respect to our morals.  The people who create the government must agree on the purpose so they must share some moral values.  What is equally important to notice is that there must be others who do not share those values.  If everyone in the neighborhood shared these libertarian values there would be no need for a government.  Nobody would initiate force against anyone else (setting aside a particular  issue which I will address later).  A libertarian utopia would be achieved through nothing but existing moral obligation.

The reason people who share certain values form a government is to impose those values on others who do not share them.  In our libertarian case, this means to protect themselves from others who do not share those values.  These people may take the form of foreign invaders.  If all foreigners were morally disposed to “live and let live” then there would be no need for a military.  However, this is not the case.  So even though our people are so disposed, they must have a military to fight off those who are not.  Domestically, there are likely to be thieves and villains who also do not share these morals and so you need police and courts to force them to conform to a set of ethics (laws) which substitute for their missing moral values.

To summarize, in a field where people have different moral values, people who have similar morals come together and create governments to impose a system of ethics on others who do not share their morals in an attempt to create a society that they consider desirable.  In our libertarian case, they create a government to protect themselves from the initiation of force by others who do not share their moral aversion to that action.  I will refer to those who willingly agree to be bound by the government as being party to the social contract, and those who do not participate willingly as not being party.

Side note: This is why our country is in so much trouble.  At the heart of our current problems is a divide between two irreconcilable ideologies.  On one side are those who feel as we do and consider those who want to use the force of government to take from some and give to others and generally control our lives delinquents and think the purpose of government is to prevent this behavior.  On the other side are those who think the purpose of government is to do exactly that and to them we are the delinquents which government must force to bend to their ethical system.  This is why the moral argument is essential to the conflict but also why it cannot win over everyone.

Once we understand this, we finally arrive at the key issue that confounds libertarians when trying to apply their morality to a government.  The original establishment of property rights necessarily requires the initiation of violence against someone.   This is because prior to the libertarian vision of government being implemented, legal property rights must be defined.  In a situation of anarchy, it is highly unlikely that everyone–even those with the same morals–will agree about the proper distribution of these initial rights.  This is because the establishment of legal rights itself vastly expands the potential scope of economic property rights.

Consider an example.  I live in a hut on the east side of a river in a large valley, while you live in a hut on the west side.  In a state of anarchy, I “own” my house and some personal effects within and around it because I am able to physically prevent you from taking them, and you own your house for the same reason.  However, we may both fish in the river, hunt in the valley, and gather food and firewood from the surrounding hills.  Neither of us has the ability to physically prevent the other from doing so.  The river, the valley and the hills are common property.  So libertarians, ask yourself: would it be moral for me to prevent you from fishing in the river?  What about for you to prevent me?  I assert that the libertarian framework offers no answer to this because it assumes perfectly established preexisting property rights.  Once these rights are not clear, it is not so clear what constitutes the initiation of violence.

If we come together to create a government, the government will have the power to keep us off of each other’s land.  This means that the scope of our property rights increases to encompass the whole valley, the river, and the surrounding hills.  This would allow vast mutual benefits (see common property link above).  But in order to do this, we must decide who owns what.  Again, the libertarian/objectivist morality cannot perfectly tell us how to assign these rights.  This presents another issue of both practical and moral significance.

Probably the most attractive scenario from both standpoints is one in which an allocation can be found to which all people in the territory of the proposed government can agree.  But now we have two reasons why this is probably impossible.  First, some people will not share the morals upon which the government is based, and second, even those who do share these morals may not agree on the proper initial allocation of property rights.  This essentially leaves us with one clear reality.  If you are morally opposed to imposing a government on anyone who does not willingly accept it, then you will be entirely prevented from establishing one at all except in very rare (probably entirely nonexistent anywhere on Earth at any time) circumstances.

The closest you can get to not imposing it on anyone is allowing them the option to leave if they don’t accept the terms of the social contract.  Therefore, if some people come together and willingly form a social contract that includes taxes to fund the government you wouldn’t call this theft.  It is only a difficult contracting issue.  Likewise whenever anyone wants to join that country or is born into it or whatever, they must either accept the social contract or not.  This contract may include some taxes which they may or may not accept in exchange for the services the government provides by defining and protecting property rights.  The only moral issue is whether or not they have some inalienable moral right to participate in the society, and take advantage of all of its protections without accepting the social contract.  I see no reason to subscribe to this position.  And again, if you do you will most likely be left utterly unable to form a government at all.

And this does not mean living in anarchy.  The alternative to libertarian government is always some other government–usually some degree of totalitarianism.  The reason for this is simple.  If you and I are prevented by our morality from forming a government to provide for the common defense, then others, who do not suffer from the same apprehension will most likely get together and form a self-enforcing contract with the goal in mind of pillaging, enslaving, or destroying both of us.  Then if we are lucky enough to go on living, we will be forced to do so under their social contract which will be forced upon us and we will be at the mercy of their moral philosophy.  This is inevitable because the gains in efficiency from establishing property rights are so large.  Someone will surely want to capture those benefits if they are left available.

God may have endowed us with the right to life liberty and property, but he didn’t tell us which property we have a right to (or at least he didn’t tell us all the same thing in this regard).  This is the root of all the struggles on Earth.  Thousands of years ago the Jews swept into Israel and essentially slaughtered all of the previous inhabitants.  Then the Babylonians conquered them.  Then the Romans got it, then the Muslims, then the Christians, then the Muslims again…..  Now the Jews have it again (courtesy of the British).  Of course, the Muslims don’t recognize the right of the Jews to this land but there’s no way to determine who’s “right” to it is legitimate based on objective libertarian principles.  Everyone who has ever had it got it by physically taking it from someone else (except, ironically, the current inhabitants who were given it willingly by some other people who had taken it by force).  The only way for these issues to be settled is by force.  Whoever can defend it gets it.  This is a law of nature, it cannot be circumvented by any moral argument.

If you try to apply the non-initiation-of-force doctrine to establish some universal system of property rights, then you must allocate the holy land to the first caveman to wander in there from Africa.  And this is of no use because it has changed hands countless times through force since then so which one of those supposed thieves is now the legitimate owner?  Must we find a descendant of that caveman and give it to him/her?  What if one doesn’t exist?  What if many exist?  For that matter, how much of the land do we assign to the first guy that walked in and how much to the second one who undoubtedly took a slightly different path, and settled in a slightly different spot.  Obviously this approach is ridiculous.

We see the same moral arbitrariness creeping into all sorts of historical accounts.  The evil white men came and stole the land from the Native Americans.  But the only sense in which any particular Native American tribe had a moral right to the land they were standing on when Europeans arrived in the New World was that they had succeeded in taking it from whomever the previous inhabitants were and had, up to that point, not been driven off by any of their rivals.  But it is not as though, they were all living in a state of enlightened peace and harmony where every tribe owned the lands on which God first positioned their ancestors and respected the property rights of every other tribe.  They were killing each other over territory all the time.  The only difference between them and the Europeans is that the Europeans turned out to be far more effective at it.

This is not to excuse every action perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans.  The point is to draw a distinction between morals, which are only held by individuals, and ethics which can be applied to a government but only within a sphere that must be established and defended by force against those who are not party to the social contract and may not share those morals.  The purpose of those of us who wish to live free cannot be to crusade for a distribution of property that we feel is universally just.  It can only be to carve out a bubble in an otherwise barbaric world in which we may be free.  This means we have to keep two things in mind.  First, the rules which constrain this system are not the same as the morality which calls it forth to begin with.  They are a practical contrivance designed to accomplish two purposes: sustain the bubble, and sustain the freedom within.  Second, the rules which are necessary for accomplishing the first purpose are not the same as those necessary for accomplishing the second, indeed these two goals are often in conflict with one another.  This is why sustaining freedom is so challenging–and so rare.  But from a practical standpoint, we need not apply the same protections to those who are not party to the contract as to those who are.  Our stance regarding those outside the bubble must be calibrated to maintain the bubble, our stance toward those within must be calibrated to preserve the freedom within.

Turning back to taxes (finally), there is no reason that taxation per se is bound to destroy the freedom in our bubble and there is much reason to believe that the bubble will not be sustainable without it.  Because of this it would be wise for any people wishing to be free to not rule it out on moral grounds, and indeed I can see no reason to feel such a moral obligation, so long as nobody is bound to life within our bubble.  If it is not worth it to them to fulfill their side of the social contract, then on what grounds are those who are party to it required to offer them sanctuary?  It would, however, be equally wise to use care in determining the way it is done.  It must not allow for the arbitrary redistribution of wealth by the government.  This is not for moral reasons (though I am sympathetic to that moral position) it is for practical reasons.  If government can do this, it will break down the freedom inside the bubble.  But that must be our focus, rather than creating a government who’s every action conforms to our own individual moral compass.

  1. February 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Hmmm…I had thought about the initial distribution of property rights before. However, this really only applies to land, sea, and air, which are not the products of man’s mind. So, I understand this initial problem. However, don’t property rights really come from the products of man’s mind wherever they are?

    Your point about a social contract and taxes is very interesting. I might have to bring this up at a club meeting. From your moral/practical point of view then, we want taxes that are as low as possible while still sustaining our “bubble” of freedom?

    This is a very interesting post. The whole initial allocation of property rights determines whether one can say imposing taxes are moral or not. I’ll have to mull your thoughts on this more before I post again haha.

    I’d say this is the best article after the one about the Fed with the graphs. However, I’m biased towards that one from an economic perspective.

  2. February 12, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    I guess I see the property rights issue as only pertaining to natural resources that were allocated to individuals and groups of people a long time ago. However, resources have been distributed. Whether or not this was done in a fair, or moral, process is beyond our control. The best we can do is protect existing property rights.

    I’m going to need more time to think about the tax argument. You make a very good point. So far, it makes more sense to me than the taxes being immoral argument.

  3. Free Radical
    February 13, 2012 at 8:46 am

    Yes, once the government is created (speaking of an ideal libertarian government), and initial property rights are determined, then the objectivist theory applies just fine. But you have to notice that all the complaints which tempt people to overturn existing property rights are based on some notion that the current distribution is unfair and they will typically go back to colonization or slavery or something like that if that’s what it takes to make a moral case. The important thing to realize is that if you are willing to go back to the genesis of property rights they always come from force. It cannot be claimed that there is a moral notion of property rights inherent in nature that can assign all property to some rightful owner independent of any government.

  1. February 14, 2012 at 9:35 am

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