Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Political Compass: Locating the United States

This post builds on "A Political Compass" and its predecessor, "The Inevitability of the Communitarian State, or What's a Libertarian to Do?" I apply the concept of the political compass to assess, harshly but realistically, our present location. Most of the links herein point to supporting posts at Liberty Corner.


The left-right, liberal-conservative taxonomies of the political spectrum are inadequate because they are linear and lacking in subtlety. The political spectrum is more usefully thought of as a compass, with anarchy, libertarianism, communitarianism, and statism as its four main directions.

In the history of the United States, the compass's needle has swung from a point near libertarianism, through communitarianism, and toward statism.

To change the metaphor, the tide of communitarianism -- which began to swell around the turn of the twentieth century -- rose inexorably to engulf the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II. The tide has continued to rise, slowly and silently engulfing us in statism.

But let us begin with anarchy, the point of the compass that, thankfully, we have not visited.


According to anarchists (or anarcho-libertarians, as I call them), an individual's freedom of action should be limited only by (a) voluntary observance of social norms and (b) contracts (enforced by third parties) that bind the members of a group to observe certain restraints and to pay certain penalties for failing to observe those restraints. Who keeps the third parties honest? Who arbitrates inter-group disputes in cases where the different groups clearly have different norms, interests, or objectives? What happens when a person or faction within a group or a faction outside any group attains superior force and decides to employ that force in the service of its norms, interests, or objectives. (See this and this for more in that vein.)

Anarchy, in other words, boils down to "might makes right," even though its adherents would like it to be otherwise.

We in the United States have been spared anarchy. Our founding experience, in fact, held the promise of libertarianism.


Given the inconsistency of anarchy with liberty (for liberty cannot thrive where might makes right), we turn to the only political arrangement that (if it is nurtured) can assure liberty, namely, minarchy.

Rights and liberty, it must be understood, are not Platonic abstractions; they are, rather, social phenomena. They are the best "deal" we can make with those around us -- the set of compromises that define acceptable behavior, which is the boundary of liberty. Those compromises are not made by a philosopher-king but through an evolving consensus about harms -- a consensus that flows from reason, experience, persuasion, and necessity.

Minarchism is true libertarianism because it provides a minimal state for the protection of the lives, liberty, and property of those who adhere to it; a state that otherwise remains neutral with respect to its adherents' affairs; a state that does not distort the wisdom embedded in tradition, that is, in voluntarily evolved social norms; a state that is nevertheless sufficiently powerful to protect its willing adherents' interests from predators, within and without.

Minarchy, unlike anarchy, is possible, given sufficient luck and vigilance. As I wrote here,
[t]here must...be an overarching, non-market institution which enables markets to operate efficiently, that is, to reach outcomes that are seen as beneficial by all those willingly operate within markets. The necessary supervening institution is the minimal state (a minarchy) that is vested with enough authority to protect market participants from force and fraud, but not so much authority so as to enable its interference with market outcomes.

Only a wise (and rare) élite can establish such a state. The existence of such an élite -- and its success in establishing a lasting minarchy -- depends on serendipity, determination, and (yes) even force. That we, in the United States, came close (for a time) to having such a minarchy was due to historical accident (luck). We had just about the right élite at just about the right time, and the élite's wisdom managed to prevail for a while.

The dichotomy between anarcho-capitalism and minarchy is a false one. The true dichotomy is between minarchy and warlordism (which follows from anarchy).

That we have moved on to something worse than minarchy is not proof of the superiority of anarcho-capitalism. It is, rather, proof that our luck ran out.
For the 100-plus years between the ratification of the Constitution and the rise of the first Roosevelt, we had something close to minarchy here in the United States: a "night watchman" state of limited powers, standing guard over a collection of quasi-independent States. The people of those States (all of them, since the Civil War) were free -- in the world of reality that lies beyond the ken of anarchists -- to choose the most amenable State and locality in which to make the best possible "deal" for themselves.

We had nothing to fear but...that the minimal state would exceed its charter and descend into...


Communitarianism is the regulation by the state of private institutions for the purpose of producing certain outcomes desired by controlling élites (e.g., income redistribution, "protection" from learning by our mistakes, "protection" from things deemed harmful by the worrying classes, and "social (or cosmic) justice"). Such outcomes, contrary to their stated purposes, are unwise, inefficient, and harmful to their intended beneficiaries.

Communitarianism is the stage that we passed through as our "luck ran out." Which is to say, our vigilance faltered and we succumbed to the ruinous despotism of democracy: the voter-enabled substitution of state-imposed and state-endorsed behavioral norms for socially evolved ones -- always in the name of "liberality" or "progress."

The communitarian state simply is too seductive. It co-opts its citizens through progressive corruption: more spending and regulation, to curry favor with certain voting blocs, higher taxes to fund more spending and to perpetuate the regulatory mechanisms of the state; still more taxation, spending, and regulation; and so on.

Each voting bloc insists on sustaining its benefits, and increasing them at every opportunity, for one of three reasons. Many voters actually believe that the largesse of the communitarian state is free to them, and some of them are right (but only for the short run). Other voters know better, but they grab what they can get because others will grab it if they don't. Then there are those voters (and well-heeled political contributors) who exude noblesse oblige toward the "less fortunate" and "oppressed." Such voters (and contributors), who now are predominant among the very-to-super rich, view the paying of taxes as a sacred duty (even a privilege), and consider the state a massive charitable and social-leveling organization.

Whatever the motivation for the communitarian state, those who vote for it and those who enable it through their political contributions are profoundly irrational. This irrational, communitarian urge began to dominate American politics with the rise of the first Roosevelt. Our descent into full-blown communitarianism was hastened by the Great Depression, a government-made and government-prolonged tragedy, exploited (then and now) by the proponents of communitarianism and statism.


We were, for decades, poised on the brink of the abyss of statism, which is outright state control of most social and economic institutions (e.g., medicine, notably but far from exclusively). I have concluded that we have gone over the brink and slid, silently and docilely, into the abyss.

Statism may be reached either as an extension of communitarianism or via post-statist anarchy or near-anarchy, as in Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and Mao's China. We have come to statism via communitarianism, which leads inevitably to statism because the appetite for largesse is insatiable, as is the desire (in certain circles) to foster "social (or cosmic) justice."

I was once optimistic that our transition to all-out statism would lead, in turn, to overthrow of statism:
[S]tatism is an easier target for reform than communitarianism. The high price of statism becomes obvious to more voters as more facets of economic and personal behavior are controlled by the state. In other words, statism's inherent weakness is that it creates more enemies than communitarianism.
That weakness becomes libertarians' opportunity. Persistent, reasoned eloquence in the cause of liberty may, at last, slow the rise of statism and hasten its rollback. And who knows, perhaps libertarianism will gain adherents as the rollback gains momentum.
My optimism has vanished, as I have come to understand that politicians their enablers (voters and contributors) are profoundly irrational. They prefer statism to liberty, regardless of what they say. They (most of them) mean to be benign, but statism is not benign. Statism may seem benign -- as it does to Europeans, for example -- but it is dehumanizing, impoverishing, and -- at bottom -- destructive of the social fabric upon which liberty depends.


Our statism is better-disguised than Europe's, but it is there, in the insidious, voter-supported machinery of government that has caused us to be so heavily regulated and legislated by so many federal, State, and local agencies. Try to think of an aspect of your life -- what you can do, what you can buy, what you can afford to buy, the income you earn as an employer or employee, and so on -- that is not dictated by government, either directly or through taxation and regulation. As you think about your life, consider these things:
  • how zoning and building codes affect the cost, location, and specifications of your dwelling
  • how licensing and zoning affect the numbers and types of businesses that offer the goods and services you seek
  • the availability (or non-availability) to you of beneficial drugs because of testing mandates that result in more death and illness, not less
  • limitations on the numbers and types of doctors and other health-care providers from which you can choose
  • where you may smoke (even if the venue is private property)
  • whether or not you may own and carry a firearm with which to defend yourself
  • the security of your property from arbitrary seizure by government
  • the provision of myriad government "social services" (e.g, bike trails and nature preserves for yuppies, hippies, and tree-huggers) for which you have no need but for which you are nevertheless taxed because such services have voting constituencies and politicians who benefit from catering to those constituencies
  • relatedly, the provision of so-called federal money to your State and local governments, which money comes from taxes imposed by the federal government, over which you have even less control than you do of your State and local governments
  • the number, location, and characteristics of highways (which often are built as pork-barrel projects), none of which monitor or restrict the of entry or incompetent, drunk, or cell-phone-using drivers (as could be the case with private highways for selective users who are willing to pay the price to be able to drive sanely and safely)
  • the failure of government to defend you adequately against enemies and likely enemies, foreign and domestic, so that it may fund "social services" and cosset criminals
  • the number of public-utility providers who can serve you, and the rates that they may charge you
  • the persons whom you (or your employer) may hire, fire, and promote -- almost regardless of their credentials and performance, and certainly regardless of how they affect your performance (or your employer's ability to continue your employment)
  • the benefits that you (or your employer) must provide employees, regardless of the effect of such mandates on your ability (or that of your employer) to start or stay in business
  • how much you may contribute to a political campaign, and what may be said on the air about an upcoming election
  • the provision of "government" funding to political campaigns
  • the provision of your tax dollars to "scholars" who scoff at your morality and propound schemes to further regulate and impoverish you
  • whether, how, and where your children must be schooled
The list could go on and on. But you get the idea -- I hope.

If you believe in the necessity of the things I have listed, and believe that you are better off because of them, you haven't been paying attention -- or you are an enabler of statism.

A bit of taxation here and a bit of regulation there, and before you know it you are living under the thumb of the state.