The Origin of Government: Two Differing Perspectives

Introduction

Have you ever wondered how government came to exist? Most of us tend to not consider the origin of government, since it has existed for our entire lives. While arguably not particularly important, opinions on the origin of government tend to bleed into one’s perception of the nature of government, thereby holding at least some measure of relevance. Given this information, let’s consider two starkly different perspectives on the origin of government.

Government as a Voluntary Association for the Protection of Property

Philosopher, John Locke attempted to justify the existence of government through his interpretation of its origin. In his mind, the only way that government could be justified in ruling over free individuals would be if those individuals consented to being governed. He writes:

“Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.”

Thus, Locke argues that government formed based on the voluntary decisions of numerous individuals to compact together in community for the common good.

Government as a Coercive Association of Legalized Plunderers

Anthropologist, Robert L. Carneiro, disputes Locke’s narrative, saying, “We now know that no such compact was ever subscribed to by human groups… A close examination of history indicates that only coercive theory can account for the rise of the state.” Thinkers who align with Carneiro’s position would tend to have a much more skeptical view of the State and its potentially nefarious motives for coming into existence. Journalist, Richard J. Maybury, gives one potential explanation for the origin of government:

     “Historians and anthropologists have now located many examples of peaceful communities that had gangs of barbarians living nearby. Imagine one of our more violent gangs riding into town on horses, instead of motorcycles or cars, and you will have the picture.
     These barbarians were lazy and had little interest in work. Every few weeks they would ride into town, steal food, clothing, and whatever else they could carry, then ride back out. They would live off this stolen loot until it was gone, then ride back in and raid the town again.
     This would go on for many years until —
     One night, as the barbarians were sitting around their campfire planning their next attack, one complained, ‘You know, all this riding in and out of town fighting with people is beginning to feel like work. It isn’t fun anymore, there’s got to be a better way.’ 
     Another lamented, ‘ You’re right, in the last raid I lost an ear and two more fingers. I’m running out of parts.’
     This sorrowful discussion would continue until someone exclaimed, ‘I’ve got it! Let’s just ride into town and stay! We’ll put up a building in the middle of town and call it City Hall or State Capitol or some such thing, and we’ll use it as a hangout. We’ll take baths and shave and dress up in fine clothes like respectable businessmen. Then we’ll levy something we’ll call a tax.
     ‘We’ll tell the people — we’ll call them taxpayers — that as long as they pay this tax regularly, exactly as we tell them, with the right forms and everything, we won’t punish them. We’ll start the tax low so that they won’t feel it’s worth fighting over, and each year we’ll raise it a bit until we’re taking a sizable part of their incomes.’ 
     Another barbarian suggested, ‘Yes, and we could use some of the tax money to provide a few services, maybe streets, schools, and courts, so that the people will feel they’re getting something for their money.’
     And another added the final touches. ‘There are other gangs in this area. When they see how docile our taxpayers have become, they’ll try to ride in and take over. They’ll be shearing our sheep. We’ll need to provide police and an army to protect what’s ours. The taxpayers will love it — they’ll think we’re doing it for them.'”

In stark contrast to the Lockean perspective, Maybury argues that the State is merely an attempt to legitimize recurring plunder. Sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer, agreed with Maybury’s perspective, saying, “Everywhere, we find some warlike tribe of wild men breaking through the boundaries of some less warlike people, settling down as nobility and founding its State.”

Conclusion

Both these theories are interesting and have ramifications on how we interpret government actions. Which one do you think is a more realistic, legitimate explanation for the origin of government?

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Please shoot me an email or leave a comment below with your opinion on which theory seems more believable. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

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In Defense of the True Civil War Narrative

Introduction

One unfortunate side effect of the tragedies at Charlottesville is that many people have decided to go back and re-interpret historical events to fit their political narratives. I’ve seen numerous people making the simplistic claims that “all Southerners were racists” or “North=good, South=bad,” implying that the Civil War was some sort of humanitarian struggle to abolish slavery. While these arguments are convenient and succinct, they are also predominantly false and lack any sort of nuance. Therefore, I am going to attempt, through the rest of this post, to offer a balanced and accurate perspective of the Civil War that places blame where it is legitimately due.

Disclaimer

Let it be known that I am not a Southerner and do not really care about Southern Heritage. I am not a neo-confederate, a part of the Lost Cause movement, or a white supremacist. On the contrary, my family is predominantly from the North and I grew up considering the North the good guys and the South the bad guys. However, as I’ve learned more about the historical facts surrounding this struggle, I’ve coming to realize that this simplistic narrative is simply untrue. From my perspective, it seems that both sides were at fault and I am going to try to clarify some of these issues in the rest of this post. I do not have any sort of agenda, rather, I believe that horrific current events do not necessitate the perpetuation of historical inaccuracies. Racism is evil and should be condemned. However, we can denounce racism without going back in time, misstating history, and unnecessarily vilifying millions of people.

Racial Beliefs in America in the Early 1800’s

The perspective that all the racists and white supremacists in America in the 1800’s lived south of the Mason-Dixon line is patently false. As historian, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, notes, “with respect to race, both [North and South] practiced the same white supremacy, the black minority being either enslaved [in the South] or legally discriminated against [in the North].”

In the North abolitionists were a vocal minority. Individuals such as William Lloyd Garrison argued against slavery from a moral perspective and advocated that the North secede from the Union so as to avoid association with such an evil institution and to become a haven for runaway slaves. His views were so unpopular that a Boston anti-abolitionist mob dragged him through the streets and almost lynched him.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French commentator on 1830’s America, noted that “race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.” This prejudice was codified in various Northern laws that discriminated against blacks voting or prohibited free blacks from entering various Northern states. As Hummel notes, “Most northern locales had legally mandated discrimination of some sort.”

In addition, the United States government actually subsidized slavery as an institution through the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1793. This law compelled Northern, free states to return escaped slaves to their masters and, for the most part, the free states willingly cooperated with this legislation. Thus, even the Northern states were complicit in slavery’s continued existence in the 1800’s.

Northern Opposition to Slavery

Although few Northerners opposed slavery on grounds of racial equality, many opposed its spread into new states for other reasons. Hummel again notes,

“The single issue that commanded for abolitionists the greatest northern sympathy was slavery’s extension into new territories. Here was an antislavery position that carried no taint of disunion. It allowed Northerners to take steps against slavery in a distant sphere while honoring their constitutional obligation to leave the local institutions of the southern states alone. Here also was an antislavery position that could be made consistent with Negrophobia. Keeping slaves out of the territories was an excellent way to keep blacks out altogether.”

Antislavery Pennsylvanian David Wilmot represented a common Northern perspective on race and slavery. He authored the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to outlaw slavery in all newly acquired territories, and identified with the Free-Soil Party, which sought to keep the western territories available for free white laborers. Arguing for eliminating slavery in these new territories, he said, “The negro race already occupy enough of this fair continent. Let us keep what remains for us and our children.”

Thus, the idea that the North opposed slavery and its expansion on pure, moral grounds is incorrect. On the contrary, most Northerners were fine with allowing slavery to remain untouched where it currently existed. Hummel characterized the two extreme positions on slavery in this manner, “In one [the North], slavery was stigmatized at the national level and legally permitted only at the state level. In the other [the South], slavery was a national institution sanctioned and protected by the central government.”

Abraham Lincoln on Slavery

The beliefs on slavery expressed by Abraham Lincoln are a good example of the sorts of opinions held by Northerners at this time. Many people believe that Abraham Lincoln was a civil rights activist of sorts, who started the Civil War in order to eradicate slavery. On the contrary, Lincoln was a moderate on the issue of slavery who desperately tried to disassociate himself with the seemingly radical abolitionists.

During a debate in 1858, Stephen Douglas, a Northerner from Illinois, tried to discredit Lincoln as a radical abolitionist saying, “I do not question Mr. Lincoln’s conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother.”

Lincoln, rather than accepting Douglas’ accusation, defended himself,

“I will say that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they can not so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

This is not to say that Lincoln was uniquely villainous for holding these white supremacist views. Rather, these despicable beliefs made up the predominant opinion of this time.

While Lincoln opposed slavery’s expansion, he primarily criticized slavery based on its potential to divide the country and dissolve the Union. In addition, he agreed with some of the sentiments put forth by the Free-Soil Party saying, “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them.”

Similar to the views held by Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln believed that white and black individuals could never live in harmony. This lead him to advocate colonizing freed slaves in areas such as Haiti, Honduras, Liberia, and Ecuador.

Southern Arguments for Slavery

My purpose thus far has been to show that racism existed in the North in the 1800’s and that Northern opposition to slavery was not primarily based on moral grounds. This is not to say that the South should be absolved of all moral responsibility for the institution of slavery. However, I have not chosen to focus on these matters as much since they are more commonly known and are not currently being debated by many individuals.

That being said, slavery (as seen in America in the 1800’s) was a fundamentally evil institution that rejected the right of self-ownership and the idea that all men are created equal (and in the image of God). While there were differing degrees of treatment of slaves in the South, it is important to not attempt to excuse this evil institution by saying that some of the slaves were treated civilly. Regardless of whether or not some slaves were treated satisfactorily by their masters, this institution, by definition, violated the natural rights of the slaves and was thus, wrong.

In addition, the reasoning that many Southerners would use to justify slavery was truly horrific. Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina stated, “In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. It constitutes the very mud-sills of society and of political government. [This class demands] but a low order of intellect and but little skill, [but] fortunately for the South, has found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand.”

Similarly, Virginian lawyer, George Fitzhugh, defended slavery as a sort of socialism, “Liberty is an evil which government is intended to correct.” Denying the equal rights of all men, Fitzhugh stated, “It would be far nearer to the truth to say, ‘that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them’ — and the riding does them good. They need the reins, the bit, and the spur.”

Why Did the South Secede?

Clearly, the majority of Southerners supported the institution of slavery, but did they secede primarily to protect this institution? We must first note that there were many political, cultural, and economic factors that lead the eleven Southern states to secede from the Union between 1860 and 1861. While it is beyond the scope of this post to outline the decades of strife between the North and the South that lead up this point, it is important to be aware that this act of secession did not come out of nowhere. For decades the North had been exploiting Southern production through tariffs, and the election of Lincoln in 1860 was seen as the final straw in a long list of injustices.

People will often claim that the South seceded over the issue of slavery. This statement is correct, for the most part, but requires some nuance. For one thing, there were two waves of secession, each of which took place for different reasons. South Carolina began the first wave of secession and stated that they seceded because the country had elected, “a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery … The Slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”

The other six states from the Deep South (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded for very similar reasons. Therefore, it is correct to say that slavery was the primary, but not the sole reason for this wave of secession.

That being said, the four states from the Upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) seceded for very different reasons. They remained a part of the Union until after the conflict at Fort Sumter, which lead Lincoln to call the national militia to arms. Virginia’s governor, John Letcher, blamed Lincoln for the altercation and said that Virginia would not go to war against the other Southern states,

“The militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such purpose as they have in view. Your [Lincoln’s] object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object — an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the [militia] act of 1795 — will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited toward the South.”

Thus, while it can be said that the first seven states seceded primarily over the issue of slavery, this assertion cannot be made regarding the following four states. As Hummel notes, “Previously unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these four states were now ready to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union.”

Lincoln’s Assurances

It was noted previously that the first seven states seceded upon the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. This is still a bit of a confusing rationale since Lincoln was not an abolitionist and clearly stated that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Hummel notes, “Between his [Lincoln’s] election and his inauguration, he refused to compromise on keeping slavery out of the territories, but throughout his campaign he had steadfastly opposed any other antislavery policies. He promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and respect slavery in the existing states.”

Lincoln reiterated these sentiments during his inauguration and assured the Southern states that he would not seek to eliminate the institution of slavery,

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property [i.e. their slaves] and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you … I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

After some of the initial Southern states seceded, Congress desperately tried to entice these states to remain in the Union through a variety of compromises. One such effort, which Lincoln approved of, was a constitutional amendment that prohibited interference with slavery where it existed and was unamendable.

Why Did the North Fight?

Clearly then, Lincoln and the Northern states did not confront the Confederacy over the issue of slavery. On the contrary, they were willing to compromise again and again on the issue of slavery in order to keep the Union in place. After all, why would the Northern states all of a sudden go to war to try to overturn an institution that they had been largely apathetic towards for the past fifty-plus years? It is not as if the South seceded so that they could set up an institution that had previously been disallowed by the United States government.

Furthermore, Lincoln allowed slavery to remain untouched in the four slave states that did not secede (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri). If Lincoln primarily cared about the inherent immorality of slavery, he would not have continued to allow it to exist in these four states.

That being said, if the North did not fight to end slavery, why did they fight? Lincoln made his purpose clear in a 1862 letter,

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Again, Lincoln showed his willingness to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to keep the Union together. At times throughout the war, Lincoln even hinted that he would allow the Southern states to keep their slaves if they rejoined the Union.

The United States Senate reiterated many of these sentiments,

“This war is not prosecuted upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of over-throwing or interfering with with the rights or established institutions [i.e. slavery] of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and all laws made in pursuance therof; and to preserve the Union.”

It is clear, then, that the North did not view this war as a heroic effort to abolish slavery, but rather, sought to preserve the unity of the states.

Even the Emancipation Proclamation, which is commonly viewed as a definitive piece of anti-slavery legislation, only freed slaves in the Southern states (specifically exempting Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Northern-controlled counties in Virginia). Overall, it was more of a “war measure” designed to garner support from European countries, which would have potentially supported the South, then a statement on the inherent equality of all races.

Thus, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, criticized the proclamation stating, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” In terms of actually improving the plight of slaves, this proclamation did close to nothing.

In summary, while it can be said that the abolition of slavery was a positive, secondary effect of the Civil War, it was undoubtedly not the original, primary purpose.

Massachusetts abolitionist, Lysander Spooner, summarized the purpose of the war in this manner, “The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.”

Conclusion

There is a lot more that could be said on these issues, but I’ve already said more than intended to. I’ll summarize my perspective through the following points:

  • The majority of Americans in the both the North and the South in the early 1800’s held white supremacist views.
  • Most Northerners who opposed slavery did not oppose it based on moral grounds.
  • Slavery was a horrific institution and was excused by many Southerners based on terrible, immoral reasoning.
  • The first seven states seceding primarily, but not solely over the issue of slavery and the next four states seceding primarily over the issue of self-governance.
  • The North fought to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery.

Thus, I would say that the Southern states who seceded over the issue of slavery were in the wrong, due to their reasoning for secession. And while it is beyond the scope of this post to deal with the constitutional right to secede, I would tend to affirm the compact theory which would legitimize the act of secession. Therefore, I would say that the North was in the wrong for not allowing the Southern states to secede.

Even if one rejects the compact theory and argues that the North was justified in their retaliation, I do not think that the North can unequivocally be labeled “the good guys,” based on the manner in which they conducted the war. From Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and other clear constitutional violations to General Sherman’s use of total war, the North undoubtedly employed immoral means to achieve their ends.

I want to add that, although it is easy to place all of the blame for slavery and past injustices on the Confederacy, in reality, slavery was at least implicitly condoned by the entire nation. And, while it is wrong to hold every individual from this time period responsible for slavery, my point is that the North repeatedly compromised on the issue of slavery and directly allowed for its continuance. Therefore, if you want to indiscriminately condemn people for the institution of slavery, at least be consistent and blame the entire country and not just the Southern states.

In summary, this is a complicated topic which requires nuanced analysis. Even if you do not agree with all of my conclusions, I hope that this post has given you a more refined perspective on the Civil War that moves beyond the simplistic narratives being perpetrated by individuals and news sources in lieu of current events.

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Thanks for reading this post! Please feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email with your feedback to this post.

For further reading check out Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s book “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men” and Ben Lewis’ articles “Did the South Secede Over Slavery,” and “Did the North Really Fight to End Slavery.”

 

The Victim Costs of Illegal Drug Use

Many types of narcotics are illegal in the U.S. Through the threat of jail time, the government attempts to limit the use of certain types of drugs. At some point, however, the costs of preventing drug use begin to outweigh the benefits of this prevention. Therefore, policy decisions must be made that account for the respective benefits and costs, and that utilize preventative resources in the most efficient way possible.

What are the most important and relevant costs that should be accounted for in these decisions? An economic analysis of crime prevention would emphasize focusing on the prevention of crimes that yield high victim costs (i.e. injury, recovery time, lost property, etc.). If the primary benefit of crime prevention is the reduction of victim costs, then effort and capital should primarily be utilized to limit the crimes that hurt victims the most. It would not make economic sense to incur high costs in order to acquire inconsequential benefits, and similarly, it is inefficient to spend tons of tax dollars in order to limit insignificant victim costs from crime.

This gets back to the original topic of drug use prevention. If crime prevention should primarily be based upon limiting victim costs, then analysis of drug laws should similarly focus on the victims of drug use. So, who are the victims of drug use?

One potential victim of illegal drug use is “society.” As a somewhat abstract collection of individuals, it is difficult to genuinely assess these potential costs. However, many would argue that society is harmed by drug use in terms of lost productivity from unemployable addicts. Further, there are negative externalities such as violence that are often associated with drug use.

Another potential victim of illegal drug would be the friends and family members of drug users. As identifiable individuals, the effects on this group of people are much more concrete and quantifiable. The potential harm to this group of people ranges anywhere from physical abuse to lack of monetary provision. It should be noted, however, that drug use does not necessitate the existence of these negative effects. While violence and other costs might often be caused by drug use, they are not universally caused by all drug use. Further, there are already laws that exist to prevent many of these effects (i.e. abuse).

A final potential victim of drug use is the user himself. Of all the groups discussed so far, drug users experience the most direct negative effects of their decision to use drugs. From decreased health to diminished employability, drug users endure the most certain and significant costs of their decision.

If, as I would argue, the drug user is the primary victim of drug crimes, then there are significant problems and inconsistencies with current drug laws in the U.S. Why is the victim being punished for the crime? By using drugs, these individuals harm themselves in many ways and the penalty of prison time imposes additional harm onto these drug users. We don’t impose prison sentences on victims of other crimes, rather, we seek to restore victims and limit their future harm. Therefore, this practice of punishing drug users for harming themselves seems absurd.

Even if you would disagree with my prior analysis and argue that society and/or the friends and family of drug users are the primary victims, there are still significant problems with the current policy. After all, the drug user’s prison time is financed by the very group that he supposedly harms by using drugs. Therefore, rather than restoring these victims for the initial costs of the drug use, taxpayers (namely, society and/or the friends and family) are charged with higher taxes in order to punish the user. And while this punishment may limit some of the negative effects of his initial drug use (such as abuse or violence), it will not provide restitution for the loss of provision to the family or the lack of productivity to society.

I realize that this can be a sensitive issue and I do not intend to offend anybody who has personally dealt with any of the potentially awful effects of drug use. Further, I realize that a stoical analysis of benefits and costs could come across as insensitive and I want to reiterate that this was not my intention. And I also want to note that from a moral perspective, I would never advocate the use of many of these types of drugs. However, I do believe that there are problems with current U.S. anti-drug policies that should be pointed out.

There is a lot more that could be discussed regarding this issue, much of which I am not qualified to expound upon. I did not describe any alternative policies, although there are many that would be more efficient and equitable than the current policies. I did not discuss the particular misplaced incentives, unintended consequences, or specific economic problems that exist in the current anti-drug environment. Furthermore, I did not consider the moral aspect of drug use and the government’s role in legislating behavior. This is a complex matter that would require more than a mere blogpost to fully analyze. That being said, I intended to discuss one aspect of the war on drugs and hopefully, you found it interesting and thought-provoking.

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As usual, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts regarding this post. Thanks for reading!

Inflation & Taxation: A Consideration of the Validity of Certain Government Actions

It can be challenging to critique government action. Although anybody can proclaim that they disapprove of a piece of legislation, determining a basis upon which to judge the validity of government behavior can be difficult. After all, since government creates the law, unless it breaks its own rules, evaluating the legality of government action is unhelpful.*

Besides analyzing the legality of government action, however, are there higher laws that would establish the morality of government action? Specifically, what gives government moral justification to perform actions that are legally and morally discouraged at the individual level? This is a complex philosophical issue which is beyond the scope of this blogpost. However, in the remainder of this post, I want to use these questions to analyze a couple of actions that are illegal and immoral at the individual level, but generally accepted when performed by the government.

Does the fact that an action is being performed by the government rather than the individual make it morally permissible? If not, how does one make the distinction between moral and immoral government action? While I am not necessarily going to answer these questions in this post, think about them as you consider the rest of this discussion.

Notes:

*[Admittedly, the U.S. government routinely violates constitutional law and I’m sure other governments behave similarly at times. However, although that would be an interesting topic for another discussion, I did not attempt to analyze the issue of the legality of government action in this blogpost. I merely wanted to mention this matter to set up the rest of my post.]

Inflation

Inflation is a widely accepted negative inevitability. Nobody really likes inflation but at the same time, nobody is really motivated to get rid of it. It is generally expected that it will continue to exist and is often attributed to greedy business systematically raising their prices. However, as historian and economist, Murray Rothbard, notes, “If businessmen are so avaricious as to jack up prices 10 percent per year, why do they stop there? Why do they wait; why don’t they raise prices by 50 percent, or double or triple them immediately? What holds them back?” (“For a New Liberty” page 217). The answer to Rothbard’s final question is that consumers hold back businesses from operating in this way. After all, businesses (generally) cannot force consumers to buy their goods, regardless of the price being charged. Therefore, this is not a convincing explanation for the existence of inflation.

So what does cause inflation? Well, without getting into the technical intricacies of monetary policy, the simple answer is that the government causes inflation by increasing the supply of money. This increase in the supply of money causes the value of existing dollars to decrease. Additionally, the increase in the supply of money held by consumers relaxes their budgetary constraints, increasing their demand for goods. This increased demand causes the higher prices that are generally associated with inflation.

To look at it another way, imagine a world that has only ten units of currency and ten widgets. Each widget is then worth one unit of currency. If someone were to magically create ten additional units of currency and no additional widgets, then the relative price of the widgets would double since the ratio of units of currency to widgets increased. Note that the increased supply of currency was not at all associated with an increase in production.

At an individual level, the creation of currency is known as counterfeiting and is illegal and immoral. After all, by increasing the supply of money, the counterfeiter gains wealth at the expense of others. At its root, counterfeiting is a form of theft in the sense that it devalues the currency held by others. In terms of the immorality of stealing value from others, the Old Testament decries the act of using false weights on numerous occasions as an act of stealing value from others (Leviticus 19:35-36, Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Ezekiel 45:9-10, Hosea 12:7-8, etc.) and counterfeiting is similarly morally reprehensible.

So what gives government the right to do what is illegal and immoral at the individual level? You might say that government has the “greater good” in mind when exercising inflationary policy, but government uses inflation for the same reasons that individuals counterfeit: to increase their wealth at the expense of others. If you believe in human depravity you will likely sympathize with Rothbard’s analysis of the issue, “Since the interest of the counterfeiter is to print as much money as he can get away with, so too will the State print as much money as it can get away with, just as it will employ the power to tax in the same way: to extract as much money as it can without raising too many howls of protest” (“For a New Liberty” page 222). An increased supply of money gives the government an easy method for increasing spending without increasing more obvious taxes and creating these sorts of “howls of protest.”

Thus, inflation is a convenient tax on individuals that will often go unnoticed and will surely not be attributed to government policy by the majority of the population. However, its negative effects are numerous, ranging from decreased savings account values to higher prices. Author R.C. Sproul Jr. sums this topic up nicely, “For a private individual the practice of printing bogus, worthless paper and putting it in circulation is a criminal act, yet it is legal for governments to do it. The practice of inflating the money supply with fiat currency is an act of national theft” (“Biblical Economics” page 105).

Taxation

As an accountant at a public accounting firm, I regularly think about taxes. And based on my interactions with individuals regarding taxation, I want to make two initial observations. First, nobody really likes paying their taxes. It’s a bit ironic that the same people who assert the importance of “contributing to society” will actually complain about doing their part. Second, those affected by high tax rates are actual people, not merely abstract corporations. Seeing a person, with an actual name and a family and a life lose >30% of his/her income is sobering. I want to be clear that the negative effects of taxation on individuals are real, not mere theories or abstractions. (Let me now move beyond this initial appeal to emotion.)

Many of you are likely familiar with the common phrase “taxation is theft.” And although I tend to agree with the sentiments of this phrase, it is a concise but inadequate description of the ideas at hand, which, without further explanation, often causes confusion and/or frustration. That being said, let me explain my thoughts.

Imagine I am a mob boss. I come to your house and demand money from you. Of course (unless you were feeling generous), you would likely turn me away because I have no claim to your money. But I happen to disagree, pointing out that I am actually providing you with a service. In return for your money, I will provide protection and if I do not receive your money, you will “likely” undergo some sort of harm. You would describe this behavior as extortion since you did not ask for my protective services and will be punished for failing to accept and pay for these services. Thus, this type of forced payment is both illegal and immoral at the individual level.*

Nonetheless, this type of extortion is analogous to what government does through taxation. Now you might disagree with me and say that taxes are the cost of living in a free society.** Think of all the public services that one benefits from by paying taxes. However, similar to the situation in the previous paragraph, what if I do not want any of these public services? I still have to pay all of my taxes or face government punishment. What if I only appreciate some public services and would like to only support those services that I need? I still have to pay all of my taxes or face government punishment. Thus, taxation is coercive by definition. On this issue Rothbard notes, “Anyone who persists in thinking of taxation as in some sense a ‘voluntary’ payment can see what happens if he chooses not to pay” (“For a New Liberty” page 62).

(Beyond the blatant issue of the coercive nature of taxation, there are more specific problems with the current tax system. The income tax in and of itself provides a disincentive to work, as more labor leads to a higher tax bill. That’s not even considering the moral issues of taxing the same dollar over and over again. Furthermore, the tax collection process forces employers to act as unpaid tax collectors and forces individuals to work at no pay (or to pay accountants) to verify the correctness of their tax bills. You might not think to describe this process as involuntary servitude, but since millions of individuals are forced to provide labor without any corresponding compensation, it is difficult to accurately describe it otherwise.)

Notes:

*[Since extortion is very similar to theft, I would hope that you wouldn’t question the immorality of it. However, if you need specific examples of the Biblical condemnation of extortion, consider Ezekiel 22 where God denounces Israelites for committing extortion numerous times (vs. 7, 12, 29).]

**[Although, it is interesting to note that individuals do not choose what society they are born into. You might not want to live in a free society, and would prefer to live in a freer society where you don’t have to pay for services you don’t want. Ironically, this is the point where the free society becomes considerably less free and you are thrown into prison, which is quite the opposite of free.]

Conclusion

In the end, you might argue with the points laid out so far by saying that inflation and taxation are inherently different from individual theft because they are performed by the government. This statement would bring us back to one of the questions posed earlier: what gives government moral justification to perform actions that are legally and morally discouraged at the individual level? As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein asked, “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?” (“Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” page 159).

Without getting too deep into answering this question, it seems that if inflation and taxation are forms of theft, then justification of either of these government actions means affirming that theft is only wrong when performed by certain people. Now, you might dodge this issue by stating that without inflation or taxation, government would not have the funds to run properly. And, while that statement may be true, that is a utilitarian argument that ignores the underlying moral issues. Ultimately, we should not advocate “what works” if “what works” is clearly morally wrong.

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Hopefully, I did not offend too many people with the radical ideas presented here. All in all, I am merely trying to think through many of these issues and formulate a consistent view of government and morality. If you heartily disagree with what I said or were intrigued by this new perspective, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.

For further reading on these topics, check out “For a New Liberty” by Murray Rothbard,  “Biblical Economics” by R.C. Sproul Jr., and “Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” by D. Eric Schansberg.

 

Paternalism, Utility, & Choice

When you were a child, it is likely that your parents told you to behave in certain ways “for your own good.” Out of concern for your safety, they directed you to avoid playing in the streets and sticking your fingers in electrical sockets. Out of concern for your future relationships, they instructed you to avoid unruly behavior at the dinner table and to learn basic manners.

As you grew up and became an adult, maybe the thought of living in a world without this sort of benevolent, careful direction intimidated you? Let me ease your mind and inform you that the friendly federal government is more than willing to take on some of these parental burdens and instruct you on the best possible way to live.

Since you are not able or motivated to adequately plan for your future, you should be encouraged that the Social Security system exists to involuntarily take a portion of your earnings and put it aside for your retirement. Since you may or may not care about preserving your life, you should be relieved that laws exist to force you to wear seatbelts while driving. Since you are quite likely to blow all of your money on lotteries or other betting activities, you should rejoice that the government severely restricts gambling. Since you could seriously damage your health through the use of certain drugs, you should be encouraged that the government has outlawed all sorts of narcotics.*

This sort of behavior on the part of the government is known as paternalism, which can be defined as the practice of subordinating individuals for their own best interest.

According to many economists, however, it is assumed that individuals are rational and already able to make decisions based on their own interests, without additional direction. Individuals maximize their utility (basically their satisfaction, happiness, etc.) by making choices based on a particular set of unique tastes and preferences. This view assumes the following:

a) individuals act based on their self-interests and try to maximize their utility
b) each individual has unique preferences, which means that optimal decisions vary depending on the person involved
b) because of these unique preferences, utility is maximized via choice
d) because of the previous three assumptions, individuals (as opposed to outside forces such as the government) are best able to maximize their own utility**

These assumptions lead to a number of questions/concerns regarding the paternalistic behavior of government.

  1. If people are already motivated to look out for their own interests, why does government need to step in and command individuals to behave “for their own good?” It seems that most people value their lives and would use seatbelts and/or drive carefully without government mandates. Similarly, if saving money for retirement is a wise, self-beneficial thing to do, it seems that most people would do this on their own. If people chose not to put money aside for retirement, this would reflect unique utility-maximizing preferences on the part of the individuals involved. Maybe these people do not expect to live into retirement, see no purpose in saving money for the future, and thus, have a very different idea on how to maximize utility than the government. This leads to the next question.
  2. Assuming the government’s view of an individual’s “best interest” is different than the individual’s view, what qualifies the government to make this distinction? Do we believe that a small, elected group of people have somehow been enlightened to know how millions of others should live for their own good? For example, drinking a large soda will likely have negative effects on my health in the future. But maybe I value the present benefits of this decision over the future costs. The government is free to say that my decision is unwise and inform me of the consequences of my action, but can they legitimately say that my decision to drink a large soft drink is not out of my own interest? Can they truly say that I would be happier foregoing the soda in order to (potentially) live a longer, healthier life?
  3. If individuals maximize their utility through choice, how do inflexible mandates really allow individuals to act “for their own good?” If unique preferences and situations dictate differing decision-making criteria, how do one-size-fits-all commands allow individuals to maximize their utility? Let’s say that preventing an addict from gambling actually works. Due to legal restrictions, this person no longer wastes his/her money and makes more prudent financial decisions. What about the person who has the self-control to place a few bets here or there without causing complete financial ruin? The inexact, unnuanced nature of the law forces all people to behave in ways that might benefit some, while simultaneously hurting others.
  4. Do these paternalistic laws actually work to benefit people?
    – I will probably never see any of the Social Security tax that is being withheld from my paycheck. In terms of aiding me in planning for my retirement, the mere non-existence of the Social Security system, which is a drain on my income, would be incredibly beneficial. If I did not have to pay into such a broken system, I would have additional money to set aside for the future, invest, and earn interest.
    – On another note, do seatbelt laws actually help promote safety? Research has shown that these laws have no effect on driver safety and have a negative effect on pedestrian safety.
    – In terms of gambling, it seems that if I’m determined to blow my paycheck, I have many other opportunities besides betting. That’s not even considering the moral inconsistencies that come into the picture when outlawing certain types of gambling, while only allowing government-regulated gambling activities. If the government is truly concerned about the dangers of gambling addiction, why do they even allow any forms of gambling?
    – It seems that even if the answers to the first three questions necessitate government involvement, the actual results of these paternalistic laws show that this type of intervention has been far from effective.
  5. Does government actually have the right to order people to act “for their own good?” This is a complex question, which would take a considerable amount of time to answer fully. To briefly deal with it, I would argue that people have a right to use their life and property how they see fit and government infringement on these rights necessitates substantial justification, in order to be deemed appropriate (if ever). Furthermore, small paternalistic steps to micromanage and shape certain aspects society can lead to increased government power and future abuses and injustices. Along these lines, economist and historian, Murry Rothbard, argues that paternalism “leads straight down the logical garden path to [a] totalitarian cage, where people are prohibited from eating candy and are forced to eat yogurt ‘for their own good'” (from “For A New Liberty,” page 136). As noted earlier, one’s own good (from an economic standpoint) can be quite subjective and by allowing the government to legislate utility-maximization, we create numerous opportunities for tyrannical, unnecessary legislation.

Let me conclude by clarifying that I am not advocating moral relativism of any sort. I believe that moral absolutes exist regardless of personal feelings. However, analyzing actions from a moral perspective is different than analyzing them based on the amount of personal utility derived from the action. A murderer can derive significant satisfaction from a blatantly immoral action, making it easy to label this action as immoral, but impossible to say that this individual failed to maximize self-interest.***

And even if a person makes a decision without fully realizing some of the benefits or costs, it makes much more sense to use persuasive means than coercive means to attempt to alter behavior. For if a person is rational and an action will truly be self-beneficial, why would that person need to be forced to perform the action?

This gets to the heart of paternalistic legislation, which revolves around the government’s arrogant assumption that individuals cannot make rational, self-beneficial decisions for themselves. To end where this post began, good parents order their children to do things for their own benefit when they are young. But as these children grow up and become adults, parents tend to take on advisory roles, rather than purely authoritarian positions, allowing their children to make their own decision. The federal government, on the other hand, does not affirm individual rationality and capability and continues to treat individuals as children, even into adulthood.

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Hopefully, this post made you think a little bit. I did not intend to fully deal with all of the topics mentioned, but rather, give a brief overview of a few issues that I have been thinking about lately. Whether you support government paternalism or agree with my critiques, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment below. Thanks!

NOTES:

*Some of the laws mentioned here may have other non-paternalistic motives behind them. For example, prohibitions on drug use may be motivated by protecting society or limited some of the negative externalities created by drug use (i.e violence). However, in this post, I am limiting my analysis to the area of paternalism. Therefore, any analysis of these other issues/motivations will have to be dealt with at a later time.

**I’ll try to illustrate these four assumptions using a real world situation. When going to an ice cream parlor individuals act based on their self-interests and try to maximize their utility by choosing their favorite flavor of ice cream. If you’ve been craving cookies and cream ice cream, it makes sense that you would choose that flavor. Additionally, each individual has unique preferences, which means that optimal decisions vary depending on the person involved. So although you might desire cookies and cream, not everybody will share that preference. Therefore, because of these unique preferences, utility is maximized via choice. If you are not able to choose the flavor that you prefer, chances are you will be unhappy, or at least less happy than you would have been if you were allowed to choose. Because of the previous three assumptions, individuals (as opposed to outside forces) are best able to maximize their own utility. If your friend has to pick your ice cream for you, he/she may not choose the flavor that you prefer. Even worse, if someone who doesn’t know you chooses the flavor for you, you are even more likely to be disappointed by the ice cream selection. The worst situation, however, would be someone, without intimate knowledge of the individuals involved, choosing one flavor that everybody has to consume.

***Hopefully it is clear that when I refer to individuals acting “for their own good,” I am referring to an economic weighing of benefits and costs that vary depending on the individual and the situation. This is not to discount the existence of moral/spiritual absolutes which would declare certain actions “good” and other actions “bad.” And if, in the cases discussed, the government were legislating purely based on these moral absolutes, that would be one thing (and that would lead to questions about government’s role in legislating morality, etc.). However, this post is limited to analyzing legislation that forces individuals to act “for their own good.”

My Political Ideological Journey Part #5: College Years, Economics, and Libertarianism

I went into college with a fairly skeptical view of the state. My high school readings had lead me to conclude both that the federal government was often inefficient and that government’s intended role was very limited. However, I knew almost nothing about economics.

During my first semester of college, I took an introductory economics class which confirmed my views of the inefficiency of most government action. Analysis of topics such as the minimum wage, rent controls, and import tariffs showed me that government intervention tends to hurt more than it helps. On the other hand, the free market tends to allow people to express their choices and satisfy their particular wants in a more efficient manner.

After that first semester, I went a couple years without really thinking about political issues. However, the presidential primaries in the spring of 2016 forced me to consider the voting process and criteria for supporting presidential candidates. I wrestled with whether or not to vote for the lesser of two evils and what minimum requirements a candidate should meet in order to garner my support.

During the fall of 2016, I took a Microeconomic Theory course, which gave me a much deeper understanding of economics and public policy. Taught by Dr. Eric Schansberg, this course examined numerous public policy issues from unions to Obamacare, from taxi medallions to protectionism. Dr. Schansberg was fairly outspoken about his libertarian beliefs and was critical of both political parties, which intrigued me. His deep understanding of economics made me want to further understand his political theory.

The winter directly following that semester I read his book “Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left,” which establishes a Christian lens through which to analyze public policy. I’d never really been exposed to a comprehensive, consistent, and thoughtful view of government and public policy from a Christian perspective and this book greatly furthered my political ideological progression.

While this book was helpful in offering an alternative view to the common narratives espoused by our two main political parties, I felt like I needed to learn more about libertarianism. Up to this point, I had generally had a soft spot for libertarians. Sure they were radical and cooky at times, but I admired their consistency and their willingness to take their ideas to their logical conclusions. This lead me into a deep exploration of libertarianism as a political theory.

Thankfully, very early on I stumbled across the site Reformed Libertarian, which reconciles the libertarian political theory with the Christian worldview. This was important to me because I did not want my political beliefs to somehow supplant my Christian worldview. Rather, I desperately desired (and still desire) to hold a political ideology that is consistent, both logically and with the Christian worldview. This site was extremely helpful, both in dealing with common questions/issues regarding libertarian thought and in recommending introductory books to read.

Since then I’ve been reading a lot of books to try to better understand libertarianism (specifically of the the voluntaryist/propertarian variety). I wouldn’t say that I have it all figured by any means. There’s still a whole lot that I want to learn and better understand. I’m not even 100% sure where I stand politically at the moment since even the term “libertarian” has a lot of negative connotations and associations. That being said, I’m definitely ideologically moving towards libertarianism, if defined correctly. A number of my future posts will likely deal with some of these political ideas I’ve been thinking about and reading about.

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As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts/questions/concerns on this topic. Like I said before, my goal is to hold to a consistent political ideology, both logically and with the Christian worldview. Therefore, I am excited to hear critiques or questions that will push me towards greater consistency and intellectual soundness. I hope to find a balance between being open to change my views in the face of well-reasoned arguments, and being passionate and articulate in explaining the views that I currently hold. Thank you for reading this post and I appreciate any comments that you might choose to leave for me!

My Political Ideological Journey Part #4: The Taming of the Shrew

Apparently, my distaste for the government continued into my junior year in high school. I recently found this gem of a paper that I wrote for my British Literature class. Written as a style imitation of one of Kate’s monologues in “The Taming of the Shrew,” it discusses how the current form of government is overinvolved in the affairs of individuals.

Here’s the original monologue:

“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience–
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?”

And here’s my style imitation:

“Thy government is thy protector, thy accountant, and thy doctor,
Thy authority, thy sovereign; one that manages life for thee
And for thy well-being; commits its programs
To watch thee, make decisions for thee
Whilst thou liest content at home, secure and safe;
It craves a great tribute from thy hands
Money, votes, and perfect submission
But this is a little payment for so great a debt
Such duty as the puppet owes the puppeteer,
Even such the citizen oweth to his government;
And when he is not silent, thinks for himself, wants to spend his own money,
And is not obedient to the government’s perfect will
What is he but a foul contending revolutionary,
And an idealistic traitor to his loving regime?”

Honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t receive more backlash from my teacher and the other students in this class. I guess it probably seemed insincere and humorous, rather than an actual critique of our government. And I may have actually written it that way (I can’t remember my exact rationale), but looking back it is interesting that I was thinking some of these types of thoughts way back then.

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As usual, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!