Monday, January 24, 2011

On Government Force

Via Radley Balko, here's an editorial by A. Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the Tucson shootings.

The frenzy surrounding Jared Loughner's rampage in Tucson this month has finally died down. As tempers cool, perhaps distance could turn reflection toward some bigger questions. Many Republicans and Democrats have lamented the frequency of violent rhetoric in politics. Fewer seem to have regrets about the actual use of violence itself.

I'm not referring here to death threats, terrorism, assassination attempts, and similar heinous acts. Nobody considers those violent deeds by non-state actors legitimate. But what about violence by the state? Liberals and conservatives alike often embrace it as a means to an end they desire.

Government, as Max Weber famously put it, is distinguished from other social organizations by its claim to a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A church or club might invite you to join, but cannot conscript you as government can. A developer cannot take your property by eminent domain; only government can. Acme might try to persuade you to buy widgets through advertising. A gay-rights group might try to coerce Acme to adopt gay-friendly personnel policies by organizing a boycott of Acme's products. But Acme cannot make you buy widgets at the point of a gun, and gay-rights groups cannot change Acme's employee policies by kidnapping the CEO's daughter.

Acme must rely on your consenting however grudgingly to buy its widgets, and the rights group must rely on other people consenting to join their boycott. Only the government can make you buy its products on pain of imprisonment. (Just ask actor Wesley Snipes, currently doing a three-year stretch for tax evasion.) Only government can force you to "boycott" products it declares off-limits, such as heroin, and arrest you if you don't.

The debate over the size and scope of government, then, is an argument over when to use violence to change things and circumstances consensual activity cannot. Liberals (broadly speaking) find inequality odious and think the government should use force in the economic arena by redistributing wealth but leave individuals alone in matters of personal morality, such as whom they have sex with. Conservatives (broadly speaking) are less troubled by inequality and disdain the redistributive uses of government power. But social conservatives are outraged by immorality, as they define it, and therefore think the state should use the threat of violence to enforce personal moral codes by banning prostitution, homosexual sodomy, and the like.

Then there are a small minority of diehard libertarians who would like to minimize government involvement in both arenas, and a small minority of diehard communitarians who think government should dictate behavior of every stripe.

Admittedly, this oversimplifies the issue. It ignores some big questions such as whether people tacitly consent to being governed. It ignores the many exceptions to the general rule, such as conservative Republican support for upward redistribution through corporate welfare. And it is open to several criticisms.

Here's one: A liberal might say that if Acme is the only grocery store in town, then the townsfolk are hardly free to choose whether to shop at Acme's Food Store, because they have to eat. So they should be able to force Acme not to price-gouge. But there is a difference between a lack of options and the use of violence, and that difference seems more than slight.

I've got to disagree with Mr. Hinkle on that one.... One of the biggest economic fallacies out there is the monopolist's ability to price-gouge.  Unless the government is helping enforce a monopoly, the quickest way to end a monopoly is through price-gouging. 

Liberals also sometimes speak glowingly of collective action. They find a nobility in the spirit of community and the notion of people working together to achieve common aims. Everyone should. From corner churches to corporate suites, voluntary social groups have accomplished great marvels. Adding coercion to the mix, though, seems to fatally undermine the community spirit.

Some conservatives also speak glowingly about the common good and argue that their policies alone will advance it. But again, forcing people to embrace those policies by threatening them with imprisonment is an admission that the people who are being forced don't think the policy is good, at least for them. A gay man, for instance, might strongly disagree that forbidding physical intimacy between gay men advances the general welfare.

Conservatives could reply that the homosexual resembles a willful child who simply does not know what is good for him (a remarkably Marxist suggestion of false consciousness) and therefore should have the good imposed on him by force. Or they could say the homosexual's own best interest does not serve the common good. But then who belongs to the common, and who doesn't?

Force is sometimes necessary. We must have police and courts and national defense and environmental protection and so on. But government at all levels does much more nowadays than is strictly necessary, because both liberals and conservatives delight in using it to make other people do what they would not do through mutual consent.

In the wake of the butchery in Tucson, it has been nice to hear many people say we should not speak so well of violence. It would be even nicer to hear more say we should not vote for it quite so often, either.

Amen, Amen, Amen. 


Nick Rowe said...

It's important to distinguish monopolies formed by anticompetitive practices, those formed by government fiat, anf those formed because of economies of scale.

The last type is known as a natural monopoly, where the average costs decline throughout the relevant range of production. They will price higher than marginal cost, produce less than socially optimal output, and earn monopoly profits. There will never be viable competition because it iss most efficient for there to be only one firm.

The first type can be self-sustaining if it has sufficient power to drive competitors out of business. It can use a variety of legal, illegal, or unethical means to do so. It is their behavior, not their business excellence, that creates their monopoly.

Monopolies formed by government include patents and copyrights which provide incentives to undertake costly and risky R&D. But government also creates or subsidizes other monopolies with little economic redress of market failure.

ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ said...

"It is their behavior, not their business excellence, that creates their monopoly."

I know of NO monopoly that was not created by government. I am however, prepared to be enlightened.