November 21, 2004

Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise (Episodes from the Babylonian Captivity of the Republic)

There are (non-socialist) libertarians I respect as persons of intelligence and integrity. (Then there's the rest of them.) Generally, they draw some version of the distinction, pioneered by the Anarchists, between the state, an organization claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion in a given territory, and government, the coordination and of individual activity to achieve collective ends *. I often have arguments with these people which go something like this. (I am thinking of a recent conversation with one man in particular, who's much smarter than I will ever be, even if he does still accept More Guns, Less Crime, to the point of keeping it in his office --- for brandishing purposes, presumably.)

Libertarian (parroting Milton Friedman or Hayek): Why on earth are you in favor of giving the state any more governmental power than is absolutely unavoidable? It'll just be abused.
Cosma (parroting Popper): That abuse isn't inevitable, you know. We can keep power under democratic (small-d) control.
L: It is inevitable! It doesn't matter what intentions they profess, once politicians assume office they'll all seek to extend their power, and use it, in the most partial and partisan manner they dare, against their enemies.
C: That's an argument for carefully designing the institutions through which state power is exercised, so that they're hard to abuse, not for not having them.
L: But those institutions are going to be staffed by the very people they're supposed to constrain!
C (quoting The Open Society and Its Enemies from memory): Institutions are like fortresses, they only stand if they're well-designed and well-manned. But they can stand.
L: What makes you think you'll get well-designed institutions? They'll build a fortress, alright, but they'll make sure they can train its guns on whoever they please --- and that includes you!
Waiter: Everybody wants another round, right?

I still think I'm right, and my libertarian friends are wrong, but I admit that my confidence continues to be shaken as our masters grow ever-more shameless about pulling shit like this.

Update, 25 November 2004: Mike Huben has seven distinct objections to the opening of the dialogue. His first, sixth and seventh strike me as especially important.

The Continuing Crisis; The Progressive Forces

*: Since this is a strange notion to most people, I'll quote an explanation from Bertrand Russell (Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism, ch. V, omitting footnotes).

Like most of the things that Anarchists say, there is much more to be urged in support of this view than most people would suppose at first sight. Kropotkin, who is its ablest exponent, points out how much has been achieved already by the method of free agreement. He does not wish to abolish government in the sense of collective decisions: what he does wish to abolish is the system by which a decision is enforced upon those who oppose it. The whole system of representative government and majority rule is to him a bad thing. He points to such instances as the agreements among the different railway systems of the Continent for the running of through expresses and for co-operation generally. He points out that in such cases the different companies or authorities concerned each appoint a delegate, and that the delegates suggest a basis of agreement, which has to be subsequently ratified by each of the bodies appointing them. The assembly of delegates has no coercive power whatever, and a majority can do nothing against a recalcitrant minority. Yet this has not prevented the conclusion of very elaborate systems of agreements. By such methods, so Anarchists contend, the useful functions of government can be carried out without any coercion. They maintain that the usefulness of agreement is so patent as to make co-operation certain if once the predatory motives associated with the present system of private property were removed.
The capitalist libertarians I respect would just substitute "statism" for "private property" in the last sentence.

Posted at November 21, 2004 10:30 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth