Steve and Ari's Excellent Adventure

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.freecolorado.com

Steve and Ari's Excellent Adventure

by Ari Armstrong, October 29, 2003

Steve Gresh and I left Thursday evening, October 16, so as to break up the drive. One reason we were going to the Freedom Summit in Phoenix was that we could travel by automobile and thereby avoid the Big Brother atmosphere of today's airports. Steve is boycotting the airlines altogether; I fly only when a drive is impossible and the trip is important.


Steve Gresh and Ari Armstrong stop to enjoy the desert scenery on the way to the Freedom Summit.

We spent much of the drive discussing strategies for political reform and listening to Power Over People, a Teaching Company course by Dennis Dalton of Columbia.

Through my discussions with Steve, I reckoned there are two main ways to envision political reform: top-down changes and subtle cultural shifts. Those who think in terms of top-down changes are prone to adopt "silver bullet" strategies (that don't work) and accept unproved (and unprovable) conspiracy theories. After all, if all the evil in the world is the fault of a particular individual or clandestine organization, then vanquishing that foe is the way to restore freedom (or whatever value).

Of course, I believe society changes through cultural shifts that aren't controlled by any person or group. We all impact the culture around us to some extent, some much more than others. But there's no magic button to push or lever to pull that will make everything okay. Humans are creatures of habit, and changing the culture takes sustained effort. It's impossible to predict cultural shifts, other than in broad and vague generalities. For instance, we can't even answer a simple question such as, will Americans experience more or less political freedom in five years? Forecasting the weather is easier, because culture is more chaotic. Nevertheless, Hayek and Rand were right: ideology plays a major role in long-term cultural shifts. Socialism swept the world in the early 20th Century, giving us the New Deal in America and much worse elsewhere. But it's impossible to accurately gauge what our political struggles will accomplish. That can be discomforting, but it can also be exciting, I think.

* * * * *

I also spent some time struggling with a puzzle. I believe the only reasonable justification for government intervention is the free-rider problem. I don't think the justification succeeds, but I think it's reasonable. I think the free-rider problem is a real problem and that it is pervasive, but I think markets do a lot better job of solving that problem than states do. Even some libertarians seem to think the free-rider problem sometimes justifies state action, when they advocate tax-funded police, military, and courts. A welfare-statist, presumably, thinks (at least implicitly) that the free-rider problem warrants state-subsidized charity.

So here's the puzzle. Why can I not name a single person who advocates government intervention if and only if the free-rider problem arises? For example, the free-rider problem might justify limited welfare transfers for education for poor students, but mostly the benefits of education are captured by individual students. There's simply not a good economic justification for government schools. Similarly, social(ized) (in)security is in no way justified because of a free-rider problem. At most, a limited welfare program for the poor is justified. Yet I know no statist who advocates the repeal of government schools or social security.

Furthermore, most such government programs are supported, not by good economic or moral arguments, but by pretexts. If we suggest social security be repealed, we are fed stories about old people eating dogfood. But only a small fraction of social-security recipients would otherwise be impoverished. Why is there not a single group (that I know of) that advocates replacing social security with a limited welfare program for the poor? At least such a policy would have some economic credibility. Similarly, why does the perfectly reasonable proposal to privatize the government schools meet with such fierce resistance?

Obviously, part of the answer is simply that certain interests are entrenched and they would rather kill or die than give up their spot at the public trough. Economics and morality can be damned.

But there's more to it. A lot of people who don't directly benefit support social security and government schools. Part of the problem, as I've noted, is that people are creatures of habit. "By God, I went to a government school, and my kid is going to one, too." Most people also aren't very imaginative. They seem to believe the alternative to government schooling is no schooling, even though such a view is ludicrous. Still, policies do change. Government schools didn't always exist; now they do. A century ago social security was just a socialist's dream; now it is threatening to undermine our economic viability. Why are most people so resistant to giving up these sorts of programs? Habit can't explain all of it.

Of course, many simply buy the nonsensical scare stories told by the beneficiaries of welfare transfers. Another part of the truth is rather ugly. Some people want to use the force of government to "educate" other people's children. One factor in the rise of government schools in America was anti-Catholic bigotry. Try asking a supporter of government schools, who doesn't have children in those schools, who precisely would fail to properly educate their children if the government didn't run schools. Others simply like the state. They want government schools to teach politically-approved values and information to our children.

What about social security? Rather than support a replacement program to help only the poor, most statists support today's regressive system that forces poor young workers to subsidize rich retired people. It's insanity.

So on one hand statists support the massive welfare state even when it has no economic justification. On the other hand, libertarians want to dismiss the welfare state, despite the existent free-rider problems. Put simply, statists think the state can do better even when there's no economic reason to think so, and libertarians think the market can do better even though the market must overcome free riders.

Yes, there are some very good economic reasons to think markets can overcome free riders better than states can. There are also (I suppose) some sort of half-assed economic justifications for a more aggressive welfare state. But surely these are points about which people can reasonably disagree. So again, the puzzle is, why does virtually no one support the sort of limited state intervention that would seek only to lessen free-rider problems?

I think the answer is that most people form their political beliefs on moral grounds, not economic grounds. Statists think the state is morally justified to run people's lives; libertarians think individuals are sovereign. Thus, statists want state power to extend far beyond what might be warranted by the free-rider problem, while libertarians want to restrain the state even when doing so leaves it to the market to (imperfectly) solve the free-rider problem.

* * * * *

Dalton's excellent lecture series fed the discussion between Steve and me. Unfortunately, Dalton has a pleasantly cadenced voice, so I think I stayed awake through only one complete lecture. (I was pretty tired at the outset.) But I heard quite a lot. One of Dalton's themes is that political philosophy is largely a debate between "idealists" and "realists." For example, Plato is an idealist, whereas Machiavelli is a realist.

But Dalton's distinction ultimately isn't very satisfying. What we want is an ideal that really works. We who have a bit more history to work with can see that Plato in his Republic ignored an obvious problem: who guards the guardians? As Randy Barnett has explained, the American founders attempted to create barriers to the abuse of power. An "ideal" system that can't work isn't "ideal" at all -- it is merely empty utopia-spinning. On the other hand, "real" politics that employs unjust means is merely legalized crime. Chris Matthew Sciabarra calls for a dialectical libertarianism capable of moving the real world closer to the ideals of liberty.

Dalton dedicated a lecture to Thoreau and his work on civil disobedience. Thoreau was actually disappointed that he was released prematurely from jail. He recognized that the power of civil disobedience comes from the willingness to violate an unjust law, and then to fight the system from the inside. Of course, there are other types of just law-breaking, such as freeing slaves, that involve evading capture by the authorities. But an act taken in public for purposes of education, that leads to the willing embrace of jail in order to point to the absurdity of an unjust law, is a powerful form of disobedience.

Dalton brought out this theme starting with his discussion of Sophocles' play, Antigone. That work brings out the tension between natural law and political law. The goal, of course, is to align political law with natural law, such that there is harmony. This brings us back to the problem of achieving a just system that is stable in the real world -- a difficult task, obviously.

Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the lecture about anarchism and Emma Goldman, or the one about Gandhi, before getting home. So I'll have to borrow those sometime.

So anyway, thanks for the ride, Steve!


Next week: discussion of the Freedom Summit.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.freecolorado.com