Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

January 28, 2010

Is America Ungovernable?

by Brad Warbiany

Arnold Kling relays the case that many of you who follow the lefty blogs have probably seen:

It’s the latest meme. The U.S. is ungovernable, because of
a) Senate procedures
b) Republican obstructionism
c) polarization
d) special interests
etc.

I’ve seen it from Marc Ambinder, Steven Pearlstein, and others. I’m too lazy to copy links, but my guess is that you have seen it, too.

Well, there are two different questions here that liberals conflate inappropriately:

1) America is ungovernable.
2) Structural government issues prevent the government from getting anything done.

Yes, all the points above explain why #2 is true. But even if all that were “fixed”, #1 would be true, for the very reason Hayek states:

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.
-Friedrich August von Hayek

To put it simply, it is impossible for a bunch of lawyers and bureaucrats in Washington DC to adequately govern — aka rule — the activities of 300 million Americans. The system — “system” meaning free actions of individuals, not meaning directed and ruled action — is so complex that the best any government can hope to do is to set very general rules making force or fraud illegal*, and set up a fair and just court system to arbitrate. Washington simply cannot integrate the information needed to make decisions at that level effectively.

To be fair, Arnold Kling reaches the same point, but he expands more fully on the idea of decentralization and the idea of federalism or competitive government as an answer. I suspect he does so because he believes competitive government will result in libertarian government — as those who earn refuse to “join” the governments of those who rely on handouts, and thus the non-libertarian governments cannot sustain their goals. This is partly true for territory-based governments (becoming more true as the territory shrinks), and undoubtedly true for non-territory-based governments.

But I find that argument** to have one major weakness. The idea of federalism and local control is largely predicated on the idea that the people in Washington aren’t very good at making decisions for me, and that by moving those decisions closer to me it’s a lot more likely that the decisions my government makes for me are effective ones. But should government make my decisions at all?

Personally, regardless of whether they make good or bad choices, I do not outsource my decision-making to the government. Even if they will make good choices, I do not want them choosing for me. This is a moral statement, and it is just as true of the government of Washington DC as of Sacramento as of Laguna Niguel, CA. It is true that I have more control over the government of Laguna Niguel than of DC, but fundamentally that doesn’t change the fact that my one vote is not determining my decision — it is weighed against the votes of others who do not have the right to decide for me.

If the US is ungovernable, so is the state of California, and so is the city of Laguna Niguel. No matter how small of a government you draw, it cannot have all the information it needs to make decisions for me. Fundamentally, decisions are the marriage of facts and values, and although any government may have access to the facts, it does not have access to my values. Therefore they do not have the information necessary to make decisions for me.

Liberals are upset that the government is structurally biased towards inaction. But action doesn’t equal governance. For something to be governable, the governing authority must have access to both the facts and the values of those it governs. Unfortunately since the latter is never possible, it substitutes its own values (dictatorship) or the average/majority values (democracy). Either is insufficient, and thus America is ungovernable.

* I will, for a moment, leave my anarchist philosophy and accept rules against force or fraud. While one would say that another’s right to swing their fist ends at my nose, one could also easily argue that if I used either force or fraud to entice another to make a decision, I am taking their ability to make a decision away. I say above that decisions are a marriage of facts and values, and if I try to deceive another about the facts of a situation, that is an immoral interference with their decision.

** I am open to the suggestion that the argument I rebut is a strawman. I tried to be fair about summarizing the federalist argument (since I used to make it myself), but there’s always the risk I’ve botched it.

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  • Let’s Be Free

    Well spoken.

    I would add that facts are known, if at all, with varying degrees of insight, breadth and precision. Life, liberty and the eternal search for truth are never ending-processes, a journey without end, not something that can be flattened and pressed into a closed book, or reduced to statutory dicta and and preserved for eternity.

    Keep up your great work.

  • tfr

    Agreed.
    Back in the day, government was what you went to the town hall once a year to conduct – things like how much to pay the schoolmaster, and therefore how much you would owe in taxes (and these were the only taxes you would be paying). In D.C., they made some rules about how territories could become states, or other such far-away things that little concerned you. And so we became the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

  • CJS

    A large number of people feel that it is perfectly acceptable to force others to adhere to their values. They may utilize the government to accomplish this, but without the government they will find other ways (such as with HOAs). As long as we have conflicting values and some have the desire to impose theirs this will exist.

    A free market seems to have its own form of democratic majority rule. It may be a majority of money, but your small sum may be as ineffective at changing the actions of a business as it is at changing the actions of a government.

    A thought experiment – suppose we have a free market anarchy with no government whatsoever. Police services and the like are provided as paid services – those who pay get the services and you influence them. You can choose not to pay, but does that mean that you will not be adversely affected by these “services”? Suppose that the majority of paying customers adamantly despises marijuana, and pays the police service to “clean up the streets”. Your liberties can be infringed upon by the free market as well.

    I don’t understand why it is unacceptable for the government to infringe upon our rights through coercion, but the same behavior is acceptable for private organizations. Perhaps you consider both unacceptable. In that case I still have a hard time believing that we will be any more free in the absence of government.

    As Sarte said, “Hell is other people.” Absolute liberty means that I have the right to take away the rights of others. If we limit liberty in order to prevent this then we are no longer free. Furthermore those who would gladly take away the rights of others can corrupt the limiting forces to once again limit the rights of others. As long as there are “other people” there will be no liberty.

  • http://www.antifed.org Bret

    “But I find that argument** to have one major weakness. The idea of federalism and local control is largely predicated on the idea that the people in Washington aren’t very good at making decisions for me, and that by moving those decisions closer to me it’s a lot more likely that the decisions my government makes for me are effective ones.”

    Not *more effective* decisions, but decisions whose consequences are easier to escape. Particularly offensive laws at the city level can be fairly easily escaped, I need only move out of town. I might not even need to leave my social network or find a new job. Escaping federal laws requires me to leave the country, something that 1. isn’t entirely legal, and 2. would require a great deal of money, capital, and opportunity.

  • Let’s Be Free

    I know this must make you feel ill CJS, but I have no desire to impose my values on you – none. Don’t use your pretention to thuggery as an excuse to control me, please.

  • Akston

    I have an idea. We could delegate the protection of our natural rights from initiated force to an organization created solely for that purpose. We could write down enumerated powers and explicit limits for that organization in clear, concise language, and require all its participants to swear an oath to preserve, protect, and defend it from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

    On second thought, that’d never work. Once the definition is changed from defending one’s right to live in freedom into a “right” to the output of other citizen’s life’s work, then I guess that organization will just be used for transfers of wealth.

  • CJS

    Let’s Be Free – Personally, I couldn’t care less about imposing my values on anyone. In fact I’m not even certain what my values are, so I don’t exactly see how I can impose them.

    I was trying to understand the forces behind this “thuggery” as you call it. I don’t think this originates with the government – the government is just a convenient tool to use. In the absence of government, busybodies will find another way to impose their values on everyone that they can. I don’t question the anti-government sentiment that is common in libertarianism, but I am very skeptical that the free market will magically fix the ills of society. The free market still gives them opportunities to impose their values, and the semi-democratic nature of the free market (money rather than votes) means that you may be just as powerless to stop this.

    I’m not saying that this imposition is right, simply that it seems to be very common, and perhaps an aspect of human nature. This can help us understand why it exists and what to do about it.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Bret,

    Good point. If you study Public Choice Theory, you’ll know the terms Exit and Voice. The discussion of Federalism I suggested was heavily biased to “Voice”, the idea that you can control and change the decisions being made. “Exit” is another key metric, as you bring up.

    Much of libertarian thought is essentially looking at ways to increase the relevance of Voice and reduce barriers to Exit. Federalism is one way to do this simply from a geographical perspective. Competitive governance is another, less well-known.

    But yes, Exit is just as important as Voice, and federalism eases the former just as much as the latter.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    CJS,

    Your thought experiment is good and constructive. And you’re right — it is possible for something like you suggest (enough people despising marijuana to effectively make it illegal) to occur.

    I think there are a few arguments against this, but none are foolproof. The key one that I can see is this:

    It’s easy to state “I want marijuana off the streets and to be impossible to obtain.” A lot of people have this stated preference. What’s harder is to say “I’m willing to spend $100 out of my own pocket every month to pay for the forces that will stop other people from using marijuana.” Revealed preference — especially when costs are direct — are supposed by people like me to be much more libertarian. I.e. a lot of people want to impose their values on others, but how many of those people will pay big money to do so? It is for this reason that I think it unlikely, but possible, that your thought experiment could prove true.

    But to step away from the thought experiment, you state:

    I don’t understand why it is unacceptable for the government to infringe upon our rights through coercion, but the same behavior is acceptable for private organizations. Perhaps you consider both unacceptable. In that case I still have a hard time believing that we will be any more free in the absence of government.

    Either is unacceptable [to me], but yet I do believe we will be more free in the absence of government. Both for the reasons in my above comment to Bret (Voice and Exit), and due to my small rebuttal to your thought experiment above. Government abstracts power and offers the illusion of legitimacy to illiberal policies. Making those concrete and direct is one way that I personally believe to avoid them.

    However, I’m not offering utopia. As you point out, absolute liberty suggests that you *can* take away the rights of others. Structures of society are simply ways to try to minimize the occurrence and provide restitution when such things happen. Neither totalitarian government nor anarcho-capitalist society will end murder, theft, etc. The difference between government an an-cap society is largely the extent to which infringement of rights becomes an institutionalized and widespread phenomenon.

    There’s one other statement you made that I must address:

    A free market seems to have its own form of democratic majority rule. It may be a majority of money, but your small sum may be as ineffective at changing the actions of a business as it is at changing the actions of a government.

    I’m going to devote a whole post to this point, as I think it’s a common yet incorrect point. More on that very soon.

  • Michael

    CJS: What type of government do you, personally, feel is best in regards to law? Are you for a (limited) protection of property and life against force and fraud? Or do you believe that private law is best?

    I have been contemplating limited-government libertarianism, minarchism (a more extreme version) and even straight out anarchism. I find minarchism to have more appealing arguments (especially in the realm of private military) but I find that private law is too ineffective.

    I’d love to hear some insight.

  • CJS

    Unfortunately Michael I don’t have any immediate insights for you. I have many questions and few answers.

    I will say this – although it may be possible for places to exist without anything formally called a government, it seems to be an absolute guarantee that organizations will naturally arise that will create rules and regulations for their members. The desire to organize and be members of a society is ingrained in us and is unavoidable. It is surprising to note that even in virtual worlds ad hoc organizations will emerge with sometimes draconian rules that begin to resemble government organizations.

    So I think the emergence of – lets call them proto-governments – is inevitable. As we’ve seen from socialist any system which attempts to ignore human nature is doomed to failure. So although I sympathize with the anarchist side philosophically, I think it would prove to be impractical. Bottom line – if any area (you can’t really talk about an anarchist nation can you?) were truly anarchist, it wouldn’t be for long.

    I think our founding fathers understood this fact very well. Many of them (Thomas Jefferson I know of) were anarchists at heart, but they understood that a true absence of government could just create a void that could very well be filled by something far worse.

    So given the choices I’d say I’d prefer limited libertarian government. That can quench the thirst for creation of a society with rules and regulations without greatly impacting liberty.

    The real issue however is how to keep the government limited in scope. The founding fathers envisioned a federalist system with separation of powers, which have gone a long way, but I think that we can agree they haven’t gone far enough. Perhaps we need some creative thought on what other mechanisms we can use to limit government.

  • CJS

    Oh, and Brad. Thank you for the excellent comments. I don’t have time to respond in depth, but I do think that your idea of direct costs making such things less desirable is a good point. It is easy to have “the other guy” do something (even if it is with your tax dollars) but quite a different story when you have to pay directly. I’ll comment more tomorrow and I look forward to your post.

  • Pingback: The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » Is The Free Market Democratic?

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    CJS,

    Here is the post to which I was referring. In short, the free market isn’t democratic at all. If anything, it’s an-cap.

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