Explaining things, Part 2 – Force and Freedom

Over at the Agitator, guest blogger Peter Moskos wants libertarians to explain a few things to him. The Agitatortots have been answering him in the comments, but I thought it would be a good exercise to answer him here. A few days ago, I talked about why calling libertarianism an ideology isn’t helpful. Today, I want to focus on why libertarians so often think less government is the solution.

Here’s what Moskos said:

I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question. …Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.

That seems like a sensible position.  I don’t think he’d get an argument from any libertarian, because libertarians are not the ones who believe that less government is the solution to all problems. Those would be anarchists.

(There’s a lot of overlap, but there’s a difference.)

However, once you begin to think about government like a libertarian, it’s amazing how often less government looks like a really good idea. It all starts here:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

— usually attributed to George Washington

Whether or not George Washington ever said those words, they are a summary of the libertarian concept of government: Government consists of the power to force people to do things against their will.

If pirates seize an American ship off the coast of Africa, the U.S. Navy might be called upon to take the ship back by force. If someone is breaking into your home, the police can force him to stop and take him (forcibly) to jail. If you’ve got a few ounces of marijuana in your car, the police can (under the right circumstances) force you to stop your car, force you to let them search, and force you into the back seat of their cruiser. Later, other agents of the government will force you to stand trial, and then force you to spend some time in a cage.

Even the most trivial of offenses is ultimately backed up by force. If you cover your house with a type of roofing tile that is not approved by the zoning board, they will tell you to change it. If you don’t, they will fine you. And if you refuse to pay the fines, armed police officers will come and take you away. And if you resist those officers, they will take you by force. Maybe even lethal force.

(Things rarely get that far, but sometimes they go a lot farther than you’d think, as in the case of the woman who was arrested for not watering her lawn.)

It is important to remember that every time we propose new crimes or new regulations, we are also proposing that these new crimes and regulations will be enforced by the threat of violence. From federal regulations on the volume of a toilet flush to a city’s ban on foie gras, it’s all backed up by the power to send men with guns to put people in a cage and take all their stuff. Every time we give the government more power over people, we’re giving it the power to take away someone’s freedom.

Consider even a seemingly altruistic law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some supporters of this law will tell you that the ADA has created new freedoms and opportunities for people with disabilities. That’s not really true. Except for a some small tax incentives, the ADA does not provide funding for improving accessibility, so all of the new freedoms and opportunities for people with disabilities have come from the businesses that were forced to provided them in order to comply with the ADA.

Actually, even that is overstating the benefits. The ADA does not force people to operate facilities that are easily accessible to disabled people. What it really does is forcibly prevent people from operating facilities that are not easily accessible to disabled people. It’s an important distinction, because the cost of retrofitting facilities (or meeting ADA operational requirements) can sometimes be so high that a firm has to cease business. Thus, rather than opening up the world to disabled people, the ADA sometimes closes the world to everybody.

Finally, and hardest for many people to accept as reality, even government programs that provide services or cash benefits — small-business assistance, aid to poor families, the national weather service, farm subsidies — ultimately depend on government force for the simple reason the everything the government does is paid for by taxes, and those taxes are collected under a threat of force.

Simply put, nearly every single government activity involves, either directly or indirectly, forcing people to do something they don’t want to do. Therefore nearly every single government activity takes away someone’s freedom.

That’s not always a bad thing, of course. Not even a libertarian would object to the government taking away the freedom of muggers to mug, rapists to rape, or murderers to murder. Many libertarians don’t even object to social programs that help the truly needy. Sometimes it’s worth trading off a little freedom to accomplish great social good, but only if there’s really and truly a great social good that will result.  That may not be the case, depending on the details of the situation.  However, when you give the government power, it there’s always a real true infringement of freedom.

The reverse must also be true. When you shrink the size of government, it might have a real cost, depending on the details, but it always, always has the built-in advantage of increasing somebody’s freedom.

Update: Part 3 is up.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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3 Comments

  1. Mandy
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Following up on things like the ADA, what do you think of FMLA? I ask because (1) I’m curious about libertarian takes on things, given my recent, increasing libertarian reactions to things, and (2) it has applied to me in the past. I am about to go out on maternity leave. I work for a state government that gives me no leave, other than vacation or sick time I’ve accrued and my federally-mandated FMLA leave. So, given the benefits to me personally, I rather like the fact that my employer can’t fire me for staying out on medical leave which extends beyond what vacation and sick time I may have. If we didn’t have FMLA, every women who has a baby with little or no leave time on the books could be fired. What is the solution?

    Also, I’m new to your blog and am really enjoying it.

  2. Posted June 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mandy, I’m glad you’re enjoying our modest efforts.

    Offhand, I don’t know anybody who’s really worried about the FMLA these days. It seems pretty small in the grand scheme of things, and I think most of us libertarians have moved on to other conserns.

    To answer your question, however, the strict libertarian thinking about the FMLA would be that the your leave policy is something to be worked out between you and your employer. Why should the government give you something (such as the right to return to your job) at your employer’s expense? (I’m assuming employers face some costs from this policy — else why would they not do it all the time? — but I’m not sure what form they take. Business disruption? Higher unemployment contributions?)

    Note, however, that it’s not entirely clear that the FMLA is good for employees in general. After all, future potential employers may not be willing to pay you as much because they know you could take an FMLA leave. To put it another way, before the FMLA, if you were looking for a job and one employer offers a family medical leave policy, and the other employer offers you no leave, but they’re willing to pay more, you might prefer the one that pays more. The FMLA has taken that choice away from you.

    Basically, the FMLA forces you to take some of your compensation in the form of the medical leave policy whether you want to or not. In your case, right now, it works out, but it’s probably costing you a little in wages. And that cost is incurred by every employee, even if they don’t take a leave themselves.

    A 2004 study said that the FMLA cost employers $21 billion dollars. With a U.S. labor force of 150 million, that works out to about $140 per employee. Assuming they can pass that entire cost on to employees (not likely) it means every employee is losing a little less than $12/month to keep the FMLA going. On the other hand, you get to take a family medical leave.

    Which brings me back to my original point. The FMLA may not pass inspection with libertarians, but as a practical matter, it doesn’t seem to be a big problem.

    • Mandy
      Posted June 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your explanation. Like I said, I’m just now discovering some of my libertarian leanings, and, so far, your blog and Popehat (through which I found your blog) have been really great in explanating things in non-crazy ways. I am all with you on limiting government on social intrusion and criminal justice things (being a feminist and criminal defense lawyer probably contribute a lot to that). I just can’t get totally on board with the economic side. Maybe that takes a little more warming up.

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