Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

On the Tyranny of Standing in Line

Stuart Buck has a post up about political consistency. People say they object on principle to X, and make quite a stink about it, yet they show comparatively little concern for Y, which is arguably just as bad. His examples: people object loudly to the use of torture in interrogation, but are fairly quite when it comes to the use of solitary confinement (which many claim is as psychologically damaging as torture) or sexual abuse in prisons; they object to the government finding out which books people have checked out of the library under the Patriot Act, but not the much more intrusive information a person has to give to the government when paying his taxes.

Stuart blames this inconsistency on partisanship. No doubt there is a lot of that, but I think that the examples he gives illustrate a deeper and even more puzzling phenomenon. When it comes to the question of how to balance the protection of civil liberties against the needs and interests of society, it seems to me that there are three coherent approaches:

1. Protecting civil liberties should always trump the needs of society;

2. The needs of society should always trump civil liberties; or

3. Civil liberties should receive less protection where the needs of society are weighty, and greater protection as they become less weighty.

So, for example, one might rationally give less protection to civil liberties in cases involving, say, threats to national security than in cases involving traffic safety.

Very few people subscribe to approach number one, and at least in America virtually no one subscribes to approach number two. The odd thing, though, is that in practice most people don’t subscribe to approach three either. Instead, most people seem to subscribe to something like the following:

4. Civil liberties should receive *more* protection where the needs of society are weighty, and less protection as they become less weighty.

They wouldn’t put it that way, of course, but if you look at when people actually do object to violations of civil liberties, and how strenuously they do so, it does seem as if they are apt to give greater scrutiny to government action when the government interests involved are most pressing. So, for example, the Patriot Act took various techniques (involving wiretapping, search and seizure, etc.) that had been used for decades in drug cases, and applied them to terrorism cases. You might think that if such techniques were justified to keep people from getting high, then they would be justified to keep people from blowing up buildings (and that, alternatively, if they were objectionable as a means of stopping terrorism that they would be much more objectionable as a means of stopping drug trafficking). Yet a lot of people who never raised a peep about the use of these techniques in the war on drugs became seriously concerned about them once they began to be used in the war on terror. Likewise, many of the traditional protections against search and seizure applied in the criminal context do not apply in the administrative context, even though preventing people from being raped and murdered would seem to be a more pressing interest than ensuring that a building is up to code.

You might argue that this difference is due to lack of knowledge. Cases involving national security or whatever attract more attention, and hence more condemnation. The problem with this is that when you do bring such cases to people’s attention they rarely get even more outraged and start protesting the new civil liberties violations were even more vigor. Tell someone upset about some national security related violation of civil liberties about some comparable violation in a more mundane context, and you may get a verbal denunciation of this other practice (“yes, I think that’s wrong too”) but you can usually tell that the person’s heart isn’t in it, and often times they will in fact defend the government’s actions in the less compelling case.

The source of this discrepancy, I think, has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about our political activities. There are plenty examples, both in fiction and in history, or tyrannical regimes who have abuses civil liberties and have tried to justify this by an appeal to national security. A person who protests such actions, therefore, can easily be seen (and can see himself) as part of a heroic tradition to dissent, struggle against oppression, etc. By contrast, no country has ever descended into totalitarianism by making people stand in line at the airport. Going to jail for burning your draft card has a chic value that getting arrested for performing a manicure without a license just lacks.

April 16, 2009 Posted by | Government, Libertarianism | Leave a comment

Values vs. Worldviews

Here are some excerpts from another interesting post from Scott Sumner:

A New York Times article once reported that economists in academia tend to vote about 3 to 1 Democratic, whereas other academics vote about 7 to 1 Democratic. Of course the general public tends to split about 50/50 between Democratic and Republican voters. What should we make of this pattern?

For the purposes of this post, consider the term ‘worldview’ to represent one’s views about cause and effect, or what economists call positive questions. Values relate to what is viewed as being morally right and wrong, or normative issues. I don’t claim that there is any clear boundary between these two categories, but I hope they will prove useful anyway.

Now let’s assume that “ideologies” reflect values plus worldviews. Thus the liberal worldview has many different ideologies. Let’s also follow the standard practice of assuming that the term “left” applies to more socialistic versions of liberalism and the term “right” applies to more libertarian, or classical liberal, versions of liberalism.

Suppose that an economistic worldview makes one vote more to the right . . . That could explain why economists vote Republican more often than other academics. Indeed I think this is a pretty standard explanation of their voting pattern. Thinking like an economist makes one less receptive to socialist policies.

Continue reading

March 17, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Libertarianism, Morality | Leave a comment

Who Protects the Worker?

In the comments to my post last week on the minimum wage, reader Matt Talbot posed to me the following question:

Blackadder, I’m expecting your answer to be characteristically parsed and lawyerly, but I’ll ask anyway: Do you think there is any imbalance in power between Walmart (say) and a door greeter or stocker that works there? If so, in your libertarian utopia who or what would protect the workers from abuse by management?

It’s a good question. Continue reading

February 24, 2009 Posted by | Capitalism, Economics, Just Wage, Libertarianism, Poverty, Work | 1 Comment

A Failure of Imagination

As time goes by, I become more and more convinced that one of the main things that keeps government in business is the inability of people to imagine how anyone else could deal with the sometimes serious problems that arise in the social order. If private action fails to solve a given social problem as well as we might like, the answer is more government. Whereas if the government fails, even spectacularly, in dealing with a particular social ill, the answer is… more government. People respond to the poor performance of a government initiative not by suggesting that it be abolished, but rather by calling for government to redouble it’s efforts. Failing businesses have a tendency to go out of business (well, at least most of the time). Failing government programs, by contrast, tend to get more money. Which, when you think about it, is not a recipe for success.

People act this way, I think, not because they are just irrational, but because they don’t see an alternative. Yes, public schools in some parts of the country are just plain awful. But what’s the alternative? Just let kids roam the streets all day? Yes, the Post Office is often inefficient, costly, and they lose your mail a lot. Still, someone has to deliver the mail. If not the government, then who? Okay, so the response to hurricane Katrina by the government was just awful, and the rebuilding efforts in many cases haven’t been much better. But it’s not like anyone else is going to do the job, so the government has to. To a lot of people, saying that some problem should be left to “private charity” or “the market” sounds like saying “let’s ignore the problem and hope it goes away.” Which hardly sounds like a counsel of prudence. The truth is, though, that allowing everyone in America to try and come up with a solution to a given social problem often works a lot better than trying to impose a single solution from the top down.

February 5, 2009 Posted by | Capitalism, Government, Libertarianism, Voluntary Associations | Leave a comment

A Case for Libertarian Progressivism

Writing at the New York Times blog Economix, Ed Glaser argues for a “small-government egalitarian” plan for economic stimulus:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.

Current American political discourse labels people as either anti-government or pro-equality, but wanting to help the poor should not require the abandonment of sensible skepticism about expanding the size of the state. Many of my favorite causes, like fighting land use regulations that make it hard to build affordable housing, aid the poor by reducing the size of government. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I also argued that it would be far better to give generous checks to the poor hurt by the storm than to spend billions rebuilding the city, because those rebuilding efforts would inevitably help connected contractors more than ordinary people.

Continue reading

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Economy, Government, Libertarianism | 1 Comment

Radicals for Capitalism

Libertarians are strange. There’s no use denying it. In a world in which people debate not whether the government should have a major role in the provision of health care but whether or not that role should be total the type of person who thinks we should privatize lighthouses is apt to be more than a little eccentric.

Which is what makes Radicals for Capitalism such a fun read. Continue reading

July 10, 2008 Posted by | America, Capitalism, History, Libertarianism | Leave a comment

Libertarians, Business, and “Victimless Crime”

While a few libertarians base their views strictly on moral grounds, the vast majority are at least willing to supplement any moral arguments with practical arguments about the ineffective or counter-productive nature of government action. When it comes to government regulation of the economy, such practical arguments often involve appeals to the deterant effect taxes or regulations can have on productive activity. If you raise the cost of doing business, Libertarians will say, and you discourage economic growth, as these increased costs will discourage people from engaging in otherwise profitable activity, to the detriment of society. The underlying assumption of such arguments is that people respond to laws raising the cost of doing something by doing less of it.

When the subject turns to so-called “victimless crimes,” however, the Libertarian argument seems to be exactly the reverse. Laws against drug use, say, are ill advised as they will not stop people who want to do drugs from doing so, but will only drive such activity underground. Here the operative assumption is that law cannot deter behavior, or get people to do less of something by making it more costly. Of course, libertarians do not make this argument about laws against murder, rape, or theft. In those cases it is assumed that the law does exert a deterent effect sufficient to justify their continuation. While not rising to the level of a formal contradiction, one might wonder what it is about things like prostitution, drug use, gun ownership, etc., that make them unique among all human activities in that they are unresponsive to changes in cost.

A sophisticated Libertarian can, I think, avoid this inconsistency through two considerations. Continue reading

April 4, 2008 Posted by | Law, Libertarianism | Leave a comment