November 2007 - Posts

Pragmatic Utilitarianism: A Road to Tyranny

The arguements given by people to justify unethical acts are usually utilitarian, which is to say that a given act is defended on the grounds that it is beneficial to someone. This is commonly manifested in the arguements given in defense of the alleged "need" for a whole host of economic policies, and government in general. For example, conservatives often argue that the tax-funded defense industry helps "stimulate the economy". It is often argued that the public sector is justified because it "creates jobs". So long as a measure can be shown to be beneficial to a specific group of people, the utilitarian is prone to be comfortable with it.

On one hand, these kind of arguements are fallicious even in utilitarian terms in that they ignore the cost side of the equation. Government creates only government jobs, which inherently comes at the cost of private jobs. Governments cannot increase employment in one sector without withdrawing it from another. All government jobs represents a net loss to the tax-payer. Government cannot create wealth, it can only redistribute it, and in the process of redistribution it actually decreases overall utility by shifting production into consumption. The government itself does not produce, it consumes from private production. It is a leech on the producing classes, which includes both workers and genuine enterprenuers.

On the other hand, even if it can be substantiated that a given measure is beneficial to people, this does not necessarily justify it in ethical terms. Afterall, one can try to argue that a thief is justified in their theft because they donated the stolen goods to charity, but that would not justify theft. Just because something may be beneficial to some people does not necessarily mean that it is justified, nor does it negate the fact that it may very well be at the expense of other people. Economic efficiency and metric benefit is not a proper measuring stick of justice. In short, the ends do not justify the means. One can very well show how a redistribution benefits certain people, but that would not justify confiscation of property.

A common mistake made by many utilitarians is the broken window fallacy. The broken window fallacy refers to a situation where one argues that a destructive act is justified because it may lead to the gain of others in some way, usually by stimulating economic activity. Should we encourage children to break windows of baker's stores because this stimulates the economy by making the baker buy a new window? Or are destructive acts never justified, and this actually represents a loss to the baker? To take the former view ignores how those same resources would have been used otherwise. This fallacy is precisely what is going on when people claim that warfare benefits the economy, ignoring that there are immense costs that can only be delayed at best.

While some utilitarians think more long-term than others, utilitarians may often take a short-term view, being concentrated on obtaining the maximum utility in the present, regaurdless of long-term consequences. A good example of this is manifested in monetary policy. The establishment view goes roughly as follows: "monetary inflation is a good thing because it stimulates the economy by raising wage rates, creating jobs and stimulating growth". But as Ludwig Von Mises demonstrated close to a century ago, in the long-term this is unsustainable, it must be reconciled in a downturn, malinvestments must be cleared and the debt it generates must be payed off. This is beside the fact that the inflation also reduces the value of each monetary unit, thereby diminishing the purchasing power of the wages, which manifests itself in a higher cost of living. Viewed in ethical terms, all of this is irrelevant to the question as to wether or not the stealing of the value of people's money can be justified.

Also, utilitarianism is all about maximizing "happiness". But the problem is that there is no concrete definition of happiness, which is to say that it varies from individual to individual. The question becomes "who's happiness"? It is not really possible to statistically measure "happiness" in the first place. In practise, therefore, it seems as if the utilitarian is stuck either arbitrarily trying to measure things in terms of their own definition of happiness (which makes way for authoritarianism), or playing the role of a value-free observer that accepts whatever a person's own definition of happiness is (which makes way for hedonism). Another route that may be taken is to define happiness by whatever a majority defines it as (which makes way for persecution of the minority).

Furthermore, and this is very important to stress, happiness is not the criteria by which we measure right and wrong. The happiness of a murderer may come from murdering, but surely we do not condone murder simply because it brings happiness to the murderer. Pleasure may seem like a good goal to strive for, but some people may find pleasure at the expense of others. In some cases, commonly accepted morality may very well require that people abstain from acting out of primitive desire for pleasure. A man may find pleasure from sexual intercourse, but in order to be ethical they must abstain from simply forcibly mounting every woman they see. And if utility is defined more in terms of general economic well-being, a person may steal in order to stay alive, but in order to remain ethical even the most impoverished person must abstain from robbing banks.

In short, it is impossible to consistantly apply any ethical principle using utilitarianism as a method of looking at things. Any ethical consideration can in theory be overturned using utilitarianism so long as it is percieved or can be sufficiently proven to be net beneficial or bring happiness. At best, utilitarianism can be used to show how certain actions will have negative or unintended consequences. It can have a limited use in this respect. But as an ethical system it is a nightmare. Pragmatism becomes more important than principle and even if a long-term view is held a utilitarian may find ways to attempt to justify just about anything. In particular, so long as something can be shown to benefit a larger amount of people, the individual or minority is fair game to be trampled upon in a utilitarian world. This is fundamentally determental to the cause of individualism.

A fundamental requirement for justice is universality, which is to say a logically consistant application of principles to each individual. Utilitarianism cannot possibly consistantly apply a principle to each individual, for it seeks a numerical maximization of variables in which whoever has the most numbers wins. It turns everything into a numbers game, into a game theory of a sort. There is a fundamental clash between universal justice and bare consequentialism. Universal justice proclaims that certain things are wrong regaurdless of the consequences and regaurdless of the amount of people involved in or benefited by them; even if it's one individual against the world. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, essentially proclaims that anything is right provided that it has good consequences; even if the individual or minority must be forced to sacrifice for a "greater good" (whatever that means).

One's options are as clear as a bell: either ethics are definitive and universal, or they are prone to juxtoposition and subordination based on consequences and sheer pleasure.

Checks and Balances: Two Kinds

Checks and balances should be a fairly familiar concept to Americans. The standard definition of checks and balances is that the state must be broken up into multiple segments that function as checks against eachother's power and perform different functions, while these segments still remain within one central institution. Traditionally, the idea is that there must be three separate branches (executive, legislative and judicial) within one central government in order to prevent the accumulation of power into one group. At least superficially, this view slightly recognizes the principle of decentralization. Another somewhat more powerful conception of checks and balances is the idea that there must be multiple and separate levels of government, each with their own branches and jurisdictions, and that in order to combat the accumulation of power, individual states or parishes and cities should remain "independant" from the central state.

This is the doctrine of internal checks and balances. Both separation between branches and levels of government are internal theories of checks and balances. But how well do these theories stand up in the face of logic and empirical evidence? Not very well. The fundamental flaw in the idea that separation between branches within one institution will stop power from being concentrated should be fairly obvious: it is still within one institution. There is theoretically no "third party" outside of that institution functioning on a check on it, which is to say that the overall institution is a judge in its own case. The supreme court is still part of the federal government. All historical evidence shows a great deal of collusion between branches, and when there is collusion between branches, there is centralization of powers into one expanding group. Clearly, merely having three branches under one institution will not stop power from accumulating in that institution. Much heftier criterion must be met.

While the doctrine of state's rights is a step up from this, since it maintains at a minimum that there should be a multitude of jurisdictions within the overall territory bestowed to the central government, it nonetheless contains a similar flaw. The states are still ultimately subject to the territorial dominion of the federal government and there is once again collusion between the levels of government. If a central government still exists, it doesn't matter how many territorial jurisdictions that one tries to split the central state's control into, political power is still concentrated at a central point. Surely expanding the amount of people in the government or the number of sub-governments within a government's territorial monopoly is not necessarily a way to restrict political power. In order to at least be a "pure" advocate of "state's rights", one must support a more radical approach, with no federal government.

Once one has made it to this point, the same problem keeps repeating itself at each level of government. The states in themselves would now be the central governments, only over smaller territories. The size of the dominion of power may have been reduced, but the essential feature of territorial monopoly is still maintained. Counties, parishes and cities would synergize with and the states. If the states were gotten rid of, the counties would be the territorial monopolies and the cities and towns would synergize with them. And even down to the city-state level, the problem of territorial monopoly would persist. The advantages of so-called "state's rights" or "city's rights" mostly only have to do with the size of the territorial monopoly, but they do almost nothing to address the problem of territorial monopoly itself. All such mechanisms are ultimately within the structure of the institution of the state itself. A monopoly cannot be broken up without competition from other institutions external to it.

This is why external checks and balances are much stronger and more meaningful than internal ones. Checks and balances in which governmental institutions are held in check by non-governmental ones, which requires a separation between buisiness and state, constitutes an example of external checks and balances. An honest private institution that opens up a buisiness in competition with the state in a particular area, which inherently requires that the given buisiness not engage in any kind of patronage and protectionism with the state, is functioning as a check on state power by providing an alternative option for people and lowering dependance on the state. The improvement of technology and the availability of private alternatives to the state in a given field, and the long-term decrease in prices it often leads to, can function as an external "check and balance" on the state much better than any internal "check and balance" ever can.

On the other hand, a private institution that colludes with the state is participating in the centralization and expansion of power. Indeed, the leaders of such institutions become part of the ruling class. When such synergy between industry and government takes place, various buisinesses start to become more centralized, modeled more similarly to the structure of the state than would otherwise have been possible. When buisiness starts to merge at the hip with the state, this presents an oppurtunity to obtain and expand political power for both select private interests and members of the government itself. The union of church and state is a perfect historical example of territorial monopolies further centralizing and expanding as a consequence of collusion between the state and external organizations. The ultimate end of such collusion is the merging of a more multi-centered order into one large central organization.

In a sense, everyone who is outside of the ruling class of a given society is a potential check on political power, by the mere virtue of not being within or in control of it. There are many external methods of checking and resisting political power, which includes various types of civil disobedience and economic decisions. From the perspective of an individual as a consumer, withdrawing consumption from the state's "services" and merely patronizing a private alternative at a lower price and participating in peaceful black markets is an important haven from state power. On the other hand, actively and enthusiastically participating in the state's "services" transforms one into either a state of dependance on the state, or worse, part of the ruling class. Here too, collusion has a negative effect because it is internal to the institution. It's working within the system, which is precisely why it does not work.

Economic incentives is a very important check and balance on state power. A defining feature of the state as an organization is that it is an externalizer of costs, which is to say that those who hold the political power in a society do not actually bear the costs of the laws and policies that they work with. Therefore, mechanisms that internalize costs provide a disincentive towards political power. Political power cannot be obtained or maintained without externalizing costs through mechanisms such as taxation and eminent domain. If the state is denied access to external resources then it will eventually crumble, as the state as an organization depends entirely on the production of those who are not in it. If it is either cut off from recieving that production then political power obviously cannot be maintained for very long.

The ultimate check on political power is philosophy. In short, it is impossible to maintain or expand political power without the propagation of ideological ideas in favor of political power or encouraging resignation to it. What ideas people adhere to ultimately effects the course of history. All that is required to combat political power is the action of withdrawl of support to the best that one can manage. And in order for this to be done, it must be philosophically accepted that the only possible checks against the state that can possibly exist are external to the institution because the institution of the state is a compulsory territorial monopoly regaurdless of what one tries to do with it internally. It is logically inconsistant to maintain that one can reduce, restrict or abolish political power by using political power, and it is nonsensical to claim that one can provide checks and balances on an institution through mechanisms that are entirely within the framework of that very institution and when that institution has a territorial monopoly.

What about so-called "competition" between nation-states? If there can be said to be anything resembling checks and balances between goverments, it would be the total lack of both collusion and offensive intervention between governments. When states engage in economic hegemony with eachother they begin a gradual trend towards international or global government, taking the centralization process to the extreme of there being virtually no territory immune from being within the jurisdiction of the government monopoly. International government possesses all of the problems previously mentioned about federal and state government. It just conglomerates power even more than nation-states and has a larger monopolistic jurisdiction.

Modern state warfare essentially cannot be done without collusion and contracting with particular banking and buisiness interests through contracting. War is the most costly endeavor a government can possibly engage in and it can only be waged by externalizing the costs, particularly through the mechanism of monetary inflation and borrowing from from foreign governments and banking interests. War has historically been a means of maintaining and expanding political power. As such, it would be disingenous to use it as an example of free competition. It is, by definition, a flexing of state power, of monopoly. Even if a state is overthrown by another, the victor state usually has increased power when the smoke clears. War has been the main mechanism of expanding state power throughout history.

In conclusion, it should be clear that true checks and balances lies within the domain of private and decentralized mechanisms that are external to and not in any kind of collusion with any political power. That is, market competition is true checks and balances, while the state can only attempt to simulate competition in vein. The more standard concept of checks and balances, while a well intended attempt to form a structural means for restricting political power, is incredibly mistaken in its premises as to how the state functions as an institution. It is rather niave about the nature of political power. In order to truly have checks and balances, the state as an organization must be questioned altogether and participitation in the activities of and consumption of the loot of such an organization must begin to be abandoned in favor of a multitude of alternatives.

Minarchism: Ethically Self-contradictary

The basic idea of minarchism is that the government should be expressly small and limited to the defense of person and property of those within the territorial dominion of the government. This generally implies that the government's services be limited to the provision of police, courts and defense. Most minarchists accept, or at least claim to accept, the principle of the non-initiation of aggression. They seek to attain a government that functions only for defensive purposes, while completely abstaining from initiating aggression. But if the minarchist sincerely does favor the principle of the non-initiation of aggression, they are contradicting their own ethical premise in supporting the existance of a government in the first place. For how are even these limited defensive services to be payed for? Most minarchists favor some limited form of taxation.

The statement that taxation is theft may be shocking to many people, even libertarian minarchists. But it is undeniable. Would the act of me giving my wallet to a robber be a voluntary act of charity? Clearly not. The only reason the robber's victim hands them the wallet is because they are threatened with force in some way. The robber may have a gun to your head or a knife to your throat. It is an action done under the threat of force, and is therefore coerced. An important point that this brings out is that, while the initiation of force is wrong, the threat of the initiation of force is equally a problem. Taxation works no differently than our robbery scenario. While it is true that members of the government do not initially come to one's home to directly take their money, the money is given under the threat that this will happen if they do not pay up. And if one does not pay up, eventually this very scenario will play out. You will be tracked down and the legal authorities will eventually come to your home expecting payment. And if you continues to resist, down the line you will be shot. So let's not be fooled by the idea that the state merely theatens you with force without actually using it. Force will be used against you at some point down the line if you do not comply.

Therefore, taxation inherently violates the non-aggression principle. It would be nonsensical to claim that a high degree of taxation is bad, but a low degree of taxation is good or necessary. If the initiation of aggression and the threat thereof is ethically unjustifiable, then no level of taxation can be rationally defended. A common objection is that one could simply move. But if I truly have property rights, then I should be able to keep my property and still not pay and not recieve the services. Otherwise, you must initiate force against me, or at least threaten to do so, in order to make me pay the taxes. If I wish to stop patronizing McDonalds, I am not forced to move. I can just stop going there and still keep my home. The fact that my only alternative to paying my taxes is to move merely underscores that the state is claiming control over my home or land property. This shows the state to be a coercive territorial monopoly, which we will address later. In either case, this line of arguement, what may be called the "love it or leave it" arguement in favor of the state, assumes precisely what it is trying to prove: namely, that the state legitimately controls the territory.

Some minarchists may try to get around the ethical problems inherent in taxation by advocating a government funded entirely through tarrifs, but a tarrif is really a form of taxation in itself, only it shifts the tax burden onto foreign people. Yet the non-aggression principle must apply to all people. It has no "American only" caviat. It is not a nationalist principle. If it is wrong to tax people within the territory, it is also wrong to tax people outside of the territory. The initiation of force against people in general is the problem, not what specific group of people that are being aggressed against. Any attempt to forcibly externalize the costs of the state onto people outside of the territorial dominion still presents us with a problem.

Another arguement that some minarchists may make is that the real problem is income taxation and that a sales tax is truly voluntary because you can always abstain from buying those products. But this is fallicious and is similar to the "love it or leave it" arguement.
For as soon as you do decide to buy the product, you are made to pay a surplus on top of the actual price that the product is being sold for. In short, a 3rd party, the state, is claiming a chunk of transactions that one takes part in. One should be able to buy the product at the actual market price - which is the price without the tax. In either case, if one wants to survive at all in the world, one is going to have to buy some products at some point. Sales taxation presents a false choice between not buying things and paying a tax on top of the price that those things initially are being sold for. You are still ultimately bound by law under the threat of force to pay the sales tax, lest you be hauled off to jail. One most certainly cannot haggle with the store owner to deduct the tax from the price. The store owners in themselves are likewise coerced under the threat of force to add the tax on top of their initial price.

Objectivists advocate something a bit different than what most libertarian minarchists support. They oppose taxation and advocate what may be called "subscribed government" or voluntary donations to the government. But if this is the case it ceases to be a state can may as well be called a "private protection agency". For if it is truly patronized just like a buisiness, then it has market prices, and instead of saying "donations" we may as well call it "investment". However, if this institution still maintains a coercive monopoly by initiating force or threatening to do so in order to stop people from forming or patronizing any other protection agency within the territory, then it is not truly voluntary either and it still is a state. So even if taxation were abolished, states would still be involuntary if they still tried to maintain a coercive territorial monopoly. This is the underlying problem in the ideal of the Objectivist state (despite the fact that they eliminate taxation from the picture).

Another more pragmatic point is that in the abscence of competition, there is no genuine market prices due to the calculation problem. There really would be no rational indicators as to wether the service is efficient or not. In short, the economic problems involved in a monopoly apply to states in general. A further point is that if they were logically consistant in their opposition to competition in these fields, Objectivists would have to advocate a one world government, for if their ideals apply to all human beings, then all human beings must be subjected to the same territorial dominion. The mere existance of multiple jurisdictions with laws that vary in their content, wether that be multiple county governments or multiple national governments, defies the Objectivist's desire for legal uniformity. Of course, no Objectivist to my knowledge has ever advocated a single unified global government. But this is indeed the logical implication of their own political doctrine.

In a sense, all Objectivists have to do is remove the territorial monopoly aspect of their ideal form of government and they would be free market anarchists. But they refuse to do this. Yet they are contradicting their own ethical principles in supporting a state in the first place. No Objectivist to my knowledge has ever been able to explain how their Objectivist government obtains its territorial monopoly in the first place without initiating force against competition within the given territory, and further continually initiating force in order to maintain that monopoly. Supposing that an Objectivist government already is in place, what if I wish to start up my own private protection agency or dispute resolution organization within the territory? Or what if I wish to patronize such an agency instead of the Objectivist government? The Objectivist government has only two options: initiate force against me or cease to be a government in any rational sense of the word.

It would be wise for minarchists to take heed of the methods by which states have historically gained and maintained their territorial dominions. For the state ultimately hinges on its exercise of control over land, both directly and indirectly. In the most obvious and direct sense, the government buildings rely on control over the land that it resides on by the state. But the state inherently also claims and indirectly excersises control over the entire territory that makes up its so-called "borders". How do these dominions come about? The most obvious answer is plain old land theft, which has been watered down in legal terms to be known as "imminent domain". The most cursory glance at history shows land theft to be at the heart of the formation and expansion of states. But even in cases where the state "bought" land from willing sellers, the funds that they bought it with initially came from some form of taxation. Surely a robber is not justified in their theft because they went on to buy things from willing sellers with the stolen money. The state would still be peddling stolen funds in order to achieve land in this way. No good can follow from an initially evil act.

In summary, it should be quite obvious that advocating a minimal state of any kind while simultaneously claiming that the initiation of force and the threat thereof is wrong is self-contradictary. The minarchist's own logic works against them. If it is wrong for the government to steal people's money to provide for healthcare or retirement money or scools, then why would it be any better for these very same means to be used towards any other ends such as the provision of police, courts and a military? And even in the abscence of mechanisms such as taxation, if it is wrong to initiate force, then how can the state legitimately stop people who have not initiated force themselves from forming and patronizing alternative defensive and dispute resolving organizations? The minarchist, in order to remain consistant with their own stated ethical axoims, should become a market anarchist. Anarchy is the logical result of their own principles. They should not be scared to ditch their cognitive dissonance and embrace anarchy.