We tell our children that it’s wrong to lie. And, at least when they are young, we do not qualify the statement. We do not tell them that it’s wrong to lie unless you really, really need the thing you’re lying to get, or unless it’s just a tiny little white lie anyway. We tell them that it’s wrong to lie, period.
Of course, most of us don’t really believe this statement, at least in its absolute and unqualified form. The family that hid Anne Frank in their attic was morally permitted (perhaps even morally obligated?) to lie to the Nazis about not knowing the location of any Jews. On a more mundane level, there is nothing morally wrong about telling a colleague you run into in the hallway that you’re doing “fine,” even when you are not, in fact, doing fine at all. As children, we might have learned that it is a serious sin to lie, but by the time we are grown ups, even people who view the Ten Commandments as an important moral guide realize that the ethics of deception is considerably more ambiguous than that.
Now let’s move from lying to coercion. One of the criticisms that’s commonly leveled against BHL or classical liberalism (as opposed to strict libertarianism) is that it’s too, well, wishy-washy. Yes, we like property rights. But we don’t like to think of ourselves as property rights absolutists. Sure, we think coercive redistribution is bad. But in certain cases and in certain forms, we’re willing to tolerate it. So where’s the line? Once we admit that some coercion is morally permissible, what’s to stop us from sliding down the slippery slope into outright socialism?
But why should we think that coercion is any different from lying? Most of us think that lying is morally permissible in some circumstances, but not in others. Which circumstances are which is hard to specify precisely, but the wrongfulness of a lie probably depends on (at the very least) the severity of the harm your lie causes its victim and the nature of the good you’re trying to achieve by lying. Telling a few white lies does not commit you, logically or causally, to being a pathological liar. Why, then, should we think that sanctioning some coercive interference with property rights commits one to sanctioning all coercive interference with property rights?
It would be nice, of course, if we had a bright line by which we could distinguish permissible interference from impermissible. A rule that told us exactly when it’s OK to take someone’s money without their consent, and when it’s not. But is this a reasonable thing to hope for from a moral/political theory? There’s no bright line that separates permissible lies from impermissible ones, and yet we seem to do alright without one. By the time we’re grown ups, most of us have a well-developed faculty of practical wisdom to know when it’s OK to lie and when it’s not (even if we don’t always do what we know to be required).
If the line between permissible and impermissible lies is not bright but nebulous and fuzzy, why should we expect the line between permissible and impermissible coercion to be any brighter?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against bright lines altogether. I think that the truth about morality, whatever that means, is messy and complicated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the morality that we preach to each other (and to ourselves) ought to try to mirror that complexity. I’m going to keep telling my oldest son (he’s three) that it’s wrong to lie, period, even though I don’t believe that to be true. The reason should be obvious to any parent. If I tell my son that there are exceptions to the rule, he’s likely to think that it’s OK to lie in a lot of situations where it really isn’t. “Never lie” is technically less accurate advice than “Never lie except in the following set of situations…” But I think my son will come closer to acting in the way morality requires him to act if he tries to follow the first rule than he would by trying to follow the second.
And maybe this is how we can make a kind of libertarian absolutism work. After all, governments are a lot like children. They tend to put their own interests ahead of the interests of others; they’re not very good at thinking about what’s good for them in the long-term; they have a tendency to behave impulsively, and so on. It would be the height of foolishness to tell someone like that that “It’s OK to use coercion whenever you think that the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs,” even if that principle really was true. It would be foolish because a principle that allows so much discretion invites abuse, especially when used by agents who are prone to abuse anyway. Better to tell your government to stick to a simple, transparent, and relatively algorhythmic rule, like “it’s never OK to take a citizen’s land without their consent for purposes of economic redevelopment,” even if that principle is, in some deep sense, false (it really would be OK to take a citizen’s land without consent in some circumstances). Governments, like children, need simple rules, even (especially!) when dealing with a complex world.
Of course, what the content of those simple rules should be, and how simple they have to be, is still up for grabs. “No taxation” is about as simple as it gets, but many classical liberals will think that the added complexity that comes from making an exception for expenditures on police, courts, and military, will be more than justified by the moral benefits such complexity allows us to reap. Is the same true for exceptions made for public goods? For a social safety net? My own inclination is to think that the answer is “yes,” but that’s an argument for another day.