Four short and one more substantial response to comments on my last post.
1. I don’t know of any existing government that shouldn’t be downsized and I doubt there will be one in my lifetime. I think, though, that the downsizing has to be done morally. There are clearly immoral ways to do it. As Matt Z said “The order in which we dismantle Leviathan matters, even if we all agree on the end-point.” I suggested a moratorium on hiring replacements for work not needed for harm prevention. I would likely also accept the following sort of arrangement: announcing that as of 2018 Department X (which is not involved in harm prevention or rectification) is going to be completely shuttered. The 5-year interval gives people time to adjust without causing harm. Perhaps timing of such announcements matters also.
2. I suppose David Friedman is right that we “could imagine a government that … funded itself entirely by selling services to willing customers.” There is a conceptual issue of whether we would call the purchase price a tax or not (and whether we would call such a “government” a government) but I have no settled view about this. Importantly, I don’t think this would mean that all taxation is theft (though they may be “structurally similar” as Bryan Winter said).
3. A quick comment about the claim that “Fundamental to libertarianism is the belief that employment relationships are voluntary. This means that government workers chose to work for the government with an understanding of the associated risks and benefits.” The mistake here should be clear to most readers, but to make it explicit, the line is only accurate if it were to read “Fundamental to libertarianism is the belief that employment relationships SHOULD BE voluntary (or ARE voluntary in the ideal libertarian world). This means that government workers IN THE LIBERTARIAN WORLD chose to work for the government with an understanding of the associated risks and benefits.” Since we don’t live in that world, the claim gets us nowhere when discussing the world we do live in.
4. Kyle Walker is right to ask why I don’t embrace anarchism. The answer, if I had one, would surely take a lengthy post of its own. Perhaps one day.
The big issue for me is with claims like “Government employees are … co-conspirators” and “government generally … creat[es] obligations for other people” as if that meant there were no obligation. Similarly (perhaps worse) is the idea that people receiving money from the government are “receiving money which had been illegitimately obtained, and hence were receiving stolen property. They either knew this, or ought to have realised it.” The fact is the vast majority of people do not think this is receipt of stolen property so even if it is, to think everyone ought to realize this is rather odd. (How can we expect people to realize X when most people around them believe –X? X may be true, but that isn’t to the point.)
In any case, one way to think about the issue comes from Jim Chappelow who claims I “beg… the question from the outset, by assuming that A’s contract with B is valid and enforceable in the first place. It’s basic principle of contract law that contracts over criminal acts (B’s services) are never valid in the first place.” Part of my point is that even if this is right, it does not mean no obligation is created. This can be seen through a different example.
Say I hire Hit Man Mo to kill Sam. Mo loves his work so doesn’t even charge that much. His agreement and mine are fully voluntary and informed. The “contract” is nonetheless null and void. The fact that Mo’s killing Sam against Sam’s wishes (and let’s assume it would be against Sam’s wishes) is immoral and illegal means that such a “contract” is of no moral or legal weight.
Does this mean Mo has no obligation to me when we make our fully voluntary and informed agreement? Some will think it does mean that–and that any money I gave Mo is simply lost to me and that this is ok since I should have known such a contract was no contract at all. But I think Mo does owe me something–except perhaps if when making the original agreement, Mo said “now you realize we have no real contract and you can’t hold me to this agreement.” If Mo said that, my money would be lost. Of course, if Mo said that I would not give him my money in the first place, even if I were the sort (which I am not) to hire hit men.
I think Mo owes me something. At the very least, he owes me my money back. But what he owes is not that important here. The point that matters is that he owes me something–even though Mo would have been wrong to follow through his end of the deal and we were both wrong to make the agreement in the first place. Yet in response to my previous post–and despite my attempt to avoid the issue in the post itself–several people claimed my argument was a nonstarter since the contract between the government and anyone hired or supported through any welfare program is invalid. I am continually amazed at this view. An agreement (a promise) is made and people think its being made has no moral weight at all. This is odd enough for non-libertarians, but for libertarians it seems even odder. And note, again, that most people think the contract (whether that of a government employee or of a welfare recipient) in question is perfectly moral and legal. This means that even if we are right that the government should not be making such contracts, it’s making them does cause people to have expectations that they will be paid. Legitimate expectations. Suddenly leaving those people in the lurch—refusing to carry out the part of the contract that people legitimately expect (providing either their salary or their welfare benefit) seems to harm them. Obviously, government should not be harming people. It should be satisfying its obligations. It may be shameful that we and previous generations allowed such obligations to be incurred, but they were incurred.*
*Note: I am not claiming that all legal obligations that a state incurs are such that they must, morally, be upheld. I suspect there are limits. For example, if those directly responsible for incurring the debt are illegitimate and unjust dictators who were enabled to take on the debt by international players that should not have engaged with those dictators and would have been in a position to know this and avoid the engagement. (The sorts of domestic cases that concern me, I hope it is clear, are those where the people whose expectations are legitimate–which means, in part, that they were not in the position to know their engagement with the government was wrong or to avoid the engagement.)