The two open letters in the previous post reminded me of an excerpt from the recent EconTalk podcast with David Schmidtz.
First, allow me to try to set up the excerpt.
Do you believe, as Elizabeth Warren does, that since ‘society’ provides things like roads, fire and police protection through taxes and various government entities, that part of the ‘underlying social contract’ entitles you to tell others what to do?
I’ve heard many variations of Warren’s viewpoint. As Thomas Sowell reminds us that is government by ‘cosmic justice’ or ‘the way things ought to be‘. That means, we determine if we think some government function or action is justified because we happen to agree with its intentions and believe we are entitled to tell others what to do.
We rarely question whether government has the authority to take the action (and we seem baffled when anyone brings that up) or consider what would need to happen to grant government that authority (e.g. amend the Constitution).
We also rarely consider whether the government function or action that we support actually accomplishes the good intentions that made it sound so good to us.
Further, we have this inane inconsistent penchant for ignoring the Constitution when our guys are in power, then becoming Constitutional scholars while the other guys are in power — never acknowledging the inconsistency and the fact that we helped set the precedent for the other guys trampling of the Constitution by letting our guy trample it. But, that’s just an aside.
Why do we behave this way?
Because most of us want the immediate benefit of claiming that we support good causes and because it costs us nothing directly to do so. Once we have demonstrated our enlightened support for good causes by supporting the government’s right to tell others what to do, we can go about our business with an air of moral superiority.
Of course, that superior feeling turns to indignation once the government tells you to do things that you disagree with.
The Schmidtz excerpt from the EconTalk podcast touches on the nub of reality at that point where we think we are entitled to tell others what do. Preceding this part of the podcast, Schmidtz and host Russ Roberts discuss the idea that society has a claim on the success of a major league pitcher or Wilt Chamberlain, simply because without society, neither would have that success — and whether that is a liberal idea or not.
Schmidtz says (emphasis mine):
…a theory that believes that an individual is a real thing. It’s not a scholarly, fictitious construct or something like that. There really are people in the world, and people really do have their own hopes and dreams, and people aren’t mere pawns; they actually are agents taking responsibility and making decisions.
Now, you can say that at the end of the day, society owns people. People don’t own themselves. You can say that, and probably say that consistently; but you are not saying something liberal when you say that.
So at the end of the day, for a liberal, you have to make sure you are on the right side of this question. When somebody says: Okay, I got it; I wouldn’t be where I am today without my teachers and cab drivers and parents and all kinds of other people; but I don’t like this deal ; I’m going to go home now; I’m going to leave the country, perhaps, if you don’t mind. Who gets to say: Sorry, you aren’t enough of a self-owner that you don’t have a right to say no?
Maybe we want your kidney, maybe we want your blood, maybe we just want your labor, maybe we want to restrict what you can do by laboring for yourself and your family. And at some point we say: Well, let’s be reasonable and let’s go along with this to some extent.
But still, there’s a fundamental matter of principle, a question that needs an answer at the end of the day, which is: Do I have the right to say No? Do I have the right to walk? Do I own myself? So, the fact that you can think of other people who helped me, or you just imagine–how do you know that I’m not an orphan? Maybe in your imagination all kinds of people helped me. Tell me at what point other people helping me made me your property.
Because if there was no point at which I became your property, then excuse me, but I’m going to go home, and I’m going to take all of my toys with me. If you want some of my toys, if you want me to share my toys, treat me like an adult, treat me like a self-owner, and make me an offer. And you might make me an offer that I’m perfectly willing to accept. I might say–and this was the thing you were excluding–yeah, I want to be part of a community, I want a community that has a real infrastructure; in fact, I want to be part of a community where the roads are free. Not that I think that anything is really free; I realize that I as a taxpayer will be paying for the free roads. But the point is, I want to minimize transactions costs because I want it to be as cheap as possible for my customers to get to my store. And so I would rather pay for that in part of my taxes than have to put up a toll road and have my customers have to pay to get to me. So, yeah, I want public goods, even things that aren’t inherently public.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I like to think of government as a partner with society. Perhaps it’s a partnership like what an agent has with a movie star. The more prosperous the movie star, the more prosperous the agent.
Where we are with government seems to be an agent-movie star partnership where the agent forgot that he is not the talent. He creates some value, but he doesn’t create THE value. He feeds from the value the movie star creates. When the agent forgets that, the movie star usually exits the relationship and finds another agent that appreciates that.
But, in the government-society partnership, it’s more like the friends of the agent who feel they can boss the talent around.