Saturday, July 23, 2011

Our Intergenerational Credit Card

The current debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling plays into one of thorniest issues in all of moral philosophy: the problem of future generations. Although it lurks most often in the context of environmental issues (usually pollution and resource depletion) it is readily applicable to the debt crisis.

Imagine the following scenario: Congress is issued an intergenerational credit card, and thereby can access a never-endling line of credit. Now, if you are a Congressman who would like to get re-elected, how would you use that credit card? There are multiple possibilities. First of all, whose interest would you serve? A.) Present generation that can either benefit or be harmed by your spending habits, or B.) Future generations. Would you pay off the balance on that credit card every month, or would you just pay the minimum balance and accumulate debt and pass the deby onto those vulnerable future generations? Of course, the The beauty of the intergenerational credit card is that future generations do not yet exist, and therefore it's relatively easy to pass the credit card balance onto them. And of course, since future generations cannot vote, there is no reason to fear them as a voting block. There is no lobbying group to represent them. Thus, all of the political rhetoric tends to focus on what would happen to the present generation if Congress decides to either default on that credit card or begin to pay down the debt without buying more stuff to benefit the present generation. Of course, Congress might decide to "invest in the future" by asking the present generation to pay for projects that might benefit future generations at the expense of the present generation. For example, we could embark on a long-term railroad building project that would take 20 years to complete. Unfortunately, our efforts to benefit the future might be thwarted by some new transportation technology (personal aircraft?) that would decrease the value of that investment. Now as long the present generation pays the cost of providing this benefit to future generations, we're at least acting responsibly. However, if we decide to benefit the future generations and pass on the cost of providing that benefit to future generations we're on shaky moral ground. Why? Who is really benefitting from these intergenerational projects? The workers in the present generation that land those jobs. If those costs can be paid for with that intergenerational credit card,  then Congress can get re-elected by the present generation and future generations can pay their salaries. If that's not a Ponzi Scheme, I don't what what to call it. But clearly, the idea of an intergenerational credit card is a prescription for taking unfair advantage of future generations.                     

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Two Challenges of Minarchy

In my last blog I suggested that minarchy lies midway between the ideals of anarchy and unbridled progressivism. This raises two obvious questions: "How small is small?" and "How do we prevent small from becoming large?" How any government (national, state, or local)  answers to these questions determines the degree of personal liberty within that jurisdiction. I'll try to focus on the United States, but I think these issues apply equally to all governments.

Almost all minarchists argue that there are three main functions that require a publically-funded governmental monopoly: a defensive military, a domestic police force, and a criminal justice system. (Some of us are also willing to provide a basic safety net.) All three represent a realistic collective response to the darker side of human nature. Some individuals and groups of humans are willing to violate the non-aggression axiom and/or the anti-theft axiom,  in order to advance their interests. Anarchists argue that even these functions ought to be be privatized, which would subject those functions to competition, increase quality, and reduce cost. The question here is whether minarchies can maintain competition without caving into cronyism.  

Obviously, all nations need a military force. The the size of that military is contingent upon how governments use those militaries. Minarchists argue that the the military must be defensive in nature. Thus, we must be able to thwart an invasion. If, governments expand that mandate to include "potential invasions," then the size of the military is likely to expand. According to Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, the United States' military has expanded way out of control, and as a result we have troops stationed all over the world and several wars underway. Cronyism is a primary source of spiraling military budgets. The corporations that supply the "War Machine" with supplies are especially powerful, mostly because military contracts are notoriously opaque and non-competitive. Hence, the proverbial $400 toilet seats! One might argue that we've already "privatized" the U.S. military, however, what we've really done is disabled competition via cronyism. In short, privatization does not necessarily imply free markets.

Minarchists also support a publically-funded police force. Now, first of all, the size of a police force is contingent upon the number of laws that it is required to montor and enforce. The more more laws there are "on the books" the larger the police force you'll need. Minarchists argue that lawmaking powers of congress must be limited the laws that address the harm principle; that is "harm to other persons" (assault, murder etc.) and "harm to the property of others" (theft, fraud, breach of contract etc.). The problem with the harm principle is that it tends to become irrationally pre-occupied with preventing low-magnitude harms and low-probability harms. Paternalistic laws that protect us from "self-inflicted harms" have led to an extraordinary expansion of police forces, especially drug laws, laws against gambling, alcohol abuse. The United States leads the world in incarceration, most of those prisoners committed are non-violent drug crimes. The actual cost of providing a police force is also contingent upon how those policemen are paid. Libertarians argue that policement ought to be paid based on free market forces, where the best policement get paid the most (within the bounds of the free market) and the worst policemen get fired. Of course, crony relationships between politicians and law enforcement are way too common and lead to bloated, over-paid and under-paid policemen.   

Minarchists also accept a publically-funded criminal justice system. Like the police force, the size of the judiciary is contingent upon the number of laws it is expected to enforce. The more laws and the more policemen, the more lawyers and judges that are needed. The exponential growth of the judiciary (at all levels) is also related to the fact that our law schools crank out a lot of lawyers, those lawyers often become politicians, and they have a powerful lobby. Thus, cronyism also contributes to bloated judiciaries. The cost of maintaining a judiciary is also contingent upon how much lawyers and judges are paid, and whether they are appointed or elected. Another important cause of  "judiciary creep" is the longstanding legal tradition of writing laws in a private language known only to lawyers, and judges who are empowered to "interpret" those laws. This also artificially enforces their monopoly.

In sum, I have argued that minarchists seek to limit the size and scope of government to military, police, and judicial functions. However, even if our government limited itself to those three functions, there is no guarantee that small government would not morph into large government. Therefore, the most efficient way to limit the size of government is to limit the ability of politicians to endlessly expand the criminal code beyond crimes against persons and properties. I think both libertarians and progressives agree that the U.S. government has expanded way beyond minarchy.                                         

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Two Ideological Perspectives on the Use of Coercive Political Power

The current political malaise in the United States can be best understood in terms of two conflicting ideological perspectives on the the nature and use of political power. On the far left we have the progressives, on the far right we have the libertarians. There is a lot of variation within both ideologies. However, in the United States progressives usually lean toward the far left of the Democratic Party, the libertarians usually lean toward the far right of the Republican Party. However, neither progressives nor libertarians dominate their respective parties. The progressive-libertarian debate is a very old and important debate, therefore it's still worth reviewing those two ideologies.

Progressives are idealists that believe that political entities (cities, states, and nations) must deploy the coercive of power of government in order to serve the public good. Progressive government requires that altruistic, impartial, objective leaders that will exercise political power in pursuit of the "public good." Good government, therefore, requires that political entities seek out these "good leaders." When government fails to serve the public good it is because the political system has become infested with self-serving leaders that use their political power to enrich themselves, their families, and friends at the expense of the public good: call it cronyism. Therefore, the key to progressive government is to devise a political system that selects these "good leaders." Plato believed that in order to maintain a sufficient supply of "good leaders," the state must develop selective breeding programs and specialtized education programs. Contemporary American progressives reject selective breeding, but place invest heavily in law degrees earned at elite private schools, most notably Yale and Harvard. Coercive force is exercised in the form of a "progressive" tax code, which provides the funds to serve the public good. In the United States, progressives tend to equate serving the public good to implimenting government programs that serve the unmet needs of the "least advantaged," the poor, workers, consumers, elderly, sick, racial minorities, and women. This agenda requires large numbers of workers employed by tax-funded government agencies. For most progressives, knowledge of the "public good" and knowledge of how to achieve it usually relegated to empowered social scientists. On foreign policy, many progressives support the use of U.S. military power to advance the "public good."        

Libertarians are idealists that believe that coercive power is always wrong, either because it violates the property rights of others or because it leads to bad comsequences. Taxation is regarded as problematic because it resembles theft; that is the involutary appropriation of another person's property. Libertarians also argue that knowledge of the public good and how to achieve it is elusive, if not impossible. Social scientists routinely identify the "public good" with the good of the social scientists themselves, or their cronies in government that empowered them. Libertarians are especially wary of the rise of cronyism, where government serves the good of specific interest groups, especially: corportations, labor unions, churches, and the military. All libertarians are against the use of military power unless we're actually invaded by a foreign nation. Therefore, according to libertarians, the secret to good government is to either eliminate the coercive power of government (anarchism) or limit the coercive power of government (minarchy).

Anarchists reject government outright, and idealistically believe that if individuals (and groups of cooperating individuals) are left to make their own decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions, human society would thrive. Anarchists argue that because progressive governments "spend other people's money," they tend to be overly-generous to the least advantaged and public employees, and less concerned with "bang for the buck" efficiency. Moreover, anarchists observe that over time, collectivized power tends to corrupt even the most altruistic, and impartial leaders. Social science is similarly corrupted. Therefore, progressive governments tend to collapse under the weight of military adventurism coupled with the high levels of taxation needed to serve the bureaucracies that serve the "military-industrial complex" and the ever-growing ranks of "least advantaged." Anarchists argue that eventually everyone becomes either a soldier or "least advantaged." Thus, under anarchy all collective functions are met by non-governmental entities, including the: military, police force, criminal justice system, and social welfare.

Minarchists embrace limited government; that is government that is limited to using tax money to provide a defensive military, police force, and judiciary. Some minarchists, like myself, are also willing to include a "basic safety net" to protect the "least advantaged." Anarchists, however, insist that minarchy is unsustainable and that, over time, minarchism becomes progressivism. Altruistic politicians and social scientists are eventually corrupted by power. Progressives argue that the limited power of minarchism, inevitably leads to under-funded military, police, judiciary, and safety nets.

Today, the idealists on the far left (progressives) and the far right (anarchists) are unwilling to compromise and therefore the U.S. government now mired in gridlock. Since minarchists draw criticism from both the far left and the far right, they now occupy the centrist position in U.S. Politics. I would argue that the future of the United States lies in the formation of a coalition of progressives and libertarians that are willing to limit the exercise of concentrated political power, but not necessarily eliminate it. Politically, this might result in the formation of a political alliance between Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich.