Handing Out the Goodies

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Recently, my friend Jim Henley, in his must-read blog Unqualified Offerings, offered the following analysis of why libertarians have had so little political success:

“At bottom the problem is this: limited-government types, conservative or otherwise, don't much like politics. We think politics should retreat from broad areas of economic and social life rather than advance into new ones.

“We're exactly the sort of people who are going to suck at political activity.

“And we haven't got a lot of goodies to offer. The State-Capitalist GOP can offer businesses all sorts of subventions. All we can offer them is ‘a chance to compete on a level playing field.’ The Christian Right can offer busybodies a country in which the police enforce their morals on the unrighteous. All we can offer them is the right to try to hector the unrighteous into agreeing with them. The national-greatness right can offer the chance to kill foreigners and Do Good and feel part of a grand enterprise. All we can offer is boring old peace. The welfare state left can offer people oodles of other people's money. We got squadoosh.

“Political success comes from energizing defined constituencies and we ain't got any.”

I believe that Jim’s analysis, while excellent as far as it goes, points the way to an even more fundamental political reality, and in this article I hope to extend it to that next level. Another friend of mine, Sandy Ikeda, wrote what I think is an under-appreciated book, entitled The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy. In that work, Sandy examined the process that is set in motion as soon as some people are coerced into supporting, or increasing their support of, particular ends deemed eminently desirable by other members of their society, in other words, the dynamic that is launched upon the creation of a state.

Coercing recalcitrant individuals into contributing more resources than they would freely choose to contribute to some project means that those individuals, as they understand their own situation, have been made worse off, through political means, than they would have been absent the coercion, in order to the benefit of some of their fellows. For example, if every person in a society were only asked to give as much as he saw fit towards defense against foreign aggression, then there would be no need for a state in the process. But once everyone is compelled to contribute what the government, by whatever means it arrives at such determinations, deems to be his or her “fair share” of the cost of national defense, it is inevitable, given the diversity of people’s tastes, goals, and values, that some individuals, threatened with state violence should they demur, will be driven into paying more for that form of protection than they freely judge to be appropriate.

All such “over-payers” find that the existence of a state renders them net losers, less able to achieve their own goals than they would have been in its absence. That circumstance presents them with a great temptation to employ the machinery of government to procure some goodies of their own as a way of making up for their losses. If they should be seduced by that lure, then they will begin to agitate for the state to coerce others into funding their own pet projects.

Once this process is set in motion in some society, an ever greater part of its members’ efforts to improve their lives will tend to be directed towards manipulating the political system into sending as many of the goodies it hands out in their direction as possible. Of course, that activity, unlike the voluntary exchange of goods and services characterizing a free market, is a zero-sum game, where every gain of mine is offset by a loss of yours. But the losers in one “round” of the game are thereby inspired to devote even greater effort towards ensuring the next round goes their way. And the existence in every society of power-hungry individuals, who will come to realize that they can exploit this struggle over cuts of the distributive pie for their own ends, ensures that there will be no lack of “leaders” intent on organizing these competing interest groups and assuring them that their demand for more goodies is an expression of justice itself.

Even the minimal, “night watchman” state seen by many libertarians as the ideal political arrangement is in the business of handing out goodies to some of its citizens by coercing other citizens to help pay for them. As a result, it unavoidably generates a tendency for the expansion of state power, whatever the intentions of its founders. Empirical evidence for this thesis is provided by the history of the American Republic, which, despite the strenuous efforts undertaken to ensure it would remain within its constitutional bounds, was exercising powers well beyond those limits in a matter of a decade or two.

The sole prospect I can envision for avoiding this spiraling upward of the state’s role in social life and the corresponding diminution in individual freedom is to not initiate this dynamic in the first place. Only by widely rejecting the idea that it is ever acceptable to launch aggression against another in order to compel him to promote a goal he has not freely adopted as his own, even when one sees that goal as vital even to the holdout’s own well-being, can a society hope to escape the cycle of escalating exploitation inherent to organization under a state.

I don’t for a moment suggest that a society, based on the non-aggression principle, would be a utopia or that it would herald the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth. It still, without a doubt, would be faced with terrible problems and grave threats to its existence. It still would need methods for coping with members who seek a shortcut to achieving their own ends by ignoring the restraints on individual behavior that are the foundations of social cooperation, as well as institutions for resolving the disputes that inevitably arise even between well-intentioned actors, due to the inability of each party to fully comprehend the other’s point of view.

But these are fatal complaints only if we reject any improvement that does not promise immediate perfection. Looking into our past, it is obvious that the abolition of slavery did not result in an earthly paradise or the elimination of all social woes. Nevertheless, I contend that it was a genuine and significant step forward in mankind’s social progress. And so, I suggest, will be the widespread adoption of the libertarian principle of non-aggression, and the subsequent re-structuring of societies in conformance with it.

May 19, 2006

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives