An Argument for Freedom Based Upon Disagreement

"We haven’t learned to disagree without being violently disagreeable," (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I will present a very simple argument that the State and government are not and cannot be logically justified or defended as long as there are those under their rule who disagree with their (aggressive) impositions. I call this the "argument from disagreement."

The starting point

Can government ever intervene in private voluntary exchanges and make matters better for those affected without making anyone else worse off? I do not think that it can. Along with a good many others like Rothbard and Hoppe, I believe that socialism actually invariably lowers welfare. But whether we are right or wrong on this matter is not relevant for the argument from disagreement. What is relevant is that we and others hold this view. There are those who disagree with us, for example, Joseph Stiglitz. Among many other State actions, he favors bank deposit insurance. The reason is that he believes that information about financial firms is a public good that is underproduced. But his reasons are not germane to the argument from disagreement other than he thinks government action is beneficial.

What’s central here is simply that some individuals believe that government has benefits while others do not. Someone like Stiglitz believes that there are identifiable public goods or externalities. A good many people believe this and commend State action. They want government action such as a tax interposed between buyer and seller or a tax on the buyer. They want force to be used. To be clear, when throughout this article I speak of force being used by the State, I mean unwarranted aggressive force. That is, force is being used in situations where no crimes or rights violations have occurred.

How then can this use of force be justified? The statist economists like Stiglitz argue that there are economic situations (such as involving externalities and public goods) in which at least one person can be made better off and no one made worse off via appropriate taxes and/or subsidies. They argue that government force is sometimes justified because it brings social benefits in which no one is worse off. I believe that this proposition can be rebutted, but that is not what I intend to do here. Let us allow Stiglitz to make this argument without rebuttal. Let us stipulate only that there are those of us who disagree that he is correct.

A review of the economics literature, especially that of Austrian-school economists, reveals numerous arguments that successfully (in my opinion) rebut Stiglitz and similar economists on the issue of public goods and externalities. I won’t review all the arguments here because the main point is simply that they disagree with the statist economists. One can argue that the statist economists are wrong on the facts, that the purported public goods are not public goods. One can argue that governments don’t and can’t have the information to improve upon market solutions. One can argue that some problems are property rights problems. One can argue that entrepreneurs internalize many externalities in various ways and do not internalize those that are not worth internalizing. One can argue that Stiglitz is wrong in principle — that no interference can ever do anything but lower welfare. And so on. There are many arguments. I intend to add the argument from disagreement to that list.

The argument from disagreement

Stiglitz may be wrong about deposit insurance, just as I and others may be wrong to suggest its absence. We disagree with Stiglitz and other statist economists. That disagreement is itself of fundamental importance. If we disagree, then he has no logical grounds for advocating the use of force (via the State) to settle the issue. This is the barebones argument from disagreement. What can he argue to justify aggressive coercion? (1) He can say that the majority of voters rules. We may ask: Why should we accept majority rule? To say that majority rules is the status quo does not resolve the conflict. That’s saying we should accept government because we have government already, which is a circular argument. (2) He needs to defend government per se as a rule-making body with force. He can say that government raises or will raise the welfare of everyone. For example, he can say that there is an emergency that requires forceful collective action. This too is a controversial opinion, however, upon which there is disagreement. This again involves a circular argument. He has to show why the State is justified in such action as opposed to voluntary associations of individuals and groups. (3) He can argue that the State’s supporters will be worse off without deposit insurance if the anti-State objectors prevent it from being instituted. This argument presumes that everyone involved has to be under the given State. But there is no necessity of this condition. It assumes the fact of the State, which is what he is trying to defend.

Aggressive government interference for the sake of any supposed benefit has always to be justified because there is always disagreement about the benefit (and the interference.) But interference can’t be justified without justifying government itself. All such justifications invoke benefits of various kinds that only government (force or one set of people aggressively imposing on another group of people) is supposed to be able to provide. (These arguments have to invoke benefits or they make no sense.) But since some people dispute these benefits supposedly unique to government, then how can the government be justified, since government’s role is to terminate the dispute with one group forcefully overruling the dissenters?

I cannot think of any justification for the State when there is disagreement about the State’s benefits, and there is always disagreement. Imagine that everyone in a society is free. They comprise a set of people made up of two parts, those who want freedom, A and those who want a State, S. The A people do not want deposit insurance, say, and the S people do. If a State is imposed on everyone, it means that the S people are not happy allowing the A people to remain free, whereas the A people are willing to let the S people be unfree as long as they let them alone. The S people wish to subjugate the A people. How can they justify this? They have no legitimate defense that I know of. Since the A people disagree with the S people, the S people cannot justify using force to impose deposit insurance as this simply violently ends the argument or suppresses it and force is not a legitimate argument or justification.

Relation to argumentation ethics

Argumentation ethics and the argument from disagreement are two different arguments. They have in common the framework of argumentation and thus disagreement, the notion that justification doesn’t rely on coercion, and the outcome that the defender of the State is placed in an untenable position.

Hoppe has shown that there is an ethics implied in argumentation. It includes "Nobody has the right to uninvitedly aggress against the body of another person…" As he says: "Justifying means justifying without having to rely on coercion." The argument from disagreement says that there is always argumentation and disagreement when it comes to the supposed benefits of a State (as long as there are von Mises’s, Rothbards, Rockwells, Blocks, Hoppes, and many others). This means that those who favor the State because of its benefits have to defend not only the benefits but also the State. But to justify the State when these objections and disagreements arise means justifying it without coercion. And this can’t be done because the State is the institution that coercively ends these arguments and disagreements.

Argumentation ethics place the defender of socialism in the contradictory position of supporting an institution that belies the implications of their arguing. They cannot justify their case without contradicting themselves. The argument from disagreement adds to the defender’s woes. Anyone who tries to defend the benefits of the State and meets with disagreement is literally unable to justify these benefits because he is advocating a coercive solution to the argument.

Justifications of freedom

If two sides disagree over whether or not a State’s interference raises or lowers welfare, then there are only two resolutions: Either the State does nothing or the State interferes. Which course can be justified? I’ve argued that State interference can’t be justified because ending the argument by force is not justification.

By contrast, if the State does nothing, that is, individuals maintain free markets, that course can be justified in ways familiar to libertarians by arguments favoring private property, homesteading, and non-aggression. There are arguments involving knowledge and incentives that suggest that freedom fosters greater wealth as compared with government interference as in Rockwell’s Speaking of Liberty or any number of essays on LRC. And there are arguments that socialism lowers wealth and is unjust as in Hoppe’s A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. All of these arguments not only are entirely worthwhile and useful but deserve repeating. Among other things, they defend those who wish to be free from their predators. They recruit people to the cause of freedom and spread arguments for freedom. They help to persuade statists and potential statists from supporting invasions of freedom. They show the benefits of freedom and the bad effects of governments and States. They show that the defenders of the State have an untenable logical position.

I think the argument from disagreement can also be framed in terms of disagreements over values. The issue of freedom versus a State is moral: What rules should we live under? The issue is simultaneously highly practical: The purpose of the rules is so that benefits may result. But what benefits? People’s values disagree. They disagree about what is beneficial to themselves. Since each person values different goods differently, the only logical answer is that the social rules have to recognize and allow for individual differences and choices of benefits or else they conflict with the very purpose of the rules, which is foster benefits. The non-aggression rule does this. The use of State coercion does not because it imposes the views of some on others. It has a particular end or ends in mind. But any imposed end is bound to conflict with what individuals might choose. We can’t measure the good for an individual but we want rules that allow for the individual to achieve or get what’s good for him. That means universally, not by some gaining at the expense of others.

I am grateful to David Gordon for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.