Thursday, January 27, 2011

Liberals and Libertarians

For those that monitor the blogosphere, and specifically's Democracy in America blog, you've no doubt followed the back and forth between Matt Steinglass and Will Wilkinson on any host of issues.  Mr. Steinglass representing broadly the liberal view of things and Mr. Wilkinson the libertarian view of things.  Without a doubt, it's some of the most intelligent debate between these two paradigms ("ideologies" seemed too rigid and not befitting the rationality they bring to the debate).  I, perhaps narcissistic-ly, like to think the exchanges (typically in the comments section) between Ben, Colin (our foil at To Get Rich Is Glorious), and I are like a minor league version of the Steinglass/Wilkinson debates.

Course they still do it best, and when Mr. Wilkinson lays out some tenets of libertarianism including the belief that "Taxation is coercive but imprisoning the guy who nicked your lawn gnome isn't," you can expect that Mr. Steinglass would respond and so he did.  There's a lot of good stuff in there, but specifically on the issue of "taxation being coercive" he notes that: "liberals think of taxation as paying one's fair share for the collective goods that make society feasible. Every society needs collective goods to function, including transportation and infrastructure, education, the justice system itself, and so on... Payment for those goods cannot be left voluntary, as ultimately everyone would welch."

This completely captures why I think taxation is legitimate.  Of course, one could say, and Colin as suggested, that you must have  pessimistic view of people if you believe they won't voluntarily contribute what is needed for the general welfare.  I think that makes me a realist and a liberal.


Bret said...

I'm not sure I get Steinglass's dichotomy between coercion and legitimacy, and I think he's presenting a straw man of the libertarian argument. Of course taxation is coercive. Tilly famously described the state as a protection racket, in which the state creates security threats that only in can solve, and extracts taxes to build the force necessary to protect citizens from those threats. But the fact that taxes are extracted by coercion does not make them illegitimate. In fact, Weber's definition of the state is the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. So the state, at a minimum, is a relationship in which some men dominate using violence, and those that are dominated consent to that authority. Coercion and legitimacy go hand in hand.

So I don't buy his argument that libertarians call taxation coercive because they intend to delegitimize the exercise of state authority. They're not anarchists, and I think any serious libertarian would acknowledge that capitalism and the modern state are co-dependent. Capital needs the state to guarantee purely public goods like defense from external threats, domestic order, impartial adjudication of disputes and enforcement of contracts, a single currency, and some free exchange of information. And of course, the liberal (in the classic, liberty-loving sense) state was designed to protect the property rights of agrarian and industrial capital from the masses of laborers with universal suffrage under democracy.

I also don't understand Steinglass's argument that liberals see taxes non-coercive and as an obligation of citizenship. He's quite right that strictly public goods will suffer from free-rider problems, which exactly why coercion of necessary. If he really believes that citizens will pay taxes out of obligation without threat of punishment, that's really naive. But he's also acknowledging that coercion is necessary to solve these free-rider problems, which is why I'm not exactly sure what he's getting at. The central part of the debate seems to be to what extent his collective goods will be supplied without coercive taxation. My take is that liberals think that these goods should be supplied by the state because they provide a social benefit. Libertarians agree that they provide a social benefit, but because they are excludable, they will not be undersupplied by the private sector, and so the state should not be in the business of taxing to provide them.

So while I don't think libertarians say taxes are coercive to delegitimize the state, they do use it to delegitimize state efforts to provide goods that are something other than strictly non-excludable and non-rival (transportation, education, health care, etc). Since the coercive capacity of the state exists primarily to protect the interests of capital as a minority, it is is a little disingenuous.

Colin said...

I pretty much agree with what Bret said. Taxation is coercive but not illegitimate. Also, I don't agree with the notion that education and transportation are public goods. They certainly do not fit the classic definition of public goods as nonrival and non-excludable.

Ben said...

Bret, what about social compact theory?

Colin, I'm sure you're aware that many smart people disagree with your assessment of education and transportation (infrastructure) not constituting public goods.

Bret said...

what about it? nothing i said is inconsistent with the idea of a social contract, at least as conceived by thinkers in the anglo-american tradition. for locke, everyone is both completely free and completely equal in the state of nature, and so everyone has a right to sanction anyone else in the rare event of a property dispute. so to avoid the inevitable escalation that results when each individual can legitimately exercise coercion, property owners delegate some of their freedom in the form of that right to legitimate coercion to an impartial third party. the idea of legitimate coercion is not an idea that is seriously disputed by any political philosophy that informs our tradition (unless you count Marx, who thought of the state not as impartial, but as an instrument that could be captured to protect particular class interests).

and education and transportation are certainly collective goods, but they are not, by their nature, public goods. you can convert some private goods and club goods to public goods by having the state provide them, but there's certainly no reason in principle you can't exclude a non-paying student from the classroom, or a non-paying patient from receiving emergency health care (whether you should, as a question of morality is another argument). there may be some elements of infrastructure that are true public goods, but the things we generally think of as falling in this category (roads, utilities, rail, etc) are clearly excludable. is there anybody that seriously disagrees with that assessment? and im not being snarky, im actually curious about how you would make an argument that education is non-excludable.

Ben said...

I'm sorry, I misread your comment about Weber and thought you were making the point that the state only exists as a vector of coercion.

I think the education as a public good argument is that it's a non-pure public good in that it is non-rival but excludable (though not, in practice, treated as excludable). At least that's my (albeit limited) understanding.

Colin said...

Education certainly is a rival good. Not everyone can be admitted to Harvard and schools plainly have limits on their enrollment. This may chagne over time with online education, but presently this is not the case.

Lots of smart people may call transportation and education public goods, but that does not make it so. They either fit the definition or they don't. Also, infrastructure and transportation are separate, which is why I did not list infrastructure among the items quoted by Steinglass. There is good reason to think that only government can provide the road in front of my house, but there is little reason to think it has to provide the bus -- i.e. actual transportation -- that travels on that road.