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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Moin Yahya: Why Conservatives and Liberals are both wrong

Sometimes, I make a slippery slope argument for libertarianism.

It goes like this: Suppose you really want policy x. Policy x can be anything at all--it can be provision of welfare, or warfare against some country. But suppose you really don't want some policy, policy y. Policy y can be anything at all--it can be warfare or welfare or whatever or fish sticks or a mission to Mars.

In order to get x through the government, you need to empower it. You need to give it the authority to collect the revenue for x, and you need to give it the authority to make x a success.

Now couple this point about authority with a few reasonable assumptions about the sorts of incentives that government actors are faced with--a) seek more power, b) get more money, c) get more authority over more stuff.

And you get something like this: To empower the government to act on x, you will increase the probability of the government also doing y. The more willing you are to empower the government to get x, the more likely it will be to also do y.

Given the spillover effects, is it worth it? Or are we better off trying our level best to do x privately, even if it won't have the kind of resources the government could muster, in order to avoid y?

It's at least suggestive. And it's the point of Moin Yahya's guest column entitled, aptly enough, "Why Conservatives and Liberals are both wrong." A juicy excerpt:

"...once Leviathan is created for one end, it is very easy for the beast to continue its quest to dominate all ends of our lives. The mistake both sides of the political spectrum make is assuming that somehow the machinery of oppression will only control those aspects of our lives they they expressly voted for it to interfere in." (Ed's note: Yup.)

Moin Yahya will be speaking on just this topic at this year's Liberty Summer Seminar, by the way. If you want to chat with him about this, or anything else, for that matter, you can register for the Seminar here. It's in Orono, Ontario, and will take place over the July 26, 27 weekend.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on July 16, 2008 in Western Standard | Permalink


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He makes a valid point but I think it goes deeper. First of all the Left has succeeded in establishing the structure throughout government for this to happen, so even when a non leftist government comes to power the structure remains. This means that the non leftist government may reduce welfare for example or even seek to get out of the welfare business. This is an impossible task unless the structure (all the bureaucracy, etc.) itself is eliminated. Furthermore what I call real conservatives are few and far between.

One more thing on the policy issue that we too often fail to grasp is that once government starts to interfere, intervene, regulate business, business will invest a lot of time and money to lobby government. The left loves to scream about government being in bed with big business, but the reason it happens at all is due to the left wanting government intervention. We cannot have it both ways folks.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-07-16 5:02:58 PM

As Jan Narveson has pointed out, when you create a bureaucracy to advance one objective, they inevitably come to think of government bureaucracy as good, and seek to expand it.

Today, with nearly 40% of the voting population making their living either directly or indirectly from the State, we have a huge voting block that reflexively regards government as the source of everything good.

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2008-07-16 10:57:12 PM

How do you plan to enforce these "private laws" of yours, P.M.? With a vigilante committee? Come to think of it, aren't "private laws" exactly what criminal syndicates operate under?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-07-16 11:29:48 PM

The slippery slope argument is interesting, but I wonder if too much weight is being placed on it.

Suppose that I'm a liberal consequentialist, with a certain idea about how consequences should be evaluated (perhaps one based on the promotion of individual autonomy.)

Here is a proposed policy, Q, that I have good reason to think will bring about a vastly improved state of affairs, relative to the status quo (Hayekians, of course, will question whether I can have good reason to think this -- but that's a separate argument.)

I also have reason to believe that there is a non-zero probability that the imposition of Q will, eventually, lead to a state of affairs akin to Nazi Germany, call it R. There's definitely the danger of a slippery slope here. But no good consequentialist is going to refrain from imposing Q just because there is a non-zero chance the effect of Q will be R. Clearly, the magnitude of the probability of bring about R through Q is relevant.

The slippery slope idea could easily be turned around on libertarians. Let Q be the state of affairs in which we abolish all objectionable laws (from the utilitarian perspective.) Now there is SOME chance that bringing about Q will eventually lead to R, fascism.

If you doubt this, imagine groups of people who don't do so well, at least initially, when the laws are abolished, and who demand not only the return of the laws, but an even more extensive, controlling legal regime.

In cynical moments, I don't find this scenario that far fetched. If Day 1 is the beginning of libertarian land, and Day 2 is the death of a child by starvation, then by Day 3 (or 300), we may very well be back to the status quo, or worse.

You might say: that is why we have to be cautious in the transition to Q, to avoid this problem. But clearly, the liberal or the conservative can say something similar. If Q is their ultimately favored policy, they might start by proposing Q1, a less extreme policy that will pave the way for Q, while managing some of the risks.

We don't completely avoid the possibility that our bureaucracy will turn on us and impose R, but we can reduce it to a level at which the probability of traveling down the slope is so low that the cost of arriving at the bottom is easily swamped by the benefits of imposing Q. Etc. And, as rational agents, isn't that all we need to do when faced with a slippery slope?


Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-07-16 11:46:39 PM

Shane, the way I've figured it, "private laws" might not be the best description, but rather "voluntary laws."

You could choose to live in a community which had, much like a homeowners' association, or any privately held property, can set its own rules. You voluntarily enter the space in which these rules take effect, you are subject to the laws, in much the same way that you would not be welcome to smoke in my home.

If you had really ridiculous laws, such as a legal system in which theft or murder is legal and there is no recourse for the non-victim of the non-crime, the odds of anyone living or staying there are probably not very good - criminal organizations DO have wacky laws like this, which is why a very small portion of the population is all they can attract to live within their system, and why the profits have to be so ludicrously high to attract people.

It's not really that strange a concept - the founders based the federalist system on such an idea. The odds of it happening are highly unlikely, but it doesn't mean the result would be as ridiculous as you seem to imply.

Posted by: Janet | 2008-07-17 3:18:25 PM

Left or right, doesn't matter at all anymore...
You're rights are nonexistent, you're privacy is non existent. Maybe we should have an election and not invite anyone from the left or right at all.

Posted by: JC | 2008-07-19 5:46:30 PM

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