Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why I don't hate "government"

Government: Restricter or Promoter of Liberty?

Most often I hear arguments against government focusing on how government hobbles individual choices, like choices about how to do business or what to do with one's justly earned property. This is a focus on negative liberties--things we are forbidden to do by laws and institutions. Too seldom do I hear about the positive liberties enabled by good government. I invite you to consider this, with me. Should our ideal goal be less government, or should it be better government? Should we be fighting hardest to prevent the taking of liberty, or should we be fighting to lift as many people up as we can? Which focus will do the most to make a better world, to build Zion?

Here are a couple of links explaining what negative and positive liberty are:
This first one is the easier read, and shorter, even if I don't agree with it all that much.
This second one is much harder, and possibly confusing. What it refers to as "political liberalism" includes many beliefs held both on the right and the left in American politics, and particularly held by Right-Libertarians. It is a focus on individual freedom and individual rights. Now on to some of my thoughts on the value of negative and positive liberties.


I agree that property is real. People really do have and use things according to their desires. Ownership, however, is a social construct sustained by law and only maintained by force, trust, or isolation. Without government, ownership beyond family or tribal bonds of trust is impossible, unless you use force to prevent theft by other groups, or you live where no one can take it because you never come in contact with strangers. It is our social constructs embodied in government that set and enforce the rules of ownership, giving individuals the power to manage their property according to their own wills. Government enables any right to property in a large society of interconnected strangers. Before the democratic rule of law, most people did not have rights to property, and often didn't even have rights to their own lives. In fact, this state continued for many even after our constitution was accepted. If force is not to determine property rights, just law must be the judge. The goal should be good and just regulation and enforcement of property rights, not the absence of government and its accompanying laws. No one should be a slave, and history shows us that government is needed to ensure rights of owning even ourselves against the greed of powerful men.

Free Markets Are Innovative? Not even close without government.

I read a very enjoyable book called The Rational Optimist. It is an engaging exploration of data supported reasons to be optimistic about the future of humanity. The author is a great proponent of free markets, entrepreneurs, and inventors, and not a big fan of government mandates. But the author seemed to have a disconnect. He frequently pointed out how government benefits us, allowing for trust beyond the family or tribe, for example, then downplayed the role of government in favor of his narrative of the value of entrepreneurs, private enterprise, and free markets. A striking example of his bias was claiming that most important scientific and technological advances came from private individuals and companies, not government supported endeavors or research.

One of the examples he gave of an independent, plucky entrepreneur who made a great advance was the man who made the sea clock. The author didn't do his research very well. Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude is a history of the making of the sea clock. It turns out the plucky entrepreneur who made the sea clock spent most of the time developing his clock while supported almost exclusively by government grants.

The rational optimist must have also ignored that Louis Pasteur did most of his important work establishing the germ theory of disease, developing methods for creating vaccines, figuring out how to pasteurize drinks so they could be produced en masse without making people sick, and saving the French silk industry, while employed by universities and on government funded projects.

He also overlooked that most of the background research behind essentially all economically important technological advances in the US (and I would guess the world) since World War II (and arguably back farther) was and is publicly funded--and that doesn't count all the inventors and entrepreneurs who have benefited from publicly funded education.

He overlooked that the CDC has done much more for the health of humanity and its work force per dollar spent than the private healthcare industry in the US.

This focus on entrepreneurs as representative of the success of free markets (downplaying the role of business in creating government regulations that interfere with free markets) and privately funded inventors as the backbone of technological advance (downplaying all of the publicly funded and enabled work that supported the advances) is a shortcoming of most Libertarian thought I have read.

I've heard responses like, "But private enterprise could do it better." The problem is, private enterprise didn't do these things. Government funded research has provided the majority of new drugs in recent years. Pharmaceutical companies have done important work with clinical trials and development for widespread use, but they identified only a minority of the molecules. We don't get to rewrite history simply to support our ideological positions. Basic scientific research, most of which is and has been government funded, makes the world a better place to live.

Global Interdependence

Moving from science and technology back to ownership. What inherent right does anyone have to own anything? The typical argument is that we deserve what we work for and earn, and have a right to that. But how does anyone earn anything? Most fundamentally aren't our very lives gifts from parents, the earth, or God? And if you worked hard for what you have, how did you first acquire the skills and materials used to do your work? Were you given no help from family? From publicly funded teachers? From public infrastructure? From employers that paid you a fair, or even generous, wage? Do you not benefit from all of the government funded research alluded to before? And the list of interconnections can go on and on. What is your just responsibility to these people?

If you are willing to look into yet one more book, I would point you to Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. This is a short, approachable introduction to the philosophy of justice and how it has evolved in U.S. history. When it reaches the 20th century, it works its way through Libertarian thought, and one can see how Libertarian ethics have entered into both left-leaning arguments about individual rights to our bodies and personal identity and into right-leaning arguments about individual economic rights. Libertarian ethics are, frankly, very appealing and come to many powerful conclusions. Then he continues on to a picture that incorporates respect for individuals with a broader, moral respect for community and the individual duty to be engaged in creating just communities, not just seeking personal justice. His conclusions are logical, but they also feel true to my internal moral code. But I didn't know where he was headed until the end. I thought he made Libertarian ethics sound quite good, yet feared he would stop there, because something didn't quite feel settled.

Better, Adaptive Government

I would love to see bureaucratic waste and bad regulations go the way of the dodo. I would hate to lose the rights enabled by government--the ability to trust strangers, the right to justice for all, the protection of our shared air and water, and many other things that keep us healthy and happy, however imperfectly--simply to be freed from government rules. I want more just government. That may mean less government--it would take a lot less government to run a universal basic income program than to run our array of current social services--or it may mean more--we will need new agreements and agencies to work out how humans will manage things as we colonize Mars, or the oceans. So no, I don't want less government interference in my life. I want better government interference in my life. 

I want government that adapts to a changing world rather than propping up failing ways of doing things. I want government that will stop supporting destructive ways of doing things and start supporting sustainable ways of doing things so that my great-great grandchildren can live free of the fear that there will be an energy collapse. I would love more distributed governmental power. Just as moving from kings to legislatures increased justice, I expect further dispersal of power would promote even greater justice, but only if there are laws that assure we are lifting up the weak--not leaving them to fend for themselves in a negative liberty world that denies them no rights but provides them no resources with which to lift one another. I hope you will think about what you really want from government, what will truly lift people up, and not only what you fear will push you down. I hope you will get involved to make it better.