Monday, July 28, 2008

Does Might Make Right?

Quite often when discussing voluntaryism with people, I get this question: “So, are you saying that might makes right?” I get this question because these conversations typically boil down to conflict resolution. When two parties are in conflict over something, such as property rights, which cannot be resolved through any amount of arbitration (neither side needs to recognise an arbitrator’s decision, after all) the “winner” will be the one which can garner the most outside support. One party may have an insurance or security company who will drop them because they refuse to follow the arbitrator. Or one party’s security company may be so much larger than the other as to make enforcement against it too risky.

In essence, when an intractable conflict occurs, might will always be the final arbiter.

This frightens people, and understandably so. Most people have been taught that might doesn’t make right, that the little guy can still win against great odds, that society protects the interests of the weak. Unfortunately, none of this is actually true. In reality we’ve been indoctrinated with blinders to not see that the above scenario is exactly how it works today. Might is still the final arbiter. What makes it hard to see is that the “might” is all held by one company, the government.

There’s no more reason for a person to accept the ruling of a government court than there is for the person to accept the ruling of a private arbitrator. That is, except for the might wielded by the court’s enforcement arm, the police. In a voluntary society, just like in a government one, I protect my property exactly the same way: with the might of those who agree that my property should be protected. The market will do an excellent job of finding the balance between these conflicting centres of “might” because people will be able to move freely between them as their needs or circumstances change. Unlike the single centre of might we have today, which is controlled by a small group of people.

So, when asked this question I usually respond, “Not any more than you do.” As a further illustration I ask them to consider why it is that the current government is in charge. In the US, for example, why is it that the United States government runs the country and not the British? Or a Mexican or Spanish or Japanese or German, or especially Native American government? What allowed it to rise to dominance? The answer is simple, the United States government used its might to defeat all existing and potential competition for governing the country. Might has made right, for all intents and purposes.

Let me also add, that I don’t like the phrase “might makes right.” I prefer the phrase “might makes moot.” Not only is it a nice alliteration, but it also is more accurate. Might in no way makes someone right, but it does make it irrelevant who is. You may be right in crossing at a marked crosswalk, but the 10-tonne truck bearing down on you makes your “rightness” completely moot. The loser of a government court case may still be right, but it doesn’t much matter when the police come to take their property.

For better or worse, might will always be the final decision maker in conflicts. Acknowledging that fact is one of the first steps to accepting a voluntary mindset. Being afraid of it doesn’t make much sense when we live with the fact every day, no matter how well hidden by our training.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Myth of the Common Good

I keep hearing about the Common Good™ as though it is an obvious and useful way to measure public policy. It’s found neatly in the middle of the utilitarian creed: “The most good for the most people.” I have a problem with this idea of the common good. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with the utilitarian ideal as a personal goal; I think anyone who lives their lives that way has their heart in the right place. I have a problem with the idea as a method of driving policy. My main problem with the Common Good is that it cannot be measured.

Of course it can be measured, you may say to yourself, it’s possible to measure whether something is good or not. Of course good can be measured in isolation. A policy to feed homeless people can be measured to determine if any homeless people are dying of starvation. What can’t be measured, however, is the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is essentially what is lost when resources are allocated. Since money, time, and effort don’t spring forth from nowhere, they must all be taken from another use. Using money to feed homeless people means that the money isn’t doing something else.

Consider a drug trial. Testing drugs is not simply about how well a drug does in curing a patient, but also how little harm a drug causes. A drug that cures headaches 90% of the time isn’t a success if it causes heart attacks 95% of the time. If a trial for a drug didn’t take into consideration the negative side effects of the drug then it’s not possible to determine if the drug actually worked. The same is true with policy intended to help the common good. If you can’t measure the opportunity costs then you can’t be sure if the policy is working. You’d have to take it on faith.

This isn’t to say that all opportunity costs can’t be measured. Of course some of them can. The opportunity costs you can measure are those which you take yourself. When you decide to use some of your own resources, you are the only one who can decide if the opportunity costs are worth it. Only you can decide if it’s worth the time to watch a movie, eat dinner, volunteer at a homeless shelter, etc. When you decide to take those resources from someone else, though, you can’t possibly know what they would have done with them.

The socialist minded person would probably think that taking money from rich people is okay because they weren’t going to use it to help the common good, but that betrays a naiveté about both human nature and economics. Perhaps the rich person would have left the money in the bank and done nothing with it. But money in the bank isn’t static, that’s the money which is used to finance home loans and business expansion. Perhaps the money would have been used to support some charity had it not been taken. Or it may have been used to buy gold faucets and larger stereos. But someone had to make those faucets and stereos. Those businesses employ people and there are more businesses which support those. About the only truly worthless use of money is to put it in a mattress and sleep on it, and I’m betting that’s a pretty rare occurrence.

It seem easy for some people to convince themselves that they know better how to use other people’s money; that *their* particular use of the money alone serves the common good. They may be right, perhaps their plan does increase the common good. But there is no way to prove it. They are, in essence, asking the rest of us to take it on faith that their plan is better because the are unable to show that the alternate use of the money is worse. There are some things that I’m not willing to take on faith, and this is one of them. I’m not willing to cross the line of taking money by force because one group of people “believes” (not knows) that by so doing the common good is served. The common good is best served by letting us each find our own way to serve it.