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Debate Debate

In comments to this post Will Wilkinson notes that by "winning the debate" I mean "winning elections while having a debate about this" rather than "winning the debate on the merits." I don't know that the debate on the merits really can be won. It seems to me, it has always seemed to me, and it will always seem to me that the strong claims of ideological libertarianism (as opposed to the empirical observation that this or that government program might not be a good idea) are just patently and obviously absurd, though I know perfectly well that this view is held by many intelligent, though grossly immoral individuals. It strikes me as a tautology to say that coercion in the pursuit of the common good is justified, and, indeed, necessary, though as I say people disagree and I don't know how one could possibly resolve such a disagreement. Hence we clash on the field of politics where the pro-coercion side deploys coercion (we're pro-coercion, after all) and the anti-coercion side deploys dishonesty (since most people want what's best for most people).

I recall a really good blank stare moments from back when I was in a seminar taught by Robert Nozick my junior year in college. Do you really believe that?

UPDATE II: Ah, I see Volokh has a reply on this point. I find it pretty unconvincing. Basically he says the outlandish hypothetical he outlines wouldn't fall under the conditions laid out by the suspension clause. It seems to me, though, that if we're going to bend the rules anywhere, it would be better to bend them here than to do the bending Volokh is contemplating. More broadly, absent "rebellion or invasion" or the threat of an imminent invasion it just doesn't seem that you have the sort of compelling threat to the country that would warrant a setting aside of the normal rules of procedural justice. The constitution is not a suicide pack, but losing operational control over Falluja for a limited period of time isn't suicide.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink


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George Lakoff, of the Rockridge Institute, argued in his book Moral Politics that conservative ideology -- including beliefs such as: the wealthy are grossly over-taxed; labor should only have a voice through the market, not from outside of it; and [Read More]

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A suicide pack is one of those things Suicide Bomber Barbie wears. They're so cute.

Posted by: Zizka | Jun 30, 2004 11:17:44 AM

What??? The second half of your update seems to vitiate the first half. On the one hand you think Congress does have the power to suspend habeas if something like Volockh's scenario comes up, despite the text of the constitution. On the other hand you think the same text constitutional text prevents suspending "procedural justice" because losing "operational control of Falluja isn't suicide."

Posted by: rd | Jun 30, 2004 11:24:48 AM

Even if one were to assume that coersion in pursuit of the common good was justifiable, a secondary problem occurs in that there does not exist any person or group of people, other than the whole of the governed themselves, who are morally qualified to decide exactly what _is_ in the common good with sufficient authority to back the moral rightness of said coersion.

So coersion is only going to be appliciable to pure consensus good; things for which there is no appreciable minority in opposition to having. We then arrive at the point where the very existence of the doctrinaire Libertarians appears to justify their position.

Posted by: Jeff R. | Jun 30, 2004 11:51:01 AM

Volokh was on "To the Point" on Monday (you can listen here http://www.moretothepoint.com/cgi-bin/db/kcrw.pl?show_code=tp&air_date=6/28/04&tmplt_type=Show Real Player required).

William Rogers, a notorious Kissinger toady, referred to Volokh's argument as "poppycock" which Volokh took umbrage at. Perhaps he thought it was a homoerotic opium reference . . .

Matt, you need to enable html in comments, that is, if you want to.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Jun 30, 2004 12:19:52 PM

As far as Volokh's hypothetical, consider the actual language of the SC decision:

Stevens declared that federal law governing habeas corpus applies ANYWHERE THE UNITED STATES EXERCISES PLENARY AND EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION such as at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Therefore Volokh's hypothetical is not applicable.

Posted by: abb1 | Jun 30, 2004 12:30:07 PM

"...grossly immoral individuals..."

Some of them are merely AMORAL.

Posted by: abb1 | Jun 30, 2004 12:33:47 PM

The court's language COULD be read to exclude bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the court didn't rule them out. Moreover, if that's what the Court did mean, then the lesson for the government is that to avoid US courts detainees should be kept in overseas bases, a la Bagram AFB and Abu Gharib, under even worse conditions and less outside oversight than in Gitmo. A triumph for civil liberties!

Posted by: rd | Jun 30, 2004 12:38:51 PM

It's a tough call to choose between maximizing liberty and maximizing the common good. Fortunately, for the upcoming Presidential elections, this dilemma doesn't come up---George Bush is both bad for personal liberty and bad for the common good.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough | Jun 30, 2004 1:20:34 PM


I don't mean to sound like a humorless prick, but I'm having trouble unraveling the layers of irony in your post. I assume you're joking when you say ideological libertarians are "grossly immoral." However, you seem serious when you say the statement "coercion in pursuit of the common good is justified" is a tautology. To me, that statement needs to be defended. My view is that taxation is a necessary evil; it's sometimes justified, but it damn well better be at the lowest level necessary, and it damn well better be for an actual public good. Hilary's statement implies that the government needs more money to provide the necessary public goods, and that strikes me as ridiculous.

But by all means, lets argue about this. My own views have softened somewhat, and I think taxation is a lot more excusable than I used to. I don't know if I'll get to Michael Moore's view that taxation is, in itself, a good thing (In "Stupid White Men" he critizes the U.S. government for spending less money than European governments. Seriously.), but maybe I'll accept a lower burden of proof for taxes.

I know you usually stay "above the fray" of your comments, but I would appreciate it if you could clarify where the joke is in this post.

A Humorless Libertarian Prick

Posted by: Steve | Jun 30, 2004 1:20:53 PM

The big problem is that anybody is even paying attention to a person who calls themselves a "Libertarian".

That people are SHOCKED, no SHOCKED said about what Volokh said is amazing to me. Libertarianism, at least in how it's most commonly advocated, just is not a serious ideology. It's petty and it's selfish. That proponents try to wrap it up in moral tones that just make it beyond hypocritical.

The moral argument is that taxes are immoral, and should be scrapped. The problem with this is..well..why are they immoral? It's stealing? Well..isn't property stealing then? (Meaning land), don't we all have the same non-governmental right to the same property? Why one and not the other?

That leaves us with the utility argument. Somethings are better done by private industry, for sure. But anything where because of the necessity of the good or service, would put the contracting parties at VERY unequal terms, should be done by society at large. Police, Courts, Public Safety, Defense, (I'd put Health Care into that as well, as we're currently seeing how one of these necesseties run amok can take down an entire economy)

The previous thread on this was talking about California. I can tell you, that even bigger of a problem in California than taxes is localized inflation. Things are insanely expensive in California, so people need more to live off of, local companies need to offer more to compete in the labour market. Localized inflation is something not often discussed, but it's an important economic factor.

Posted by: Karmakin | Jun 30, 2004 1:39:43 PM

Steve:If coercion for the private good is ethical, then so is coercion for the public good.

Posted by: Karmakin | Jun 30, 2004 1:41:15 PM

I don't see how this language excludes Iraq prior to the "sovereignty transfer" this week. Certainly the US did have PLENARY AND EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION in Iraq as an occupying power. Today, post-"sovereignty transfer", it's all in the hands of the Iraqi courts, as it should be.

As well in "overseas bases" the US government certainly DOES have PLENARY AND EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION, so, habeas corpus applies there.

It's the Volokh scenario - an allied country where the US forces assist in detaining POWS - this seems to be exactly the situation where habeas corpus law does NOT apply.

Posted by: abb1 | Jun 30, 2004 1:41:36 PM

What? Afghanistan, and Iraq now after the transfer, are *precisely* instances where we're detaining insurgents in allied countries. Anyway, if all bases count, then how is anything ruled out? If that's true, then we'll be getting pretty close to 10,000 habeas petitions, if not Voloch's 50,000.

Posted by: rd | Jun 30, 2004 1:53:15 PM

Steve:If coercion for the private good is ethical, then so is coercion for the public good.

It's all relative, folks.

I am sure even "professor" Leonard Peikoff would agree that coercion for the public good is quite acceptable in critical situations (like a defensive war or a terrible natural disaster), existential threat to the society.

OTOH, I am sure even Vladimir Lenin would agree that coercion for the public good would not be necessary in a communist paradise where miraculous machines create anything you wish out of the thin air.

So, it's a question of the degree, really: to what extent is the society willing to coerce the strong to protect the weak? As usual, there are some dogmatic fringes, but most people are in the middle, the usual bell curve situation.

Posted by: abb1 | Jun 30, 2004 2:04:04 PM

When did I say that coercion for the private good was ethical?

Posted by: Steve | Jun 30, 2004 2:47:53 PM

Ah, Matthew waxes poetic about sweet, sweet coercion again.

And that's why he's a "liberal", right? Yup, there's nuthin' more "liberal" than a belief in the beautiful creative power of coercion.

Posted by: Blixa | Jun 30, 2004 3:07:06 PM

Sorry, Steve, of course you didn't - Karmakin said it to you and I copied and pasted.

Posted by: abb1 | Jun 30, 2004 3:07:31 PM

By all means, let's do away with government and no one will ever be coerced into anything again.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov | Jun 30, 2004 3:51:19 PM

I don't see how this language excludes Iraq prior to the "sovereignty transfer" this week. Certainly the US did have PLENARY AND EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION in Iraq as an occupying power.

Certainly it did not as an (rather than the) Occupying Power. The US is not the collection of Occupying Powers. While the Coalition, as a whole, had plenary power, it was, under international law (i.e., a binding Security Council resolution), exercised by the Occupying Powers (plural), and therefore not exclusively by the US.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jun 30, 2004 4:02:12 PM

I always think of libertarians as people who are trying hard to be cool in a realm (public policy) where coolness is pretty much irrelevant.

Posted by: alex | Jun 30, 2004 4:39:14 PM

"Libertarianism, at least in how it's most commonly advocated, just is not a serious ideology"

Well. Leaving aside the usual conversations. My own belief is that the IP/Music/Internet problem(?) is a paradigm for the coming world. Soon the individual is going to become so empowered, and the world so dense and complex, that even if we wished for a huge, massively oppressive gov't to protect us, the resources won't be available. Much of the coming world will be beyond the reach of governments (think Fallujah), just as much of the internet is now.

So how to make a complex gov't-free society work is a fairly important question, and I hope libertarianism is a tool we can use.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 30, 2004 4:43:44 PM

"coercion in pursuit of the common good is justified" is a tautology. To me, that statement needs to be defended"

Did I kill this thread? I tooks the words literally, "common good" meaning not 60 or 70 percent but very close to 100 percent of the people net benefiting. In such a case it takes a very strict deontologist to say that 300 million people should die so that one man's rights and all persons' honor are protected.

Utterly absurd? Well, I think Stephen King's "Storm of the Century" one of his very best works. I hope everyone has seen it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 1, 2004 12:07:29 PM

"Certainly it did not as an (rather than the) Occupying Power. The US is not the collection of Occupying Powers. While the Coalition, as a whole, had plenary power, it was, under international law (i.e., a binding Security Council resolution), exercised by the Occupying Powers (plural), and therefore not exclusively by the US."

You may be right, but I think this is open for interpretation. Take Abu Gharib, for example: certainly the US government did exercise solo and unlimited authority in there. The whole point of this language seems to be that a person in question has to be able to challenge the legality of his/her detention, if not in the US court system then in some other manner.

Posted by: abb1 | Jul 1, 2004 12:59:32 PM

Excellent post - Bush really is a Nincompoop.

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