Government: a public good and a problem

Are there goods that only government can produce? The belief that there are is what distinguishes the classical liberal from the market anarchist.

The textbook definition of a public good is one that is “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous”. Non-excludable means that the good cannot be provided for some without being provided for all. Non-rivalrous means that additional users do not reduce the amount available for current users. Examples of public goods include roads, ‘national defense’ and firework displays.

The “public goods problem” is twofold. From the ‘for-profit’ or entrepreneur’s point of view, producing a good that you cannot prevent people from using regardless of whether they pay you for it, is suicidal. From the community (or ‘not-for-profit’) point of view, though it is good if all of us, as a group, contribute to the production of a public good, it is best for each of us, as individuals, to free ride on the contributions of others (opening the door to the dreaded “prisoner’s dilemma”). In each case, conventional theory tells us that the public good will not be produced voluntarily. Hence the need for government.

Should this give us pause? Maybe. After all, acording to the standard definition, government must be classified as a public good. Government is non-excludable: if you and I live in the same geographical area, you cannot have a government without my having that government, too; I cannot be excluded from whatever benefits the government brings to those who live alongside me, and neither can you. Government is likewise non-rivalrous: your being governed does not mean I am governed any less, there is always enough government to go around; there is no danger of running out of government if, say, a few more children are born. Which is to say that, if governments are necessary if we are to have public goods at all, then we are in the unenviable position of having to posit a series of government-creating governments stretching back throughout all eternity.

But perhaps this is just playing with words. It isn’t “being a government” per se that enables the creation of public goods, rather it is the specific quality of “being able to coerce” that does. So we don’t require an infinite regress, merely that government be sui generis.

It seems unlikely that many, or indeed any, of those who think we need a government, think they themselves need to be governed. Other people, and other people alone, need to be kept on the straight and narrow. Importantly, this is perfectly rational.

Assume self-interested actors in the state of nature seeking to generate a public goods creating government. Further assume that each self-interested actor prefers having public goods to not having them. Each actor will best of all prefer having a government without having contributed to its creation; next, having a government while having contributed to its creation; then, not having a government without having contributed to its creation; finally, the worst outcome, not having a government whilst having contributed to its creation.

If we wanted to use the language of game theory, we would say that the preference ordering of rational self-interested players is: defect when opponent cooperates; cooperate when opponent cooperates; defect when opponent defects; cooperate when opponent defects.


In other words, we are faced in our government creating game, with a “prisoner’s dilemma” – as might be expected since government is a public good. Although the “cooperate, cooperate” solution is an equilibrium, it is not a stable one, as either player can unilaterally assign to the other the role of “sucker” (i.e., move the game from the North West corner to either the South West or North East corner). The stable equilibrium solution to a prisoner’s dilemma is for each player to play “defect”. That is, the public good ‘government’ will not be created unless coercion is employed.

And yet governments do exist.

Here, then, is the real dilemma for the classical liberal. Either governments are inevitably involuntary institutions, resting on nothing other than coercion; or they, and other public goods such as roads, ‘national defense’ and firework displays, can, somehow, and in defiance of conventional political theory, be produced voluntarily. But then, clearly it must be possible to produce public goods in an anarchy. And if an anarchy can bring forth public goods, there is no need for government.

Abolish hospitals

I like nothing more than watching my fellow man suffer needlessly. In this I am, of course, no different from anyone else in the Liberty Movement; the biggest – possibly sole – attraction of which being its cruelty. Cruelty to ethnic minorities, cruelty to women, cruelty to homosexuals, and, above all, cruelty to the poor. These are the watchwords of the Libertarian, these are his goals.

But there is one group that I fear we are not treating harshly enough, brothers. The sick – and especially sick children. That is why I put forward this little proposal of mine. Abolish hospitals! Just imagine the bounty of suffering such a policy would yield! What a sight that would be! And, oh!, the money that could be made! Coffins don’t build themselves…

What a mountain there is to climb, friends. What an impossible task we have set ourselves.

Earlier this week, Libertarian Home founder, Simon Gibbs, wrote a piece wherein he made the very reasonable point, that an employer is not responsible (except in rare, and peculiar, circumstances) for his employee’s having a child. This was in response to an article by Adam Bienkov praising Labour’s plans to double the amount of time employers are forced to pay employees for not working after their child is born.

Now, as well as being a new father Simon is an Objectivist (the good kind, though: he is happy to believe things that Ayn Rand didn’t), so he is more concerned with responsibility for responsibility’s sake than I am. As such the interesting thing here, for me, was the dispute between Simon and Adam on Twitter and what it might tell us about the future of libertarianism.

While Simon would like to make the issue ‘responsibility vs irresponsibility’, Adam knows better. It’s about “democracy”: “[paid] maternity/paternity [leave] has widespread public support”. This is perfectly true. We live in a democracy; the government is offering something; enough people are happy enough with the offer that public disturbances don’t occur; enough people would kick up enough of a fuss if it were withdrawn to make withdrawing it inadvisable. In a word, it is democratic – there is nothing more to be said.

While Simon would like to make the issue the ethics of collective choice (“society has cared for newborns for millennia. What is new is that the elite want to decide how it is done on behalf of everyone”), for Adam it is, somehow, about life and death: “yes and for millennia around one-in-three newborns died.” As far as I’m aware, in the bad old days “around one-in-three” newborns didn’t die simply because their dads didn’t get two weeks paid leave, and hardly any do nowadays. But be that as it may, for practical purposes – are there any others? – Adam’s point stands. Most people value comfort higher than liberty, and unless there are TV cameras present they don’t value other people’s liberty at all. If an argument placing comfort over liberty makes sense, that’s just a bonus.

Adam hammers the point home by bringing up the heartlessness of liberals: “forgive me if I’m not similarly terrified by the idea of a society which cares for newborn babies”, and, following up his infant mortality bit, “I’m happier with the current arrangements”. How can you argue with that? If you are against interventionism, you are for babies dying in pain. What other option is there?

None. Because as Adam knows – and he is far from being alone in knowing this – liberals are in favour of “scrapping the NHS/maternity pay etc” and “like the vast majority of people” he thinks these ideas are “nonsense and no party could possibly win by supporting them”. Tempting as it is to ask what the NHS has to do with maternity/paternity pay, doing so would be a mistake. (Worse, it would be naïve. Everything is about the NHS.) The thought process is as follows: babies, hospitals; hospitals, NHS; NHS, privatization; privatization, dead babies. (That the NHS is more than capable of producing an abundance of dead babies, is not a problem, it is a reason for higher taxes.) And as we all know, libertarians want to “privatize” the health service. QED.

But Adam is completely right, of course. No political party could possibly win an election taking the liberal line. Regardless of whether the man in the street has a grasp of liberal policy – or even if political journalists do – his mind is made up. The many and varied activities of the state are faits accompli; liberals have only theory.

A bowdlerised version of this post appears at Libertarian Home under the title “Bringing knives to a gun fight”.

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Why not go to the pub tonight?

And hear free market anarchist, “celebritarian” and tireless promoter of Libertarian Home,  Brian Micklethwait speak about what libertarian activism can achieve.

(Usually I don’t mention these Libertarian Home meetups because I assume that if you read Strict Liberalism you read Libertarian Home, too, but I suppose I should start. So I’ve started. There.)

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The price we pay

There was a turnout of 64% in the Greek general election, with 36% of those casting a winning vote, meaning only 23% of eligible voters actually voted for Syriza. Officially, less than three quarters of the population wanted to be ruled by Syriza and now will be.

In other words, the Greek election was a thoroughly unexceptional one. A ruling party being determined by the opinion of roughly a third of roughly two thirds of voters is par for the course.

In days of yore – when men used thee and thou, that is – upon encountering a primitive people for the first time a civilized man would demand “Take me to your leader!” Met with blank faces all round he would repeat his demand in a louder voice, and clarify: “Your leader! The one who speaks for you!” The one who speaks for you. Believe it or not, there was a time when this sounded strange.

But it doesn’t sound strange anymore. (It is barely even perceptible to democratic ears.) And today a man cannot help but agree to his being governed. Whether he votes this way or that he signals his willingness to obey; the foolish non-voter (thinking himself principled) merely gives his tacit approval to the eventual victor. That three quarters of the population would rather you did not speak for them is no obstacle to your actually doing so. In any case, “there is always next time”.

This is all well and good, of course, as we know from a cursory glance at Hobbes. Just as man is distinguished from the animals by the ability to speak, civilized men are distinguished from their primitive counterparts by others speaking for them. “State of nature” is synonymous with “leaderless” – and who would want to live in the state of nature? Leaders, naturally, require payment in return for their valuable services, and so the old saying of the old Judge that “Taxes are the price we pay for having a civilized society” is a perfectly true one. While it might not have quite the same ring, could it not also be said that a civilized society is the price we pay for having taxes?

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Are you ready for some equality?

This post appears at Libertarian Home with an incredibly misleading picture.

The Superbowl is a noisy, bewildering event where, over the course of what feels like an eternity, teams of men dressed like medieval knights on a ‘dress down Friday’ from the waist up and Freddy Mercury on any given Friday night from the waist down, gather in a field to kick a ball/throw a ball/catch a ball/drop a ball/run a couple of meters with a ball and then stop doing anything for about five minutes, until, at long last, one side loses as much interest as the rest of us and gives up, leaving the winners standing about in their great big T-shirts and skintight sparkly trousers while roughly €8bn worth of fireworks go off, and fans of both teams go down the pub to drink to forget that they paid all that money for a ticket and had to use up a holiday day to boot. Football! Catch the fever!

But things just got interesting. The New England Patriots – who will play against another team this Sunday – have been up to no good. It seems they were secretly deflating the balls used in their previous matches. As a result, games were played where all the balls involved were not equal.

The outing of the Patriots for letting the air out of footballs has led to an outpouring of outrage from media outlets. And with good reason: games were played where the balls were not equal. Some balls were more inflated than others which is unfair, especially to the fans expecting to see a game where all the balls were inflated an equal amount.

Hard questions need to be asked and much-needed lessons need to be learned before we can draw a line under this. Are the Patriots just the tip of the iceberg? Just how many games are taking place where balls are unequally pumped up? What does this psi inequality say about football, the men who play it, and the men who watch it?

The bottom line is that games being played with balls of an unequal level of inflation is wrong. This is the twenty-first century. All balls must be inflated an equal amount. No excuses. Let’s be perfectly clear: unequal ball pressure is a cancer in our society and it must be stopped.

[A correspondent complains that this is a “silly” piece as “no one is saying what matters is the differences in air pressure between the balls”. Also the piece is “superficial,” “lacking even the hint of a subtext”. The criticisms are printed here with approval. R.]

Twitter @StrictlyLiberal

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