Democracy, Cognitive Dissonance, and Leviathan

Does Tim Worstall read Libertarian Home? The reason I ask is that, in the fortnight or so since I published Patricians, Paternalism, Free Riders, and The Guillotine Worstall keeps repeating this same “things that must be done and that only government can do” line. It’s doubtless only a coincidence – though I hope it isn’t because I really do like Tim Worstall – but let’s see what he’s been up to recently.

On the 10th of October Timmy contrasted the Guardianista view of what the government is for with:

our view of what said [government] is for, which is to do those few things which both must be done and can only be done by government.

(Patricians, Paternalism, Free Riders and The Guillotine, which examined the underpinnings and the implications of this view, was published on the 19th of October.)

On the 23rd of October, regarding Jamie Oliver’s sugar-fascism, Timmy said:

But over and above all of this is the entirely mistaken theoretical view he has of the place of government. They do not, and we do not want them to, run the country. […]What we do want government to do is those things which both must be done and which can only be done by government.

On the 2nd of November Timmy said:

There are undoubtedly things that both must be done and which only government can do. Thus the herding of us into the taxation net to pay for the national defense (of whatever size that may be, however organised), a criminal justice system (of whatever size and however organised) and so on through that list of things that must and can only be done by government is fair enough. We are, after all, around here minarchists, not anarcho-capitalists.

These seem like pretty much identical statements of the classical liberal creed. Perhaps Timmy himself thinks they are identical. Let’s look closer.

In the first he says government “is for” those things that must be done and that only government can do. In the second he says “we want” government to do those things that must be done and that can only be done by government. The first is presented as a statement of fact, the second a statement of desire. What changed in the time between the first and the second?

Tim remembered that we live in a democracy and that this is just wonderful.

On the 19th of October, writing about Grammar schools, Tim says

Which leads to a small musing on that democracy thing. Which is that government is supposed to provide what the people want to have provided by government. That’s rather the point of the whole exercise in fact. And thus if we have evidence that people desire grammar schools then government should be providing grammar schools. Because democracy.

So: government is supposed to provide what “we want” to have provided by government, and government is there to do those things, and only those things, which both must be done and which can only be done by government. How to square these? By making the “what we want” be the very thing that determines the “what must be done” – which is no problem for citizens of a democracy, of course. Now usually when liberals come across someone arguing for the government to do this or that because “we want” it, their very first reaction is to ask “Who is this ‘we’ you speak of?” But not Worstall. Democrat that he is, he simply takes it for granted that “we” want the right things from government. But there are plenty of people who don’t want the right things from the government, as, in other contexts, he well knows. “We have evidence” that Jamie Oliver and his legion of admirers want the government to tackle obesity by bringing in a sugar tax. Therefore that is something the government should do, surely? It’s no good to say “we’re all entirely capable of determining whether we’d like a nice glass of fizzy pop or not, this isn’t an area where we need the government’s help” because that’s not true. (It might be true to say “we should be allowed to determine whether we’d like a glass of fizzy pop or not”, but that is not the issue here). While it would be nice to believe fat people could choose whether or not to buy fizzy drinks etc, the level of obesity in our country shows this is not so. The fact that these people are fat proves that they cannot choose not to buy fizzy drinks etc. If fat people could make the right decisions about their calorie-intake, they would not be fat. Tackling obesity is one of those things that only government can do, and, because we live in a democracy and “we want” the government to do it, it is also something that must be done.

Now look again at Worstall’s third pro-government statement. Gone is any mention of “wanting” the government to do this or that, we are back in the realm of facts and facts alone. And notice the vehemence! It was all fun and games before. Not now. Worstall will have none of this anarcho-capitalism malarkey:  Undoubtedly there are things that must be done and that only government can do, and not just a few of them either. There is now a whole list of things that we must have no matter what and that’s that, each of which (alarmingly from the traditional liberal point of view) can be “of whatever size” government sees fit to make them. Top of the list: national defence.

So why so serious all of a sudden?

Cognitive dissonance.

On the 31st of October, writing on his own blog, Worstall had this to say

As regular readers will know I’ve long been of the opinion that conscription is slavery. And if a society can’t find enough volunteers to fight for it then that society doesn’t have much of a right to exist.

A “society” cannot force people to defend it unless it wants to practice slavery – and we are against slavery, aren’t we? A “society” that can’t get people to defend it voluntarily has no right to exist. Ah, but a “society” that has no right to exist might not have long to exist! A “society” that can’t get anyone to defend it, won’t have long to exist! And Worstall – the Worstall who believes in “things that must be done and that only government can do” and believes that “public goods” (such as national defence) cannot be provided on a voluntary basis – cannot have that. And so, less than two days after his noble anti-slavery piece, we have Worstall’s strongest statement on the absolute necessity of government; the absolute necessity of a government that can herd us into nets to produce the things “we want” in whatever sizes and quantities it likes. The mental turbulence that has been plaguing him subsides, and all is once again calm: Leviathan stands vindicated!

So too, however, does paternalism. But that… that is a small price to pay, is it not?

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