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The Homage Statism Pays to Liberty
Library of Economics and Liberty ^ | Bryan Caplan

Posted on 09/25/2013 10:41:06 AM PDT by 1rudeboy

Here's an odd thought for a libertarian: The government very rarely tells me to do anything.  Once per year, the IRS orders me to pay federal income taxes.  Once per year, the state of Virginia forces me to pay state income taxes and get my car inspected.  Once per year, Fairfax County makes me pay property taxes.  Traffic laws aside, the government leaves me alone more than 350 days per year.

How is this possible when the government regulates almost every aspect of American life, and takes 40% of GDP?  The government controls the labor market (especially for foreign workers).  The government decides what products I can and can't buy.  The government runs a massive retirement system that I can't escape without leaving the country.  How can the government control me so thoroughly yet so rarely boss me around?

The answer is simple yet shocking: Government controls me by controlling my trading partners.  Government doesn't tell me to pay sales taxes; it just forces every business in Virginia to collect sales taxes as a condition of sale.  Government doesn't tell me who I can and can't hire; it just tells every business I deal with who they can and can't hire.  Government doesn't even tell me I have to contribute to Social Security; it just requires my employer to make contributions on my behalf as a condition of employing me.

Why is government coercion so predominantly indirect?  Most economists would cite transactions costs.  Bossing CostCo around is far easier than bossing all of CostCo's customers around.  But this explanation is unsatisfying.  Government eschews many cheap ways to directly bully private individuals into submission.  For example, if government really wanted to crack down on scofflaws, it could pay cash bounties to whistleblowers of every description.  Anyone who hired an illegal nanny or failed to pay use tax on out-of-state Internet purchases would have to look over their shoulders day and night.  (Think about how many bounties a garbageman could collect!)  As long as the scofflaws were liable for the fines, an army of whistleblowers wouldn't cost the government a dime.

If this sounds draconian to you, you're in sight of my preferred story.  Governments rely on indirect coercion because direct coercion seems brutal, unfair, and wrong.  If the typical American saw the police bust down a stranger's door to arrest an undocumented nanny and the parents who hired her, the typical American would morally side with the strangers.  If the typical American saw regulators confiscate a stranger's expired milk, he'd side with the strangers.  If the typical American found out his neighbor narced on a stranger for failing to pay use tax on an out-of-state Internet purchase, he'd damn his neighbor, not the stranger.  Why?  Because each of these cases activates the common-sense moral intuition that people have a duty to leave nonviolent people alone.

Switching to indirect coercion is a shrewd way for government to sedate our moral intuition.  When government forces CostCo to collect Social Security taxes, the typical American doesn't see some people violating their duty to leave other people alone.  Why?  Because they picture CostCo as an inhuman "organization," not a very human "bunch of people working together."  Government's trick, in short, is to redirect its coercion toward crucial dehumanized actors like business (and foreigners, but don't get me started).  Then government can coerce business into denying individuals a vast array of peaceful options, without looking like a bully or a busy-body.

Of course, if the public fully absorbed the implications of common-sense morality, the government's ruse would fall flat.  The public would look at the vast majority of business regulation and say, "So a bunch of people are using their own skills and their own resources to make money.  How on earth does that vitiate your duty to leave nonviolent people alone?"

Yes, governments have been known to boldly contradict common-sense morality.  Conscription is an obvious example.  Common-sense morality says "Your body, your choice."  Conscription says, "'Your body?'  Where do you get these treasonous notions, private?"  For the most part, though, governments prefer to take the path of least resistance.  Instead of denying the duty to leave nonviolent people alone, government exploits a massive loophole:  We're perfectly free to make any deal that government allows businesses to make with us.  

Many libertarians will find this depressing, but they shouldn't.  Hypocrisy is famously the homage that vice pays to virtue.  Government's preference for indirect coercion is the homage that statism pays to liberty.  Libertarians don't need to convince people that coercion is wrong.  We just need to convince people that indirect coercion of business is coercion of people.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Constitution/Conservatism; Government; Philosophy
Apart from the illegal immigrant claptrap, food for thought.
1 posted on 09/25/2013 10:41:06 AM PDT by 1rudeboy
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To: 1rudeboy

Actually, the government tells us what to do for all those days we work to pay taxes. It’s work, work, work - we want your dough!

2 posted on 09/25/2013 10:47:08 AM PDT by trubolotta
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To: 1rudeboy

This is one of the most unclearly thought through articles I have ever read.

3 posted on 09/25/2013 10:52:00 AM PDT by MestaMachine (My caps work, You gotta earn them.)
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To: MestaMachine

I’m sure that Prof. Caplan would be interested in hearing from you.

4 posted on 09/25/2013 10:57:57 AM PDT by 1rudeboy
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To: 1rudeboy

I don’t find the government nearly so benign. You are told by governemnt what to do each time you confront it. Try building on your property without a permit or try draining a lake.

Government is always shaping your decisions and conforming your behavior.

5 posted on 09/25/2013 11:41:17 AM PDT by Adder (No, Mr. Franklin, we could NOT keep it.)
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To: 1rudeboy

Let me start with one itsy bitsy teeny weenie example. What is the one thing the government forces you to have almost from the moment you are born until long after you die? The thing that was NEVER supposed to be used for identification, but you can’t have a job, a bank account, a drivers license, a passport, or anything else without it. The one thing that government uses to STEAL money out of your paycheck, hold it for a year or more with no paid interest? The thing that you MUST file for when you have a baby so they can follow your kid around for the rest of his/her life. The thing you can’t get utilities without.

Then try, just try to start a small business and watch the hoops magically appear for you to jump through.
And that’s just for starters.

6 posted on 09/25/2013 12:14:20 PM PDT by MestaMachine (My caps work, You gotta earn them.)
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