19 October 2007

Wake up and smell the jungle

From the comments.

Simon Clark ("The Cynical Libertarian"):

I like your post on bans and intervention, though I see them more as an arms race or a competition between two firms than an addiction.
On the one hand there are politicians who compete on quality, they say "I can do x better than the other guy". If we imagine a society that begins in a state of relative liberty with a very small government with limited responsibility, this would be the most obvious form of competition between politicians. If government is in charge of defence and nothing else, they will compete on who will run defence best.
Some politicians, however, may engage in expansionist competition whereby they increase the size of the battlefield. Perhaps they can't compete on an existing role of government, so they must create new roles with which to gain support. Even if they can win on an existing issue, it never hurts to put distance between yourself and your opponents.
It seems that expanding authoritarianism is an almost inevitable part of unlimited (and even weakly limited) government due to the incentives we have created for politicians to compete and the lack of incentives for voters to get it right.

Formerly Cynical Libertarian, there is something in the model you propose, but I fear you aren't being nearly cynical enough. Nor are many other sceptics of intervention.

Most people seem to think that greed is the only dangerous motive in human psychology. If that were true, we would have a lot less to worry about. There is desire for power over other people, which many appear to find gratifying in its own right. Worse, there is the desire to stop other people getting what they want, or simply a desire to harm them. It's all perfectly consistent with evolutionary biology, but perhaps a little too awkward and ideologically incorrect to discuss.

I would have thought that competition between parties provides one of the few restraints on authoritarianism, though not perhaps on the drive to provide free 'goodies' out of taxpayers' money.

On the other hand, and perhaps this fits with your model, I think it's true that once there is a certain level of intervention, it is easier for a party seeking office to propose additions than reductions. It's what Thatcher called the 'ratchet effect'.

Let me quote myself some more on this topic, as it is important.

One needs to think realistically about what the motivations of those ostensibly providing services to individuals — but employed by and answerable to the state — actually are. Intervention is often predicated on the unexamined assumption that the motivations are no different than if the providers were remunerated directly by the customers. ... Incentives are relevant because I don't think one should have to rely on the goodwill of teachers or doctors. One wouldn't want to have to rely on the goodwill of a solicitor or an accountant, and I don't really see why different principles should apply to education or medicine.

Of course interventionists try to legitimise their desire to interfere by reference to goals which sound unobjectionable (enhancing the welfare of the less fortunate; making our society 'fairer'; improving European cooperation, etc.). They are not going to say "I just enjoy having power over other people, and preventing them from getting what they want". It is the uncritical acceptance of their claimed motives which is, in my opinion, largely to blame for the huge strides in prohibition legislation which have been made in the last twenty years. Those who doubt the wisdom of increased intervention do not protest, or protest hard enough, because they feel the interventionists have morality on their side.

Until the majority of libertarians realise that interventionistas aren’t necessarily just well-meaning and misguided, they will likely continue to be the political losers they have always been, because their opponents will have the advantage. Even if they did so realise, they would probably continue to be a marginalised minority. But at least they would be living in a condition of realism, as Nietzsche and Celia Green have advocated. (Note that ‘realism’ in this context means ‘awareness that other people may be hostile and badly motivated’, not ‘belief that other people are hostile etc.’)

Simon responds:

I don't disagree that the motives of at least the vast majority of politicians are far from benevolent. Whilst I can see the logic and plausibility of your idea, I think past evidence suggests something a little different.

What you seem to suggest is that politicians are rather like the rapist who snatches some young girl and keeps her locked up in his basement and tortures her and makes her do his bidding. As attractive (unattractive?) as this is, I'm not sure how true it is.

I might submit, as evidence, various dictatorial regimes around the world: Nazi Germany, the USSR, Cuba, China, North Korea and so on. In these countries we have not seen the kind of sweeping nanny-statism that has taken place in Britain, Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. The only exception I can think of might be Nazi Germany where they encouraged people not to smoke and so on, but I don't think they ever banned anything like that. The regimes in these countries have secured (or did secure) their grip on power by prohibiting a few important things: guns, free speech, free democracy, free enterprise and so on.

If they had been addicted to banning things in and of itself, this would not have happened. Certainly they had the ability to ban whatever they liked. I would suggest that they were in fact addicted to power and status, rather than to prohibition per se.

Now, that's not to say that today in Britain we simply have a different sort of politicians with different motives, but it makes it at least a little less likely.
What I think has happened is that the 20th century has been so full of overt authoritarianism of the German and Russian style, that has been so universally branded has evil, that it is, at least in the west, no longer effective. Shutting down democracy is not an option because it has become valued above all else. In this way, politicians cannot guarantee themselves power they must actually get elected and, once elected, gain the maximum power to satisfy their wants, which are the same as previous dictators: power and status. To do this they must engage in expansionist politics and inexorably fatten government.

So what I am trying to say is simply that I think they are addicted more to power than to prohibition, which is really not much of a difference.

My response:

Thanks for your interesting comments. As I’m sure you realised, the post about intervention-addiction was a parody of an article in the Guardian. I didn’t intend the addiction idea to be a serious explanation of interventionism. On the other hand, there is probably something in it, in the sense that any pleasure (in this case, the pleasure of interfering in other people’s lives) is liable to be mildly addictive.

I’m not sure about your torture/rape analogy, although there may be some similarity in motivation, in the sense that both types of agent are deriving part of their gratification from being able to exercise power over others.

My suggestion is that there is a motive in human psychology to have power over other people (different from the motive to get ‘power’ in the usual sense, i.e. political or organisational power or status) and that this is what drives much interventionist policy. Because this motive is not considered admirable in itself, it attempts to legitimise itself by reference to whatever ideology is available at the time.

The excuse for intervention under both communism and Nazism was “good of the people”. (Communism perhaps had a little more emphasis on ‘equality’, and Nazism on ‘progress’.) Excuses in our society invoke concepts like ‘fairness’, ‘protection’ and people’s supposed ‘needs’. Perhaps this is, as you say, because more overt heavy-handed authoritarianism of the kind seen in the countries you mention is no longer considered ideologically acceptable in the West.

The point about those other regimes is that if you can get away with the more serious stuff (e.g. political prisoners, abolishing private property, etc) you don’t need to bother with the milder ‘nanny state’ stuff. It doesn’t mean the same motive isn’t at work, i.e. desire for power over other people.

The desire for political power (getting to the top of whatever the political structure happens to be) is commonly recognised, the desire for power over individuals less so.

“Politicians cannot guarantee themselves power, they must actually get elected.”
People in Parliament, yes, but the people implementing the detailed interventions are usually not elected at all: doctors deciding who shall be allowed to live, social workers deciding whether families should be broken up, educationalists deciding what shall be taught in schools, and so on.

With a sufficiently large state machinery, the part of the process that involves elections becomes increasingly irrelevant. I'm sure you can think of regimes where there have been notional elections, but where one has little confidence that they signify much.