My Thoughts on Marvin

Addendum: I’m sure Marvin is sick of Marvin the Martian references by this point in his life but I’m keeping the picture because Marvin the Martian my favorite WB character, and is apropos enough…

Other than that, please understand that this post is made with respect to Marvin, and made public in order to offer an organized presentation of some recent exchanges here on Notes on Liberty.

Man, things are really heating up on NoL!

The outsider…

It begins…

I suspect the totally free society is where all civilizations started. Then someone stole something from someone else, and the people got together to deal with the problem of theft. The consensus decided that there should be a right to property, and they reached an agreement with each other to respect that right for each other and to come to each other’s aid when necessary to defend that right.

… with Marvin contemplating Buchanan’s constitutional moment. He continues with an amusing story of a quasi-voluntary provision of police, and an ad hoc ideological opposition from the first hold-out. He continued with a near analogous argument by a would be thief.

But I’m not going to follow that argument. For me, the interesting thing here, the pivotal term that tells us something meaningful about Marvin is “totally free”.

For Marvin, freedom means a lack of punishment for a given action. Therefore total freedom means no socially sanctioned punishment for any action. That state of affairs is one lacking in governance. The only person who remotely approaches that is Kim Jong-Un, but even he is ultimately constrained by (the apparently unlikely) possibility of revolution, and his near-total freedom is only within his borders. This contrasts with Brandon’s idea of mutually consistent freedom which depends on individuals having the right to not be subject to coercion.

Following Marvin’s commentary has been confusion over the terms liberty, freedom, and rights. What we all think of when we hear the term “free society” would not have what Marvin calls total freedom. This in turn has lead to dispute over the term law. Let me offer my own clarifications, focusing on the issue of law and rules.

When Dr. Foldvary used the term “truly free” he had in mind a situation with governance, but without top-down intervention. Marvin, I suspect, has confused this for a situation entirely lacking governance, or at least effective governance. I think this has roots in his belief that competition for scarce resources, as directed through the profit and loss system, will lead to unchecked cheating (e.g. pollution) in the absence of some disinterested third-party to enforce rules that reasonable people, if they’re being honest, would agree to. There are two problems with this:

First, the unmentioned one, is that the government isn’t a disinterested third-party and rules aren’t set behind a veil of ignorance (ensuring honest agreement among reasonable people). Marvin starts with the Hobbesian Jungle and arrives at the position that there is something like a social contract whereby we all (implicitly) agree to rules (restrictions on our choice set) for our mutual betterment. I don’t disagree that rules restrict our choice set and can (can!) be for our mutual betterment. What’s missing is the appreciation for the distinction between constitutional and post-constitutional rules (but that a can of worms unto itself). Beyond issues of incompatible incentives, there are also significant information problems.

Second, the government isn’t the only source of governance. Brandon and Marvin both use the term “law” in an all-encompassing way. I prefer Hayek’s distinction between law and legislation. Law, is the set of informal institutions that underlie (we hope) formal legislation. Law is emergent, but legislation is static (although it does change, just in punctuated equilibria). When government is responsive legislation will simply codify law, but when the two diverge it sets the stage for upheaval.

With that in mind, let me briefly respond to Marvin’s question:

In response to the loss of lives in the mining and manufacturing industries, government regulation requires safety precautions and inspections, like under OSHA. Should this type of regulation be eliminated to make the market “truly free”?

First off, nobody here is advocating for an unbound choice set. “Truly free” should be understood to mean “free from external [i.e. government] coercion, rule-setting, and back-room politics that are enforced at gun point.” With that in mind, the basic regulatory framework will be based on property rights and voluntary choice. Mines that acquire a reputation for being unsafe will soon be unable to find workers, unless they increase their wages. If we see poor working conditions at low pay, it doesn’t mean an injustice is being done, it means that the people working there see it as their best available option.

Final thoughts:

I think Brandon and Marvin have been largely talking past each other, but despite that the conversation has been interesting. I would like to see them engage in a debate on some particular topic. I propose that we find a topic agreeable to both, they both respond to that topic, open comments ensue for a few days, then each writes their final thoughts in a second blog post. I will summarize their points here.

26 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Marvin”

  1. Thanks Rick.

    For what’s worth I made brief allusions to the law/legislation difference but for the most part I tried to keep it simple and argue on Martin’s terms. I did this so that I could show two things: 1) that Martin’s position is vulgarly authoritarian, and 2) that he has been strawmanning libertarianism from the get-go and has no interest in an honest debate.

    I think I did a pretty good job at this, all things considered.

  2. [This comment was redacted for personal, homophobic attacks on Rick. All are free to share their thoughts, but if you want to contribute to the discussions you have to refrain from insulting others. Thanks - bc]

    1. And you obviously have no sense of humor, either. If you really wanted to keep this discussion civil, you would be addressing the issues rather than discussing me.

      [Obviously - bc]

  3. Rick: ““Truly free” should be understood to mean “free from external [i.e. government] coercion, rule-setting, and back-room politics that are enforced at gun point.”

    So, “truly free” simply means “no government”. That seems clear.

    But the evolution of human society has been from “no government” to “government”. And we evolved government to solve a number of problems that were caused by “no government” (otherwise, why would we have changed the status quo?).

    Your accusation of coercion, and rules enforced at gun point, seems patently false to anyone walking down the street, buying groceries, going to work, voting for their representatives, etc. How do you defend that assertion in the face of daily reality?

    Rick: “the basic regulatory framework will be based on property rights and voluntary choice. Mines that acquire a reputation for being unsafe will soon be unable to find workers, unless they increase their wages.”

    Apparently the wages were sufficient for the people trying to support their families by working. People were willing to take the risk, but would have preferred safer conditions.

    Rick: “If we see poor working conditions at low pay, it doesn’t mean an injustice is being done, it means that the people working there see it as their best available option.”

    That is obviously NOT the best available option! Adding rules designed to reduce the hazards mining, saving lives and preventing unnecessary injury is clearly a BETTER option. Don’t you agree?

    1. Best option, no, best available option, almost certainly. At the end of the day, any injury could be argued to be unnecessary, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking risks to improve one’s life. Your own statement captures my point:

      “Apparently the wages were sufficient for the people trying to support their families by working. People were willing to take the risk, but would have preferred safer conditions.”

      Rules have an opportunity cost. Being careful will mean being less productive, which is a luxury not everyone can afford. This is a problem, but the solution isn’t to impose my preferences on poor people; it’s to open borders so that poor people can be more productive and so can afford to be safer.

      As for no-gov’t to gov’t, it didn’t have to be a unanimous decision for us to have observed it in real life. If it was unanimous then I would agree that people must have expected it to be an improvement. But if it wasn’t, then it could have been imposed, more or less forcefully (depending on how much impact it had on people).

      To the extent that legislation reflects law, there will be no need for enforcing rules at gun point (i.e. there will be little likely hood that people resist fines and other minor punishments to the point that they end up being hauled off to jail).

      1. Rick: “Rules have an opportunity cost. Being careful will mean being less productive, which is a luxury not everyone can afford.”

        All costs of production are recovered in the market price. But if one competitor sacrifices worker safety to undercut the price of his competitor, then NEITHER can recover the cost of reasonable worker safety and remain competitive.

        This is often called a “race to the bottom”, where even the well-meaning business owner, who would like to provide safer conditions or better wages for his employees, is forced to follow the others to less safety and lower wages.

        That is the market without regulation. But a law requiring ALL mines to provide at least minimum ventilation, structural integrity, safety training, and inspection creates a level playing field.

        ALL of the mine operators will have similar costs and they will all be able to recover these costs in the price of their product. Instead of competing to see who can spend the least on worker safety, they are forced to compete on the actual efficiency and productivity of their operations.

        This is one of the clear benefits of having government regulation versus not having it. Workers are safer and everyone continues to prosper.

        Rick: “To the extent that legislation reflects law, there will be no need for enforcing rules at gun point”

        Whose law? Yours or mine? That is the other clear benefit of having government versus not having it. We elect a legislature according to our opinions as to what kinds of laws we want. The legislature holds hearings to elicit information from expert. They discuss alternative rules and estimate their potential benefits and harms. Finally, they take a vote to establish a working rule that is passed into law. After experience with the new rule, it may be revised or eliminated through the same democratic process.

      2. Competition happens on all markets, including labor markets. Imagine you’re starting a new business, it’s not enough to say “I’m going to spend less money on worker compensation and undercut my competitors!” You have to compete to get access to inputs too. The market process is basically about determining who can provide the most value to consumers while using up as little of suppliers’ valuable resources as possible. Workers are suppliers of labor.

        I think your views on markets are incomplete and your views on government are overly rosy. First off, you’ve basically assumed away a massive pile of public choice issues (consider sugar subsidies: this is a clearly bad policy that continues to exist because of inherent problems with government).

        If we assume a night-watchman state, then maybe (maybe!) we can think your last paragraph works. But even then, and even if the government works the way you assume, it is only optimal for policies where there is unanimous agreement (e.g. murder). If we’re dealing with city-states with free (as in freedom, not as in beer) movement rather than nation states, then I’ll grant that government might work reasonably well in a night-watchman capacity.

      3. Rick: “I think your views on markets are incomplete …”

        Literally correct, but irrelevant. If we are evaluating the effects of one factor, such as adding the costs of a worker safety program to a mining operation, then we presume the other factors remain constant. The competing mining operations are presumed to be roughly equal in all other costs, and their product prices are competitive with each other, such that all are currently profitable businesses.

        If one of these roughly equal competitors decides to incur the cost of a worker safety program, then he has to recover that added cost in his price. That makes his coal more expensive than his competitors, who will now actively go after his customers.

        But if government regulation adds that cost to all competitors, then (a) their competitive status remains unchanged and (b) all workers benefit from a reduction in mining hazards and (c) those who would otherwise be injured or killed remain alive and healthy. That is a win-win situation.

        Rick: “your views on government are overly rosy”

        And yours are overly sinister. The best way to achieve balance is to move closer to reality.

        Rick: “consider sugar subsidies: this is a clearly bad policy that continues to exist because of inherent problems with government”

        If the policy is in fact bad, then you can mobilize public support for a better policy and get it fixed. It takes a lot of work and sometimes a lot of patience, but the point of democratic government is to provide a peaceful means to resolve these issues.

        Rick: “If we assume a night-watchman state”

        I don’t know what that is.

        Rick: “… it is only optimal for policies where there is unanimous agreement (e.g. murder). ”

        Quite the opposite. Government is at its best when there are large dissenting factions. The existence of a place where an issue can be examined by both sides, where alternate solutions can be proposed for consideration, and where a temporary working solution can be adopted by a democratic vote provides a means of peaceful resolution of conflicts.

      4. “Literally correct, but irrelevant.”
        Baffling.

        “If we are evaluating the effects of one factor, such as adding the costs of a worker safety program to a mining operation, then we presume the other factors remain constant.”
        Ceteris paribus is a first step. Yes, costs are costly, but they’re undertaken in order to change other factors, in this case the firm’s ability to attract workers. If they’re adding this cost, it means that it’s cheaper than simply offering workers more money. Firms compete for inputs, not just sales!

        “And yours are overly sinister. The best way to achieve balance is to move closer to reality.”
        Let me paraphrase: ‘You’re a cynic. You should try actually being correct.”

        “If the policy is in fact bad, then you can mobilize public support for a better policy and get it fixed.”
        This video explains the problem well. The issue here is that it is an issue because of the democratic process. This is not to say “democracy is evil,” just that it can be abused when the scope of government is too broad (this is really the fundamental libertarian position).

        A night-watchman state is a government with a scope strictly limited to protection against theft and violence. What exactly that means is up for debate (e.g. whether there should be a standing army, whether government should settle contractual disputes, etc.), but the idea is that government acts like a security firm but doesn’t “produce” other services (like mail service, charity, roads, etc.).

        “Government is at its best when there are large dissenting factions.”
        If those dissenting factions are geographically separated, then the simple solution is to split the government (e.g. California has different policy than Texas). Even if there is one right answer, forcing one tentative answer on everyone (especially large dissenting groups) strictly limits the social learning process of federalism. Libertarianism is fundamentally about federalism; making as few decisions at the highest level as possible.

      5. Rick: “Yes, costs are costly, but they’re undertaken in order to change other factors, in this case the firm’s ability to attract workers. If they’re adding this cost, it means that it’s cheaper than simply offering workers more money. Firms compete for inputs, not just sales!”

        But labor is subject to cycles of surplus and scarcity. When labor is scarce, it can command a higher price and even a benefits package. When labor is in surplus, it can’t command anything, but must accept what is given in order to survive. Government intervention is required to impose a minimum wage, again to avoid a “race to the bottom”.

        And, unfortunately, labor seems to be heading toward a worldwide surplus. Factories followed cheap labor to Mexico, then China, and now India. Automation chased labor off the farms and into the city. Now it chases labor out of the factories. Economies will need to adapt if we are to avoid depressions.

        I suppose the key to economics is the flow of money through the set of essential, or at least useful, goods and services.

        Rick: “This video explains the problem well. The issue here is that it is an issue because of the democratic process”

        Cool video. But it seems the concentration of benefits and dispersion of cost is not a “government” issue. It applies as well to every existing private business and it accounts for the growing income disparity (except maybe in Japan where their cultural ethic prevents this).

        Rick: “A night-watchman state is a government with a scope strictly limited to protection against theft and violence.”

        But such a government would be powerless to guarantee the right of a black man to have a cup of coffee in a “Whites Only” restaurant. (And you can substitute gay, or Muslim, or Jew, etc. for black). So, thanks, but no thanks. I prefer a government which guarantees equal participation in commerce despite the business owner’s prejudice.

        Rick: “Even if there is one right answer, forcing one tentative answer on everyone (especially large dissenting groups) strictly limits the social learning process of federalism. ”

        I’m totally in favor of local “laboratories” pursuing and evaluating various alternatives. But at some point the tide will indicate a growing consensus that can be helped by national adoption.

        Rick: “Libertarianism is fundamentally about federalism; making as few decisions at the highest level as possible.”

        Actually, the Republican Party is about federalism. Libertarianism seems to have its own thing going on. it has a collection of ideas, like the flawed non-aggression principle and the skewed view of property rights that says not only your home, but the restaurant you operate is also your “castle”, and it can post a “Whites Only” sign if the owner wants.

  4. My theses is quite simple. At some point in our evolution, there was no rule against stealing. Perhaps when food was plentiful and easy to reach there was no concept of property. Everything was available to everyone, as if it were (a) held in common.

    Then things changed. The period of plenty was replaced by a period of scarcity, caused perhaps by overpopulation, climate change, fire, flood, or other natural disaster. Someone reached for the same banana as someone else, and they got bitten or slugged. That was the (b1) “might makes right” rule of property. Others, depending upon their stealth rather than strength, acquired property (b2) by theft and a quick escape.

    Eventually, people discovered that by joining together, they could defend their property from the bully and keep an eye out for each other to protect against the thief.

    By agreeing to act together to respect a right ownership for each other, and to protect that right for each other, a new way was found to define and acquire property: (c) by mutual agreement.

    As the society and its territory grew, it was subject to invasion by foreign forces. The only defense was to constitute a nation of their own to muster sufficient force to defend their lives and property. (d) A legislature of democratically elected representatives worked out agreements as to how property would be acquired and what rights do or do not come with that ownership.

    My point is simply that the rules of acquiring property have evolved. At one point things were probably held in common. At another point property was acquired by might and by stealth. At a later point, the rules of property were defined according to the consensus of the society. And finally, when the society became large and required an army to prevent invasion or colonization, the mechanism of reaching agreements on property rules became a constituted government.

    1. Underlying any property rights system (and as long as there is scarcity there will ultimately be some system) is based on the possibility of use of force. I agree with you that rights matter to the extent they are enforced (although “rhetorical rights” also matter to the extent that they affect behavior). I also agree that the rules of property systems change over time.

      I don’t agree that there was some consensus or that government was started as some benevolent organization intent on protecting anyone’s rights but the king’s. On this second point, see The Enterprise of Law (link below) which goes over the history of courts and law (not legislation) enforcement before the advent of government courts and how government got into that business by expanding the definition of harm to include “breaking the king’s peace.”

      On the first point, see scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where Dennis is repressed.

      1. Rick: “I don’t agree that there was some consensus or that government was started as some benevolent organization intent on protecting anyone’s rights but the king’s.”

        I don’t know a lot of history. But one example would be the consensus of the people of the North American colonies to form states and later unite those states into a single nation, specifically to protect their individual rights from the actions of King George III.

        The earlier Magna Carter also asserted the rights of individuals (feudal barons) over a King.

        I assume that this evolution from “might makes right” to “rights determined by mutual agreement” is repeated throughout history, and might be found in some form or another in the histories of every modern nation.

        Rick: “On this second point, see The Enterprise of Law (link below) ”

        Sorry, but I don’t accept homework assignments. There are several reasons for this. (1) If you have actually read the book yourself, and if it offers support for your argument, then you should be able to present those points yourself (feel free to quote as needed). (2) If you are unable to do that, then the book has not actually enlightened you. And if it did not enlighten you, then how can it enlighten me? (3) The worst case scenario would be if I have to the read the book and then explain it to you. I’m sure that’s not the case and that you will be able to present the points yourself.

  5. @everyone
    “So, “truly free” simply means “no government”. That seems clear.”

    I don’t want to derail the thread, ignore this if it threatens to do so.

    At least 2 commentators have recently said that 1) governments are criminals and 2) police are criminals [maybe the rest of government as well, I don't know]. Does the quote above or something like it capture a widely held view among libertarians or only one portion? If the latter one would that portion call itself? Anarchist-libertarians, something else?

    1. That’s a minority view (typically called Anarchocapitalism), but a prominent one. It should also be understood to include in the definition of government organizations that behave as governments (i.e. a geographic monopoly on the use of coercion) such as the Mafia in certain times/places.

    2. I think the Libertarians and the Anarchists are reading from the same authors. You are likely to hear the same arguments from both. I imagine that the Libertarians would be the political wing of the Anarchists, who otherwise would eschew politics. :-)

    3. Hey Prof (sorry to burst in on your thread Rick),

      That quote you gave (“So, “truly free” simply means “no government”. That seems clear.”) is Marvin’s summary of Rick’s argument. Marvin is not a libertarian and you can decide for yourself if you think his summary is an honest one.

      To answer your question; ‘No’, it does not. Or maybe it does. Very few of the libertarians I hang around with subscribe to that view. My homies and I argue that governments can be criminals (Russia, Zimbabwe, the City of Santa Cruz), and that some police can be criminals (LAPD), but it does not follow that governments are necessarily criminal. Inefficient? Absolutely. Criminal? Sometimes.

      I suspect this is the majority view among libertarians, but the other view gets more press because it is 1) easier to knock down and 2) held by people with better social media skills.

      Terminology can be tricky, but generally members of the minority group are called anarchocapitalists.

  6. @Everyone

    Thank you very much gentlemen. Jargon is initially a barrier to outsiders but makes for much more efficient communication for those that understand the specialized language.

      1. Hi Marvin. Yes, I’m a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto. Try not to hold it against me :)

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