Monday, November 13, 2006

Metrics for Libertarians

In my first book on Inner Mongolia, I used a wonderful table from Richard Bensel's Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877. You can see my general viewpoint in the review I did (click on the book link and scroll down).

The part I wanted to introduce here is his table in which he analyses what constitutes "central state authority." Bensel had to code votes in the Union and Confederate legislatures on the basis of promoting or retarding central state authority, and to do so, he produced what seems to me the most comprehensive list of political measures that strengthen the central state. In other words, if you are a liberatarian, this is what you don't want to do. He has seven (not six, not eight, but seven, a proper number) areas (see his table 3.1 on p. 114).

Centralization of authority: Measures involving the transfer of decision-making authority from subordinate governments and citizenry to the central state. This sphere includes both the federal government's allocation of influence and control over individual citizens, and the review of state actions by federal insitutions.

Administrative capacity: Measures involving a broadening or narrowing of bureaucratic discretion and long-term planning capacity within the central state. Bensel than adds a very handy ordering of federal gov't institutions, in terms of their administrative capacity and insulation from the voters (the more insulated, the more administrative capacity), from highest to lowest: the state [i.e. federal] bureaucracy, national courts, presidency [i.e. the White House], and lastly, the legislature [i.e. Congress].

Citizenship: Measures involving the religious practices, political beliefs, ethnic identity, and rights and duties of citizens in their relations with the state. (In other words, is the state defining and favoring or disfavoring religious, political, or ethnic groups.) This category . . . includes all measures concerning the physical movement and labor of citizens (such as conscription).

Control of property. Measures involving the control or use of property by individuals other than the central state itself, including expropriation, regulation of the marketplace, and labor contracts between private parties.

Creation of client groups: Measure that increase the dependence of groups within society upon the continued existence and viability of the central state: includes . . . measure that provide income or income substitutes to individuals (pensions, employment by central state institutions, welfare and price-control programs for specific groups in society), that establish future-oriented obligations that depend on state viability (the issuance of long-term debt), and that control the value of currency (the gold standard [i.e. replacing it makes the state stronger] and the redemption of paper money).

Extraction: The coercive diversion of material resources from society into the central state apparatus
. Since Bensel excludes from this sphere the more extreme measures included in control of property (confiscatory taxation, induced hyper-inflation, etc.), creation of client groups and world-system spheres, so it means for him primarily forms of light taxation or manipulations of the financial system such as gradual inflation of the currency.

The central state in the world system: Measures concerning the relationship of the central state and nation with other states and the world economy, these include access to foreign markets (licensing, import quotas, export subsidies, and tarrifs), diplomatic relations (membership in international organizations, treaties, and military conflict
-- it is worth noting that for Bensel, both membership in international organizations and military conflict promote central state authority), immigration restrictions, and broadly conceived policies of internal development (the contruction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, the Homestead Act, and administration of territorial possessions).

Together these form a convenient scorecard of whether the a given measure increases or decreases the central state's authority. I have two comments:

First, administrative capacity measure is one that too few libertarians pay attention to. According to Bensel, when something is a right, enforced by the Supreme Court, it increases central state authority, because it allows for more long-term planning. (There is probably also a sociological point here about the nexus between the elite law school graduates who make federal court policy and the other ones in government and business -- central state authority is increased when decision is put in the hands of the credentialed meritocracy.) This offers insight into a problem with libertarianism: focused so relentlessly on the concept of rights, the libertarian urge is always to turn substantive issues, which are decided by Congress and/or the White House, into rights issues, which are decided by the courts, which perversely results in an increase in the central state's administrative capacity. And if the right involved is then imposed on state courts, there is an increase in centralization of authority as well.

Secondly, the big insight which libertarians have to offer the political system is that, at least within the realistic constraints of the American system, big government necessitates at least medium-sized business, and big business necessitates at least medium-sized government. In other words, both the claim of (American) leftists to be really against business, and the claim of rightists to be really against government are to a large degree bogus. The left (Kennedy, Pelosi, etc.) is not really against big business but wants bigger government, while the right (Reagan, Gingrich, etc.) is not really against big government but wants bigger business. Bensel's book illustrates how the Hamiltonian agenda of the Republican party first built America's first "big government" in the Civil War, and then cut it down to "medium government" afterwards, only when the business men began to be worried about incompetent federal interference in the financial system. Genuinely "small government," for better or for worse, has never been part of the American business agenda. A history of 1900-1941 would show too that genuinely "small business" has never been part of the progressive agenda, either.

Some people, like Rick, might wonder why I am offering advice to libertarians, when I am rather decidedly not one myself. The reason is that while I don't care to adopt the programmatic libertarian rights language on most issues, in practice, libertarians are absolutely essential to the health of the American system, and I want them to do their job well (even if I reserve the option to disagree with them!). The strength of the central state is not something I feel is entirely or even mostly in decision-makers' hands. When the world environment changes, the state has to change. Bensel himself shows how the once-upon-a-time states-righters in the Confederacy by 1864 were building Dixie Leviathan at a tremendous clip, because the war against the Union was so popular and so desperate. But it is also useful to have libertarians out there pointing out the losses of liberties involved.