Of the People, By the People, and For the People

This is hopefully going to be my last word on the notion of "international apartheid." I think it’s useful to go back to first principles to see where disagreement really lies, but at some point it stops being enlightening and starts being pedantic. I worry I’m already treading over that line.

In Tim’s last foray, he says I go wrong by assuming that the government "owns" the United States. Not really, but it is fair to say that I assumed that there is such a thing as the United States, and that while the citizenry don’t properly "own" it, it is nonetheless theirs. And the government, in turn, is the instrument of the citizenry. Hence my analogy.

His position has two problems, as I see it. First, he argues that he never endorsed a right to citizenship, but rather a right to residency. But this is something of a dodge. If he means to suggest that he would be fine with 150 million Bangladeshis coming to America but denied citizenship in perpetuity for themselves and their descendants, then my rejoinder would be that such a society would be unlikely to exhibit the social structure conducive to small-government libertarianism, as citizenship dwindled to a hereditary class of "old" residents responsible for ruling the "new" residents. Moreover, it is ironic that this discussion began with a denunciation of international borders as a form of apartheid if it ends with a libertarian endorsement of, potentially, a society with free movement of labor but a highly restricted franchise. But, alternatively, he might say that he endorses birthright citizenship, and, indeed, would expect the 150 million Bangladeshis to become citizens themselves, once they met some or another form of criteria. But this fatally undermines his original distinction between resident and citizen. If all residents become citizens in due course, then my original argument stands unrefuted, so far as I can tell.

The second problem is that his own analogy, to the 50 states, where there is freedom of movement, is more fatally flawed than my analogy to private property and the right of a property owner to prevent trespass. First of all, you do not merely have the right to change residency among the states; you have the right to transfer citizenship. So his second analogy undermines his rejoinder to my analogy. But more to the point, all this is possible because there is a larger, political authority, with a monopoly of force, that subsumes the several states, known as the United States of America. The world as a whole has no such larger political authority, no global monopoly of force, nothing, indeed, but anarchy and mutual agreements among states. The states of Europe now have free movement of labor between them – but they only have this because of and at the same time as a new political structure, superior to the national states, has been erected, based in Brussels.

Tim says that "at its core, libertarianism is the position that individuals should be afforded maximal liberty to do as they please with their own property, provided their actions don’t harm those around them." That’s John Stuart Mill, I think, not generally considered the father of libertarianism. Mill, for example, felt that society could be oppressive just as government can, by limiting individual choices through social pressure. I don’t believe that classic libertarians believe that to be the case. When I said that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is not a libertarian document, this is precisely what I was getting at: there is a tension between freedom of association and other freedoms, and classic libertarianism recognized this tension and focused on keeping government out of the business of resolving that tension. That’s one way of parsing why Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Right’s Act. If Tim has a different take on this question, I’d like to know what it is, and understand whether he thinks libertarianism is something other than what I think, or whether he thinks libertarianism has evolved from what it was into something else.

In my understanding, the difference (for a libertarian) between the government and other associations isn’t that associations are legitimate and government is not, but that government has a monopoly of force (necessarily) and therefore is not, properly, a voluntary association; and, therefore, the scope of government must be very strictly limited, so that the scope for truly voluntary action – individual or collective - is maximized. But the legitimacy of government derives from the same place as the legitimacy of other associations: from the consent of, respectively, the citizenry and the membership.

Because if the government is not a big association then what is it? Where does its authority come from? If it has no legitimate authority, then it is tyrannous and should be done away with. If it has legitimate authority in some scope, then whence does that legitimacy derive? In a Republic such as ours, it derives from the people.

Is this a matter of moment to libertarians? I wonder if it is. Lurking behind Tim’s argumen, I sense a kind of cavalier consequentialism, the notion that government actions are legitimate or illegitimate entirely on the basis of their direct consequences for individual liberty. I don’t agree with this; I think that it matters enormously that authority be understood as legitimate, as derived legitimately, and that an illegitimate government that maximally protects property owners is to be rejected in favor of a legitimate government that is somewhat less solicitous. But that’s just my own view, and I don’t claim or desire to be a libertarian. What I’m curious about is whether this question – the question of legitimacy – matters to libertarian thinking, or should matter. It may be that libertarian thinking is indifferent to the idea of republican governance, and to questions of legitimacy generally. If that is the case, then the real answer Tim should make to me is that the United States does not exist in any meaningful sense, nor is citizenship a really meaningful distinction; all that really matters is whether the net amount of liberty the denizens of the planet enjoy has gone up or down as the immediate consequence of a government action. In that case, the only rejoinder to him would be Razib’s: the consequences of his preferred policies in the actual world are unlikely to be what he wishes they would be. But we would no longer be talking about right and wrong, justified or unjustified actions, but only about consequences.