Riddle Me This, Bat-Dan!


Ladies and gentlemen, your regularly scheduled Hang Together blog post is being interrupted to bring you the following important message.

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We now return to your regularly scheduled Hang Together blog post. We apologize for the interruption.

Dan, I agree that things like this can be called “involuntary servitude.” And if this kind of blatantly unjust exploitation – the strong taking money from the weak and giving it to their friends simply because they can – were the primary activity of the federal government, I think we’d have no choice but to say that the state had crossed the line that divides a legitimate government from a criminal enterprise that masqureades as a government. (“With all that that implies,” as the guy from The Iron Giant would say.)

Kent Mansley

However, I’m not ready to go with you and say that 2/3 of the federal budget consists of involuntary servitude (“with all that that implies”).

1) Your comments on why people continue to support these programs if they’re involuntary servitude¬†basically boil down to “they don’t understand what’s going on.” Well, I’m glad to see you’ve dropped your opposition to my earlier argument that elections are very imperfect as indicators of the public’s policy preferences. In fact, you’re now going much farther than I did! Doesn’t your position here imply that people aren’t responsible for their own voting?

I think people are more than well aware that entitlement programs are funded by taxes. If you want to take the position you do, you’re going to have to wrestle with the fact that almost no Americans are libertarians.

Ultimately, obedience to what we know to be right trumps popular consent. However, the presence or absence of popular consent is one of the critical components we need to factor in when judging what is right. Before we label the entire modern state a system of slavery, let’s notice that it arose and it continues to exist because it is what people want. That does not by itself justify the system, but it makes it much harder to call it a system of slavery.

I’m not saying there aren’t problems here, I’m just asking you not to paint with so broad a brush.

2) Your thought experiment on “making the programs voluntary” shows the weak point of your argument, I think. Is it your position that if a government collects taxes coercively, that government does not exist by consent? You see the problem. If you answer yes, you’ve eliminated the possibility of legitimate government. If you answer no, my response is “then why do you describe the modern state as involuntary?”

3) I disagree with your view that moral consensus only relates to prudential questions rather than the question of what government has the authority to do. This goes to the heart of government by consent of the governed. Where does legitimate authority to govern come from if not from the consent of the people (within the bounds of moral law)?

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