Libertarian Hawks

Max Borders over at TCS attempts to deploy contractarian reasoning in the service of that unlikely composite creature, the libertarian hawk. Max argues the lib-hawk is no impossible monster, like the gryphon. More like the liger, although, sadly, more feracious and no less ferocious.
Insofar as Max is attempting to justify a doctrine of preemeption in general and the Iraq war in particular, he fails, and he fails on contractarian grounds.
Max writes:

The libertarian hawk takes her cues from Hobbes, not Locke, as the spaces mostly untouched by globalization are, in her view, like a state-of-nature. She sees threats that organize themselves in the shadows beyond civilization; operating, no less, in an age of deadly weapons proliferation. She fears the world's great, but nimble powers coalescing into a slothful and ineffectual global body — where the toughest decisions of life and limb must be made in committee. She understands that freedom does not drop like manna from heaven, but is earned drop-for-drop and coin-for-coin by the sacrifices of blood and treasure.

According to the contractarian, rights are conventions justified by their role in mutual benefit. Your entitlement to protection against the agression of others is conditional on your compliance with the convention. If you fail to heed the convention, then you cannot be expected to gain its benefits.

. . . if you stand outside the covenants of Man, you are presumed “enemy.”

This is all by way of establishing that terrorists lack “moral standing.”
Let's just say all this is fine. But at this point, we've barely even approached a case for preemptive war or for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If my neighbor, Grover, kills his roommate Getrude in cold blood then he in effect opts out of the social contract and loses moral standing. May I therefore go next door and slay him at will? No, I may not.
Grover may have forfeited his rights, but I am not therefore at liberty to do whatever I like to Grover. Another element of the social contract is the prudent restriction of the power of citizens to bring criminals to justice. We leave it the relevant authorities, who are required to follow strict procedures in order to ensure that coercive sanctions are not abused. That Grover has lost his moral standing does not give just anyone permission to mete out punishment.
Similarly, the fact that there are terrorists, murderers, and illegitimate regimes out there who have forfeited some or all of their moral standing does not begin to imply that the United States of America may swoop in and see that justice is done.
Bizarrely, Max fails to even ask the contractarian question before accusing his friends and colleagues of being “unreflective.” Would well-informed, rational people who have their own interests in mind choose to empower their state with a doctrine of preemptive warfare? Well, it's certainly not obvious that they would, even if there are bad guys out there who don't deserve not to be killed. And if they would agree to such a doctrine, it seems likely that they would put such stringent conditions on use of preemptive war that Iraq would unlikely qualify.
If you're a contractarian libertarian then you think that counterfactually wise parties to an imaginary agreement would wish to restrict the power of the state to the minimum necessary to provide the public goods for which voluntary action is insufficient. Security is surely one of those public goods. But surely a libertarian contractarian, understanding the tendency of those with military power to use it to enlarge the domain of their political power (and dimish the scope of our liberties), will want to implement very strict standards for going to war. Here's a not very strict standard: the target state (or whatever) that the government wishes to go to war against must be an actual threat to the citizens. If it's not, then the state is simply wasting the “blood and treasure” of its citizens in violation of the terms of the social contract, becomes criminal, and loses its legitimacy.
The argument whether Iraq was anything more than a notional threat to the US has already been won. It wasn't. The US government is now wasting our money, and wasting soldiers' lives. Maybe there are good humanitarian reasons for the war, but they have nothing to do with the contractarianism Max espouses.
There's more to say here. The US's near-unilateralism is a problem for reasons a contractarian ought to appreciate. By demonstrating a willingness to bear almost any cost in what we take to be our own defense, we encourage others to free-ride. (Indeed, so many states (hello Canada!) have been free-riding off American defense for so long that American taxpayers don't even know to be indignant at this incredibly lavish scheme for redistributing wealth outside our borders.) And when others are encouraged to free ride, they do. As an auxilliary benefit to them, they become less visible to the enemy, providing even further motive to free ride. Of course, the ugly flip side of their benefit is our peril; we loom ever larger in the minds of our enemies. The absence of a serious coalition (in terms of leadership and cost-sharing) may in the end make more or less unilateral action against terrorists counterproductive, endangering the lives of US citizens, as attacks escalate agains us, the main antagonist of the bad guys. As anti-American animosity rises, and more and more groups plan attacks, the ability of our stretched-thin intelligence agencies to more or less singlehandedly detect all the chemical warheads that Max “doesn't fancy staring down the point of” is dangerously diminished.
These considerations, even if not decisive, would certainly be entertained by a community of rational agents deciding what they would like their defense policy be. I don't believe being persuaded by these considerations reveals any lack of reflection (even among the denizens of those “hashish dens of protest music and anti-Bush priggishness). If it turns out that engaging in wars like the one we're in, besides wasting money and lives, puts our citizens in even greater peril, then you can bet that rational citizens will be against them, and an ideal social contract will rule them out.
It's not clear to me that there is anything whatsoever about contractarian reasoning that supports the kind of hawkishness Max likes. Certainly not the kind of contractarian reasoning that leads to libertarian conclusions about the scope and powers of the state. As far as I can see Max simply jumps from the fact that terrorists cannot reasonably expect the protections of civil society (true) to the claim that the Iraq war was justified (false). I can barely even see how the two points are supposed to be related.
Maybe more later about Max's response to the Hayekian argument against nation-building, which I thought made almost no sense.
[Update: Yglesias fully admirably and unmisguidedly chimes in.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

19 thoughts

  1. I printed out your paper to read but I want to pose this question. Why in the world would we put so much effort into fixing the part of our federal budget that is in the least amount of trouble? The three parts, of course, are the General Fund, Medicare, and SS. The General Fund has been in deficit for half a century or so, medicare runs out of money in 10-15 years and SS is solvent for at least 30 and that number tends to stay constant or grow as we move along.
    So again, why do we want to spend effort and invest money from the General Fund into the only government budget line that is likely to pay for itself or at least be 30 years away from needing extra cash? This confuses me mightily. Stealing from the payroll taxes to pay for our bad general fund accounting seems clearly immoral and not at all sensible. But I’ll go read the paper and see if I change my mind.

  2. KJ, I don’t get it. It’s an easy problem to fix, so we ought to fix it. Medicare is a lot more convoluted, and harder to deal with. So your idea is we should wait to fix the easier problem until after we’ve solved the harder problem?

  3. Yep Will – KJ is right. Fix the hard problems now. It’ll take a while to do so but time is running out especially for Medicare.

  4. Ok, good point. But my understanding is that to turn SS into private accounts it will take a huge infusion of money from the General Fund because if you use a portion of the current money collected from payroll taxes and put them into private accounts then you need to make up that money that would normally go to pay current retirees and other beneficiaries. To switch to private accounts would be very expensive and I don’t see how we can do it, even if it is a good idea, when we are so far in the hole in other areas.
    If we spent the same amount of energy talking about the General Fund deficit and also separated it out from the other two sources of funds, we might actually concentrate our political efforts on the real financial problem: our federal taxes are too low for what we spend or our spending is too high for our federal taxes. Pick your poison but I’d prefer we’d concentrate on that. If politicians and pundits want to balance the budget then they shouldn’t do it on the backs of programs that have pulled their weight from the start and will continue to pull their weight for at least the immediate future.

  5. “The system as currently constituted can’t keep delivering those checks indefinitely.”
    Why not? To fix it requires a modest upward adjustiment in the cap, of the type proposed by Obama. By contrast, privatizing Social Security would be devastating when we have stock market declines of the type we’re experiencing now, and even in the best of circumstances would greatly increase administrative costs.
    Many people attack regard libertarians as heartless. I don’t think that’s the problem. I worry more about their stupidity.

  6. So you think all those countries that have dealt with the demographic instability problem by shifting to personal accounts are stupid and doomed? Look out Sweden! You sound like one of those conservatives who talk like people will be dying by droves if we had Canadian health care.

  7. Why the heck are you guys acting like it has to be either/or rather than both?
    It is DEFINITELY either/or. Major changes to the philosophy of Social Security would definitely be the biggest political of the 21st century thus far. It would instantly suck all oxygen and attention away from any other reform effort. If you want to add carve-out private accounts to Social Security, you’d better be resigned to that being the only reform of your presidency. .Even if it doesn’t “cost” much in budgetary terms, it would cost a great deal in “political capital”.
    That said, some new sort of program to encourage/mandate private savings (universal 401Ks or whatever) does seem fairly likely. This will actually be easier to pass if you *don’t* sell it as a reform of Social Security, but rather as a good idea on its own terms.

  8. I wouldn’t say they’re “stupid and doomed,” but they are certainly deciding to take a risk of lower returns in exchange for a chance at higher ones.
    You appear to regard Social Security “reform” getting killed in 2005 as regrettable. I would point out that had the changes outlined been implemented in 2005 or 2006 (private accounts as a carve-out to part of the guarantee), the system would be in worse today than it actually is since it has remained outside the distress of the stock market.

  9. JoshA’s last comment gets at the crux of the argument for many liberals.
    Social Security is a guaranteed benefit (leave aside the notion that benefit levels can be changed through legislation). Personal accounts provide non-guaranteed benefits (it depends how the market does).
    Philosophically, many liberals believe that the benefit levels must be guaranteed by law. Otherwise we are subjecting people to the risk that when they retire, there won’t be enough benefits to give them the needed support.
    It is plain to see that returns from private accounts will be more volatile than returns from Social Security as it is now. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the higher mean return justifies the higher volatility, but there’s the disagreement.
    Of course, another side of the argument is the opportunistic notion that liberals can really punish conservatives and weaken them by pushing hard on this argument, because SS is so popular. This helps liberals achieve other goals by reducing the overall political capital of conservatives.

  10. Disassembling Social Security in any manner will tarnish the legacy of FDR’s New Deal I & New Deal II. It will be difficult for Democrats to admit that he instituted any system which is incapable of maintaining itself in perpetuity, and Republicans will tear it apart so gleefully that they could easily screw things up worse than they were before. So, in a way, I agree with Yglesias. It is an either/or.

  11. the system would be in worse today than it actually is since it has remained outside the distress of the stock market.
    I’m curious as to your view of the stability of the Social Security Trust Fund, such that the stock market can tank and America’s banks and lending houses can lose $1,000,000,000,000 in value on paper without having any effect on it. I know the Dow Jones ain’t the home team, after all, but doesn’t a crippled U.S. economy suggest that the future of Social Security might be poor, too? How is the national pension going to be a better investment than the nation it pensions off?

  12. Social Security solvency is an incredibly easy problem to fix, and instituting private accounts is the most convoluted way to go about that fix. The easy fix is — gradually raise the retirement age, offer less generous indexing of benefits, and raise the payroll tax and/or the max income that the tax is applied against.
    Social Security is an annuity program. With the death of private, long-term pensions, they are the only guaranteed annuity stream most Americans have. Privatizers would like to turn it into a retirement savings program. Americans are by no means short of retirement savings options. They are worthwhile endeavors, but if anything, we need to be simplifying and consolidating the ones that are already out there. Transforming Social Security from one into the other is not only unnecessarily complicated and require far more administration than traditional SS ever has, but it also invites the SSA to function, effectively, as a sovereign wealth fund. This would not be a welcome development.

  13. “Social Security solvency is an incredibly easy problem to fix …The easy fix is — gradually raise the retirement age, offer less generous indexing of benefits
    Just because a solution is easy to type into a blog comment doesn’t mean it is easy to implement. Boomers nearing retirement are not going to vote for additional increases in the retirement age. Neither will they, nor the current retirees, vote for reduction in indexing.

  14. Given that we do not have a direct democracy, they don’t have to vote for such things. Their representatives will. Obviously, neither those options nor raising taxes are popular, but they are all politically palatable to the extent that their impact is relatively concentrated to a few politically unpopular (i.e. wealthy) classes of citizens. The Social Security vesting age, for instance, was ALREADY raised in the mid-1990s (though only taking effect now) by the 104th Congress, and there was no major political backlash to doing so.

    1. It was the Social Security Amendments of 1983 which slightly increased the full retirement age for Boomers and those born later. Early retirement age of 62 was not changed.
      Political backlash in 1983 was minimal because the first Boomers were still 27 years from retirement. Furthermore, AARP was not nearly as powerful 25 years ago as it is today.
      Increasing the retirement age of Boomers is a much riskier proposition for politicians today. They’re not going to do it until all other options have been exhausted. Means testing as a means of reducing social security liabilities is a much easier option for politicians, IMO.

  15. Professor Coldhart,
    If the US economy does badly over the next century, wage growth will be low and benefit growth will be low. If the US economy does well, wage growth will be higher and there will be more payroll tax to take from people in 2050. For various technical reasons, the offset isn’t perfect, but the system is sustainable possibly with minor benefit cuts or tax increases.
    If you want to argue that a defined contribution scheme would be even better, you can go ahead, but it is correct to point out that higher returns have to be traded off with higher volatility.
    I thought you accepted social insurance arguments in principle. Here we have a defined benefit scheme with low administrative costs and widespread support from the payors/beneficiaries. If expected retirement income will be lower, that is a price most people are willing to pay to reduce risk. What’s so terrible?

  16. dawgberry – I'm a 50 something tear old father of 2 children, 7 and 12.Somewhat educated.Oh yea.In an earlier life I was a criminal dope fiend.
    Dawgberry says:

    I am a great believer that All income be taxed at same rate. I mean isn’t that fair?Jeez You would think it would be a no brainer.

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