The Government/Slavery Analogy
By Arnold Kling
Reacting to my recent post on the analogy Robert Higgs drew between libertarianism and abolitionism, a commenter wrote,
Hans Hoppe, hardcore libertarian, once described what may be the crucial difference between a democratic state and slavery: the latter was private and thus unequal. It is a major departure from such private and unequal slavery to posit that everyone can own each other, (even if ‘own’ is not an attractive word to use, but for analogy’s sake). In theory, in a democracy everyone is both ‘slave’ and ‘slavemaster’ to everyone else, rendering the concept of ‘slave’ basically meaningless.
Actually, I do not think that the point of Higgs’ analogy is to claim that government is as immoral as slavery (although he might make that argument separately). Instead, the point of the analogy is that government shares with slavery the fact that many people see its elimination as unthinkable. That is, when slavery was widespread, people thought either that a world without slaves was inconceivable or that freeing slaves would lead to chaos.
Similarly, many people think that the abolition of government would be unworkable. I put myself in that camp. I think that humans are status-seeking animals, which gives them a tremendous propensity for disputes, most of which are wildly irrational apart from the status issues involved. In the absence of a hegemonic power, I believe that these disputes will escalate into violence.
I call myself a civil societarian. I believe that almost every problem that people look to government to solve could instead be solved by other institutions of civil society. I only want a government that can umpire disputes. The question for someone like me is what stops this umpire from claiming an ever-expanding jurisdiction.
Because I accept this umpiring role as necessary, as far as government goes, I am one of the rationalizers. If abolition of government is the libertarian ideal, then I am a hopeless reactionary.
On the other hand, I am nowhere close to being as romantic about democratic government as the commenter quoted above. Democracy does not mean that everyone is slave and slavemaster to everyone else, as if we have perfect political equality. In the United States today, democracy means that most people have essentially zero political power, and a relative handful of people have almost unimaginable power. The central point of Unchecked and Unbalanced is to call attention to the extreme political inequality that has emerged in the United States, particularly over the past fifty years.
Higgs’ analogy appeals to me because I find it totally baffling that so many self-styled progressives are vociferously rooting for this political inequality to increase. They want technocrats making even more decisions, with even fewer political checks and balances. Given my opposition to this growth in political inequality, I find progressive ideology as jawdroppingly appalling as if I had been a 19th-century abolitionist encountering an ideology that says that what the world needs is a lot more slavery.