A theory of government

by Russ Roberts on July 7, 2011

in Politics

You can think of two theories of government. One theory is that government exists to correct externalities and provide public goods. The other is that government uses the language of helping people to justify giving stuff to the politically powerful out of the pockets of the rest of us. Here’s some evidence for the second theory.

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Methinks1776 July 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm

video won’t play :(

kirby July 7, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Ellsworth Toohey would be proud

carlsoane July 7, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Madison essentially argues in Federalist 10 that both theories are valid on the assumption that the various factions will counterbalance each other. In other words, the government will end up acting for the common good not because it is an inherently virtuous institution but because it is prevented from being wielded for the benefit of one by the selfishness of all.

vikingvista July 7, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Madison wasn’t so clever. Where the two parties have common interests, they will tend to agree. Since both parties benefit from the same Monopoly, they will tend to agree to grow the Monopoly.

The whole point of monopoly, is that there isn’t a counterbalance. That is why it is called a “monopoly”.

carlsoane July 7, 2011 at 11:33 pm

He thought the States could counterbalance the Federal government.

vikingvista July 7, 2011 at 11:47 pm

And we know how that worked out.

Separation of powers is not competition. Separation of powers assigns monopoly jurisdiction to different entities. Nice idea on its face, but like all proposed solutions to the problems of monopoly, it is bound to fail.

The only solution, is peaceful competition.

carlsoane July 8, 2011 at 12:18 am

I don’t think you can have competing governments sharing the same jurisdiction and preserve law and order.

vikingvista July 8, 2011 at 12:31 am

I know you don’t..

carlsoane July 8, 2011 at 12:40 am

This argument did sound familiar…

vikingvista July 8, 2011 at 12:45 am

Yeah. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. But if you are ever really interested, there’s no shortage of Internet resources.

PoliteEdward July 8, 2011 at 10:34 am

@vikingvista: if you are talking about an anarcho-capitalist system, others might find it helpful if you make that explicit, especially if others are interested in reading up on what you’re proposing.

vikingvista July 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm


This was recently excerpted on Mises.org. It’s as good a place as any to start you thinking about these things, if you’re interested.

Gary Gunnels July 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Actually, what Madison argues is that the various factions will balance each other out so as to keep the pressure off a group of disinterested federal politicians who are then free to make disinterested and wise decisions. Madison was basically dead wrong.

carlsoane July 7, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Reread Federalist 57.

“His pride and vanity attach him to a form of government which favors his pretensions and gives him a share in its honors and distinctions. Whatever hopes or projects might be entertained by a few aspiring characters, it must generally happen that a great proportion of the men deriving their advancement from their influence with the people, would have more to hope from a preservation of the favor, than from innovations in the government subversive of the authority of the people.”

tdp July 8, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Madison I’m sure envisioned more political participation on the part of the people and less ignorance and apathy.

Daniel Kuehn July 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Those options seem somewhat lacking.

How about government is one of many emergent human institutions that evolve over time to solve externalities and public goods problems, but which also provide the opportunity for rent seeking behavior.

This, I would argue, has the most evidence.

1. If you look generally at what governments do, public goods and externalities are heavily represented.
2. The evidence for rent seeking and predation doesn’t need to be recounted here – it’s obvious.
3. The degree to which governments provide public goods vs. work as an opportunity for rent seeking is very closely tied to institutional structure. Institutional structure is at least somewhat evolutionary: fit institutions that provid institutional resistance to predatory behavior and rent seeking seem to survive in the long run.
4. The benefits of rent seeking are concentrated and the costs are diffuse. The benefits of solving externalities are diffuse and the costs are concentrated. So institutions are unstable. Cultures with norms and culture that enable collective action have an advantage in developing stable governing institutions.

I think I win.

I’d stack that theory of government against a libertarian political piece about taxis any day of the week.

Let’s stop this ridiculous charade of identifying two elements of government, giving them the label “two theories of government” and then pretending that both elements aren’t strongly supported by the body of social science and an enromous swath of social scientists.

Methinks1776 July 7, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I think I win.

I think you live a sheltered life and, like your hero, The One, have never worked a real job a day in your life and don’t have even a seedling of a clue what the hell you’re talking about.

Weirdly, you seem to become more entrenched in your fantasy world with every passing year. You’re regressing.

Daniel Kuehn July 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm

For one day, give it a rest.

Is there a single substantive sentence in that comment?

Subhi Andrews July 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm

To be very frank Daniel, I didn’t see anything substantive in your comment either.

Methinks1776 July 7, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I’m desperately searching for substance in any of your comments. All I see is blind, slobbering elitism.

When that changes, my reaction to you will change. Until then, I will not be “oohing” and “aahing” over every one of your mental excretions. That ain’t my job, sonny.

vidyohs July 8, 2011 at 9:53 am

Not a one. It demonstrates again why you’ve earned your nickname of Disingenuous Kuehn and why I specifically have accused you over and over of utter naivety.

Do you know what the word facade means, DK?

#1. You address a facade. Peel back that facade and behind it you find a run-a-amok industry from which any “public” good comes as a total accident, a by-product of a multitude of people whose own self interest motivates them to get “theirs” while they can. If you get any benefit, any at all, it is so watered down in effect and so bloody expensive because of the amount of money that sticks to bureaucratic fingers on its way down.

#2. One would think that as you composed this you would have thought of your own #1, and hit delete.

#3. Institutional structures are never evolutionary. They are elaborately created and then those in the institution realize that any change, any progress, any subsequent evolution is against their own self interest. Change, evolution, progressive ideas are risky and threaten job security in a way that stagnation and fossilization never is. Dig into any institutional structure and you find elaborate systems of denial of responsibility of any level.

#4. Institutions are not unstable, they are very stable. That is what fossilization and stagnation does, it stabilizes. Institutions may be formed upon a noble intention, but they quickly reveal that that noble purpose becomes secondary to perpetuating the institution itself. Solving any externality, or solving the problem that is the very purpose for creating the institutional structure in the first place, is not encouraged. That would indicate that the institutional structure could be torn down and eliminated, and no bureaucrat is ever going to give away his job by fixing a problem. For God’s kid, you only have to honestly look at welfare and the drug war to understand that.

If you spent more time looking at things with an honest open mind, and less time trying to justify your socialist core, you might some day be a real contributor to humanity.

vidyohs July 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm

This is one of those “I should have said moments”.

In addition to the above, nothing says permanence, unchanging, and unchangeable as saying it has “become institutionalized.”

John Dewey July 8, 2011 at 10:09 am


Jonathan M. F. Catalán July 7, 2011 at 8:40 pm

I have to agree with other commentators. You seem unwilling to admit that, for the most part, government has worked in its own self-interest and not for the good of “the people”, because, after all, government is a human institution. No less, it is a human institution that works outside of the other human institution which is the market.

Daniel Kuehn July 7, 2011 at 8:48 pm

1. I’d refer you to #2 in the evidence for my theory which specifically highlighted the that governments work in their own self-interest. Hypothesizing it initially and then providing evidence for it is a bizarre way for me to be “unwilling to admit” it, Jonathan.

2. I’m not sure what you mean by “works outside of the market”. Governance by the state, governance by non-state institutions, and governance by the price mechanism all work together very closely. I’d refer you to the 2009 Nobel laureates.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán July 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm


But, you make it seem as if government’s primary purpose is to reduce externalities. You fail to offer any evidence in support of this thesis, and I would go as far as to claim that the evidence instead overwhelmingly supports the idea of the state as a predator. In other words — even if we were to assume that some degree of government is absolutely necessary — the costs of advance governments are greater than the benefits.

Regarding your second point, you know very well what I mean (I even linked to an article that you read). Governments do not economize resources. Government is not part of the market process.

That being said, I don’t even know what “governance by the price mechanism” even means!

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 5:56 am

It’s “purpose”?

It seems like different people have different purposes for government. Government is just an institution. It doesn’t have a “purpose” itself.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán July 8, 2011 at 11:40 am

Ok, can you respond with something that actually addresses what I wrote?

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 11:47 am

I did – I’m correcting your understanding of what I think the primary purpose of government is.

Falcon July 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Whatever merits your “winning” argument has, it fails to touch on any of what is most human in this video: the rights of free men to pursue a career of their choosing. I could give a rats ass about your 4 pronged theory. Leave these men to their own devices and let me continue to enjoy a service in DC that I think operates pretty darn well.

Daniel Kuehn July 7, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Dude – I’ve never expressed support for the DC medallion program. I oppose it. And unlike the vast majority of commenters on this thread, I actually use taxis in DC.

Thanks Cinco July 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm

LOL, taxi cred!

Methinks1776 July 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm

And unlike the vast majority of commenters on this thread, I actually use taxis in DC.

Is this an example of “substance” in a comment?

I’ve used NYC taxis for longer than you’ve been alive. I win the taxi cred game?

Scott July 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm

What gets me is that usually half the people who would be against such liberty-defeating laws, vote for the leftists that come up with these ridiculous laws in the first place.

Seth July 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Agreed. And it’s too easy to get those votes. Find one bad story of an unregulated taxi driver, promise that the medallions will prevent it and you’re done.

jjoxman July 7, 2011 at 8:59 pm

What is the evidence that government actually provides public goods (which is a contestable category of goods) and fixes externatilites? In fact, government does plenty of polluting on its own.

If these two theories explain governments, the rent-seeking one dominates substantively the other.

Observer_Guy1 July 7, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I totally agree with your question. Governments refuse to “fix” externalities through private property rights chiefly because doing so would eliminate much of what government does (quite poorly).

Jonathan M. F. Catalán July 7, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Indeed, one could go as far as to argue that government itself is an externality! I’ve done so to a limited degree here — the tax system is one way that government externalizes costs to the entirety of society.

Seth July 7, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Great point. Good article.

Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 1:12 am

It externalizes it very unevenly. Thanks for the link.

vidyohs July 8, 2011 at 9:25 am

Excellent article Jonathon, very clear thinking and very good expression.

If I were to quibble with anything, and this is not a criticism – just my personal belief system, it would be on the subject of morality.

“The moral dilemma is clear: Does the provision of universal healthcare justify infringement upon individual liberty? More broadly stated, do the ends justify the means?……………. Morality aside, it is nevertheless clear that, regardless of the means, the outcome of socialism — including socialized healthcare — is the same. One can plug a hole, but doing so will only cause the system to rupture elsewhere.”

Personally, I do not see a dilemma there. The morality is clear, one does not steal for any purpose, no matter how grandiose the thief may believe his motives. Anyone (not pointing a finger at you. this is purely rhetorical) who can make a dilemma of that has already told me what his morals are.

Then I would quibble that morality should never be set aside. The problem with socialism is not just the morality of the ones who presume to lead, it is with the degeneration and destruction of individual morals within the body of the people itself. If the leaders steal and promote stealing as good in its purpose, the people soon abandon the idea that stealing is wrong. Not only do they willingly participate in the collective stealing they become less and less likely to reject stealing on the individual level. To me this is one of the major tragedies of socialism, it doesn’t just degenerate and destroy the economy, it degenerates and destroys all the traits of good character that makes a people dynamic, resourceful, and profitable.

The female side of my liberal friends had knee replacement done on both knees not long ago. They had managed to get basic insurance with the help of their capitalist son; but, they told me the rehab (about a week of full time stay and work) wasn’t covered. I asked the male as we visited in her room one evening, “then who is paying for this?” He told me, “I don’t know and I don’t care, as long as its paid.” To tell you the truth, I was shocked, even though I knew he was a flaming socialist. Basically he told me he had no morals when push come to shove. I project that couple onto the multitude of people who wound up voting for Obama.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán July 8, 2011 at 11:41 am


I was trying to separate the moral issue from the economic issue.

vidyohs July 8, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Jonathon, please do not take my comment as a criticism, your article was excellent, you have my admiration for your thinking and your expression.

I only wish you could regularly stand in front of large numbers of college students and make that case and then defend it (which I am sure you could) in a question and answer session.

It just rang my bell on the subject of morality and I was to weak to fight off the urge to make a piggy back comment on that subject. My own bedrock belief is that there is no morality in socialism, collectivism of any kind, and statism of any name; and that that truth can not be emphasized often enough or strong enough.

Gary July 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm

You’re becoming more obnoxious by the day.

kirby July 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm

You have succeeded in telling the truth by telling nothing at all.

Tim July 7, 2011 at 9:29 pm

So let me get this straight. You reject the Russ’ notion of two theories of government if favor of one theory, which, unless I’m mistaken, brings each separate element under one roof to say that government “uses the language of helping people” … “but which also provide[s] the opportunity for rent seeking behavior.”

Gary Gunnels July 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm

This is a pretty loaded sequence of conclusions actually. It only works if (1) is actually true. I would argue that it isn’t; that public goods are largely a myth in other words and most of what governments is not to provide public goods.

Chucklehead July 8, 2011 at 1:06 am

What “fit institutions that provid institutional resistance to predatory behavior and rent seeking?” Got any examples?

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 5:59 am

Comparatively, the United States and Western Europe do fairly well. Tyler Cowen had a good blog post at one point explaining why he thinks Virginia does better at this than Maryland.

Gary Gunnels July 8, 2011 at 9:32 am

Doing “fairly well” in comparison to say Venezuela or Gabon is I would say faint praise indeed.

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 10:26 am

Then start a sea-stead.

Look, I live in the real world.

The United States has implemented decentralized decision making (federalism), democratic decision making, constitutionally limited government, the rule of law, and a market economy. These are all the elements of a robust political economy that I support. They’re robust because they are remarkably self-correcting. The claim was never that they’re perfect – I think it’s worked very well, and I feel like experience demonstrates the value of these elements of robust political economy.

If the relative performance of this scenario bothers you, fine. Try to make your alternative case or show me something that works better.

I have an example of a limited, decentralized government that at least makes a good effort at providing public goods to a market economy. That’s where I’m staking my claim. What exactly is your claim?

Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 11:42 am

Look, I live in the real world.

Is that part of a stand-up routine you’re working on? You’re almost as funny as Tim Geithner was to the Chinese.

You don’t live in the “real world”. You live in D.C.

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 11:48 am

re: “You don’t live in the “real world”. You live in D.C.”

I’ve never lived in DC in my life.

Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm

You left your heart and brain there.

Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm

probably in a cab.

John Dewey July 8, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Daniel: ‘I’ve never lived in DC in my life.”

I think I remember you writing that you worked for a DC Think Tank. Do I remember that incorrectly?

Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 12:59 pm


I think you will find that most of the people who work in The Swamp don’t actually live within its borders, they leach out into the surrounding territories to spend the night before returning the next morning – refreshed and ready to extort and destroy everything they didn’t get to the day before.

You know how it is. So much progress to throttle, so little time.

Dan J July 8, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Providing ‘public goods’ to an economy? That’s a loaded statement.

Sam Grove July 8, 2011 at 1:50 am

That sounds very much like our government school indoctrination about government.

How about another theory, government is the institution erected to preserve the gains of conquest.

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 6:04 am

See your theory explains certain specific elements of government (and since my theory incorporates your theory to a large extent I do too), but it doesn’t go very far in explaining why we have WIC, an interstate highway system, or a National Science Foundation. It doesn’t explain why the government produces education, basic research, and information for consumers but it doesn’t produce bread, furniture, or musical instruments. Mine can explain that. Certainly the government is a major user of coercion and a rent-seekeer. I’ve said this. But clearly that’s not all it does. And if we look at what else it does and try to develop a theory of why it does somethings but not others, citing externalities goes a long way in explaining the observed data.

Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 8:19 am

Right, Danny. If we make things sound a lot more complicated than they are, then maybe we can convince ourselves that it’s a lot deeper, more complex, important and a lot less obvious and filthy than it really is.

Sam Grove July 8, 2011 at 10:56 am

but it doesn’t go very far in explaining why we have WIC, an interstate highway system, or a National Science Foundation. It doesn’t explain why the government produces education, basic research, and information for consumers but it doesn’t produce bread, furniture, or musical instruments

Because maintaining the structure of political rule is more efficacious if the support of the ruled can be bought at their own expense by providing the illusion of net benefit from submission to that rule.

Martin Brock July 8, 2011 at 8:46 am

I don’t see the difference between your alternatives and Russ’ alternatives. I was about to post “both” as well, but Russ doesn’t seem to pose strictly “either … or” alternatives. Who is supposed to be pretending that both elements can’t coexist?

I have my own ideological blinders, but at the Federal level in the U.S. at least, I see far more rent seeking than public goods. The closer I look at the most central organs of the state, the more I see rent seeking dominate what we might agree to call “legitimate functions of government”. Even where some public good seems to exist, it is so mired in rent seeking that its benefits, relative to private goods that could emerge without it, is impossible to gauge. I can discuss a specific program, like Social Security, but the generality seems very apparent to me.

Your theory is also general and correspondingly vague. A libertarian piece about taxis is specific. Comparing the two is nonsense. What do you think of this medallion proposal?

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 10:20 am

re: “I don’t see the difference between your alternatives and Russ’ alternatives. I was about to post “both” as well, but Russ doesn’t seem to pose strictly “either … or” alternatives.”

So Russ posed them as “two theories”. Those were his words. I took him to mean that they were distinct theories, otherwise why call them two theories??

If he means that they both hold true, then that’s great because then Russ and I would agree. I like to agree with people.

If he doesn’t think this and my interpretation of him was right, I think the idea that the government is an institution which serves both functions has more evidence for it.

re: “Your theory is also general and correspondingly vague.”

Ya, well – those are the strictures of a blog comment. I posted a more detailed version on my own blog this morning. My comment still fleshed it out more than the original post, I think.

re: “What do you think of this medallion proposal?”

As I’ve said elsewhere, I think it’s wrong and ill advised. I’m not aware of anyone that supports it. I’ve heard economists left, right, center, and libertarian oppose it.

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 10:22 am

Notice that the controversial element was the externalities point.

I know of no social scientists – certainly no economists – who disagree with this idea that the government can be predatory and is susceptible to rent-seeking. That is not the controversial element.

The controversial element is the externalities point, and there been no attempt to refute that one.

jjoxman July 8, 2011 at 10:24 am

Really? Maybe you should read upthread a bit to my point and Mr. Catalan’s followup.

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 10:28 am

Sorry – no attempts by the blog post. In other words, Russ is presenting these as two different theories (when they need not be) and then defending the uncontroversial one without trying to refute the only controversial portion.

Ya – I follow Jonathan’s writings closely – I read that when it first came out as well.

S_M_V July 8, 2011 at 10:58 am

You missed a word in #1

1. If you look generally at what governments do, creation of public goods and (Negative) externalities are heavily represented.

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 11:10 am

That’s a good point and this is the one that (1.) Jonathan makes in his article, which I recommend, and (2.) it’s implicit in the point I make in my #4.

yet another Dave July 8, 2011 at 11:53 am

You fantasy-world description seems somewhat lacking.

How about government is one of many emergent human institutions that evolve over time to solve externalities and public goods problems, but which also provide the opportunity for rent seeking behavior.

Wrong. Badly. You definitely don’t “win” {…head shaking…}

Government is a vestige of the age-old conquer-and-control bullying rampant through history. Yes, “government” has evolved to be less obvious about its plundering ways, but to call such an institution “emergent” stretches the meaning of the word past the point of reconciliation.

So I fixed your description:

Government is a forcefully imposed human institution that evolves over time to preserve its existence in light of the attitudes and beliefs of those it forcefully imposes itself on. Modern western governments pretend to try to solve externalities and public goods problems to placate their subjects and thus preserve their existence, but really only instantiate violence and provide the opportunity for rent seeking behavior.

Henri Hein July 8, 2011 at 3:54 pm

For the record, after all the above, I had a similar reaction to Daniel. My first thought after reading Russ’s post was “false dichotomy.”

Tim July 8, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Your point about elements of government versus theories of government is right on.

How do you account for the entitlement spending though that is increasingly dominating the federal budget? By what theory of public goods or externalities are programs like Medicare or Social Security justified? What about redistribution in general? Sure there are some public health concerns and some instances requiring regulations, but Medicare is much larger than that.

The reason that old people couldn’t get insurance is because insurance doesn’t make sense for events that are highly likely to happen or have already happened, while those who were insurable faced difficulty as the market for insurance is dominated by employer plans due to the tax code. That’s not a market failure.

I’m not sure you can argue that public goods are heavily represented in governments unless you take a highly favorable view of U.S. defense policy. We spend most of our money “bringing democracy to the middle east” and giving handouts to old people, not on things like defense, general sciences or infrastructure.

Rent seeking and misguided idealism are what is heavily represented in governments, the main difference is that in the U.S. our idealism is more often directed abroad.

Russell Nelson July 13, 2011 at 1:25 am

Of course you think you win. That is because you are short-sighted. Consider that at the same time your government is solving all these public goods problems, its ability and interest in doing these things IS A PUBLIC GOOD AND IS UNDERSUPPLIED.

kirby July 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Just curious: So do libertarians truly believe that somebodie’s freedom to smoke overrules the collectivist’s view that cancer caused by second-hand smoke is bad?

Tim July 7, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I would think it more correct to say that libertarians believe that no one forces anyone a gunpoint to stand around inhaling second-hand smoke. In other words, if you object to smoke, avoid it.

Observer_Guy1 July 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Just curious: do you truly believe that government should dictate to private property owners who can smoke on their property?

Ken July 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm


” cancer caused by second-hand smoke”

Laughable. The chances of getting second hand smoke are pretty much the same as getting cancer due to the air in most major cities. Any ideas what the cancer rates are for non-smokers, those exposed to second hand smoke, and smoker? I’m guessing not by your comment.


kirby July 8, 2011 at 8:15 am

OK; a more realistic vision:
Overfishing. Go.

Martin Brock July 8, 2011 at 8:54 am

A reply to this post is misplaced below.

Ken July 8, 2011 at 11:58 am


Gee. Let me think: Martin nailed it. Introduce incentives to, you know, conserve, rather than catch as many fish in as short amount of time as possible, destroying the commons. A couple of solid solutions have been implemented around the world. There a website that’s good for this type of research: http://www.google.com. It’s relatively new, but it’s relatively easy to use.


Dan J July 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm

This is a good question, and I would appreciate to see responses. Surely, a limit or regulation on fishing is not the crack in the wall that gives big govt supporters the ammunition for govt that dictates over all facets of life, but makes for a sound argument as to why a limit may be useful. Obviously, nutty progressives would take a regulation on fish limits to outrageous degrees, but it would seem that a limit on fishing has merit.

Methinks1776 July 7, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Dumb assertions like yours are exactly why libertarians are unwilling to submit to collectives.

kirby July 8, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I was posing the question. Questions =/= assertions. I am not a collective, nor am I a collectivist. And are you acting stupidly because you don’t know the answer, or are just stupid, or both?

Ken July 7, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Also, what does this have to do with DC taxis, or are you just a standard troll?


Methinks1776 July 7, 2011 at 9:58 pm

My money’s on the second option.

kirby July 8, 2011 at 8:15 am

nope, just don’t have a better place to ask.

Martin Brock July 8, 2011 at 8:52 am

Overfishing in public waters is a tragedy of the commons problem. Many classically liberal economists address this problem, and their views vary. There is no officially Libertarian view that fishing in public waters must be unrestricted.

T Rich July 7, 2011 at 10:07 pm

My colleagues and I used to have a saying when talking to clients when trying to troubleshoot manufacturing problems: “In God we trust, all others bring data!” We didn’t want to hear anecdote and supposition and “Charlie on the 3rd shift thinks that…”

I agree, “Cancer caused by second-hand smoke is bad.” OK, now get me some clear data that shows the causal linkages and rules out other confounding factors. Don’t come back til you have the data and the peer-reviewed studies in hand for us to examine. Otherwise, as Methinks states, we are not inclined to submit to the demands of the collectivists (see AGW as one example).

And my answer to Ken’s question is that this threadjack was the work of a sub-standard troll.

Scott July 7, 2011 at 10:21 pm

We don’t believe in coercion. Leftists do.

Chucklehead July 8, 2011 at 1:18 am

Libertarians believe in property rights and not imposing values on others through force. The restaurant /bar owner decides whether to allow smoking or not, the waitress decided if she wants to work in a place that allows smoking or not. You don’t get to force a smoking ban on all establishments so should you choose to utilize one it is to your liking.

kirby July 8, 2011 at 8:17 am

I was thinking more of what the government has done, ban smoking in public places

I_am_a_lead_pencil July 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm


Libertarians want to privatize many public places – altogether removing the question about what should be allowed in them from any public debate.

Chucklehead July 8, 2011 at 1:33 pm

You don’t get to use the government to force a smoking ban on all establishments so should you choose to utilize one it is to your liking.

Tim2 July 8, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Restaurants and bars are still private property, even if they are open to the public. Actual public property is different, provided there is sound evidence supporting the restriction; for example I find smoking bans in outdoor areas to be quite foolish.

vikingvista July 8, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Libertarians believe people are both free to smoke, and to hold any, even absurd, views. The question for a libertarian is always this: what action does one person take against another, and why.

Seth July 8, 2011 at 1:01 am

I humbly offer this edit suggestion:

“The other is that government uses the language of helping people, with promises to correct externalities and provide public goods, to justify giving stuff to the politically powerful out of the pockets of the rest of us.”

On another note, I’d love to see examples of things moving toward free markets if anyone has any.

vikingvista July 8, 2011 at 2:23 am
Dan J July 8, 2011 at 2:52 am

All the more proof as to why GOVERNMENT must be reined in and limited. Govt is the problem.

Randy July 8, 2011 at 6:51 am

Your first theory is a definition of the idea of “government”, but it doesn’t really exist – its just an idea.

Your second theory is the reality of modern western political organizations, for whom the language of helping is a commonly used method. While all political organizations (past and present) exist to provide for the politically connected, not all of them use (used) the language of helping.

Bill July 8, 2011 at 6:58 am

This was an excellent post and video. Until a few years ago, D.C. taxi fare rates were based on “zones,” which meant that your fare did not depend on distance or time as much as it did based on arbitrary lines you crossed. Your could go three miles and pass through three zones, or five miles and never leave one.

The rumor was that Congress set it up and made the Capitol Hill area the biggest zone so they wouldn’t have to pay much for taxis. The independent drivers loved the zone system, of course, because it was outrageous price-fixing.

The system currenlty in place, with owner-operators and meters is much better and less outrageous price-fixing. I take D.C. taxis and have never been in one that made me feel unsafe.

In Lima, Peru there are “gypsy cabs.” No license, anyone can drive a car and call themselves a taxi driver. There I did feel super unsafe, the cabs were in poor repair, the drivers didn’t know the neighborhood as well as my wife and I, who were five day tourists. Part of that was just that driving in general there is more of an adventure. We literally saw or heard three or four traffic accidents in five days there. There was probably way too little regulation/enforcement all around there.

In conclusion, the D.C. taxi system is way better than it was and is working reasonably well and should not be tinkered with. Instead, resources should be spent on AIDS in the District. Actually, lots of resources are spent, but when the Washington Post looks into where those resources went and who they were paid to and for what, nobody can find records or actual AIDS patients who were helped. That should probably be the first priority. Taxi system reform should probably be the last thing to “fix,” after all other problems are addressed.

The Other Tim July 8, 2011 at 10:53 am

Do you have any idea how disproportionately government “help” is already directed towards AIDS as compared to other equally terminal illnesses?

On top of which, given how AIDS spreads through bodily fluids, things which generally don’t just happen to accidentally get transplanted into one’s body without one’s consent, you nearly have to volunteer to contract AIDS. How do you justify government forcibly redirecting scarce medical resources away from, say, cancer patients towards people who generally could have prevented their illness if they’d exercised a little caution concerning the needles they shared or the persons with whom they slept?

kyle8 July 8, 2011 at 8:20 am

And yet I bet nearly all of these freedom loving entrepreneurs in the video vote routinely for Democrats.

I am not saying that Republicans are all that better, but you can easily compare rates of corruption in the public sector and see that it is highest when only one party predominates.

Yet the minority people living in DC continue to support a one party system. They are reaping what they sow.

vidyohs July 8, 2011 at 8:48 pm

That is an excellent observation, and not a bet I’d take.

Milton Hayek July 8, 2011 at 9:34 am

God-bless the DC cab drivers – that’s a group that deserves wide public support for their cause. The irony is the high proportion of immigrants having to fight for free-enterprise rights in the US!

Crony-capitalism at its ugliest; not to mention ham-handed authoritarianism by the police and DC Cab Commission.

A better argument for limited, hamstrung government is hard to make.

Peter July 8, 2011 at 10:29 am

The government is whomever holds the monopoly on the use of coercive force within a given space, and the government will always seek to maintain it.

Ombibulous July 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm

A young Ayn Rand once said I am the “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.”
During the first half of the twentieth century, I was the most outspoken defender of liberty in America. I spent thousands of dollars challenging restrictions on freedom of the press. I boldly denounced President Woodrow Wilson for whipping up patriotic fervor to enter World War I, which cost me my job as a newspaper columnist.
I denounced Franklin Delano Roosevelt for amassing dangerous political power and for maneuvering to enter World War II, and again lost my newspaper job. Moreover, the President ridiculed me by name.

The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life, When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”


Methinks1776 July 8, 2011 at 12:52 pm


vikingvista July 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm

An American hero, and more courageous than I will ever be.

Speedmaster July 8, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Disgraceful, nothing more than tyranny and thuggery.

J Cortez July 8, 2011 at 2:43 pm

This post has comments that jump out at me. Let me explain.

Throughout my day, I have a total of maybe 40 minutes to leave snarky comments on websites and possibly argue some stupid point on message boards. The reason for this is I have a job that requires that I am industrious, and between sessions of industry, I have a life that I try to enjoy.

I have come to the conclusion that whatever job and social life Daniel Kuehn has, it’s a job where real work for sustained periods of time is not required and outside social interaction is sparse to non-existent.

Hmmm. . . Unless. . Could it be? I wonder if his job is commenting on Cafe Hayek, Econlog, Bob Murphy’s blog, etc? Now, that sounds like a sweet deal. Where do I sign up?

Daniel Kuehn July 8, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Ya – here’s what jumped out at me – most of my posts were early in the morning before I came to work.

Then there were a couple which you can tell by the time stamps were within a 10 minute period when I came back from getting my second cup of coffee at around 10:20.

Since I was up quite late last night working on a draft report (off the clock), I am completely comfortable with spending a little time catching up on new stuff that’s been written.

Mind your own business – I’ve got quite a bit more to do before I leave for the weekend.

yet another Dave July 8, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Wow – you make it ’til 10:20 for your second cup???!?!?!!?

Kidding aside – you have no need to justify your posting time choices here (I’m sure you know this, but I thought it could use saying anyway).

J Cortez July 11, 2011 at 11:30 am

My apologies on not responding until now. I was enjoying the weekend with family.

That you made a point to look at your comment times on this blog post made me chuckle. Post times are not what I’m talking about. My sarcastic post aside, I posit, that you are an obsessive person that needs to comment to get the last word on everything, even down to the most worthless minutiae.

To be sure, you’re not the only person that posts a lot on this site. But there’s two major differences. First, they don’t post as much and as many times. Secondly, your posts are over a collection of sites.

The amount of posts on this site is such that the owner of this site had a post awhile back where he asked people not to respond to you because you were flooding the comments section. People that post as much as you do usually do so on their own sites, not other people’s. It’s not dk.com, it’s cafehayek.com or consultingbyrpm.com or econlog or whatever.

I think you are compulsive. Out of dozens of sites I visit I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’m talking about sites with message boards and comments sections whose topics are sci-fi and sports; Two topics which tend to engender obsessive behavior in a lot of people.

You tell me to “Mind your own business.” With respect, you make it very hard to do that when you’ve dozens of comments, trying to argue every point with everyone, over a bunch of different sites. Most of these are comments to other commenters, who the majority of the time are so ideologically biased they won’t listen to you anyway. And the people that are inclined to listen to you are so put off by the amount of posts that they register you as spam and nothing else.

It’s pathological.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe I am just one of the poor and unwashed fools you’re trying to educate with your magnificent genius, unfairly acting as armchair psychiatrist. Prove me wrong. Take a break. Stop posting on these sites for awhile. Trust me, you won’t be missing anything.

jjoxman July 8, 2011 at 5:37 pm

As much as I disagree with DK on macro topics, and on government stuff, he’s got a point – mind your own beeswax. The heart of the libertarian mindset, in fact.

J Cortez July 11, 2011 at 11:35 am

Mind my own business? Why can I not comment on somebody else’s comments, as you have done?

My understanding of libertarianism is that the heart of it is the opposition to violence or the threat of violence, except in defense.

I have not threatened nor engaged in any violent action against anyone here. I merely commented. Therefore, I am well within the bounds of libertarianism.

gold bracelets July 11, 2011 at 12:34 am

One can plug a hole, but doing so will only cause the system to rupture elsewhere.

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