The Costs Are the System

I have not one, but two fellow Sweet Talkers who want me to believe that the political system just is lies and violence.

Here’s Sam:

When I say that the lies and the violence ARE the system, I mean simply that as long as there are rewards to being cunning or wicked, there will be cunning, wicked men on earth. Peaceful, cooperative people require defense against the cunning and the wicked. Such defense is necessarily violent, and by the logic of coalition politics, it is often necessarily deceitful. Without measured, controlled, well-directed violence, there is chaos and social disorder. Sometimes this means stuffing a couple dozen or so ICBMs inside a big steel tube and sending it out on the most dread of all possible missions. Most of the time, it means issuing select members of the community a badge and instructing them to enforce the law as she is written.

Here’s BF:

There are few (no?) truly unalloyed goods in the world. Even if one views government as a necessary instrument for preserving the social order, or, even, that the current governance structure is a force for good in the world, there have to be costs; this is aside from the literal monetary costs, but also includes the implicit human costs that are necessary for the system to work. Even if you assume the current structure of the criminal justice system is a net-good, you have to be honest and realize that innocent people will be hassledarrestedraped, torturedconvicted, and, sometimes, executed by agents of the state to bring you the goods.

Both of them are thinking quite consciously in the language and framework of economics and game theory; of trade-offs, cost-benefit analyses, of cooperation or defection.

If that line of thought is taken to its extreme, then the specific bad things that they mention are not the only costs of the system. In fact, from the economic way of thinking, the whole system is nothing but cost. We want things—food, shelter, entertainment, whatever it may be—and in order to get those things, we need specialization and trade. In order to get specialization, we need the institutions that make it possible. These institutions, in theory, minimize certain costs—transaction costs, as well as the risk of violence or arson which tend to limit the extent of trade.

But the necessity of these institutions is itself a cost (I hastily restate that this is the economic way of thinking; there are others).

Put more plainly, our institutions are the cost we’re willing to pay in order to offset other costs; they’re a net gain in the sense of providing more benefits for less than we would have in their absence (though there may be better alternatives).

So, if I may chastise my fellow Sweet Talkers, it’s not quite right to point to, say, police brutality as the cost of the system (as BF does). Rather, having a standing police force at all, and a military, and legislature, and courts, and law (and yes also property rights), and, well, the whole damn lot of it, is the cost of the system.

So in a very real sense, the cost is  the system, but BF especially seems to focus on costs of a particular kind.

Let’s call it opportunism. Opportunism is something that institutions are very clearly directed at minimizing; through incentives and punishments of various sorts but more directly through norms. The problem, of course, is that the very people who create, implement, enforce, and reform institutions are just as capable of opportunism as people of any sort. They are also capable of dangerous incompetence; sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, especially from the distance of a news story.

But let’s stick with opportunism, for the sake of this post.

It’s no secret that I’m fascinated by the Amish. When I read up on them a couple of years ago, my friends and family were about ready to strangle me to keep me from talking their ears off about the Amish. Their way of life is so different from ours, and yet they are right in the middle of a thoroughly modern nation, pushing back against it and making compromises in strategic and interesting ways.

But a friend of mine—a true believer in the narrative of liberation—does not approve of such communities. He grew up with a friend who was inside of a highly religious community, and they all looked the other way while the father sexually abused this friend. “If I Google ‘Amish abuse‘, what will I find?” he asked.

Anarcho-capitalists often point to specific episodes in history where some governance arrangement cropped up that did not involve a government that directly used violence against its citizens. There was always some implicit violence in the background—from outside invaders if you didn’t buy into the system, say, or from fellow citizens if you were judged “outlaw” and thus not protected by the community. But let’s put that to the side for a moment. Opportunism still existed even at the furthest distance from such threats.

Risk is a kind of cost, as any economist will tell you. It’s factored right into the price of a commodity, just like labor; a labor-intensive product is relatively higher priced, a product that involves a lot of risk to produce is relatively higher priced.

When the goal is cooperation and community, the greatest alternative to the threat of violence is trust. What the anarcho-capitalists point to are systems that rely far more on trust than on overt or even implicit threats of violence. Sounds great, right?

But my friend is not just carrying a chip on his shoulder about some specific thing he witnessed in his youth. Trust carries risks; hell trust just is going out on a limb on the faith that you won’t be cut down. It’s making yourself vulnerable. And what is opportunism, but the exploitation of vulnerability?

When an institution imparts an enormous amount of trust to people in specific roles, that trust can be abused. And that abuse is no less pretty than the sorts of incidents that BF highlights in his various posts.

It doesn’t seem to me that opportunism is particular to either system. Though systematic cynicism may yield insights, serving as a kind of critical theory for identifying fault lines, I don’t think that’s why we have the systems in the first place. We trust and make laws and enforce them because that’s the cost we have to pay to get what we actually want; which is peace and prosperity in which to flourish.

Part of the cost are the specific fault lines for opportunism that a given institution creates. But that is only part of the story.

An important part, of course. But I don’t think the radicals are right in their belief that it is the most important part.

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5 thoughts on “The Costs Are the System

  1. Purpose vs Instrument.

    SW and BF are focused on the instruments used by government. The instruments that are unique to government. Monopolized by it.

    Costs are about why we put up with it even while trying to contain its worse excesses. Reducing costs and creating opportunities is the purpose of government.

    1. Right; SWBF (as they shall now be called) are focusing on the instruments *of* government.

      My main argument is that, from a certain point of view, government *is* an instrument (well, several). And the need for instruments of some sort (whether your run of the mill government or the ancap variety) is the cost of satisfying wants in a world where you can’t instantly and costlessly do so, and especially not alone.

      It reduces some costs while creating others, but (we hope) the balance works out.

  2. Some aspects of the world are good and we call them benefits; some aspects are bad and we call them costs. Confusingly, we also call the imaginary worlds we don’t experience costs as well (opportunity costs). I think few people grok this equivocation. When people choose, they can’t just get the good parts of things and omit the bad. You get a whole outcome with good and bad parts and forgo other outcomes, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. I think you should be clearer about when you’re talking about an opportunity cost and when you’re talking about a negative aspect of a particular choice.

    I think what you’re getting at is that without the police, trust would be more difficult. It would be harder to maintain trust based networks of trade under anarchy.

    I’m reminded of Robin Hanson’s near/far distinction. Near political theorizing is about political changes on the margin. Far political theorizing is about ideal political systems. Anarchists tend toward the far side of things. IMO, the main reason to do far reasoning is to improve your reasoning about near choices. The crucial question is that taken as a whole, it is worth having some government violence in order to make trust based trade easier?

    1. Trust isn’t the only issue. It’s also invasion, theft, rape, violence in general. You could trust your fellow citizens or neighbors but then outsiders could come and wreck the whole thing.

      This post is imaginary from top to bottom, of course.It’s not like we jointly went to the institution store and picked one out and then paid the bill, and are just paying the maintenance costs right now.

      The near choice that I’m mostly driving at in this conversation with Sam and boatfloating is that choosing to go for corrosive rhetoric that participates in eroding trust in the whole enterprise of governance is counterproductive. It’s better to think clearly about your ideals and be more focused in your criticism.

      1. I’ve never liked corrosive rhetoric. It just distracts from a reasonable discussion of marginal moves.

        I’ve wondered about that eroding trust thing myself. High trust societies are much nicer places to live, but when things go wrong in our society, if we point them out, we undercut that trust. Is the trust itself causal, or is it that the reason why high trust societies are good is because they are high *trustworthiness* societies?

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