Who Should Be Empowered to Say “No”?

Sam tells us:

In private hands, “no” is a tender little syllable. It lends dignity to lives both modest and great. It is a tiny utterance that invokes Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.” In public hands contrarily, it is hewn in rock, forged in iron, printed in all caps. It channels Ahab: “you may not.”

This is all good and classically libertarian, but then Matt Bruenig chimes in and says “ah-ah-ah, a private ‘no’ is far from tender. Think of the starving man who goes to grab a piece of food from the grocery store to eat, and the store owner tells him ‘no’, consigning him to death or at least to suffering.” The only tender world, Bruenig suggests somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is a completely no-less one; the grab-what-you-can world.

The libertarian and economist has a quick response—the grab-what-you-can-world is a world of mass starvation, where everything is in the commons and therefore everything is overharvested until there is nothing left. But this invites Bruenig to reply: your basis for a private “no” is thus consequentialist, and following the consequentialist thread is unlikely to lead you to the property rights regime you probably want. I know many who would disagree with this outright—Pete Boettke for one. But Bruenig would certainly deny that property “lends dignity to lives both modest and great”.

I’m sure you all have an idea of how I feel about this but I want to put the question to you: how do you respond to Bruenig’s challenge? Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?

There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free ‘No’

The power to say “no”, convincingly, is a characteristic, perhaps the characteristic that separates free individuals from thralls. Alas, the power to wield a “no” is a slingshot in some hands, an ICBM in others. 

At the heart of “no” is the capacity to resist coercion. My daughter is still a toddler now, trying out “no” with all the cute artlessness that implies. But she’s also in the process of finding out first hand the costs of saying “no” to “stop jumping on the bed, little pumpkin” (as the wee lump on her noggin can attest). In my house, my power to say “no” is bolstered both by the authority of my experience and the authoritarianism of my status as head of household. Of course, she’s her father’s daughter and she can smell cheap appeals to force a mile away. I’m well advised to stick with good reasoning behind my dicta. Mind you, my power as a father to say “no” to my daughter costs me comparatively little. I have to take time to explain myself, or listen to her protests, or contend with her advocate (mommy). Most of the costs of my “no” are borne by her.

And so it must necessarily be in an autocratic relationship. The lord commands; the serfs obey, and if they pitch a tantrum, it’s off to the naughty corner. Free adults of sound body and mind, began piecemeal rejection of autocracy in Europe and the colonies, both religious and secular, beginning with Wycliffe and Huss, and continuing through El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and even unto this very day. Courageous men and women have busied themselves with the arduous task of saying “no” to elites, religious, secular, and political.

But there ain’t no such thing as a free “no.” Phronesis (practical wisdom) is hard. Arete (excellence) is hard. The pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid is distant and the trek arduous. There is no mystery when a free citizen finds himself with the capacity to say “no” and judges the cost too high. Sometimes, it’s just easier to hand over the power to say “no” to specialized agents. In other words, right back to the political elites the courageous men and women of history have been tirelessly and bloodily wresting it away from.

It’s understandable. Sensing weakness of character in ourselves, it’s easy enough to imagine similar weaknesses of character in our neighbors. There’s not much of a leap from “I am too easily tempted to [take drugs, forgo due diligence in commerce, eat trans-fats]” to “therefore there should be a law.” It’s a transaction: I trade my private endowment of “no” to another entity to exercise it on my behalf.

And, of course, on the behalf of everyone else in the relevant constituency. 

In private hands, “no” is a tender little syllable. It lends dignity to lives both modest and great. It is a tiny utterance that invokes Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.” In public hands contrarily, it is hewn in rock, forged in iron, printed in all caps. It channels Ahab: “you may not.” My question is this: does the typical constituent understand well the knock-on costs of entreating the sovereign to claim the ability to say “no”? Do the well-meaning folks who petition the state for endless redress of grievances really know that every time their pleas succeed, the dominion of the sovereign swells? Or do petitioners fancy that the state’s “no” will be applied scrupulously, tidily, and all according to principle? If the pie-in-the-sky notion of low-cost political action is the far-mode model voters tend to use, what do you suppose is the best way to disabuse folks of this dangerous fallacy might be?

Suggestions quite welcome.