Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Local Versus Federal Government and Thomas Jefferson

Michael Makovi responded to my previous post, arguing in favor of localized government, such as school boards, saying:

I am more comfortable with a town or some such having a government that engages in coercion and social engineering, because I figure two things:

(1) It is VERY easy to move from one town to another, and
(2) With people you actually KNOW personally, it is very easy to have an implicit social contract. If you live in Meah Shearim, it is easy to argue that you accepted the Haredism of that place, more than one can argue that you accept Washington because you live in the US. A contract can be either implicit or explicit. In fact, I think minhag ha-maqom is nothing other than an implicit contract. But notice that in Jewish history, it was only ever applied to a town; every town had its own.

Now, that doesn't mean a town SHOULD impose coercion. It just means that if it does, it is easier to justify that coercion, all other things being equal. All the other ways we evaluate government actions will apply the same, but the element of coercion will be easier to answer. So it would probably be a bad idea for a small town to burn witches, but it would be better than a Washington directing the same.

Interestingly enough, another friend of mine with strong libertarian inclinations responded in opposition of local government.

You appear to reject the idea that the government has any right to require any education, but you mention that school boards are the least coercive type of entity because they are accountable to voters. That is simply wrong. Yes, voters can vote out school boards. However, since the stakes for most voters are so small, most people don't go to the trouble of voting. Because of that established interests such as teachers unions or religious groups are easily able to take control of those entities. That was the case in NYC until recently.

Once you start talking about a governmental body involved in education, you are talking about something that you view as "second best," rather than a true libertarian state. I would argue that by your lights an education department that established a curriculum (as I described in my previous post) that could be taught by any school without regard to what they teach otherwise (Torah, Koran, etc. ) is likely to be better than a school board that is elected. I would also argue that fundamentalist would be able to live with this curriculum. They can teach evolution as a theory, even if they don't accept it.  

As with most libertarians, I am inclined to see local government as the lesser of government evil because it involves the minimal use of coercion. One way to think of my libertarianism is as a two track system, federal and local. My libertarianism extends only to the federal level. As we move down the system my libertarianism fades away and I am willing to grant government a wider range of authority. Since local governments have little coercive power they become almost like non-government entities in practice and I am willing to accept them as a pragmatic compromise. My ideal solution would be to officially declare all local governments to not be governments at all but privately owned corporate entities. For example I am a big admirer of Disney in how well it runs it theme parks. I would have no problem with moving to a Disney owned city and agree to live by the rules it might choose to make such as no drinking, swearing or wearing gang related symbols.

This preference for local government has a lot to do with the influence of Thomas Jefferson and his fears of a powerful federal government. I feel no need to disown Jefferson over the issue of slavery for I do not see Jefferson's acceptance of slavery as being rooted either in racism or contrary to libertarianism. In the eighteenth century, blacks were outside the social contract and were not citizens and as such were outside any claim to equality before the law. (The authors of the Dred Scott decision had it right.) The tragedy of early American history was less that that the founding fathers failed to immediately get rid of slavery and bring blacks into the system, but that they failed to create a clear path for making sure this eventually happened. If I were there my bargain with Southerners would have been that you could have slavery as long as every person currently enslaved had a way out for themselves or at least their children; say if slavery could no longer be hereditary and any former slave or descendent of slaves were granted the ability to earn citizenship like any immigrant. I would make this same argument today in regards to illegal immigration. Everyone currently in this country needs to be granted a path to citizenship. Having people inside the country, but outside the system is simply too dangerous for society at large.

Despite Jefferson's failure to consider the long term implications of having a significant percentage of the population outside the social contract, there is an important lesson in this ethos, the necessity of viewing the social contract as something one earns one's way into and not something to be automatically granted as a right. If there is nothing to be earned then there is no social contract.


parochial said...

What more would a slave have to do to earn the right to be inside of the social contract. It seems to me that you think that the inalienable rights of black slave can be granted by white. Then the rights would not be inalienable

Izgad said...

The social contract is distinct from inalienable rights. As part of my personal morality I believe that all people should have the right to life, liberty and property. That being said, this personal morality does not get us very far in actually protecting these rights in practice. To do that we need government and the social contract. Granted, the fact that I believe that people have rights makes me more likely to enter into social contracts with others and makes me more trustworthy as to keeping my side of them.
You have to appreciate the moral and legal quandary that the founding fathers were in. Imagine someone living in Sierra Leone. (I actually used to tutor a kid from there.) However wonderful and decent this person might be, he is not part of your social contract. Furthermore, considering the mess that Sierra Leone is in, it is not even possible to say that he is indirectly within your social contract in terms of the social contract between nations. No imagine that someone from this country were to kidnap this Sierra Leones person and bring him back as a slave. This is done at a time when there are no laws on the books banning people from going into foreign countries and kidnapping them as slaves. Here is the trap. You can either step in and defend the inalienable rights of the Sierra Leones person or you can respect the legal social contract with the slave owner. You cannot have it both ways.
The more I learn about American history, the harder I find it to simply condemn the founding fathers for not waving their hands and ending slavery as much as I continue to gain a greater appreciation for the true horror of the institution.