Govern Less

Everybody ought to be familiar with Thoreau’s motto: “That government is best which governs least.” But does assessment not depend on what government is and where it comes from?

One understanding of the origin of government is the banding together of individuals for their common defense. “If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property,” writes Frédéric Bastiat, “a number of men have the right to combine together, to extend, to organize a common force, to provide regularly for this defense.” A government so organized may only do what each individual could legitimately do himself. And if the action of government is properly limited to the common defense, it is surely the best government that needs to act the least.

Such a government could not take from one group of citizens to line the pockets of another group any more than an individual could steal from his neighbor. Neither could such a government subsidize a given industry any more than an industrialist could demand that his neighbors fund the building of his new factory. When these things are done by individuals, they are called theft and extortion, so why should they be permitted on a larger scale?

But the idea that government sprang from the collective right of self defense is not universally accepted. John Stuart Mill identifies the origin of government (or at least most governments) as separate from “the people”. In many instances, government did not derive from organized self defense of the governed but from conquest of the strong over the weak. Such governments were “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled.”

Again, is it not clear that Thoreau’s maxim holds true? At least for those who are subjugated by the hostile ruling class, the government is best which governs (or, if you prefer, subjugates) least.

The twist is that when the people take control of the government, either from the beginning as Bastiat suggests or after popular uprisings occur as identified by Mill, they almost invariably go beyond the scope of simple defense. The tyranny of the majority is every bit as dangerous as the outside forces that Bastiat’s society banded together to defend against. The majority is also every bit as dangerous as the conquering rulers that subjugated Mill’s society.

It seems that however the government comes to be, Thoreau hit the nail on the head.

Granola Shambler

Beer of the week: Berghoff Granola Shambler – It is still technically summer, and it is still warm out, so pumpkin beers can wait. A radler (also known as a shandy) is usually beer mixed with a soft drink such as pop or lemonade. Traditionally, the base beer is a cheap pale lager. Berghoff has attempted to make their radler a bit more fancy. First, they brew the beer with wheat, oats, rye, and barley malt to get a full, rich base. Then they add grape juice and citrus fruits for a refreshing tang. Personally, I think that the amount of fruit they use is over the top. But I do like the idea of trying to make a high-end shandy.

Reading for the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Language is always equivocal, so it is important to start any serious work with definitions. On Liberty starts with the definition of liberty, not as freedom of will, but freedom from tyranny.

Question for the week: Is the organization of government for the common defense, like “Rousseau’s noble savage in smock and jerkin”, merely a fanciful tale to explain the creation of government?


And don’t even get me started on graffiti…

The sun is shining. The breeze is warm and fresh. The mounds of snow start melting away to reveal mounds of garbage. City life is hell.

I can say without hyperbole that litterers are worse than Hitler. If you litter, you are a bad person, deserving of scorn and derision. Luckily, there is hope for you yet. You can be redeemed from your sinful ways. You don’t need to find Jesus or go to church or any of that. Just stop littering. It’s that simple. Don’t throw your trash on the ground like an asshole.

A friend of mine who was a smoker observed that all smokers litter. But truly I tell you, even smokers can be saved. I once met a smoker who had worked as a ski instructor in a national park. The penalties for littering cigarette butts in the park were severe. (Not to mention the forest fire hazard that cigarette butts would cause.) So he learned to put out his butts, pocket them, and throw them away when he got to a trash can. “But that’d make his clothes smell,” I can hear some of you smokers yelling at your computers like idiots. The thing is, his clothes already smelled like smoke because, you know, he was a smoker.

In the final analysis, litterers will always litter because of a problem identified by Professor Coase. Littering is a classic externality. Externalities exist when one person forces an expense or benefit on another person who had no choice whether or not to accept it. Litterers force the expense of cleaning up their trash on somebody else (society at large in a general way, though it actually falls on more or less specific parties.) According to Coase, if the litterer and the person charged with cleaning up trash could get their heads together, the clean up person could just pay the litterer not to do it and we would reach the most economic result. Unfortunately, the transaction costs of identifying all of the litterers and all of the people who suffer at the hands of the litterers would be far too high to be able to negotiate an economic result. Some people will always value the time it would take them to walk to the trashcan on the corner more than they will care about the cost they are inflicting on society, both monetarily and aesthetically. And those people are terrible.

Seriously, don’t be a terrible person: don’t litter.


Beer of the Week: New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale – Gluten-free beer. Is nothing sacred? This beer has a sweet grainy smell. My first thought was that the aroma was malty, but there is no barley malt in it. The beer is actually very sweet, but the sweetness from sorghum and brown rice extract is decidedly NOT the same as sweetness from barley or rye malt. The beer is actually rather good tasting, but it is simply unlike other beers. If I ever had to go gluten-free, I would certainly miss the other options, but I could certainly see myself drinking this regularly.

Reading for the Week: Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Chapter 17 – For a beer called Off Grid Pale Ale, there could hardly be a reading more suitable than Walden. In this section, Thoreau describes watching sand and clay form into beautiful and familiar patterns as the snow melts and washes it slowly down hill. He sees in these rivulets all of nature’s splendor. The patterns in the sand are of a kind with leaves and blood vessels and butterfly wings; the very earth seems to be pulsing with life. This passage is a remarkable contrast to my own experience of watching the melting snow wash garbage slowly down the gutter.

Question for the Week: Do you litter? If so, did your parents do a dreadful job of raising you?