The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Libertarianism, selfishness, and public goods


James Madison famously wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." He had a point. We tend to think that government intervention is needed because people are too selfish or otherwise flawed to do the right thing on their own. You've probably heard plenty of arguments that go something like this:

"People are too self-centered and short-sighted to drive hybrids and install solar panels. So we need a carbon tax to get people to pollute less."

"Elections are bought and sold by the rich. So we need laws restricting electoral spending to ensure that everyone's voice is heard."

"The economy is rigged in favor of those with wealth, elite education, and political connections. So the government needs to level the playing field by regulating the market and redistributing income on behalf of the poor."

If enough consumers bought Teslas and the rich stopped writing checks to political campaigns out of the goodness of their hearts, then carbon taxes and electoral regulations would be pointless. But conscience alone won't do the job, so the state has to step in to make sure that justice is done.

Here's the problem with this style of argument: The state isn't a machine that robotically churns out fair and effective policy; it's an institution run by people. So if people are unjust, we should expect a state run by those people to be unjust.

For instance, if people are too self-centered to contribute to public goods like clean air, we should expect them to be too self-centered to contribute to public goods like good government. You breathe easier when others drive Teslas even if you drive a gas guzzler, so you have little incentive to buy a Tesla. But you also breathe easier with a carbon tax even if you didn't vote for it. So you have little incentive to research the candidates' positions on the environment, get to the polls, and vote for the carbon tax candidate. Since your neighbors are thinking the same thing, the theory goes, we should expect few to buy a Tesla or vote for the tax. In brief, the reason why the government policy is needed-namely, that we have an incentive to free ride on the contributions made by others-is equally a reason why the policy won't work. Similarly, if politicians are in the pocket of the rich, we shouldn't expect electoral or economic regulation crafted by those same politicians to favor the poor. If the rich control the state, then the state probably won't control the rich.

So we have a dilemma. If we assume that people act justly, the state isn't needed in the first place. On the other hand, if we assume that people act unjustly, then we should assume that the state itself will act unjustly, too. This means that the state is only needed in conditions where we cannot count on it being just. The practical upshot is this: we shouldn't assume, as a number of political philosophers do, that our favored public policies will work well and promote good outcomes. Indeed, an imperfect and unjust government can make our problems even worse.

Think of it this way. All-Star and MVP baseball player Bryce Harper only gets a hit on about 1/3 of his at bats. Failing 2/3 of the time is pretty bad in absolute terms. So should the Washington Nationals cut him? Of course not. The reason is simple: the next best alternative to Harper is an even worse hitter. The standard for judging athletes isn't perfection but rather the other available options. It turns out that Harper is about as good as it gets. The same can be said of the private sector; it's often the least flawed of our nothing-but-flawed options.

Christopher Freiman is the Class of 1963 Distinguished Term Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary. He has written on topics such as immigration, distributive justice, and democratic theory. Freiman's recent book, Unequivocal Justice, criticizes the idealization of the state in contemporary political philosophy.