Wolf in Sheep’s Garb

Martin Wolf, a British writer, has offered us a grand example of a certain rhetorical style. He has written a seemingly reasonable pitch for the modern state, a defense that had a chance of ascending to the insightful had he not also possessed another, more subtle purpose in mind.

He asks “What is the role of the state” in order to declare, with the utmost confidence, that the role is to provide “protection.” Protection of what or whom, it is not really very clear, though civic-minded readers will just assume it is “everybody.”

Also not clear, at least at the outset, is whether he is describing what states do or telling us what states should do. There is a difference.

But what becomes clear, as one reads, is that Wolf’s main purpose is to cast aspersions on libertarian ideas.

The careless reader might not notice his anti-libertarian stance until he brings up anarchism only to dismiss it by saying that “most people accept that protection . . . is a natural monopoly: the presence of more than one such organisation within a given territory is a recipe for unbridled lawlessness, civil war, or both.” There’s nothing like the authority of popular opinion to decide an important issue.

Libertarianism/classical liberalism comes under attack, directly, in the eighth paragraph. But by this time the careful reader will have understood that the whole piece has been written in just such a way as to undermine respect for libertarian ideas. Not argue against libertarianism, mind you, just undermine respect. For what Wolf offers by way of argument is not very compelling.

What is compelling is the careful rhetoric of the way he frames his piece. He raises up “protection” as the standard, and dismisses the Molinarian idea of competition in protective services without once mentioning any scholarly work done on the subject, or (and this is where he is breathtakingly clever) using the word “contract.” As I wrote on my blog yesterday, he carries over his understanding of warfare and conflict from his experience with monopoly state governments, and imputes them to competitive protective services.

The cleverness comes in with his immediate admission of a more skeptical point of view than the one he obviously prefers. He cites Mancur Olson’s contention that the state is a “stationary bandit.” And then he offers up the three mechanisms by which the stationary bandit has been controlled in modern time: exit, voice, and restraint. This is all very fascinating, and could have been the beginning of a great article on the nature of politics and law. Instead, he turns on libertarians, and misinterprets their ideas as relying almost exclusively on “restraint,” that is, the constitutional constraints of competing powers and the like.

The truth is that “exit” is the main check that libertarians prefer. And “voice” (speaking out, protest, lobbying, voting) is not exactly foreign to the libertarian mindset, either.

His contention that libertarians have little practical hope has more than a little plausibility. But I pilloried his assertion that libertarianism is “hopeless intellectually,” elsewhere. It is a silly argument. Utterly silly. Risible.

And by “silly” I don’t mean “blessed” or “pious.”

Those may have been the original meaning of the word, but I’m going with current meaning.

Why bring this up?

Because Wolf concludes his short essay with a discussion of an Athenian epithet, against those who don’t participate in politics. The word? “Idiotes.” And Wolf cannot help himself: “This is, of course, the origin of our word “idiot”. Individual liberty does indeed matter. But it is not the only thing that matters.”

You see what he’s done here. He’s called libertarians “idiots.” It’s his final, subtle insult. (This is the clear implication, even though libertarians, in insisting on rolling back the state, are also, just as clearly, being the good citizens he himself says we all have a duty to be.)

The whole piece ends up amounting to nothing other than an exercise in passive-aggressive rhetoric. Actual arguments are sparse. But by juxtaposing ideas in a certain way, it is designed to lead people not inclined to libertarianism to take libertarian ideas less seriously.

It is perhaps a pity that Ilya Somin (on The Volokh Conspiracy) and I (on Wirkman Netizen) took his piece seriously. Really, it is not a serious piece of argument. It is a clever piece of derision . . . all the more so because it doesn’t look like one.

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