Marriage Is About Nurturing

We often hear that children are the reason for marriage: The physical union of a man and a woman often produces children. Marriage (in one form or another, but historically they’ve all been heterosexual) is the institution that every society uses to deal with the reality of children.[1]

Further, society clearly needs children to preserve itself, and so children justify state involvement in marriage. But the regulation of merely romantic partnerships is (a) unnecessary and (b) kind of creepy. As a result, heterosexual marriage should be recognized and regulated, while the state should leave alone most other intimate relationships between adults. If the best that same-sex couples can manage is romance, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the state has no real business managing it.[2]

The problem with this argument is that children-or-romance is a false dilemma. It may be that within the dilemma only the prospect of children offers a path to the civil right that is known as (civil) marriage. But the dilemma remains false, in that neither of its two possibilities really get at what most Americans seem to mean when they speak of marriage.

In this post I’d like to articulate and defend what I take to be our common, intuitive understanding of marriage. It’s one that certainly can include both romance and children, and it’s great when it does, but it doesn’t have to. I will not defend same-sex marriage, and at one point I will even question it. But on that, I will let you draw your own conclusions.

I think that marriage is about nurturing. That’s how I believe most of us actually do think about the institution. In general, we judge marriages as good or bad, as successful or as failed, by whether the two partners sincerely look after each other’s overall best interests. Marriage is not judged by babies alone. Or by romance alone. And certainly not only by a piece of paper from the state.

I suspect that whether we are liberal, conservative, or other, a steady, profound, exclusive commitment to nurturing is what makes most Americans intuit the existence of a marriage, with or without state involvement. If we found such a commitment between people living in Somalia, or in the far reaches of the Amazon, we would call them married. Even if they were childless, and whether or not they still (or ever) felt any romance.

Governments may recognize either some, or all, or none of these nurturing relationships, but even unrecognized relationships may still be nurturing in this deep sense of the word, and when they are, we will still find ourselves apt to call them marriages, even in spite of the powers that be. If our own government were suddenly to fall into anarchy, no one would think that all marriages had suddenly been dissolved. On the contrary, I think most married people would find their attention rather instantly riveted on making sure that their spouses and children were safe. Which would only be proper.

It should be immediately clear that marriage is not merely about choosing a steady sexual partner. On the contrary, it is a reciprocal agreement with another individual to look after the total well-being of that person, sexual and otherwise, and of any children that might come into the couple’s mutual care.

This total concern for another’s well-being encompasses all aspects of life – the spiritual, social, economic, psychological, and physiological best interests of the partner, not just the sexual ones. Ideally, it lasts from the time the marriage is solemnized until the death of one of the partners.

It cheapens the covenant to say that marriage is just about sex (or romance), or just about rights, or just about children. Marriage is about all of this — and more. Marriage is about care for the total person, so much so that no one else in all the world will be quite as important as one’s spouse.

It is true that friends, siblings, and even certain professionals (teachers, say, or healthcare workers) meaningfully nurture other people. Their nurturing is easily distinguished, however, from marriage: A marriage is a steady, exclusive, mutual, and chosen commitment to nurturing. Of the other types of nurturing just mentioned, marriage is closest to friendship. But everyone knows that marriage aims to be much more than that.

Taking nurturing to be the point of marriage also does a good job, I think, of sorting out where rights, romance, and children all fit into the modern marriage picture.

Neither the rights attached to marriage nor the presence of children within a household would make very much sense if we did not expect that household to be a supportive and enduring environment for personal growth, for adults as well as for children. We want the rights that commonly attach to marriage so that we may grow and develop in the ways that we and our spouses think best. (And yes, there will be a diversity of opinion on exactly what “best” means here. We’re all a bit different, so that’s as it should be.)

Whenever we can, we attach children to the marriages that produce them because we take it for granted that children need nurturing too, and that it is best given by two people who are habituated to it and who are already taking care of one another. I suspect that many find the arguments tying marriage to children – and making marriage only about children – persuasive because we so much want our children to have a nurturing bond as a foundation for their own growth, one that will serve as both a safeguard and as an example in later years. But we wouldn’t want children in the absence of that bond to be the foundation of marriage.

And what about romance? It’s what draws us, when we are young, toward a life of steady devotion. It’s the genius of modern marriage to have taken youthful, impulsive romance and turned it toward this purpose. In the old days, money and family did the job instead, much as we may hate to recall it. A more conservative sublimation could hardly be imagined, one that takes even unreliable human passions and turns them toward something more enduring.

The enduring nature of the bond is especially important to the adults concerned, and it should not be discounted. The benefits run deep: Who wants to grow old alone? Who wants no one holding their hand in the hospital? Who really wants no one to dissuade them when they are enamored of a dangerous or ill-considered life course? And yet who can be the best judge of such, and who can do the dissuading better than a lifelong companion?

Marriage answers these questions with the promise that no matter how ill or how deformed we may become in old age, someone will stand beside us until death do us part. No matter what bad ideas we may seize upon, someone will be there to try to talk us out of them. Whenever we need companionship, or sympathy, or help, we will very likely have it. Marriage means someone else besides ourselves is looking out for us. People who have such people grow strong.

The nurturing model of marriage comports well not only with our common hopes for the institution, but also with Judeo-Christian ideas about love and charity. In the modern era, Judeo-Christian religions have seldom placed any great stigma on the infertile or associated any greater virtue with greater offspring. The most important part of these faiths, at least as this infidel understands it, is that we are to strive to love God and one another as we love ourselves. An all-encompassing, all-nurturing marriage is in this way of thinking a mirror of the relationship between God and man, just as all true forms of love reflect their source, which is God. At least for the religiously liberal, then, the nurturing view of marriage offers a path toward reconciling same-sex marriage and faith.

The nurturing model also explains why adultery is always a concern, but not always the end of a marriage: To go elsewhere for an aspect of nurturing suggests that something is wrong, to be sure. The problem might be bad enough that it’s not fixable, but in many cases, the couple can still work things out, and forgiveness is indeed possible.

By contrast, if marriage were solely about sexual fidelity, or romantic passion, it would be reasonable to end all unfaithful marriages immediately, no questions asked. That’s never been our standard, and it shouldn’t be. That overcoming adultery in a marriage is commonly thought a loving and redeeming act also suggests, once again, that sex is not the be-all and end-all of the institution.

I would even venture to say, although I am on more speculative ground here, that nurturing also explains why the government should take an interest in whether and how we get married.

I concede — happily — that the government has no interest whatsoever in regulating consenting adult sexual relationships. Government has every interest, however, in watching over individuals as they nurture one another. This is because while sex and nurturing are both natural rights that we all possess as human beings, it is far more difficult in a civil society to safeguard the right to nurturing.[3]

In the decisions that nurturers make for each other, fraud and abuse may lurk at every juncture. Trust is essential: Nurturers must often act decisively at the very moments when their partners are most vulnerable and least able to act on their own. A situation like this cries out for an explicit, durable, and binding contract made in advance. Without it, fraud and abuse would run rampant. The contract, though, and the benefits that it offers, are not the basis of marriage; these exist only for the sake of protecting the nurturing relationship from interference.

Protecting the right to nurture requires more than merely looking the other way. The nurtured are vulnerable, and nurturers do things for them that non-nurturers must not be trusted to do. Our natural right to designate (or act as) a nurturer therefore leads directly to a civil right wherein the government distinguishes between designated nurturers (who may make decisions for us) and those who are not designated (who must not be allowed to step in).

To respect the desire of two individuals who wish to nurture one another, a government must make certain that its own laws do not interfere with their relationship. In consequence, much of what I view as good marriage policy consists of the state formally stepping aside and recognizing in advance an area where state authority is limited:

  • The government has an obligation to respect our determinations about who should make medical, legal, and financial choices for us when we are incapacitated; about how we wish to dispose of our property on death; and about our decision to share childrearing responsibilities. When we declare how matters stand in these areas, the government must listen.
  • The government ought not to compel the separation of nurturing partners merely because one is a foreign national. The citizen in the relationship must be expected to help the immigrant adapt to our culture. A nurturing life partner would want no less, and it is doubtful that any other could be more competent.
  • The government ought not to demand testimony from one nurturing partner against another; having developed (or at least promised) the lifelong habit of supporting one’s partner, impartial testimony cannot be expected.
  • The government ought to institute a formal process for registering a nurturing relationship, if only so that the above rights may be unambiguously secured. This should ideally be an act distinct from the various religious rites of marriage.
  • The government ought to institute a formal process for ending a nurturing relationship; while marriage for life is generally recognized as the ideal, some mechanism should exist for those who have determined that they will never reach the ideal owing to insuperable obstacles.

As to the tax incentives and/or penalties that accrue to married partners in the United States, I have no strong opinions — except that they should all be abolished. (I will note in passing, however, that they fall quite unequally on people of different incomes and different distributions)

This, to me, describes the heart of marriage, its reason for being, and its connections to sex, family, spirituality, and the state.

For heterosexuals at least, I would have to say that our government has done a fairly decent job. It’s provided a good solid package of rights that apply to those who wish to contract nurturing relationships between two people of opposite sexes. I would fault it, but only slightly, for blurring the line between the religious rite of marriage and the civil status of marriage, which ought to remain separate. But this is a minor quibble compared to all the rest.[4]

But here’s where things get odd. In talking about real-world marriages, I find that the nurturing ideal is everywhere. In talking about marriage policy, I find that it’s almost nowhere, on any side. Conservatives make marriage all about babies. Liberals make marriage all about romantic love. Libertarians make marriage all about state privileges – and then they ridicule it. (Yes, I do love my tribe. But sometimes they need a friendly kick in the butt.)

Why this strange failure of our discourse? I think it’s because the languages of state privilege — or romantic love or babies — are easier to speak. Nurturing is much harder to talk about. Talking about nurturing means talking about ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable. Bringing it up in the midst of an argument is daunting. It shows off our weaknesses and our impending mortality. Yet if we want our marriage laws to reflect our intuitions, I do think we have to talk about nurturing.

As promised, I will resist the temptations I have to defend same-sex marriage in this context. You may decide on your own whether same-sex marriage stands or falls by the terms that I have outlined above. One might even argue, consistent with the above, that same-sex couples aren’t capable of the lifelong nurturing that marriage demands, or perhaps even that this nurturing has something intrinsically heterosexual about it: To care for a man positively and in all cases requires a woman, and vice versa.

The most I will say at the moment is that these claims require a great deal of defense, and that any proper defense of them will need to take sexual orientation seriously. Effectively channeling the sex drive is also a part of nurturing. But this is an argument for another time.

The goal of my post has simply been to show how “marriage is about kids,” “marriage is about love,” and “marriage is about state-granted rights” all fail to address some of the most important aspects of the institution, and how a different approach — marriage as the total commitment to nurturing one other person — explains the institution much better than any other. It’s on a model like this one that I believe future discussion of same-sex marriage, or any other type of marriage, should unfold.

Notes

[1] This is a revision of an essay I wrote in 2005 for my now-defunct former blog. It’s still foundational to my thinking about marriage. It seemed appropriate to repost in light of the added attention that same-sex marriage, and marriages of other kinds, will be getting very soon in the United States.

[2] One seldom hears about the gays and lesbians (like me) who actually have children, and who may need marriage for their children. But I am told that the law is a big, blunt instrument, and that it can’t possibly cover all the odd cases like mine. Somehow, though, the law always manages to obscure the faults in any argument. Do we suppose that that’s its purpose?

[3] A conservative might say that the government has a positive interest in encouraging our nurturing partnerships; as a libertarian, I am content to argue more modestly that the government, as a servant of the people, has a duty to respect the essentially private nurturing agreements that we make with one another.

[4] See my Cato Institute policy analysis for more thoughts on how we do, and should do, marriage policy.

Throwback Thursday, 9/11 Edition

Here’s my essay from the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Virtually nothing has changed, except that we now know a lot more about what the NSA has been up to. What we’ve learned has only strengthened what I wrote below.

 

I thought my country was going crazy before 9/11. Turns out I was still young, and “crazy” was one of those things I had to learn as I got older.

I can work up a case for pre-9/11 crazy. I was appalled by Ruby Ridge and Waco. I doubted the wisdom of Balkan nation building. I thought the National Security Homeland Industrial Complex Administration was already taking a little too much lebensraum. For my taste, anyway. Ah, to be alive, and young, when politics was only a matter of taste!

So what was what, back in the way-back-when? Vince Foster. The most important individual in politics, until that woman. Earnest college Republicans pressed their it-wasn’t-a-suicide conspiracy theories on me, in e-mails that still unselfconsciously bore a chain of “Fwd: FWD: Re: Fwd:”s in the subject. Like grandma, but creepier. It was one of the many reasons I wouldn’t ever be a College Republican.

And then The Day. Oh, The Day. I hate to sound like I’m belittling a genuine and horrible act of evil, with all of the associated loss. It was evil. For thousands of families, it was an awful and permanent loss.

But for a nation, 9/11 was perilously close to Aunt Ada Doom seeing something narsty in the woodshed. America, can you spare a Nagasaki? A Dresden? A London blitz?

9/11 wasn’t a tenth the size of the blitz, my dear countrymen. It wasn’t 1/300th of Auschwitz.

Grim calculus invites a cynical reply: Do we really have to wait until things get that bad before we get pissed off? Of course not. 9/11 deserved a forceful response. Even a pissed-off response. It didn’t deserve a crazy response—nothing does—but crazy is exactly what we got.

On the morning of 9/11, I opened Netscape to check out the New York Times. It was down, but stuff was down all the time in 2001. No biggie. I headed for class at Johns Hopkins. I first heard the news in the car.

Class was cancelled, so I headed to the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office for an errand. It too was closed—the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office being the terrorists’ next obvious target.

Things went downhill fast after that. This September 20, 2001 Reason interview with Robert Higgs is uncannily prescient:

[W]hen a crisis of major significance occurs–something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars–there’s an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions…

We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist camps, facilities, or cadres. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.

I also share Jim Henley’s view that the anthrax letters changed America’s mindset permanently and for the worse:

When historians recollect the first decade of the 21st Century in tranquility, they will find it impossible to overstate the political impact of America’s most conveniently unsolved crime. The September 11, 2001 massacres were bad, but it was the anthrax attacks the following month that ramped up the “madness” … 9/11 was a shock. The anthrax attacks made terrorism feel like a siege. I think it’s possible that, absent the anthrax attacks, the Bush Administration might have failed to gin up the entirely equivocal support for the Iraq War that it managed.

Within the month, we had the USA-PATRIOT Act, a law that passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate, though few if any legislators had read it at the time, and whose “USA” didn’t even stand for “United States of America.” Which was fitting, somehow. The sneak-and-peek provision of the USA-PATRIOT Act—necessary, we were told, only for this existential terrorist threat—is nowadays overwhelmingly used to search for drugs. Emergency powers become ordinary. But have we ever, even once, been granted an emergency freedom?

It was around the same time that Maureen Dowd went from a catty gossip columnist who didn’t really belong on the Times op-ed page—to a gibbering, Cipro-popping paranoiac with a yearning for big, manly, Republican politicians who would cuddle her in their burly arms after punching out a few terrorists and throwing back a slug of whiskey. Now she really didn’t belong on theTimes op-ed page. But there she would stay, column after sordid column. If Osama bin Laden had subscribed to the Times, he would have been a happy man indeed. (I hear Tom Friedman is better in translation. He’d have to be.)

What was next? A thick green vapor would envelop New York, suffocating millions. Now, chemical weapons can’t actually do this; powers of three are unkind to volumetric, air-dispersed agents. So are wind, sun, rain, and time. Chemical weapons are a hellish poison, in Churchill’s phrase, but they aren’t nukes. A massive, well-organized, extremely lucky chemical attack kills several thousand at the outside, not millions. A more responsible government might have pointed this out, rather than advising the millions to buy duct tape. Which would have been, and was, useless in any case.

Still, people were scared, and “scared” needed a place to hang its hat. For a few weeks, duct tape was unavailable. Thousands got their first experience with sketchy online pharmacies. C-SPAN radio became even more of a freak show, which I hadn’t thought possible. Time magazine suggested gas masks, antibiotics, and hazmat suits, even atropine, but stopped short of Drager’s Civil Defense Set—able to sniff out airborne nerve gas, and yours for a cool $2,995. “It’s not just chatter, it’s a pattern,” said Senator Pat Roberts. A pattern of what? Chemicals, germs, nukes, radiologicals, UAVs, assassinations. When? After the hajj. Soon. Sometime. Right now. Who knows? Does it matter?

Travel changed, of course. A couple of weeks before 9/11, I had returned from a research trip in France. That flight would prove the last for me in a saner era. On my return to France post-9/11, a passenger overheard two tan-skinned men discussing something quietly in a foreign language. He notified an attendant. American fighter jets followed us over the Atlantic.

I tried to document this on the web. Since 9/11, there have been so many fighter jets scrambled for false alarms that I couldn’t even find my own.

We were detained at de Gaulle for many hours afterward. Our luggage was searched, crudely. Mine disappeared for days. I deplaned after business hours and couldn’t get my fellowship certified. Without so much as a toothbrush on hand, I went to the dorm where I’d hoped to live. Fast talk and pity got me a bed for the night. I was no stranger to France, but it was the first time anyone had pitied me for being an American.

September 11 was the day “Orwellian” stopped being an argument against anything. It became a checklist. My country started collecting various-sized bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four like so many grim commemorative postage stamps. Constant surveillance. Constant warfare. Constant suspicion. Last week’s enemy is this week’s friend, is next week’s enemy, and woe is you if you can’t keep up—Gadhafi, Putin, Arafat, Chirac. Censorship? Making steady progress. We didn’t get Victory Gin, but we did get Freedom Fries; close enough for government work. Oh yes, and torture. Because we are the greatest hegemonic power, and because we can do no wrong, and in the end, just because we fucking can, okay?

Who though is this “we”? It is the deepest, most festering wound of 9/11.

Someone does something shameful, somewhere, maybe just once, usually in secret. Someone’s data mining. Someone’s spying on citizens. Someone imprisons, with neither an indictment nor any other cover of law. Someone puts people on a secret plane, to a place where electrodes and power drills are the standard interrogation protocol. Someone cuts out the middleman and just tortures in place. Someone orders American citizens assassinated. Someone starts an illegal war.

In a braver time, these acts would have kindled a revolution.

Someone, however, is an agent of the state. Therefore someone wasn’t the real actor. No, we did it—that’s the core of the lie, right here, that that someone is us. Sooner or later, we find out about the thing we did. We say, in the awful light of morning, that we did it because we are fighting a dirty enemy, and maybe we have to embrace the dark side just a little bit if we’re going to win.

But really we did it because we were afraid. But really, we didn’t do it. But really, the ones who did it will keep right on doing it.

That’s what’s changed, post-9/11. In the end, we didn’t have the will to fight. We fought the terrorists, sure, and plenty of others who didn’t even attack us. But we didn’t have the will to fight as they took our civil liberties away. We didn’t even have the will to punish them afterward. The word “we” is the pawl on the ratchet of state power. It’s the little catch that ensures there’s no backsliding. The we clanks ever onward. The sun shines, the rain falls; the economy is good, or it’s bad. It doesn’t matter. The abuses haven’t gone away. We’ve mostly just gotten used to them.

The Moment of Impending Crisis

For Throwback Thursday, a lightly revised dialogue from 2011.

“I’ve begun to suspect that our delusions tend strongly to return us to the same moment in time,” said the Academic.

“When would that be?” asked the Stoic.

“The moment of impending crisis,” said the Academic. “Whenever there isn’t a plausible crisis, delusion makes up the difference. This author basically gets it right, except whenever he writes ‘comfort,’ we should substitute the more accurate word ‘panic.’ And yet — a fine solid take just the same.” The Academic read:

[M]ost folks derive far too much spiritual comfort from living withing a familiar, fixed worldview that has calcified around them over time. In order to satisfy and cultivate this comfort, these people actively avoid any news, opinion, facts or studies to the contrary. Far too many people have been conditioned to derive a sick sort of pleasure from seeing themselves as wounded victims. Regardless of the root cause, this sort of sociological persecution complex all too often leads these spiritual masochists to seek out fear-peddling outlets like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck because they provide an easy channel of self-validating anxiety.

Are the New Black Panthers going to come to Podunk, USA and harass my virginal 18-year-old daughter? Of course they are.

“There’s more,” said the Academic. “People seem to think terrorism is very likely. And that it’s on the increase. But by the numbers, neither one is true. The same can be said of divorce. It’s less likely than people think, and it too is in decline. It peaked in the early 80s. Violent crime peaked in the early 90s. But the worries about increase live on, seemingly forever.”

“Perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution,” said the Stoic. “From a public policy perspective.”

“It’s not about policy at all,” said the Capitalist. “It’s about signaling. If people don’t have the data readily at hand, they’re going to err on the side of things getting worse. That way they signal that they’re concerned, and everyone thinks them a serious person.”

“Let’s not forget ignorance,” said the Cynic. “Because most people are aware, I think, that they don’t know as much as they let on. So they play a game, and here are the payoffs to overestimating any bad thing at all: If they’re wrong, it’s good news, and if they’re right – hey, wow, they’re right!

“They sure as hell won’t say ‘I don’t know,’” said the Academic. “Even if that’s what a more honest person would do. Failing that, a good citizen is a concerned citizen.”

“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” said the Cynic. “But even if you are outraged, the odds don’t look too good.”

“In any case,” said the Capitalist, “I agree that it would be mortifying to signal unconcern. People would drop dead of embarrassment if they underestimated the amount of crime.”

“Tempting though your theory is,” said the Academic, “I don’t think mere embarrassment is the source of the problem. If people really were afraid of embarrassment, they wouldn’t commit howlers like these, made by college econ students: On average, they declared that our economy is propped up by little more than welfare, price controls, and minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, many of them pegged average corporate profit margins at 60%.”

“Sixty percent!” replied the Capitalist. “That sounds like it has to be a scam.”

The Academic continued. “As Dorothy Parker once said, this isn’t just plain terrible. It’s fancy terrible. It’s terrible with raisins in it. Here’s why. First, I think we can all agree that, on the level of signaling, these students’ numbers are meant to signal concern about inequality. The rich have too much, and it comes to them too easily. The poor — who are very many in number — depend on the government, which has to help them. A lot more. Or they will die. That’s what they’re using their numbers to signal. Agreed?”

The council nodded.

“However,” said the Academic, “that’s not remotely the story these numbers tell. What they really say is that we live in a land of endless plenty — for everyone! If profit margins really were around 60%, then the owner of a cornershop could look forward to retiring as a quadrillionaire. The big mystery would not be how Bill Gates got so rich, but why he’s so damned poor. Assuming even modest reinvestment, capital gains and corporate income taxes could pay off the national debt in the second year or so. After that, we could set up a dole that would leave everyone farting through silk, even if we all worked only a few days per lifetime.

“No doubt this scenario is offered as one of panic, but if I could push a button and make it happen, I would. And then I’d retire to a chateau. Made of platinum ingots. On Alpha Centauri.”

“By contrast,” said the Capitalist, “my crowing about a 4% annual profit looks downright reasonable. So how do people get so crazy? Have they no shame at all?”

“It’s television,” said the Malthusian. “Have you ever seen the TV news? The typical TV news program has a level of subtlety and nuance that would appall in an episode of Dora the Explorer. At least Dora is somewhat perkier. If you don’t watch TV —at least once or twice a year — you can’t hope to understand why people think the way they do. Watch TV more often than that, though, and you’ll risk winding up like them.”

“Panic gets eyes on the screen,” said the Cynic. “There’s no denying it. But which came first, the desire to be panicked, or the opportunists of panic?”

“I couldn’t say,” said the Epicurean. “But it obscures some real problems. While you all mocked the econ students and dreamed of castles in space, I was just thinking — economic equality really has suffered lately, and even actual free-market economists are worried. The ‘panic’ response seems to be to tax the very wealthiest more, but that just makes the government marginally more dependent on the continued existence of a problem that I thought we wanted to solve.”

“But what is the problem?” asked the Malthusian.

“Professor Cowen has his theories,” answered the Epicurean. “They may well be right, but I don’t know. Macro was never my strong suit. To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in it. Particularly not when other explanations abound.”

“You’re sounding panicked,” said the Capitalist.

“Perhaps I am,” said the Epicurean. “But at least it’s an interesting panic. Isn’t it?”

Government Spending and Liberty

[A lightly revised version of this earlier essay.]

Suppose I had a budget of $100 million per year and the power to coerce with impunity. In other words, I have the full power of the state, but a very, very modest budget by state standards.

How much damage could I do to your liberties? Probably a whole lot, if I put my mind to it. I could set up a secret police force. I could assassinate. Rape rooms are notoriously cheap, as are most other forms of torture. The Soviets did wonders with just sleep deprivation, forced standing, and unheated rooms. So, for that matter, did we.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us, a pencil crushed between the digits — the “Chekist’s handshake” — is more than sufficient, when time presses, to produce a confession of almost any crime that one can imagine. Although horrible to the victim, it’s also absurdly cheap, which is why the Soviets used it in the first place.

Many of the freedoms that you and I value the most are easily and inexpensively stomped upon. I mean stuff like public worship, the free press, or the right to independent political association. Arbitrary government often actually costs less than the rule of law, if only because codifying the law and running a court system properly can be expensive. Other things being equal, secret laws are cheaper than published ones, and the cheapest laws of all are the ones that the guard dogs make up right there on the spot.

That’s because “government spending” and “losing your liberty” are two very different things. I could use that same $100 million to run libraries, of course, and these are entirely benign. Yay libraries! Or I could pad the wallets of corporate executives, even if it might not be enough for them to notice. Or I could use the money to occupy foreign countries (I might need a bit more than $100 million, but you get the idea). Or I could spend that money on the DEA. Or I could spend it on the gulag.

I could buy a whole lot of gulag for $100 million.

Some of these things are worth opposing in the political arena. Some are worth opposing in the streets, to the death, in a bloody revolution. But some of these things literally aren’t worth a quarter to me — which is roughly per capita what $100 million in federal revenue amounts to.

In looking at most forms of state action, there is almost no relationship between the amount of money spent and the amount of freedom that is taken away. While taxation is indeed a loss of freedom along one dimension, and while that dimension can get pretty constraining on the tail end, the degree that taxation-and-spending constrains freedoms along the other, non-monetary dimensions depends almost entirely on how that tax money is spent. If you’re taxed a quarter, you’ve lost a quarter’s worth of choices, and that’s not a hell of a lot. But that quarter could buy a Chekist’s handshake, and then we’re facing a very different set of questions.

Or that quarter might even be spent on things that enhance your freedoms, things for which we don’t have any other plausible means of funding, like properly constituted courts, a well-regulated police, and the defense of civil liberties. If so, then it’s a quarter well spent, and we ought not to mind admitting it.

Where I’m going with all of this is very simple. If you have a burning ambition to increase human liberty, the marginal returns to the enterprise are very unevenly distributed in terms of government finance. Take on the DEA, because it is horrible. Fight the erosion of our civil liberties. Fight police abuse and brutality. Shorten prison terms, which are clearly out of control. Cut military spending, and with it the temptation to war: in every single war, ever, we always lose a bit of our liberty, and often, it doesn’t come back. Fight eminent domain, even though a world where the government takes private property more easily possibly means you pay a bit less in taxes. When a man’s home is his castle, liberty does pretty well, and that’s worth paying for.

We could go on, but the point is simple — don’t imagine that lowering spending is always the best way to preserve or increase liberty. We could become a vastly freer country while paying only a little less in taxes, if the cuts came in the right places. And we could become a very, very unfree country with only a pittance in extra spending.