Can an Instutition be immoral?
Last night I was embroiled in a long argument with my flatmate about the Government. I used the typical Libertarian claim that the government was an immoral institution because it uses coercive force to collect taxes. Of course, he countered by saying my residency in a country implies a contract with the government, and the government is only using retaliatory enforcement should I breach the contract by nonpayment. Technically this is true, I could vote with my feet. I usually use this argument myself to defeat claims of economic exploitation. I was very nearly had by this, until I realized that because the U.S. grants citizenship by birth, I was entered into a contract without conscent, even though I could void the contract by leaving, it’s impractical to do so (and all the other countries are worse).
So, I moved to claim that irrespective of my complicity or acceptance of a contract the arrangement was immoral. That is, I could voluntarily conspire with another in order that we murder a third. The fact that I voluntarily joined the agreement does not make such an arrangement a moral institution. So, by residing in the territorial confines of a government, and participating in it’s voting system, and receiving its benefits (safety, public education, etc..), obeying its laws, means that I have formed an agreement with what I claimed is an immoral institution. But because I’ve received benefits, and maintain residency, I’m implicitly accepting the contract, so collection of taxes is contractually enforced. Not to pay constitutes a breach of contract that warrants retributive force. So, I had to concede that it was no longer the enforced payment of taxes that made the institution immoral. I could have parried this by pointing out that I was conscripted into the contract via my birth in the U.S. (BTW: I don’t at all agree that entering into a contract via birth is moral or even legal. Though my flatmate thought it acceptable.)
So, I tried a different strategy. I claimed that the government involves itself with immoral behavior in killing others, both during war, and via the death penalty. I thought I might win with this, because I could easily demonstrate our initiation of force on other sovereign peoples, and that because governments regularly do this it is therefore an immoral institution. But he claimed that in doing a blame calculation you must pin it on the people involved, not the institution, because it is ultimately the people who carry out the wishes of the government. Unfortunately, I’m not very well equipped to defend this point, though I did mention that you can easily sue both companies and the government in court (they have legal status as a person) and that because the government has a large number of people it is always able to replace the executioner with an individual that is willing to comply (that is, the institution can ensure an immoral action takes place even when the majority of the members would passively resist by resignation). [I didn’t even bother to appealing to the Milgram experiment to demonstrate coercion]
Finally though, I was shot down:
Only a sentient being can have morality.
So institutions can’t be moral or immoral, it doesn’t apply. The government, as an institution, has no intrinsic morality. I had to withdraw my object to the government on moral grounds.
Also, I’ve never found anyone that agrees with me that our ultimate goal with regard to government should be to get rid of it. I find that some people agree when I claim that we should make it smaller each year, but that nobody agrees we should get rid of it altogether. Typically, they ask for a replacement system, which I don’t have. But that still doesn’t invalidate the goal. I like to argue that via a long process of whittling, we might be able to achieve it. But more importantly: if we don’t state that as an explicit goal (even if unachievable), we won’t have a mark to aim by, and government bureaucracy will grow steadily (as evidenced by history).
I claim lack of imagination. After all, there are many unachievable goals that are revered as noble. (ex: living you life as a perfectly moral being) In the end I’ve noticed that people tend to assume that anarchism necessarily implies unorganized militant chaos. I should probably work to dispel that myth. But it’s really hard when I’m unable to propose a workable alternative. Nobody strictly follows the logic, rather they follow their beliefs about anarchism.
My next argument will probably be about “what will Libertarians do about emergency services”? My current roomate thought in my ideal world without taxes or subsidies, there’d be no incentive for anyone to form emergency relief services. (honestly, he voluntarily donates time to Habitat for Humanity and still argues this cynically about his fellow humans)
Of course I should probably also look into the morality of contracts based on territoriality. The inconvenience of moving is pretty coercive.