The Poisonous Question


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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50 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus says:

    One of the things I was surprised by in rereading the Statesman is that Socrates basically says this- that finding a leader with the sufficient skill and wisdom is pretty much impossible so we find ways to compensate. Plato had his issues with democracy, of course, but it was good to hear the acknowledgment that the philosopher king probably doesn’t exist in the real world.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


      This is part of the reason why Karl Popper draws such a sharp distinction between Plato and Socrates. The former is a villain for him; the latter, a hero. I am generally inclined to agree.Report

      • Avatar Rufus says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, I’d agree with the basic distinction- at least it seems the most plausible one given what I’ve read. Popper does take it pretty far though. You get the feeling that one of the great disappointments of his life was never being able to meet, and beat up, Plato.Report

  2. Avatar Francis says:

    Jason, I love your writing and usually agree with what you write, but have you been asleep since 2000? Americans may have had a choice over the last 20+ years as to the kind of society they wanted. To the extent that they had a choice, they have expressed their desire for a globally interconnected economy (see, eg., Walmart).

    There are significant advantages to globalism over localism, including low prices and a wider range of choices. But if you think that a global economy can function on “abstract rules of conduct”, then you haven’t been paying attention. Since the counterparty in every transaction doesn’t know you and will likely never see you again, they have every interest to do their best to screw you over. And, since this is a big and rich country, the rich and powerful have every incentive to go to Congress and develop rules of the road that favor them over you.

    We can see the effects of a government by the powerful, of the powerful and for the powerful everywhere. Stagnant wages for everyone except the top 1%. Unequal distribution of wealth not seen since the Roaring 20s. Farm subsidies. Oil and gas subsidies. Environmental destruction. Failure of carbon regulation. A banking cartel that looks like a criminal enterprise. A Federal Reserve that has forgotten its statutory obligation toward labor, in favor of capital. etc.

    Yes, it’d be really nice if elections mattered less. But until you turn the Boards of Directors of the Fortune 500 into libertarians willing to give up participation in the political process, the rest of us have no choice but to care passionately about who gets elected.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


      [I]f you think that a global economy can function on “abstract rules of conduct”, then you haven’t been paying attention.

      I would answer that it is only on the basis of abstract rules of conduct that a global economy can ever function.

      Where was my coat made? (Looks on the label…) Mexico.

      I don’t know anyone in Mexico, much less have I any personal loyalties or friendships there. The only way that it came to me, and that it was what it claimed to be, and that I could trust enough to buy it, was through a chain of abstract, impersonal rules. The benefits of such a system are now spreading throughout the developing world, where extreme poverty is in profound retreat, even despite the world financial crisis.

      Now, within the enacted rules, some are undoubtedly more necessary than others, some are downright pernicious, and some things go unaddressed that cry out for a rule. But that’s another conversation entirely.Report

      • Avatar Francis says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, hmm, maybe I’m just misunderstanding. But your previous sentence was about disengaging from power. There’s a reason your coat comes from Mexico and it has nothing to do with “abstract” rules of conduct. Instead, it’s due to very specific rules of conduct set forth in NAFTA (and related trade agreements) negotiated by people in power.

        There’s no particular reason why we allow companies that sell here to export labor and environmental practices that we would not tolerate here, except that it reduces prices. But that’s really just a way of saying that our laws don’t apply when there’s money to be made. And that philosophy has everything to do with who’s engaged with power.

        (My ten-cent understanding of the economics of international trade: the gains from trade more than offset the losses, so the winners can compensate the losers and still be better off. Of course, if you can get away with not compensating the losers, so much the better for the winners. This appears to be what has happened in a number of formerly American industries, including textiles and furniture.)

        Here’s a story: I used to do legal work for developers of residential property on the front end, getting raw land permitted and entitled. While I didn’t do construction defect work directly, I am pretty familiar with that kind of litigation. Now, not so long ago most of the stuff that went into building a house was made in this country. But builders decided to outsource one particular product — drywall — overseas, wiping out the domestic industry. It turns out, however, that the foreign-made drywall outgasses formaldehyde and other nasties. It has ruined people’s lives and made their homes worthless. But many people suspect that the bulk of actual damages will never be collected because the defendants are incorporated overseas.

        I don’t know if there was ever a testing protocol for American corporations to be able to sell drywall in this country. But it seems to me that something has gone really wrong in this country when major corporations, in the quest to maximize every last cent of profit, can purchase goods that do not meet american standards of production and place them into the stream of commerce in a way that deprives people of the opportunity to understand what risks they were taking.

        Libertarians tend to be big fans of the court system as an alternative to regulation. Me, not so much.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          @Francis, (My ten-cent understanding of the economics of international trade: the gains from trade more than offset the losses, so the winners can compensate the losers and still be better off. Of course, if you can get away with not compensating the losers, so much the better for the winners. This appears to be what has happened in a number of formerly American industries, including textiles and furniture.)

          There’s also the possibility of both people walking away better off than they were before.

          If I’m really good at making spears and you’re really good at making baskets, we can trade a basket for a spear and both of us can walk away saying “heh, I totally got the better of that one”.

          I want the product more than I want the money in my wallet. You want the money in my wallet more than you want the product. We trade. We both walk away better off because of this.

          Surely a similar dynamic can exist internationally.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


            You are entirely correct in your barter examples. But in a money economy, things are even better than you’re maybe making clear.

            By using money as a go-between, I can give you the value of whatever I’m best at, in exchange for the value of whatever you’re best at, even if you don’t remotely want what I make.

            I’m an opera singer. You grow cabbage. I sell my performance to a paying audience. I take the proceeds to you. Although you hate opera, you will supply me with cabbage equal to the value of someone who loves opera.

            It’s not magic — even markets aren’t magic — but it’s pretty awesome all the same.Report

            • Avatar CharleyCarp says:

              @Jason Kuznicki, You’re both ignoring Francis’ point, which is that such exchanges only work when both sides have sufficient information, and the ability to correct flaws in the exchanges. If you give me good baskets, and all my spears break on contact with any mammoth hide, I’ve made a really good deal, and you a crappy one. And if I use my extra income from getting all those great baskets, and savings from skimping on spear making, to hire a bunch of goons to protect me from you, when you come to complain, well, all the better for me.

              In fact, my goons might just ‘persuade’ you to make more baskets for me at half the prior price.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


              I am not ignoring his point. I take refraining from fraud and from private violence to be among the most important abstract rules of the bunch. Ramifying these in all their detail is a difficult question, but we don’t need to take it up here, as long as we’re clear that it hasn’t been settled already.

              To be frank, I can hardly imagine the bad faith it must take to read what I wrote above and say, “Ah, this guy’s totally cool with fraud and random violence.”Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    We’ve all heard that the best form of government is benevolent dictatorship (usually from someone who fancies him/herself the benevolent dictator)… but one rarely hears that the crappiest form of government is malevolent dictatorship (probably because it needs not be pointed out). Out of all of the bug/features of dictatorship, one of the trickiest to deal with is the whole “it’s really, really difficult to get rid of it” thing so if you have a benevolent dictator who is succeeded by a malevolent one (or just has a midlife crisis and turns into one), you can’t get rid of it without a huge amount of spilled blood/treasure.

    The upside is that you have the best form, but the downside is that you have the worst.

    Compare to our (admittedly ugly) system.

    The upside is kinda mediocre… but it’s really not that different from the downside.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      which is why the basic problem of governance posed by plato has not been adequately adressed by democrats. (as in people in favour of democracies, representative or otherwise)

      Does governance require specialised knowledge? Yes
      Wherever there specialised knowledge is required, do we use experts? Yes, we use doctors lawyers engineers etc.

      So why is it that we somehow think that lay persons are some how qualified to make decisions that require specialised knowledge?

      Let us suppose that even experts are not sufficiently knowledgeable. If, suppose knowledge is widely dispersed, why should we believe that democracy is even capable of aggregating this knowledge? If at any one time, a minority of people are going to be right about economic matters, then majorities are going to consistently be wrong.

      Caplan’s Myth of the rational voter argues that the average voter has an anti market bias, anti-foreign bias, pro make work bias etc. as compared to the average economist. It follows then that if we were to replace your senate and congress with tenured economists from 50 state universities, your economic policy would be far smarter, more market oriented, with a lower taxload and a more sturdy safety net (which would probably be means tested as well). We can even get a bunch of philosophers to chir an ethical oversight committee, some international law and foreign pol sci people to look at how to deak with other countries.

      Moreover, we can pace Rawls divide the issues up into 2 different spheres: 1. Basic liberties and 2. Economic issues

      Liberals and libertarians both believe that basic liberties should not be left up to legislatures. And as mentioned above, while we could leave economic issues to legislatures, a non-democraqtic legislature consisting of experts would do much better than a democratically elected one, except in the limiting case where the people elect their local tenured econs prof to office. If everybody did that, you would approach the efficiencies of having a legislature of technocrats.

      I suppose that broadly speaking a constitutional technocracy is kind of like a dictatorship. (It definitely isnt a democracy) But since dictatorships usually bring to mind people like Kim Jung Il and Saddam Hussein, it could be some kind of third alternative, and would more closely approach Plato’s ideal of a philosopher king.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        @Murali, my take is more that the most important thing that a government can possibly do is *CHANGE*.

        Personally, I think that if a community wants to try totalitarianism one 4-year period, then try Communism the next 4-year period (we need 5!), then try Objectivism, then try Representative Republic, then try Constitutional Monarchy, and so on and so forth, hey.

        They totally should.

        The problem is that, historically, it ain’t easy for any of those governments to change except for the weird constitutional and/or representative and/or Republic/Democracies.

        All of the others require bloodshed, historically, to get from here to there.

        When it comes to experts at governance… well, the only ones I’ve ever heard of (first hand) were at the local level.Report

        • Avatar Murali says:


          Personally, I think that if a community wants to try totalitarianism one 4-year period, then try Communism the next 4-year period (we need 5!), then try Objectivism, then try Representative Republic, then try Constitutional Monarchy, and so on and so forth, hey.

          They totally should.

          Only if you are talking about Nozickean experiments in living, where trying this stuff out is purely voluntary. Or else some of this shit is rights violating in the extreme. This is not to say that any actual system which is not purely voluntary is therefore rights violating (it seems that murderers and thieves dont agree to the rules either) We cannot escape the fact that whichever system of rules we choose, some people will be subjected to rules that they did not choose. My solution to the problem is rather Rawlsian in terms of choice from the original position. However, what I think people will choose is at once more libertarian and less democratic than what rawls seems to believe.
          The problem is that, historically, it ain’t easy for any of those governments to change except for the weird constitutional and/or representative and/or Republic/Democracies.
          Any polity with a firmly established rule if succession (requires at least an unwritten constitution) can change (without changing the form of government) non-violently. Of course between various forms of government violent change often seems to be the rule. It is, however, not clear that democratic forms of government are not to blame for violence. Besides, I’m not advocating that we demolish constitutionalism, only that we change how the legislature is chosen.Report

  4. Avatar Eagle Driver says:


    Great article. I have come to similar conclusions about the “leadership” of governments and “rulership”. I am almost through the 1st volume of Winston Churchill’s “A History of the English Speaking Peoples.” It seems to be an endless cycle of one good King followed by 4-5 bad kings, then a good King, then bad, etc. (amazing similar to the historical books of the Old Testament). What is up with this 1 good and multiple bad? On page 399 of Churchill’s volume 1 says:

    “Thus the life and reign of King Henry IV exhibit to us another instance of the vanities of ambition and the harsh guerdon [old English word for “repayment”] which rewards its success.”

    I like the “another instance of the vanities of ambition” part. In order to run for office one must be Narcissistic and as the subtitle to Christopher Lasch’s late 1970s work “The Culture of Narcissism” says:

    “American life in an age of Diminishing Expectations”

    Do we elect “non-leaders”, “non-statesmen” because we have diminishing expectations? Or is it because we as a collective people (oh there is a new concept: collective) have eliminated the value of “work ethic”, “individual initiative”, “discipline”, “moderation”, etc. in search of prosperity? Virtue has been replaced with Celebrity-hood.

    Food for Thought if You are Hungry – great article Jason.Report

  5. Avatar gregiank says:

    You can certainly take Conor’s piece and run with it in the direction you wish to, but i think you missed the point of what he wrote. He noted two people who have very different takes on the really really really scary mosque in NY, neither of whom think they are elite or who have power, yet both of whom are greatly privileged and have, in many ways, a lot of power in this society. I took his question to more be asking who are the varied groups that have power in our society ( any society will have groups with different levels of power, even the sparkle unicorn libertarian utopia) and why do so many people who are part of powerful groups still not feel like they have any power. Power is also not just about liberals vs conservatives.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM says:

      @gregiank, Exactly. The question isn’t so much “who rules?” as it is “why do the rulers all think that someone else does?”Report

      • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

        I’m pretty sure the rulers know who’s ruling — the ones with a monopoly on coercion. The ones being ruled are the only ones who might be confused. Like the business student Conor writes about — she thinks Bush/Cheney are still ruling the world from a bunker, I suppose. That’s okay, she’s still being indoctrinated — when she graduates and starts paying taxes, or if she tries to open a business, she’ll know who rules.Report

        • Avatar JosephFM says:

          @Mike Farmer,

          @Mike Farmer,
          My goodness. It takes a ridiculously simpleminded conception of both “rule” and “coercion” to believe what you just wrote.

          There are so many levers of social control outside of the direct hand of the state, and living with privilege means exercising some of them.

          Also, if you didn’t notice, she’s in business school. If anything she’s doing an admirable job of holding off indoctrination, or she’d be spouting the same kind of nonsense you do.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Farmer says:

    Amen. The point is remove “rulers” from the equation. If government is needed, it’s needed to protect and serve, not rule — and neither should a majority of the people rule, or a small, powerful minority — and they can’t without government assistance. It should be about influence and persuasion in the free market of ideas — this is where the order begins to emerge, organically and hopefully guided by reason, compassion and tested principles. Oh Mike, you are soooo naive.Report

  7. Avatar Ryan Davidson says:

    If believing that people do not need to be and indeed should not be “ruled” is a touchstone of liberal thought in the historic sense, then I’m not a liberal.

    But I already knew that.Report

    • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

      @Ryan Davidson,
      No, you definitely aren’t. Why do you want to be ruled?Report

      • Avatar JosephFM says:

        @Mike Farmer,

        It’s not that I want to be ruled. It’s that I want you to be ruled, and am willing to be rules myself in the interest of fairness.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          @JosephFM, yes.

          Since it’s absolutely absurd to me to think that one dude could marry another dude, it’s no skin off my nose to say “Men cannot marry other Men!”

          I give up my so-called “right” to same-sex marriage and call for laws to make sure that you can’t marry a dude either.

          The law, in its majesty, etc.Report

        • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

          Why do you want me to be ruled? As long as there are laws we all agree on against violating each other’s rights, how do I threaten you? And, who rules the rulers?Report

          • Avatar 62across says:

            @Mike Farmer, that’s a pretty massive “as long as” assumption, isn’t it?Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              Not really –it’s what we originally agreed on — it’s rational and very, very reasonable. It’s a massive assumption to think we’d go back to Hobbes jungle. Calling for a free market and limited government which protects rights is not that radical unless you think history started in 2008. I’m not sure how some of you are framing this argument. If it’s that a free market would create a ruling class of rich capitalists, then that assumption really is massive — and flawed.Report

            • Avatar 62across says:

              @Mike Farmer, you can’t get a dozen commenters on a single blog to agree on the meaning of “violating each other’s rights”, so just extrapolate those results to a national scale. I’m not predicting some dystopia, but I sure wouldn’t expect my rights to be protected with any sort of equity to the rights of those who would hold all the power should the government be cut to the bone tomorrow.

              We already have a ruling class of rich capitalists, don’t we? My argument is that said ruling class of rich capitalists would have to acquiesce to the creation of a free market. As I’m sure you’d agree, a free market would be an anathema to a ruling class of rich capitalists, so I question what might possibly make them agree to go along with the plan. Reasonableness and rationality, perhaps?Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:


              They don’t have to agree. Are you saying we’re fated to be under the thumb of rich thieves? Not capitalists, but thieves — there’s a difference.Report

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

            @Mike Farmer,

            I can play today.

            We can all agree to avoid violating each others rights but when it comes to edge cases like say me dumping chemicals onto my property which gets into you well giving you cancer, your ability to sue me seems a little insufficient. Especially if I have awesome lawyers and you don’t have much money. Or say the emissions from my factory are contributing to a phenomenon that will turn your farmland into a drought ridden dustbowl. You can’t possibly find and sue every single person emitting the substance causing it. This also assumes that you were able to somehow fund the science that would tell you this.

            Or perhaps I happen to be in charge of most of the jobs in town due to my owning the factory. If I don’t like you or what you say good by to being able to feed or provide healthcare to your family. If I’m really vindictive I might work with the rest of the town to blacklist you.

            So you ask the question who rules the rulers? It is supposed to be the voters. We are supposed to elect some decision makers and if we don’t like what they are doing replace them.

            So this is a question you get often I expect: Was there ever a time with “free markets”? Can you tell me when it was? I’d like to see what I think of the time.

            Can you tell me why I would rather be the average citizen of your libertarian society as opposed to the average citizen of a modern Scandinavian social democracy?Report

            • Avatar North says:

              @ThatPirateGuy, In fairness though, Pirate, the Scandinavian social democracies are notable for their very very low market regulation. They have high taxes, yes, and large social safety nets. But when it comes to business activity they generally keep the hell out of the market’s way.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              The way it’s turning out with voting is that in an unlimited government, too much damage is being done before they can be voted out — and politicians are using their power to create dependence and a power base to keep them in office. You are basically trying to find ways to make a free market impossible, therefore you will find what you’re looking for as a rationalization — the thing about a free market is that it has to believed in and people have to work together to find solutions to social conflicts — I believe we can, you don’t — that’s the difference.

              there’s no way I can prove it. If the ideas and principles don’t convince you, then I don’t know what to say.

              I’ve never lived in a Scandanavian country, so I don’t know how to compare the two, but any country which implements statism will eventually collapse or be supported by some outside benefactor.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              As for when there was a free market — read history by a real liberal writer who has an eye for this part of history and you will find in ancient Greece and in Rome, to point out a couple, there were times and places when power was balanced and it allowed free commerce — amazing things happened during these time — then there was the relatively free market of the 19th century in America — most of the problems in America can be traced back to government interference, like with land grants and favoritism with railroads and such. The bigger point is what would a free market look like now with what we have learned — I think it would incredibly fruitful for all concerned. We know how to do charity much better and even the problem of poverty and illness would be greatly improved, in my opinion — I’ve written about some ideas on my blog regarding possible charity/assistance organizations and private insurance/savings arrangement in a free market.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:


              I know North, I like that about them. They only regulate when there is an actual need and use the power of the market to solve problems. In addition they manage to address issue with the environment.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

              @Mike Farmer,

              1) Charity will never be enough. It has nasty side effects as well(such as putting people in trouble under the thumb of religious nuts).

              2)Who said anything about unlimited government. I simply think that crippled government isn’t going to do enough.

              3) Greece, Rome, and early 19th America all used slavery to power their economies. That doesn’t sound like a free market to me.

              If you want you can clarify the best parts of the 1800s as far as free markets. The early industrial revolution was terrible for the average person the factories worked people to the bone for peanuts. In bad news for free markets the government even tried to “protect” the economy with tariffs.

              There is a reason people started forming unions.

              Look I really don’t want to go back to the 19th century it was a terrible time. I’d rather move forward by reducing barriers to entry, regulations that don’t work, and other intrusions into the market place like farm subsidies, oil subsidies, etc. And at the same time make sure that no-one goes without health-care nor goes broke paying for it. I’d also like to see us actually address the climate change issue.

              Libertarianism only addresses one of these things and stands in the way of the other two. I can get all three from with-in liberalism if I work through it.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:


              Like I said, I’m talking about a free market now, post slavery, post everything up to the point in time — right now — this minute — moving forward — presently. You brought up the past — I’m worried about what to do now, and statism isn’t getting it done. You’ll never agree — the possible will never be enough, the past is flawed, etc, etc, so we’ll see what happens.Report

  8. Avatar North says:

    The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

      @North, …it ain’t France, 1780!Report

    • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

      If we absolutely have to have plenty of laws, while we’re at it, let’s make a law that prevents anyone who hasn’t lived in poverty from making decisions on behalf of the poor.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @Mike Farmer, wouldn’t work Mike. The wealthy make thousands of decisions on behalf of the poor all the time externally to government. What they eat, where they can and can’t go, etc etc.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

          @North, Are you sure it isn’t the ‘market’ that makes those decisions? And, being a neolib I know you don’t want the apparatchiks making them!Report

          • Avatar North says:

            @Robert Cheeks, in some cases Bob. And yes, I’m generally non-interventionist in most spheres of the market. Being neoliberal, though, I recognize the need for the government in some areas of the market. Law of course, fraud, disaster and particularily the commons; air and water especially.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

              @North, Alas, are we forced to balance the needs of community between the evil corporate executive and the oppressive apparatchik?Report

            • Avatar North says:

              @North, maybe Bob. But the oppressive apparatchik’s, of for instance, Iceland’s tightly regulated fisheries have yielded a sustained productive resource where the untrammeled free markets of the tuna fisheries in international waters (overseen by libertarian voluntary quotas and trade associations) are verging on pushing tuna into commercial extinction. There are things markets don’t work on. Pity. It’d be simpler if there weren’t.Report

  9. Avatar CharleyCarp says:

    No one rules, it’s all an invisible hand. Which is why the Broderist faith in the grand bargain of some sort — e.g. the deal that was supposed to head off the Clinton impeachment — is always in vain. No one has the authority to make any social deal.Report

  10. Avatar 62across says:

    Jason –

    Doesn’t the confusion come from the very idea of an objectively correct ordering of who shapes the country and its future? I don’t believe there is a hierarchy, but rather an array. So it is about getting the right people the right kind of power.

    Sometimes cultural leaders have a greater impact on the shape of the country – political advances for gays have certainly lagged behind the cultural advances. Thomas Edison has shaped our country every bit as much as Thomas Jefferson, I’d say.

    Recognizing my own ignorance, I defer to elites to shape different aspects of the country, but wouldn’t expect any one of those elites to shape all aspects. I’ll let Barbara Streisand lead the way on the interpretation of pop standards and Sarah Palin can lead the way on snowmobiling. The shape of our future will depend on drawing from the best of a panoply of elites, plus the innovations of the up and comers, and not from some small set of rulers.Report