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Actions prejudicial to the interests of others …

Summary:
In J. S. Mill's On Liberty (1859), chapter 5 "Applications", he argues: The principles asserted in these pages must be more generally admitted as the basis for discussion of details, before a consistent application of them to all the various departments of government and morals can be attempted with any prospect of advantage. The few observations I propose to make on questions of detail, are designed to illustrate the principles, rather than to follow them out to their consequences. I offer, not so much applications, as specimens of application; which may serve to bring into greater clearness the meaning and limits of the two maxims which together form the entire doctrine of this Essay, and to assist the judgment in holding the balance between them, in the cases where it appears

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In J. S. Mill's On Liberty (1859), chapter 5 "Applications", he argues:

The principles asserted in these pages must be more generally admitted as the basis for discussion of details, before a consistent application of them to all the various departments of government and morals can be attempted with any prospect of advantage. The few observations I propose to make on questions of detail, are designed to illustrate the principles, rather than to follow them out to their consequences. I offer, not so much applications, as specimens of application; which may serve to bring into greater clearness the meaning and limits of the two maxims which together form the entire doctrine of this Essay, and to assist the judgment in holding the balance between them, in the cases where it appears doubtful which of them is applicable to the case.

The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

Liberal political economists, in their classic or modern form, understand that in our bumping into each other in our experience of living that some actions are mere annoyance and others are harms.  Buchanan stresses in his classic essay "The Pure Theory of Government Finance" (1949) that there are benefits and costs in government action, and while it is vital to understand the costs, the "Benefits simply cannot be forgotten." In another classic Buchanan essay "What Should Economists Do?" (1964), he asks his readers to consider the example of a swamp and a mosquito abatement program for a town, and the political bargains that must be struck between those who live near the swamp, and those who live farther away.  Liberal democratic government must always be dealing with the swamp, we cannot assume these conflicts away for ease of analysis.  Similarly, the basic Coasean analysis of bargaining away conflicts between parties is grounded in a recognition of the reciprocal nature of harms.  And, the argument for Ostromean polycentricism is grounded in the recognition of conflict and the use of the principle of subsidiarity in governmental decision units, and thus the guiding principle is that when we are choosing in groups we should strive to match the size of the potential harm from our bumping into each other and the ensuing conflicts with the governmental decision unit responsible for addressing the potential harm and minimizing human conflict while maximizing the chances for peaceful social cooperation.  

J.S. Mill in Principles of Political Economy (1848) in Book V, chapter xi, argued that laissez faire must be the general rule.  "The preceding," Mill writes, "are the principal reasons, of a general character, in favor of restricting to the narrowest compass the intervention of a public authority in the business of the community: and few will dispute the more than sufficiency of these reasons, to throw, in every instance, the burden of making out a strong case not on those who resist, but on those who recommend, government interference. Laissez-faire, in short, should be the general practice: every departure from it, unless required by some great good, is a certain evil."

Our current set of political arrangements, let alone the prevailing public ideology, is a long way from J. S. Mill's formulations in the 19th century, and even from the formulations of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Buchanan's Limits of Liberty (1975), or V. Ostrom's The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies (1997) sadly.  But it is my sincere hope that the moment for a liberal reawakening in the context of both a pandemic and a lockdown will not be lost.  As Emily Chamlee Wright argues to beautifully in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, when government occupies civil society it too often overstays its welcome.  But the vibrancy of the bottom-up solutions comes from within communities and the intricate web of relationships between commercial society, civil society and yes the government (local, state and federal).

I guess the most important point for liberal political economy to communicate is that nowhere in the history of the doctrine does the tradition deny that human conflict is an ever present reality and that it can undermine the ability to the liberal society to function properly to encourage productive specialization and engender peaceful social cooperation through exchange.  Conflict and strife are real.  Actions prejudicial to the interest of others take place and must be dealt with. The question is always, who is best to deal with them and what does dealing with them entail.  For the liberal, civil society (including commerce) is a more powerful instrument for resolving conflicts and promoting cooperation than the state.  Again, as the Mill quotes show, the argument is not a closed door, but a maxim and that maxim demands that the burden of proof in the argument always falls on those who want to shift that balance and rely more on state coercion to achieve the common good, rather than human sociability through the voluntary adoptions of norms of interaction that ameliorate those potentially harmful actions.

A pandemic is a public health issue, the harms are real and significant, but the source of our salvation and improvement will be seen in the voluntary and nimble adaptation and adjustments in social interaction (in personal behavior, and in the ordinary business of life) that reduce spread; creative and clever scientists discovering new drugs to address the symptoms and ultimately hopefully a vaccine to eradicate a novel virus; in Dr and Nurses and other medical professionals on the spot applying their great skill and compassion to care for ill patients and discovering better protocols and medical treatments to prevent the ill from becoming critically ill; and actors in civil society engaged in a variety of acts of charity to aid the most vulnerable among us to see better days.  We must be willing to ask ourselves what it means to live in a robust and resilient self-governing democratic society even when stress tested in the extreme.  To me this is our opportunity to reaffirm the liberal principles of just conduct and political economy, not to abandon them.

We have to make sure we are not precluding through public policy the creative energies of a free society to solve these most pressing and voluminous set of problems that has unfortunately come to define our present and will no doubt influence our future.  Our hope, as it always is, is found in the innovative spirit of free human beings in the public, private and independent sectors.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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