Distinguishing two kinds of government arbitrariness, each illustrated by a parable.

Jason Kuznicki has facilitated many of the Cato Institute’s international publishing and educational projects. He is editor of Cato Unbound, and his ongoing interests include censorship, church‐​state issues, and civil rights in the context of libertarian political theory. He was an Assistant Editor of Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Prior to working at the Cato Institute, he served as a Production Manager at the Congressional Research Service. Kuznicki earned a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize.

What does it mean for a government to be arbitrary?

* * *

Tuesday last, Officer Arbitrary got it into his head to start enforcing the long‐​neglected section of the Pottsylvanian Uniform Code of Justice that forbids automobiles from coming to rest with their tires on the painted lines of a parking lot. Naturally enough, Officer Arbitrary began his work in the one parking lot in all of Pottsylvania with the very narrowest spaces. And naturally enough, he gave no notice whatsoever. Notice would decrease revenue, you see.

Officer Arbitrary sits in an unmarked car now, waiting.

It’s a busy parking lot. It adjoins a doctor’s office, an aerobics studio, a daycare, a dry cleaner’s, and a pizza place. People come and go. They’re sick, they’re distracted, they’re tired, and they’re only popping in for a few minutes, anyway. Parking tends to be slipshod.

For the most part, the drivers don’t have fat wallets. This too is entirely by design: Fat wallets would yield a ready defense against Officer Arbitrary. No, the drivers targeted for the most assiduous enforcement of the law commonly hold thin wallets, from which the money spills all the faster.

“Better look out,” says a fellow resident of Pottsylvania, “Officer Arbitrary’s here. Park on the line, he’ll get ya.”

I am momentarily incredulous, but then I nod in recognition. I resolve to spread the word. Officer Arbitrary’s days in this particular parking lot will be numbered. Soon enough, he will move on to a new one. Or to a new enforcement target entirely, at which we Pottsylvanians can only guess.

Have I forgotten to mention perhaps the one redeeming fact in the whole situation? There are hardly any taxes in Pottsylvania. Officer Arbitrary — and scores more like him — are to a high degree self‐​financing, primarily through the gross irregularity of their exactions. On any given day, one can never expect this or that law to be enforced with any sureness at all.

But plenty of laws do get enforced… here and there. And woe to all those who complain, for the law is the law, and we dare not side with the lawbreakers. Officer Arbitrary wins and wins and wins.

* * *

Some decades ago, a band of Huns overran the state of Ruritania. All the usual incidents of pillage transpired. Since that time, however, the Huns have settled down. As in the history of Western Europe, and in the histories of many other places besides, the Huns have become a hereditary aristocracy. (England, I’m looking at you.)

The Hunnish aristocracy has come to pride itself on the wise administration of their Ruritanian subjects, whose legal code and adjudication systems are in fact a wonder to the world: for the Ruritanian law code is almost wholly private and voluntarily financed. Law enforcement, such as it is, is no business of the Huns. The Huns, who constitute the whole of the government, have almost nothing to do with Ruritanian law.

Except in one respect: At the age of thirty, every Ruritanian subject must make a single, lump‐​sum tax payment of thirty thousand rurs, the equivalent of something like a year’s salary.

Every Ruritanian pays the tribute. None are exempted. All pay it exactly once, on their thirtieth birthday. Being good capitalists, the Ruritanians have invented various financial instruments to lessen the burden of this heavy exaction. But an exaction it remains: The Ruritanians get absolutely nothing in return, not even the enforcement of the laws, which the Huns ignore. All the Ruritanians get is the spectacle of a noble class that happens to lord over them. I understand that Hunnish fashion is the envy of the world.

The Huns, who are much fewer in number than the Ruritanians, use the tax money to live work‐​free, in near‐​total idleness. Huns don’t do anything. And they pride themselves on it: Work is for the little people; the Huns are the conquerors, and their system of tribute is, among their fellow conquerors, surely the most regular and orderly that any have ever conceived: 1066 ain’t got nothing on them.

* * *

Now. Both of these systems are arbitrary. Neither is a good one. But they are arbitrary in different ways.

The Pottsylvanian system relies on unpredictability of enforcement to make money. It sells itself to the voters on the low taxes it offers in return. The Hunnish system relies on its regularity. It doesn’t sell itself to the voters at all, because there are no elections.

Where I am going with all of this is very simple: Much of the history of classical liberalism has been the history of a slow victory over Hunnish exactions. Those of Officer Arbitrary are by no means new; on the contrary, they are probably as old as the Huns themselves. But our efforts against them have been more sporadic and less successful.

We hardly have Huns anymore. But Officer Arbitrary works to varying degrees at all levels of our government, local, state, and federal. I made up nearly everything in this fable as relates to the Huns, but the story of the parking lot is real, and the examples writ large are equally so.

A great deal of the classical liberal intellectual apparatus is aimed at fighting the Huns, which is right and proper. Historically, the Huns have been real. But let us not be fooled by Officer Arbitrary, or neglect the harms that he does. There is more than one way that a government can be arbitrary.