Some Further Unaddressed Points: Authority, Anarchy, and Positive Rights

At the risk of appearing to gang up on the lone non-libertarian in this conversation, I want to add some replies to Nicole Hassoun’s remarks. My overall feeling after reading her comments was one of simply being talked past. I don’t feel that Hassoun has really engaged with my position or arguments. Perhaps, in my efforts at brevity, I have failed to explain my position and central arguments sufficiently. So let me try to explain more clearly now.

A. What Is My Position?

I have two different theses in the book:

  1. No state has political authority.
  2. Anarcho-capitalism is a desirable social system.

As Hassoun has noted (“Anarchism Does Not Follow from Rejecting Authority”) and as I tried to emphasize in my first post (“…the question of political authority is not ‘Should we have government?’…”), these are two very different theses, the second much stronger than the first.

What I mean by “political authority” is a sort of special moral status commonly ascribed to the state, which is supposed to explain both the state’s entitlement to coerce individuals (in certain ways that would be unjust if done by any non-governmental agent) and the individual’s obligation to obey the state (in cases in which one would not be obligated to obey similar commands given by any non-governmental agent). This authority is by stipulation content-independent, comprehensive, and supreme. Pace Hassoun, political authority must be content-independent, because that is just how it is defined. I am claiming the authority to define “political authority” here, since it was I who started the discussion of “political authority” (thankfully, though, I am not claiming any political authority—if Nicole continues to use the word in a different sense, I will verbally complain but will not deploy coercion).

Now to clarify the second thesis: “anarcho-capitalism” refers to a specific sort of proposed social system, in which multiple rights-protecting and multiple dispute-resolving agencies exist within the same geographical area, being paid by individuals who choose a particular protector or a particular arbitrator. These agencies are similar to governments, with the crucial difference that they do not maintain coercive monopolies.

B. What Is My Argument Against Authority?

I cannot give my argument against authority here. What I can do is to explain the general strategy, and this will make clear why I can’t actually give the argument. The strategy is to address all of the most important accounts of authority, and show why each fails. I can’t do this here, because there are too many accounts of authority, and too many arguments given by their supporters; to address all of the important ones requires, well, a book.

But this discussion need not therefore be fruitless. What I tried to do (and thought I did) in my first posting was to explain why there is a problem of political authority, and why defenders of authority need to give an account. I then gave a sketch of how I would respond to some of the more commonly heard claims in defense of authority.

So here is the first place where I feel not-engaged-with: I can’t tell whether there is anyone in this conversation who actually believes in authority. I know I don’t, and Bryan Caplan doesn’t. Tom Palmer probably doesn’t. But I can’t tell about Nicole Hassoun. If she believes in authority, I have no idea what account she would give of it. Social contract? Appeal to democratic process? Consequentialist?

I stress here that I am not asking about why we should have a state. I am asking about whether and why the state would have the special moral status that I talked about above, including content-independent, comprehensive, and supreme entitlements to coerce obedience, etc. If Hassoun believes in authority in that sense, I’d like to hear her account of it. If she doesn’t, I’d like to hear an explicit statement to that effect.

C. What Is My Argument for Anarcho-Capitalism?

My argument for anarcho-capitalism, again, can’t be given here, because it requires addressing a long series of arguments by people on the other side. Essentially, I discuss the problems that statists believe would beset an anarcho-capitalist regime, and explain why in most cases the problems are really of greater concern under a traditional governmental system. There are too many of these issues to consider here. But again, this discussion need not therefore be fruitless; the non-anarchists in the room could just state what they take to be the greatest concern about anarcho-capitalism, and we could discuss that.

D. Some Objections to Anarchism

Objection 1: Somalia

The first argument against anarcho-capitalism seems to be that the situation of Somalia shows what “anarchy” is like. To clarify my earlier response to this: my response is not “theoretical arguments, in general, are better than empirical arguments.” My response is more like this: just as there are different forms of government, there are different forms of non-governmental social arrangements. Those who support liberal democracy do not have to defend the North Korean government, because it is not the kind of government they support. Similarly, those who support anarcho-capitalism do not have to defend other non-governmental social arrangements that are not, and have never attempted to be, anarcho-capitalist. (Why the “attempted to be” qualifier? Well, if the attempt to implement some social system regularly results in disaster, we might fairly take this as a reason for rejecting that social system as an ideal, even if the successful implementation would have been desirable.) While Somalia might be described as a form of “anarchy,” I don’t think anyone would claim that it is an example of an anarcho-capitalist society, nor was there ever any attempt to make it one.

Now, Hassoun’s latest reply to me seems to be just to reiterate the desirability of empirical evidence. So here is the second place where I feel not-engaged-with. Of course empirical evidence is desirable. I love empirical evidence. But only when it is relevant to the thing we’re talking about. If we’re talking about the desirability of X, and we have empirical evidence about Y, which is quite different from X, that empirical evidence does not invalidate all theoretical arguments about X merely by virtue of its empiricality.

In addition, I would note that Peter Leeson’s research, which I previously mentioned only in a footnote, indicates that Somalia is better off than it would be if its government hadn’t collapsed. So if one considers this case relevant, it remains hard to lay claim to a refutation of anarchism.

Objection 2: Public Goods Problems

I have not yet addressed public goods problems. Unfortunately, I again must say that this issue cannot be adequately addressed in this space. The reason is that I don’t think there is any general-purpose solution to all public goods problems. I think one has to look at each alleged public goods problem to see whether and how an anarcho-capitalist society could deal with it.

In the book, I addressed what may be the largest public goods problem: national defense. But there are of course other problems that could be raised. Here, I will just mention the sort of things I am liable to say about public goods problems. These probably won’t convince any statists, but they might at least enable us to better understand each other:

a. There are probably not as many public goods problems as you think there are, and some public goods can be converted into private goods. Garrett Hardin’s case of the tragedy of the commons is a case in point.

b. Sometimes, the inability to solve a public goods problem is tolerable. A public good may be underprovided in some social system, yet this situation may be overall preferable to incurring the risks of a coercive monopolistic organization such as the state.

c. While government can provide public goods, this isn’t really what matters. What matters is whether it will do so. There are all kinds of reasons why, despite having the power to do so, a government may lack the will or the competence to optimally provide public goods.

d. While the free market tends to underprovide public goods, governments may overprovide certain public goods.

e. While government might solve some public goods problems, it also creates some new ones. Most notably, in a democratic state, wise policies are public goods, as are the goods of rational and informed political beliefs that would lead to wise policies. (I mean this in the economists’ sense: these goods are nonrival and nonexcludable.) This is one very large class of problem, and it is not implausible that this one huge public goods problem is worse than all the other public goods problems. For discussion, see my “Why People Are Irrational About Politics,” and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Objection 3: Positive Rights

As far as I understand it, Hassoun’s discussion of positive rights is supposed to get at this point: anarcho-capitalism is a bad social system, because it will not adequately enforce individuals’ positive rights.

As I’ve indicated, I do not know whether there are positive rights. Hassoun says the idea that there are positive rights, and that they should be enforced by the state, is (“relatively”) uncontroversial. I don’t think so. It may be uncontroversial among left-wing thinkers. But if we are to include the right side of the political spectrum, I think those ideas would be controversial among conservatives, to say nothing of libertarians.

Perhaps this illustrates why Hassoun, unlike me, believes that “many political philosophers give arguments that start from relatively uncontroversial premises.” I do not know what arguments or premises she has in mind, but if she has in mind premises such as the propriety of government enforcement of positive rights, then I would say she has a much lower standard for the “uncontroversial” than I do.

Be that as it may, the ability of government to aid the poor is one reason that may be offered for preferring a governmental system over anarcho-capitalism. What is my response to this? Two responses: First, though government has the power to help the poor, it is not so clear that, if we have a government, it actually will, on balance, aid the poor in the way progressives would like. It is not clear that even the best governments in the world, which I take to be the liberal democracies, actually do more to aid the global poor than they do to harm the global poor. (For discussion, see Thomas Pogge’s World Poverty and Human Rights as well as Bryan Caplan’s last post in this discussion.) Now, statists might respond, “Well, we just need to reform the government.” What makes this response unsatisfying is that the reasons for the failure of states to do what they are “supposed to” do lie not merely in bad luck or the personalities of a few bad actors, but in the nature of the governmental system and the incentive structure built into it. The U.S. government, for example, just has no incentive to help the global poor.

Second response: the desire to aid the poor, worthy as that aim is, is not generally taken, in common sense morality, as an adequate justification for coercion. You can’t kidnap and imprison someone because they refused to donate to your anti-poverty charity. This would generally be considered wrong. So I don’t see why the state should be ethically entitled to behave in that manner. And I just do not see where Hassoun has addressed this point. The following passage appears to be intended to address it:

Assigning the obligation to protect, promote, and fulfill rights to states may help ensure that people can be free within states’ rules without failing in their moral obligations. This may support the claim that states can legitimately do some things that individuals cannot do—like tax people to support the poor.

But I do not see how this addresses the challenge I raised. Sure, if the state forces me to give money to be used to aid the poor, then I can be free within the state’s rules, without failing in my moral obligations (sc., my obligation to give to charity) – that’s true simply because the state’s rules include a rule that I have to give over money for charity. But it’s also true that, if my neighbor Joe forces me to give to charity, then I can be free within Joe’s rules without failing in my moral obligation to give to charity. I don’t see how any disanalogy between Joe and the state has been identified.

E. Miscellaneous Points

Point 1: The Authority of Corporations vs. the State

Hassoun worries about a perceived asymmetry between my view of the government’s rights and the rights of corporations:

[T]he worry expressed in the sentence “If states lack the authority to protect rights, it is not clear why Huemer thinks other agents can have this authority” was meant to question the idea that corporations could (in principle) have the right to exercise a monopoly on coercive force to protect property rights if states could not (in principle) have this right. I do not see why, on Huemer’s theory, universal consent would not justify a corporation in protecting everyone’s rights.

To clarify, I do not believe that corporations could, in any realistic circumstances, have the right to exercise a coercive monopoly, any more than the state could (if a “corporation” did so, I think it would just be a state). This is because universal consent is completely unrealistic.

On the other hand, a state or a corporation could “in principle”—that is, in an alternate possible world completely unlike our world—be entitled to exercise a coercive monopoly, because there could, in this other world, be universal, informed consent. So my argument against the social contract theory is not based on an ethical disagreement with the traditional social contract theorists; it is simply based on the empirical claim that no state actually has the kind of consent that it would need.

Point 2: Redistribution as a Condition for Consent

Hassoun argues that wealth redistribution might be needed to increase the state’s legitimacy. Having heard her give this argument before, I believe the idea is roughly this (she can correct me if this is wrong): in order for individuals to validly consent to their political system, they must be reasonably well informed (at least about that political system) and able to deliberate rationally about it. But a practical, causal condition for this to happen is that they have some minimal level of welfare. So the government has to bring everyone to that minimal level, if it is to secure valid consent. Thus, some enforcement of welfare rights is required for the state to be legitimate.

This is an interesting argument. However, I did not respond to it earlier because I do not see that it is an argument against anything I’ve maintained. Recall my two central theses: (1) no state has authority, (2) anarcho-capitalism is good. I don’t see that Hassoun’s premises in the argument just sketched are incompatible with either of my two central theses. I could agree that a state that establishes some social minimum is less illegitimate than one that does not, while still maintaining that no state is legitimate, and that anarcho-capitalism is superior to any governmental system. (Compare: I think that beating someone up is less wrong than killing someone. But both are wrong.)

But now, what if I am wrong about anarcho-capitalism being a good idea? Suppose someone can show that anarcho-capitalism would be disastrous. In that case, I would say some minimal form of government would be justified. (Recall: this still would not mean that it had “authority,” nor would there be “political legitimacy” or “political obligation,” because the condition of content-independence would still not be satisfied.) But now, under this assumption, would I say this “minimal” state should establish some minimal social welfare programs?

Still, no. “What? Why not?” Well, establishing the social welfare programs might bring the state closer to being legitimate, but they would not make it actually legitimate. The state would still have no consent-based entitlement to coerce anyone, because it would still lack universal consent from the coercees.

“Wait, then how come it could enforce people’s negative rights?” The entitlement of the state to enforce people’s negative rights would have a consequentialist grounding, not a consent-based grounding. The consequentialist grounding would work—remember, under the hypothetical assumption that anarcho-capitalism would be disastrous (which in fact I don’t agree with)—because the consequences of the state’s failure to protect negative rights would generate societal disaster.

“But wait, then why couldn’t a consequentialist reason justify enforcing positive rights?” Because the consequences of failure to enforce positive rights would not be nearly as bad as the consequences of failure to enforce negative rights. In a libertarian society, I have no doubt that some would be poor. But I think there would be few of them and they would not be very poor (as are the poor living under totalitarian regimes).

Now, I am aware of the twin deficiencies of this posting: it is too long, and yet it fails to address every issue of import. But I thought it best to spend some time on the above issues, hopefully with the effect of at least making those issues clearer and reducing the tendency to talk past one another.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Problem of Authority by Michael Huemer

    Michael Huemer advances two broad theses: First, we should judge government actions using precisely the same standards that we commonly employ in judging individuals’ actions; governments and their agents get no special moral status. Second, he suggests that a society without a monopoly government might not be as different different as is sometimes imagined. Those who fear corporate power should question whether government, which bears a striking resemblance to an especially large, ill-behaved, and overbearing corporation, can ever be a vehicle for social justice.

Response Essays

  • Plausible Libertarianism: Philosophy, Social Science, and Huemer by Bryan Caplan

    Bryan Caplan praises Michael Huemer’s work on the problem of political authority because it avoids the extremes of both rights-based and consequentialist reasoning. Each has notoriously foundered on difficult problems in the past, as is well-known to students of political philosophy. Huemer instead resorts to commonly shared moral intuitions, thus establishing a strong foundation for his still quite radical libertarian politics.

  • Moral Philosophy, Obligation, and Some Concerns by Tom G. Palmer

    Tom G. Palmer suggests two areas where Huemer’s argument may need elaboration. First, he suggests that a monopolistic government authority may indeed be necessary at times in order to solve coordination problems. Rules can help coordinate behavior, but they can only do so if nearly everyone knows about them and follows them. Second, Palmer suggests that the intuitionist method may only be of limited use, as people in other times and places will not share the common intuitions of present-day westerners. If we are to make the case for human liberty, we need to make the case to them as well.

  • Authority is Not the (Only) Problem: People Have Positive as Well as Negative Rights by Nicole Hassoun

    Nicole Hassoun makes the case for positive rights. Without adequate water, food, and health care, questions of consent cannot be reached in the first place. A government that does not help all its citizens to secure these things is not one we could ever reasonably consent to. Somalia suggests that in the real world, anarchy can be horrible. Pre-tax income is not a thing we own as a property right; it is simply an accounting figure. These conclusions, she argues, follow from common sense.

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