Arguments vs. Wisdom in Political Philosophy: Principle vs. Practice

Part I: States may be justified in helping us live together well even if we do not have to obey their bad rules, and even if not everyone can agree that this is so.

I would like to start by saying a few things in defense of my fellow commentators and in general about Professor Huemer’s reply.

First: Authority need not be content-neutral. Not all of those who reject anarchism defend strong content-neutral obligations to obey the law—some of the most famous political philosophers—like Joseph Raz—do not. Anarchism may be false because states have the right to rule without their subjects having correlative obligations to obey all of their rules.

Second: there are many collective action problems besides coordination problems. Since this is so, Palmer might extend his argument to show that solving other collective action problems may justify coercion too. Many environmental problems, like climate change, arguably result from tragedies of the commons (multi-person prisoners’ dilemmas) and states may legitimately help us deal with these problems. One need not suppose that failure to resolve collective action problems will to lead to a war of all against all to justify coercion. Of course coercion is not always necessary to deal with collective action problems, but it may be justified if it is a good way of doing so.

Third: Not all good philosophy starts from uncontroversial premises. I agree with Huemer that some of the best philosophical arguments start from uncontroversial premises—but what is controversial will vary from context to context. I do not think many professional philosophers would disagree. That said, not all philosophical arguments aim to convince in this way—sometimes they aim to do other things, like encourage us to think more deeply or give us good reasons for a conclusion, whether or not others are convinced that they are good reasons. Perhaps this is what lies behind some political philosophers’ requests for Huemer to consider the nature of fairness, rights, or whatever. That said, many political philosophers give arguments that start from relatively uncontroversial premises.

Part II: What works in principle may not work in practice—still there are shades of grey, and we can figure out how to make things better if we pay attention to empirical details.

Now about my post, perhaps I should clarify a few things. I will respond to the points Huemer raised in the order in which he raised them. In my first post I tried to make two main points: First – we can retain “common sense” intuitions about what individuals can do and hold that states can legitimately do many things—e.g. protect rights. Second—to give the best arguments for empirical claims we need to appeal to empirical evidence and to improve our actual (very imperfect) institutions, we should attend to the details of particular policies, even if we are committed anarchists. In what follows, I offer some substantiation and extension:

First: It Is Relatively Uncontroversial that There Are Positive Rights. I did not offer an argument for positive rights. I think there are good arguments for these rights that I discuss in my book and several related papers. I do not think they will convince everyone—(right) libertarians tend to reject the key premise in these arguments (this premise is usually something like “rights protect interests or freedoms of such great importance that they justify holding people to duties in appropriate ways”). My book is motivated, in part, to try to address libertarian skeptics about positive rights. That said, I do think some of the arguments for positive rights work and I think there is reason to believe they are not particularly controversial (given positive rights’ wide acceptance in many cultures, international law etc.).

Second: It Is Relatively Uncontroversial that States Should Protect Positive Rights. The standard view of the obligations correlative to rights, in international law as well as political philosophy, is that they should be assigned (primarily) to states. One reason for this is because states are well placed to protect, promote, and fulfill rights. States can help us solve collective action problems that make it difficult for us to protect, promote, and fulfill positive rights (and thus help us fulfill our obligations to do so). 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.

Third: Anarchism Does Not Follow from Rejecting Authority. To put it simply, the point of talking about rights at all was this: It is not that most people reject anarchism because they like authority. They reject anarchism because, despite the fact that they do not like authority, they recognize that authority helps us do all of the things we have to do together (e.g. protect rights).

Fourth: Empirical Evidence is Necessary to Establish Empirical Hypotheses. The proper way to choose a political system is to run a regression that tries to hold all factors except for regime type constant—not to look at examples—not to give theoretical arguments. I did not compare Somalia to the United States. I suggested that, on average globally, Somalia is below par on many indicators—e.g. income. I believe it is likely that a rigorous empirical study would show that existing anarchical societies have historically been worse than the reasonable (e.g. democratic) alternatives. But we need such studies.

Fifth: Why Anarchism not Libertarianism or the Welfare State? I was asked to write the reply to Huemer’s article just a few weeks ago and have yet to finish reading his book. That said, the 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. But I think he does need a reason to reject this conclusion. Saying that “to count as a state, an organization must have a coercively enforced monopoly within a given country, and I think it impermissible to enforce such a monopoly” is just to assert that minimal-state libertarianism is false, not to argue against it. Moreover, he needs an argument, I think, that the property rights he supposes are justified are so justified. He says that it is “ethically permissible for anyone to protect rights (within certain limits)” and it is clear that he believes that any agent can protect property rights even when others cannot meet their basic needs. But this is controversial and cannot be supported by the best accounts of property rights. If there are positive rights that limit the extent of property rights in the ways I suggest, then his argument fails.

Sixth: Legitimacy Comes in Degrees. The fact that no state is fully legitimate on the main accounts of political legitimacy in the philosophical literature does not show that states are not justifiable. Many theories of legitimacy tell us what would have to be the case for a state to be fully justified in exercising coercive force; they don’t try to show that actual states are fully justified. So democratic consent theorists might say that states should respect constitutional constraints and secure democratic consent even if most states fail to do this sometimes. In our imperfect world, we may not have perfectly legitimate states, but perhaps we should recognize that there are shades of grey.

Seventh: Consent May Require States to Protect Positive Rights. If legitimacy does come in degrees and if consent would justify an agent in having a monopoly on the use of coercive force within a territory, I think Huemer also needs a reason to reject my new argument against libertarianism. I claim that the ability to consent is necessary for consent. So those exercising coercion (states in the actual world) will have to ensure that people can secure what they need to consent (even if this requires coercion) to be legitimate. On consent theory, ensuring that people can secure what they need to consent may be illegitimate if doing so requires coercing those who have not yet consented to the coercer’s rules, but coercers may be more legitimate if they do secure this consent than if they do not.

Eighth: Make Moral Progress by Focusing on Particular Policies. I do recognize that Huemer did not say that all monopolies are bad and that he cannot fully defend anarchism in a web posting. But if Heumer’s argument in the book proceeds by analogy, it is important that he explain why the disanalogies between states and monopolistic corporations do not matter. More importantly, my notes on monopolies, public vs. private provision of goods and services, and legal regulations were meant to suggest that there are many significant questions about what policies work well in different circumstances. We may make moral progress if we focus on what will in fact improve our vastly imperfect institutions even if, for purely theoretical reasons, we are committed anarchists.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.