Response to Huemer on Authority and Hassoun on Poverty and Redistribution of Property

What follow are my thoughts on two issues. First I consider Huemer’s remarks on obligation, where I think he should revisit the issue of whether a general dismissal of obligations to obey laws may have negative consequences. Second I consider Hassoun’s remarks on poverty and whether global inequalities justify coercive redistribution carried out by states, which I think have, again, missed the mark.

Huemer writes “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.”

I’ll come clean on this one. I don’t believe that one has an obligation to obey unjust laws. I recall having a casual discussion at an academic conference with a judge in which the issue came up. I said that of course one is not obligated to obey an unjust law, with suitable caveats, of course. He was authentically shocked and horrified. He could not imagine such a stance and tried to cover for me by saying that, of course, if I were to disobey an unjust law, I certainly would turn myself in and I would insist on being punished. I thought the very idea absurd and asked if he had insisted on being punished every time he had engaged in any illegal activity with his wife—that was at a time that a wide variety of sexual acts were still officially criminalized. (I was quite discreet in my language and did not mention anything in particular.) He got angry, because of course he and his wife had broken a number of such laws, but he would never think of turning himself in for punishment. It was an interesting experience to meet someone with such a dramatically different view of obligations to the state.

So I do not believe in an obligation to obey unjust laws, and I do not believe in an obligation to submit to the state (or anyone else, for that matter), but… I do have concerns about some of Huemer’s arguments regarding whether we have obligations to follow rules, independent of their content. In the sections of his book on “The problem of individual redundancy,” “Rule consequentialism” and “Fairness” (pp. 84–88) he argues against a general obligation to obey rules that, if generally flouted or disobeyed, would lead to generally bad consequences. He argues against an individual obligation to obey the rules laid down by the state as follows:

It is plausible that there is some level of disobedience that would cause a governmental collapse. But as long as we are far from that level, any given individual can disobey with no consequences for the survival of government.[1]

Moreover, “while governmental functioning requires obedience, there are already more than enough people obeying the law so that the government is in no danger of collapsing if you disobey. These other people will continue to obey whether you obey or not.”[2]

That argument troubles me. In my general experience, there seems to be a connection between disobeying idiotic rules and then disobeying all sorts of rules, idiotic or not. For most people, it’s not so easy to distinguish between unjust laws or rules and just laws or rules, that is, those that would be just independently of who articulated or enforced them. I lived in Vienna a few decades ago and found a rather high degree then (it’s since improved greatly) of predatory and cheating behavior, because there was so much idiotic bureaucracy that it was the only way to get through your life. In really socialist countries (for example, in the USSR, Poland, Bulgaria, or Czechoslovakia) I found an astonishing degree of, shall we say, moral laxness when it came to cutting ethical corners. Everyone cheated and lied all the time, so… people asked, what’s the problem with breaking rules? I learned that there are additional good reasons not to have lots of confusing, stupid, and difficult-to-comply-with requirements in the legal system, besides the harm of those rules taken individually. Cheating, shirking, and evading tend to be contagious; when they grow, they tend to infect more areas than the morally scrupulous might predict.

Thus a general lack of an obligation to obey all the rules, or even an encouragement to do so, is inferior to an attempt to secure better, or less onerous, or less stupid rules. Rather than promoting the idea that we are not obligated to obey rules (just because the state said that they are rules), I think a more promising route to freedom and justice may be to focus on replacing stupid, unjust, or idiotic laws, rules, and regulations with better ones, and to do so within a general culture of rule following and not shirking obligations.

Huemer does offer a very smart retort to defenders of state authority that I endorse wholeheartedly, but it might suggest support for constitutionally limited government rather than the orderly statelessness he prefers.

If disobedience to any law risks causing a collapse of social order, then the state, in making laws that are not necessary to maintaining social order and that are likely to be widely disobeyed, is itself threatening social order far more than a single individual who disobeys one of these laws. Furthermore, asking the state to renounce its desire to make such unnecessary laws is more reasonable and less onerous than asking an individual to renounce his personal liberties. Therefore, if one holds that the individual nevertheless must obey such laws when they are made, it is much clearer that the state must not make such laws. And thus, one cannot simultaneously defend political obligation and political legitimacy on this view.[3]

I agree. But even if legitimacy may fall away, some obligation to the rules as such, just because they are rules, may still remain.

Poverty: Unequal Distribution of Property or Liberty?
The foreign aid that Hassoun supports, which is collected coercively by states and distributed in most cases to states as well, may very well be a hindrance to wealth creation. People in poor countries are poor because they have low incomes; they have low incomes because they produce very little value; they produce very little value because they are restricted from doing so by kleptocratic, corrupt, tyrannical, and destructive governments, most of which have been recipients of huge sums of foreign aid. The fact that they are has made those governments even less accountable than they would otherwise be to their people. I agree that we cannot hash such matters out in this forum, but I’d note that in her paper that Hassoun cites the fundamental question being discussed is how harmful aid has been; Hassoun wants to make a case for “some kinds of aid.” It’s a pretty weak case. (That said, I do support with my own money a variety of forms of aid, but I’ve seen on the ground in poor countries too much evidence of the destructive effect of the development aid bureaucracy. It’s a racket that enriches aid workers and does little of value for the poor.) In another paper, “Free Trade, Poverty, and Inequality,” Hassoun makes the case that income measurements using Purchasing Power Parity may underestimate the degree of poverty (“the most common PPP measures make it seem like the poor are doing better than they actually are”), but she doesn’t really make a case that they are generally becoming poorer. (It’s worth noting the contrary arguments from the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, which shows that when measured by consumption, rather than monetary income, poverty declined even faster than was thought.)

She then focuses attention in her paper, not on poverty, but on inequality. She characterizes changes in inequality among nations in a rather interesting way: “If, for instance, developed countries are getting richer while developing countries are getting poorer, international inequality is increasing.” Well, yes, but inequality could also increase if developed countries got richer while at the same time—and even at a faster rate—developing countries got richer. If a poor country were to go from $1,600 per capita GDP to $2,000 per capita GDP, it would be a very big change of 25%, and that would almost certainly represent a quite significant decline in poverty. If a rich country were to go from $35,000 per capita GDP to $35,500 per capita GDP, it would represent a rather smaller increase of about 1.4%. Still, the income gap between the two countries would have grown by $100; inequality would have increased, although both countries’ wealth would have improved. Hassoun’s suggestion that global inequality is driven by rising poverty (“developed countries are getting richer while developing countries are getting poorer”) really distorts the picture. That is simply not the case. After that suggestion of rising, rather than falling, poverty, the rest of the paper focuses on inequality, rather than on poverty. So we are led to believe that poverty is rising, when in fact it is falling, because she confuses poverty with the issue of inequality. Well, which is important? Inequality or the actual experience of suffering? (I address the literature on poverty from within the liberal tradition in “Poverty, Morality, and Liberty,” an essay originally published in this book and reprinted in the book After the Welfare State, available as a PDF.)

So how does this relate to the issue of property? The “right of necessity” that Grotius and his followers invoked[4] might be invoked for extreme want, but not for mere inequality, and it would not be likely to justify the kinds of foreign aid that we have seen fail for decades. We know what will raise incomes, and it’s not foreign aid bureaucracies. If economic growth is fueled mainly by the innovations made possible by economic freedom, as Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, William Easterly, and a large number of economic historians rather convincingly argue, then that seems a rather better path to take toward alleviating poverty. (The simple correlations between economic freedom and a wide array of positive benefits that I offered from the Economic Freedom of the World Report are dismissed a bit quickly by Hassoun on the grounds that correlation is not causation; the likelihood that nations first become rich through some other method, say, by receiving foreign aid, and then adopt economic liberalism is not that likely, and is testable against the historical evidence.)

But to return to the issue of property, the inequalities of which she has identified as the cause of poverty. Hassoun wrote, “the current distribution of property rights globally is very unjust because it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs.” That seems pretty straightforward. Some people have only a little, leaving them unable to meet their basic needs, because others have much. There couldn’t be a bolder misstatement of the problem. It’s the lack of liberty that is very unjust; in addition to being unjust, it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs. The prosperity of one group need not be the cause of the poverty of another; the distinction between profiting from creating value and profiting from looting should be clear. The evidence is that the wealth of the people of Luxembourg did not come from looting Mongolia or Burkina Faso or Bangladesh. In fact, if it were a matter of “property” imbalances alone, Hassoun should support forcing the poor people in “resource rich” countries to compensate the rest for the mismanagement of those resources.[5]

The last words of this report on the BBC regarding the coup d’état in the Central African Republic should tell us something:

CAR, which has a population of about 4.5 million, has been hit by a series of rebellions since independence from France in 1960. It is one of the poorest countries in Africa, despite its considerable mineral resources.

That said, I’ll leave the issue of development economics aside. It would be nice to focus on what Michael Huemer wrote in his book.

[1] Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 84.
[2] Ibid., p. 85.
[3] Ibid., p. 91.
[4] See for an interesting and rather controversial treatment of the right of necessity Thomas A. Horne, Property Rights and Poverty: Political Argument in Britain, 1605–1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
[5] Imagine assessing a property tax based, not on current use, but as with contemporary land taxes, on its potential use in producing income. The poor people of Zaire and the Central African Republic would end up owing a lot of money to the people of resource-poor Luxembourg.

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.