Three Notes on Positive Rights

Three brief notes on positive rights and the argument for the state:
In my last post, I questioned whether even the best governments do more to aid the global poor than to harm them. Hassoun points to empirical evidence regarding the efficacy of some kinds of foreign aid programs. This might be an effective response to a minimal statist who wants to have a government but no foreign aid programs.

But it doesn’t address the anarchist. My doubt concerns whether the activities of government (say, the government of some typical liberal democracy) overall, taking into account all of its policies, tend to help or harm the global poor. If the government does a little bit to help the poor, but a lot more to harm them, then it is difficult to appeal to the plight of the poor in defense of government.

It seems to me plausible that that is the case. One could point to trade restrictions, immigration restrictions, economic and military support for oppressive regimes, and so on. Governments of wealthy nations tend to cater to the prejudices of the domestic public as well as wealthy and powerful domestic special interest groups, at the expense of the foreign poor.

Nor is this an accident. When a society has an established central authority structure, it is not accidental that that apparatus comes under the control of the wealthy and powerful members of that society, who use it to increase their own wealth and power. Only in a utopian world would this not occur.

I don’t think that my original argument, appealing to the hypothetical scenario of Sam the charitable extortionist, was ever addressed. If I understand her, Hassoun claims that government coercion is justified because the government can efficiently help us fulfill our positive duties, especially to aid the poor. I still don’t see any relevant disanalogy to Sam. Why can’t Sam claim that he is efficiently helping his victims fulfill their positive duties to aid the poor?

The burden of proof: given the general principle of the presumption against coercion, the burden of proof rests on the person who advocates a particular form of coercion. That party must provide a compelling justification for the resort to force. In the case of a consequentialist argument for coercion, the advocate must show that the coercion has large expected net benefits.

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.