Libertarianism, Left-libertarianism

Jason Brennan Did Not Like Gary Chartier’s Book

The argument of Anarchy and Legal Order is relatively simple and straightforward. There are some things we may never reasonably do to each other, and other things we have very good reason not do. Territorial monopolists—states—do these things persistently. Their putative value as maintainers of social order might be thought to render their actions justifiable (when the prohibitions they’re violating aren’t exceptionless, so that no violation would be defensible); but, in fact, there are multiple reasons to think they’re not needed to maintain social order, and further reasons to believe they actively undermine it and cause serious harm to people’s interests. Consensual legal institutions can justly enforce law; we don’t need territorial monopolists for that. The law they enforce should leave people as free as possible and should focus on remedying injuries rather than on punishing or deterring. This kind of law will create space for the emergence of a free culture and will facilitate effective responses to such problems as poverty and workplace hierarchy. Links with English and American radicalism justify seeing this kind of anarchist approach as rooted in the socialist tradition.

Jason Brennan did not like Anarchy and Legal Order.

As his NDPR review makes abundantly clear, Brennan finds the book unappealing as a defense of anarchism. He believes key points are insufficiently defended, with assertion taking the place of argument; that the natural-law position in moral theory I adopt is both obscure and mistaken; that the book’s arguments are insufficiently independent of this position to be persuasive to anyone who does not already share it; and that the book is therefore likely to be unhelpful as a contribution to the task of making anarchism persuasive to non-anarchists. He also clearly finds the book tedious and over-long.

I am sure that Brennan is right that I am guilty at points of expressing my reactions rather than justifying them. It is important to emphasize, though, that I incorporate by reference the more elaborate defenses of others at various points. I think, for instance, that I have offered significant reasons to believe that social order does not depend on Leviathan, or that poverty relief is quite possible without the state; but I have also referred readers to much more extensive discussions of these topics.

I am inclined to agree with Brennan that a book like Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, which features fewer theoretical assumptions than mine, might well be more accessible and persuasive to non-anarchists. And of course I understand why someone sympathetic, like Brennan, to public reason liberalism might find this advantage particularly important. But the broadly strategic concerns that seem to underlie some of Brennan’s criticism were not my primary foci. Instead, I wrote the book I did because, for over a quarter-century, I have found the new classical natural law (NCNL) theory appealing and fruitful—this is my second book on the topic—and because I wanted to spell out what a version of anarchism articulated in terms of my preferred moral theory might look like.[1]

I am less confident that the other criticisms Brennan levels are worth accepting. I touch on some key instances in the remainder of this response.

He is doubtless correct that NCNL theory is both controversial and not the majority view among Thomists.[2] Whether this is, on its own, a reason to criticize it is presumably another matter. Compare: libertarianism is a minority position in political theory; and bleeding-heart libertarianism of the sort Brennan endorses is a minority position among libertarians. That hardly means it’s not interesting or important. In addition, of course, various features of NCNL theory could be embraced by people who weren’t Thomists.[3]

Obscurity isn’t Brennan’s principal charge, of course; he simply finds NCNL theory mistaken. After noting its minority status in the academy, he focuses, in particular, on its commitment to a robust form of incommensurability.

The NCNL theorists, whose position on this issue I share, deny that there is some one thing that welfare or value or well-being is. Talk about value (or well being, etc.) is a way of talking about the various particular reasons for action we actually have. To maintain that friendship, say, is an aspect of welfare is not to say that friendship realizes some independently specifiable quantity called “welfare” (or something else—happiness, pleasure, preference-satisfaction, etc.) but simply that one’s participation in friendship is one of the ways in which one’s life can go well, and that initiating or enriching a friendship or connecting with a friend is thus something it makes sense to do for its own sake.

This sort of analysis helps to explain why the NCNL theorists maintain that the various sorts of welfare or play or well being or fulfillment or flourishing are incommensurable.

Suppose friendship, or æsthetic experience, or knowledge, or bodily well being, mattered just, and to the extent that, it produced or embodied some common element—say, some sort of happiness or pleasure. In this case, the common element would provide a yardstick that would make comparative measurement possible. By contrast, absent a common element, there’s no basis for comparative measurement. We can say that friendship is valuable, or that play is valuable. But in doing so we’re just saying that play and friendship give us reasons for action, not that they do so because they produce or realize something else, something that’s really valuable. Sensory pleasure seems valuable in its own right; but knowledge isn’t valuable because of its contribution to producing or realizing sensory pleasure.

If the various aspects of welfare aren’t valuable instrumentally, then the kind of aggregation required for consequentialist calculation isn’t going to be possible. The consequentialist invites us to consider the states of affairs that might be produced by our actions (or rules, policies, character-traits, practices, institutions, etc.) and to ask, of the available options, which yields the most value (adjust the formulation as needed if you prefer a satisficing variant of consequentialism). (If you don’t think this describes consequentialism as you understand it, substitute your preferred term for this sort of approach.) This injunction obviously makes sense only if there’s a quantity to maximize. And it does not in fact seem that there is any such quantity underlying our choices: there are only multiple reasons to do various things, not some maximizable master value that underlies those reasons.

If the various ways in which lives can go well are irreducibly different from each other, approaches to practical reasoning that involve choosing among options in light of the quantum of value each produces won’t be viable. Given that operationalizing this sort of approach requires aggregation, that aggregation requires commensurability, that commensurability makes sense only if there’s a common substrate of value, and that there is no such common substrate, maximizing and similar strategies seem non-viable.

Obviously, no consequentialist supposes that, as a matter of course, we can in fact quantify the relevant values in many situations. But the consequentialist does need to assume that the notion of maximization makes sense, even if we’re not typically capable of maximizing precisely; otherwise, the consequentialist injunction seems to collapse into triviality. Thus, I want to argue, attempted justifications of intellectual property or of coercive public-goods provision that are framed in consequentialist terms are unsuccessful.

Brennan offers no arguments in favor of consequentialism, per se, but he finds the notion that comparing overall states of affairs in terms of the value they embody is impossible simply odd. He reports his intuition that one can declare some states of affairs better than others.

If there is no way of ranking states of affairs quantitatively, it still might be possible to rank them qualitatively. And of course NCNL theorists will be perfectly willing to do this in at least two ways. (i) A state of affairs involving no value at all, if such a state of affairs is conceivable, would be inferior to one involving some value, any value. (iiAs an object of choice for me, a state of affairs that includes my acting reasonably is superior to a state of affairs in which I act unreasonably.

NCNL theorists will typically be uncomfortable with focusing on states of affairs external to one’s actions as the foci of the deliberation in which one engages en route to making a decision. The only context in which questions about value actually arise are in the context of our choices. The goal ought not to be to find the most efficient means to bringing about desirable states of affairs but rather to choose reasonably. And there will certainly be reasons to choose some paths, paths directly or indirectly effecting some states of affairs, rather than others. But on the NCNL view one will reasonably exclude some paths because of what would be involved in choosing them (unreasonableness with respect to others, to oneself, or both), and one will opt for other paths because of particular goods to which they lead. In neither case will one need to rank or otherwise compare the aggregated goods embodied in the relevant states of affairs. But one will be able to rank states of affairs as objects of one’s own choice in light of the reasonableness or unreasonableness of one’s choices as embodied in those states of affairs.

In addition, of course, nothing about NCNL theory prevents someone from preferring one state of affairs to another and identifying it as clearly better in terms of her own attitudes and commitments. I need not regard a given option as superior to all of the alternatives in order to select it, but I certainly can do so.

For all I have argued, other sorts of qualitative comparisons among states of affairs might be possible. For instance: something like Jonathan Dancy’s particularism might be correct. On Dancy’s view, different sorts of factors in a given situation can be seen to be salient to action in ways quite particular to that situation. But Dancy’s particularism provides little comfort for the consequentialist: it is anti-consequentialist by intention and doesn’t lend itself to the kind of generalization required for the justification of large-scale social practices. In any case, Brennan has not invoked Dancy’s view in support of his position.

In any event, though the incommensurability thesis, and the Principle of Respect derived from it, can be seen to be at work at various points throughout the book, much of the book’s position could be worked out without any reference to it. And the other key element of NCNL theory on which I draw, the Principle of Fairness, is a version of a requirement familiar from many other moral positions, so that its frequent use hardly renders the book dependent on an obscure and especially controversial view. In fact, the Principle of Respect plays little or no role, as far as I can see, in the rationale for possessory rights articulated in Chapter 2, the elaboration in Chapter 3 of obligations to the state, of factors making for social order without the state, and of the state’s contributions to social dis-order, the discussion of legal obligation in Chapter 4, the discussion in Chapter 5 of remedies for injury (apart from the treatment of deterrence), and all of Chapters 6 (on the development of a culture of freedom) and 7 (on leftism, anti-capitalism, and socialism). I think Brennan has overstressed the book’s reliance on what he regards as an indefensible premise.

It may be that Brennan thinks that, by referring to my position as “anarcho-capitalist,” he’s simply helping to situate it for readers unfamiliar with the conversation to which it seeks to contribute. But, as his footnote reference to Markets Not Capitalism makes clear, he is perfectly aware of the work colleagues and I have done to resurrect the radically market-oriented socialism of the nineteenth-century individualist anarchists. And, of course, both Anarchy and Legal Order and Markets Not Capitalism identify multiple considerations that dispose me to disavow the “capitalist” label and, indeed, to identify my position as anti-capitalist. I am unsure why Brennan declined to give these considerations more weight or to respond directly to my arguments on these points.

Brennan doubts that I have successfully explained how a stateless society could meet the requirements of the broadly Rawlsian variety of social justice he embraces, and that I can show that the worst-off people in a stateless society would be at least as well off as those in, say, contemporary Denmark. I don’t accept the Rawlsian account of social justice, and Brennan offers no extended justification for doing so. But I do seek to explain in some detail why I believe a stateless society could deal satisfactorily with the problem of poverty.

I discuss wealth redistribution and poverty relief at considerable length. I emphasize the role of the state in both creating structural poverty and in making the vulnerabilities associated with structural poverty more significant. I treat the role of background injustice in misshaping the contemporary distribution of wealth. And I discuss a variety of mechanisms for wealth redistribution that would be appropriate in a market-oriented stateless society. I devote approximately 14,000 words to these topics.

Brennan has elsewhere rightly emphasized that offering a legal guarantee isn’t the same thing as ensuring that a desirable outcome will actually occur. He is not committed to the view that an elaborate welfare state is needed to secure the well being of the least well-off. And of course Huemer’s Problem of Political Authority, which he cites approvingly, devotes very little time to addressing the problem of poverty in a stateless society. So it’s not clear just what he would regard as a satisfactory treatment of the issue of economic vulnerability. I have offered several considerations in favor of avoiding coercive social welfare measures, along with multiple reasons to believe that institutions in a stateless society could respond effectively to the problem of poverty and that, absent various structural factors evident in contemporary society, poverty would be a significantly less severe problem without the state. Brennan is obviously to free to argue that I should regard myself as accountable to a Rawlsian standard, but he hasn’t offered any reasons why I should. And I think I’ve done the same sorts of things that Brennan himself, John Tomasi, and David Schmidtz have done in pointing out the effectiveness with which markets and civil society institutions can respond to the problem of economic vulnerability and with which markets can maximize well being and opportunities for self-authorship.

I’ve sought to defend anarchism in light of contemporary natural-law theory because I find the NCNL approach appealing and insightful, whether or not it is currently fashionable. The incommensurability thesis captures an important feature of human choice, and I believe it is well worth defending. I also believe I have offered good reasons to treat a stateless society as an attractive alternative to the state where the problem of economic vulnerability and insecurity are concerned. Brennan is obviously more than free to conclude that I’m mistaken on these points. But the arguments on offer in his review don’t suffice to convince me.

[1]The primary exponents of the general approach I adopt have been Germain Grisez and John Finnis. Among the other prominent members of their school are Robert P. George, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Chris Tollefsen. Other philosophers who have embraced similar positions (and whom, for present purposes, I treat as NCNL theorists) include Mark C. Murphy and Timothy Chappell.

[2]For one spirited defense of the approach, see Natural Law and Practical Rationality (Cambridge: CUP 2001), by Brennan’s Georgetown colleague Mark C. Murphy.

[3]This is obviously true of what I’m calling the Principle of Fairness, which is similar to the sort of consistency test R. M. Hare considers in Freedom and Reason, as also to various other sorts of universalizability or generalization requirements defended in diverse approaches to ethics. The NCNL theorists’ incommensurability thesis may be unique to them; but, for instance, While not a supporter of the incommensurability thesis, Bernard Williams recognizes that “goods may not be homogeneous,” acknowledges “that goods are not necessarily inter-substitutable” and maintains: “That there must be something which compensates for a finite loss is just a dogma, one which is more familiar in the traditional version to the effect that every man has his price.” Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Williams (Cambridge: CUP 1973) 144-5. He earlier maintains that “[i]t would be idle to pretend that in many more restricted connexions we had no idea what course would lead to greater happiness” (80); but of course I should want to question the notion that happiness, per se, is what matters (as I take it Williams would in some important sense as well).

  • Aeon Skoble

    The book gets a more favorable review in the April 2013 issue of Reason magazine.

  • Richard

    When is the paperback due?

  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Well-crafted response, Gary. Anyway, you can’t expect these people here to pay attention to *any* Thomists, much less a ‘minority’ among them. Too bad for those doing the ignoring, I suppose.


  • It might not affect the general points you are making, but there seems to be a mistake in what you say. It is false that consequentialism requires a quantity to maximise. All it requires is that options can be ordered in terms of their beneficial consequences. That is compatible with incommensurability. Here’s an example.

    I like oranges and I like pears. The things that I like about oranges are quite different to the things that I like about pears. In particular, if offered a choice between an orange and a pear, I may face a choice between incommensurable values, in which case I will decide in some arbitrary manner. But if I am offered a choice between an orange and a dozen pears, I’ll take the dozen pears, because it is clearly the better option. The incommensurability of one orange against one pear does not render the choice between one orange and a dozen pears incommensurable.

    Similarly, it may be that socialist societies are preferable to market societies with respect to some values and vice versa; and it may be that these values are not measurable on the same scale. But market societies may score higher on so many values, or so much higher on some important values, that the choice between a market society and a socialist society is a ‘no brainer.’

    In short, consequentialists can recognise incommensurability.


      Hi Danny,
      Clever point, but I’m not sure I agree with you In the case you posit, I don’t think the incommensurability problem is resolved because the dozen pears are a “better choice” for you. I believe the problem persists unless you can articulate a non-purely subjective reason for selecting the pears. If consequentism is to be regarded as a plausible moral theory (as opposed to a means of fruit selection), it can’t endorse a decision-procedure that simply advocates “each agent should select the outcome that seems best to him,” right? There has to be some common standard (utility, pleasure, preference satisfaction, or…) that we are all supposed to follow. I don’t see what that consists of in your example.
      I am putting aside here the fact that the current trend in consequentialism is to abandon the calculation of consequences as a decision procedure, and to rely on the doctrine solely as a means of defining the “good.” Nowadays, most consequentialists hold that the morally correct act or rule is the one that produces the best consequence, but concede that the way to do this is to rely in most cases on common sense (deontological) principles as a guide to action. I do not find this a satisfactory way out of consequentialism’s failue to guide action, but won’t pursue that here.

      • matt b

        I think the distinction between deontological moral reasoning and consequentialist moral reasoning is maybe not as clear as it seems. For example, if you ask a hard libertarian deontological moral theorist why he opposes taxing some people a small amount to provide X for a larger group he will say that the consequence of doing so is objectionable because it denies the individual his status as an end in himself and treats him as a means. Quite interestingly, when you ask some, not all but some, consequentialsits why they support things like redistributive taxation they tell you that they believe people are ends in themselves and that means we can’t let anyone go without.

        Ultimately, even if we accept some clear distinction between the two we quickly come to the conclusion that, as boring as it sounds, it all comes down to degree. For example, most consequentialists would oppose forcing everybody to exercise at gunpoint even if doing so could increase GDP by 0.5 percent a year and make everyone healthier and mazimize utility in the long run and most deontological liberartarian moral theorists would say that you could take from somebody without their permission in a condition of extreme need like a hurricane. So it’s a question of how we deal with the vast gray area in between the few black and white cases where deontology seems 100 percent right and consequentialism seems 100 percent right.


          Essentially, I agree. There are few if any deontologists who would rather the world end than torture an inocent person to death. Nevertheless, although the two doctrines may generally overlap, i.e. produce the same answer to most moral questions, this does not imply that they are equally plausible as theories. For most purposes, Newtonian physics will produce correct predictions, but this doesn’t make it a valid theory.

          • matt b

            That’s an interesting response. It seems to me that libertarian deontology is moving in the direction set forth by Mike Huemer, in his recent book, with a move away from an absolute NAP to a “non-aggression” or “non-coercion” presumption. The idea being that the certainty or even likelihood of horrible consequences would justify coercion. I think this seems like a more decisive model at frst glance than it really is though. If it’s alright to steal bread if you’ve been the victim of a hurricane then what about if you’ve been the victim of a bad boyfriend who threw you out of his apartment and you have just enough money to afford shelter in a cheap motel. And if it’s alright to steal a life saving drug in a hurricane would it be okay if you’re fired from your job alongside everybody else because a reckless CEO make bad decisions and now you have no health insurance and in the minimal state/ anarcho-utopia there is no government assistance. I guess you could say “Search for charity: but if none is forthcoming? In other words there’s a lot of gray space where coercive or “possession depriving activity” can be argued for as just.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I don’t disagree. I would only add that if there were a perfect ethical theory out there that answered all the hard questions and faced no serious objections or line-drawing problems, we wouild all be on board, and all moral philosophers would be unemployed. We can’t have that, can we?.

          • matt b

            That would be a national shame. I say a stimulus package for moral philosophers!

      • Hi Mark,

        You should not read me as a subjectivist (I am not one). I said that twelve pears are better than one orange. Of course, that will not be so for someone who detests pears. But that introduces agent-relativity, not subjectivisim. It is an objective fact that a dozen pears is better for me than a single orange. It is an objective fact even though there is no common unit of measurement, because it is an objective fact that so large an amount of the one value is better than so small an amount of the other. It is also an objective fact that a single unit of the one value is incommensurable with a single unit of the other. (The two values here are: value of a pear for Danny and value of an orange for Danny).

        Similarly for the markets vs socialism example. We are there concerned with which option is better for human flourishing. But human flourishing covers a diverse set of values, a choice between any two of which will be incommensurable in some cases. But given how much better markets realise most, if not all, of the values, markets are objectively better than socialism.

        Some people will object at this point that people disagree over that evaluation, so it is not objective. I know that you realise that that is confused. The fact that we cannot agree about what the facts are does not mean that there is no fact of the matter (otherwise there would be no facts). So there is no connection between objective truth and a decision procedure (that was one of the mistakes of the positivists – verificationsim – which is alive and well, though it goes under other names). And the idea of ‘a decision procedure for ethics’ is a fanciful piece of positivism gone mad (there is not even a decision procedure for invalidity in first-order predicate logic, though there is one for validity).

        Your last thought seems to cover two different positions. The first says that deontological rules are rules of thumb that give us a rough guide to right action, which is good enough for most cases. The second says that deontological rules are ceteris paribus. On the second view, deontological rules are true and fully accurate; except in unusual cases. I defend the second view in my forthcoming piece in the Journal of Moral Philosophy, which is available here:

        Best wishes,



          Hi Danny,

          My understanding of the “incommensurability” concept is as Gary described in the OP: “…absent a common element, there’s no basis for comparative measurement. We can say that friendship is valuable, or that play is valuable. But in doing so we’re just saying that play and friendship give us reasons for action, not that they do so because they produce or realize something else, something that’s really valuable.” So, if choosing between two fruits presents the problem of incommensurable values, it is because there is no common element–pleasure, preference satisfaction, utility, etc.–by means of which they can be compared.

          Perhaps I am missing something basic here, but I don’t see how if two values cannot be compared for the reasons just described, adding more of one value makes them commensurable. Obviously, in your example it changes your preference, but this is an entirely different matter. If I can’t decide what is a more worthy use of my resources: building an art museum or buying land for purposes of wildlife conservation, I don’t see how doubling or trippling the quantity of land I might buy resolves this choice in a principled or objective way.

          It might be an objective fact about Danny that adding to the quantity of one element changes your decision, but I don’t think is the same thing as saying that this somehow provides an objective reason for selecting one over the other. And–this is the key point–I don’t think any plausible moral theory can work like this; it muist be able to identify objective values. Thus, if as Gary claims, fundamental moral values are incommensurable, then consequentialism appears to be implausible–which would not cause me personally to shed any tears.

          Finally, I am not sure I have the “chops” for this discussion, but I question whether consequentialism can fuly embrace agent-relativity, as you seem to suggest, and remain plausible, since it might no longer qualify as “impartial,” i.e. sliding into egoism.

          • Hi Mark,

            1. The term ‘incommensurable’ is used in a number of different ways. In one sense, two options are incommensurable if there is no common unit of measurement. In another sense, two options are incommensurable if it is not the case that one is better than the other and it is not the case that they are of equal value. When I am faced with a choice between an orange and a pear, my options are incommensurable in both senses. (I know they can both be weighed and compared in that way; but that is an irrelevant dimension of evaluation for the example). When I face a choice between a dozen pears and an orange, my options are still incommensurable in the first sense, but not in the second. Incommensurability in either sense is a problem for consequentialists. But incommensurability in the first sense is not a big problem so long most of the important choices are commensurable in the second sense. That is my point against what Gary said.

            2. Objectivity of comparison does not require a common unit of measurement. As I said before, it is an objective fact that a dozen pears is better for me that a single orange. Let’s look at your example. You cannot decide between building an art museum or buying land for wildlife, because the options are incommensurable. But if the price of land for wildlife suddenly drops, so that you can get a lot more wildlife conservation for your buck, but only the same amount of art museum, the option of wildlife conservation may become the better option (depending on HOW MUCH more wildlife conservation you can get). Spending your bucks on the wildlife land generates consequences that are objectively better in total than the total consequences of spending those same bucks on an art museum. This is straightforward, isn’t it?

            3. Are you assuming that the one option can be better than an other objectively ONLY IF there is a common unit of measurement? That seems to reduce the objective to the measurable, which takes a very narrow view of reality.

            4. I am sorry I used the term ‘agent-relative.’ I normally avoid it because it is the second most confusing term in moral philosophy (after the term ‘reason,’ which I also avoid as much as possible). My point was that relativity does not necessarily mean subjectivity, even when it is relativity to a subject. Pete is taller than me. Pete is shorter than Fred. Is Pete short or tall? He is tell relative to me; he is short relative to Fred. But both of those are objective facts. Pears are objectively good for me. They are objectively bad for someone who has an allergy to pears (assuming there are such people). What is good for people must count for something in morality; but different things are good for different people. Any morality of objective values must incorporate that sort of ‘agent-relativity.’ The recognition that different things are good for different people has nothing to do with egoism, which is about what we (or I) ought to strive for.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Ok, thanks for the clarification. I think most if not all of our apparent disagreement stems from our different uses of “incommensurability.”

  • Hi Gary,

    Three things: 1. There’s a big difference between ending with controversial conclusions (such as BHL) versus starting with controversial premises. 2. Almost all moral theories, not just consequentialist ones, hold that you can make the kinds of comparisons that I complain your theory says we cannot make. 3. The main justification for why you need to answer the Rawlsian social justice argument is that the overwhelming majority of your colleagues accept it.

    It’s worth keeping in mind that I am, like you, a left libertarian anarchist.

    • matt b


      Almost all of the left libertarian anarchists I’ve ever spoken to, like almost all of the right libertarian anarchists I’ve ever spoken to, tell me that the state is unacceptable coercion, violates self-ownership, and so on and so forth. When I say that a state might be needed, not only for defense and contract enforcement and domestic protection, but to ensure some measure of well being for the poor they get upset, tell me that it’s not and when I offer a thought expirement “What if the consequences were… plug in really bad scenario” they say that my expirement is stupid… because the state is evil and could never be good ever ever ever. Since you (rightly in my view) seem to accept that, in principle, the state is justifiable (if the consequences of no state would be awful) you must be an anarchist because you think an anarchist system would better advance social justice and other morally valuable things and not because the state is in principle evil. Is that right? And if so what leads you to think that anarchism would better realize social justice and protect other values such as clean air and water, safe streets, and more. I’ve tended to dismiss it out of hand but when I hear someone as thoughtful as Jason Brennan call himself an anarchist I think I should maybe re-consider my views 🙂

      • shemsky

        States force individuals to associate with people they don’t want to associate with, and states force individuals to violate their own conscience. If states didn’t ever do that then I suppose I wouldn’t have a reason to object to the state. But they do it all the time. That’s what states are all about. So I object to the state.

        • matt b

          I look at it this way: all things being equal, voluntary is better. Anytime we can do things absent the use of force we should. I think this idea is not too far from Mike Huemer’s abandonment of the NAP in favor of a “non-aggression presumption” in which the burden of proof is on those who favor coercive structures over non-coercive structures. About 75 to 80 percent of the time I stand with even the most hard libertarians in saying “You know what we don’t need the government to do that. There’s a voluntary, market-oriented, civil society driven way to do this.” But I recognize that some things are so weighty that they override the non-aggression presumption because, after all, it is a presumption and to me protecting the environment, preserving law and order and public safety, ensuring people don’t starve, preventing foreign invasion, and the general thrust of the public goods rationale (assuming these things cannot be realized without a state) are good arguments for the state.

          • shemsky

            Can you or anyone else prove that those things you mention cannot be realized without a state? As you say, the burden of proof is on those who favor coercive structures over non-coercive structures. That means that the burden of proof is not on those of us who favor anarchism, which is a non-coercive structure.

          • matt b

            So a few things. I don’t know if I can “prove” that they cannot be realized without a state like I can prove that I have a treadmill in my basement. But this is an unreasonable standard. What is reasonable to expect is an argument, grounded in empirical evidence, which demonstrates that it is likely that such things cannot be realized without a state. While I’m open to revising my opinion based on new evidence, the totality of what I’ve studied tells me that it is not likely. Notice that this entire discussion is at odds with the Chartier position that we cannot rank states of affairs. Finally, anarchism, at least the type of Rothbardian or anarcho-capitalism most anti-state libertarians advocate, is not non-coercive. If I’m hungry and I grab an apple from a tree that’s on a space of land which someone considers to be their property then that person, in anarcho-utopia, is permitted to use force against me. Last time I checked that’s coercion, hence the BHL emphasis on a property regime that must be sufficiently to the benefit of all in order to justify coercion.

          • shemsky

            So how are you going to decide which property regime will be sufficiently to the benefit of all and how do you propose to deal with dissenters?

          • matt b

            I believe that for a property regime to be just it must allow all innocent persons to meet their basic needs in order to secure a minimally decent existence for themselves. If a property regime prevents innocent persons from doing so then it is unreasonable to demand they comply with such a system. I take that to be the essence of the “strong” BHL view and I happily agree with it. Now as for dissenters, I find this to be a little weird because you know the answer is that classical liberal types think taxation is justified for those who disagree and the argument you want to make is that our system therefore depends on the coercion of dissenters and is therefore problematic. But here’s the thing: in anarcho-capitalist world, dissenters are coerced too. If the hungry man goes to the property of a rich man because he is starving and grabs some food force is used against him to prevent him from doing so. So in both cases coercion is used to deal with dissenters. I happen to think the coercion in classical liberal world is more defensible.

          • shemsky

            Ok, so you have made your decision, a decision that you believe is just. But what if other people come up with different decisions, decisions that they believe are just and you believe are not just? And what if they want to compel you to help them to enforce their decisions by taxing you to fund their enforcement agency? Would that be right by you? That’s exactly how the state works.

          • matt b

            I understand your criticism but it applies to any conceivable system. If we had an anarcho-capitalist society and I rejected the view that it was just for there to be 100 percent absolute property rights and stole a life saving drug for my poor friend I would be punished. I don’t think private Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Block would be real considerate of his situation and say “Oh you came up with a different decision of what was just. I undestand.” At some point, we all say “X, Y, and Z are right” and the system will be structured around X, Y, and Z.

          • shemsky

            And what are the X, Y, and Z that we all agree is (not) right, Matt? What point are you talking about? I see a very few things that we all agree are wrong. And those very few things can be prosecuted without a coercive monopoly institution like the state, because virtually everyone agrees that they are wrong.

          • matt b

            Oh it’s different depending on who you talk to. I’m just saying that everybody believes that some things are not right and should not be allowed, not just for themselves but for everyone. So pretty much everyone says it’s wrong to cheat on your wife but pretty much everyone also says it would be wrong to use force to prevent you from doing so. But virtually no one says “It would be wrong for me to rape your wife but I’m not going to force that view onto other people who might like to do so.” So everyone has some things that they believe we are justified in demanding people comply with no matter how wrong they think we are. I guess what I’m saying to you is that I believe that a system in which 10 percent of people are starving through no fault of their own is just as clearly wrong as a system where 10 percent of people are constantly raped and no one does anything about it. Note that I didn’t say equally wrong but clearly wrong. So if that’s what total laissez-faire produced I would be against total laissez-faire and would defend some coercive redistributive structure assuming it was the only way to end the 10 percent starving reality.

          • shemsky

            How could allowing individuals to associate with whom they choose and allowing individuals to follow their own conscience cause 10 percent of people to be constantly raped or be the cause of 10 percent of people starving? That’s absurd. But forcing individuals to associate with people they don’t want to associate with and forcing individuals to go against their conscience has been the main cause of some pretty terrible things that have happened in various societies around the world. None of the major atrocities that happened during the 20th century would have happened if people, as individuals, had had the freedom to tell their governments that they were refusing to participate in all the killing and torturing. The institution of slavery would not have been able to sustain itself without the state having the power to compel individuals to obey the laws that upheld it. If laissez-faire produced those things? That’s bullshit.

          • matt b

            I always fear arguments are going in an ugly direction when people throw out the rhetorical hand grenade of bullshit so let me cool it down by saying I don’t think people advocating anarchist laissez-faire are wrong to wish for a world in which everything can be accomplished without coercion. As I said, voluntary is better but if my choice was between 100 percent voluntary and mass misery and 80 percent voluntary with far better results in terms of hapiness, well being, safety, and security well… It is possible, maybe not likely, but possible that an anarchist society would lead to far more rape and murder and theft if criminal gangs became empowered absent a central authority with monopoly power. If that materialized, IF, no morally sane anarchist would say “I still think this is better.” Right?

          • shemsky

            Sorry for the bullshit comment, Matt. I’ll try to contain myself. But, being able to see for own own eyes what compulsory obedience to the state has brought in terms of human suffering (would Hitler have been able to pull off the Holocaust without having the means to compel the German citizenry to support him?), I don’t see how anyone could continue to believe that compulsory obedience to the state is the .best way to order society. If we have a duty to obey the state, then someone has to decide where that duty begins and where it ends. Who has the right to decide for me and for you?

          • matt b

            You should be. This is a family blog haha. No man no problem I didn’t take it personally I just felt I was maybe not explaining myself well leading you to be annoyed. I actually don’t have any objection to anarchism in theory. If an anarchist society could realize my principles of justice I certainly wouldn’t say “But I miss the government and the elections where we get to see two old white men tell us their (anything but) beautiful visions.” I actually think your Holocaust point is quite serious and powerful. But let me turn the tables a bit: if the rest of the world except for Germany was anarchist would the anarchist states have assembled together to defeat Hitler? I actually think this is an unexplored area: the foreign policy of a libertarian anarchist state.

          • shemsky

            Well, I would volunteer to fight against Hitler, but I wouldn’t hold a gun to someone else and force them to fight, because I believe that that would be wrong.Doing that would make me into an aggressor. I do believe that the anarchist societies would organize volunteer armies to fight Hitler, because it would be in their best interests to do so, before Hitler increased his power and came after them. Also because anarchists are just as compassionate as anyone else. We don’t like to see people suffering under oppression any more than other people do. I wouldn’t use the term anarchist state, because I see a state as an institution that compels individuals to support it and associate with it. Anarchist societies would rely on voluntary association and support to sustain them.

          • matt b

            Well this has been a very good conversation and you’re absolutely right: state was not the right word. An anarchist order (I know you guys will appreciate that one since you keep reminding us anarchy does not, by definition, mean disastrous chaos).

          • Aeon Skoble

            It’s not just that these things might be done without the state – the state makes all these things _worse_.

      • Hi Matt,

        Thanks for your kind response. I’ll say a few things here:

        1. There’s a big question about how we use the word “justice”. Most philosophers today think we’re supposed to use it to describe what must be achieved at the level of “ideal theory” in the Rawlsian sense. I think it’s pretty clear that under Rawls’s assumptions at the level of ideal theory, that anarchism could achieve Rawlsian justice. But that’s in part because I think realizing justice under Rawls’s conditions in ideal theory is really easy. I’m assuming with this response that you’re familiar with Rawls, so sorry if I’m mistaken and this doesn’t mean anything to you.

        2. As for the real world: I think it’s sensible to start with the moral assumption that the state is bad by default and has to be justified. I also think it’s sensible for the average person to assume that the state is justified on empirical grounds. A smart, sensible, well-informed person will have a number of at least at first glance compelling arguments for the view that the state is needed to avoid certain bad results and necessary to generate certain good results (like social justice). Now, in light of a wide range of work by different economists, historians, etc., I’m not so convinced. Rather than saying that we know anarchism can’t work, I think we should say that we’re not so sure. What we should try to do is experiment with it on a small scale, and if it works, scale up.

        • matt b

          1. I’m familiar enough with Rawls to understand the core of what you were saying and I think you’re quite right. Rawls never, to my knowledge, ruled out any system as being capable of realizing his principles though he seemed to strongly think that social democracy would be hard to beat.
          2. This is very interesting and characteristically measured. Perhaps this question is one for a future post or essay or even a book but do you think that the BHL anarchist must demonstrate to the Ralwsian that anarchism would produce at least as a good a set of outcomes for the poor as a modern (well functioning) social democracy like Denmark? For example, in those societies there are certain gurantees in terms of vacation time and help with children and housing that one could reasonably think would be unlikely to arise in an anarchist society. Does this count against it or does Denmark go far beyond the requirements of a “minimum level of welfare” as demanded by BHL conceptions social justice so that even if an anarchist society did not produce as good an outcome for the poor this would, in and of itself, tell us that is flawed in this regard?

        • Hume22

          “Most philosophers today think we’re supposed to use it to describe what must be achieved at the level of “ideal theory” in the Rawlsian sense.”

          That’s a bit misleading (Cohen/Murphy/Estlund, Dworkinian, Rawlsian, Sen, Gaus, the “realists” Williams, Galston, Farrelly, Mills) and does not say much about the issues relevant in distinguishing ideal-nonideal theorizing. Even saying “ideal theory in the Rawlsian sense” doesnt tell us much, only that there is a distinction between what justice requires in full compliance and what justice indicates under conditions of partial compliance. For example, *what* exactly is to be idealized? Are there feasibility constraints? What is the relationship between ideal justice and what justice requires in the non-ideal situation? Is “justice” holistic or can we determine what justice requires in particular domains? Is it possible for conclusions we reach in theorizing about, say, ideal institutional recommendations that could cause us to reconsider our interpretations of the most fundamental concepts of political morality (e.g., could the relaxation of ideal assumptions regarding epistemic capacities affect the ideal conception of equality, in particular, arguments for luck egalitarianism?).

          Now, you might respond by defending a broadly Eslund (2011) view, claiming that ideal theory is a purely epistemic/investigatory project, and we can idealize pretty much everything without worrying about feasibility constraints at all. But if that’s the case, then it is extremely misleading to claim to engaged in Rawlsian ideal theorizing or that “most philosophers” agree that this is how to think about justice.

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