Comments on Chris Morris’ posts:
1. General metaphilosophical point: in my view, the aim of political philosophy is to figure out how society ought to be arranged, what makes for a good or bad society, or something like that. The drawing of distinctions is not an end in itself, nor is the giving of definitions or the taxonomizing of alternatives. Furthermore, we have limited time, so we should prioritize discussions that are most relevant to those evaluative questions. Therefore, I generally avoid talking about the meanings of words, conceptual distinctions, and taxonomy, unless I can see how discussing these things would help significantly in figuring out how society ought to be arranged.
2. Thus, I don’t want to debate the meanings of “authority”, “coercion”, “state”, “government”, “anarchy”, or “constitution”, because I don’t see how those debates are going to help me figure out the best social arrangements. What matters is this: Are the things that I use these words to pick out interesting and important for the question of how society should be arranged? Are the claims I have made using these words true, when the words are understood as I intended? I think the answer to both questions is “yes,” whether or not my usage of words matches that of other people.
3. Could there be a state that did not coerce? Maybe. And then perhaps I would not object to that state. But again, why should we care? Would Chris actually advocate that we try to create such a non-coercive state? If not, then I don’t see why we need to discuss this idea.
If so, then, well, here is why I think it won’t work. In any realistic human society, laws will be violated fairly often, and a fair number of people will make a determined effort to refuse punishment. If violence is not deployed against these people, they will get away with their law-violations. When this becomes generally known, the number of lawbreakers will start to rise. Moreover, even a small number of sociopaths who are convinced that no one is prepared to use force against them could create extremely serious problems. All of this rests upon sufficiently pervasive features of human nature and human society that it would be overly utopian to talk about a society in which these things wouldn’t happen.
Of course, the problem could be solved if someone other than the state – for instance, private protection agencies – were prepared to deploy violence against the lawbreakers.
4. Chris says there are other alternatives besides “state” and “anarchy”; for instance, “empire” is one such alternative. I don’t know what the other alternatives are nor why “empire” doesn’t count as a kind of state – but I just don’t see the import of discussing this, unless someone actually thinks that one of these alleged alternatives is what we should pursue.
5. In his section “The case for anarchy,” Chris raises objections to anarcho-capitalism. On my reading, there are three objections. The first is that, because “the mob employs murderers,” it is likely that protection agencies under anarcho-capitalism will do likewise. I think Chris may be suggesting that the “protection agencies” will be just like criminal organizations today, and that they will be in the business of predation rather than protection.
In section 10.8 in the book, I argued that organized crime would be much smaller under anarchy than it is at present. Briefly, this is because criminal organizations derive the vast majority of their revenues from selling goods and services that are banned by the state but that would be legal under anarcho-capitalism. In section 10.9, I explained why it would be more profitable to sell (genuine) protection than to run an extortion ring. And in section 10.4, I explained why it is more profitable to protect crime victims than to protect criminals. (This is assuming an anarcho-capitalist society. In a government-dominated society, these things may not be true.)
6. The second objection that I think Chris is hinting at is that in primitive societies, there has been a great deal of violence, including warfare (more violence per capita than in modern states). These primitive societies have been anarchic. So it looks like we have empirical evidence that anarchy leads to violence.
I see two problems with this argument. The first problem is that there are a number of confounds – factors other than the presence of government that affect rates of violence. In my section 9.2.2, I mentioned three factors (social values, economic prosperity, and weapons technology). To evaluate the effects of government on violence, one would have to control for these other factors, which means that we cannot compare primitive anarchies with advanced, prosperous, liberal states. As I suggested in section 9.2.2, once we have liberal values, economic prosperity, and advanced technology, the motives and costs of violence are radically altered, and they may well be altered in such a way that a state is no longer needed to prevent violence (if it ever was needed). We haven’t tested this, because no society with liberal values, economic prosperity, and advanced technology has yet tried anarchy.
Second, as I observe in section 8.1.3, just as there are different kinds of government, there are different kinds of anarchy. And just as it would be wrong to evaluate democratic government by looking at the history of communist dictatorships, it would be wrong to evaluate anarcho-capitalism by looking at primitive Indian tribes. To evaluate anarcho-capitalism empirically, one would need to examine an actual society with the sort of institutions that anarcho-capitalists advocate (e.g., a system of competing arbitration companies and competing protection agencies). Unfortunately, there are no such societies.
7. The third objection – which seems to be Chris’ main objection to anarchy – is that anarchy cannot survive, because an anarchic society will be taken over by states. I devoted chapter 12 to showing why this need not be the case.
But Chris might say: “Look, it’s very nice that you have these theoretical arguments about how an anarcho-capitalist society might survive. But empirical evidence trumps theoretical arguments. And the empirical evidence is that every habitable land mass on Earth has in fact been taken over by states.”
Two responses to this. First, the arguments in chapter 12 were not purely theoretical. They included a good deal of empirical evidence. Of course, this evidence didn’t consist of observations of actual anarcho-capitalist societies; it was evidence concerning such things as the factors that cause war, the success of non-governmental organizations in resisting governments, and actual countries that have no military. I can’t reproduce the arguments of chapter 12 here; I would simply ask the reader to read that chapter before drawing conclusions.
Second: true, all habitable regions on Earth have been taken over by states. But that happened a long time ago. And in fact, quite a lot has changed in ways that are very relevant to the prospects for violence, conquest, and the need for military defense. Today’s society is vastly different from the societies of even 100 years ago – first, in terms of economics and technology, and this is very relevant to the prospects for violence (again, see section 9.2.2). But the change I find most interesting is the change in people’s beliefs and values, which I discuss in section 13.4 in the book. See also my recent TEDx video on “The Progress of Liberalism” for a more entertaining presentation. This change can hardly be overstated. If an average person of today were transported back in time 400 years, he would immediately be the most wild-eyed, raving liberal on the planet.
So at least part of my response to the empirical argument is this: maybe anarchy was no good for the people of yesterday. But the people of yesterday were terrible. People today are much, much better.
Comments on Bas van der Vossen’s posts:
1. Bas seeks to challenge my general methodology. But the Giant story does not really challenge my methodology, because my methodology is not based on the assumption that the same moral obligations apply to states as apply to individuals. Why not? There’s a small point here and a more important point.
2. Small point: Most of my hypotheticals in the book involve individuals. But the parallel I’m drawing is not between state and individual action per se. It is between state and private (or non-state) action. In other words, I’m not saying, “If x would be wrong for an individual, then it’s also wrong for the state.” I’m saying, “If x would be wrong for any private agent, then it’s also wrong for the state.” For example, in normal circumstances, it’s wrong for me to extort money from other individuals in order to give the money to a charity. But not only that; it’s also wrong for the Exxon corporation to do this. Or the Catholic Church. Or the University of Colorado. Or anyone who isn’t a government. So, I think it’s also wrong for the government.
3. Now, the important point: what I am actually assuming is the following.
a. The same obligations and constraints apply to states as apply to non-state agents, unless there is a morally relevant difference between them that would explain the different obligations/constraints.
b. The person who believes there is such a difference at least has the burden of naming that difference.
Thus, when I point to the wrongness of some private action and draw an analogy to some governmental policy, I am not saying that this suffices to prove that the governmental policy is wrong. I am saying that this establishes a presumption against the policy, so that at a minimum, the policy’s advocates must explain why they think the government is special, such that it is entitled to do this thing. If we can’t find any way in which the government is special, we should reject the policy.
That is why I confronted several philosophical accounts of authority in the first half of the book. To dispute my methodology, Bas would have to be saying that we don’t even need an account of authority; it’s fine to hold that the state is entitled to do things that no other agent may do, while having no account at all of why the state is different from any other agent. But I don’t think Bas is suggesting that. (I don’t know of anyone who believes that.)
4. Bas’ story of the giants can be viewed, rather than as a challenge to my methodology, as an attempt to satisfy it. That is, it might be taken as pointing to a possible account of why the state is special: someone might say that the state has authority because the state is better at adjudicating disputes and exercising justified coercion (with less risk of error, etc.) than non-state agents.
5. Okay, let’s say the giants, as Bas says, “tend to make judgments that are more temperate, more balanced, and less biased than [ours].” Furthermore, “their temperance carries over to their uses of force.” In that case, Bas says, “we should ask the giants to do our justified coercing for us.” I see three problems:
a. Maybe the giants tend to be better at resolving disputes than humans. But that’s compatible with there being some humans who are especially good at resolving disputes. Rather than relying on giants, why couldn’t we rely on humans who were unusually good at this?
Here’s the political relevance: sure, most private agents are no good at resolving disputes. Maybe (?) they’re worse at it than a government court. But professional arbitrators who work for (private) arbitration companies are especially good at resolving disputes. So why not rely on them instead of government courts?
To address this issue, I think one has to add the stipulation that actually, the giants are better at resolving disputes and exercising justified coercion than any non-giant-involving mechanism.
b. Still, I don’t see that it would be obligatory to use giants. If some people wanted to stick with human mechanisms, then as long as the human mechanisms were good enough, even if they were not the best, I think this would be permissible. (Analogously: anarchists should be able to reject the state’s services and rely on private providers.)
To address this, I think one has to again modify the hypothetical. We have to stipulate that actually, no human mechanism is even acceptable. All human ways of resolving disputes and/or exercising coercion are just terrible. The giants, by contrast, are good or at least acceptable.
c. And yet I still don’t see how this gets the giants anything like the moral status that is commonly ascribed to the state. In particular, I don’t see that the giants would ever acquire the power of creating obligations merely by telling people to do things (things that we were not independently required to do). And I don’t see that the giants could justly force people to obey their commands (in cases where a human could not justly force people to obey similar commands).
6. And of course, as a factual matter, it is extremely doubtful that the state is in a position analogous to the giants in this story. The state is not clearly better than all non-state mechanisms for resolving disputes. The state and its agents are commonly biased and intemperate, just like normal humans, because – unlike the giants in the story – the state’s agents actually just are normal humans.
In sum: Bas is right that if giants have different properties from humans, they might have different obligations and constraints, and we might have different obligations towards them. But (a) I don’t see how the giants would ever have anything like political authority, and (b) the state is not relevantly like a giant.
7. What is political legitimacy? As Bas says, for a state to be legitimate does not require that it is permissible for that state to make and enforce any and all laws that it chooses. I stated that legitimacy is an entitlement on the part of the state to make and enforce “certain sorts of laws.” But this isn’t very clear. So here are some clarifications of how I understand this:
- a. First, I am not seeking to capture the ordinary usage, or even the usage in political philosophy or political science, of the word “legitimacy.” I don’t care about that. Here is what I’m interested in: there is a class of government activities that (a) would be considered wrong by almost anyone if they were performed by any private agent, but (b) most people consider acceptable. I think that behavior is in fact wrong. I introduce the term “political legitimacy” to express the difference between my view and that of the majority of my society: I say that those others believe in “political legitimacy” (they believe that “the state is legitimate”), whereas I disbelieve this. The term should be interpreted in the light of that dialectical purpose.
Now, I don’t want to saddle my opponents with obviously unreasonable views, so I allow qualifications that render their view plausible, without removing the controversy. In particular:
- b. “Political legitimacy” may be conditional. That is, one may think that the state has to satisfy some conditions (other than being a state) in order to retain legitimacy. Perhaps it has to be democratic, do a reasonably good job of protecting rights, etc.
- c. “Political legitimacy” may have limited scope. That is, one may think that there is only a certain limited sphere within which the state is entitled to make and enforce its commands.
- d. “Political legitimacy” may be defeasible. That is, one may think that the state is entitled to make and enforce commands (only) provided that there are not some specially strong reasons against its doing so that would override its normal entitlement. For instance, perhaps the command must not be grossly unjust, it must not result in the destruction of the human species, etc.
Having said that, however, I would not allow the doctrine of legitimacy to be so watered down as to make it uninteresting. Thus, I would insist on the following:
- e. “Political legitimacy” is not limited to the correct laws. That is, if you think the state is only entitled to make and enforce the laws that are objectively correct by some independent standard, then, in my terminology, you do not accept political legitimacy.
Note that one can maintain that an agent should do A, or has most reason to do A, but it is still permissible for the agent not to do A. (“You should be polite to other people. Of course, you don’t have to do this, but you really should.”) Just so, believers in political legitimacy can maintain that the state should not have made some law, but it was still permissible for it to do so, and permissible to enforce the law once made.
- f. “Political legitimacy” is a special property of (some) states. I would not allow “political legitimacy” to be interpreted in such a way that it is a power that ordinary people have. It is an entitlement to exert coercion in at least some circumstances in which it would be wrong for a private agent to do so.
I hope that sufficiently clarifies what I had in mind in speaking of political legitimacy.
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