There’s a lot to like about Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. It repeats certain standard objections to the legitimacy of states. These are worth repeating since the defenders of state authority seem slow in realizing their mistakes. More interestingly, Huemer also adds a variety of important new arguments. Be sure to check out his rebuttal of arguments from democracy and hypothetical consent. And Huemer’s defense of market anarchy is, in my judgment, easily the best available. Really worth reading.
I am sympathetic to Huemer’s views. But I am at best a reluctant anarchist. In part this is because I think more enthusiastic anarchists like Huemer adopt what implausible conceptions of state legitimacy. I will return to this topic in my next post. (Also check out these remarks by Chris Morris.)
But this reluctance does not make me detract from many of Huemer’s practical conclusions. So here I want to ask a different question, one about Huemer’s method in arguing for anarchism. If we are to evaluate states and their conduct, we better use the correct standards for evaluation. This, then, is a question about the correct background to Huemer’s arguments, not a question about those arguments themselves.
Here, in brief, is the question: can we use intuitions about inter-personal morality to evaluate the morality of states? Huemer clearly thinks the answer is yes. Throughout the book he uses – to great effect – this method, asking whether the things that states do would be acceptable if you and I were to do them. More often than not, the answer is no. In those cases, and absent some special justification for the state (such as that a social contract was signed, or that democracy has magically moral properties), we should condemn the state just as we would condemn individuals. Or so goes the method.
Here is an example, similar to one Huemer offers. Suppose we want to know whether states are justified in enforcing a monopoly on violence. We might then ask whether some person (aptly named Sam) would be justified in locking people he thought were guilty of crimes in his basement, including people who themselves are also locking people they thought were criminals in their basements. The answer is clearly no. And so – absent again some special justification – we should conclude that states are not justified in doing this either.
Or consider large-scale redistributive programs. Suppose Sam went to the house of his friend Rich, threatened Rich to the point where he handed over some of his money and then gave it to people Sam thought needed it more. Would Sam be justified in doing this? Again, the answer is quite clearly no. And so, Huemer concludes, states without special authority are not justified in doing this either.
The central problem here is that governments do things with the use of force. And there are strong moral prohibitions against the use of force. You and I cannot use force in the ways states do. So much worse, Huemer concludes, for states.
But can we really move this quickly from observations about what people like Sam might permissibly do to observations about what states or governments might permissibly do? I am unsure – genuinely unsure. So let me push back as strongly as I can against this method to see if someone can convince me that Huemer’s method is indeed correct.*
Let’s start with another analogy. Suppose that our world was populated not just by humans and animals, but also by giants. These giants are exactly like human beings except much bigger and stronger. Giants can coerce larger groups of people than human beings. Giants can do much more damage than human beings. And giants are more impervious to attack than human beings.
These giants are potentially more dangerous but also more beneficial. When a giant loses his temper, he might kill or harm many people. But when a giant remains cool-headed, he can protect people in ways no human being can do. Think of the giants as a kind of superhero – with all the possible benefits and dangers that come with this.
Would the moral rules applying to people be the same as those applying to the giants? Must the giants follow exactly the same rules? Or might there be some things that the giants can permissibly do that you and I cannot, and other things that you and I can permissibly do but the giants cannot?
It seems to me plausible that we’d say the rules for the giants are a little different from the rules for human beings. Of course the giants should, just like us, respect the rights and freedoms of everyone else (including people and giants). And of course the giants should, just like us, strive to be kind, helpful, prudent, good friends, spouses, parents, and so on.
But there seem to be risks that are okay for you and I to take, but not for the giants. For example, it might be okay for people like us to interfere when our neighbors are having a mild domestic dispute, but not okay for the giants because of the dangers if things going awry? After all, should the giant get angry about the scene he’s witnessing, he might end up killing the entire family. You an I would probably at worst get into a scuffle. Bad, but not deadly.
So far so good? Suppose now that the giants are different in a key respect from us. Suppose that the giants tend to make judgments that are more temperate, more balanced, and less biased than we are. It seems to me that this would single out giants as particularly appropriate adjudicators of disputes and conflicts. And if their temperance carries over to their uses of force as well, it also seems clear that we should ask the giants to do our justified coercing for us.
You can see where this is going. If – and this is a big if – states are relevantly like the giants, then Huemer’s method is faulty. Just as the giants would occupy a slightly different position in our moral universe than you and I do, so too would states. And if that is true then we cannot draw any conclusions about what states can permissibly do from observations about what Sam, or you, or I can permissibly do.
The general point is can be summarized as follows: the moral strictures that apply to different agents must be sensitive to certain relevant facts about these agents. Now I must confess to be genuinely unsure about this thought. But at first blush it seems correct. In a way I hope Huemer or some of you can convince me that I’m wrong. But if I am right, the result is significant. For it would mean that arguments like Huemer’s must be rejected – not because the conclusion is mistaken, but because a premise is false.
In closing, let me stress two points that I hope are obvious. First, none of this helps to defend the actual activities of states. Many of these are clearly unjustified and states should cut them out as soon as humanly possible. Second, I am not proposing some kind of romanticism about the state. Following through on the analogy with giants might well suggest that the moral strictures applying to states are more stringent than those applying to us as private individuals. It all depends on the facts of the case.
* The question matters beyond Huemer’s book. For example, my co-blogger Fernando Tesón has an excellent paper coming out in the 2nd edition of Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics on humanitarian intervention. He there asks whether it would be permissible for states to end a rights-violation in another state if such actions would have no side-effects. Fernando thinks the answer is yes because it would be permissible for you and I to do so. For a similar view, see this paper by Kit Wellman.