Jason Brennan recently published a short post on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog titled Statism as Accepting Moral Extortion.
The impetus to share the post here is Jason’s statement that “Justice requires cooperative anarchy,” which is similar to my chosen title of this blog, Peace Requires Anarchy, which in turn is inspired by Roderick Long’s statement that “A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.”
Over nine years after first accepting anarchism I still embrace anarchism. I believe the argument Jason makes in the linked post for statism is an argument that in principle could succeed in justifying (or at least excusing, per Brennan) a state.
However, it seems to me that in the real world the consequences of the state not engaging in any pre-emptive coercive acts (roughly those violating rights that people hold according to libertarian theory) would not be sufficiently bad so as to justify/excuse the state. As I have quoted before, in the words of Mike Huemer, “We’re nowhere close to the case where government would be justified.”
In the spirit of trying to update and learn, I will reflect now to see if I can identify how my views on this topic may have shifted at all, or see if I can have any thoughts now that may cause my views to shift as I write this post.
During the first several years after I became an anarchist my views shifted further in the direction of the state not being justified in the real world. For example, in 2016 I wrote:
“Stringham’s book [Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life] definitely increased my awareness and appreciation of the extent of private governance solutions that exist. This was not the first time that my beliefs about how well private actors could solve problems was changed in this direction. Rather, my views have shifted further in this direction a great deal over time as my views changed from default-statism to minarchist libertarianism to anarchist-libertarianism (and then even kept shifting further from legal centrism even after I became an anarchist). While my views on this hadn’t changed much lately, this book definitely shifted my beliefs further.”
(For a summary of my intellectual journey to libertarian anarchism, see my 2014 post What is Humerian Anarchist Libertarianism?)
We appear to live in a world in which we have the ability to do an unusually large amount of good. There are mountains of tractable problems in the world and we do not have enough resources to solve everything. As such, we are in triage every second of every day.
The suffering of animals can arguably be alleviated for even less. E.g. See Corporate campaigns affect 9 to 120 years of chicken life per dollar spent.
And perhaps we can do even more good by working to ensure beneficial long-term outcomes by helping put civilization on a safer course. I am excited for Toby Ord’s new book coming out next month The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, which I am hopeful will be useful to helping a wider group of people appreciate the shear scale of the future and our incredible position of power and influence today to make a profound difference.
Over the last few years my views have shifted toward more robustly believing that our current era is one where what we do as a civilization matters very significantly. I have on many occasions in recent years been able to appreciate the great importance of the experiences of single individuals. Then I often think about the vast number of sentient beings alive today that could be living much better lives. And when I think of the future, I struggle to wrap my head around the seemingly unimaginably large number of future generations that can potentially exist if we navigate the next few centuries well.
All this is to say that if one were looking for something new in my worldview today that could be used to overcome the presumption at the foundation of my anarchist libertarian views that I intuitively have against using physical coercion, it is probably that consequences of actions matter a lot.
Long before I heard of effective altruism or libertarian anarchism I thought about the future and wanted it to be great. However, I have never had as much confidence that it matters so much that we get things right. As a kid it never really even occurred to me that animals may be experiencing an insane amount of terrible suffering on farms and in nature. And I also hadn’t properly done the math to try to imagine the astronomical scale of our cosmic endowment (Timelapse of the Future, Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority).
That said, even though I think the consequentialist stakes of actions are higher than I used to think, I have yet to come across a proposal of state aggression that I feel comfortable endorsing on the grounds that the consequentialist outcome is sufficiently better than what could be achieved without committing the rights-violation. The reality is that I do possess a lot of uncertainty about what exact course of action is optimal. There are basic questions in population ethics that I am not certain about that other thoughtful caring people disagree with me on. Very smart members of the effective altruism community who I respect disagree with each other on which organizations in which cause areas will make the best use of marginal dollars. And I am uncertain as well. Even just today I made the choice to allocate $200 to an organization I have not previously chosen to donate to.
In light of all this, it is difficult to see how I could think a particular use of state-scale pre-emptive coercion in the real world is justified or excusable. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree. I admit that I have become more humble than I once was at times when it seems to me that I am right and others are wrong. It seems I am right, but I know somehow that I may not be and I cannot hold my view with complete confidence. As such, that presumption against coercion is rarely overridden in practice.