Peace Requires Anarchy

How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?

12 Comments

Michael Huemer is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is the author of the book The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. The following is the body of an email I sent to him questioning the specifics of the criteria he uses to determine whether or not the relative consequences of not having a particular rights-violating government program are bad enough to justify having the program. His response can be found here.

In your Cato essay “The Problem of Authority” you write:

“If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring.”

Allow me to clarify: Why? Because a society without law and order (a Hobbesian war) is a sufficiently disastrous outcome that aggression would be justified to avoid it.

In a Goodreads review of your book (that everyone should buy, like I just did two days ago) a critic writes:

“The second half of the book sketches how ‘law and order’ might work without government, and why a military might not be necessary, but there’s not even the briefest attempt to explain how things like roads and water supplies would be dealt with.”

Michael Huemer(Note that Bryan Caplan thinks this is a legitimate criticism.)

Is a road-less society or a society with poor water supply a sufficiently disastrous outcome that a minimal-road-building state or a minimal-water-supply-system state would be justified to avoid it?

In other words, if the critics were right that there would be very few roads in a stateless society, would a minimal-road-building state be justified?

As another example, if it were true that there would be very few schools and most people would be much less educated than they are today in a stateless society, would a minimal-school-system state program be justified?

To generalize this question: How bad must the free market disaster outcome be to justify extortion-funded state program intervention?

I am not sure how to answer this question.

On the one hand if I say that no outcome, even a society lacking “law and order,” is disastrous enough to justify a rights-violating minimal state fix, then you’ll accuse me of biting the bullet again. [UPDATE 08/07/2013 4:30 PM: This time, unlike the first time, I believe he would be correct to accuse me of biting the bullet.]

On the other hand, if we accept that a road-less society and a society with a slightly less educated public is a sufficiently disastrous outcome to justify an extortion-funded state school system and road system, then we’re faced with granting that all political authority is justified to the extent that it is beneficial. In other words, we risk conceding that the answers to these two questions are identical:

“The question is not, ‘Why are those programs beneficial?’ The question is, ‘How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?'”

Any state program that is shown to be “beneficial” can be claimed to be justified in light of the fact that it avoids a more disastrous outcome, just as you say a government that “make[s] laws against violence and theft and provide[s] a court system to adjudicate disputes [is justified] in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all [assuming it is true that such a Hobbesian war would occur without government].”

My guess is that you will say that the solution to this problem is, instead of taking either extreme position, simply to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and say, in the words of Bryan Caplan, that aggressive government programs are justified only if they are “highly likely to lead to much better consequences.”

If this is the solution we pick then the task of the anarcho-capitalist ideologist is to show that no aggressive government program is “highly likely to lead to much better consequences” than the consequences that would occur without the aggressive government program.

In addition to debunking the myth that there cannot be law and order in a stateless society, this may or may not include debunking other factual beliefs that people have, such as that the state school system is necessary to educate the nation’s children, etc, since people may or may not think that these other government programs are “highly likely to lead to much better consequences.”

[End of email]

See Prof. Mike Huemer’s response here.

An Explanation of the Title: “How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?”

The title of this post may sound contradictory. To clarify, it uses the term “justify” in the same way that Mike Huemer uses the term when talking about how minimal states would be justified if it were true that anarchy would necessarily be a Hobbesian war of all against all. The term “unjust” is used to refer to government activity that involves violating peoples’ rights as defined by libertarian principles. I believe the law should always uphold peoples’ rights, but if we lived in a world in which the consequences of the law upholding peoples’ rights all the time were somehow very terrible then I would be willing to consider making an exception and support making it legal to violate someone’s rights in order to avoid this terrible outcome. But how terrible would this outcome have to be for me to support making it legal to violate a person’s rights? Hence the title question, since all states necessarily make it legal to violate peoples’ rights by definition, since all states make it legal for them to imposes taxes on their subjects and outlaw competing rights-enforcement agencies, both of which necessarily involve employing aggression.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

This is the second of three related blog posts featuring discussion between Prof. Mike Huemer and I. All three posts deal with the question of when it is moral to support or commit aggression:

(1) Morally Permissible Unjust Acts: Defending the Rights-Based Approach to Defending Libertarianism

(2) How Bad Would Anarchy Have to be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?

(3) Mike Huemer: “We’re nowhere close to the case where government would be justified.”

Advertisements

Author: PeaceRequiresAnarchy

“A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” – Roderick T. Long

12 thoughts on “How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?

  1. This is no different than suggesting that there exists a maximum amount of road that falls short of a hypothetical minimum of road that magically grants me the authority to tell my friend Pete that he can now justly extract property from Sam and Linda by force to fund road construction for their benefit. Problem is Sam doesn’t drive and Linda is quite happy with the current ammount of road. No point exists where my desire for more road bestows on me the right to steal. Since I cannot acquire the right to steal, I cannot grant the authority to steal to someone else.

  2. How much theft would justify additional theft in order to fund an ongoing effort apprehend theives?

  3. Onesquarelight, yes, of course you never have the right to steal, no matter your desire for roads and no matter how few roads there are in society. The same is true for security. No matter what war-zone you find yourself in, you do not have the right to steal money from people to fund a security organization that will protect you.

    But, the question is, if it is true that society would necessarily be a Hobbesian war zone in the absence of any theft-funded protection organizations, should we support establishing such a criminal organization if doing so would put a stop to a vast majority of the violence we find ourselves in? Should we ever support making it legal to violate peoples’ rights in the name of avoiding some terrible outcome? I believe the answer is yes, although fortunately I do not think that we live in such a world that we would ever be faced with a terrible enough situation to need to do this.

  4. “No matter what war-zone you find yourself in, you do not have the right to steal money from people to fund a security organization that will protect you.”

    “Should we ever support making it legal to violate peoples’ rights in the name of avoiding some terrible outcome? I believe the answer is yes”

    ????

  5. “No matter what war-zone you find yourself in, you do not have the right to steal money from people to fund a security organization that will protect you.”

    I was pointing out that the rights people have as defined by libertarians are not dependent on the consequences of peoples’ actions. So for example, a libertarian would say I own myself and that this is true regardless of whether or not (for example) we live in a world in which the only way to prevent some serious disaster (such as an asteroid killing a million people) is by someone murdering me. Even if we lived in such a world, the libertarian would still say I have the right not to be murdered. The fact that murdering me is the only way to save the million people from being killed does not take away my right.

    “Should we ever support making it legal to violate peoples’ rights in the name of avoiding some terrible outcome? I believe the answer is yes”

    Here I was pointing out that even though people have certain rights as defined by libertarians, we can still choose to ignore those rights and support making it legal to violate them in some circumstances. Yes this would be “unlibertarian,” but it’s still something we could do. The question is: *Should* we ever do it? (No, the fact that it’s “unlibertarian” is not a sufficient reason to prove that we should never do it.) My answer is that there has never been a time in history that I was aware of that people should have supported making an act of aggression legal and I doubt there will never be a time in the future in which I support making aggression illegal. However, I can conceive of a few extreme situations in which I would say we should support making it legal to violate peoples’ rights. These extreme situations are very unlikely to ever occur, but the fact that they exist proves to me that I am a consequentialist to a degree rather than a strict rights-based libertarian. Does what I said make sense to you now?

  6. It is either always immoral to violate the Rights of others or it is not. Both of your assertions cannot be true. If there is a state of affairs which can morally justify violating Rights it must follow that it is not immoral to violate Rights. If it is not immoral to initiate aggression then there could be no Rights at all. You are contradicting yourself with the two statements. If you believe the second assertion then you cannot claim to believe the first. If you believe the first you cannot logically permit the second. Legality must not be confused with morality. If premise one is true then a law which permits it’s violation must be contrary to truth and hence immoral. What you’ve done here is answer your own question only you don’t seem to realize it yet.

  7. “It is either always immoral to violate the Rights of others or it is not.”

    It is not always immoral to violate peoples’ rights.

    “Both of your assertions cannot be true.”

    Which assertions?

    “If there is a state of affairs which can morally justify violating Rights it must follow that it is not [ALWAYS] immoral to violate Rights.”

    I agree with your statement if you add “always” to it as I did. On the other hand, if you are claiming that “If there is a state of affairs which can morally justify violating Rights it must follow that it is [NEVER] immoral to violate Rights” I completely disagree. You’re forgetting the obvious, namely that it could be the case that sometimes it is immoral to violate peoples’ rights and other times it is not immoral to violate peoples’ rights. This is my position.

    “If it is not immoral to initiate aggression then there could be no Rights at all.”

    Why not? Of course there can be.

    “You are contradicting yourself with the two statements. If you believe the second assertion then you cannot claim to believe the first.”

    Again, which statements?

    “Legality must not be confused with morality.”

    That’s my point exactly. I’ve found that many libertarians tend to claim that it is always immoral to do things which should be illegal (namely, violate peoples’ rights). I disagree and argue that there are some cases where people should violate peoples’ rights (meaning that it is not immoral to violate them in these instances).

    “If premise one is true then a law which permits it’s violation must be contrary to truth and hence immoral.”

    Huh? What is premise one?

    “What you’ve done here is answer your own question only you don’t seem to realize it yet.”

    Okay, please clarify what you said above (see my questions) and maybe I’ll understand your point. Peace.

  8. Everyone’s rights would be in jeopardy in a state of all out war. Without some people controlling the actions of everybody else society would deteriorate into a state of all-out war. Some rights are better than no rights, so it is moral for a government to do whatever it has to to prevent such a catastrophe.

    Is this what you are saying?

  9. I guess that’s sort of what I’m saying, but not really. And to clarify, I disagree with the second sentence that “Without some people controlling the actions of everybody else society would deteriorate into a state of all-out war.” In other words, I disagree with the view that some sort of minimal state is needed to provide the services of “law and order.” Instead I believe that these services can be provided in a free market anarchist society. However, in this post I make the concession that if we lived in a different world in which this actually was true–in which it actually was true that a minimal state was necessary to prevent an all-out war from occurring in anarchy–then yes, I would support such a minimal state despite the fact that this minimal state would violate some peoples’ rights. The reason for this is because I am a consequentialist to a degree (i.e. I wouldn’t be willing to adhere 100% to rights-based libertarianism if we lived in a world in which the consequences of doing so were sufficiently bad). More specifically, I value the outcome of a world in which there are few rights violations more than the outcome of a world in which there are many many serious rights violations. Therefore, I would support deviating from my rights-based libertarianism and actually support allowing some people to legally commit rights violations if doing so lead to the consequences that I just mentioned–a world with few rights violations rather than a world of all out war with a substantial number of serious rights violations. Did this help clarify?

  10. So your answer to the question you asked – “How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?” – is “It’s always immoral to violate the rights of others in the world where we actually live (aka Reality).” Only in some make believe world would you support violating rights to protect rights.

    Just so you know I haven’t been talking about a make believe world. It’s hard enough discussing reality with any clarity. In the future you should let people know in advance that you’re not discussing reality but some fictional world that you made up in head.

  11. “So your answer to the question you asked – “How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?” – is “It’s always immoral to violate the rights of others [e.g. to tax them to fund a minimal state] in the world where we actually live (aka Reality).” Only in some make believe world would you support violating [some] rights to protect [other] rights.”

    Correct.

    “Just so you know I haven’t been talking about a make believe world.”

    Right, I know. Some people believe we live in such a make-believe world in which an anarchist society would quickly degenerate into a violent chaotic society. You and I both know that’s not true, but I was merely entertaining the question of if it was true, would I agree with the people who hold this mistaken belief about anarchy that a minimal state would be justified. I found that I do agree with them and thus I know now that in order to persuade them to be anarcho-libertarians I must present them with reason and evidence to enlighten them about the fact that their factual beliefs about how bad anarchy would be are false.

    “It’s hard enough discussing reality with any clarity. In the future you should let people know in advance that you’re not discussing reality but some fictional world that you made up in head.”

    I did. That’s why I said things like “In other words, if the critics were right that there would be very few roads in a stateless society, would a minimal-road-building state be justified?” I don’t believe that they are right–I don’t believe that we live in a world in which there would be no functioning roads if we abolished the state–but here in this question it’s clear that I was asking Mike Huemer to consider whether or not a state would be justified if they were right that we did live in such a world.

  12. Pingback: “The Problem of Political Authority” by Professor Michael Huemer | Peace Requires Anarchy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s