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Archive for the ‘political philosophy’ Category

How can one group of human beings come to enjoy a right to enforce its authoritative commands on other human beings? In other words, how does government come to enjoy a right to rule, and how do citizens come to incur a duty to obey?

I consider the answer over at e3ne.org. The reasoning depends heavily on Michael Huemer’s book, The Problem of Political Authority, which I have reviewed here at Pileus. As a moral Lockean, my own view is that the U.S. government is illegitimate because it does not have a valid social contract with its citizens. That doesn’t mean the U.S. government is evil, or that we should try to overthrow it, but it does mean that the government doesn’t have any rights that ordinary citizens don’t also have. The U.S. government and its citizens are in a state of nature.

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I have a “nutshell” summary and critique of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty now up at e3ne.org. Excerpt:

Mill thus defends freedom of conscience, speech, and lifestyle on completely “practical” grounds, but he leaves some significant loose ends in On Liberty. For instance, there are lots of examples of “harms” that the government shouldn’t regulate, like breaking up with a longtime boyfriend or girlfriend. It may cause emotional damage to break up with someone, but there’s no justification for forcing someone to stay in a romantic relationship. So the Harm Principle may establish a necessary condition for government regulation but not a sufficient one (in other words, the government should regulate nothing but harms, but not all harms).

Read more.

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My paper on the political philosophy of secession is now out in Public Affairs Quarterly, an open-access journal. Read it here. Teaser:

The United Kingdom currently sets the gold standard for management of secessionist politics. The British and Scottish governments negotiated in good faith over the terms of the independence referendum that Scotland held on September 18, 2014. If Scotland had voted to secede, the British government would have recognized its independence, thus affirming that the United Kingdom is a free partnership among its peoples.

Spain presents a different scenario altogether. Catalonia intends to hold its own “consultation” on independence, but the Spanish government has denied its right to do so, thus denying that Spain is a free partnership. The Catalan government has repeatedly sought to hold negotiations on the self-determination process, but has been rebuffed. What ought the Catalan government to do? By the criteria set forth in this paper, Catalonia has tried to conform to a just institutional regime for regulating secessionist politics, while Spain has not. Catalonia would be justified in using all proportionate means to secure a just outcome.

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George Will (Washington Post) has an interesting essay on “progressivism’s ratchet.” His “Cupcake Postulate” illustrates the dynamic: federal school lunch subsidies lead to regulation of food content,which justifies the regulation of competing foods from vending machines, and—finally—whether cupcakes sold at bake sales meet federal standards. Government authority spreads—“the cupcake-policing government” finds “unending excuses for flexing its muscles”– and soon we enter a world where officials exercise little discretion or forethought.

Swollen government has a shriveled brain: By printing and borrowing money, government avoids thinking about its proper scope and actual competence. So it smears mine-resistant armored vehicles and other military marvels across 435 congressional districts because it can.

For those interested in the connection between the regulation of school bake sales, police force militarization, and skepticism regarding foreign policy, Will has some worthwhile insights.

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The War at Home

Images of warfare abound these days, from Syria, Gaza, northern Iraq…and Ferguson, MO. As Dylan Scott (TPM) notes, the images out of Ferguson have been “harrowing.” “American law enforcement decked out in military fatigues, patrolling the streets in armored vehicles that look like they were plucked out of Afghanistan or Iraq.” 

I have blogged in the past about the distribution of war surplus to domestic police forces via the Department of Defense’s 1033 program (here and here).  Unsurprisingly, Ferguson and St. Louis County have both benefited from the 1033 program. Although precise information is difficult to come by—the Pentagon only releases information on tactical equipment for counties—USA Today has a partial list for St. Louis County, which includes twelve 5.56 mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, night vision equipment, vehicles, a trailer, and a generator.

National Journal has some images of the police response in Ferguson, in a piece aptly titled: “What a Militarized Police Force Does to a City.” Terrence McCoy (Washington Post) has an article on the use of tear gas in Ferguson. As McCoy explains:

Despite its ubiquity across the globe and in United States, tear gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which set forth agreements signed by nearly every nation in the world — including the United States. The catch, however, is that while it’s illegal in war, it’s legal in domestic riot control.

Sven-Eric Jordt, Yale School of Medicine, is quoted as saying: “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians. That’s very illogical.”

It is also illogical to provide police forces with military grade equipment based on the urgency of the war on drugs or the war on terror. As recent stories reveal (recounted in a fine piece by Radley Balko, WSJ), SWAT teams and the technology they have been provided through 1033 and Homeland Security grants have been used judiciously to break up illegal poker games at VFW halls, to stop underage drinking in a New Haven bar, and to apprehend Tibetan monks whose visas had expired in Iowa.

Balko concludes: “What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.”

Until that occurs, one fears, the war at home will continue.

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Hunting Unicorns

Michael Munger has a fun essay (at FEE) on what he calls “the unicorn problem” (i.e., when people make the argument for statism based on a state they can imagine—benevolent, efficient, omniscient—rather than the state that actually exists). Munger’s solution:

  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State” delete that phrase and replace it with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

I run into this problem repeatedly with colleagues and students who somehow believe that the state could do all kinds of wonderful things, if only it behaved precisely as they imagined it should. “If only we had a single payer system,” they gush, “we would not have all of the problems of self-interest and greed that one sees in the current system.” That follows, of course, because we know that self-interest and greed have no place in any state we can imagine. It is at this point that I try to identify the underlying category error and introduce them to Buchanan’s argument for symmetry (albeit with little impact).

Munger concludes: “To paraphrase Hayek, then, the curious task of the liberty movement is to persuade citizens that our opponents are the idealistic ones, because they believe in unicorns. They understand very little about the State that they imagine they can design.”

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At the Daily Beast, Keli Goff has a piece on “Why Blacks Aren’t Libertarians.” In fact, however, she may be a libertarian; at least, nothing in this piece shows why she cannot be. However, she definitely rejects a kind of dogmatic, absolutist libertarianism that she has encountered – and reasonably so, in my view. Here is the rub:

I presented the caller with the same hypothetical I do to so many of my self-professed libertarian friends: I’m injured in a plane or car crash. There is one hospital located in the town in which the crash has taken place. Do you believe the hospital has a right to refuse to treat me on the basis of race, and that the government has no moral or legal imperative to require the hospital to treat me?

One can make a convincing argument that a florist refusing to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding, or an upscale restaurant not welcoming African Americans, aren’t really major civil rights issues. (Frankly, in this day and age, if a restaurant refused to serve me I might use the power of the Internet to help put it out of business, but I wouldn’t see the point in suing someone to serve me when there are plenty of other dining options.) But when it comes to issues like government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans, there is more at stake.

I would say that the hospital has a legally enforceable duty to accept anyone at imminent risk of death or injury. This is the “safe harbor” exception to the right to exclude that constitutes part of the bundle of private property rights. The safe harbor exception holds that in cases of dire emergency, you lose the right to exclude others from access to your property.

There are at least two important categories of cases here. One consists of cases in which there is no time to obtain consent: my wife is suffering a heart attack, and to save her I have to break into a locked building and take out its defibrillator. We should be able to assume consent in many cases when it is costly to obtain an answer from the property owner, and the foreseeable costs to the property owner are nil (e.g., I will compensate for any damage I cause).

Another category consists of cases in which original appropriation ends up leading to a monopoly, which if exploited could cause severe harm. One such example is Bill Bradford’s old chestnut: you fall out of an apartment window and on the way down grab a flagpole; the owner of the flagpole leans out and demands, “Let go!” Obviously, you have no obligation to let go. Robert Nozick gave an example of appropriating an oasis in the middle of the desert and demanding all the worldly goods of those who pass by in dire thirst.

So it seems clear to me that the hospital example fits into the latter category. If you’re in a life-or-death situation, you must be given access to the hospital. Now, that doesn’t mean you could conscript (enslave) a person to perform surgery on you – the right to exclude from one’s own body admits of no exceptions. And in extremely rare cases, a free society might therefore result in people’s avoidable deaths from lack of care – but of course that sort of thing happens now, all too often.

Now, I don’t know what Ms. Goff means by “government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans,” but if she means large bureaucracies that provide these services at immense taxpayer cost on an ongoing basis, then she is indeed not a libertarian, as libertarians would not support that agenda. But neither does such an expansive government role in those industries follow from the emergency exception to the right to exclude just explored.

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