Posts Tagged ‘Anarchism’

University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer’s book The Problem of Political Authority deservedly made a large splash when it was released last year. The book consists of two parts, the first making the case that states enjoy no moral right to rule and that subjects have no moral duty to obey them, and the second laying out a new case for anarcho-capitalism, a justice system based on competitive, private security agencies and arbitration services.

Huemer’s great strength is his ability to bring together arguments in the literature and add a few of his own to make a compelling case for surprising conclusions. The writing is clear and easy to follow. Huemer relies heavily on commonsense intuitions to make his case. He concedes that commonsense intuitions hold political authority to be real, and that his position against political authority therefore faces a burden of proof, one that he meets. While I don’t think that ethical intuitionism is the One True Moral Methodology, starting with commonsense intuitions has the advantage of making the argument relevant to people working from all sorts of different moral theories, from deontology to consequentialism.

Huemer’s method is to think of things that governments do, and ask if individuals who are not part of the government would be justified in doing them. For instance, governments purport to make drug possession by consenting adults illegal and punish violators of these laws with imprisonment in cages. Would it be justifiable for me to declare X substance illegal and kidnap and confine in my basement those I find in possession of X? If not, why not? Any answer would depend crucially on a persuasive account of political authority.

Huemer goes through various accounts of political authority and carefully and patiently explains where they go astray: consent, democracy, gratitude, good consequences, etc. None of them succeed in showing that people who are part of the government have rights that people who are not part of the government lack. Huemer’s book is certainly the best summation of the case for philosophical anarchism that has yet been written.

Part 2 of the book, on the other hand, is considerably less successful. (more…)

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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Libertarians tend to like political decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity (” do everything at the lowest feasible level”). The standard reasoning is that decentralization provides a check on government, especially when combined with mobility across jurisdictions. Thus, if one jurisdiction becomes too overbearing, people can flee to a more welcoming environment, and this possibility will actually prevent governments from running roughshod over their citizens’ liberties, for fear of losing their tax base. Dressed up in the language of rational-choice institutionalism, this is all Barry Weingast’s “market-preserving federalism” model really is.

I would like to posit that, under certain conditions, decentralization can in and of itself represent an increase in freedom, even if government does not shrink as a consequence (even if it grows!).

The argument

Why do radical libertarians think that taxation is theft? Presumably because taxation takes away citizens’ justly acquired property without their consent. But what if they did consent, e.g., through a social contract? Then taxation would be fine, so long as it is levied pursuant to the terms of the contract. But – “I didn’t sign no stinkin’ social contract!” Fair enough, neither have most people – and, eliding a long stream of philosophical argument, it ultimately seems clear that the arguments for empirical anarchism (“very few existing governments have a moral right to rule”) are compelling.

But could a government established illegitimately come to enjoy some legitimacy after a certain period, during which it has performed certain actions? Think about property entitlements. The long history of theft, extortion, and murder in human societies might seem to render virtually all property entitlements illegitimate. But then there are good reasons to think that the moral stain of illegitimate transfer eventually fades as the victims die out and the holdings are transferred justly to subsequent generations. Thus, property entitlements that are illegitimate in origin can eventually be “redeemed.”

In the same way, governments are generally not established by initial unanimous consent (the Mayflower Compact was an interesting historical exception). Therefore, they are morally illegitimate because they violate the rights of nonconsenters. But can governments eventually become legitimate through the establishment of consent? Clearly, no government (that I know of) has ever tried to obtain the signatures of all its citizens to a constitution after the fact. But surely, living under a government can, under some circumstances, convey consent. John Locke’s theory of tacit consent to government holds that “enjoying the dominions of a commonwealth” makes you morally subject to that government – you must obey its laws, or at least not interfere with their enforcement. This theory is inadequate when applied to national states, however, for their very size makes emigration impractical for most. It doesn’t really count as consent if you have no choice.

But what about a condominium association? Let’s suppose a CA was established improperly without all the proper signatures, but carried on governing. It was a morally illegitimate government at its founding. But if you continue to live there for a certain period of time without making a complaint, it seems fair to infer that you have consented to the arrangement. In these circumstances, tacit consent does seem to do some work. Why? Because a condominium association is so small, territorially, that it is easy to leave if you do not like it.

Now replace “condominium association” with “municipal government.” It is reasonably easy to move across municipal jurisdictions. I would venture to guess that there are many towns across the United States where, if all adults were surveyed, none of them would volunteer the belief that their municipal government is illegitimate and has no right to rule. In effect, these town governments enjoy unanimous consent to the basic contract (this does not mean, of course, that there is unanimous consent to every decision the local government makes – but all that matters for “right to rule” is unanimous consent to the basic procedures by which decisions are made).

So if radical libertarians were to go into a town like this and proclaim that resistance to local taxation is just, or that enforcement of ordinances against, say, houses of prostitution is wicked, they would be in the wrong. These policies would not necessarily be violating anyone’s rights, because everyone has consented to the town government’s right to make these decisions. (As an aside, libertarians would probably make more headway with their ideas if they openly acknowledged that local communities should have the right to zone out crack dealerships and brothels, thus cutting the legs out from under the easiest and most unfair reductios of libertarianism.)

In conclusion, decentralization, by placing political decisions in the hands of small-scale governments, can, under conditions of good mobility and respect for basic integrity of the person, inherently improve liberty. “Big government” at the local level need not be unjust, because it often enjoys the consent of the governed. Libertarians need not be complete anarchists, just radical decentralists.

UPDATE: In the comments, Mark LeBar poses a strong challenge to my view that really existing local governments enjoy a moral right to rule. In response, I concede that the right to rule is somewhat impeached by the lack of express consent, but maintain that what matters most is the contents of residents’ “choice sets,” i.e., their real ability to withhold or withdraw consent by moving. In practice, what an impeached right to rule may mean is that there are certain, very fundamental rights that citizens cannot give up except through express consent under conditions of a highly favorable choice set, while there are other rights that may reasonably be considered to be alienated simply through residence and absence of explicit dissent. Local governments would then enjoy a right to rule in the latter areas, but not the former. Levying low taxes might fit the latter category, while imprisoning private drug users might fit the former. This is admittedly a bit arbitrary & not totally satisfactory. Nevertheless, I don’t think I need the strong claim that local governments enjoy any kind of right to rule in order to make the weaker claim that limitations on freedom enacted by local governments are inherently less oppressive (if not totally non-oppressive) than the same limitations enacted by higher-level governments.

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David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, answers this question in a well-timed reposting of an excellent older piece from the Cato Policy Report.  In it, Boaz argues that “libertarians are not, in any serious sense, ‘anti-government.'”  Instead, libertarians favor “a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper function.”  Or more specifically, Boaz argues:

Libertarians generally support a government formed by the consent of the governed and designed to achieve certain limited purposes. Both the form of government and the limits on its powers should be specified in a constitution, and the challenge in any society is to keep government constrained and limited so that individuals can prosper and solve problems in a free and civil society.  Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government—limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

I am largely in agreement with Boaz’s main point here.  Indeed, I have frequently argued in the past that libertarians should want a strong (in terms of “state capacity”) but very limited (in terms of what the state does) government.  A government that is not all that limited in terms of its ends threatens tyranny.  Unfortunately, there are many examples of such states.  But a government that has little state capacity will not be able to accomplish its proper role of securing itself and the property rights (broadly understood) of its citizens against both foreign and domestic threats.  See many failed states such as Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as the numerous states in history that have failed to build sufficient forces to deter or defend against foreign enemies.


This understanding means that libertarianism is an explicitly “statist” political theory.  I’m comfortable with that – though it means I can’t have fun by jeering my leftist friends as “statists.”

However, Boaz’s point isn’t completely accurate given that there are rival specifications of libertarianism.  Indeed, I’ve been sneered at in the past by many self-described libertarians who argue that libertarianism includes anarchists or is properly a form of anarchism (and thus I should call myself a classical liberal instead of a libertarian).  Moreover, Boaz’s own collection of libertarian writings, titled The Libertarian Reader, includes a piece by Lysander Spooner – an “anti-government” anarchist.

So if some libertarians are anarchists and given that anarchists are anti-government, this broader tent libertarianism would have both “pro-government” and “anti-government” wings – thus complicating Boaz’s story.

But back to Boaz and why he wrote (and reposted) his piece in the first place.  Boaz wants average folks  – often confused by the binary and simplistic talk of the media – to understand that libertarians are not to be misidentified as or lumped in with racists or terrorists who want to use violence against other groups within society or against the U.S. government.  Well, his point here is correct for us “statist” libertarians – but it is also true for all of the “anti-government” anarcho-capitalists I’ve met through the years.  They seek peaceful change or wish to be benignly ignored.  Moreover, they despise racism as a collectivist and anti-individualist view.  And they certainly aren’t interested in using violence against other innocent citizens since that would violate their core non-coercion principle.

So, it is possible that being “anti-government” alone isn’t all that bad and so maybe we should focus on simply educating people that the larger problem with some current “anti-government” types is that they are stupid racists or terrorists?  Maybe.  But given that the media likes to tell simple Manichean stories  – and that people rationally utilize heuristics – Boaz is probably right to try and distance libertarianism from the “anti-government” tag even if some libertarians would contest his definition of the term.

Lastly, I will note that I would prefer that libertarianism be distinguished sharply from anarchism, even so-called libertarian anarchism or anarcho-capitalism.  It is much more analytically useful to do so since the issue of the philosophical legitimacy of the state is at the heart of the debate between these two and separates them into political and anti-political theories.

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