Did the emergence of the state reduce the rate of human death from warfare? Steven Pinker’s outstanding book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surveys many reasons why you are less likely to die from violence today than your ancestors were. Part of his explanation is that warfare was constant in stateless, anarchic societies, but the emergence of the state, beginning about six thousand years ago, helped reduce this problem. He has nice things to say about Thomas Hobbes’ thesis in Leviathan, that a powerful government is necessary to rescue people from their natural state of constant warfare.
In my most recent Learn Liberty blog post, I question this finding of Pinker’s. I argue that the evidence he presents for the claim does not suffice to prove it, because there are other factors that could explain declining rates of war death. Moreover, even if the state reduced war death somewhat, we can’t necessarily infer from that fact alone that the state increased human welfare. From the post:
[T]here is an important conceptual problem for the claim that the rise of the state improved human welfare by reducing violent deaths.
After all, early states arose almost exclusively out of conquest, as Pinker concedes. They started as roving bands of armed robbers, who eventually found that converting robbery into regularized taxation would destroy less wealth and generate more revenue over the long run. Autonomous peoples do not go into “subject” status willingly.
More at the link.
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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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- Libertarianism.org – Finally! A non-technical, one-stop shop for the major ideas in the philosophical tradition of liberty. Cato Institute project.
- Governance Without a State: Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood (Columbia UP) – File under “order in anarchy.” Mostly European scholars giving somewhat different takes than you get with the UK-US “economics of anarchy” research. Nothing blindingly new to students of Olson, Ostrom, and Axelrod, and many of the contributions simply address political economy issues in developing countries, not “failed states” or “anarchies” strictly defined, but the chapters by Schuppert and Chojnacki & Branovic are worth reading.
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