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March 2013

ABOUT THIS ISSUE

Many people grant the state the moral right to do all sorts of things — things that,
were they done by private individuals, we would nonetheless find appalling. Can we
justify this expansive moral authority, whether through social contract theory or
otherwise? If we can’t, what happens next?

Philosopher Michael Huemer’s new book, The Problem of Political Authority, proposes
a radical solution: The state and its agents should be judged using exactly the same
standards that we apply in our judgments of private conduct. If it is wrong for me to
extract money from my neighbor under threat of force, then — and by the same token
— it is also wrong for the state. When we make these judgments, he argues, we rapidly
discover that we have no duty whatsoever to obey the state.

The result, for him, is philosophical anarchism. Of course, many libertarians and
others decline to go so far. It’s an old debate, and one not likely to be settled here in
any case. What Huemer’s argument brings, however, is a new methodological
approach. He builds his case from from common, widely shared ethical intuitions
rather than abstract first principles. Such principles may or may not be shared among
all interlocutors, even while their intuitions agree. This initial agreement, Huemer
claims, is a solid foundation for political and ethical reasoning.
To discuss with him, we’ve recruited a panel of distinguished thinkers of varying
persuasions: George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan, libertarian scholar-
activist Tom G. Palmer, and Binghamton University philosophy professor Nicole
Hassoun.

LEAD ESSAY

The Problem of Authority


By Michael Huemer
Lead Essay
March 4, 2013

S
am has a problem. He has a number of very poor nephews and nieces. He
has been working with a charity organization to help them, but the
organization needs more funding. So Sam goes out and starts demanding
money from his neighbors to give to the charity group. If anyone refuses to contribute,
Sam kidnaps that person and locks them in a cage.

Though charitable giving is laudable, as is the effort to care for one’s nephews and
nieces, almost everyone who hears this story finds Sam’s extortion program
impermissible. This includes both Democrats and Republicans, people who believe in
a personal moral obligation to donate to charity, and even people who have a theory
of “distributive justice” that says the current distribution of wealth in our society is
unjust because the poor have too little.

Interestingly, however, many of the people who agree on the impermissibility of Sam’s
behavior nevertheless support seemingly analogous behavior on the part of a certain
other Uncle Sam. Some think it not only permissible but obligatory for the state to
coercively seize funds to aid the poor.

This is just one of many activities of government that are generally accepted despite
the fact that seemingly analogous behavior would be widely condemned if carried out
by anyone else. Two other examples: those who kill large numbers of people to bring
about some political change are dubbed “terrorists” and are widely condemned,
regardless of whether their goals are desirable … unless they work for a government,
in which case they are called “soldiers” and may be praised as heroes. When an
individual is forced to work for someone else, this is called “forced labor” or “slavery”
and is widely considered unjust … unless it is imposed by a government, in which case
it may be called “conscription,” “national service,” or “jury duty.”
The philosophical questions with which I began my book The Problem of Political
Authority, then, were these: what gives the government the right to behave in ways
that would be wrong for any non-governmental agent? And why should the rest of us
obey the government’s commands?

Failed Theories of Authority

The first part of the book addresses what I considered the most important answers to
these questions. For instance, it is often said that the government derives its powers
from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the
government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not
in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the


contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because
it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have
“implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s
territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly,
the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the
territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the
right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on
the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate
authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish
the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a
protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him
protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in
which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but
as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show
that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted
principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today),
the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind
this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may
undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to
perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for
instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an
ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support
the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they
tt b hil l th bbi thi d t k it thi ll
want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically
permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a
popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would
render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are
only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote
merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or
may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to
maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without
government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against
everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a
tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government
must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate
disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the
government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay
your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy
health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund
the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? 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?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from


occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using
coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. 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. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever
it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by
doing so.

I can’t here discuss all the theories of authority addressed in the book. But the above
should give a general sense of the approach.

Now if, as I claim, all theories of political authority fail, what political conclusion
should we draw? If there is no political authority, this does not immediately mean that
we must abolish the state. Since this point is often misunderstood, it is worth
repeating: the question of political authority is not “Should we have government?”
The question is: Should the government be subject to the same moral constraints as
apply to private agents? The failure of theories of political authority means that we
apply to private agents? The failure of theories of political authority means that we
must apply to the state the same moral standards that we apply to private agents. If a
private agent would not be justified in using coercion to achieve a particular goal,
then the state is also not justified in using coercion to achieve that goal. Thus, for
example, if it would be impermissible for an individual or private corporation to
threaten to kidnap and imprison people for consuming unhealthful substances, then it
is also impermissible for the state to do so.

As the preceding example suggests, the rejection of authority leads to generally


libertarian political views. This is because common sense morality—comprising the
ethical principles that almost everyone applies to non-governmental agents—tends to
be strongly opposed to coercion in a wide variety of circumstances. If we applied to
the state the same ethical constraints that we apply to everyone else, almost everyone
would be a libertarian.

Anarcho-capitalism

But most people, if they rejected the idea of political authority, would only become
minimal state libertarians; they would not become anarchists. This is because most
people have a set of factual beliefs, roughly to the effect of “anarchy could never
work” and “anarchy entails constant violence and chaos.” Most of those who easily
dismiss anarchy, however, do not know what any anarchist theory actually says.

In the second half of The Problem of Political Authority, I consider how an anarchist
society might work, specifically, an “anarcho-capitalist” society. In this society, the
services now provided by governmental police would instead be provided by
competing protection agencies, hired either by individuals or by associations of
property owners. Protection agencies, knowing that violence is the most expensive
way of resolving disputes, would require their customers to seek peaceful resolutions
of any disputes with other individuals. Agencies would decline to protect those who
either willfully initiated conflicts with others or refused to seek peaceful resolutions;
any agencies that acted otherwise would find themselves unable to compete in the
marketplace due to the soaring costs created by their troublesome clients. The services
presently provided by government courts would instead be provided by private
arbitrators, hired by individuals who had disputes with one another. Laws, rather
than being made by a legislature, would be made by the arbitrators, in the manner in
which the British common law actually developed.

In the book, I address numerous objections to this vision of society, which I cannot go
into in this space. Here, I just want to emphasize a few very general observations. To
begin with the anarcho capitalist system is not as far from our current system as
begin with, the anarcho-capitalist system is not as far from our current system as
“anarchy” is usually assumed to be. In particular, libertarian anarchists do not
propose a world without law, nor do they propose to eliminate the functions of police
and courts. Libertarian anarchists simply believe that the provision of law and order
could best be structured in a different way. The anarcho-capitalist mechanism for
providing law differs from the governmental mechanism in two key ways. The first
difference is one of voluntariness versus coerciveness: in the anarcho-capitalist
system, people choose to hire protection agencies and arbitrators, signing actual,
literal contracts with them. In the governmental system, individuals are simply forced
to buy the state’s services. The second difference is one of competition versus
monopoly: in the anarcho-capitalist system, protectors must compete with alternative
providers of the same service. In the governmental system, one provider holds a
monopoly. The chief practical contention of anarcho-capitalism is that a voluntary,
competitive system for providing security is superior to a coercive monopoly.

Many find the anarcho-capitalist vision a troubling one, chiefly due to a distrust of
corporations. I will just make one suggestion for reflection. Imagine that someone
proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed
was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto
known—one with revenues in the trillions of dollars. A corporation that held a
monopoly on some extremely important market within our society. And used its
monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets. And hired men with
guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose. And periodically
bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what
theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to
serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other
corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your
trepidation be assuaged the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one
share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of
directors? If it would not, is the governmental system really so different from that
scenario as to explain why we may trust a national government to selflessly serve and
protect the rest of society?

RESPONSE ESSAYS

Plausible Libertarianism: Philosophy, Social Science, and Huemer


By Bryan Caplan
Response Essays
March 6 2013
March 6, 2013

T
here are two main strains of libertarianism: rights-based and
consequentialist. For rights-based libertarians like Ayn Rand, Murray
Rothbard, and Robert Nozick, violating a person’s libertarian rights (also
known as “initiating the use of physical force,” breaching the “non-aggression axiom,”
or simply “coercion”) is not merely bad, but morally impermissible.[1] Rights-based
libertarians are often interested in social science,[2] but social science plays no
fundamental role in their defense of a free society. In their view, people can justifiably
become libertarians before they ever open an economics textbook —and nothing in
the textbook can bring libertarian principles into question.

For consequentialist libertarians, in contrast, violating libertarian rights is not


inherently wrong. We should respect libertarian rights because the overall
consequences of doing so are good.[3] For consequentialist libertarians, social science
is all-important. People cannot justifiably become libertarians until they know enough
social science to weigh the overall consequences of various policies against each other.
Furthermore, as soon as the evidence shows that coercion has slightly better overall
consequences than leaving people alone, consequentialist libertarians must support
that coercion.

Counterexamples to rights-based libertarianism are notoriously easy to find.[4] The


classics are hypotheticals where a small rights violation leads to vastly better
consequences. Is it really morally impermissible to steal a dime to save a person’s life?
To steal a dime from each and every person on earth to save the world? Furthermore,
if even small rights violations are forbidden, why don’t we need other people’s
consent before we vibrate their eardrums by speaking to them—or shoot molecules at
their bodies by breathing on them?

Counterexamples to consequentialism are lower-profile, but equally devastating.[5]


The classic: Suppose a doctor cares for five patients, each of whom needs a different
organ transplant to survive. The doctor also happens to know a perfectly healthy but
utterly friendless stranger. The doctor could easily murder the stranger, make his
death look like an accident, then use his organs to save five patients’ lives.
Consequentialism seems to imply that this murder is not only morally permissible, but
morally obligatory. The most a consequentialist could do is appeal to seemingly
morally irrelevant facts like, “In the real world, the doctor would be caught.”

Philosophically literate readers of Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority


f
will feel a strong temptation to place him in either the rights-based or consequentialist
categories. At times, Huemer seems to appeal to rights. When he critiques social
contract theory, for example, the substance of Huemer’s argument closely parallels
Lysander Spooner’s No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, a long-time favorite
of rights-based libertarians. At other times, however, Huemer seems to appeal
to consequences:

Return to the lifeboat scenario. The boat is in danger of sinking, unless most of the
passengers quickly start bailing water. This time, however, suppose that none of the
other passengers are willing to bail water. You cannot perform the task alone, and
no amount of reasoning or pleading will persuade the myopic passengers to take up
their buckets. Finally, you pull your trusty Glock out of your jacket and order the
other passengers to start bailing out the boat. In this situation, regrettable as the
resort to force may be, your action seems justified.[6]

If you read Huemer closely, however, you will discover what makes The Problem of
Political Authority so remarkable: Huemer offers a genuinely new defense of
libertarianism that combines the strengths of the rights-based and consequentialist
approaches while avoiding their flaws.

Instead of making a tortured effort to somehow prove that “human nature” or Kantian
meta-ethics implies the blanket immorality of violating libertarian rights, Huemer
starts with a modest presumption that libertarians share with the rest of mankind:
Under ordinary circumstances, attacking a peaceful person or stealing his stuff his
immoral. As he explains:

Almost no one, regardless of political ideology, considers theft, assault, murder, and
so on morally acceptable… I have made no particularly strong assumptions about
these ethical prohibitions. I do not, for example, assume that theft is never
permissible. I simply assume that it is not permissible under normal circumstances,
as dictated by common sense morality.[7]

For example, almost everyone accepts the moral presumption that stealing bread is
wrong. This principle is not absolute: When Jean Valjean says, “I stole a loaf of bread
to save my sister’s son,” his justification is credible. Nevertheless, most attempts to
rebut the presumption against stealing bread fail: “I stole the bread because I knew I
would savor it more than its owner would have,” shows chutzpah, not moral insight.
You don’t have to be remotely libertarian to see the inadequacy of such excuses.
After establishing this common ground, Huemer points out the apparent conflict
between ordinary morality and state authority. If anyone other than the state acted
like a state, we would brand him a criminal. Unlike most rights-based thinkers,
however, Huemer does not hastily declare victory after making this point. Instead, he
methodically considers the leading attempts to exonerate the state: appeals to social
contract theory, democracy, fairness, and consequences.

The first three families of arguments all fall flat, for reasons Huemer’s book explains
in detail. When Huemer turns to consequences, however, matters get sticky. After all,
he explicitly admits that violating libertarian rights is morally permissible if the
consequences of doing so are sufficiently good. How can a mere philosopher
emphatically condemn real-world governments after making such an open-
ended concession?

Huemer responds with a simple yet powerful observation: when we say “common
sense morality allows coercion under special circumstances,” the emphasis should be
on “special circumstances.” Continuing with his lifeboat example:

Your entitlement to coerce is highly specific and content-dependent: it depends upon


your having a correct (or at least well-justified) plan for saving the boat, and you
may coerce others only to induce cooperation with that plan. More precisely, you
must at least be justified in believing that the expected benefits of coercively
imposing your plan on the others are very large and much larger than the expected
harms. You may not coerce others to induce harmful or useless behaviors or
behaviors designed to serve ulterior purposes unrelated to the emergency. For
instance, if you display your firearm and order everyone to start scooping water into
the boat, you are acting wrongly – and similarly if you use the weapon to force
others to pray to Poseidon, lash themselves with belts, or hand over $50 to your
friend Sally.

The political ramifications:

If, therefore, we rely upon cases like this one to account for the state’s right to coerce
or violate the property rights of its citizens, the proper conclusion is that the state’s
legitimate powers must be highly specific and content-dependent: the state may
coerce individuals only in the minimal way necessary to implement a correct (or at
least well-justified) plan for protecting society from the sorts of disasters that
allegedly would result from anarchy. The state may not coerce people into
cooperating with harmful or useless measures or measures we lack good reason to
cooperating with harmful or useless measures or measures we lack good reason to
consider effective.

Whenever Huemer uses phrases like “good reason to consider effective,” readers may
feel tempted pigeonhole him as a thinly veiled consequentialist. They should resist
this temptation. True, like consequentialists, Huemer has to take relevant evidence
from social science into account. Unlike consequentialists, however, Huemer does not
need to argue that libertarian policies lead to the best possible consequences. He
merely needs to argue that the consequences of libertarian policies are tolerable. As a
result, even Huemer’s defense of anarcho-capitalism manages to be both unusually
measured and unusually convincing.

For rights-based libertarians, morality is virtually independent of social science. If you


have a right to do X, the consequences of X don’t really matter. For consequentialist
libertarians, morality is almost entirely dependent on social science. If you know the
consequences of X, you can safely ignore anyone who asserts a right to do X. Huemer
stakes out a middle ground between these extremes. For most purposes, “It’s my life,
so you should leave me alone,” is perfectly adequate. Social science is valuable,
however, because it tells us when we can safely dismiss complaints about the overall
consequences of free choice—and when we need to take such complaints seriously.

When people criticize The Problem of Political Authority, I often want to quote John
Maynard Keynes on Huemer’s behalf:

Thus those who are sufficiently steeped in the old point of view simply cannot bring
themselves to believe that I am asking them to step into a new pair of trousers, and
will insist on regarding it as nothing but an embroidered version of the old pair
which they have been wearing for years.[8]

Huemer’s “new pair of trousers” is a libertarianism designed to be plausible to non-


libertarians as well as libertarians.

How does he make his brand of libertarianism plausible to non-libertarians? He starts


with moral premises most non-libertarians already accept, argues methodically and
transparently, and generously considers a wide range of objections. When social
science is relevant, Huemer appeals to mainstream economics, political science, and
psychology – not the heterodox approaches that libertarians love so well. While I don’t
expect The Problem of Political Authority to make millions of converts, it as broadly
convincing as a reasoned argument for an unpopular conclusion can be.
How does Huemer make his brand of libertarianism plausible to libertarians? He
escapes objections to rights-based libertarianism by turning the “Non-Aggression
Axiom” into a “Non-Aggression Presumption.” He escapes objections to
consequentialist libertarianism by taking this Non-Aggression Presumption seriously.
The result is a position immune to all of the standard counter-examples to rights-
based and consequentialist libertarianism.

As a free bonus, Huemer dulls the urge consequentialist libertarians often feel to
stretch the truth, to make stronger claims about the benefits of libertarian policies
than the evidence warrants. Thus, libertarians who oppose a war with Iran don’t need
to confidently assert, “This war will clearly make matters even worse.” We should just
stick with what we really know: “We shouldn’t murder thousands of innocent people
unless we have strong reason to believe doing so will make matters vastly better. And
we don’t have a strong reason to believe this.”[9]

When libertarians want to appeal to a broader audience, they usually dial down their
rhetoric and their radicalism. The Problem of Political Authority dials down the
rhetoric, but leaves the radicalism intact. Libertarians don’t need Aristotelian
metaphysics, exceptionless moral axioms, or heterodox social science to call the entire
status quo into question. Michael Huemer shows that common sense, common
decency, and careful observation are more than up to the job.

Notes

[1] See e.g. Ayn Rand. 1957. Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet); Murray Rothbard.
1978. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. (New York: Libertarian Review
Foundation); and Robert Nozick. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York:
Basic Books).

[2] Or even, like Murray Rothbard, a social scientist by profession.

[3] See e.g. Ludwig von Mises. 1996. Liberalism: The Classical Tradition. (Irvington-on-
Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education), and Jeffrey Miron. 2010.
Libertarianism: from A to Z>E,?. (NY: Basic Books). Milton Friedman. 1982. Capitalism
and Freedom. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), and David Friedman. 1989. The
Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism. (Chicago: Open Court) are often
seen as canonical consequentialist libertarian tracts, but the authors’ positions are
actually more nuanced.

[4] See e.g. Friedman, 1989, pp.167-200.


[5] See generally Samuel Scheffler, ed. 1988. Consequentialism and Its Critics. (Oxford:
Oxford University Press).

[6] Michael Huemer, 2013. The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the
Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. (NY: Palgrave Macmillian), p.94.

[7] Huemer, p.177.

[8] John Maynard Keynes. 1931. “The Pure Theory of Money: A Reply to Dr. Hayek.”
Economica 31, p.390.

[9] For elaboration on this point, see Bryan Caplan. 2010. “The Common-Sense Case for
Pacifism.” EconLog.

Moral Philosophy, Obligation, and Some Concerns


By Tom G. Palmer
Response Essays
March 8, 2013

M
ichael Huemer is to be congratulated for producing a very readable, very
enjoyable, very provocative, and—I admit it—generally very persuasive
book on the tangled question(s) of political obligation and authority. As a
way of sharpening the philosophical knives before dissecting some of his claims, I will
admit that I am sympathetic to his arguments, his approach, and his conclusions and
that I am full of admiration for the way he has avoided esoteric jargon, striven for
clarity and simplicity, and used the understandable language of everyday life to
discuss important and sometimes complicated issues.

In doing so, Huemer is returning moral philosophy to its rightful role as a tool to help
us to live and behave properly, rather than as a vehicle for creating bizarre and
picayune scenarios to stump other members of the philosophy faculty. He eschews
(sorry for the jargon!) the, to my mind, pointless contrast between “rights” and
“consequences” and revives the older tradition of rights as standards of action and
consequences as the goals by which varying sets of standards are measured.[1] (Those
who have insisted that moral philosophers of the past were “confused” because they
do not fit neatly into the little boxes prepared for them by professors of philosophy
have done great harm to moral discourse generally.)

The essay posted by Huemer here, however, gives only a faint and unsatisfying taste
f h h b k i Th b ki l hl h h i’ f f
of what the book contains. The book is not only much longer than the essay, it’s far, far
better. The essay here reads like a not-very-helpful précis of a symphony: “I start with
some notes, build up a movement, make the music faster, then resolve the tension.”
The book is much better than Huemer’s essay might suggest.

He poses the problem of political authority, which he breaks down into two elements:

Political legitimacy, the right, on the part of a government, to make certain sorts of
laws and enforce them by coercion against the members of its society—in short, the
right to rule; and

Political obligation, the obligation on the part of citizens to obey their government,
even in circumstances in which one would not be obligated to obey similar
commands issued by a nongovernmental agent.

Huemer denies that the commands of the state (or its agents or those acting with its
alleged authority) have any content-independent authority. In other words, if one
were commanded not to slap the crying children of strangers on an airplane, one
really should obey the injunction, but only because there are reasons to do so
independent of the command’s source. Decent people don’t do things like that, and
anyone has the authority to stop them. The question posed by political authority is
whether one is obligated merely because of the source of the injunction, and to this
Huemer says no.

He offers quite good responses to a variety of arguments on behalf of the claim that
one is obligated to obey the state merely because it is the state. (He also notes that one
need not be obligated to do manifestly unjust things, etc., etc. He tries to cover all
bases and does an admirable job in the process.)

There is one argument, however, that I think was missing from his list, and that is
whether one may need, for at least some circumstances and some groups, a
monopolistic authority that can help people to coordinate behavior, and that that
authority would have its authority independently of the particular content of the
commands. Consider that it doesn’t really matter whether one drives on the left side
of the road or the right, so long as other drivers are doing the same. (In places where
the roads are so bad one has to avoid potholes by driving into the other lane, such as
parts of India, that rule is abandoned, but as a consequence, people tend to drive more
carefully and slowly. If one wishes to drive quickly, say, on a German Autobahn, it
really matters that all follow the same rule.) So there is a rule that helps to coordinate
behavior, but the particular content of that rule is quite arbitrary; what matters is that
all follow it. There may be cases in which it matters that one authority enforce that
rule and bring sanctions to bear on violators, simply because having multiple
enforcers could create serious chaos.

I think that that is the kind of problem that Immanuel Kant had in mind when he
proposed his hypothetical social contract. What is central to Kant’s argument is that
for everyone there are people “with whom he cannot avoid having intercourse.” Thus,

Experience teaches us the maxim that human beings act in a violent and malevolent
manner, and that they tend to fight among themselves until an external coercive
legislation supervenes. But it is not experience or any kind of factual knowledge
which makes public legal coercion necessary. On the contrary, even if we imagine
men to be as benevolent and law-abiding as we please, the a priori rational idea of a
non-lawful state will still tell us that before a public and legal state is established,
individual men, peoples and states can never be secure against acts of violence
against one another, since each will have his own right to do what seems right and
good to him, independent of the opinion of others. Thus, the first decision the
individual is obliged to make, if he does not wish to renounce all concepts of right,
will be to adopt the principle that one must abandon the state of nature in which
everyone follows his own desires, and unite with everyone else (with whom he
cannot avoid having intercourse) in order to submit to external, public and
lawful coercion.[2]

That’s not a solid reason for enacting and enforcing victimless crime laws, but much
law has to do with providing conventions that help people to coordinate their
behavior to avoid collisions and to promote mutual benefits, not with commanding
them to this or that.[3] (In fact, one could stipulate that “victimless crime laws” are not
“laws” at all, but commands.[4]) Thus, to avoid collisions and violence among those
“who cannot avoid having intercourse,” in at least some cases, one may have an
obligation to obey the agents of an authority merely because that authority is the one
that enforces the convention, and having multiple agents enforcing the same
convention could itself lead to conflict. If the key is to avoid conflict, one standard and
one enforcer may be necessary.

In a book one cannot rebut all possible arguments, but the argument from the value of
standard conventions to promote civil peace and harmony (avoiding collisions, in
other words) strikes me as a plausible reason for a monopolistic enforcer and I could
not detect anywhere that Huemer had addressed the issue. The argument is similar to
that advanced by the late James Buchanan in his short book The Limits of Liberty:
B A h dL i h if l i h f ll h i
Between Anarchy and Leviathan: even if we grant equal rights of all to their own
bodies, “there are few ‘natural’ limits upon which general agreement might plausibly
settle.”[5] Conventions work only if everyone (or at least almost everyone) obeys
them, and sometimes it’s quite arbitrary just what the convention is; what matters is
that everyone obeys it. Huemer addresses the issue of whether general disobedience
to the state, or even opportunistic obedience to the state, would undermine the system
of public order that allows us to go about our business and concludes that, even if
such general obedience were beneficial, “other people will continue to obey whether
you obey or not,”[6] so you have no obligation to obey. I did not find his treatment of
this issue satisfactory, because it sounds like a defense of free riding which, when
generalized (and Huemer seems to want to generalize his conclusions), could
undermine the public good of following collision-avoiding conventions. Some might
drive on the wrong side of the road without destroying road order altogether, but it’s
still quite objectionable and should be condemned.

I imagine Huemer may have a good response, and perhaps he could provide a
convincing argument as to why a monopoly would not be needed to enforce such
content-independent coordinating conventions. I’m interested to learn what it might
be, because I think it is a necessary element to rebutting Kant’s argument for the
binding character of a hypothetical contract.[7]

There is another issue that I find far more troublesome in Huemer’s approach, and
that is his reliance on intuitionism. He draws on it to resolve such issues as whether
an agreement might be binding, what we owe to each other, what contracts entail, and
so on. He relies on a mixture of empirical social science, common sense about human
motivations, and intuitions about obligations as his fundamental tools of analysis.
(He’s written another book on the subject of moral intuitionism, which I admit I have
not yet read.)

Why do I find intuitionism unsatisfying? I spend a lot of my time outside of the United
States and Europe. I meet and work with people from a wide variety of groups,
ethnicities, religions, and so on. I do offer arguments for liberty to people who may
have been raised to have intuitions that are rather different from mine. If I were
merely to rely on my own intuitions about fairness or the like, I would not be able to
advance the cause of liberty effectively.

I believe that there are universal arguments for liberty that rest on principles about
choice and responsibility, which are universal features of human beings. (I present a
number of arguments in Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice.)
Huemer, in contrast, rests his case on intuitions he shares with his readers. Intuitions
ith i di t bl i ll h d H l t th t th h
are neither indisputable nor universally shared. He also notes that they change
throughout history. So that raises several problems. First, is he arguing for the
illegitimacy of the state only in the United States or a few other countries with
similarly widely shared moral intuitions? And, if a particular historical trajectory was
in fact necessary to produce the intuitions on which he draws, could it be the case that
the state was a necessary element in the emergence of Huemer’s argument for
its illegitimacy?

Charles Taylor poses the second question rather clearly in his essay “Atomism”
(“atomism” is Taylor’s smear term for libertarianism), in which he argues for a
“primacy of belonging,” rather than a “primacy of rights,” in other words, for political
obligations as being prior to assertions of rights. Taylor argues that “the free
individual of the West is only what he is by virtue of the whole society which brought
him to be and which nourishes him” and that that “whole society” is necessarily state-
governed.[8] Now Taylor opens the door a crack to the possibility that Huemer might
be right:

Now, it is possible that a society and culture propitious for freedom might arise from
the spontaneous association of anarchist communes. But it seems much more likely
from the historical record that we need rather some species of political society.[9]

I think that Taylor knows little about his topic, but he raises some interesting issues.
(His use of “communes” suggests 1960s/70s hippies, but libertarians should be
reminded of the medieval self-governing communes, which were characterized by
“personal liberty” and were the source of “civil society”; see the important work of
Henri Pirenne in Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade.[10]) Some
societies produce liberal traditions and some don’t. I believe that all civilizations are
capable of it and that all civilizations have narratives of liberty and narratives of
power, just as “the West” does. It’s undeniable that history of “the West” is not a
simple history of liberty. There’s been an awful lot of horror, violence, predation, war,
and persecution as well. Whatever the character of the widely shared intuitions that
Huemer deploys, they are neither universal nor timeless. What arguments could he
make to someone at a different time or in a different civilizational context to convince
him or her to embrace liberty and to reject the state?

There are many other interesting issues raised in this admirable book, but those two
will suffice for now. I look forward to a robust discussion.

Notes
[1] See Randy E. Barnett, “Of Chickens and Eggs – The Compatibility of Moral Rights
and Consequentialist Analysis,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, v. 12, n. 3
(1989).

[2] The Metaphysics of Morals, in Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, Hans Reiss (ed.),
H. B. Nisbet (trans.) (Cambridge,1992), p. 137. Note that the acts of violence need not
be violent acts of aggression; they could be simply collisions based on disagreements
or misunderstandings of what one is or is not allowed to do.

[3] See Gerald J. Postema, “Coordination and Convention at the Foundations of Law,”
The Journal of Legal Studies, v. 11, n. 1 (1982) and Robert Sugden, The Economics of
Rights, Cooperation, and Welfare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

[4] Lon Fuller denied that coercion is part of the definition of law (“What law must
foreseeably do to achieve its aims is something quite different from law itself.”) and
restricted law to “the governance of human conduct by rules.” Lon Fuller, The
Morality of Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), pp. 108, 53.

[5] James Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 8.

[6] Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2013), p. 85.

[7] As Kant notes, “we need by no means assume that this contract (contractus

originarius or pactum sociale), based on a coalition of the wills of all private


individuals in a nation to form a common, public will for the purposes of rightful
legislation, actually

exists as a fact, for it cannot possibly be so.” From “On the Common Saying: ‘This May
Be True in Theory, But It Does Not Apply in Practice,” in Immanuel Kant, Political
Writings, p. 79.

[8] “Atomism” in Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, Philosophy and the
Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 206. Taylor showed
his naivety when he wrote “And indeed, some libertarians come close to espousing an
anarchist position and express sympathy for anarchism, as does Nozick.” P. 207.
[9] Ibid., p. 208.

[10] Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974).

Authority is Not the (Only) Problem: People Have Positive as Well


as Negative Rights
By Nicole Hassoun
Response Essays
March 11, 2013

P
overty, Property, and Rights

When I met Samantha, she was making her living picking up waste to sell to
recyclers on the Smokey Mountain garbage dump in the Philippines. Like about half of
the world’s population, she lives on less than the equivalent of what two dollars a day
buys in the United States. She is very likely to suffer and die young from an easily
preventable poverty-related illness.

Samantha has a right to life as well as a right to liberty and property. Some of her
rights are negative and others are positive—that is they generate duties on others to
help. Perhaps in helping fulfill these rights, we must stop short of violating other
rights. Perhaps no one can steal to help Samantha. Perhaps no one can force anyone
else to help her. But this is not obvious. If a large corporation has a monopoly on the
sale of a life-saving drug that Samantha needs, we may be justified in forcing the
corporation to offer the drug to Samantha at a price she can afford.

Property rights like other rights are limited. Even on the most libertarian justification
for property rights, advanced by John Locke, one can only have a right to acquire
something if that person leaves enough and as good for others. As Robert Nozick
develops the theory, one cannot keep anything that he or she has not created that
others need to survive. On a better (Rousseauian) conception of property rights, if the
current distribution of property does not allow all to meet their basic needs, there is
something wrong with it. Obviously, many people do not have enough to meet their
needs in a world where billions are in desperate poverty and millions die every year
from easily preventable poverty-related illnesses. The current distribution of property
rights is not justified
rights is not justified.

“Is” Does Not Entail “Should”: We May Have to Make States (More) Legitimate

States have not secured most people’s actual consent, and it would not be reasonable
to consent to be governed by some states, but this does not entail that we should
abolish states. Even if states can only do what private agents can do, perhaps they
should do what they can to secure (reasonable) consent. In my book Globalization and
Global Justice I argue that, to consent, people must at least be able to reason and plan.
So people must be able to meet their basic needs for things like adequate food, water,
and health care. Legitimate states have to help all of those subject to their rules secure
these things.

“Could” Does Not Entail “Would”: In the Real World Anarchy Is Terrible

Maybe there is no way to ensure that everyone who is subject to a state’s rules can
(even reasonably) consent to their rules, but we need states anyway. States do not just
enforce laws and protect borders. They help us live together well by solving many
collective action problems, and they secure other positive and negative rights.
Anarchy, in the real world, is usually horrifying. Somalia may be an average low-
income country, but it is governed by warlords and, on average, we can do better.
Democratic government that respects, protects, and fulfills basic rights may not be
great—most people have to abide by at least some rules that they do not endorse—but
it is better than that alternative.

Some would do well in anarchical states. Rich warlords often do well, at least for a
while. But people like Samantha, who cannot afford to hire decent protective services,
often do poorly. It is possible that people would charitably provide Samantha with the
things she needs (and not only protection services) in an anarchical society, but I do
not think it is likely. Charity has not alleviated global poverty in a world of primarily
capitalist states. But neither has charity alleviated poverty in anarchical societies.
Even in the U.S., where many people give private charity, states give more aid.
Perhaps we should make states better, not eliminate them.

Everything People Claim Is Not Necessarily Theirs

Libertarians and anarchists cannot respond to the foregoing arguments by asserting


that taxing some people to protect the welfare of others violates rights—in particular,
property rights. This may be so if securing everyone’s consent is impossible, but only if
libertarians and anarchists endorse a radically implausible account of almost
inviolable property rights. That is not common sense. Other rights are important, too,
inviolable property rights. That is not common sense. Other rights are important, too,
and rights limit the application of other rights. I do not have a right to life that extends
so far that it allows me to deprive others of their rights to life. I do not have property
rights that extend so far that they allow me to withhold essential goods that I do not
need from those who will suffer and die without them.

Property rights are complicated bundles of different privileges, claims, powers, and
immunities. In different states, and at different points in time, property rights are
understood in different ways. Their limits are defined differently. Consider an
amusing example. In the colonial era, beavers were understood to be common
property—anyone could take them from anyone’s land. But as beavers became scarce
and their pelts could be traded for money, they privatized half of the beaver: Anyone
could still take the meat but they had to leave the pelt on the land where it was found.

Different people benefit more or less under different property-rights regimes, but
moral property rights must not undermine other rights. Today no one can dump toxic
waste in part of a river that they own even if that would save them a lot of money. Any
property rights system that allows this would be impermissible. And insofar as taxes
are necessary for protecting individuals’ ability to secure what they need to survive,
pre-tax income is just an accounting figure.

Freedom within States That Protect Rights (and Do Other Important Things)

If states lack the authority to protect rights, it is not clear why Huemer thinks other
agents can have this authority. Moreover, most people hold that states and other
actors must abide by different rules. One reason to hold that different rules apply to
different agents is that this protects individual freedom. States may have to set the
limits of property rights so that individuals are free within these constraints. The
thought is that, if the rules are set correctly, other agents will not have to consider all
of the downstream effects of each of their business transactions to be sure that they
help fulfill and do not violate rights or other moral requirements. Of course, in the
real world, the rules are not always set correctly, but that may just mean we should
change them.

The preceding reflections do not tell us everything about what legitimate states can
do. They do not tell us that states can set property rights in any way that they might
like, conscript people to kill others, prevent people from killing themselves with toxic
chemicals, or stop people from entering or leaving the territory within which they
rule. States may have to do much more than respect, protect, and fulfill basic rights.
But they do have to respect, protect, and fulfill them.
Some Further thoughts on Corporations and States

Suggesting that states are like corporations (or other private agents) does not justify
anarchy. States are like large corporations and other private agents in some ways and
not others. No state, or corporation, has a (global) monopoly on coercive force. Some
corporations are bigger than most states, but almost all of corporations are regulated
by states, at least to some degree. States are not regulated by corporations, though
their fates can be deeply influenced by them.

Nor are monopolies always bad (or good). Monopolies may be an effective way to
provide some public goods. Monopoly protection gives pharmaceutical companies an
incentive to create new medicines, for instance. But monopoly protection also allows
companies to price essential drugs much higher than would otherwise be sustainable
—preventing poor people from accessing them. There may be better ways to provide
some public goods than via monopoly protection. States working alone, or in concert,
might do a much better job of meeting global health needs by supporting public
research and development of key drugs. Not only can we restructure the incentives
pharmaceutical companies face to get them to do more research and development on
the largest global health problems (Fair Trade for Health), we can change the kinds of
patents given for new innovations.

With monopoly provision, little research and development is done on the largest
health problems because companies cannot sell much to the global poor who suffer
from the largest burden of disease. Companies do much better by creating drugs that
do not cure, but treat, chronic problems of rich patients who can continue to buy them
into perpetuity.

Moreover, the virtues of competition and efficiency are not the only virtues. States
already allow competition for the private provision of many of the services they
provide—including protective services—but the results are not always good. There are
many private security firms, and it is becoming more and more common for states to
hire mercenary companies to help fight wars. But private companies, like states, often
violate human rights in wartime. In fact, private companies, like states, often violate
human rights and other moral requirements even when they do not participate
in wars.

It is an open and very difficult empirical question: “Under what conditions are public
or private provision of goods or services better, to what extent should any agent have
a monopoly on the provision of goods or services, and which legal regulations are
good and which are bad?” We need to carefully consider the virtues of different
policies in any given instance. To solve the problems corporations cause we may need
to better regulate corporate behavior, not eliminate all regulations. But rather than
speculate about even these concrete and comparatively limited questions—never
mind what kind of political system would be best in general—we may do better to
attend to empirical evidence about what actually works.

THE CONVERSATION

Some Opening Replies: Coordination, Intuition, and Positive Rights


By Michael Huemer
The Conversation
March 14, 2013

I
want to thank Bryan Caplan, Tom Palmer, and Nicole Hassoun for their
insightful commentaries on my work. I can’t respond to everything that has
been said without writing an unreasonably long post. I respond here to a few of
the larger and (to me) more interesting questions and criticisms.

I. Coordination Problems
Palmer raises the question of coordination problems, which can be solved by a central
authority with coercive power. One issue here is whether this class of cases supports
the idea of content-independent political authority. For example, if the state has made a
law that one must drive on a particular side of the road, then one has reason to drive
on that side of the road, whichever side it may be.

Two brief points, then a main one. First, although this exemplifies a weak sort of
content-independence, defenders of political authority commonly claim much more.
They claim not only that the state may pick one among a set of equally good solutions
to a coordination problem and impose that solution, but that the state may actually
impose morally wrong or unjust rules. Thus, we read that “the democratic assembly
has the right to do wrong”[1] and “it is … a familiar situation … that a person finds
himself morally obligated to obey an unjust law.”[2] This strong sort of content-
independence remains elusive.

Second, the appeal to coordination problems cannot be used to defend the


overwhelming majority of government activities, because only a small minority of the
state’s activities could be construed as necessary to solve coordination problems.

Thi d d i t tl di ti bl f tl l d ith t
Third and more importantly, coordination problems are frequently solved without
resort to a coercive, monopolistic authority. The process is aided by the fact that
individuals want to and try to coordinate with each other out of self-interest; in the
relevant cases, it is in one’s interest to conform to whatever rule a plurality of others
conform to.

In the interests of time, I will just briefly mention several examples. Speakers of a
language coordinate with each other on how words are to be used. In the British
common law tradition, judges coordinate with each other by embracing essentially the
same set of laws, which were created by the judges themselves. Today, manufacturers
of screws and screwdrivers coordinate with each other on a limited number of shapes
and sizes for screw heads and screwdriver tips. Web developers and companies that
make web browsers coordinate with each other on the elements of HTML and how
each should be interpreted by a web browser. Manufacturers of computer keyboards
coordinate with each other and with teachers of typing classes on how keys are
arranged on a keyboard. And so on. None of these cases of coordination require
coercive state enforcement. In each case, the solution to the coordination problem is
established by voluntary means and is self-enforcing, since it is in no one’s interest to
diverge from the currently accepted standard.

The last case—that of keyboard layouts—is often used to illustrate a type of market
failure, because the standard layout of keyboards is claimed to be inferior to other
possible layouts, resulting in slower typing and more errors than some other layouts.
[3] Here, I just want to make the general observation that suboptimal solutions are
also likely with a coercive central authority. There is no reason to think, for example,
that we would now have the ideal keyboard layout if only the government had
designed a layout and mandated its use in the early days of typewriter manufacture.

II. Intuition and Common Sense

A surprising number of people, in discussing my work on authority, have raised


questions about my ostensibly unconventional and controversial methodology of
relying on “common sense morality” and “ethical intuitions.” Can we really trust
these intuitions?

To be clear, the recommendation to “rely on common sense morality” is just another


way of saying: “start from normative premises that seem obviously right to almost
everyone.” What is controversial about that? What else could someone say we should
do? It seems to me that there are the following possible alternative views:

1. It is better to start from normative premises that seem doubtful or false, rather
than ones that seem obviously correct.

2. It is better to start from normative premises that seem true only to some smaller
number of people, such as perhaps the partisans of a particular ideology, rather
than premises that seem true to almost everyone.

3. We may only use normative premises that seemed true to almost everyone
throughout history, or across all human cultures.

4. We may only use normative premises that seem true to absolutely everyone.

5. We should start from no normative premises at all.

Alternatives (1) and (2) seem, well, obviously wrong.

Option (3) has one obvious problem: it leaves us with virtually nothing to work with.
Or more precisely, those who object to my common sense moral premises on the
grounds that they are not universal across cultures and times would have to say that
almost nothing, perhaps nothing at all, is universal across cultures and times. So if (3)
is to be a genuine alternative to my own methodology, (3) will have to be a
methodology that is extremely unpromising, in the sense that it is extremely unlikely
that any political philosophy could be supported using only the meager materials that
this methodology sanctions. A defender of (3) might claim that the justified conclusion
here is one of skepticism, rather than a rejection of the methodology. But let’s be
concrete here. I rely on premises such as “One should not physically attack, rob,
kidnap, imprison, or enslave people, without having a good reason.” Now, it might be
objected that people in some cultures and some historical time periods in fact
attacked, robbed, kidnapped, imprisoned, and/or enslaved people without having any
good reason for doing so. Therefore, … what? We don’t know whether any of those
practices were good or bad? It’s illegitimate in a political argument to assume that
attacking people for no reason is bad? It seems to me that if someone draws those
conclusions, that person must be a moral skeptic, or close enough as makes
no difference.

As I have suggested, option (3) is in danger of collapsing into (5). Option (4) collapses
into (5) immediately: there is no moral premise that seems true to absolutely
everyone, including psychopaths, the mentally disabled, primitive tribes, and
Adolf Hitler.

So we come to option (5): use no moral premises. Since it is not possible to (correctly)
infer moral conclusions entirely from non-moral premises,[4] this option simply
entails moral skepticism – we draw no moral conclusions at all. Now, some people
think that is the correct result. But it is not my job to refute moral skepticism in a book
yj p
about political philosophy,[5] any more than it is the job of an author to refute
skepticism about the external world in a book about physics. Political philosophy
books are for people who accept that it is sometimes possible to say that something
should or should not be done. If you reject that, then you don’t have a problem with
my book. You have a problem with the entire field of social and political philosophy.

Tom Palmer, of course, is no moral skeptic. In the interests of an argument ad


hominem, we can look at some of his own political work to see whether it represents
an alternative methodology that I have overlooked. Obviously, I cannot review all of
his arguments. But let us take one case where Palmer clearly and directly addresses
one of the same issues that I addressed in my own book. In Realizing Freedom, Palmer
considers the question of taxation, writing:

Suppose someone were to stop you at gunpoint and demand that you hand over half
of your hard-earned income. Wouldn’t you consider him a thief and consider
yourself justified in resisting the robbery? Now suppose that the thief is carrying a
paper certifying him as an agent of the state. In addition, he claims that the robbery
is being carried out for your own good. Is his act any different now?[6]

I submit that Palmer is not only appealing to ethical intuition; he is appealing to the
very same intuition that I appeal to in my own discussion of taxation. (In fairness, the
quotation is from an editorial in the New York Times, a forum that affords little space
for theoretical background.)

This is not an accident or a momentary slip on the part of one author. It is the nature
of normative discourse. All claims about what “should” be done rest, directly or
indirectly, on ethical intuition. Often, the people who (falsely) claim to be opposed to
the use of ethical intuitions are utilitarians. They think that the way to decide what
ought to be done is to empirically investigate which policies result in the greatest
happiness, or the greatest preference-satisfaction, for the greatest number of
individuals. They presuppose such intuitions as “happiness is the sole good” and “we
ought to maximize the good.” The real methodological difference between utilitarians
and me is that utilitarians rely on intuitions that only a small number of people share,
whereas I rely on intuitions that a great many people share.

III. A New Methodology?

Apropos of this, what should we make of Bryan Caplan’s characterization of The


Problem of Political Authority as embodying a new approach to the defense of
libertarianism? Can the idea of starting from obvious, uncontroversial premises really
be a new idea?

Bizarrely enough, yes. Almost everyone in political philosophy, libertarians and non-
libertarians alike, starts from premises that, at best, seem vaguely plausible to most
people while being rejected outright by many (reasonable) other people. These
premises are usually vague, abstract, and controversial generalizations about such
things as human nature, fairness, rights, or the nature of goodness and rightness in
general. Political philosophers are often disappointed when I refuse to do the same.
They are skeptical because I do not appeal to some grand abstract theory—or they
simply impute some grand theory to me.

The epistemological issues implicated by this discussion deserve a separate book.


Here, I will just state my epistemological perspective without argument. In my view,
(a) premises that seem obviously correct are better than premises that merely seem
sort of plausible; (b) premises that are widely shared regardless of one’s political
ideology are better than premises that are not widely shared or that vary according to
ideology; (c) philosophical reasoning should generally proceed from the concrete to
the abstract, not vice versa. In no area of human intellectual endeavor do we start out
by knowing a grand, abstract theory and then proceed by merely deducing its
consequences. We start out in a given field of study by collecting relatively specific
facts, and then try to devise ever more general principles that fit those facts, moving
gradually towards a theory of the field as a whole. Once we have established such a
theory, we can deduce further consequences from it. But in moral and political
philosophy, no such general theory has been established. We are—or should be—still
in the stage of reasoning from concrete judgments to modest generalizations.

IV. Positive Rights

What can common sense morality tell us about doctrines of positive rights and
arguments for wealth-redistribution by the state?

Nicole Hassoun is of course correct that many people today have insufficient wealth to
meet their basic needs. I am also sympathetic to the idea that we are ethically
obligated, as individuals, to render aid, for example by voluntarily donating to
antipoverty charities.[7] I recommend GiveWell, which conducts studies of relative
cost-effectiveness of a variety of charity organizations.

Whether victims of poverty have a right to receive aid is less clear to me. But I am not
going to try to resolve that question here, mostly because I do not know how to resolve
it. Instead, I just want to focus on what the state may do. My argument against
it. Instead, I just want to focus on what the state may do. My argument against
government antipoverty programs is not a theoretical argument. I do not appeal to the
premise that there aren’t any positive rights. I do not lay down an axiom of absolute
property rights or absolute rights against coercion. Truth be told, I do not have a
theory of property at all. I just have some unsystematized intuitions. As I suggested in
my initial essay, it seems to me that a person who extorted money from ordinary
people in order to send that money to an antipoverty charity would generally be
judged to be acting wrongly. That is “just” an intuition—but one that I think most
people would share. It is not just a libertarian intuition. If I met some Democrat on the
street and told her I was robbing her to send her money to Oxfam, I don’t think the
Democrat would say “Oh, that’s alright then.” So it seems to me that the advocate of
government antipoverty programs needs to explain why those programs are
acceptable—is it that the initial intuition is mistaken, and that, in the example with
which I opened my initial essay here, Sam would be justified in robbing his neighbors?
Or is it that the government isn’t really doing the same thing as Sam does in that
example? Or is it that the government has some sort of special moral status that
exempts it from the ethical constraints that apply to individuals or other
private agents?

That being said, I think that the case against antipoverty programs—in particular,
programs that would aid the desperately poor in the developing world—is much less
strong than the case against almost all other non-libertarian government activities
(that is, other activities to which libertarians object). As I suggest in the book (pp. 159–
60), some such programs may be justified. I would nevertheless maintain that every
existing state lacks political authority in the sense defined in the book. The
justifiability of certain kinds of antipoverty programs would not ground any content-
independent, comprehensive, supreme authority on the part of the state.

V. Anarchy in the Real World?

Here is an unfair way of choosing political systems: compare the worst form of
anarchy to the best form of government; one then finds that government looks pretty
good. The comparison between Somalia and the United States would be a case in
point. A fairer comparison would be between Somalia before and after its government
collapsed, or between Somalia and other societies in the same region that have
governments.[8] Even better would be to compare the best feasible governmental
system with the best feasible nongovernmental system. That is what I suggest in the
book,[9] and that is the comparison that I tried to conduct over the course of part II.
Anarchists do not hold that all anarchic situations are desirable any more than
advocates of government defend all governments, including those of Nazi Germany,
Uganda under Idi Amin, and the Khmer Rouge.

VI. Who Has Authority to Protect Rights?

Hassoun writes, “If states lack the authority to protect rights, it is not clear why
Huemer thinks other agents can have this authority.”

To be clear, I do not think that anyone possesses “authority” in the sense defined in the
book. No individual, state, or corporation has ever had it. On the other hand, I think it
ethically permissible for anyone to protect rights (within certain limits). It is
permissible for a government to use force (of certain kinds, in certain situations) to
prevent (certain) rights violations. And it is also permissible for a private individual,
or a security agency, or anyone else, to use force of the same kind, in the same
situations, to prevent the same sort of rights violations.

If I grant that some of the government’s activities are permissible, then why am I an
anarchist rather than a minimal statist? Because I think that to count as a state, an
organization must have a coercively enforced monopoly within a given country, and I
think it impermissible to enforce such a monopoly. Well, that is part of my reason. The
rest is explained in part II of the book.

VII. Are States Like Corporations?

To clarify, my analogy between the government and a huge, monopolistic corporation


was not intended by itself to show that anarchy is the best social system. The
argument for anarchy does not consist of a single analogy, or a single paragraph. The
argument for anarchy is given over the course of the second half of the book. It can’t
be fit into a web posting.

The government-corporation analogy was, however, intended to stimulate thought in


a way that I hoped would be interesting and illuminating. If there were a corporation
such as I described at the end of my initial post—the multi-trillion-dollar,
monopolistic, coercive corporation with vast arsenals—I think almost everyone would
anticipate some bad results. I wanted those who support a large and active
government to think about that. In particular, think about the reasons why bad results
would occur. (Perhaps they have something to do with incentives, accountability, the
corrupting influence of power …?) And then ask: would those reasons somehow cease
to apply if the organization is a “government” instead of a “corporation”? If one wants
to answer, “Yes, they would cease to apply,” then I think some sort of explanation
is required.
I am not advancing some sort of general axiom that all things monopolistic are bad. I
simply don’t see why a monopolistic government would escape the evils that surely
the monopolistic corporation in my hypothetical would be subject to.

Notes

[1] Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality (Oxford University Press, 2008), p.
250.

[2] John Rawls, “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play” in Law and Philosophy, ed.
Sidney Hook (New York Univ. Press, 1964), p. 5.

[3] Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis dispute the standard criticisms of the
QWERTY keyboard in “Typing Errors,” Reason, June 1996.

[4] See discussion in my Ethical Intuitionism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005),
sections 4.3–4.4.

[5] But see my Ethical Intuitionism, ch. 5.

[6] Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (Washington, D.C.: Cato
Institute, 2009).

[7] I discuss aid to the poor in The Problem of Political Authority, pp. 148–60.

[8] See Peter Leeson’s “Better off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government
Collapse,” http://www.peterleeson.com/better_off_stateless.pdf. Leeson argues that
Somalia, while obviously much worse off than Western democracies, is better off than
it would be had the government not collapsed.

[9] See The Problem of Political Authority, pp. 183–5.

Response to a Response: Intuitions and Conventions


By Tom G. Palmer
The Conversation
March 18, 2013
B
efore picking just a few more nits, I’d like to emphasize what an
accomplishment Michael Huemer’s book is. The Problem of Political
Authority was a delight to read. It helped me to think about difficult
problems. Unlike most works in the genre, the examples were clear, plausible, and—a
bonus—even amusing, rather than bizarre and disconnected from the actual
problems people are likely to face.[1]

It reminded me of reading Lysander Spooner at his best. I disagree robustly with


Spooner’s arguments on intellectual property, but wrestling with them was
immensely helpful to me, for each time I thought I had a good counter-argument, I’d
turn the page and found Spooner had anticipated me and would then proceed to
hammer my counter-argument into the ground. Reading Huemer is like that, but with
more of a sense of huemer.

I’d also like to draw attention to a central element of his book, which is a reasonable
and calm demystification of the state. It’s easy to miss, because it’s so reasonable, but
it’s also remarkably powerful. Huemer is, in some ways, an updated Frédéric Bastiat.
One of Bastiat’s most important contributions to clarity of thought was his famous
essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” in which he not only explained the vitally
important idea of “opportunity cost,” but also artfully revealed the violence behind
state actions, violence that would be condemned if carried out by anyone without a
hat or uniform or metal badge issued by “the state,” whoever they are. Bastiat
considered the case of “Mr. Protectionist,” a maker of iron implements, who did not
like the fact that his neighbors went to Belgium to buy nails and plows and suchlike,
rather than buying them from him. As Bastiat notes, “Mr. Protectionist did not like this
at all.”

His first idea was to stop this abuse by direct intervention with his own two hands.
This was certainly the least he could do, since he alone was harmed. I’ll take my
carbine, he said to himself. I’ll put four pistols in my belt, I’ll fill my cartridge box, I’ll
buckle on my sword, and, thus equipped, I’ll go to the frontier. There I’ll kill the first
metalworker, nailmaker, blacksmith, mechanic, or locksmith who comes seeking his
own profit rather than mine. That’ll teach him a lesson!

At the moment of leaving, Mr. Protectionist had a few second thoughts that
somewhat tempered his bellicose ardor. He said to himself: First of all, it is quite
possible that the buyers of iron, my fellow countrymen and my enemies, will take
offense, and, instead of letting themselves be killed, they might kill me. Furthermore,
even if all my servants marched out, we could not guard the whole frontier. Finally,
the entire proceeding would cost me too much, more than the result would be worth.
Mr. Protectionist was going to resign himself sadly just to being free like everyone
else, when suddenly he had a brilliant idea.

He remembered that there is a great law factory in Paris. What is a law? he asked
himself. It is a measure to which, when once promulgated, whether it is good or bad,
everyone has to conform. For the execution of this law, a public police force is
organized, and to make up the said public police force, men and money are taken
from the nation.[2]

Besides helping us to see the fallacies in the arguments Mr. Protectionist advances,
Bastiat helps us to see through the mystical clouds of political incense, to tear away
the masquerade, and to listen past the incantations of politics: in reality, it’s just
people interacting with other people. And that raises an important question: do some
people have rights that others don’t have to hit their fellow human beings, and do
those who are hit have obligations to obey those who are “authorized” to threaten to
hit them, and not others (or to submit to being hit by them and not others),
independently of any other reasons for hitting people? It’s really not an easy question
to answer for those who favor state authority. As Huemer argues, “the belief in
political authority is incompatible with common sense moral beliefs.”[3]

So let me turn for a moment to “intuitions” and “common sense moral beliefs.”
Huemer states in a footnote to his book that “Herein I use ‘common sense’ for what
the great majority of people are inclined to accept, especially in my society and
societies that readers of this book are likely to belong to.”[4] In his response to my
suggestion that perhaps one could do more, he quotes an article I published in the
New York Times, which is also addressed to a similar group of readers. My point was
not to reject all such arguments, but to wonder whether one could do more. Perhaps
in another book Huemer could address the question of whether one could argue with,
say, a communist, or a politicized Islamist, or a Christianist, and argue him or her out
of coercing people. It’s been done before.

Perhaps it’s a matter of finding intuitions at a sufficiently “deep” level that no one
could reasonably deny them. That could take either a causal argument of the form “If
you want X, you should do Y,” which would require evidence and argumentation
(which I do think is possible to assemble), or an intuition deep enough about the
relationship between personal identity and moral status that it is “immune to error
through misidentification.”[5]

That was the argument behind the famous Leveller pamphlet “An Arrow Against All
Tyrants,”
To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be
invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety,
else could he not be himself….”[6]

Self identity via bodily ascription is a solid foundation of responsibility, of how, in


John Locke’s words, a person “owns and imputes to it self past Actions, just upon the
same ground, and for the same reason, that it does the present.”[7] It is one’s
responsibility for one’s acts, that grounds one’s moral agency, and one’s moral agency
grounds one’s right to fulfill, at the least, one’s responsibilities.

I won’t go through the argument that did in fact, historically, play a significant role in
converting many people to the position that Huemer now considers “common sense
moral belief.”[8] I should mention, however, that it is a transcultural realization and
can be found in the work of Stoic philosophers (notably Epictetus), Chinese sages, and
Islamic thinkers;[9] that it is difficult to deny; and that it offers foundations for
arguing to the kinds of conclusions that Huemer takes as starting points.

That said, for the purposes of convincing those “in my society and societies that
readers of this book are likely to belong to” to question political obligations, I think
that Huemer’s arguments are powerful. I hope he will consider turning his intellect at
some later date to the arguments that might lead others to the conclusions with which
he begins.

Now, on to conventions! I’m in general agreement with Huemer’s conclusions and


approach, as might be suggested by a presentation I made some time ago on “The Case
for Ordered Liberty Without States,” but I do think that something important was
missing from the arguments he made in The Problem of Political Authority. In his
response to my criticism, I think that Huemer has adequately addressed why coercive
authority is not needed to generate the social conventions and coordination that Kant
considered the ground for the hypothetical social contract. Conventions of that sort
are likely to be self-enforcing, simply because most people prefer most of the time not
to bump into other people; they prefer to coordinate their behavior.

I think that such arguments as he offered in his response would have strengthened the
book. I consider it a minor weakness of the book that in the arguments in chapters 10,
11, and 12, Huemer adopts the language of Murray Rothbard, made famous by Robert
Nozick, and writes of “protection agencies” as the basic units that create social order
and protect justice. I do consider those chapters perhaps the best treatment I’ve ever
f f f f
read of the issues involved, but I also think that the focus on profit-seeking firms
misses the point that the context of social order within which we rely on guards and
courts and adjudication is a result of self-enforcing conventions, and not merely of
firms offering services for profit. Rothbard’s language might suggest to some that
“justice” is something one buys like cheese or pool cleaning services, whereas the
conventions that set the bounds of justice and rights are preconditions for the
exchange of rights, including money for protective or adjudicative services; they are
not, in general at least, themselves “for sale.” Justice creates markets, but justice as
such is not a commodity for sale. Huemer’s treatment might have benefited from
some of the social science literature on conventions and cooperation articulated by
Michael Taylor, Robert Sugden, and Anthony de Jasay, among others.

I will turn my attention to the interesting points and criticisms made by Nicole
Hassoun in another response, but I’d like to wait until after she has responded
to Huemer.

Notes

[1] Contrast Michael Otsuka’s case against mainstream libertarianism, Libertarianism


without Inequality, in which we are asked “to imagine a highly artificial ‘society’ of two
strangers, each of whom will freeze to death unless clothed. Unfortunately, the only
source of material for clothing is human hair, which can be woven into clothing. One
of the two is hirsute and capable of weaving, whereas the other is bald and incapable
of weaving.” Um, right. I reviewed Otsuka’s worthy contribution in Reason magazine.

[2] Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/956/35433 on 2013-03-16

[3] Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2013), p. 17.

[4] Ibid., p. 15.

[5] Gareth Evans, “Self Identification,” in Self-Knowledge, ed. by Quassim Cassam


(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 198.

[6] Richard Overton, ‘‘An Arrow against All Tyrants and Tyranny,’’ in The English
Levellers, ed. Andrew Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 55.

[7] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H, Nidditch
91684; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), bk. II, chap. XXVII, sec. 26, p. 346.

[8] I review the argument in Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and
Practice (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 20009), especially pp. 41-83.
[9] Consider the claims of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri in the classic manual of Islamic
sacred law Reliance of the Traveler, “Eligibility for obligation is the capacity of a
human being to have rights and duties. … Every human being, whoever he or she may
be, has eligibility for obligation and none lacks it because one’s eligibility for
obligation is one’s humanness…. Full eligibility for obligation means a person has
rights upon others and obligations towards them. Every human being acquires it at
birth.” (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 2011), pp. 43-44.

The Case of Murder


By Bryan Caplan
The Conversation
March 18, 2013

I
n The Problem of Political Authority, Michael Huemer tells us that “libertarian
political philosophy rests on three broad ideas”:

i) A non-aggression principle in interpersonal ethics. Roughly, this is the idea that


individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another, and in general,
that individuals should not coerce one another, aside from a few
special circumstances.

ii) A recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a
law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by
credible threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the state.

iii) A skepticism of political authority. The upshot of this skepticism is, roughly, that
the state may not do what it would be wrong for any nongovernmental person or
organization to do.

He then asserts that (i) is not really controversial:

The main positive ethical assumption of libertarianism, the nonaggression principle,


is the most difficult to precisely articulate. In truth, it is a complex collection of
principles, including prohibitions on theft, assault, murder, and so on. I cannot
completely articulate this principle or set of principles. Fortunately, it is not the locus
of disagreement between libertarians and partisans of other political ideologies, for
the “non-aggression principle,” as I use the term, is simply the collection of
prohibitions on mistreating others that are accepted in common sense morality.
Almost no one, regardless of political ideology, considers theft, assault, murder, and
so on morally acceptable.

The crux of the disagreement is actually (iii):

Libertarians are skeptical about authority, whereas most accept the state’s authority
in more or less the terms in which the state claims it. This is what enables most to
endorse governmental behavior that would otherwise appear to violate individual
rights: nonlibertarians assume that most of the moral constraints that apply to other
agents do not apply to the state.

If Huemer wants to persuade nonlibertarians, the phrase “most of” is key.


Nonlibertarians usually assume that some moral constraints that apply to other agents
do apply to the state. What are those moral constraints? What line do states—even our
own—have cross to forfeit moral legitimacy? There is only one clear-cut candidate:
killing their own civilian citizens. States can kill civilians as long as they are citizens of
other countries—and they can kill their own citizens as long as they’re combatants
(e.g., rebel soldiers, terrorists, etc.).[1] But when state X deliberately kills
noncombatants who are officially citizens of X, most nonlibertarians talk like
libertarians: “That’s cold-blooded murder—even if you’re wearing a uniform and
following the leader’s orders.”

Question: Why precisely is this the place that so many nonlibertarians draw the line?
The moral distinction between combatants and noncombatants is plain enough. When
you kill a combatant, you can argue self-defense. But the moral distinction between
citizens and noncitizens is not plain. After all, suppose a government (a) strips a hated
civilian subgroup of its citizenship, and then (b) kills them? Is that substantially less
wrong than doing (b) without (a)?

A cosmopolitan nonlibertarian might grant the wrongness of killing any


noncombatant. But this is still an odd place to draw the line of moral legitimacy.
Suppose government A randomly murders .001% of its people every year, government
B strictly enforces a 99.99% income tax, and government C strictly requires everyone
to perform 50 years of forced labor. If we condemn A, it is hard to see how we could
fail to similarly condemn B and C.[2] After all, who wouldn’t prefer to take his chances
in A rather than endure the certain misery of B or C?

My point is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat—or a fellow human being.
yp y g
Many policies are as bad or worse than murder, if they’re sufficiently broadly or
strictly enforced. Libertarians may sound like cranks when they group “life” with
“property” or “liberty.” But anyone willing to equate government killing of civilians
with murder should at least be open to equating taxation with robbery and
conscription with slavery.

Notes
[1] Killing combatant citizens, strangely, inspires far more controversy than killing
noncombatant non-citizens.
[2]If forced labor seems irrelevant to modern public policy, note that it continues to
inspire nostalgia in many Americans, as long as the victims are healthy young males
and their “employer” is the military.

The Rights of the World’s Poor: A Reply to Hassoun


By Bryan Caplan
The Conversation
March 19, 2013

M
ost Haitians live in dire poverty. Are Americans morally responsible for
their plight?

In our political climate, this is an ideologically polarized issue. Liberals


and progressives tend to say, “Yes, we’re morally responsible.” Moderates,
conservatives, and libertarians tend to say, “No, we’re not.”

Interestingly, however, there are hypotheticals under which this polarization would
vanish. Consider the following policies:

1. The U.S. government physically confiscates half the Haitian food supply.
2. The U.S. government levies a 50% tax on Haiti’s inhabitants, giving them nothing
in return.
3. The U.S. government imposes an unprovoked naval blockade on Haiti.

In these cases, liberals, progressives, moderates, conservatives, and libertarians would


agree that Americans—or at least Americans who support their government’s policies
—are morally responsible for Haitian poverty. Why? Because the U.S. government
would clearly be aggressing against innocent human beings. In philosophical jargon,
we would be violating Haitians’ negative rights—their right to keep their own stuff,
and their right to trade their stuff with willing partners around the world.

Now consider a slightly different policy:

4. The U.S. government forbids trade between Americans and Haitians.

Such a policy would elicit less moral condemnation than #3. But how different are #3
and #4, really? In both cases, the U.S. government violates Haitians’ (and Americans’)
right to trade their stuff with willing partners. American X wants to buy a painting
from Haitian Y, yet the U.S. government brands them as criminals. If, as a result, Y dies
of hunger, there is every reason to say that the U.S. government killed Y by violating
his negative rights.[1]

You might object that, in the post-colonial era, these hypotheticals are irrelevant for
global poverty. Isn’t the entire problem that the world’s poor have little of value to sell
on the world market? The answer, surprisingly, is no. The world’s poor have a very
valuable good to sell: their labor. Though Third World workers often earn a dollar or
two a day, even unskilled labor is worth $10-$15,000 per year on the world market.[2]

There’s just one problem: First World governments’ immigration policies effectively
forbid international trade in labor.[3] The world’s poor cannot legally work in a First
World country without that government’s permission. For most current residents of
the Third World, this permission is almost impossible to obtain. If you’re an unskilled
worker with no relatives in the First World, you have to endure Third World poverty,
win the immigration lottery, or break the law. Contrary to popular opinion, moreover,
illegal immigration is far from easy. The U.S.–Mexico border is almost two thousand
miles long, but Mexicans still pay years of salary to coyotes to get across. Smugglers’
fees for more remote nations are higher still.

If First World governments simply respected everyone’s right to accept job offers from
willing employers, most of the world’s poor wouldn’t need charity. They could take
care of themselves. Any able-bodied person living in poverty would be free to sell his
labor to the highest bidder in the world. Instead of paying years of income to coyotes,
the global poor could migrate for the cost of a bus or boat ticket. Instead of crossing
the border in fear to compete for illegal jobs, the global poor could cross the border
openly to compete for any job they’re qualified to do.

Wouldn’t this simply drive First World wages down to Third World levels? No. Basic
economics tells us that trade barriers don’t just redistribute wealth; they destroy
economics tells us that trade barriers don t just redistribute wealth; they destroy
wealth. Confining able-bodied workers to the Third World is like confining agriculture
to Antarctica. Standard economic estimates say that open borders would roughly
double world output.[4] While trade liberalization never benefits absolutely everyone,
free migration would be great for the world and great for the world’s poor.

If my analysis is correct, Nicole Hassoun seriously understates the moral claims of the
world’s poor. Consider this passage:

Obviously, many people do not have enough to meet their needs in a world where
billions are in desperate poverty and millions die every year from easily preventable
poverty-related illnesses. The current distribution of property rights is not justified.

Hassoun’s seems to be saying that (a) we currently respect everyone’s negative rights,
but (b) the world is still full of horrific poverty. She depicts the world’s poor as charity
cases, instead of what they really are: victims of mandatory
government discrimination.

If you’re concerned about the plight of the world’s poor, this is a serious rhetorical
error. Why? Because negative rights have broader appeal than positive rights—
especially on an international level. Hassoun’s argument only works if people accept a
moral obligation to support total strangers in other countries. The libertarian
argument, in contrast, works as long as people accept a moral obligation to leave total
strangers in other countries alone.

Rhetorical effectiveness aside, though, arguments from positive rights are inherently
weak. Hassoun tells us that:

I do not have property rights that extend so far that they allow me to withhold
essential goods that I do not need from those who will suffer and die without them.

This doesn’t just imply a political obligation to vote to give away most of your wealth
to the Third World. It also implies a personal obligation to unilaterally give away most
of your wealth to the Third World. Perhaps Hassoun lives up to this obligation, but the
vast majority of people who share her position do not. Perhaps this means that
believers in positive rights are hypocrites. But the simpler explanation is that even
people who say they believe in positive rights aren’t truly convinced. Though the
world is full of suffering, you don’t become a criminal by minding your own business
b k i Th G dS it i t t b t h
—or by keeping your own money. The Good Samaritan is not a story about a man who
did his duty. It is a story about a man who went beyond the call of duty.

Fortunately, the people of the Third World don’t need Good Samaritans to escape
poverty. They don’t need total strangers to voluntarily send them massive donations.
The people of the Third World only need us to abolish the immigration laws that
prevent them from saving themselves.

Notes
[1]On the moral status of immigration restrictions, see Michael Huemer. 2010. “Is
There A Right to Immigrate?” Social Theory and Practice 36 (2010): 429-61.

[2] See especially Michael Clemens, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett. “The
Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Works Across the U.S. Border.” Center
for Global Development Working Paper 148.

[3] For a general discussion, see Bryan Caplan. 2012. “Why Should We Restrict
Immigration?” Cato Journal 32(1), pp.5-24.

[4] See Michael Clemens. 2011. “Economics and Immigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on
the Sidewalk?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(3): 83-106.
Reply to Caplan: On Negative Rights, Individual Action,
and Liberalization
By Nicole Hassoun
The Conversation
March 20, 2013

F
irst, I fully agree that we are violating the rights of poor people around the
world and that we should significantly liberalize movement in labor. I
endorse positive and negative rights. The claim that “Obviously, many people
do not have enough to meet their needs in a world where billions are in desperate
poverty and millions die every year from easily preventable poverty-related illnesses.
The current distribution of property rights is not justified” in no way entails that “we
currently respect everyone’s negative rights.”

Second, while I think that the current distribution of property rights globally is very
unjust because it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs, I do not believe the
best way of addressing the problem is through individual action. Again, my claim that
“I do not have property rights that extend so far that they allow me to withhold
essential goods that I do not need from those who will suffer and die without them.”
Does not “imply a political obligation to … unilaterally give away most of [my] wealth
to the Third World.” I believe states and international organizations can play
important roles in redefining legal property rights to better protect, promote, and
fulfill individuals’ moral rights. Moreover, other policies may be necessary (e.g.
liberalizing movement in labor) to better protect, promote, and fulfill rights.

Third, Caplan happens to be right that I do not agree that unrestricted liberalization is
always a good idea (though I did not discuss this in my post). That is because free
trade, for instance, sometimes impoverishes people even if it generally helps them. I
refer interested readers to my papers on the topic for further details.

Finally, a general remark: I believe it is especially important for those of us who do not
endorse mainstream views to listen carefully to what others are saying. Otherwise we
run the risk of giving poor arguments in response to claims that were never made and
failing to contribute important perspectives to essential debates.
What’s Missing in The Problem of Political Authority
By Bryan Caplan
The Conversation
March 20, 2013

M
y main complaint about The Problem of Political Authority is that it’s not
long enough. Indeed, the book should have three parts, not two. Part I
powerfully critiques the morality of state authority. Part II counters the
consequentialist defense of the existence of the state by arguing that the expected
consequences of anarcho-capitalism are, at minimum, tolerable. This is to say the least
an abrupt transition. For most readers, small-government libertarianism is already a
proposition with intolerable consequences. Why not address their numerous concerns
before trying to turn them into anarchists?

My proposal: Huemer’s Part II should be relabeled Part III. The new Part II should be a
chapter-by-chapter critique of mainstream consequentialist arguments for
government intervention. Some obvious chapters to include: Economic efficiency,
economic growth, poverty, externalities, discrimination, imperfect information, and
paternalism. In each case, Huemer could have combined (a) a fair-minded review of
mainstream social science with (b) the moral principle that coercion is only morally
justified if coercion is highly likely to lead to much better consequences. By the end of
Part II, skeptical readers would be psychologically prepared to at least consider the
truly radical thesis of Part III.

To see what I have in mind, check out Huemer’s outstanding essays on the ethics of
immigration restrictions, gun control, and drug prohibition. Moral philosophy and
social science have rarely been so seamlessly merged. Perhaps I’m overly greedy to
demand six extra chapters of comparable quality. But if The Problem of Political
Authority ever has a second edition, six extra chapters is just what I’m hoping for.

Arguments vs. Wisdom in Political Philosophy: Principle


vs. Practice
By Nicole Hassoun
The Conversation
March 20, 2013

P
art I: States may be justified in helping us live together well even if we
P do not have to obey their bad rules, and even if not everyone can agree
that this is so.

I would like to start by saying a few things in defense of my fellow commentators and
in general about Professor Huemer’s reply.

First: Authority need not be content-neutral. Not all of those who reject anarchism
defend strong content-neutral obligations to obey the law—some of the most famous
political philosophers—like Joseph Raz—do not. Anarchism may be false because
states have the right to rule without their subjects having correlative obligations to
obey all of their rules.

Second: there are many collective action problems besides coordination


problems. Since this is so, Palmer might extend his argument to show that solving
other collective action problems may justify coercion too. Many environmental
problems, like climate change, arguably result from tragedies of the commons (multi-
person prisoners’ dilemmas) and states may legitimately help us deal with these
problems. One need not suppose that failure to resolve collective action problems will
to lead to a war of all against all to justify coercion. Of course coercion is not always
necessary to deal with collective action problems, but it may be justified if it is a good
way of doing so.

Third: Not all good philosophy starts from uncontroversial premises. I agree with
Huemer that some of the best philosophical arguments start from uncontroversial
premises—but what is controversial will vary from context to context. I do not think
many professional philosophers would disagree. That said, not all philosophical
arguments aim to convince in this way—sometimes they aim to do other things, like
encourage us to think more deeply or give us good reasons for a conclusion, whether
or not others are convinced that they are good reasons. Perhaps this is what lies
behind some political philosophers’ requests for Huemer to consider the nature of
fairness, rights, or whatever. That said, many political philosophers give arguments
that start from relatively uncontroversial premises.

Part II: What works in principle may not work in practice—still there are shades
of grey, and we can figure out how to make things better if we pay attention to
empirical details.

Now about my post, perhaps I should clarify a few things. I will respond to the points
Huemer raised in the order in which he raised them. In my first post I tried to make
two main points: First – we can retain “common sense” intuitions about what
individuals can do and hold that states can legitimately do many things—e.g. protect
rights. Second—to give the best arguments for empirical claims we need to appeal to
empirical evidence and to improve our actual (very imperfect) institutions, we should
attend to the details of particular policies, even if we are committed anarchists. In
what follows, I offer some substantiation and extension:

First: It Is Relatively Uncontroversial that There Are Positive Rights. I did not
offer an argument for positive rights. I think there are good arguments for these rights
that I discuss in my book and several related papers. I do not think they will convince
everyone—(right) libertarians tend to reject the key premise in these arguments (this
premise is usually something like “rights protect interests or freedoms of such great
importance that they justify holding people to duties in appropriate ways”). My book
is motivated, in part, to try to address libertarian skeptics about positive rights. That
said, I do think some of the arguments for positive rights work and I think there is
reason to believe they are not particularly controversial (given positive rights’ wide
acceptance in many cultures, international law etc.).

Second: It Is Relatively Uncontroversial that States Should Protect Positive


Rights. The standard view of the obligations correlative to rights, in international law
as well as political philosophy, is that they should be assigned (primarily) to states.
One reason for this is because states are well placed to protect, promote, and fulfill
rights. States can help us solve collective action problems that make it difficult for us
to protect, promote, and fulfill positive rights (and thus help us fulfill our obligations
to do so). Assigning the obligation to protect, promote, and fulfill rights to states may
help ensure that people can be free within states’ rules without failing in their moral
obligations. This may support the claim that states can legitimately do some things
that individuals cannot do—like tax people to support the poor.

Third: Anarchism Does Not Follow from Rejecting Authority. To put it simply, the
point of talking about rights at all was this: It is not that most people reject anarchism
because they like authority. They reject anarchism because, despite the fact that they
do not like authority, they recognize that authority helps us do all of the things we
have to do together (e.g. protect rights).

Fourth: Empirical Evidence is Necessary to Establish Empirical Hypotheses. The


proper way to choose a political system is to run a regression that tries to hold all
factors except for regime type constant—not to look at examples—not to give
theoretical arguments. I did not compare Somalia to the United States. I suggested
that, on average globally, Somalia is below par on many indicators—e.g. income. I
believe it is likely that a rigorous empirical study would show that existing anarchical
i i h hi i ll b h h bl ( d i )
societies have historically been worse than the reasonable (e.g. democratic)
alternatives. But we need such studies.

Fifth: Why Anarchism not Libertarianism or the Welfare State? I was asked to
write the reply to Huemer’s article just a few weeks ago and have yet to finish reading
his book. That said, the worry expressed in the sentence “If states lack the authority to
protect rights, it is not clear why Huemer thinks other agents can have this authority”
was meant to question the idea that corporations could (in principle) have the right to
exercise a monopoly on coercive force to protect property rights if states could not (in
principle) have this right. I do not see why, on Huemer’s theory, universal consent
would not justify a corporation in protecting everyone’s rights. But I think he does
need a reason to reject this conclusion. Saying that “to count as a state, an
organization must have a coercively enforced monopoly within a given country, and I
think it impermissible to enforce such a monopoly” is just to assert that minimal-state
libertarianism is false, not to argue against it. Moreover, he needs an argument, I
think, that the property rights he supposes are justified are so justified. He says that it
is “ethically permissible for anyone to protect rights (within certain limits)” and it is
clear that he believes that any agent can protect property rights even when others
cannot meet their basic needs. But this is controversial and cannot be supported by the
best accounts of property rights. If there are positive rights that limit the extent of
property rights in the ways I suggest, then his argument fails.

Sixth: Legitimacy Comes in Degrees. The fact that no state is fully legitimate on the
main accounts of political legitimacy in the philosophical literature does not show that
states are not justifiable. Many theories of legitimacy tell us what would have to be the
case for a state to be fully justified in exercising coercive force; they don’t try to show
that actual states are fully justified. So democratic consent theorists might say that
states should respect constitutional constraints and secure democratic consent even if
most states fail to do this sometimes. In our imperfect world, we may not have
perfectly legitimate states, but perhaps we should recognize that there are shades
of grey.

Seventh: Consent May Require States to Protect Positive Rights. If legitimacy does
come in degrees and if consent would justify an agent in having a monopoly on the
use of coercive force within a territory, I think Huemer also needs a reason to reject
my new argument against libertarianism. I claim that the ability to consent is
necessary for consent. So those exercising coercion (states in the actual world) will
have to ensure that people can secure what they need to consent (even if this requires
coercion) to be legitimate. On consent theory, ensuring that people can secure what
they need to consent may be illegitimate if doing so requires coercing those who have
not yet consented to the coercer’s rules, but coercers may be more legitimate if they do
secure this consent than if they do not.

Eighth: Make Moral Progress by Focusing on Particular Policies. I do recognize


that Huemer did not say that all monopolies are bad and that he cannot fully defend
anarchism in a web posting. But if Heumer’s argument in the book proceeds by
analogy, it is important that he explain why the disanalogies between states and
monopolistic corporations do not matter. More importantly, my notes on monopolies,
public vs. private provision of goods and services, and legal regulations were meant to
suggest that there are many significant questions about what policies work well in
different circumstances. We may make moral progress if we focus on what will in fact
improve our vastly imperfect institutions even if, for purely theoretical reasons, we
are committed anarchists.

Some Thoughts on Inequality of Wealth and the Moral Claims We


May Make on Each Other
By Tom G. Palmer
The Conversation
March 21, 2013

N
icole Hassoun raises a number of interesting points worth pondering. So
here’s some pondering, starting with her remarks on the Lockean proviso,
about which she claims:

Even on the most libertarian justification for property rights, advanced by John
Locke, one can only have a right to acquire something if that person leaves enough
and as good for others. As Robert Nozick develops the theory, one cannot keep
anything that he or she has not created that others need to survive. On a better
(Rousseauian) conception of property rights, if the current distribution of property
does not allow all to meet their basic needs, there is something wrong with it.
Obviously, many people do not have enough to meet their needs in a world where
billions are in desperate poverty and millions die every year from easily preventable
poverty-related illnesses. The current distribution of property rights is not justified.

I’ll leave aside the provocative but unjustified remark that Rousseau, one of the most
malignant enemies of liberty and civilization who ever set pen to paper (two can be
provocative[1]), had a “better conception of rights,” and focus on just three issues. The
first is what would meet a proviso; the second is whether it is unequal distribution of
“property” or unequal distribution of “wealth” that should cause concern to those
whose sympathies are aroused by people suffering in poverty; and the third is
whether what is responsible for the unequal distribution of wealth, which leaves
“billions…in desperate poverty,” is unequal distribution of property or unequal
enjoyment of liberty.

1. Provisos on Acquisition

When discussing the acquisition of unowned resources, Locke offers two provisos; one
is the “enough and as good left in common for others,” and the other is the “spoilage
proviso.” The latter is solved when money, which does not “spoil,” is introduced. After
discussing the benefits of money, he adds some remarks that are, puzzlingly enough,
rarely (and that is an understatement) commented upon by those who consider
the issue:

To which let me add, that he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does
not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to
the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are
(to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an
acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that
incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres,
than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety
acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres,
which were but the product of an hundred lying in common. I have here rated the
improved land very low, in making its product but as ten to one, when it is much
nearer an hundred to one.[2]

Thus, the initial appropriator, by creating the conditions for the improvement of land,
“does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind” and “may truly be said,
to give ninety acres to mankind.” Thus, it is the act of appropriation itself that satisfies
the proviso that there be “enough, and as good left in common for others,” most
especially after a means of exchange (money) is introduced, which allows
accumulation without spoilage. The greater productivity generally means more for all,
which “gives” more to mankind than was lost by the appropriation. Several property,
as Locke terms it, “gives” more to all others, including later generations, than they
could have hoped for without such a system of property.

David Schmidtz has spelled out the argument in greater detail and put it into the
context of the “tragedy of the commons” that would obtain without appropriation
context of the tragedy of the commons that would obtain without appropriation.

Leaving goods in the commons fails to satisfy the Proviso. In fact, leaving goods in
the commons practically ensures their ruin. The essence of what [Garrett] Hardin
calls the Tragedy of the Commons – what makes it tragic, is precisely that not enough
and as good is left for others. As a necessary condition for satisfying the Proviso,
goods must be removed from the commons. Moreover, the more severe the scarcity,
the faster resources will be destroyed in the commons, and thus the more urgently
the Proviso will require that resources be removed from the commons.[3]

Systems of well-defined, legally secure, and transferable property rights do not


impoverish the poor. Property “does not lessen but increase the common stock of
mankind.” The property owned by the people of Luxemburg is not responsible for the
poverty of the people of Namibia. There is no justification for redistribution on
Lockean grounds.

2. Property or Wealth?

Property is a legal concept, whereas wealth is an economic concept. The two are often
confused, but they should be kept quite clearly distinct. The one refers to a set of
rights, the other to how people value such rights. The same legal claim to property
may yield great wealth today and none tomorrow. Market exchanges change the
values of property claims continuously, as Ludwig Lachmann explained clearly in his
important essay on “The Market Economy and the Distribution of Wealth.”[4]

The resources of the world are, indeed, divided in very uneven ways.[5] Consider
geography. Some nation states (to start with that fairly recent unit of analysis) are
landlocked and some have long coastlines with deep harbors (and some long
coastlines with few harbors). Some have diamonds and gold, others farmland with
deep topsoil, and others rainforests with little topsoil. And yet, those various factors
seem to be very weakly correlated, if at all, to wealth. Many poor countries have
enormous mineral wealth (consider Zaire, Nigeria, etc.) and many rich countries have
virtually no natural resources (consider the Netherlands, where people even had to
manufacture land, or Luxembourg, or Switzerland, or Hong Kong). It’s not the
“property,” that is, the claims to resources, that people concerned about poverty
alleviation should be thinking about, but the income they derive from it, i.e., the
wealth. Consumption – of food, medicine, shelter, education, transportation, and so on
– is the measurement of wealth, which is what those concerned about poverty should
be focusing on.
3. What Causes Wealth Inequalities?

What is responsible for wealth inequality is a very complicated topic. It seems that, in
market-based economies, education drives much of the inequality. Thus, to get rid of
the inequality, we could stop people from acquiring knowledge. It’s clear that’s not the
kind of direction Hassoun would want to go. (At least, I hope not.) She’s concerned
about people suffering in poverty.

Bryan Caplan posed scenarios according to which people in the United States might be
responsible for the plight of the poor of Haiti. Hassoun affirmed in her response, “I
think that the current distribution of property rights globally is very unjust because it
leaves people unable to meet their basic needs.” I think that she missed the point.
Caplan focused on how people in wealthy countries could act to improve the lot of
people in poor countries, and I agree wholeheartedly with what he says. But it’s really
only a part of the problem. The people of Haiti are poor because they have been
governed for generations by a succession of kleptocrats and psychopaths.

In the course of their histories, of course, most countries have suffered from such
rulers. Those that have succeeded in limiting their power and thus liberating creative
activity have increased their wealth and prosperity. I encourage people interested in
this issue to consider the treatment of the causes of prosperity in Deirdre McCloskey’s
remarkable book Bourgeois Dignity, which considers all the accounts I’d ever heard of
(and some I hadn’t) and measures them against the enormous wealth explosion of the
past two centuries. Economic freedom and respect for entrepreneurship are the only
explanations that emerge as capable of explaining what she calls “the great fact.”

The great inequalities in the world are not caused by inequalities in the division of
resources, but by unequal enjoyment of liberty. Oil-rich Nigeria is not a wealthy
country, although there are wealthy people there, most of whom are associated with
the state. The per capita incomes of Switzerland (per capita GDP [PPP] of $51,262)[6]
and Luxembourg (per capita GDP [PPP] of $89,012) and Hong Kong (per capita GDP
[PPP] of $50,551) are not high because they found themselves on top of some valuable
gold mines or oil deposits, but because the people who live there enjoy personal and
economic liberty under relatively limited government. One might even argue that
they’re so rich because of the “anarchical system of competition”[7] of which Marx
bitterly complained and which he hoped to replace.

If the poor were poor because they lost out and the rich benefited from a
maldistribution of property, one would think that the poor would be much better if
the rich simply ceased to exist. If I am poor because I am being robbed, then if the
robber were to go away, I’d be much better off. So, would my friends in Burkina Faso
obbe e e to go a ay, d be uc bette o . So, ou d y e ds u a aso
(per capita GDP [PPP] of $1,301) be better off if Nicole Hassoun were to cease to exist?
I very much doubt it. They would be much better off if she were to campaign for free
trade. They would be even better off if their dysfunctional government were to be
reformed and were to stop stealing from them or, worse than the theft, blocking them
from creating and enjoying wealth.

It’s not unequal distributions of property that are responsible for poverty on the scale
that concerns Hassoun, but unequal enjoyment of liberty. That’s one of the reasons
why libertarians are libertarians, because liberty makes better lives possible.[8] And
the combination of injustice, inefficiency, rank corruption, and perverse incentives
created by the programs Hassoun supports is why I prefer to help people through
Mercy Corps (one of the most effective charities in the world, in my opinion) rather
than having my income taken from me under the threat of force and redistributed in
the ways the U.S. government chooses.

Where does this leave Huemer’s case?

The above reasoning suggests that attempts to take by force what the people of
Luxembourg have to send it to the people of Burkina Faso, even if it could be done
without enormous corruption (i.e., even if the Tooth Fairy does, in fact, exist), would
be unjust, because the people of Burkina Faso are not poor as a result of an unequal
distribution of property. Thus, no one would be justified in carrying out such acts of
theft, whether states or other criminal bands. We would be justified, however, in
demanding that the governments of wealthy countries cease prohibiting mutually
beneficial exchanges that would benefit those people. We would also be justified,
whether individually or in voluntary groups, in doing what we can to help the people
of Burkina Faso improve the governance of their country and to limit the predatory
and wealth-inhibiting powers of the state that rules them.

That leaves Huemer’s questions regarding political authority still hanging in the air.
I’ll address some of Hassoun’s other points about authority in another post.

Notes

[1] I am hardly the only person who considers it less-than-obvious that Rousseau’s
account of rights was “better.” Consider, for example, how Rousseau deliberately
undermined Voltaire’s campaign for religious liberty in France, which triggered, after
much patient suffering Voltaire’s campaign against him Voltaire and Hume were far
much patient suffering, Voltaire s campaign against him. Voltaire and Hume were far
more humane men, as well as better philosophers, than the misanthropic totalitarian
from Geneva who abused them. But enough provocation.

[2] Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. by Peter Laslett (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 294.

[3] Schmidtz, David, The Limits of Government: An Essay on the Public Goods Argument
(Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), pp. 21-22.

[4] “In a market economy a process of redistribution of wealth is taking place all the
time before which those outwardly similar processes which modern politicians are in
the habit of instituting, pale into comparative insignificance, if for no other reason
than that the market gives wealth to those who can hold it, while politicians give it to
their constituents who, as a rule, cannot.” Ludwig M. Lachmann, Capital, Expectations,
and the Market Process: Essays on the Theory of the Market Economy, ed. with an
Introduction by Walter E. Grinder (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977).
Chapter: “The Market Economy and the Distribution of Wealth,” Accessed from
http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/97/3326 on 2013-03-21.

[5] Some have argued that unequal “world ownership” is responsible for unequal
income and that joint ownership, even with “self-ownership,” would yield equality.
See the arguments of G. A. Cohen in Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). I argued that his ingenious arguments
fail completely, due to a fatal confusion of the scenarios he describes, in “G. A. Cohen
on Self-Ownership, Property, and Equality,” Critical Review 12 no. 3 (1998), pp. 225-
251.

[6] All per capita GDP in PPP numbers from http://search.worldbank.org/data?


qterm=per+capita+GDP+PPP&language=EN&format=.

[7] Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I,


https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf,
p. 368.

[8] A good place to start in explaining inequality of wealth is with the Fraser Institute’s
Economic Freedom of the World Report, which measures the enjoyment of economic
freedom (a wider metric of freedom is under construction) for all of the countries of
the world for which reliable public data are available. Chapter 1, Exhibit 1.9 and
Exhibit 1.10, pp. 23-24, are especially interesting in light of discussions of inequality of
income. Here are full-sized versions of Exhibit 1.9 and Exhibit 1.10.
Positive Rights and Poverty: What They Suggest and Imply
By Bryan Caplan
The Conversation
March 22, 2013

T
hanks to Nicole Hassoun for her reply to my post on global poverty.
Two reactions:

I. My original claim was not that Hassoun explicitly said that “we currently
respect everyone’s negative rights.” My precise statement, rather, was that she “seems
to be saying” this. By emphasizing the positive rights of the global poor, Hassoun
creates a strong impression that violations of the global poor’s negative rights by First
World governments are, empirically, not worth talking about.

Notice that Hassoun’s entire post on global poverty never even uses the words
“immigration,” “immigrant,” or “immigrate.” Given the magnitude of the wage gap
between unskilled workers in the Third World and the First, this is a huge omission.

I am delighted to learn that Hassoun agrees that we should “significantly liberalize


movement in labor.” At the same time, though, I’m puzzled why she says “significantly
liberalize” rather than “fully liberalize.” Don’t both the positive and negative rights
that she endorses require full liberalization?

II. Hassoun states:

I do not believe the best way of addressing the problem is through individual action.
Again, my claim that “I do not have property rights that extend so far that they allow
me to withhold essential goods that I do not need from those who will suffer and die
without them” does not “imply a political obligation to … unilaterally give away most
of [my] wealth to the Third World.” I believe states and international organizations
can play important roles in redefining legal property rights to better protect,
promote, and fulfill individuals’ moral rights.

Hassoun misquotes me. I said that her principle “implies a personal [not “political”]
obligation to unilaterally give away most of [her] wealth to the Third World.” More
importantly, given realistic empirical assumptions, Hassoun does indeed imply
precisely the conclusion I name. Let’s flesh it out.

1 Hassoun does not have property rights that extend so far that they allow her to
1. Hassoun does not have property rights that extend so far that they allow her to
withhold essential goods that she does not need from those who will suffer and die
without them. [Hassoun’s original premise, with “Hassoun” instead of “I.”]

2. People in the Third World are now suffering and dying due to lack of essential
goods. [Certainly a true empirical claim.]

3. Third World suffering and dying will persist even if Hassoun takes all actions in her
power other than massive personal financial donation, such as voting, political
activism, blogging, and teaching. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given that
Hassoun is only one person in a world of seven billion.]

4. Hassoun has essential goods (namely money) that she does not need. [An extremely
probable empirical claim, given that she works as a professor in the First World, and
First World professors earn far more than subsistence.]

5. People in the Third World will suffer and die if Hassoun withholds these essential
goods. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given the existence of dire poverty
and effective international charities.]

6. Therefore, Hassoun does not have property rights that allow her to withhold
essential goods she does not need. In plain English, she has a moral obligation to
donate all her surplus wealth to people in dire poverty. [From #1-#5.]

Of course, dire poverty will persist even if Hassoun does donate all the wealth she
does not need. But her principle does not require her to end world poverty. It merely
requires her to give away everything she does not need until dire poverty no
longer exists.

Some Further Unaddressed Points: Authority, Anarchy, and


Positive Rights
By Michael Huemer
The Conversation
March 22, 2013

A
t the risk of appearing to gang up on the lone non-libertarian in this
conversation, I want to add some replies to Nicole Hassoun’s remarks. My
overall feeling after reading her comments was one of simply being talked
past. I don’t feel that Hassoun has really engaged with my position or arguments.
Perhaps, in my efforts at brevity, I have failed to explain my position and central
arguments sufficiently. So let me try to explain more clearly now.

A. What Is My Position?

I have two different theses in the book:

1. No state has political authority.

2. Anarcho-capitalism is a desirable social system.

As Hassoun has noted (“Anarchism Does Not Follow from Rejecting Authority”) and as
I tried to emphasize in my first post (“…the question of political authority is not
‘Should we have government?’…”), these are two very different theses, the second
much stronger than the first.

What I mean by “political authority” is a sort of special moral status commonly


ascribed to the state, which is supposed to explain both the state’s entitlement to
coerce individuals (in certain ways that would be unjust if done by any non-
governmental agent) and the individual’s obligation to obey the state (in cases in
which one would not be obligated to obey similar commands given by any non-
governmental agent). This authority is by stipulation content-independent,
comprehensive, and supreme. Pace Hassoun, political authority must be content-
independent, because that is just how it is defined. I am claiming the authority to
define “political authority” here, since it was I who started the discussion of “political
authority” (thankfully, though, I am not claiming any political authority—if Nicole
continues to use the word in a different sense, I will verbally complain but will not
deploy coercion).

Now to clarify the second thesis: “anarcho-capitalism” refers to a specific sort of


proposed social system, in which multiple rights-protecting and multiple dispute-
resolving agencies exist within the same geographical area, being paid by individuals
who choose a particular protector or a particular arbitrator. These agencies are
similar to governments, with the crucial difference that they do not maintain
coercive monopolies.

B. What Is My Argument Against Authority?

I cannot give my argument against authority here. What I can do is to explain the
general strategy, and this will make clear why I can’t actually give the argument. The
strategy is to address all of the most important accounts of authority, and show why
each fails. I can’t do this here, because there are too many accounts of authority, and
too many arguments given by their supporters; to address all of the important ones
requires, well, a book.
q

But this discussion need not therefore be fruitless. What I tried to do (and thought I
did) in my first posting was to explain why there is a problem of political authority,
and why defenders of authority need to give an account. I then gave a sketch of how I
would respond to some of the more commonly heard claims in defense of authority.

So here is the first place where I feel not-engaged-with: I can’t tell whether there is
anyone in this conversation who actually believes in authority. I know I don’t, and
Bryan Caplan doesn’t. Tom Palmer probably doesn’t. But I can’t tell about Nicole
Hassoun. If she believes in authority, I have no idea what account she would give of it.
Social contract? Appeal to democratic process? Consequentialist?

I stress here that I am not asking about why we should have a state. I am asking about
whether and why the state would have the special moral status that I talked about
above, including content-independent, comprehensive, and supreme entitlements to
coerce obedience, etc. If Hassoun believes in authority in that sense, I’d like to hear
her account of it. If she doesn’t, I’d like to hear an explicit statement to that effect.

C. What Is My Argument for Anarcho-Capitalism?

My argument for anarcho-capitalism, again, can’t be given here, because it requires


addressing a long series of arguments by people on the other side. Essentially, I discuss
the problems that statists believe would beset an anarcho-capitalist regime, and
explain why in most cases the problems are really of greater concern under a
traditional governmental system. There are too many of these issues to consider here.
But again, this discussion need not therefore be fruitless; the non-anarchists in the
room could just state what they take to be the greatest concern about anarcho-
capitalism, and we could discuss that.

D. Some Objections to Anarchism

Objection 1: Somalia

The first argument against anarcho-capitalism seems to be that the situation of


Somalia shows what “anarchy” is like. To clarify my earlier response to this: my
response is not “theoretical arguments, in general, are better than empirical
arguments.” My response is more like this: just as there are different forms of
government, there are different forms of non-governmental social arrangements.
Those who support liberal democracy do not have to defend the North Korean
government, because it is not the kind of government they support. Similarly, those
who support anarcho-capitalism do not have to defend other non-governmental social
arrangements that are not, and have never attempted to be, anarcho-capitalist. (Why
arrangements that are not, and have never attempted to be, anarcho capitalist. (Why
the “attempted to be” qualifier? Well, if the attempt to implement some social system
regularly results in disaster, we might fairly take this as a reason for rejecting that
social system as an ideal, even if the successful implementation would have been
desirable.) While Somalia might be described as a form of “anarchy,” I don’t think
anyone would claim that it is an example of an anarcho-capitalist society, nor was
there ever any attempt to make it one.

Now, Hassoun’s latest reply to me seems to be just to reiterate the desirability of


empirical evidence. So here is the second place where I feel not-engaged-with. Of
course empirical evidence is desirable. I love empirical evidence. But only when it is
relevant to the thing we’re talking about. If we’re talking about the desirability of X,
and we have empirical evidence about Y, which is quite different from X, that
empirical evidence does not invalidate all theoretical arguments about X merely by
virtue of its empiricality.

In addition, I would note that Peter Leeson’s research, which I previously mentioned
only in a footnote, indicates that Somalia is better off than it would be if its
government hadn’t collapsed. So if one considers this case relevant, it remains hard to
lay claim to a refutation of anarchism.

Objection 2: Public Goods Problems

I have not yet addressed public goods problems. Unfortunately, I again must say that
this issue cannot be adequately addressed in this space. The reason is that I don’t
think there is any general-purpose solution to all public goods problems. I think one
has to look at each alleged public goods problem to see whether and how an anarcho-
capitalist society could deal with it.

In the book, I addressed what may be the largest public goods problem: national
defense. But there are of course other problems that could be raised. Here, I will just
mention the sort of things I am liable to say about public goods problems. These
probably won’t convince any statists, but they might at least enable us to better
understand each other:

a. There are probably not as many public goods problems as you think there are, and
some public goods can be converted into private goods. Garrett Hardin’s case of the
tragedy of the commons is a case in point.

b. Sometimes, the inability to solve a public goods problem is tolerable. A public


good may be underprovided in some social system, yet this situation may be overall
preferable to incurring the risks of a coercive monopolistic organization such as
preferable to incurring the risks of a coercive monopolistic organization such as
the state.

c. While government can provide public goods, this isn’t really what matters. What
matters is whether it will do so. There are all kinds of reasons why, despite having
the power to do so, a government may lack the will or the competence to optimally
provide public goods.

d. While the free market tends to underprovide public goods, governments may
overprovide certain public goods.

e. While government might solve some public goods problems, it also creates some
new ones. Most notably, in a democratic state, wise policies are public goods, as are
the goods of rational and informed political beliefs that would lead to wise policies.
(I mean this in the economists’ sense: these goods are nonrival and nonexcludable.)
This is one very large class of problem, and it is not implausible that this one huge
public goods problem is worse than all the other public goods problems. For
discussion, see my “Why People Are Irrational About Politics,” and Bryan Caplan’s
The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Objection 3: Positive Rights

As far as I understand it, Hassoun’s discussion of positive rights is supposed to get at


this point: anarcho-capitalism is a bad social system, because it will not adequately
enforce individuals’ positive rights.

As I’ve indicated, I do not know whether there are positive rights. Hassoun says the
idea that there are positive rights, and that they should be enforced by the state, is
(“relatively”) uncontroversial. I don’t think so. It may be uncontroversial among left-
wing thinkers. But if we are to include the right side of the political spectrum, I think
those ideas would be controversial among conservatives, to say nothing
of libertarians.

Perhaps this illustrates why Hassoun, unlike me, believes that “many political
philosophers give arguments that start from relatively uncontroversial premises.” I do
not know what arguments or premises she has in mind, but if she has in mind
premises such as the propriety of government enforcement of positive rights, then I
would say she has a much lower standard for the “uncontroversial” than I do.

Be that as it may, the ability of government to aid the poor is one reason that may be
offered for preferring a governmental system over anarcho-capitalism. What is my
response to this? Two responses: First, though government has the power to help the
poor, it is not so clear that, if we have a government, it actually will, on balance, aid
the poor in the way progressives would like. It is not clear that even the best
governments in the world, which I take to be the liberal democracies, actually do more
to aid the global poor than they do to harm the global poor. (For discussion, see
Thomas Pogge’s World Poverty and Human Rights as well as Bryan Caplan’s last post in
this discussion.) Now, statists might respond, “Well, we just need to reform the
government.” What makes this response unsatisfying is that the reasons for the
failure of states to do what they are “supposed to” do lie not merely in bad luck or the
personalities of a few bad actors, but in the nature of the governmental system and
the incentive structure built into it. The U.S. government, for example, just has no
incentive to help the global poor.

Second response: the desire to aid the poor, worthy as that aim is, is not generally
taken, in common sense morality, as an adequate justification for coercion. You can’t
kidnap and imprison someone because they refused to donate to your anti-poverty
charity. This would generally be considered wrong. So I don’t see why the state should
be ethically entitled to behave in that manner. And I just do not see where Hassoun
has addressed this point. The following passage appears to be intended to address it:

Assigning the obligation to protect, promote, and fulfill rights to states may help
ensure that people can be free within states’ rules without failing in their moral
obligations. This may support the claim that states can legitimately do some things
that individuals cannot do—like tax people to support the poor.

But I do not see how this addresses the challenge I raised. Sure, if the state forces me
to give money to be used to aid the poor, then I can be free within the state’s rules,
without failing in my moral obligations (sc., my obligation to give to charity) – that’s
true simply because the state’s rules include a rule that I have to give over money for
charity. But it’s also true that, if my neighbor Joe forces me to give to charity, then I
can be free within Joe’s rules without failing in my moral obligation to give to charity. I
don’t see how any disanalogy between Joe and the state has been identified.

E. Miscellaneous Points

Point 1: The Authority of Corporations vs. the State

Hassoun worries about a perceived asymmetry between my view of the government’s


rights and the rights of corporations:

[T]he worry expressed in the sentence “If states lack the authority to protect rights, it
is not clear why Huemer thinks other agents can have this authority” was meant to
question the idea that corporations could (in principle) have the right to exercise a
monopoly on coercive force to protect property rights if states could not (in
principle) have this right. I do not see why, on Huemer’s theory, universal consent
would not justify a corporation in protecting everyone’s rights.

To clarify, I do not believe that corporations could, in any realistic circumstances, have
the right to exercise a coercive monopoly, any more than the state could (if a
“corporation” did so, I think it would just be a state). This is because universal consent
is completely unrealistic.

On the other hand, a state or a corporation could “in principle”—that is, in an


alternate possible world completely unlike our world—be entitled to exercise a
coercive monopoly, because there could, in this other world, be universal, informed
consent. So my argument against the social contract theory is not based on an ethical
disagreement with the traditional social contract theorists; it is simply based on the
empirical claim that no state actually has the kind of consent that it would need.

Point 2: Redistribution as a Condition for Consent

Hassoun argues that wealth redistribution might be needed to increase the state’s
legitimacy. Having heard her give this argument before, I believe the idea is roughly
this (she can correct me if this is wrong): in order for individuals to validly consent to
their political system, they must be reasonably well informed (at least about that
political system) and able to deliberate rationally about it. But a practical, causal
condition for this to happen is that they have some minimal level of welfare. So the
government has to bring everyone to that minimal level, if it is to secure valid
consent. Thus, some enforcement of welfare rights is required for the state to
be legitimate.

This is an interesting argument. However, I did not respond to it earlier because I do


not see that it is an argument against anything I’ve maintained. Recall my two central
theses: (1) no state has authority, (2) anarcho-capitalism is good. I don’t see that
Hassoun’s premises in the argument just sketched are incompatible with either of my
two central theses. I could agree that a state that establishes some social minimum is
less illegitimate than one that does not, while still maintaining that no state is
legitimate, and that anarcho-capitalism is superior to any governmental system.
(Compare: I think that beating someone up is less wrong than killing someone. But
both are wrong.)

But now what if I am wrong about anarcho capitalism being a good idea? Suppose
But now, what if I am wrong about anarcho-capitalism being a good idea? Suppose
someone can show that anarcho-capitalism would be disastrous. In that case, I would
say some minimal form of government would be justified. (Recall: this still would not
mean that it had “authority,” nor would there be “political legitimacy” or “political
obligation,” because the condition of content-independence would still not be
satisfied.) But now, under this assumption, would I say this “minimal” state should
establish some minimal social welfare programs?

Still, no. “What? Why not?” Well, establishing the social welfare programs might bring
the state closer to being legitimate, but they would not make it actually legitimate. The
state would still have no consent-based entitlement to coerce anyone, because it would
still lack universal consent from the coercees.

“Wait, then how come it could enforce people’s negative rights?” The entitlement of
the state to enforce people’s negative rights would have a consequentialist grounding,
not a consent-based grounding. The consequentialist grounding would work—
remember, under the hypothetical assumption that anarcho-capitalism would be
disastrous (which in fact I don’t agree with)—because the consequences of the state’s
failure to protect negative rights would generate societal disaster.

“But wait, then why couldn’t a consequentialist reason justify enforcing positive
rights?” Because the consequences of failure to enforce positive rights would not be
nearly as bad as the consequences of failure to enforce negative rights. In a libertarian
society, I have no doubt that some would be poor. But I think there would be few of
them and they would not be very poor (as are the poor living under
totalitarian regimes).

Now, I am aware of the twin deficiencies of this posting: it is too long, and yet it fails to
address every issue of import. But I thought it best to spend some time on the above
issues, hopefully with the effect of at least making those issues clearer and reducing
the tendency to talk past one another.

A Reply to Palmer and Caplan


By Nicole Hassoun
The Conversation
March 22, 2013

L
et me trace the strand of conversation back to the beginning: In my first
post, I worried that Huemer assumes, but does not justify, a controversial
L conception of property rights. He says Sam’s neighbors don’t have to give up
what they own to help the poor. But if people have rights (e.g.) against poverty,
property rights may be limited by these rights. Caplan said I seemed to reject negative
rights. I do not. I believe people can have property rights, which are traditionally
understood as negative rights, and I do not think we can murder people with
impunity either.

Caplan also said I am committed to addressing problems with the distribution of


property rights via individual (“personal”) action.[1] I am not. In fact, one of my main
points in the original post was that there may be a special role for states to address
rights violations justified in part out of a concern for individual freedom. Now Palmer
says I missed Caplan’s point because Caplan is concerned with what will work to
alleviate poverty. Palmer also explains what he thinks is necessary to alleviate
poverty. I am not impressed with the evidence either Caplan or Palmer provide for
their views about what will and will not alleviate poverty. (Although Palmer does
better than Caplan in this respect – graphs showing correlations do not establish
causation etc.).

That said, I hope the preceding summary of the state of the debate makes it clear that
an account of the causes of poverty was not what was at issue between Huemer and
me. So, although I am tempted to use this forum to talk about the causes of poverty
and what I think we can do about it, I will refrain. I have followed debates about these
issues in development economics pretty closely and I have written a lot about trade
and aid. But I do not think that this is the forum to discuss what causes poverty or
what we can do about it—there are many development economists with much more
expertise who should be asked to write on the topic if Cato is seriously committed to
having a rigorous academic debate about it. Let me just say that I never claimed, as
Palmer implies, that lack of property at the country level is a major cause of poor
individuals’ poverty. Nor do I suggest that corruption is not a problem. Rather, I think
we need to look at all of the factors that might reasonably impact poverty in a much
more rigorous way if we want to make progress on this issue. In my book, I discuss the
kind of evidence that we should appeal to in trying to establish empirical hypotheses
as well as some evidence that there are many good aid programs; see also my article
“Empirical Evidence and the Case for Foreign Aid.”

Palmer does address my argument when he suggests Lockeans need not accept my
claims about the limits of property rights. The point is fair enough. That said, I am not
convinced that the argument he imputes to Locke works, and my claim was only that,
on Nozick’s adaptation of Locke’s argument, property rights are limited in the way I
suggest (and believe is imminently plausible). The passage in Locke that Palmer cites
suggest (and believe is imminently plausible). The passage in Locke that Palmer cites
does not show that there will be enough for everyone. It may be true that property
rights encourage investments that generate more for people to purchase—but not
acquire for the first time—but it is hard to see how this helps the global poor who do
not have the money they need to purchase even the most basic necessities. Nozick’s
interpretation of the Lockean proviso is better. He gives something like the following
example: Suppose you have bought a well in the desert and all the other wells dry up.
Even if all the other wells dried up due to factors you could not control, you have to
offer water at a price others can afford. If some cannot afford to pay anything because
they have no property, wealth, or even labor to offer, you presumably have to offer
them the water for free. (Incidentally, Nozick’s theory is not plausible in restricting the
application of the proviso to things you have not created—he thinks pharmaceutical
companies can charge exorbitant prices for essential medicines they have created.
But, plausibly, on his interpretation, the proviso applies to goods that are not just
acquired for the first time.) In any case it is obvious that not everyone has enough in
our world when 18 million people die every year from easily preventable poverty-
related illnesses.

As far as Caplan’s most recent post—nothing I said in my original response commits


me to accepting the argument Caplan puts forward. That said, I do happen to think
that when governments fail individuals may have to find other ways to do their part
in helping the global poor – though they may not have to sacrifice everything to
do that.

Note

[1] I apologize to Caplan for quoting the wrong part of his essay on this point—though
I do not believe I misunderstood what he was saying and this should not affect the
content of my reply.

Making Progress?
By Nicole Hassoun
The Conversation
March 26, 2013

I
n reading Huemer’s initial reply to my comments, I also had the feeling that we
were, to some degree, talking past each other. But I believe we are now making
some progress.
Part of the problem appears to have been that Huemer was using terms in a technical
sense explained in the book but not in the article. So when he assumed I was giving
arguments intended to establish content-neutral obligations to obey the law, I did not
see why. I thought it was fairly clear that I was only talking about what would give a
state the right to exercise coercive force. This would be sufficient to undermine
anarchism if it is understood to include the claim that states have this right (whether
or not people have an obligation to obey).

I should explain, however, that my main argument was not that states can exercise
coercive force just because that allows people to be free under their rules. Rather, the
claim was that we need to work together—solve a collective action problem—to fulfill
positive rights. If states can help us do so efficiently (leave us free under their rules),
that provides some justification for their action. If this argument works, it is sufficient
to undermine the case against authority (at least in principle). Huemer is not
convinced that this is a good argument, but I am not convinced that he has given any
good reason to reject it. Moreover, I do not think he is right to suggest that
conservatives are generally against positive rights to aid—they generally think states
should help at least the deserving poor and probably also starving children in other
countries. The most recent president Bush certainly did a lot to help poor through
PEPFAR (though he also did a lot to harm poor people by, e.g., waging war in many
countries). In any case, I think the dialectic on what constitutes common sense is clear
enough so we can leave it at that.

I do not think the issue is what I think justifies authority (if anything)—it is about
whether Huemer’s arguments can show that authority is not justified. That said, I do
think it is an interesting question, and I am genuinely not sure what, if anything,
justifies authority even in principle—though I defend some necessary conditions for
legitimacy (understood just as a justification right to rule) in several papers and my
book and hold that legitimacy comes in degrees.

Now here is the interesting part: There is a strange move in Huemer’s work between
arguments about what is in fact the case and what should be the case. I think he has
things backwards.

Huemer argues that in fact there are no states with authority, but this is not at issue in
most political philosophy—so he’s not really arguing against the main theories of
political legitimacy—he is, at least at times, misconstruing them. The point of
suggesting his theory might have to deal with my argument against libertarianism
was this: There is an open question about what Huemer would say about what would
legitimate states in principle. If Huemer allows (as he seems to) that in principle
f
consent would justify authority, then he should agree that people have to be able to
consent and my argument will get a foothold. (Of course, he also needs to deny that in
principle consent would justify authority to reject libertarianism traditionally
understood.) His response to this argument is to suggest that states would not have to
be as legitimate as possible if they could not be fully legitimate. But states will violate
rights (that they could avoid violating by securing consent) if they are not as legitimate
as possible. Of course, they may also violate rights if they do whatever is necessary to
be as legitimate as possible. So libertarians have a problem (interested readers can
check out my book and articles on the topic). I’ll let this point go now, too, and just say
that I think Huemer should argue that even in principle consent would not
justify authority.

On the other hand, Huemer gives theoretical arguments about the prospects for
anarcho-capitalism where I think he should give empirical ones about these matters
of fact. His last post suggests that he thinks this is impossible because anarcho-
capitalism has never existed. I am not sure why he does not think there are examples
of anarcho-capitalist societies—Somalia certainly seems to lack a government, to have
organizations from which people can purchase protection, and to have a basically
capitalist economy. But even if there have never been any completely anarcho-
capitalist societies some are closer to anarcho-capitalism than others—so a regression
might be able to pick up correlations between features of such societies and whatever
else makes them good according to Huemer. (Less importantly, my off-hand remark
about Somalia wasn’t meant to suggest anything like the argument Huemer suggested
in his reply. I was taking a stab at the earlier Cato article he noted praising anarchy in
Somalia and amongst pirates. In my opinion, trying to make a case for anarchy by
comparing Somalia’s development pre- and post- war—and by praising pirates—just
makes Cato look bad. I just noted that even post-war Somalia is much worse than
average compared to other countries. I did not compare Somalia to the United States
as someone suggested in an earlier post.)

Finally, I think that Huemer should take my point about the importance of providing
empirical evidence to establish matters of fact where possible much more seriously
than he does in general. For instance, he asserts many empirical claims that are
important for responding to public goods arguments (e.g. about whether states or
anarcho-capitalism will in fact best help the poor). Although I understand that he
cannot really provide sufficient evidence to support these claims in a blog post, his
arguments should be appropriately qualified so that they are made contingent on the
empirical propositions he advocates turning out to be veridical or he should at least
cite some evidence. (Although I have not tried to answer the question of whether state
aid is generally helpful for the poor I examine empirical evidence regarding what
aid is generally helpful for the poor, I examine empirical evidence regarding what
actually helps the poor here: Empirical Evidence and the Case for Foreign Aid.
Incidentally, the programs I discuss are funded in part by states and international
organizations as well as by non-governmental entities.) It is true that if a strong case
could be made against state-funded aid and for the extremely implausible assumption
that anarcho-capitalism would be better for the poor, the particular right (to aid) that I
use as an example in my critique of Huemer’s argument is not a good one. Moreover, I
suppose Huemer could reply that to prove that his argument does not work in the way
I propose one would have to offer empirical evidence and that would be true enough.
Since, however, he is the one who is trying to argue against authority, I am not
entirely sure where the burden of proof should lie.

Response to Huemer on Authority and Hassoun on Poverty and


Redistribution of Property
By Tom G. Palmer
The Conversation
March 27, 2013

W
hat follow are my thoughts on two issues. First I consider Huemer’s
remarks on obligation, where I think he should revisit the issue of
whether a general dismissal of obligations to obey laws may have
negative consequences. Second I consider Hassoun’s remarks on poverty and whether
global inequalities justify coercive redistribution carried out by states, which I think
have, again, missed the mark.

Authority
Huemer writes “I can’t tell whether there is anyone in this conversation who actually
believes in authority. I know I don’t, and Bryan Caplan doesn’t. Tom Palmer
probably doesn’t.”

I’ll come clean on this one. I don’t believe that one has an obligation to obey unjust
laws. I recall having a casual discussion at an academic conference with a judge in
which the issue came up. I said that of course one is not obligated to obey an unjust
law, with suitable caveats, of course. He was authentically shocked and horrified. He
could not imagine such a stance and tried to cover for me by saying that, of course, if I
were to disobey an unjust law, I certainly would turn myself in and I would insist on
being punished. I thought the very idea absurd and asked if he had insisted on being
punished every time he had engaged in any illegal activity with his wife—that was at a
time that a wide variety of sexual acts were still officially criminalized. (I was quite
discreet in my language and did not mention anything in particular.) He got angry,
because of course he and his wife had broken a number of such laws, but he would
never think of turning himself in for punishment. It was an interesting experience to
meet someone with such a dramatically different view of obligations to the state.

So I do not believe in an obligation to obey unjust laws, and I do not believe in an


obligation to submit to the state (or anyone else, for that matter), but… I do have
concerns about some of Huemer’s arguments regarding whether we have obligations
to follow rules, independent of their content. In the sections of his book on “The
problem of individual redundancy,” “Rule consequentialism” and “Fairness” (pp. 84–
88) he argues against a general obligation to obey rules that, if generally flouted or
disobeyed, would lead to generally bad consequences. He argues against an individual
obligation to obey the rules laid down by the state as follows:

It is plausible that there is some level of disobedience that would cause a


governmental collapse. But as long as we are far from that level, any given
individual can disobey with no consequences for the survival of government.[1]

Moreover, “while governmental functioning requires obedience, there are already


more than enough people obeying the law so that the government is in no danger of
collapsing if you disobey. These other people will continue to obey whether you obey
or not.”[2]

That argument troubles me. In my general experience, there seems to be a connection


between disobeying idiotic rules and then disobeying all sorts of rules, idiotic or not.
For most people, it’s not so easy to distinguish between unjust laws or rules and just
laws or rules, that is, those that would be just independently of who articulated or
enforced them. I lived in Vienna a few decades ago and found a rather high degree
then (it’s since improved greatly) of predatory and cheating behavior, because there
was so much idiotic bureaucracy that it was the only way to get through your life. In
really socialist countries (for example, in the USSR, Poland, Bulgaria, or
Czechoslovakia) I found an astonishing degree of, shall we say, moral laxness when it
came to cutting ethical corners. Everyone cheated and lied all the time, so… people
asked, what’s the problem with breaking rules? I learned that there are additional
good reasons not to have lots of confusing, stupid, and difficult-to-comply-with
requirements in the legal system, besides the harm of those rules taken individually.
Cheating, shirking, and evading tend to be contagious; when they grow, they tend to
infect more areas than the morally scrupulous might predict
infect more areas than the morally scrupulous might predict.

Thus a general lack of an obligation to obey all the rules, or even an encouragement to
do so, is inferior to an attempt to secure better, or less onerous, or less stupid rules.
Rather than promoting the idea that we are not obligated to obey rules (just because
the state said that they are rules), I think a more promising route to freedom and
justice may be to focus on replacing stupid, unjust, or idiotic laws, rules, and
regulations with better ones, and to do so within a general culture of rule following
and not shirking obligations.

Huemer does offer a very smart retort to defenders of state authority that I endorse
wholeheartedly, but it might suggest support for constitutionally limited government
rather than the orderly statelessness he prefers.

If disobedience to any law risks causing a collapse of social order, then the state, in
making laws that are not necessary to maintaining social order and that are likely to
be widely disobeyed, is itself threatening social order far more than a single
individual who disobeys one of these laws. Furthermore, asking the state to
renounce its desire to make such unnecessary laws is more reasonable and less
onerous than asking an individual to renounce his personal liberties. Therefore, if
one holds that the individual nevertheless must obey such laws when they are made,
it is much clearer that the state must not make such laws. And thus, one cannot
simultaneously defend political obligation and political legitimacy on this view.[3]

I agree. But even if legitimacy may fall away, some obligation to the rules as such, just
because they are rules, may still remain.

Poverty: Unequal Distribution of Property or Liberty?


The foreign aid that Hassoun supports, which is collected coercively by states and
distributed in most cases to states as well, may very well be a hindrance to wealth
creation. People in poor countries are poor because they have low incomes; they have
low incomes because they produce very little value; they produce very little value
because they are restricted from doing so by kleptocratic, corrupt, tyrannical, and
destructive governments, most of which have been recipients of huge sums of foreign
aid. The fact that they are has made those governments even less accountable than
they would otherwise be to their people. I agree that we cannot hash such matters out
in this forum, but I’d note that in her paper that Hassoun cites the fundamental
question being discussed is how harmful aid has been; Hassoun wants to make a case
for “some kinds of aid.” It’s a pretty weak case. (That said, I do support with my own
money a variety of forms of aid, but I’ve seen on the ground in poor countries too
much evidence of the destructive effect of the development aid bureaucracy. It’s a
racket that enriches aid workers and does little of value for the poor.) In another
paper, “Free Trade, Poverty, and Inequality,” Hassoun makes the case that income
measurements using Purchasing Power Parity may underestimate the degree of
poverty (“the most common PPP measures make it seem like the poor are doing better
than they actually are”), but she doesn’t really make a case that they are generally
becoming poorer. (It’s worth noting the contrary arguments from the Oxford Poverty
and Human Development Initiative, which shows that when measured by
consumption, rather than monetary income, poverty declined even faster than
was thought.)

She then focuses attention in her paper, not on poverty, but on inequality. She
characterizes changes in inequality among nations in a rather interesting way: “If, for
instance, developed countries are getting richer while developing countries are
getting poorer, international inequality is increasing.” Well, yes, but inequality could
also increase if developed countries got richer while at the same time—and even at a
faster rate—developing countries got richer. If a poor country were to go from $1,600
per capita GDP to $2,000 per capita GDP, it would be a very big change of 25%, and
that would almost certainly represent a quite significant decline in poverty. If a rich
country were to go from $35,000 per capita GDP to $35,500 per capita GDP, it would
represent a rather smaller increase of about 1.4%. Still, the income gap between the
two countries would have grown by $100; inequality would have increased, although
both countries’ wealth would have improved. Hassoun’s suggestion that global
inequality is driven by rising poverty (“developed countries are getting richer while
developing countries are getting poorer”) really distorts the picture. That is simply not
the case. After that suggestion of rising, rather than falling, poverty, the rest of the
paper focuses on inequality, rather than on poverty. So we are led to believe that
poverty is rising, when in fact it is falling, because she confuses poverty with the issue
of inequality. Well, which is important? Inequality or the actual experience of
suffering? (I address the literature on poverty from within the liberal tradition in
“Poverty, Morality, and Liberty,” an essay originally published in this book and
reprinted in the book After the Welfare State, available as a PDF.)

So how does this relate to the issue of property? The “right of necessity” that Grotius
and his followers invoked[4] might be invoked for extreme want, but not for mere
inequality, and it would not be likely to justify the kinds of foreign aid that we have
seen fail for decades. We know what will raise incomes, and it’s not foreign aid
bureaucracies. If economic growth is fueled mainly by the innovations made possible
by economic freedom, as Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, William Easterly, and a large
number of economic historians rather convincingly argue, then that seems a rather
better path to take toward alleviating poverty. (The simple correlations between
economic freedom and a wide array of positive benefits that I offered from the
Economic Freedom of the World Report are dismissed a bit quickly by Hassoun on the
grounds that correlation is not causation; the likelihood that nations first become rich
through some other method, say, by receiving foreign aid, and then adopt economic
liberalism is not that likely, and is testable against the historical evidence.)

But to return to the issue of property, the inequalities of which she has identified as
the cause of poverty. Hassoun wrote, “the current distribution of property rights
globally is very unjust because it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs.” That
seems pretty straightforward. Some people have only a little, leaving them unable to
meet their basic needs, because others have much. There couldn’t be a bolder
misstatement of the problem. It’s the lack of liberty that is very unjust; in addition to
being unjust, it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs. The prosperity of one
group need not be the cause of the poverty of another; the distinction between
profiting from creating value and profiting from looting should be clear. The evidence
is that the wealth of the people of Luxembourg did not come from looting Mongolia or
Burkina Faso or Bangladesh. In fact, if it were a matter of “property” imbalances
alone, Hassoun should support forcing the poor people in “resource rich” countries to
compensate the rest for the mismanagement of those resources.[5]

The last words of this report on the BBC regarding the coup d’état in the Central
African Republic should tell us something:

CAR, which has a population of about 4.5 million, has been hit by a series of
rebellions since independence from France in 1960. It is one of the poorest countries
in Africa, despite its considerable mineral resources.

That said, I’ll leave the issue of development economics aside. It would be nice to focus
on what Michael Huemer wrote in his book.

Notes
[1] Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2013), p. 84.
[2] Ibid., p. 85.
[3] Ibid., p. 91.
[4] See for an interesting and rather controversial treatment of the right of necessity
Thomas A. Horne, Property Rights and Poverty: Political Argument in Britain, 1605–
p y g y g
1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
[5] Imagine assessing a property tax based, not on current use, but as with
contemporary land taxes, on its potential use in producing income. The poor people of
Zaire and the Central African Republic would end up owing a lot of money to the
people of resource-poor Luxembourg.

Three Notes on Positive Rights


By Michael Huemer
The Conversation
March 28, 2013

T
hree brief notes on positive rights and the argument for the state:
I.
In my last post, I questioned whether even the best governments do more to
aid the global poor than to harm them. Hassoun points to empirical evidence
regarding the efficacy of some kinds of foreign aid programs. This might be an
effective response to a minimal statist who wants to have a government but no foreign
aid programs.

But it doesn’t address the anarchist. My doubt concerns whether the activities of
government (say, the government of some typical liberal democracy) overall, taking
into account all of its policies, tend to help or harm the global poor. If the government
does a little bit to help the poor, but a lot more to harm them, then it is difficult to
appeal to the plight of the poor in defense of government.

It seems to me plausible that that is the case. One could point to trade restrictions,
immigration restrictions, economic and military support for oppressive regimes, and
so on. Governments of wealthy nations tend to cater to the prejudices of the domestic
public as well as wealthy and powerful domestic special interest groups, at the
expense of the foreign poor.

Nor is this an accident. When a society has an established central authority structure,
it is not accidental that that apparatus comes under the control of the wealthy and
powerful members of that society, who use it to increase their own wealth and power.
Only in a utopian world would this not occur.

II.
I don’t think that my original argument, appealing to the hypothetical scenario of Sam
th h it bl t ti i t dd d If I d t dh H l i
the charitable extortionist, was ever addressed. If I understand her, Hassoun claims
that government coercion is justified because the government can efficiently help us
fulfill our positive duties, especially to aid the poor. I still don’t see any relevant
disanalogy to Sam. Why can’t Sam claim that he is efficiently helping his victims fulfill
their positive duties to aid the poor?

III.
The burden of proof: given the general principle of the presumption against coercion,
the burden of proof rests on the person who advocates a particular form of coercion.
That party must provide a compelling justification for the resort to force. In the case of
a consequentialist argument for coercion, the advocate must show that the coercion
has large expected net benefits.

A Few Final Remarks on Huemer and Palmer


By Nicole Hassoun
The Conversation
March 29, 2013

I
have just a few thoughts on Huemer’s latest reply: Even if he is right that states
harm the poor more than they help them, it is not clear that, with so much at
stake, we should reject all authority rather than consider alternative ways of
modifying authoritarian institutions. More importantly, my example of a right against
poverty is just an example of the rights states might protect. Second, there is little
reason to think that capitalist corporations will do a better job of protecting the rights
of those who lack resources to purchase protection than states. Finally, whether they
(or Sam) can claim to efficiently address these rights depends on what is meant by
“efficiency.” Sam might help a few people efficiently but not generally help the poor in
the way states can help them—by solving large scale collective actions problems.

I have some more extensive thoughts on Palmer’s last post: Although I said that I do
not think this is really the forum to talk about the details of my work on aid or
poverty, I do want to say a few things to set the record straight since Palmer has been
kind enough to take the time to look at some of my papers on the topic.

First, in my paper on aid and empirical evidence I not only talk about experimental
studies of particular programs’ impacts (and suggest that this is generally the best
evidence for establishing micro-level hypotheses as experimental studies have high
internal validity), I also talk about some of the best macro level data that suggests
many kinds of aid in general reduce poverty Perhaps the best serious academic
many kinds of aid in general reduce poverty. Perhaps the best serious academic
review of this evidence is here: On the Empirics of Foreign Aid and Growth . If Palmer
is not convinced by this review, perhaps he should take the time to publish a paper
explaining where it goes wrong in a peer reviewed journal.

Second, I believe he needs to offer hard evidence to establish his empirical


presuppositions, for example, “People in poor countries are poor because they have
low incomes; they have low incomes because they produce very little value etc.”
Likewise, there is no way Palmer should be able to conclude from the mismanagement
he’s seen in a few aid programs that in general “It’s a racket that enriches aid workers
and does little of value for the poor.”

Third, I do not confuse poverty and inequality in my paper “Poverty, Inequality, and
Free Trade” or suggest that inequality causes poverty—I just talk about both poverty
and inequality (as well as free trade). Nor can Palmer conclude from the following
sentence in my reply to his last post—“the current distribution of property rights
globally is very unjust because it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs”—that
I believe some people are poor because others are rich. Neither that sentence nor any
of my published work suggests that inequality causes poverty.

Fourth, on trends in poverty and inequality: Palmer is right that inequality could be
increasing for many reasons and that increasing poverty is only one such reason – I
make that point in the article. I also survey some of the most rigorous evidence
regarding the causes of inequality and argue that inequality may be increasing in part
because the poor are getting poorer. Nothing he says addresses my argument (in part
because the problems with PPP measures affect estimates of inequality as well
as poverty).

Fifth, not only does correlation not prove causation but what has happened in the past
may not happen in the future and, even if it is generally the case that liberty promotes
growth, we should not let people starve if there is something we can do to help them,
even if that requires restricting liberty a bit.

Sixth, it seems Palmer might accept my last point (and even my argument against
Huemer) if he agreed that aid in general worked, but even if only some kinds of aid
work, I do not see why he would resist giving such aid (and I think that if he took a
serious look at the empirical evidence he should agree that states can at least do some
good with aid). Some interferences with liberty may let us help the poor even if liberty
in general is good for poverty reduction.

Seventh, Palmer misconstrues my argument against Huemer when he says: “The ‘right
of necessity’ that Grotius and his followers invoked might be invoked for extreme
of necessity’ that Grotius and his followers invoked might be invoked for extreme
want, but not for mere inequality.” I was not talking about inequality. I was talking
about poverty.

Eighth, I don’t talk about resources or the resource curse at length in any of my work.
So I do not think Palmer should conclude anything about what I would or would not
say about the topic.

Finally, I do have some proposals that libertarians might like for addressing global
poverty. One of these is here: http://academicsstand.org/projects/global-health-impact-
project/. If my work on poverty is of interest to libertarians perhaps it would be worth
having a discussion on the topic in a future issue of Cato Unbound.

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