Category Archives: Problem of Political Authority

There is no spoon.

Proper Foreign Policy

Each citizen, Smith, ruled by any state S should demand as a matter of ideology unconditional foreign policy pacifism on the part of S. There shall be, he should insist, no standing military forces of any kind, nor should the state defend itself against any foreign aggression.

Let now some state T led by ruthless dictator Jones invade, decapitate the S's chief, install Jones as ruler, and bring foreign mercenaries as the new military.

No "defense" should be attempted. Still less ought Smith to be conscripted by S to defend S and the existing ruler. S's price of power is precisely its vulnerability to be conquered.

Instead, Smith, when things settle down, and T gets down to the daily grind of governing, even if perhaps with a heavier hand, should continue influencing the new government, T and Jones in particular, toward complete pacifism, disarmament, and retrenchment.

Whither Punishment?

A particularly interesting part of Huemer's book is his discussion of restitution and punishment. He points out that "it is thought that society as a whole benefits from this practice because it... deters others from entering a life of crime." And he follows Rothbard in (1) finding it absurd that taxpayers are forced to pay the costs of incarceration and (2) believing that "a thief, for example, would have to pay back significantly more than the value of what he stole. This would provide a deterrent to crime." (272ff) Rothbard affirms the necessity of punishment but argues that punishment beyond pure restitution, the 2nd tooth of the criminal for the victim's tooth should be forced labor to profit the victim.

I don't like this. The criminal law is not a means for victims to enrich themselves. They are owed restitution, not any further spoils of victimhood. We don't need any extra incentives to alleged victims for frivolous lawsuits. In addition, forced slave labor is very inefficient and cannot realistically be used to provide restitution.

Huemer has another argument up his sleeve. Prisons are

regularly overcrowded, and inmates live in danger of gang violence, rape by other prisoners, beatings from guards and other prisoners, and other forms of abuse. ... In recent years, the use of solitary confinement has become increasingly common, a practice that leads to mental deterioration on the part of the prisoner and higher rates of recidivism once the convict is released. ...

Some observers have argued that incarceration not only fails to rehabilitate criminals but actually renders them more dangerous when released than they were when they entered. ... Some have gone so far as to suggest that incarceration may cause more crime than it prevents. (283-4)

If true, this condemns imprisonment as a form of punishment. But it cannot eliminate the need for punishment altogether. Consider even a basic civil dispute. Unlike a criminal case, there is a genuine uncertainty as to which party is right. Smith the tenant claims that Jones the landlord owes him his security deposit. Jones disagrees. They go before a judge who rules in Smith's favor. Yet Jones refuses to pay. The civil case has now transmogrified into a criminal case, where Jones with a malicious intent has stolen Smith's money. Another judge orders Jones to be fined. Jones ignores it. Judge #3 issues a warrant for Jones' arrest. And so on the sanctions are ratcheted up, until the cops physically restrain Jones and punish him somehow. If imprisonment fails as an adequate punishment, then perhaps Jones should be beaten or put into stocks or something else. But punishment remains the state's sole prerogative and its ultimate power.

I therefore still think that there must be a single authority endowed with an irresistible power to punish offenders, and that is what we call the "state."

Unworkability of Anarcho-Capitalism

The most obvious problem with the "protection agencies" version of free market anarchism in Huemer is that it merely pushes the main problem up one level without solving it. Let there be in a certain stateless city X 1 million people. This situation is presumably intolerable because of the endless mutual slaughter and destruction, a Hobbesian war of all against all. Huemer argues that private protection agencies will arise to provide security to the populace. Let there now be in addition in X 1 thousand such agencies. Assuming that reign of chaos between the individuals is prevented, why wouldn't there continue to be the exact same orgy of mass murder and looting between the agencies? Huemer is apparently content with the argument that violence is "costly." But if it is costly, then why do we need the protection agencies in the first place? The individuals, too, should realize the cost to them of unjust violence and abstain from it without any protection by bigger and more powerful organizations.

If violence is costly, then we don't need protection agencies; if violence is often profitable, then we should expect the protection agencies in engage in violence -- both against each other and against their "customers" -- at least as often as the unprotected individuals would.

Government makes for a qualitatively different situation. The objection is not that violence ought not to be traded; the situation of Smith's hiring Jones to assassinate Robinson is no worse than that of Smith's doing the dirty deed himself. Cops are paid for their services, too, after all. It is that society as a whole cannot dispense with commissioning an agency of coercion and compulsion that is more powerful than any identifiable subgroup within that society, including Smith and Jones, except the society as a whole or its representatives. The government can crush with ease any person or organization within its jurisdiction. The problem of mutual battling, whether of millions of individuals or of thousands of gangs, is nipped in the bud. The problem of preventing the government from aggressing against the people, of course, remains. In Chapter 9, Huemer considers the various devices for controlling state aggression, such as "popular elections, a free press, constitutional limits, and the separation of powers," (228) and finds them lacking. He is right about that, but the issue comes down to libertarian ideology and decentralization which together can largely defang the state.

Protection agencies anarchism creates yet another problem: the unjust aggression of the agencies against their own customers. The customers of a protection agency will have trouble uniting and defending against their own protectors, if the agency starts preying on them as individuals. An individual does not choose an agency to protect him, as if it were an insurance company; rather, the agency chooses individuals to victimize. Smith cannot say: you people of P, Inc. are robbers; I am switching to Q, Inc. Q will not care to protect him; it will evaluate whether P is strong enough to retain Smith as a victim, a sheep that it exploits. If P seems powerful, then Q will be uninterested in dealing with Smith in any capacity; otherwise, Q may try to conquer P and take the spoils of war, namely, Smith as a serf, especially if Smith is a young woman, for itself.

If agency A is able to harm Smith justly, such as by punishing him appropriately for a crime, then it is also able to harm him unjustly. Conversely, if A cannot harm Smith unjustly (such as because he is protected by agency B), then it will lack the power to harm him justly, as well. A local libertarian government, on the other hand, can harm Smith justly but is for the most part restricted by various clever tricks from harming him unjustly. A protection agency, as a private business, is answerable solely to its owners not the commonwealth or the legislative branch of the government. As one of the toughest firms out there, unless restrained by the entire citizen body, it will be able to use unjust violence against anyone with impunity while keeping its owners safe against any retaliation. In the end, the biggest and baddest gangs will wreak havoc over all the land, and the long struggle against tyranny and for freedom will begin again... from the very beginning.

Huemer believes that "competition" will discipline the agencies in the absence of the artifices of limiting government. But the competition is precisely the original state of nature. We are trying to get out of it, which means we cannot simply up and define it as adequate.

There is a further difficulty. Even if the police by their very nature are a monopoly, it is at this point still conceivable that several companies will be competing to protect a community. But there are two problems with this. First, a big business able to protect two hundred towns will be far too powerful to be controlled by any one town. Such a business would be essentially an army, able (and likely willing) to overpower any municipality. Second, it seems to be a great deal more efficient, instead of firing one entire police force and hiring a brand new one, simply to hold regular elections of the mayor who will then have the mandate to implement whatever reforms of police procedures are desired by the people. For example, the new mayor may forbid hiring ex-military.

There is still the possibility of letting people voluntarily "subscribe" to police enforcement services or withhold their patronage. The subscribers can call upon the police to enforce arbitration decision that have been made in their favor; the non-subscribers are out of luck, because private uses of violence cannot be tolerated, lest there would be endless outbreaks of private wars. (The whole point of monopoly policing is to suppress such wars by threatening to crush the would-be warriors with overwhelming force.) A market is thereby created in the place of a government-provided service, seemingly a happy development. But there are complications that seriously devalue this market.

First, subscriptions produce positive externalities: the more people subscribe without the criminals knowing exactly who is and who is not subscribed, the greater the deterrence effect will be. It is somewhat like concealed carry: every subscription helps one's neighbor by creating uncertainty in the criminal's mind. This might be a case for subsidizing police subscriptions, if we were not dealing with the problem precisely of funding the police in the first place and assuming that the government collects pretty much no taxes for anything else.

Second, specifically for criminal cases, the district attorney obviously has his own "subscription" and can file a complaint of his own. But no particular individual but society as a whole benefits from punishments administered (as opposed to restitutions or civil lawsuits won). The benefit of any actual punishment now is the public and visible reinforcement of the threat of punishment to future potential evildoers who, seeing the efficiency of the state at punishing crimes, are deterred from injustice through servile fear. This creates a presumption for public financing of criminal prosecutions.

Third, as a matter of common sense, it is absurd to cut oneself off from the justice system by refusing to subscribe. Anyone can prey on such a person, and he will not be able to get his verdicts enforced for him. He is almost an outlaw.

Therefore, most communities decide to solve these problems with one stroke by insuring everybody and requiring universal subscriptions. There is admittedly some coercion involved, but it is minimal, and the benefits seem to outweigh the costs. The contradiction is real and unfortunate; but let justice be done unless the heavens fall.

Welfare State vs. Drowning Child

I describe and analyze the Drowning Child case in the previous post. Huemer proceeds to make the following distinctions between that and welfare statism which he dubs "Charity Mugging":

a) In the Charity Mugging, the problem you seek to address is a chronic social condition, whereas in the Drowning Child, the problem is an acute emergency. ...

b) In the Drowning Child case, one can easily and quickly solve the problem, whereas in the Charity Mugging case, one can realistically hope only to alleviate the problem.

c) In the Drowning Child case, the coercion required to address the problem is a one-time intervention, whereas in the Charity Mugging, it is an ongoing program of coercion. (155)

He adds in a footnote that Peter Unger objects to (a) that the only difference is that the victims of a "chronic problem" "have been suffering for a longer time; but this surely cannot lessen the reasons for helping victims of chronic problems." (156n)

As it happens, I discuss this problem in my book. The requisite passages are below.


Utilitarians like Peter Unger who harp on our alleged duties to the poor in faraway lands fail to grasp the details of their own moral theory. For the demands of utilitarianism are hierarchical. At the base lies the prescription to make a society (or the world as a whole) as efficient as possible. There are very few truly needy in rich and successful societies.

The second tier is private charity, voluntarily discharged duties to help the poor, the widows and orphans, the church, and suchlike. The reason why there is a lexicographical priority is that it is worse than useless to throw charitable donations into a society that cannot but remain poor because of its abhorrence of capitalism. First, the citizens must learn economics and cooperate according to its teachings. Only then, with respect to abandoned infants, the incapacitated, and so on, will charity play its indispensable role. One must first teach the vast majority to fish and give fish only to those who cannot produce.

A reply to Unger's Living High and Letting Die then is that unless the poor countries put themselves together and on their own eliminate poverty for the general population, flooding them with foreign aid or charitable donations is futile. If we want to help, then we should send them economics teachers who will explain to them what's what. Only once laissez-faire capitalism is accepted and implemented, and the standard of living is rising rapidly, will it make sense to care for the sick, the dying, and so on. When the masses are dying from hunger or live on the brink of starvation or barely subsisting, there can be no talk about helping the few deserving poor, because everyone is poor.

Again, what "they" need is not charity but a solid grounding in economics and libertarianism. It is contrary to utilitarianism for the failed nations to leech off the successful ones: must not "they" cooperate with "us" honestly? Paying people for not producing diminishes overall wealth and happiness. Unger postulates second-tier duties to "us," while forgetting about first-tier duties to "them." If it is objected that they cannot in principle help themselves, then I reply that in that case, they for all intents and purposes are not human, and we have no duty to feed them, just as we have no duty to feed wild animals.

I agree that it is a scandal that many people in Third World countries are malnourished. But "we" are not responsible for that. Left-liberals, for all their coercive "compassion," think that the Africans, etc. are an embarrassment to humanity. In a way, they are right: it is their flaws that cause their poverty. That does not mean that we should be treating them as subhumans who (we have decided) cannot take care of themselves.

Not only does acting on our alleged second-tier duties tempt them to violate their first-tier duties, but if the latter were fulfilled, then the former might disappear entirely, because the givers, "we," in Unger's cases, are too far away which violates the subsidiary principle which may have some authority even for a utilitarian. Why should an American help the beggars in Africa and not someone closer to them by location, kinship, language, etc.? It should not be a "burden" to be a "white man." ...

The third tier is paternalism. If everything fails, and a person's powers incline to evil, then those powers must be temporarily taken away, until such time when he will learn to use them responsibly.

Thus, taking what seems to me everything in account, utilitarianism is promoted by (1) a social system of efficient laws which create such incentives as to make individual profit and the good of society (or common good) to harmonize with each other, i.e., making society prudent; (2) teaching people how to succeed in their personal undertakings, i.e., making individuals prudent within that prudent society; and (3) prescribing certain limited, imperfect in the Kantian sense, and voluntarily discharged duties, such as helping the poor or donating to the church, that redistribute resources within the social values scale (insofar as love of friendship entails merging of the values scales of the lovers) to satisfy the most urgent needs, i.e., remedying situations in which the prudence of an individual fails through no fault of his own (essentially bad luck). (SAtK, I, 42)


Regarding (a), it is plain that the chronic problem of the poor's poverty is a normal, settled, and expected state of affairs. An acute emergency on the contrary is a significant disturbance in the regular course of life. Moreover, the poor bear full responsibility for their contemptible (allegedly chronic) poverty and remain the very people who must through their own efforts lift themselves up. An acute emergency is different in that without further details we assume that the drowning child is in grave danger to his life through no fault of his own. For example, the situation would be relevantly different if we knew that the same child insisted on drowning himself anew every day.

In addition, "poverty" is not the same as an imminent threat to life. As I argue in a brief discussion of rescues, "Even if a person is seriously disabled and has no one who loves him to care for him, a charitable organization is by the nature of its mission not obligated to do more than sustain his physical life. It is not required to feed him pomegranate juice."

This brings us to point (b).

What explains the fact that the Starving African Adults continue having Starving African Children? Are they crazy? Are they really animals? Regardless, feeding the Starving Children through "charity" will soon enough result in more of them. Surely, the givers would be perfectly justified in this case in imposing strict population control measures upon the Africans up to and including mass sterilizations. But this sort of treatment is inhuman according to natural morality and disgusting according to Christian morality. Whites and blacks are, after all, members of the same species. The extreme separation between the human whites and subhuman blacks cannot be sustained in the longer run. "Charity" does nothing to narrow the gap in dignity and honor between the races.

Thus, feeding a Starving Child indeed "alleviates" the problem and only for a few hours. The child appears to have no parents who will care for him, or if he does, then they, too, are starving. The entire operation is a massive exercise in futility.

Point (c) follows.

Unger claims that utilitarianism commands "us" to enslave ourselves -- and our posterity -- for the rest of our lives to foreign wretches, to some insatiable maw that devours resources without even bothering to utter "thanks." "We" must allegedly sacrifice our own lives and ends to serve the dark Starving African demon-god. I think any reasonable man will reject this outrageous demand. Nor does utilitarianism mandate or recommend it.

In short, the welfare state is nonsense.

Anarchist Concedes to Statism

Huemer argues that "given the presumption against coercion, the [antipoverty] programs are justified only if it is clear that they have a net positive expected benefit." (152)

At first glance, it is strange that after much excellent rights-based dissection of government actions, our author up and throws deontology out the window, saying apparently that any "net benefit" of an unjust government policy beats the prohibition of committing injustices and is permissible (or even required).

The subtlety is that his view is based on his analysis of a particular moral dilemma:

Imagine that you are passing by a pond where you see a drowning child. If you can save the child at slight cost to yourself, then it would be wrong not to do so. ...

But now imagine that for whatever reason, you are unable to save the child in the pond yourself. There is, however, another bystander who could save the child at slight cost to herself.

This individual, however, does not care enough about the child to do so voluntarily. The only way to cause the child to be saved is to threaten the bystander with violence unless she saves the child. You do so, and she saves the child.

Call this the Drowning Child case. In this case, regrettable as the resort to coercion may be, it seems justified. (149)

First, as I argued before, this conclusion depends on accepting Christian as versus natural morality, a fact which in itself may threaten the conclusion's validity, since Huemer's book is fully secular and does not deal with religious commandments at all. Our intuitions have been shaped by two thousand years of Christianity, but unless nature and grace are thoroughly distinguished, proper grasp of these issues will elude us.

Second, even within Christian morality, the threshold to be used in the exchange of justice for welfare is personal and subjective. I need not feel that coercion is justified in the Drowning Child case, even if the author feels it is. Admittedly, this isn't an important critique, since the desired conclusion can be reached for most people simply by increasing the number drowning children in the pond that can all be rescued simultaneously to, say, a million.

Third, the scenario assumes that "I" am a good and holy Christian (or at least Samaritan), while the bystander is a callous and wicked man. He may even know his duty full well but rejects it with contemptuous pride. Fine. But does the analogy really transfer to the welfare state? Is it the case that the congressmen who coercively impose taxes are God-fearing saints while the people are ruthless hard-hearted egotists? The benevolent authorities must crush the people's selfishness and have sweet mercy on the poor. The people deserve to be beaten with many blows until they accept the state's graces.

This understanding is hard to square with Huemer's previous note, already quoted below, that "institutions of political authority" were the essential means through which monstrous crimes against humanity "have been carried out, accounting for tens of millions of deaths, along with many more ruined lives." (109) Suddenly he deems the bombing class compassionate and eager to help the workers and the peasants?

Fourth, even if it were so, and the people were generally marked with consuming selfishness, I have argued that tax-forcing charitable donations from them defeats the purpose of charitable giving, which is to increase the charitable feelings in men's hearts and ultimately to unite mankind with love. The government rules through fear of punishment alone, which almost entirely disqualifies it as any sort of grace-giver.

Fifth, as we will see later, Huemer himself, as I do as well, makes cogent distinctions between a one-time rescue of a person from a life-threatening situation by a friendly individual and lavish permanent welfare by a tax-eating state.

Argument for “Redistribution” from “Marginal Utility”

Huemer writes:

There is a simple and well-known argument that antipoverty programs are overall beneficial: antipoverty programs redistribute money from wealthier people to poorer people. According to the well-known principle of diminishing marginal utility of money, a given quantity of money will usually give more benefit to a poorer person than to a wealthier person... (150)

This is entirely false, and I refute this argument adequately in my book. Let me cut-and-past it again here.

The confusion between wealth and income may be the basis of a fallacious argument for progressive taxation from utility analysis. It is argued that a rich man benefits less from a marginal dollar than a poor man. To rob the former of $1,000 would be harming him less than so to rob to latter.

Now the argument is unscientific for two reasons: first, it depends on interpersonal comparisons of utility; second, it neglects the utility to people of money. We might argue that a rich person is rich precisely because he attaches higher utility to money and has devoted more effort to obtaining it.

Even if we let these slide, however, the argument works for wealth, i.e., if we expropriate and distribute existing fortunes.

It leads to the opposite conclusion, namely, regressive taxation, in the case of income.

For a rich man presumably benefits "little" from an extra $1,000 of money income added to his net worth, and a poor man benefits "a lot." Surely, a panhandler on the street will glow with joy upon receiving one grand; the same amount will leave a modern-day Croesus unperturbed. In order to equalize these marginal utilities, we would need to take away most of the poor man's wage and leave most of the rich man's in his hands.

Progressive income taxation does not equalize total utilities, because "net worth" and "rate of increase of net worth via an income stream" are completely different variables; and it does not equalize marginal utilities for the reasons just stated. Hence, the argument fails.

But "redistributive" taxation is almost never on wealth but usually on income. In fact then, there is no utilitarian argument for looting anyone from "diminishing marginal utility."

Note that in this case, there is no difference between the "humanitarian" and "egalitarian" approaches. (148-9) This is because this argument, if it were sensible, would insist that total utility is maximized precisely when everyone's net worths are equal.

Morality: Case of the Reluctant Superman

Suppose that Metropolis is in grave danger of being totally destroyed, say by a meteorite careening down toward it from space. For whatever reason, Superman refuses to save it. I am in a position credibly to tell him: "You son of a bitch! Either you save the city or I'll kill Lois Lane." Am I justified / permitted / required to do that?

For natural morality, we must assume that I do not love the citizens of Metropolis with any special love as myself. It is admitted, however, that I may prefer the city spared so that society and the free market are not damaged and production is not curtailed, which would make me, as a participant in the economy, somewhat poorer.

Natural deontology forbids me to coerce Superman, because I am not allowed to commit an injustice for any personal gain.

Natural utilitarianism enjoins me not to make things worse, but it does not command me to make them better. Therefore, I am not required to bring about the great good of the salvation of Metropolis. I am permitted to walk away with indifference. I am not responsible for the threat to the city, and I am not anyone's keeper.

Deontology then prohibits coercing Superman, and consequentialism does not require me to coerce him. On the whole, coercion is not permitted, and I ought to let the city perish.

Christian deontology similarly forbids unjust coercion, such as threatening an innocent girl with death, in fact even more stringently, since we contrast with hatred not benign indifference but love.

But Christian utilitarianism now bids me to create good, to improve the world, and in particular to avert great evils. Saving Metropolis certainly qualifies as a huge work of mercy. I am now morally required to force the reluctant Superman to act.

The two approaches seriously conflict with each other. To resolve the conflict, we may invoke threshold deontology. Again, it seems to me that each person needs to establish his own personal thresholds upon some serious reflection and soul-searching and then act accordingly with single-minded confidence. In this case, for me, the greater good brought about is high above the threshold for coercing Superman. Consequentialism takes over, and on the whole, Christian morality compels me to threaten Lois Lane.

Natural vs. Christian Morality

The main natural deontological precept says: "Do not hate your fellow man or through that hatred, injure him unjustly."

Thus, do not murder or steal.

The natural consequentialist precept says: "Do not, through your actions, make things on the whole worse."

Thus, don't be a welfarite, develop your talents, contribute to society within the free market as a productive member thereof (and be compensated accordingly), have the correct libertarian ideology and strive to harmonize private individual initiative and the common good.

Do not make society regret that you were born.

The main Christian deontological precept says: "Love your fellow man and do good to him, both through that love and so that your love may increase."

Thus, feed the hungry, instruct the ignorant, and perform other works of mercy.

The Christian consequentialist precept says: "Improve the world by leaving something after yourself; produce more than you consume."

Thus, give to charity, raise good children, deepen and teach libertarianism, save souls.

“Protection” vs. Deterrence

Huemer keeps confusing "protection" services with "general deterrence." (145-8)

"Protection" consists of a wide variety of goods and services, most of which are fully private; they are excludable, and their consumption is rivalrous. I see no case at all for government provision of them. The market works as expected and improves our welfare speedily.

In addition, the vast majority of protection is now already being privately supplied.

General deterrence, on the contrary, understood as the effect of the threat / fear of punishment on the citizens' decisions to commit violent crimes, is indeed a public good; both non-excludable and non-rivalrous. This generates a case for having it supplied by the state.

Plus, since the state is the only organization that is authorized to punish (with vengeance being proscribed altogether), general deterrence is for the most part already produced by the state.

In this respect, self-defense and punishment have only one thing in common, namely, that both are justifiable uses of violence. But that is where the similarities end.

The state both properly and actually has zero involvement in self-defense. Guns (and skill at using them), alarms, car anti-theft devices, and so on are private goods in the economic sense. Employing them is one's natural right and responsibility. Do not expect the cops to save your life or stop a mugger! It's not what they are for. Cops are not "first responders"; they are precisely last responders, getting into action at the very end of the judicial process.

"It is the fear of punishment that law makes use of in order to ensure obedience: in which respect punishment is an effect of law," says St. Thomas. (ST, II-I, 92, 2)

Protection and deterrence could not be more different, and we'll make no headway in our philosophy if we conflate them.

Following Unjust Orders

In Chapter 6 Huemer discusses the "psychology of authority." He relates an experiment in which people obeyed obviously unjust and illegitimate orders. He proposes that even if it were in fact true that all governments were illegitimate, "it is quite likely that we would still by and large feel bound to obey our governments. That is likely, because even people who are subjected to the clearest examples of illegitimate power still typically feel bound to obey." (110)

However, I disagree that it follows from this that "the widespread belief in political authority does not provide strong evidence for the reality of political authority, since that belief can be explained as the product of systematic bias." (111) Rather, what the experiments and history seem to establish is that people tend to overestimate the proper scope of authority. No authority has unlimited discretion, and the mistake people make is imagining that the authority has the right to command them to do evil things. But that does not suggest that they are mistaken as to the reality of authority as such. It leaves open the possibility that some appropriately "limited" government can be justified.

Perhaps the argument could be rephrased in Bayesian terms. Let h = "there is political authority," and e = "widespread belief in authority."

Then, considering P(h) to be 0.5 for the sake of simplicity,

P(h|e) = 1 / (1 + P(e|~h) / P(e|h)).

Huemer argues that P(e|~h) is larger than it seems. Perhaps it is as big as P(e|h). Then P(h|e) is still no greater than P(h) (or 0.5). Then e is worthless as evidence for h.

Yet this form of the argument is not convincing, either. What the Stanford Prison Experiment described in the book had in common with a state was the fact that the "authorities" had easily exercised power to hurt people. By virtue of explicit design, both the Stanford "guards" and the state had such power. It may be true that when Smith accepts Jones as a political authority, Smith soon develops a compulsion to obey Jones' orders, no matter how unjust. At the same time, Jones will probably abuse his powers greatly. There will occur both intellectual blindness and moral corruption on the part of both rulers and subjects. What's the explanation of this phenomenon?

Speculatively, few people would endorse a Hobbesian absolute sovereign. They do not in their cool-headed philosophical moments believe that one ought to follow unjust orders. At the same time, people's "real" underlying beliefs are often demonstrated in action. Huemer with some reason rejects the idea that the examples of experiments, war crimes, kidnappings, and so on indicate that people act viciously because they cannot tell right from wrong. The folks involved in these situations are not necessarily more likely than anyone to be perverted psychopaths. That people willingly and readily follow unjust orders suggests that they believe not in authority as such but in absoluteness of authority.

In that case, if h'= "political authority is absolute," and e' = "widespread belief in the absoluteness of authority" (demonstrated in action), then P(e'|~h') is indeed high despite the obvious falsity of h'. But that does not prove that P(e|~h) is also high.

But Huemer is right that there is something about political authority that is uniquely disturbing. In a private firm, the manager is an authority for the technician, but no employee will agree to assassinate the business owner's competitor at the manager's command. Similarly, the consumer is an authority for the entrepreneur, but the latter is unlikely normally to break the law to satisfy a malicious customer.

In contrast, regarding the "greatest man-made evils," Huemer points out, "no one has ever managed, working alone, to kill over a million people. Nor has anyone ever arranged such an evil by appealing to the profit motive, pure self-interest, or moral suasion to secure the cooperation of others -- except by relying on institutions of political authority. With the help of such institutions, many such crimes have been carried out, accounting for tens of millions of deaths, along with many more ruined lives." (109)

In other words, it's as if the state specialized in committing awful injustices on a massive scale, while at the same time busily "devising theories to explain why we have this obligation" to obey. In addition to its primary mission of destructionism, the state is always at work improving its ability to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.

Public Goods and the Anarchist’s Intransigence

A tax is not a "price" for anything, including "civilization." This is because taxes are levied on each person whether the benefit derived from the public goods produced with their help justifies the cost to him or not. He is forced by the state to pay the "price" whether "civilization," or what the state in its fatal conceit imagines to be one, is worth to him or not.

People find it indisputable, for example, that the government of the city they live in ought to produce roads. The relevant attitude may be, well, what is to be done? I mean, we "need" the roads. How else can they be produced? It's true that the roads will either be built or not. If they are built, then some people in the community will lose, and others will benefit. It may be argued that if in the final accounting, building the roads conduces to the overall good (perhaps with some form of hypothetical compensation from the winners to the losers), then they should be built. But that's not the issue at all. The issue that the harm to those who lose is not morally neutral but in fact is unjust.

Let it not be said that the state owns all land. No sane individual or group or entire community would ever agree to grant the mayor allodial ownership over all the land in the city, such that they would end up mere tenants on his land, with the concomitant natural obligation to pay rent to the state which the state can dub "taxes."

Perhaps people can agree to proclaim, "Let certain areas in the city be owned collectively. Let us then hire Jones to manage these areas bidding him to improve them one way or another." Yet whence Jones' power to tax? The taxes do not discriminate properly. Some people will not profit but rather lose from the exchange of the public goods for their tax money. Inflicting such a loss via a coerced "exchange" is straightforwardly unjust.

What then is the correct exchange rate between justice and utility? Let there be some people to whom the roads (or whatever) are not worth the money the state extorts from them. Moreover, among them is one philosopher who goes around teaching a novel doctrine that even the state may not commit injustices and that taxation is theft. These teachings are eloquent and stir people's hearts, jeopardizing the entire road-building project. Would it be Ok for the state to murder this philosopher in order to allow the construction to proceed without any irritating snags? Why not? If it's Ok to throw some citizens under a bus figuratively by making them pay more in taxes than they are willing for the roads, what is wrong with throwing them under a bus literally?

In short, if you will tax for a road, will you also kill for one? And if not, why not?

This also impinges on the idea of state "supremacy." Some may argue that from the conjunction of the facts that (1) x, say again, roads, is economically a public item, and (2) the state desires to produce x, and (3) the state has overwhelming power to crush any individual who might object to paying the tax to finance x, it follows that the state is justified in imposing the tax. But let Smith be the head of a Mafia crime family. He decides that it would be "good" for his fellow townsmen to have some y, also a public thing, say, a subway. Moreover, he has access to loyal well-armed henchmen who comprise a capable paramilitary force. He then goes door-to-door and demands contributions from individuals and local businesses for the construction of the subway. In this case, all three criteria are also satisfied. It does not seem to follow that Smith would be in the right to lay his own taxes on the people. But if the state can tax (or murder) for the "greater good," why can't Smith? Or is there perhaps some advantage in fully centralizing the sources of injustices in one individual or organization called "state"?

Certainly decentralization down to local level can make the problem less pointed, in that people who feel their taxes are too high will migrate out of their cities and into more suitable to them communities. But it will not eliminate it.

Pure consequentialism, such as utilitarianism, may be able to justify government extortion and coercion. It may even allow taxation while proscribing murders, if the latter would cause an unbecoming diminution of total utility.

A somewhat more plausible and flexible moral theory is called "deontology with thresholds": "A threshold deontologist holds that deontological norms govern up to a point despite adverse consequences; but when the consequences become so dire that they cross the stipulated threshold, consequentialism takes over... A may not torture B to save the lives of two others, but he may do so to save a thousand lives if the 'threshold' is higher than two lives but lower than a thousand." Thus, the threshold for doing evil for the sake of the roads could be above the wickedness of robbery but below that of murder. The state (however organized) will then "non-fanatically" or "pragmatically" tax the people without their consent but still refuse to kill the dissenters.

Utilitarianism would commend any action, regardless of how criminal, which improves things on the whole. Threshold deontology allows each person to use his own criteria for where to draw the line: there may be no objectively right answer. It can thus disallow some beneficial yet unjust actions. According to such moderate deontology, one would make the morally difficult decision as best he can and learn to live with it, without shame or regret.

Note that even if state coercion can be justified, it does not follow that one has a duty to pay the tax that makes him worse off. A person who shrewdly evaded such a tax need not feel any qualms for his perfectly reasonable and even praiseworthy actions.

Hypothetical Social Contract

Huemer makes an excellent point. The virtue of the original position for Rawls is that "since the differences among the parties are unknown to them, and everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, each is convinced by the same arguments."

This understanding "rests on a particular diagnosis of the phenomenon of widespread intellectual disagreement: that such disagreement is due entirely to such factors as ignorance, irrationality, and biases created by knowledge of one's individual characteristics."

But, Huemer continues, that seems to be obviously false. "Outside political philosophy, philosophers carry on persistent debates in epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics, some of which are millennia old. The partisans in these debates commonly appear equally rational, well informed, and intelligent. None appear to be attempting to tailor their theories to their own circumstances nor to be illicitly relying on personal information about themselves... Anarchists do not disagree with statists because anarchists have some peculiar social position or combination of personal traits that somehow would enable them to prosper in the absence of government while the rest of society fell apart." (48-50)

I myself am a case in point. In the previous post, I argued that Rawls has misunderstood his own invention or thought experiment of the original position. Nothing like the Rawlsian "interventionist phantasmagoria" follows from it. Instead, laissez-faire capitalism should seem far more attractive to the persons behind the veil of ignorance than any other economic system. And I believed that long before I read The Problem of Political Authority. It's clear that honest disagreements can persist even without emotions or undue self-interest or sinful desires clouding the mind.

A little earlier in the book, Huemer offers another clever argument. The "hypothetical" social contract theory may propose that "one may coercively impose an arrangement on individuals, provided that the individuals would be unreasonable to reject the arrangement." (44) He counters with examples that demonstrate otherwise. But the idea is even more hopeless. An "arrangement" is ultimately a preference and as such is a subjective and arbitrary ultimate given. Preferences and values are neither reasonable nor unreasonable. They belong to the will not the intellect. It is neither more nor less reasonable to prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla or vice versa. In this case, there are no "true" values. Who then is to judge whether a rejection of any political system is reasonable or not? Clearly, Smith's judgement does not determine or invalidate Jones'.

Then "the mere unreasonableness of someone's rejecting am arrangement does not typically render it morally permissible to coerce that person into accepting the arrangement, nor does it impose on individuals an obligation to accept the arrangement." (57) Again we can strengthen this conclusion by asking, "Reasonable from whose point of view?" We do not normally have access to God to teach such things with authority.

This argument of course applies specifically to contractual theories, where the agreement itself causes an "arrangement" to acquire force. If we start wondering whose political theory is objectively truest or best, we may no longer be able to call a preference for it "subjective and arbitrary," but we'll then also stop using contractarianism, as well.

Rawls and Cohen Revisited

Reading Huemer reminded me of my notes on Rawls and Cohen. Again, if I were behind the veil of ignorance, thinking about what sort of society I'd want to live in, it would occur to me that since I can't influence who I personally will be incarnated as (as rich or poor, healthy or sick, smart or dumb), I would focus on making the overall society as efficient as possible. This means in particular not its "total happiness" at any given moment, but the speed (and acceleration, etc.) at which this total happiness increases with time.

But that society is precisely libertarian laissez-faire capitalism.

Rawls seems to think differently. He'd rather live in a society where the "morally arbitrary" distinctions between persons, such as the quality of their families or IQs are erased. In practice, that would mean that the accidentally better-off shall toil thanklessly for the benefit of the worse-off. Rawls concedes that there can be "incentives" for the more talented so as to elicit the appropriate effort from them which would regretfully cause society to deviate from perfect equality. Cohen asks why, if justice is our ideal, any incentives are necessary. People should work as hard as they can only to give up the fruits of their labors to the poor out of a sense of moral duty. Perhaps we can even have full-featured capitalism, as long as all consumer goods are distributed equally.

In response, I argue that people act for ends. They perceive future pleasures; choose between them; choose between various means to attain these ends, and act with a hope of bettering their lot. "Moral duty" is not in the equation at all. One is never content with merely following the moral law, for a stone or any other inanimate object, too, is perfectly righteous in this sense. One follows the law for the sake of physical or spiritual survival. But he seeks happiness by working to satisfy his various desires and succeed in his pursuits.

In that case, a man must be ruthlessly brainwashed from childhood in order to forget his own ends and work like an automaton only to have his product confiscated. But what if he wakes up from this nightmare and thinks for himself? That's presumably where the "incentives" would come in. What if he, responding to the tax laws, refuses to work? Then he must be enslaved and forced to work under threat of the whip. And what if he tries to run away to free himself? Then he must be killed, lest other slaves mutiny, as well.

We can see that Cohen is a murderer of both mind and body. Hs soul is his own business. But murdering talented people does not benefit the worse off, as Rawls himself acknowledges. Nor does enslaving them, since slave labor is extremely unproductive. Nor, in the final analysis, does treating them as tax-serfs. Up we go in this manner until we reach libertarian unhampered free enterprise system as the pinnacle of human social evolution.

This, I think, is what really follows from Rawls' "original position."

The State Is Not a “Protection Agency”

Libertarian political philosophers make this mistake, i.e., that the state can be likened to a security firm, all the time. Thus, Michael Huemer in his book The Problem of Political Authority examines the idea that it is a basic mission of the state to "protect the citizen from criminals and hostile foreign governments." (31) He finds the state guilty of dereliction of duty from the US courts' invocations of "the fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen." "The government's duty, the court explained, was only a duty to the public at large, to provide a general deterrent to crime." (33)

This is entirely correct. It is not the task of the state to protect anyone by any means at all or to assist the victim in self-defense during the commission of a crime.

Protection, from locks to bulletproof windows to bodyguards to a concealed weapon to karate expertise, is a market service, provided by private firms. It always has been so provided and always was meant to be. It would be a very bad thing if the state concerned itself with "protection." It would ruin the free market and the safety and security industry.

Instead, the state indeed supplies "general deterrence" by promulgating a penal code and threatening potential criminals with punishment after they commit a crime, perhaps long after their victims are dead, after an exhaustive investigation has concluded, after due process has been observed, after the judge has pronounced a sentence, and so on. The fear of punishment permeates society as a whole. Every potential evildoer willy-nilly takes the cost in the form of possible capture and punishment of his contemplated crime into account. As a result, some marginal criminals are deterred by this incentive of servile fear, though they care not for justice, and are redirected into legitimate occupations.

All people benefit from this deterrence. That includes the criminals, such as thieves, themselves. Without it, crime would skyrocket, and (1) undeterred thieves would face greater competition in their line of "work," and (2) production would suffer as (2a) otherwise decent people decide that theft beats honest work, and (2b) decreased security of property rights scares off savers and entrepreneurs. Even thieves would be worse off without the state. "Smart" thieves have a vested interest in vigorous theft deterrence: it keeps society rich and ripe for the plucking and keeps their "dumber" brethren in prison.

Huemer then proceeds to argue that "if the [social] contract somehow holds only between the state and the public at large, then perhaps 'the public at large' owes something to the state, but no individual does. If, on the other hand, the social contract holds between the individual and the state, then the state must have an obligation to the individual." But he imagines that the state has repudiated the contract (to protect the citizens), which means that "individuals cannot be taken to be obligated under that contract either." (34)

Now the "social contract" is not so much between the individual and the state as between the citizens who, presumably unanimously in some town meeting, agree to commission the state and grant it certain powers and responsibilities. One such responsibility may be to punish condemned criminals. As long as the state executes this function with a measure of competence, it may be considered to have fulfilled its contractual obligations. As a result, since deterrence is a costly public good, the citizen body owes to the state, as a logical deduction or praxeological necessity, some financing. Perhaps taxes are the only feasible way to keep the government running. Who should pay how much is of course debatable. But in this case one can no longer dismiss the idea that a citizen can have obligations to the state on the grounds that the state has no obligation to the citizen.

As for the state's alleged duty to protect folks against "hostile foreign governments," Rothbard disposed of it long ago:

Especially has the State been successful in recent centuries in instilling fear of other State rulers.

Since the land area of the globe has been parceled out among particular States, one of the basic doctrines of the State was to identify itself with the territory it governed. Since most men tend to love their homeland, the identification of that land and its people with the State was a means of making natural patriotism work to the State's advantage.

If "Ruritania" was being attacked by "Walldavia," the first task of the State and its intellectuals was to convince the people of Ruritania that the attack was really upon them and not simply upon the ruling caste.

In this way, a war between rulers was converted into a war between peoples, with each people coming to the defense of its rulers in the erroneous belief that the rulers were defending them.

This device of "nationalism" has only been successful, in Western civilization, in recent centuries; it was not too long ago that the mass of subjects regarded wars as irrelevant battles between various sets of nobles. ("The Anatomy of the State")

The very idea of "foreign policy" is a despicable fraud: the only proper attitude of one state toward another is unconditional pacifism.

In short, the state very properly has no duty to protect anyone from anything and therefore cannot be charged with viciously abdicating this duty. Hence, the argument against social contract theories based upon this charge cannot get off the ground.