Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Epistemic Rationality Memes

For those who love epistemic rationality and memes, here are my epistemic rationality memes, all in one place! Quick definition: Credence calibration means setting your degree of confidence in a belief to be proportional to the strength of the evidence. See the Credence Game for more.



















Categories: Uncategorized

Working Paper: “Legal Polycentrism and the Circularity Problem”

September 30, 2012 2 comments

Here’s the working paper version of my previous posts on the circularity problem facing market anarchism: “Legal Polycentrism and the Circularity Problem.” Here’s the abstract:

Legal polycentrism studies the provision of security and dispute adjudication through competing protection agencies rather than a government monopoly. To show that competition between protection agencies would have beneficial consequences, polycentrists often cite results from price theory about market competition. But there is a circularity problem here: markets presuppose a legal framework;  hence before polycentrists can employ price theoretic arguments about market competition, they must first show that the legal requirements of markets are satisfied, that is, that property rights and contracts are enforced. If these requirements are not satisfied, it is illegitimately circular to draw on market competition as an argument for legal polycentrism.

I’ve expanded upon and revised my argument, so check it out!

Categories: Uncategorized

Notes and Fragments: Classical public choice is wrong

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment
In this “Notes and Fragments” series I will briefly discuss some ideas that I might write about in more detail in the future. See Part I, Part II.

On the classical public choice view, “Politics is about concentrating benefits on well-organized and well-informed interest groups, and dispersing costs on the unorganized and ill-informed masses.” Since voters are rationally ignorant, they don’t pay attention to politics, and special interest groups determine policy against the wishes of the majority.

But there are problems with this story. Rational voters are not gullible; if special interests fund political advertising, rational voters would treat this information as biased and discount it accordingly. Even if ignorant voters have a small chance of catching politicians engaging in backroom deals with special interests, there is an easy solution: discipline politicians with optimal punishments. When politicians are caught misbehaving, punish them harshly to adjust for the small probability of apprehension. If voters are too uninformed to evaluate government programs, they can follow the rule: when in doubt, say no. On this account, rational ignorance leads to smaller government.

Furthermore, there are few examples of policies that are unpopular. As Caplan and Stringham argue, traditional examples of special interest activity like tariffs and pork barrel spending are in fact supported by a majority of voters. Foreign aid is unpopular, but is roughly 1% of the federal budget. Are there any other existing policies that the majority does not want?

These considerations should lead us to doubt that voters are actually rational. As Caplan argues, voters are rationally irrational: that is, it is instrumentally rational for voters to be epistemically irrational. The upshot is that although the arguments of classical public choice are false, most of the conclusions are still true.

See Caplan’s notes here and here, Caplan’s “Rational Irrationality and the Microfoundations of Political Failure,” Wittman’s “Why Democracies Produce Efficient Results,” Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, and Wittman’s Myth of Democratic Failure.

Categories: Uncategorized

Notes and Fragments: Boétie was wrong

September 5, 2012 1 comment
In this “Notes and Fragments” series I will briefly discuss some ideas that I might write about in more detail in the future. See Part I.

Libertarians often cite Étienne de la Boétie to argue that government power depends on the consent or acquiescence of the governed. If government is outnumbered and outgunned by the mass of the population, then its power must depend on the voluntary support of the public. Hence governments can be toppled if enough people withdraw their support.

It seems to me that Boétie underestimated the severity of the collective action problems facing revolution: I benefit from the revolution whether I participate or not, and since participation is costly, I’m going to stay home. Suppose a majority of people do withdraw their support, and refuse to cooperate with the government. But the government has a military; if brutal enough, it could simply make an example out of a few resisters, thereby raising the costs of resistance and convincing everyone else to give up. So even though the government is outnumbered, what matters is not numbers but military strength, and the government military can defeat any uncoordinated mass uprising.

Hence I think it’s false that government power depends purely on ideology. (See also Jiborn’s “The Power of Coordination” and Caplan’s “Mises’ Democracy-Dictatorship Equivalence Theorem: A Critique.”)

Categories: Uncategorized

Notes and Fragments: Roving bandits as tragic commons

September 4, 2012 2 comments
In this “Notes and Fragments” series I will briefly discuss some ideas that I might write about in more detail in the future. This is Part I.

On Olson’s stationary bandit theory, a world of roving bandits is bad because no one has an incentive to produce or invest beyond subsistence level. A profit-maximizing bandit will therefore monopolize force in his domain, provide security, property rights, and public goods, thereby giving his subjects the incentive to produce and in doing so maximizing his income from tax receipts.

Olson is basically saying that if you view people like cattle, a world of roving bandits is an open-access commons, where resources (subjects) are wasted because no one can benefit from taking care of them. As a roving bandit, if I don’t plunder this village, someone else will; hence I plunder and we end up in the tragedy of the commons. Establishing a stationary bandit means privatizing the commons, where there is a residual claimant who can capture the benefits of using the resources efficiently (given a low discount rate). Hence, the stationary bandit theory is a special case of the tragedy of the commons.

Categories: Uncategorized

Three Conceptions of the Burden of Proof

July 23, 2012 1 comment

In rational discourse, the burden of proof is the obligation on a person to provide evidence for their position.

I. We might think that the burden of proof rests with the person asserting a claim. But consider:

(i) Suppose A asserts claim P, and afterwards, B asserts claim ~P. Under this conception, A bears the burden of proof.

(ii) B asserts claim ~P, and afterwards, A asserts claim P. In this case, B bears the burden of proof.

Except for the order of speaking, both cases are functionally equivalent; yet the burden switches from A to B.  But surely the burden of proof does not depend on something as arbitrary as the order in which people speak.

One might object that both A and B bear the burden. This could be true sometimes. But sometimes only one of A or B bears the burden, and this conception fails to account for such cases. (For example, when P is the statement “The sky is blue.”)

II. A less naive conception is that the burden of proof rests with the person asserting a positive claim. But consider:

(iii) A asserts positive claim P, so that A bears the burden of proof.

(iv) A asserts negative claim ~(~P), so that A does not bear the burden of proof.

But since P and ~(~P) are equivalent, we have that A both does and does not bear the burden of proof. Since this is a contradiction, this conception must be flawed.

Now, it’s certainly true that the burden sometimes does rest with the person making the positive claim; if A claims that UFOs exist, then A bears the burden of proof. But there are easy counterexamples: if B makes the positive claim that the sky is blue, then surely the burden rests with those who would disagree.

III. The correct conception, it seems to me, is that the burden of proof is determined by common sense and expert consensus. If someone asserts a claim that contradicts common sense or expert consensus, then they bear the burden of proof. This conception captures what is correct in the other conceptions, and avoids their mistakes. For example, the person who claims that UFOs exist bears the burden of proof, not because it’s a positive claim, but because it contradicts common sense and expert knowledge. The person who would deny that the sky is blue bears the burden because they are contradicting common sense.

To be sure, common sense and expert consensus are imperfect. This is why the burden of proof is defeasible: if it turns out that common sense is defective, or if the experts are unreliable, then in those cases the burden has to be determined by other considerations.

In sum, simplistic formulas for determining the burden of proof are mistaken. Instead, establishing the burden requires making arguments and judgments about common sense and expert consensus.

Categories: Philosophy, Uncategorized

Anarchists Arguing Badly: Examples of the Circularity Problem

July 13, 2012 4 comments

In my last post, I introduced the circularity problem with market anarchism. To recap: a key analytical task of market anarchism is to show how a nonstate legal system could arise in the state of nature. To show this, market anarchists want to draw on the beneficial properties of market competition, as laid out in standard price theory. But market competition presupposes a legal framework; there must first be enforcement of property rights and contracts for markets to work. Now, some legal institutions, based on customs, reciprocity, focal points, etc., can arise in the state of nature, and these can be the foundation for some limited market competition. But this type of competition under imperfect property rights is substantially different from competition under perfect property rights, and the conclusions of price theory are based upon the latter. Hence market anarchists are not justified in employing the results of price theory to argue that competition between protection agencies would lead to good outcomes, unless they first show that the legal institutions assumed by price theory are already in place.

In this post, I will go through the theoretical literature on market anarchism to see how widespread and deep-rooted the circularity problem is.


Friedman (1996) writes:

Imagine a society with no government. Individuals purchase law enforcement from private firms. Each such firm faces possible conflicts with other firms. Private policemen working for the enforcement agency that I employ may track down the burglar who stole my property only to discover, when they try to arrest him, that he too employs an enforcement agency. (235-36)

There are two ways the circularity problem can come up here. First, what is the law between individuals and protection agencies? How are contracts between individuals and protection agencies enforced? It’s not obvious that they would be self-enforcing; it’s possible that agencies would use their enforcement power to extract taxes, or coercively prevent clients from switching to a different agency. Would other agencies enforce them? This seems to just push the question up one level. And of course, one cannot appeal to market competition as a mechanism for ensuring contracts are enforced, since the very issue being considered is whether there is a legal framework sufficient to support market competition.

Second, what is the law between different protection agencies? How are contracts between different agencies enforced? Friedman seems to appeal to repeated interaction and reputation as the basis for self-enforcement. These mechanisms might plausibly secure cooperation between agencies; this should be explicitly argued, though, and it should be shown that the conditions required for repeated interaction to produce cooperation (small groups, low discount rates, etc.) are met.


Rothbard (1973):

[I]f police services were supplied on a free, competitive market […] consumers would pay for whatever degree of protection they wish to purchase. […] On the free market, protection would be supplied in proportion and in whatever way that the consumers wish to pay for it. A drive for efficiency would be insured, as it always is on the market, by the compulsion to make profits and avoid losses, and thereby to keep costs low and to serve the highest demands of the consumers. Any police firm that suffers from gross inefficiency would soon go bankrupt and disappear.” (217)

Rothbard wants to employ the standard results of price theory to argue that competition between protection agencies would lead to good outcomes. But to draw on price theory, he must first show that its assumptions hold, namely, a legal framework to enforce property rights and contracts. How are these conditions met in Rothbard’s analysis?


Long (2008) argues that market competition provides a stronger constitutional constraint on power than any governmental constitution: “Far from eschewing checks and balances, market anarchists take market competition, with its associated incentives, to instantiate a checks-and-balances system, and to do so far more reliably than could a governmental system.” (141) But market competition presupposes a legal framework that ensures the enforcement of property and contract. What legal framework does Long propose to rely on to provide the foundation for such competition?

Long also writes:

[T]he market anarchist objection to government is simply a logical extension of the standard libertarian objection to coercive monopolies in general … because monopolies are insulated from market competition and hold their customers by force, they lack both the information and the incentive to provide consumers with fair, efficient, and inexpensive service. The anarchist accepts these arguments, and merely asks why they should apply with any less force to the provision of legal services. (133)

The reason the standard price theory arguments for competition over monopoly might not apply to legal services is that they only hold in the context of a pre-existing legal framework. Market anarchists can only appeal to price theory arguments if they first show that property rights and contracts would be enforced. Now, some enforcement, based on norms and reciprocity, can emerge in the state of nature, but this is not enough to satisfy the assumptions of price theory.

Discussing which system best constrains tyranny, Long writes:

Under a governmental system, the cost of state policies leading to war is borne by taxpayers and conscripts, not by the politicians who crafted those policies. Under market anarchism, by contrast, agencies who resolve disputes through violence rather than arbitration will have to charge higher premiums and will thus lose customers. (146)

But it’s possible that a protection agency could externalize its costs through taxation or conscription, or by preying on its competitors and their customers. Long seems to be assuming that there is some robust legal system already in place, which assures that costs are internalized. But this is what must be shown; it cannot be assumed as a starting point.


Hoppe (1998) writes:

[D]efense is a form of insurance, and defense expenditures represent a sort of insurance premium (price). Accordingly … the most likely candidates for offering protection and defense services are insurance agencies. The better the protection of insured property, the lower are the damage claims and hence an insurer’s costs. (22)

But how are contracts between individuals and insurance companies enforced?

[A]ll insurance companies are connected through a network of contractual agreements of mutual assistance and arbitration as well as a system of international reinsurance agencies, representing a combined economic power which dwarfs that of most if not all existing governments. (22)

How are contracts between insurance companies enforced? Are they self-enforcing? Furthermore, if the system of insurance companies is so powerful, what prevents them from preying on customers? Competition? If so, what is the legal framework that supports such competition?

Hoppe argues that “as the result of competition between insurers for voluntarily paying clients, a tendency toward falling prices per insured property values would come about.” (24) But what if insurers compete through violent conflict? What if they coerce payments from clients? With no established legal framework, how are these outcomes prevented?


Murphy (2002) writes:

All actions in a purely free society would be subject to contract. For example, it is currently a crime to steal, because the legislature says so. A prospective employer knows that if I steal from his firm, he can notify the government and it will punish me. But in a stateless society there wouldn’t be a legislated body of laws, nor would there be government courts or police. Nonetheless, employers would still like some protection from theft by their employees. So before hiring an applicant, the employer would make him sign a document that had clauses to the effect of, “I promise not to steal from the acme Firm. If I get caught stealing, as established by Arbitration Agency X, then I agree to pay whatever restitution that agency X deems appropriate.” (14)

But to do any work, contracts must be enforced. So are they self-enforcing? This seems implausible, since self-enforcement usually only works well in small groups with repeated interaction. Are they enforced by the arbitration agency? But then how is that contract enforced? Maybe Murphy can answer these questions. But he should answer them before he uses contracting to do any work in his theory.


Caplan (1997) writes:

The most impressive arguments for privatizing dispute resolution have little to do with the unique attributes of the adjudication industry; rather, they are the standard arguments for the prima facie superiority of private to public supply. Namely: (1) Public bodies have no incentive to be efficient, and private ones do; and (2) Public bodies usually don’t know what is efficient, while private bodies, though not omniscient, know better. (6)

But these standard arguments from price theory presuppose a legal framework which enforces property rights and contracts. How is this legal framework provided?

Imagine this enforcement system: Throughout the society, there exist 10,000 private security and police companies (approximately the number we have today). Everyone in the society pays premiums to one such security company; in exchange, the client receives protection from criminals and arbitrary prosecution by other police firms. (25-26)

But how are contracts between individuals and protection companies enforced?


Overall, then, there seem to be three circularity-type problems that come up in the literature. First, how are contracts between individuals and protection agencies enforced? Second, how are contracts between different agencies enforced? Third, what legal framework provides the foundation for market competition? Market anarchists have spent some time addressing the second question, but little to none on the others. Note that I don’t mean to imply these questions are unanswerable; just that they haven’t been answered yet.

Finally, a point about method: In general, market anarchists start their analysis with a market in legal services/police and courts/security, etc. This is a mistake: since markets presuppose a legal framework, the very question being discussed is whether there can be a “market” in legal services. The analysis should instead begin in the state of nature, i.e., in the absence of formal legal institutions, and should end by deriving a market in legal services as a conclusion of the model. Since it precludes any circularity problems, this approach is superior.

Market Anarchism and the Circularity Problem

July 4, 2012 7 comments

One common objection to market anarchism is the charge of circular reasoning: in attempting to explain how a market anarchist system would work, market anarchists illegitimately assume the enforcement of property rights and contracts, which is precisely what they need to prove. Hence Lee (2008):

Anarchistic libertarianism illegitimately and self-defeatingly presupposes the existence of contract law in its account of how law and its enforcement would come to exist and have an ongoing role in an anarchistic society. (18)

And Morris (1998):

To suppose, for the purpose of demonstration, that there exists a perfectly competitive market for protective services would be, in effect, to suppose that basic security of person and goods—at least that necessary for the existence of a perfectly competitive market for protective services—is already established. The argument would be circular. (65)

(See also Holcombe 2004, p.332.)

These critics seem to take this circularity problem to decisively refute, or at least create substantial doubts about market anarchism. While I don’t think circularity rules out the possibility of market anarchism, I do believe it is an important problem for market anarchist theory, and that solving it will require considerable revisions to the theory, especially with regards to the role of market competition.

Analytically, the market anarchist project involves endogenizing the legal system and deriving the market anarchist system as an equilibrium outcome. In other words, we start from the state of nature, or the “market for protection”: a context with no enforcement of property rights or contracts. From this setting, the task is to show how anarchist legal institutions could emerge and persist. This means that it is invalid to assume that property rights are enforceable, or to assume the existence of institutions or mechanisms (such as market competition) which presuppose enforcement of property rights.

The circularity problem

Market anarchist theory puts a heavy analytical burden on market competition to show that market anarchism would have good consequences. Roderick Long (2008) argues that market competition provides a stronger constitutional constraint on power than any governmental constitution. This is because of the standard benefits of competition: producers must sell a product that consumers are willing to purchase; unsatisfied customers can take their business elsewhere; new competitors can enter the market and attract away customers; and firms that satisfy customers earn profits while firms that do not incur losses. Hence market competition provides a powerful constraint on the ability of protection agencies to use force. In law as in everything else, competition beats monopoly.

Note, however, that this argument runs into the circularity problem: since market competition presupposes enforceable property rights, the argument implicitly assumes a legal structure. But this is exactly what the market anarchist project must show, namely, how an anarchist legal structure could arise. When we analyze normal markets, we assume a legal framework, i.e., enforcement of property rights and contracts. Standard economic theory has worked out in detail what will happen in this institutional setting. In contrast, in the market for protection, we explicitly assume the absence of a legal framework; we want to derive enforcement of property rights as an equilibrium outcome. Hence, since market competition presupposes a framework of law, it doesn’t make sense to talk about competition in the market for protection as if it were the same as competition in normal markets. More formally:

  1. When treating the legal system as endogenous, enforcement of property rights is an equilibrium outcome to be derived, not a starting assumption.
  2. Market competition presupposes a framework of law, and especially enforcement of property rights and contracts.
  3. Hence, from 1 and 2, when treating the legal system as endogenous, market competition cannot be used to explain how enforcement of property rights is an equilibrium outcome.

In other words, without some reasons to think that competition in the market for protection works like it does in normal markets, appeals to market competition are illegitimately circular. (It seems obvious to me that competition in the absence of enforceable property rights and contracts does not work the same as competition in the presence of these things.) Long’s constitutionalist argument would work if it could be shown that competition in the market for protection has the same nice properties as competition in normal markets. But again, to avoid circular reasoning, this task must be accomplished without appealing to market competition.

But what about Long’s claim (141) that “a functioning market and a functioning legal order arise together; it’s not as though one shows up on the scene first and then paves the way for the other”? I disagree. If we take the chicken and egg question, it seems to me that law comes first.  Consider a state of nature: as Friedman (1994) argues, individuals could establish, without a state, at least limited property rights in possessions and land. This de facto law is the basis for market exchange, which then allows the development of more advanced legal institutions, which in turn fosters further market expansion, and so on in a virtuous circle. Hence I would define markets so that they presuppose a legal structure, which implies that law cannot be produced by the market.

(One might object: if some property rights can arise in the state of nature, why can’t competition be based on that? I agree that some beneficial competition could emerge; but this isn’t enough to warrant drawing on the strong results about normal market competition, as Long does. Regardless, this is a crucial question for future research: how does market competition work with imperfect property rights?)

None of this means that it’s impossible for an anarchist legal system to emerge in the market for protection (i.e., the state of nature); it just means that attempts to show this by appealing to market competition are invalid. The fact that a market presupposes a legal system does not rule out the possibility of a polycentric legal system.


Although the circularity problem does not mean market anarchism is impossible, I think it does show that the dominant approach to market anarchism is the wrong way to think about the issue. Up to now, most (all?) theorists have conceptualized market anarchism as privatizing the legal system, privatizing the police and courts, or turning the legal system over to the market. But due to the circularity problem, I think these approaches are incoherent: since the market presupposes a legal framework, it doesn’t make sense to talk about having the legal framework produced by the market. In general, any analysis of the market for protection that simply assumes that competition works like it does in normal markets is invalid.

What about David Friedman’s theoretical approach (e.g., Friedman 1996)? In principle, it is sound: assume an institutional setting, then derive the equilibrium. But it seems he too runs into the circularity problem. He beings his analysis as follows: “Imagine a society with no government. Individuals purchase law enforcement from private firms.” But the very act of “purchasing” requires that contracts are enforced, which in turn requires some pre-existing legal system, which is precisely what he needs to show. Maybe Friedman can show that these contracts would be self-enforcing, or that some other legal institution could enforce them, but until he does, his analysis fails to get off the ground.

So how should we think about market anarchism? I think a better approach to the question of anarchy vs. government is: the organization of violence in society. Here, market anarchism is just a polycentric organization of violence, whereas government is a monocentric organization of violence. Instead of viewing the anarchism debate as government vs. markets or monopoly vs. competition, see it as monocentric vs. polycentric organizations of violence. This approach avoids the circularity problem and allows us to get at the central issue: the properties of competition in the market for protection, or in other words, the properties of competition under imperfect property rights.

This approach is already being developed by the economics of conflict (see Bates et. al., 2002; Hirshleifer, 1995; Humphrey, 2010; and Konrad and Skaperdas, 2010). In this literature, the standard story is that unorganized violence is bad, but organized violence can be socially beneficial. Under unorganized violence, where all individuals use violence to defend property rights, the security of property claims depends on each individual’s ability to use violence to protect their property. Each individual must invest resources away from production and towards protection, which undermines the division of labor. Adding in the effects of the uncertainty of property claims and the possibility of violent conflict, unorganized violence appears to be wholly unsuitable for promoting economic prosperity.

In contrast, organized violence can be efficient if violence is used to protect property rights, and not for predation. Think of Olson’s stationary bandit, who has an incentive to provide security and enforce property rights in order to maximize his tax revenues. By having a specialist in violence, individuals can specialize in production, allowing an extended division of labor and thereby prosperity.

It seems to me that market anarchists can and should engage this literature on the question: which form of organized violence is best? As noted above, market anarchism is equivalent to a polycentric organization of violence. If anarchy is superior to the state, then it must be shown that a polycentric organization of violence is better than a monocentric one.


Bates, Robert, Avner Greif, and Smita Singh. (2002). “Organizing Violence.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 46(5): 599-628.

Friedman, David D. (1994). “A Positive Account of Property Rights.” Social Philosophy and Policy, 11(2).

Friedman, David D. (1996). “Anarchy and Efficient Law.” In Sanders and Narveson (Eds.), For and Against the State.

Hirshleifer, Jack. (1995). “Anarchy and its Breakdown.” Journal of Political Economy, 103(1): 26-52.

Holcombe, Randall. (2004). “Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable.” Independent Review (3): 325-342.

Humphrey, Shawn. (2010). “Political Economy of Violence.” In Rhona Free (Ed.), 21st Century Economics: A Reference Handbook.

Konrad, Kai and Stergios Skaperdas. (2010). “The Market for Protection and the Origin of the State.” Economic Theory.

Lee, John Roger. (2008). “Libertarianism, Limited Government, and Anarchy.” In Long and Machan (Eds.), Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?

Long, Roderick. (2008). “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism.” In Long, Machan (Eds.) Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?

Morris, Christopher. (1998). An Essay on the Modern State.

Against Rights Profligacy

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

The system of free markets and free enterprise is based on the right not to be aggressed against. This right, also known as the nonaggression principle, implies rights against assault, theft, and fraud. In a setting where these rights are enforced and protected, markets work well, and the foundation for economic prosperity is laid.

But some people are not satisfied with the distribution of wealth in a market system. They advocate for government to enforce a wide array of positive rights to promote social justice. It is claimed that we all have a right to a job, a right to health care, a right to welfare, a right to education, a right to food and water, and so on. And it is the responsibility of government to ensure that these rights are respected.

I want to argue against this “rights profligacy”. We should be much more frugal in deciding what counts as a right, because rights legitimate violence and violence is usually justified only in defense. Making an error about what is or is not a right entails using violence against innocent people. By unpacking precisely what it means to have a right to a job or a right to health care, I will show that this conception of rights—we have a right to anything that is valuable—clashes forcefully with our commonsense morality.

First I will make some remarks about the nature of rights. Having a right to X implies that (1) it is morally obligatory for other people to provide you with X; and (2) it is morally permissible for you to force other people to provide you with X. Hence having a right not to be aggressed against implies both that other people are obligated not to aggress you and that it is permissible to force other people not to aggress against you.

It is important to note that a right is a legitimately enforceable claim; since it is permissible to use coercion to enforce one’s rights, a right is the strongest type of moral claim. There are also weaker moral claims which are not enforceable. For example, I might have a duty to be grateful to my benefactors, but they do not have a right, an enforceable claim, to my gratitude. Also note that the importance of a moral claim does not necessarily correlate with its enforceability. Just because a right is enforceable does not mean it is morally more weighty than an unenforceable claim.

Two of the most common positive rights asserted in the name of social justice are the right to a job and the right to health care. By unpacking these rights using the definition above, I will show that what seems intuitively appealing on the surface in fact leads to repugnant and outrageous conclusions.

Consider the claim that people have a right to a job. More formally, this means that other people have an obligation to provide you with a job, and that it is permissible for you to force other people to give you a job. In other words, it is permissible to use or threaten violence to force other people to employ you.

In practice, this means forcing an employer at gunpoint to hire you, or using violence to prevent other workers from competing with you in a job interview, or even forcing a worker to hand over her job to you—”your job or your life.”

Clearly almost everybody would agree that forcing an employer to hire you at gunpoint is very wrong. It is a serious violation of the employer’s freedom of association. Employment should be consensual: both the employer and employee must consent for the contract to be legitimate. Anything less than full consent seems morally equivalent to slavery.

Once we unbundle what is means to have a right to a job, we see that what on the surface seems benign and progressive actually turns out to be monstrous and barbaric. Since rights legitimize violence, careless proposals for rights can lead to horrific outcomes.

Now let us unpack the claim that people have a right to health care. Formally, such a right means that other people have an obligation to provide you with health care, and that it is permissible to force others to provide you with health care. In practice a right to health care means forcing a physician at gunpoint to provide medical treatment, or forcing a pharmacist at gunpoint to to provide you with medicine.

Again, almost everybody would agree that obtaining health care at gunpoint violates the liberty of the physician and the pharmacist. Just as the patient should be able to choose her physician, the physician should be able to choose his patient. Otherwise, we face “the absurdity of physicians being at the personal beck and call of individual patients, becoming literally their medical slaves”. (Szasz) (In emergencies, it might be permissible to force a physician to provide treatment. But here I am abstracting from such cases and focusing on ordinary medical treatment.)

Just as with a right to a job, once we unbundle what it means to have a right to health care, what seems on the surface to be goodhearted and caring in fact has awful and outrageous implications.

It may be the case that people still have a moral claim to a job or health care. But obviously such a moral claim cannot have the strength of a right. Rather, it must be weaker than a right, which means it cannot be enforceable through violence. We might think a claim to a job is morally important, but making it enforceable has morally unacceptable implications.

Randy Barnett writes that the “rights that define justice serve also to legitimate the use of force or violence to secure compliance. The more rights we recognize the more violence we legitimate.” (The Structure of Liberty, 200; emphasis in original) Hence we have to be very careful in deciding what counts as a right, since making a mistake is very costly: initiating violence against innocent people. There are two types of errors: recognizing too many or too few rights. These errors correspond respectively with rights profligacy and rights frugality.

Given that many people want to create rights to solve any social problem that is deemed serious enough, the problem of rights profligacy is much more common. Most people err in the direction of trying to grant too many rights, rather than too little. In response, defenders of free markets should call for rights frugality to correct this overrecognition of rights. Given that rights legitimate violence, we should only recognize rights when a social problem cannot be solved in any other way.

Of course, the proper solution is to seek a golden mean of neither too few nor too many rights. This requires that we be very careful and painstaking in deciding on what should count as a right. Rights are not trivial things to be handed out casually; rather, since they legitimate violence, rights are a gravely serious matter. Those who call for government to promote social justice by creating a right to a job or a right to health care are too quick to use violence to solve social problems.

The Common Sense of Philosophical Anarchism

July 9, 2011 12 comments

Philosophical anarchism is the idea that there is no duty to obey the law just because it is the law. Philosophical anarchists claim that there is no moral obligation to obey the commands of the state, and conversely, the state does not have the authority to command. In other words, the state is morally illegitimate.

Most people deny that philosophical anarchism is true. The most common reason is that citizens have freely consented to be governed by their states. Either expressly or tacitly, we have consented to the laws established by our government. Hence government is based on the “consent of the governed.”

The biggest problem with express consent is that it is plainly historically inaccurate. Apart from naturalized citizens, hardly anyone has ever explicitly consented to be governed. Given the absence of express consent, most arguments for the consent of the governed rely instead on tacit consent, through voting or residence.

Consider voting. The idea is that by voting for a political representative, we consent to the laws they establish. By participating in the electoral game, we agree to abide by the outcome.

The problem with this argument is that voting is a coerced choice. First of all, only choices that are free of coercion can generate obligations; if a choice is coerced in any way, it loses its moral ability to create an obligation. While there are cases where tacit consent can generate obligations, voting is not one of them, because the voter is never given the most important choice of whether or not there will be a government. Unless a voter is given the option to secede and avoid being governed at all, the act of voting cannot be taken as consenting to government.

Consider: a murderer breaks into your house and gives you the choice of being stabbed or shot. Your choosing to be shot does not mean you consent to it. The reason is that the murderer forces you to make a coerced choice: either be stabbed or shot. You do not have the option of not being coerced at all.

This example is importantly analogous to voting, because both the victim and the voter are subject to coercion, and neither have the choice of whether or not they will be coerced. Just as the victim will be killed no matter how she responds (and even if she does not answer the question), the voter will be subjected to coercive laws no matter how she votes (and even if she doesn’t vote). So voting, as a coerced choice, is not able to establish the consent of the governed.

The second argument given for tacit consent is residence: by choosing to live in a country, we agree to obey the laws of its government. Just as when you come into my house, you have to obey my rules, so too when you live in a certain country, you have to obey the rules of the government—love it or leave it.

Notice that this argument implies that just as I am the owner of my house, the government is the owner of the country. That is, the government is in a position of moral sovereignty over its territory and can demand that its citizens either obey or leave.

The problem with this argument is that it is circular. The consent theory of political obligation claims that government authority is based on the consent of the governed. Residing in a territory can indicate tacit consent only if the owner already has authority to demand you obey or leave (as when you come into my house).

But if government authority is based on consent, then that authority cannot exist prior to the consent of its citizens. This is, however, precisely what is required by the residence argument: government must have authority over its citizens before they can give consent, which is what needs to proved. Hence the residence argument fails. Unless government already has authority over us independently of our consent, then residing in a country cannot imply consent to that government.

At this point most people will appeal to an argument from fair play: since we receive benefits from government, we are thereby obligated to obey it. But this also fails to justify a duty to obey, since on this argument an investment company would be justified in seizing my life savings without my permission on the grounds that I would benefit from its money management. The problem here is that the benefits of a legal system are such that we cannot refuse them; and unless you can refuse a benefit, it is not clear how you are obligated to pay for it.

So the most popular arguments for a duty to obey the state fail. If the state is morally illegitimate, then we should embrace philosophical anarchism. Furthermore, we have good reason to investigate political anarchism, to see if it is possible or desirable to do away with the state entirely.

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