Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

I am the 99%…

November 2, 2011 5 comments

Imagine my relief to confirm, upon using the IFS’s income percentile calculator, that I am not in the hated ‘1%’. I can go on with my diatribes about inept financial regulation and crony capitalism safe in the knowledge that I am not endangering my own kind.

However, all the IFS figure says that I am not in the 1% of all households in the UK. But why is that the morally relevant measure of income inequality? I have written before about the fallacy of analytical nationalism; that using the nation-state as the unit of analysis can produce misleading results. My suspicion is that I would be in close to the top 1% of the European Union as a whole,  the top 0.1% of the world and probably the top 0.0001% of all human beings who ever lived.

What I also suspect I am in is the top 1% of 23 year olds in the UK, and probably of those under 30. For my ‘life stage’, being a second-year associate at a strategy consultancy is one of the more lucrative gigs in town. Suppose for the sake of argument I earned the median household income in the UK – under an ‘egalitarian’ system should my income be redistributed? On the one hand, I would be earning the median income. On the other hand, earning the median income when you are 23 is doing considerably better than other people your age.

On the other-other hand, I also work significantly more hours than the median employee – should this be taken into account? As Tyler Cowen once observed in an excellent essay that I’ve linked to before:

“The funny thing is this: For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us…We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life. That may well be good advice. Many studies suggest that above a certain level more money brings only marginal increments of happiness. What isn’t so widely advertised is that those same critics have basically been telling us, without realizing it, that we should be acting in such a manner as to increase measured income inequality. Not only is high inequality an inevitable concomitant of human diversity, but growing income inequality may be, too, if lots of us take the kind of advice that will make us happier.”

I’m sure there are plenty of people I know who could do my job but would hate it, and much rather earn less money and work a lot less. That’s a perfectly reasonable preference to have, but I don’t see why it should be rewarded in the tax code (as it effectively is).

I also know people who are considerably wealthier than I am but have very little income. They’re called ‘retirees’. Should my income be redistributed income to them? And if we’re going in for redistribution of income by money transfer, surely the money should go to those in need regardless of where they are born?

I guess what I am trying to say here that inequality is complicated. Changes in measurements such as the Gini coefficient can reflect injustice, or they can reflect structural changes to society (such as an aging population). Furthermore, even if I had decided to do a Philosophy PhD instead of being a consultant and had zero income, I would still have had the option to take a high-paying job. That option is a form of wealth, even if I had chosen not to exercise the option. You can’t measure the option value of people’s skills, so you can’t measure the inequality and of course can’t tax it.

When we’re thinking about the kind of society we want to live in, it is often very difficult to map that vision onto hard data. For example, did you know that wealth inequality is higher in Sweden (Gini coefficient 89) than Canada(75), Finland(68), Germany(78), Italy(61), the UK(66) and the US(81)?* This is obviously less of a worry if you have an extremely generous government safety net, but nevertheless ‘the data’ says what it says.

And finally, when we talk about minimising inequality, how do future persons come into the equation? Obviously, by promoting economic growth you are thereby promoting intergenerational inequality. If you are one of those who worries, erroneously, about foisting society’s debts on our grandchildren, take comfort in the fact that they are likely to be richer than you are. Also, when contemplating the trade-off between equality and economic growth which almost certainly exists, bear in mind that growth compounds. If real wages rose by by 2% instead of 1.5% over the next 50 years, that translates to real income being 30% higher in 2061 – a massive difference in standards of living.

My belief is that a significant proportion of the wealth accumulated by the world’s wealthiest citizens is the result of systematic injustice. However, I have not inferred this from the data, but just by looking at how our financial system works. For example, large and interconnected firms are operating with an enormous de facto subsidy from the government for irresponsible behaviour. Whatever ‘distribution’ of wealth or income that comes out of it is unjust because the system is inherently so. I therefore welcome my technical membership in the 99%, but would encourage my fellow members to constantly reflect on what really matters when it comes to injustice.

*It looks like this is largely a function of a significant portion of Swedish households having negative net worth. My instinct would be to link this to the incentives created by the welfare state, but that’s a subject for another time

Categories: Economics, Philosophy, Policy

What do we owe a psychopath? A slightly philosophical review of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

October 29, 2011 5 comments
The most fundamental idea in this conception of justice is the idea of society as a fair system of social cooperation over time…John Rawls
The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals… -  Jeremy Bentham
Just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action, and altruism is one of them. . . . If the requirements of ethics are rational requirements, it follows that the motive for submitting to them must be one which it would be contrary to reason to ignore. – Thomas Nagel

[Contains very slight spoilers]

If you’re into films which simultaneously enthral and perturb (guilty), then I strongly suggest you go and see ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. In another superb outing for Tilda Swinton, she portrays Eva, the tortured mother of burgeoning psychopath* Kevin (Ezra Miller) in her attempts to understand, control and love her son as he goes on to commit a horrifying crime. More so than his ultimate victims, it is really Eva who is the canvas upon which Kevin paints a sickening picture of desolation, destruction and utter emotional torment. Except for the sporadic moments where he needs her, one gets the impression that Kevin is completely and thoroughly calculating in his behaviour so as to maximise the anguish and agony he inflicts on his mother.

The film makes an incredibly arresting and invasive use of sound and colour, provoking a sense of unwanted intrusion into the audience’s mind in a way I don’t think I have ever experienced before in film. To give you the sense of what I’m talking about, there was actually a fire alarm in the cinema beeping every few minutes or so – and until they briefly paused the film in order to stop it, I genuinely believed that it was just another jarring element to a kind of intermittent cacophony of sound which characterises most of the film. The pause was actually somewhat of a welcome respite after 45 minutes of uncomfortable audio-visual obtrusion and some truly epic foreshadowing of an abominable conclusion.

It was not an easy film to watch, but I nonetheless found it extremely rewarding and thought provoking. Psychopaths are inherently fascinating, and have made a timeless subject for both ‘popular’ and highbrow entertainment. But I have a special and particular interest in psychopaths, which is namely how well various moral theories can cope with them. The three quotes I put up at the beginning are three examples that immediately spring to mind of positions in moral philosophy that do not sit well with the existence of psychopaths. In the case of Rawls and other ‘liberal’ political theorists, the vision of society as a fair system of co-operation does not at first glance have much of a place for those who couldn’t care less about co-operation and fairness (or indeed have any recognition of another human being as having moral worth or deserving of respect). If rights arise within the context of this idea of society, what do we owe a psychopath? Do we owe anything to those seemingly incapable of a moral existence? If an individual is considering the rules of society from behind a veil of ignorance, should she account for the possibility that she could be a psychopath? If psychopathy is genetic or in some way socially conditioned (i.e. it is not the psychopath’s ‘fault’), how should we apportion blame? These are, to my mind, extremely difficult questions for liberal theories, which seems to begin with an idea of the individual as essentially moral if actually imperfect.

Or what about utilitarianism? Is it good if a psychopath gets pleasure from killing, or from the delusion of grandeur that seems to accompany it (at least in the popular portrayals)? I think the psychopath provides an excellent example of pleasure that is not good. When Kevin finally commits his crime, it is just a plain misreading of the moral landscape to say ‘shame about all the killing. But hey, at least he got a kick out of it…’! If anything, the fact that he may have enjoyed it makes it even worse. Whilst the world is not generally lacking in devastating arguments against Benthamite utilitarianism, I do think the psychopath can be found amongst them.

And finally, what about the tradition of Moral Rationalism (most associated with Kant), which identifies immorality and amorality as a defect of reason? This isn’t a conclusive argument, but the fact that psychopaths are no less intelligent than non-psychopaths and the extremely interesting result that higher IQ is correlated with “the destructive potential” of a psychopath strikes me as pretty good prima facie evidence that there is nothing irrational about being immoral.

There is a not unreasonable feminist critique of philosophical ethics that it tends to focus on only a select few domains of ethical life, specifically those that tend to concern men or emphasise typically ‘male’ traits over typically ‘female’ ones (e.g. the surprising absence of explicit references to compassion in modern moral theorizing). But there is another not unreasonable critique of philosophical ethics that, whilst recognising some glorious exceptions, there is a general lack of thoughtful treatment of those who appear constitutionally incapable of moral experience. Psychopaths are hard cases. But we shouldn’t shy away from thinking about how they test the coherence of our moral edifices. I’m not at all sure how the moral universe can accommodate the existence of Kevin, and how we should treat him. But I’ll keep on thinking about it.
*I spent a reasonable amount of time toying with whether Kevin is most accurately described as a sociopath or a psychopath. I plumped for psychopath, on the basis it makes the blog title sound more interesting and that I am not above making editorial decisions on the basis of shameless self-promotion

Categories: Culture, Philosophy

Bryan Caplan’s argument for pacifism, almost triumphant

September 10, 2011 1 comment

Fairly soon after I published my earlier post on the argument, I realised that instead of criticising Caplan’s argument, I was actually arguing for his position. So, here is a new informal argument for pacifism, based on his own and my failed critique:

  1. The short run costs of war are very high (innocent people are killed)
  2. The long run benefits and costs of a war are subject to extreme Knightian uncertainty
  3. Where the benefits or costs of a decision are subject to extreme Knightian uncertainty, they ought to be excluded from rational calculation (essentially the point I made in my last post)
  4. Therefore, we ought to exclude the potential long-term benefits and costs of war from rational calculation (my friend David’s comment on my last post explains this premise nicely)
  5. Therefore, as the category of reasons usually given for war (the achievement of a long-run benefit) have to be excluded from rational calculation, we ought not to go to war in those cases

You could argue in some cases that there are short-term reasons to go to war that are not subject to Knightian uncertainty and that therefore the pacifism one can conclude does not apply to all cases. Fair enough, I’m not going to argue against war in immediate self-defence (although I could, and Caplan makes a few points here about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). But given that a lot of justifications for war involve the desire to fulfil long-term strategic or moral objectives (see interventionism, liberal) Caplan’s argument mitigates very strongly in the direction of not taking deliberate action that we can foresee will lead to our killing of innocent people.

Bryan Caplan’s argument for pacifism

July 20, 2011 8 comments

It’s been a while since an argument has made me think as much as Bryan Caplan’s many iterations of his argument for pacifism. The argument goes something like this

  1. The short-run costs of war are very high
  2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain
  3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs

First of all, the third premise is ambiguous as it stands. I assume that the ‘long-run benefits’ Bryan refers to in the third premise are not the actual but rather expected benefits. Indeed, otherwise his conclusion would not be action-guiding as the whole point is we are highly uncertain over what the long-run benefits actually would be and whether or not they would be substantial. The conclusion would instead read ‘it is highly uncertain whether or not we should go to war’.

Recast, the argument reads

A) The short run costs are very high

B) The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain

C) For a war to be morally justified, the expected long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs

Hmm, I’m still not happy with the third premise due to the ambiguity of ‘expected’. For example, if there is a coin toss where I get £10 if it’s heads and have to pay £10 if it’s tails the expected value is zero. The most basic concept of expected value is a function of the value of all the possible outcomes multiplied by probabilities of each of those outcomes occurring. In the case of war, this is not a useful idea of expected value, not just due to the problem of assigning probabilities but that the logical space of possible outcomes is indefinable*. Expected value is a very handy concept where you have games with defined rules, but it leaves us high and dry when trying to address most really difficult real-world problems.

Maybe I’ll think of some way to further refine C) to make it less problematic, but I’m sceptical because I believe this is a particular instance of a very general issue with consequentialist/cost-benefit type moral theorizing: namely, that in conditions of Knightian uncertainty it appears impossible for there to be a fact of the matter about what we ought to do. My argument for this is very simple

  1. In order for there to be a fact of the matter about what we ought to do, it has to in some way be discoverable (basically a restatement of the ought-implies-can principle)
  2. In cases where one of the significant consequences is subject to Knightian uncertainty, there is no way to discover any fact of the matter about what we ought to do

Of course, if you add in a Taleb-like premise 3)

  1. Every moral decision incorporates Knightian uncertainty as to what the (eventual) significant consequences of any decision will be

Then we are led to a most unhappy conclusion

  1. There is no fact of the matter as to how we should decide moral cases

Back at university, I used to call this the ‘moral paralysis of consequentialism’ – that if what you are genuinely trying to do when making a moral decision is to in some way facilitate the best future outcomes, there is no way of deciding what to do.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for about three years now and I haven’t made any significant progress since I wrote my first undergraduate essay on the subject. Sorry.

Final point, I would be very interested to hear what Bryan has to say about taking strong preventative action against climate-change. And, for that matter, Pascal’s wager. If there is some kind of consistent general decision principle underlying his third premise, discussion of those cases should illuminate greatly.

*Unless you take the possible outcomes to simply be all logically possible outcomes, but I think it’s safe to say this wouldn’t get us anywhere

Your knowledge or your life

May 2, 2011 1 comment

Suppose you are accosted by an omniscient highwayman – and instead of demanding your money or your life, he is after something altogether more tricky: empirical truth. Tell him something empirically true and you escape unharmed. What should you say*?

Consider, for a moment, externalist definitions of knowledge – for example that a belief is the production of a reliable mechanism for producing truth. Would this knowledge, if I had it, be of any use to me here? It would not, as it is not a condition of externalist knowledge that I can internally discern what is true and what is not true. My perceptual beliefs may be reliable, and if they are reliable then I know them, according to the externalist. But that knowledge is of no comfort to me in this situation, as it doesn’t help me make a choice whether to assert one proposition or the other. P may be the production of a reliable mechanism and Q may not be, but if I have no idea whether P or Q are produced by reliable mechanisms, I have no reason consciously available to me to assert P or Q to the highwayman.

If someone demands of me that I speak truth, in order to be able to make choices based on reason in order to meet that demand, it must be the case that any reason for believing something be available to me. Those are the only kinds of reasons that are any good to me if I’m to actively try and stay alive in this situation. I need to consider my internal justifications for believing any particular proposition to be true.

Now, suppose I’m considering whether proposition P would be a good candidate to assert to the highwayman. I look at my reasons for P. Say I believe P because of [R → P] and R. But why then not assert either R or [R → P]? Surely P cannot be on a better internal epistemic footing than both of those two propositions put together? For if my belief that P is truly justified only by [R → P] and R, then P would have the same evidential status as [[R → P] & R]. Since you cannot increase the probability of a proposition being true through conjunction, I should be better off asserting either R or [R → P].

Suppose then I choose to assert R. Why do I believe R? If I give reasons, then I am better off asserting the reasons for R than R itself. I can never get to a point where I can rationally assert one proposition rather than any other. This is true even if I gave some coherentist-style justification for a proposition, as the issue with coherentism is there is absolutely zero reason to believe than a coherent set of propositions remotely resembles the truth.

Now, fortunately we are not usually in the position of having to assert truth to an omniscient psychopath. But consider the following not-implausible epistemic norm:

A) You should assert only what is justified

As our highwayman example shows, if we go about actually trying to meet such a test based on what is consciously available to us, we’ll never get to a point of justification. External justification is of no help to us when consciously trying to meet epistemic norms. And that, in my view, is the real challenge of the sceptic. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a belief having the property of being produced by a reliable mechanism, or of its being caused by the truth of its content. It’s a genuine property that any number of our beliefs could have, but since the justification is external it doesn’t help us in the deliberate practice of choosing what we should believe or assert. If we were to instead invoke a stronger epistemic norm:

B) You should only assert what you know can discern to be true

And combine this with the ‘ought-implies-can’ principle, the fact that we cannot give any internal reasons for believing one proposition rather than another from our own internal perspective leads to the unhappy conclusion that

C) One ought not to assert anything.

*Some clever-clogs is going to figure out that the optimal strategy in this situation would be to say ‘My life is being threatened’. If it’s true then you pass the test, if it’s not then your life isn’t threatened anyway. So let’s also assume than our omniscient highwayman also has an irrational dislike for clever-clogs

Declining marginal utility of income and the utilitarian argument for income redistribution

January 17, 2011 3 comments

Update: A number of the arguments I have made in this post are highly problematic (I always publish too hastily). However, I still consider the basic point to be correct and will hopefully publish a follow-up soon.


What do economists mean when they are talking about the phenomenon of declining marginal utility of income? It’s pretty simple, really. If you earn £10k a year, an extra £1,000 is worth a lot more to you than if you earn £100k a year. Another way of putting it is: the world is better off ‘happiness-wise’ (ceteris paribus) if the extra £1,000 goes to the less well-off[1]. I used to believe that this generates a simple argument from utilitarian premises for widespread income redistribution.

But a few months ago, I had a thought that actually this isn’t so obviously the case. Declining marginal utility of income has an interesting corollary, namely that those who work jobs that require long hours should be paid more per hour in order to maintain the same level of happiness. I have made this point to a number of people in discussion and I don’t feel I have made myself clear, so I thought I would have a stab in written form.

Imagine a prime specimen of homo economicus whom I shall gender-neutrally term ‘Alex’. Now, let us first suppose that for Alex, the marginal utility of income is constant. Alex is deciding whether to take a job for £20k that requires 40 hours per week, or £30k that requires 60 hours per week. Alex would be indifferent to these two options, for if we understand the decision on how much he/she wishes to work as a trade-off between income and leisure[2], then as he/she is being equally compensated for his foregone leisure in each case, Alex would be neither better nor worse off with either job.

However, we know that marginal utility of income is not constant. The first 20k is more important, and of the first 20k the first few thousand is even more important as this is what will feed and clothe our imaginary prospective employee. The things we buy with our extra income as we get richer are less important than the things we would buy first. That’s the declining marginal utility of income. There is also a second effect, which is the declining marginal utility of leisure. In this example, the marginal hours Alex works (say he/she works 9-9 rather than 9-5) are more valuable than the marginal hours worked by the 9-5 employee. This is because if you get out of work at 5, you still have time in the day to do things like have hobbies and go and see friends. Getting out at 4 rather than 5 doesn’t make much of a difference to your ability to have extensive hobbies outside of work or to your social life, but the difference between getting out at 8 and 9 makes a very large difference – not only in terms of the time you have, but in how much energy you have to spend that time fruitfully. Therefore, in order to be compensated for all that Alex loses by working longer hours, Alex gets paid more for that time. In fact, declining marginal utility is everywhere. Working is (at least in one way) like cheesecake: the next slice is never as good as the previous one, and there would come a point where I would actually pay to not have an extra slice.

So, we have Alex working a 60 hour a week job for (say) £40k p.a., and suppose we have Casey[3] working a 40 hour a week job for (say) £20k p.a. It is entirely plausible that, in terms of their actual welfare, Alex and Casey are equally well off. Alex may be able to buy box seats at the theatre, but Casey has the time to do amateur theatre. So if we were considering what justice would require in terms of redistribution of the income of Alex and Casey towards someone else, ‘Morgan’[4] who cannot earn income due to disability or illness, it would be may well be inegalitarian to require Alex to give more a higher proportion of income[5] to Morgan than Casey. People who choose to work longer hours should not automatically be considered better off just because they have more income, and when you combine the two effects of working more and being compensated more highly for those marginal hours due to the declining marginal utility of income the amount of extra income required to equalize their well being could be considerable[6].

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: for income in excess of that required to compensate workers with long hours I think the redistribution argument holds – but with the ceteris paribus assumption. And there are lots of things that matter (from a utilitarian perspective) that would need to be taken into account such as the effect of high marginal taxes on work incentives. If you don’t think that work incentives matter, think about this: an economy is fundamentally about exchange – trades made between two or more parties for their mutual benefit. If I buy a sandwich at M&S for £3, what is basically happening is that I would rather have the sandwich than the £3, and M&S would rather have the £3 than the sandwich. Everyone is better off. Now, the people who run M&S are much richer than I am. But I want them to make the sandwich and trade with me rather than not. It is too easy to think of those who earn more as being parasitic on society’s resources – but a crucial part of society’s resources is labour itself, people taking resources and turning them into something more useful, desirable and, indeed, valuable.

The economist Tyler Cowen recently wrote an excellent essay in The American Interest entitled ‘The Inequality That Matters’, in which he makes the following point:

“The funny thing is this: For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us that Americans should behave more like threshold earners. We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life. That may well be good advice. Many studies suggest that above a certain level more money brings only marginal increments of happiness. What isn’t so widely advertised is that those same critics have basically been telling us, without realizing it, that we should be acting in such a manner as to increase measured income inequality. Not only is high inequality an inevitable concomitant of human diversity, but growing income inequality may be, too, if lots of us take the kind of advice that will make us happier.”

If it is the case that much of what is really valuable is that which cannot be priced and exchanged in a market, then this makes a considerable difference to optimal public policy from the perspective of an egalitarian – let alone a utilitarian.

Update: if you are of an egalitarian mindset, and have not read Elizabeth Anderson’s fantastic ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ paper, please do. You are missing out on both a superb critique and impassioned defence

Update 2: That Alex and Casey should be taxed in direct proportion to their income does not at all follow, as has been pointed out to me. Strictly speaking what should happen from an egalitarian perspective is that each should be taxed in such a way that their welfare loss is equal. It is a completely open question as to what this would actually look like, because it depends on the exact way in which the marginal utility of income varies with income. If I was attempting to argue against progressive taxation/redistribution this would be a problem, but I’m not. I’m just attempting to show that arguing for progressive taxation/redistribution merely on the basis of declining marginal utility of income doesn’t do the necessary work. I have therefore adjusted the strength of my claim accordingly.

[1] File under ‘totally fucking obvious to everyone who isn’t an economist’

[2] Again, only an economist would call everything that isn’t gainful employment ‘leisure’, but I’ll stick to the convention here

[3] I’m going to start running out of gender-neutral names soon…

[4] Still going strong

[5] My original point was incorrect, as the declining marginal utility of income means that any given £1 taken from Alex is worth less to Alex than £1 from Casey is worth to Casey. However, if you take £1 from Alex and not from Casey, then Casey is better off than Alex since I assumed they are equally well off. The tax should therefore be proportionate, and proportion of income is as good a proxy as any for how to keep their welfare constant, even if it isn’t perfect

[6] There is also a third substantial effect, which is cost of living and relative rates of inflation. I would point the reader in the direction of two excellent essays from a couple of American conservative writers whom I enjoy reading (it’s not an extensive list) – the first is from Reihan Salam at the NRO, on variations in income and cost of living across the US, and the second is from Will Wilkinson, a.k.a. the sole redeeming feature of the CATO institute. Also very much worth reading is Steve Waldman’s response to Wilkinson, which can be found here. I link, you decide.

Categories: Economics, Philosophy, Policy

Justifying the state

June 30, 2010 2 comments

If I murder someone, I can be imprisoned by the government. However, it is only the government that is allowed to imprison me – if you do it, that is called false imprisonment and is itself a criminal offence. Why is it that governments are allowed to lock people up for the good of society and individual citizens aren’t?

Given that using overwhelming force to get people to do what you want them to do (e.g. remain in an 8×10 room for the next 20-25 years) is generally speaking not acceptable for individuals or corporations to do, one might think there should be a reason why governments are allowed to. Let’s review a few candidates:

1) You expressly consented to the government having such a right.

In terms of giving an argument for the legitimacy of actual states, this is a non-starter. No such consent has been given, except maybe by those who acquire citizenship by choice.

2) You tacitly consented to the government having such a right.

It isn’t necessary for consent to expressly say ‘I consent’. Sex is an obvious example; non-consensual sex is illegal, but there are (mercifully) a number of uncodified ways of signifying consent. Even if we assume that such tacit consent would legitimize government coercion, there do not exist the kind of uncodified ways of tacitly signalling consent to government coercion as in the case of sex. Proposed acts of tacit consent to such coercion – voting, not voluntarily leaving the territory – do not have the necessary link between the proposed act and the understanding on the part of the actor of what it is they are consenting to by performing that act in order for the analogy with express consent to go through.

3) The principle of fair play

Another non-starter. The principle of fair play essentially this: if a community engages in a mutually beneficial enterprise that requires co-operation, then if you benefit from the enterprise you shouldn’t be allowed to free-ride on the cost of producing that benefit. It is a non-starter because it fails to explain why the enterprise of government generates a strong enough claim to allow coercion when other co-operative enterprises do not. It may account for a moral obligation to co-operate, but simply demonstrating the existence of a moral obligation is insufficient for legitimizing coercion as an instrument of ensuring the fulfilment of that obligation.

4) Natural Duty of Justice

The gist of this line of thought is that we have an obligation to support just institutions. If the state is just, then we should do what it says. But again, this only speaks to a moral obligation – that I ought to obey the rules of a just state does not speak to the right of that state to coerce me into following those rules.

5) Hypothetical Consent

Medical procedures, in the ideal world, are consented to. However, sometimes we are not able to consent to things that we would – I cannot consent to surgery after being involved in a motorbike accident where I am left unconscious, but the doctors are quite permitted to perform the surgery because I would grant the permission if given the opportunity. The hypothetical consent tradition in political philosophy says it’s fine that people don’t actually consent to government coercion, it’s enough that they would if asked. Why would they do so? Because it is way better that we have a government than not. However, hypothetical consent (when it comes to government) proves far too much. If it legitimizes all government coercion where having such a coercive authority is better than having none, then if anarchy is really really bad – as those in the hypothetical consent tradition are inclined to think it is, cf Thomas Hobbes – then just plain ol’ bad tyrannical government passes the hypothetical consent test. Furthermore, it might be better to allow coercion by both the government AND (say) me. If having government is better than anarchy, then probably so is having government and a few select individuals locking people up in their basements.

We can generalize the considerations I have briefly and flippantly adduced by saying that any theory of why it is OK for the government and no one else to engage in certain coercive practices should meet two constraints: it should cover at least the vast majority of people who can be subjected to such coercion, and most crucially it should explain why we reserve this right exclusively to the government. The second constraint has (to my knowledge) been ignored by all the literature on the subject, despite its being such an obvious and important feature of the modern conception of the state.

Now, I am not by any means a political anarchist. Indeed, I think these considerations point somewhat in the other direction, politically speaking. For example, suppose you are a hard-line libertarian who thinks it is the job of the government to enforce contracts entered into by consenting, mentally capable adults and nothing else. The government in such a contract is, in effect, an unnamed third party who the contracting parties agree to have settle a dispute and execute that settlement – by force, if necessary. But why, on this hard-line libertarian position, can’t consenting adults name some other third party? Why can’t the parties say in the event of a dispute or breach of contract that Mr T be brought in to settle it*? Even the most extreme of libertarians are incapable of accounting for why only government is allowed to use coercive force.

The lesson I take from this is that politics, like ethics more broadly speaking, involves us trading off against each other all sorts of things we find valuable. For example, there is a long and tedious debate amongst political philosophers as to what ‘freedom’ means. Does being free mean not having people interfere with what you want to do, or having the ability to do the things you want to do? The answer is: both matter, and both taken to the extreme lead to highly undesirable outcomes. If we want to feed everybody, then we may have to take stuff from one person and give it to another – stuff they might not give up otherwise (this is also known as ‘taxation’). That a homeless person might be ‘free’ to eat but unable is a simple demonstration that many things other than freedom from coercion are valuable. Deciding what a government or anyone should and should not be allowed to  do is essentially trading off the value of not being coerced against whatever it is that can be achieved by the coercion.

* I pity the fool who would agree to such an arrangement


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