Monday, July 9, 2012

Justification of the state on an individual basis

Jonathan shares his thoughts on the justification of the state here, discussing what I wrote as well. I think there's a good understanding between us on what I was trying to say, but I do want to shift the emphasis a little. It's not just that the state clearly exists so it doesn't need an origin story or something like that. I think most people recognize that these philosophical-justifications-as-origin-stories for the state aren't true. So certainly I'll repeat that point but I don't think noting that adds much.

What I would emphasize is that it doesn't make sense to "justify" the state in the way that we think we need to "justify" the Bolzano-Weierstrass theorem.

Well, at least I don't think we have to. You might have to if your ethics is such that you strictly adhere to a non-aggression principle and think it has a hope of being applied in a sensible way (e.g. - if you're not like me and thus are not very confused about who is really doing the aggressing in most situations of every day interactions between citizens, the state, and other institutions).

If you're in that boat, then it becomes a real ethical question for you. I think Mattheus is in that boat. I think Mattheus thinks we're all in that boat, but we're really not. I'm certainly not. And that's why I don't really bother much with social contract theory but I do think it sends a nice message. Whatever the state is, we think it ought to act as if something like a social contract existed.

Jonathan concludes with this:

"Unlike Daniel, though, I do think the State needs to be justified.  It needs to be justified on an individual basis, because it is this kind of rationalization that decides the long-term path of institutional evolution.  If most people believed the State to be illegitimate and damaging to society then I don’t think it would exist for a long time.  But, this clearly isn’t the case, which means that most people do legitimize it and do believe government should exist — exactly for the array of disjointed reasons pointed to above.  But, this process of legitimization and de-legitimization is what has led to the evolution of coercive institutions in the first place."

I actually agree with this. I tried to lay out how I was using the word "justify" vs. "rationalize" in my other post, but perhaps I wasn't clear enough. We do, to a certain extent, control our own fate. You need only look to various constitutional episodes throughout history to realize that and therefore to realize that having a view of what would make a state legitimate or illegitimate can influence those episodes. And I think when Jonathan calls this an "array of disjointed reasons" it's a good way of putting it. This is what I was referring to as "rationalizing" the state. This is much more akin to a pros and cons list that we assemble (perhaps with the odd deontological line in the sand), and very different from a strict contractarian perspective that leads people like Spooner and other anarchists to say "I didn't sign no stinkin' social contract so this is all illegitimate" (which is what I was calling "justification" and which I think is unnecessary and impossible for an institution... leave that for math theorems and things like that).


  1. Well, you can't derive an ought from an is.

    Anyway, we should all agree that whatever system we support we came to that conclusion before we had any significant justifications to support it.

    The state as it exists today (at least say in the U.S., Europe, etc.) does so due to a lot of inertia, eventually that will lose out if it is slowed down by, well, we can call it resistance. Combine that with the notion that there isn't any real reason to suspect that things will go on as they have done for the past several hundred years re: the advent of the modern state and I conclude that state or no state, social contract theory, etc. is a pretty sterile set of ideas anymore.

  2. States exist for two obvious reasons.

    First, you cannot live without them.

    Second, if you don't have one (and anyone in the hood does), you will be working for the man, under the incentive of the whip.

    IOW, great irony, the only path to freedom is via an effective state.

    1. As an economist might say, "this doesn't fit the evidence."


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