Government Is Not What It Does, but How It Does It

Re-reading Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” as I work on my American Government book, I was struck by something that is very openly expressed there, but which I had never really caught and thought about before, which is that government is not defined by what it does.

Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state.

I think this is important, because so much of the justification for the state that is thrown up in response to libertarianism assumes that the state is about particular ends, most of which can be organized under three broad categories (or so, I think, off the top of my head): the punishment of malefactors, collective defense, provision of infrastructure (which often overlaps the other two, to the extent that a legal system is partly infrastructure, and transportation systems designed in part with defense in mind).

For example, my friend PJ once said that he believes cities should set up internet access for their citizens because the internet is infrastructure and “government does infrastructure.” Ironically, PJ is considerably more well-versed in Weber than I am. But he had to concede when I pointed out that our telephone systems and many of our water and electric systems in the U.S. were provided by private companies, rather than by government. Government does do infrastructure, but infrastructure is not “exclusive and peculiar” to government.

I slip into this assumption myself, when I argue that the existence of negative externalities, a market failure, requires–or at least justifies–state action.

But of course these things can all be done by non-state actors. I often point out to my students that I don’t necessarily need the government to protect me from burglars. I can build a high-walled compound with landmines and trip wires around my house, and teach everyone in my family how to shoot. Likewise, a non-governmental response such negative externalities as, say, a major oil spill, might be to simply shoot the executives involved, which both punishes them and sends a warning to other executives considering cutting corners.

Most people respond to such suggestion with horror, because they are violent solutions. But as Weber goes on to say, government is based on “successfully claim[ing] the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (italics in original). The governmental solution is based on force no less than the non-governmental solution. It’s just that somehow government has managed to persuade people that its force is legitimate.

It seems to me that the justification of government becomes simply a benefit-cost calculation, with little direct moral consideration. Which system gives the greatest benefit in reducing the type of social problems we’re trying to solve while exerting the least amount of force? Perhaps there’s a moral element, too, in that we can ask which uses force most fairly and with the least amount of abuse, but I’m not sure that’s really any different in substance from the benefit-cost calculation.

I don’t think that calculation is easy to make. I certainly don’t think it’s as easy as either my pro-state friends or my anti-state libertarian acquaintances think. The former discount the horrendous abuses of government as correctable errors, rather than inevitable consequences. The latter underestimate the likelihood of violence in an anarchic system. I think the calculus lies in favor of a slightly more than minimal state. But don’t ask me to prove it.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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32 Responses to Government Is Not What It Does, but How It Does It

  1. pinky says:

    .
    Sociologically speaking the state is formed to do for individuals what they need for survival that cannot be done by themselves–as a group. (Talcott Parsons calls it the largest possible group. He also talks about a super national group that cuts across state borders.)
    .
    Minus a democratic state organized by its citizenry, the private sector will sooner or later morph into a monarchy in which the wealthiest and most powerful land owner takes authority over all others–that person gets a crown and every one kisses his rear end. In the meantime, there is a sense of either a friendly or mean spirited competitiveness that drives society.
    .
    Our American form of government provides something in between, And, in this sense, we are an experiment (right?) that is continually unraveling itself.
    .
    No one should expect everyone will thoroughly enjoy the ride.
    .
    It does get bumpy.
    .
    Generally speaking, Americans hate monarchies which are the ultimate state of a thoroughly privatized economy.

    heh heh

  2. pinky says:

    .
    Some people call me by my initials, P.J., but, I am not the one James Hanley means in this article.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Pinky, I agree that the state is inevitable, and so we ought to struggle for one that is limited and accountable. But then the “justification” for the state is reduced to a mere, “it could be worse.” I’m not precisely arguing with you, just noting that the inevitability of the state does not logically create any justification for it (anymore than the inevitability of rape, murder, and theft justifies those things).

  4. But he had to concede when I pointed out that our telephone systems and many of our water and electric systems in the U.S. were provided by private companies, rather than by government. Government does do infrastructure, but infrastructure is not “exclusive and peculiar” to government.

    At the same time, I’d wager that in order for many of those private companies to operate, they needed to obtain rights of way over or under public or private property (for the telephone lines) from the state, or monopolies, or at least substantial incentives, from the state in order to build or provide those infrastructural services.

    If I’m right, none of this disproves your main point because I can (probably) think of some “infrastructural” services that are provided without the support or complicity of the state.

    I do find your/Weber’s argument intriguing. It’s a reminder that I perhaps ought to read Weber. I do have some questions/comments, however.

    1. At what point does “the state” in any instance actually convince its subjects that it has the monopoly on legitimate physical force? Is this point some fictive “state of nature”? Is it continually reconstituted over and over again as the state punishes malfeasors who “illegitimately” use physical force?

    2. Whenever a mugging or other violent crime takes place, and the state not only fails to bring justice (which happens a lot), but fails systematically to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice (as some argue happen in underprotected neighborhoods in big cities), does this mean that the state cannot practically claim to have a monopoly on “legitimate” violence and therefore does not exist? (I guess this question has a lot question-begging of fact not in evidence or claims not proven, but I sometimes have a difficult time wrapping my head around how and when the state’s monopoly defines the state.)

    3. Does the state claim a monopoly on all legitimate coercion or only, as you write above (quoting Weber, if I’m not mistaken), a monopoly on legitimate physical coercion? If the latter, does it account for coercive measures that might be exercised and affect third parties that are not ultimately, or at least not necessarily, violent? I suppose the claim is that the state’s claim to anything is always undergirded by the threat of violence. (I’m not sure I understand my question, and I’m confident I don’t understand my explanation of it in the penultimate sentence of this paragraph, but I thought I’d throw it out there.)

  5. James Hanley says:

    Pierre,

    Question 1: I’ve been pondering that the last few days, both here and at Dispatches, because as I was working on a chapter for my American Gov’t book, defining and explaining the justification for government, I smacked straight into that question and got hung up on it. I don’t have an answer, and I’m not there’s a generally agreed upon answer to it. It throws the whole question of whether government’s force can be legitimized into question, I think.

    Question 2: I don’t think a failure to use legitimate force when it can and should undermines a claim to a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Assuming the claim is accepted–however that may occur–it doesn’t necessarily follow that the government must exercise its capacities in each appropriate case in order to retain the monopoly. It might not be a desirable type of government, but that’s a different question.

    Question 3: A good question. At least it occurred to me, so it must obviously be a good question. I didn’t want to deal with it, though, so I didn’t think about it long enough to phrase or explain it any more clearly than you did. Weber does in fact say “physical” force, and does not clarify that (at least not in that particular article). My off-the-cuff presumption would be that he’s allowing an opening for family and church to exercise legitimate moral/psychological persuasion. That would fit with someone who was writing in late 19th/early 20th century Germany, but I can’t say for certain that’s it.

    As to the infrastructure argument, you’re right that government does assist in private building of it by helping create rights of way. It can be done without that, however. It’s just an order of magnitude or two more difficult. (Unless, of course, the builder gets to the land before others purchase it–e.g, creating a neighborhood or even city from scratch. Then they can easily build all the infrastructure without government’s help in gaining rights of way, and can include rights of way either as parcels not owned by the people who purchase lots there, or as deed restrictions, which while enforceable by government are actually contractual arrangements made in a free market.) And, as a side thought, one of the nice thing about wireless internet is it provides new infrastructure that doesn’t require as much mucking about with people’s property rights.

  6. Alan Scott says:

    Wireless internet provides a rights-respecting communications infrastructure in the same way that a helicopter provides a rights-respecting transportation infrastructure–it’s not getting in anybody’s way, but it’s somewhat limited in capacity and universal adoption will result in a chaotic mess.

  7. ppnl says:

    I cannot help but think this post is hopelessly confused. It strengthens my impression that libertarians have strong Platonist tendencies. Take this for example:

    ” I slip into this assumption myself, when I argue that the existence of negative externalities, a market failure, requires–or at least justifies–state action. ”

    Societies that do not deal well with negative externalities tend to disappear. There is no moral requirement. There is no absolute justification. There are only consequences to our choices.

    ” Likewise, a non-governmental response such negative externalities as, say, a major oil spill, might be to simply shoot the executives involved, which both punishes them and sends a warning to other executives considering cutting corners. ”

    If you choose to do that the universe does not care. There is no God to punish you. Thor will not strike you down with a thunder bolt. But there are consequences. Most likely the family of the executive will come after you. Jared Diamond wrote about a society exactly like this in “Collapse:How societies choose to fail or succeed”.

    Humans are biologically a social species. That means we gather together in groups with a shared system of values. Government is one expression of our social nature. If you can come up with an alternative to government you don’t need to morally justify it. The only question is can it survive. The answer to that is largely determined by how well it arbitrates internal conflicts and how well it deals with negative externalities.

    I suspect that anything that accomplishes this will look very much like a coercive government that claims a monopoly on many kinds of activities.

  8. James K says:

    ppnl:

    Societies that do not deal well with negative externalities tend to disappear. There is no moral requirement. There is no absolute justification. There are only consequences to our choices.

    I’m pretty sure that’s what James means by “justify”. I’ve been reading James’s stuff for a while and he’s neither an anarchist nor a deontological libertarian like Rothbard. I think you should read “justified” as “passes benefit-cost analysis” to get the right meaning.

  9. Thanks, Mr. Hanley, for your thoughtful response to my questions.

    I do still question, however, the extent to which a state that systematically refuses or lacks the resources to combat non-state violence can be said to enjoy a monopoly on legitimate physical coercion. I’m thinking, for example, of the probably apocryphal examples of mafia dons who command the respect of their neighborhoods through violence and who convince state actors (police officers, venal politicians, corrupt judges, etc.) to look the other way. (I netflixed “The Godfather” about a month ago….I get much of my knowledge about the world from Hollywood 🙂 ) In that situation, the state, I think, either abrogates or is unable to enforce its claim on a monopoly on legitimate violence.

    I suppose my major qualm is that if/when such shenanigans ever do happen, the concept of the state that rests on its claim to a monopoly of legitimate violence is not very useful in defining what the state is because it doesn’t seem to me that the state disappears in such a situation.

    Truth be told, however, I realize anyone could always niggle at the margins of your (or my, or anyone else’s) definition of the state. I’m just curious about the degree to which extra-state violence can implicate the states claim to its monopoly.

  10. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    You’ve said nothing that would demonstrate hopeless confusion on my part. James K’s comment is precisely right. I think you’ve agreed to my cost-benefit analysis standard, and all we’re quibbling about is the value in the equation.

    And I agree that humans are biologically a social species. But that just means sociality is natural, not government. You mentioned Diamond, so let me recommend his Guns, Germs and Steel (which perhaps you’ve already read), and you’ll see that he argues–I think correctly–that states (real governments) did not arise until the development of agriculture. Smaller hunter-gatherer societies engaged in self-governance, but without government.

    The fact that humans developed agriculture, became sedentary, and developed societies to large to be governed without government does not in itself mean government is justified. But an argument can be made that these larger ag-based societies are superior enough to smaller H-G ones, on a cost-benefit basis. But I think such an argument would have to work one of two ways. Either it uses values that are highly subjective (how much we like the amenities of modern life, for example), or we stick solely to objective factors (such as my original focus on “total amount of violence,” or our local economists might suggest a focus on life-expectancy and health measures).

    Such an analysis might come out in favor of modern society, and since that is–I think–impossible without government, it might ultimately justify government. My argument is simply that the vast amount of killing and abuse-of-citizenry modern governments do make me dubious that a benefit-cost analysis would actually favor it over the ancient HG lifestyle.

    I don’t mind sharp argument, but if you’re going to argue that I’m wildly off the mark, you might want to be sure you’re not actually adopting my basic analytical approach.

  11. James Hanley says:

    Pierre,

    An interesting example. I think I understand your point better now.

    I don’t think Weber gave much thought to that kind of issue, but people who have tried to apply his thought have done so over the past century. I think, in a nutshell, they’d suggest that it’s not necessarily clear in that case that the state is a true state, or at least that it would only dubiously be called a state, and that the mafia–or whomever–had usurped at least some of the functions of the state, or was a sort of quasi-state.

    I think it’s helpful to consider Weber’s definition to be a sort of ideal type. My post here probably implicitly treated it as a binary variable, which would be misleading. So there are plausibly degrees of “stateness.” I think because we are grafting definitions onto a complex world, we’re rarely able to actually define natural binary variables, and most of our categories of the world should be understood as continuous variables (or even variables plotted two-dimensionally–at least–rather than simply on a continuum). But I’m not sure humans naturally think that way. We seem to have a tendency to slip into either-or categorizations, which can get misleading, as I think I misled you. Fortunately, questions about those categories can often lead us back to the better way of analyzing those categories.

  12. ppnl says:

    James Hanely,

    I don’t think you are wildly off the mark. I Just think there is some confusion with your use of words like “justify” or “require”. Maybe I’m just being picky with language.

    If I’m designing a car my choice to use a rotary rather than a eight cylinder piston engine has both good and bad consequences. I usually don’t speak of it as being justified or required. And I’m always free to design something very different like a hover car or airplane.

    The choice of what services or infrastructure government provides is like an engineering choice. There is no right or wrong of it. There is no “one best way”. There are only our choices and their consequences.

    You are free to design a system very different from the kind of government we have. But that is an act of design rather than justification. Its only justification will be in how well it survives.

    Its true that government as we know it began with agriculture but I’m not sure how different it is really. You still have a power hierarchy and certain coercive powers. The lack of ability to handle larger conflicts at a larger scale than the local group probably lead to conflict between groups. Government as we know it is just a kind of condensation of the types of hierarchies that developed in hunter gatherers. Agriculture allowed small groups to band together to address more issues and resolve larger scale conflicts. That condensation continues today.

    Even a wolf pack can in some sense be seen as having a government. You have a hierarchy from an alpha male to the omega. You have kind of a political process where by the pack chooses who takes what role and you get community input on when to hunt and who gets babysitting duty.

    Sorry if it seemed I was being overly critical but I have a thing about Platonist type thinking.

  13. AMW says:

    Sociologically speaking the state is formed to do for individuals what they need for survival that cannot be done by themselves–as a group.

    I don’t see how that’s possible. As a simple matter of (pre-)history, Individuals survived long before the state.

    Minus a democratic state organized by its citizenry, the private sector will sooner or later morph into a monarchy in which the wealthiest and most powerful land owner takes authority over all others–that person gets a crown and every one kisses his rear end.

    But just how late might “later” be. As David Friedman has pointed out, Iceland existed as an anarchy for longer than the United States has been a sovereign nation. I’m not sure we have any more historical justification in saying that anarchy devolves into tyranny than we do to say that democracy devolves into tyranny. Ancient Greece and the Weimar Republic spring to mind.

  14. ppnl says:

    James K,

    I have no problem with that. But I think the use of language is still confusing the issue.

    To see what I’m saying consider a use of language to ask a different question in a different domain. Is Pluto a planet? You had “conservatives” arguing that Pluto has always been a planet and should remain a planet. You had “liberals” arguing that anything large enough to collapse into a sphere under its own gravity should be called a planet. This means there are dozens of planets which horrified conservatives. Then you had moderates who decided we could exclude objects that are orbiting other planets since they are moons. But why can’t the class of moon be a subset of planets?

    The problem is we use language as if there were absolute classes of things called moons and planet. But these definitions are only operational chosen for utility. When someone tells you “Pluto is not a planet.” they aren’t offering an objective fact. They are proposing a definition or at least a constraint on a definition. If the question of Pluto’s planethood isn’t framed that way it leads to confusion.

    When a liberal tells you “Government has a responsibility to provide health care.” That is a statement like “Pluto is a planet.” It is not a statement of fact that can be proved or disproved. It is a proposed constraint on a definition. If it is not treated as such the discussion may decay into a discussion of moralistic absolutes.

    Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive to the language.

  15. James Hanley says:

    I cannot help but think this post is hopelessly confused

    I don’t think you are wildly off the mark.

    Well it’s good to know that even when I’m hopelessly confused I’m still not wildly off the mark. I guess I came somewhere withing spitting distance of the mark through sheer dumb luck? 😉

    I Just think there is some confusion with your use of words like “justify” or “require”.

    Justify (from dictionary.reference.com): “to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right: ” “to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded:” “to show a satisfactory reason or excuse for something done. ”

    I think any one of those will do.

    Require: I simply mean as a necessary logical consequence.

    If you are designing a car for me and decide to use a rotary engine, I would ask you to justify your choice. If you did, I would approve the design choice. Your justification might include the words, “this design decision is not required,” but once you’ve decided on a rotary engine, I’d sure as hell bet that certain other design decisions would, as a consequence, be logically required.

    The choice of what services or infrastructure government provides is like an engineering choice. There is no right or wrong of it.

    And I don’t think either Weber or I have suggested otherwise. In fact I think this would be a consequence of his claim that government has no unique ends–that the choice of whether to have government do it or leave it to the private sector is just a pragmatic, or engineering, choice.

    You are free to design a system very different from the kind of government we have. But that is an act of design rather than justification. Its only justification will be in how well it survives.

    I’m not talking about justification of a particular design of government. I’m talking about whether government in and of itself, of any design, is justified. And I think whether we’re answering that question or considering some given design, there’s more to justification than mere survival. Simple survival doesn’t show that something is “just” or “warranted” or that there’s a “satisfactory reason” for doing it.

    Its true that government as we know it began with agriculture but I’m not sure how different it is really. You still have a power hierarchy and certain coercive powers.

    It’s different in very important ways. It’s the difference between a person with personal influence and a person with formal power. For example, when deciding to go to war, the self-governing society relies on voluntary warriors, while the state can conscript people.

    The lack of ability to handle larger conflicts at a larger scale than the local group probably lead to conflict between groups. Government as we know it is just a kind of condensation of the types of hierarchies that developed in hunter gatherers. Agriculture allowed small groups to band together to address more issues and resolve larger scale conflicts. That condensation continues today.

    100% agreed. In fact it almost looks like you accessed my computer and read the book chapter I wrote a couple of days ago. But that doesn’t answer the question about total amount of violence. Fewer conflicts, but between bigger groups and at greater intensity may result in more total violence than more conflicts, between smaller groups, and at lower levels of intensity. It’s an empirical question, and we lack the data to answer it definitively. If we could answer it definitively in favor of the larger aggregations, we could make a solid argument that government is justified.

    I have a thing about Platonist type thinking.

    Yeah, so do I. What leads you to conclude that I’m engaging in it?

  16. Murali says:

    I have a thing about Platonist type thinking.

    Yeah, so do I. What leads you to conclude that I’m engaging in it?

    Because you are a moral realist and you think that there are genuine moral commitments we must have. e.g. you think that the fact that the aggegate benefits outweigh the costs are reason giving, and can do justificatory work.

    Moral realism often entails at least some type of platonism, not necessarily as crudely as plato’s forms, but still requires one to posit some type of thing which universal truths would refer to.

    Of course I differ from ppnl in that whereas he is a nominalist, I dont think that statements like pluto is a planet are like we should not torture innocent children.

    Of course libertarians are going to be moral realists and be platonists about a number of things like rights to different levels of crudity.

  17. Michael Enquist says:

    “Of course libertarians are going to be moral realists and be platonists about a number of things like rights to different levels of crudity.”

    Why?

  18. James Hanley says:

    Murali,

    If that’s all that’s meant by platonist thinking, then I’d venture to say that everyone’s going to turn out to be a platonist to some degree, which would make it a fairly useless categorization.

    But I’m not persuaded that I’m being a moral realist (I’m not quite sure what that means) as opposed to being a crass utilitarian. At any rate I don’t for a moment think there is some objective moral “form” which we should strive to copy (however imperfectly), which is how I inferred the meaning of “platonist thinking.”

  19. Murali says:

    The issue of justification of the state cannot merely stop at saying that the benefits outweigh the costs. At the very least, if what Stephen (the not-so-resident anarchist) has argued is the case, then even if the benefits outweighed the costs, if the state performed actions which while necessary/central to its continued existence, were morally impermissible, e.g. for violating rights, then the state would not be justified.
    Of course it could be that there are no principles other than cost benefit analyses that could ever play a justificatory role (utilitarianism is true). This however would have to be argued for. The basic point still stands: the principles of justice have to be identified before we decide whether or not the state is justified.
    The problem of choosing which of the principles to choose is often underestimated. The problem was eloquently illustrated by Sen in his situation about the flute.
    Consider a flute and three children who are laying various claims to it. Child A (the utilitarian) says (factually) that it is the only one who knows how to play the flute. Therefore its having it will produce the most net pleasure (also true). Therefore he should have it. Child B (the egalitarian) says that he has the fewest toys by far and that his having it will narrow the gap in utility/wealth between him and the others (also true) therefore he should get the flute (or so he says). Child C (the Lockean) argues that he made the flute (yet again true) and his labour entitles him to the flute. At once, we note that all three claims, at the very least are each in their own right plausible. There are reasonable people who would find each of the claims plausible. However (contra Sen) not all three can be true at the same time. We can also note that all 3 claims are self-serving. This does not necessarily undermine the principles. It however explicates what is meant by injustice. Basically, the fact that all 3 principles seem self-serving helps us articulate what the core objection to any particular principle would be. A principle is unjust iff it is in fact unduly self-serving. i.e. it’s not just that a particular principle happens to be in one of the parties’ interests. It’s that in acting on the principle, the actor is in some way endorsing that one make an exception for oneself. i.e. The principle is unfair.
    Justice as fairness therefore calls to the very basis of what it means to be moral and just (to act according to principles valid for all possible beings). The key then, is to eliminate the source of unfairness. A self-interested actor, in knowing his position in society will choose that which benefits him. However, the veil of ignorance, in obscuring who one is (i.e. one’s talent, life plan, values and wealth) eliminates this source of unfairness. From behind the veil of ignorance, the self interested person has to consider that he could possibly be anyone. The principles thus chosen would be uniquely just as such a principle cannot possibly be unfair.
    Of course, it is not necessary to agree with Rawls on what principles would actually be chosen behind the veil of ignorance, nor is it necessary to agree with his policy recommendations even if you accept his conclusions about which principles would be chosen.

  20. Murali says:

    being a crass utilitarian is not antithetical to being a moral realist. The opposit of a realist is a moral skeptic or a moral nihilist. Within skeptics you have people who are nominalists, non-cognitivists etc. To say that you are a moral realist means that you think statements like communism is morally wrong is a substantively meaningful statement which can have definite true/false values.

  21. Murali says:

    Because libertarianism is the position that the governance solutions for a society morally ought to be a particular way, or at least ought not have certain features like high tax rates and interferences with civil rights. Exactly how one would want to justify this conclusion is up to the individual libertarian, but look below to see my small exposition on justice and its principles.

  22. James Hanley says:

    Because libertarianism is the position that …

    Sorry, I’m not limited by your boundary conditions for libertarianism.

    The opposite of a realist is a moral skeptic or a moral nihilist

    And what makes you think I’m neither of those? If you’re going to make a strong claim that I am a moral realist, you’re going to have to demonstrate that I’m not in fact either a skeptic or nihilist. I think you’re making assumptions about me that are not based on what I’ve written.

    The issue of justification of the state cannot merely stop at saying that the benefits outweigh the costs.

    Well, if one believes in moral justifications, I suppose not. But I was trying my bet to avoid using moral justifications.

    …even if the benefits outweighed the costs, if the state performed actions which while necessary/central to its continued existence, were morally impermissible, e.g. for violating rights, then the state would not be justified.

    I’m not persuaded. That’s a deontological argument. My argument wasn’t deontological.

  23. D.A. Ridgely says:

    I smell a type / token confusion here, Murali. Not to mention some fact / value blurring in the notion of something being “in fact unduly self-serving.”

    Also, I’m not sure there is much of a nexus between “justice” and “justification” except etymologically. That is, maximal overall benefit or maximal satisfaction of individual subjective desires or whatever other consequentialist formula one comes up with need not invoke or reference any notion of justice in its historical senses. To say that such results justify a course of action or law or whatever is not to engage in a category mistake. (Note that that doesn’t put me in ppnl’s “nomimalist” camp, either, if that is, in fact, the camp he is in.)

    Speaking as someone who has managed ignorance without benefit of Rawls’ veil for most of his life, what would Sen’s (or your) take be on a revised hypothetical in which A asserted a B-benefiting principle, B asserted a C-benefiting principle and so forth?

  24. ppnl says:

    James Hanley,

    Yes my criticism was very poorly expressed. My apologies. I was not trying to say you were confused but rather that use of moralistic language was confusing. On rereading I think it isn’t as moralistic as I thought. For example when you say:

    “I slip into this assumption myself, when I argue that the existence of negative externalities, a market failure, requires–or at least justifies–state action.”

    You are saying that it is an unexamined assumption that state action is required or justified. That was not clear to me possibly because I didn’t read carefully enough.

    But I think the reason that the assumption goes unexamined is partly because it is seen as a moral question. Using words like “justify” is going to engage peoples moral instincts.

    ” Simple survival doesn’t show that something is “just” or “warranted” or that there’s a “satisfactory reason” for doing it. ”

    Aiiii more moralist language. Never mind.

    Anyway lack of survival is probably as good a clue as you will ever get that you should not have done it that way. So we are restricted to an ensemble of things that might work. How do you choose between these except by some moral or aesthetic criteria?

    ” It’s different in very important ways. It’s the difference between a person with personal influence and a person with formal power. For example, when deciding to go to war, the self-governing society relies on voluntary warriors, while the state can conscript people. ”

    You don’t think hunter gatherers ever used coercive powers? You do not think any self governing society would ever need to use coercive power? Good luck with that.

    ” Fewer conflicts, but between bigger groups and at greater intensity may result in more total violence than more conflicts, between smaller groups, and at lower levels of intensity. It’s an empirical question, and we lack the data to answer it definitively. ”

    Yes maybe. I mean I seriously doubt it but I agree that it is an empirical question. But the deeper problem is that the smaller groups are not a stable solution. There is nothing to prevent two groups from banding together and taking the resources of a third group. This larger group can then pick and choose who to take next. Tyranny starts small and grows. So group 4, 5, and 6 enter into a mutual defense agreement. Groups less able or willing to enter into increasingly complex agreements with their neighbors will quickly disappear. The only question then is the level and type of federalism.

    ” If we could answer it definitively in favor of the larger aggregations, we could make a solid argument that government is justified. ”

    This is one possible justification of government. I may justify government on many other grounds each of which has to be considered individually. And who decided we need to limit violence between people anyway?

  25. ppnl says:

    James Hanley,

    If that’s all that’s meant by platonist thinking, then I’d venture to say that everyone’s going to turn out to be a platonist to some degree, which would make it a fairly useless categorization.

    I think this is exactly correct. We are immersed in Platonism the way a fish is immersed in water. Only it’s still useful as a category exactly because it is useful for a fish to think about water rather than accept it as an a priori given.

    What exactly does in mean to say “It is wrong to torture children”? Some species eat their young. Why can’t we?

    A secular moralist might simply accept it as an a priori fact that exists out there in the universe. A christian will not only reify it but personify it as a being that will punish him.

  26. Charles Wolverton says:

    DAR: I’m not sure there is much of a nexus between “justice” and “justification”

    Confirming, I think, ppnl’s observation that “justification” needs more precise definition.

    James H notes that according to dictionary.reference.com, [justify means] “to show …”, “to defend or uphold …”; ie, in addition to a subject S, there is an object X and implicitly an indirect object Y as well; ie, S justifies X to Y”.

    Now we know that in James’ post, X is “government”; but who are S and Y? In the spirit of Sellars re knowledge (offering reasons as a social practice), Davidson re language (engaging in triangulation), and Rorty re truth (what your peers let you get away with), Y is some relevant community. If one believes – as we in principle do – that our government is “by, for, and of the people”, then that relevant community must be “the people” – ie, us voters. And since in a representative democracy “government” is, in a sense, also us, S must again be “the people”. So how do we make sense of this seeming reflexive paradox?

    In our representative democracy, in theory “government”- in the form of the people’s representatives – periodically has to justify itself to the people by seeking reelection. Ie, the people’s representatives must justify themselves to the people as having been faithful representatives, and thereby indirectly justify government per se. But note the assumptions implicit in this conceptual process: the people – necessarily largely ignorant of the complexities of modern society – entrust their interests to more knowledgeable representatives (and their staffs) who then – in some sense – faithfully represent those interests, subject to constitutional limitations. And the people trust that when justifying their performance, those representatives will honestly and credibly explain why their actions do in fact represent the people’s interests, notwithstanding occasional appearances to the contrary. I leave it to readers to reflect on how far from this conceptual ideal our current system – driven by perpetuation of power, polls, and mass media self-interest in audience hysteria – has strayed.

    Addressing more directly James’ issue of original justification of government, consider:

    “I’m … just noting that the inevitability of the state does not logically create any justification for it”

    “modern society … is – I think – impossible without government …”

    “The fact that humans developed … societies to[o] large to be governed without government does not in itself mean government is justified.”

    Justification in the sense defined above basically depends on convincing others to accept your position. If inevitability of – and the inability/impossibility of a “modern society” to be governed without – government are inadequate justifications, I can’t imagine what alternative arguments would carry the day.

  27. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Charles! How nice to hear from you! Why, what with you and Murali and a couple of others finding us, it’s getting to be old home week around here!

    I won’t try to speak for ppnl (or anyone else, for that matter), but as you probably know by now I’m not all that big on trying to give (or discover or whatever) precise definitions to non-technical terms. What I think we find when we look at how “justify” is used in this setting or that will be a cluster of partially overlapping senses but no essential sense common to them all.

    To be sure, we can give “justify” a stipulative definition, but I don’t think that will get us any closer to answering how to sort out the various deontological and the consequentialist senses of the term others are invoking here.

    (Ppnl is, of course, correct in his finger pointing at Plato. Well, both his mentor and his best known student are responsible for all sorts of lingering mischief, but you have to start somewhere.)

  28. Charles Wolverton says:

    DAR –

    Yes, one downside to participation in blogs is that there’s no escape – participants can always be tracked down!

    I actually agree with you about definitions, but for me it’s a chicken-egg thing. A term is often introduced with the implicit assumption that everyone will understand it in the way the person introducing it does, and if that assumption is wrong the discussion typically spirals out of control into endless debate about the “true” meaning. With that in mind, my approach is to explicitly state what I mean by a potentially ambiguous term – which is what I think I did:

    justify – to offer arguments that are accepted by a relevant community.

    This definition has the benefit of clearly separating the offering of arguments from their acceptance, both being required for “justification”. Of course, one must then address in context what constitutes “acceptance” and the “relevant community”. But I think that can usually be done fairly easily. Eg, relevant to James’ post, I suggested that in a democracy arguments are offered to the community of voters and are justified if accepted as indicated by majority/plurality vote in favor.

    A frequent reaction to a “relativist” definition of this sort is to argue that a majority can be wrong and vote for something that is “unjust”. But that is falling into the “absolute justification” trap ppnl warns against (that there is a “right” answer independent of what humans conclude, ie, a “transcendental truth”) and confusing “justification” and “just”. Of course, those who so react will likely reject my definition of justification (which is, however, consistent with the dictionary definitions, and as noted in my previous comment, was derived from some pretty credible sources), but they are then obliged to offer an equally workable alternative.

    James says that in his book he is trying “explain the justification for government”, a construction that again suggests that there is some “absolute justification” and it can be explained. I am suggesting that all one can do is offer arguments for and against government and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Whether or not they become justified is a separate issue which can’t be known – nor, therefore, explained – a priori.

    Like ppnl, I think a phrase like “X justifies” will often “engage people’s moral instincts”; it will be interpreted not as “X can reasonably be offered in attempting to sway a community” but instead as “the community should be swayed by X”, precipitating a futile discussion of whether or not it actually “should”. In James’ post and the comments, “justify” (or a cognate) is most often used in the sense “constitutes an argument in favor of”, so that following my suggestion would avoid this problem while requiring only substitution for the “offending” phrases.

    Finally, my two-step definition avoids statements like “inevitability of the state does not logically create any justification for it (anymore than the inevitability of rape, murder, and theft justifies those things)” which are arguably logical but clearly don’t “seem quite right”. If this is restated as “inevitability offered as an argument for the state is no more likely to be accepted by a community than is inevitability of rape, murder, and theft offered as an argument for those crimes”, the statement is obviously false.

    (Fair disclosure: I made somewhat the same error in my own “If inevitability of – and the inability/impossibility of a “modern society” to be governed without – government are inadequate justifications, I can’t imagine what alternative arguments would carry the day.” Instead of “justifications” I should have said “arguments”.)

  29. Murali says:

    That is, maximal overall benefit or maximal satisfaction of individual subjective desires or whatever other consequentialist formula one comes up with need not invoke or reference any notion of justice in its historical senses.

    But you see, I am in the first place, invoking justice as moral principles that concern political instutions.

    what would Sen’s (or your) take be on a revised hypothetical in which A asserted a B-benefiting principle, B asserted a C-benefiting principle and so forth?

    That merely complicates things. Super rich lefties often advocate all sorts of steep progressive tax rates. Willingness of some to subject themselves to particular rules due to other regarding behaviour on their part is not indicative that those principles legitimately justify coercive behaviour. The story about the flute (at least the way I use it) is to at least pump the intuitions about what constitutes injustice. However, we dont have to do all that intuition pumping. Its a basic (Kantian) conceptual truth that morality refers to principals that are valid for all possible beings. In which case immorality lies in creating exceptions. This conforms to our intuitions about justice epsecially in terms of generality, uniformity etc etc. Also, when we often talk about what is unjust or just, we often seem to be talking about unfariness or fariness. And a simple way of describing unfairness is tht a ure is unfair if it is designed to benefit a specific group of people. Choice behind the veil of ignorance therefore is like a political version of the formula of universal law. The principles thus chosen, like the maxims that pass the formula of universal law test will necessarily be just/moral.

  30. Murali says:

    Well, if one believes in moral justifications, I suppose not. But I was trying my bet to avoid using moral justifications

    I dont understand the theoretical upshot of avoiding moral language. If something is not the moral thing to do (i.e. if it is not required by practical rationality) why should we do it? If as a libertarian you dont believ that everyone should be libertarians, havent you undermined your case for libertarianism by admitting that the reasons in favour of it are not sufficient to require assent by all rational beings?

    I’m not persuaded. That’s a deontological argument. My argument wasn’t deontological.

    All I’m saying is that some effort must be made to refute the deontological argument. It is still a live option and cannot just be ignored.

  31. James Hanley says:

    I dont understand the theoretical upshot of avoiding moral language. If something is not the moral thing to do (i.e. if it is not required by practical rationality) why should we do it?

    Enlightened self-interest. I do lean towards utilitarianism, after all.

    To the extent that humans do have some innate moral intuitions, they are clearly a product of some evolutionary history, a history in which we lived in social groups. If those moral intuitions had any evolutionary advantage, they likely worked in the individual’s (genetic) self-interest.

    If so, then it would not be a surprise to find that many of our moral intuitions actually line up quite well with what we call enlightened self-interest. At their basis–in their origin–they’d still be utilitarian.

    While that’s all unproven, there is some logic that makes it a reasonable hypothesis. Certainly being other-regarding to some degree generally rebounds to our own benefit.

    For example, I have an adjunct working for me in my academic department. Adjuncts are famously treated badly. I treat mine well. There’s a part of me that says “it’s the right thing to do” (a moral intuition). There’s another part of me that says, “I like him, and I want to keep him as a friend” (self-interest), and another part of me that says, “If I lose him I have to go to the effort of finding a new adjunct, with no guarantee I’ll get one as good” (more self-interest).

    Which of those most strongly dominates my actions? Honestly, not number 1, even though I believe treating him well is in fact the right thing to do. Initially it was number 3–pure self interest. As I got to know him well, number 2 came to dominate.

    Honestly, I found your question a bit puzzling. It has never occurred to me that there might not be reason to do something (that we would normally call good) unless it was the moral thing.

    For example, in grad school I owned a pickup truck. Some people who own pickup trucks in college towns put a bumper sticker on it that reads, “Yes, this is my truck. No, I won’t help you move.” I don’t think you’re morally obligated to help someone move if you own a pickup truck, but I liked to help people move. There was some combination of the camaraderie of the social event, the sense that I was socially valuable, and the gratitude and friendship (and beer) that it brought to me that to me was very valuable. If there are any moral aspects to it, and I suppose there are, they never entered my deliberative process.

  32. Pingback: Force, Government, and Early Post-Colonial America | The One Best Way

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