The Crux of the Problem


Talking with Bob at lunch on Saturday, I realized that our differences on matters political can be boiled down to a single question: "If one is morally certain that a collective action problem exists but can be solved if someone is granted the power to enforce a solution, is it moral to enforce that solution?"

For instance, if there were an asteroid heading towards a destructive collision with the earth, would it be moral to tax people to blow it up?

I say the answer is clearly "yes": someone resisting paying such a tax is acting immorally. And coercing someone to prevent them from acting immorally is moral.  Put another way: no one has a right to act immorally. (Nevertheless, it may not always be right to prevent them: I am not in favor of coercing people to be polite, for various reasons, but if it could be done in a way that would actually make them genuinely polite, it would not be immoral.)

38 comments:

  1. Gene, I looked at the post you linked to, and in the comment section you said that if some countries didn't want to contribute to destroying the asteroid, other countries wouldn't have the right to compel them, because you can't infringe on a sovereign nation. I find that viewpoint astounding. Do you really think that it's a more moral outcome to let the Earth be destroyed than to infringe on the sovereignty of another country?

    Also, if you believe that violating national sovereignty is a bridge too far in solving a collective action problem, don't you see how other people might think that violating individual sovereignty is similarly a bridge too far? For the record, I'm not a libertarian, I'm just playing Devil's advocate.

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    1. If we actually lived in a successful Ancapistan in which free riders had proven to be a non-issue, then taxing individuals to blow up the asteroid would be wrong (I don't know if Gene would agree with this hypothetical, but maybe).

      But in reality we live in a world comprised (more or less) of nation-states, each of which holds a (more or less) common ethic and a functioning system to enforce it. In this world, one nation violating the sovereignty of another is a morally distinct action from that of the government of a particular nation taxing its citizens.

      Few people would say that swatting a mosquito is a bridge too far, and most would say that ethnic cleansing is. This tells us little about where to draw the line - only that there is a line to be drawn somewhere.

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    2. "f we actually lived in a successful Ancapistan in which free riders had proven to be a non-issue, then taxing individuals to blow up the asteroid would be wrong..."

      I don't think this makes sense: "If everyone acted politely, then forcing them to act politely would be wrong." Well, stupid as well, and impossible. Of course, if no collective action problem exists, it is nonsensical to set out to solve it!

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    3. I said that? I'm not sure I agree with me.

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    4. "don't you see how other people might think that violating individual sovereignty is similarly a bridge too far? "
      Yes, and OF COURSE I see how they could think that! I used to think that. Bob is my good friend, and he still thinks that. I totally understand it: I just (now) think it is wrong.

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    5. Here's the relevant comment:

      “By the logic of DeLong, it’s okay to go to war with those countries to extract money. ”
      Rubbish. They are sovereign nations.

      “What if another country doesn’t want to be taxed by the US and its allies in the ADM because it believes their mission will fail and instead wants to embark on its own ADM afford/doesn’t want to give up extra resources to those other countries?”
      They are a sovereign nation. They ought to be able to do so.


      So do you no longer agree with this position? And if you do still agree with this position, what is it about national sovereignty that is so important that it's better to allow the Earth to be destroyed to preserve it, and why doesn't individual sovereignty carry the same importance?

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    6. Yeah, I don't know Keshav. Like I said, I'm not sure I agree with me. I'll have to think more about this.

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    7. There certainly is a *practical* problem: if the problem is marshalling the resources necessary to blow up the asteroid, war is likely to destroy those very resources. But if we could win quickly and cheaply, would it be moral? Hmmm...

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  2. "I am not in favor of coercing people to be polite, for various reasons, but if it could be done in a way that would actually make them genuinely polite, it would not be immoral."

    Mmm, no. That would be wrong.

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    1. Good argument, Samson.

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    2. Okay, I'll link it to freedom of expression. Do you agree that it is wrong to say some things (i.e., call a woman a whore because you don't like them), but that it would also be wrong to forbid those things?

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    3. Yes, but it would be wrong not because people have a right to be assholes, but because the results of outlawing those sayings of things would be worse than allowing them. For one thing, it wouldn't actually make people not be assholes, but just make them hide the fact. Law cannot fix everything, and using it to pretend to fix things it cannot actually fix is immoral.

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  3. Your argument has two parts:

    1) someone resisting paying such a tax is acting immorally.

    2) coercing someone to prevent them from acting immorally is moral.

    Suppose we accept 1 and 2. It does not follow that the one who coerces should not later be punished for the violation of property, in proportion to the damage done.

    So if you are implying that he should not refund the coerced person in proportion to the damage he made, you haven't given arguments to believe that.

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    1. Why? It's pretty straightforward: if there is an emergency, and there is no violation, then there is nothing to pay damages for.

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    2. what do you mean there is no violation?
      we are talking about a violation of property rights necessary to avoid the earth from being destroyed.

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    3. No, Maurizio, there isn't a "violation" of property rights. Society created property rights, and society can suspend them when it needs to.

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    4. I am not sure if you are assuming some form of social contract theory when you say "society created property rights", or what do you mean by that. Are you saying the State really owns everything?

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    5. The problem, Maurizio, is that there is no such thing as a justified rights violation. That idea is nonsense. Do you really think people are going to say that this action is violation of property rights if they believe it is justified? The argument is that it is right to do X to stop a meteor. You're assuming the conclusion by bring rights into this.

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    6. "Are you saying the State really owns everything?"
      Well, no: that would mean there WERE no private property rights, correct?
      I am speaking as a matter of historical fact: before there was private property, people already lived in groups. It was by agreement among members of those groups that private property came into being.
      This is not theory: it is simply what happened.

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    7. Gene, allow me to rephrase. Do you mean that, if society stops recognizing your property rights, those rights do not exist anymore? (and therefore there is no violation)

      In other words, in your view it is logically impossible for you to have rights that society is not recognizing to you?

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    8. @samson

      "The problem, Maurizio, is that there is no such thing as a justified rights violation. "

      I would not say there is such thing as a *justified* rights violation. The very fact that I am arguing that the victim must be compensated implies that I believe the tax is *not* justified.

      "Do you really think people are going to say that this action is violation of property rights if they believe it is justified?"

      Again, I don't believe it is justified. (and if people start with the wrong premise that it is justified, what they are going to say is not necessarily true.)

      "The argument is that it is right to do X to stop a meteor. "

      I believe this sentence is false as stated. It is not _necessarily_ right to do X to stop a meteor. It is right only if the victims are later refunded for the violation of property rights. Do you see a contradiction in this?

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  4. Gene,

    you need to make a distinction between forcing people to work against their will and simply taking things or declaring ownership over things that already exist in the world.

    Say for example the government needs metal to build an asteroid-destroying lazer. It simply sends people to go collect existing produced metal or to mine the necessary metal from the ground. If no one uses force against them to stop them, then no force has to be used against anyone. Simply take the metal, ignoring any existing property claims along the way.

    If on the other hand, the government needs to force people to work against their will, then you have the moral dilemma of whether it is legitimate to do so. Some people would argue that this is sometimes justified, such as conscription in order to defend the lives of the population and the rights of the population that the conscript himself has always enjoyed.

    But just taking things does not in itself require force to be used against anyone.

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    1. Yes, this is very important to note.

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    2. "If no one uses force against them to stop them, then no force has to be used against anyone"

      what is no one uses force because they fear being imprisoned by the government? does this make the government action any different morally?

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    3. Nope, no force is used. No need to throw anyone in jail. Just go get the stuff.

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    4. You should notice, though, that even if your argument were true, it would apply to maintaining property rights. Oops!

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    5. I don't follow. No force is used, but the *threat* of force is used. This is equivalent. Freedom is the absence of threat of invasive acts. if you give up something because you are under threat of invasive acts by the government, that is not a *free* choice, so it does not entitle the government to anything. To reply that no force was used is to miss the point entirely. (I actually can't believe I just read that)

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    6. "No force is used, but the *threat* of force is used. This is equivalent."

      Well, no, the threat of force is NOT equivalent to force. One, for instance, could actually break your bones, while the other only makes you think of broken bones.

      What's more, who is threatening anything here? I walk into your house and pick up your anti-tank gun: "We need this to fight the commies." When I try to walk out with it, YOU try to stop me. Looks like you are the initiator of force!

      "Freedom is the absence of threat of invasive acts."

      Says you!

      In any case, private property is maintained by the threat of force, Maurizio! So no one can be free in a regime with private property: congratulations, you have become an anarcho-communist!

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    7. I'm amazed by these sorts of mental gymnastics: 'No force is used, but the *threat* of force is used.'

      So Phillipe walks quietly into Maurizio's factory to get some metal we need to destroy the asteroid. When he starts to walk out with the metal, *Maurizio* threatens to shoot him. And to Maurizio, this constitutes *Phillipe* threatening force!!!!

      (I can't put enough exclamation points after that last sentence, frankly.)

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    8. "I'm amazed by these sorts of mental gymnastics: 'No force is used, but the *threat* of force is used.'"

      But how can you be amazed by them if they are something you used to do regularly do?

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  5. --"No force is used, but the *threat* of force is used. This is equivalent."

    -Well, no, the threat of force is NOT equivalent to force. One, for instance, could actually break your bones, while the other only makes you think of broken bones.

    "Equivalent" in the sense that it does not change the fact that a given action is a crime. All I am trying to say is: if I point a gun at you and I say "give me your purse", and you give me your purse, that is a crime even if there was no violence/force. Your threat of invasive act makes the act a crime, and the fact that you did not use force does not change that. Hence the word "equivalent".

    Please do not ignore the context where I used a certain word.

    -"What's more, who is threatening anything here? I walk into your house and pick up your anti-tank gun: "We need this to fight the commies." When I try to walk out with it, YOU try to stop me. Looks like you are the initiator of force!"

    I said "force" only because Samson used that word, and I wanted to use his own terms in order to highlight a problem in his thinking as clearly as possible. But to be precise I should have said "invasive act". If I use this correct term, your objection is no more valid. (I am not the initiator of invasive acts in your example)

    So, again, can I please ask you not to ignore the context where I used a certain word.

    Now, to get back to the original dispute, in your example above, I am arguing that the correct behavior to fight the commies is not to just *steal* my anti-tank gun, as you seem to imply is right, but to buy it. And if that is impossible, then the correct behavior to steal it and *then* to compensate me, the victim. All I am arguing is that to steal it and *not* to compensate is not ok. You still haven't explained why to steal and not to refund is better than to steal and to refund. What's wrong with refunding the owner?

    --"Freedom is the absence of threat of invasive acts."

    -"Says you!"

    It does not matter who says it (I did not invent this, it is standard libertarian theory). The point is that I am trying to show you that (so far) you failed to produce a reductio ad absurdum of this principle. Because this principle does not imply that you *shouldn't* save the earth from aliens; but only that, after you have saved the earth from aliens, you should compensate the owners of the items you stole. So, it seems to me the only way you can attempt a reductio ad absurdum of libertarian theory is to explain why to-save-the-earth-and-then-not-to-refund-the-owners is morally better than to-save-the-earth-and-then-to-refund-the owners. This is actually your claim, it seems to me, and I submit that is counterintuitive.

    -"In any case, private property is maintained by the threat of force, Maurizio! So no one can be free in a regime with private property: congratulations, you have become an anarcho-communist!"

    Again, the correct wording is "threat of invasive acts". I said "threat of force" only to use a wording that is understandable to Samson.

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    1. "So, it seems to me the only way you can attempt a reductio ad absurdum of libertarian theory is to explain why to-save-the-earth-and-then-not-to-refund-the-owners is morally better than to-save-the-earth-and-then-to-refund-the owners."

      For fuck's sake, man, this entire meteor scenario is is a reductio of libertarianism!

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    2. "
      Now, to get back to the original dispute, in your example above, I am arguing that the correct behavior to fight the commies is not to just *steal* my anti-tank gun, as you seem to imply is right, but to buy it. And if that is impossible, then the correct behavior to steal it and *then* to compensate me, the victim. All I am arguing is that to steal it and *not* to compensate is not ok. You still haven't explained why to steal and not to refund is better than to steal and to refund. What's wrong with refunding the owner?"

      For God's sake, we're saying that that is not theft! You keep assuming that it is.

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  6. "I'm amazed by these sorts of mental gymnastics: 'No force is used, but the *threat* of force is used.'. So Phillipe walks quietly into Maurizio's factory to get some metal we need to destroy the asteroid. When he starts to walk out with the metal, *Maurizio* threatens to shoot him. And to Maurizio, this constitutes *Phillipe* threatening force!!!!"

    Gene, aren't you a former libertarian? I thought you were familiar with this stuff.

    Again, the problem is in the unfortunate use of the word "force". Let us use "invasive act" instead and everything becomes clear. In the example, Maurizio is not threatening invasive acts. Only Phillipe is. This does not mean that Phillipe "shouldn't" steal the metal , only that, IF he does, he must later refund Maurizio.

    I regret using the word "force" to reply to Samson. I did it only to use his terms and shift the focus on threats. I should have said "threat of invasive acts", and a lot of this needless discussion would not have occurred.

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    1. Yes, I am familiar with how bad the libertarian arguments are!

      There is no "invasive act": society created Maurizio's property rights, and can suspend them when it needs to.

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    2. I am honestly puzzled by your view. I have a few questions:

      1) When you say "society can suspend them", do you mean "has a right to suspend them" or "has the power to suspend them"? I assume you mean "has a right to" (otherwise I don't see how your answer is relevant). So you are saying "since society created my property rights, it has a right to repeal them".


      2) How exactly did society create my property rights? By agreeing to let me keep a part of what I produce? so, to agree to let you keep a part of what you produce is to *create* your right? But then, you are basically saying that your rights are just what other people let you do? What other people let you get away with? So, for example, the jews in Nazi Germany did not have a right to live. After all, the State had created their rights in the first place, and therefore had a right to suspend them. There is no sense in which Nazi Germany genocide was violating people's rights. Indeed, in your view, it seems, it does not make sense to say that any society violates any rights. It is ruled out by definition. Or am I missing something?

      3) I invite you to my house and I give you a cup of tea. You haven't finished drinking, and I tell you "I changed my mind: give me back my cup of tea". Do I have a right to do that? Yes: since I am the owner of the cup, I can repeal your rights over the cup. I think you have something like this in mind, when you say that "society has a right to suspend/repeal your rights". But note that this only makes sense because I am the owner of the cup in the first place. If I am not, it does not make sense: suppose I knock at your door while you are drinking tea; you let me in, and I tell you: "now give me your cup". And you say: "what do you mean? This is my cup." and I say: "You know, previously I was letting you use it. By agreeing to let you use it, I had created your property rights. But now I decided to stop letting you use it, so I am repealing your property rights over it". This is the talk of a madman, of course. In other words, for your reasoning to make sense, it seems that society must be the owner of everything in the first place; only then it would seem to have a right to repeal your property rights. But this raises the question: how did society become the owner of everything?

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    3. "How exactly did society create my property rights?"

      It did this "exactly" by actually creating them! People agreed "This land is Maurizio's."

      " By agreeing to let me keep a part of what I produce?"

      OMG. You did not produce any land.

      " it seems that society must be the owner of everything in the first place"

      Social groups *occupied* pieces of land. In that sense, maybe they "owned" them, but the concept didn't really arise. As society evolved, it was thought expedient to assign sub-sections of that land to individuals.

      The whole Lockean property geneaology is total fantasy. As long as that nonsense: so long as you have that rubbish filling your head, you won't be able to think clearly on this topic at all. There NEVER WERE any atomic individuals wandering around on there own, "owning" things apart from a society assigning ownership rights. And never do you create anything "on your own": it is always due to a huge social heritage.

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  7. I'm reminded of one libertarian poster who I saw on another website. When he was presented with a reductio ad absurdum argument against libertarianism or a particular libertarian principle, he said that it was just a test of how firmly he stuck to his guns! Maurizio has been presented with a very absurd scenario and he still needs something even more absurd to abandon the position that people need to be compensated in lifeboat situations! Oy vey.

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