August 16, 2015

Review Corner

To return to an earlier example: You have gone out for drinks with some colleagues and students, and one of the students has proposed that you pay for everybody's drinks. Over your protests, the other parties at the table vote to have you pay for the drinks. You tell them that you will not agree to do so. They then inform you that, if you do not pay, they intend to punish you by locking you in a room for some time and that they are prepared to take you by force. Apart from the fact that you need some new drinking partners, what can be said about this scenario?
That is a good taste of Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. Heumer is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado (Go Buffs!) and was a recent speaker at Liberty on the Rocks -- Flatirons.

His speech covered some structural modifications to a constitution which he felt would limit transgressions better than we had seen. He presented some good and interesting ideas: require a supermajority to enact laws, replace the government agency supreme court with citizen jurors. Interesting, but Prof. Huemer was only play-acting the role of minarchist; his heart is in anarcho-capitalism.

Problems of Political Authority, true to its title, first questions consent of the governed. You did not sign the Constitution, nor did the indigenous peoples or Arizonans who woke up to be Americans one day. Without consent, Huemer makes a valid point that there is no intrinsic authority on which coercion is supported.

Where Randy Barnett [Review Corner] builds on natural rights, Huemer's foundation is obvious principles, like the opening quote -- and the book is filled with many such examples, making it accessible and enjoyable. If your neighbor cannot buy a gun and print a badge on his 3D printer and take on a governmental role, Huemer asks why we allow it from a State? In a nice riff, he describes the Colorado Capitol building:

The building is set on a hill so that visitors look up at the building as they approach and must climb a set of stairs to reach the door. The doors are much larger than a human being, and once inside, the visitor confronts vaulted ceilings three or four times higher than the typical human being. There are many buildings in Denver much larger than the capitol building but perhaps none that is so successful at making the visitor feel small. All of this emphasizes the power of the state and creates a disposition toward respectful submission on the part of the visitor.

I found the first section compelling and suggest that Huemer makes a perfect case for minarchy -- I'd say he gets full credit for discrediting John Rawls. As we will see, I'm not certain he effectively undercuts Robert Nozick, but who among us would disagree with the conclusion to part one?
No one has the right to coercively enforce counterproductive or useless policies nor to enforce policies aimed at goals of lesser import. The state may be entitled to collect taxes, to administer a system of police and courts to protect society from individual rights violators, and to provide military defense. In doing so, the state and its agents may take only the minimal funds and employ only the minimal coercion necessary. The state may not go on to coercively impose paternalistic or moralistic laws, policies motivated by rent seeking, or policies aimed at promoting unnecessary goods, such as support for the arts or a space program.

Well, except for Tang®

The following sections describe a society with private security and justice. and I don't think he differs wildly with Randy Barnett for his having chosen a different route. My HOA settled a multi-million construction defects lawsuit through arbitration -- and we hire private security to kick teenagers out of the pool on weekend nights. It's like I'm living in anarchist's utopia!

Why not build this out, allowing security and arbitration firms to flourish? The anarchists' best argument is why certain goods particularly do not benefit from the free market. My sister, who reliably votes Republican and makes a long drive frequently to hear speakers at Liberty on the Rocks (she was there to see Huemer) thinks the stores will sell bad meat in the USDA does not inspect. Roads are a famous enough libertarian argument to have become a tiresome cliché

Yet, I won't take the next step and trade our far-from-perfect justice system for Walmart* and Target. As a Constitutional Minarchist (my new label) I find the dream of a countrywide expectation of respect for my Bill-of-Rights rights worthy of all the valid concerns of empowering a state.

It is great to be forced to defend the right flank as it were. Working in Boulder, one must always remind coworkers that the world would not stop with a small reduction of government -- hell even Big Bird has moved to HBO! Philosophically defending the other side is a worthy exercise. I doubt it is to the level of a Barnett or Huemer, but I will give it a go:

"Justice is a good candidate for public good because true, absolute protection of individual rights is not popular. One can build roads where users will pay the tolls to go, release Nickelback CDs to adoring fans and in my world enforce the 9th and 10th Amendments absolutely.

"But the 1st through 8th amendments are not popular enough to be provided by the market. I look at the free speech cases like Snyder v. Phelps and I look at removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the General Lee in 'Dukes of Hazard.' I cannot imagine an empowered polity ever allowing the Westburo Baptist Chuch, or Illinois Nazis (man, I hate Illinois Nazis!) to have speech rights.

Go down the list. I do not trust Target or Starbucks or Disney to allow an absolute right to firearms. I don't trust the private or public security apparatuses to honor 4th Amendment protections without a layer on top to which one can appeal."

What about authority? That is harder to square. But real estate for societies/nations is a scarce resource. Maybe we'll build some Heinleinian colonies in space, but for now everyone enters this world saddled with the geography of their birthplace. That does not confer authority to garnish my wages to find "Cash for Clunkers," but you may fund the courts and a military that operates within Constitutional limits. And I am rather glad (as Huemer is not too blinkered to admit) that I won something of a governance lottery being born in Denver and not, say, Caracas.

On foreign policy, I have to trot out Deepak Lal. Huemer -- and he is not overly ambitious or too guilty of overstatement -- describes a safe rights-respecting society among democratic nation states, and a Ron Paul-esque devotion to defense and not imperialism. But I read it and think "that would work well as long as there were a United States." He gives the example of Costa Rica which dissolved its military in 1948. But if the US and UK are not extant to uphold Lal's Liberal International Economic Order, I envision a less prosperous world -- and that is the best case.

I'll close with one unsubstantive disagreement with Prof Huemer about Inauguration day. His version:

Immediately after the oath, the Chief Justice addresses the new president as "Mr. President". The oath is followed by a speech and a parade. What function does this ritual serve? On the surface, the function is to ensure that the new president will serve faithfully and preserve the Constitution. But this is a very weak method of attempting to ensure that outcome. If a president has it in mind to serve "unfaithfully" or to violate the Constitution, it is unlikely that his memory of having promised not to do so will be the force that stays him. The swearing-in ceremony is mostly for emotional effect. It is like a magic spell that confers power and authority on the new president so that, just as he completes the words of the oath, the person is converted into a president.

Mine: "The oath is historical and is dictated in the Constitution. The power is not in the Oath but there is much power in the spectacle of the peaceful transfer of power on January 20 every four years as dictated in the constitution to the winner of the electoral college."

For governance is a difficult endeavor. I agree with Huemer that our government should do far less of it. But instituting one among men, for the purpose of protecting out birthright liberty is a worthy one.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at August 16, 2015 11:26 AM
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