A Desperate Attempt at Clarity

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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66 Responses

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    “(c) The government may rightfully take only enough to cover its own expenses for the services that it provides.”

    Doesn’t that just beg the question of what services it should provide/is justified in taking money to provide?

    It seems only to be an argument that the government should never run surpluses.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      It does not beg the question of what services the government should provide. It doesn’t supply any answer to that question at all. It leaves the question entirely open.

      It of course does deny that the government should run surpluses out of mere avarice. It also denies that the government should start and fund projects merely because the people are wealthy and the money is there for the taking.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I think leaving the question open is what Ethan probably meant. I think we need a League symposium on the meaning of logical fallacies; not that we’re any worse than any other blog on that score.Report

      • Murali in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Can a government run a surplus in good years and keep said surplus in a reserve fund and then tap said reserves during recessions for purposes of fiscal and monetary stimulus during bad years?Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Murali says:

          Honestly? No. The US government is too large. It lacks any good vehicle for ‘saving’ money. (Can’t stick it in banks or stocks or anything would really causing problems. Serious problems.) Well, it has ONE good vehicle…

          It’s own debt.The extrnal consequences of issuing debt are fairly small and easily managed by the Fed. It can pay the debt down during good times, increase it during bad, and that’s about the only way the government can save. (Why do you think SS’s trust fund is held in T-bills? Can you imagine a few trillion being dumped into the stock market, or into banks?)

          Of course, last time we went to pay down debt — oh 2000 or so — we got told by a newly elected, fiscally conservative President that the surplus was “our money” and should be “returned” via tax cuts.

          Which never seemed that fiscally sound to me, but all the people that were really, really into being fiscally prudent said it was genius and all.Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Morat20 says:

            Theoretically this could be done with monetary policy as well. During a recession, print money to make up for lost tax revenues, and then during the boom destroy some portion of tax revenes to make up for it. The problem is that the political incentives not to just burn tax revenues are even stronge than the political incentives not to pay down debt.Report

            • Morat20 in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              Hence, debt. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the 1983 Social Security Deal. The SS surplus was SUPPOSED to replace general fund spending, because the US really couldn’t sock away a few trillion.

              So there’s a lot of “they tried to build up a surplus, but it got spent! All they got was an IOU”. No, that was the exact point. SS got bonds, the government used that income and cut taxes in a specific way.

              The deal being that soon they’re supposed to raise taxes back on the bunch that got the big tax cut in 83, and thus pay for the bonds that way. Basically the upper brackets took a 30 year vacation from their rates, in return they get a bit of a hike to push the boomer’s over (and redeem those bonds) then go back to normal.

              Which might sound convoluted — it is — but that’s basically the only way for the government to plan to run a surplus for 30 years for a specific purpose, and then pay it back out, without massively screwing around with the economy.

              Of course, now that the ‘fun’ part of the deal is over (the Boomers have spent 30 years paying a higher SS rate and the upper bracket has spent 30 years enjoying lower taxes), there is…resistance…to finishing the cycle.

              Go figure.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      It just appears to include the first two. The government could take as much as in instances A and B by virtue of providing services the cost of which necessitates doing so.Report

  2. Plinko says:

    I imagine there are some that won’t agree on (c), but I doubt they’ve thought it all the way through.

    But if (c) is what Obama stands for, then why did he go through all the song and dance about how little private citizens are entitled to?

    I don’t get why we insist on seeing the whole “you didn’t build that” kerfluffle as something Obama threw out ex nihilo? I see it as another round in an ongoing argument about how much we owe our business elites, the one I hear advanced every day by conservatives about the brave , noble capitalist heroes that are all that stand between me and serfdom.
    The whole thing makes a lot more sense in the context of ongoing political rhetoric than it does as a new front in the culture war.Report

    • I agree.

      And in the discussion on Tim’s thread, I don’t recall seeing anybody advance what I’d consider the equivalent of positions (a) or (b). And although I haven’t read all the comments, I’ve read probably a good 3/4 of them.

      The question, as I see it, is not whether “the government may rightfully take only enough to cover its own expenses for the services that it provides.” It is, “now that the government has provided its services, how do we apportion who pays for it?”

      And part of Obama’s answer is, “by the way, just because you’re a successful business person doesn’t mean that you are immune from paying more than you already do. And if you try to plead out by saying everything you have was gotten by you alone, then I urge you to reconsider your reasoning.”

      I think there’s a lot to debate when it comes to that question, and much of it is being debated in Tim’s thread. (We could also debate whether some of the “services” the government provided for us, like, say, the Iraq War, were really all that worthwhile, but that’s a nuther issue.)Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        “The question, as I see it, is not whether “the government may rightfully take only enough to cover its own expenses for the services that it provides.” It is, “now that the government has provided its services, how do we apportion who pays for it?”

        It’s just like when that guy runs up to your car and smears a dirty newspaper all over the windshield, and then claims you owe him five bucks because he “cleaned it”.Report

        • No, it’s not “just like” that. There’s a certain process that is supposed to be observed–election of representatives, judicial oversight, election of presidents, enactment of laws.

          I see your point, of course. The process is not always observed faithfully, and some of the “services,” such as undeclared wars of liberation, are both anti-procedural and dangerous.

          Still, most citizens take some benefit greater than the equivalent of a smeared windshield.Report

  3. clawback says:

    Please remind me of where Obama gave a “song and dance about how little private citizens are entitled to.” Because apparently I missed it.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to clawback says:

      Got to look to the penumbras and emanations of his words.Report

    • Scott Fields in reply to clawback says:

      Thank you for this!

      For the life of me, this “what is government entitled to?” stuff is pulled right out of the ether.

      Is it not the case, that in a representative democracy, what services a government provides is, at least indirectly, what the electorates says it wants? And is it not also true, that the electorate also decides how payment is apportioned?

      Obama’s speech, like most political speeches, is a sales pitch. “This is all that government can do for all of us and here’s how I propose to pay for it.” If the majority of the electorate buys what he’s selling, he gets to represent them and he gets some sort of mandate to execute on what he’s presented. There are no first principles concerning entitlement or obligation or debts owed being argued here.Report

  4. Tim Kowal says:

    (c) seems intuitively right to me, too. But then all our work has to be done at the step of “what services should the government provide?” That’s changed drastically from when this country was a land of “virtuous farmers,” when one of government’s principal tasks was to provide enough cheap land for this folks, the core of the 18th century economic machine. That quickly changed with the market revolution, and all the needs of the modern economy began to manifest. It’s a teleological question, wrapped up in who man is, what he is for, and why he enters government.

    Today, the question seemingly cannot be answered other than by professional economists telling us how government needs to take measures to stabilize the economy. Yet, for all the economic booms and busts in this nation’s history, and there have been many, the only thing that ever posed an existential threat to the republic was a schism over individual rights.Report

  5. Mike Schilling says:

    The government may rightfully take only enough to cover its own expenses for the services that it provides.

    I’ll go along with that. Of course, it hasn’t done that for many years, and one of the major political parties is dedicated the the proposition that it needs to take less and less, regardless of how much money (c) is.Report

  6. trizzlor says:

    Does (c) supersede (a) and (b)? In other words, does there exist a possible set of government services which would satisfy (c) but not (a) and (b) and you would be okay with that? Or are they hierarchical?Report

    • Murali in reply to trizzlor says:

      Could you expand on this?Report

    • trizzlor in reply to trizzlor says:

      As stated, it appears to me that (C) is actually the least limiting of the three cases, because “government services” can be defined in any way we choose, whereas (A) and (B) at least have hard boundaries that cannot be crossed. I can imagine a scenario that follows (C) but where government services are defined so broadly and progressively that some individuals would owe more than they do under (A) and (B). I’m curious if this is Jason’s intent, and if so – if (C) could feasibly be more restrictive than (A) or (B) – how significant is our choice of (C) in light of that.

      In contrast, from the Franklin quote which Liberty60 brought up, old Ben essentially says that government should follow (C) but can never take more than in (A).Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to trizzlor says:

        As stated, it appears to me that (C) is actually the least limiting of the three cases, because “government services” can be defined in any way we choose, whereas (A) and (B) at least have hard boundaries that cannot be crossed.

        Huh? At least in (c), there is some chance that the government won’t take everything you have and leave you starving. In (a), that’s what it always does.Report

  7. Tod Kelly says:

    Why isn’t the answer, (D) in a Democratic society, whatever the electorate says?

    I know that given the three choices, I am supposed to (and should) pick “C.” But what if voters say differently?

    In my own state, we used to have a “rainy day fund” that was approved by voters; eventually that fund was discontinued and the money in it was returned to voters. The rainy day fund certainly wasn’t “needed” money, and when the voters decided maybe a rainy day wasn’t coming (or they decided they’d rather have the money) it was eliminated.

    Why is the latter “legitimate,” but the former not?Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      “Why isn’t the answer, (D) in a Democratic society, whatever the electorate says?”

      Because the electorate sometimes say stuff like “We’re going to give this land to the common working man. Cherokee, GTFO”Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Kolohe says:

        That’s a civil rights issue, not a revenue issue. If the electorate says we want to be taxed X, why is X not legitimate?Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          It might be legitimate, but it needs to make the case. I’m very, very capable of imagining a majority affirming something that is unconscionable. I’m not prepared to say that all reasoning about these matters stops after the votes are counted.Report

          • “It might be legitimate, but it needs to make the case”

            Agreed. But that’s not what you’re arguing, or am I missing something? You are, unless I am misunderstanding, wanting to create an Absolute to judge all government actions by. It seems like you’re attempting to eliminate the ability to make a “It might be legitimate, but it needs to make the case” argument – that you are hoping for a Black/White-Good/Evil matrix from which to make all decisions about government.

            I may well be reading too much into your post.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kolohe says:

        You don’t see a difference between collecting funds from the people to be used for the people and taking land from one group to give to another?Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Kazzy says:

          Messrs Kelly and Kazzy – you all know that the American Government paid off the revolutionary war debt and then started educational institutions in subsequent generations by claiming title on all lands west of the Appalachians then selling it or giving it back to individuals and states? So yes, it was a revenue issue.


          • Kazzy in reply to Kolohe says:

            I’m still not sure I follow…

            In one situation, the PEOPLE vote to pay higher taxes so that more money is available for the government to spend.
            In another, the government forcefully takes the land of a group of people without their consent so that more money is available for the government to spend.

            Consent is a powerful concept. I see an argument in opposition to Tod’s point along the lines of a less-than-unanimous endorsement of increased taxation means that those who are opposed are being taxed without their consent. I don’t see an argument in comparing two situations that have little to do with one another.Report

            • Kolohe in reply to Kazzy says:

              Let’s be frank. The people are generally voting to raise *other* people’s taxes. Obama explicitly campaigned last time that he was only going to raise other people’s taxes. And is doing the same this time.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kolohe says:

                And THERE you have an argument. If 80% of the electorate vote to raise taxes on the other 20% of it, I see where you are going. But we can’t necessarily make that assumption from Tod’s description here.

                If 80% of the electorate vote to raise taxes on 100% of the population, there are still some who are having their taxes raised without their consent, but that is a far cry from outright land theft.

                For myself, I believe that tax increases need to be distributed beyond the 1% of folks over $250K or whatever. Not only do I think there is a limit to the amount that can be raised taxing only “the wealthy” from a practical standpoint, but I think that the economic situation we’ve gotten ourselves into as a country is a burden that should be shared. Yes, there are segments of the population that bear more responsibility for the current “crisis” but we all were players, whether we were voting for politicians that enacted the legislation that made such malfeasance possible or we were all too happy to indulge in debt we had no business taking on. I think across-the-board, or near across-the-board tax raises is appropriate and needed, though they shouldn’t necessarily be raised equally (e.g., a 10% raise on the rate itself… so the 35% bracket goes up to 38.5% and the 20% bracket goes up to 22%, etc). I’d happily (well, not necessarily happily, but willingly) pay more in taxes if I knew it was actually going to address the real needs of the nation. I also think this should be coupled with spending cuts.Report

              • Liberty60 in reply to Kolohe says:

                If I am a rational actor, wouldn’t it make sense to only vote to raise other people’s taxes?Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Liberty60 says:

                You are correct. Talk to people who work on public choice. This is the exact reason why many of them tend to be pessimists.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Kolohe says:

                Actually, no. We have a marginal tax bracket system. Which means, as far as income taxes go, any tax increase or cut is on everyone. Some people just don’t make enough to qualify for those brackets.

                But the upper 1%, for instance, pay exactly the same as I do on income, dollar for dollar.

                Me and Mitt? We pay the same tax rate on the first, oh, 100k we’re paid. He pays exactly as much as me! (Well, probably less — he’s got a lot more to deduct).Report

    • Liberty60 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      (C) assumes that the government is a separate entity, wholly disconnected from the people, with its own aims, values, and goals.
      I could argue, only partly facetiously, that this is the current state of affairs.

      But (D) assumes that the government is the creation of the people, that it acts according to their will.

      I think its interesting that the Constitution has very little to say about the workings of the economy. So far as I can tell, public ownership of capital and property is Constitutional, as long as it is done with due process.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Liberty60 says:

        (C) assumes that the government is a separate entity, wholly disconnected from the people, with its own aims, values, and goals.

        This is a decidedly contrarian way to describe the institutions of a Rawlsean society. Which is only one of the various types of (c), but one of the more plausible ones.

        (d) is to be rejected not because it’s invalid — I have nothing against democracy — but because democracy is a decisionmaking process, not a moral claim about rightful distribution.Report

        • I am profoundly uncomfortable constructing a system where everything that is done by tje government is done for “moral” reasons. I feel like those are the systems from which real evil comes from. Contrary to K’s argument above, we used a theorized moral imperative to take land away from primitive people.

          I think a the system you are looking to adhere to won’t obtain the results you believe they will.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      The thought of Oregon not needing a rainy day fund has multiple layers of funny.Report

  8. CK MacLeod says:

    “Government” is not the same as “the state,” and neither “government” nor “state” is the same as “nation,” “society,” or “polity,” “republic,” or any of the other terms that we tend to use somewhat interchangeably in loose discussion. In addition, “government” can also refer to a particular legally constituted system of governance, or it can refer to government ideally (“any government at all”). What “the state” is or can be – what you mean by the word and what I mean by it – is also not always certain, and different presumptions can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Under my guesses about what you mean by “government” and/or “state,” or perhaps what you ought to mean or really mean, for instance, I’d be a strong supporter of “a,” except that I don’t think the blogger goes far enough, since government can rightfully demand our very bodies and lives on behalf of the flag, and the republic for which it stands, one nation… Proceeding from a clearer definition of terms, it might even eventually become clear why much of what is being imputed to Obama is either absurd or tautological – things no one can believe and no politician would argue, or things no minimally functional adult can get by without believing and acknowledging. If you think Obama is saying something of the former type, it may be because you’ve thought yourself into denying or seeming to deny things of the latter type.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      government can rightfully demand our very bodies and lives on behalf of the flag,

      Conscription is permitted under our Constitution, but I do not agree that it is just.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        This exact argument was used to rip out Carrie Bell’s uterus.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jaybird says:

          You think I enjoy admitting what amounts to a giant flaw in our Constitution?Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            No, not at all. I’m just surprised to see people opening an argument with “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives” in an attempt to explain what the government can do rather than as a reductio for how the government shouldn’t use such a justification for why it can do things.Report

      • I think you’re aware that your statement is tantamount to admitting the impossibility of a truly “just” political order, or that every political order is founded on the failure of justice, and that justice within any given political order can therefore never be more than a partial or provisional justice, a justice given certain assumptions whose justice is “beyond question” (i.e., not the same as truly just). Such an admission may merely confirm that political systems are like other systems, or represent a type of logical or interpretative system. Also considering the comments below, the capacity of the state to “do anything” is inherent. No piece of paper or happy accident or revered tradition or ardent wish can be expected to withstand its decision. It’s not a “giant flaw” in the Constitution, it is the giant reality that surrounds, informs, and permeates the Constitution or any constitution.

        To speak more directly to the issue, if “conscription” is “unjust,” then there is no Revolution: The pledge of lives and sacred honor is empty, and the self-evident truths and inalienable rights remain imaginary, never actualized. A state that cannot “conscript” is a state that cannot and will not be defended.

        What this also confirms is that there is no libertarian praxis. Praxis always requires the suspension of liberty – the problem is logical and ontological, as well as political and practical. Even if you insist on the perfect solipsistic sovereignty of the particular human being (even calling him or her or it an “individual” would be a violation of his or her or its perfect sovereignty, his or her or its enlistment in the army of all individuals), the sovereignty of the monad is still irreducibly the disposition over its life or death. The cells and organs are denied the right to rebel. The legs don’t get to vote just to walk off. The qualms yield to the oppressive and implacable more powerful desires, drives, and needs.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          A state that cannot “conscript” is a state that cannot and will not be defended.

          The U.S. no longer relies on conscription, and among the biggest opponents of conscription are the profesional officer corps.

          Do you really think the U.S. cannot defend itself?

          if “conscription” is “unjust,” then there is no Revolution: The pledge of lives and sacred honor is empty, and the self-evident truths and inalienable rights remain imaginary, never actualized.

          You are aware that America’s founding fathers did not conscript soldiers for their revolution, aren’t you?

          Building on argument on clear empirical inaccuracies does not make for a very sound foundation.Report

          • I put “conscript” in quotes because I was referring to the power to conscript – to make the peremptory demands up to and including “ultimate sacrifice” – which is what makes Mr. Kuznicki’s reply relevant to my argument, not to particular laws or methods of induction to whatever actual armed forces.

            As for the current situation, in the era of Terror, WMDs, and the trans-global battlespace, still in the shadow of total war and mutually assured destruction, we are all already “conscripted.” That was a central lesson of 9/11, both in the WTC towers and on Flight 93, though anyone paying attention already understood it.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              CK, That doesn’t work. Neither the Founders nor our current government makes such peremptory demands. Agreement to participate in the activity that could result in the ultimate sacrifice is wholly voluntary in both examples. It looks to me like you’re obliterating important distinctions. Am I misreading you?Report

              • Every state retains the power to make such peremptory demands, though, for instance as a matter of convenience or practicality or simple preference, it (we) can be as flexible as it wants to be. In case of emergency, it reduces such flexibility exactly as much as it needs to do up to the point that it fails as a state. The citizens ignore the order to join the fire brigade, and so the walls burn down, the barbarians take over. The peremptory demand is more or less exactly co-terminous with state sovereignty, which is a wider field than mere “governmental authority,” since in the exceptional circumstance the law recedes, but the state remains (necessitas non habet legem) up to the end of the state or of the emergency. “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” Lincoln suspends constitutional law to save the (possibility of) constitutional order. Etc. Etc.

                If the state – we – decide we need a draft to provide for the common defense, the citizen doesn’t have the option to ignore a draft notice. The same goes for lesser laws and demands, of course. If the state determined that stopping the spread of some infernal bio-warfare contagion required that everyone eat broccoli, and further determined that the only way to ensure the required level of broccoli consumption was to require everyone to purchase and to eat broccoli, then that’s what the state would do, and you would be obligated to comply.

                Every time ol’ GW went into battle against the lobsterbacks, he was making that peremptory demand on his soldiers. Of course, some may have fled or in other ways failed, and could have in theory been charged with desertion, but GW exercised his plenipotentiary sovereign power to decline seeking their capture and execution for desertion in the face of the enemy.

                The Founders, in pledging their lives and sacred honor, were already acknowledging their submission to the demand for ultimate sacrifice.

                Not sure whether I’m the one obliterating important distinctions, or whether maybe those distinctions, however important they are, are more tenuous than we like to think. Sovereign is he who decides on the importance of distinctions.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                If the state – we – decide we need a draft to provide for the common defense, the citizen doesn’t have the option to ignore a draft notice.

                Every time ol’ GW went into battle against the lobsterbacks, he was making that peremptory demand on his soldiers.

                This is where you’re obliterating distinctions. GW didn’t use the draft. He could make that peremptory demand on them only because they had volunteered.

                I think you’re overlooking a crucial distinction between the government saying “we can require you to join the army and go into the line of battle,” and it saying “if you volunteer to join the army we can require you to join the line of battle.”

                The citizens ignore the order to join the fire brigade, and so the walls burn down, the barbarians take over.

                So your theory depends upon the assumption that citizens have to be ordered to join the fire brigade when the falls are on fire, or else there’ll be no fire brigade? Have you ever been in an area where there’s a natural disaster? I’ve been through tornadoes, floods, blizzards and earthquakes, and in each case citizens stepped up to form a metaphorical (and in some cases literal) fire brigade. The government didn’t order us to participate in sand bagging the dikes to save the neighborhoods when the river topped its banks; they asked us to volunteer and we did, in sufficient numbers to hold the dike. The government didn’t order us to stand out in intersections with flares and flashlights to guide traffic when the earthquake shut down the power grid, but people did it anyway.

                This is what I meant by contentious assumptions. What looks to be your foundational assumption is contradicted by real-world experience.Report

              • Again, you’re focusing on subordinate distinctions. It doesn’t matter at the decisive moment – in battle, probably not on the way to or from – whether the soldiers originally volunteered. You can’t both put your life “on the line” and not put your life “on the line.” For GW, the matter was greatly complicated by the fact that he was fielding an army for a state not yet fully constituted, or recognized. The problems somewhat resemble the difficulties of anarchists at war. In a quite profound and lasting sense the realization of the peremptory demand in the actuality of ultimate sacrifice was a necessary condition for the constitution of the American nation-state. It is not a one-and-done thing, and one never knows for sure whether it can be relied upon, and, if so, at what level, until it’s re-tested. An excellent explanation for the otherwise seemingly nonsensical War of 1812, for instance, was that it served the national need in this respect – see Wood, EMPIRE OF LIBERTY. The Civil War tested the concept more explicitly, of course.

                As for the second part, I think you have things backwards, and the problem goes back to my original argument regarding different definitions or conceptions of the state. People do not have to be ordered to join the fire brigade unless the city – the state – has already rotted away internally. On the other hand, they may be grateful for instruction as to how best to deploy themselves, or even for orders.

                It’s the second nature quality of the citizen’s response to emergency that may reveal the real rather than the formal or juridical existence of the “state,” the state as concrete embodiment of the whole people – aka nation-state or culture-state – rather than as mere institutions of governance (which anarchists and libertarians often depict as over and against the people). Of course, the people do not need to be ordered to sand-bag. The people willingly go sand-bag. The people willingly stand with flares and flashlights are the state as it happens to exist. The passengers on Flight 93 did not need to receive orders. The governing authority was not in a position to reach them. Yet they still acted and sacrificed without orders, outside any written laws, out of perceived necessity on behalf of the interests of the whole state. When Pearl Harbor is bombed or the Towers fall, the people line up to volunteer, but, in a democratic-republican order, they also accept the orders of the government as an emanation of their own sovereignty. They look to authority or organize their activities effectively. At some point, they suspend their individual judgment, and some may give up their lives: They accept direction from the guy in the uniform if he’s around, otherwise they do their best. That in no way contradicts the premises to which I’ve been referring.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        government can rightfully demand our very bodies and lives on behalf of the flag,

        Do you have a proof for that?Report

        • I’m not sure what you’re asking for. If you’re asking whether I believe I can outline an argument for the proposition: Sure. Alternatively, I could put together a reading list. If you’re asking for evidence that the government actually does assume the right, and that the right is confirmed or re-confirmed by the people, then I could refer you to historical events, or, in another sense, to all of history.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            Let’s focus on the “rightful” claim, not the “assumes” claim (with which I agree). Of course assuming the power does not make it “rightful”.

            Can you make an argument for “rightfulness” that does not rely on either highly contentious and unprovable assumptions or that does not beg the question by implicitly beginning with the assumption of rightfulness?Report

            • If we set aside for the moment any deeper investigations of the meaning of “right” and “rightful” and “just,” the theoretical righteousness of the state’s demand on our lives is easy to explicate – something which helps explain why the vast majority of citizens, at least last we checked, don’t question it if and when the call comes.

              We usually focus on the state on the level of the nation-state, since that’s where in our time, very especially in America, we locate sovereignty. The American nation-state nurtured us, protected us, provided us with language, money, land (under so-called radical title), laws, customs, traditions, society. We would not have lives, or anyway the content of our lives as we know them, if not for the nation-state. If we were born elsewhere and became citizens, the standard Oath of Allegiance specifically obligates us to bear arms or perform noncombatant services in defense of the constitutional order if required to do so. If we went to public school, we likely recited a pledge of allegiance numerous times. By numerous other acts the overwhelming majority of us have positively affirmed or re-affirmed that allegiance. We may wish to assert some private essence or higher commitment, but merely imagining such an essence or commitment is not the same as actualizing it, nor would the possible success of an individual or group in actualizing such an assertion to some greater or lesser extent – by conscientious objection, non-compliance, renunciation of citizenship, treason – equate with the cancellation or termination of the rightful claim. The state does not need to be perfect to function, just as its claims don’t need to absolutely righteous (though, again, they may be for all intents and purposes) to be considered rightful.

              Who are we to deny its claim on us? If enough people answer “no one” or “nearly no one,” then the state continues, and those who refuse the claim – who answer “a libertarian,” “a Virginian,” “a communist,” etc., or who refuse to answer at all – in putting themselves outside the state, may expose themselves to risk, perhaps to their reputations in the eyes of their (former) fellow citizens, perhaps to their freedom, implicitly to all of those concrete things associated with the nation-state, including, of course, their lives. If it turns out that libertarianism, Virginianism, or communism, etc., was quite sufficient and not being a “good American” any longer entails no great loss, then they may very well decide that for them, at least, the nation-state never had a good claim at all.

              Now you’ll have to make of this what you will. I promise to read your replies, but, if I’m unable to respond to them immediately, please don’t take it as a loss of interest or as signifying anything other that, soon as I’ve tamped down another related fire on another LOOG thread, I really need to focus on some other stuff today, and possibly for a while.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                I find this wholly unpersuasive. Without the state I wouldn’t have the content of the life I have, therefore the state can justly order me to sacrifice that life for it? That seems to me to be a big leap of logic. It certainly isn’t generalizable–my kids wouldn’t have their life, period, if not for me, yet I can’t justly order them to sacrifice their lives for me. So somehow the state is different, but in what way? How does it get greater authority over us than we have over our children? It can’t come from what it does for us, because my doing the same thing for my children doesn’t give me that kind of authority. So there has to be something else there.

                The pledge of allegiance…aside from the fact that I refuse to recite it, you’ve still got a leap from pledging allegiance to that binding you to risk being killed (or to kill) for that entity to which you’re pledging allegiance. I have pledged allegiance to my wife, more publicly and more consistently than I have pledged allegiance to my country, and yet I cannot order her to risk her life for me, or to kill for me.

                I think you have an unexamined assumption about why the state is special, because the things you say give it that authority don’t give authority to other entities even when they’re more present than they are with the state.

                I would argue that nothing can give the state such authority over you. If the state deserves allegiance, a sufficient number of citizens will volunteer to kill or be killed in defense of it. But any state that cannot rely on enough volunteers to protect it demonstrates just by that failure that it does not deserve allegiance–and any state that does not deserve allegiance cannot justly compel us to kill or be killed.

                The state is not special; it is just another form of human organization. Keep in mind that just as much as you say the state makes our lives possible, we make the existence of the state possible. In the beginning, people created states, states didn’t create people. Or put another way, to paraphrase Jesus, the state was made for man, not man for the state.Report

  9. Lancifer says:

    A just cause does not need to enslave defenders.Report