Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Again on the Legitimacy of Government

In response to an earlier post about the moral legitimacy of governments John the Other wrote:
I think a government gains legitimacy by the fact that people would prefer it to the feudalism and/or Iraq-situation that would result if it went away.

One thought that Hussein's government was terrible and illegitimate, but seeing what happened to Iraq since his departure, one is at least much less certain.
While I nominally agree with this, I would like to expand a little bit. First, I think it is important to stress that the preference for government over no government is individual not collective. For a government to be morally legitimate, it must respect the rights of everyone on an individual basis. Second, for a government to be morally legitimate, the people in it need to be able to choose between government and no government, not just prefer it. Taking these two points into account, it is clear the Hussein's government was not morally legitimate because the people he killed would no doubt prefer no government to being dead, but they had no choice to opt out. This is not to say I support the Iraq war; the war was obviously not well planned, it continues to be expensive, and it has probably caused net harm to the people in Iraq.


John said...

Your legitimization of government is entirely arbitrary. No individual actually has any choice in their form of government. Believable estimates of the violent deaths above ordinary in Iraq since invasion range from 100 000 (body count by the US government) to 600 000 (by the methods the US government uses to assess death counts in situations where it has no interest in minimizing the number). Maybe some of those people would have preferred Sadaam Hussein, but are instead forced to live in anarchy. The only thing we know for sure is that whatever they thought, it didn't make a damn difference.

Also the peoples of almost no decent country have the right to live in anarchy, action in that direction is usually called things like 'treason' and in the US is punishable by death.

As far as rights, all countries pick and choose to whom they grant which rights; some are simply more generous than others.

Any distinction where one would say 'here a government becomes legitimate' is a line drawn in the sand. We draw these lines and we have good reason for doing so, but all we mean is that we want governments more liberal than conservative with regard to human rights.

loogel said...

My definition of government legitimacy is not arbitrary; it is derived from the ethics I use (though you could claim my ethics are arbitrary). Individuals, not collectives have rights.
I suppose I should have pointed out earlier that I don't think there are any decent countries that are currently totally morally legitimate. Even the US, as you pointed out, does not allow you to choose anarchy over government. I will stress however, that the moral harm caused by most western countries is many orders of magnitude less than that caused by less western countries because there are far fewer people who would choose anarchy over government in them and because the harm inflicted on them is usually far less. Ethnic cleansing occurs less in the US than in Iraq. Lack of moral legitimacy alone is not reason enough dissolve a government.

John said...

but isn't legitimacy that which one has that means one has the right to exist?

Legit is latin for 'it is permitted.' If it is permitted, that is, if you wouldn't try to end it entirely, it is legitimite, by definition.

Also government has authority over collectives. If individuals could opt out of government, that government's authority would quickly collapse. So if you believe people should be able to opt out of government, you don't believe in government. That's all pretty sentiment, but the truth is that if there is a power vacuum it WILL be filled, and the people that want to fill it most are the people one wants least to have power. Nor are they the types to permit others to opt out of their control.

loogel said...

First, perhaps I should not use the word 'legitimate'. I mean that governments are violating the rights of their citizens by failing to allow them to choose not to participate in government. I think that this should be avoided because it's unethical, but that the harm caused by the violations is in many cases much less than the harm that would come from forcefully dissolving the government. This is why I don't advocate dissolving the United States or even Iraq.

Second, Government does not own its citizens; government represents the collective interests of those who individually choose to belong to it.

Finally, the ability to opt out of government would not lead its collapse. The individual non-public benefit derived from government services is immense, so leaving the government would unbelievably stupid and expensive. One benefit comes from legal and physical protection from the courts and police. It is important to keep in mind that the government would still make enforce contract and property law on those who choose to leave. Another benefit comes from the use of non-rival but excludable goods with high organizational costs, like roads. Government is an incredibly beneficial institution; that's why we have it in the first place.

Chris said...

Loogel, you said: "It is important to keep in mind that the government would still make enforce contract and property law on those who choose to leave."

I'm curious -- what does it mean to "leave?" If one can still be forcibly put into prison by the state or otherwise punished, how is that not coercion? It seems that a truly voluntary contract would have to allow citizens to be completely free from the laws of the government any time they want. One option would be to establish national borders and have the law end at the border (leaving would requiring physically crossing the border, but then this means the government makes you give up your property in order to leave, so this one's a bit messy). Also, is it permissible for individuals to agree to give up some rights? If so, individuals could be required to agree to a more limited right to "opt out" in order to join society. Perhaps citizens could leave only after checking in with the government and only if there is no crime they are wanted for, no outstanding fines, etc.

Ultimately, I tend to side with john. Coercion is a part of the character of government. If government does not monopolize coercion, other individuals and groups will . It seems to me that the use of force for the purpose of coercion is just a fact of life, as long as we live with other human beings. Contemporary government is just our least bad way of dealing with it. Some extreme libertarians might feel that it would be better to isolate oneself from others in order to be free of coercion. However, I think most people are willing to put up with some coercion in exchange for the benefits of living with others. Which is what you have argued, that although today’s “good” governments may be coercive, they tend not to be abuse their powers, at least not very much. Talking about why they don’t abuse their powers more often may actually be a more relevant discussion given the circumstances we live in.

Also, just a minor point about roads being excludable but non-rival. Actually, they are quite rival. When I drove into downtown Seattle today to see the Bodies Exhibit, I found that others’ consumption of road services definitely limited my own use of them.

loogel said...

Haha, ok, you're right that roads are not totally non-rival, but I still maintain that they suffer from intense organizational costs, and they do have a non-rival portion.

I think that government could be totally non-coercive because of the right to 'leave'. Leaving basically involves not paying taxes, being excluded from goods like roads and police protection, as well as being freed from jail for crimes that did not violate the rights of others or previous agreements. Leaving the government does not allow you to be free from government action if you violate someone's rights or break a contract because the government is acting as an agent to the harmed parties who have a legitimate right to punish and extract restitution. Leavers are not totally free from the laws of the government, just civil laws. Rejoining would not be easy though, one would have to make total restitution so the result would be as if you never left to all other citizens.

I would like to answer your suggestions. The border thing does not work because government is an agreement, not some sort of physical entity. It is not permissible to have citizens give up (as opposed to delegate) certain rights, or rather it is permissible but totally unworkable because that would require having each citizen explicitly agree to do so which would be extraordinarily expensive. The right to leave must be an absolute sort of right because citizens have never made an explicit agreement, and it would be impossible to guarantee that all citizens know the full terms of the agreement.

My point is that even though coercion is a fact of life now, it does not need to be. It would not be particularly difficult to have non-coercive government. This conception of government has the added benefit of shedding light on the proper role of government is.