The Agenda

Jacob Levy and Michael Blake on the State

Levy, a political theorist at McGill, has written a short blog post that includes a very interesting take on how to think about the legitimacy of states:


Orthodox libertarianism would hold that this first responsibility (understood to include the prevention of private theft, not only personal violence) also more or less exhausts the state’s responsibilities. But the creation of the social technology that can protect against internal and external violence—for example, the creation of a professional body of armed men trained for coordinated action and a financial apparatus that can support that body—means that there is a significant concentration of physical and fiscal power on hand. And there may well be an overprovision of that power, since an underprovision is irresponsible and generates political pressure for state actors to fulfill their duties, and “just right” provision at the level that would keep police and armed forces working at precisely their whole capacity would be an astronomically unlikely coincidence. Then, unavoidably, the slack in the system provides the state and state actors with situations in which they have a unique capacity to prevent or mitigate harms and suffering. The police force created to prevent crimes also has the ability to respond to car crashes. The public fisc created to fund an army also has the ability to feed the starving. I am sure that there is no morally decent way to insist that the police officer refuse in principle to aid people in danger even if the danger wasn’t caused by crime, even though that means that the taxpayers will be involuntarily funding some use of the officer’s time that is not connected to rights-protection, even if the resulting situation is a violation of the best understanding of taxpayers’ property rights. Nor will it just be a matter of the personal benevolence of the police officer who wants to be free to prevent non-criminal harms while on the clock. If capacity and proximity can generate outcome-responsibility, then it can be the officer’s responsibility to act—and, accordingly, the responsibility of the state of which the officer is an agent. 

Once the public fisc can prevent non-criminal harms indirectly, by paying its personnel to do so, it is a difficult distinction to maintain that it may not prevent them directly, by, e.g., feeding the hungry. Indeed, the distinction is probably an impossible one, and so all non-autocracies will end by being in the business of distribution (Dahl 1993). Once states are distributing benefits—and even physical protection is a benefit about which distributive decisions are made, as is perfectly evident when looking at the geographic unevenness of police protection in all countries—they face moral constraints about how and to whom they should be distributed. That is, there are problems of political redistributive justice, even if redistribution is not in itself demanded by justice.

I believe that there are good prudential reasons to limit the amount of redistribution. But this basic idea that the power of the state leads to obligations that go beyond rights-protection narrowly understood makes sense to me. I’m also sympathetic to Michael Blake’s argument in “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy“:

My argument is that a globally impartial liberal theory is not incompatible with distinct principles of distributive  justice  applicable only within the national context. This is true, however, not because we care more about  our fellow countrymen than we do  about outsiders, but because the political and legal institutions we share at the national level create a need  for distinct  forms  of  justification. A concern with relative economic shares, I argue, is a plausible interpretation of liberal principles only when those principles are applied to individuals who share liability to the coercive network of state governance. 

That is, the fact that states use coercion to defend a certain pattern of property rights creates an obligation to justify that pattern to those who are on the wrong end of it, so to speak. As Somin observes, libertarians tend to disagree with egalitarian liberals on a number of issues that go beyond disagreements regarding empirical questions. While I take the libertarian side on almost all of the disputes he identifies, I don’t see these positions as incompatible with something like Blake’s framework. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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