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You and the State

[You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy • By Jan Narveson • Rowman & Littlefield, 2008 • Xi + 215 pages]

You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy 

Jan Narveson is one of the best contemporary moral and political philosophers, and it is not surprising that his introduction to political philosophy raises a vital issue that most people miss. Standard political philosophy asks, what theory best justifies the state? Is it consent? The security benefits that the state is alleged to bring? Something else, such as the “epistemic benefits” of democracy?[1] Narveson contends that this way of looking at the subject rests on an unexamined assumption. Why is it taken for granted that we need a state at all?

Many strange and curious ideas have been associated with “anarchism,” … but we discuss it under the aegis of [classical] liberalism, which provides considerable impetus toward asking why we do not, instead of relying on government, form our society entirely on voluntary associations. This possibility is not summarily dismissed as it is in almost all introductory books on this subject. (p. x)

Narveson’s question cannot be answered without raising a further issue. Within what moral framework should we endeavor to determine whether we need the state? Naturally enough, Narveson prefers his own well-developed view, which he explains succinctly but carefully here.

As Narveson sees matters, the key to finding the correct moral standpoint lies in abandoning a common assumption. We cannot rely on appeals to moral intuitions. If, say, one person thinks viewing pornography is wrong while another does not, how can their dispute be settled? What we have here is simply two conflicting preferences.

Sometimes it will be claimed that a premise is “self-evident,” and occasionally that claim will look very plausible. But you always have to be careful: What seems self-evident to Jones can seem quite nonevident to Smith — and then what? (p. 4)

We cannot, Narveson thinks, locate objectivity in God’s will. (Since Narveson is an atheist, he is hardly likely to find divine-command theories of morality compelling.) He deploys against such accounts the familiar Euthyphro dilemma: should we not say that God commands something because it is good, rather than that his commands create goodness?

[T]he claim that we ought to do what god [sic] tells us makes no sense unless we assume that god will tell us the right things. But what will make those the right things? It cannot be the fact that “god” tells us this … in order to have a picture of a “supreme being” we must have a prior understanding of what sort of properties make for the sort of moral supremacy that is claimed for him. Thus the claims[s] that these qualities are supreme just because god has them and that we are right to do what he tells us just because he tells us to are strictly incoherent. (p. 64)

I venture to suggest that more sophisticated versions of divine-command ethics, e.g., the theory advanced by Robert M. Adams in Finite and Infinite Goods, cannot be so readily dispatched; but Narveson would no doubt reject this view as well.

But if moral intuitions are cast aside, does this mean that morality is nothing but subjective preference? Narveson denies that this consequence follows. He suggests that we look at the situation in this way: Each of us wishes to advance his interests, including whatever values he considers to be the correct ones. These values are mere preferences and not objective. But we can ask, what rules would it be rational for such self-interested choosers to accept, so that each would have the greatest chance to achieve his goals?

In short, the social contract is the set of reasonable terms for dealing with others, given what we are generally like. These terms, known as moral principles, are generally pretty clear. People can help you, and they can harm you, and we them. What we want from others is help, not harm. Harm from them is a cost to me, harm from me is a cost to them. The obvious settlement point is, simply, mutual nonharm. It’s easy to live up to, usually: All we have to do is nothing, or more generally, to refrain from fairly specific, well-known kinds of harmful activities, notably those that impose physical damage on others or their property. (pp. 82–3)

David Gauthier adopts a similar approach in Morals by Agreement, a book that has influenced Narveson.

Narveson thinks that it would be rational for us to agree to respect each other’s rights to life and liberty. By doing so, people greatly lessen the chances that their pursuit of their individual goals will be violently disrupted. But, contrary to the dominant beliefs in contemporary political philosophy, rights do not extend beyond this: there are, e.g., no welfare rights or rights to equal distribution of wealth. Why not? Narveson answers that to press such claims inevitably involves an appeal to controversial values that are not universally shared. To command universal assent, or as close to it as it is possible to attain, the hypothetical agreement must be pared to a minimum.

Defenders of the welfare state will no doubt interpose an objection. Even if it is true, they will say, that people would find it rational to agree to respect each other’s life and liberty, this does not suffice to rule out the interventionist state of modern liberalism. True enough, if you have a right to liberty, other people cannot commandeer your labor on behalf of the poor. But property is another matter. Nothing has been said in Narveson’s tale of a moral social contract to rule out restrictions on private property. Why may we not install a system in which people can acquire property only under rules that allow aid to the disadvantaged?

Narveson proves equal to this challenge. He contends that the unencumbered right to private property follows from the right of self-ownership:

So what does this [self-ownership] have to do with owning bits of the external world? There is a natural answer. Ownership is authority over, which is authority to use. In the special case where no previous ownership exists, a person, A, coming upon useful things that A begins to use and intends to keep on using are to be reckoned their owners because now, any further person, B, undertaking to use those same objects, will be invading A.… This is wrong because of A’s general right to do whatever nonharmful thing he wishes. (p. 93)

One cannot then sneak in welfare statism through the back door, once self-ownership has been accepted.

Narveson offers an interesting perspective on an issue much debated among libertarians: does the right of self-ownership entail the right to sell yourself into slavery? Murray Rothbard denies that it does, but Robert Nozick and Walter Block disagree. Narveson says, “What we probably should say is that people may enslave themselves to others for as long as they want to, but beyond that, we should not uphold the contract” (p. 92).

I am not sure that Narveson’s social-contract approach to morality succeeds. He seems entirely right that it is prudentially rational for people to agree on rights to life and liberty. But does this suffice to generate a moral obligation to respect such rights? Is there not a distinct moral “must” that this account of morality misses? But these are very troubled waters, and I shall not pursue the issue here.[2] Agree with him or not on the foundations of morality, Narveson has come to conclusions about what rights we have that his fellow libertarians cannot but welcome.

Narveson’s streamlined view of the rights we possess permits us to look at competing doctrines in an illuminating way. Unlike Narveson’s contractarianism, most political theories think it justifiable to impose particular values on people. The use of force is not, in these views, confined to enforcing rights to life and liberty. Looked at in this way, political views usually placed in opposition wind up as variants of the same doctrine.

Thus, in

the analysis here adopted, conservatism is the imposition, by compulsion (if necessary, which it is often presumed to be) of values against the desires of those upon whom they are politically imposed, and on the ground that the imposed values are the right ones, those recalcitrants who resist the imposition being held to be perverse or wrong. (p. 54)

Now for the surprise. Marxists also wish to impose values; so conservatism and Marxism are not opposites but in this crucial respect varieties of the same species. Under socialism a

small number of people will emerge who claim … to represent the rest. The decision-making power will fall upon these few, and what people want, for their own part, becomes immaterial and inaccessible. The Central Committee will decide what people “want,” what they “need,” what is good for them… This is why I place socialism as a conservative theory. (p. 76)

One can safely predict that most “modern” liberals will reject Narveson’s moral theory, even if they cannot refute it. They will ask, can we really get along without government provision of welfare services? Narveson has a convincing answer:

A claim is made that some important service can be provided only by the government, and this is used as an excuse for trying to prevent anyone else from trying to provide it. As a result, of course, the claim becomes self-confirming. (p. 143)

$25 $20


Narveson, a Canadian, is especially keen to criticize the use of this argument to defend that country’s government-controlled medical system.

Narveson extends this brilliant point to bring the entire existence of the State into question.

This peculiar institution known as “the State” is, despite its fervent and often eloquent press releases, overrated, overpriced, and hugely misused. It is overrated in that its necessity, which has been trumpeted by almost all writers on the subject and most especially by the State itself, succumbs to analysis with very little remaining.… The State is misused in that it continually arrogates to itself the right to rule over our very lives as well as our fortunes and our liberties and has all too often (indeed, nearly always, in historical retrospect) ruled to the extent of murdering, torturing, and incarcerating or exiling, as well as robbing. (p. 195)

You and the State is an essential work for anyone interested in political philosophy.

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[1] See the recent book by David Estlund, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework and my discussion “An Epistemic Justification for Democracy?” in Jörg Guido Hülsmann and Stephan Kinsella, eds., Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

[2] For an excellent criticism of views that reduce morality to advice, see H.P. Grice, The Conception of Value. I discuss Narveson’s contractarianism in more detail in a lecture available here.


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