Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Violence and the state

In his comment on Qeustions about libertarian socialism, Charles Magney makes a number of interesting points.

According to Charles, the theory for how to resolve differences of opinion "is 'don't use violence'. When it comes to non-obvious non trivial decisions, then stop threatening and killing eachother [sic]." In one sense, Charles' statement is no more a theory than "don't get sick" is a theory of medicine, or "throw yourself at the ground and miss" is a theory of levitation.

In another sense, to the extent that Charles' statement really is a theory, it seems too obvious and common to be useful. most modern societies, including our own, already hold this theory: we use social processes, not violence, to come to agreement about controversial issues. When we have a difference of opinion, for example, about who should be president, we don't (as we used to do to resolve differences about who should be King), have each candidate organize an army and fight it out. We conduct a (mostly) peaceful election, and the one with the most votes gets to be president. When we want to decide whether or not we should increase or decrease taxes, or whether to allow people to wear saggy pants or camp on Wall Street, we have some elected representatives deliberate and create a law. We actually do resolve our differences peacefully, most of the time. Again, I don't understand how this theory differs from a bog-standard capitalist republic.

I'm not, of course, trying to argue for capitalist republicanism. But I have a definite theory that substantively differs from capitalist republicanism: I want a very specifically and substantively different kind of social process than capitalist republicanism: true democracy (the people, not their representatives, actually rule) and social ownership of the means of production. I still don't know specifically what kind of social process libertarian socialists actually want. If they want some social process, well, we have a social process. What's wrong with it? What should be different?

Charles conflates the state with extortion, and misunderstands the causation of legitimacy and the monopoly of violence:
The state is only able to get away with this stuff [that Charles doesn't like] because they have a monopoly on force to extort their blood money from people. Basically, libertarians just don't think "being the state" grants them any special pleading ethical immunity to phohibitions of violence.
This is a minor but important technical error. The state does not have a monopoly on violence because it is the state, the state is the state because the citizens have granted it a legitimate monopoly on violence. It's not this alien institution dropped from outer space to oppress the human race, it is a creature of humans to manage and employ the violence that is part of our objective, physical natures.

Charles objects to taxation by "violence": "[I]t's not the 'tax' that is the problem. it is how that state gets the taxes (not voluntarily)." But I don't know what "voluntary" means in this context. Again, there are two ways of interpreting "voluntary." The first is in the vacuous sense: every action we take other than things like accelerating towards the center of the Earth at 10 m/s2 is voluntary. If a man holds a gun to my head, you can bet I will voluntarily give up my wallet. Obviously, I don't think Charles or anyone else attaches any moral distinction to this sense of voluntary. The other sense is that an action is "voluntary" when it is taken absent any coercion. In this sense, then, any social system that has the potential for free-ridership becomes untenable. You can, of course, get a "Gandhian" system, but such a system would require political socialization so very different from that which presently obtains that it starts to fade into Utopianism. (And even the Gands coerce each other, albeit subtly.)

Of course, we could take a more nuanced, subjective, view of volunteerism. For example, an action is "voluntary," i.e. legitimate, when it is the result of a social process to which the participants voluntarily participate in. But we're back to no difference between libertarian socialism and republican capitalism. Our taxes are the result of a social process all the citizens voluntarily participate in. (We do not, at least in the Western industrial republics, coerce anyone into staying in the country.) Indeed, it is the conformance with this social process that substantively distinguishes taxation from Charles' specious comparison of taxation with extortion. So Charles' conception of volunteerism is on the horns of a trilemma: vacuity, Utopianism, or triviality.

Charles certainly does not like the outcome of the current social process:
Personally, I'm not anti-tax. When I work, I would be more than willing to contribute to the community. The more services that are publicly provided, the more I would be willing to contribute.

However, we live in a society without adequete housing, medical care, and food for the poor. Yet, our tax burden (on avergae) is around 50% (after state, local, federal, sales,gas, property, etc...). Like Thoreau, as long as that money is spent on murdering children in other nations,destroying communities here, and givng handouts/privileges to corporations, I think it is more than ethical to not pay.
I share his objections. But simply saying that the outcome of a social process is not to one's liking is not an objection to that social process. Presumably, our tax money is spent on murdering children, etc. because that's what most people actually want, or are at least willing to tolerate. Legitimacy is and has been popular since the beginning recorded history. There are plenty of examples where the people have withdrawn their legitimacy, and when the people withdraw legitimacy, no institution, however violent, can long stand.

There's a difference between moral and political objections: a moral objection is an objection to some particular outcomes; a political objection is an objection to the social process itself. There are some people in every political system who will have moral objections to its outcomes: they believe that the rest of the citizenry is acting immorally or holding immoral beliefs. Such objections are, I think, always legitimate per se, but I don't see that the argument, "Political system X has outcomes I personally morally object to, therefore system X is objectively illegitimate," to hold any water. You don't like that the government spends tax money on murdering children? Great. Neither do I. There's a social process in place, use it to stop the murder of children. If you can't do so (and I think you can't), you need to tell me why you can't, and what kind of social process could stop the murder of children and maintain popular legitimacy.

It's a tricky problem.

Either we have a "state" (in the broadest sense as an organization with a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence) or we do not. If we endorse any kind of state, then the discussion stops being about whether or not we have a state, and starts being about what kind of state we want, and why we want that kind of state. There's almost infinite room for the latter kind of discussion. What I object to as intellectually dishonest is calling the state necessarily immoral, arguing that we should not have any state at all, and then advocating for what is in effect a state on the grounds that we're not calling it a state.

1 comment:

  1. You are so correct in that US voters vote for poverty, vote for wars, vote for doctor's consultations at 100 dollars, vote for very expensive medicines. Vote for zero free doctor's appointments and free medicines. Americans vote for very expensive university degrees. Americans vote for blue collar dirty jobs, very bad labor conditions. Americans vote for dollar devaluations, for over-valued very expensive cars, very expensive washing machines, very expensive basic monthly services.

    Americans vote apartments, and houses at 1000 dollars per month, americans vote for a hell of taxes, so that those taxes will be donated to Israel, to The Pentagon, to the bankers. And zero taxes being spent back on americans in social services.




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