States Aren\'t People

In the comments below, David Rossie writes:

The real question is: where does Iraq NOT fit in such a definition? I could not take over my neighbor’s house, change the family structure, break stuff and then pay my friends to fix it without exerting political and economic power over him. Even if I promise to walk away after several years or devise a “transition head of the household.” What makes an entire country any different?

This is a deeply flawed anthropomorphization of nation-states that neatly throws away thorny issues about how individuals fare within a political structure.

Clearly, societies are made up of individuals and some of these individuals wield power over the others and become the state. Sometimes they wield enormous power at the detriment of their subjects.

Were a group of individuals from a foreign land to attempt to overthrow the enormous-power-wielding individuals, the desirability of such an action would depend on the likely consequences as seen through the eyes of the subjects and outsiders. Some subjects would understandably be wary of such an action, either fearing more of the same when the outsiders took power, or worse. Others, having suffered at the hands of the enormous-power-wielding individuals, would rather see their overthrow by the outsiders.

So frankly speaking I don't think I understood what independence meant, and it certainly didn't mean anything good to me when I grew up to realize all the horrors of Saddam's regime and that I was living a life that worth nothing. In fact I don't think I was living at all.

Call the invasion of the outsiders impractical, worry about the unintended consequences, criticize the scale of collateral damage, point out accompanying loss of civil liberties at home. But to simply unite all the disparate individual voices into a single summation of preferences is to view the world with a profoundly collectivist lens. States aren't people. They don't have moral agency.

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States aren't people but

States aren't people but corporations are. The collectivist lens looks both ways.

Bingo. One can argue that

Bingo. One can argue that the Iraq war was not a prudent thing to do, but the "sovereignty" argument is and always has been a statist one.

Ala-Ambrose-Bierce:

Ala-Ambrose-Bierce: Sovereignty - A gentlemens agreement not to interfere when it comes to wife, child, and dog beating. A vice between individual men but sacrosanct between nations.

Joe, One question, though.

Joe,

One question, though. Your pluralism seems to build in at least some universalist principles: tolerance for other societies, say, and a right to exit. Does that mean that all your plural communities have to be liberals (in the broadest sense)? Do communities that don’t accept tolerance of others or a right to exit just not get to play?

I don't know; the limits of pluralism is the issue is what I struggle with most. I have very little respect for governments that oppress, execute, and torture the people living under their control, and deep down inside, I am a humantarian interventionist. I just wish I could trust governments of the West to be capable of doing it right and not becoming corrupted in the process themselves.

Re: children: I'm very lenient on "child-liberation" policies as a means for children to escape bad families, but I think a well-developed civil society is needed for children to have places to escape to.

BTW - have you heard of/read _The Liberal Archipelago_ by Chandran Kukathas? I found it via the Jacob Levy paper on "Liberalism's Divide" that Brian linked before; it makes the case for the "extreme pluralism" side of liberalism. I should review it sometime on the blog.

Matt, Actually, I think it

Matt,

Actually, I think it is you that I'm arguing against still. You claimed that the problem with sovereignty arguments is that they're inherently statist. But given the particular objection that you seem to have to the sovereignty argument, the real issue is that the sovereignty argument is a radical pluralist argument, not that it's a statist argument. Of course it's _also_ a statist position, but it's not the statism that's problematic in this instance.

Jonathan, I know that exit

Jonathan,

I know that exit is one of the requirements for your brand of pluralism. It seems to me that it pretty much has to be a requirement if pluralism is to work. Whether that's practical for states is a different question. Perhaps in space or on the ocean it could work. In the actual world we live in, it's going to be more difficult (as if that's news to you, eh?).

I'm actually a bit of a fan of pluralism when it comes to different states (my pluralism has limits, and they may be lower than yours). I have bigger worries about pluralism within a state. Children, for instance, seem really just to be stuck with their parents. I don't see how we get exit in that case. Combining exit and religion seems complicated, too.

One question, though. Your pluralism seems to build in at least some universalist principles: tolerance for other societies, say, and a right to exit. Does that mean that all your plural communities have to be liberals (in the broadest sense)? Do communities that don't accept tolerance of others or a right to exit just not get to play?

Joe, whoever you're arguing

Joe, whoever you're arguing against here, it's not me. I thought it would be clear from the wife-beating analogy that I view the difference as being one of degree rather than kind. The reason I insisted on the term "statist" was simply because in this case we're concerned with nation-states, but you can call it whatever you like.

Joe, The pluralism I espouse

Joe,

The pluralism I espouse is predicated on there being at least some sort of means for people to escape states that they don't wish to live in. I support pluralism as a way for people who have very different values to give up trying to control each other and instead live apart in toleration. The purpose is for like-minded people to come together into communities of shared values. It obviously won't work if an individual who doesn't share those values can't leave that community.

I realize that pluralism has limits. My limits are simply further out than most people's limits.

David, Jonathan, you’re

David,

Jonathan, you’re certainly right. I was sloppy when I added “states” to individuals in that comment. But the moral agency of states wasn’t what I was arguing about. I was, however, pointing to control of one state by another and using the household metaphor to simplify the argument. And the argument was not about desirability, it was about the definition of imperialism and its relevance to the US.

So why is wrong for one state to control another? Aren't there sometimes occasions when one state controlling another is a good thing?

"...you seem to be committed

"...you seem to be committed to the claim that no one has the right to oppress anyone else"

That is the heart and soul of libertarianism, which works fine as long as groups and individuals have equal power. As soon as there is an imbalance of power dynamics, the entire equation changes and libertarians have chosen not to address this problem.

Matt, The problem here is

Matt,

The problem here is that in Iraq it's not so clear that 'beating his wife to within an inch of her life' is really the correct description. Don't get me wrong here: I'm not defending Iraq at all. And there certainly was a time when your description applied. That would have been about 20 years ago. You know, back when Americans were providing the stick.

I guess that I wonder why it is that the nationalist case that you seem to hold in such contempt is really all that different from other cases that pluralists seem fine with generally. Suppose that I said something like:

"the whole concept of 'parental rights' is predicated on the idea that families should be imbued with magic inviolability, and in practice means that the sovereign body (i.e. the mom and the dad) has the “right” to do whatever he pleases to the people living within those boundaries."

or more generally:

"the whole concept of 'pluralism' is predicated on the idea that associations should be imbued with magic inviolability, and in practice means that the sovereign body (e.g., the priest, the dad, the mullah, the majority of the community, etc.) has the 'right' to do whatever he pleases to the people living within those boundaries."

I'm just not really sure that I see why you (or at least why a pluralist) would get so worked up when the oppressive entity is a state, but not be equally worked up when the oppressive entity is something other than a state.

The wrongness that you're pointing to is the oppressive part. States can be oppressive, but so can other things. If there is an argument to be made for pluralism in non-state settings, then that same argument seems to apply to states, too. When you reject the claim that a dictator as the right to oppress the citizens of his nation, then you seem to be committed to the claim that no one has the right to oppress anyone else. That would entail being critical of all oppressive groups, no? So the objection is to pluralism, not to statism. To reject the pluralist argument when it's applied to states and not when it's applied to non-states is just to engage in statist-bashing. It's not really getting at the issue, though.

If "pluralism" means not

If "pluralism" means not doing anything about it when your neighbor is beating his wife to within an inch of her life, then I guess I'm not pluralist.

And yes, the argument is still statist in this case because the whole concept of "national sovereignty" is predicated on the idea that national boundaries should be imbued with magic inviobility, and in practice means that the sovereign body (i.e. the dictator and his cronies) has the "right" to do whatever he pleases to the people living within those boundaries.

Matt, How is the sovereignty

Matt,

How is the sovereignty argument not just pluralism writ large? The objection that rationalists have to pluralism is that non-state entities can be just as coercive as states can. Yet many libertarians seem happy enough to endorse pluralism even when that means that, say, families or churches or communities oppress individuals.

The sovereignty argument really is nothing more than pluralism applied to large groups. The position, as I understand it, is that groups of people are entitled to arrange their lives as they see fit. To the extent that a people dislikes the fit between their society and themselves, they are free to change that society. Unless and until they do make internal reform, outsiders have to respect their particular sort of community. That sounds very much like arguments for pluralism that I've seen advanced here. Why is the argument so terribly different when applied to really big groups?

Admittedly, you might just reject pluralism. I'd be inclined to agree with you there. But I think that it's just false to say that the sovereignty argument is essentially a statist one. It's far more accurate to say that the sovereignty argument is essentially a pluralist one. That's why, say, Rand and I are on the same page on the question of intervention as are, for instance, Walzer and Rothbard. The relevant distinction isn't statist/non-statist at all.

Jonathan, you're certainly

Jonathan, you're certainly right. I was sloppy when I added "states" to individuals in that comment. But the *moral* agency of states wasn't what I was arguing about. I was, however, pointing to control of one state by another and using the household metaphor to simplify the argument. And the argument was not about desirability, it was about the definition of imperialism and its relevance to the US.

Tbore obviously misses the point by quoting Rand here. States don't have rights. The government of Iraq did not have a right to exist, I grant that.

"Dictatorship nations are

"Dictatorship nations are outlaws. Any free nation has the right to invade...any...slave pen. Whether a free nation chooses to do so or not is a matter of its own self-interest, not of respect for the non-existent 'rights' of gang rulers. It is not a free nation's duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses." - Ayn Rand

The only conclusion one can make for Baathist Iraq being "sovereign" is if the territory of Iraq was the personal property of Saddam Hussien and his cronies.

Jonathan, Why is it wrong

Jonathan,

Why is it wrong for one state to control another? I would argue that the first state must violate the rights of its own citizens to do such a thing before mentioning the rights of the citizens under the second state. States can't act independently of their citizens, and if they had universal support for their actions, they wouldn't be needed. It's wrong inherently because the self-determination of individuals like myself is stripped in part to pay for it, and in some cases participate in it.

Even if we determined that on the margin military intervention does not affect me (my taxes are already collected and the gov't will use them in some manner or another), it is a very arrogant and unlibertarian assumption that a centralized force of any sort can organize a foreign society. It isn't so unreasonable to destroy a foreign, existing order that is demonstrably tyrannical perhaps, but a realistic strategy that respected the rights of citizens at home and in the target country must take into consideration the future of such a nation without further (state) intervention.

Jonathan, Yes, well, the

Jonathan,

Yes, well, the struggle with the proper place of pluralism and rationalism is a tough one. Trying to decide how much illiberalism justifies intervention is not an easy task. I've written two papers on this, and I still don't feel very satisfied with my answer.

I'd be interested to hear more about your child liberation strategies. It sounds as if you'd end up with the humanitarian intervention problem on a different scale. At what point do I get to step in and liberate a child from an oppressive parent? What even counts as the right sort of oppression? One could make the case that, for instance, James Mill was pretty oppressive to young John Stuart (forcing him to learn Greek at 3, etc). That oppression led to John's nervous breakdown by 20. On the other hand, it worked out pretty well in the long run.

So what, then, is my standard for intervention. Soccer moms who relentlessly overschedule their kids? Fundamentalists who teach only creationism? Or is it just the parents who lock their kids in cages?

Oh, and I haven't read _The Liberal Archipelago_ yet. It's on order through ILL. A review would be great.