A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Fair-play theory is a crock of nonsense

Previously, I summarised the main theories as to my we ought to submit to a state. It is generally accepted amongst political philosophers that we do not actually consent to the state. Quite a few believe we would consent under certain conditions; I possibly agree, but do not think that this is relevant to the state as it is. Benefit Theory relies on circular logic. The idea of democratic fairness involves some rather heroic logical leaps: it seems to suggest that, by disregarding my friend's belief that I would be better off to donate £10 to the Labour Party than to keep the money myself, I treat him as an inferior. Consequentialism is ultimately a lawbreaker's charter, since there are many, many times when one can do better on utilitarian grounds than obey the state (e.g. one can evade taxes and this will likely help you and other more than it will hurt people by contributing to the national debt). The "Duty of rescue" argument is in my view the strongest one, but relies on a view of the state of nature with which I strongly disagree. Populism is very well dealt with my Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority. Briefly, people have all sorts of biases which predispose them to obey people who apparently wield authority over them, whether or not it is really "legitimate".

But the view which most draws my incredulity is that of Fair-Play Theory. This is a view summarised by H. L. A. Hart: “when a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to these restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission”.

This sounds very elegant and all that, but it is fundamentally pure assertion and, when you think about it, not a very convincing assertion. Suppose a group of workers join to create a firm making ingredients for spaghetti bolognese; the increased competition causes prices to fall and quality to rise; as a ravenous eater of spaghetti bolognese, I greatly benefit from this even if I do not actually buy their products. Clearly, this does not require me to join in their workers' co-operative; similarly, it is completely ridiculous to believe that a bunch of people agreeing to a common authority (as if this was even close to how government came about or continues in its existence) and so reducing the local rate of robbery and violence forces other in the region to also submit to this common authority.

In an attempt to move beyond this really rather ridiculous assertion, fair-play theorists typically introduce thought experiments; "people in a third-world village construct and maintain a well. Other people use this well; this does not harm the people who built the well, but still appears to incur a right of enforcement." This is easily dealt with by a basic appreciation of property rights. It is not okay for me to borrow someone's property without asking, even if they are not using it and it will not in any way be damaged or consumed, unless I cannot ask them and am pretty sure that if I did ask them then they would let me borrow it. Once this is understood, the argument collapses into simple consent theory and is easily dealt with.

George Klosko has an interesting account of why the state may justifiably force people to contribute to providing "presumptive goods". This essentially a modification of the economic definition of Public Goods (that is, non-rival and non-excludable, i.e. I cannot prevent you from consuming it and my enjoyment of it does not reduce your enjoyment of it; the classic example is a lighthouse) but with a couple of extra requirements. One of these is that "the benefits and burdens be fairly distributed". But what does Klosko mean by "fairness"? To my mind at least, it does not seem "fair" that anyone at all need contribute to the provision of public order: criminals ought simply to behave themselves, not mug or attack people, and that ought to be the end of it. It is "unfair" that I must put any effort at all into protecting myself or worry about being attacked. Or if it is necessary that public order be somehow provided, it hardly seems "fair" that I be forced to pay for a system of security which I regard as not only ineffective but also immoral.

There is a second way in which people approach fair-play theory, which is to argue that those who accept benefits from others without contributing to their production are "free-riding" and thus wronging those who provide the benefits. Perhaps they are free-riding, but it's not like they force you to provide the service. Go back to the spag-bol-ingredient-producing-workers' co-operative: I do not directly interact with them, but as a result of their actions I enjoy lower priced and higher quality spag bols. This increase in my welfare is worth (say) £50 a year. Would anyone seriously suggest that, since in its absence I would happily pay up to £50 for the firm to exist, I ought to actually pay money to this firm in return for the benefits with which it provides me?

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