Today I came across this link on mises.org, which is a response to an article by Brad DeLong, which is a hit-piece attacking Asteroid Defense and Libertarianism on volokh.com and was immediately reminded that I had divulged half a blog on the Volokh comments, so I went to check it out, recollect my thoughts and get on that post I had thought to write last month before I missed the bandwagon.
To my surprise, Sasha Volokh actually responded to my points, and offered further critique.
I’ve independently concluded that taxation is still unjust in these “everybody dies” situations.
First, what to do about the people that believe that if an asteroid is going to hit, then it was meant to be, and they wish to die? Are you justified in forcing them to live?
Second, even if we agree that everyone does indeed share the same end or goal of avoiding the asteroid impact, how are the means of reaching that goal decided? What if I think that the best, cheapest, most sure method is to erect a solar sail on the object to pull it out of the way, while you think that an array of well placed nukes will cause the asteroid to break up and mostly deviate from its path of collision with the Earth? Each path should be explored by those who think it is going to be most effective, with their own resources. If you really do have the best method – you should not have any trouble raising funds voluntarily.
And “free-riding” should not at all be a factor; if your life is on the line, won’t you work to save yourself, even if others are saved with you? I might be able to buy the argument that people wouldn’t write novels if they couldn’t exclude people from reading them (I don’t), but it is ludicrous to suggest that externalities would prevent those wishing to save their own life from doing so because they might happen to benefit others.
Further, if you accept taxes in this asteroid hypothetical, is it world taxation? Does it imply a world government? How is the taxation scheduled? Do the rich and poor alike pay the same flat rate, because they all receive the benefit of life? Who decides, and how do we know that it is effective and efficient?
I’m obviously with you in some sense. But I disagree with some of the arguments.
(1) If the Martians were planning to blow up the world and some people wished to die, I don’t need to consider those people’s views; I don’t mind forcing those guys to not die. Suicide is always available.
(2) Yes, there could be disagreements about what’s the most effective means, but again, there were disagreement over how to fight the Nazis in WW2, and I think it’s morally justifiable for the government to tax people and decide on a particular strategy. Here, too, it’s the idea of rights-violation that’s driving things.
(3) I suppose if there were a one-time asteroid with 100% certainty of hitting, then everyone might give everything they had. But even then, if I knew 100% of people were giving, so safety would be guaranteed, I could see myself free-riding. Moreover, what if these asteroids happen every once in a while, and we know, predictably, that we raise more than we need each time? I think free-riding would increase then. Moreover, if the probability of being saved increased continuously with the amount of money raised, I could see free-riding leading to an inefficiently low probability of being saved.
(4) Finally, questions of world taxation, flat rates, who decides, etc., are interesting, but not crucial to this philosophical discussion. Maybe WW2 wasn’t financed in the morally optimal way, but even the imperfect financing mechanism we had might have been preferable to doing nothing through government.
In turn, (1) the taxation is not just “forcing them not to die”, its forcing them to contribute to saving everyone else, too. This sounds very Randian/Objectivistic, and seems to dehumanize those who have different goals. The issue isn’t that they want to commit suicide, but that they want this particular asteroid to kill them.
(2) Taxation for national defense is also immoral, unless you’re a “ends justify the means” type of person. By all means start an effort to put an end to Hitler’s injustices, and let American defense companies offer their services to protect people in harm’s way, but please convince me to contribute, don’t force me. If I am being taxed to do so, then the goals that are being advanced are the tax-collector’s, and not my own.
(3) Boycott, social pressure, and reciprocal agreements are non-violent ways to solve free-rider problems. Would it eliminate them? No. But govt can’t either. Instead there would be a natural tendency to align the Marginal Social Benefit with the Marginal Social Costs (subjectively determined by each actor) of asteroid defense. If even after this, the market can’t muster the resources to avert disaster, then a govt could do no better with the same resources society has.
(4) World taxation is crucial to the discussion. Why would the US be justified to do something the the UN would not be? Why would different countries be okay free-riding off of the USA’s efforts? Shouldn’t, if it is morally justifiable to tax within your nation, be just as justifiable to demand some proportionate tax from other nations and/or peoples? I was referring to the justification for such a tax implying that the tax would be justified against all inhabitants of the Earth. I was not trying to focus on procedural details to question the efficiency/justness of the taxation solution, but to show that there is no defense to calling for world taxation if you call for national taxation to prevent something that could harm the entire planet.
My last responsive point refers to the “taxation for WWII was better than doing nothing” coda. Govt action in WWII may have been better than doing nothing, but if you are going to “economize” rights by saying that actions are justified if they prevent more rights violations than they cause then you cannot compare the outcome of govt action on one hand to “doing nothing” on the other. The “on other hand” situation is the opportunity cost of the action: namely those things that would have been done with the society’s resources had they not been spent on the govt’s chosen action. Thus by Volokh’s own formulation of justice, the calculation that must be done to justify rights-violating-solutions is to calculate the net injustice of such a solution against a solution of voluntary action. This was partially covered in (2) above, and it’s a harder case to make that Hitler couldn’t have been stopped by voluntary alliances amongst individuals. Indeed, even in the govt solution there wasn’t a “Allied Government” directing the resources of the allies, it was all by voluntary agreement at the international level. Why wouldn’t voluntary agreement on the interpersonal/interinstitutional level work even better? That is the burdensome question that must be answered to justify force, and the lack of an imagination to be able to prove one’s case does not excuse the burden.
(These measures of injustice are subjective themselves, and many people see them differently. Letting the institution with the power to tax/rule decide those situations that justify taxation/aggression is literally giving the fox the keys to the hen house.)
Finally, a point I’ve not found looking through these various blogs: there is no legal duty to rescue. If I do not have a duty to act affirmatively to save one person, why do I have such a duty to save all of them by contributing my marginal share? This, of course, strays from analyzing the moral question, but last I checked taxation was carried out by a group that is infinitely more worried about what the law allows than what some bloggers consider moral.