Justificationism vs ancap and rationality

The socialist anarchopac claims to have an argument against anarchocapitalism (ancap). I think this argument is flawed, but I doubt that many ancaps could reply to it properly.

Anarchopac states that according to ancap all property gained by coercion is illegitimate. So if a thief buys a phone with money stolen from many victims, they collectively own the phone. All government property has been created by taxation, which is theft according to ancap. the money used to fund that property is owned collectively by all of the people from whom it was stolen. Many corporations get government subsidy and that money too comes from taxation, so their property too is owned collectively.

There are a few problems with this argument. The first is that if a thief steals money from people, then he owes them money, not something they would not have chosen to buy. If we were to view taxation as theft, then what the government would owe people is the money it stole, not the goods or services they bought with the proceeds of that theft. The first is that if a thief steals money from people and buys a phone with it they may or may not own the phone, or the proceeds from its sale, or the money the thief stole from them depending on what the law awards them as compensation and what other claims are made on the thief’s assets. This is true even under ancap since the protection agency employed by an individual might only look for assets worth more than some lower bound or something like that. I can see no reason why such a policy would be illegal.

The second problem is that it is not at all clear that taxation is theft. Most taxpayers still think that government is good and necessary and many are enthusiastic about it. They want the government to take their money. Is the government stealing from them? I don’t think so. The trouble is that you have to pay taxation to the government regardless of whether you support their policies. If you dislike the government’s policy on the environment you can’t refuse to pay for that particular policy. Rather, you get to vote for one party or another every four years or so, and occasionally it may happen that a government is toppled by a vote of no confidence or something like that between elections. The rest of the time you are free to say what you like (in the West) but the government can ignore or insult you and there is nothing you can do about it. Now, just so I’m not misunderstood, having the vote is better than not having it. It is sometimes possible to persuade enough people the government is doing something bad or stupid at an election. But I would prefer to change the way government works in the direction of allowing individuals to withdraw financial and practical support from the government piecemeal and on a much shorter timescale than every four years. I think that is the good substance of the ancap position. Taxation is bad financing, it is not theft.

Many ancaps might agree that government and corporate property is not legitimate. But seeing as everybody uses goods and services provided by the government I don’t think that it would be possible to disentangle what property is legitimate and what property is not legitimate. Some positions are morally worse than others to be sure. Campaigning for government support of X is worse than taking money from the government that happens to be available for doing X. If you think it would be better for X to be paid for by non-tax means but you take the money anyway I don’t see that as bad provided that you don’t compromise what you want or say that it’s good for X to be paid for by taxation. The money will be spent anyway so why not take it? The proviso may be difficult to meet, but if you’re willing to walk away if you can’t meet it, then that’s okay.

I think this is an instance of a much more general problem. People often say that some position is rational or not rational. (1) Sometimes what a person means by saying a position is irrational is that there are known criticisms of it and so people shouldn’t hold it. (2) But they also irrational to mean that an idea has been justified: shown to be true or probably true. (1) is possible, (2) is not. Justification is impossible because the conclusion of an argument is only true if its premises are true. So if you have to show something is true then you have to justify the premises, which requires another argument with more premises, which have to be justified and so you get an infinite regress. So justification is a bad standard. What you can do instead is to look for criticisms of your ideas: problems they fail to solve such as inconsistencies with other ideas, or with experimental data. You can then propose replacements for the criticised ideas and so make progress by solving problems. (See Realism and The Aim of Science by Karl Popper, especially Chapter I, Sections 1 and 2 and The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch for more details.)¬†What you should do is look for problems and try to solve them, not justify ideas.

Looking for problems requires having the means to spot them and take action to change the way we do things. Liberal democracy has some means to do this, but ancaps have suggested means that may allow us to do better. So if people decide ancap is a good idea what they should they do about the current distribution of property? The best gloss I can come up with on legitimacy is the following: a particular action is legitimate if there are no unrefuted criticisms of it. There is no way to justify an action or idea about what action to take. If there is clear problem with some particular action and there is a way to fix it that has no surviving criticisms you should fix it. Otherwise you should just admit that you don’t know how thing would be if people hadn’t made the mistakes they have made in the past rather than trying to undo things when you don’t know how to do so without doing bad stuff.

For example, Apple has sued Samsung who allegedly copied their iPad designs or something like that, but the government has also pursued an antitrust case against Apple. What would have happened without those cases? I don’t know, nor does anybody else. Apple lost money from the antitrust action. But would people who bought a Samsung pad thing have bought an iPad? Did Apple actually lose money because of what Samsung allegedly did and if not weren’t they just shaking down Samsung? What would Apple have done with the money they had to spend on the antitrust case? How could you even go about finding out what opportunities Apple gained or lost or how to price them in either case? And let’s say Apple has come off worse. Whatever improvements they would have made the resources for making them have already been used and can’t be recaptured. The damage can’t be undone. Apple and Samsung should just be left alone to trade.

There may be some very clear cases where somebody has been screwed and it is possible to make restitution. If the government has seized some property (e.g. – eminent domain or civil asset forfeiture) and it hasn’t ruined the property in question, then it should return the property. Otherwise all we should do is sell off government property and let the market sort the rest out. I don’t think the government has much chance of getting the price of its assets right, so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about that.