I’ve thought a bit more about what I wrote yesterday, and I didn’t address a common libertarian response to the sort of objection that I made. This response involves saying, “of course I’m not against [PICK ONE: protecting the planet from asteroids/ stopping the spread of aids/ giving food to the poor/ any other obviously desirable thing], I just don’t think that the government should have a role in doing it. Individuals should take responsibility for accomplishing these things through voluntary action.”

Maybe in libertopia private actors would have built a huge anti-asteroid missile defense system whose construction involved no rights violations (I’m skeptical), but in our world it is states alone that have the capacity to address this sort of problem. Given our current circumstances, the correct way of thinking isn’t to say, “if we can’t have asteroid protection without coercive state action, then I guess we’ll just have to accept that we’ll get hit by asteroids”. Instead, we should recognize that the state has a moral duty to protect us from asteroids (and prevent the spread of diseases, and feed the hungry) because moral duties in an ideal world aren’t necessarily identical to moral duties in our own very non-ideal world.

We live in a world with large, non-libertarian governments. Among the many non-libertarian things these governments commonly do are the obviously good things I listed above. It’s not clear how we get to libertopia from where we are now, and if government suddenly just didn’t do any of these things, then the consequences would be terrible. This is why the typical libertarian response doesn’t work: because even if states have power that can’t be morally justified, in our current social political context it is the state alone that has the capacity to prevent a lot of suffering.

Sasha Volokh goes off the deep end:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

If a conclusion to a sound argument is this absurd, it means there’s a problem with the premises, and the fact that Volokh is “willing to be absurd” doesn’t get him off the hook. There’s no reason to think that the reasoning that leads us to accept a certain theoretical moral principle is any more reliable than our intuitions about specific moral cases. Therefore, if an argument leads to a conclusion that is this unintuitive, it means that the principles that led to the conclusion should be revised.

The idea behind Volok’s right theory seems to be that having a right places a negative duty upon another person not to violate that right. It doesn’t, however, place people under duties to protect the right holder from any specific outcome. So if I cut down a tree and kill you, that violates your right to life, whereas if a tree falls on its own and kills you, morality has nothing to say.

Consider the implications of this sort of view for disease control, an area in which government intervention is widely viewed as legitimate. Polio is a debilitating infectious disease, and governments can play an important role in giving out vaccines to prevent epidemics. In normal cases of transmission, no person engages in the kind of deliberate harmful action necessary for Volokh to consider something a rights violation, and therefore morality actually prevents the government from doing anything. Now, Volokh himself has said that he’s immune to reductio ad absurdum on this matter, so this wouldn’t be convincing to him, but hopefully other people will have an easier time recognizing the sheer nuttiness of Volokh’s position.