The Practices of Happiness: Political Economy, Religion and Wellbeing
Ethics in science

James Otteson’s Actual Ethics

Jonathan B. Wight

Although James Otteson's Actual Ethics (Cambridge University Press) came out in 2006, I have not had the pleasure of reading it before now. Otteson provides a nuanced defense of the classical liberal society. There is much to enjoy and think about here, even if you don't find it entirely compelling.

One of my disagreements with Otteson’s analysis has to do with the mild paternalisms that I think may be desirable, even though they create a slippery slope. Previous blogs have touched on this so I won't belabor it here.

A larger issue struck me in the first half of Otteson’s book, however.  In justifying a limited government based on a conception of negative justice, Otteson relies on an argument about respecting personhood. In this conception (summarized around page 109 -- 110) taxes may be collected to carry out the limited functions of government required to bring enforce negative justice or ensure negative freedom. But if someone wishes to opt out of the system, Otteson says he or she should be allowed to, provided that the state withdraws from protecting their freedoms or enforcing their justice.

Otteson’s conception has the semblance of the old west.  If you don’t pay your taxes the state won’t defend your ranch.  So when your family is attacked and your steer rustled off, the state is under no obligation to round up a posse in your defense.  That’s well and good if we all lived out west and externalities were minimal and it were possible to distinguish who paid taxes and who didn’t. 

But are we going to walk the streets of New York with a “T” on our foreheads to indicate to police and medical workers that we’ve paid our taxes?  Hence, there is a huge hole in this particular argument.  Earlier, Otteson criticized the welfare state for creating an incentive structure in which people would reduce their own labor because they would find it advantageous to free-load. Why is that situation any different here?  Why wouldn’t any rational person not pay, confident that in the end that problems of non-divisibility in services would make up for most of it?

In terms of national defense, why wouldn’t people simply refuse to pay taxes and claim that they would “defend themselves” if the country is invaded?  Otteson says they would have to accept the consequences of not having government protections, but the truth is all of society would be less well defended because of it. There are huge externalities produced in national defense and defense spending has the characteristic of public goods. 

To defend the East Coast from terrorist attack we need a Coast Guard and the area to be defended is constant regardless of the number of people paying taxes to support it.  With fewer people paying taxes and going it alone, does anyone seriously think we would have the same desired amount of protection?  Otteson lamely says we should “do our best not to let them free-ride”.  How? By what means?  Given that coercion is off-limits, Otteson fails to address this point.

It is not clear why Otteson would insist that a respect for personhood means there can be no coercion when it comes to raising funds to carry out the legitimate minimal functions of government.

It may be that there is an ulterior motive here in Otteson’s approach – for which I have no evidence – that safely hidden behind our huge barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, many Americans would withdraw their support for foreign wars and interventions, shrinking the national defense size of government.  America’s empire is not a project that many Americans would support, and probably not many classical liberals.  However, would classical liberalism even have survived in England if America hadn't intervened in World War II? 

Moreover, if Otteson’s arguments are to carry weight, shouldn't his advice be relevant to countries in Europe or in Asia or in Africa?  Many countries in these regions do not have natural defensive borders and protection from invasion is critical.  If the primary goal of government is to protect the citizens from external harm, it seems odd that citizens should be given a choice.  Defending a nation requires a spirit in which all are expected to contribute, and those contribute greatly are hailed as heroes; those who failed to do their minimum legal share (e.g., paying taxes) are punished.  Social cohesion is greatly diminished without that stick. 

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