Tale of the Slave

One of the primary justifications for government is democracy. Social contract theory, without democracy, isn't very convincing. If Hobbes tells us that the state is justified because we would all agree to give up our rights in exchange for protection, we can simply ask Hobbes the devastating question: how is this different than a mafia? When a mafia "offers" protection, it is not really an offer at all, and although we may benefit in some way from this protection, we never willingly chose it and we might very well prefer to get our protection from someplace else.

"Ah," says the Hobbesian, "A mafia is not similar to a government, or at least not similar to our government, because under our government, citizens have the right to vote." But what does voting establish? What is so special about voting that it turns what would otherwise be considered a mafia into a praiseworthy institution?

I've always been stuck at this point, because the mafia analogy breaks down. If I ask the Hobbesian, "What if the mafia allowed its 'customers' to elect new mafia representatives?", the Hobbesian can simply reply, "Then it is no longer a mafia but a justified government."

I just discovered, upon reading a post by Matthew Yglesias, that Robert Nozick addresses this very issue in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Yglesias characterizes this as an "extremely bad argument," and links to Brad Delong who not only agrees with Yglesias, but thinks that Nozick should be knocked down a few notches in respectability for even making such a "deceptive and objectionable" argument.

What is this oh-so-terrible, evil, despicable argument?

Consider the following sequence of cases... and imagine it is about you.
  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master's whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three- sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the _vast_ range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happenned; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?"

- From Anarchy, State, Utopia by Robert Nozick, p.290-292 (1974).

Now, I have not read this passage in its original context, so I do not know what overall point Nozick may have been trying to make with it. But it seems to me that this passage nicely demonstrates why voting does not by itself justify violating an individual right to self-ownership.

So what are Delong's objections?

  1. The (false) implicit claim that there is a sharp dividing line separating "slavery" from "freedom," and that differences within the classifications are unimportant.
  2. The (false) implicit claim that there are only two choices: Nozick's minimal state on the one hand, and a pure majoritarian dictatorship on the other. You have to go a long way beyond Nozick's #9 to get to anything that approximates what we have in America today.

Delong's first objection is similar to the reason many philosophers give for rejecting the slippery slope argument as invalid. We know that a midget is a short person and a giant is a tall person, but we do not know at what point one is no longer considered a midget because he is too tall or no longer considered a giant because he is too short. Yet we can still clearly tell the difference between a midget and a giant. So too, Delong seems to be arguing, we know the difference between slavery and freedom, but there is no bright red line separating the two.

But I don't see why Nozick's argument depends upon such a separation. At least according to my understanding of the argument, Nozick is simply arguing against the idea that voting justifies anything at all. He is not arguing for the existence of a bright line separating freedom from slavery.

Delong's second objection is even more confusing. I don't see how anyone could construe Nozick's argument to be presenting only two possible options. Again, the argument seems to only be focusing on the importance of voting with regards to justice, and not to a choice between two (or more) regumes.

I think Delong, and especially some of the less-than-respectful posters in his comment thread, are dismissing Nozick too quickly. Nozick definitely had his faults and his arguments are far from flawless, but this one, I think, is a keeper.

Share this

In Hong Kong before Chinese

In Hong Kong before Chinese rule residents were considered some of the freest people on earth, and they didn't have the power to choose their leaders. Voting and democracy don't necessarily mean freedom and the lack of both don't necessarily mean oppression.

Outstanding point Sean; I

Outstanding point Sean; I agree completely.