Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Jonathan Berman Discusses Anarchy: The Way Locke Would Have Wanted It

I have to disagree with you Kat that the definition of anarchy is just "being able to do what you want without fear of punishment." In international relations today there is anarchy but that doesn't mean states just go around and do what they want.

When we define the term punishment it simply means a negative consequence imposed for a wrongdoing. Nothing in the defintion implies that the authority enacting the punishment or the receiver of the punishment is in the same hierarchy. In fact, in international relations states punish each other all the time. The embargo on Cuba, being condemned by the UN, or the former no-fly zones in Iraq are all examples of states punishing one another. If your definition of anarchy is true then we could not honestly say the international system is in anarchy because states get punished all the time.

Too often when people discuss anarchy they only think of something similar to Locke's state of nature where he says that in the state of nature men are in a "a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man."

However, Locke doesn't stop there when discussing the state of nature. For even as he says that the state of nature is a state of absolute freedom, he also says it is not one of absolute license. Lock then goes on to say that there are natural laws that no man can break.

Our friend Locke says, "but though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions." (II.6.)

Now we can bicker over whether there are actually natural laws but that is not the main point here. The main point is that in enforcing these natural laws every man is capable of acting as the executive power. There is no central authority to enforce these natural laws but every man is in a position to enforce them.

Lock says, "...that all men may be restrained from invading others' rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of Nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of Nature is in that state put into every man's hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation. For the law of Nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain if there were nobody that in the state of Nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders; and if any one in the state of Nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so. For in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do."

As a result, we can see that in anarchy, states, like people in a state of nature, are their own enforcers. There is punishment in the international system but it is just up to every state to provide it for themselves. Putting an end to anarchy is not stopping people from doing what they want to do, that would be impossible. Rather, ending anarchy requires taking the executive power from each of the states and putting it within one body. In that manner, if China wrongs Taiwan, Taiwan does not have to defend itself but can go to a higher power to demand justice. Just think of it like the US legal system. The law cannot stop people from murdering people, however, should a crime occur there is an authority that citizens may go to which will give them justice and ensure that they don't have to do it themselves.

Consequently, the anarchy that presides over international relations today allows states to do what they want but it also allows every state to be the executive. As Locke tells us if we want to escape the state of nature or anarchy then we merely need to put all of the executive authority that each individual state has and give it to one body exclusively. In this manner, a higher power acts as the dispenser of justice.


Blogger Kat said...

Actually, I commented that, since I hadn't really thought about anarchy before the discussion, it had always seemed to mean "being able to do what you want without fear of punishment," but that the discussion had made me think more seriously about what it meant -- and I thought, at least, that I had made it clear that I don't believe that this is an acceptable definition.

I don't mean to be rude, but please make sure that you're keeping my remark in context.

11:59 PM  
Blogger Johnny B. said...

It's not rude to correct somebody in a debate. My mistake was ignoring the fact that you used the past tense would/was in the second paragraph which I probably read to fast which I apologize for.

However, in my own defense your post was a little ambiguous. When talking about a hypothetical supranational organization and enforcement it appears that you are bringing down the points from the example of the police and not enforcing the law in poor areas. Thus, maintaining the definition of anarchy you were seeking to distance yourself from.

This begs the question what do you think anarchy is? If you are going to say "Personally, I don't think it's possible for the international system to move beyond a state of anarchy" then clearly you have a definition in mind.

10:53 AM  

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