Sasha Volokh suggests, in accordance with orthodox libertarian rights theory, 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.
This is met with a sensible rejoinder from Matt Yglesias and that blank look of incredulity that Brad DeLong sometimes affects in lieu of argument. But I can sympathize even with Brad here. The conclusion is absurd, and as Matt says, that means that something has gone badly wrong somewhere along the way.
I'll again quote from my argument about this kind of thing.
I propose to treat the state as a morally contingent form of social organization that is nonetheless pervasive in the world we inhabit and in any world we can reasonably imagine in the medium-term future.
If we do so, one consequence is that we should view state officials as wielding a great deal of power in our social world that is probably not justified all the way down. States did not come about by individualist contractualist consent; they are not the institutional form of morally foundational nations; religious, hereditary, and customary forms of legitimation may remain sociologically credible in some places but are surely not morally well-grounded accounts of the justifications for the organized use of violence. Yet states are such well-entrenched features of the political landscape that, if can constrains ought at all, we are probably not morally obligated to abolish the state form in favor of some other form of political organization or in favor of anarchy of any description. We must morally make the best of them, making do with what we have.
In a world filled with states, officeholders and officials should view themselves as having political responsibility as analyzed by Weber, which is much like [David] Miller’s remedial responsibility. They wield power that is not morally legitimated by its origins; the power exists because of morally neutral historical and social accidents. What remains is moral responsibility for what is done with the power.
State officials then confront a world in which their authority gives them unusual power over outcomes. In a world full of drowning children, they are unusually likely to have access to life preservers. As Miller stresses, it is important not to view the world as always only made up of drowning children; we must also be able to see ourselves as partly responsible for the creation of our circumstances, our social worlds, and our outcomes. But even with that caveat in mind, there are drowning children enough to go around. Miller draws on Virginia Held’s (1970) famous argument that a random collection of individuals can be held morally responsible, to suggest that if they can, surely more substantial collectives like nations can be. But Held’s “random collection” shouldn’t be passed by so quickly; it is a serviceable shorthand for the reality of fellow-citizenship in a modern state, who make up a random collection of individuals who happen to be socially organized in a particular, contingent but powerful, way.
The state’s first duty, the prevention of interpersonal violence, follows more or less straightforwardly from the kind of social organization that the state is: the agency that is able to claim and enforce a local monopoly on the legitimate initiation of force. Not all forms of political organization have been like that, and the responsibilities of officeholders under them differed accordingly. But the ability to prevent private violence is constitutive of the modern state, which just for that reason acquires a responsibility to do so in accordance with the background moral rights of persons to be free from violence. Similarly, it acquires a responsibility to protect against theft and against aggression from outside its boundaries. It has displaced all other possible protectors; it has both the greatest ability and (due to its own actions) the only ability to defend against force; and so it bears the responsibility to do so.
Orthodox libertarianism would hold that this first responsibility (understood to include the prevention of private theft, not only personal violence) also more or less exhausts the state’s responsibilities. But the creation of the social technology that can protect against internal and external violence—for example, the creation of a professional body of armed men trained for coordinated action and a financial apparatus that can support that body—means that there is a significant concentration of physical and fiscal power on hand. And there may well be an overprovision of that power, since an underprovision is irresponsible and generates political pressure for state actors to fulfill their duties, and “just right” provision at the level that would keep police and armed forces working at precisely their whole capacity would be an astronomically unlikely coincidence. Then, unavoidably, the slack in the system provides the state and state actors with situations in which they have a unique capacity to prevent or mitigate harms and suffering. The police force created to prevent crimes also has the ability to respond to car crashes. The public fisc created to fund an army also has the ability to feed the starving. I am sure that there is no morally decent way to insist that the police officer refuse in principle to aid people in danger even if the danger wasn’t caused by crime, even though that means that the taxpayers will be involuntarily funding some use of the officer’s time that is not connected to rights-protection, even if the resulting situation is a violation of the best understanding of taxpayers’ property rights. Nor will it just be a matter of the personal benevolence of the police officer who wants to be free to prevent non-criminal harms while on the clock. If capacity and proximity can generate outcome-responsibility, then it can be the officer’s responsibility to act—and, accordingly, the responsibility of the state of which the officer is an agent.
Once the public fisc can prevent non-criminal harms indirectly, by paying its personnel to do so, it is a difficult distinction to maintain that it may not prevent them directly, by, e.g., feeding the hungry. Indeed, the distinction is probably an impossible one, and so all non-autocracies will end by being in the business of distribution (Dahl 1993). Once states are distributing benefits—and even physical protection is a benefit about which distributive decisions are made, as is perfectly evident when looking at the geographic unevenness of police protection in all countries—they face moral constraints about how and to whom they should be distributed. That is, there are problems of political redistributive justice, even if redistribution is not in itself demanded by justice.
I do not suppose that these brief remarks will persuade my fellow libertarians that they ought to abandon their views on redistributive spending. But perhaps they will agree that the police officer on duty has a responsibility (and not just the responsibility borne by any natural person) to aid the drowning child, even though doing so is a drain on taxpayer resources that is not for the sake of the prevention of interpersonal rights-violations, even though doing so provides a kind of subsidized in-kind insurance against misfortunes that are not injustices. The subsidy is not itself a demand of libertarian justice but of public responsibility conditional on the fact of public power; but once the subsidy exists, it is constrained by concerns about justice. A state could not justifiably intentionally deploy police differentially according to the race of the children likely to be at risk of drowning.
(From Levy, "National and Statist Responsibility," Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, Volume 11, Issue 4 December 2008 , pages 485 - 499.)
In other words: it is obviously morally false that no steps may legitimately be taken to prevent the earth from an asteroid collision. It may be that in some alternate world without coercive states, alternate forms of social organization would have arisen that would have the organizational capacity to build the space cannon (or whatever). But we live in a world in which states have, for centuries, aggregated to themselves the function of the rapid large-scale organization of the means of applying great quantities of destructive kinetic energy. For good or for ill, they have displaced the social actors from that alternate world. If states may not act, then there is no one who both may and can, and that violates the premise at the beginning of this paragraph.
Say that I hold bad but effective land title-- if the property right to my land morally appropriately vests in an Indian tribe that may actually regain it someday, but hasn't yet. Indeed, I've been aggressively contesting their land claim; it is due in part to my own actions that they haven't reclaimed it. And then fire breaks out on a neighboring piece of land; my property is the appropriate place for a firebreak to protect much more area behind mine. (This could be a house in a city or a plot of forest.) But it is only likely, not guaranteed, that the fire will spread. So if I allow the firebreak on my land, I am knowingly and certainly destroying property value that might otherwise survive intact, on land that is not genuinely mine to destroy.
Or: I have stolen your car for a joy ride, and suddenly (god help me) see a trolley experiment unfolding in front of me. Instead of the fat man of some versions of the thought experiment, what I can put between the trolley and the people in peril is your car, probably totaling it.
In both cases, even if we concede that it was wrongful conduct that put me into the position of being the one able to prevent the catastrophic consequences, and even if the prevention will cause some moral harm, I have a clear duty to prevent the bad consequences. And-- for reasons familiar from Weber and Walzer, and fully articulated by Goodin in Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy-- state actors have an exceptionally strong duty to prevent bad consequences that they're in a position to effect.
Sasha's rights theory is the one I object to with the policeman and the drowning child: the child's rights are not being violated, so the policeman may not spend taxpayer-supported time rescuing her. Still less may he commit some new act of expropriation-- grabbing your expensive suede jacket off a nearby park bench to wrap around the cold and wet child. But the asteroid case is even worse: it's as though the city has declared a curfew in the park, so no one but the policeman legally could be in a position to help the child at all. Given that state of affairs, the world that at that moment exists, the policeman not only may but must act.
The strict believer in property rights could still say: I'd be responsible for the value of your car if I totaled it in that way, even to save lives, since my being in that position was a consequence of my own actions. And that's right-- though it is fully compatible with the view that I have a moral duty to act. So maybe, in the science fiction future world in which state officials are all called on to pay damages for the harms their coercive actions caused over the centuries, they might be liable for the taxation in support of the building of the space cannon, even though they had a moral duty to build it. (The state has the right to create a firebreak without the owner's consent, under its duty to provide for public safety, but it owes damages afterwards.)
But now suppose that you were one of the people standing on the track whose life was saved. And try to calculate the who owes damages to whom, in the event that a handful of state officials coercively extracted some billions of dollars from hundreds of millions of people, with the consequence that all life on earth was saved.
What all of this means is: Sasha's theory of what rights we have is not the only premise needed to make his argument go. Not even fiat justitia ruat coelum will do the work. He also needs an implausible theory in which moral duties in a non-ideal world are absolutely identical to moral duties in an ideal world. To defeat it, we only need introduce a moral equivalent of the lawyerly concept of estoppel. If you believe in the libertarian alternate world of statelessness, and you believe that states have wickedly prevented us from reaching that world, you should think that states are estopped from suddenly pleading "let justice be done" come the moment when the heavens are literally about to fall.