The Problem of Political Obligation: Benefit Theory as Solution

The question of political obligation asks, why, if at all people are obligated to obey the state? One of many philosophical theories used to answer this question is benefit theory, which operates under the assumption that the state offers special benefits to citizens, and they are therefore morally responsible to obey the state. However, critics of benefit theory suggest that this only justifies the existence of a minimal state, therefore not offering up an explanation for the political obligation that deals with the modern state. So how can one justify the existence of the modern state using benefit theory?

The merit of benefit theory is expressed through those benefits that are provided to the people that promote state obligation. Philosopher Robert Nozick offered a thought experiment in which someone would toss books onto the properties of people in a neighborhood and then demand payment for these books even though none of the neighbors had requested them. Many would suggest that this is not fair, for even though he had provided the books he had no grounds to ask for payment. Nozick offers another thought experiment outlined by George Klosko in his essay “Presumptive Benefit, Fairness, and Political Obligation,” in which a group of neighbors had decided to create a collective entertainment and broadcasting network. These neighbors take turns operating the broadcast, but one of the neighbors, “A,” does not want to give up a day to operate the broadcast even though they still benefit from the entertainment and broadcast. Is this person obligated to operate the broadcast? Many would still argue no. If benefit theory does not hold up against any of these examples, then how can it explain political obligation? The answer lies in the types of benefits that the state provides.

The state provides what are known as presumptive benefits: benefits that are necessary for living a quality life. This includes infrastructure, law, and clean air, as opposed to the benefits that appear in Nozick’s thought experiments. The classification of benefits can be described by two categories: excludability and rivalrousness. If a good is non-excludable this means that the benefit cannot be provided to one without being provided to all. The use of a non-rivalrous good does not impact the ability for others to access the good. An example of a non-excludable, non-rivalrous good would be streetlights. Benefit theory states that obligation is generated when the state provides these kinds of public goods. Excludable, rivalrous, goods such as cars and electronics do not generate obligation to the state. This explains why Nozick’s thought experiments do not generate political obligation, whereas the state providing law enforcement and clean drinking water do.

When benefit theory only applies to what is merely necessary for survival, or what is classified as a presumptive good, many of the actions of the state do not fall into this category and do not generate political obligation. However, the line of what is or is not a presumptive good is controversial. Klosko offers three examples of varying levels of severity that still generate political obligation. The first example is of a person that lives in a territory, X, that is surrounded by hostile territories, Y, that intends on killing the X-ites. The X-ites band together to protect themselves. Here, each person in X has an obligation to fight for the protection of all the X-ites. A less extreme example is that of the people in an arid area that depend on water usage for their agriculture. Therefore, the state imposes restrictions on water usage in daily life (gardening, showering, etc.) in order to conserve water for agriculture. Although the example is less extreme, the benefit of having an agricultural business that feeds and employs the community generates an obligation for the people to obey the state. This benefit, although less extreme, is still presumptive, non-excludable, and non-rivalrous, hence anything that extends beyond these requirements would not generate political obligation. Therefore, the argument for benefit theory can only justify minimal states.

Critics argue that by only justifying a minimal state benefit theory is flawed. However, in modern society, having excludable and rivalrous goods that do not generate political obligation allow for people to consent to whether they will receive these goods. Klosko offers an example of a drinking well being built in a community. Members A, B, C, and D want the well to be built, therefore they cooperate to build the well. After the well is built, they are able to drink from it. Community member E does not specifically want the well, although its existence does not hinder his quality of life at all, and therefore he does not cooperate in the building of the well. After the well’s construction he is unable to drink from the well. E has not consented to the well and therefore did not have to labor for its construction, but he also had no obligation to do so as he will not receive its benefits. Having these private goods that one can both consent to having and to not having allows people to have freedom over whether they must pay, in any respect, to have them or receive their benefit. Therefore, the existence of the private sector can help explain how benefit theory does justify political obligation in a capitalist state.

By understanding the concept of benefit theory and how the types of goods that the state can provide are classified it can be concluded that benefit theory justifies political obligation to a minimal state. Understanding political obligation and why it is that people do obey the state that they live in can better help legislators, and political thinkers, understand what their obligation is as a leader. This also highlights some political discourse about what is and is not beyond the rights of someone that lives under a state’s laws. Do these laws infringe on someone’s rights? Do these infringements benefit the greater good of the community? Are these laws or benefits excludable and non-rivalrous? By understanding these questions, we can have a better understanding of what people are and are not obligated to follow.

By Cora Fagan


The Exposure to Excess Information

The current environment socially, economically and politically is dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its onset, the people of every country on Earth have had to adapt in one way or another, adhering to rules likely restricting their freedoms, adopt habits, take a hit mentally and economically, or begin a form of conspiracy mongering and resistance that, in many cases, was met with the breaking of relationships and societal shunning.

It is the latter aspects that is most contentious, that is the conspiracy mongering of and resistance to vaccination and compliance to rules. Some believe that that the virus is not real, or is a cover for the effects of 5G technology, is a means of control through the vaccination with government and corporation pulling the levers, with endless other variations. Others are resistant to the compliance of rules, particularly in the United States, due to the barriers to liberty that these apparently symbolise, and therefore resist otherwise through non-adherence. Both seem equally destructive especially in the harmful forms of protest many individuals in these beliefs utilise.

For argument’s sake, however, could it be information that is the problem here? The access to the Internet, an endless stream on everything anyone could ever think of, is both humanity’s likely greatest achievement, but also in many cases its literal downfall. Look to the use of the Internet by major corporations – more or less, monopolies controlling whole portions of the UI and content presentation on the of the Internet (think Facebook and Google) – effectively handing tools to dictators, amongst other nefarious players, to do as they please turning the masses into followers. But for argument’s sake, is it the individuals fault or the corporation and its leadership? The human brain is not built for the extensiveness of information the Internet holds, and the human condition leads to the taking of the path of least resistance in many cases. If told X and X seems to fit into individual A’s perspective or understanding of reality, then A is going to take X as true, especially if the supplemental information suggests X is the reason why Y and Z occur or exist or what have you.

The point is the extent and breadth of information at users’ disposal allows the taking of a narrative, one that fits their world view, their reality. The overexposure to information through the media and Internet exasperates this as if, if there is something not fully understood, the individual can withdraw and retract in their niche corner of the informational realm in which they are reinforced and reassured by others as to whether or not their reality is true, which effectively acts as an echo chamber of anonymous agreement.

The reason this is being addressed is that in the case of vaccinations, not one but two (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) have been found to cause blood clots in some patients, to the extent that some medical regulators are now advising warnings on the vaccines. This is fuel to the fire of conspiracy. But it’s the current climate of continued coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought this to everyone’s attention. The counting of daily deaths, the progress of vaccination trials, everything is under a lens day-in, day-out. Many simple medications have had catastrophic impacts on individuals. Penicillin, an antibiotic, is often used to treat all sorts of illnesses, however, it is estimated that as much as 2% of the UK population are allergic and therefore could die on taking it. That’s a potential 1,333,000 people. However, there are no resistances (or at least if there are any they are not significant) to the use of antibiotics, penicillin in particular. There are no conspiracies surrounding them and someone visiting their doctor regarding an ailment will happily redeem their prescription and take their antibiotic with no questions asked.

These scenarios leave questions to be asked of what is the over-exposure of information doing to cause this apparent cognitive dissonance, in adherence and acceptance. Is it the sources of information, the reinforcement of one’s peers in world view, a true belief in liberty, fact in some cases, political leaning, a misunderstanding or incapability in understanding?

by Maurizio J Liberante


Brexit: Political Sovereignty or Economic Prosperity

The United Kingdom left the European Union entering the year 2020. The country subsequently entered a transition period in which they would continue to have access to the Single Market, allowing unfettered trade access, and the other benefits of EU membership such as free movement of people for the duration of the period. A free trade deal was finally struck on the 24th December (the figurative 11th hour) when the UK would have crashed out of the temporary continued trading measures with no deal whatsoever.

However, this deal has come under a great deal of scrutiny, particularly by industries that were significant advocates of Brexit, specifically the taking back of control of rules and regulations governing practices in the United Kingdom. The taking back of sovereignty if you will. But it is ever clearer the trend over the past number of years toward nationalist sentiment, a degree of introversion, is working against what is likely of more importance moving forward.

It has been reported in the past week that the new customs checks that traders or hauliers must go through in order to trade with the EU has led to many companies refusing to either deliver or export to or from the EU. This is due to increases in costs caused by delays and the required documentation in order to successfully transport goods without the potential refusal of entry or in some cases destruction of some product. Of course these delays are detrimental to time constrained goods, such as fish and seafood. The longer left the more likely these goods in particular will expire. Even in the dead of winter as we are currently (at the time of writing).

Subsequently this led to protests amongst fishermen and demonstrations made against government to help due to £1000s worth of product having to be disposed of. Interestingly though fishing in itself was an industry that advocated Brexit for the reasoning of being able to take back control of British waters, of sovereignty over British waters allowing the upping of fishing quotas and therefore revenues generated. In the short term, however, since this change in quota is being implemented over a number of years, these fishermen are met with a new environment of not being able to compete effectively with their European counterparts due to the inevitable restrictions they called for in Brexit. Many fishermen may fall into financial ruin as a consequence even if these issues in trade can be ironed out in the medium term.

But what then does this have to do with political sovereignty and economic prosperity? It could be argued that the idea of a standalone political sovereignty, one tied to a sole nation state is non-existent in the 21st century. Over the course of the 20th century increasing globalisation has eroded nation states to the point of being second in power and reach to multilateral institutions such as the EU or NATO. Even if a nation state, such as the UK, was to remove jurisdiction of a higher governmental institution such as the EU, as it has, it still succumbs to the international order of things. In practice, the taking back of political sovereignty, of apparent self-determination sounds attractive, synonymous with freedom in individualistic and liberal democracies such as the UK and the US. Nonetheless, the reality is self-determination in today’s world requires bi-lateral and multi-lateral co-operation.

These fishermen may have the rights in the long term (if successful in weathering the current impacts being had on the UK industry as a whole) to fish more, but the reality is they need the multi-lateral cooperation of their government of which they believe instils their political sovereignty. Without the effective economic co-operation and therefore giving away of “sovereignty” to other nation states, the individual, the introverting nation state, must sacrifice economic prosperity. Obviously, this is if the individual or nation state is willing to do so then so be it.

Though it can be argued that the loss of economic prosperity is in itself a loss of political sovereignty. The loss of the trading relationship, the complete freedom of movement of goods, means these fishermen cannot do what they want because their product can be replaced, their trading relationship found elsewhere. Nation states move backwards in decisions like Brexit, the rights the British people have lost both economically and politically have proven true in the loss of ease of trade, business and competitive edge. The British are subject to less opportunity, less prosperity, and thus less executable rights with less wealth of which they could have used to insure their rights, better opportunity and sustain prosperity.

by Maurizio J Liberante


LIBOR Transition and the Introduction of “Risk-Free” Rates

During the Great Recession starting in 2008, financial products known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) are considered to be blame for the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. These CDOs, specifically a type of derivation (a financial product deriving its value from underlying assets) were increasingly being based on baskets of mortgages. The runaway ever-increasing pricing of property due to the exponential demand for particularly housing coupled with the hunger for CDOs created an endless demand and supply loops: demand of housing, increasing prices, additional requests for mortgages, supply of mortgages, creation of more CDOs, demand for mortgages, dropping of standards to obtain mortgage, thus increasing demand of housing.

Unbeknownst to many, although mentioned here and there by players in the banking and financial industries, including through the media, there was an additional underlying potential aggravation as to the eventual collapse of markets: LIBOR. The London Interbank Offering Rate (LIBOR) was a measure of the interbank cost in terms of interest of lending money to one another usually in a specified period (e.g. overnight, 1 month, 3 months, etc.). Traditionally a panel of banks would self-report this rate to the British Banking Association (BBA), an independent body, of which an average was taken and published every day at 11am. The reported rates were effectively estimates of expectations often loosely and not categorically based on bank’s perceptions of market conditions. Of course, this led to many years of manipulation of said rates by individual banks, attempting to impact the published rate of LIBOR underlying trillions of dollars worth of even consumer based financial products such as variable rate mortgages. Very often, those that were given authority of reporting to the BBA within banks were closely associated or directly involved in trades, providing a great deal of incentive to move LIBOR in their favour even by as little as a basis point (0.01%). This manipulation extended to collusion amongst traders and teams across multiple banks and brokerages with management in many cases knowing of this behaviour, but otherwise ignoring it.

After a significant investigation was conducted on both sides of the Atlantic by numerous US and UK government agencies, arrests were eventually made. Oversight of LIBOR was handed to UK financial regulators to ensure integrity and reliability moving forward. It was recommended that from 2012 that the panel of banks reporting rates should do so based on sets of recorded transactions, and with the publication of individual bank’s rates submissions every three months. More recently it has been decided that LIBOR should be replaced altogether with what the Bank of England has termed risk free rates (RFRs). One of these is the Sterling Overnight Interbank Average Rate (SONIA). This currently exists and is the effective interest rate charged overnight on unsecured transactions in Sterling (the equivalent being SOFR in the US overseen by the NY Federal Reserve).

SONIA is a weighted average of a previous day’s overnight Sterling transactions and is published daily. The other rates likely to be picked up in the EU and the US follow similar calculations. However, after all the realisation, scrutiny and subsequent criminal conviction surrounding LIBOR it seems somewhat ironic that a replacement rate categorised as being “risk free” are being used. Intrinsically it could be argued that no rate is without risk, especially when again like LIBOR, in effect, these “risk free” rates, speaking particularly of SONIA, are subject to the rates the banks themselves set on their own transactions with one another. In saying this, there is of course an inherent reduction in potential risk of blatant making up of rates entirely due to those being set and therefore fed into SONIA being used in the past to affect real transactions. But to imply then that banks or financial institutions could not on a subtle level (e.g. a basis point of movement) affect overall averages of SONIA through their own decisiveness of transactional interest rates seems far fetched. Continued trust of these behemoths of complex, profit driven, financial networks may be detrimental to much more than these networks themselves which was seen in the Great Recession. This is not to say that outright distrust is warranted, or there is an existing or otherwise interest rate calculation that does more to drive home or enforce integrity. However, using one that fundamentally appears vulnerable to similar nefarious activity seems counter productive.

by Maurizio J Liberante