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- Published on Amazon.com
Generally, when one says that a book marketed as an introduction is biased, that is a bad thing. And usually, I'd agree. But while Jan Narveson's "You and the State" is certainly something of a polemic, it still serves as a pretty good introduction to the field of political philosophy. That is, while he very obviously wants to argue for the "political" order of (one might say) anarcho-capitalism, he does a pretty good job surveying the differing opinions - from conservatism, to democratism, to egalitarianism.
As mentioned, Narveson is an anarchist who has authored the very good The Libertarian Idea. So, where many political philosophy books really start with the question, "What type of state should we have?" Narveson's question is "Why do we have a state at all?" And this is a really good question because, at root, the state is force by some on others, so even philosophers who endorse some type of state are generally cautious about MINIMIZING the type of coercion that is the state's lifeblood.
Narveson reviews several different ideas on how to set up governments in the best way, and as should be obvious by now, finds fault with all of them. Conservatism (into which he puts everything from Plato to, surprisingly to some, Marx) consists of the idea that there is a certain vision of the good life that IS the best and that it is the state's job to enforce it. But how can we be sure that these wise government folks actually know what the good life is...can't they just be biased (and maybe wrong) like anyone else? And if I think the good life is x, but you (the goverment official) thinks it is y, then why does the good life boil down to what you say it is, if "good" has anything to do with what an individual desires for themselves? Narveson also tackles the idol of democracy, where he also sees problems. First, we rarely stop to wonder why it is any more legitimate than any other form of government. And while we usually call it "rule by the people," democracy is usuually just electing "experts" ever few years in an election where any one person's vote has just about zero effect on the election...so what exactly am I ruling as part of the people? And, if each vote affects so little, then doesn't that encourage people to vote frivolously, as there is no real cost to making a 'bad' choice?
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is that discussing the more modern form of liberalism - welfare liberalism a la John Rawls, Kai Neilson, and Ronald Dworkin. The idea here is that liberty consists in some type of equal access to positive rights (welfare, education, etc). Thus, the state should provide certain things in order to ensure that everyone has REAL liberty (how much liberty, they ask, can you have if you are uneducated and starving?). Narveson has several objections: first, if the state can provide you with x only from taking y away from others, shouldn't we be as concerned about y's being taken as with x's being given? Second, in view of stats showing that governments do a lousy job at providing much of anything at decent cost, it should be an open question whether government is the best provider of things like education and (a favorite example of Canadian Narveson) healthcare. Third, there is much, much, much confusion (and a real lack of attempt to clarify) exactly what we are talking to when we talk about equality: for instance, does equality of opportunity mean that storekeepers should not discriminate against those with robbery convictions, and if not, what is our NON-ARBITRARY limit to how much equality is enough?
Narveson ends with a chapter on anarchism where he tries to convince us that there are good grounds to think that anarchism is both the most just and also, a surprisingly feasible, political idea. The chapter is short, and if the reader wants a more expansive case of Narvesonian anarchism, they might look at the above cited The Libertarian Idea, and maybe the third section of his This Is Ethical Theory.
So, yes, the book is certainly biased, and Narveson's presentation of things like welfare liberalism, democracy, and maybe, conservatism, is probably not as positive as one might get in other books. But as an expositor of such a seldom considered view like anarcho-capitalism, Narveson's book can serve to challenge students by going where other books seldom dare. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Jan Narveson is one of the clearest philosophical writers I've ever read. The book is conversational, cogent, and consise throughout. Very good read!