Authority, the nirvana fallacy, and the costs and benefits of co-ordination (review of IX)

We now proceed to Chapter IX of “Natural Law and Natural Rights.” This chapter contains five subsections and is devoted to the theme of authority. By “authority,” Professor Finnis means coercion or the power “to require one to choose what one would not otherwise have chosen” (p. 231), and he offers the following insight: authority or coercion are not just necessary evils; they are necessary goods (!),* for without some kind of centralized authority (alas, Finnis is too aloof to delve into the details of actual governance), men would be unable to solve the many types of co-ordination problems that afflict any group, among which are:

  1. How to reconcile conflicting rights;
  2. How children should be educated;
  3. How natural resources should be allocated and used;
  4. How the use of force should be regulated; and
  5. How speech should be regulated.

While we agree with Finnis about the ubiquity of co-ordination problems, his sanguine analysis of authority is fallacious on multiple levels: theoretical and empirical. To begin with, the creation and maintenance of a centralized authority is itself a co-ordination problem! So, how does this meta-coordination problem get solved in the absence of some pre-existing meta-authority? In addition to this regress problem, the remaining problems with Professor Finnis’s analysis of authority are entirely empirical. Although Prof Finnis’s armchair theorizing might be persuasive to some scholarly souls, Finnis fails to compare both the benefits and the costs of authority. By way of example, what about “forced riders,” i.e. individuals who are required to contribute against their will to the costs of goods or services they do not want? (See item C in the chart below.)

Moreover, we don’t always need a centralized authority to solve our co-ordination problems. As such influential scholars as Elinor Ostrom and Robert Sugden have shown (look them up!), bottom-up solutions to collective action problems and other forms of “spontaneous order” are often more effective–and perhaps more morally legitimate to boot!–than centralized solutions. (See item B below.) Lastly, Finnis commits what Harold Demsetz has called the nirvana fallacy: the fallacy of comparing actual coordination problems (such as the set of co-ordination problems listed above) with unrealistic or ideal solutions to these problems (some authority capable of providing ideal or perfect solutions to our co-ordination problems). More simply put, just because a co-ordination problem exists doesn’t mean it needs to be solved; sometimes it’s better to leave a problem alone; sometimes the solutions are worse than the problem itself! (See item A below.)

Screen Shot 2019-05-09 at 10.58.39 AM

* Finnis makes this key connection between authority and co-ordination problems by posing the following deep Socratic question (p. 231): “Is authority in a group required only because of the stupidity and incompetence of its members, their infirmity of purpose and want of devotion to the group, their selfishness and malice, their readiness to exploit and to ‘free ride’? In a community free from these vices, would authority be needed, or justified?” For Finnis, the answer is yes. A centralized authority is not only a necessary evil to counteract these human vices (stupidity, malice, etc.). It is also a positive force for good (ibid., emphasis in original): “the greater the intelligence and skill of a group’s members, and the greater their commitment and dedication to common purposes and common good, the more authority and regulation may be required, to enable that group to achieve its common purpose, common good.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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