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Kevin Vallier joins the show today to discuss how politics itself is nothing more than a power struggle between groups with irreconcilable aims.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Kevin Vallier is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political philosophy, normative ethics, political economy, and philosophy of religion. Vallier is the author of over forty peer‐​reviewed articles and three monographs. His most recent book is Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford UP 2020).

Americans are far less likely to trust their institutions, and each other, today compared to decades past. This collapse in social and political trust arguably fuels our increasingly ferocious ideological conflicts and hardened partisanship.

What’s the basis for people to trust each other? How do you measure social trust? What is reflective equilibrium?

Further Reading:

Arguments for Liberty: Rawlsianism, Free Thoughts Podcast

A Rawlsian Case for Libertarianism, written by Kevin Vallier

Subjective Reasons and Political Justification, written by Julian Sanchez


00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Kevin Vallier. He’s Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University and director of their program in philosophy, politics, economics and law. His new book is Must Politics Be War? Restoring our Trust in the Open Society. Welcome back to the show, Kevin.

00:27 Kevin Vallier: Great to be here. And thanks for having me back.

00:30 Aaron Powell: You quote in the book Michel Foucault, saying that politics is the continuation of war by other means, and Trevor has frequently called politics a return to the state of nature as a war of all against all. Why is this sort of belief so common?

00:48 Kevin Vallier: I think it’s especially common in the US, in part because of phenomena like polarization. Anything where a country is divided along some really deep dimension, like, say, around the time of the Civil War where people seemed to disagree so much about values that they think the other side can’t be trusted, that the other side is dangerous, the other side is immoral or has bad character. And sometimes when you have an observer who sees that on both sides, someone watching a country in civil war says, “Look it, they’re all horrible and squabbling together, maybe there’s no way for them to live together.” Sometimes in a war, we just think, or in that kind of mentality we just think the other people can’t even be reasoned with. So I think it’s when there’s some kind of salient public cleavage within a country or a social group that tempts people to think that conflict is inevitable. And so why do people think that about politics? Well, when the delineation or the dividing line seems to be particularly deep, publicly recognized, and that spreads out into the culture like our kind of red tribe‐​blue tribe phenomenon.

01:58 Trevor Burrus: So it’s interesting ’cause your approach is actually… Takes that fact or looks at that fact as part of doing away with some of that is actually part of the justification for not only politics but also a coercive state.

02:16 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s not to say that the state is the best arrangement that one could have, or that it’s most just. But rather that, given the level of disagreement that we have, and what we disagree about, that a sort of limited state that has, it’s kind of a moderate, classical liberal type state is the only one that can be justified at different perspectives. So here’s why that matters. When people deeply disagree about important issues like morality, politics or religion, there’s going to be a temptation on that basis to mistrust each other. Because it takes a lot for human beings to think that if others reject our values, that they are aren’t at fault, that they’re not culpable for their so‐​called ignorance. And I call this in the book the illusion of culpable dissent, as we think the fact that others dissent from our values is some fault of the other person.

03:13 Kevin Vallier: And the difficulty then is, well, how do we trust people with different values? What’s the basis for people to trust each other? And most of this problem is solved outside the state by social norms, sort of rules that people conditionally prefer to follow, so long as others do, that we think most other people will follow and that we think they ought to follow. If you were to think about social norms, just think about many of the kind of informal rules of the road when we’re driving, like allowing people to merge in oncoming traffic. And for the most part, that isn’t legal. We don’t do that because we think it’s the law. We do it because we need others to do it and we know that others need us to do it. And so we act from a sense of justice or reciprocity.

03:53 Trevor Burrus: This tradition coming from… It’s interesting, ’cause you mentioned, both… This isn’t about how can we fix America? Maybe to some extent, but John Rawls, and also Friedrich Hayek, who I’m not sure I saw in the book, but both talked about, sort of… I think for Hayek, it was minimal normativity, and then for Rawls, it was overlapping consensus, this sort of idea of how, what is the baseline of agreement. Is that a good way of saying, what is the baseline of agreement that you need to live together in a society?

04:24 Kevin Vallier: Yeah. So the reason I started with social norms is for the listeners, not to think that the basis of trust is the state. It’s a very small part of it. So that’s a significant part of it. That’s just why I tried to explain that I think the key sources of trust are not political in nature and politics can sometimes make it worse. So the way that you solve the problem of trust is you need norms that everybody accepts and that everybody’s willing to comply with because they think it’s sort of morally appropriate and good for them to do so. So the question of the base line that you raise is one that’s actually pretty addressed in a kind of complex way in the book. Because I actually think that we come to politics when we have a baseline of agreement outside of politics. And we think that political mechanisms can help us to improve on the problems that we find in the non‐​political order.

05:17 Kevin Vallier: So initially in the story, the baseline are shared social rules that aren’t laws. But then, you introduce laws as a point of agreement, where people see the baseline of a social morality as deficient in various ways.

05:31 Aaron Powell: Is that how we either arrive at or stick to social norms, though? Are they the kind of thing that we think about and choose to follow because we think it makes sense, there’s good reasons to, we benefit from them? Or is it more just… It seems like social norms are largely just habit, it’s what we’re used to. And then there’s kind of a status quo bias to a lot of them versus us continually saying, “Wow, I can see the benefit of all these social norms.”

06:00 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, I think most of the time, normal behavior is not just a habit, but automatic, in the sense that it’s not even conscious. There’s just too many of them. But when we chafe under them, when we experience them as imposing a cost on us, then I do think we return to the rationale. And a couple of things happen. Sometimes people think, okay, this is the right thing to do. Suppose I get in a wreck with somebody, it’s my fault. I make sure, exchange insurance with them. Maybe I take some responsibility, say, “I’m sorry,” or something like that.

06:36 Kevin Vallier: Having to give someone your insurance, having to pull off the road and take responsibility, that’s a costly social norm, but it’s one we think we’re generally morally bound to follow. So we experience it as a cost, but we also are trying to do the right thing. Other cases, we follow a social norm because we’re worried just about getting punished if we don’t follow it. So, for instance, if you look at female genital cutting in other countries. In some countries, most of the people who do it don’t want to do it. Like in Burkina Faso, way more people do it than actually want to do it themselves. They only do it because they think others will disapprove. So those two cases are experienced differently. And in some cases, the third case, people disobey the norm because they think it’s the wrong norm. You may think of religious minorities disobeying common norms, like the norms that the Amish disobey in terms of travel on the roads and things like that.

07:31 Trevor Burrus: So you mentioned this concept or used this concept called moral peace. Is that kinda what we’re talking about in terms of what happens before? ‘Cause you don’t get to the state until chapter four or legal coercion until chapter four.

07:44 Kevin Vallier: There it’s just law, and law can be outside the state. So there’s a way… I don’t even get to the state until chapter five and six. So just to get this idea of moral peace, let’s just start with something that’s easier for people to understand, a civic piece where, right after a civil war, one side has conquered the other. Now there’s peace, but the peace is based solely on the threat of violence. So this is a kind of extreme case of what Rawls called a modus vivendi. So you could have a peace, right, where people aren’t openly attacking each other, but it’s not based on any moral consideration. It’s just based on power.

08:17 Kevin Vallier: Whereas a moral peace is where people can establish terms of trusting each other and of getting along and cooperating that’s based on the common acknowledgement of moral norms, and not just based on violence. So a moral peace is one where a society is in one when they have a high state of social trust that most people are going to comply with the central rules of their society. We can count on each other to do the kinds of things that we jointly think we ought to do: That we ought not to steal or commit fraud, that we ought not to harm people unnecessarily. So that’s the difference between a civic peace or a post‐​war peace and a moral peace.

08:57 Aaron Powell: Is this something that has gotten… So at the beginning, you said that the notion of politics as war by other means or war of all against all is particularly intense in the United States. But there’s also, I think, a sense a lot of people have that this issue, this degrading of moral peace has gotten worse over time. Is that true? And if so, what causes it to fluctuate?

09:22 Kevin Vallier: Yes. So this is a great question because a lot of people have strong intuitions about it, but there’s very little data… Usually when I have the conversations, they’re not speaking from the data. So the reason I try to characterize moral peace in terms of social trust, one reason, is that there are ways of measuring social trust. And in fact, political scientists and economists have been coming up with ways of measuring it and figuring out what it correlates with, causes and so on for decades. So the question about whether we can have this peace, for me, is a matter of degree. It has to do with the feasibility of increasing levels of two kinds of trust: Trust in society, that is trust in other people generally, what we call social trust, and then there’s institutional trust or, say, trust in the legal system, or the political system, or something along those lines.

10:11 Kevin Vallier: So then the question becomes well, how do we get more social trust, and how do we get it without, say, manipulation and deception? How do we get it in the right way? I talk a little bit about it in this book, but really it’s the sequel to this book that will come out in November, A Love of Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times that gets really knee‐​deep in the data for… A whole chapter is just devoted to the data. And the complication with getting social trust is that we don’t know a lot about what causes it, although we know a large amount about what its consequences are, and they’re very good in terms of things like economic growth. But there are a couple of things that can undermine social trust. One is civil war, obviously, but communism’s pretty bad, it’s clear, for social trust. This probably has something to do with a phenomenon of secret police, whereas an East German trust is still lower than West German trust, probably because in 1989, about 5% of the adult, 4% of the adult population was a member of the secret police. So that’s one out of every 20 or so people you meet could ruin your life, and you’d never know.

11:22 Kevin Vallier: So communism, it looks like that’s not the only reason it hurts trust, but there are others. Public corruption, especially corruption in the legal system, also reduces social trust. But we don’t know a lot about what increases it. We know there’s a couple of things that are poison for it. In fact, I just learned yesterday that the Spanish flu probably reduced social trust in the countries that had it most severely. Because we know that social trust is a kind of long run equilibrium, so you can look at trust levels when we started measuring them in the ‘50s and ‘60s and they tried to extrapolate back. And it looks like German social trust is still lower in general than, say, Danish social trust, but Danish social trust has actually gone up about 30 points because I think its institutional conditions are more like those of the other Nordic countries. So it’s gone from a German level where there was tons of political instability and internal violence, to the Nordic levels where Sweden was neutral in World War II, for instance.

12:18 Trevor Burrus: How are we measuring social trust? I know that it seems like a palpable thing. I once had a Ukrainian friend who was offered a fellowship here in DC, and her parents wouldn’t let her go because they were convinced that it was all of a scam [laughter] and that she was going to be sold into sex slavery or something, and that they’re… And that all not using credit cards, or not being willing to give, say, your credit card to a waiter because you think that he might write down the numbers and go buy things on Amazon.

12:47 Trevor Burrus: Those are things, if you have a society where those things are happening, it would be harder to… You could see how political ramifications in the sense of how much you want to live with that person. The waiter who you think is going to steal your credit card number, well, you also probably don’t think he votes very well or has a good policy for like preferences, but how are we actually measuring this?

13:07 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, so it’s gotten pretty sophisticated over the last 60 years, but it’s primarily survey data. And the one question that’s been being asked in the US since 1958 has remained pretty similar, which is that, do you think most people can be trusted or can you never be too careful in dealing with people? But they’ve added a battery of other questions. So one of them has to do with what’s called wallet return. So, you ask people, suppose you were to leave, you lose your wallet on the street, or whatever, how likely is it that someone would return it to you? So, there’s a number of different questions that are asked on surveys and there’s been a lot of research on the survey instrument itself, and most people come away thinking that actually it does measure a sort of coherent idea that does seem pretty well defined. It does seem to not vary too much across cultures in lots of different ways.

14:05 Kevin Vallier: But, the economists measure in the lab with people playing trust games, which is just a sequential prisoner’s dilemma. So, someone chooses to cooperate or defect, and then they know the other person will then get to choose. So for instance, you may divide a pot of money, where I choose 50 cents for myself and 50 cents for you and then you have to agree to it or not. And my goal is to get the most for myself. But if you say, “No,” we get nothing. So what will happen is the person who moves first is the person who’s going to exhibit trustworthiness, the thought being that more fair distributions are evidence of trustworthy behavior. Then the person who responds with cooperate and effect, they’re the truster, they’re the person who trusts or distrusts. And so when you look at how much trust there is between groups, you can look at their behavior in the lab.

14:54 Kevin Vallier: So the interesting thing here is at low stakes in the trust game, the trust game data and the survey data don’t correlate very well. But it’s been found lately that as you increase the stakes, the correlations get a lot better. But there is some debate about which measures are better, whereas most people tend to prefer the survey data. So there’s two ways it’s measured and that’s the basics.

15:16 Aaron Powell: What’s the relationship between social trust and the institutional trust that you mentioned? In general, do people trust political institutions more when there’s higher social trust or are they independent of each other?

15:31 Kevin Vallier: So, let me divide up institutional trust into trust in the legal system and then trust in democracy or parties or whatever. So trust in the legal system and social trust covary pretty sharply. Legal trust, what I call legal trust or trust in the police or whatever or the courts. It… When social trust moves, it moves and it’s usually a good bit higher. Most countries is a good bit higher. I’m working on a paper with two economists now, Christian Bjørnskov and Andreas Bergh, trying to explain why this is and our hypothesis is that people see the police and judges as particularly exemplary community members. So if the cops are bad, then people will think, “Well, maybe most people are pretty rotten.” Not that they should think this, but this is just in fact what people think. So we’ve been trying to test that hypothesis, but they’re pretty tightly correlated. And legal trust tends to be higher. Political trust is pretty different. There are different measures of it. So for instance, you can be high social trust, but not trust Congress very much.

16:30 Trevor Burrus: That sounds like America.

16:32 Kevin Vallier: Yes, yes, yes. Although our social trust levels have been falling, so we’re kind of middling now on social trust. And in the times where we had a lot more social trust, we were more politically trusting. So in the US, that actually co varies somewhat, but the fall in trust in Congress has been far more steep. So now you have people that are trusting that don’t trust Congress very much, whereas 50 years ago, it’s harder to say. But there isn’t a very good correlation right now, between social trust and trust in most parties or things like that or trust in political parties. It’s also the case that social trust isn’t polarized whereas political trust is. So there tends to be like if Obama’s in power Democrats trust the government more, if W is in power Republicans trust the government more. And so, looking at averages isn’t all that helpful in a polarized populations because what you really care about is how much social trust is affecting people when their team is in and when their team is out. An average can kind of obscure those differences.

17:31 Trevor Burrus: So you discuss… We have to get to that, I think the biggest concept in your book, this public justification question, and that is part of this public reason feel which you are dove‐​tailing off of with Gauss and people like this. But in general, what is that public reason field sort of doing? And then how are you coming into this with this public justification and the social trust, moral peace angle?

18:02 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, so that whole connection of argument takes me like 100 pages, so let’s see how quickly I can do this.

18:10 Trevor Burrus: Well, we haven’t talked about it much on this podcast, so I think it’d be good if you want to dive into it ’cause you know a lot about it.

18:16 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, so standardly, the view called public reason and liberalism combines traditional liberal commitments to institutions like democracy and freedom of speech with a requirement on the justification of state power coercion. And the requirement is that state coercion is only permitted when it can be justified to each person. Now, what does that mean, justified to each person? Well, public reason and liberal somewhat disagree. The mainline Rawlsian version is the justification has to occur in terms of what are called public reasons. That is reasons that are shared or that are somehow drawn from shared values.

18:55 Kevin Vallier: And the thought there is that, look, if the state can show that the policies and laws it proposes can be justified based on values that most people actually endorse, then that’s what would make the coercion permissible or legitimate. There are others who have a more minority view, like me and Jerry Gauss, who think that public justification occurs when state coercion can be justified to each person, based on their own reasons. So where people can appeal to private religious reasons or secular reasons, or ideological reasons or whatever, Randians. So the thought here is that state coercion is permissible when each different group has sufficient diverse reason to endorse the regime, and there’s a debate about which is the better model. But the general thought is that state coercion becomes legitimate if it’s justified in terms of the values and the reasons that people have who are to be coerced.

19:52 Aaron Powell: How does disagreement then fit into that as far as justification? So, if I’m an anarchist libertarian who is an anarchist libertarian for deeply held principled reasons, you are unlikely to convince me of any state coercion.

20:12 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so the anarchist libertarian is a very specific case. And I’ll have a whole appendix in the next book that will be online just devoted there. The quick answer is that I think that radical libertarians should be given a kind of global exemption on the order of, say, the Amish or the Native Americans in terms of how it ought to work.

20:31 Trevor Burrus: So you’re endorsing seasteading, basically.

20:33 Kevin Vallier: Well, or a free state, kind of system. I actually think… But I think anarchist libertarians are a very unusual case, and as such they can be accommodated in a single, relatively modest way. But for most people, most people, I think, will distinguish pretty sharply between what they think is best and what they’d be willing to go along with. Many libertarians are like, look, this no state or bust. So the thought here is that for most people, and I think some libertarians too, there’s a category of what we might call the morally sub‐​optimal. Where you have a government that’s doing stuff you don’t like or that you even think is bad or unjust, but you’re willing to say, look, it’s not so far from my values that I burn the whole thing down. So for most people the thought is that there’s a range that they can accept that they don’t think are the best.

21:24 Kevin Vallier: So if we all disagree about what’s best, that’s fine, as long as there’s stuff we can all agree is better than, say, no legal order or no political order. And in that case, we can say, well, these things can be justified to me because I accept that there are morally authoritative rules that aren’t necessarily my own. You just think about any democracy standardly seen as legitimate by both sides. And they say, look, I don’t want the Republicans in charge, but I see it as authoritative, and legitimate so I can accept it. So the thought is, once you acknowledge the possibility of the morally sub‐​optimal, you can see that there’s a lot of overlap, a lot of what people disagree about is their ranking of values and policies, not whether some policy would be a disaster or a good.

22:07 Aaron Powell: Is there a worry here that this is a little bit potentially circular, in the sense that, so you’re using this to justify liberal political institutions, but it seems like in order for it to work… You’re justifying liberal political institutions by saying everyone agrees on liberal political institutions. But that’s what we’re trying to get to in the first place, right? So you’re assuming everyone already agrees with you.

22:35 Kevin Vallier: Well, sometimes this happens in the public reason literature with the mainline Rawlsian view, where they talk about reasonable people who can disagree, but the range of reasonable disagreement, say, about questions of justice is very, very narrow, such that it looks circular in the sense that all the reasonable people have to already be liberal, and so it’s not impressive that you can justify liberalism to liberals. So what I try to do in the book is cast the range of the reasonable very, very broadly. So Rawls kind of infamously said that libertarians were unreasonable and I say, “No, no, libertarians are reasonable.”

23:10 Trevor Burrus: Some of us are kind of unreasonable.

23:10 Aaron Powell: I’ve met a lot of libertarians and he’s not entirely wrong.

23:14 Kevin Vallier: So the thought is that to be reasonable you need to recognize a criterion of reciprocity that like the rules you propose for others to follow, you’re prepared to follow them yourself. And that you also recognize that many deep disagreements are non‐​culpable. That is the fact that people have other ideologies or faiths is not a reason to think that they’re sort of at fault or grossly ignorant. That an honest respectable exercise of theoretical and practical reason could lead them to this. As long as you got those two things, even for Rawls you count as reasonable, but then they go and pack all this other stuff in as articulating that. So, I accept those requirements and I think libertarians meet them.

23:53 Kevin Vallier: So then how do you justify something like liberal democracy and markets and some of the welfare state to most people? And the thought is you try to show that it’s either best for them or sub‐​optimal for them but it would be better for them than nothing. And the way that you do this is you appeal, yes, to a kind of veil of ignorance device, and it’s important to explain exactly how that’s to be understood. But essentially, when I think about a veil of ignorance device, which I’ll explain, where you ask what people would accept if they were denied certain information or knowledge, is it’s a way of modeling a fair agreement.

24:37 Kevin Vallier: So, you’re only using the veil… It’s not about like, I don’t know things or something like that, it’s just a way to ask people to think so they will ensure that they ask or insist upon rules of social life that are reciprocal, that other people could accept. And the way you do that is you say, well, I don’t know what position I’m going to be in, so I’m going to try to stick to rules that everyone could go along with, because I want people to be able to be protected in the same ways I’d want to be protected. So the veil of ignorance is just a heuristic for finding the rules that all can accept. There’s no significance normatively speaking beyond that. But even so, my veil is dramatically thinner than Rawls’s. On my view, you know everything about yourself, except for your relative power and status.

25:26 Kevin Vallier: Then the thought is you pick rights that would apply to you, and that you would be willing to extend to others on the same terms, on the grounds that you would want them for yourself if you were low status and had low social power. And then I think you would get the sort of standard litany of liberal rights. If the hegemon, if you don’t have free speech, the hegemon restricts speech to hegemon‐​promoting speech. You’re not going to like that if you’re on the outs. Same thing with freedom of religion. You don’t want the dominant religion to be able to impose itself, so you want protections for yourself. Same thing with private property rights.

26:01 Kevin Vallier: The thought there is that these rights are ones that we would propose under fair conditions. It’s nothing to do with any magical putting people behind the veil or anything like that. It’s just a heuristic, refining an agreement point that we can all think is fair even if we don’t think that it’s best. That’s how I think liberalism gets publicly justified to non‐​liberals, because people could say, look, I’d want these rights even if I’m a non‐​liberal. I’d want freedom of association if I’m Pat Deneen.”

26:33 Trevor Burrus: How free floating is this? It seems odd that… I would imagine a bunch of people who are totalitarians or Catholic [26:42] ____, or Amish, so I could see you saying the Amish can have the coercive power up to the point that all the Amish people agree that it’s publicly justified that that’s the coercive power, and therefore, that… They allow other Amish to leave, which they actually do. You have to go and spend a year in the world, I think, before you can come back in. Does that justify also more repressive and much more illiberal policies for an Amish state?

27:15 Kevin Vallier: The thought would be that… What happens with groups with values… That are smaller groups that are strongly at variance with the dominant values. On my view is that you give them legal exemptions. Most people can get the policies they want, but you find ways to exempt people. The Amish are a great case because they’re exempted from sending kids to high school, and they’re exempted from paying into Social Security. Those are target exemptions that have been around for decades, and they work fine. We can do that with other minority groups, but I do think libertarians are our people in the same way the Amish are our kind of people, and I think secular people would merit exemptions as well. I don’t limit exemptions to religious people.

27:56 Kevin Vallier: The way you handle these kind of unusual groups is you give them exemptions. Also something I wish I could have talked more about in the book, but I didn’t have room, was federalist arrangements. For instance, allowing people to self‐​sort into legal regimes that are more amenable to what they like. Most public reason liberals are focused on deliberative democracy. Just getting people to agree through deliberation or something like that, and I just think that’s a total non‐​starter because disagreements are too hard to eliminate, and democracy needs to be limited in various ways by things like federalism.

28:30 Aaron Powell: This is all fascinating, and the problem with fascinating conversations is that it provokes far too many follow‐​up questions on my part. Let me just ask two. The first is that those exemptions. How far down does that go? Because I can imagine that ultimately being an argument for basically the libertarian anarchist, which is like if we’re going to exempt minorities, is it… I think Rand’s line about the smallest minority is the individual, like it just goes all the way down to everyone has an exemption from everyone else. That’s my first question.

29:03 Aaron Powell: The other one is the work that this sort of public justification is doing, because if I understand correctly, the argument is these are things that would be just that people… We could justify to people and the way that we’re justifying them to people is we’re getting people… These are things that people would accept would be good for them to accept compared to the alternatives. It’s good for them. Is that really just a layer on top of another way of saying liberalism is justified because it’s good? The justification weight comes from the goodness of it, not necessarily from the agreement.

29:39 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, let me start with that question, and we’ll work back to the previous one. The justification can take a lot of different forms. It could be, “It’s good for me.” It could be, “I think it’s good for society.” It could be, “I think it’s just.” On the convergence kind of view of public justification on my view where you allow for diverse reasons, all of those considerations can figure in. It can in the mainline Rawlsian view as well in certain ways. The kinds of values that people have can vary from person to person. It’s not just that I think it’s good for me, you think it’s good for you. It could be I think it’s good for you. That’s one thing.

30:18 Kevin Vallier: As far as the exemptions all the way down, here’s where the difficulty for the libertarian is. It’s one thing for the libertarian to say, “The state has no authority for me. I would like to be able to live not under its authority.” It’s another thing to say, “I’m going to destroy the state and take it down,” rather than say being willing to move, because that shows a lack of regard or respect for people who aren’t anarchists. The thought is, oh, you’re going to destroy institutions that 90% of people or 95% of people want to be around. The thought is that I think what’s unreasonable for the anarchist libertarian to do is to insist on the abolition of the state for all the people who want it. I think that that’s why you have to go the Amish route instead of just having anarchy.

31:00 Kevin Vallier: You can have anarchy in a particular zone, but I don’t think it’s reasonable for anarchist libertarians to say, look, we have the true view and the best view, and so we’re going to get rid of this institution that many people like. What they can say is, look, I’m going to insist the government, my government, allow me to be exempt in various ways from these laws. But for most people, they don’t really have to fear reasons in the same way that libertarians do. There are laws they don’t like. There aren’t laws they necessarily think are unacceptable all that often. Libertarians, again, are unique because we think so many laws are unacceptable all the time. That’s why I said libertarians are a special case. Most people just are fine with… We’re an uncompromising stiff necked people, right?

31:45 Trevor Burrus: And you say just go live in Keene, New Hampshire already, or build a stable island.

31:50 Kevin Vallier: Well, the thought is, if there were a viable zone… I mean, the government should produce a viable zone, a charter city, a seastead. It doesn’t really matter the form that it takes, but I do think the state owes that to libertarians on public reason grounds. But very few public reason liberals would agree with me on that, but I think it’s clear, once you understand libertarians fairly well, that I think a lot of libertarians would say, okay, look, the state’s got to stop off all the really horrible stuff, right? All the unjust wars, the massive privacy violations, gigantic amounts of regulation and redistribution, that stuff’s defeated even for non‐​libertarian. So we insist that the state not be monstrous, right? But imagine a classic liberal state that redistributed some wealth to the poor, that generally protected markets. There was sort of democracy on issues that didn’t have to do centrally with constitutional rights. So you have a state that’s not too nasty.

32:46 Kevin Vallier: Then the anarchist says, look, we gotta burn it all down too. I don’t care what anybody else thinks. Then I think it becomes clear. No, no, no, no, no, that’s not the right response. But then suppose the anarchist says to the classic liberal state, look, we need to go on our own way because we think what you’re doing is unjust. I mean, you don’t see it that way. We understand. We get it, but we want to show you there’s a better way and we don’t think we should be under your authority. And the classic liberal state should respond. I mean, what it should do, even if maybe it wouldn’t, which is respond by saying, okay, we’re going to zone this land for you and go nuts. Five square miles on a warm coast. Buy people off who were there. I know it sounds really wacky but, look, libertarians talk about wacky stuff all the time. This is far from the wackiest libertarian idea ever, so.

33:29 Aaron Powell: Let’s take this then in the other direction. So we’ve been talking about the libertarians who would say there’s basically nothing you could do to me in a justified way. But we can also imagine people, say particular breeds of religious fundamentalists, who would look at the world and say, okay, yes, it would be great. I would rather have a government that would enable me to live the kind of life that I want to live, and I’ll agree to that. But here’s the thing, if other people are out there doing stuff that runs contradictory to my religious faith, that is going to be exceedingly bad. God will punish the entire society. Like this is the tsunamis or pandemics or punishment for gay marriage sort of view. How do you work something like that into…

34:15 Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Well, the nice thing is that most of the conservative religious folks are pretty happy with robust exemptions, homeschooling, being able to control who they house and things like this. This does involve some potentially kind of morally nasty discrimination, which I think in some cases can be allowed, even if it’s highly offensive and bad. Many of them, indeed, are theocrats, but they’ll say that that’s ideal, but I think many of them would just be happy to have their own compound or whatever protected. The big problem, actually, for the religious fundamentalist… I don’t really like that term exactly because it kinda has this weird… I prefer its more proper use to refer to a certain band of Protestants in the late 19th century and their descendants. But take the FLDS Mormons that have these compounds, right? Periodically, with a lot of polygamy and a lot of young girls getting married. And the worry is, that people have raised to me, is like, look, on your view, these conservative religious communities are going to have a lot of control over their kids, and they’re really going to mess with their kids too.

35:36 Kevin Vallier: With libertarians, it’s a little more complicated. Some libertarian parents propagandize, but some refuse to do any kind of propagandizing, so that I’m less worried there. But with the religious fundamentalist folks, I just wrote a piece on Yeshiva autonomy in New York City and about, say, particularly where the sort of Haredi Jews educate their kids so that they can’t really function outside of the… Or so it’s said, can’t really function outside of the school system, outside of the Yeshiva system. And I think what these groups have to do is not much, but basically that people need to know that they have the right to exit, and they need to have enough education in their ability to exit for that freedom to be effective. Beyond that, I think that you just kinda have to let parents be parents. It’s just too controversial to impose other requirements beyond things like bodily neglect and sexual activity and stuff like that. You have to allow a really wide range of liberty in terms of parental rights.

36:19 Kevin Vallier: But in terms of these very conservative communities, the kids really need to know that they can exit and how to do it, and that’s something where a lot of libertarians disagree with me on that. They don’t even want to have an exit… They want to have an exit requirement, but maybe not necessarily a requirement that they be educated on the grounds that they could exit. But I’m willing to just say, look, if this is the kind of lifestyle you’re going to set up for your kids, they need to know that other options exist. The nice thing is, in the Yeshiva case, everyone knows. In New York City, they all know there are other views. They walk. It’s not like it’s a hidden thing. But if you’ve got a compound in the country or something, then I start to get more worried.

37:15 Trevor Burrus: How does public reason relate to social contract? Because it seems kind of interesting that we’re talking about hypothetical agreements here. I mean, I could say, yeah, if I knew about this, I would agree to that, but you could also put a contract in front of me. We didn’t do this before but we could say… I mean, I could grant that historically we have not signed a social contract, but we could advocate for just doing that now. Saying, alright, all states are dissolved because none of them have justified authority. Everyone get together with your friends and actually sign, write and sign, a social contract, and then we don’t have to imagine agreement. We have actual agreements. And we can talk about whether they’re transferable or generations and things like that, but that seems better than this hypothetical one.

38:02 Kevin Vallier: Well, so this is a subtle thing, but I think it’s probably, will be of interest to your listeners. So public reason view is a descendant of the social contract tradition, but it is not a hypothetical consent view, even though it sounds like it. Rawls is not a hypothetical consent theorist. This is something [38:18] ____ gets wrong.

38:21 Kevin Vallier: What’s going on in the theory is we’re attempting to determine what practical reasons people have to go along with certain kinds of directives. Ultimately, the theory is when may I demand or you demand anything of anybody else and have your demands have authority? And the thought is that that occurs when the norm that we demand other people to follow are norms that I myself have adopted and internalized, even if I don’t necessarily say, “Yes, hey, I agree.” The thought is that you’re appealing in your demands to my reason, and that’s what makes my demands permissible is that I’m addressing what’s practically rational for you. The whole hypothetical agreement thing is ultimately just a heuristic, even I think for Rawls to reach what he calls reflective equilibrium, where our institutions are grounded in our deep‐​set moral judgments, because they’re based on principles that harmonize those judgments.

39:18 Kevin Vallier: Now, I don’t have any kind of harmonization requirement, we don’t start with principles of justice to be publicly justified on my view. So, you don’t have that, but it’s not this is binding because I would have agreed to it. It’s actually pretty different than standard libertarianism. It’s binding, because it’s what the balance of my own reasons favors. So that’s a deep difference with libertarianism, ’cause it’s about reason grounding authority, not the pure will of… So…

39:51 Trevor Burrus: Well, that then connects pretty well to the title of your book. I mean, in a way in your argument, because if that is in fact how we constitute a society, it’s not just you actually agreed or you would hypothetically agree. It’s like these are your reasons for agreeing to this. Well, then politics doesn’t have to be war.

40:13 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, and so, that’s where trust comes in, ’cause then you can get back to that part, the idea is that when institutions are justified in terms of each people’s own motivating rational reasons, then the thought is that we all have our own reason to go along with it. And so when we go along with it, publicly, we can convince others to trust us, because each of us says, look, these are binding, these are the rules. The fact that I’ll comply with it in front of you, even when it’s inconvenient for me, gives you grounds to trust me. So when our social rules, social norms, but also legal rules in the Constitution, when they’re publicly justified, they become a basis for trustworthy behavior, which in turn drives trust, which in turn gets us moral peace. So that’s kind of how the rest rest of the argument unfolds.

40:56 Trevor Burrus: But do we get to… Then we get to this liberal institutions are required.

41:04 Kevin Vallier: Yes. Yes, because only liberal rights can be justified to diverse groups. Anything else would be a hegemonic arrangement. So liberalism on my view is it’s an attempt to be non‐​sectarian in a very principled way. It’s not just not taking sides matters of religion or not taking sides on the matter of the good. It’s also not taking sides where there’s reasonable disagreements about justice. So what we have to do is agree on a set of rights that’s incomplete, but that the sets of rights are ones that we can all live with, because we all think it would be better to have them than not. And we can’t just insist on our own sort of hegemonic rights, because those wouldn’t be able to be justified to everyone. The subverting group won’t accept them. So what happens is all the hegemonic rights assignments, the ones that would allow some to dominate others, are defeated.

41:49 Kevin Vallier: So the last arrangement standing that maybe no one is entirely happy with is the liberal arrangement, is the state that does not in so far as it can, take sides, including in economic matters, where I think a lot of people have a hard time imaging how this would go, like it trying to not take sides on socialism or libertarianism. How would it even do that? Essentially, what we need is a principle of economic toleration that would be parallel with a principle of religious toleration. And I spend a little bit of time in the book trying to sort of suss it out, but it’s a really challenging problem.

42:26 Aaron Powell: What’s the mechanism then for taking all of this and putting it into practice? So, on the one hand, we could… So, politics looks like war right now. And you’ve given us reasons for how you don’t think it needs to be and some of the reasons for why it looks like it is. Do we then… So we say, okay, we agree with Kevin, we’d like to move things in this public reason, liberalism direction. Do we go around to everyone and have conversations with them about what they do agree to, or ought to agree to, or probably would agree to, or have reasons to agree to, and then that will kind of get the buy‐​in and get people to start trusting each other more, ’cause we’d be like, hey, look, you all agreed to the following things. Or do we go and start reducing government to… Because the ideal government, as you’ve articulated, is far less meddlesome than the one we’ve got right now.

43:25 Aaron Powell: Do we just reduce it, and then by reducing it down to the level that according to your argument would be justified, people will just naturally come to recognize it as justified and therefore moral peace will return and politics will look less like war?

43:43 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, it would start, our politics would start to look like Nordic politics, which definitely isn’t war‐​like, at least relative to where we are. So here’s the sort of trouble with that question. I wrote this first book as a kind of possibility proof, a feasibility proof to show why politics doesn’t have to be war. But it doesn’t address the question about, well, what policies would actually get us there? So my referee at Oxford convinced my editor that this project should be two books. The first book is the kind of possibility proof, to show that politics doesn’t have to be war, because here are these feasible arrangements under that would provide the basis for trust. So that’s what this book is trying to do. It’s sort of geared at people who are sort of philosophically interested.

44:27 Kevin Vallier: But the next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace, which will be out in November, ’cause I just got it, shipped it off to Oxford. It actually gets a lot more knee‐​deep in, well, what do we think policy‐​wise would affect people’s levels of trust? I think that there are certain, I don’t talk about this much in the book ’cause we don’t have a lot of data on it yet, but ways of getting certain kinds of corruption to be less, to happen less, but also to in some ways be less visible. And this will require certain kinds of reforms of police behavior because now bad police behavior is more visible.

45:05 Kevin Vallier: But the main things I think that are going to help, in particular, trust in government, because we know less about how to restore social trust, although my suspicion is our social trust is falling because of polarization, so if you want to reduce or increase social trust, you’ve got to reduce polarization. There’s a number of things we can do to do that, but here’s something I think that I’ve been thinking a lot about, two kinds of reforms that I think get bi‐​partisan support. It looks like people on the left care a great deal about income inequality and reducing it. People on the right, especially libertarians, we’re not really on the right, but you know me, like economic growth a lot. We really care about that. So what would be great is if we could find policies that promoted all of our different values simultaneously and there were some evidence would help trust in government, so to help government function better.

45:57 Kevin Vallier: And one of them, I think, would be real estate reform, simply allowing people to build more houses. So the estimates on the economic benefits from deregulating housing construction would be massive, especially in areas like New York City or San Jose and San Francisco. But it would also reduce economic inequality, because the rich people who… The Nimby people would lose wealth. And so the idea is that there’s something for the left and the libertarian and the conservative to love. Another one would be intellectual property reform, by reducing the extensiveness of intellectual property. So you’d have a lot more freedom. I think you’d have even more innovation. And also the people who collect these rents would collect fewer of them, so there wouldn’t be as much inequality. So the idea is that both of those reductions in inequality and the increasing economic growth, I think both would help trust in government and I do think there’s reason to think that at least the economic equality part might, might, big might there, help social trust.

47:03 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting too. I like the peace aspect of this because and I’ve… Different times I’ve described liberalism as a theory of mutual disarmament, which is just to say, especially religion speech, to say, I’m going to put down my desire to control your life and you put down your desire to control my life and let’s live together, basically. And that’s after the 30 Years War, for example, for religious toleration that was some of the innovations there. It’s also interesting is especially one of my specialties at Cato is the Constitution, and you do see some of these things in the drafting of the Constitution, which that was maybe a literal social contract, but of course, it wasn’t signed by everyone, but it was ratified by the people.

47:46 Trevor Burrus: But you see this idea of some of these rules they came up with, they could only come up with before they could play the game, before they started playing the game. ‘Cause you see some of the rules break down now, say, like Supreme Court nominations and how people are just backstabbing. Each party is backstabbing at different times. If you went back and you said, would you agree to this rule before the Constitution? Would you agree to this in the original position, essentially, that this would be allowed, say, not confirming a Supreme Court Justice in the last year of a presidency, would you generally agree to that rule? And so maybe one of the things that is more of that, we need some things to go back to the drawing board. I’m not sure if it’s possible, I’m not saying a constitutional convention, ’cause that would be really crazy, but it would be something to go back to the drawing board and ask people, is this a rule that you just want to stick on your opponents and would you have this brought back on you?

48:41 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, yeah, I think, it’s useful in one way when you try to think about reforms that would help, at least for trust. I used to think I could say more for sure that I can. I think one reason people don’t trust Congress very much is because of gridlock and there are ways of reducing gridlock. On the other hand, if most of the stuff Congress does with less gridlock is bad, then that’s maybe not an improvement, but I do think it creates the sense that government can’t really be counted on at all, at the federal level anyway. And I do think that has some costs and stuff that libertarians may not initially think of, ’cause the thought as well, the less people trust the state, the better.

49:27 Kevin Vallier: So there are certain constitutional reforms I do think you could make in terms of I’ve limited since for whether the getting rid of the filibuster would help, but I can even see, this would never happen, but a kind of parliamentary proportional representation type voting system that would encourage a lot more compromise, and allow for multiple, more than two parties. So one thing that would help trust, I think, by helping polarization would be is if there’s more than two viable parties. People would say, oh, it’s not just red versus blue, it’s like red versus blue versus whatever our color would be, gold or whatever. So there would be different options, and I think that we would do better to have a three or four‐​party system. I think it would be better from the perspective of polarization and since everybody wouldn’t be on one of two teams, I think it would help people trust each other more, but that’s a guess. So there are constitutional reforms that I think could help.

50:25 Aaron Powell: We’re recording this on March 25th in the midst of a raging global pandemic that appears to be growing rapidly. And quite a lot of us are stuck in our homes for fear of going out, for a desire not to spread this illness to others. The economy is tanking. Government is arguing right now about taking maybe $2 trillion dollars in additional action beyond what it’s already been doing. So this seems like a… This is a complicated and fraught and scary time. And I’m curious, your research into social trust, like what you think the social trust and the institutional trust ramifications of what’s happening right now will be.

51:15 Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Well, sadly, a paper was just published two days ago, arguing that the Spanish flu reduced social trust. And that you could go back, and you could look at the populations where the flu was most destructive and then look at their social trust levels now and in decades past. And it looks like, indeed, there was a semi‐​permanent reduction. If you compare across the different groups and what you would expect their trust levels to be versus the actual world based on flu effects. And a lot of it, I think, had to do with the fact that you didn’t really know who it was safe to be around. And you didn’t know if other people were taking precautions. So on my view, social trust is based on the observation of compliance with social norms. And I think probably what was going on then is that people were disobeying social norms. And so they became less trusting. It wasn’t just oh, I gotta be away from people. It’s like these people are not taking precautions. They’re not safe or whatever.

52:12 Kevin Vallier: I also think, probably, people had certain kinds of mystical beliefs about well, if you’re sick, you’re at fault. ’cause that happens, happened a lot historically. Now, those beliefs are less prevalent. We can communicate better. So having new social norms is, it’s a little bit easier. And I think whether it affects social trust is going to depend a lot on what people come away from thinking about their countrymen and what they did. So, for instance, you see a whole bunch of kids on the beach at Fort Lauderdale, you think, people just suck. They don’t care. These idiots. Tyler even called them idiots. Whereas if we think, okay, almost everybody’s doing social distancing. They’re going along with it. I see people washing their hands. I see people not going places. Then, my prediction is that social trust could go up because people think, okay, most people are… People are going above and beyond. This is one reason, I think, and I can’t prove that Word War II created so much social trust. Such that I wonder if we haven’t fallen back to a level we were at before the Second World War.

53:16 Kevin Vallier: I don’t know, but because as the Brits said, everyone did their bit. People felt like they could trust each other ’cause everyone went above and beyond. They thought, these are people of good will. I don’t agree with them about this, that, or the other, but I can count on this person when it matters. So, a lot of what’s going on in the pandemic is going to depend on whether people come away feeling like I could count on people. So, it could go up or down, but I do think this is a period when we should expect some fluctuation. Here’s something that could really mess up. Suppose we all think things are going to be okay. We relax things, and then there’s another wave. If that happens, then I think a lot of people are going to think, you know what, we were being selfish. We were too eager to get back out there. We didn’t protect our old people.

54:00 Kevin Vallier: That could be bad. So yeah, a lot of it’s going to depend on how people think others have reacted relative to the expectations of moral behavior that were already in place. So, that’s my prediction. It’s just going to depend on what people think others did and what norms they thought were in place. But if you see someone cough on somebody else, then I think you’re probably going to not want to be around them, you trust them a little bit less. But if someone’s wearing a mask, maybe you think they’re a little paranoid, but they’re paying somewhat of a social cost. And that’s evidence. I think that people mean well, at least some of the time.


54:49 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.