Friday, June 2, 2017

Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle - Re-Blog

Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle
A stringent application of the non-aggression principle has morally unacceptable implications.

Many libertarians believe that the whole of their political philosophy can be summed up in a single, simple principle. This principle—the “non-aggression principle” or “non-aggression axiom” (hereafter “NAP”)—holds that aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.

From this principle, many libertarians believe, the rest of libertarianism can be deduced as a matter of mere logic. What is the proper libertarian stance on minimum wage laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. What about anti-discrimination laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. Public schools? Same answer. Public roads? Same answer. The libertarian armed with the NAP has little need for the close study of history, sociology, or empirical economics. With a little logic and a lot of faith in this basic axiom of morality, virtually any political problem can be neatly solved from the armchair.

On its face, the NAP’s prohibition of aggression falls nicely in line with common sense. After all, who doesn’t think it’s wrong to steal someone else’s property, to club some innocent person over the head, or to force others to labor for one’s own private benefit? And if it’s wrong for us to do these things as individuals, why would it be any less wrong for us to do it as a group – as a club, a gang, or…a state?

But the NAP’s plausibility is superficial. It is, of course, common sense to think that aggression is a bad thing. But it is far from common sense to think that its badness is absolute, such that the wrongness of aggression always trumps any other possible consideration of justice or political morality. There is a vast difference between a strong but defeasible presumption against the justice of aggression, and an absolute, universal prohibition. As Bryan Caplan has said, if you can’t think of counterexamples to the latter, you’re not trying hard enough. But I’m here to help.

In the remainder of this essay, I want to present six reasons why libertarians should reject the NAP. None of them are original to me. Each is logically independent of the others. Taken together, I think, they make a fairly overwhelming case.

  1. Prohibits All Pollution – As I noted in my last post, Rothbard himself recognized that industrial pollution violates the NAP and must therefore be prohibited. But Rothbard did not draw the full implications of his principle. Not just industrial pollution, but personal pollution produced by driving, burning wood in one’s fireplace, smoking, etc., runs afoul of NAP. The NAP implies that all of these activities must be prohibited, no matter how beneficial they may be in other respects, and no matter how essential they are to daily life in the modern industrialized world. And this is deeply implausible.
  2. Prohibits Small Harms for Large Benefits – The NAP prohibits all pollution because its prohibition on aggression is absolute. No amount of aggression, no matter how small, is morally permissible. And no amount of offsetting benefits can change this fact. But suppose, to borrow a thought from Hume, that I could prevent the destruction of the whole world by lightly scratching your finger? Or, to take a perhaps more plausible example, suppose that by imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires, I could provide life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children? Even if we grant that taxation is aggression, and that aggression is generally wrong, is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous benefit it produces?
  3. All-or-Nothing Attitude Toward Risk – The NAP clearly implies that it’s wrong for me to shoot you in the head. But, to borrow an example from David Friedman, what if I merely run the risk of shooting you by putting one bullet in a six-shot revolver, spinning the cylinder, aiming it at your head, and squeezing the trigger? What if it is not one bullet but five? Of course, almost everything we do imposes some risk of harm on innocent persons. We run this risk when we drive on the highway (what if we suffer a heart attack, or become distracted), or when we fly airplanes over populated areas. Most of us think that some of these risks are justifiable, while others are not, and that the difference between them has something to do with the size and likelihood of the risked harm, the importance of the risky activity, and the availability and cost of less risky activities. But considerations like this carry zero weight in the NAP’s absolute prohibition on aggression. That principle seems compatible with only two possible rules: either all risks are permissible (because they are not really aggression until they actually result in a harm), or none are (because they are). And neither of these seems sensible.
  4. No Prohibition of Fraud – Libertarians usually say that violence may legitimately be used to prevent either force or fraud. But according to NAP, the only legitimate use of force is to prevent or punish the initiatory use of physical violence by others. And fraud is not physical violence. If I tell you that the painting you want to buy is a genuine Renoir, and it’s not, I have not physically aggressed against you. But if you buy it, find out it’s a fake, and then send the police (or your protective agency) over to my house to get your money back, then you are aggressing against me. So not only does a prohibition on fraud not follow from the NAP, it is not even compatible with it, since the use of force to prohibit fraud itself constitutes the initiation of physical violence.
  5. Parasitic on a Theory of Property – Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics, because its meaning and normative force are entirely parasitic on an underlying theory of property. Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.” But if this is true, then the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.
  6. What About the Children??? – It’s one thing to say that aggression against others is wrong. It’s quite another to say that it’s the only thing that’s wrong – or the only wrong that is properly subject to prevention or rectification by force. But taken to its consistent extreme, as Murray Rothbard took it, the NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death, so long as you do not forcibly prevent him from obtaining food on his own. Or, at least, it implies that it would be wrong for others to, say, trespass on your property in order to give the child you’re deliberately starving a piece of bread. This, I think, is a fairly devastating reductio of the view that positive duties may never be coercively enforced. That it was Rothbard himself who presented the reductio, without, apparently, realizing the absurdity into which he had walked, rather boggles the mind.

There’s more to be said about each of these, of course. Libertarians haven’t written much about the issue of pollution. But they have been aware of the problem about fraud at least since James Child published his justly famous article in Ethics on the subject in 1994, and both Bryan Caplan and Stephan Kinsella have tried (unsatisfactorily, to my mind) to address it. Similarly, Roderick Long has some characteristically thoughtful and intelligent things to say about the issue of children and positive rights.

Libertarians are ingenious folk. And I have no doubt that, given sufficient time, they can think up a host of ways to tweak, tinker, and contextualize the NAP in a way that makes some progress in dealing with the problems I have raised in this essay. But there comes a point where adding another layer of epicycles to one’s theory seems no longer to be the best way to proceed. There comes a point where what you need is not another refinement to the definition of “aggression” but a radical paradigm shift in which we put aside the idea that non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe. Libertarianism needs its own Copernican Revolution.


Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle on
by Matt Zwolinski, April 8, 2013

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Capitalism adds value

i was listening to Jeffery Tucker, someone with whom i disagree with on several things, talk about Capitalism and Love... and he made a wonderfully salient point that i want to get further into... i'm going to ramble on a little bit, not to educate or to explain, but because this is my Rambling and i do what i want here.

about 25 minutes in, he talks about defining what he means by "love"... referencing C.S.Lewis... the first level being storge, or a fondness or empathy love... it's the kind of love one has for family, friends, or even's a love which grows out of familiarity, lacking coercion... it just is.

storge shows how love can be a value judgement... love for people in your life may have no actual value... in fact, they can have a negative value in some cases... but you can still have a type of love for them; finding a value in them.

commerce, a commercial interaction, the exchange of goods and services, can also be a value judgement of individuals with no concern for their intrinsic value or even for a relative value to others... basically, i can love chocolate to such a degree that i would pay well over the established market value... i would do this because my personal valuation for chocolate is greater than the intrinsic value of chocolate, and even greater than the accepted relative value of chocolate among the rest of the persons who value chocolate... my value for chocolate can even be higher than the known health risks of consuming high quantities of chocolate!... chocolate can have a negative intrinsic value, but a positive personal value.

alternatively, some value eating peanuts, even knowing they are allergic to consuming them and will shortly have debilitating stomach problems and bloating... you know who you are.

so the value of a good or service is relative to individuals... it is also relative between the same individual at two different times... i may, during a chocolate craving, pay exorbitant sums for even low quality chocolates... but after being satiated, my value of even high quality chocolates may wane to almost zero.

using Mr. Tucker's example of two prehistoric capitalists, one who was an entrepreneur of domesticating sheep and the other an entrepreneur in horticulture, we can see that each values what they possess much differently than what they want... the sheepherder values his sheep, but even the nicest leg of lamb holds little value to those ears of corn his neighbor owns... after eating nothing but mutton day in and day out, a nice ear of roasted corn sounds delightful!

meanwhile, the gardening neighbor next door is so sick of corn he could cry!... yet he still holds his corn to have value... he has placed work and time into the sowing and harvesting... he doesn't throw it away, nor does he want it to rot on the stalk.

Mr. Tucker references Aristotle at about minute 23 of the video... he notes that Aristotle concludes that commerce is a zero-sum game... one healthy lamb might equal one bushel of corn... but that is really never true... in the eyes of the sheepherder, the bushel of corn has an immeasurable price... it's something he cannot possess on his own... he knows nothing of horticulture... and in the eyes of the gardener, the plump lamb equally holds an immeasurable price.

to Aristotle, they would trade equal value of lamb to equal value of corn... but there must be a negotiation of value and an agreement of the final value of possessing the object of their desire... for instance, the sheepherder may decide that one bushel of corn will last two weeks; two glorious weeks of roasted corn and cut corn and cream corn and corn casserole... the gardener decides that the lamb will be slaughtered that day, eaten that night, and some measure of sheep-jerky to chew on later... he will soon desire another lamb... the gardener knows that the sheepherder will not return for more corn for at least two weeks, long after he runs out of fresh chops of lamb... so he tells the sheepherder that his bushel of corn is worth two lambs.

so the sheepherder has to decide if two weeks of corn is worth two of his lambs... he'll need to do some calculations on how many sheep he owns, how often do they give birth, the replacement rate of lambs to bushels of corn... if he wants 52 weeks of corn, that will cost him 52 lambs!... suddenly he values the sheep at a much higher price!

and so on, and so on...

but, in the end, what do each end up with?... if successfully negotiated, each end up with a higher value of commodities than they started with... the sheepherder began with only sheep; now he has sheep and corn... likewise the gardener began with an overabundance of corn, and he ends with corn and lamb!... had each not engaged in commerce with one another, each would have remained at a lower value of overall goods... but the quantity of goods never changed... it was only the perceived value which changed.

likewise with capitalism... money has a finite and described value; we might call this its intrinsic value... a dollar is worth 100 pennies... but if you were paid $10 for work, would you value 10 dollars and 1000 pennies equally?... probably not, if only for the inconvenience of exchanging those pennies for other goods or services... if a high-paid doctor were to exchange his services for Lamborghini's, eventually his desire for high-end automobiles would wane (most likely in inverse ratio to how quickly his driveway filled)... while the intrinsic value of any person's work is equal, we naturally value some work over others... the doctor's work is of higher value because we perceive it as saving, or at least lengthening, our lives... the garbage man's work, we value less than the doctor's, but i guarantee that the garbage man is saving and lengthening your life equally, if not more, than the doctor... (imagine the heaps of rotting garbage in everyone's home and yards... thank a garbage man.)

we complain about the cost of milk at the grocery, but we value the milk in our cereals more than the dollars we've earned through our labors.

people learn a skill in hopes of marketing that skill to others who will then engage in commerce for it... a sheepherder may love herding sheep, but he also loves corn... he raises the best sheep he can in hopes that each sheep will provide him with overflowing bushels of corn.

another sheepherder may hate herding sheep, does it poorly, and offers scrawny mange-filled sheep to the marketplace of commerce.

the gardener now has a choice of lambs... he values his corn differently between the two lambs being offered... while one might place equal intrinsic value on the two lambs (perhaps they weigh the same or other equal objective measure), the subjective value TO THE GARDENER is greatly different... he might offer the first sheepherder a full bushel for his lamb, but to the second only a half bushel.

at which point, the second sheepherder cries to the Sheepherder Union 408 about the unfair trading practices going on... the government steps in and takes 1/4 bushel from the first sheepherder and gives it to the second for "fairness"... at which point the first sheepherder gives up sheep for growing corn himself, since he loves corn anyway... but now there is a glut of corn on the market and too few sheep (because, let's face it, the first guy still likes to eat mutton, too)... and now both corn-growers must offer two bushels of corn for one scrawny diseased sheep, or else go without.

but we've left Capitalism and entered into something else entirely.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Fire in a theater

liberals / progressives have been protesting the free speech rights of conservatives... some might think that those who claims to be "liberal" would be for free speech... they would be wrong... but it's not because liberals are anti-free speech... it's because those who are anti-free speech are not really liberals; they're socialists; they're communists; they're authoritarians of various stripes and creeds.

for instance, a group known amongst themselves as "Antifa", which is short for "Anti-Fascists", recently caused a violent protest at a rally for "Free Speech" in Berkeley, CA... Berkeley is well known for it's historic connection with free speech and rallies upholding a tradition of free speech... the aptly named "Free Speech Movement" (FSM) was a student movement in 1964-1965 on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley... many demonstrations, rallies, and marches took place on and around the Berkeley campus during the FSM.

much of the FSM was counter-culture (i.e. counter conservative), so perhaps that explains the backlash of the Berkeley area when conservatives chose this location to usurp the idea of FSM and to apply it to conservative ideals... being counter to the accepted counter-culture of Berkeley, should we refer to this as counter-counter-culture?

however, the Antifa protesters have a rationale for their suppression of free speech... they say that there are limitations on free speech, and you can't "shout fire in a theater"... but who, in their minds, are shouting "fire"?... well, they say that the free speech rally conservatives are saying things which are tantamount to inciting violence.

i give kudos to the Antifa for connecting "Fire in a theater" with "Incitement to violence"... however, they seem to have missed a couple of things... one, there are legal tests which determine whether free speech can be suppressed... and two, they are literally inciting violence against the free speech rally, so isn't that hypocritical?... Antifa says, no, they are justified in inciting actual violence to shut down those who may use free speech to say things Antifa finds hateful.

some history:

  • in Schenck v. United States (1919), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Supreme Court justice, laid out the "fire in a theater" test, where free speech must be curtailed when there is a "create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils" of harm to others... this Supreme Court doctrine said that "expressions which in the circumstances were intended to result in a crime, and posed a "clear and present danger" of succeeding, could be punished."
  • from Schenck followed Dennis v. United States (1951)... "The Court ruled that Dennis did not have the right under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to exercise free speech, publication and assembly, if the exercise involved the creation of a plot to overthrow the government."... essentially, Dennis applied the "Clear and Present Danger" doctrine.
  • however, in Yates v. United States (1957), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech... "[The] First Amendment protected radical and reactionary speech, unless it posed a 'clear and present danger.'"... and, in this case, Yates determined that "failing to distinguish between advocacy of forcible overthrow as an abstract doctrine and advocacy of action to that end, the District Court appears to have been led astray by the holding in Dennis that advocacy of violent action to be taken at some future time was enough."... essentially, Yates did not meet the requirements of a "present" danger, and advocacy of violent action without a present call to actual action does not meet the requirements.
  • and then Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) threw the baby out with the bathwater... "[Government] cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is 'directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action'."... in short, unless someone specifically calls for specific action by specific people, they are able to say whatever they please... had the Brandenburg test been applied to Schenck, Dennis, or Yates, the outcome may have been different in each case.


in short, Antifa want to impose Schenck on conservatives and to ignore Brandenburg... meanwhile they hide behind Brandenburg to justify their actual violence against conservatives.