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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Libertarian Running Track

I have suggested that this is the logical form of the argument anarcho-capitalists make against the legitimacy of the State has the following form:

1) The State is unjust.

2) Private property is just.

3) True, both institutions involve coercion, but the difference is:

4) The State’s coercion is aggressive, which is what makes it unjust.

5) The coercion required to maintain private property is only defensive, which is what makes it just.

6) How do we differentiate this defensive nature of coercion that protects private property from the aggressive nature of the coercion that maintains the State?

7) See 1) and 2)!

When I point out that this is a bit circular, the only answer I have been given is that I should try a few more laps around the track, and see if I don’t get it then. To be fair, some people also have suggested I attempt starting my laps from a different part of the track; one ancap, for instance, just suggested to me that I might like starting from around 4) and 5) better than starting from 1) and 2). And some people seem to hold that 4) and 5) are simply self-evident.

Well, let me set out two examples that, I think, show just how non-self-evident 4) and 5) are. Now, I don’t hold these examples out as typical of State activity or the behavior of property owners, but they don’t need to be to make my point, as the ancap contention is not that State coercion is often unjust, but that it is inherently unjust.

Scenario 1

I own a large farm. Every year, I let some fields like fallow. Since the farm is large, I like to survey it with my field glasses. Today, I spot a bunch of durned hippies out sunbathing – nude!! – in one of my fallow fields. I hop in my foub-by-four and drive out to the filed.

“Hey, you durned hippies!” I yell. “Get off the sods, mods!”

Their spokesperson replies, “Yo, dude, chill out. We ain’t hurting nothing. This field is unused right now, and we’ll stay away from your crops.”

“But this is my land, and I want you off it!”

“Yo, dude, I never agreed to these stupid property lines. It’s God’s earth, not yours, and we can wander where we want, so long as we’re doing no harm.”

“OK, I’m calling the cops private ancap security service!”

Scenario 2

I live in a small city-state on the coast of Greece. I hear the Athenians are coming to kill all of the men and enslave the women and children because we refused to join the Delian League. At the behest of our αρχον I organize the resistance. I come to the house of a man I know to be too old to fight, but who has a large weapons cache. “Roderikes,” I tell him, “the archon has commanded me to requisition your weapons to use in protecting our lives and liberties from the Athenians!”

“Nah, you know, I just polished my stuff, and I really don’t want it all nicked up.”

“But Roderikes, if we are unable to turn back the Athenians, it won’t be just your weapons that are all nicked up – it will be you as well.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

So I command the men with me to seize the weapons despite the unwillingness of Roderikes to surrender them voluntarily.

Now, it strikes me that the use of coercion in Scenario 2 is, prima facie, much more justified than in Scenario 1. QED, the ancap assertion of 4) and 5) above is unwarranted.

The circle is not unbroken, and there is no better ancap home in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

27 comments:

  1. Interesting way of looking at it. So let me extend your argument a little further, Gene. Suppose a community, for whatever reason, is running out of women, and the women who live in the community are not willing to birth children. Since survival of the community trumps alleged property rights, and ownership of the body is a property right, is it ok for the men to rape the remaining women and force them to eat what they deem is necessary for the nourishment of the babies, and also to carry the babies to term, and nurse them, etc.?

    If not, where do you draw the line and what principles back up your point of view?

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  2. Could we summarize like this Gene?

    (1) Rothbardians make property rights the sole criterion for justice in interpersonal relationships.

    (2) Gene disagrees.

    ?

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  3. Gene, I think you are misrepresenting the argument. In my opinion, the argument is:

    1) Private property is just (and violating private property is unjust)
    2) The State violates private property.
    3) Therefore, the State is unjust.

    This reasoning is not circular. If it's wrong, it's because assertion 1) is wrong.

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  4. I've made the same point about the hippie scenario in debates about intellectual property, to establish the similarity between "hey, my copying doesn't hurt your ability to use the intellectual work" and "hey, my sunbathing doesn't hurt your ability to use your land for farming". Though of course, I use this to argue for IP instead.

    ***

    Anyway, I think you're strawmanning the ancap in 4) and 5). A bigger difference between the state and private property is that the latter responds to (what it deems) aggression by keeping you *out*, while the former responds by keeping you *in* (a prison).

    That's a pretty huge difference in terms of what fraction of the universe they claim the right to deny you access to!

    And as sort of a side note: if the Delian league can't see a) the relative efficiency of taxing the populace and buying what they need rather than conscripting resources from their owners, and b) the immorality of concentrating the costs for a public good so narrowly...

    well, they're probably living on borrowed time anyway. (Even at the age of 8 I understood why the space program was funded by taxes rather than enslaving engineers and spacecraft builders.)

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  5. @Bob and Pedro: I think Gene's point is that such a position regresses to "justification by arbitrary label". That is, how do you classify one sort of claim as being a "property rights claim" rather than a "state claim"?

    Gene is saying that both sorts of claims have the same attributes and rely on the same justifications and therefore can't be distinguished except by the name ancaps give one or the other. For obvious reasons, that argument doesn't work.

    Am I representing you correctly, Gene?

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  6. I've made the same point about the hippie scenario in debates about intellectual property, to establish the similarity between "hey, my copying doesn't hurt your ability to use the intellectual work" and "hey, my sunbathing doesn't hurt your ability to use your land for farming". Though of course, I use this to argue for IP instead.

    Well, that's a poor argument for a few reasons. First, it's question-begging in that it places "intellectual work" in the same logical place as "land for farming" when that is precisely the what is at question. Next, it substitutes a descriptive phrase ("ability to use") into a normative context. The anti-IP argument is rather "hey, my copying doesn't violate your right to exclusive control of your physical property. We both agree that people should retain exclusive control of their physical property but you haven't shown me why they should also retain control of other people's physical property simply because it is in the form of your idea." Likewise, the other statement, in normative form, is "hey, my sunbathing does violate your right to exclusive control of your farm land." Correctly phrased, the distinction is clear.

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  7. The anti-IP argument is rather "hey, my copying doesn't violate your right to exclusive control of your physical property.

    You sprung the trap -- my argument forces the other side to reveal that they were assuming their conclusion as well -- that they're *defining* physical property use to be right, and to include a specific set of uses that are precisely what are in dispute.

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  8. "A bigger difference between the state and private property is that the latter responds to (what it deems) aggression by keeping you *out*, while the former responds by keeping you *in* (a prison)."

    Nah, won't work -- in the ancient (Mediterranean) world, states almost always kicked you out (ostracism), and almost never imprisoned you. When Caesar suggested imprisoning the Cataline conspirators for life, this was a shocking suggestion!

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  9. How about an argument that applies to the present day?

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  10. "Since survival of the community trumps alleged property rights..."

    Gone wrong right there, Michael. I never stated such a "principle." I am NOT adopting some other ideology I think is better than libertarianism, I am rejecting ideology. (And you are suggesting I am adopting some "collective good" ideology instead.)

    Now, I know, from personal experience, that from inside an ideological view, what I am saying I am doing seems impossible -- ALL one can do is switch ideologies! I took me 9 years to fully wrap my mind around what rejecting ideology could mean, so I don't expect you to get it in one blog post.

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  11. Bob, you are missing a couple of steps.

    "(1) Rothbardians make property rights the sole criterion for justice in interpersonal relationships.

    (2) Gene disagrees.

    (3) Given the existence of people who disagree, the libertarian claim to be uniquely 'non-aggressive' is bogus -- libertarians will not aggress against those who accept their political system, and will aggress against those who don't -- just like every other political doctrine.

    (4) The real argument is about property rights, not about some vapid "non-aggression principle."

    (5) In fact, the NAP is like the Scientology Communications Course -- a reasonable sounding way to get people in the door, and start them on the path to believing things that, if you said them to them straight out, they'd run. (E.g., we are all thetans from the planet Xenu, or it is 'aggression' to break into someone's house to rescue the infant they are starving to death.)

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  12. Silas, we are talking theory, not circumstance. There is no reason in principle that states could not adopt exactly whatever punishment / retribution scheme ancap X recommends for ancapistan. We (or at least I!) are not asking, "Is some current State legitimate?" but "Is the State inherently aggressive (in a way that ancapistan is not)?"

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  13. Gene

    Anarcho-capitalism is not really an accurate description of the social system advocated by Rothbard. I suggest the more accurate term "natural rights capitalism," or even "Rothbardian natural rights capitalism."

    The "anarcho" in anarcho-capitalism suggests that the social system advocated is stateless. The Rothbardian conception is not stateless; it is just a system in which the state is not explicitly referred to by name. All the defense agencies are bound by a central constitution, and by threat of force, they must all adhere to this same central constitution.

    Essentially, this is a plan for a centralized government, except that the defense agencies are conceived to be "privatized." This means only that a businessman can open a defense agency, become a judge, etc., as long as he conforms strictly to the central constitution.

    It's the same system we have now, except with a different constitution (Rothbard's) and with defense agencies allowed to be bought, sold, opened, closed, etc.

    This is what Rothbard has in mind in writing:

    "Specifically, the concrete form of anarchist legal institutions---judges, arbitrators, procedural methods for resolving disputes, ect.---would grow by a market invisible-hand process, while the basic Law Code (requiring that no one invade any one else's person and property) would have to be agreed upon by all the judicial agencies...."

    "Any agencies that transgressed the basic libertarian code would be open outlaws and aggressors."

    (The Ethics of Liberty, p.236-7)

    Thus, by threat of force, all agencies must uphold the central constitution. It really doesn't matter that they are called "private" defense agencies. They must, as all businesses now must, strictly adhere to the central government's mandates under threat of force. The people who run these defense agencies, and the customers who patronize them, are not allowed to choose from among various legal codes, but are only allowed to choose from among various providers administering the one, Rothbardian legal code.

    In Rothbard's conception of government, "anarchism" refers to the freedom to open a new defense agency, buy one, sell one, etc. It is the same freedom we have now to open, buy, or sell a business, except in Rothbard's conception, now we will be adding police protection to the list and substituting Rothbard's natural-law constitution for currently existing constitutions.

    Right now, if the US government "privatized" all defense agencies in the US, but mandated that all of them follow to the letter the exact procedures of the existing defense agencies, this, in principle, is what Rothbard is proposing. This is "privatization" with no decision-making power over the essential operations of the business.

    Then Rothbard plans to substitute his own constitution for the current constitution.

    That is the vision.

    This really isn't anarchism. This is a concrete vision of capitalism legally enforced by a central government. It is a legal monopoly. Since Rothbard envisions arriving at his central constitution by his own interpretation of natural-law, then a more accurate description of the system he advocates is "natural rights capitalism," or even more accurately "Rothbardian natural rights capitalism."

    One problem with this monopolistic vision is that there is no "objective" definition of "aggression" or "rightful property." What constitutes aggression depends on who is defining it. For example, regarding IP, this definition will change if we talk to Ayn Rand, Rothbard, Kinsella, or left-libertarians. "Unjust" aggression and "rightful" property depends on which property theory we are referring to.

    Rothbard says, of course, we should refer to his.

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  14. Good analysis, Adam -- I think you are largely on target.

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  15. You sprung the trap -- my argument forces the other side to reveal that they were assuming their conclusion as well -- that they're *defining* physical property use to be right, and to include a specific set of uses that are precisely what are in dispute.

    No I didn't because I didn't say that I assumed that property was exclusively physical. I'm only assuming that it is at least true of physical items. That's an assumption that all libertarians hold, so it does not beg the question among libertarians. If you don't share that premise then we disagree on more than IP.

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  16. Well, Silas, you managed to post a couple of times before becoming an intolerable douche. You're getting better!

    Bye.

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  17. What if you think force is unjustified in both scenarios?

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  18. I was just curious what your response would be to that, that's all. Not trying to make a point.

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  19. Well, b-psycho, it's not a position I'm interested in getting into at this point, not because it's not, perhaps, better than the common libertarian position, but because the latter is what I want to address at present.

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  20. I have not seen mentioned here the natural law principle of subsidiarity, which seems to apply to the question of coercion, and its proper role in society. Subsidiarity at its root says that human society must be looked at in every respect from the bottom up, that is, from the perspective of each human individual, up thru the various layers of human organization that may exist. In this way, sovereignty exists by right in the human person, and only by extension to any other layer of society, including the nation. Property rights exist for the person first, with every other level of society receiving only what is freely given by the person (hence taxes, insofar as they are taken by force, are fundamentally unjust).

    My understanding of the rightful use of coercion against persons is that it should be limited to responding to initial unjust aggression. In a just society, a person may lose their freedom, even their life, in proportion to the severity of their aggression against another. The victim has the right to respond to aggression by the use of commensurate force, and has the right to enlist others in order to make things right. The right to property of other levels of society presupposes that the property is in their possession justly (given or purchased; not taken), and then the right of defending against the loss of property by theft or fraud, also with a commensurate use of coercion, extends to those organizations as well.

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  21. "human society must be looked at in every respect from the bottom up"

    I commented on this once, but my comments keep disappearing and then re-appearing, so in case my longer comment comes back, I will brief here:

    Nonsense! Why must I do this? In fact, property itself is clearly a social institution, and could not exist for an isolated individual.

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  22. "I live in a small city-state on the coast of Greece. I hear the Athenians are coming to kill all of the men and enslave the women and children because we refused to join the Delian League."

    Are you suggesting there is a moral distinction to be made between force used to enslave and force used to avoid enslavement? Based on what?

    Sounds pretty abstract dude, are you one of those ideologues?

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  23. John, see my post "Aristotle and Ideology II" for an examination of how Aristotle (correctly, I contend) differentiated the proper from the improper use of such "principles."

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  24. "human society must be looked at in every respect from the bottom up"

    Sorry for my clumsy way of putting it. I am not saying that YOU must, but that the principle of subsidiarity describes human society this way. My point is that it is helpful to look at society this way because it puts the individual and the various organizations in society in proper relationship. To say that the opposite is true, that human society must be looked at from the top down, is to subscribe to a collectivist point of view, with all its inherent danger of resolving itself reliably as tyranny. Only a philosophy that posits the individual, every individual, as superior to the collective, can hope to preserve any degree of human freedom.

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  25. "but that the principle of subsidiarity describes human society this way. My point is that it is helpful to look at society this way because it puts the individual and the various organizations in society in proper relationship."

    But no, I'd say there are times when this obviously falsifies things.

    "To say that the opposite is true, that human society must be looked at from the top down, is to subscribe to a collectivist point of view, with all its inherent danger of resolving itself reliably as tyranny."

    But who says we have to adopt either opposite extreme? Why can't we look at things bottom-up when that proves more useful, top-down when that does, or even middle-out?

    "Only a philosophy that posits the individual, every individual, as superior to the collective, can hope to preserve any degree of human freedom."

    Even if that were true, that would not mean that philosophy is true -- it would only mean that you like the consequences IF it were true.

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