My Libertarian Strawman Has a Firstname...

it's 'M' 'u' 'r' 'r' 'a' 'y'. My libertarian strawman has a surname...

When I posted this about positive obligations, several libertarian commentators could not imagine what in the world I was talking about. My suggestion was 'absurd' to one commentator, but at least another was merely puzzled. These guys really know libertarian theory, so I must be wrong. Where in the world would I have gotten such a strange idea?

"In the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights." -- Murray Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty


  1. Gene,

    The obligation principle that you talk about seems to me as a way of legislating kindness into existence. I think this is a folly, and only leads to less kindness.

    In places where people are free to look after themselves first, they have the resources and the drive to help others. In other words people are more kind when it's their happiness they want to extend, instead of avoiding the consequences of some law saying "help those in need, or suffer the same need". These sorts of laws only make people feel bound to others by, as you well put it, "obligation" and promotes no love between them, only hate.

    And I don't think punishing thieves is legislating kindness in the same way as forcing others to take care of infants is. So if that is going to be your response, I have preempted it, and you should be very persuasive to convince me otherwise.

  2. "The obligation principle that you talk about seems to me as a way of legislating kindness into existence. I think this is a folly, and only leads to less kindness."

    I understand that point of view. It is wrong, but I understand it.

    What I don't understand is the befuddlement with which my post was met by people who should have known exactly what I was talking about.

  3. Just briefly, Avram, my understanding here is Thomistic: One cannot legislate kindness, by virtues are habits, and one can help along habits. The purpose of legislation is to promote human flourishing, and it is fine to "legislate morality." The limits to how far one should go are practical: at a certain point, your legislation will do more harm than good, e.g., the drug war.

    I'm not sure where "obligation to help" legislation would fall on the spectrum, but I have no principled reason to object to it.

  4. I cannot think of a principled reason myself right now either.

    I want to add this though: The letter of the law is easy to follow, and can be followed even when its contrary to the spirit of the law.

    If the effect of some legislation on the surface changes some "habits" as you say, but instills bitterness and hatred in people ( as actions out of obligation *alone* always do ), then eventually people will start using that legislation for things much worse than the bad behavior it set out to discourage. Or, more often, they will vent in some other way. In any case not much good comes out of it.

  5. 'If the effect of some legislation on the surface changes some "habits" as you say, but instills bitterness and hatred in people ( as actions out of obligation *alone* always do..."

    I don't know about that, Avram. I have heard people say thing like, "Don't feel kind towards people? Just start acting kindly towards them, and soon you WILL feel kind towards them."

    In raising my children, for instance, I "enforced" manners on them... until I didn't have to. But when they, for instance, hold a door for someone, they get very positive feedback. And now they do this totally on their own, with no sign of bitterness or hatred.

    I'm not saying that what you are talking about DOESN'T happen -- it sure does! But always?

  6. Maybe I just harbor a lot of resentment because my own parents made me hold the door for others when I was little. ;)

    Seriously now, you have a point.

    I might make some kind of argument like "Well initially they're bitter about it, its just the positive feedback that reverses this" but I am not sure that would go anywhere.

    However what is interesting is that in the olden days, where I am from, we were given recognition, gifts, medals and so on for being good citizens and conforming to the morality decided for us. So, if in the kind of society you envision with CCTV cameras capturing images of bad people driving past roadside infants, the guys who help out the infant get some positive feedback such as official recognition, I want to point out that that idea has been tried before.

    It certainly accomplished its goal in adjusting the habits of many people. However the side effect was a lot of these guys were doing things *just* for the rewards, and were otherwise jerks. As I said it is a lot easier to follow the letter of the law than the spirit so there are all these little injustices happening all the time, but instead of them being punished, they are being rewarded. For those who chose not to participate in this, it became quite unbareable, and you can imagine the sort of resentment and hate between people this causes.

    All that being said, parents giving instruction to their children on how to behave is, I think, very different from legislature doing the same. Maybe it's just different "in practice" as you say, because I cannot think of how it is different "in principle" but to me parents instilling values in their children is a lot more normal / reasonable than governments legislating morality.

  7. Avram, such policies certainly have their downside, and, if implemented at all, must be implemented judiciously. And there certainly is a huge difference between parents and legislatures -- I would never even contemplate endorsing a law requiring the holding of doors for others!

  8. I, too, remember my mother teaching me to open the door for people. I also remember complaining to her when people would take advantage of my gentlemanly offer without so much as a, "Thank you."

    My mother replied: "Hold the door open for people because it is the right thing to do -- not to get their approval." She was a smart lady.

    Obviously, her words of wisdom stick with me today.

    I think people like me -- the free market/libertarian types -- need to "check ourselves" and make sure that we are providing some type of social welfare. As Someone once said, "The poor you will always have with you." This was a statement of fact, but it was also a statement of opportunity. Since I have this opportunity, I need to help those who have less -- through education, opportunity, relationship. Then, I can ask the government to step aside. If I am not doing everything that I can do (and, as of now, I am not), then asking the government to stop helping comes across as hard-hearted and arrogant.

    The more I, as a free individual, take care of my fellow man without government imposed obligation, the more persuasive I will be when I request that the government not interfere into my affairs.

  9. Well said, antiahithophel.

    I am certainly with you that we should have as little government as we need! But what about those who are not so engaged on a process of self-reform? Augustine held that in the City of Man we would always be in need of some government, due to our fallen natures.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Central Planning Works!