Competing Moral Visions

Since Bob Murphy seems confused about what I was claiming in this post, I thought I would try to clarify. Consider this example:

A starving family, the Aquinines, is wandering the roads of Rothbardia during some hard times. (I know, I know: there would never be hard times in Rothbardia! But this is a thought experiment, so play along.) They come upon a field owned by Walter Block, overflowing with ripened crops. Being good Thomists, they believe that if they are starving, and someone else has plenty of extra food, there is nothing wrong with their eating some of that surplus to keep themselves alive. So they sit down and begin snacking, when along comes Walter, patrolling his land, shotgun on his shoulder.

Now, Walter might be in a kindly mood and allow them to eat, but he clearly believes he has every legal right to drive these "marauders" off, using deadly force if necessary. Let's say he does so.

What I was contending, in the post linked to above, is that this result represents a case of Walter using force to impose his morality on others. Sometimes, libertarians will try to deny this, saying something like, "Well, it was his property, so he gets to set the rules -- the vagrants are perfectly entitled to have their own rules on their own property!"

But saying that is merely to assume the libertarian conclusion: property rights are absolute, and the property owner can set whatever rules he wants to set on his own property. That is precisely what is disputed between the Thomists, who think private property is nice, but can be trumped by other moral concerns, and the ancap, who thinks that property rights trump all. In seeking to make ancapistan reality, Block, and other ancaps, are seeking to realize a moral vision, one that competes with rival visions, and to gain the ability to use force to make others conform to that vision. I do not condemn them for that: that's what politics is about! But it is a mere bit of propaganda to pretend that libertarianism is just a morally neutral framework that does not choose moral sides. (And that is not to say that many libertarians don't sincerely believe their own propaganda!)


  1. Gene: I wrote a paper several months ago called "Adam Smith on Education" where I mark the distinction you are pointing to as that between Neutral Liberalism which I argue, as you do, is incoherent, and (following Raz IMS)Liberal Perfectionism, which I define as the idea that liberalism is a particular view of the good life, that it is the correct view of the good life and that the State can legitimately take action to promote liberal values, such as autonomy. I then argue that Smith's views on education do not have a neutralist liberal rationale at all. They are not grounded in the finding of any market failure that would justify intervention on neutralist grounds. Smith, like Hume, wanted the State to require education in order, ultimately, to mimimize the spread of "enthusiasm and superstition."


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