What does politics mean?

Bob Murphy recently suggested that I must be using some idiosyncratic definition of 'politics' when I noted that anarcho-capitalism is quite obviously a political movement and advocating it is engaging in 'politics.'

Here is Michael Oakeshott defining 'politics' to open his essay "Talking Politics":

"Politics is not concerned with anything or everything which it may come into a man's head to want and to contend for but with the consideration of the arrangements and rules which give shape to an association of human beings."

We should note here:
1) Oakeshott was a professor of politics;
2) He quite probably had never heard of anarcho-capitalism when he penned those words; and
3) He puts this forward as a commonplace idea, not worth arguing for but merely worth mentioning to orient his readers to what he will discuss.

If we ever see an anarcho-capitalist society, there will be plenty of politics going on in it, e.g. "considerations" of whether fractional reserve banking or intellectual property is legitimate, and so on.



35 comments:

  1. I'm pretty sure that *politics* came from the Greeks, most notably Aristotle. It dealt with the *polis*, which was something that dealt explicitly with public affairs. Anarchists--especially of the libertarian variety--tend to only focus upon the private arrangements (it is, after all, central to their theories). They entirely reject public arrangements as they are commonly known (preferring instead the idea of contract), and thus reject the politics associated with them (public entities).

    This makes sense from a linguistic standpoint, because the term *politics* was coined at a time when the state existed, and it was and is always used in reference to the state. Now we can quibble about its relation to the word *governance*, but even there we find some deeper linguistic inconsistencies; they too are distinct words with specific meanings, and I think, should not be conflated with one another.

    I think that Oakeshott's quote is more related to the idea of government than it is upon the idea of the state. This is a good thing! But I still don't see it being a well-thought quote, because it then allows the inclusion of other areas that deal with 'rules and arrangements that give shape to an association of human beings'.

    In that case, it relies entirely upon the ethics of any structure, whatever that ethical structure may be, and is thus not able to be universalized in any way. All of the sudden the discussion of medical ethics can become *politics*; just as an example. Where do the lines delineate between associations that deal with ethics on the one hand vs. those that deal with a particular entity (typically of the monopoly form; the state) on the other?

    In his description, the church can have its own politics, which should be the first cue that politics deals with a specific sort of thing, not the arguments and considerations, per se. It's a form of these structures, and it arrises in a particular arena (which is intricately related to such structures).

    This is pretty sloppy in my opinion, because then *politics* can be applied to things like the NFL, NBA, MLBA, and whatnot. I'd rather think that the philosophers who were first using that word had quite a different image in their minds.

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    1. You are wrong: public arrangements are unavoidable. Anarchists would have them in ancapistan, whether they wanted to or not.

      In fact, the point of many of these posts has been to show that, while anarchists *believe* they can ignore power, authority, public arrangements, etc., they can't. So it is a bit surprising to find you posting "But Gene, we anarchists reject public arrangements!" as though you thought I didn't get this.

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    2. Your so-called "private arrangements" will be public arrangements because other people are subjected to them. Contracts exist in a legal framework that applies to everyone. They are not a substitute for law. What about people who want bankruptcy law? What about people who want laws against animal cruelty? You can't "privatize" law. It's conceptually nonsensical.

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    3. But Gene, it is a certain form or type that I'm concerned with. No doubt, that in popular parlance that the word *politics* conforms to your world-view; the State. That does not mean that it is automatically and intrinsically related to your or Oakeshott's conception of *politics*. In this instance of disagreement, it makes much more sense to seek out the root of the word rather than to use the definitions uses by those who came afterward.

      Public vs private "arrangements" have pretty explicit connotations in philosophy, it is rather lazy of you to conflate the two.

      It's funny, but if one were to take your position here, then they would conclude that philosophy and science are useless, if only because we cannot adequately define our terms.


      Granted, using a particular definition ultimately gets us much closer to that person's meaning, but that has very little to do with getting at the truth. For that (truth), we have no other option but to delve into the meaning of certain words within their context.

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    4. Just as a personal note, please do not condescend me.

      I know that I'm not the smartest guy around, but I don't like that somebody that I'm wishing to learn from talk to me as if I'm some sort of idiot.

      Sometimes is it a difference of conception or understanding.

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    5. I'm talking about the root of such arrangements, not necessarily their supposed rank. You guys are essentially taking the standpoint that any business ultimately becomes "public" just by existing; that they sell their wears or services to the public. I believe this to be incorrect.

      In "ancaptistan" there exists no *public* property, as correctly understood, so your rejections and rebuttals are at ultimatum, meaningless.

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    6. "In 'ancaptistan' there exists no *public* property, as correctly understood, so your rejections and rebuttals are at ultimatum, meaningless."

      *Scratches head.* What…how…why…how can anyone possibly think this? Does private property some how insulate you from external forces that wish to alter a given set of social arrangements? Oh, and "government" and "state" are synonyms for most people.

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    7. "In 'ancaptistan' there exists no *public* property, as correctly understood, so your rejections and rebuttals are at ultimatum, meaningless."

      Someone like me wants there to be public roads and public spaces. I'd rather maintain the doctrine of freedom of the seas instead of privatizing it. You still face objections on the basis of the tragedy of the commons, too, because the ancap "solution" is somewhat lacking: claiming that the solution to the tragedy of the commons is to privatize is like claiming you've "cured" a cancer patient of their pain by killing them.

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  2. Joe, do you know the root of "idiot"? It meant someone who did not engage in politics!

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    1. From Greek *idiotes* meaning "private person", from *idios* meaning "private".

      Thanks for pointing that out Gene, because if it is somebody that does not engage in politics, but its root means "private", then this only helps my argument.

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    2. No, Joe you are just extremely confused about public and private, and also what exactly a polis was.

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    3. Perhaps an explanation on the difference between public and private is in order. Admittedly, I'm one hundred percent confident in my current understanding of it.

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  3. And Samson, you say that these "arrangements" are public because "other people are subjected to them". I'll admit, all other people *are*subjected to them, but not from the anarchist, but from nature. After all, I did not impose the law of scarcity upon you, it is instead imposed upon all of us by nature.

    You should probably change your argument.

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    1. Why is the issue of scarcity relevant to this?

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    2. "You should probably change your arguments."

      Look, Joe, you seem like a nice guy who does a great deal of thinking, but it is completely beyond me how you can believe this idea of public neutrality. One of my major gripes with anarcho-capitalism is that it has a poor understanding of law, completely ignoring topics like bankruptcy, environmental law, water law, banking law, aviation law, and s on. These things you rail against aren't imposed by "the state". Forces in society put various laws into place. Cyberlaw came into existence with the internet. Consumer protection laws came into existence with the absuive practices of some companies. People want these things in place. They don't want the privatized society of anarcho-capitalism. I don't want the Grand Canyon sold off to the highest bidder nor do I want wildlife commercialized, so please understand that I have reason to fight anarcho-capitalism.

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    3. Scarcity has no relevance here, Samson. But its desperation time, so you throw up anything you got.

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    4. Part 1:

      No Gene, scarcity does have relevance here (it is central to the normative idea of property rights), I just used it as an example in this case of a natural law that cannot be broken.

      I am wanting to write about this more in depth on my blog, but I will try to summarize my thoughts here. Obviously, you know most of this stuff, but I have to repeat it in order to form my argument.

      Humans live in a world of scarcity, and because of this there is what is called rivalry (or conflict) over these scarce goods. In a state of nature, without normative rules determining who has the right to these goods, there exists nothing more than a case of all against all. So, property rights are merely the normative rules formed in order to solve this problem of conflict, that is their entire purpose (to decide who has the right to a thing and who does not). Without such scarcity and rivalry, property rights would have no need to exist (and it goes without saying that Crusoe too would have no use for property rights).

      (Obviously, contract is merely owners agreeing mutually and voluntarily upon the future uses of their respective properties.)

      Of course, the libertarian sees property rights as being entirely private, and that only private property rights solve this problem of conflict (I won't go into how we arrive at our theory of rights, I'm sure that you already know about body-ownership, first user vs latecomer, and homesteading). After all, public property cannot solve this problem because it is no different from a state of nature when looked at more closely (everybody owning everything has the same result as no property rules existing at all). Libertarian ethics are also axiomatic within this system, because they are self-evidently true when it comes to solving this problem at hand; conflict over scarce resources. All other property rules are inconsistent because they inherently allow conflict within their systems both logically and physically. This is why I so very much like Mises's statement along the lines of, "civilization could not exist without private property rights", because surely without them, only conflict would exist.

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    5. Part 2:

      Now how does this relate to politics? And why is politics incompatible with libertarianism?

      Politics, like libertarian ethics, deals exclusively with scarce goods and their allocation and rules, only it does not necessarily attempt to solve the problem of conflict, nor does it attempt to be inherently logical or axiomatic (either universally or within a particular system). It can often be said that the policies that arise from politics are entirely arbitrary, based only on the whims of those involved.

      Also, politics and its policies are entirely a public affair that deals with a current, particular problem. In all political matters, the discussion or argument always resorts to, "what should we do about this issue?" or "this is what we should do about this issue". Whereas libertarian theory deals with a universal and time-independent issue--conflict over scarce resources--and does so by focusing on another universal: the private individual (see Argumentation Ethics).

      Another distinction between politics and libertarian ethics deals with Hume's is/ought problem and circularity. In every case that I can imagine, all political questions and arguments can be summed up thusly: "This is the case, therefor we ought". "Why?". "Because this is the case". Admittedly, libertarianism under Natural Rights theory suffers from the same problem. However, this was later resolved by Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics, wherein he used a value-free, a priori approach that remained entirely in the realm of is statements, the result of which was that any normative claim in opposition to the private property ethic results in a performative contradiction. (I know that you disagree with AE and I think that your critique missed the mark, but that is a different issue altogether).

      Now, with all of that said, let's get back to our AnCapistan. If it truly is an AnCap society, then we must necessarily assume that every member of the society has accepted/adopted the libertarian property rights ethic. Sure, their actions may (and probably will) conflict with this ethic, but that is not relevant, all that is relevant is that all members have accepted and/or adopted the libertarian ethic (otherwise, it could not be called an AnCap society). So if this is the case--that all members of an Ancap society have adopted/accepted these allocation rules that deal with scarce goods--then what purpose would politics have? It too is nothing more than the deciding upon the rules and allocation of scarce goods, but since everybody in AnCapistan has already accepted the libertarian ethic, then politics would have no need to arise at all!

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    6. "Of course, the libertarian sees property rights as being entirely private,"

      The property may be private, but the rights had damned well better be public, or they don't mean anything. (Think of: In my mind, I own the planet Neptune.)

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    7. Obviously Gene, all normative positions in this context necessarily deal with more than one person. However, I'm using the words public and private regarding property (i.e. the relation between one's mind and the physical things in nature). After all, we cannot all mindmeld such that we can all have the exact same property simultaneously, the real world of scarcity precludes this.

      I could have worded it better, for sure. Perhaps by eliminating the word *rights*. My mistake.

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    8. Ok, but then you haven't come around to how scarcity is relevant here. You don't need public property to have a government! You might even have the legislature meet in a series of private homes.

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    9. It's in my last paragraph, which again (admittedly), could probably have been phrased better. (sorry, I don't usually proofread my responses in internet discussions, I just bang it out and hit publish)

      In all cases of political theory and rights theory, we are necessarily dealing with scarce resources. That's why I brought the word *scarcity* up when replying to Sampson, because really, that is what it all comes down to (i.e. that's what we're really talking about). What should be done with this good or that good, who should own them, who should have use of them, whether they should be legal or illegal, how they should be allocated, etc, etc? Without scarcity, politics and rights would have no need to arise at all, we could just do whatever the heck we want with no real consequence. If I burn your body to ashes, boom, you can have a new body; or if I eat an apple, boom, another appears in its place.

      Now, with that in mind, it was my contention that if a society has already accepted a particular ethic that deals exclusively with the rules that apply to scarce resources, then what purpose would another discipline that deals in exactly the same thing serve (i.e. politics)? I say none, it would have no need to arise.

      Now, of course, you could pose cases (and you did in a followup post) where two agents are arguing over who has the best claim to a scarce resource, but I don't think that this is best defined as politics. This ultimately falls within the judicial and/or legal realm of inquiry. After all, we've already established property rules (the libertarian type), so in this case, all that is needed is to figure out who has the best claim (i.e. we need only to judge the merits of each party's claim based upon the law). As you know, a libertarian ethic would proceed by finding how the scarce good was acquired--theft, first appropriation, immediate title transfer (i.e. voluntary exchange), or contract (i.e. very much the same as immediate title transfer, but including the element of time)--and then weigh the evidence provided by each party to the case (who has the best claim? And can they prove such?). Proving that you have a legitimate claim to something based upon the law is not politics, it's simply proving that you have the best claim.

      "You don't need public property to have a government!"

      I completely agree! However, you do need to have public property to have a State. I do not conflate the terms *government* and *state* as synonyms, though one cannot deny their similarities. Government is more of a process or a result of action, it is not an entity in my mind. So you won't see me saying things like "the government", because I use the word as an abstract noun rather than a concrete noun (much like the word "excitement"). Indeed, I do believe that anarcho-libertarianism comprises a rather robust form of government.

      "You might even have the legislature meet in a series of private homes."

      Sorry, I'm not seeing the significance of them meeting in private homes, it is still a legislature, after all. Legislative action can result in only one form of law: statutory. Statutory law is nothing more than law by decree, which is to say that it is not a private arrangement (even if it is undertaken in a private establishment), and it is often undertaken arbitrarily (e.g. 51% voted for A).

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    10. Joe, your comments have been lengthy, and I'm on an iPhone with a bad connection to the net, so I'm just responding to snippets at present, but:

      "we've already established property rules (the libertarian type)"

      Here you are just wishing politics away! There is no such thing as THE libertarian type of property rights! Sometimes I suspect there as many libertarian property regimes as there are libertarians! Is FRB ok? Murder parks? (Walter Block says yes.) Copyright? (Rothbard says it is fine; Kinsella rejects it.) What about communities where there have been customary rights to streams, etc? What about people who own currently land they aren't "using"? Is Ted Turner's ownership of a million acres of Montana (or whatever vast amount he owns) valid? And just how much do you have to use some land before you are "really" using it?

      I could literally go on listing these contentious issues for hours, Joe. Of course, if absolutely everyone agrees on ONE system of law, property, etc, then we don't need politics! But even the world's 10,000 ancap libertarians have a vast realm of disagreement on these topics. Settling them is a political matter.

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    11. "In all cases of political theory and rights theory, we are necessarily dealing with scarce resources."

      That's one way of looking at it, but it is overly reductionist.

      "Without scarcity, politics and rights would have no need to arise at all…"

      I'm not so sure about that. Even if that is true, what insight does it provide us with? Does it say we should be communists? Does it say we should bow down to some supreme dictator? Does it say animals have rights?

      "This ultimately falls within the judicial and/or legal realm of inquiry."

      Oi. Aside from its property-and-contract reductionism, the thing that most frustrates me about libertarianism is that it seems to hold that new issues don't arise and new things discovered. Here's a sentence from Brandeis' law article The Right to Privacy: "Political, social, and economic changes entail the recognition of new rights, and the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the new demands of society.". Joe, there is more to law than just property and contracts. There is family law, health law, medical law, consumer protection law, maritime law, company law, criminal law, international law, speeding, drunk driving, equity, product liability, and so much more.

      "Proving that you have a legitimate claim to something based upon the law is not politics, it's simply proving that you have the best claim."

      It's political in nature.

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    12. "However, this was later resolved by Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics, wherein he used a value-free, a priori approach that remained entirely in the realm of is statements, the result of which was that any normative claim in opposition to the private property ethic results in a performative contradiction."

      Value-free ethics is an oxymoron.

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    13. Furthermore, Hoppe's argumentation ethics is an awful piece of "philosophy", a sentiment that is shared by Jan Lester, David Friedman, Bob Murphy, Roderick Long, and every other decent libertarian philosopher who had ever examined it.

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    14. Addressing Gene:

      "Furthermore, Hoppe's argumentation ethics is an awful piece of 'philosophy'…"

      On scale of scam to sovereign citizen movement, how bad would you consider it to be? (Although the intervals of the scale are semi-serious, I'm interested because AE still sort of sticks in my mind.)

      ――――――――――――――

      Addressing Joe:

      "Libertarian ethics are also axiomatic within this system, because they are self-evidently true when it comes to solving this problem at hand; conflict over scarce resources."

      What about people who want conflict (i.e., masochists)? Fascists like Mussolini thought war was man's natural state. What about disagreements over who qualifies as worthy of holding rights (i.e., children, animals, the disabled, etc.)?

      "However, you do need to have public property to have a State."

      You do? What about corporate republics? Or corporatocracies? What about feudal states?

      "This is why I so very much like Mises's statement along the lines of, 'civilization could not exist without private property rights'…"

      Well, there goes the Roman Republic, ancient Egypt, and so many of the world's other great civilizations.

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    15. Hoppe is also just…mind numbingly bad. It seems more appropriate to call him a mafia statist instead of an anarchist and I suspect that he just uses anarcho-capitalist explanations as an excuse for his theoretical "proprietary" community. In real life how would someone who stumbles upon such a community be able to tell the difference between a town run by the Mafia and private ownership of it?

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    16. I know this post is a bit old, but I feel my question fits here best and I don't want to threadjack newer posts: why is it that libertarians invoke so much economic terminology/concepts in their political arguments? I've seen scarcity given as a reason for private property, but that makes a better argument against it than it does for it.

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  4. Joe, what do you mean addressing you like you are an idiot?! You're the one who decided to "inform" me about the most basic points of ancap, as if I wasn't writing this stuff myself a decade ago!

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    1. I apologize. I don't even know why I got that impression, or why I ignored my own condescension. Let's just say that it was Saturday night, and you can probably draw the correct conclusion from this fact. haha

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  5. "Furthermore, Hoppe's argumentation ethics is an awful piece of "philosophy", a sentiment that is shared by Jan Lester, David Friedman, Bob Murphy, Roderick Long, and every other decent libertarian philosopher who had ever examined it."

    It's late now, Gene, so I cannot spend much time on this now (or Samson's comments) because I have to be at work in the morning (5 am), but I do promise to make it a priority to respond to the both of you (esp. Samson) tomorrow.

    However, this comment of yours really struck me. You often like to rail on those who use the *argument from authority* in the wrong context. However, you're providing the best example of this fallacy.

    You're providing no argument at all, only providing the statement, "AE is an awful piece of 'philosophy'". You even put the word *philosophy* in quotes for crying out loud!

    I don't know, but if you make a statement without an actual argument, and your "argument" consists entirely of a statement followed by name-dropping, then this must surely be a case of argument from authority. Even funnier is that one of the names that you "dropped" was a co-author of your critique of Hoppe's work (a mutual friend of ours, Bob), the critique in which I've already said that I think "missed the mark" (but that I expressed that it is a different issue altogether; and it is!). Even crazier is the fact that even though Samson is attempting to pull the whole "you're using a reductionist argument" is that your critique of AE (or at least part of it) was ENTIRELY reductionist (to the point of ignoring the definitions he set out in his theory; the private individual).

    So WTF?!

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    1. Citing philosophers who think a philosophical argument is bad is a perfectly valid argument from authority. As you know, I've already personally blown up that argument at great length, so I didn't think I needed to again.

      As far as my critique of it being reductionist, I have no idea what you are talking about. As far as the scare quotes go, they are deserved: I doubt you can find a professional philosopher who finds this a competent argument.

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    2. Argumentation ethics is a species of ad hominem, gussied up. Tu quoque renamed and put on display. Put lipstick on a pig ...

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