Towards a Universal Human Ethic

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The effort to establish an incontestable proof for libertarianism as a universal human ethic is an immense undertaking and one that (to avoid any possible false anticipation) will not be accomplished in this short essay. We can also suggest that even if a libertarian scholar was to arrive at such a thesis it is unlikely that he would attract the attention and rejuvenation of political philosophy that, say, John Rawls did upon publication of his A Theory of Justice, an inherently statist work that found natural admirers amongst those interested in promoting the cause of the state. In this essay we will outline some important considerations that may help towards establishing libertarianism as the universal, human ethic.

The first consideration, and one that the present author is yet to see in print, is why should the burden of proof be on libertarians to establish their case? Doubtless it is the task of those who posit a particular political or ethical theory to justify their propositions, but too often in this kind of debate, democratic government is seen to be the natural, neutral or perhaps “default” position, with libertarians striving to promote something new and exciting, like a novel invention or a method that must be proven to be right before we could possibly envisage accepting it (although it seems as though we are never allowed to have it tried and tested). However, the case is, arguably, the other way round. Liberty – the freedom of each individual as an independent moral agent free from interference – is the natural, default status of human beings, as will become clear from our analysis below. It requires only negative action on the part of every individual human – the abstinence from physical invasion of the person or property of another. Anything else, however, requires a positive, conscious choice to disturb this peaceful situation and to interfere, physically, with somebody else. Those proposing such a positive course of action should surely be required to prove their case ahead of those who argue for retention of the natural state of affairs? Indeed, the difficulty of establishing a case for libertarianism does not result in the case for government being any stronger and at the very least proponents of the latter should be prepared to justify their positions as well. Often in these debates the libertarian is presented with a smorgasbord of issues and is required to explain how each and every one of them would be dealt with in a libertarian society and produce a just outcome; for some reason, the slightest weakness, the slightest inability of the libertarian to explain how a single issue, however minor, would be handled better in a libertarian society is taken as conclusive proof that libertarianism must be discarded, regardless of the finesse of the argument before that point. This is nothing but intellectual sloth, or rather a preference to bask in the comfortable status quo rather than confront formidable questions. It may be difficult to argue for the rights to self-ownership and private property, but it is much more difficult to propose that a select few should be able to override self-ownership and private property; that a select few need not earn their living by serving others through voluntary trade but can, instead, confiscate it; that the select few can enact laws and edicts with no regard to any primary rationale whatsoever; that the select few can establish massive, compulsory monopolies over whole industries such as transport and healthcare; that this little elite can accumulate debt that exceeds the productive capacity of the planet; that it can spend this borrowed money on invading and bombing civilians in foreign countries in conflicts that are not its concern. This side of the debate cannot be ignored. Now, to be sure, not all statists agree that these are legitimate things for the government to do and would wilfully deplore them in concert with libertarians (although much of this would be a criticism of that which government does, as opposed to the libertarian view that opposes government per se). But this demonstrates that the status quo is not the default option and opponents of libertarianism must be prepared to establish their own philosophies as being superior to libertarianism rather than simply dismissing one that they do not share.

The second consideration, and one that has been raised in previous essays, is the presuppositions of those who attempt to promote ethical theories of society. The characteristic of humans that distinguishes them from animals or unconscious matter is that they make voluntary choices to devote means towards ends, rather than simply relying upon instinct or the inertia of other matter. These voluntary choices are the substance of moral enquiry – because of the fact of scarcity, humans must choose between competing ends to which means could be devoted. An ethical theory informs the human of which ends he should pursue and which he should not with the means available. Without voluntary choice arising from scarcity moral theories would be redundant – total abundance would mean that every end is already fulfilled and hence moral theories would have no information to provide, and without voluntary choice moral theories would have no effect upon an action because the individual cannot change its outcome. Thus any being that makes voluntary choices is deemed to be a moral agent – the being to whom a moral theory applies. A theory of intrapersonal morality would concern only how moral agents should make choices in relation to amoral agents – those who have no voluntary choice such as dead matter, or objects. The moral question is “what is a good thing for this person to do with this object?” and not “what is a good thing for this person and for this object?” There is no such thing as moral rights arising in the form of dead matter and any moral enquiry concerns wholly the best ends for this individual human to pursue vis-à-vis that matter. With interpersonal morality, however, the question changes as now we are concerned about what is good for one actor and what is good for another in their relations between them. An interpersonal ethical theory accounts for not only the best ends of the one actor but also those of the other; thus, there arises the language of reciprocal rights and obligations that we possess and owe, respectively, to each other. As we noted, the essence of being human is that voluntary choices are completed through actions which are physical manifestations, making physical changes to the matter that is in the world and that this is the criterion of moral agency. If one person’s voluntary action, therefore, physically restrains or interferes with the person or property of another then what is the result? What happens when one person uses force against the person or property of another? Simply that this latter person is now prevented from making voluntary choices that result in actions devoted towards ends that he desires. Rather, his action is now forcibly directed, like a mere object, to the fulfilment of the ends of another individual. He therefore loses his characteristic as a moral agent and, worse still, as a human being entirely. For the very characteristic that makes him human – voluntary choice – has now been denied to him. What follows, therefore, is that any ethical theory that relies upon the force may be a perfectly applicable ethical theory to the individual actor doing the forcing – it may be perfectly acceptable if it is presented as a theory of what this one person should, treating every other human in the world as mere objects for his use. But if it is presented as an ethical theory of society then something is surely amiss – for how can such a theory apply to a society of humans, who, by virtue of that definition, each have independent moral agency making voluntary actions motivated by voluntary choices, when the substance of that theory denies them this very characteristic? It is no answer to this charge that, as humans, we have a reciprocal obligation to submit to the force of a person who may be said to have the “right to force”. Such an obligation does not make sense because an obligation presupposes the voluntary choice to carry out the substance of that obligation. If one is forced, however, there is no obligation at all – like a tree blowing in the wind it simply happens. Furthermore, the threat of force resulting in seemingly voluntary compliance is indistinguishable from force because there is no genuine choice – the same outcome will always result regardless of the victim’s choice to either carry out the forced ends voluntarily or to submit to violence. Moreover, neither does so-called “democratic oversight” of the enforcers – through, say, popular elections of the government – make any difference. In the first place, the answer of democratic oversight to seemingly despotic and autocratic propositions is reminiscent of the response of the socialists to Mises’ theory of economic calculation under socialism – in order to try and get around a very real problem faced by their theory they have to make socialism look like a market through various contrived devices such as bureaucrats “playing” entrepreneurs with money bestowed on them by the state – which raises the question of why not just adopt the market anyway instead of an inferior version of it? In just the same way here democracy lends a veneer to tyrannous and collectivist theories in order to make them look more free so that people are really “volunteering” to government edicts – which equally raises the question of why just not adopt genuine liberty? Regardless of this, however, democracy does not convey any genuine voluntary control to the individual. Rather, it conveys it to a majority of individuals. Any ethical social theory legitimated by democracy is not, therefore, a genuine human ethic but rather an ethic of the majority. Anyone in the minority is still forcibly subjected to ends that they do not want. Furthermore, this control by the majority would only be present in direct democratic systems where you get to vote on every individual issue. However, in so-called representative democracy, the political system under which most of us are languishing in the world today, the majority merely chooses the decision makers out of a carefully screened list once every four or five years – and there is no compulsion upon these leaders to carry out their manifesto commitments or electoral promises. The majority may have chosen the leaders but there is no guarantee that they would voluntarily submit to that which these leaders would decide to do once in office. Neither also does the fact that the tyranny may be partial rather than absolute save any collectivist social theory. For example, the government may forcibly confiscate 40% of your income in taxes; 60% of it is still yours to do with what you like as a free and independent human being (subject to all the myriad of government restrictions and regulations, of course). More specifically, the government does not regulate when you make a cup of coffee, or go to the toilet, or watch the television, or do your laundry. In other words there is still a very significant part of our lives in which collectivist ethical theories still allow us to be independent moral agents. However, this is only because the government has decided to leave you alone in these activities. If I had a working horse and I let it wander to any corner of the paddock that it wanted, sleep when it wanted, drink water when it wanted, none of this would change the fact that the horse is still entirely mine to dispose of as I wish. Indeed I might only allow these unilateral actions on the part of the horse because it makes it more pliable to being forced to work at a later date. In the same vein, most collectivist theories, absent some vague or waffling commitment to “fairness”, “equality” and so on, do not posit the substantive choices that should be made under their aegis – they merely advocate the procedural, political set up for making them. There is no reason why, in principle, government could not confiscate all or a larger chunk of your income, or actually regulate how often you go to the toilet or what you decide to wear. The de facto result of democracy is that it has seemingly legitimated any action of the government whatsoever, with democratic governments having made far more inroads to personal liberty of which ancient monarchs could only have dreamed. Substantive freedom under collectivism is based more upon what the populace is willing to bear rather than anything inherent in the ethical theory that informs it.

This proposition – that any theory that does not permit complete individual freedom can never be a genuine human ethic and therefore is, by its own standards, contradictory is not, of course, a watertight theory. It would, for example, have nothing to say to a person who did not wish to present his theory as a social theory and only cares about subjecting other people to the ends that he desires – in other words, a tyrant in the extreme. And indeed, just as a horse may need to be cajoled in working for you, so too may the tyrant pay lip service to espousing an ethical theory of society that works for everyone in order to placate the population, whereas privately he has concluded that only his ends really matter1. Nevertheless, it is certainly an important realisation whenever confronting someone who proposes such a theory. For if he is proposing a genuine theory of society then his theory is contradictory. If he is not, then his tyranny is simply revealed for what it really is and his true ends, to subject everyone else to his desires, will be laid bare for all to see. It is not likely that response to such a theory would contain an overwhelming degree of enthusiasm.

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1This is arguably the shortcoming of Hans Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, which relies upon the premise that ethical propositions must be determined by argument. Does this bind the person who doesn’t argue, or playfully argues only to cajole or placate while having already unilaterally concluded ethical propositions in his own mind?

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Libertarianism – A Utopian Ideal?

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Libertarianism – and any sort of more general freedom from government as advocated by anyone with a pro-free market leaning – is opposed both ethically and economically on a number of substantive grounds. The proposition that without government we would have inequality, destitution for the masses, rampant greed, and so on is a familiar charge. A further point of opposition is that libertarianism, and the drive towards it is simply utopian or idealistic and that libertarians are hopeless day dreamers, lacking any awareness of how the world “really” works. It is this objection that we will attempt to answer in this short essay.

There are two different basic guises of the argument that libertarianism is utopian. The first is that a libertarian world will simply never come about; that government is so entrenched in the world and people are so inherently statist that any hope for a libertarian society will founder upon the rocks. In the first place we might as well point out that libertarianism is a normative theory; just because we live in a society overwhelmed by statism does not mean that things should be that way. The current situation may make it harder to achieve but it does not undermine libertarianism as an ethical theory. But if we ignore this we do have to recognise that much of the fight for freedom will be an uphill struggle – as it always has been in history. The present author does not expect a libertarian world to appear within his lifetime. But from a strictly practical point of view this fight is a lot less “utopian” than many other goals such as the fight against poverty or against disease. These things require positive action and endless patience to wait for enough wealth to accumulate in order to provide some alleviation. Indeed even the most popular ideal in the world today – the so-called spread of democracy – requires armed invasions, active peacekeeping, the setup of institutions for which to hold to elections and the willingness of the population to get off their backsides and vote. This is assuming, of course, that such an ideal is genuine and not simply a veneer for power and control over resources. Freedom, however, only requires negative action – the abstinence from violence against the person or property of another person. Every single individual in the world has the physical ability to bring this situation about right now with no effort whatsoever. Freedom could practically be achieved much more quickly than wealth, democracy, inequality, happiness, fulfilment or any other ideal that one could care to mention. This does of course suffer from the drawback that people need a passion for liberty and a willingness to cease their promotion or tacit acceptance of the ruling regimes. Inducing recognition of the illegitimacy of government on a wide scale is a formidable task for libertarians, especially as it is so radical. But what is truly utopian, however, is the belief that the current situation of debt, spending and kicking the can down the road can ever continue. At the birth of social democracy, Western nations had accumulated several generations’ worth of capital that had raised the standard of living by a significant magnitude. This provided a seemingly inexhaustible fund for politicians to bribe voters, showering them with goodies in the form of retirement benefits, welfare payments, nationalised industries, publically owned infrastructure, and so on in return for their votes. Because politicians like to spend and spend without raising current taxes, much of this spending was fuelled by borrowing, with the productivity of accumulated capital enabling tax revenue to service this debt. The borrowing and inflation has benefitted the bookends of society – the poorest who receive the majority of the welfare payments and the very rich whose assets survive the inflation by rising in nominal value – as well as the baby boomer generation, which has received most of the lavish benefits without having to pay for them. The profligate waste disguised a slow but relentless capital consumption until now productivity can no longer provide for the burgeoning level of spending. Governments today are struggling to even service the interest on debt through tax revenues, having to borrow more just to pay down previously accumulated debt. Particularly now as the aforementioned baby boomer generation has begun to retire, leaving behind it a decimated workforce supporting a heavy generation of retirees, this situation is likely to only get worse. There are three possible options available – to default on the entitlements; to default on the debt; or to print enough money to pay for everything. The first option would cause mass social unrest, the second would cause financial markets to collapse and the third would cause hyperinflation of the currency. This is an unpleasant but soon to be necessary choice. It is precisely because the paradigm of social democracy, its welfare state and social justice no longer appear to be working that liberty (and “Austrian” economics) are beginning to be viewed as viable alternatives. As suggested previously, the view (and hope) of the present author is that this will be a relatively bloodless and un-revolutionary process, taking effect through the simple circumvention of government by people who simply want to live their lives and maintain their standard of living. Regardless of their precise knowledge of the virtues of liberty, a libertarian world will come about by people seeking to assert their individuality. That seems a lot less utopian than desperately attempting to prop up the current, zombie-like system.

The second guise of the argument that libertarianism is utopian is the proposition that non-aggression is counter to human nature and there will always be people who seek to murder, rape and steal. Or, even worse, a free society will just create a society of looters and murderers and the peaceful and harmonious world that libertarians envisage will simply never appear. With government, however, peace is maintained (enforced?) and we have a controlled and orderly redistribution subject to democratic oversight and this is far more in keeping with the nature of humans. First of all, freedom is the raison d’être of human nature and not its antithesis. Undoubtedly it is true that the political means of achieving wealth through theft and redistribution, as well as the abdication of individual responsibility through devotion to a leader, are powerful and attractive propositions that may form part of human nature. But this is simply a part of the universal law of human action that seeks to minimise individual cost and maximise individual benefit. People seek to promote government action because they think it will promote what they want while forcing others to shoulder the burden. They want government to enact their ideas and their plans and for everyone else to march in time. They seldom consider the fact that they may be suffering the costs of implementing somebody else’s plan. As soon as government ceases to serve this function in the opinion of individuals, it will be dropped. It is, therefore, individual freedom and not an automated, robotic adherence to the government that is in keeping with human nature. Second, bearing this in mind, it is far from clear that society would simply disintegrate into murderous chaos if government was abolished instantly. While there may be a transitory period of restlessness, people will soon take steps to privately protect and defend their property, with these private means replacing the monopolistic provision of the state – as happened recently in the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when police were ordered to stand down. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the division of labour and social co-operation would suddenly be obliterated overnight. People engage in these things not only because it is the most productive form of organisation but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the number of people willing to commit private murder and theft would still be in the minority. The majority of people abstain from these acts not because the government is preventing them from doing them but because they are evil. Abolishing the state will not change this view. If any proponent of government was to suggest otherwise then it is permissible to ask him what he would do if government vanished suddenly. Would he be among the looters and plunderers? And if not, why should anyone else? Third, libertarians have never made the claim that the world will be completely eradicated of aggression and we do not assume that, once governments and states are abolished, evil people will suddenly vanish from the face of the Earth. Indeed, libertarians do not even have to prove that a world of liberty will be absolutely flawless and totally free of evil and violent people; it simply has to be better than any other option. What we are firmly opposed to is the legitimisation of aggression when it is carried about by an elite group called the government; that if we recognise acts such as murder and theft as immoral and evil then they shouldn’t be done by anyone. In other words, libertarians oppose the legalisation of aggression under any circumstance, applying simply what resides in everyone’s understanding of basic morality to those who are in government. The fact that illegal acts will still be done is fully acknowledged; but allowing a legitimate channel for the initiation of violence dilutes this basic moral understanding and serves as a vehicle for evil acts such as murder and theft rather than for their prevention. In any case, even if libertarians strove for a world of the complete, de facto eradication of all aggression, private and public, then what would be wrong with that? It is not likely, for example, that rape will ever be completely eradicated whatever legal regime is put in place and any person who sets out to achieve such a total banishment would certainly be “utopian”. But we would hardly dispute the honourable nature of his goal, nor would we castigate his efforts to achieve it. Governments themselves participate in causes even more utopian than this, such as the seemingly endless “War on Drugs”. Doubtless many of us would love to have a world free from substance use but, regardless of the ethics of either drug use or the attempts to prevent it, from a strictly practical point of view it is hopeless to attempt to regulate with the force of law what people desire to put into their own bodies.

Libertarianism will never create a perfect world; but it will create a world that is most in step with the fact that humans think, feel, desire, choose and act as individuals. Undoubtedly, according to some “higher” ideal, the human race is flawed but any practical and sensible political theory has to account for humans as they are, warts and all. It is for this reason that libertarianism, as opposed to its statist and collectivist rivals, is one of the least utopian theories.

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