The Myth of Overpopulation

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Overpopulation, either locally or globally, is often blamed on a number of apparent problems from the shortage of particular (usually “essential”) resources all the way up to the outright poverty of entire continents. Although few governments, most notably the Chinese, have enacted any strict policies in order to control their populations (except with regards to immigration), factoids such as the allegation that, if every single human wanted to enjoy a Western lifestyle we would need something like a dozen earths, attempt to create an unwarranted degree of hysteria.

The myth of overpopulation rests on the belief that humanity is akin to some kind of cancer which, as it grows exponentially, devours a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of resources that must be shared between everyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been born. This would have been the case in a hand-to-mouth society that preceded capitalism and the division of labour. There was effectively no production and the birth of each individual person constituted merely another mouth to feed. In other words, an increase in population led to an increase in demand for consumption without any corresponding increase in production, thus putting pressure on the existing stock of resources that had to be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, when it comes to shortages of goods in local markets today we can surmise that even if there was a fixed or otherwise relatively limited pool of resources that everyone had to share we couldn’t pin the blame for shortages on such a fact. In a free society, a particular good might be very expensive but it should never be the case that we cannot find anything. As the population increases the price of resources would rise and thus choke off demand for the least valuable uses. Shortages, rather, are always the result of government price controls that try to create the illusion of abundance without the reality, decimating the current supply and obliterating any incentive to produce more. That aside, however, the blatant reality for a capitalist society marked by the division of labour is that there is not a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of wealth and resources, and that the whole purpose of such a society is to grow, exponentially, the amount of wealth that is available. Indeed, as we shall see, humanity has succeeded in this endeavour to only a fraction of its capacity.

When the first human being trod the virgin soil of the earth, he found himself in a situation of almost unrelenting poverty. Mother Nature, as anyone trapped for an extended period of time in the wilderness has discovered, is far from a kind host, providing very little (except air to breathe and fruit on wild trees) by way of resources that can be consumed immediately for very little effort. Yet all of the matter contained in every resource that we enjoy today – buildings, cars, refrigerators, televisions, computers, clothing, medicines, and so – was, give or take a little, right there at the beginning of the world’s existence. Strictly speaking, no human being has ever created anything – rather he has merely transformed matter from one thing into another. So why, if all this matter was there from the very start, weren’t these wonderful things available to our first human? The reason is, of course, that a human must apply his labour in order to change the matter available in the world into useful resources that fulfil his ends. Yet the work of one man with his unaided body alone was not sufficient to create all of the wonderful things that we enjoy today. Indeed, it might take a single human being an entire day to hunt or catch enough fish for just one meal before the process must be repeated the following day. How can this be limitation be overcome?

The first answer is quite simply the very bugbear that is complained about – an increased population. A greater number of humans can together lift and carry a far greater amount than one man alone. Several or many men building a house would accomplish the task in a far shorter time than one man alone. More importantly, however, the widening of the division of labour as the population grows ensures that production stays ahead of population growth. Additional humans constitute an additional demand for consumption – ten humans may require ten houses whereas one human would require only one. But the fact that these men are also producers means that each can now fill his day by specialising in a particular task. One man, devoid of the ability to specialise, may take a year to build one house and he would have to undertake every single activity related to the building work on his own. With ten men, however, two may specialise in lumber felling, another two in transport, some in building, and the task of one the men may be solely to produce food and other supplies for the men doing direct work on the houses. The result of this is a greater degree and concentration of knowledge and an increased perfection of technique and expertise in each task. The resulting time saving means that, whereas one man would take one year to build one house, ten men would less than one year to build ten houses. Thus the rate of house building overtakes the rate of the increase in population. We therefore see that the quantity of labour has a marked effect on the accumulation of wealth and the transformation of matter into useful economic resources, provided that a society is distinguished by capitalism and the division of labour. To further emphasise this point, it is the twin effect of the consumption demand of the additional people coupled with the fact that these people are also producers that makes an ever increasing widening of the division of labour possible. If ten houses have to be produced then it might not be possible for one man to concentrate on any single task in order to fill his day; he might have to work in installing the wiring, the plumbing and the wallpaper. If one hundred houses have to be built then he might be able to concentrate on plumbing alone. If one thousand houses are built then he might be able to specialise on plumbing just bathrooms whereas someone else works on plumbing kitchens, for instance. The ever increasing volume of demand from an increasing population therefore begats an ever increasing division of labour when that population is put to work, and with it come all the benefits of specialisation and expertise.

Second, although it is flexible, the human body is a relatively weak and feeble creature, capable of moving and lifting only a tiny amount of matter at any one time. Regardless, therefore, of the quantity of labour available we can see that fifty men carrying sacks on their back would fail to transport as many goods in as short a space of time as, say, a railway locomotive hauling some wagons. The power of labour is therefore a further limiting factor on the number of resources that can be enjoyed. This power can only be increased by accumulating ever greater amounts of capital. All such goods – machines, tools, vehicles, and so on – are, fundamentally, merely extensions of the human body that enable its labour to accomplish more than it otherwise would. A man with an axe can fell a greater a number of trees than a man whose body is unaided by this implement. For centuries, humans could not labour to extract oil from the ground and refine it into petroleum. Yet with the capital available to construct drilling apparatus, oil rigs and refineries this is no longer the case. Indeed, most direct labour today is not concerned with the production of consumption goods at all. Rather, it is devoted to the production, augmentation and improvement of capital goods. In short, it is directed towards increasing the power of labour.

What we begin to see, therefore, is that it is not necessarily the scarcity of resources burdened by an ever increasing population that is the real obstacle to the growth of wealth and economic progress; rather, it is the scarcity of labour and the power of that labour as represented by the stock of capital goods which serve to enhance it. Goods are, to be sure, the original source of scarcity. We apply our labour only because the available quantity of a given resource exists in insufficient supply relative to the ends to which it could be devoted. Yet the power of our labour is a significant compounding factor on the degree of scarcity that we must endure. My body may only have enough capability in order to fetch a few buckets of water from a nearby stream – yet more than three quarters of the globe is covered in water. It is because the power of my labour is relatively weak that most of this water is either too far away or of insufficient quality to serve me any practical end. Only be improving the power of my labour – by being able to move greater distances, lift heavier volumes and develop processes of purification – could I hope to enjoy more water.

Such a circumstance is not limited to such a clearly abundant resource such as water. The entire world, right from the depths of the core of the Earth all the way up to the stratosphere is densely packed with matter. Our labour has only ever been able to harness a mere fraction of these resources, mostly skimmed from the Earth’s crust. As time goes on however, as population increases and with it capital accumulation and the widening of the division of labour, we harness the ability to tap into more and more of these resources. Hence, mines and oil fields that were once too costly to drill are now drilled (and, indeed, are more productive than the most productive fields of yesteryear); such mines could eventually reach depths of miles rather feet; and valuable elements can now be extracted from more complex ores. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue. Even today, the sea contains traces of elements such as gold which, in their totality, amount to a far greater quantity than all of that ever mined from beneath the land – 20 million tons compared to 175,000 tons respectively. Yet our labour is insufficient to take advantage of this fact. Indeed the sea remains one of the greatest untapped resources available to us. Unlike private land settlement which led to a prosperous agriculture and exploitation of the land, government has pretty much closed off areas of the sea to the possibility of settlement, preventing the development of a full-fledged aquaculture and robbing us of the ability to exploit this wonderful gift of nature.

It is for this reason – the increasing power of labour – that all predictions of resource depletion as a result of overpopulation (not to mention the ridiculousness of disingenuous “facts” such as the allegation that twelve earths are required to give everyone a Western lifestyle) – have failed. In the well known Ehrlich-Simon wager, for instance, economist Julian Simon made a bet in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing would have declined in price ten years later – indicating increasing availability of resources rather than increasing scarcity. Simon won the bet outright, in spite of a population increase of 800 million during that decade. Other peddlers of the overpopulation thesis, such as Albert Allen Bartlett, have labelled the views presented here as “cornucopian” or “the new flat earth” – mythical, whimsical and not based on any serious scientific understanding. What these people share in common is that they simply do not account for the future economic viability of production from what are currently viewed as uneconomic resources. For the clear result is that as population has increased we have been able to apply more labour with a greater power of that labour to a greater number of the world’s resources in ways that we were not able to do before. The ultimate goal, needless to say, would be something akin to molecular engineering – the ability to transform worthless matter such as dirt, trash or even air – into valuable resources. The futuristic “replicators” on TV shows such as Star Trek can apparently conjure goods such as a fully cooked meal out of thin air; yet the science behind would not be too difficult to imagine. We have already harnessed the ability to transform matter into energy through processes such as combustion. We can envisage that one day we could do the reverse and transform energy into matter. An inedible sack of coal could end up as a fabulous meal on your dining table.

Overpopulation does, however, give the appearance of being a problem as a result of government interference. Above we noted above, additional consumption demand represented by an increasing population serves in increase wealth provided that the additional population are also producers and therefore will act so as to widen the division of labour and the accumulation of capital. Yet the actions of government serve to swell consumption while choking off production. Pressure on resources and industries therefore arises from government control of these things. Britain’s decrepit healthcare, energy and transport systems are bursting at the seams as a result of demand and increasing costs, a direct result of inefficiency combined with prices that are too low which serve to swell consumption demand in these industries. Government pays its citizens to produce babies and thus increase the population, while an increasing immigrant population today is induced not by the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and to better one’s own life for oneself through hard work and productivity, but, rather, by generous welfare states. All of this causes a rising population that contributes to consumption but very little by way of production. In other words, if you set up the economic system to make consumption as care free as possible and production as costly as it could be then the excess of consumption and a deficit of production will give the illusion of overpopulation. Government therefore begins to look on its citizens as pests and parasites, wanton consumers of precious resources that are desperately running out. Yet the problem is not with resources; rather the problem is with the ability of the government to swell the ranks of consumers and its inability to increase the power of labour, together with its incessant stifling of anyone else who tries to do so. Every additional person who is born in the world is another mouth to feed, another person who will demand the consumption of resources. Yet that person could also be a producer who will widen the division of labour and help to grow the capital stock. Government succeeds only in breeding the consumer in a man while totally destroying in him the producer.

Turning to a related aspect, the fact that whole continents, such as Africa, are mired in poverty has nothing to do with the allegation that the richer countries refuse to “share” their wealth. If the richer countries did not have their wealth, it would not mean that poorer countries would have more – the wealth simply would not have been produced, period. Indeed, whatever wealth that does exist in poor places is often the result of Western enterprise or outright gift. These places do not lack resources; rather, they lack the institutions of private property and voluntary exchange that enable capitalism and the division of labour to flourish, and with them a greater command of labour over resources. Indeed, many of these countries are proceeding down the wrong path by setting up welfare states, trade unions and Keynesian economic (mis)management overseen by democratic institutions which are, of course, the very things that are destroying the standard of living in the West. The West achieved its greatest accomplishments in a pre-democratic, pre-welfare state and pre-union age before Marxism and socialism succeeded in leading the onslaught against capitalism and private property.

What we can see, therefore, is that overpopulation is not a fundamental economic problem. It is only an apparent problem in a society that is hampered by government intervention and the stifling of private property rights, the division of labour and capital accumulation. However, even if population started to put pressure on resources when, in a capitalist society, we reached the (unlikely) point where we were regularly turning over all of the matter in existence to meet our ends – we would still conclude that this would not be a problem worthy of any serious attention. Or at the very least, it would certainly not be a problem that merited any centralised, government control. For as population increases relative to the supply of resources, the latter become more expensive. The cost of raising a child therefore itself becomes prohibitively more expense and people would need to choose between devoting ever more valuable resources to themselves or to their children. Indeed one of the first of such resources to exert this pressure may well be land, assuming we have not, by then, invented the ability to produce more of it artificially. We could, of course, build upwards and end up living in skyscrapers but people may prefer to breed less and have more land available to themselves rather than to their children. Such choices may serve to relieve, naturally, any exponential growth in population figures. Even if, though, people desired to keep on having more children it would only indicate that they prefer the company of children to enjoying more resources for themselves. There is no objective standard by which to complain about the result of such a choice. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the question of land, humanity is currently so far from this point that we hardly need to bother mentioning it, except to try and concede to the overpopulation thesis its best possible case.

The illusion of overpopulation is exacerbated today by a fundamentally antagonistic attitude from what Murray Rothbard called the “professional foes of humanity”, the environmentalist movement1. Apart from this movement’s interference in one the most crucial markets for capital accumulation – the production of energy – the fundamentals of their philosophy view the earth as inherently beautiful and sacred, and any of humanity’s attempts to exploit it as sacrilege. Such a view is radically anti-human and can only hold that the problem with the Earth is that there are too many of these stupid, dirty, polluting, and wantonly consuming human beings. Given the influence that this movement holds it is no small wonder that such thinking permeates into more mainstream views. That aside, however, we can conclude from what we have learnt here that humans need not fear increases in population. What they should fear, however, is their government turning additional people into spoon fed eaters with shackled hands – consumers who cannot produce. It is this fact that puts a very real pressure of resources. It is therefore not overpopulation that is the real problem but, rather, “over-government”.

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1Murray N Rothbard, Government and Hurricane Hugo: A Deadly Combination, Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr, (ed.), The Economics of Liberty, pp 136-40.

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Negative Interest Rates

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Since the 2008 financial crisis, the policy of central banks to forcibly push down interest rates, followed by the rapid expansion of their balance sheets in order to attempt to “stimulate” economic growth has, to say the least, been something of an abysmal failure. Unemployment is still high, economic growth barely makes it any higher than a rounding error and real wage rates continue to stagnate as they have done for the past ten years or more. Benefitting only Wall Street, the new money has pushed stock markets to record highs and bond yields to record lows, so much so that owning these assets over the past five years has been the closest one can get to a sure bet. Main Street, however, having had to deal with the reality of the fact that the debt-fuelled consumption mania is no longer sustainable and that real savings to grow businesses are in short supply, continues to languish in what seems like a completely separate realm from the casino operations of the financial markets. With positive interest rates now as low as they can possibly go and with little to show for it, it is no surprise that the prospect of negative interest rates in order to force everyone to spend their way into a recovery is now a real one. Indeed, it is already very much a reality in Switzerland and Denmark.

The proposal for negative interest rates rests on a typical Keynesian plea that the government and central banks did not act “drastically enough” in attempting to defibrillate the economy back to growth. Contrary to understanding the lack of any meaningful recovery as a failure of their policies, they instead turn around and say “if it is this bad now then imagine how terrible it would have been had we done nothing at all!” The patient is therefore prescribed ever greater doses of bad medicine in spite of the fact that it is the medicine that is killing him. (Has it not also been said often that the definition of insanity is to repeat an act continuously with the expectation of a different outcome?) Indeed, the economy is so saturated with debt that only paying people to get deeper into it has any prospect expanding the volume of spending.

Negative interest rates are, of course, a praxeological absurdity and could not come about through anything except government force. It is tantamount to placing a premium on future goods as opposed to present goods, so that the prospect of receiving £100 today is less valuable than receiving £100 in a year’s time. Practically, what this means is that, if you deposit £100 in the bank today with an interest rate of -5%, you will have only £95 in one year’s time. You are, therefore, quite literally paying the bank to borrow your money, a proposition absurd to anyone except a tenured professor of economics. Since when, to invert a popular proverb, has a bird in the bush been worth two in the hand? The idea, of course, is that you will be so keen to avoid the interest charges that you will cease to be an “evil” saver and rush out to spend all of your money as soon as you can. Thus the magical Keynesian multiplier will burst into life, restoring us to the land of milk and honey. What’s more, they hope that it will encourage a flurry of borrowing as all the excess reserves piling up in bank vaults (or, rather, on their computer screens) are now lent out to those eager to be paid to hold cash. Traditionally, of course, banks earn their revenue by paying depositors a lower interest rate than they charge to borrowers. With negative interest rates it seems as though the situation will reverse: the bank will make its money by charging its depositors more than it has to pay its borrowers.

Such a ridiculous idea does, of course, run into the unfortunate fact that every unit of money has to be in someone’s cash balance and if all cash balances attract a negative interest rate there can only be an incentive to borrow if the rate on your deposit account is less than the terms of the loan – in other words, you have to pay less to hold the cash than you get paid for taking out the loan. Further, if someone can only get rid of their cash by passing it onto someone else and that latter person can then only do the same then the logical end of the proposal is hyperinflation. That aside, however, what will be the likely effects of the introduction of such a policy?

The first likelihood is that, with bank deposits now charging an interest levy, holding hard cash under the mattress becomes an attractive alternative. In both inflationary and deflationary environments it will lose less and gain more than a bank deposit. Indeed, at first blush, libertarians should welcome this possibility. After all, it is free deposit banking that has resulted in people willingly stashing all of their cash in fractional reserve banks, enabling them to pyramid loan upon loan on top of them and thus causing the disastrous business cycle. When money consisted of gold or silver stored in full reserve banks it was natural for banks to levy a charge for this storage service. People could either choose to accept the charge in return for the safekeeping of their assets, or prefer to keep the cash in their own storage provisions at no cost. Viewed this way, negative interest rates give the appearance of a return to something more akin to cash handling as it would be in a libertarian world. Unfortunately, of course, the negative interest rate is an arbitrary figure and does not represent the true value of storage services to holders of deposit accounts, and having been accustomed to the provision of such services for free anyway a mass withdrawal will be the most likely response. Indeed, it would not be unsurprising if something akin to Gresham’s Law emerged where, legally, bank deposits and cash notes trade at par but where undervalued cash becomes hoarded and people keep only a minimum amount of overvalued bank deposits with which to use for their exchanges. Such an outcome would, of course, utterly defeat the purpose of negative interest rates which is to swell the volume of spending through electronic exchange. In other words, the point at which negative interest rates begin a flight into cash will mark the true limits of monetary policy in creating a spending splurge.

Needless to say, of course, the likely government response is to restrict cash holding with a view to eliminating cash altogether in order to concentrate as much money as possible in commercial bank deposits. Such an end has, in and of itself, been a cherished aim of government, as it permits oversight of and control over every single financial transaction. Under the guise of “combating terrorism” such restrictions have already been tightened recently in France, where, from September of this year, cash payments in excess of €1000 will be illegal. Similar restrictions have appeared, in the last few years, in Spain, Italy, Russia and Mexico. Where cash remains less restricted, any attempts to convert deposits into cash may be met with refusal and obstinacy, as a Swiss pension fund discovered recently when it attempted to switch its deposits to paper notes stored in a vault. Indeed all of this harkens back to the era when banks overinflated on a monetary base of redeemable gold. Back then, redemption in gold was restricted to concentrate people’s cash holdings in paper notes. Now, redemption in paper notes is restricted to concentrate cash holdings in deposits.

The likely reaction to this is that, with deposits and fixed income securities losing value in both nominal and real terms, people will abandon these assets in pursuit of safer stores of value – probably gold and silver. In other words, shorn of the ability to withdraw hard cash, people will keep on deposit only the amount they need to meet their current expenditures while the rest of their savings will be ploughed into harder assets. A flight out of debt instruments would trigger a deleveraging and usually, in such circumstances, the safe home for such funds would be cash. But if cash will also be subject to a negative interest rate and with no ability to withdraw paper notes, then movement of the money into gold would cause the gold price to rise. We would therefore have the peculiar effect of increasing asset prices during an era of deflation. Such are the ways in which monetary policy can turn the world upside down.

The likely effects of a negative interest policy as outlined here demonstrate the limits of a monetary policy that attempts to kick the economy back into gear through spending. You can print all of the money that you like; you can lower interest rates as far as they will go; you can make it impossible for people to withdraw their cash; but like the proverbial horse to water, you cannot force people to borrow and spend. In short, you cannot cheat the market with increasingly absurd tricks that would have baffled even the monetary charlatans of yesterday. Only liquidation of the existing debt and a return to sound money with interest rates determined by the supply of and demand for saved funds will create a proper, sustainable recovery on the path to prosperity.

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Utilitarian Arguments for Liberty

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Utilitarianism or some form of consequentialism has underpinned the ethical worldview of many libertarians past and present. Within the “Austrian” School we may cite Ludwig von Mises, F A Hayek and Henry Hazlitt as proponents of this approach, contrasting with the more rule-based or deontological approaches of, say, Murray N Rothbard and Hans Hermann Hoppe, and the objectivism of Ayn Rand.

This essay will seek to examine some utilitarian and consequentialist arguments in favour of liberty. In doing so we must bear in mind two aspects. First, not all utilitarian arguments are of the same ilk and vary from simple approaches of judging outputs resulting from a posited situation with interpersonal utility comparisons, all the way to more general and sophisticated treatments such as that of Mises and that of Rothbard in his noted article “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”1. Here, therefore, we will compare these two utilitarian approaches towards liberty. Second, the adequacy of utilitarianism can be examined from the point of view of providing a moral bulwark for a world of liberty on the one hand and from the point of view of promoting such a world on the other; our treatment of it may be different in each circumstance because that which may be suitable to form the moral foundations of liberty may be not be the key aspect that we can emphasise when persuading the populace of the virtues of a libertarian society. Hence we must examine any utilitarian argument from both points of view.

We will begin, then, with the basic forms of consequentialism that look to measure the output of individual scenarios. Such an approach will often posit an emotive and hypothetical situation where one individual owns property and another individual will succumb to some kind of malady such as hunger, illness and ultimately death unless he gets his hands on that same property. A typical example is of a lost man wandering in the woods, cold, malnourished and in immediate need of food and shelter. He comes across a log cabin, of which someone else is clearly the first user/occupier. By peering through the window our lost man can see that it is full of food. Would it be ethical for him to break in to the cabin, use it as shelter, and/or eat some of the food without the permission of the first user?2

The rule-based approach to libertarianism would state that the lost man does not have a right to break into the cabin, use it as shelter and eat the food without the permission of the cabin’s first user (hereafter, the “owner”) as it is a clear breach of the non-aggression principle. However, a utilitarian or consequentialist may argue that while the cabin owner has a prima facie right to the ownership of the cabin and its contents the question should be answered by taking the approach that avoids the most harmful consequences – or, conversely, promotes the best consequences. In this particular situation, the loss of the food or shelter to the cabin’s owner would, apparently, not be a remarkable cost. Yet the denial of it to the lost man, starving and shivering in the open, would be tremendous, may be even as much as his life. We may warrant, therefore, that the starving man should be able to break into the cabin.

Is it possible for such a view to form a) the moral backbone for libertarianism and b) a persuasive argument in promoting a libertarian society? In answer to the first question, we must decide firmly in the negative. First, all of these scenarios, such as the starving man in the woods, are purely hypothetical situations to which we are expected to give hypothetical responses. However, ethical dilemmas do not arise in hypothetical situations; they arise in real situations where there are genuine conflicts over scarcity. Although such hypothetical situations could one day come about, the danger of entertaining them is that it can be worded in such a way as to provoke the answer most desirable to its proponent. Thus the die is already loaded in favour of the latter’s political philosophy. Walter Block comments on such an example provided by Harold Demsetz of the Law and Economics movement (which is basically a utilitarian approach to legal rights). Demsetz’s scenario is that of “Austrian Pure Snow Trees”, which are owned by a religious sect. An ingredient from these trees happens to be the only cure for cancer, but the religious sect will not allow them to be used for that purpose, reserving them instead for religious worship. Demsetz challenges whether it is really “evil and vicious” to override the private property rights of the religious sect so that cancer sufferers can benefit from the trees’ curative ingredient. Block responds at length:

Given [Demsetz’s] highly emotional example, it is indeed hard to resist the notion that it would be preferable if the trees were used as a cancer cure.

Emotionalism can be a double edged sword, however. As long as our intuitive imagination has been unleashed by Demsetz in this creative way, why not push the envelope a bit? Consider, then, the case where the views of this religious sect are absolutely correct! That is, if the trees are torn down for so idolatrous and unimportant a purpose as curing cancer, then we’ll all be consigned to Hell forever. Wouldn’t it then be “intuitively appealing” to allow the islanders to continue their ownership of these trees?

Demsetz, in taking the opposite position, is acting as if the cult is erroneous in its religious beliefs. But assume for the moment the “cultists” to be correct in their world view. It would then be justified – according to Demsetz – not only to protect them from the onslaught of the cancer victims, but to seize the assets of the latter if this would in any way help the former. Suppose, that is, that there was a cancer cure, owned, now, by the victims of this dread disease, but that for some reason the worshippers determined that this material would help them in their efforts to contact the Deity. Then, according to the logic established by Demsetz, it would be appropriate public policy to forcibly transfer the cure to the control of the religious ”fanatics.” Surely Demsetz knows nothing-for certain that would render such a conclusion invalid.

[…]

Let us extend the Demsetzian argument in yet another dimension. Suppose that it was not the islanders’ trees that could cure cancer, but rather their hearts. That is, the only way to save the sufferers from this disease would be to kill, not the Austrian Pure Snow Trees, but their owners, the members of this religious sect, and then to take their hearts, chop them up, and feed them to cancer victims. Would Demsetz (“emotionally”) support this “modest proposal” to do just that?

[…]

Ultimately, there are only two ways of settling such problems. All others are merely combinations and permutations of these two. On the one hand, there is a provisional or instrumental property rights system. Here, holdings are secure only as long as no one can come up with a plausible reason for taking them away by force. Under this system, either dictators or majorities (or dictatorial majorities) hold the key to property rights. The difficulty is that there are no moral principles which can be adduced to derive any decisions. Presumably, utility or wealth or income maximization is the goal; but due to the utter impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, this criterion reduces to arbitrariness. On the other hand is a thoroughgoing and secure property rights system. Here, one owns one’s possessions “for keeps.” The only problem here is the temptation to overthrow the system in order to achieve some vast gain, such as the cure for cancer. Demsetz’s example is so forceful by virtue of the fact that he expects his readers will consider a cure for cancer to be more valuable than a pagan rite – he knows it is likely they will engage in interpersonal comparisons of utility. But these temptations are easily resisted as they are inevitably imaginary and artificially constructed. We have yet to be presented with a real world example where there is a clear cut case for massive property rights violations.

[…]

Hypothetical arguments have their undoubted philosophical use. [However], the point being made here[…]is that [deontological] libertarian rules are only inconsistent with broad based utilitarian concerns in the imagination, not in reality.

Note how far from reality Demsetz must remove himself in order to manufacture an example that is intuitively consonant with his support for what in any other context would be considered murder (hearts) or theft (trees) or slavery-kidnapping (draft).

[…]

In very sharp contrast indeed, resort need not be made of fanciful examples to defend the libertarian vision.3

Imaginary scenarios, then, are always worded so that the listener is encouraged to empathise emotionally with the economically deprived while completely ignoring the point of view of the property owner, or at least making the latter look frivolous and capricious. Such a rhetorical trick applies not only to specific scenarios but also to entire political treatises. How much, for example, do the imaginary, hypothetical situations of the original position and the veil of ignorance in John Rawls A Theory of Justice – which do not exist in the real world – demand the very answer that the author desires?

Second, the purpose of ethics is to resolve or otherwise avoid conflicts that arise from the result of physical scarcity. Rule-based approaches to liberty that provide physical demarcations to denote property rights permit this to a high degree of certainty in any given situation as the boundaries of permissible action are constructed objectively. Because all valuations through action result in physical changes to physical goods, objective evidence of these changes – i.e. homesteading, production, etc. – give an immediate cue to indicate to a latecomer that the property may not be touched4. Consequentialist approaches, however, cannot rely on objective, physical demarcations to denote property rights; rather, they rely upon the measurement of competing subjective values. This renders the resolution of conflicts and conflict avoidance much more difficult. The question the lost man faces is what am I permitted to do right now? If moral boundaries are based upon hypothetical and changing values and tastes then this question cannot be answered. He may assume that the cabin owner values the cabin and its stock of food less than he does, but he has neither evidence nor proof of this. Indeed the cabin owner isn’t even there to ask. And whether the cabin owner values it less may change from day to day. Yesterday, the cabin owner might not have valued these resources very highly at all; today, however, what if the cabin owner has himself suffered an accident and requires the shelter and food, which he believes to be in secure possession, and is now under threat from the wanton consumption by the lost man? What if the cabin owner’s life is threatened by the loss of food and shelter? Indeed, what if he had purchased the cabin as insurance against that very possibility? There is, therefore, no way of making a rational decision ex ante.

Third, if ethical determinations cannot be made ex ante then it follows that a decision must be made ex post. In other words, the lost man could take a chance by breaking into the shelter and then battle out the question of whether he was right to have done so later through litigation or a settlement process. It is for this reason that utilitarian forms of libertarianism tend to be minarchical rather than anarchical. Hence, this basic form of utilitarianism provokes the very monolithic state apparatus that libertarians should be opposing, and puts in its hands a tool – interpersonal utility comparisons – with which to make its decisions, a tool that is ridiculously uncertain and malleable5. To be sure, it might be possible for individuals to form an empathetic judgment based on interpersonal utility comparisons in an individual situation. But it does not follow from that possibility that a government or a court could make a rigorous determination when passing legislation or enunciating judgments that affect the lives of millions of people in multitudes of different situations6.

Fourth, at the heart of many consequentialist approaches is a fundamental misunderstanding as to what the concepts of “liberty” and “freedom” actually mean. If one views them as meaning freedom from want, from hunger, from the elements and so on then one is naturally led to a consequentialist approach. However, properly considered, liberty is a sociological concept that applies to the relationship between each individual human being. A person is free if he can live his life without the physical interference of his person and property by others. Whether he is hungry, cold, or naked, on the other hand, concerns his relationship not with other human beings but, rather, with nature. This can only resolved not by extending his “freedom” forcibly into the territory of others but by gaining power over nature – in short, by productivity. Any number of theoreticians can spill oceans of ink in trying to determine whether or how the wealth of the cabin owner should be distributed to the lost man in the woods. Yet wouldn’t it be so much better if society was so wealthy that the lost man possessed the wherewithal to prevent himself from being in such a wandering state in the first place? What if the man had an inexpensive GPS system; compacted supplies of food in pill/tablet form that could sustain him for weeks or months; emergency communication devices that would alert a private protection agency to his whereabouts? Yet it is precisely such productivity that is threatened by consequentialist determinations of property rights. Strong private property rights that remain certain following original appropriation or voluntary transfer promote economic growth by encouraging saving, long term planning and low time preference. Uncertain or vague private property rights do the exact opposite. If it is possible that your property will be snaffled in an instant by someone who allegedly “values” it more than you do then the attractiveness of using the good for saving and investment is lowered. You will be willing to take fewer risks and will work less hard with the good if you know that the fruit of your efforts might be confiscated in the blinking of an eye. At worst, such weak property rights encourage immediate consumption as soon as you get your hands on any good at all. That way, in most cases it will no longer exist for someone to take it away again at a later date.

Turning now to our next question, would such basic consequentialism serve in any way to persuade people of the virtues of a libertarian society? Again we have to answer firmly in the negative. We must remember that the primary preoccupation of libertarianism is with the evil and oppressive monolith known as the state. This is the entity that truly destroys freedom; it confiscates our income to fund its profligate spending; forces us to use its worthless paper money that it prints incessantly to fuel its endless foreign wars; destroys families and fuels poverty and dependency with the massive welfare state; regulates what we can do with our bodies, what we can say with our own mouths, where we can set up business, whom we may employ in that business and on what terms. Government is estimated to have killed approximately 262 million people outside of warfare during the twentieth century; private affronts to liberty – even such horrendous crimes such as murder and rape – pale in comparison to this. The US government’s so-called war on terror, at a cost of several trillion dollars, has killed an estimated 1.3m Iraqis, Afghanistanians and Pakistanis in its first ten years, even though more Americans are killed by falling televisions than by terrorist attacks. The greatest insult has to be that it is this miniscule private crime that supposedly constitutes the very justification for the state and its monopolisation of security and litigation. Although there is no shortage of nobility in striving to apply justice in every individual case, libertarians must fry the biggest fish and not spend their time debating whether a lost man breaking into a cabin is or is not an affront to liberty. When attempting to promote liberty, let us confront the very real ogre of the state rather than dwelling in imaginary scenarios that will make no practical difference to people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, as we mentioned above, if justice depends on interpersonal utility comparisons in individual cases, then it craves for the existence of a compulsory referee in the form of the state, the very thing that destroys liberty entirely. We must conclude then that this basic form of utilitarianism, which seeks to evaluate outputs from specific situations, must fail on all accounts as an argument in favour of liberty.

Let us now turn towards a second conception of utilitarianism, the more sophisticated approach adopted by such eminent theoreticians as Ludwig von Mises. The tenor of this approach is that voluntary exchange under the division of labour – i.e. the market – is essential for the survival and flourishing of every individual human being; every human is so interdependent upon every other that to plump for anything else would result in the rapid disintegration of the standard of living or, at worst, certain death. Hence this form of utilitarianism concentrates on the virtues of the market itself rather than looking to the justice of individual situations. Mises, and others who follow this approach, therefore avoid any complications arising by way of interpersonal utility comparisons.

It is important to realise that this argument is predicated upon a few other important Misesian insights. First is that when pondering the economic organisation of society only two extremes are possible – the free market or total socialism. As Mises so effectively argued, any “interventionist” point or “mixed economy” approach in between these two extremes will cause effects that must either lead to abandonment of the intervention on the one hand or to total control on the other. One must therefore choose between one or the other and cannot favour anything in between. By demonstrating the economic impossibility and the catastrophic consequences of full socialism Mises demonstrates the complete lack of basis for making a choice that favours full government control. The only rational option, therefore, is the unfettered free market. Second, and related to this theme, Mises was of the view that “society” is synonymous with social co-operation under the division of labour. As he says in Human Action:

A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society. Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings.7

Following this line of thinking, questions such as “how to organise society” strike one as absurd when society itself is already a form of organisation. We do not have the choice of “picking” from an array of options when it comes to forming a society. Either there is social co-operation under the division of labour and society exists; or there is an atomistic hand-to-mouth existence and society does not exist. Any person, therefore, who genuinely wishes to promote a theory of society cannot rationally opt for any kind of socialism and, a fortiori, any kind of interventionism8.

How useful is this approach for forming a moral backbone for libertarianism? At first, this approach seems remarkably more plausible than the basic form of consequentialism that we just discussed. By looking at the general consequences of the market we do not get caught up in traps such as interpersonal utility comparisons and we have a strong counter-argument against anyone who proposes a collectivist theory of social organisation. Moreover, the fact that the marketplace serves to improve the material wellbeing of every individual human being lends it a heavy degree of moral weight. If the free market was to spread misery and discontent through perpetuating a lower standard of living we would surely be willing to lend it less moral credence. Unfortunately, however, this utilitarian approach lacks the very thing to which the basic form of consequentialism was far too devoted – a rigorous passion for the justice rather than simply for the utility of private property rights.

First, although it provides a rhetorical defence against those who profess their collectivist aspirations to be for the benefit of society, it will never provide a defence against megalomaniacs who are content to milk everyone else for all they are worth. In other words, it will never provide an answer to those who believe society exists to serve them alone and that they are entitled to use other people in any way they see fit. The existence of such megalomania should not be dismissed lightly. Simply because we associate it more with caligulan monarchs and despots of times gone by does not mean to say that our democratic structures are impervious to it. Many libertarians are vocal opponents of what they see as “US exceptionalism” – the idea that the US government can pretty much do whatever it pleases in foreign affairs and standards that apply to a foreign government do not apply to the US. How can this be described as anything except megalomania?

Second, the logical effects of the socialisation of society – the total collapse of the division of labour and the complete decimation of the standard of living – can be gut wrenchingly long run effects. Society currently has plenty of capital that can be consumed and afford a comfortable, even luxurious living to any one individual. The Soviet Union took an agonising seventy years to die, a span of time that exceeds that of most individual’s adult lives. An advocate of socialism and socialisation is therefore not necessarily advocating his own certain death or relegation to poverty. He may be content to live like a king for the duration of his life and not care a whit if society became deeply impoverished long after he has dropped off of his mortal coil. Arguably this was the attitude inherent in Keynes’ oft-quoted quip “in the long run we are all dead”. As Murray Rothbard is supposed to have retorted, “Keynes died and we were left with the long run”. But such an attitude is provoked and enflamed by the fact that democratic government is a revolving door with officeholders required to endure repeated elections, endowing them a very short time in which to accomplish their goals. Every politician yearns for his day in the sun when he is lauded and praised as a great statesman, but he has to achieve this now, in the short run, before he loses an election. As long as he can reap the headlines and rewards during his tenure and, possibly, for the remainder of his life, who cares if his policies are ultimately destructive after he is long gone? It is for this reason that democratic governments are suffering from ever increasing and crippling debt as each generation of politicians seeks to shower its electorate with free goodies that only have to be paid for years after they have left office (or have died) and it is somebody else’s problem9. So too, could we suggest, that endless war has become the norm as each successive leader tries to demonstrate his Churchillian qualities and to elevate himself to the legendary, almost Godlike realms of the great warrior-statesman such as Lincoln and Roosevelt. Never mind that war ultimately is destructive; never mind that it destroys entire cities and societies; never mind that it kills, maims and otherwise ruins the lives of millions of innocent civilians. As long as the commander-in-chief can claim to have vanquished a cherry-picked foe in some distant country then his place as a saviour of civilisation is assured, at least in the meantime. So too do the manufacturers and profiteers of armaments display the same attitude. They know how evil and destructive war ultimately is; there is no shortage of literature espousing this fact. But they get to reap heavy profits now and to enhance their own lifestyles now. Why should they care about what happens in the long run?

Third, by resting its case on the general virtues of the market this kind of utilitarianism suggests that if some form of social organisation, other than the market, however unlikely, becomes feasible then private property rights could be legitimately overridden. In other words if some form of collectivism could sustain the division of labour and a standard of living equal to or exceeding that of the free market would the force behind government taxation, theft, murder then become legitimate? However, surely if such a world was to come about we would still argue that people have the right to self-ownership and the right to the ownership of goods in their possession as first user or through voluntary transfer? Of course, a person might choose to submit to the yoke of government planning if it affords him a higher standard of living than that of the free market, but this is a different kettle of fish as the submission is then purely voluntary. On its own, however, any ability of a system other than the free market to sustain a society is insufficient as a justification to override private property rights.

Fourth, this brand of utilitarianism may convey a sense of prospective justice – that which should happen concerning property rights in the future – but what does it have to say about retrospective justice? In short, how does utilitarianism know whether the existing structure of property rights is just? After all, the existing structure of ownership benefits a lot of thieves and plunderers that would need to be dealt with in the transition from a statist to a libertarian society. A libertarian steeped in natural law and Lockean homesteading theory would answer this question rather straightforwardly. Any current owner would have to demonstrate that his title derives either from original appropriation or through voluntary transfers in title. If it is not and someone who claims such a title comes forward then ownership must be yielded to the latter. A utilitarian, however, has a bit of a problem as his philosophy generally focuses on the benefit changes to the existing array of property titles to the current market participants. He could argue that, like the natural lawyer, all existing titles to property could be examined against competing claims and then either endorsed or rectified accordingly. However, because his theory is based on the efficacy of the market in developing the division of labour his case for requiring this is demonstrably weakened. Certainly theft and plunder disrupted the efficiency of the market in the past. However, wouldn’t a mass of re-appropriations to rectify ancient crimes undermine the efficacy of the market today, at least temporarily? Would it not be easier, from the point of view of efficiency, to just preserve all existing titles then let everyone go forward? Why compound a past disruption to the market with a new one? It is upon this basis that this brand of utilitarianism is criticised for preserving the status quo, for permitting, in the transmission to a libertarian world, the bureaucratic class to keep their hands on the loot, much like the oligarchy did in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To be sure, this argument against utilitarianism is not, in the view of the present author, as strong as some libertarians make it out to be. Nevertheless, utilitarianism does open itself up to the charge that there comes a point where stolen property should remain in the hands of the thieves (or their heirs) simply because the act of unwinding the theft would cause more disruption to the market than to not to do so, particularly if the property is heavily invested in an enterprise that provides substantial employment and is apparently productive. Moreover, while it is straightforward enough to justify voluntary trade in the marketplace as promoting the division of labour and the standard of living, we have to wonder whether the utilitarian can provide much of a justification for original appropriation – that is, for the first user of a good to retain it – with his utilitarian arguments alone. Original appropriation is of course the genesis of voluntary trade – we appropriate virgin goods with the intent to produce with them and trade them away for things we want in exchange, thus helping to overcome the fact that the world’s resources are not evenly distributed amongst different geographic regions. However, such a justification can only stand if one can also demonstrate that the originally appropriated property is previously ownerless and unvalued by other people, and is only recognised as scarce and valuable by the first user. The only possible such demonstration is that the first user was the one to “mix his labour with it”, whereas the actions of everyone else demonstrated no preference for that property. Hence all utilitarian arguments in favour of the free market, fundamentally, collapse into the Lockean homesteading theory anyway.

Having addressed the question of whether this form of utilitarianism can be a useful moral underpinning for libertarianism, let us turn now to whether it is useful as a persuasive tool for espousing the virtues of a free society. In this sphere, utilitarianism certainly fares much better. The heaviest gun in the arsenal of the utilitarian libertarian is the fact that living in an unfettered free society where government exists, at most, as a “night watchman”, limited to protecting private property rights of the individual, will produce manifold increases in the standard of living through a rise in real wage rates. It also has the virtue, in contrast to the basic form of consequentialism, of concentrating its focus on the very institution that is an anathema to freedom – the government – instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of individual cases. Squarely, it is government that needs to withdraw itself from the marketplace and it is government that needs to stop meddling in economic affairs in order to bring about these wonderful consequences. Furthermore, every government minister promotes his programmes on the basis that they will serve to help at least some sector of society, if not everybody. The utilitarian, however, armed with a thorough understanding of economics, can easily demonstrate why the results must always be the very opposite of those intended and why the government interference will always, necessarily, create more harm than good when examined under the terms of its own justification. While, therefore, a given politician or promoter may have ulterior motives in proposing any programme – such as to benefit lobbyists, donors or other special interests – his public justification for the programme can be shown as shambolic. There may, of course, be some difficulty in disabusing people of the notion that the free market is a “sink-or-swim” society and there is also added problem of those who steadfastly refuse to try their hand in the marketplace for what might seem like a distant reward and prefer instead to yield to the siren song of government redistribution. To this, only a passionate plea for the justice of the market place can provide an answer.

Conclusion

George Reisman explains how an understanding of the consequences of free market economics has “powerful implications for ethics”:

It demonstrates exhaustively that in a division-of-labor, capitalist society, one man’s gain is not another man’s loss, that, indeed, it is actually other men’s gain — especially in the case of the building of great fortunes. In sum, economics demonstrates that the rational self-interests of all men are harmonious. In so doing, economics raises a leading voice against the traditional ethics of altruism and self-sacrifice. It presents society — a division-of-labor, capitalist society — not as an entity over and above the individual, to which he must sacrifice his interests, but as an indispensable means within which the individual can fulfill the ultimate ends of his own personal life and happiness.

A knowledge of economics is indispensable for anyone who seeks to understand his own place in the modern world and that of others. It is a powerful antidote to unfounded feelings of being the victim or perpetrator of “exploitation” and to all feelings of “alienation” based on the belief that the economic world is immoral, purposeless, or chaotic. Such unfounded feelings rest on an ignorance of economics.10

While, therefore, we must conclude that no form of utilitarianism provides an adequate, watertight moral backbone for libertarianism, which can only be furnished by demonstrating the justice inherent in private property rights and free exchange, we must also agree that we can never ignore the manifold benefits to every individual and the harmonious society that they create. Indeed, few people, publically, ever attempt to propose an ethical theory that does not create a society of peace and harmony. Thus a through understanding of the effects of the free market can provide a framework with which to refute competing theories on their own terms. Furthermore, few deontological libertarians omit to pepper their theories with demonstrations of the beneficial consequences of the marketplace. While, therefore, this essay has been generally critical of utilitarianism it is likely that it will always have a central place in libertarian theory.

1Reprinted in “Economic Controversies”, pp. 289-333. Rothbard is, however, keen to note that his reconstruction does not provide any plea for an ethical system, merely “conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system”.

2Another example is the so-called runaway train that will hit five people if diverted onto one track or only one if diverted onto the second. Should the signalman switch the points to the second track to ensure that only the one person is killed?

3Walter Block, Ethics, Efficiency, Coasian Property Rights and Psychic Income: A Reply To Demsetz, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol.8, No. 2 (1995) 61-125, at 76-84 (emphasis added, some footnotes omitted.

4Libertarian jurisprudence does, of course, have to determine precisely which physical acts result in which property rights. However, any difficulty is likely to remain only in borderline cases or cases where evidence of prior ownership is fleeting or difficult to apprehend and, in general, all persons should be able to determine in the majority of situations whether property is subject to a prior right and a third party referee would not be required to determine this.

5As a result it is also the case that consequentialists vary in their particular views concerning the justice of taxation, eminent domain, intellectual property, etc. on to a greater degree than rule-based libertarians.

6Ironically, the same argument based on interpersonal utility comparisons – that the wealthy value what they have less than the poor and that the latter “need” this wealth more than the rich do – is used by proponents of government welfare and redistribution. It is difficult to understand how an argument that can be used against a world of liberty can be used in favour of it.

7Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, p.676.

8It is upon this foundation that Mises’ examination of concrete economic policies, where he moves from the wertfrei into the world of value judgments – the effectiveness of the policies themselves from the point of view of those who promote them – is  based.

9Because the incessant tendency is now reaching a chronic level the ability to postpone the day of reckoning has become ever more difficult and most of the more recent glory-seekers are now living to reap what they sow. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is a pertinent example.

10George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 17.