Altruism, Freedom and Economic Progress

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The virtue of altruism is held in immeasurably high esteem in our society today. Selfless benevolence at one’s own expense is regarded as the pinnacle of human endeavours, with societies and cultures often reserving their most coveted honours and elevations for people who have apparently undergone acts of selflessness and generosity. Contrary to mainstream thought (and contrary to the thought of some free market proponents), there is nothing in either libertarianism or free market economics that disputes this view. It is true that, strictly speaking libertarians qua libertarians neither promote nor condone any voluntary act; rather, they simply take the position that such acts should not be countered with violent repressions. Whether such acts are good in and of themselves is another matter. Further, free market economists will note that although voluntary exchanges create net wealth (including gift giving in which the donor never “loses” as such but, rather, gains a psychic profit that, to him, must be worth more than what he gave up), there is no part of their science in and of itself that compels them to promote or encourage giving any more than they are required to promote any other type of exchange (although economists may of course note also that increased wealth creation usually goes hand in hand with increased generosity). Nevertheless, as a private individual, it is possible for libertarians and free market economists to regard such specific, overt acts of kindness and generosity – especially those that cause the donor to incur at least the risk of a great material cost, such as wading into a strong river to save a drowning child – as worthy of praise and adulation and that the congratulation of such individuals is far from being out of place.

On the other hand, mainstream thought has extrapolated, erroneously, from these individual, voluntary acts the conclusion that economic progress, the vanquishing of poverty and the path towards a greater and better society are themselves dependent upon altruism and self-sacrifice to the extent that these virtues can cohere into a social system – a system, that is of course, managed by state fiat, such as the welfare state. This belief is dependent upon a further error which is that, in the free market order, the fundamental interests of each member of society are pitted against each other and that one person’s profit must automatically transform into another person’s loss. In other words, the profit and loss system results in benefits to the few (or, at most, some) at the expense of the many. From this incorrect assumption one naturally leads to the conclusions that the only way to benefit more or the many is if these profits (or the wealth that is possessed by the few) are turned over to the many. It is these conclusions with which libertarians and, in particular, free market economists disagree. If that was not bad enough, however, we shall also see that the implementation of systemic methods of wealth distribution is, in fact, completely antithetical to and destructive of altruism and generosity.

This error is similar in nature to another error encountered in mainstream economics – that of supposed shortages of “demand” on an economy-wide sale. In the particular situation of an individual firm or industry, a withdrawal of demand from the firm’s products will result in a slowdown of business for that firm. If the firm is to recover then it is obvious that a recovery of demand for its goods and services is necessary. However, from this entirely correct conclusion regarding a particular circumstance is extrapolated the utterly false conclusion that increases in demand must benefit the economy as a whole. Or, in other words, that where there is a general economic malaise the effective response is to encourage a general increase in demand for an alleged “glut” of supply. As we know from Say’s Law, however, demand and supply are opposite sides of the same coin – the demand for one product is formed by the supply of another. Therefore, one cannot increase general demand without also increasing general supply, i.e. the production of real products. Simply printing more money or lowering borrowing costs does nothing to increase demand; it simply raises the prices of what is already available and shifts the purchasing power over these existing resources from the last or later recipients of the new money to the first or earlier recipients. The real problem in an economic bust is a relative glut of some products, namely, capital goods that are further up the chain of production, and a relative shortage of other products, namely consumer goods and capital goods lower down the chain of production. So too is a similarly false conclusion drawn with regards to altruism and self-sacrifice – that what may be good in one, specific situation is good for society as a whole; and so good, moreover, that the state should systematically force us all towards altruism and self-sacrifice. Let us now explore the reasons why this is false.

First, with particular, individual acts of kindness or generosity it is possible for a bystander to appreciate and form judgments concerning the variables that are weighed in the consideration of whether someone has performed a virtuous deed; the initial helplessness or the “worthiness” of the recipient; the magnitude of relief that the voluntary act of kindness provides; and the magnitude of at least the material cost to the donor. One can therefore form a personal judgment, based on empathy, of the positions of the particular giving and receiving parties as to whether the act of altruism is a good thing. On an economy-wide scale in a society of tens (may be even hundreds) of millions of people, however, it is not possible to form such judgments with any degree of specificity, and much blunter tools such as “income” are needed in order to judge who should be donors and who should be recipients. But such blunt tools tell us nothing about why, for example, someone’s income is low, whose responsibility it is and who should bear the burden of doing something about it. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that someone who has a “high” income necessarily has cash to spare and does not have other commitments for those funds which the government wishes to redistribute – commitments which, even to others, may be valued as worthy, such as investing in his children’s education.

Second, in the long run massive transfers of wealth from the class of “haves” to the class of “have nots” does not benefit the latter in the long run. One of the most serious misconceptions concerning the ownership of wealth is that one must own it in order to benefit from it and thus only divesting wealth from those that have it and giving it to those that do not have it can ameliorate the plight of the poor and needy. What benefits the latter, however, is not the turning over of wealth to their hands so that it can be consumed and lost forever. Rather, what really hauls the poor up from the depths of despair is the investment of wealth in capital goods which are then able to produce more and more products and services at increasingly lower prices so that the poor can afford to buy them. We can illustrate this by adapting a well-known proverb: give a man a fish and he will feed himself for a day; invest that fish in a business that will produce fishing tackle that the man can afford and he will feed himself for a lifetime. The man in need never owned that original fish nor the capital goods that were produced from consuming it, yet it is clear that his life benefitted from its investment in a productive enterprise to a far greater extent than if he had ever gotten his hands on it directly.

Third, the very motivation towards altruism is most often dependent upon a close family or friendly relationship between donor and recipient where the welfare of the latter is of great importance to the former. Such a motivation is destroyed when your money disappears into a bureaucrat-run black hole. The result is that, as people lose their ability to spend their money in ways that they want, the motivation to producing wealth in the first place is destroyed. There is therefore less wealth to distribute anyway. Critics may, of course, argue that such a result is owing to the alleged “selfish” and self-centred nature of humans and that surely we – i.e. the state – has a duty to attempt to overcome this? There are at least two responses to this. First, it is part of the natural condition of humans that the primary ends and values that they hold are concerned with their immediate environment – that is, the welfare of themselves, their friends and their family; in other words, people whom they know, care about and have the ability to form empathetic judgments about. It is the stimuli from these sources that most potently determine our desires and choices. Everything else that goes on in the world is, for the most part, out of sight and out of mind, or at least very remote and can be brought to us only electronically through the media. But one does not even need to go that far, as most people are unlikely to even be able to appreciate the conditions, needs and desires of people in another neighbourhood in the same town – or even in the same street. People do, of course, devote themselves to causes that aim to help people far away about whom they may know very little; but these are specific causes towards which one may have a specific motivation. Wealth redistribution, however, aims at ameliorating hundreds, if not thousands of afflictions across many millions of faceless people. It is simply not possible for any human to form empathetic appreciations of all of those individual circumstances and, thus, neither will they be able to appreciate any kind of amelioration of these afflictions if they happen hundreds of miles away (this is before we get into any discussion of whether wealth distribution does, in fact, accomplish such ameliorations). Therefore, it is not possible for the typical human to motivate himself towards striding towards providing for a giant pot that aims to solve these problems, or at least not to the same degree he motivates himself towards providing for ends of his choosing. Moreover, we may ask whether a person with the ruddiest bleeding heart would, if it came to a choice, prefer to work towards contributing to the tax pot ahead of, say, caring for his sick and dying mother. Second, the very fact that wealth redistribution is forced (by the threat of imprisonment) rather than undertaken voluntarily does nothing to promote altruism in any way at all. Indeed, we might say that genuine altruism and selfless behaviour worthy of praise and recognition relies upon the fact that someone could have chosen, freely, to have done something “worthy” with his time and money. When I am forced to hand over my money, however, I have in no way “behaved” altruistically; in fact I haven’t really “behaved” at all – rather the money was simply taken from me. Further, rather encouraging any feelings of generosity the forced appropriation of my property it is likely to make me bitter and resentful and, moreover, to curb any desire to be generous with the remainder of the funds that I have left. To make matters worse, the welfare state does not leave the recipients of welfare spending as kindly and grateful beneficiaries who feel they were lucky to have avoided misfortune. Rather, the welfare state begets a sense of “entitlement” and dissolution of personal responsibility – that it is the state’s responsibility to provide for their needs and that they have a right to the state’s assistance. Ironically, therefore, the welfare state itself increases antagonism and selfishness rather than promoting their antitheses.

The attitude of selfless altruism can also be seen also in the elevation of those who devote themselves to so-called “public service” above those who compete in the allegedly greedy and grubby business of the private marketplace. Although positive views of politicians have soured considerably in the past generation, it is still widely believed that private industry is where people go to make lots of money to keep for themselves, while those who seek public office shun such squalid and base motivations and, with their visions of a “greater” society, can almost single-handedly make everyone better off without a thought of any benefit to themselves. Indeed, to the present author, it beggars belief that people are gullibly hypnotised by the illusion that all of their hopes and dreams are dependent upon a tiny minority, or even (when you witness the almost messianic reverence devoted to presidential candidates) a single person out of a society of millions gaining a job ahead of somebody else. It is in no doubt true, of course, that many people seek to enter politics with the desire, albeit the naïve one, to help people and to improve society. It may also be true that they could have amassed greater private fortunes by seeking employment in the private sector. Nevertheless, all political accomplishments (other than the few and far between measures that seek to roll back the interference of the state) necessarily produce a negative sum result – negative because what is given by government to one set of people must be taken by government from another, minus a cut to pay the salaries of the politicians and bureaucrats. This is before we consider the destruction of the incentives to create wealth that we outlined above. Even if, therefore, we stretched credulity and viewed politicians as truly angelic and selfless they would still not accomplish anything that would produce a net gain to society.

It is not the aim of our discussion here to suggest that a society distinguished by capitalism and free enterprise would suddenly create some kind of utopia where rank selfishness is without any negative consequences. Rather, it is simply to point out that, in the long run, the vanquishing of poverty is achieved by the investment of more capital goods in order to make more products affordable to people with the existing money that they earn themselves; not through giving them more money that is earned by and forcibly confiscated from somebody else. In such a society the high incidence of people needing the help of others would be prevented, not just cured. Nevertheless we might also note that it is a society that is highly prosperous and without a systematic welfare state that encourages rather than obliterates charitable endeavours. Overwhelmingly this is because people simply have more to give – it is no great mystery as to why most of the world’s great charitable foundations and societies originated in the nineteenth century, the era of the relatively most capitalistic progress and the least intervention by a formal welfare state. Ironically, it is the welfare state that has squeezed out private charity and genuine altruism from having any mainstream role in society. Additionally, however, in the absence of a compulsory so-called “social safety net” people rely on maintaining good relationships based on trust, reliability and selflessness with family and friends precisely so that they may be there for each other to cushion the consequences of the occasional unforeseen circumstance. Far from provoking any atomistic and individualistic existence freedom promotes and encourages a strong community and family spirit. If the virtue of altruism is to be nurtured then there cannot be a better place for it than there.

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Voluntary Slavery

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The topic of voluntary slavery – that is, the question of whether an individual who is presently a self-owner may voluntarily subject himself to slavery irrevocably – is understandably controversial yet, properly understood, not an overwhelmingly difficult one to comprehend. This essay will attempt to clarify some of the problems and issues surrounding voluntary slavery, together with a discussion of elements that have not been thus far examined in much detail. Although we will not reach anything other than a modest conclusion here, we will attempt to put ourselves in a better position of understanding the main problems.

The first question that must be resolved is precisely what is meant by slavery. Here we must recall the fundamentals of wider political theory and how libertarianism answers the questions that it raises. The ultimate reason why ethics exist is to resolve conflicts over physical matter. Different people desire to devote physical objects to different ends. Hence, property rights are vested in individuals over physical objects in order to determine precisely who, on the one hand, may use that object to fulfil his ends and who, on the other hand, must yield and seek other physical objects for the fulfilment of his ends. The issue of slavery therefore concerns the property rights over the body of an individual person and whether someone may, from a purely legal point of view, voluntarily transfer ownership of the physical matter that constitutes their bodies to another person. In other words, our question here is whether, in accordance with libertarian theory, one’s own body can permissibly constitute physical matter the ownership of which can be transferred to another individual. Or, to put it a further way, whether someone else’s body could, through voluntary arrangement, come to constitute your outright property and be treated however you like. Importantly, though, ownership rights are not the only type of rights that we might consider. A right may simply constitute the legal ability to perform a specific physical act in relation to a specific piece of property, not to dispose of that property in any way the rights holder may deem fit. Easements and leases, for example, confer upon their holder the right to enforce merely a single action, such as the right to walk across a field between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Any other physical actions towards the property in question are not permitted. Therefore these more diluted rights, short of full ownership, must also be considered in relation to the matter that constitutes a living human’s body. This is important because in certain situations people do contract to grant other people the right to come into physical contact with them in ways that are far less than full ownership and this is not believed to be controversial – most notably professional contact sportsmen who have contracted to play on a certain number of occasions. The question of whether preventing the transfer of the full ownership of one’s body i.e. voluntary slavery – would, in turn, prevent the granting of these “lesser” rights over the same is not something that has received sufficient analysis.

It is important also to distinguish the granting of rights from the granting of mere consent. People come into voluntary physical contact with each other’s bodies in a variety of scenarios – sexual intercourse probably being the most frequent. However, such contact is not permitted on the basis of a granting of a right to the other individual. Your partner, for instance, does not have the “right” to have sex with you. Rather the fact of consent in these situations demonstrates that there is an absence of conflict regarding the physical matter in question (i.e. your body); that both parties are in agreement as to how that matter should be directed at that particular point in time. Thus, if a person is accused of raping a woman, his defence will not attempt to argue that he had a “right” to have sex with the woman but, rather, that the fact of consent established a situation of no conflict. If that consent is withdrawn, however, a conflict exists and the physical contact becomes invasive and unlawful.

Before beginning our examination of voluntary slavery we must expunge from our thought all of the connotations and consequences associated with involuntary slavery with which we are acquainted from our historical experience of the practice. Forced subservience, second class citizenry, racism, slave labour camps and extermination in World War II, appalling living conditions and brutal, inhumane punishments are all issues that fall into this camp, some of which are believed to have consequences today. For example, the lower socio-economic position held by black Americans compared to whites is believed, rightly or wrongly, to be a legacy of black slavery. Libertarianism is emphatically and uncompromisingly opposed to any arrangement of involuntary slavery where an individual effectively imprisons another person aggressively and any dealing of other human beings as property in this regard is absolutely and unrelentingly opposed by libertarianism. A discussion of purely voluntary slavery – which would be a peaceful and mutually agreeable arrangement clearly devoid of all of the effects we just listed – cannot commence with the die loaded against its possibility as a result of us confusing it with the wholly different and abominable practice of involuntary slavery. Indeed, it may be ideal for this purpose to denote some term other than “slavery” for voluntary arrangements, reserving “slavery” purely for forced and aggressive relations. However, as a neologism is not yet forthcoming we will continue to talk of “voluntary slavery”. Moreover, and for the avoidance of all possible doubt, nothing concerning whether or not a person may voluntarily subject himself to slavery has any bearing on his prior right to self-ownership, which is firmly and uncompromisingly established in libertarian theory.

Furthermore, we must also suspend from our thought anything to do with the cultural acceptability and the tastefulness of (or the motivations that people may have towards entering) an arrangement of voluntary slavery. In spite of the protestations of the handful of dyed-in-the-wool Marxists that the majority of labourers languish in a state of so-called “wage slavery”, it is clear that no one today properly views other human beings as in any way, shape, or form as “belonging” to anyone else as either a matter of culture or as a matter of strict legality. We do not regard employees as belonging to their employers, nor do we think of a wife as being owned by her husband; rather, in spite of conversational colloquialisms such as “my employees” or “my wife”, these are viewed as mutually agreeable partnerships between humans with equal individuality and dignity. The only exception is children who, on account of their immaturity, are said to “belong” to their parents but this relationship is viewed as one of care and nurturing founded upon love and trust and is a far cry from any sense of ownership in the manner one would own an inanimate object. Any relationship between owner and owned founded on voluntary principles would therefore appear to be initiated by some kind of unusual, fringe motivation, perhaps sexual or sadomasochistic, or simply unconscionably “exploitative” such as in the case where a person demands the slavery of another in return for something the latter desperately needs. These issues are not relevant to our main concern here which is the strict legality of an arrangement of voluntary slavery – that is, regardless of the motivations towards such an arrangement, if a person agrees voluntarily can he become a slave? Libertarians uphold the legality of hundreds of other voluntary practices, taking effect through either mutual consent or contract, which may not happen to have the blessing of mainstream, cultural approval. Drug taking, adultery, prostitution, parsimony, selfishness, or even gambling are all, at least in certain settings, socially unacceptable. Libertarians would uphold the legality of an individual choosing to do these things but he may also, privately, believe that such choices would be unwise or even bad choices and would equally uphold the legal right of other people to disassociate from these practices. Similarly, therefore, with regards to voluntary slavery, the question of whether two people should be legally permitted to enter such a relationship is separate from the question of whether it would be a good idea, founded upon good motivations, for them to do so and we must hold firm this distinction in our mind.

At this juncture of our analysis, we will proceed to dispose of two arguments that are frequently asserted in the debate concerning voluntary slavery – one in favour of arrangements of voluntary slavery and one opposed to them. Indeed, these two arguments practically dominate the issue yet they are, in the view of the present author, not really the issues that cause the topic to be problematic. The argument in favour is the straightforward one that if you own your body then you should be able to do what you like with it. Therefore, if you cannot sell that ownership to another person in order to become a voluntary slave then you do not really own your body at all. Thus, so this argument goes, outlawing voluntary slavery is an attack on the concept of ownership. Stated in this naïve, literal sense, the argument misunderstands this crucial concept. Ownership of an object simply means that you have the right to exclude other people from their physical presence over that object in order for you to be able to fulfil certain ends you may desire from that object to the detriment of ends that other people may desire from it. If I own a cup it means that other people may not invade the physical integrity of that cup without my permission whereas I, on the other hand, may do so without anyone’s permission. Thus, ownership is a sociological concept and concerns the sphere of permissible activity towards physical objects vis-à-vis other people. Once exclusion of all other persons has been achieved it does not mean that I can “do whatever I want” with the cup. I cannot turn it into a car or make it vanish to the other side of the world (although, of course, no one has the right to physically restrain me from attempting to accomplish these things with my own property and we can surmise that, one day, the technology may exist to do so). Nor, to a greater degree of impossibility, can I make it a cup and a plate at the same time, or paint it red all over and blue all over simultaneously. The argument that dismissing the possibility of voluntary slavery dilutes the concept of ownership is clearly rendered false by these examples. The fact that I cannot do any of these things with the cup does not in any way afflict my right to exclude all other people from the physical integrity of that cup. If subjecting oneself to voluntary slavery also founders upon a similar impossibility in nature (which, as we shall see, is the chief argument of those who oppose voluntary slavery) then this impossibility in no way diminishes the concept of ownership. On the other hand, if there is no impossibility in transferring ownership over your body to another person, this fact is not predicated upon the concept of ownership necessitating one’s ability to do whatever one likes with one’s property. Rather, it simply means that the there is no barrier to making the right to physically exclude all others from the physical borders of your body transferrable to another individual. The correct way of approaching the issue is to ask whether any attempt to forcibly prevent any arrangement of voluntary slavery would itself be an unjustified interference with your right to exclude all others from your physical property. Only in this sense can the argument that one should be able to do whatever one wants with that which one owns carry any merit.

The next argument that we will consider, which opposes voluntary slavery, is the doctrine of inalienability. In order for a physical object to be the subject matter of a contract, so this argument goes, it must be alienable, i.e. separate and divisible from that person, and not constitute an integral part of that person himself. The primary fixation in the mind of these authors is the nexus between the body and the mind, or, more accurately, one’s will – that to bind the body by transferring ownership over it is to also bind one’s will, something which supposedly cannot be done. It might be useful, in understanding this argument, to quote its main proponent, Murray N Rothbard:

The only valid transfer of title of ownership in the free society is the case where the property is, in fact and in the nature of man, alienable by man. All physical property owned by a person is alienable, i.e., in natural fact it can be given or transferred to the ownership and control of another party. I can give away or sell to another person my shoes, my house, my car, my money, etc. But there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, “stuck” with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will. That is the ground for the famous position of the Declaration of Independence that man’s natural rights are inalienable; that is, they cannot be surrendered, even if the person wishes to do so. Or, as Williamson Evers points out,

“the philosophical defenses of human rights are founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid.”

Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts. Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention – and one that is fortunately upheld under present law – is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (ie., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory.1

Walter Block has provided an extensive rebuttal against the doctrine of inalienability as understood by Rothbard and several other scholars which we need not repeat verbatim here2. Rather we will shall choose a few salient points and add some observations of our own.

In the first place, we must dispose of the argument that property rights have anything to do, as both Rothbard and Evers argue, with the self-ownership of the will. The question of ownership arises as a result of conflicts over physical matter, not intangible concepts such as the will. Indeed, when we begin to talk of the idea that to transfer ownership of a person’s body is synonymous with repudiating any ability to change one’s mind and thus unconscionably binding one’s “will” we see that we run into all sorts of problems, namely that it proves far too much. For all contracts, which transfer title of property from one person to another, do, in fact, bind a person’s will and restrict the choices he can make in the future. If I transfer a car to another person my will is then irrevocably bound from enjoying the services of that car ever again. I have voluntarily excluded from myself the choice to use that car to serve my ends as opposed to someone else’s. I cannot later change my mind and take the car back again. To apply Rothbard’s argument consistently would require one to invalidate all transfers of title to property. Indeed, the fact of scarcity itself results in a world where one’s will is repeatedly and irrevocably bound by choices that have to be made every minute of every day. We make these choices because we believe that the resulting situation is an improvement for us compared to that which we have discarded. Once I have eaten the proverbial cake my will is bound by that fact and my subsequent desire to have the cake instead is fruitless. This is no less true when those choices involve interpersonal exchange rather than autistic exchange. If I make a decision to trade away some of my possessions my will is eternally bound by a restriction from ever using those possessions again. But the reason why I choose to do so is because I gain something from the exchange that is more valuable – that my will has been restricted in one way yet released in another, more satisfying way.

The transfer of ownership of one’s body may, of course, engender a restriction over one’s will greater than that of transferring ownership of an external object such as a cup. Indeed, the core of Rothbard’s problem seems to be that transferring one’s body absolutely, irrevocably and in all cases subordinates one’s will to someone else’s. However, such a restriction must, in the mind of the individual, be worth the resulting gain. Rothbard the economist was emphatic that valuations are subjective so it is not for him to determine whether a person should value ownership of his body higher than some other end. Moreover, it is not always clear that contracts which transfer rights over one’s body would necessarily bind one’s will in a manner that is more restrictive than contracts that transfer external objects. As we noted earlier, not all rights are outright ownership rights. We can imagine types of transfers of rights over one’s body short of full ownership similar to easements and leases – such as the right to keep a person in a specific location. The only right conferred on the other party is to prevent this person from leaving this location, whereas the latter person still retains the ability to do whatever his “will” desires within that location. A could agree with B to remain on a twenty acre estate with a ten bedroom mansion, a personal chef, a swimming pool, a tennis courts, fields, woods and so on. This contract would be invalid in Rothbard’s view and the individual should be able to change his mind and leave. Yet a contract to transfer one’s entire annual salary to another person for the rest of one’s life would, according to Rothbard, be valid and enforceable. Yet it is clear that the latter binds one’s will in far more ways than the former. Moreover, what are we to make of transfers of full ownership of parts of the body as opposed to the whole? Surely I could sell my leg or my arm or, more realistically, a kidney for organ transplant without binding my “will”? Precisely how much of my body do I have to transfer ownership of to another person before my “will” becomes bound? Once detached, of course, it is possible to consider a particular body part “alienated” and thus saleable; but it is difficult to understand how, under the inalienability doctrine, precisely how one could conclude contracts regarding a particular body part prior to such detachment. So if Rothbard’s argument can be extended to the conclusion that a person cannot transfer any part of his body whatsoever to another person it would mean that surgeons, in spite of the full contractual consent of the patient, would be prevented, by law, from removing a malignant tumour in order to save that patient’s life.

In a rare moment of confusion for this author, Rothbard mixes the factual with the normative in order to lend his argument plausibility (Randy Barnett makes a similar argument3). In the quotation above Rothbard says “Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, ‘stuck’ with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will.” In other words because, in nature, the de facto control of a person’s body rests with his mind then so too should the normative power of disposal over that body, i.e. ownership. Now it is absolutely true that in nature a man’s mind and will is always wedded to his own body and this connection would survive any attempted sale of one’s own body to another individual. No legal document can ever confer on me the power, with my will alone, to make another person blink, cough, or move his arm. That individual would still retain the same de facto control over his mind and body just as he was before he sold himself into slavery, and he would still retain his thoughts, feelings, and desires. But these facts have no bearing on the question of ownership, which is who may legitimately determine the ultimate disposal of the matter that constitutes a person’s body. The issue we are interested in is, regardless of whatever the slave’s will desires and the de facto control over his body, can somebody else, through a voluntary arrangement, legitimately intervene with the physical integrity of that body? This de facto control of the voluntary slave to control his own body may have a bearing on how much use and enjoyment an owner could get out of his voluntary slave and, indeed, whether the prospect of ownership is attractive in the first place. A voluntary slave may choose to misbehave, disobey his owner or just be generally lazy and workshy. Other voluntary slaves, though, may be perfectly obedient and accomplish everything their new owner wants. However, this is true of animals too which also retain a de facto control over their muscle movements. Some animals are obedient and need little encouragement to make them do what an owner wants them to do; others are stubborn and need cajoling or physically disciplining. Yet this fact has no bearing on the fact that humans own animals.

In any case, however, it is not immediately clear how any person is “stuck” with his de facto control over his own body. He could, as Block points out, commit suicide and thus permanently and irrevocably sever his will from the physical matter that constitutes his body. Clearly a person does have an option in nature to discontinue his control over his body.

Having disposed of these two powerful arguments – one for and one against voluntary slavery – which have, as was suggested earlier, dominated the topic of voluntary slavery, let us proceed now to discuss what may be a more problematic issue when it comes to voluntary slavery. This issue it that of enforcement of voluntary slavery arrangements – that is, if a voluntary slave runs away, what could or should be done about it? Before we address this, however, let us first discuss, as a brief tangent, how proliferate voluntary slave contracts are likely to be in a libertarian society – are arrangements of voluntary slavery likely to be fringe and marginal or would their legal permission open a Pandora’s Box that would suddenly lead to all manner of “exploitation” of the weak by the strong? The most likely scenario where this would be possible is, clearly, with labour contracts, i.e. contracts of employment. If we allowed voluntary slavery, so a retort would go, wouldn’t that lead to employers demanding arrangements of slavery from their employees? “Hungry? Be my slave!” “Need a home? Be my slave!” “Need money for your children? Be my slave!” And so on. However, such an argument could only be premised upon the Marxist view that the fate of the worker is to sink ever lower and lower and is utterly dependent upon what the capitalists offer him – a view that we know to be false from nearly 200 years of economic progress that the standard of living of even the lowest earning worker has risen significantly. Employers are compelled, through competitive bidding, to offer a real wage rate that is markedly higher than one that provides subsistence. We can surmise that people do not enter contracts of voluntary slavery (or the closely related arrangement of indentured servitude) today not because of legality but because, for the employee, even the lowest free wage is able to offer a position that is far more attractive than an arrangement of voluntary slavery. Indeed, one of the overwhelming reasons why compulsory slavery was gradually abolished was because for the employer or would-be slave owner it was less expensive and more productive to hire free labour than to trade in slaves – and that it is better to risk having an employee quit and to hire another rather than try to “own” the original employee. It is therefore likely that slavery, voluntary or otherwise, would only return in any significant measure if society itself was to revert to primitive economic conditions of low capital accumulation and low productivity per person.

Before leaving this topic we might as well consider the relationship between the trading of one’s body, i.e. voluntary slavery, and contracts of employment. Rothbard offers the following explanation:

A person’s labor service is alienable, but his will is not. It is most fortunate, moreover, for mankind that this is so; for this alienability means (1) that a teacher or physician or whatever can sell his labor services for money; and (2) that workers can sell their labor services in transforming goods to capitalists for money. If this could not be done, the structure of capital required for civilization could not be developed, and no one’s vital labor services could be purchased by his fellow men. The distinction between a man’s alienable labor service and his inalienable will may be further explained: a man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced – for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement.4

This explanation is erroneous. The reason why contracts of employment are valid is nothing to do with the “alienability” of the labour service. A service is an intangible thing and cannot be disconnected or alienated from anything as it is not already in the form of any kind of connection or embodiment. Rather, the validity of the contract of employment rests on the fact that the individual employed has agreed to a conditional receipt of money, the condition being that he carry out certain tasks as stipulated by his employer. If those tasks are not completed then title to the money does not pass from the employer to the employee. If they are completed, on the other hand, then title to the money does pass and the employee can enforce this title as a result of having fulfilled the condition. This explanation is in accordance with (and, indeed, is identical to) the title-transfer theory of contract that Rothbard espouses also in The Ethics of Liberty. Contracts of voluntary slavery, however concern the transfer of the title to the person’s physical body. This too may also be made for money. A may agree with B to transfer a sum of money to B’s family if B transfers title of his (B’s) body to A. Moreover, such a transfer may result in the value of B’s ability as a labourer being capitalised, so that B could, if he wished, sell A for that capital value to another person. But a contract of employment and a contract of voluntary slavery, while they have obvious similarities, concern the transfer of different physical entities and are not distinguished by any “alienable” labour service on the one hand nor an “inalienable” will on the other.

Let us therefore proceed now to discuss the issue of the enforcement of voluntary slave contracts or agreements and why it is this topic which is actually the difficult one when comprehending voluntary slavery arrangements. Dealing first of all with the enactment of transfers of ownership over the physical matter that constitutes one’s body, it is not necessary for the voluntary slave to be in receipt of a sum of money from the potential owner – i.e. he does not literally need to sell himself. He could quite easily make a gift of himself to someone else and this is, as we have examined elsewhere, perfectly in accordance with libertarian contract law. However, we can surmise that in many, if not most, cases a sum of money will be transferred in order for the owner to purchase the voluntary slave from himself. One objection concerning this is scenario is the fact that if the sum of money is transferred to the voluntary slave and the contract is therefore concluded, because that sum of money belongs to the voluntary slave and the voluntary slave belongs to the owner then surely the money too belongs to the owner again. Can’t the latter simply take back what he gave? This is certainly possible but it would, as Block points out, simply point to the stupidity of the voluntary slave and not necessarily to any impossibility of concluding the contract in the first place. However, the more likely scenario is that the contract will require the funds to be paid to a third party – most likely the family of the voluntary slave. In this instance the funds would be irretrievable by the owner once the contract is concluded. But even if it the funds were paid to the voluntary slave himself the contract could easily stipulate that the voluntary slave retains title over the funds and that the owner must grant him time to enjoy spending them. Contracts for voluntary slavery-type arrangements need not be an all or nothing thing and the voluntary slave is quite entitled to reserve specific rights to himself that would preclude the transfer of full, outright ownership over his body to another person. Whatever the specific content of a voluntary slavery contract, however, we can surmise with little doubt that courts will require a standard of proof of transfer greater than that required for transfers of ownership of dead objects – such as written documents and witnesses etc. – rather than simple oral declarations and exchanges. Courts are likely to want to be as sure as possible of the intentions of the parties before enforcing such an arrangement.

Second, assuming that a voluntary slavery contract is valid, the problem surrounding any “enforcement” of this contract rests on the fact that the whole concept of contractual rights requires there to be two continually recognised legal parties to the contract. However, when the voluntary slave transfers outright and irrevocable title over his body (and with it all rights and possessions that he owns) to another person, he ceases to be a legal person in any sense of the concept at all. The voluntary slave is now akin to being simply a piece of property akin to an object like a plank of wood. Rights, however, are not enforced against pieces of property but against other legal persons. What the owner of the voluntary slave now possesses is the right to exclude all other legal persons from the body of the slave that now constitutes his property and to seek legal sanction where third parties interfere with this property. In other words, his right is enforceable against other people and not against the voluntary slave who is now not a legal person. Thus, the right of ownership which the owner receives is not, in fact, any kind of right enforceable against the voluntary slave at all.

If, therefore, the voluntary slave runs away from the owner what would be the response of the law? The answer is simply nothing at all. The owner has no legal right of enforcement against the slave at all for the slave is not a legal person and legal enforcement exists only between legal persons. As the voluntary slave is not a legal person and is simply a piece of property he can commit no crime nor any breach of contract by running away. His running away is, rather, simply an extra-legal event akin to losing one’s car keys or having a pet run away. Such a situation may be very unfortunate for you but you would not, in these circumstances, go to court to enforce judgment against the runaway keys or the absconding pet in order for them to be returned to you. Rather you simply have to try and find them yourself. The situation is no business of any court unless and until there is any interference in your property by a third party who is a legal person and it is against this person against whom your title to the property concerned is enforceable.

Does this fact present any obstacle for voluntary slave contracts? Unless one accepts the doctrine of inalienability then clearly it does not. The situation is no different from that where a person is deceased. If you are, say, a family member who comes to own the body of a deceased relative your right over that body is not enforceable against the deceased individual; the right you possess is to exclude anyone else from that body. The only difference is that, with voluntary slavery, a person has extinguished his legal personage while remaining alive after.

It is submitted, however, that the far more likely scenario with voluntary slavery contracts is that the voluntary slave will continue to be recognised as a legal person with a specific legal identity and, most likely, will reserve specific rights should the contract be broken. This is because, in the event of an absconding by the voluntary slave the owner would retain the advantage of being able to resort to legal sanction and, moreover, in the event that transfer of ownership of his body is conditional the voluntary slave can break the contract when the owner fails to fulfil that condition. Let us therefore proceed to examine the enforcement of voluntary slavery contracts as any other contract would be enforced between continuingly recognised legal persons.

Practically all discussions of voluntary slavery make at least the tacit assumption that should a voluntary slave decide to escape from his now owner then the appropriate remedy should be that the voluntary slave is forcibly returned to the owner – so in the lexicon of contract law, the appropriate remedy is specific performance. This is undoubtedly a hangover from considerations of what used to occur with involuntary slavery. The slaves did not wish to be there in the first place; if they ran away their forced return did not alter the situation – they were still unwilling workers and we can surmise that whatever the owner was getting out of them after their return would have been the equivalent of what he was getting out of them before they escaped. However, our topic here is voluntary slave contracts and we can surmise that the voluntary nature of the contract itself does have a bearing upon the benefits of the contract to the voluntary slave owner. We see that in contract law generally, which concerns only voluntary relations, specific performance is often considered to be the least viable remedy, particularly in contracts that involve a personal working relationship such as those between employer and employee or a contract to provide services. This is precisely because the benefits to be gained from services performed under a contract depend, in a large measure, upon the relationship between the contracting parties and their continued willingness to serve each other. To compel specific performance in instances where this relationship has soured or where this willingness has otherwise been lost usually makes a bad situation worse. But even where this is not the case and the contract concerns delivery of physical property rather than a service specific performance is not always available. If the defendant is unable to deliver a specific piece of property it may be because it has been lost or destroyed. But it also may simply be that an alternative form of recovery is easier (i.e. cheaper) than trying to extract the particular piece of property that was the subject matter of the contract. At all times the plaintiff will normally seek, and the court will be prepared to enforce, the option that most ably restores to the plaintiff that which he owns for the lowest possible cost. Very often this will amount to the payment to the plaintiff of a sum of money equivalent in value to the property that cannot be rendered (and in the case of services to permit the plaintiff to seek those services elsewhere from a more willing party). In other words, just because you have contracted to receive something does not mean that the court will grant you receipt of that specific good or service and, moreover, nor are you actually likely to be interested in receiving it if the attempt to do is onerous. We can surmise in the vast majority of cases that the benefit to be gained by a voluntary slave owner from specific performance of a voluntary slave contract where the slave is no longer willing is likely to be greatly diminished compared to the situation where the slave remains willing.

So what is likely to happen, then, in cases where a voluntary slave runs away from his owner and wishes to break the contract? Let us recall that what the slave has done is to abscond with the owner’s property, which in this case is the physical matter that constitutes his own body. He has, in effect, stolen from the owner although we may like to note that outright theft may not appear in all circumstances and, like contracting parties, negotiations to dissolve the contract peacefully may be more frequent. The precise remedy available to the plaintiff may depend upon the precise nature of the contract. The contract itself may, of course, specify remedial title transfers in the event of a breach. Assuming it does not, however, if the contract concerned required the owner to transfer a sum of money in exchange for receiving title to the voluntary slave’s body, the most likely remedy is to compel the runaway slave to pay that sum back to the owner, restoring the latter to his original, pre-contractual position. Where, however, there was no initial payment of money then payment of some other equivalent to the capitalised value of the service that the voluntary slave would have rendered to the owner may be ordered by the court. This may, of course, result in de facto continuing slavery if the voluntary slave is required to turn over the best part of his annual salary while working as a free individual in another occupation. But we must recall here the equivalent situation where gifts of ordinary property are made by one person to another. If A makes a gift to B, A cannot then change his mind and demand the gift back. If he takes it he is required to either return it or pay B a sum of money equivalent to its value. The decision to make the gift, contra Rothbard, binds for all of time A’s will vis-à-vis the title of that property. A does not have a right to change his mind and repudiate his decision without facing consequences. Likewise, therefore, where the property concerned is A’s own body so too will there be consequences if, having gifted that property to B, A attempts to take it back for himself. This may indicate that making a gift of one’s own body is, perhaps, gravely foolish or, at best, necessitates a thorough degree of consideration. But in terms of strict legality there is no reason to suspend the consequences that flow from A repudiating his own, freely made decision – a repudiation that would involve simply shifting a loss from himself to B.

A further element of enforcement of voluntary slave contracts is, of course, whether the voluntary slave could enforce the contract in the event that it is the owner who is the breaching party. Let us say, for example, that A agrees with B that B will pay A’s family a sum of money each month in return for A transferring ownership over his body to B. If B ceases to make these payments then A can either enforce the contract or seek to have it rescinded.

Conclusion

What we can see from all of this, therefore, is that while in terms of strict legality there appears to be no bar in libertarianism towards entering arrangements of voluntary slavery, any institution of voluntary slavery is likely to be markedly different from the institution of involuntary slavery and is fraught with many more issues and complications. Hopefully this essay has outlined and explored some of the main topics for further consideration in voluntary slavery, while revealing something of its nature and the sorts of arrangements that may be entered into (if at all) in a free society.

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1Murray N Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 134-6 (footnotes omitted).

2Walter Block, Toward a Libertarian Theory of Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Kinsella, Gordon and Epstein, JLS Volume 17, no.2, 29-85.

3Randy E Barnett, Contract Remedies and Inalienable Rights, Social Philosophy & Policy 4, no. 1, pp. 188-90.

4Rothbard, pp. 40-41.

“Ending Useless Lives” – A Critique of Matthew Parris

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The UK Government’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons in September of this year, was, rightly, a controversial one. The question of assisted suicide, in order to prevent the onset of pain or the so-called “loss of dignity” from a degenerative disease or old age, is disputed amongst libertarians too, with some asserting that if you own your body and your life you should be able to do whatever you want with it, whereas others claim that anything that seeks the destruction or termination of one’s life is antithetical to freedom.

We are not, of course, hoping to resolve this kind of debate here. Rather, the focus of this essay is an interesting article that appeared recently in The Spectator authored by Matthew Parris entitled “Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended” and subtitled “If the law does not lead, it will follow — at root the reason is Darwinian”. Parris states forthrightly what he believes will be a result of any assisted dying law, a result that most people do not wish to countenance – that, one day, we will encourage and/or require people to end their lives. Unwittingly, however, Parris unveils not the dangers of any assisting dying bill at all. Rather, it is the dangers of the culture of statism in which such a law would be enacted, a culture of government permissibility, prohibition and encouragement which has seeped into our psyche that rejects any difference between law and positive morality.

The argument (deployed by opponents of assisted dying) is that licensing assisted dying is to smile upon the practice. The legal change would act as a cultural signal that society now approves. This would in time lead to pressure on those who might not otherwise have contemplated ending their lives, to hasten their own demise — so as ‘not to be a burden’ on others. One day (say the faith squad) it could even become the norm.

I am sure they’re right. We who may argue for ‘permissive’ legislation must have the intellectual honesty to admit that the ending of a legal prohibition does act as a social signal. In vain do we protest that ‘nobody is forcing’ upon anybody else (say) same-sex marriage, or the cashing in of pension pots, or a quickie divorce, or the possession of marijuana. Indeed not. Nobody is forcing these delights upon others, but humans are social animals and one of the ways a society signals its attitudes is by criminalising behaviour it thinks very harmful, and decriminalising behaviour towards which its attitude has softened. [Emphasis added]

It is clear from this that Parris views government laws and the will of “society” as harmonious – that government restricts what “society” does not want and permits what “society” does want. There is, therefore, in Parris’s view a union between government and people, that we are all one. It is clear also that Parris views “government” and “society” as primacies – any rights and freedoms we enjoy exist because society and government have been kind enough to pass “permissive” legislation so that we can enjoy them. “Society”, however, is not some mysterious entity with its own cognitive ability and even if it was there is no reason for the government to be in step with anything “society” decides. The prevailing attitudes, opinions and points of view on certain moral subjects originate in the minds of individuals in disagreement with the points of view of other individuals. After all, if everyone was in agreement the alleged immoral act would never occur and hence laws against it would be pointless. Never does Parris consider that the law is simply being used by one set of persons to curtail the freedom of others. Never does it occur to him that the law’s proper scope is to simply prevent invasive violence between individuals and not to confer any moral propriety on anything. Rights and freedoms originate with individual people and do not require the government to permit them. They require a total absence of government, not any piece of government paper with a Royal assent or presidential signature in order to bring them about.

The stoning to death of women taken in adultery under sharia law is undoubtedly the signal of a cultural attitude towards adultery. Were you to advocate the abolition of this punishment, Islamic moral conservatives would be right to warn that the move would both indicate and encourage a softening of public moral disapproval of female adultery. Likewise, the progressive removal of legal restraints on homosexuality has been both consequence and cause of an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards gays. It is futile to deny this

Assisted dying is not a novel desire, not a strange new way of thinking. As a moral impulse, the idea that one might hasten one’s end because one gained no pleasure from living and one had become a burden on friends, family and the state has been with us since the dawn of man. You will find it in literature right down the ages. In your own lifetime you will have heard it expressed by others of your acquaintance. The impulse, though, has usually been discouraged — resisted as an unworthy attitude to life — and this cultural disapproval is reflected in law.

To alter the law in a permissive way would therefore be pushing (as it were) at an open door: legitimising a moral argument that has always been present (or latent) among humans. I would have every expectation that, given the extra push, the habit would grow.

All of this would be true only if one accepts the view that law either is or should be, by its presence or absence, a promoter of positive morality. As libertarians we reject this view. Perhaps stoning adulterous women and criminalising homosexual behaviour was rejected not to signal any cultural approval but merely because what people do to each other in their own bedrooms is no business of the state nor of anyone else? Legalising them simply means that legitimised violence cannot be used to prevent them by people who have no business interfering in the lives of others. There is no reason to suppose that legalisation, as well as having been a consequence of relaxed social attitudes towards certain acts, should be regarded as a continuing cause of this tolerance. Everyone is still free to disapprove of such acts and to disassociate themselves from them if they so wish. Nor is there any reason why legalisation should transform simple permissiveness into encouragement or promotion. Adultery may be legal today but it is not culturally acceptable to cheat on one’s partner, and such acts are met with indignation, disapproval and rebuke. Where there has, on the other hand, been a continuing social relaxation to acts such as homosexual behaviour it is because a greater exposure to these acts that legalisation permits has caused people to realise that such acts are probably not as horrific as they might have once thought from when all they knew about them was disseminated from the propaganda of the government and moral zealots. If, on the other hand, murder was to be legalised it is likely that such exposure would cause people to still regard this as horrific and abominable. Legalisation is not, therefore, necessarily a direct cause of any social attitude towards anything.

And so it must — indeed, in the end, will: and if it does not lead, the law will follow. At root the reason is Darwinian. Tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper. As medical science advances, the cost of prolonging human life way past human usefulness will impose an ever heavier burden on the community for an ever longer proportion of its members’ lives. Already we are keeping people alive in a near-vegetative state. The human and financial resources necessary will mean that an ever greater weight will fall upon the shoulders of the diminishing proportion of the population still productive. Like socialist economics, this will place a handicap on our tribe. Already the cost of medical provision in Britain eats into our economic competitiveness against less socially generous nations.

This does not mean an end to social generosity. It does not mean an end to economically unproductive state spending. These are social goods that we value for non-economic reasons, and should. But the value we place on them is not potentially infinite. They have their price. Life itself has its price. As costs rise, there will be a point at which our culture (and any culture) will begin to call for a restraining hand. I believe that when it comes to the cost of keeping very enfeebled people alive when life has become wretched for them, we’re close to that point.

Parris seems to have forgotten that “tribes” are only handicapped because they existed in a pre-capitalist era where they had to compete with either each other or with other tribes for a finite number of resources. Capitalist economies, however, allow every person to take their place in the division of labour and all are better off from the resulting manifold increase in productivity. More alarmingly, however, Parris seems to think that all values and ends are collectively held and desired. What is “useful” as well as the “costs” and “prices” of attaining these ends are all decided by the “culture” or by “society”. It is absolutely true that all ends have their price but the only reason these ends are priced by “society” is because the government has taken upon itself to socialise welfare and medical care. People only become a burden to everyone else because they are forced to pay for the sustenance of other people’s lives through the conduit of the state which cannot and will not ever do so in the most cost effective and sustainable way. Indeed, it is government that creates the problem of hordes of sick and dying individuals by encouraging demand through the provision healthcare and welfare that is either free or vastly reduced in cost at the point of need.

Parris refers to “socialist economics” as harming “the tribe” yet he doesn’t seem to realise that the tribal mentality that he adopts is precisely a symptom of socialisation and collectivism. Socialist economics doesn’t harm “the tribe”, which in Parris’s case seems to mean his country the UK, a country that must, for some reason Parris does not explain, remain “economically competitive” with other countries. Rather, socialist economics creates tribes in the first place, with the tribal leaders – the government, the heads of planning, etc. – deciding what is important ahead of everyone else. The value of “economic competitiveness” ahead of other ends would be valued by them, the leaders, and forced upon everyone else, with the “useless lives” sacrificed for that end. Parris makes a mistake typical of collectivist thinking which is to regard society, or man’s propensity to be a “social animal”, as requiring each human to value the same ends or to work towards the same goals. This is not true. Society exists because humans realise that they can pursue their own ends (that differ from everyone else’s ends) peacefully and more productively through the division of labour and voluntary trade. The beauty of this system lies in the fact that everyone can coexist peacefully and harmoniously while pursuing their own material, self-interest (and indeed can accomplish their individual goals to a much greater extent). It is utterly false to view society as a vast machine in which individual people comprise nothing more than metaphorical cogs and pistons, all fitting together and moving along to produce the same output. If, therefore, socialisation was ended, how much should be spent on medical care and on other so-called “economically unproductive” ends would be a matter for each individual person with their own individual means, or with the voluntary assistance of other people. They would willingly sacrifice their individual “economic competitiveness” and direct resources to providing for their care in old age at a point that was desirable to them without forcibly burdening everyone else.

I don’t even say we should look more benignly upon the termination of life when life is fruitless. I say we will. We may not be aware that our moral attitudes are being driven by the Darwinian struggle for survival, but in part they will be. And just as we feel ourselves looking more sympathetically at those who wish to end it all, so we shall be (unconsciously) looking at ourselves in the same way. The stigma will fade, and in its place will come a new description of selfishness, according to which it may be thought selfish of some individuals (including potentially ourselves) to want to carry on.

We admire Captain Oates for walking out of his tent and into his death when he judged his enfeeblement was threatening his colleagues’ chances of survival. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates a moral impulse that I expect to grow — and for the same reasons as it occurred to Oates: the good of our fellow men.

I do not therefore need to campaign for assisted dying. I do not need (and wouldn’t want) to persuade anybody that the time has come for them to end their lives. I don’t need to shout from the rooftops that suicide can be a fine and noble thing, or rail against the ever growing cost of medical care in the final, prolonged phase of people’s lives. My opinions and my voice are incidental. This is a social impulse which will grow, nourished by forces larger than all of us. I don’t exhort. I predict.

In these closing paragraphs Parris makes clear that he is not advocating the ending of life at some point that it is deemed socially useless. Rather, he makes it clear that it is an inevitable result of a Darwinian struggle for survival. This case may be probable, or even certain, under current conditions. The problem, however, is that Parris’s analysis once again misses the elephant in the room. Captain Oates only walked out of his tent because the resources available to him and his “fellow men” were finite – his “enfeeblement” threatened the survival of his colleagues because they lacked the ability to produce more resources. Government socialisation of welfare and medical resources replicates the predicament of Captain Oates across society as a whole, stifling production, and increasing demand of what becomes a dwindling supply of resources at ever spiralling costs. Moreover, statism and socialisation entrenches in our psyche the “common good”, the willingness to sacrifice the individual to upon the altar of the collective, a willingness which has only become necessary precisely as a result of the ineptitude of collectivism. So although we may have some, limited agreement with Parris’s “prediction” we can, as libertarians, respond emphatically that none of it is necessary if one simply puts an end to the mantle of the state. Had Parris abandoned his collectivist mind set he might have realised this.

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Against the Welfare State – and Bank Bailouts

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The welfare state is undoubtedly one of the elements of government opposed by libertarians, not only due to its inherent injustice and economic destructiveness, but also because of its ability to provide fuel and sustenance to the growth of the metastasising state

If we are launch a critique of the welfare state we must first attempt to define it and to distinguish it from other categories of government activity. Such a task is not an immediately clear cut one as, fundamentally, all government expenditure sustains the welfare of its beneficiaries. If the government launches an invasion of a foreign country, spending on military grade weaponry, aircraft and whatever else will very much contribute to the “welfare” of armaments manufacturers yet we wouldn’t ordinarily classify this as part of the welfare state. Similarly, if the government decides to build a new road or railway line we wouldn’t usually describe this as providing “welfare” to the construction workers who undertake the leg work (although certain “job creation” schemes that simply pay people to carry out pointless work could be classified as welfare).

Whether or not a particular government outlay is classified as part of the welfare state is therefore defined more by its purpose rather than by its effect. The purpose of a foreign war is usually to gain control of valuable resources (even if it is veneered with an alternative justification such as spreading freedom and democracy). The purpose of building a road or railway is to “improve” the country’s transportation and communication networks. None of these projects is designed to provide some kind of comfortable lifestyle to those who undertake them (and, ignoring the possibility of benefiting favoured lobbyists and donors, to the extent that a government has a particular purpose in mind and wishes to achieve it efficiently it will have a desire to remunerate its suppliers as little as possible rather than as highly).

Welfare spending, on the other hand, is markedly different. Its purpose is always couched in the language of providing some kind of “help”, “care”, or “assistance” to the citizenry, as if the government is a giant nanny who appears with an equally giant milk bottle whenever one’s own teat runs dry. Given this, then, we can attempt to define the welfare state as that portion of government activity which is devoted to the sustenance of either the existing lifestyle of a particular citizen or to a lifestyle that is thought to be the minimum that is equitable in terms of wealth and income. The welfare state therefore provides a cushion or relief from events that may intercede in that lifestyle so, for example, if you get sick, the government will provide you with either free or subsidised healthcare; if you lose your job you will be entitled to unemployment benefit; and if you have baby the government will give you some money so that you are able to take care of it and give it an “adequate” upbringing. Granted, this definition if the welfare state is not precise and it will overlap with many other types of expenditure – few government outlays have a single purpose, even if some of these purposes are not made public – but we can be satisfied that it is reasonably accurate.

In spite of the fact that the welfare state is a moral issue and that its proponents believe that its existence is justified by the fact that the able should take care of the less able (“from each according to his means to each according to his needs”) it is arguable that the strength of its cause derives more from a misunderstanding of economics and that an amelioration of these misunderstandings is likely to weaken the foundations of the welfare state most effectively. Rather, therefore, than elaborating on the fact that the welfare state is, in a genuine free market, a morally unjustifiable confiscation and redistribution of property from its owners to non-owners respectively, let us concentrate mainly on a proper realisation of the economic effects of the welfare state in order to find the source of its undoing.

The type of welfare spending that we will focus on specifically is the bailout of the banks. This selection may appear surprising as surely most supporters of the welfare state are flat out opposed to bailing out the banks? And yet if we look closely, the qualities of bankers’ bailouts fits our definition of welfare spending all but perfectly. The financial services industry was accustomed to its business of expanding credit during the boom years and ploughing them into ultimately unsustainable malinvestments; its practitioners were richly rewarded for doing so and could afford big houses, expensive cars, private schools for their children, exotic foreign holidays, and so on. Metaphorically, they became accustomed to a lifestyle of gambling and partying fuelled by the punch bowl of monetary expansion. Following the inevitable crash that revealed the extent of the malinvestments and the huge losses that would ensue, the bailout of the banks was designed precisely to prevent the liquidation of this crumbling economic structure so that the banks could keep on making loans, keep on making profits from those loans, and so their top employees would not lose the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. It was meant to refill the punch bowl and to keep the music playing so that the party would never end. The difference, therefore, between bankers’ bailouts and what we typically regard as the welfare state is simply a matter of degree, not of kind. They each provide a taxpayer funded cushion for their respective beneficiaries that insulates their lifestyles from the effects of either their own choices or from events that are beyond their control. Indeed, the collapse of the financial services industry as we know it would also have seriously curtailed the ability of governments to retain their accustomed lifestyle of borrowing and spending. To that extent, therefore, the bank bailouts were an exercise in self-preservation. The only perceived difference between bank bailouts and the welfare state is that the beneficiaries of the former were “rich” and not “poor”, which, it must be understood, is itself a misrepresentation. Many of those affected by a collapse of the financial services sector would not necessarily have been multi-millionaires as any insolvencies and downsizing is likely to have hit those lower down the pecking order first such as local branch managers and tellers before it hit those in the penthouse offices.

We have outlined this description of bank bailouts because every single argument that welfare statists use to oppose them are, in fact, the very same arguments that apply to their conception of the welfare state. We will therefore take each of these arguments in turn and show just how both bank bailouts and the welfare state, which are both a form of welfare spending, are economically destructive.

The first argument against the bank bailouts used by its opponents is that it creates moral hazard. In other words, if the banks can privatise their gains yet socialise their losses it provides an incentive to carry on and, indeed, augment the very destructive activity that was the source of the problem in the first place. All of this is true and we can have no quarrel with it. Yet it applies equally to the welfare state as well. Proponents of the welfare state imagine that if the government throws money at all of the events that manifest themselves as pitfalls in one’s own lifestyle then these pitfalls will simply go away. However if the government simply pays for a problem when it occurs then it creates as much of a moral hazard as the bank bailouts because all you have done is simply lowered the cost to individuals of bearing these pitfalls – and lowered cost leads to a swelled demand. If you pay people when they get sick, there will be more sickness; if you pay people when they are unemployed there will be more unemployment; if you pay people when they have children people will produce more children that need a roof and need feeding. The welfare state is not the solution to the problems it seeks to resolve; it is, rather, a fertiliser for their growth and proliferation, just as bank bailouts are a fertiliser for the growth of credit expansion, malinvestment and repeated boom and bust cycles.

The second argument against bank bailouts, related to the one we just outlined, is that it shoves the cost of the bad decisions of the bankers onto the shoulders of everybody else. Yet isn’t this precisely what the welfare state does? Welfare statists imagine that nearly every unfortunate circumstance in which people find themselves is not the product of their own making and that they are therefore blameless and should be (patronisingly) pitied – in short, that people do not bear any responsibility for their own circumstances. However, this is not the case with many of the issues that the welfare state attempts to address. As was argued in a previous essay on universal healthcare, the majority of medical ailments from which people suffer are not the unfortunate result of a random, illness lottery but are, rather, directly related to their environment and lifestyle – particularly diet, exercise and consumption of alcohol, tobacco and narcotics. If, therefore, people choose to pursue a lifestyle of eating gluttonously, exercising little and smoking and drinking heavily with this resulting in sickness, then if the government picks up the tab this simply forces the cost of these bad decisions onto everyone else. People, in most cases, choose to have children, or at least to engage in the intercourse that results in children – it isn’t a random, spontaneous event that appears out of nowhere to inflict itself upon people’s lifestyles. To the extent, therefore, that people cannot afford to raise these children properly and the government intervenes then the cost of other people’s bad decisions is again shovelled onto the shoulders of everybody else. But even those aspects of the welfare state that are not necessarily the fault of the individuals concerned – such as unemployment – is usually the result of government anyway. Low employability is caused not only by inadequate state education, but also government interference in the labour market such as minimum wages and excessive regulations that cause the cost of employment to exceed that of the productivity of the lowest skilled workers. Why, therefore, do welfare statists propose a government solution to what is a government created problem? Why not just get rid of the government created problem?

The third argument against bank bailouts is that they perpetuate what we might call a crony “corp-tocracy” where taxpayers’ money is siphoned off into the hands of the government’s favoured millionaire chums. Yet this is precisely the result of the welfare state also. Although the nominal beneficiaries of the welfare state are individual people, someone has to be paid in order to carry out the work of the welfare state. Not only does a welfare state require the creation and sustenance of a vast, leeching bureaucracy to administer it all but particular parts of the welfare state have to be contracted out to individual specialists. For example, public housing schemes need to find construction companies, hospitals need to find doctors and they need to purchase medicines from drug companies. The interests of these suppliers to the welfare state is to ensure that their compensation for carrying out their tasks is as high as possible; indeed, one of the reasons why the welfare state is such a burgeoning expense is because the disconnect between the consumer that pays and the supplier that is paid results in spiralling costs for the services of the latter, with the result that the majority of welfare spending goes not to the individual people but straight into the bank accounts of large corporations and contractors. Moreover, the welfare state is not usually a fixed pool of services that are provided by the government, but includes also private organisations and charities that lobby the government for money in order to solve the particular societal “problems” and grievances that they happen to have identified. Much of this money is simply wasted, as suggested by the recent collapse of Kids Company, a UK children’s charity, around a week after it received a £3 million grant from the government. Indeed, in the UK – when the chief executives of high profile charities are paid six figure salaries and they have been chastised for “aggressive” funding raising strategies that were recently attributed, at least in part, to the death of a pensioner – the substantive difference between a charity on the one hand and a corporation on the other is becoming increasingly questioned.

The fourth argument against bank bailouts is that they distort the economy, shovelling excess funding into the financial services sector and expanding their profits at the expense of other industries. Again, nothing about this is untrue and, indeed, as “Austrian” economists we would make an even more detailed case about how the resulting credit expansion distorts the consumption/investment ratio in order to result in unsustainable malinvestments across the entire economy. Yet the welfare state distorts the economy also, only in a more incremental and pacing manner. In the first place, the increased incentive caused by the welfare state to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to solve, such as sickness and unemployment, reduces the capacity of the labour market and thus shrinks the extent of the division of labour that would otherwise have been possible. Second, the burgeoning cost of the welfare state caused by an artificially inflated demand for welfare requires more and more resources to be confiscated by the government in order to fund it. Thus, the areas of the economy that are devoted to providing welfare are swollen at the expense of other areas of the economy which must correspondingly shrink. Third, this is compounded by the fact that a large, government pot of gold encourages rent seeking behaviour, which in the case of welfare means (as we stated above) large numbers of special interest groups lobby the government each with a claim that they have identified some societal affliction that is ripe for resolution by government spending. Governments are eager to attract this kind of attention for more government spending means not only more power and prestige but also provides another outlet with which to bribe citizens with their own money when making election “promises”. The result of this, again, is that the total portion of the economy that is devoted to welfare spending is artificially inflated compared to what consumers would otherwise prefer.

The final argument against bank bailouts that we will consider is that they create a feeling of bitterness and resentment in the general population, a fissure of hate, contempt and distrust between the bankers and the people whom they supposedly serve. Again, all of this is true. However, it applies just as readily to the welfare state. Its proponents usually justify the imposition of the welfare state by stating that it is morally good for us to care and look after one another as if we are all one big family. This may be true enough, but the welfare state does not create that situation. In order to become a morally better person I have to choose to care and to look after my fellow man – I have to decide to do it voluntarily. I am looked upon with admiration because in spite of all of the personal luxuries I could have spent my money on, I willingly deprived myself of them and was happy to give the money to a person in need. The welfare state, however, does not give me any choice in this regard – it just forces me to do it regardless of what I want. The action, therefore, is not as the result of any personal sympathy or empathy for the plight of the less fortunate, nor of any aspiration to moral heights. Instead, the void left by an absence of sympathy and empathy is likely to be filled by bitterness and resentment as my hard earned money has just been confiscated from me to go to people who I believe may not deserve it, particularly if it goes to some cause that I may disagree qualifies for welfare spending (such as breast enhancement surgery on the NHS or unemployment benefits to those who are just workshy). The welfare state therefore creates the opposite of any charitable feeling whatsoever and destroys any notion of brotherhood or family. When this is coupled with the welfare state’s encouragement of the afflictions it seeks to solve then the result is a society with a lower, rather than higher, moral standing. This is exacerbated by the interdependent relationship between bank bailouts on the one hand and the welfare state on the other. Bank bailouts mean that the banks take the money of the taxpaying public and plough it into assets so that the income of anyone who owns these assets – i.e. the bankers themselves – is swollen while the incomes of those who do not stagnates. The resulting price inflation lifts the affordability of assets such as houses and basic necessities, such as food, out of the grasp of those on low incomes. The consequence is another artificially swollen demand for welfare to give ordinary people somewhere to live and something to eat. Thus, the poorest in society demand increased taxes on the rich – i.e. the very bankers who were bailed out – in order to fund increased welfare spending. The result, therefore, is a toing and froing of mutual theft, a circle of robbery where bankers demand taxpayers’ money to continue their casino operations, after which everyone else demands some of it back to ameliorate the resulting effects. Far from being a moral and harmonious society all we end up with is hating each other and trying to grab whatever we can out of each other’s pockets.

What we can see from this brief comparison of the welfare state to bank bailouts, therefore, is that there is very little qualitative difference between the two and that the arguments that are used to oppose bank bailouts apply just as easily to the welfare state. The amelioration of welfare demand is achieved not through the redistribution of a fixed pool wealth but through the raising of real incomes by increasing the productive output per person. In order to achieve this we need to eliminate both the bank bailouts and the welfare state so that we can return to a genuine economy where everyone serves each other rather than engages in mutual plunder. The rich would have to earn their wealth by directing and increasing the productive capacity of the economy to best meet the needs of the consumer; the poor earn their money by providing the labour to bring about this direction, with their wages being able to buy more and more goods as a result of the increased output. Not only would this create a more prosperous society where poverty has truly been consigned to the history books, but the vanquishing of hatred, resentment and antagonism would create a morally superior one too.

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Gender, Race and Sexual Orientation – The Problem with Single Issue Groups

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Although the state has always constituted a mantle of unjustified oppression of and invasion into the lives of every person who has had to suffer its yoke, it is undeniable that certain groups of individuals who possess a common identity have been singled out for persecution. Laws that criminalise homosexual behaviour, or sought to set up “caste” systems such as the “Jim Crow laws” in the certain US states single out certain people, who possess a common characteristic, for a heightened degree of state aggression compared to other citizens. This common characteristic can consist of either their private, consenting behaviour with other adults or on some kind of characteristic that they are not able to help such as their gender or their skin colour. In order to oppose this, political movements to champion the rights of these (at least allegedly) legally persecuted individuals have appeared, such as the suffragette movement and the feminists for women, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement for blacks, and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement. These groups have, to varying degrees of success, achieved a relaxation of legal discrimination against their intended beneficiaries.

The problem with single issue movements is that they do not always understand the principles upon which their complaints are based – or at least, those principles are not applied consistently. Strictly speaking, when it comes to legal rights there are no such things as “gay rights”, “women’s rights”, or “rights of blacks”. There are only rights that apply to every individual by virtue of his status as a rational, human being. According to libertarians, these rights consist of the right to self-ownership and the right to own private property unmolested by the physical interference of any other individual. It follows, therefore, that the attempt by single issue groups to remove genuinely invasive incursions by government into their lives is entirely legitimate. So that, for example, decriminalising sexual relations between two members of the same sex, and removing any legally enforced segregation of blacks from whites would be a perfectly legitimate cause. In other words, so long as these movements seek to achieve the right to be left alone and to be able to interact peacefully with whomever they wish, on a par with every other citizen, their aims are perfectly merited and, indeed, should be encouraged. Unfortunately, in seeking to promote the interests of merely a narrow group of particular people, these groups end up proceeding beyond this point and begin to invade the rights of others in order to provide not just the negative right to be left alone but a positive right or benefit to the favoured group that invades the rights of other people. Thus, having begun in the position of the oppressed the beneficiaries of a particular movement become, in turn, the oppressors, and having achieved their own right to be left alone start to erode that right when it comes to others.

In light of recent judicial decisions in Ireland and the US concerning the legality or constitutionality of gay marriage, we will concentrate, by way of example, on the gay rights movement. However, what we say here is applicable to any single issue movement such as those promoting the interests of a particular race or gender. The political oppression of gays throughout the world is still active in many countries, particularly in those that are deeply religious such as many Middle Eastern states, and they can still prove to be a struggle in countries that are heavily divided on the issue such as the United States. Nevertheless, we can state in countries such as Great Britain that gays have achieved a high degree of political equality with heterosexuals. Gays may engage in sexual intercourse with members of the same sex without legal molestation; institutions set up specifically to attract gay customers such as gay bars, clubs, dating sites and so on are perfectly legal. Moreover, a gay individual may now marry another gay individual on the same footing as heterosexual couples.

However, in spite of having accomplished the ejection of the state’s interference from their bedrooms, the gay rights movement is now attempting to co-opt the state into furthering the interests of homosexuals by invading the rights of other people. The typical case that arises is one of alleged “discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation”, where a heterosexual individual, or group of individuals, chooses not to do business with a homosexual. For example, if a gay couple wishes to stay at a bed and breakfast the owner denies them lodging because they do not wish homosexuals to stay in their institution. A court case usually follows, the result of which is that business owner is forced to pay damages to the aggrieved gays for “discriminating” against them.

Regardless of whether one is libertarian or not, this attitude is nothing short of rank hypocrisy. Gays reserve the right for themselves to do whatever they want with their own bodies on their own property, but through crying “discrimination” they deny these rights to other people. Moreover, a quick google search reveals that there are hundreds, if not thousands of gay hotels, resorts, cruises, bars, clubs, bathhouses, and dating sites that describe themselves as “gay only” and market their products and services to those of a specific sexual orientation, even if this does not explicitly exclude those of other sexual orientations. How much of a furore would there be if a hotel stated on its website that it was “straight-only”? Ironically, however, there have been complaints from the owners of gay establishments that anti-discrimination laws will negatively impact their operations as their entire business model is based upon serving, exclusively, the needs of gays.

According to libertarians gays most certainly do have the right to do whatever they want with their own bodies with other consenting adults on their own property, as they possess the rights to self-ownership and to private property. And there is absolutely no problem in libertarianism with gays, or anyone else for that matter, setting up businesses and establishments that cater only to gays. But so too, therefore, does everyone else have the right to set up businesses that prefer to cater only to heterosexuals. In reality, though, matters never usually proceed to that level. In the case of a dispute with a bed and breakfast, the owner was happy to do business with the gay couple but was simply not willing to book them a double, as opposed to a twin room. In a more recent case involving a bakery, the latter did not refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple but merely refused to decorate it with a message supporting gay marriage.

If a business does so choose to cater only to straights, this decision may be based on anything from reactionary bigotry and irrational homophobia to deeply held moral or religious convictions (although some would probably say there is little difference between all of those things). Whatever the cause, however, the business accepts the risk that it will lose the money of gay customers. If, therefore, the owners of a bed and breakfast turn away a gay couple, they already incur the penalty of lost revenue for taking this course of action. The gays are denied a room for the night but they do not pay the owners a single penny of their money. The owners therefore risk going out of business sooner compared to other establishments that are not so discriminating and are happy to accept the custom of gay couples. It is for this reason that, for the most part, the competition of the marketplace eradicates discrimination on merely spurious, personal grounds (grounds which we may indeed identify with prejudice and bigotry) but it does not eradicate a choice for the owner to deal with his property as he sees fit. Moreover, the marketplace permits such discrimination to flourish where it is appropriate for customers who are distinguished by a certain characteristic and are interested in purchasing products and services that are designed for people with that characteristic – such as gays. Indeed, there is no specific culture or community that identifies itself as “straight” to which businesses can specifically market their services – there are very few explicitly straight bars, straight hotels and straight clubs etc. Hence the incidence of businesses that may, privately, choose to exclude gay customers are scattered and heterogeneous. But because the quality of being gay is an acknowledged common identity and has generated its own community and culture, the proliferation of gay businesses that discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation is vast compared to the scattered number of non-gay businesses that do so. And no one should have the right to stop these gay-only businesses from flourishing any more than one should have the right to stop a bed and breakfast from catering only to straights.

One also has to shake one’s head in bemusement at the extreme pettiness at some of these cases that are brought in the west. Apart from the common libertarian complaint of our own governments looting and exploiting the populace on a prolific scale, even without this we live in a world in which there are heinous human rights abuses against women, ethnic minorities, and gays alike involving assault, mutilation, stoning and killing. And yet we in the west are worried about whether a gay couple can get a cake iced. In the fight for any cause, it is true that the smallest of gestures may be better than the grandest of intentions. But when the grandest of intentions have, in fact, already been accomplished, couldn’t they have easily found someone else on the same street to decorate an item of confectionary?

The ongoing issue of gay marriage appears to be the pinnacle of the attempt by the gay rights movement to nest its cause firmly within the bloated bosom of the state. Hitherto there has been nothing to stop to people of the same sex from hiring a venue, gathering all their friends and family, exchanging vows and rings and declaring their union that will forevermore be recognised by their community. The swat team was never about to break down the door after the committal “I do”. The real problem is the lack of legal recognition of the marriage by the state and the denial of the dubious benefits deriving from the state’s use of marriage as a shorthand for creating different legal rights and obligations between the two partners. Thus the issue has never really been about affirming one’s love for another person in front of your friends and relatives; it has been about achieving the state’s sanctifying blessing. Indeed, even after Ireland legalised gay marriage in May of this year the response across the spectrum was less about marriage and more about “acceptance”, “vindication”, “validation”, “recognition”, etc. – as if one needs the state to live one’s lifestyle with confidence. Gay pride seems to have turned into gay diffidence. Far better, to achieve a genuine equality, would be for the state to remove its invasive usurpation of all marriage and return it to its rightful origin as a religious or community affair.

It is sometimes true that if a particular group has been burdened with legal oppression for decades or even centuries then they are, as a whole, left with the “unfair disadvantages” of lower standards of education and employment prospects than the un-oppressed groups. This has been used to justify the government’s intervention to furnish the oppressed group with positive benefits, for example, so-called “affirmative action” for blacks in the United States. Apart from the fact that it is unjust to force everyone else to pay for the oppressive acts of their ancestors, disadvantages are not solved overnight by pretending they do not exist and trying to force an outcome by government fiat. Indeed, they have simply had the opposite effect. Forced economic relations have served only to keep past discriminations kindled and measures such as the minimum wage have excluded blacks from the entire productive system. Arguably, the economic plight of blacks today after half a century of affirmative action is worse than it was before the civil rights era. Only the market place can bring to formerly oppressed groups the opportunities for the development of skills, employment, education, saving, capital accumulation, and entrepreneurship, a process that might have elevated their position to that of others within one or two generations.

All of this goes to show that, while the plight of an individual group or community can be illustrative of a denial of rights, a true understanding of the matter is likely to come only from a consideration of which rights apply to all people everywhere regardless of their particular creed and colour. To approach the matter otherwise simply turns the oppressed into the oppressors. As libertarians we know that only the rights to self-ownership and private property of everyone is the only way to lift the burden of oppression from the shoulders of all groups everywhere so that everyone is free to live their lives as they see fit.

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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.

National Defence and Just Wars

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However much people may disagree on the proper functions of the state and however much people may argue about how those functions should be deployed, it is almost universally acknowledged that “national defence” – the protection of the citizenry from invasion by foreign states – is seen, together with domestic security and protection from private criminals, to be not only the primary function of the state but also its very raison d’être. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how, without this function – given that it is joined at the hip with the state’s monopolistic use of force – there could possibly be any state whatsoever. Thus any opposition to government’s monopoly on security is expressed only by anarchists and those who wish to see an end to the state altogether.

In keeping with many libertarian commentators (for example, Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan) we may acknowledge agreement here with the proposition that “war is the health of the state”, permitting a tremendous number of, at first, temporary, and then, enduringly permanent inroads into liberty that statists could only dream of during peacetime. The perpetual existence of a bogeyman, real or imagined, serves both to justify and to distract the average person from the state’s own increased privations upon the individual. However, what we wish to examine critically here is the validity of the assertion that “national defence”, so-called, is a proper function of the state as well as the question of whether any wars waged by states could be “just”.

First, the overwhelming concern of the individual is not “national defence” at all but, rather, defence of his own person and property – as well as the safety from harm of his friends and family. If defence of his person or property is his primary aim, however, surely he has more to fear from his own state rather than from any potential foreign invader? It is own state that taxes his income; it is his own state that has nationalised industries that he may use or work in; it is his own state that regulates what he may do, what he may choose to put into his own body or any other voluntary actions he may choose to do with other consenting adults. A change of forced rule from one state to another is not necessarily going to make any difference to any of this. One governing state may move out and another may move in with no noticeable change to the individual’s life whatsoever. Indeed, an invading state is normally interested in taking over the economic capacity of the lands that are eyed for conquest – it does not normally wish to reduce its prize to rubble and be left with a wasteland. To a large extent it will wish to leave infrastructure and existing property relations intact, particularly if it is to rely on the productivity of the conquered workforce. Indeed, the idea of the sanctity of the political border is relatively new in international relations and one that only really found concrete expression in the aftermath of World War I. Earlier, when wars were conducted by monarchs and royal families, territories used to change from the jurisdiction of one realm to another, simply switching ownership between monarchs and forming part of the victor’s private property. Indeed it was the wealth and power of the king, who owned his territory and his subjects, that determined the size of the realm. The day to day lives of the average folk were not likely to change a great deal. Today, if France and Britain were to have roughly the same kind of approach to private property ownership and towards civil liberties, what real difference would it make if the French government was to take over a chunk of Britain or the British to take over a piece of France? This fact betrays the real function of national defence, which is not to safeguard the person and property of the individual citizen at all. Rather, it is to protect the territorial integrity of the state and to defend the state and its rulers from being overthrown by other states and foreign crusaders. Just in the same way as one might erect a high fence to protect oneself from a bothersome neighbour, so too does the state use its monopolistic provision of “national defence” to protect itself. If this should be doubted and one is tempted to cling to the idea that government is there to protect us from evil foreigners, then why is it that the wealth, property and livelihoods of the citizenry are precisely what the state steamrollers over during wartime? Civil liberties are suspended, the news is censored, military slavery (politely known as “conscription”) is enforced, and all productive capacity is geared towards the war effort with food essentials heavily rationed and luxuries all but non-existent. It seems that protection of the people is the very last thing on the government’s mind when foreign threats loom large.

With the advent of democracy, where no one individual ruler “owns” any jurisdiction but, rather, it is supposedly run by a caretaker ruler for the good of “the people”, some kind of different criterion other than the extent of the property ownership of the king was needed to justify to the state’s prerogative to “national defence” and to mask its real purpose of protecting itself. Something had to be done to induce, in the population, the fear of foreign rule. Hence states began to invoke nationalistic sentiments in their populations and with it the sanctity of the political border. For without nationalistic fervour populations would have little willingness to defend the state from a foreign state. Bar nationalism, patriotism and strong cultural identities what reason would there be for a person to avoid being ruled by one government or another? Fortunately for the state all of this went hand in hand with the prevailing ideology of democracy and the economic policies that soon emerged – and, tragically, with horrifying results. First, democracy effectively nationalises the citizenry and makes everyone under the auspices of a particular government symbiotic with that government. Hence, when a foreign state invades it is not only “the” government that is under threat of takeover but “our” government. Second, as “democracy” has become synonymous with freedom, openness, and pluralism a natural fear of “other” forms of government – monarchs or dictators – is engrained. The terror of losing democracy to something that is, on the face of it, more despotic is used as a fervent justification for not only defensive but also offensive military action today. Thus, defence is imbued with ideological purpose. Third, state-dominated and collectivist economic policies naturally aggregate the people under the identity of the government. Under collectivism, the relevant economic unit is no longer the individual, choosing to fulfil his ends as best as he can with the available means, but, rather, “the nation”. All productive resources and all productive enterprises are geared by “the nation” towards “the nation’s” goals. Nations, not individual people and private entities, now compete with each other. Inputs, outputs and processes are heavily aggregated into relatively meaningless concepts such as “Aggregate Demand”, “Gross Domestic Product” and even the concepts of “exports” and “imports” are only really important if one views the world in political borders. Furthermore, the inefficiency and impoverishment caused by collectivism naturally creates a drive towards autarchy and xenophobic envy of the wealth and resources of neighbouring states. Under complete free trade, if Ruritania is predominantly agricultural and specialises in growing food, whereas Mauretania specialises in heavy industry and manufacturing, Ruritania would export food to Mauretania and the latter would use this to then fuel its industries and produce manufactured goods that are exported to Ruritania. Both countries benefit from the specialisation of the other and from trading their wares – indeed this is nothing more than division of labour by state rather than by individual. If, however, Mauretania’s government begins to interfere in its economy, its industries become less productive and less competitive; while the domestic market can be ring-fenced by protective tariffs, no such luxury can be imposed on the foreign market and Mauretania will find that demand for its exports in relation to other countries starts to dwindle. Thus, Ruritania will start exporting more food to other countries and less to Mauretania, leaving the latter with a food shortage relative to population. Hence comes the call from Mauretania’s government, recognising the resulting impoverishment, that Mauretania needs “self-sufficiency” in food. This was precisely the case of Germany before World War II, a heavy manufacturing nation that relied upon imported food, with food self-sufficiency being a major motivation for Hitler’s pursuit of lebensraum in the largely agrarian lands East of Germany’s borders. Indeed, Nazi Germany, a fascist-collectivist economy with potent – even doctrinal – nationalist fervour that resulted in one of the most horrific racially motivated exterminations in the whole of history is an instructive case that demonstrates the extremes of nationalism bred by collectivism, and this fact raises a pertinent question. If Nazi Germany was so horrible then why was it met with such mute opposition right up until the invasion of Poland (except for the bleating of Churchill during his so-called “wilderness years”)? Why was the Versailles Treaty so willingly shredded clause by clause until it was merely waste paper? Why so much willingness to accommodate and co-operate with such as awful regime? One reason surely has to be that under the post-World War I gold exchange standard, the New Deal and the pursuit of Keynesian macroeconomic policies to combat the Great Depression, everybody – not just Germany – was moving towards collectivist economic planning. Indeed, the New Deal and the associations and agencies it bred were modelled on those in Mussolini’s Italy. Policies such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act served to segregate each country as a closed economic unit and drive them towards autarchy. A related aspect of big government economies and welfare states is that they begin to view their populations as burdens as much as productive units – incessant consumers and eaters who put relentless pressure on “the nation’s” resources. Although today we can see this resulting in the concern of intellectuals with supposedly “excessive” population growth, in earlier days it helped produce the Eugenics movement, which had the aim of reducing those of lower “social and genetic worth” – i.e. the unproductive resource consumers –  and was largely discredited in the aftermath of World War II as a result of the Nazi policy of racial sterilisation. Perhaps even more visually embarrassing is that school children in the US recited the pledge of allegiance with the Bellamy salute – a variant of the Nazi salute. Any ideological weapons against Nazi Germany were, as a result, able to achieve only a blunt impact simply because they were not so sharply delineated. The uncomfortable truth is that Nazi Germany was fundamentally no different from any other state at the time – it’s just that Hitler took these fundamentals to their logical conclusion and the results were horrific. Indeed, “national defence” implies the preference for and superiority of one’s own race, culture and creed – for if these things do not matter to the individual citizen then so too does it not matter which particular foreigner takes over the government and starts delivering the mail. It is no small wonder why it leads to xenophobic hatred and is the breeder, rather than the solver, of conflicts.

Turning now to the economic case for national defence, this generally rests on the idea that, as the consumption of national defence is “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable” that, left to the free market, it would be underprovided owing to a significant “free rider” problem. Without getting too much into why such concerns in and of themselves provide no justification for the state provision of a good or service, we can state more simply that it is only the precise methods of defence as chosen by the state that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. An aircraft carrier serving A does not interfere with its services towards B, nor can its services be excluded from either one of those people. But there is no reason to suggest that aircraft carriers must be provided in order to maintain defence of one’s person and property, which is supposed to be the alleged purpose of national defence. Private defence operations may well produce methods of defence whose consumption is rivalrous and excludable – for example, more localised, specialised and heterogeneous defence methods specific to particular customers. The common fear concerning such methods of defence is that they will never be able to match the might and power of a foreign state – how can such scattered methods and apparent disorganisation provide any meaningful kind of protection? This fear is soon resolved by the realisation of several important points. First, weapons of enormous firepower – such as nuclear weapons – have only been developed by states because other states have done so. Nuclear weapons are not defensive weapons at all but, rather, weapons of mutually assured destruction. In particular, aggressors are usually not interested in reducing foreign territories to worthless rubble – they have their eyes on the economic resources that are available for exploitation within that territory. Indeed, a significant motivation for the US’s foreign aggression today is the control of resources in the Middle East (especially oil), camouflaged by an ideological veneer. If a stateless society was to abandon nuclear and other large, destructive weapons this would lessen the justification for foreign states spending their resources on them. This goes hand in hand with the second consideration which is that if, as we stated above, the state’s purpose in providing national defence is to protect its territorial integrity (and this is justified by the claim that it protects the persons and property of its citizens from invasion by foreign states), then if a particular foreign society is anarchical and has only scattered and allegedly ineffective private defence methods, what offensive threat does this pose to either the state or its citizens? Not only would the state have little internal impetus to maintain heavy defence spending but any attempt to cajole the citizenry to pay for it would be much harder as the state will lack the ability to construct a bogeyman. The so-called “War on Terror” and the threat of Islamic extremism does, of course, seem to negate this thesis as defence spending is ratcheted up against sub-state and not state actors. But there is a strong case to be argued that most of the threat from terrorism is as a result of the West’s own belligerence – in other words, terrorism is a defensive response rather than an offensive threat. Indeed, there will always be a handful of extremists, fundamentalists and radical nutcases in any society whether its statist, anarchist or whatever. What gives their ideas traction, however, and builds them up into a significant threat is that they become creditable in the eyes of other people – credit that the West seems all too willing to hand on a silver platter. In any case it is arguable that although the difficulty of eradicating terrorists permits the west to perpetuate a bogeyman, the “War on Terror” is becoming a harder sell as it seems as though any widespread, offensive capability of terrorists is limited. This leads to the third consideration which is that, while private defence may appear to be a hopeless offensive force, its effectives as a strictly defensive force comes not from its firepower which, collectively, may well fall short of that possessed by a state, but, rather, from the very fact that it is scattered and heterogenous. It is far easier for a foreign invader to take aim at a central command structure that possesses one train of thought, one or a few strategies, one chain of supply, and whose soldiers have all been trained in the same way and possess the same weapons. As the difficulty in combating guerrilla warfare can attest, it is far more difficult to overcome hundreds or thousands of localised strategies, different training, uncertain weaponry, and surprises round every corner. This effectiveness of private defence would be magnified if the entire economy is also decentralised. In modern states, entire communications and financial networks are centralised so that an invader only has to target the central hub in order to bring the entire country to its knees. How effective would it be, for example, for a foreign invader to knock out a country’s centralised banking system? Where all such services are provided privately, however, with no hierarchy of control springing from a common root, a single attack by the foreign invader is now multiplied into tens or even hundreds of separate attacks to take control of each and every individual, private network. The loss of a part of the banking industry to an aggressor would not necessarily cause the rest of the country to grind to a halt with the only option to yield to the invader’s might.

Just Wars

In spite of our negative conclusions concerning national defence, is it possible that there are any wars can be described as “just” and if what are the requirements for such justice?

It appears to be undisputed in the mainstream that World War II provides the hallmarks of a just war. Here there was a very belligerent and aggressive dictatorship that invaded foreign territories over which it had little (if any) claim, subjected their populations to extermination or slave labour and otherwise imposing upon them its odious method of government. Surely it was just for the allies to go to war against such a threat? Without having to examine the details of World War II specifically, we can see that the main problem with this line of thinking in the abstract is that it considers only states as the relevant players. The individuals within each state are practically ignored or are aggregated into collective wholes. The only relevant units in the analysis are whole countries and some countries are aggressive and nasty whereas others are peace-loving pacifists. If this was true and individual countries were individual people then World War II may come close to being a just war (although, as we shall see below, it would probably even fail if we made this assumption). However, all defensive actions of a state rely, for their funding, upon the taxation of individual citizens – the forced confiscation of their private property. This in and of itself is a rank injustice. What if the individual citizens do not want the money that they have earned legitimately and the government has not to pay for a war? They have had the very thing that national defence is supposed to protect – their private property – stolen from them. All state wars funded by taxation are, therefore, per se unjust, and this fact is true regardless of the nobility of the cause. Tax dollars can be spend on a multitude of good and wonderful things – schools, hospitals, roads, etc. – but this does not change the fact that the people forced to fund them would have preferred to have spent their money on something else. Hand in hand with this goes the possibility of conscription – the enslavement of the population into defending the country with their bodies as well as their wallets – and all of the other liberties that are suspended in war time, with the entire economy geared towards the war effort, as was the case in World War II. Moreover, what are we to make of the mass bombing of civilians, intentional or otherwise? The argument over who killed civilians first is irrelevant – the fact that it was perpetrated willingly by both sides indicates that they are both as bad as each other. And it was the allies who were responsible for what may be the worst of these atrocities – the incineration of tens of thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If a person robs me in the street am I entitled to fire a gun indiscriminately in his direction, killing tens of innocents going about their own business in order to apprehend the assailant? Am I entitled to state that my action was just as it stopped the evil thief and that everyone else who is now lying in pools of blood was just “collateral damage”? I would, quite, rightly be arrested and tried for murder. Such actions are no different in kind from civilian deaths during state warmongering. It also emphasises how little disregard states have for their populations when they are under threat – the persons and property of the individual people are not there to be protected but to be readily consumed or treated as cannon fodder, a wall of defence to protect the state.

Not only does all of this demonstrate the injustice of state perpetrated wars, but it highlights the fact that any consideration of history in terms of whole states, countries and nations will never be able to make an incisive ethical justification or criticism of past events. Although some may be worse than others, the basic truth is that all states are inherently unjust, resting upon a crumbling foundation of illegitimacy. Therefore it is impossible to categorise a war as just through such an approach. When we look at the players in World War II specifically it is difficult to see much of a distinct difference at all. The British were responsible for the imposition of the largest empire in human history. How was this much different from the German conquest of Eastern Europe? Germany’s pre-war attitude towards Britain and its empire was to regard the latter as a kindred, Aryan spirit and a model of ruthless empire-building to be followed and admired. Britain and the United States used concentration camps decades before the Nazis evolved them into death camps – and need we even mention the Russian gulags? Indeed the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, with its brutal political repression, does not have much to distinguish it from Nazi Germany – particularly if you were to be an unfortunate victim of one of these regimes. The Soviets had already completed much of their “Great Purge” of hundreds of thousands (at least) before German soldiers ever set foot on its soil. Further, such lack of ideological distinction between the state players in World War II reveals itself through the continuous switching of allegiances both before and after the war and the consequences of such switches. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 initially sealed Germany and the USSR as allies, secretly carving up Eastern Europe between them. Indeed, the entire trigger of World War II – the German invasion of Poland – was matched by Stalin’s own invasion of that country only a few weeks later. Germany then invaded Russia in June 1941 and Russia became allied to the British and, later, the US. After the War, of course, the former friends fell out and the Cold War endured for another four decades. And perhaps the most sorry tale is the fact that having been “rescued” from Nazi oppression the whole of Eastern Europe – at the mere of stroke of a pen – was consigned to Soviet oppression. For the populations of Eastern Europe how different from being ruled by the Nazis was being ruled by the Soviets? Indeed the attempted justification of World War II and the emphasis of the horrors of Nazi Germany has conveniently overshadowed the atrocities of the post-war communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Overall, however, it is hard to see how such outcomes could result if there were genuine, rigorous ideological differences between the players in World War II.

What then is the criteria for a just war? In the first place we must dispense with the notion of “war” itself which is a term that applies to states. In a libertarian world, in which there are only individuals and groups of individuals co-operating voluntarily, there would be no “wars” in the sense in which we understand them. Therefore, the justification for any warfare-type action is exactly the same as the justification for any violent action between individuals in a libertarian society. We can list the criteria quite simply as we did in a previous essay, The Ethics of Interventionism. To relate these to war specifically the equivalent war-faring terminology has been inserted:

  • No person (“country”) has the right to initiate violence (“offensive action” or “invasion”) against any other person (“country”) in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression (“invasion”) he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents (“civilians”) during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation (“conscription”) and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so (“neutrality”);
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties (“allies”) in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties (“allies”), likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (“treaty”) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped (“blockaded”) from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

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