The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part Two

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In part one of this two-part series of essays we explored the difference between treating social phenomena such as rights, obligations, rules, laws and conflicts as products of human interaction on the one hand and as products of explicit human construction on the other. In this second part we will proceed to explore precisely how the constructivist-rationalist approach to social phenomena came about and how devastating it can be to individual liberty when it infiltrates political philosophy. From this we can learn some important lessons when it comes to developing and shaping our own libertarian theory.

Generations after customary legal systems developed through social interaction, philosophers began to reflect upon this phenomenon, a reflection which, for Western purposes, began with the Ancient Greeks. In accordance with our view here, the purpose of this endeavour should not have been for philosophers to treat these matters as a tabula rasa on which to scribe whatever they thought was the most convincing and compelling case for a system of rules. Rather, it was to clarify that which was already occurring and to make explicit a conceptual framework that was already implicit. Indeed, as we stated earlier, this is common among most human endeavours – science, art, mathematics, economics, language and so on all flourished before we stopped to think about what we were actually doing in each of them. The fruit of this reflection was to distil from legal systems common elements such as conflicts, legal personage, property, rights, obligations, malum in se and some kind of understanding of natural justice. Thus, there existed principles that appeared to transcend expediency, self-interest, and the particular time and place, in spite of the fact that individual conceptions or realisations of those concepts differed. In other words, they were principles that were not just fashioned by leaders, intellectuals, or by “society” but spoke from some kind of universal plain. (This point should not be understood as a refutation of legal positivism. Rather, it simply says that the conceptual framework of legal systems – including the nature of a conflict and the rights and obligations that ensued – were not something that were designed and imposed).

However, this process of reflection and elaboration did not occur in a vacuum, and was (and still is) considered alongside a whole host of other philosophical problems such as knowledge, existence, morality, aesthetics, and so on. In the consideration of “the rules of conduct” there was a distinct overlap between what we might call political philosophy (broadly, what a person can be forced to do) and wider morality (that which a person should choose to do), an equivocation which has persisted to the present day. The process of identifying appropriate conduct – anything from morals, etiquette, manners, the attainment of beauty, happiness, and so on – always and necessarily involves elaborations on how rational actors should choose to behave with and towards non-rational beings/objects and towards other rational beings alike. When a proponent of certain moral rights and obligations overlaid these considerations onto the development of the understanding of legal rights (i.e. rights that could be enforced by violence) what resulted were systems of constructed conflicts, constructed rights and constructed obligations which never arose out of any interactions between individual parties.

If libertarians are to ever find the key that unlocks the door to a world of liberty, it is very important for them to understand the extent of the effects of this kind of endeavour and how it has served as the basis of countless numbers of despotic political theories. When someone constructs or proposes a system of rights and obligations and to prescribe legally enforceable rules of conduct, the result was not to engage in the process of “identifying” conflicts that exist between two other beings or objects; rather, it was to identify a conflict between himself and the particular person upon whom he claimed had an obligation. The conflict was a clash between the proponent’s values and the values of another or other individuals. In other words, the proponent sets himself up as the legally aggrieved party and bases the outcome of law and adjudication on some kind of a conflict between himself and somebody else who was behaving in a manner the proponent simply happened not to like.

Let’s say that there are three people Andrew, Bob and Charlie. Andrew and Bob are two people who live and interact in a society. Charlie, on the other hand, is a philosopher who looks upon the condition of A and B and decides for himself that Andrew owes a certain obligation to Bob. Let us say that, in order to create some kind of just and equitable society, Charlie declares that Bob should have the right to £100 of Andrew’s income every month. Andrew is therefore now burdened with an obligation of furnishing money to Bob, who now possesses the right to take this money from Andrew with the full backing of the force of law. However, the real right claimed in this situation is not by Bob. Andrew and Bob may have been perfectly happy before Charlie came along; Bob may have been content with his own income and coveted nothing that Andrew possessed. Rather, the real, substantive right is claimed by Charlie. It is Charlie who does not like the situation that Andrew and Bob are in – it is he who despises the existing property arrangements between the two. What Charlie is therefore claiming through his proposal is his right to go to court every time some action he does not like has occurred and to invoke his right to have this action stopped (or conversely to force an action that has been omitted). This desire of Charlie’s is masked in the language of providing justice and fairness for Bob, whereas Bob, in his own mind, never conflicted with Andrew at all and never had reason to invoke a right. The conflict originates wholly in Charlie’s mind.

This becomes clearer when Bob is not another competent adult but is, rather, an animal or an object. An object – let’s say a tree – as far as we know lacks any appreciation of ends, values and choices, and cannot understand any alternative situation as better, beneficial or valuable. Without being able to perceive value or any preference of ends the crucial element for the source of a conflict with another individual is missing. If there is no conflict then there are no rights and obligations. It is for this reason that we owe rights to rational beings who think, value, choose and act but we do not owe rights to non-rational beings and objects who are utterly devoid of these capacities. If, therefore, Charlie comes along and says “This tree has a right to not be cut down” and that, consequently, Andrew has an obligation to not cut down the tree, it is clear that the real conflict over the state of the tree is not between Andrew and the tree; it is, rather, between Andrew and Charlie. The tree has no capacity to care whether it is remains standing, is cut down, or is burnt to the ground. It has no values, no choices, no ends. Rather, it is clear that the person who values the tree remaining upstanding is Charlie. Charlie is seeking, by declaring a pseudo-right for the tree, a real right for himself to have his values vindicated and for Andrew to yield to these values. In short, Charlie wants to force Andrew to comply with what he, Charlie, simply wants him to do.

Usually, theories such as those of Charlie do not confine themselves to individual cases such as that of Andrew and Bob, or Andrew and some object. Rather, Charlie is normally the proponent of a much wider theory of social behaviour as he perceives a conflict between his values and the values of practically everybody else. In other words, he is claiming his right to force everyone else to conform to his grand vision of society. There can be no greater example of this kind of reconstruction of sociological concepts than that furnished by Karl Marx through his espousal of the so-called exploitation theory. Marx analysed the voluntary capitalist/employer relationship according to the equivalence of its surface phenomena with those of previous non-voluntary relationships such as serfdom, explaining the motivations, mechanics, and outcomes of this relationship with a series of fictions such as the harmony of class interests and distortions of several tenets of classical economics. From this, his labour theory of value leads to the conclusion that employer’s profit is “surplus value” appropriated from the labourers. Marx himself was careful to explain his theory as a scientific, economic theory that must be properly refuted in a scientific manner. However it is clear that he is inviting the specifically ethical conclusion that profit is theft, a conclusion to which his followers so willingly succumbed. The question of whether Marx’s scientific conclusions were the slave of his political preoccupations rather than vice versa is debatable. Either way, however, we can see that the effect of Marx’s de facto reinvention, his deliberate reconstruction, of the concept of theft was to urge the establishment of a property order that he desired – the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production – rather than that desired by everyone else. In short, he invented a conflict between two great swathes of the population that was not in any way perceived by the parties themselves. This theory, this constructivist intrusion into social phenomena, went on to enslave half of the globe for nearly a century and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. This trait or technique of reconstruction was not limited to Marx, however. Indeed, pretty much every significant contribution to socialist theory which denigrated the capitalists and entrepreneurs as thieves and parasites was made by middle class onlookers and observers; the working class themselves did not seek any right to protection from any alleged “theft”. So too did the backlash against the conditions of industrial workers in the nineteenth century receive its main championship from middle class intellectuals such as Charles Dickens, Lord Salisbury and Sidney and Beatrice Webb – busybodies who fought for people’s so-called rights without ever stopping to think whether or not those people wanted them. This is not to say, of course, that workers – the constructed rights holders – would not have willingly championed the apparent invocation of “their” rights. After all if someone comes along saying you can effectively have your cake and eat it you are hardly going to complain. This can be seen clearly today with the advocacy of minimum wages. Employees are lulled into thinking that there can be higher, nominal wages and plenty of jobs to go round whereas economic theory tells us that floors on wage rates are likely to lead to a shortage of available jobs and, hence, unemployment. If, however, you understand the concept of demonstrated preference – an “Austrian” insight that informs us that people’s valuations are revealed by how they act and not what they say – you would realise that their actual valuations were otherwise and they are, in fact, perfectly happy to accept full employment with lower wage rates, or “poor” working conditions. Anything they say otherwise amounts to little more than wishful thinking or whimsical dreaming of an alternative but unrealisable reality.

It is true, of course, that constructivist political theories may be motivated by a genuine concern for and desire to help people. But whether this is true or not any political theorist is rarely honest enough to say that his vision simply imposes his values upon everyone else. Usually this imposition is disguised through a convolution of pseudo-concepts and dogmas, the “exploitation theory” in Marx probably being the most prominent. Other noteworthy examples are the so-called “original position” and “veil of ignorance” in John Rawls. People in the real world do not want the kind of ethics that Rawls espouses so he has to invent a fictional world with fictional situations and fictional motivations in which they do. Indeed Rawls is blatant enough to admit, in A Theory of Justice, that he fashions these pseudo-concepts in such a way as to give him the answer that he wants. Such reconstructions and reinventions are evident, though, in pretty much all collectivist philosophies in which society is deemed to have “failed” to direct its resources in ways demanded by the theory’s proponent. It is evident too in all claims of so-called “market failure” – that the choices of purposefully acting individuals have gravely decided to devote their resources to some feeble end rather than to something “better” and “higher” that exists in the mind of the proponent. Furthermore the imposing party is never starkly identified as being the proponent himself, but, rather, his proxy the state (even if the goal is, like that of Marx, an eventual withering away of the state). It is the state which is tasked with bringing the ends desired by the proponent into being so that what results is that the state itself becomes the true rights holder and everyone else is obliged to succumb to the state’s self-enforcement of its right to bring about the proponent’s vision. Any people who happen to benefit from this, although they may be described as “legal rights holders” (for example those who have a “right” to claim state unemployment and sickness benefits), do not possess any real, fundamental rights at all but are, rather, incidental beneficiaries. In modern democracies, Charlie, the philosopher from our example earlier, is not any one individual but is, rather, the majority, who claim the right to force everyone else to adhere to that which they want (assuming, of course, that democracies really do enact the ends sought by the majority, which is highly doubtful). This majority may have a revolving membership from issue to issue or from election to election but the principle is the same as when that which is desired and imposed upon everyone else originates in the mind of a single person such as Charlie.

Unfortunately, and of more direct relevance to libertarians, none of this changes with libertarian and proto-libertarian theories that are themselves motivated chiefly by the desires of their proponents – that the free market will rapidly increase societal wealth by more than we can imagine; that it makes for an affluent and prosperous society; that humanity will achieve its greatest, hitherto unimaginable endeavours, etc. These theories usually have the benefit, unlike collectivist theories, of actually being able to accomplish their aims. However, their weakness lies in the fact that they accept the same basic premise as all the other theories, which is that the desirable goal is that which is posited by the proponent of the theory. All of these proto-libertarian theories set up the wellbeing of “society” as the ultimate aim; freedom of the individual is only the means of achieving society’s betterment. By defining liberty in this way, no genuine, fundamental rights are conferred upon the individuals and they are flimsily contingent upon their contribution to the goal. In other words, the possibility, however unlikely, is left open that if the goal could be achieved through some way other than the free market then these rights and freedoms could be withdrawn. For example, if we discovered, by magic, a way to make central planning the most conducive method of generating economic progress then any libertarian theory which promoted freedom based on its ability to raise the standard of living would crumble to dust. Yet no doubt most libertarians would say that one possesses a right not to be murdered or stolen from regardless of whether such acts would increase or decrease the number of yachts we can each buy. The more basic problem, however, is why should conflicts be recognised with reference to any goal espoused by the proponent of a theory rather than with reference to all of the millions of goals and purposes that individuals strive to achieve? Man is a social animal, as the well-worn phrase goes, but he only participates in social co-operation to the extent that he feels he derives a benefit from it, whether this is material or simply a desire for companionship and friendly relations. Society, the growth of the division of labour, increasing capital accumulation and a rising standard living are the result of each individual person fulfilling his individual purposes through social co-operation; they are not the initial purpose themselves. Such a point is often countered by the argument that people should promote society if they wish themselves to flourish. Ludwig von Mises, for example, speaks of “rightly understood interests” which, in a footnote, he describes as “interests in the long run”, an ethical goal later adopted by his colleague Henry Hazlitt – interests which can only be fulfilled by preserving social co-operation under the division of labour. Although this is a far cry from imposing upon people their own lofty ends as other philosophies are wont to do, it overlooks the fact that people have a variety of localities and time spans, short and long, in mind for their own individual purposes. A person could be completely and utterly educated about the effects of the free market and totally convinced that these effects would be true. Yet it would not be inconsistent for him to still desire goals that we would regard as evil but would not have a destructive effect upon “society” (killing a single individual, or individuals based upon a common characteristic such as skin colour for instance); nor could anyone stop him from desiring goals that are detrimental to “society” only in the long run, perhaps after the particular individual himself has died; still further, however, he could have goals that confer a benefit in the short term and a detriment in the longer term, even to himself (such as smoking, for example) and he may be perfectly happy with this situation. And finally, he may desire goals even in the short run such as greater equality, and reduced affluence and materialism that are completely contrary to ends created by the free market. At the extreme, ecological fundamentalists pretty much want to decimate the entirety of the human race, including themselves, in order to preserve the sanctity of the natural world. Hence one cannot, in these instances, even invoke the golden rule or dismiss them as cases of special pleading.

None of this should be understood as a denigration of proto-libertarian theories which are often, on their own terms, entirely correct and certainly add moral weight to a case for freedom. They do, however, lack moral decisiveness. They are reduced to confronting collectivist theories with arguments about which purpose is better (or which means for fulfilling an agreed purpose are better), and only, at the very least, give the appearance of recognising that the real problem is, in fact, how to reconcile all of the billions of purposes of individual people.

It is true that if we were to refrain from indulging in any constructivist ideology which create rights and obligations fashioned by their proponent then this would not, in and of itself, be sufficient to generate strictly libertarian rights. One also has to explain why, for example, when a conflict is genuinely perceived by individual people, it must be answered in favour of the original property owner. But ascribing rights only to those who seek the valuable ends that their invocation brings about – a province exclusively of rational actors – considerably narrows the field by revealing competing theories for what they really are – the forced distribution of property according to ends valued by the proponent, together with the subordination of all of the billions of desires and purposes of individual people to the desires and purposes of the proponent.

We can see therefore that the greatest threat to liberty throughout history has been the redefinition and reconstruction of ideas and concepts that had a sociological origin. Concepts such as rights have been twisted and distorted from serving as vindications of the ends sought by individual people to serving as vindications of the ends sought by the authors of grand visions of society, visions which have, when implemented, resulted in poverty, destitution and societal degradation. In some ways this is just a more subtle version of the more explicit redefinition of a host of other concepts. A liberal used to be the equivalent of a libertarian; today, wearing such a badge would declare oneself as a socialist. If one is now a free trader, one is actually in favour of managed trade. Liberty is now social democracy, and so on. Even what is “human” has been redefined, through the exploitation of sub-categories such as races and ethnic or language groups, in order to justify ethnic cleansing or genocide on the grounds that the victims are “sub-human” or “vermin”. All of these are simply starker versions of the same constructivist methodology – the attempt to change the underlying reality of concepts to suit their own purposes. To embrace this kind of constructive rationalism, as Hayek called it, is of the same ilk as empiricism and positivism when applied to the social sciences – gross epistemological errors which vastly expand the scope of plausible social theories and lend credence to all manner of attempts at social engineering.

What can we, then, as libertarians learn from this when attempting to develop our own political theory? The most important lesson is that libertarianism is limited to distilling, from the phenomenon of social rules, basic, formal characteristics of these rules rather than their substantive content when they are concretised into actual legal rules that prevail in society. We might call these conclusions high-level political principles and concepts, an order higher than the actual legal rules that we are required to follow in our everyday lives. Some of the conclusions that we can draw legitimately are as follows:

  • Social rules arise to resolve conflicts born out of scarcity of means for attaining ends;
  • That rights and obligations apply to rational actors who possess the qualities of perceiving value, thinking, preferring, deciding, and acting to bring about a more favourable state of affairs;
  • Non-rational actors do not possess rights and obligations – they possess no ability to display moral choice nor the capacity to consciously prefer an alternative state of affairs; key requirements for rights – a perceived conflict and the ability to choose an alternative state of affairs – are therefore missing.

We are not going to proceed to justify these observations here, something which we have already done in an earlier series of essays on the scope of morality. Our concern here is to emphasise that these observations arise out of a reflective process upon the nature of social rules – we are attempting to describe a reality that is already there and not to construct circumstances that are new. When, having made and reflected upon these observations, we continue to define the uniquely libertarian content to social rules this too must also be stated in purely formal terms:

  • A rational actor has the right to own the matter that constitutes his body;
  • A rational actor has the right to own private property;
  • Consequently, no rational actor may invade, physically, the body or property of another.

Again, we will not attempt to justify these conclusions and will simply assume that, as libertarians, we all hold them to be true. Here, however, comes the crunch. What cannot be done is for pure, libertarian theorising to flesh out these formal rules with substantive content. In other words, we cannot, through theory alone, determine which situations are conflicts that need to be resolved. We cannot, by mere philosophising, identify precisely which beings are rational actors and are subject to rights and obligations, nor do we know precisely which actions are aggressive and which are perfectly peaceful. These questions are and always will be the product of the individual values, desires and the resulting perception of scarcity that arises when the means for fulfilling these values clash with those of someone else, factual situations which cannot be determined a priori. In most cases, the obviousness and typicality of aggressive behaviour answers the question for us. For example, stabbing another person in the heart is almost always an aggressive act whereas sitting motionless in your living room chair is not. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these conclusions are determined by theorising. It is only because the ends that people seek through scarce, physical means clash when one is stabbed by another, and it is only because they do not clash when you sit quietly by yourself in a chair that we know stabbing someone is aggressive behaviour and that sitting alone is not. Whether there is such a clash of ends can only be determined by real people acting in the real world. If we lived in a bizarre world where stabbing another person was perfectly acceptable and everyone was, in fact, happy to receive a brutal stabbing then this would not be aggressive behaviour.

All of this becomes clearer when we consider borderline cases or cases where a typically aggressive act consists of the same kind of behaviour as an aggressive act. For example, the light from a person’s living room window that shines onto neighbouring properties at night is probably not aggressive behaviour, yet if the person was to illuminate his property like Times Square then it probably is. However, both acts consist of basically the same thing – light beams emanating from one person’s property onto another’s. So why is the first act peaceful whereas the second act is aggressive? How bright do the lights have to get before non-aggressive behaviour becomes aggressive? The answer is because nobody, typically, perceives any interference with their own property when you merely have your living room lights on at night, whereas they probably would perceive such an interference if you were to coat your house in flashing, neon lights. Again, the distinction between one and the other rests on the ability of humans to fulfil their ends with the property in question. If each person can go about his business in the belief that he is not being interfered with by another then there is no aggression, even though we may each be experiencing acts which are of a similar, but diminished nature to aggressive acts. Ethics are the product of human action (or, rather, interaction), and all human values that motivate this action appear in discrete concrete, steps – not infinitely small, indiscrete steps which can only be measured by scientific instruments. For example, if I am thirsty and to resolve this thirst I drink 0.00001% of the water in a small glass it is not very likely that I would feel myself to be 0.00001% less thirsty then I was before. Rather, after having imbibed such a useless and imperceptibly small quantity of water I am still, in my mind, fully thirsty and am in exactly the same position as I was before even though, scientifically speaking, the quantity of water in my body has increased. Given that ethics also depend upon human valuations it is no surprise that ethical distinctions are neither surgically precise nor infinitely small.

Is it the case, then, that libertarians are all at sea when it comes to determining the practical questions of precisely which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts that are resolved by libertarian rights? Can a libertarian justice system develop no jurisprudence whatsoever concerning which situations are unlawful and which are not? It is true, as we argued in an earlier series on libertarian legal systems, that courts must look to the actions of the parties in order to determine their values and intentions when judging the particular incident at hand. Actions, however, cannot be judged in a void. Rather, they are always interpreted according to their customary, conventional and social context. Over time, as a legal system develops, we can understand readily that the situations which come before courts or adjudicators again and again will be of the same ilk. In other words, courts will come to realise that certain situations are typically viewed by people as aggressive and other situations are not. It is this that provides for them the key to concretising the political principles we outlined earlier – that is, the right to self-ownership and to private property – into substantive legal rules that prescribe the precise situations that violate these principles. Let us take, for example, the deliberate killing of another individual. Although it is, in a hypothetical world, perfectly possible for everyone to be perfectly happy to be killed, our experience and the experience of the court in the real world informs us that in the vast majority of instances people do not, in fact, wish to be killed. Therefore, killing someone is, at the very least, presumed to be an aggressive act in all instances and (if it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the victim) the burden falls on the defendant to adduce otherwise. In other words, the victim of a typically aggressive act does not need to prove to the court that the act in this particular situation was aggressive. Let us take, as a further for example, an alleged theft. People, typically, do not want their things to be stolen. If B asserts that C stole from him an item of property the court will hold that this act was prima facie aggressive if B can establish a prior title. However, if C can produce evidence of a superior title, such as a valid receipt for the goods that he took, then he rebuts the presumption.

It is for this reason that acts which consist of minute but generally innocuous physical invasions upon another individual’s person or property are not considered to be aggressive in all instances, even when one party genuinely feels as though his property has been invaded. Earlier we mentioned the case of light from a lounge lamp emanating from a window onto another person’s property. This happens to all of us; if we look out of our windows at night onto the street we can see dim light’s from all the other houses. Most people do not give this a second thought as it does not interfere with their ability to use their own property. If, therefore, someone came before the court and alleged that such an act was aggressive, the court is likely to reject the claim simply because certain types of minor and virtually imperceptible physical invasions are deemed to be socially acceptable. And if the plaintiff has a particular susceptibility to the minor invasion then the burden should fall upon him to protect himself from it, and not upon someone else who is simply going about his daily business.

Other legal rules will be designed to sift out genuine conflicts from mere grievances after the fact. One of the justifications for statutes of limitations is that the elapse of an extended period time before initiation of a lawsuit is evidence of the fact that there was no real conflict. For example, if noise emanates from a neighbour’s property onto my own and I choose not to pursue a case against the neighbour within a certain amount of time stipulated by the court then the court may conclude that this elapse of time is evidence that that the noise was not perceived by me as invasive and I am not entitled to recover damages (such a fact may also be construed as evidence that I have granted an easement right to my neighbour to continue making the noise, so that not only can I not recover damages for the previous noise but that the neighbour can go on being noisy also – but this is a separate issue).

Legal rules begin to lose a degree of steadfastness and certainty where it is difficult for the court to establish objectively the relationship between the parties. One of the most pertinent examples in this regard is the crime of rape. The conflict inherent in rape is the lack of consent to sexual intercourse by the penetrated party. Yet establishing objectively whether such consent was either present or absent is fraught with difficulty because lawful sex and unlawful rape often emerge from similar circumstances and consist of the same physical act. Because of the traumatic and, often, life changing results for both a genuine plaintiff on the one hand and a falsely accused defendant on the other, any evidential rules that are determined are likely to be heavily contentious. Yet it is here where the influence of the shifting sands of the social context are most visible. When society was heavily patriarchal and placed a moral responsibility upon females to uphold their sexual virtue, the burden was upon the victim of an alleged rape to prove to the court that she had not consented to the sexual act. Indeed, at one point the law did not even recognise a forced, sexual act as rape if it took place between husband and wife. Nowadays, however, after women have gained a greater degree of social equality with men, we can see at least a creeping movement that places an increasing amount of the evidential burden on the accused to establish that consent was, in fact, present, rather than on the alleged victim to establish that it was absent. In other words, while the concept of rape as an aggressive act has remained in place, the precise legal rules surrounding it have changed as the social, customary and conventional context has changed.

What we can see from all of this is that courts and legal systems in a libertarian world would at no time design or construct concepts such as conflicts and aggression, nor would they pronounce from on high which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts. Rather, their jurisprudence is moulded by (ultimately) centuries of cases that have come before it, cases that are motivated by the real perception of conflicts by real, individual people attempting to fulfil their ends with the scarce means available. Although a latecomer born into a libertarian society after many generations would see only a plethora of rules seemingly dictated to him from a single source, their origin is, in fact, the heterogeneous, and decentralised values held all of the individual people that make up and have made up that society.

In addition to determining the distinctions between aggressive and non-aggressive acts, another area where this line of thinking comes into play is the distinction between beings which have rights and those which do not. As we outlined earlier, a being has rights if it is a rational actor, that is it is able to undertake actions that are motivated by thought, desire and choice as opposed to actions that are motivated wholly by the laws of physics or by instinct. The existence of rights is impossible in a situation where both the desire and ability to bring about alternative outcomes with the scarce means available is absent. With such an absence, the determination of outcomes is solely a product of might and inertia – the stronger force always winning – simply because there is no impetus to bring about any alternative. This is all that strict libertarian theory has to say about the matter. However, the question of precisely which beings are rational beings and thus enjoy rights cannot simply be a product of theory. It may be plainly obvious to see that a fully grown human adult, as a thinking, desiring, choosing and rational being will clearly be a rights holder while a dead plank of wood clearly will not be. But we only know this precisely because, at some point in history, the earliest humans experienced interpersonal scarcity and each consciously recognised certain possessions as belonging to him in order to meet his ends. Indeed, the most likely way in which we each recognised another human being as a rational entity that should possess rights is whether or not that being made an appeal for these rights to be upheld as this, itself, is a rational action to devote means towards ends. At first this was most likely made tacitly or through body language, aided by our empathy from being in exactly the same position as our neighbour. It is from this earliest seed that entire systems of rights and obligations between individual humans grew. No one at any point commanded from on high that “X has rights, Y does not have rights” and so on. Rather, because of our shared quality of acting rationally, our status as rights holders was enforced from the bottom up as we each sought to progress our lives by directing scarce resources to the uses that satisfy us the most. This brings into the foreground the question of marginal cases such as foetuses, children and higher primate animals. Let us take, for example, abortion. Libertarians are often chided for not having an agreed “solution” to the issue of abortion (as if everyone else is blessed by such agreement). Yet, as we have argued here, this disagreement is not one that is inherent in libertarian theory. Libertarian theory tells us only the qualities that a being has in order to enjoy rights. In an earlier essay, which focussed exclusively on the issue of children and abortion the present author suggested that this question must always be answered in the negative in regard to these beings – that it is so obvious that foetuses and very young children are incapable of acting rationally that they would only come to possess rights, probably in a graduated fashion, as they age. Yet whatever support could be mustered for such a position, it is not strictly a conclusion of libertarian theory. In contrast to this initial conclusion we went on to discuss in a second essay an alternative view which could also, in accordance with libertarian theory, grant rights to children. These questions – whether a particular being such as a foetus possesses those qualities – concerns the application of libertarian theory, not the theory itself. This application will also vary according to the social context, just as the precise acts which can be categorised as aggressive are dependent upon this context. A clear example of this is the changing nature of the rights of children. Even if we admonish the statist intervention into the family unit and the ridiculous and irreconcilable one-size-fits-all cut offs for when children can carry out such acts such as having sex, driving or drinking alcohol, it is tempting to say that it is obvious that children must be regarded as independent, human beings who at least have some rights. In other words, the rights of infants are a universal an immutable fact, independent of time and place. However, this could not be further from the truth. In pre-industrial, agrarian societies where the main economic unit was the family, children were regarded as little more than the property of their parents and their chief worth was their economic value, with any rights they had subsumed by the welfare of the family unit. Although research produced by scholars since the 1960s has indicated that child rearing was not brutal and parents did make sacrifices for their children to maximise their welfare such as care during sickness, the general attitude is hardly unsurprising in an epoch of extreme poverty characterised by persistent hunger, malnutrition and an infant mortality rate as high as one third of babies born. Indeed, we can surmise that telling a mother that she may legally kill her child may have been greeted with an acknowledged, if reluctant acceptance if there simply wasn’t enough food to eat and if the consumption of whatever resources were available was prioritised towards the able bodied population. The more familiar view of children as having an independent identity that accorded them certain rights was born during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, along with the romanticised view of childhood as an “age of innocence”. However, thoughts during this time were far from uniform. On the one hand, there was the nurturance or caretaker view which was, at its earliest, espoused by John Locke, and Thomas Spence’s “The Rights of Infants”, one of the first pamphlets to specifically consider the issue, is subtitled “Imprescriptible Right of MOTHERS to such a Share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to suckle and bring up their Young” (emphasis in the original). This work is written as a plea from the mothers of children to the aristocracy. In other words the rights advocated were of the mother to demand from the gentry the wherewithal to nurture her infant from the produce of the land and were not directly held by the child. The alternative view, that children have much more independent rights, became augmented and subsumed by the onset of industrial society (in which children often worked in factories and down mines), and the backlash of the middle class intelligentsia against the “squalid” and “destitute” conditions of industrial workers generally, a backlash that was itself subsumed by the descent into socialism and communism. Of course, what truly abolished child labour was not a call for children’s rights, but the fact that adults could produce enough wealth for a child to survive and flourish without the latter having to work. The right of a child not to labour and, instead to be supported by its parents, are, like any positive obligations, wholly dependent on there being enough wealth to accomplish this. Thus the specific rights, and to whom they applied, were very much a product of the socioeconomic context. For the sake of completion, we might as well mention that the development of children’s rights in the twentieth century has, unsurprisingly, been welded to the growth of the state and all of its catastrophes and calamities. The Declarations of the Rights of the Child, the precursor to the modern UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is, as of this day, enshrined in international law, was drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of the charity Save the Children that was set up to alleviate the starvation and poverty of German and Austrian children as a result of the First World War, a war which would not have occurred without imperialism, state militaries, the drive to autarky, central banking, and so on. The creation of the welfare state and the subsequent disintegration of the family it has caused, together with government provision of education, have all served to make the rights and conditions of children a public affair.

It is not, therefore, a matter for theorists to determine from on high whether or not specific beings such as very young children or foetuses should have rights and what these rights, precisely, will be. In other words, libertarian theory does not demand that children and foetuses, nor any other specific being, have rights. Rather these rights, if they exist, will be generated from the bottom up and will depends very much on the customary, conventional and socioeconomic context. We explained in detail how a modern libertarian legal system may approach the question of the rights of children in this manner in our second essay dedicated to the topic and we will not repeat this in detail here. But we can mention briefly that a series of legal presumptions is likely to govern these rights. There is likely to be at least a legal presumption that a child is a rational being when it comes to the right to bodily integrity (so that a child may not be legally killed); further legal presumptions will grant further rights to children (i.e. to enter contracts, to drink, marry, enter employment, etc.) either at ages where the court has previously found children to be generally competent for these acts, or at ages or milestones which are important in the social context, such as the Bar Mitzvah in a Jewish community. One unique aspect of a libertarian legal system, however, is that these milestones need not be concrete or set in stone as the state makes most of them today. It may well be open to the child, or to another individual, to rebut the presumption. If, say, there is a legal presumption that a child cannot enter a contract of employment below the age of thirteen, a child below this age may contest any challenge to a prospective contract if he (or the prospective employer) can demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that he made this decision in the manner of an adult – i.e. it was a rational choice to better his life. There should be no danger of a perpetual, enforced childhood in state run schools if the child is uniquely mature enough to seek a better life for himself. Conversely, if a child is mentally impaired the rebuttal may work the other way with the parents or guardians establishing before the court that, at a presumed age, the child is still not competent to undertake certain acts in his or her own right. Abortion may be more difficult but we can suggest, for example, that if advances in medical science reduce the amount of time for which a pregnancy has to elapse before the foetus is considered viable then the law may regard the foetus as a whole, legal person much sooner that it previously did. If and when we have the technology and are able to establish communication with some of the higher functioning animals, these too may be regarded as rights holders in at least limited circumstances. To repeat again, however, this discovery of certain animals as rights holders would be made as a result of the recognition of these animals as independent, rationally acting beings. The rights will be dependent upon what these animals want because we discover that they are able to want, to desire, to choose different outcomes and to act accordingly. Contrast this to the current statist enforcement of so-called “animal rights” from the top down. These rights are not really animal rights at all – they are the rights of certain people who claim to care about animals enforcing how they believe other people should act vis-à-vis animals. The benefit gained from a vindication of any of these “rights” exists in their minds, not in the minds of the animals.

This, then, is a suitable concluding note to emphasise from what this series of two, rather long, essays. That these phenomena – rights, obligations, conflicts, aggression and so on – serve to regulate the desires of individual, rationally acting beings, a regulation that is necessary to resolve the perception of scarcity that exists in these people’s minds. The existence and content of rights is driven by this impetus. Rights are not designed or constructed from on high by an intellectual in an ivory tower, nor are those who benefit from them assigned by a politician. Any attempt to design rights is akin to treating to individuals as pieces on a grand chess board – pawns in a game of shaping society according to what the intellectual or politician wants. Our conception of rights here is focussed firmly on vindicating the individual and, while it may appear as a limitation upon libertarian theory to answer certain precise and practical questions, ultimately strengthens it.


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The “Austrian” Method Part Two of Two – Human Action and the Natural Sciences

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In part one of this two-part series of essays on the “Austrian” method, we explored how action forms the grounding of our epistemology. We will now, in this second and final part, determine the correct approaches for humans to go out into the world and study the complex phenomena that exist.

Methodological Dualism

The “Austrian” approach to the explanation of phenomena is that science must apply a definitive and rigorous methodological dualism – taking one approach towards the study of human action on the hand and a different approach towards the study of the actions of unconscious matter on the other. The study of humans – that is, of their conscious actions as opposed to the actions motivated by the chemical and biological physiology of their bodies, such a heartbeat – must be validated by deduction from the action axiom. Within this category of study falls praxeology and the parts of it that branch into economics and ethics. The study of unconscious matter, on the other hand, must be validated empirically, encompassing all of the areas of study to which we typically apply the epithet “science” – physics, chemistry, biology and so on. This position of the “Austrians” is contrary to that of the mainstream economics profession which takes a methodological monistic approach, with the study of human action being categorised in exactly the same way as dead, unconscious matter and subjected to validation by evidential testing. Indeed science these days is almost synonymous with “evidence” and any conclusions that are not validated through evidence are seen to be worthless. The huge myriad of facts and statistics that are gathered about society are all used as “evidence” to indicate a particular problem or that a government intervention is or is not working. Indeed the entire approach gives credence to those who seek to bring about social engineering – if humans are merely mechanical objects that always behave in manner X when action Y is imposed then society can be manipulated like a puppet on a string in accordance with the will of the political leaders. If the product of this engineering is a failure then the hypothesis is merely viewed as being incorrect and – regardless of the lives ruined or lost in the first round – perhaps we should try seeing if humans behave not in manner X but in manner Z when action Y is imposed. By failing (or refusing to acknowledge) that it is the method itself and not the specific conclusions under it that are at fault, endless rounds of programmes and interferences are justified in order to try and get government to shape society according to whatever preoccupations – justice, equality, fairness etc. – happen to rule the roost. It is not too outlandish to suggest that the biggest social experiment of this kind – the Soviet Union – took seventy gut-wrenching years and countless millions of lives before it was abandoned as a failure. The settlement of this question, therefore, and proof of the necessity of methodological dualism is one of the most important bulwarks against tyranny that liberty-minded individuals should be prepared to understand.

Deduction

Our first task is not to establish whether this dualism is justified, but, rather, whether it is possible to learn anything of substance at all through reasoning and deduction. A positivist objection to validating knowledge through reasoning is that it must necessarily be analytical and tautological rather than synthetic and progressive of knowledge. In other words, everything we need to know is contained in the original proposition and deducing further knowledge from it amounts merely to an engagement in endless definitions that teach us nothing new about the world whatsoever. But just because something is deduced from a given proposition does not mean that it is simply an elaborated definition of that original fact; rather, we very much learn something new about the world that affects how we interact with it. Even a very simple proposition – such as two parallel lines will never meet – will have impacts on geometry, design, endeavours in construction and even our spatial awareness. Try building an object where your design relies on the false proposition that two parallel lines will, at some point, meet and you will probably find that it will collapse. Similarly, the fact that we derive the whole corpus of economic theory from the simple proposition that “humans act” does not mean that we are expressing redundant and pointless definitions through economic theorising. All of the subsidiary axioms – that humans choose means, towards ends, at a cost, resulting in profit or loss – as well as concepts we derive from them – supply and demand, marginal utility, prices, exchange, interest, capital goods – and not to mention all of the further complex laws that we deduce from them all collapse into the basic axiom that humans act. Yet to understand these concepts and laws is not to engage in endless tautology. Do we not learn anything new about the world by deducing from the fact that humans act that price controls will cause either a shortage or surplus of the controlled goods? Do we not gain something from realising that increased taxation will raise the cost of production and hence retard its extent? All of these concepts and laws tell us something we did not know before about how we interact with the world and we would be very much at a loss without their realisation.

Unconscious and Conscious Beings

Having established this, therefore, let us proceed to justify the methodological division between the validation of knowledge of the actions of unconscious matter on the one hand and the actions of humans on the other. As we mentioned in part one, the seeking of knowledge in inherently bound with our role as actors and how we can enhance our use of means towards ends motivated by choices. The study of all complex phenomena in the universe is fundamentally an endeavour to enhance our understanding of another fundamental category of action, that of causality and the operation of causes – how one event causes another. It is through our role as actors where we must display and utilise an inherent understanding of the causal link between events that we come to realise the necessity for methodological dualism.

The physical objects around us in the world are all capable of being categorised as means through which we may meet our ends. A particular action utilising an object as a means will give a certain result – the end may be fulfilled, unfulfilled or fulfilled to a degree short of that desired; “over-fulfilment” – that is that the means through action produce more of an end that that which was sought may also be considered but it overlaps with un-fulfilment if the result is to create a net loss by impacting on other ends. This success or non-success of actions – that is, the suitability of means for ends – determines our knowledge of causes between these two categories of action. With unconscious objects humans tend to find that the same outcomes occur from repetition of a certain action under like conditions – if I let go of a ball it drops to the ground; if I do it a second time it drops to the ground again. In other words I find that on each occasion repeated actions to attain an end display a universal causal link between means and ends. However, if I shout at the ball to wash my laundry for me, I will learn that there is no causal link between shouting at a ball and my laundry being cleaned, however much I may repeat the action. This forms the basis of all approaches to the gaining of knowledge of unconscious matter – by holding all other variables constant and altering only the variable under examination we derive the laws of physics and chemistry from our observation, through action, of this matter. Importantly, these laws are invariably true and operate whenever the conditions are fulfilled. A further aspect that we know innately from our actions is that these truths tend to be quantitative as well as qualitative – that a given quantity of means is necessary to produce the end and variations of that quantity may either enhance or spoil attainment of the end. If I wish to sweeten my hot beverage I may add a spoonful of sugar; half a spoonful giving half the sweetness would be too little and two spoonfuls giving twice the sweetness would be too much. In the laboratory this translates into quantitative or proportionate laws; when we examine the boiling and freezing points of water, for example, we do not simply form a broad, qualitative law that increasing temperature will increase the energy of water molecules and lowering it will decrease the energy; rather, we know that a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius will boil water and a temperature of 0 degrees will freeze it, with each degree towards those points approaching it incrementally. As we know from observing our kettle or a pot on the stove, water doesn’t sit their tepidly until the boiling point is reached then vaporise suddenly; rather it starts to bubble and steam at much lower temperatures. Similarly, water approaching freezing will not suddenly ice over all at once but begins to turn to frost and slush at 2-3 degrees. Quantitative laws whose effects occur in infinitely small steps are precisely those truths of unconscious matter that are determined by the natural sciences, validated fundamentally through our inherent understanding of our use of them as means in actions towards ends. As we stated in part one, the fact that we continue to act to utilise means towards ends indicates that these causal links are not random or spontaneous but are, rather, objective laws of reality.

From our actions towards humans, however, we learn something markedly different. The realm of the physiological and chemical properties of their bodies is, of course, the same as that of unconscious matter – prick a man and he will bleed; hold a flame to him and his skin will burn. The domain of his consciously chosen actions, however, is where we find two important differences. First, the same human will not necessarily behave in the same way when the same situation is repeated, even if all other variables are held constant. Second, two humans will not necessarily behave in the same way in the same situation at the same time, even though they may each be acting under the same conditions. If I walk into a busy shop and shoot a gun in the air, some of the people will dash for cover, some will stand petrified, others will scream, others still may rush to tackle me to the ground and so on. Different people respond to the event in different ways. If I then leave and, a few minutes later, walk in and do the same thing again what will I find? Will the same people who dashed for cover last time do the same thing this time? Will the exact same people who screamed last time do so a second time? The answer is likely to be no – some of those who dashed for cover or stood petrified last time may now be buoyed up by their prior experience and join the ranks of those who rush to tackle me; those who tried to stop me last time, however, may not wish to risk their lives a second time and will run for shelter. Of course it is equally possible that they will all behave in exactly the same way – what is important is the fact that this aspect cannot be determined. The conscious choice of human actions serves to break those actions free of reliance upon the laws of physics. I don’t have to wait for the wind to push me two metres to the left; I can just decide to move my legs and walk that distance in that direction. Actions must, of course, always be in congruence with natural laws; I can’t for instance, jump and expect to be propelled into space. I can, however, make the conscious decision to build a rocket that will take me into orbit if the means are available and I don’t need to sit around and wait for the inertia of physical matter to do it for me. Human choice and volition, therefore, replaces the laws of physics as the cause of human action. Importantly, the place of human choice must be regarded as not just a cause but the ultimate cause of such action. The very existence of free will precludes the possibility of universal laws regarding the substance of a given action that is motivated by that will. Either an individual is free to do what he wants or he is not and his actions are reliant upon some other inertia. Psychology – the study of why humans make the choices that they do – may one day determine whether given physical or chemical impetuses in the brain always result in a given action; but until that stage is reached we must regard human choice as a distinctly teleological phenomenon. Economic science therefore proceeds in a markedly different direction from that of the natural sciences. Economists begin from the general, ultimate cause of human action and deduce from it the specific laws of phenomena; natural scientists, on the other hand, begin with the specific phenomena and work “backwards” to determine their more general causes.

Should the teleological nature of human action be doubted then consider the case of the individual who seeks to derive knowledge of other humans. Knowledge, as we have said, is the perquisite of actors – its purpose is to determine more accurately the technical requirements for future action, enhancing the understanding of the suitability of means directed towards ends. Let’s say that a man wants to hold a dinner party and wishes to serve either steak or salmon – whichever is less expensive (or more expensive, if he was trying to impress his guests). If the steak is cheaper he will serve steak and if salmon is cheaper he will serve salmon. Before this knowledge is gained his future action – whether he will serve steak or salmon – is uncertain and conditional upon the content of the knowledge. When he receives that knowledge – let’s say that steak is cheaper – he makes a choice to serve steak at his party. But he could easily have chosen salmon if salmon had been the less expensive of the two. In other words the very seeking of knowledge itself proves the uncertainty of future action and any attempt to seek knowledge of other, equally acting human beings, and derive concrete laws concerning the substance of their action would be contradictory.

Our knowledge of humans, as opposed to that of unconscious matter, therefore appears to be curtailed by a very wide margin. For we cannot, in our actions, approach other humans in the same way as we approach other matter – we cannot mould and shape humans in the way that we can other means to which we devote our ends. Does this mean, then, that we can know nothing at all about human action? Does our attempt at any study at all necessarily lead us into a dead end and should we give up? Not at all; we learnt in part one how our actions form the bedrock of our epistemology and how it necessarily constrains and conditions our search for knowledge. In exactly the same way, while we cannot form strictly substantive laws of human action, we can discover laws regarding their formal requirements – laws that exist by virtue of action itself regardless of the content of the individual action. In short, if we cannot examine the impetus towards the substance of actions and derive no laws at all from their observation we need to return to the root of the formal constraints of action by examining action itself.

The Characteristics of Laws of Human Action

There are three important qualities regarding the truths that we derive from the fact of action – first, they are deduced logically from the action axiom; second, they are formal and not substantive laws; and third, they are qualitative and not quantitative. They are deduced because only an actor has the innate ability to understand the meaning of action. In our own role as actors, we have an introspective understanding of the meaning of action and what it is to be an actor and we rely upon this understanding to draw conclusions about other actors. When a person picks up a cup in order to drink for instance, we know that this is not a random movement instigated by the laws of physics; rather, we know, from the knowledge we have validated from our own action, that this person is using means towards ends as the result of a choice. Simply observing and cataloguing the physical movements would tell us nothing at all – we might know that his arms move 46.3 centimetres to the left and his fingers clasp the cup and raise it 31.7 centimetres from the height of the table; but only reflection upon these movements, derived from our own role as actors, will tell us anything about these movements as freely chosen actions using means towards ends. Any kind of empirical validation of this knowledge is therefore impossible. Second, the laws are formal in that they specify the qualities of actions as a general category but have nothing to say about their substance. We may deduce, for example, the law that, all else being equal, an increase in the demand for a good will raise its price. But we have nothing to say on precisely what this good will be and when it will be demanded. Indeed, nothing about the physical quality of objects tells us whether they will be economic goods at all – such a categorisation being dependent upon the volition of the human mind. What is desired today may be discarded as useless tomorrow and vice versa. And finally, these truths are qualitative and not quantitative because actions occur in whole, discrete and concrete steps that take place in one go and do not proceed in infinitely small increments or decrements. If the temperature of a room is raised by one degree per minute water in the room may gain energy gradually by a measurable step per degree. Yet a human in the same room will not start shedding small parts of his jersey gradually at each degree; rather, there will come a point later where he perceives himself to be too hot and will take off the entire jersey in one go. Further, the impetuses that result in a change of choice resulting in an action are not uniform between human beings – others might find that they get too hot at a lower or higher temperature. And on a different day they may all make a different decision. Similarly, two objects that contain minute, physical differences may be regarded as the same good by the acting human. One bottle of water might contain exactly one litre of water; another might contain 1.0001 litres. Yet to the acting human this difference may be negligible and he will happily regard each bottle as interchangeable. It is partly for this basic reason that the application of mathematical formulae to explain (or rather, to predict) human action is invalid – mathematical sequences proceed in infinitely small gradations, the result of which would lead one to expect that human action also proceeds in such tiny, measurable steps.

It is these aspects that cause much ire and infuriation in the mainstream economics profession. Under the mantle “science is measurement” any method that rejects the formation of quantitative and substantive laws is seen as inherently unscientific. Science, however, is the seeking of knowledge as it exists in the universe; it is therefore perfectly scientific to state that laws must be qualitative if that is all they ever can be; grossly unscientific behaviour – indeed, an aberration on the part of anyone who proclaims to respect discovery of the truth – is to attempt to make known that which never can be. If quantitative laws cannot be determined then that is the boundary of scientific discovery.

The attempt to ascertain laws of human action through empirical validation produces only statistics and historical truths about the choices that were made at that particular time and place by those particular humans. Simply because the price of meat doubled during a shortage of cattle in Ruritania in 1952 does not mean that such a shortage in 2014 will also cause a doubling in price – or any change in price at all. Empirical validation fails to work in the realm of human action because none of the variables are ever held constant in two situations. The laws must instead be validated by holding the variables constant in one’s mind and deducing what must be the necessary result by virtue of the formal qualities of action. It follows from this also that the laws cannot be used to predict, with any scientific accuracy, future action – something that “Austrians” sometimes unwittingly overlook in their zeal to promote their otherwise correct understanding of economic theory. “Austrians” who have predicted a heavy increase in price inflation following the Federal Reserve’s money printing have had to cope with the smug retorts of the mainstream as this inflation has not emerged, largely because the demand to hold cash, particularly by the banks, has also increased. We cannot ever say that, for example, if the quantity of money is increased that there will be price inflation of any measurable quantity or even if price inflation will appear at all. All we can say is that, if all else remains equal, one is betting very heavily on the result of price inflation by carrying out the action of printing money. The focus of “Austrian” economists is to explain phenomena and not to engage in the Friedmann-ite obsession with the prediction of future events. Ironically, however, given their superior explanatory power, “Austrian” predictions tend to be more accurate than those of the mainstream – “Austrians”, for example, were among the few to recognise the instability of the housing bubble prior to the 2008 crash. Furthermore, being derived from absolutely true, self-evident premises the laws themselves – should our logic be correct – must also be absolutely true for the entirety of time, regardless of whether the particular phenomenon with which the law is concerned ever appears in society. A Robinson Crusoe island, for example, would be devoid of interpersonal exchange; and yet the laws of interpersonal exchange would still be true and valid. Phenomena which appear in society may determine the scope and direction of that which we wish to study, but they do not preclude the truthfulness of phenomena that have not made an appearance or do so to a lesser extent. Even if empirical validation in this field was possible, therefore, its limitation to present and visible phenomena would result in knowledge of a markedly poorer tapestry. It is unlikely that the Robinson Crusoe situation of unilateral exchange has ever existed to be observed and yet so informative is this situation of our basic economic understanding that we would be worse off without it.

Does this mean that we can never say anything at all about the content of actions? We can, but only on the basis of empathetic understanding of our fellow human beings and not upon any strictly defined laws. The realms of entrepreneurship and historical analysis use this method to determine and explain the actions and choices of humans in the future and the past respectively. Profit opportunities exist precisely because future actions cannot be embedded in concrete law; if they were everyone would know what they would be and every good and service would consequently be bidded up or down to precisely its cost. Rather, entrepreneurs must take their empathetic understanding of human desires in the future and combine it with superior logistical and technical knowledge of his goods or services and methods of production in order to make a profit. The historian, in forming explanation of past choices, must do this retrospectively. Use of the natural sciences and the sciences of human action will provide a circumscribed explanation for the most part – an historian who attempted to explain the effects of the Irish potato famine as the result of witchcraft would clearly be a charlatan, for example. Yet the key question of why historical figures acted as they did, their thoughts and feelings that motivated them towards action – a branch of historical investigation that Mises labelled thymology – can only ever be based on the historian’s empathetic view of the factual conditions under which the historical character was acting. The result is historical explanations that are based not upon concrete and certain knowledge but are simply more or less persuasive than others.

Conclusion

What we have outlined in these two parts is only the briefest possible sketch of the “Austrian” method as it applies both to economics specifically and to wider epistemology. It is therefore appropriate to end with a core bibliography of works that explore the “Austrian” method in more detail than we have been able to here:

 

Introductory Works:

Gordon, David                    An Introduction to Economic Reasoning

White, Lawrence                The Methodology of the Austrian Economists

 

Texts:

Menger, Carl                          Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences

Mises, Ludwig von               Epistemological Problems of Economics

Human Action, Part One, “Human Action”

Theory and History

The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science

Robbins, Lionel                    Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science

Rothbard, Murray N            The Logic of Action, Section One, “Method”

Hoppe, Hans Hermann      Economic Science and the Austrian Method

                                                   The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Part Two , Chs. 9, 10, 14

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The “Austrian” Method Part One of Two – Foundations of “Austrian” Epistemology

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One of the primary dividing lines between practitioners of the “Austrian” School of economics and those of the mainstream is the appropriate method of economic reasoning – how are economic theorems validated and thus known to be true? “Austrians”, of course, are famous for their assertion that all of economic theory is deduced from a handful of axioms concerning human action, plus one or two empirical truths, such as the desire for leisure time. The mainstream, on the other hand, treats economics as being more akin to the natural sciences, where propositions are first formulated as hypotheses that must then be tested and validated empirically by sensory observation.

In commenting on this disagreement we shall, in this first part of our examination, go to the very heart of the matter and first of all define what we mean by epistemology and secondly to examine how it is that we know absolutely anything whatsoever. This is necessary before we look more closely at the “Austrian” method as it applies specifically to economics in part two.

Once more we must say that we are tackling here a very deep and extensive area of philosophy and much of that which we present will necessarily be brief, undeveloped and possibly incomplete. Nevertheless we hope here to outline the foundations of this important and much derided area of “Austrian” theory and its implications not only for economics but also for the social sciences and philosophy more widely.

The Purpose of “Austrian” Epistemology

One of the most frequent objections to the “Austrian” method is the misunderstanding that its chief concern is with how knowledge is acquired. Surely, these critics contend, we must have experience of, for example, what is supply and what is demand, or how to use money before we can formulate any theorems that concern them? We cannot just sit back and muse in our mind over these concepts divorced from any real, sensory interaction with what these things mean. However, the a priori nature of “Austrian” economic reasoning has less to do with how knowledge is attained and more to do with the cardinal question of how knowledge is validated – in other words, how do we know a given proposition to be true? Take, for example, the assertion that two parallel lines will never meet. We are not interested in the particular origins of my experience of parallel lines; rather, the question we want to answer is given that I have an experience of parallel lines what validates my conclusion that they will never meet? Do I need to construct the proposition “two parallel lines will never meet” as a hypothesis and then validate that hypothesis by empirical testing? Or will critical reflection upon the problem resolve the matter? In other words, do I need to go out and test a large sample of parallel lines in the real world in order to determine whether they will never meet; or can I reason in my mind that this must be absolutely and undeniably true?

The two titans of the twentieth century “Austrian” School, Ludwig von Mises and Murray N Rothbard, disagreed on the epistemological status of the fundamental categories of human action. Mises, who was influenced by Kantian epistemology, regarded them as “categories of the mind” and that they therefore existed prior to any experience. On the other hand Rothbard, an Aristoletian, denied this and regarded them as “broadly empirical”, something that could only be realised through experience. In other words they did not share the same theory concerning how we come to know the fundamental categories of human action. This divergence of opinion, however, did not prevent them both from recognising the essential self-evident truth of these fundamental categories and from recognising that such categories, regardless of how they come to be known, will always be a priori to the complex phenomena for which economics seeks an explanation. In spite of their differences in some of the more esoteric questions of epistemology, therefore, both could agree that all of the laws of economics are validated by reasoning and deduction from these self-evident categories and not from empirical testing. It is, therefore, the requirements for the validity of economic theory that separates practitioners of the Austrian School from their mainstream colleagues. This will be the focus of our attention in these essays.

Epistemology and Human Action

Let us therefore turn to the foundations of the “Austrian” method in wider epistemology. Contrary to what empiricists and relativists may claim, what is true and valid is heavily constrained by certain conditions of the universe in which humans find themselves. Truth and knowledge are not a tabula rasa upon which we can scribe whatever interesting pieces of information happen to come along. Even if they were we would first have to presuppose the existence and understanding of certain concepts simply to make such a record and communication – concepts such as identity, non-contradiction, alternatives, possibilities, causality, language, quantities, and of course, at the base of it all,  truth itself. You cannot record or communicate unless you have a common understanding of the concepts that you are recording or communicating. It is such presupposed concepts that heavily anchor the ambit of that which constitutes objective knowledge. Where does our knowledge of all of these aspects come from and how does it constrain or condition our search for further veracity?

It is submitted that at the very basis of all knowledge are a limited number of self-evident truths – truths that are proven simply by the endeavour of attempting to validate them. Furthermore, these self-evident truths are revealed to us through our action and the action axiom – the fact that we act in the universe and interact with reality – as all human endeavours in acquiring knowledge are actions and it is the formal conditions of actions that constrain the boundaries of knowledge.

The unique quality of self-evident truths is that they do not need further validation – to validate a proposition is to make it evident; yet if either stating or enquiring into the proposition is to validate it then one does not need to waste time and effort seeking further validation through observation, evidence or whatever; it is absurd to endeavour to make evident that which already is.

The first self-evident truths that we can derive from the action axiom are the individual actor’s identity, his consciousness and his existence. For any enquiry into the question of whether he exists and whether he is conscious answers that very question itself; for he cannot make such an enquiry without demonstrating to himself his existence and his consciousness. Furthermore, he presupposes his identity and his separation from other beings and objects – his enquiry being “do I exist?” and not whether a tree or China exists. He would settle the former question by introspection but not the latter questions, indicating his realisation of his identical separation from those other concepts, objects or beings. Any attempt by the individual to deny his existence, consciousness and identity would be to prove them – one cannot deny that one exists or is conscious; nor can one construct such an argument without recognising that he and he alone is the subject separate and distinct from other beings and objects.

Second, we have the constraints imposed by the formal categories of action itself – ends, means, choices and so on. All action must make a choice to direct means to an end at the exclusion of other ends with the outcome of either a psychic profit or a psychic loss. All enquiries are themselves actions that make use of these categories and so any attempt to disprove them would be futile. But what other self-evident truths are revealed by these categories of action? All actions must combine two or more means to produce an end at the cost of another end; what this reveals is our knowledge of conjunctions – “and” and “or” – for we must combine one means and another in order to produce either end A or end B. We also reveal our knowledge of quantities – for every end requires a specific quantity of a combination of means. A single cup and half a pint of water may be enough to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst; fewer cups or less water would fail to quench it; more cups would be superfluous and more water would cause a flood. Our actions always aim at combining means in the correct proportions. Quantities, incidentally, are a praxeological concept and are not reliant upon whatever we choose to represent them in notation or communication. We know that 2 plus 2 will always equal 4 whenever we act in relation to goods in the real world. The numbers themselves – 1, 2 3, 4 etc. – are simply symbols that we apply to the praxeological concept of each given quantity, routed in our understanding of action – 1 to a single unit of a good, 2 to double that quantity of units, 3 to triple the quantity, and so on. On paper 2 plus 2 could equal 5 but this only serves to change the symbols that we apply to these concepts and all that we have done is renamed that which we once called “4” as “5”. The concepts of 2, 4 and 5 always remain constant and routed in our action and regardless of what we call these quantities a fixed quantity of a good plus another fixed quantity will always arrive at the same quantity in sum however much the operation is repeated. Moreover, regardless of the symbols we choose our expression of quantities is always in a form or magnitude that best serves to meet our ends – both the diameter of a screw and the distance between London and New York City are lengths in space, yet it is praxeologically convenient for us to express the former in millimetres and the latter in either kilometres or miles.

As well as further embedding the law of identity in our recognition of these categories of action, we also reveal an understanding of the law of non-contradiction (A or not-A). For an action is motivated by the condition of scarcity thus revealing that we know that we cannot have our cake and eat it; nor can we swim and remain dry; nor can we be in two places at once. To believe the contrary would mean that a human would never act as he would expect all of his ends to arrive at his doorstep immediately. Action pursues either one end or another and is routed in the realisation that to achieve both or all of them would be a contradiction.

Third, actions all have to take place in space and we interact with this space in order to fulfil our ends. Hence we know automatically that our world is constructed in three dimensions and that certain interactions with space will fulfil our ends whereas others will not. If an apple is to my right then I reach out to my right and I am able to take possession of the apple; if it is on my left then I reach out to the left. More importantly, from this knowledge we derive all of the laws of Euclidean geometry that we use in order to interact with space.

Fourth, we have an understanding of the nature of causality as all actions are designed to produce a causal interference in the world that alters the assumed chain of events. If I wish to eat an apple and proceed to pick an apple from a tree I demonstrate that I know that my action will cause me to take possession of the apple and will cease its hanging from the branch. If I kick a ball my action causes it to fly through the air to another location. If humans did not have an innate understanding of causality then they would never act as they would not know that their movements would bring about the end desired. Action therefore demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of causality.

Fifth, we must know through our actions that we live in an aura of uncertainty – uncertainty in the sense that the actor does not know whether a given event is certain to materialise – not whether it is actually certain to do so in practice. If the actor knows that it is certain that event A will happen at point T then there would be no purpose in acting in order to bring about event B. An action to bring about event B at point T indicates that the actor knows that the materialisation of event A at point T is not certain and is subject to change. In any case, regardless of the knowledge of the certainty of events, action itself – the individual motivation towards ends by desires and choices – demonstrates that the world is not ruled by determinism. If it was the materialisation of all future actions of any individual would be motivated not by the individual desires of the human but by a pre-ordained plan that is written into the fabric of the universe. The fact that an actor expresses desires and choices that result in actions that change the course of events demonstrates that there is no fixed course to occurrences in the universe and that they can be altered by an expression of free will, if the means are sufficient. Furthermore, the act of making an enquiry also demonstrates the universal fact of uncertainty – the nature of an enquiry is that the answer is uncertain and could be one way or another. If the answer was certain then we would never bother to make an enquiry as we would already know the correct answer.

Finally, we have an understanding of the nature of time. All actions must take place through time and thus we know that we exist in a linear continuity. If actions did not have to take place through time then the ends would be achieved instantly and thus there would be no action – nor would there be any need to sequence the attainment of ends in order of preference. Indeed time, like quantities, is an inherently praxeological phenomenon. If humans were not subject to the condition of scarcity that motivated them to act and all of their ends were attained to their fullest instantly then the universe might physically exist in what we know as the “passage of time” but humans would have no awareness of this concept. All events would be contemporaneous and all enjoyments received instantly – there would be no comprehension of historical sequence and temporal distance would be non-existent. Any measurement of this non-existent distance in hours, minutes and seconds – let alone centuries, decades and years – would clearly be impossible.

By virtue of the inescapable fact that humans act we lay the groundwork for epistemology through our revelation of these self-evident truths – self-evident because any attempt to deny them must reveal their truth. We therefore realise that there is a body of truths that we know to be absolutely and apodictically true. The fundamental importance of this realisation cannot be denied – these categories of action that we have elaborated constrain and condition our search for knowledge and we cannot imagine knowledge that is incompatible with them. They are not mere conventions or choices of enquiry but are, rather, incontestably and undeniably true presuppositions of all arguments and theorems that may be posited. They are not the results of such arguments but are, rather, the starting blocks – that with which we must work in order to deduce further truth. More importantly, however, it anchors our search for objective truth of reality without having to investigate metaphysical and supernatural problems. In the deepest and murkiest waters of epistemology “truth” could mean pretty much anything we want it to mean. We could hold that simply because something is perceptible and realisable to us does not mean that it is “truthful” according to some as yet unknown, higher plain of understanding. Take, for example, the sensory perceptions. The fact that I can see an object, can touch it, can smell it taste it and if I drop it I can hear it break does not necessarily mean that the proposition “this object exists” is necessarily true – I am just perceiving it to be true. The world is not really full of colour nor do noises actually exist – these are simply interpretations by the brain of particular frequencies of light wave and sound wave respectively. Indeed there may be other senses that I do not possess that may depict hidden reality that I cannot perceive. Taken to an extreme, for all I know nobody else may exist and nothing of what I can perceive around me may be real – it might be some giant hallucination or a video game concocted by some other being who inhabits the genuinely real universe. Is it not possible that reality could just be a product of my consciousness and could I not be deluding myself when I try to concoct objective truths to comprehend that reality? These questions, however, do not concern us when we ground our epistemology upon action. If I act so as to use a cup as means from which to drink a beverage in order to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst I demonstrates my knowledge of the cup’s existence and its possession of certain qualities that affect its suitability as means in action and its direction towards the end of quenching thirst. I can try and deny this and reason that, upon some “higher” plain of understanding, this cup does not exist or that it possesses qualities which it does not. Yet my actions towards this object will always prove the opposite, from actions that both succeed in attaining their ends and those that fail. I might claim that the law that the angles of all triangles sum to 180 degrees is not really true according to some mystical level of knowledge. And yet when I act so as to construct one, or if I try to build a structure that relies on triangles, I will always have to use triangles with angles that sum to 180 degrees; if I did not the outcome would be a failure to attain my end. There is therefore a distinct epistemological harmony and coherence that is revealed to us through the categories of actions – choices, means, ends, results – that ground our knowledge in objective reality and rescue it from ethereal musings. If there was no such coherence between these categories then a person would simply never act at all as there would be no objective laws that link these categories. The characteristic of genuine hallucinations is that they display discordance between the categories of action. In a real case, an individual experienced a hallucination induced by LSD in which he believed his partner had turned into a vicious snake; terrified, he grabbed a knife and proceeded to stab the snake. His end was to kill the snake – a being that looked like a snake, behaved like a snake, hissed like snake and to all intents and purposes was, to him, a snake. And yet the result was that he killed not a snake but his partner. It is clear that where the identities and qualities of means and ends change randomly at will it would be impossible to ground our epistemology on any plain of reality at all. The fact that we are able to continue to act, to meet ends through means motivated by choices indicates that this is not so. Even the failure to meet ours ends indicates not a lack of objective law but the fact that the means were not appropriate for the ends sought – and will be inappropriate once again if the action is repeated under the same conditions. Unless interactive flaws, such as the appearance of the snake, begin to emerge in our current reality then we can be content that we are not all undergoing a mass hallucination, that this is the reality in which we live and this is what we are interested in as the object of our study. More powerfully, however, any action whatsoever demonstrates an individual’s belief in an objective knowledge of this reality that he is powerless to deny – for to do so would itself be an action that displays knowledge of the harmony between choices, means and ends.

We are with confidence, therefore, able to take a position contrary to those of positivism, relativism, skepticism, nihilism and the like and hold that there is a body of truths that are absolutely and undeniably true, undeniable because their self-evidence is revealed to us through the fact their denial would simply end up proving them. It is this springboard – epistemology grounded upon an action – that leads directly to the “Austrian” understanding of how to derive knowledge of other humans and of inanimate, unconscious objects.

Finally, we must also state the fact that the endeavour to attain knowledge and truth is itself bound inherently with our role as actors. Our goal in explaining complex phenomena and gaining an understanding of the world around us is to enhance the effectiveness of our actions – even if the end is merely to attain knowledge for some aesthetic purpose such as the exercising of the mind and the enjoyment of an inherent sense of beauty and order that one may perceive in truth. Non-actors, those creatures whose movements are motivated simply by instinct, never seek the attainment of knowledge for they do not possess the rational mind through which to process it; and if we were humans living in a world of total abundance the seeking of knowledge would be superfluous. Not only would a lack of knowledge itself indicate scarcity but when all enjoyments and satisfactions are achieved instantaneously the attainment of knowledge would have no purpose. Al things would be known and enjoyed immediately and there would be no enquiry into anything whatsoever. At its most basic level, therefore, knowledge itself is a category of action and is intimately bound with our role has human actors.

Conclusion

Having sketched the foundations of our epistemology, therefore, we can go on in the next part to the “Austrian” understanding of human action and the actions of non-humans and the implications of this understanding for economics.

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Economic Myths #7 – Government means Harmony

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One of the aspects of capitalism and the free market that the typical lay person finds difficult to comprehend is the fact that the complex structure of work, production, distribution, and trade could possibly take place without some kind of centralised, directing authority in order to co-ordinate everybody’s efforts. Wouldn’t there just be chaos and mal-coordination with everyone trying to make their own, independent plans with no government tiller to steer the giant ship?

This fallacy stems from the belief – accentuated by holistic concepts such aggregate statistics and, indeed, national identities – that “the economy” is some kind of enormous machine that has “input” and requires one operator to “process” the “inputs” into “outputs”. In fact, rather than being one giant, amorphous blob “the economy” is made up of millions and millions of independent unilateral acts of production and two-way trades, many of which will never have anything to do with each other. Indeed, I may sell an apple to my neighbour for 10p in London; another person may sell an orange for 20p to his neighbour in Manchester. Neither of the two pairs of people has ever met, nor need any of them have anything to do with the exchange of the other pair; and yet both exchanges would be regarded as part of “the British economy” in mainstream discourse. Rather than being a top-down operated machine, the economy is a bottom up network of independent transactions – motivated by the ends desired by each and every one of us rather than a bureaucrat – joined only together through the communication of the price system. All of the trades together, stimulated by varying and changing desires and ends that people seek, will have a constant and unceasing influence on the prices that regulate the supply of goods relative to their demand. Ironically, it is precisely because of such complexity that the attempts of any central authority to control and direct it are nothing short of futile – as Ludwig von Mises proved as long ago as the birth of the world’s greatest collectivist experiment, the Soviet Union, in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.

An oft-heard complaint, particularly from the left, is that “globalisation” and expanding markets has led to a decimation of the local culture and community. All this means, however, is that the market for goods has simply expanded so that one can source one’s needs from pretty much anywhere on the globe. It is still the case that the driving force of demand is not global or holistic – it resides very locally in every individual person’s tastes and desires. Such complaints therefore fail to recognise the irony in calling for a very distant and hardly local entity – the government – to halt globalisation and expanding markets by replacing what individual, local people desire with its own ends.

This myth, of course, goes further than economics and has more than seeped into philosophy as well, stemming from a basic misunderstanding about what is required for the human race to live in peace and harmony. It does not mean that we all need to be pursuing the same ends, following the same plan or singing from the same hymn sheet and we do not need some centralising authority to prevent “discordance” between the actions of one person and another. Rather, what is required is that we can each follow our own plans while not conflicting with the plans of others. This is precisely what private property and the free exchange accomplish. Recognising that all conflicts have their origin in the contest over physical goods, an exclusive right is granted to the first user-producer (or to the recipient of the good in a voluntary exchange) so that he may fulfil his ends without molestation from other people; and other people can use the goods for which they are the first producer-user without interference from him. Any person arguing in favour of “one direction” and “harmony” at the behest of centralised control really means that everyone else’s plans should be overridden by his own – and should be forced to accept them. Indeed every forced, government transaction requires there to be at least one loser, one person who does not want his funds directed to the ends desired by government. Rather than producing harmony what results is merely bitterness and antagonism. Furthermore, aside from the economic chaos that such a system brings, rather than inspiring such qualities as productivity, self-reliance, hard work, prudence, patience and responsibility, the resulting social disorder instils, in their stead, laziness, apathy, conflict, corruption, impatience and cynicism – hardly the human qualities that one would wish to exemplify as the hallmarks of a “peaceful” and “harmonious” society.

True harmony can only be brought about by allowing each and every individual to pursue his own ends with the scarce resources over which he has lawful ownership, while allowing everyone else to do the same – permitting the human race to flourish peacefully and devoid of conflict. Not only does government fail to aid this process, it is the active cause of its destruction – and the sooner we recognise this the closer we will be to building a lasting peace and prosperity.

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Libertarianism, Morality and Religion

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A current recurring debate within the libertarian movement is that between so-called “thin” and “thick” libertarianism, the belief that libertarianism concerns only self-ownership and private property (or at least their derivative non-aggression) on the one hand (“thin”) or whether there are certain other moral imperatives or ends that are, at the very least, part of the libertarian spirit and serve to strengthen its message or, at most, are necessary for its cause (“thick”). In providing a contribution to this debate it is important to understand the place of libertarianism within two things; first, within the wider category of moral philosophy; and second, within the place of the personal ethics of individual libertarians.

Libertarianism and Moral Philosophy

Addressing the first question, it will be argued here that any concept of “thick” libertarianism misunderstands the fact that the purpose of libertarianism is not to espouse a positive theory of interpersonal morality; rather it is to preserve the character of individuals as moral agents to ensure that such theories are possible in the first place.

Questions of morality arise because humans face the constant and ceaseless condition of scarcity. Humans must prioritise the ends that they seek to fulfil as they lack sufficient means with which to satisfy all of them together. Moral considerations arise to inform this prioritisation and would be absent if it was not necessary. If every fulfilment could be achieved without the need of choice then morality would serve no purpose as every possible end would instantaneously be gratified. The necessity of choice, however, requires a means for informing that choice, a way to determine the best outcome that can be achieved with the means available. The result of any choice is an action that has a real physical effect upon the condition of the means, the matter which is the object of the action. A part of the universe is changed physically from serving one end to serving another.

We can think of morality as consisting of two parts or categories. The first part is unilateral or intra-personal and arises where you have a single, desiring, choosing and acting human surrounded only by dead and unconscious matter. Any choice that the human makes will result in an action that will have a physical effect upon at least part of this unconscious matter, for example an apple that is eaten or a piece of wood that is used for a fire or to build a house. Morality, in this instance, will inform the acting human how he should best serve his ends with the means available but there is no reciprocal relationship that arises between the human and the matter around him. Possessing no desire, choice, or action of their own and with their entire condition and motion subject solely to the laws of physics and chemistry, these external entities cannot be described as moral agents and are owed no moral obligation, nor do they possess any moral rights. Moral imperatives may serve to create boundaries upon that which you may do with a certain piece of unconscious matter, but this will entail no reciprocal moral burdens and benefits vis-à-vis that matter1. The second part of morality is bilateral or inter-personal and arises between two or many desiring, choosing and acting beings, all of whom may run into conflicts of scarcity as they seek to fulfil their individually valued ends with the means available, including their own bodies. Not only is someone else’s body inhabited by a conscious and end-seeking being, but the dead and unconscious matter around us may now also be claimed by someone else in order to fulfil that person’s ends and not ours. Hence we have moral rights and obligations that spring up between the acting beings in order to avoid or otherwise resolve these conflicts. There are two sub-divisions to this morality. First is the realm of physical enforcement of moral ends – what we might call violent enforcement. One human being may bring about his end by subjecting another to force or violence. The result of this is that one human’s ends are gained at the expense of another’s. This subdivision is the primary preoccupation of political philosophy – which moral norms may be enforced physically and what are the boundaries of that enforcement? The second sub-division is the realm of non-physical or non-violent enforcement of moral ends – those norms that may only be enforced by persuasion, cajoling, association or non-association, and so on. Furthermore, morality is used to serve as a benchmark or a standard of judgment of moral beings. We apply certain moral codes to other people’s behaviour in order to judge whether they have behaved morally or are, indeed, good and moral persons or evil scoundrels. This straddles both of the categories of morality we just outlined – we make judgments of people’s behaviour both in regard to unconscious matter (i.e. what they might do when alone, in their own home etc.) and of their behaviour towards other people. We may then modify our own behaviour in response to what we see in them – either embracing or befriending them if they are morally good or otherwise attempting to enforce our moral code if we believe them to be morally bad.

Libertarianism, thinly conceived, perfectly preserves these categories in order to provide a foundation for wider moral theory. The critical aspect of all moral agency is that an individual moral being retains the freedom to choose and to act upon his choice. Any physical restraint results in that person not being able to bring about his chosen ends, and any action of his that is compelled by force is not one that he has chosen. In other words the individual would cease to remain as a moral being at all. Libertarianism places only the rights to self-ownership and private property over unconscious matter that is previously unowned (or voluntarily transferred) within the realm of violently enforced inter-personal morality. Any person may repel any invasion of his body or property physically in order to preserve his character as a moral agent. Libertarianism’s sole preoccupation with this fact ensures that this bedrock is firmly established so that we can then go on to develop further theories of intrapersonal and interpersonal morality, to make prescriptions about people should behave, and to make judgments about the behaviour that they do make.

Let us consider, as an example, a proposition of interpersonal morality – that a person should give some of his earnings to the poor. A libertarian would state that this moral proposition would not be violently enforceable and the person would have to choose to donate his money. Such a moral proposition only makes sense when you apply the libertarian foundation of self-ownership and private property, preserving the individual’s character as a moral agent. The proposition concerns how the individual should freely choose to behave in relation to others, and having so behaved we can then make judgments about his moral character. If, on the other hand, it is proposed that the person should be forced to donate his earnings to the poor then this proposition ceases to concern the choice of the individual at all. By enforcing the imperative violently the individual ceases to have any input into the action and is treated simply like a piece of dead matter, such as a hammer or plank of wood – an unconscious tool for the furtherance of other people’s ends. However, the subtle intellectual change that has occurred is that the proposition is no longer a proposition of interpersonal morality. It is, rather, a proposition of intrapersonal morality directed at the enforcing agent, such as the tax collector or bureaucrat. It is not in any way instructing the taxed individual how to behave at all; rather it is instructing his enforcer to take money from him and do X, Y or Z with it. We cannot in any way judge the behaviour of the taxed individual as being “moral” or “immoral”; having no participation in the decision we cannot say that he is a better or worse being as a result. The only person we can judge is the enforcer and whether he behaved morally or immorally by taking the money. What we realise therefore is that any theory of interpersonal morality that enforces its decrees by violence is not a theory of interpersonal theory in any way at all. It simply a theory of intrapersonal morality for the rulers, concerning only how those in positions of power should act unilaterally, treating all other human beings as dead, unconscious tools to be exploited for whatever ends the theory sees fit. Such a theory can never be a theory of society; it preserves only the moral agency of the leader or the controller, degrading all other humans to the level of expendable resources.  Indeed, many moral propositions in public and political discourse today are not directed at the individuals in society but are, rather, are directed at government: “Government should do more to help the poor; government should build more houses; government should do more to curb fossil fuel use; government should provide a better education for my children, etc.” Only the rulers are required to make moral decisions and moral choices while the rest of us are reduced to the level of pets, to be worked, fed and watered but otherwise absolved from any responsibility for what we do. Moreover none of this changes simply because the rulers are democratically elected or, from time to time, the previous minority becomes the majority and the previous rulers may switch places with some of the previously ruled. It simply means that the propositions are directed at functional positions (Prime Minister, President, Congressman, etc.) rather than at specific, unchanging individuals.

It should be equally clear that nothing about such theories relying on force and the propositions that derive from them can make a more “moral” or “good” society for we can only judge a person’s behaviour when he is free to act. When he is forced to act or to not act then we can make no moral judgment of his action whatsoever, just as we cannot say whether a tree is behaving morally or immorally when it shakes in the wind. Indeed, as history has demonstrated amply, the more likely result is a moral degradation of the populace – laziness and lack of motivation caused by the bitterness and resentment at being forced to achieve someone else’s ends, and corruption and black marketing when there are any attempts to circumvent them.

It is this crucial recognition that libertarianism, thinly conceived, has to offer, and why it is becoming so attractive as the failure of government and forced rule becomes more obvious each and every day. Thin libertarianism may have nothing to say whatsoever on any positive moral and political theories. Rather, when those theories advocate violent enforcement, libertarianism, in effect, says “Stop!” Slow down, back track, and understand that for any coherent theory of interpersonal morality you need to preserve self-ownership and private property. Given that this recognition is so desperately lacking, any positive ends that are built upon libertarianism as a superstructure through any “thickening” of its concept is likely to distract from its vital core. In the short term this is likely to dilute the distinction between libertarianism and all other political theories (whether they be conservative or progressive) that has made it so successful – possibly leading to the subsuming of libertarianism as a branch of those political traditions. In the long term, there is the danger that any moral superstructure that is built on top of the foundation of non-aggression will come to jettison the crucial foundation itself. This is arguably what happened to classical liberalism, resulting in its transformation into the statist liberalism we know today2. However, our argument here does not simply concern strategy – that which is necessary for preserving libertarianism, or that which may be best in persuading people of the virtues of a free society and attracting them to the libertarian cause. Rather, the recognition of the preservation of individuals’ moral agency before any further positive, interpersonal moral theory is developed is absolutely essential for conceptual clarity and libertarianism’s place as the bedrock of interpersonal moral theory is required intellectually and not just practically.

We might also point out that there appear to be no positive ends and values that flow self-evidently from self-ownership and private property, or from their derivative, the non-aggression principle. Rather, any such ends and values that are advanced by the individual “thick” libertarian tend to concern that individual’s own personal philosophical preoccupations, such individuals including those with very strong libertarian and scholarly credentials3. It is difficult to see how such varying ends and values flow self-evidently from the same principle. More likely the individual “thickest” identifies the state as the roadblock towards the achievement of his own personal, societal ideals and so he advocates freedom. But he then makes the mistaken leap of tying those ideals – that which he wishes to accomplish through freedom – to freedom itself. We do not mean to suggest, of course, that there is no purpose or importance in debating which values and ends are likely to prevail in a free society, or over those which may assist the libertarian cause (as we shall proceed to do below). But such a debate has nothing per se to do with libertarianism’s place in the sphere of moral and political theory.

Libertarianism and Personal Morality

Addressing now the second aspect of libertarianism – that of its place within the moral outlook of the individual libertarian – it is sufficient, for a person in his capacity as a libertarian, to recognise only private property and self-ownership and to not develop any further moral superstructure upon those foundations. But in his capacity as a human being who must take his place in society we have to stress that such a limitation is woefully inadequate. Libertarianism only states that each and every person should be able to act free from physical incursion. It does not go on to say how he should choose to act, which decisions he should make in allocating the scarce means at his disposal. The consistent libertarian who claimed that self-ownership and private property are the only moral considerations would, in fact, never act at all as he would possess no ends to strive for and no values of which he would seek fulfilment. Rather we all as human beings have values, choices that we believe are right and choices that we believe are wrong, and we all seek to make the right choices and criticise those who do not. Libertarians can probably be forgiven for not having, thus far, emphasised their personal moral theories alongside their libertarian credentials. The violence and destruction wrought by the state has given us plenty to concentrate on. Nevertheless, such a development and espousal of a personal moral theory is critical from both a strategic as well as an intellectual point of view. Not only is it possible for someone who abides strictly by the non-aggression principle to be a thoroughly rotten and unpleasant individual, but the greatest danger lies in the fact that libertarians, by refusing to interfere violently in certain peaceful but morally repugnant ends, may be misinterpreted as going further and actively condoning and praising such behaviour. Simply because we collectively, in our capacity as libertarians, have nothing to say about non-violent actions and choices may result in us appearing as the “anything goes” crowd, failing to address the genuine and heartfelt moral concerns of people we hope to persuade of the virtues of a free society. It is often not sufficient for people to hear that loose abstractions such as “the market” or “private charity” will, for example, suffice to take care of the poor, even if we demonstrate their superiority in doing so. Rather, with any moral issue we are presented, we must be prepared to take a personal moral stance. Our only difference is that we would not violently enforce that stance but would, rather, seek to promote it non-violently and to persuade people to make what we think would be the right choice. It is, therefore, perfectly commendable to state, for example, that people should not be forced to give to the poor but that it would be a good thing for them to choose to do so; or to state that no one should violently stop another person from taking drugs but that to do so would be a morally bad choice and that we would not wish to associate with those people; or to state that you can’t stop a person from making racist comments but you would think that such a person is an ignorant and repugnant bigot. Or, of course, you might conclude the opposite if you can persuasively argue your case. What is important is that you engage with the issue and do not stop short at merely analysing an action or end as non-violent and then having nothing more to say. But the views that you espouse will not be made in your capacity as a libertarian – libertarianism only forming the bedrock of your moral outlook – but as a choosing, desiring, valuing and acting human being who takes his place in society. Nevertheless, the more you build your personal moral views upon a libertarian bedrock, the stronger that bedrock becomes by demonstrating conclusively that libertarians as human beings are not morally vacuous but can, indeed, hold a flourishing and well-developed positive moral theory that addresses the moral concerns of everyone else in society. Indeed, summing up what we have concluded in this section, we might say that a “thick” conception of libertarianism would serve to undermine and destroy it both intellectually and practically; whereas libertarians possessing an otherwise “thick” and engaging supra-libertarian moral outlook separate from but compatible with libertarianism, would very much promote it.

Morality and Religion in a Free Society

One of our conclusions above was that even though a debate concerning which values and ends are likely to prevail in a free society has nothing to do with libertarianism’s place in the sphere of moral and political theory, there is still some purpose and merit in venturing to speculate upon whether, in a world that was completely free from government force and compulsion and which was founded upon the institutions of self-ownership and private property, these facts in and of themselves would encourage a general supra-libertarian morality in a particular direction. For example, if left to their own devices, would that very fact cause people be more likely to create a world of inclusion, non-discrimination based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., would it be secular or religious, multi-cultural or strictly divided, and so on? Would it be a world in which drugs and recreational substance use is widespread or is it more likely to encourage restraint and conservatism in such use? Would it be a world of close connections of family and friendship or would there be more “free love” and sexual experimentation? Even though as a matter of pure logic, libertarianism is compatible with any moral theory so long as the ends posited by that theory do not invade the private property of anyone else, it is submitted that, in practice, it is not likely to work out that way and that we can expect at least a certain kind of supra-libertarian moral order to exist by virtue of the fact that a society is founded upon the institution of private property. What follows is the author’s speculation upon what kind of order this will be.

The foundation of this speculation is the observation that wherever human freedom has been unshackled and free enterprise has been allowed to pursue whatever ends it chooses with relatively less molestation, individuals have chosen to engage in processes that increase their material prosperity ahead of simply sitting around day dreaming and enjoying endless leisure time. The capacity for energy and enterprise has increased, the division of labour has widened and the material standard of living has risen. This may partly be implied in the logic of action itself as increased freedom leads to greater or more successful action and is therefore, likely to result in more actions and more improvement. It is also the case that fulfilment of more ethereal needs such as spirituality, rejuvenation, relaxation, meditation, and so on can only come about once material needs have been satisfied so that even if one was to pursue the former the latter would have to be conquered first. Nevertheless, it is an empirical observation and there has never been any strict requirement for individuals to choose to engage in production rather than simply extending their leisure time4. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the creation of a free society would lead to expansion of the division of labour, the accumulation of capital, an increase in production, and of the material standard of living.

What we can note about this fact is that those who, in a free society, accumulate income and wealth and hence possess a greater ability to direct economic resources are those who serve the needs of consumers. At the level of the capitalist-entrepreneurs, therefore, this will require a number of different qualities: the patience and low time preference to accumulate capital; good judgment, foresight and prudence in directing that capital to where it is most needed; empathy and understanding of one’s customers; and the sociability and communicability required to engage and motivate contractors, colleagues, and employees. The capitalist-entrepreneurs in turn will look for employees who are hard-working, educated, reliable, trustworthy and the employees will therefore seek to spend their money on consumers’ goods that will nurture, within them, these qualities. In other words serving the needs of others and the qualities and characteristics required to do so are ends that would be encouraged by the adoption of a free society. Resources therefore will accumulate in the hands of those who display these qualities and would disappear from the hands of those who do not; qualities and characteristics that harm or otherwise interfere with one’s ability to serve others – laziness, high time preference, a lack of empathetic understanding, unreliability, and on so – will be discouraged and are likely to diminish.  While, therefore, it is possible for persons to engage in endless leisure time and spend their entire day indulging in activities such as drinking, drug-taking and having sex, the resources available for them to do so will be limited and they are likely to be excluded from all prospects of increasing those resources as the habits in which they indulge are antithetical to any method of doing so (i.e. serving others) on the free market.

Second, is a free society likely to be non-discriminatory, and inclusive of all genders, races, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and so on, or will it be highly segregated and exclusive? We can speculate that there will be two outcomes to this question rather than one. First, in the impersonal and arm’s length dealings of the marketplace, it is likely that all factors that are not relevant to one’s ability to serve the needs of others will be excluded from consideration. If I buy a sweater from a shop it is not likely to make any difference to me whether it was made by a man or a woman, by a white or a black, by a gay or a straight, by a pious Christian or a devil-worshipper. I am so far removed from the complex chain of production that any prejudice or preference I might have in this sweater being made by someone of a particular creed or colour is likely to recede drastically. If consumers do not care about a worker’s personal qualities other than his/her ability to serve the consumer’s ends then neither may capitalist-entrepreneurs do so in the chain of production as they are forced to adhere to their customers’ wishes. If I am looking to hire an employee for my enterprise, the costs of excluding the best person for the job based on some discriminatory ground will mean that I fail to keep up with my competition and will lose money faster. It is true that certain industries will serve different types of people and that certain personal qualities are likely to make one more adept at serving the needs of people who are similar to you. Christians may be better at investing in, producing, marketing and serving specific goods that are desired by other Christians; gay men may be the best people to do the same for gay men, and so on. And people of certain genders, races or cultures may be attracted to certain types of employment ahead of others. It might also be true that a person feels more comfortable if the precise person who serves them at the front line is someone of their ilk – the familiarity of a similar person perhaps helping to grease the wheels of commerce if empathy, advice or understanding is needed to assist a person with his purchase. But all of this only produces an outcome that better serves the needs of consumers and is not based on race, gender, or sexual orientation per se. If a pious, heterosexual woman could develop, market and serve products to gay men better than other gay men could then she would receive their custom and gay male vendors would not. Furthermore, in the vast array of production of goods that are common to all or most of us and are not produced for a specific category of person, any kind of discrimination in the chain of production is likely to diminish as we will always go to the people who can provide those goods at the lowest cost. Freedom under the division of labour does not require everyone to like or love everyone else, or for everyone to be liked or loved; it only requires you to serve them and the skills that each person can offer in this regard are likely to trump any other factors when it comes to the question of inclusion or exclusion. Our second possible outcome, however, might be slightly different. In the area of personal or familiar relations – as opposed to the arm’s length and impersonal relations of the marketplace – discrimination and exclusion may become more, rather than less intense. Although it is possible for the inclusion of the marketplace to encourage and foster a blending of different people – after all, if you work in the same factory, shop or office as someone of a different race or culture, there is the possibility or even the likelihood, that you will become friends simply through the opportunity of contact – on the whole, people tend to prefer the comfort of familiarity, similarity and uniformity. Individual residential areas and communities, therefore, might be internally homogenous and will cater only to the needs of the type of person living there, even though those communities will be happy to trade with others of a different type in the marketplace. This is not to imply, of course, that each different community will actively hate any other and can only barely stand to engage in mutual trade. Rather, it is likely to be a cordial, peaceful and even friendly co-existence. All we are suggesting is that when it comes to a matter of highest preference people are likely to opt for those who are similar to them in their personal and family relationships – such a preference not requiring you to hate anyone who is not similar. In any case, this entire speculation may be wrong and perhaps people will choose to mix more in their personal relationships as well as in their professional. The beauty of the market is that as we do not force anyone to adhere to a certain set of principles then we do not know the precise outcome; all we know is that that which results is the outcome that will satisfy everybody as far as possible.

The third consideration is related to the previous two. As there is no welfare state in a free society and nobody will have the right to violently wrestle resources from anyone else in the event of unemployment or need, the cultivation of personal relationships becomes relatively more important as there may come a day when we will need to rely upon those relationships if we are in dire need. We can speculate, therefore, that the institutions of family and friendship will strengthen in a free society. Such institutions will seek to include those who are trustworthy, reliable, sociable and responsible and will exclude those who are deceitful, unreliable, unfriendly and selfish. There is also likely to be less “free love” and sexual promiscuity in favour of longer term relationships and marriage that produce children, the latter being those upon whom you can rely when you reach old age and infirmity. Furthermore, as there will be no state-supported child rearing in a free society, only those who accumulate enough wealth by serving the needs of others will be able to afford to raise children. Although some of the qualities necessary for serving the needs of others that are inherent in the parent may be passed on genetically (so that people lacking those qualities will simply cease to be born in significant numbers), even if they are not then the parents are likely to foster the qualities in their children that made them, the parents, successful. Moreover, given that the parents will one day die and wish to leave their wealth to their children they are likely to require the reassurance that the fruits of their life’s work is being left to decent, responsible hands. They are not likely to be content to leave their wealth to a lazy, ill-educated drug addict.

What we have hypothesised, therefore, is that a free society, in which everyone must possess the ability to serve the needs of consumers in order to attract income and wealth, is likely to result in a cultivation of the qualities necessary for doing so, such a cultivation producing a relatively “conservative” (with a small “c”) society. This society will discriminate less on the bases of gender, race, colour, etc. but rather upon the specifically chosen behaviour of free individuals. Those who behave in accordance with ways that serve the needs of consumer and develop the characteristics necessary for doing so will be included. Those who do not are likely to be excluded. We must emphasise, however, that nothing of what we have said requires an individual libertarian to support or promote these ends. Only if people turn down the path of increasing their material welfare and expanding the division of labour would qualities and values necessary for serving others become prominent and our speculation is based only upon the fact that this is the choice that has been made in the past. It is possible for the individual libertarian to advocate a different choice and for free individuals to make it.

One final interesting question concerns the place of religion and religious worship in a free society. Religion has always fundamentally concerned three questions – why we are here; how we got here; and what we should do now that we are here. The pondering of these questions and the result of a shared belief as to their answers among individuals is, of course, logically compatible with libertarianism so long as its practice is peaceful and voluntary. However, the inability of early thought to separate phenomena from purposeful intent resulted in the fact that these questions have not been addressed with mutual exclusivity. Why we are here has been ascribed to the purposeful desire of one or more deities; how we got here was a result of that deity’s action; and it followed, therefore, that what we should do while we are here was to bow to that deity’s commands. Therefore, given the deep-seated need in the human psyche to fill the void that is left by these problems and the resulting imperatives that may be dispensed, whoever has been able to provide the gateway to these answers has enjoyed an immense amount of power – tell people where they came from and how it was done then you can tell people what they should do. Religion has therefore always attracted to its ranks the greedy and the power hungry and it is no accident that it has, throughout much of history, been aligned with the state – limited not just to established churches, but to the extent that the king or emperor himself was elevated to the rank of a God. Although early Christianity and the Thomist emphasis on the natural law diminished this welding for a time, the Protestant Reformation and the rejection, by John Calvin and Martin Luther, of reasoned ethics served to make religion once more a tool of, rather than a controlling force over, absolute rulers. Furthermore, religious wars and crusades have often been wars of power and control rather than strictly over the question of belief. Much of the history of religion has therefore been distinctly anti-libertarian. These days, of course, the development of scientific knowledge has stepped in to answer the puzzle of how we got here, which has served, for many people, to sever any connection between the cause of the universe and any moral imperatives they may face in their daily lives. However, there are two severe limitations to this. First, a knowledge of the natural sciences itself posits no moral theory and, other than agreeing that the pursuit of truth is a good and valuable thing, scientists can offer no moral guidance. They might be able to tell you what will happen when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman, and they could describe the shock you would get if you were to put your fingers into a power socket; but they will not, as a result of their discipline alone, be able to tell you why you should or should not do these things. Rather than replacing religious imperatives, the secularity encouraged by science has, rather, left an empty vacuum. Indeed, knowledge derived from scientific research has been used for some horrendously evil ends as well as good. Secondly the purpose of science is to trace the effects of phenomena back to their ultimate cause; yet the human mind is not able, in the physical and logical dimension it inhabits, to comprehend the concept of an ultimate cause. Every cause that we discover in turn becomes another effect whose existence and characteristics must be ascribed to some further cause that must be investigated. The concept of God is an attempt to deal with this teleological problem; we ascribe to God abilities and characteristics that defy normal explanation, yet our image of him – as a distinct consciousness, a father-figure, etc. – couches these characteristics in a manner that we can understand. Indeed, one of the frequent objections to the existence of God pronounced by atheists – “why are there so many Gods and which one is the right God?” – is perhaps not as interesting as the question as to why they are all so similar. Nearly always they are paternalistic humanoids, they are responsible for all creation and all life and they are the dispensers – if not always the practitioners – of morality. Rather than there being many different Gods, different cultures and traditions have ascribed broadly similar characteristics, varying only in their own cultural idiosyncrasies, to what is roughly the same being in order to create a giant metaphor for things that we do not and perhaps cannot ever understand. Science, or anything else, has not yet provided a sufficient alternative answer to this problem. Indeed, the existence of God is not viewed by believers as a strictly scientific problem like any other. The tools of science – the laws of physics and the laws of logic – are themselves part of the very phenomenon under investigation – creation – and are subject to God’s will. As tools for explaining their creator they therefore appear hopelessly blunt, if not, completely inadequate. None of this, of course, is meant to condone belief and condemn non-belief, or vice versa. Rather it is an attempt to explain why people hold the beliefs that they do.

Having said all of this, what can we conclude about religion and libertarianism? It is difficult to say whether a free society will encourage or discourage religious practice. What we can be certain of, however, is that it will continue to be a very strong force in the world, probably for a long time. There is clearly a need somewhere in the human psyche, possessed by a great many individuals, to ponder the origins of the universe, not just the how, where and the when but the why. Given our inability to meet these needs we can be sure that a libertarian world will have to find some way to deal with religion. Whether this will be mere accommodation, opposition, or embracing will be dependent upon whether religion in turn neutrally respects, is opposed to, or actively supports libertarian principles. There are one or two arguable reasons for at least an accommodation. First, there are many libertarian imperatives, rules, parables and examples in religious texts. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, contain some strong libertarian imperatives and the remainder is not avowedly unlibertarian. There is no reason why, in a libertarian world, religions should not emphasise a more libertarian bedrock for their further moral teachings. Secondly, religion would be expected to dissolve its historical marriage to power and the state, a dissolution that may not occur easily. Yet so too will everyone else have to do the same – bureaucrats, politicians, favoured corporations, and so on. Nobody will be able to latch onto and use the mantle of the state to pursue their ends. There is no reason why religious people should find this more difficult than anyone else. Given that a libertarian world is unlikely to appear unless a majority of the citizenry come to believe in the justice of libertarianism, congregations themselves should already have embraced the libertarian mind-set. Finally, we may consider the problem of so-called religious extremism, the sort of extremism that wishes to destroy or violently repress anything contrary to its teachings. Particularly, at this time, we might as well mention the dominant issue of Islamic fundamentalism that fuels terrorism. Whatever political system is adopted and whatever the view of the majority of people with regards to their rights and obligations towards others, there will always be fundamentalists, radicals, extremists, zealots and revolutionaries in just the same way as there will always be murderers, rapists, thieves and fraudsters. Many of these will, from any common standard, be lunatics, nutcases or simply deluded fools. Left to their own devices, as they would be in a libertarian world, these people would simply be a bare minority of loners who are unable to spread their views, with any violent attempt to accomplish their aims simply being classified as criminal behaviour like any other. The only reason that Islamic religious extremists who encourage terrorism and violence gain any traction whatsoever is because the foreign policy of the United States and its allies pours fuel onto the fire of what they are saying. The behaviour of Western governments – bombing civilians, invading sovereign countries, spreading a secular democracy – lends plausibility to religious extremism as both an explanation of and a solution for a very real and unwanted foreign incursion. With State power eliminated in a libertarian world, this problem would not exist and such religious extremism would be without a vehicle for motivation.

Conclusion

Summing up everything we have said, libertarianism, thinly conceived, is necessary to form the foundation of wider moral theory. Libertarianism is, therefore, not “thick”. Libertarians, themselves, however, must, in their capacity as human beings have a “thick” moral outlook, that outlook not being a part of libertarianism per se but built upon its firm foundations of self-ownership and private property and seeking to strengthen those foundations through non-violent enforcement. We can, though, speculate that a certain moral order may unfold in a society based upon self-ownership and private property if free individuals choose to expand their material well-being and widen the division of labour. That order is likely to emphasise roughly “conservative” values and while it is not possible to say whether religion is encouraged or discouraged by such an order we can conclude that it is likely to occupy a prominent place.

1Moral considerations may, of course, arise out of concerns for the welfare of the matter – for example, whether the act of a human being may legitimately cause an animal (a non-actor) pain and suffering. But such considerations only concern whether it is good for the human to be the initiator of the animal’s experience of pain and do not create any reciprocal moral rights in the animal.

2Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr., The Future of Libertarianism, lewrockwell.com, May 1st 2014.

3Walter Block identifies a number of prominent libertarians who draw either right wing or left wing conclusions from libertarian foundations. See Walter Block, Libertarianism is unique; it belongs neither to the right nor the left: a critique of the views of Long, Holcombe, and Baden on the left, Hoppe, Feser and Paul on the right” Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 22: 127–70.

4Those who hark back to the pre-industrial era seem to assume that this is how blissful and care-free life used to be, overlooking the fact that the need to provide enough food alone necessitated back breaking amounts of work.

Statism and Non-Aggression

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In the ideological battle between statists and libertarians, the latter are happy to apply the scriptures of non-aggression and non-violence to any human being. We do not distinguish between certain categories or castes of human in explaining this application; rather, it is a universal ethic. It is often supposed that statists embrace the opposite or the precise contrary of this principle – that, in favouring the violent invasion of other people in order to impose their will, they lie on the other extreme of the spectrum of the permissibility of violence.

It would be a mistake to view the statist contention in this way. For the precise opposite of the non-aggression principle – that no human may initiate violence against another – is that any human may or should initiate violence against another. But statists do not hold this view; indeed they do not, in any way, come close to rejecting the edicts of non-aggression. They simply believe that it does not apply to a certain set of individuals who form part of the state. Indeed one popular argument in favour of government and against anything approaching anarchy (in its literal meaning of “no ruler”) is that only government can preserve “order” and prevent “chaos”, chaos which almost certainly would prevail if everyone were allowed to run rampant by stealing from and murdering each other. Universal aggression is, therefore, firmly rejected by statists.

In understanding this we come to the, perhaps, surprising realisation that statists have more in common with libertarians that we might at first suppose. States, which may use violence permissibly according to the statist, are, after all, always a minority and the ordinary citizenry, who must refrain from violence, make up the majority. Statists do, therefore, very much embrace the non-aggression principle more than they reject it – they believe it applies to most of the population! In presenting a challenge to them, therefore, simply repeating the mantra of non-aggression is to overlook this fact. We are therefore faced with the challenge – or perhaps, the opportunity – of having to apply a more subtle and nuanced argument against statists. Instead of blathering on about how violence is unethical and how holy the non-aggression principle is (although one most not deny the truth of either of those propositions), let us meet the statist on his own terms: “fine, let us accept that violence is permissible – the why restrict it to only these humans beings that make up the state? Why are they so special? Why is only a monopoly of violence held by certain individuals justified?”

The present author argued recently that our primary preoccupation is with the state and how persuading people of its evil nature – or at least, its lack of necessity – is often a different task from understanding and refining core libertarian doctrine. Taking on the state is therefore our first and highest priority and accomplishing this through the shortest and most persuasive route possible should be prioritised ahead of trying to fill everyone’s heads with the details of libertarian thought (although it would hardly be a bad thing if everyone wished to embrace those details). The line of argument suggested here is a case in point, focussing on the core issue of the monopoly of violence enjoyed by the state, rather than concentrating on violence per se that may lead one to awkward and otherwise unpersuasive debates concerning, for example, lifeboat situations. This may be a more penetrating and revealing line of attack for one’s audience. But even if we were to proceed down the route of non-aggression and end up debating hard cases such as whether a person can be forced to save a drowning toddler, we can still deploy the rejoinder: “OK fine, let us say that a person can be forced to save this drowning baby. Why may only the state do the forcing? Why does this situation call for these people and only these people to force this person to act?”

How then, might such a challenge to a statist unfold? The first counterargument is likely to be that which was mentioned earlier – the necessity for order. That without the state, society as we know it will simply collapse into a frenzy of individualistic war of all against all. There are numerous retorts to this line of thinking. First of all, far from being the resolver of conflict, government is, rather, its creator and sustainer. Conflicts only exist because people hold different opinions as to the ends to which scarce resources should be directed. Government forcing one set of ends to triumph over the others does not resolve these conflicts – in fact it is a manifest admission that resolution is not possible or is not worth trying. Resolution of a conflict would be to peacefully and voluntarily agree an outcome and hence all parties would be satisfied, even if grudgingly. The imposition of violence, however, simply forces an end upon an unwilling victim, totally overriding any concerns the latter has whatsoever, harbouring not harmony and understanding but bitterness and resentfulness. Indeed we might even say that government force is a direct incitement to revolution and overthrow. Statists rarely admit that what they mean by collectivism is their own version of it – that government is brilliant and harmonious so long as it is producing ends that they themselves desire. But they never consider the situation of the barrel of the gun pointing at them and ordering them to do something with which they disagree, or even detest. In any case we should point out that if the lack of a government will unbridle an inherent disposition on the part of humans towards chaos and violence then we are entitled to ask why giving some of these very same evil, animalistic ogres special powers of violence will improve the situation. Won’t they just respond to using these special powers with the very same base and savage motivations that propel them towards disorder in an anarchical society? Indeed isn’t it giving them a unique advantage in doing so? Why are they suddenly so wise, trustworthy and angelic simply because they operate under the aegis of the state? To this we could anticipate the rejoinder “Ah but we have democracy! The stewards will be accountable to the people so will never abuse their powers!” Even if we were to accept the notion that a majority vote once every few years is sufficient to control the demagoguery we are still left with the same problem – the majority is still made up of humans choosing humans to supervise humans. Rather than simply place their trust in these holy guardians to keep the peace, won’t they just try and use them as a legitimised route to the same plunder and pillage that they would have otherwise tried to accomplish through a war of all against all?

Let’s turn next to the question of economic order. Even if he was to concede that government isn’t needed to keep the peace, wouldn’t our budding statist still be armed with the fact that there would simply be market and allocational chaos without government, that there would be shortages, booms, busts, depressions, greed, avarice, and so on? After all, everyone knows that the free market and capitalism caused the Great Depression, right? I trust that the majority of the readers of this essay will understand why this view is completely incorrect but it is worth repeating the truth because it is so ironic: that government, far from being the cure of or even an innocuous attempt at trying to relieve these problems, is in fact the very cause of them. Allocational chaos always stems from government interference whereas the pricing profit and loss system would produce neither surplus nor shortage, and it is government induced credit expansion through a fraudulently propagated fractional reserve banking system, together with the ring fencing of politically connected financial institutions from losses, that causes the business cycle. Government is responsible for these catastrophes, and we certainly do not need their attempts to solve them with the very thing that sets them off in the first place.

What if the statist falls back on saying that we all need to “follow the same plan” and “move in the same direction?” Such an argument could be made from either an economic viewpoint, a moral one, or both – that we either need government to direct production (or at lay down the “rules” for freer production), to provide us with moral guidance and outlaw certain behaviour, or to do both of these things at the same time. This raises the question of precisely which and whose moral or economic programme should be followed, and why. Government is only “needed” because everyone’s plans differ and, as we said above, they do not want to devote the scarce resources available to the same ends. You therefore have to force them into directing them towards the government’s ends. Why does the statist think that a good, productive and morally nourished society is built upon the fear and intimidation of being bullied and harassed into directing production, or into following a certain moral code, according to the will of a handful of faceless bureaucrats? In short, what is so special about these people’s ends – why are they to trump all others? But even if this could be answered the entire alleged necessity of following one “plan” is based upon a misunderstanding of the need to avoid conflict. Certainly, if we execute our individual plans, we need to avoid skirmishes with each other when we do so, but it doesn’t follow from that that we must all be forced to take the same path like a set of mindless lemmings, and that there is not a way for different plans to peacefully coexist.

These are just some of the possible lines of argument that might proceed from an understanding of how statists really view violence and non-violence, and embracing this more nuanced view might permit more incisive and hard-hitting arguments that libertarians can deploy during debates with their ideological opponents.

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Means, Ends, Production and Consumption

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One of the apparent weaknesses of economics (of any school of thought) is that as soon as one gets past the “Robinson Crusoe” stage of an isolated individual and proceeds to the elaborate explanations of production, exchange, and the division of labour, it becomes extremely easy to forget that at the start of every economic system, at the bottom of every theory, is the individual acting man, the person who has ends that he achieves with means through actions. There are two, seemingly contradictory (although actually related) dangers from this oversight. First, by separating the categories of production, consumption, saving, investment, entrepreneurship and so forth into separate personae under the division of labour, we forget that these qualities are inherent in the action of all human beings and are simply abstractions from the different categories of action applied to different groups in order to demonstrate their role in the economic system as a whole. What results, therefore, is atomistic appreciation of these different categories, so that, for example, we talk of the needs of “producers” or of the welfare of “employees” or of interests of “borrowers” or of “savers” being punished, and so on. Secondly, we can go to the opposite extreme and only look at the whole economy, concluding erroneously that what is “good” for the economy (if such a thing can be said) is also good for the individual human beings who make up that economy. These two dangers we will explore in turn.

 The Atomised Categories of the Economy

When looking at an individual human being, it is not outrageously difficult to understand how the object of each human being is to achieve his most highly valued ends with the scarce means available to him. We do not need to enter a deep, praxeological analysis to understand how the individual human will, all else being equal, seek to maximise his gains and minimise his costs. He will attempt to inflate the former and deflate the latter as far as it is possible for him so to do. It is also clear that the final object of all of his action is consumption – the enjoyment of the fruits of his toil, the benefit of which he predicts will outweigh the disutility of that toil. If, therefore, in a situation of isolation, a human decides to plough a field, plant seeds and then sow the resulting crop we can readily understand that he will seek to achieve the highest yield of crop possible while ploughing the field and sowing the seeds in a manner that bears him the lightest labour and the lowest cost. If he is able to achieve the same yield with a lower cost or a higher yield with the same cost, he will, all else being equal, proceed to do so. Hence, if he is suddenly gifted a tractor that halves his ploughing time, we can understand easily why he will make use of it. If he can purchase a new type of seed that doubles the crop yield but with no extra work then, again, no one will have any difficulty in appreciating this. The idea that we will always take the shortest route to the same end or the same route to a higher end can be empathetically understood by any human – we are always trying to spend less and have more, cut down on X and increase Y, all to yield the highest benefit for the minimum cost1.

What we can also readily appreciate in this scenario is the different categories of action inherent in the single, lone human. He is a consumer, a producer, an entrepreneur, a saver, an investor, and a capitalist. He must carry out all of these activities with the means available to him on his own behalf. And hence it should be obvious that all of these activities are carried on not for their own sake but for the valuable ends and the improvements to his life that they achieve. If all of the ends could be achieved with no work, production, no saving, no investment and no capital accumulation whatsoever few would doubt that he would be in a far better position. How many of us would turn down the opportunity to purchase anything we wanted without having to go to work each day? Judging by the fact that more than half of the eligible population play the national lottery, it stands to reason that this would be few. It would, therefore, be absolutely absurd for us to say that a person’s life would be made better by loading additional burdens onto the ones that already exist. Who in their right mind would say that our lone human would be better off digging the soil with his bare hands rather than with a tractor and plough? Or that he is better off having to transport water on his shoulders than with the aid of pipes and irrigation? This would only mean that he would endure more work, more hardship but for the same end. No one in his right mind would advocate such a course of action. Additionally, no one would ever say (all else being equal) that a person has “produced too much”. We would not take the fruits of our labour and burn a half of it because the extra productivity means that we might not have to work next week. The result of this would be that a person forces himself to endure the same work for a lesser end. Again, all of this is readily understandable and no person would advocate such courses of action and expect to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, however, this appears to be the approach that we take as soon as the division of labour comes into play and we examine the economy as a whole. For now, when considering the economy in such a manner, while all persons will still retain their multi-faceted characteristics2, the roles of consumer, producer, saver, investor, entrepreneur and so on are not concentrated in an individual but are split out so as to understand them in the new context of the division of labour and exchange. This is, of course, highly useful as it is only by utilising this approach that we can hope to gain any understanding of economic phenomena in the world in which we live, a world that is certainly not isolated but where each individual relies heavily on the productivity of everyone else. However, there is a danger in compartmentalising these activities and considering them only in isolation. With our lone human, we noted that less work means the same enjoyment for a lower burden of effort. A labour saving device, such as machine to pick fruit, for example, would obviously be of a benefit to him. But in the whole economy where the roles of consumer and producer are split, if such a device is introduced, the relative benefits and burdens appear to be split also. Hence, person X, the purchaser and consumer of fruit, is benefited by the lower cost of the product that the machine has permitted. But person Y, who might have been a fruit picker before the machine was introduced, might now find himself completely out of a job (or he may find that at least the demand for his services is drastically reduced) with apparently no corresponding benefit. The conclusion that is often drawn is that there has been a great harm and that “something must be done” to alleviate the plight of the formerly employed fruit pickers. This becomes manifest in a number of policy considerations such as “make work” rules, subsidies, campaigns against machinery and so on, many of which are instigated under union pressure.

The errors of these conclusions come from looking only at the production element of the economy and ignoring the consumer element. For no one in their right mind would say that an individual human should “make more work” for himself or destroy productive machinery to “give him a job”. It is obvious that such things would be a detriment to his ability to consume the fruits of labour. Nor would he be able to subsidise himself by taking money out of one of his pockets and putting it into the other. The very aim of every individual person is to gain as much as he can while doing less work, not more. Yet this is precisely what we do when looking at the economy as a whole. If productive machinery is allowed to displace jobs then this means that the consumers benefit with lower prices and/or increased product. To ward off the loss of jobs by artificially restricting the saving of labour is simply to “benefit” the production end of the economy but to “burden” the consumer end. But the whole point of production is consumption. These people, being kept in jobs that are unneeded, are in no way contributing towards the benefits of consumption. Their work continues as a deadweight cost and there is neither dignity nor achievement in perpetuating their pointless labour. Furthermore, while it is true that they will suffer unemployment in the meantime, the increased supply of free labour will cause wages to fall temporarily. This means that new lines of employment, those that were not previously economic when the people’s labour was desired to pick fruit, are now suddenly viable. New entrepreneurs will rush in to hire the spare labour and devote it to their new enterprises. One must not forget that there will be a degree of hardship during the transition, particularly if one was in a now redundant job for many decades or if a particular skill or talent has now become obsolete. But by deploying the labour to new lines of work, the array of consumer goods now increases. The labour saving device enables more consumption for lower prices, the final end of production, rather than stifling it in the production of the same goods for the same prices. In his role as a consumer every person will feel this benefit over time as real wages increase as a result of the increased productivity.

All of this goes to show that, far from failing to explain anything noteworthy, the economics of the isolated man – so-called “Robinson Crusoe” economics – must be thoroughly borne in mind if one wishes to avoid these misunderstandings.

The Broad View of the Economy

The second error we outlined above was of the opposite ilk – that, rather than looking at parts of the economy in compartmentalised components, one looks only at the whole economy and only thinks in terms of hermetically sealed aggregates and totals. With the individual, lone human we noted that anything that increases his consumption and reduces the burden of production is of a benefit to him. When he is, in effect, his own “mini-economy” all burdens are felt by him and all benefits are enjoyed by him; the one is weighed against the other in the same mind. If, for example, a person desires more to bake more bread and to achieve this he is going to deliberately curtail his production of meat then there is no problem in saying that the burden of the reduction of meat is offset by the increase in bread, for this individual feels both the burden of less meat and the benefit of more bread. His action demonstrates that he prefers bread to meat. This is not the case in the economy as a whole, where roles are concentrated under the division of labour and burdens and benefits are scattered across many – literally millions of – different people. It is a mistake to assume that there is any one, particular event that will be “good for the economy as a whole”. For the economy is just a number of people trading and co-operating peacefully; it is not an entity in its own right, it does not feel, it does think, it does not desire and feels neither pleasure nor pain. While we can, for example, say that a decline in meat production offset by a rise in steel production is a benefit “for the economy as whole” in the sense that the individual members of this economy have chosen to prefer steel over meat (and that jobs in the meat industry will shift to steel production), it is not the case that some broad measures of “output” and “input” leads to the conclusion that all is well. The most pervasive manifestation of this error is the almost ubiquitous obsession with GDP, a figure that is calculated from numerous aggregates that bear no relationship whatsoever with the underlying desires of the acting humans. A particularly crucial element in this aggregates is that of government spending. If GDP starts to fall, say, from the onset of a recession, then Government can simply prop it up by increasing its share of the GDP pie. But it does not follow from this that there is any benefit from this spending. It can only be concluded that an exchange is beneficial if the parties to exchange are volunteers. They only exchange because their action demonstrates that they desire the good that is gained more than the good that is given up. Government spending, however, is funded by taxation3, a compulsory exchange, not a voluntary one. Because the exchange was compulsory it demonstrates that the tax-paying party would prefer not to have his money in the hands of the government. If he did so prefer he would have paid it across voluntarily. When the government spends this money, therefore, it can only do so in ways that are less valuable to those people who provided the funding. There is no sense in which anyone is “better off”. The big aggregate numbers may look impressive following this expenditure but what has not been realised is that they are completely severed from the preferences of the individual people. The situation is no different from one man holding a gun to another’s head and forcing the latter to devote his productive resources to churn out stuff that he doesn’t want. The effort, the production and the physical results may look impressive but there is no point in producing anything if it does not satisfy someone’s most urgently desired needs. What has been gained, like Bastiat’s famous broken window, has simply been at the expense of something that was more highly desired. The same is true also of so-called “infrastructure” spending, which ignores the intricate web of the capital structure. This has been dealt with in detail here. Suffice it to say for the moment that government spending on capital goods does not help the economy; rather, the effect is to divert the economy from a path on which it was meeting the needs of individual people onto a path where it must adapt itself to the new capital resource. Lines of production that depend upon that resource will become profitable, but only at the expense of other, more highly desired lines that have to be abandoned because their funding was compulsorily diverted to government capital expenditure.

The same fallacy – of viewing the economy only as a whole – is evident in the whole saga of the business cycle and credit expansion.  For while the forced lowering of the rate of interest swells the aggregate numbers – everyone is employed, stock markets climb, skyscrapers start shooting up, etc. – what has been forgotten is the underlying preferences of the individuals in the economy. They are not willing to devote the resources necessary to sustain the new capital structure which is precisely why, when the credit expansion stops, the whole lot comes tumbling down. Indeed, the entire approach of mainstream economists seems to be that the economy is doing well as long as somebody, somewhere, is spending on something, i.e. as long as there is some kind of “activity” then there is no cause for alarm. Their failure to acknowledge the wastefulness of the boom and the necessity of the bust demonstrates their lack of comprehension of the fact that spending the scarce resources at our disposal on stuff that is simply not wanted is emphatically not economising activity – it is just waste. The lesson from the 2008 financial crisis should be that you cannot build houses if people are not prepared to pay for the bricks.

The Praxeological Method

These two errors – of looking at the economy too narrowly and then too broadly – can only be avoided by following the praxeological method. For both errors have their root in the failure to grasp the same basic point – that all economising activity is initiated by humans who desire, choose and act so as to devote the scarce resources available to best meet their most highly valued ends. By understanding this crucial fact one would never focus too narrowly and advocate a programme to help certain producers at the expense of others; but neither also would one look too broadly and conclude that what appears to be some kind of economic activity – expressed through aggregates, totals and figures – is always a good thing. Human choice, actions and ends are the foundation of economic understanding and it is vital that is restored to its rightful place in economic thought.

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1We do not, of course, have to assume that every human wants to “have more” in the sense of material fulfilment; rather that every human wishes to meet his ends for the lowest costs whatever the substance of these ends may be.

2A labourer, for example, must, to a degree, possess entrepreneurial skill in choosing the employer from which his labour will yield the highest return; he will also be a saver and investor if, for example, he saves some of his income in a pension fund. And everyone, whatever their broader role in the economy, is also a consumer.

3Even if it is funded by borrowing not only must these borrowed funds be repaid with tax loot but also government borrowing crowds out private borrowing.

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