Utilitarian Arguments for Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austro-Libertarianism – Three Next Steps

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Austro-libertarianism undoubtedly has a long history of scholarship of which it can proudly exemplify as not only providing a coherent body of truthful insights into the way in which the world really works, but also provides a foundation for a just and prosperous society.

However, far from resting on any laurels (and I doubt any scholar in this tradition would ever believe that we are at the stage where we can do such a thing), this essay will suggest three areas of development to which scholars in the Austro-libertarian tradition may wish to focus their research.

Pure Praxeology

The first area is to reconceive “Austrian” economics as a pure (or at least “purer” theory) of praxeology. Although “Austrian” economics is noted for deriving its laws from the theory of individual human action, economics traditionally – not least because concepts such as exchange, production, prices, money, and so on are the complex phenomena that we wish to study and understand the nature of – concentrates only on action above the level of the bilateral exchange of wares for a money income. Our economic categorisations and concepts therefore rest on that limitation. “Austrian” treatises, although they begin quite properly by explaining how economic theory is derived from the action axiom (together also with extremely useful chapters on unilateral or “Robinson Crusoe” exchange), soon begin to espouse their theories in terms of these more aggregative concepts, only occasionally returning to individual action in order to emphasise a particular point1.

A simple example to illustrate this point is the economist’s approach to the classification of goods. A “consumer good” is one that is purchased by a consumer for money without any further sale for money expected. Bread, for example, is treated as a consumer good because it generally goes through no further monetary exchange prior to being consumed. At the individual level, however, the bread may only be a capital good in making, say, a sandwich. Labour is combined with the bread and other goods – say cheese and tomatoes – in order to produce the final consumer good of a cheese and tomato sandwich. We can say the same thing about cutlery and crockery, paper and ink and so on. All of these goods are used at the level below that of exchange for money by individuals to produce further goods. “Land”, on the other hand, is treated as the natural resources which are a gift to all humans, not just an individual human being. However, a good produced by another human being may, to the individual who happens to stumble upon it, comprise “land” in the sense that it is a free gift to him and that he has not had to exert any productive effort in order to bring it into the condition in which he finds it. If, for example, I find an abandoned car in perfect working order and (assuming there are no competing ownership claims), even though the car is a produced good, as far as my action and my computation of costs and benefits towards that action goes, the car is a gift of nature and is in exactly the same condition as, say, a tree that has grown naturally.

It is easy to see why any loss of the connection to individual action can quickly lead economists in the “Austrian” tradition and their fellow travellers down wrong paths. Murray N Rothbard provides an extensive critique of W H Hutt’s aggregative concept of “consumer sovereignty” – the idea that all consumers are sovereign over producers and that the latter exist only for the benefit of the former and not for themselves2. The market place is where everybody seeks to benefit himself through voluntary exchange, and there is not, in fact, a distinct class of labourers, of producers and of consumers with one being “sovereign” over the other. Rather, everybody at differing points of the day (even from minute to minute) participates in a different economic category – a man is a labourer when he goes to work; he is a consumer when he stops by at the shop on his way home; he is a capitalist if he purchases some shares for his pension, and so on. Questions of “sovereignty” – the boundaries of rule – concern only the political arena. Concentration on the basis of economic law in individual human action would have avoided any fallacy and prevented a resort to parcel phenomena into homogenous, collective blocks. However, Rothbard hardly escapes the same danger to which Hutt succumbed, building his entire theory of production using the economic fiction of the Evenly Rotating Economy (ERE), an economy in which all economic activity is repeated and known. Thus, entrepreneurial profit and loss is eliminated. This model allows (or, perhaps, forces) Rothbard to conclude that capital goods earn no net rents and that all rents are paid back to the original factors of production – land and labour – a theme that is oft repeated throughout his entire treatise. It is submitted here, however, that regardless of how such an approach may be helpful in illustrating the complexity of the structure of production, any firm or even implied conclusions drawn from it are likely to be grossly misleading and can only lead to error. The most dangerous false step from this presentation is to assume that the ownership of land – as an original factor – provides essentially free income to those who happen to hold it. Needless to say Rothbard takes great pains to rebut this conclusion, but his attempt could be condensed, with a slight modification, to a single paragraph:

As the only income to ground land that is not profit or interest, we are left with the original gains to the first finder of land. But, here again, there is capitalization and not a pure gain. Pioneering—finding new land, i.e., new natural resources—is a business like any other. Investing in it takes capital, labor, and entrepreneurial ability. The expected rents of finding and using are taken into account when the investments and expenses of exploration and shaping into use are made. Therefore, these gains are also capitalized backward in the original investment, and the tendency will be for them too to be the usual interest return on the investment. Deviations from this return will constitute entrepreneurial profits and losses. Therefore, we conclude that there is practically nothing unique about incomes from ground land and that all net income in the productive system goes to wages, to interest, and to profit3.

The correct position, therefore, is that “things” do not “earn” anything. All actions, whether they involve the dispensation of labour, land or capital goods, require the sacrifice of one state of affairs (“costs”) in the pursuit of another state of affairs. It is hoped that the ends brought about are more valuable than the ends given up. The creation of this value if the action is successful (or its destruction if it is not) is the product of entrepreneurial judgment. All income from any action is therefore paid out to cover costs, interest or entrepreneurial profit and loss. All net rents in the economy accrue only to this latter element – successful entrepreneurial judgment with the means at one’s disposal, whether this is your labour, land that you own, or a capital good that you hold. All of these things that can be bought or sold for more or less money than is sufficient to cover their costs plus interest. It is only by remaining firmly anchored to action at the individual level that this realisation can remain in focus4.

Coupled with this endeavour of better preserving the link between the complex phenomena in the economy with individual action is a greater emphasis on “Austrian” methodology not as a separate topic but one to be espoused during the course of the treatise. The reason for this is that a “vulgar” conception of “Austrianism” would state that all economic theory and all of the laws of economics are deduced logically from the action axiom and one or two subsidiary axioms. Truths derived empirically have little or no place in “Austrian” economics. This is not, however, altogether true. Only the core theory concerning the action axiom and its immediately related categories, in addition to some of the more fundamental laws (such as the law of marginal utility) are deduced logically. However, there is a great body of “Austrian” economic law that requires the ascertainment of empirical facts. We cannot, for example, derive economic laws of bilateral exchange without ascertaining the existence of more than one human being, an endeavour which any individual cannot simply deduce. We cannot have an “Austrian” approach to the economic effects of taxation unless one group of persons had, in fact, attempted to tax another group. We cannot have an “Austrian” business cycle theory without first assuming the existence of banks, the practice of fractional reserve banking, a loan market and even money itself must be presupposed. Although the regression theorem, for instance, is a valid praxeological law5, it would only exist if we first of all knew that money existed and that people had chosen to use a good as a general medium of exchange. Now it is true, of course, that these laws would remain valid and true even if the substantive human choices upon which they rely had not been made. If we imagined a world without money, for example, and pondered its existence merely as a hypothetical we could still derive “Austrian” laws concerning it without it ever actually existing. The actual phenomena in existence simply direct our interest to them as those are the areas that matter in our lives and hence are the things we wish to study and understand. No doubt it is also quite impossible to try and “imagine” alternative institutions and choices that have never existed and to apply to them the core “Austrian” theory, especially as our own experience of real concepts such as money, exchange, prices, banking and so on often provides an illustrative tool to our theoretical insights. However, it is more accurate to speak of the entire endeavour of “Austrian” economics not solely as a body of economic law that is deduced logically, but as the application of the core theory, deduced from the action axiom, to the substantive institutional choices that humans have made, the existence of which is verified empirically6. More prominent highlighting of the “Austrian” method and the source of each parcel of knowledge during the course of a treatise would aid greatly any misunderstanding in this regard.

Ethics

The second area of fertile development in “Austro-libertarianism” is the necessity to sever or more sharply delineate the relationship, often casually assumed not only in political philosophy but also in the opinions of lay persons, between legal norms and moral norms. That is, the question of what should be legal – in other words, those norms which may be enforced by the imposition of violence – should be separated from the question of what is good, worthy or preferable. It is submitted that this is one of the greatest barriers to a proper understanding of the role of violence in interpersonal morality, and has been dealt with in detail by the present author here, here and here. Many people happily recognise the illegitimacy of the legal (violent) enforcement against themselves of norms that other people value as moral ends which, as the hapless victims of this enforcement, they themselves do not (or at the very least, they would complain about it). But, because of the prevalence of the legitimising effect of democracy and the blurring of any distinct line between the governors and the governed, most would not think twice to advocacy of the legal (violent) enforcement of ends that they deem good against other people. Indeed, the criterion for what should be legally enforced boils down to little more than what most people think should be legally enforced. Libertarians need to create an understanding that the proper role of violent enforcement is restricted to preserving the physical integrity of each individual’s person and property – and as moral agency requires such integrity in order for a person to choose and act, such an insight is crucial for any proper understanding of interpersonal morality. The examination of whether something is bad, unpleasant or a vice must be separated from the question of whether its prevention should be enforced legally; and, equally and oppositely, the examination of that which should be peacefully permitted by the law should be separated from the question of whether such acts are good and noble things. In addition to aiding moral and political philosophy, this would be of a benefit to libertarianism specifically as it would render inert the perceived support for all of those bad and unpleasant things – drugs, prostitution, gambling, blackmail, and so on – which are non-violent but are nevertheless not necessarily things that we would wish to see in our society7.

Inflation

The final area for development in Austro-libertarianism, this time in the field of economic history and anthropology, is to engage in a rigorous study of the effects of inflation and inflationism throughout history. “Austrian” scholars have certainly charted well the purely economic effects but, in the opinion of the present author, an exhaustive study of the social, cultural, political, and aesthetic effects of inflation is yet to be written, at least in the “Austrian” tradition. As Henry Hazlitt notes:

[Inflation]…discourages all prudence and thrift. It encourages squandering, gambling, reckless waste of all kinds. It often makes it more profitable to speculate than to produce. It tears apart the whole fabric of stable economic relationships. Its inexcusable injustices drive men toward desperate remedies. It plants the seeds of fascism and communism. It leads men to demand totalitarian controls. It ends invariably in bitter disillusion and collapse8.

Apart from the wide “macro” effects of inflation – not least of which include the birth of odious ideological movements and regimes and their ability to fund wars and conflict – also of interest is how inflation effects us at the individual level. For example, how many of our day-to-day products that we enjoy today are the result of genuine development by a capitalist economy and how many are simply substitutes developed in an era of inflation to enable people to attempt to salvage some of their previous standard of living? Products such as instant coffee, condensed milk; synthetic clothing; plastic bottles; and so on. How many genuine labour saving products were developed not because people genuinely wanted to save time but because inflation had either reduced their income to such a degree that time came at a premium or because inflation had induced impatience and a present-oriented fervour? Indeed the latter may have had distinct ramifications beyond the economic – the birth of adolescence as a distinct demographic; the sexualisation of society; the preference for entertainment ahead of learning; the attraction to style rather than to substance; the prominence of sound bites and “tweets” rather than in-depth analysis; the emphasis on youth and adaptability to an ever changing world rather than on age and accumulated wisdom. All of these things have significant consequences for which inflation much at least be partly responsible. Further, how much does inflation distort our views of reality and of what is possible? Inflation, as Hazlitt noted, makes speculation rather than production profitable – the image of productivity and wealth creation rather than the very thing itself. It makes big or easy wins more attractive than patient investment in a lifelong endeavour. But at the extreme we might say that we have attempted to replace reality itself with dreamed ideals. Government, has taken over and replaced real money (gold and silver) with a fake paper counterfeit. Having replaced reality with one form of fakery, we expect government to be able to legislate to replace reality with our pseudo visions, to carry out the miracle of transforming stones into bread. Thomas Nast’s cartoon, Milk Tickets for Babies in Place of Milk (below), concerning the inflation during the American Civil War, perhaps captures the foundation of this mindset in artistic form. The cartoon contains representations of reality that are passed off, for example, by Acts of Congress as reality itself. As English professor Paul A Cantor explains:

Nast’s illustration brilliantly captures [the confusion of] things with representations of things. Like Magritte [in the painting The Treachery of Images], Nast reminds us that a picture of a cow is not actually a cow, but he is not making a merely aesthetic statement. He is drawing a more serious analogy between the duplicity involved in artistic representation and the duplicity involved in the government printing money and forcibly establishing it as legal tender, an analogy embodied in the parallel “This is a Cow By Act of the Artist” and “This is Money by the Act of Congress”9.

Given that “Austrians” lead in the way in a providing a genuine understanding of the definition and effects of inflation it would be appropriate for an historian versed in “Austrian” theory to undertake a full study along the lines that we have suggested here.

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1It is also the case that most “Austrian” scholars writing today received their initial education in the mainstream economics tradition and only later “turned” to “Austrianism”. Thus one senses a tendency, if not a persistency, to lapse into the comfort of aggregative and pseudo-concepts, at best obscuring the essential connection to individual human action, and at worst completely losing it and ending up in the rhetoric of collectivist and societal-oriented action.

2Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy and State with Power & Market, p. 631-6

3Ibid., p.530, emphasis added.

4The present author is not enthusiastic about the excessive use of equilibrium constructs and they should, at the most, be used as a tool in order to distinguish one concept from another, an endeavour that would be impossible without such a construct. Nevertheless, it is possible that a dynamic equilibrium – a fiction in which there is change and entrepreneurial profit and loss but where all forecasts of the particular entrepreneur in the model are correct – together with a focus on the costs of land acquisition and of the dispensation of labour would have created a better illustration than the ERE. But whatever model is used, it is submitted that the illustration of every stage of production, whether it is with land, labour or capital, necessitates the elements of costs, interest and entrepreneurial judgment and that, contra to Rothbard’s assertion that the mental construction of the ERE is necessary in explaining the structure of production, a much clearer grasp of reality can be and, indeed, is attained without omitting any of the crucial elements.

5Although this is disputed. See Gary North, The Regression Theorem as Conjectural History, Ch. 7 in Jörg Guido Hülsmann (ed.), The Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media – Essays in Celelbration of the Centennial.

6If anyone should doubt this and remain steadfastly wedded to the idea that “all” of “Austrian” economics is deduced logically this then he should attempt to present an “Austrian” treatise written in formal logic.

7The present author has dealt with the so-called “thick” or “thin” libertarian debate here.

8Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, p.157.

9Paul A Cantor, Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Thomas Mann in Light of Austrian Economics, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1994), 3-29.

Towards a Universal Human Ethic

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change and Social Rules

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Human-induced climate change (formerly known as “global warming”) is, currently, a mainstream political topic that free market advocates frequently wade into, and rightfully so. When government threatens to use this excuse to expand its level of control both nationally and internationally, lovers of liberty cannot help but be drawn into defending their cause against this onslaught.

Nevertheless it is submitted that too much effort is directed at tackling the issue of whether human-induced climate change (through carbon dioxide emissions or whatever) is happening, and that there are insufficient attempts at clarifying precisely what, if anything, should be done under the assumption that it is happening. While it is interesting to debate the truth of the science and the motivation of the parties involved (especially the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)), we must submit that it is not within our capacity as political philosophers to tackle the conclusions of the natural scientists (although when it comes to the climate there is an arguable epistemological case against drawing too many incisive conclusions from such research, plus against the assumption that, if climate change is happening, it would necessarily lead to “catastrophic” or even unfavourable results, or that such results could not be adapted to). Rather, the more interesting question for libertarians is the extent to which (if any) social rules and political philosophy apply to a phenomenon such as climate change.

Let us start by outlining a few key assumptions:

  • Climate change is happening;
  • It is induced by purposeful human activity and, specifically, by net carbon dioxide emissions;
  • The phenomenon cannot be attributed to any identifiable individual or group of individuals; rather it is only the action of all humans in concert, although specific areas of the Earth and particular industries may exhibit greater contributions owing to the level of their industrialisation;
  • The phenomenon neither perceptibly nor directly harms any individual or property at any particular moment in time. The effects are gradual and cumulative, causing changes that might only be measurable (let alone noticeable) after a long period of time.

It is these last two facts that are often cited as the necessity for government intervention – that as no one individual suffers any sudden, appreciable cost from climate change that can be traced back to the action of another identifiable human being, it is alleged that neither the free market pricing, profit and loss system, nor traditional tort law, can control the phenomenon. Rather, climate change is one vast negative externality of human behaviour, in which we are slowly but surely sowing the seeds of our own doom with each step of economic and industrial progress. This allegation we will come to later. First of all it is important for us to understand precisely in whom the “right” to prevent climate change from happening is vested.

Rights and Obligations

The Earth and the matter it contains – the trees, the sky, the land, the oceans, the birds, the bees and so on – are all unconscious entities that have no desires, no feelings, no choices and no rational actions to bring about preferred ends. “Mother Nature” and the providence she brings may be an apt and vivid representation of the world and of all of its natural gifts, but it must be realised that she is only a metaphor. There is no conscious entity that can possess any “right” to be preserved, nor owed the obligation to be preserved. Any talk, therefore, of climate change being a “betrayal” of the planet and continued acts of industrialisation and pollution as somehow being “treasonous” are complete nonsense. Ascribing rights to the Earth is as ridiculous as ascribing it obligations – a pool of water, for instance, is not regarded as a murderer when someone drowns in it. Rather, these elements – rights and obligations – only arise between morally responsible beings, i.e. those beings that are endowed with moral choice. Any rights and obligations that arise as a result of climate change are, therefore, strictly between humans and not between humans and the planet. Even if the Earth did have “rights” in any meaningful sense, they would still have to be executed and enforced by human beings against other human beings.

For the same reason neither do “future generations” possess any right to enforce climate stability. Just as much as unconscious and lifeless matter, unborn or hypothetical persons cannot possess rights and responsibilities. One may judge it a very good thing to bequeath to our descendants a legacy of the world in a particular state but, again, this would be a judgment of existing humans and not of their unborn children and grandchildren. The right claimed is, once more, of those currently living people who wish to see the world continue in a certain state for their heirs.

Related to this aspect is the view that the Earth has some kind of inherent beauty or a universal and almost omnipotent splendour that transcends the existence of human beings. Far from co-existing with the Earth in a symbiotic relationship, humans are seen as a cancerous scourge that is destroying the planet’s innate and immovable qualities, a scourge that may (in some more extreme versions of this view) permissibly be killed in order to protect and defend the intrinsic magnificence of nature. All of this is nonsense. The Earth has been through many different modes of being throughout its approximately six billion years of existence. Whether it is better existing as a green and lush land of forestry, as a dead and lifeless cinder orbiting the sun, or covered in sea, ice, volcanoes, or whatever else, is a judgment that is made by humans. Absent any human there is no state in which the Earth can be that could be said to better or worse, beautiful or ugly, harsh or gentle, and so on. Even relatively more objective criteria such as whether it is “warm” or “cold” are judged against the temperature that is most comfortable for human existence. Climate change is not “harming” or “destroying” the planet. It is only changing it from one form into another. It requires a thinking, desiring and choosing human being to determine whether the form the Earth is in (or that to which it is being changed) is preferable. If this particular epoch of the Earth’s existence is especially and inherently satisfying, appealing, and worthy of preservation then this is a human judgment that is not measurable by any universal criteria. If humans are inducing climate change the effect of this is solely upon the preferences of other humans – and not upon the non-existent soul of the Earth. The question of climate change is therefore an interpersonal human matter, and not one that is between humans and the planet.

There is, therefore, no special body of rights and obligations that emerges solely because of climate change, and all discussion of the morally permissible means to deal with climate change must engage with the question of the rights and obligations of existing humans to prevent it. If, then, we take this approach, it appears at first blush that the problem of climate change may reduce to being simply one of the aggression of one person (or set of persons) against another. If the actions of person A on his property A1 causes damage on property B1 that is owned by person B then person A is liable. Can our discussion of how this harm can be prevented simply be the stock one of whether government should wade in and do so or whether the free market should? Unfortunately this approach is not likely to be adequate for the very reason we mentioned earlier. There is no one identifiable victim of aggression and there is no one identifiable perpetrator. It is the action of all humans in concert that is causing these changes to the climate that have allegedly deleterious consequences upon all human beings. Surely only the strong hand of the government is sufficient to prevent its disastrous results? A response to this, however, requires not capitulation and surrender, but rather, a deeper investigation by political philosophers (and libertarians in particular) into the nature of the problem of climate change in order to see whether the circumstances justify any interpersonal regulation at all. To this we shall now turn.

Humans and Nature

A human, in all of his endeavours, faces two sources of difficulty in the world – the state of nature on the one hand and the actions of his fellow humans on the other. Nature, that is, the world in which a human finds the environment around him, can be a harsh benefactor. When humans first trod on the virgin soil of the Earth, the availability of materials, water, and foodstuffs may have been plentiful and abundant in a raw and unbridled state. However, harnessing those resources and transforming them into arrays that would allow them to meet a wide range of ends would take centuries of toil and capital accumulation, something that did not significantly get off the ground until the beginning of the latest two centuries’ of human existence. Furthermore, natural phenomena such as the variability of the weather and the cycle of the seasons serve only to make this task more difficult. Nevertheless, whatever nature throws at man is something that, in the first instance, has to be taken as a given. Whatever configuration of elements nature provides to humans, whether it is good or bad, gentle or harsh, safe or dangerous, plentiful or mean, has to be dealt with as it is found. Only subsequent human action, in relation to what nature has provided, can bring about a change in the situation. Nature does not possess any choice in how it presents itself; it is simply under the orders of the laws of physics to do that which results. One could not, for example, “reason” with the ground to start growing crops, or shout at the clouds to provoke a rainfall. All of the problems that nature throws at humans, therefore, can only be overcome by taking nature as a given, by understanding its reality and by then learning to act with it symbiotically. We manufacture a hammer head out of metal and not out of sponge because metal is hard and will force a nail into a wall. We make a bucket without holes because otherwise water would leak out to the ground. We make knives sharp because a blunt object would not exert enough pressure to slice through meat or bread. We fertilise the soil in the winter, sow the seeds in the spring, tend to the ripening of the crops in the summer, and finally harvest in the autumn. In all of these cases we are acting in accordance with what nature has given us in order to meet our ends. It is true, of course, that as we progress we can overcome some of these problems with greater ability. Artificial heating and sunlight can, to a degree, overcome the problem of restricting crop production to the seasonal cycle. But still, this is only possible because we have learnt about the nature of energy and electricity, and we have still had to harness these in a way that is compatible with their nature. We do not click our fingers to make electricity appear; rather we have to generate it, lay cables to transport it to a heating or lighting outlet, and back again to complete the circuit. So even when we get to very advanced stages of production, capital accumulation and technological insight, we are always acting in accordance with what nature gives us. We cannot change this fact of existence. Our only option is to understand more incisively how we can use whatever nature provides.

Humans, on the other hand, are very different. Humans do not merely exist in the universe as dead, unconscious matter whose actions are only the result of physical laws or chemical reactions. Rather they possess choice, choice that is, in turn, motivated by desire and leads to concrete actions. As a result these choices can be debated, challenged, reasoned with, and altered at will. The substance of a human’s action, therefore, in contrast with the substance of the actions of unconscious matter, do not have to be taken as a given. Indeed they cannot be taken as a given because there simply is nothing to be taken as it is – every action is the result of a new choice and a new decision, not merely a repetition of what has happened before. Even the decision to repeat a previous action – like driving down the same road to work every morning – is a new decision to carry on doing something that was done before. Although it may be estimated with a varying degrees of probability, there is nothing that is ultimately and categorically predictable about the substance of a human’s action to the total exclusion of an alternative, and any hypothesis concerning what a particular human will do at a particular time and place is a personal judgment based on empathetic understanding.

Both of these factors – nature on the one hand, and fellow humans on the other – are sources of the overriding and predominant concern of human existence – scarcity and the conflicts that arise from scarcity. Nature does not produce enough resources for a human to meet all of his needs without the intervention of labour – choices must be made to resolve conflicts between ends that are held dear. Other humans compound this by desiring the use of resources that could meet your ends. The resolution of conflicts from each source of scarcity requires a bifurcated approach. Conflicts arising from nature can be resolved only by gaining a greater understanding of that nature in order to use what is has given to the furthest possible extent. Conflicts arising between humans, however, are resolved by social rules that derive from morality and how these rules deem it appropriate for a human to act in order to avoid conflict with another. The strongest of these rules are laws, those which may be enforced violently, as opposed to mere custom, manners, traditions and so on. It is with these strong rules to which the standard libertarian approach is non-aggression, self-ownership and private property. It is individual humans who have values, choices and desires; it is individuals who conflict over the ends to which the scarce means available must be devoted. It is therefore individuals who determine when there is a clash of values that needs to be resolved. It is the clash of individual wills that marks the realm of political philosophy separate from the realm of nature.

How, therefore, does human-induced climate change fit into this framework? Is it a conflict that arises out of inter-personal human interaction, in which case it is subject to social rules? Or is it more akin to an act of nature that must be dealt with as and when it arises? It is almost universally assumed that because humans are responsible for climate change in a strict, causative sense, that this automatically brings it within the purview of interpersonal human conduct and should be regulated by social rules. However, what we shall argue here is that simply because human purposeful activity causes an effect does not mean that social rules arise to control that effect. A person, X, makes an external piece of matter, some part of the Earth – whether it be land, wood, water, or whatever – the object of his action because he has recognised it as being scarce and therefore valuable. The result of his action is to transform – i.e. produce – the object (or “good”) from servicing one end to serving another. No other human expressed such a preference as if they had they would have already “homesteaded” the matter, or good, by making it their object of their action first. A human turns this piece of material into servicing a particular need because he prefers that need and the state of being of the good that will meet that need. If another person, Y, comes along and attempts to make the same good the object of his (Y’s) action then the result of this is to divert it away from X’s ends towards Y’s ends. Y’s conduct is, here, subject to the regulation of social rules because X identifies a violent intervention to his property that is attributable to the chosen and purposeful action of Y. There are three key elements in this situation:

  • Goods;
  • An identifiable human (X) who has diverted the goods to a certain end;
  • An identifiable human (Y) who has chosen, deliberately, to divert the goods to another end.

Take away any one of these elements and any talk of social rules becomes meaningless. First, it should be obvious that if there were no goods then there would be nothing to conflict over and social rules would serve no purpose. Secondly, if X did not exist or was not identifiable then there would be no conflict as the good would be ownerless upon Y’s arrived. And finally, if did not exist, or if the intervention of Y was not carried out by a human but, say, by an act of nature then social rules would serve no purpose as they cannot regulate unthinking and unconscious objects.

With climate change, we do not have just one of these elements missing – rather, all three are marked by their absence. First, it is not clear that there are any identifiable goods that are violently interfered with. In other words, is the climate that surrounds a property considered a part of that property (or something that, if changed, can make a violent, physical intervention to that property) or is it something that simply provides varying external benefits and burdens to property which will affect their relative values, in the same way that a conveniently located school might enhance the desirability of nearby houses? Whereas a hurricane would clearly cause untold physical damage and havoc to a property, changes in rainfall, sunshine and temperature may make no appreciable physical intervention at all while, at the same time, enhancing or reducing its desirability. If so, then good weather is tantamount to being something that provides an external benefit to property without intervening, physically, with the property itself. If this is true then other people cannot be forced to continue providing external benefits to your property, nor can they be prevented from carrying out actions that will stop them. If the school decides to close, its owners and managers choosing to devote their efforts elsewhere, and this affects the desirability of your property, few would suggest that you should have a violently enforceable right to enslave them and keep the school open. Or, if my pretty garden enhances the value of your property, should you have the right to force me get out my wheelbarrow and spade? Secondly, there are not necessarily any identifiable individuals that own property that has suffered physical intervention by climate change. Thus far most of the alarmism is only based on hypotheses of future effects and, furthermore, has come not from individual property owners but from governments, their sponsored scientists, activists, environmentalists and political groups. Indeed, given the abysmal record of governments in protecting property from all other kinds of manmade threat we must be extremely suspicious as to why they so enthusiastically champion their own resolution of this one. Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, climate change is caused not by any one individual but by the action of all humans together. The effect is not caused by the action of any identifiable individual human or identifiable set of humans but is the consequence of the purposeful activity of multiple humans acting independently. A requirement of moral responsibility, and thus, the regulation of an action according to social rules is the individual consciousness that chooses that action. One, single human possesses this consciousness, and this enables him to become morally responsible for actions that are taken even when he chooses to act as part of a group of individuals. All humans together, however, do not possess any individual consciousness that can be held morally responsible for its actions. Humans as a whole, as opposed to individually, are not an individual, sentient, or conscious being. In their collective they are not, therefore, divisible from nature but must, very much, be taken to be a part of it. This is not intended to make the genealogical point that, along with the vegetation and animals, we are all part of the same rock orbiting the sun. Rather, as any one human approaches and considers phenomena arising from humans acting altogether, he must treat and deal with them as phenomena of nature and not as those of an individual being. This still applies even where the groups can be localised – for example, heavily industrialised countries such as the United States will churn out more net carbon dioxide emissions than third world countries (which are often alleged to bear much of the burden of climate change). Simply because people are forcibly “united” by their government or state identity does not mean that their individually chosen action, or action chosen in concert with other individuals, can be held morally responsible for the harm alleged. But even if it did there would still be an enormous problem with causation and proportionality. It is just that an individual should be held responsible only for the harm that he causes and only to the extent that he caused it. How do we know whether a person’s or company’s carbon dioxide emissions caused a change in climate that affected another person’s property and if we do know, then how much? We can, of course, measure net contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. But what if the harm would have happened anyway from everyone else’s contributions and neither the addition nor subtraction of this one person’s emissions would have made any difference?

Indeed, it is not at all surprising that humans would exert some kind of collective side effect upon the Earth that is not reducible to the purposeful behaviour of any single one of them. Larger quantities of anything generally have effects that are either unperceivable or negligible when smaller quantities are considered. Groups of humans have been known to create seismic activity when they jump up and down at the same time1. Millions, if not, several billion people are always walking upon the Earth at the same time. Thus far this has not created any noticeable problem. However, if we suddenly started to see minor tremors causing cracks to appear in buildings from all of those “selfish, profit-seeking” humans walking everywhere, would the most sensible response be to call upon government to regulate how many paces everyone can take in a day, and when? Or should we just to accept the phenomena like an effect of nature and ensure it is accounted for in building design?

Conclusion

Summing up the above argument, therefore, we may conclude that where the purposeful activity of all human beings but of no individual human being, or identifiable group of the same who are purposefully acting in concert, creates certain effects then these effects must be regarded as akin to effects of nature and not of an individually, morally responsible being. The collective “humans” possesses no individual moral responsibility that can be held to account by social rules. Simply because something is induced by the actions of all humans does not mean that any one of the humans is responsible and can be penalised by another human.

The appropriate response to human induced climate change, therefore, is the same response to all of the other problems that nature throws at us – by taking it as a given, understanding its reality as deeply as we can and then learning to act with it symbiotically. This may allow us not only to avoid it but to also, perhaps, use it as an opportunity, as a resource, in ways that, at present, we are not able to consider. Even at the moment it appears far from certain that the effects of climate change will be universally bad and will not have mitigating or even beneficial results. Indeed, those who are so concerned about how we leave the world for our descendants might want to consider whether it is just for us to deny them these possibilities. Nevertheless we should end by saying that none of this means that people should not, individually, act to preserve the climate as it is by restricting net carbon dioxide emissions if that is how they wish to proceed. They are quite welcome to restrict their own emissions and to persuade others to do so. But, as in the pursuit of all other values, they should do so peacefully and voluntarily and not muster the violent hand of the government to enforce it for them at the expense of those who do not share that view.

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1One recent example is when Seattle Seahawks fans jumped up and down in celebration during a game on December 2nd 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25205548.

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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The Good Libertarian

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Libertarians face a number of difficulties in how to live their own lives while they are pursuing a world that that they believe is just. This essay will explore a number of them.

Two of the aims that a libertarian should try strive for is, first of all, a deeper and better understanding of the foundations of libertarianism and political philosophy in general. In particular, the reasons why ethics arise, a passion for truth and justice and how libertarianism is to be distinguished from other political philosophies are key points of focus (indeed, it is surprising how very few people of all persuasions consider the first of those questions). Only through this can a libertarian have a rigorous an immovable understanding of the truth of his position. The second is aim is to attempt to convince others of this inherent truth and why libertarianism would lead to a “better” world than either what we have already or what could be offered by an alternative philosophy. For while it is all very well sitting alone at home and being satisfied with one’s personal understanding, the world a libertarian seeks is unlikely to be achieved unless it is embraced by a majority of the population1.

These two aims are mentioned together because the elements that are applicable to each are often conflated whereas, in fact, they possess a degree of exclusivity. Indeed, different people will display different capabilities towards intellectual rigour on the one hand and towards spreading the fruits of that rigour on the other and it has often been the case in political movements that the visionaries, developers and consolidators of thought have had to wait for their work to be embraced by the practically minded revolutionary. The first aim is one that can be achieved through meticulous and almost puritanical or hair-splitting debate between libertarians themselves, i.e. within the school of those who self-identify as libertarians and have already embraced, in principle, a passion for liberty. In order to gain the best understanding of the foundations of our position we cannot rely on batting away the worn, tired, and relatively “light-weight” arguments of statists and busybodies then, having become satisfied with this relatively straightforward intellectual accomplishment, retire comfortably. We must, rather, take on the heavy-weights within our own movement with whom we disagree. A world-ranking sportsman is not likely to ever improve his ability by taking on the weakest opponents – rather he must constantly test himself with the best that is out there and so too must libertarians embrace clefts within the movement in order to move closer to the truth. Some examples might be whether minimal government is justified or whether government is totally unjustified; whether the non-aggression principle always applies; or whether the concept of “universally preferable behaviour” is a logically valid test of moral propositions.

At the same time, however, it is very important to realise that simply because a libertarian belief or conclusion from some internal debate is true does not necessarily mean that it is useful in persuading others of libertarianism. It would also be wrong for ideological debate within the movement to form publically acknowledged sects, with libertarians appearing as a divided camp that does not know what it wants. We must remember that the opinions that must be swayed towards liberty are not those of the hardcore, intellectual statist or socialist who form only a relatively insignificant minority in number. Rather, the people that will matter are the passive and uncommitted people who, although perhaps disillusioned with current government and think it needs to be “better” and run by “better” people, otherwise hold no firm or passionate commitment to any particular political ideology. Blasting these people with the concepts of self-ownership, non-aggression, natural law, argumentation ethics or whatever is not likely to appeal to them and will simply come across as abstract, irrelevant, ivory-tower conjectured gobbledygook. As libertarians, our educative concerns are very little to do with whether a person can be forced to save a baby drowning in a puddle. Rather, we must emphasise that our primary pre-occupation is with the evil monstrosity that is the state and the jealously reserved monopoly of legitimised violence that it possesses. It is sufficient, in order to at least begin a person on a path towards a better understanding of this edifice, to appeal not towards our cherished libertarian doctrines that we are happy to discuss and argue about amongst ourselves, but, rather, to people’s grasp of basic morality. Murder is wrong; the state murders. Theft is wrong; the state steals. Kidnap is wrong; the state kidnaps. Humans are bound by a common code of morality; the state consists of humans. Why then can the state get away with these horrendous crimes? What is it that makes these humans so special? Why can they circumvent the rules that everybody else has to follow? Why the hypocrisy? Much of what we are doing is simply revealing to people what they already know to be true and to benefit from that by applying it consistently. This will, of course, not be the complete answer towards turning someone against the state. But a definite first step is to try and render the state as a separate and distinct caste from the ordinary citizenry. One of the greatest “triumphs” of democracy from the statist point of view has to been to immunise the division between rulers and ruled, that, because we are able to exercise a vote between a tiny selection of screened and approved candidates once every four years, that we are all somehow a part of government, are able to control it and can demand what we want from it. Rendering inert this well-engrained impression is a libertarian’s primary educative task. The less a person feels himself a part of the state, the less able he feels to exert a degree of control over it, and the more it appears that it is reserving for itself special powers to do whatever on Earth it likes, the greater will be the seeds of doubt in a person’s mind as to its legitimacy.

None of this means to say that one should not engage in deeper discussion if that is where a particular conversation is heading; but one must at least wait for signs of a kindling of interest in those directions and should always try to look for the path that is most suitable with each particular audience.

Conversely we must also guard ourselves against the opposite danger. Just because a true proposition, or a piece of libertarian doctrine is not, in the main, useful in persuading others to turn towards libertarianism does not mean that such a proposition has no fundamental truth, aids nothing at all for understanding and must, consequently, be abandoned. Truth exists regardless of whether people are prepared to embrace it. While some detailed application of libertarian ethics and the strict adherence to self-ownership and private property in so-called “lifeboat” situations may produce outcomes that seem bitter and distasteful, not only do we have to bear in mind that such judgments are being made in a world that is inherently un-libertarian and where private property and self-ownership do not command a great deal of respect, we must also consider the supra-libertarian values and ethics that happen to prevail. To take an example: is the starving person wandering in the forest who comes across somebody else’s log cabin morally permitted to break in and steal the food in the cabin in order to prevent his death? In a society where charity and helping one’s fellow neighbour is a virtue and where we have long been accustomed to government invading our private property in order to try and achieve a redistributive result, it is understandable that any emphatic “no, he may not” in response to this question by a libertarian invoking the canons of the non-aggression principle and self-ownership will be met with outright derision and hostility from those he is trying to persuade. But one could also posit a world where taking care of yourself and relieving others of the burden of your needs is the prevailing virtue, and that the situation of being helpless and isolated is a grave and shameful relinquishment of personal responsibility. Such a world may also command a great deal of respect for private property and keeping off other people’s turf. In that situation a typical person might happily conclude that the starving wanderer has no moral right to break into the cabin and that it is meet and proper for him to seek fulfilment of his own needs self-sufficiently. Both sets of supra-libertarian virtues – charity on the one hand and taking care of oneself on the other – are, in principle, compatible with libertarianism and non-aggression. It does not necessarily follow that simply because one set of circumstances prevails and the other does not that anything about libertarian ethics should be rejected. If there is shock and disbelief at the revelation of the world being round it does not follow that it should be regarded as flat.

Another difficulty that libertarians face is how to live a life in accordance with libertarian principles. In other words, to what extent should we each go to in order to act non-violently and preserve the self-ownership of others? Should we, for example, use government roads to travel, visit government hospitals when we are sick, or send our children to government schools? Are we not benefitting from the taxes levied by force from others in order to achieve ends that we may seek through government-provided facilities? Should we even vote? When government spreads it tentacles so far and wide into every nook and cranny of existence it is practically impossible to say whether any good or service that a single person enjoys has been brought about entirely through voluntary arrangement – not to mention the fact that numerous industries have been nationalised directly. In fact it is almost certain that a government edict, a regulation, a tariff imposition, a directly-government managed industry, a government-privileged business, or a union-backed worker must at some point, if not all, have taken effect in or otherwise “contributed” to the chain of production. Indeed, practically anything that is transported must use government-controlled roads, railways, seaports or airports. Furthermore, as we noted earlier, democracy itself has effectively nationalised the citizenry, so that every person is now a potential beneficiary of government operations but also can be, at least on the face of it, responsible for its actions.

How are libertarians to cope in such a world without opening themselves up to the charge of hypocrisy? Although we could say that libertarians themselves as tax payers are contributing to anything the government runs and are just, therefore, taking what they have been forced to pay for when they use these services, the more pressing moral concern is that it is difficult to suggest how a person should behave in a perfectly non-violent way in such a world. It is a basic requirement of morality that a person must be able to do what is moral; the extent of government has been to render practically every action a potentially morally questionable act. Yet a person always has to act and cannot refrain from doing so. Even just sitting at home he is taking advantage of government building code edicts, planning permission, utilities that supply the house, heating, gas, and light etc. Where every choice is a potentially morally bad choice then there is, effectively, no moral choice and one cannot be held morally responsible for acts that may benefit from minute and, to the actor at least, imperceptible and remote grains of violence when the only alternative action was one that was equally culpable. To take an extreme example, let’s say that the government tells a person that he must choose between whether A should die, B should die, or (should he refuse to choose) either of them will die. In this situation one cannot condemn this person for making an immoral choice when every option was equally bad. This person would not be labelled a cold blooded killer who could be regarded as hypocritical if he was to suggest that people should not commit murder. Rather, libertarians should focus on ensuring that the conduct of their lives is as free as possible from directly and obviously contradicting libertarian principles. In order to accomplish this there is an important distinction that must be borne in mind and that is whether a hypothetical action is, on the one hand, merely a consequence of the state or whether, on the other hand, it would be an emulation of the state. In other words can an act be regarded as the result of what flows from the state’s interference, or is it a new and extensive act of violence that is independent from that perpetrated by the state? Making this judgment in practice may be very difficult and there will, of course, be many grey areas and room for disagreement that a libertarian should be open to acknowledging as informants of this judgment. Whereas shooting a person in order to steal his possessions would clearly be a new and unique violent act, other actions may be more nuanced. But it is important to at least understand the conceptual distinction as a first step. In any case, however, libertarians are already somewhat used to judging actions in this manner. We can clearly distinguish between the wealthy politician living off the largesse of tax receipts and the poor old lady who uses a government road to purchase a loaf of bread from the grocery store. None of us, in trying to promote a libertarian world, would hope to be taken seriously by ignoring the government sponger and focussing on the “evil” pensioner2.

Additionally, however, even if it is possible to condemn a person as behaving in an anti-libertarian way, is it not far better for him to acknowledge this and call for its cessation rather than merely staying quiet and carrying on, even if he risks ridicule and charges of hypocrisy?

One curiosity concerning this topic before we leave it is that it tends to be a preoccupation among libertarians and is not one that is too often mentioned in retort by statists. Perhaps the latter see more clearly that they are gladly forcing you to do things their way and that you cannot help it? In that case let the libertarian who is without sin cast the first stone – if he suggests that everyone should not engage with government at all in all of his actions then allow him to demonstrate how he has managed to even survive without doing so.

Finally, however, and perhaps more importantly than the foregoing from a strategic point of view, is that libertarians should attempt to cultivate a personal code of morality that is in accordance with but above and beyond their libertarian beliefs. A popular charge against libertarians is that we are the “anything goes” crowd, that simply because an action does not hurt anyone then it is A-OK and must happen. While it is true that any non-violent action must be tolerated and not subjected to violent imposition or restraint, it does not follow that it is free from criticism, nor must it be liked, loved, embraced or welcomed as a good thing. It might be non-violent to allow gambling adverts to appear during children’s television programmes, but that does mean that we are inclined to agree that they should. People may be harming no one else by taking drugs but that does not mean that it should be welcomed as a good thing, nor should one necessarily want to frequent with drug users. People cannot be forced to give to the poor but that does not mean that, if they choose not to, they should be regarded as fine and upstanding people. We very much need, as libertarians, to make plain the fact that we as a group neither condemn nor promote non-violent actions but as individuals we too have our own tastes, morals, pleasures and displeasures, just like anyone else and we use these to judge the conduct of other people and whether we wish to associate with them. “Live and let live” applies only to the imposition of violence and our difference as libertarians qua libertarians is that we do not believe in using violence to enforce our preferences on other people. But we do, as human beings, have these preferences and we should not be afraid to express them simply because they concern the non-violent acts of others. Non-violence is not the highest moral achievement, merely the most basic on which a free and prosperous society can be built; it is the first step towards a good society and not the last (although, at present, it may seem like an enormous leap across a chasm rather than a step). How that society is shaped within the sphere of non-violence is a question to which we must contribute along with every other thinking, desiring, choosing and acting human being.

1Elsewhere the present author has argued that education, in the goal of eliminating or at least reducing the state, may well take a back seat to innovating government away, i.e. that people’s natural affinity for individualism will simply circumvent government through superior technological development. This does not, however, render education redundant and it would still be far better if government was both out-innovated and knowingly rejected.

2In many cases it is also arguable that this judgment could be sharper. There is a tendency for libertarians to condemn acts that are proximately violent, yet they all too readily leap to the defence of actions that, while proximately non-violent, reap huge advantages from less obvious government intrusion. For example, if it is complained that western corporations are paying employees in poor countries too low a wage then one must support the principle that wages must be freely negotiated between employer and employee. But one must also balance this against the possibility of these corporations benefitting from monopoly and regulatory privilege, brand protection, intellectual property and any other enforced reduction of competition that would have served to increase the wage rate.

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The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

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

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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The Scope of Moral Enquiry Part Three – The Ethics of Non-violence

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In parts one and two of this three part series we outlined the necessary conditions for morality to arise in the universe. We then proceeded to demonstrate how, in answer to conflicts that emerge from a condition of scarcity of means, morality, by the operation of logic, entails that each individual moral agent owns himself and can therefore be said to have self-ownership and the ownership of goods of which that person is the first user-occupier. From these rights we derive the non-aggression principle (NAP).

This third part of the series will explore the morality of non-violence. We will first consider the area of defence and enforcement which is the primary area that separates the NAP from other moral norms. We will then examine the widest implications of the NAP and demonstrate its ultimate justification, showing why some common objections to the NAP are groundless. We will then, in this light, examine the place of other moral norms and moral theories, concluding that these can only ever take effect non-violently. We will also suggest some non-violent remedies to situations which an individual may judge the behaviour of another to be immoral in spite of not violating the NAP. Finally we will speculate upon the content of non-violent norms that may emerge in a world in which the NAP is adhered to.

Defence and Enforcement

The crucial aspect of the NAP is that actions which violate it may themselves be repelled violently, i.e. physical defence may be used in order to enforce the NAP and to repel violent attack. We will demonstrate here why this is so and why such enforcement cannot be used for action that does not violate the NAP. We will not proceed with en elongated discussion of punishment, proportionality and nor also will we attempt to tortuously define defensive violence as somehow being “non-violent” or “reactionary violence” as opposed to “initiatory violence”. Rather, we must call a spade a spade and recognise defence for what it is – the initiation of the violent enforcement of one’s right to self-ownership, an act which does invade the self-ownership of the another person.

We will therefore confine ourselves to the simplest answer that if A attacks B, violating the latter’s right to self-ownership, then A has no grounds on which to demand that his own self-ownership be respected. For if he denies self-ownership to B then on what grounds can he reserve it for himself? In part two we noted how A cannot preserve self-ownership for himself and deny it to B; exactly the same principle is in operation here. A’s demonstrates through his act of violating B’s body that self-ownership does not exist. B may therefore repel A violently in order to assert his self-ownership without contradicting his claim to this right. It should be clear that B’s action can extend only so far as is necessary for enforcing his self-ownership. For if he proceeds beyond this point then he does so to a level where he is forcing A to meet B’s ends. For example, if A crosses the boundary of B’s property to punch him B can fight back to the point at which A is no longer violating B’s self-ownership. So if A is successfully returned to the confines of his own property, B cannot then proceed to grab a meat cleaver and run onto A’s property, chase him off that property and claim it for his own. B will likely, of course, assess the future threat from A as being heightened as a result of this experience and he is perfectly entitled to prepare additional defence mechanisms on his own property such as fences, locks or a security guard in addition to other non-violent remedies with which we shall deal below. It follows also that where A’s action is entirely non-violent and does not invade B in any way then A has given no denouncement to the right of self-ownership. B, therefore, has no right to violently cause A to do anything else.

We might also add that, as we explored in part two, a person who desires ownership of a good does so because he wishes to combine it with his labour to produce an end that is more valuable than the end that existed before. If he does not wish to carry out such a physical act then he simply regards the good as non-valuable and hence will make no claim of ownership. In other words, the concept of ownership is bound up integrally with physical occupation of the property. Any theory of ownership that did not grant a right to the owner the ability to sustain this physical occupation would be nonsensical.

The Character of Morality and the Ultimate Justification of Non-Violence

What has therefore been demonstrated thus far is that no person may violate the NAP and that such violations may be repelled physically by the violated party. This is a truth that is universal to all acting agents everywhere and anywhere (even, as we shall see below, in so-called “hard cases” or “lifeboat” situations).

In spite of the prolific nature of this truth it is, however, extremely important to realise its limitations. For while the NAP condemns all action that invades another individual’s person or property it does not, on the other hand, condone or morally sanctify all action that does not cause such a violation. Individuals have varying ends that they seek to meet and it does not follow simply that all action that is peaceful and voluntary should necessarily be tolerated, liked, welcomed, or embraced by anyone else. Indeed the NAP does not even say that all appropriation of previously ownerless matter is a good thing; it only says that it is not morally permissible to repel such action by the use of violence. These aspects we shall now explore in more detail by reference to a crucial element of morality – that it is a conflict solver between thinking, choosing and desiring beings. What will be demonstrated is that any moral theory that advocates violence completely obliterates this aspect and, hence, cannot properly be considered a moral theory at all.

We stated in part one that morality arises to resolve conflicts that emerge from a world of scarcity. For a human being to act, to express his choices motivated by his desires through action, is to discard lesser valued ends and to embrace more highly valued ends as a result of the scarcity of means. If we imagine a world without conflict between human beings then this entails each human being to feel the pain of intra-personal scarcity but not of interpersonal scarcity. Each human would use his own body and divest the goods which he came across as the first user-occupier from the ends which that human least desired to those that he desired more highly. But each human would do this in isolation – there would be no covetousness of other people’s bodies and the goods that other people have appropriated. Consequently, there would be no such thing as morality nor would its derivatives of rights and ownership arise as they would, in such a world, be utterly meaningless. Everyone would be a “self-owner” in a de facto sense but the concept would not be even considered de jure, its prescription serving no purpose at all1. Interpersonally, however, every human being has a choice as to how to behave in relation to the body or good of another – he can either not make another person’s body or good the object of his action, or he can make it the object of his action. There is no alternative. Or, to put it another way, a person must always act in relation to an object that another person deems himself to have appropriated or he must act in relation to matter that no other person deems himself to have appropriated2. Let us proceed to examine each of these two possibilities in detail.

If a person, A, chooses not to act in relation to a good that someone else, B, has first used or occupied then what can be deduced from such a choice? We could just stop short at saying, in a strict, praxeological sense, that A does not value this good. He does not care whether it is in its current state under B’s custody or in a different state and delivering a different end in his as there is no demonstrated preference through which to determine the contrary3 4. However, there is one more important aspect as well – that A has allowed B to retain full control of his actions, that is for the latter to bring his desires motivated by choices brought about by the necessity of scarcity into being through concrete action. We said in part one that the only agent that has moral responsibility and can therefore be said to behave either morally or immorally is one that possesses choice over its actions. Hence A, by not submitting B to violence and by not forcing the latter to do what A wants to do, permits B to retain the character of a moral agent. B remains morally responsible for his actions and such actions can, therefore, be examined through a moral lens. It therefore remains possible for A to criticise B’s action in regards to the latter’s person or property as being “immoral”, stating that B should have devoted the means that he owns to an end that A values more highly but B does not. This may be as simple as something as A having the opinion that B has too much money and should give some of it away to the poor. If B, free from violence and coercion, chooses not to so give then we can say that he has behaved either morally or immorally. We may conclude that he is selfish and evil, as A might, or that the alternative end to which he actually devoted the money was more morally justified than giving it to the poor. Alternatively B might, having been persuaded by A’s opinion, decide that yes, he should give some of his money to the poor and he proceeds to do this. What does this reveal? Once again, through voluntarily acting to set aside alternative ends to which the money could have been devoted, B expresses his highest preference, his most valuable outcome, to be that the poor should have his money. Any conflict over scarcity continues to be resolved as the highest ends of all parties expressed through action are in harmony. But also, as we are trying to stress here, because B has chosen this action, because it has not been enforced violently and he has not been made to do it, we can say that B behaved morally (or immorally if we think that there was a higher end to which his means could have been devoted).

What, however, happens in the latter situation, that is, where A chooses to act in relation to a good that B owns? Things are now markedly different. He acts because he values the good, he demonstrates through action that he wishes to devote it to an end that he, A, believes is more desirable than the end in which it is currently employed. But the problem is that B has also made the good the object of his action and he desires it to be in its current state (i.e. the state into which his (B’s) action put it) rather than the end to which A wishes to divert the good. The action of A is, therefore, the cause of what is now an interpersonal conflict of scarcity, a conflict manifest in the physical clash as both humans attempt to occupy the same piece of matter. In short, A behaves violently towards B. Let us say again that A wrestles from B money that the latter has and gives it to the poor. As A has not, in this situation, yielded to B’s self-ownership and B is not able to express his choice through action, B does not value A’s end of giving the money to the poor more highly than some other end. The result therefore is that the conflict isn’t resolved at all; rather it is actively provoked and sustained, the winner of the contest simply being who is the physically stronger. To state that it is “moral” for A to enforce “morality” – i.e. resolve a conflict over scarcity – of diverting money to the poor by a method – violence – that promotes conflict is an absurdity. For if B had desired to give his money to the poor then he would have done it voluntarily; there would have been no need for A to interject with force. The fact that force is used indicates that there is no resolution to conflicts at all – in B’s mind he would still prefer that he had his own money and so the highest valued ends of all parties are still disjointed. But there is an additional crucial aspect as well. For where B voluntarily gives or refuses to give money to the poor we can examine his action through a moral lens because he chose that action. But where he has not chosen an action – where he has been the victim of violence – then we cannot examine his action at all. In no way can we say that B, having had his money taken by A to be given to the poor, behaved morally, for he didn’t “behave” at all. He simply had to do what A told him to do and he had no choice in the matter. To subject someone to violence is, therefore, not to get them to behave morally; rather it is to completely deny them moral agency. People are treated no better than inanimate objects, like stones or water, subject to the laws of physics and the force initiated upon them by other people. Stating that B behaved morally when his money is taken to be given to the poor is to say that a knife behaves immorally when a person uses it to stab someone else, or that an apple behaves morally when someone gives it to me to eat. Indeed, to state that B behaves morally in this situation would require us to ascribe moral agency to every single inanimate object that happened to move. The only morality that can be questioned in such a case, therefore, is of A’s action not of B’s, and whether A is morally justified in using, forcibly, B’s person and property for ends that A deems as moral and proper and B does not5.

More emphatically, however, any moral theory that justifies the use of violence is not really a theory of moral behaviour at all – it is a theory of who should and who should not be a moral agent, of who should and who should be allowed to express their choices motivated by actions through desires and who should be relegated to the level of mere dead and unconscious matter. But to do this is to destroy the very reason for morality in the first place. As we explained in part one morality only arises in the universe because each of A and B are choosing, desiring, thinking, beings. If one of those two is demoted to the position of an inanimate object then there is no moral theory to speak of at all – either of the two that was the acting being would not be bound by interpersonal moral prescription because the other is simply not a person. In other words, to advocate that one is a moral agent and another is not means that one does not have to behave morally at all – another person can simply be used as ends for one’s own desires and purposes6. A person does not sit and talk to a potato explaining how it is moral and just for it to be eaten by that same person, nor does one try to rationally explain to one’s bed that it is good and proper for it to be slept in. So why does anyone who advocates violence bother to flesh out a moral theory in the first place? If other people are simply there to be used for the ends that you think are moral what is the point of reasoning this? To whom are you addressing your theory?

It might be objected that, rather than prescribing a blanket denial of a person’s moral agency, a moral theory will only specify certain situations in which that person may be subject to the violence of another; in other words a person can retain moral agency except in particular scenarios, some of which may have to be judged according to the facts. There are two problems with this. First, we are entitled to ask “what is the specific method for such adjudication of ‘the facts’ that will cause one party to retain moral agency and another to not do so and why is this method justified?” Secondly, the only reason why a moral theory would hold that a person is to be subjected to violence in one circumstance and not in another is because in the latter situation the person’s action is in accordance with the moral theory. It is still the case that the moral theory has attempted to prescribe my ends for me – just because I happen to agree with these ends and therefore proceed to do them voluntarily does not change the total infringement of my moral agency.

There are several crucial aspects, therefore, what we can summarise about the use of violence to enforce morality:

  • That an absence of violent actions means that each person’s highest end is met with the scarce means available to him; there is, therefore, no conflict of ends in a strict, praxeological sense;
  • To act in violation of the NAP does not resolve conflict; it simply enforces one person’s end on another person; the conflict is sustained and promoted, not resolved;
  • To subject someone to force is to deny them moral agency; in no way can the action of the violated party be subject to moral scrutiny;
  • That if one is to promote a theory of morality which states that morals can be enforced violently and hence deny moral agency then one has to explain why they need such a theory if the objects of their action are no better than dead, unconscious matter.

Government Action, Violent Enforcement of Morals and Common Objections to the NAP

In this light we must, therefore, proceed to examine all situations in which it is claimed that “morality” can be enforced violently. The prime subject of this examination is, of course, not the situation where A wants to take the property of B, but of all Government action. For while it is generally acknowledged that one person cannot simply take what another has or commit violence against another person, the mechanism of Government is still deemed to be the legitimate channel through which ends can be enforced violently (even though very few people recognise explicitly that violence is the necessary means of Government action).

Let us start with a simple, historical moral good – let’s say that a King believes that is a morally good thing for a subject to give a portion of his income to the King’s treasury so that the King can build a shrine such as a temple, church or pyramid. Or, to state the same more emphatically, the King believes that a subject should give some of his income to fund the shrine. He believes this because there is a scarcity of the means of achieving this end of building the shrine, in this case, money. If a subject gives his money voluntarily, with neither the application nor the threat of force, then what can be said about this? First, the subject, through such an action, demonstrates that the King having his income to build the shrine is the highest valued end to him. His action is therefore in harmony with the morals of the King and there is no conflict over the means that are the object of his action. But also, because he has chosen this course of action it can be said that he behaved morally – he exercised a choice over ends that was necessitated by the scarcity of means and this can be said to form an accord with the King’s moral proposition. But what if the subject does not wish to give a portion of his income to fund the King’s shrine and does not do so? The King might therefore say that he should force the subject to give up some of his wealth and the King, in turn, would spend it on constructing the shrine. But the result of this is entirely different. For now, the ends of all parties – the King and his subject – are not in harmony. The subject, deprived of his money, still does not want it to be given to the King. He may passively accept the outcome and realise that resistance is futile when faced with the sharp end of a sword; but it cannot be said that the conflict is resolved; if it had been then the subject would have acted voluntarily to give the money to the King. Indeed, he might actually be bitter and contemptuous and correspondingly less generous with his later, voluntary action. Indeed the subject may attempt to squirrel his funds away where they can’t be noticed and taken in the future, or his operations may vanish entirely underground if the confiscation becomes particularly onerous. More importantly, however, by inflicting force upon the subject the King cannot say that his subject behaved morally at all. The latter had no choice in the action of his money being transferred from him to the King and hence we cannot scrutinise such an action in relation to him. He was merely a tool, subject to the force that was applied to him; he displayed neither virtue nor vice, good nor evil, and can attract neither congratulation nor condemnation. But also, as the result of treating this man has rendered inert his moral agency, the relationship between him and the King is not one of a desiring, choosing, acting human being to another such human being; it is that of a piece of dead matter to a human, the King. But if this is so then there is no need for a moral theory at all as far as it concerns the subject. Why bother to construct a moral theory if this man is not a moral agent? If the man was a piece of dead matter, say an apple, and the King regarded it as good that he should eat the apple then the King would not construct a moral theory to say that the apple should “give itself” to him; the unconscious objects of one’s action are not subject to moral examination. The King will, of course, wrangle in his own mind as to whether he should devote the scarce resources at his disposal to acquiring the apple or to doing something else. But just as we said in part one there is no interpersonal moral consideration for his actions. There is nothing outside of himself and his own desires, choices and ends that tell him whether he should behave one way or the other because there is nothing outside of himself to instruct him so. For the King to subject another person to violence to achieve his ends is precisely to replicate this kind of relationship, that of human being to dead matter and hence the King’s attempts to justify his actions by reference to interpersonal morality are simply ridiculous. The end result, it should be clear, is that the King has simply substituted his own ends for those of his subject’s.

Let us now move on to a more contemporary example – that it is a moral good for the rich to help the poor, i.e. that a rich person should give some of his income to the poor. If the rich person does this voluntarily then he demonstrates that the poor having a portion of his income is the highest valued end to him. His action is therefore in harmony with the moral advocates and there is no conflict over the means that are the object of his action. But also, because he has chosen this it can be said that he behaved morally – he exercised a choice over ends that was necessitated by the scarcity of means and this can be said to form an accord with the moral proposition. But what if the rich person does not wish to give a portion of his income to the poor and does not do so? Our moral advocates therefore state that government should force him to give up some of his wealth and the government, in turn, gives it to the poor. But now, just as when the King forces his subject to give him a tribute to build a shrine, the ends of all parties are not in harmony. The rich man, deprived of his money, still does not want it to be given to the poor. Once again, just like the subject under the thumb of the King, the rich man may passively accept the outcome and realise that resistance is futile but it cannot be said that the conflict is resolved; if it had been he would have acted voluntarily to give the money to the poor. And, same again, he might actually be bitter and contemptuous and correspondingly less generous with his later, voluntary action. Whereas before he might have been persuaded to regard the genuine poor and needy as deserving and worthy of his attention, he might now, having been subjected to force, regard them as workshy layabouts. But again the more important consideration is that by subjecting the rich man to force we cannot say that he behaved morally. He had no choice in the action of his money being transferred from him to the poor and hence we cannot scrutinise such an action in relation to him. We can neither thank him nor criticise him for what he did because he didn’t actually do anything – he was simply made to hand over his money. And once again as the result of treating this man in such a way has rendered inert his moral agency, the relationship between him and the Government is not one of a desiring, choosing, acting human being to another such human being; it is simply that of a piece of dead matter to a human. And once again, no moral theory can arise from such a situation. Questions of morality can only arise from interpersonal conflicts of scarcity; but to treat someone like a non-person renders void and unnecessary these questions. The Government may justify its actions in its own mind just as any person might justify picking an apple off a tree to feed oneself. But there is no interpersonal, moral justification for these actions. If the apple had thoughts and feeling and desired to remain on the tree rather than be eaten we would say that the person, in plucking it from the tree and consuming it, has substituted his ends for those of the apple. This is precisely what the Government – or anyone – does when it violently wrestles money from another person.

It is in this light that we can comment on so-called “consequentialist” arguments against the NAP – that a strict adherence to the NAP could result in a worse set of consequences than a minor infringement. But the precise problem of morality is whose consequences should prevail – the only reason it arises is because one person wants to devote means to one set of ends and another person wishes to devote them to another set of ends. Any such measurement of “better” or “worse” ends is simply arbitrary as we cannot make interpersonal utility comparisons – we cannot say that one person values his ends “more” than another person values his own ends. But even if we could and we could say that one party values his ends less than another person does and the means to achieve them are wrestled from him, this would still be a loss to him that is not offset by any compensating gain to him. In his mind he loses outright – why should a “larger” gain to one, independent being justify violence that results in a “smaller” loss to another?

Indeed it is interesting to note that violence is universally (albeit only officially) condemned as immoral. Apart from the objective justification we offered for the NAP in part two, perhaps this is precisely because it is unconsciously realised that it reduces other human beings to mere unconscious objects. Other morals, however, are not so universal. One of the most interesting aspects of the history of ideology is that it is seldom one of “individualism” or “liberty” vs “collectivism”, but rather a history of one version of enforced collectivism versus another. Liberty always means the freedom of the individual to act how he chooses, whatever the substance of his choices may be and whatever the time and place. There are not different “versions” of liberty and any disagreements between libertarians, minarchists, anarchists, agorists, voluntaryists, etc. are generally theoretical debates over that which is an affront to liberty rather than over liberty per se7. However, when people advocate any form of violently enforced collective what they always mean is their version of the collective – that is how they want everybody else to behave, how they want to use everyone else and the product of everyone else’s labour for their ends8. But questions of “morality” arise precisely because people do not view the ends of others as being in harmony with their own. For if everyone believed in the supremacy of the Pope, or that the King’s bidding should be done, or in the führer prinzip, there would be no conflict over the scarcity of means. Everyone would willingly obey not because he was forced to abide by the rules of the collective but because he wanted to. Everyone’s highest valued ends would be in harmony with that of the collective and morality would serve no purpose in such a world as everyone would devote the scarce means available to the same ends, that of the collective. But because people do not value the ends of collective, because they have conflicting ends over which scarce means must be devoted, the moral dimension arises. To feel the need to justify ones version of collectivism morally is precisely because people do not agree with this version. To state that this version of collectivism should be enforced violently is simply to override everyone’s else’s ends and replace them with one’s own. This fact is not restricted to ancient battles between warring monarchs or religious sects; the very reason why we still persist with elections and debates is because the ends to which we should devote the scarce means available are not universally agreed upon. Majoritarianism is deemed to legitimate violent enforcement of ends, that is, that only the minority are treated as unconscious objects for the good of the majority. But the logic of all violently enforced collectivism is that one person, a king, president, emperor, sovereign, visionary or religious leader retains moral agency but everyone else is reduced to the level of unconscious matter. No two individuals will ever agree absolutely on every single issue unless they , quite literally, share the same mind and in every case, therefore, one person’s will must triumph over another. Democracy has simply the blurred the personalities at the top by making them interchangeable and endowing them with a veneer of legitimacy resulting from elections and constitutional arrangements such as the so-called “separation of powers”9.

This fact – that the violent enforcement of “morality” is simply substituting one person’s ends for another’s, preserving the moral agency of the violator and reducing the violated to the level of mere dead matter – must be applied not only to typical situations such as taxation and redistribution but also to seemingly “hard” cases or what are often called “lifeboat” situations. Indeed, a not uncommon response to the NAP is to demonstrate how its strict observance may lead to results that would be “worse” than the results that would follow from a comparatively “mild” contravention. A typical example is if one is faced with a choice of saving a greater number of lives at the expense of killing one innocent person. Surely it is better to kill one person than to allow so many innocents to die? The present author has dealt with this scenario in detail here but the main problem with this is the objective measurement of what is a “good” or “more desirable” outcome. Why should, in this case, the needs of more people trump that of one person? How can their desire to live be compared to his? What if they are all suicidal depressants whereas the one person has a great zest for life? Or what if they are all delinquent and unproductive layabouts whereas the individual innocent is a great pioneer and entrepreneur? Of what if the majority are evil dictators? Can we say in all of these cases that the majority should be favoured? But even if we could so measure, even if we could say that yes, these five people who will be saved want to live more than the single person wants to, the loss of the latter’s life is still a loss to him that is not offset by any compensating gain to him. Why should a “smaller” loss to him be trumped by a “larger” gain to others?

All of these difficult situations (such as a starving person taking some food that belongs to another person, the killing of innocents to eradicate or apprehend an assailant (colloquially known as “collateral damage”), or the forcing of a person to help a drowning child) have as a common feature the fact that one person or set of persons has a desire or a need that is met by the confiscation of the person or property of another10. Aside from the economic effects of granting rights to violate the NAP in such situations11, we must emphasise again that the problem with all objections to the NAP resting on consequentiality – the avoidance of bad consequences – is that morality is concerned with precisely whose consequences should take higher priority. Indeed all of these types of scenario tend focus on the apparent needs of the hungry, sick or drowning party and totally ignore the ends of the party who possesses the means. Why are his ends any more or less important than someone else’s? A mere assertion that is moral for one set of consequences to trump the other simply begs the question. But even if it is not possible to determine objectively which consequences are “better” by pondering hypothetical situations then is there an objectively identifiable method for determining which consequences should trump others in real situations? We’ve already explained that interpersonal utility comparisons cannot be made and that even if they could one still has to explain why a “small” loss to one is less important than a “larger” gain to another. If no such method exists then we must conclude that all infringements of the NAP are simply determined arbitrarily and are simply tantamount to one party being able – by force – to impose his ends on another party.

Indeed, there is a distinct emotional appeal about all such “lifeboat” situations – not only are they worded in such a way as to generate an emotional and empathetic response to the drowning baby, the starving child, or the sick old man, but interwoven is the widely held moral conviction that one should act to help one’s fellow human being. No doubt it is of a distinct advantage to the human race that we each possess the emotions of sympathy and empathy that urge us towards helping others, that we form emotive bonds of friendship and relationship that drive us towards selflessness rather than just trading under the division of labour and impassively procreating. But it does not follow from these things, however beneficial they may be, that people are endowed with violently enforceable rights and obligations to be helped, or to be sympathised with, or anything else. And even if we were to force a person to be the Good Samaritan we must conclude, in light of our analysis above, that this does not mean that he has behaved “morally” at all; for by being forced to help someone else he loses the character of a moral agent. One can only conclude that someone has behaved “morally” if he has chosen his action, otherwise he has simply been no different from a piece of unconscious matter.

The Non-Violent Enforcement of Morals

The foregoing analysis – stating that, even in the event of “lifeboat” situations, the NAP should not be violated – needs to be approached and understood with extreme caution. In the event that, for example, a person witnesses a drowning a child and he refuses to help that child, the fact that the NAP states that that individual cannot be forced to help that child does mean that it is a good thing that he does not help the child. Alternatively, if a person has mountains of food and a starving beggar on the verge of death appears at his door and is refused any food, we are not saying that such a refusal is a good thing. It is perfectly consistent to say that a person should do action X but should not be forced to so. And indeed, as we keep on stating, we can only say that such a person behaved morally or immorally as a result of his voluntary choice to do or refuse to do action X.

The confusion that is endemic through moral philosophy is the shared language of rights and obligations that flow from moral theories. There are two cardinal errors to which this leads. First, that it is almost always assumed that the possessor of a “right” can violently enforce that “right” against the person who holds the “obligation” should the latter refuse to do so voluntarily. But it does not follow simply from the fact that a moral theory posits that a person should or should not do something that such an act is violently enforceable. Indeed, as we pointed out above, there is simply no point to a moral theory if it results in violence as this simply eradicates the reason – the other party’s moral agency – for questions of morality to arise12. This language of rights and obligations posits an end state of the world – that if we say the poor have a right to a portion of the income of the rich and the poor then attain this money, there is no further moral advocacy as to what the poor should do with this money having received it (should they also give it away, for example?). A right loses its substance if it is not final or absolute. This leads to the second error which is that because a libertarian, or some other adherent of the NAP, states that a person has the “right” to the ownership of his own body and those goods of which he is the first user (or the first user’s successor in title to the goods through voluntary exchange), people assume from this language of rights and obligations that a libertarian believes that not only should the first user of a good have title of ownership to them but that also he should keep them for himself. This could not be more untrue. The whole point of granting someone ownership over goods is that they are free to dispose of them as they wish and this could include donating them to the poor. The key point that we are trying to explain in this essay it that is quite open to moral theories to posit that people have “rights” and “obligations” to do whatever with their property – all that libertarianism and adherence to the NAP states is that these moral actions must be voluntary and not enforced violently. Within that sphere of violence anyone is most welcome to develop any moral theory they wish and to make it as persuasive and endemic as he pleases. He just cannot force people to adhere to the ends of his moral prescription13.

Therefore, any moral theory that talks of rights and obligations that breach the NAP is not only invalid but rather, it is no moral theory at all. Moral theories can only arise between thinking, acting and choosing beings and to deny a person these qualities through violence is to render inert the need for a moral theory. All language of rights and obligations must be adhered to and enforced not through violent means but through non-violent means.

Does this understanding, then, run us into a brick wall – that if someone can be said to have a moral right or a moral obligation and if these cannot be enforced violently, then aren’t they useless? What is the point of having a right if you can’t make he who has the obligation fulfil the substance of that right? Not at all, for there is no prescription at all in the NAP against using non-violent enforcement, enforcement that preserves the moral agency of another individual. In other words, to influence another’s behaviour by exercising one’s right to self-ownership and to ownership of the property that one possesses in accordance with the NAP14. For example, as we have been indicating throughout, oral persuasion and conversation is one of the simplest of these methods – that you can bring a person round to believing that he should act in accordance with the ends that you believe to be moral. In short, he comes to value the same ends as you with the scarce means at his disposal. Only then, as we elaborated above, can we judge his behaviour as being moral or immoral. Another example may be of the “lifeboat” variety – suppose that an individual, A, witnesses another person, B, walking idly by a drowning child of whom B is aware; B does nothing to help and the child drowns. A may use his empathetic understanding of the situation to judge the child’s need of B’s means to help as being more pressing than B’s needs and that, consequently, B should have helped. A does not have the right to force B to act; there is no standard of proof that permits him to force, violently, his interpretation of the situation upon B. But A can, however, act in accordance with the NAP as a result of B’s behaviour. He might boycott B and refuse association with him; secondly, he might publicise B’s deliberate inaction so that other people may decide to refuse to associate with him. Such action does not rob B of anything that he values as such, but it does narrow the scope of his potential future action if people refuse to trade with him. Indeed, threats by A of such non-violent actions may cause B to help the child to avoid their consequences. Of course, other people, say C, D and E, may judge the situation differently and conclude that B could not have helped the child or there was indeed a more pressing end that B had to devote his means to as opposed to the end of saving the child, however tragic the latter situation might have been. Under these circumstances C, D and E might be perfectly happy to continue association with D or may publicly congratulate him for his choice. Non-violent enforcement of one’s moral beliefs therefore permits an individual to express his own values, to divert his means to the highest valued ends as he appraises them without forcing others to adhere to them. Hence, other are given the opportunity to voluntarily act in accordance with your values, but they may disagree. Only by acting non-violently is it possible for everyone’s values to express themselves, for the scarce means available to be devoted to their highest valued ends, without conflict.

Conversely, while, in accordance with the NAP, another person cannot force you to adhere to his moral sentiments, it does not follow that this person should, in turn, be forced to celebrate or condone your moral choices with his own person and property. If A is homosexual and B believes homosexuality to be immoral then B is not entitled to violently force A to refrain from homosexual acts. A is entitled to remain unmolested and free to use his property and person as he sees fit. But it does not mean that A can force B to associate with him in spite of his homosexuality. B has to tolerate the existence of A’s homosexuality but B cannot be forced to use his own property and person to further the ends of A’s homosexual lifestyle. So if (to take an example of a real conflict) B is a Christian guest house owner and A wishes to stay at B’s guest house with his same-sex partner, then B is quite within his rights to turn A and his partner away. B’s beliefs may be bigoted and ignorant, but he cannot be forced to adhere to the alternative. The guest house is B’s property and he is, by virtue of his position as the first owner or his voluntary successor in title, permitted to dispose of that property as he sees fit. If A could force a relationship of trade upon B, i.e. force an association, then that is tantamount to the enslavement of B for A’s ends15.

Might it be objected that, in certain cases, there is too much of a fine line between aggression and non-aggression? While a case of a man punching another in the face is clearly an act of aggression (unless the act was one of self-defence) and merely quietly telling him to go away is not, are there not at least some difficult cases where we cannot tell whether the act is aggressive or not? Talking to a person is not aggressive but would blasting loud music at his property from your own property not be so? Both amount to the same thing – the initiation of sound waves from one person’s property to another. Yet it would be difficult to suggest that the former case was an act of aggression and to argue the opposite. What is the cut-off point? Is there a certain measure of sound waves one side of which may be said to be aggressive and the other side of which may be said to non-aggressive? This is an issue that will be dealt with in a later essay on a libertarian legal system. Suffice it to say for the moment, however, that it is important not to confuse the validity of a principle with the determination of whether such a principle should be applied according to the facts. To take another example, we can assert that, in accordance with the non-aggression principle, that a valid contract is one where the parties each voluntarily agree to transfer title to property. This voluntary arrangement is entirely in their heads – only they know whether or not they actually intend to transfer title. Yet the resulting rights to the transferred property need to be publically agreed and acknowledged, for not only do people need to know whether a piece is property is in fact owned they also need to know by whom it is owned if they too wish to make an offer of trade at a later time16. It is not, therefore, enough that two parties to a contract intended within their own minds to exchange titles to property; rather they must have held themselves out as intending to do so. In other words, their actions must demonstrate objectively that they held the intention to transfer. Precisely which actions are necessary to demonstrate this intention will, as will be shown in the later essay on legal systems, be a matter for local custom, convention, and ultimately for competing dispute settlement services such as privately competing arbitrators and courts. Exactly the same will apply in determining precisely where and in which situations the NAP is violated. Remember that morality arises as a result of conflicts that are generated from the fact of scarcity, but this scarcity exists not in the condition of physical matter per se, but in the minds of the acting individuals. One therefore has to look not to the precise and minute arrangements of physical matter down to the atomic level but to the actions of the individuals involved in seeking to use matter to value their ends. Only their actions will reveal if there was in fact a conflict and it would be up for private libertarian legal systems to judge whether, on these facts, there was a violation of the NAP. Complex examples of these types of situation will be examined and explained in the future essay on libertarian legal systems.

The Morals of a Libertarian Society

It is often asserted that a pure free market or, rather, what we would call a society that acts entirely in accordance with the NAP, would engender nothing but selfishness and self-centredness, everyone seeking to maximise his own, personal gain without uttering a thought or care for anyone else. Alternatively, given that libertarians consistently argue for the legalisation of recreational drug use, one might think that we’ll just descend into a race of putrefying pot smokers. It is highly unlikely, however, that these would be the moral creeds that would flourish in a free society. We must recognise, of course, that no one can be violently prevented from doing whatever it is that they want so long as it does not inflict violence against another person or his property. But the institution of private property itself engenders a certain body of moral attitudes that are contrary to selfishness and laziness. In a free society one can only gain wealth by free exchange and one can only participate in free exchange if one is able to serve the needs of consumers. This alone, of course, requires that one benefit one’s fellow human. But it also requires several other qualities – empathy and understanding; patience, prudence and foresight; and the propensity to save and invest rather than consume and waste. Wealth will accumulate to all of those who possess these abilities and hence these are the qualities that will be encouraged. Furthermore, such people who accumulate wealth by serving their fellow humans will be more able to support and raise a family. To the extent that such qualities as we just outlined are genetically inherited then these are precisely the qualities that will be promoted in the human race. And even if they are not then parental guidance is more likely to encourage them than not – how many successful entrepreneurs would be happy to leave the fruits of their life’s work to a lazy, wasteful and selfish child? People are, therefore, most welcome to sit around and smoke pot all day and people may well set up different communities that adhere to values other than those that we just outlined. But we have to wonder from precisely where their resources for doing so will come and such activities will, therefore, remain relatively fringe.

Moreover, without the support of any violently funded social safety net in the event of illness and unemployment, the cultivation of the institutions of kinship, friendship and community becomes much more important to each individual. The free market is forever being criticised for destroying the traditional family and for squirreling away individuals into an increasingly atomised existence. However, these are the effects not of the free market but of the welfare state; for when the Government is there to give you a helping hand when you need it these traditional institutions become less important. Indeed the very operation of the welfare state destroys any personal contact between donor and recipient and no welfare is dependent upon one’s love, trust, respect for the other so these qualities, together with any empathy and sympathy, will simply vanish and, as we noted above, are more likely to be replaced by bitterness and resentment. Finally we might also add that the hitherto most productive and relatively free period of human history – the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries – was the cradle of not only the formal, charitable organisation such as The Salvation Army, the YMCA, the Scout Movement, The Rotary Club, etc. but also of mutual and self-help entities.

In terms of the morals that will be promoted in a free society, therefore, far from advocating selfishness and idleness such a society will prove to be a relatively “conservative” and “charitable” one; conservative not in the sense of preserving the wealth and status of the existing elite or aristocracy but in the particular social morals that are, today, associated with that movement.

Conclusion

What has therefore been revealed in this three-part survey is, specifically, the scope of moral enquiry, an enquiry that can be restricted to only a specific set of circumstances that exist in the universe. To address situations where these circumstances are not present with reference to morality is an error. In summary:

  • Questions of morality arise between beings that choose to devote means through actions towards ends, as a result of an interpersonal conflict generated by the scarcity of means;
  • That each of these beings has the right to self-ownership and the right to the goods of which he is the first user-occupier; these rights are violently enforceable;
  • That a person’s action can only be examined by reference to morality if that action has been chosen voluntarily;
  • That to enforce “moral” ends violently upon another moral agent or his property is not only to replace that agent’s ends for one own ends but to destroy his character as a moral agent; hence, to advocate such action by reference to a moral theory is incongruous and absurd;
  • Consequently, “moral” ends can only be enforced by non-violent methods;
  • That a society that respects the NAP will, while not violently enforcing any moral standards, will most likely nurture the ends of family, friendship, kinship, and relatively “conservative” social morals.

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1There would also be no exchange and therefore no division of labour as exchange presupposes one’s right over the objects that are offered in exchange together with the rights of another over the goods that one wishes to acquire.

2We highlighted in part two how this is determined by the minds of the acting individuals. Two people, for example, can each sit on a park bench and the latecomer of the two may, by external observation, appear to appropriate the goods that were occupied by the earlier occupier. However, this may not be the case in the mind of the latter and his ends may be delivered in full by his occupation of only one half of the bench on which he is actually sitting, with the occupation of the other half being inconsequential to him.

3We have already examined in part two how B’s original possession gives rise to no dispute with any other human being as all of the rest of the world have demonstrated, through their absence of action in relation to the good, that it is valueless. B’s original act of appropriation therefore yielded no moral conundrum and there is nothing, short of the intrapersonal conflicts he feels over which ends to pursue with the means available to him, that informed him whether he should appropriate the good or should not.

4Another possibility is that A does value the good and would very much like to have it, except that he doesn’t make it the object of his action as he ranks the value of having the good as lower than the act of resisting the urge to appropriate it from B’s hands. In short, while he would gladly have it, he recognises B’s moral claim to the good resulting from the latter’s self-ownership, from which in turn is derived the NAP. This is not in and of itself a justification for the NAP as it would simply beg the question but it is illustrative of how adherence to the NAP avoids conflicts and physical clashes.

5It should already be clear that the net effect of using force simply allows one person to achieve his ends at the expense of another person, the latter reduced to a mere unconscious, unthinking, inanimate object.

6Furthermore, any theory that permits violence runs into a distinct epistemological problem – how do we know who should be the moral agents and who should not be? Who should be the choosers and doers and who should be no more important than rocks and sticks? But to merely pose this questions is to run into the same problem as posing the question “should I own my own body?” that we examined in part two.

7Minarchists, for example, see a minimal state as being necessary for the preservation of liberty whereas anarchists believe that even a minimal state is anti-libertarian; some schools of left-libertarianism believe that private property is oppressive whereas Rothbardians would hold it as the foundation of freedom.

8As Mises puts it: “The unanimous approval of planning by our contemporaries is only apparent. The supporters of planning disagree with regard to their plans. They agree only in the refutation of the plans brought forward by other people. Many popular fallacies concerning socialism are due to the mis­taken belief that all friends of socialism advocate the same system. On the contrary, every socialist wants his own socialism, not the other fellow’s. He disputes the other socialists’ right to call them­selves socialists. In the eyes of Stalin the Mensheviks and the Trotskyists are not socialists but traitors, and vice versa. The Marxians call the Nazis supporters of capitalism; the Nazis call the Marxians supporters of Jewish capital. If a man says socialism, or planning, he always has in view his own brand of socialism, his own plan. Thus planning does not in fact mean preparedness to coöperate peacefully. It means conflict.” Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government – The Rise of the Total State and Total War, pp 252-3.

9Nevertheless even as we progress further upwards of the food chain in, say, a parliamentary democracy we can see the exclusion of further individuals from the sphere of moral agency until you are left with just the will of a single person or a bare handful of individuals. The populace votes for “representatives” to enforce violence in their “interests” once every four or five years; the representatives with the largest majority in parliament usually form a government but only selected representatives are called upon to serve as ministers of the executive; this selection is normally chosen by the Prime Minister and will be made in line with his appraisal of the candidate’s ability to serve the Prime Minister’s political and legislative ends. Generally speaking, therefore, while he remains in office the Prime Minister will hold most of the power, perhaps also with a handful of the other top ministers.

10In all of these cases it should be added, incidentally, that those who advocate “minor” violations do not usually mean that the party in need should directly take the property he desires but rather that the government will take it and then use it to fulfil the so-called need. The ability of government to do this in the most efficient manner is, of course, an important but separate issue.

11If A is, say, granted the right to the food of B when A is hungry then the benefit to A of producing food himself is lowered while the benefit of being hungry is raised (as it is met with the reward of free food); the benefit of B to producing food is lowered as it will be confiscated from him when someone else needs it. The overall result is more hunger and less food with which to end it.

12We might also point out that there is no end to the number of contradictions in the violent enforcement of moral taboos and vices. Recreational drugs are almost always banned, but tobacco, in spite of repeated Government incursions into the freedom to use them, is not. One is not allowed to drive under the age of seventeen but when it comes to granting sexual consent one only has to be sixteen (and after having had the ability to drive all over the country and having had all manner of depraved sex as he has stamina for a person must still wait a further year until he is eighteen – or a further four years until he is twenty-one – to purchase his first drop of alcohol.

13It will help, then, to further clarify some terminology of rights and obligations in order to resolve conceptual confusion:

Self-ownership         The right to physically control one’s body; violently enforceable;

Ownership               The right to control the physical goods of which a person is the first user, or those goods acquired through voluntary trade; violently enforceable;

Property                 A good in which one has ownership; alternatively, the term is interchangeable with ownership;

Moral Right              The possessor of a moral benefit resulting from a moral theory; not violently enforceable;

Moral Obligation       The possessor of a moral burden resulting from a moral theory; not violently enforceable and compliance with the moral theory must be voluntary.

14The very word “enforcement” sounds like a misnomer as it contains the very paragon of violence – force. This has been part of the stem of confusion that has surrounded the language of rights and obligations.

15One might point out, however, that the free market in fact provides a powerful incentive against such discrimination. For while it is true that the free market does not ban any discriminatory acts it does, however, impose a penalty upon them. For example, a racist, anti-black employer has to choose between a candidate for employment who is black and another who is white. If the white candidate is genuinely the best for the job and is hired then the employer’s racism is inconsequential; if, however, the black man is the best for the job but the employer hires the white man anyway then the employer has not hired the best person. The white man will be less productive and learn less revenue than the black man, who will now take his talent and offer it to a competitor. The employer’s enterprise will therefore be staffed with racially identical but less competent staff and will simply be less able to serve the needs of customers. The employer therefore has to balance his racism against the loss of revenue incurred by maintaining an all-white workforce. As the division of labour increases and the structure of production involves so many more layers and geographical locations, trade becomes increasingly less personal and the specific characteristics of a particular person in the chain of production become less important (if ever they were important) to the consumer. As a result, discriminatory practices in the business are simply a short cut to loss of revenue and bankruptcy.

16It is for this reason that the term “private property” is something of a misnomer; for in order for a piece of private property to be respected knowledge of one’s title to it must be publically disseminated. Private ownership of property is more accurate.

The Scope of Moral Enquiry Part Two – The Ethics of Violence

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In part one of this three-part series of essays the necessary conditions for morality to arise in the universe were outlined. In summary, morality can only arise between agents who use means to derive ends through actions; interpersonal conflict arising from the scarcity of these means is the fertile ground that may begat moral norms that determine precisely how the conflict should be resolved.

Parts two and three will divide the discussion of morals as they arise into the spheres of violence and non-violence. The reason for this treatment will be become clear but suffice it to say for the moment that the scope of the morality of violence is very important in understanding how the moral order unfolds. This scope will be the concentration of this part of the series.

Let us begin with where we left off in part one – two agents have run into a conflict as they wish to devote the same means to their own, respective ends.

The Form of Means

Means in the universe are physical means. They are tangible objects, the tools which an acting being uses to achieve his ends. Even means which immediately appear as intangible are ultimately derived from physical matter. One’s mind, for example, must reside in the brain and its limitations result from its physical capabilities. Likewise, so must its ideas; or, ideas may exist on a piece of paper if they are written down, transferred from the brain to external matter. While thoughts and ideas are therefore not tangible they ultimately derive from tangible matter.

Scarcity therefore arises because of the essential physical limitations of means. The physical properties of matter that acting beings classify as means entail that they cannot be occupied or used simultaneously by more than one being. It must be stressed that this lack of ability is not owing to the physical qualities of the matter per se. Rather it is wholly determined by the minds of the acting agents. It may, in fact, be possible for beings to fulfil their ends by “sharing” matter in different degrees. Air, for example, exists in such abundance that each individual is able to draw enough of it exclusively without ever running into conflict with anyone else. A park bench may be shared by two people. But ultimately, the fulfilment of any end requires an agent to have exclusive use over the means to fulfil that end. People drawing in a lung full of air each can do so independently, but they cannot draw in the same air particles. Two people on the park bench may be sharing the bench but they must exclusively occupy their part of it. Or, to suggest a third example, people swimming in a communal pool may be sharing the pool peacefully and without interference of each other but they cannot each occupy the same particular part of the water simultaneously. If, in the minds of acting individuals, the ends they seek can be fulfilled by dividing matter continually, as we can with air, the park bench or the communal swimming pool, no conflict of scarcity will arise. But at some point the division will progress to a stage when to take it further would no longer support the ends of one or more acting agents. For example, if a third person wants to occupy the park bench then he may not be able to do so in a way that all three of its occupants can use it to satisfy their ends. If the pool gets too crowded then no one would be able to swim anywhere. It is at these points, when ends start to become unfulfilled, that the division of matter can progress no further and scarcity now exists. As it is no longer possible to divide matter any further to achieve the ends of all interested parties, it follows that if the matter is to be used for any end at all then this must be by way of a grant of exclusivity to one set of ends to the detriment of all others. Theoretically we could get to the subatomic level before conflict starts to exist – not, perhaps too outlandish if two scientists, living without conflict hitherto, suddenly find themselves wishing to use the same subatomic particle for their different, experimental ends. But at some point however deeply we go into the physical structure of the matter of which the means consists, if there is a conflict concerning these means then it is a conflict of exclusivity – that the means can only be devoted to fulfilling one set of ends at the total exclusion of an alternative set of ends1.

It is at this point that morality is poised to arise to answer the question whose ends should be fulfilled at the expense of and at the total exclusion of all others with the scarce means under conflict. But why does it arise and, more importantly, will we know what its content is? In answering these questions it is important to stress again that the trumping of one end over another is a distinctly physical contest – if two or more agents attempt to use the same means contemporaneously for their independent ends then their collision is physical. In short, we may say that they are behave violently. If any ends are to be fulfilled at all then all competing agents have to be physically ousted from the means to the benefit of one agent. First and foremost, therefore, morality is concerned with the sphere of violent conduct by one agent against another. It might not be even too outlandish to suggest at this point that morality, if it resolves conflicts over scarcity that are manifest as physical clashes, is an alternative to violence. For violence is the very physical embodiment of the conflict over scarce means and if morality arises to resolve these clashes then we may say that all morality is inherently anti-violent. This, as we shall see below, is indeed the case and what will be proven (in part three) is that any ethic promoting violence is in fact absurd and contradictory.

Conflicts over Individual Bodies

Let us now proceed to examine systematically where conflicts over scarce means will arise and attempt to deduce moral content from these situations.

The most basic form of matter over which conflicts can emerge between agents is their respective bodies. For example, A wishes to use the means of B’s body for his (A’s) ends whereas B wants it for his own ends. They might, of course, resolve the problem by a physical clash – in short, by violence. A takes B’s body violently and puts it to his own use. B may try to struggle to repel A with the conflict ultimately being decided by who is the stronger. But this result is not the action of morality, viz. what should happen. Rather the outcome is determined by what will happen when a stronger being is pitted against a weaker one. If the stronger person gaining control of the weaker’s body is to be considered just then there must be something further than the mere fact of strength that proves this. What, then, is the moral result to this conflict and what will be the outcome? More importantly, how can A and B come to know the content of the moral norm that prescribes their conduct in relation to each other’s bodies?

For a moment we must return to the universe where an acting agent, A, is the sole conscious being. There is only his body to use as means towards his ends through action and there is no other external matter. A therefore uses solely his own body as tools in the fulfilment of his ends. But in order to do this he must assume control over his body or at least the parts of it he uses as means for the moment. However not only does he assume control but he also, in his mind, believes that he can in the sense that it is permissible. In other words, his action reveals that in his own mind he believes he is fully justified in taking complete control over his body when he decides to use it as means in the fulfilment of his ends2. In all likelihood he would never actually ponder the question as to whether he should assume such control over his body and would for his whole life merrily go along using his body for whatever purpose he saw fit. But suppose that he did ponder the question – suppose that he suddenly had an alarming thought that he should not assume full control over his own body. How would he come to know the answer? Is he stuck without any ability whatsoever to determine the resolution to this conundrum that has struck him? Fortunately not, for in merely posing the question in the first place, let alone attempting to answer it, our agent has to take control over his body. The question takes the form of the thought that it is the product of his brain. The brain, in turn, is supported by the other organs, the heart, the liver, the lungs, the nervous system and so on and cannot operate without these organs. In short, he needs to take control of at least the majority of his body in order to even ask the question whether he should take control over his body. His answer is therefore provided immediately by an impossibility-proof. For if he attempts to answer the question in the negative, that he should not take control of his own body, he is immediately caught by a contradiction – for how can he come to the conclusion that he should not control his own body without, in fact, taking control of his own body?3

What is revealed therefore is that a person can justify his control over his own body in one of two ways. First, by taking de facto control over his own body, revealing his belief that he is permitted to do so. Secondly, should he doubt this permissibility, his justification is proven by pondering the very question.

In summary, therefore, in a universe where he is alone A believes that he is justified in assuming control over his own body. If B is introduced into this universe, A suddenly finds himself having matter that is external to him which he may desire to use as means in the fulfilment of his ends. He might not so desire, of course, in which case there would be no conflict. But suppose he did, suppose that A desires to use B’s body for his own ends and B wishes to use the same body for his own ends. What happens? Whereas for the entirety of his life A has not had to ponder his control over matter that can be used for his ends (and if he does he can safely conclude that he should indeed control it), for the first time he now encounters a being which also claims control over this matter. Why does morality arise in this situation and is there a moral outcome, a norm, which can be determined from this situation that will resolve the conflict?

We will recall that A claims control over his own body either by using it or by pondering whether he should have such control. A can therefore approach the matter of B’s body in one of two ways – he can either question, in his own mind, whether he (A) or B should have control; or he can invade B and attempt to take over B’s body. In both cases A is demonstrably justifying control over his own body as he cannot entertain even have such thoughts or carry out such actions without actually controlling his body. If A therefore assumes control over his own body and believes it is justified, what does this say about his potential control of B’s body?

There are only three possible outcomes to this question. First, that A should control B’s body or B should control A’s body; secondly that A and B should control equal shares of each other’s bodies; or that A and B each should control their own bodies exclusively. If A ponders the first possibility then he may declare that he should control B’s body (he already, as we have noted, cannot conclude that B should control A’s body). But how can he know this? In order to pose and answer this question he has had to claim control over the faculties of his own body. But how can he possibly claim control over his own body yet deny it to B? What is the trump card that A possesses? B is not an unthinking, un-desiring, un-choosing piece of matter like a rock or stone or anything else that A has encountered thus far; rather B is just like him, a desiring, choosing and acting human being. What is the difference between A and B that permits A to claim control over his own body yet deny B control over the latter’s body? If A thinks that he can deny B control over B’s body then A is behaving contradictorily by even having that very thought. For if he denies B’s control of B’s own body then A has to justify the control over his own body. But he cannot do this without controlling his own body. Therefore it is not possible to determine that either of A or B should control the other’s body. The same is true if A has no thoughts whatsoever and violently invades B. To carry out this violent invasion A must take control over his body. But he cannot justify doing so without also justifying B’s control of his own body. In short, A’s claim to control his own body renders his claim over B’s body void.

What of the second possibility? Again, to answer this A has to claim control over the faculties of his own body. But if part of his body should be controlled by B then does he not have to ask permission of B before he can ponder this thought? And if B is to give permission, then does B not in turn require the permission of A, the part controller of B’s body? And so and so on in circles until nothing is resolved. It is clear that this possibility is nonsense and must be discarded.

We are left, therefore, with the third possibility, that A and B should each control their individual bodies. Each of A and B can justify this without the problems inherent in the previous two possibilities. Each can claim control without any contradiction and neither has to seek the permission of the other. And by either pondering the question or by attacking the body of the other, each is estopped from claiming control over the other’s body by the necessary control he has taken over his own body.

Morality has therefore arisen as a result of this chain of logic. That A and B each are entitled to control of their own bodies and their attempts to prove control over their bodies renders their claims to the other’s body null and void. But what has been the effect of this morality? It has been to prohibit the physical clash. It has stated that one person may use a collection of matter as means for his ends whereas the other person may not. Morality has granted a right of exclusivity over the disputed matter to one person and denied it to the other. As the physical clash has been prohibited we may say that the moral result is anti-violent. It is this anti-violent result that is at the base of what is known as the non-aggression principle (a principle that, we might say, should even be elevated to an axiom). For any attempt by either A nor B to deny the non-aggression principle is to prove it, for each would, by merely having the very thought, simply prove it.

The claim to the existence of the non-aggression principle, the truth that we have deduced from the circumstances of moral enquiry, becomes stronger if, rather than merely pondering the question of bodily control independently, A and B engage in a debate as to who should be able to control B’s body. Again, there are only three possibilities that they can entertain – that one of A or B should control the body of the other; that they should each control shares of each other’s bodies; or that they should each control their own bodies independently of the other. Let us again consider these possibilities in turn. The first scenario immediately runs into a difficulty because the object of the debate is to determine who should own whose body. But the debate itself requires, as a precondition, that each participant in the debate should have his full ability to contribute to it and he can only do so if he has control over his own body. If A should control the body of B then the latter must seek the permission of A to participate in the debate. But given that we do not know the identity of the controller or the controlled until after the debate then this permission cannot be sought, nor can it be granted. For neither A nor B knows whether he is the grantor or the grantee and neither can act accordingly; and to determine who is who they need to debate, but cannot do so until they know that they have permission to open their mouths! This possibility is therefore an absurdity as the debate could not even occur if one should control the body of the other4.

The second possibility also descends into an absurdity. For again, neither could participate in the debate without the grant of permission from the other. But to grant this permission requires the use of one’s body. So the grantor of permission would have to seek permission to grant this permission! It should be obvious that this could never be done and this possibility is therefore excluded. The third possibility – that A and B should each control their own bodies – is the only one that runs into neither contradiction nor absurdity. Both A and B, with full control of their faculties, can enter and participate in the debate. The fact of debate therefore reveals that each participant should control his own body. If either A or B argues or to attempts to debate otherwise it is immediately revealed to be contradictory because both A and B must, by the very action of debating, prove that they should control their own respective bodies5 6.

Terminology of Rights

Up until now we have talked only of “control”, “controllers” and “controlled”. It is appropriate at this juncture to insert some terminology that distinguishes the types of right and obligation that emerge in the moral order we have been discussing.

Specifically, a person who has, in this instance, the moral right to a piece of matter is said to be the owner of that matter. That matter is then said to be his property, over which he has ownership. Morality therefore grants rights of ownership over matter that exists in the universe, matter that is the subject of conflict arising from the scarcity of this matter in the minds of different moral agents.

All of political philosophy attempts to resolve the problem of scarcity of means within the universe by establishing rights to ownership within the sphere of violence. Fundamentally, therefore, political philosophy is concerned with who should own what and whether they can use violence to enforce this claim. We have established here that each person should own his own body and that violence cannot be used to enforce the claim of anyone else. Each person therefore has a right to self-ownership, and from this right of self-ownership we derive what we termed above as the non-aggression principle. Any moral right that someone has to another person’s body must take effect within the sphere of non-violence and in harmony with the non-aggression principle, which will be the subject of the third part of this series. Any philosophy that advocates anything otherwise is essentially a philosophy of slavery, that one person, a master, may violently enforce his use over another person’s body. In a direct form slavery has officially been discredited in modern political thought. Now political philosophies are concerned with the ownership of external goods, things that are not part of our bodies but part of the outside world. These things are recognised as scarce by individual humans and political philosophy arises to solve this conflict. To this, we shall now turn.

Conflicts over Unconscious Matter – The Justification of Private Property

Individual humans, then, may enter conflicts not only over their own bodies but over external matter that they wish to use as means to bring about their ends. How does morality arise in this type of situation and which rights does it grant?

In just the same way as if the only matter in the universe of a lone human being was his own body, a lone human also would happily pick and choose whatever matter he stumbled across to use towards the fulfilment of his ends without ever considering whether he should indeed do so. When a second person appears, however, what happens?

In the first place, we need to examine the status of physical, unconscious matter that simply exists in the universe. As we established in part one, it has no desire or choice that begat action towards ends. It is dead and inert, subject simply to the laws of physics to which it becomes subject and any one time. It therefore does not control and, hence, own itself, nor does it feel any utility that derives from itself. But neither, at this point, is there any human that owns it either. Ownership can only arise as the outcome when the matter is the subject of a conflict of scarcity. But when there is no conflict any talk of ownership is nonsensical. The typical example is, again, the air we breathe. Because no two humans find themselves competing for this means as an object of their individual actions, no question of ownership arises and no one ever says that they own portions of air. Rights and ownership are meaningless concepts without the condition of a conflict arising from scarcity.

The first thing that is required then is for at least one individual human to recognise a good as scarce. But a human does not recognise a good as scarce simply by sitting and pondering the matter; rather he only recognises something as scarce if he makes it an object of his action. In a state of non-action, a good may be delivering utility to one or more humans but this will be unvalued utility – essentially, that the human does not regard the utility provided by the good as preferable or less preferable to any other. The essence of valuation is the preferring of one end and the setting aside of another because the means are not sufficient to sustain both ends, i.e. the means are scarce as the human feels he has to make a choice between ends. A human acts, then, because the means available, the good, are not furnishing the highest end that he desires when having made his choice. The object of his action is to divert it away from furnishing a less valuable end towards furnishing a more highly valued end. Action in relation to the good must clearly be physical – a person has to physically divert it from one end to another. In the terminology of economics this is to produce one good from another. The resulting good, post-action, is therefore a different good from the one that preceded the action and it is this difference, the later end that has been gained vs. the previous end that has now been discarded, that proves value, the later end being preferred to the earlier end7.

Before any conflict arises from scarcity, therefore, one human must have physically occupied the object at one point in time. The conflict emerges when a second person, B, attempts to do so later in time – B wishes to divert the good from A’s ends towards his own (B’s) ends. If it was already furnishing utility for B in the state in which A had placed it there would be no conflict. B’s ends can only be achieved by a physical diversion of the good. It is, therefore, the physical occupation of objects, making them the subject of one’s action, that prove their scarcity and hence provide the genesis for conflicts with others. Any conflict, therefore, involves a prior user of the good followed by later or potential users of the good.

Knowing this, then, what are the possibilities that can be derived from an instance of a conflict arising from scarcity? There are five:

  • That no one should own the good;
  • That each person in the world owns a part share of the good.
  • That the original occupier should own the good;
  • That a later occupier should own the good;
  • That each successive occupier can demand a part share of the good;

Let us consider each of these in turn.

If no one should own the good then this doesn’t resolve the conflict; rather it pretends that it does not exist. For if no one is able to own it then no one is able to use it; we stated above that conflicts form when a good, a means, is not able to furnish any end at all except by grant of exclusivity. If no one is able to control the matter exclusively then no one can make use of. If no one can make use of it then no one can fight over it. So the effect of this prescription is to simply outlaw conflicts arising from scarcity by stating that you may not make matter the object of your action. Apart from the fact that this would result in no one person being able to make food or water the object of his action and hence is tantamount to stating that each individual human has the moral obligation to wither away and die, the only justification for this outcome is some kind of egalitarianism – that one person may not own a good because no one else can at the same time. But the concept of equality in relation to physical goods can only be measured in one of two ways, either by the quantity of the physical matter to which a person is entitled or by the value that it holds. If no one is not allowed to make physical means the object of his action then, in terms of measurement of the physical amount of matter which each person may own then equality is satisfied. But the effect might be to render a psychic inequality. Given that such a situation will, as we have indicated, necessarily result in death, one person may derive a calming sensation from this thought and enjoy his final days peacefully while another may be fraught with worry at his impending doom. Has the prescription of universal non-ownership had an equal effect upon each individual human? If you ban both a sighted man and a blind man from owning a white stick, has the loss resulting from this prescription been the same for both of them? Alternatively, what if a person feels that he is better off from not having to own any goods? Hasn’t he been privileged while the person who desires to own goods has been penalised and does this not render a situation of intolerable inequality? Or in other words why should the value of avoiding conflict be the same to all parties? Some humans might be happy to be relieved of having ever running into conflicts over scarcity with other humans whereas others may relish the prospect.

The second potential resolution is that everyone in the world owns a part share of the good. But this is nonsensical for two reasons. First, the question of ownership only arises from a situation of conflict and this conflict is only generated when two or more persons recognise the good as valuable. To talk of ownership when there is no conflict (as there clearly is not when a single person recognises an object as valuable) is redundant. Secondly, if everyone owned part shares of every good in the world then each person would be required to ask permission of everyone else in the world before he could use any good at all. Yet how is a person to do this? How is he supposed to know the existence of and communicate with every person in the world in order to extract permission? Even if this could be achieved it could only be done so with physical goods, and so he would have to take ownership of physical resources in order to determine whether he has permission to take ownership of physical goods. Such circular reason reduces this possibility to absurdity. Moreover, if you grant someone else the permission to use a good it must mean that that person may use a good, over which you have part share, exclusively. If a person is to divert a good towards an end it must be to the exclusion of all others, as we noted above. Effectively, therefore, the act of granting permission is to de facto dispose of your share of ownership. Any residual “ownership” that is retained would simply be a meaningless, hollow vessel. The granting of permission is, therefore, akin to a part owner not regarding the good as valuable. But he has already indicated that he does not regard it of value by not making it an object of his action so the whole structure of part ownership and permission granting is superfluous8.

Having disposed of the possibilities of either no one or everyone owning a good, we must turn then to the third to fifth possibilities we outlined above, which consider the claims to ownership of each successive user in time of an object.

The third possibility is that the original occupier should own the good. Looking at his making use of a good in isolation, this action produces no conflict. By being the first user in time of a good, a person necessarily demonstrates that he and he alone recognised this good as valuable. We did, however, demonstrate above that when the good has not been the object of action it is in the state of being a free good, i.e. that it may have utility that is unvalued and this utility may serve many different people. Is it not possible that one person could come along and make a free good the object of his action, depriving everybody else of the utility that has hitherto been provided? It is indeed possible; in particular sights, sounds and smells every day exude from the world around us and if parts of this world are made the objects of other people’s action then we may suddenly find ourselves deprived of something in which we previously found utility. The building of a property on neighbouring land may, for example, exclude adequate sunlight or a view of a landscape that was, until now, enjoyed for free. But the whole point is that if a person has not made something the object of his action then whatever utility it was providing was valueless – i.e. he simply does not prefer one alternative over another. If a person values a view more than not having it then he will take steps through concrete actions to ensure that it renders that service perpetually. By not doing so he indicates that he does not care one iota whether the good continues to furnish the free utility or it does not – that is precisely the nature of value, that one thing is preferred to another, but by not making the good the object of his action there is no value to speak of and he has not “lost” anything at all. There is, therefore, no conflict generated by a person being the first user in time of a good. It is only when a second person attempts to do so a conflict is generated and it is this second person, not the first, who is the “cause” of the conflict. Indeed it is this very reason that the original owner is able to justify his claim of ownership over a good. For in doing so he does not arrogate to himself that which he denies to anyone else – he values and so gains, but no one else has lost anything at all. There is, therefore, nothing contradictory when he says “I should have this but no one else should” as no one else holds any value in the good which he has appropriated. Might one counteract this by saying that, after the original occupier claims ownership over the good, everyone else has then lost the right to become the original owner? Such a view can only derive from a misunderstanding of the nature of rights. Rights only arise as a result of conflict, but between ownerless goods and humans there is no conflict. No one has a “right to become the first owner” in any meaningful sense as against whom would this right be enforced? Who has the corresponding obligation? Does the good have the obligation to become owned by you if you are the first user of it? Or is it every other human? Clearly goods, i.e. dead matter, cannot have obligations for the reasons we explained in part one. We are therefore left with the latter, each other human being. Certainly they cannot interfere with you making use and occupation of hitherto unused goods, but this is not because you have a right to appropriate goods but because they have no right to inflict violence upon your body. If another human blocks you from taking ownership of goods then either he is violating your right to self-ownership or he is the true owner of the goods in question and hence you are invading goods that he owns. There is no other possibility. No one, therefore, loses any “right” or anything at all by the first user-occupier claiming ownership over a good. For this reason, we need to move onto considering whether a later user in time should have a right to ownership that trumps that of the first.

The fourth of our possibilities, then, is that a later user should own the good. While the effect of this possibility is to grant exclusive ownership to a person who recognises the good as valuable, this only applies until someone else recognises it as valuable also. But this second person only enjoys ownership until a third person recognises it as valuable, and so on and so on. It should be clear that this possibility is simply tantamount to legalised theft, each person being able to simply take whatever he wants from another person. That alone suggests, prima facie, that this possibility cannot be defended. Indeed, an immediate practical problem is that, once deprived of a good, the first owner could then qualify as the third owner and would immediately try to take back what he previously owned. People would therefore behave as if the first owner was the true owner, attempting to defend and snatch back their property as soon as it was claimed by a second person. The outcome would therefore be based on de facto possession which can only be decided by violence, i.e. which person is physically able to wrestle the good from another. The result, therefore, is not to resolve conflicts but to actively promote plunder, pillage and war of all against all. However, the main reason why the second person cannot come along and claim ownership of a good is that now the good has been valued. Whereas the first owner was the only person to recognise the good as valuable and hence could claim ownership without inflicting any loss on anybody else, the second owner can only do so by inflicting a loss on the original owner. The act of the second owner would be to divert the good to an end which he prefers and the original owner does not. The second owner faces the problem, therefore, of having to prove why his ends should be preferred to those of the original owner. How can he prove this? Unfortunately for him, he cannot, for value is indicated solely by the act of preferring one end and setting aside another. We can say that one person prefers end X to end Y when, through action, he embraces the former and discards the latter. But we cannot measure this, we cannot say by how much end X is preferred to end Y. There is, therefore, no “measurement” of value that enables us to compare relative values between owners. All that we can conclude from a second owner demanding a good from an original owner is that the second owner prefers his ends to that of the first owner and the first owner prefers his ends to that of the second owner. But even if this was not the case, even if we could say by how much one person values a good more than another, why should this justify a second person taking away the goods from a first owner? The loss is still a loss to that first owner that isn’t offset by any gain to him. Why should, in a world of being able to measure value, the fact that his loss is “small” be outweighed by someone whose gain will be “large”? Why is the “larger” gain of greater import that the “smaller” loss?9 In any case we must reiterate that the second occupier actually doesn’t lose anything at all by the first owner’s enforcement of his right to the good. Not only does the first owner’s original appropriation cause no loss of value to anyone, as we indicated above, neither too does his continuing claim to ownership. When the second person arrives on the scene he does so without possessing the physical good or being able to enjoy its utility. When he leaves empty handed he is in exactly the same position – without possession of the physical good and without being able to enjoy its utility. The first owner’s enforcement of his right has not caused any change to the second person’s condition whereas the second person’s enforcement of his (the second person’s) right would very definitely cause a loss to the first owner. Additionally we might consider the fact that it is often the combination of the good and the original owner’s labour that has produced the good into a final good that renders it more attractive to the second person than it was when it was in its ownerless state. A completed house is likely to be more valuable than a pile of un-quarried stone; a pile of harvested wheat is likely to provide more attractive pickings than seeds and an unploughed field. Indeed plunderers throughout history have seldom taken goods upon which very little labour has been exerted by their original owners – they have always taken final, finished goods that are in a state of ready consumption (or capital goods, i.e. machines and tools that render the act of production less burdensome and laborious). Even where this wasn’t the case which country would be more likely to be suitable for conquest – one where there was rich, fertile soil or one that was mostly covered in desert? People naturally, all else being equal, gravitate towards the goods that will provide them with their ends for a minimum of their own exertions and the effect of an original owner producing goods with his labour is to reduce the necessity of a second person’s labour if the latter can successfully confiscate the good. The result then is that the second owner not only takes the good but also the original owner’s labour – his demands as a later owner in time are not only for the good but for the benefit of the original owner’s effort and toil. Indeed the only reason why anyone ever wants to steal something is because it’s less work for them to do so than going to the effort and expense of acquiring the good through exchange or through production of it oneself. For this reason, then, any claim of the second owner over the first amounts to the enslavement of the first owner that funds the parasitic existence of the second person10.

For all of these reasons, then, there is no support for the claim of a later person in time to the ownership of an already owned good11.

The fifth and final possibility to consider then is where each successive occupier of a good can demand a part share. We needn’t dwell on this for long as it fails for a combination of reasons that the second and fourth possibilities fail. In particular, it should be noted that this solution requires the sharing of the good in question. We’ve already discussed how this does not resolve the conflict but merely prolongs it as none of the prospective owners can fulfil his ends without exclusive ownership over the good

In sum, therefore, the only possibility that is just is that the first owner in time of a good, the first one to subject it to his action, is the owner of the good. All other possibilities lead to absurdity and cannot be defended.

Conclusion – Property, Violence and the Law

In order to contravene the principle that the first owner may not own his good it requires a second person to act physically in relation to the good – in short, he must act with physical aggression, i.e. violently, towards the owner and the good. If he doesn’t then all is left well alone and the first person continues to own his good and the second goes away empty handed. What we have revealed then is an extension of the ­non-aggression principle that we outlined above. That morality arises, in a state of conflict arising from the scarcity of means, to pronounce that every individual human owns not only his own body but also the previously ownerless goods that he physically appropriates and that this ownership can only be sustained by the non-violence of everyone else. Therefore any action by another that contravenes the physical integrity of (i.e. acts violently towards) another person’s body or originally appropriated goods is immoral. The effect of morality, therefore, is to pronounce that violence is inherently immoral.

We shall end this survey with a summary of the above while identifying it with specific terminology that is applied to the norms that we have outlined.

  • Every individual human owns his own body exclusively and has the right to its physical integrity, vesting in him the right to self-ownership;
  • Every individual human, after appropriating previously unowned matter, has the exclusive right to the physical integrity of that matter hence becoming its owner; the matter in question becomes his property. The institution of this method of ownership (coupled with voluntary exchange) is known as private property;
  • These two principles form what is known as the non-aggression principle; although as we have suggested above we may also term it the non-aggression axiom, but the former term is more widely used;
  • To argue to the contrary of these two principles is either contradictory, absurd, or both;
  • Social norms that derive from the non-aggression principle (you should not murder, you should not steal, etc.) are known as laws; the body of these norms together is known as The Law. Laws can be distinguished from other norms such as customs, manners, etc. in that they are concerned with violent action. This will be elaborated in part three.

In part three of this series we shall consider the morality of non-violence. We shall first explore some common objections to the non-aggression principle before providing its ultimate justification. We will also consider the crucial area of defence and enforcement before proceeding to examine the place of other moral norms and moral theories, concluding that these can only ever take effect non-violently. Finally we will speculate upon the content of non-violent norms that may emerge in a world where the non-aggression principle is adhered to.

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1These conflicts can arise from one of two sources – either the quantity of means diminishes or the number of acting agents viewing the means as a tool for their ends increases. In both cases the ratio of ends to means increases.

2By this I mean control de jure – that he should be able to take full control even if he does not physically possess it at a particular moment. We are, at this point, trying to avoid the language of rights, obligations, and specifically of ownership which are interpersonal concepts. In effect, however, what our lone agent is claiming over his own body is ownership.

3We will leave aside the question of whether this justification of control over his own body extends to areas of the a person’s body that are not necessary for sustaining the brain such as the arms or legs. Suffice it to say that these are equivalent to external matter which will be dealt with below.

4What if, as may be contested, one of the two, say A, believes himself to be the true controller of B and believes himself to be granting permission to B to engage in the debate? But this would be an absurdity also, for there are only two possible reasons for A to enter this debate – either he wants to determine the truth or he is debating B for some other reason, say mere amusement. The former reason admits the possibility that A should not control B and the circumstances of the debate are as we just outlined. If the reason is the latter, then there is no debate at all and A’s control of B is excluded for the reasons that we explained above.

5Another possibility is that A and B could agree to fight over each other’s bodies, the victor claiming ownership over the loser’s body. But this would mean that the violent outcome is then based on consent and that the prior control of A and B over each other’s bodies is recognised.

6The leading exponent and, indeed, the pioneering expert of this line of thinking is Hans Hermann Hoppe. See his On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property, Ch. 13 in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, and his The Ethical Justification of Capitalism and Why Socialism Is Morally Indefensible, Ch. 7 in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism.

7We must emphasise that strictly, the value is in the end that the good provides as compared to a competing end rather than in the good itself; it is merely imputed back to the good and hence we talk of a “valuable” good. When we say that a good is transformed or produced this doesn’t necessarily mean that, from the point of view of atoms and molecules, the good is a different “thing” from what it was before the act of production. Rather, the difference is that in the actor’s appraisal the good, before making it the object of his action, was furnishing a different end from the one after. This act could be as simple as moving an object from one place to another. It is, therefore, a mistake to believe that production involves some kind of “creation” outside of the imagination of the acting human. For no person can create matter as such, merely physically rearrange the form that it takes so that it provides one end as opposed to another. The fact that the value is in the end rather than in the good itself is demonstrated by the furnishing of services as opposed to goods. When we say that goods are traded, it means that the physical object furnishing the valuable end is itself exchanged. With “services” however, the goods that furnish the end are simply hired for a period of time and are not exchanged outright. With a taxi journey, for example, you pay for a space in time to use the labour of the taxi driver and his vehicle, but you do not end up possessing these physical goods. What you paid for was the end that was furnished and not the goods themselves. It should be clear that what economists classify as “services” as opposed to “goods” are most often rendered by labour (incapable of outright trade) and durable goods that can be parcelled out to use by different people in slices of time. But all valuation is of the ends, not of the goods that are used to produce the ends.

8A part share of ownership over every good is the theoretical justification encountered in the rhetoric of “public” ownership of goods – that “we all” own everything or that “the people” own everything. However, because of the problems we outlined this always falls subject to the “iron law of oligarchy” where a select few act as caretakers for the goods in question and devote them to uses on behalf of the populace. No person outside of this elite has any de facto, exercisable ownership over anything and it is clear that the goods can only be devoted to uses desired by some people at the expense of uses desired by others. In short, if everyone owns a good, no one does.

9It is this aspect that provides the first insight into why non-violence, private property and free exchange is the only way that all humans can live in harmony; for the contrary necessarily entails that someone must experience loss when another gains.

10As Bastiat puts it when commenting on Communism: “Community applies to those things we enjoy in common by the destination of Providence; because, exacting no effort in order to adapt them to our use, they give rise to no service, no transaction, no Property. The foundation of property is the right we possess to render services to ourselves, or to others on condition of a return. What Communism wishes to render common is, not the gratuitous gift of God, but human effort – service.” Claude Frédéric Bastiat, Property-Community, No. 8 in Harmonies of Political Economy, Book One, No. VIII in The Bastiat Collection (2nd ed, Ludwig von Mises Institute), p. 687.

11One final consideration – what if we said that a latecomer could simply declare that he owned a good that another person hitherto owned? Could this be defended? No, for this situation would effectively be the same as that in our second scenario, with everyone owning a part share of the good. For if anyone can enforce the right to deprive another person of the good by oral decree then this right is vested in him by virtue of his status as a human being and hence it is extant in all humans across the entire world (i.e. that the right exists in each person prior to any conflict). Indeed, what would happen is that anyone, at birth, would simply, from wherever he stands, declare that he owns the entire world and we would literally end up with everyone claiming ownership over everything. And hence, once again, in order to act in relation to any good at all a person would again have to ask permission of everyone to use the good, with all the absurdities that this entails.

The “Bedroom Tax”

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The furore over the UK Government’s latest changes to Housing Benefit appear to be bearing witness to what we might say is a “revolution within the form” – the neutralisation of a word or concept by changing its definition rather than challenging it directly. In this case, whereas once upon a time you were taxed if the Government took the money you had earned, it now appears that you are taxed if the Government finds a reason to give you less of everybody else’s money.

The announcement of the changes were followed by marches and demonstrations all over the UK, showing just how many people seem to be dependent upon the welfare state and how sensitive any reduction to its size may be.

Let us briefly reiterate and emphasise a few truths from the perspective of ethics and economics:

  • The welfare state is funded by taxation. Taxation is theft, the violent confiscation of other people’s property. If you are in receipt of welfare payments you are the recipient of stolen property. If people believe that taxation is not theft then it is incumbent upon these people to define it in such a way as to distinguish it from theft. Such a definition has never been forthcoming and any attempts have involved a twisted, distorted meaning of words that practically end up saying that theft is really voluntary. In particular it would be fitting to see the churches try to make this attempt before it starts wading into the debate;
  • That to pay people the fruits of productivity without having to produce lowers the value of productivity and increases the value of non-productivity. There will therefore be less societal wealth.

Merely arguing that benefits recipients are lazy and idle on the one hand and answering this charge with the claim that benefits cuts encourages selfishness on the other hand is of no relevance to these points we have made. What people should and should not do with their own money voluntarily is entirely up for debate. But there is no justification at all for one set of persons to violently wrestle money from another of persons. And yes, that includes everyone who has benefited from such methods – the bankers who received bailouts and welfare recipients. Ethics and economics are universal and apply to everyone and their laws should be applied to judge all situations whether they involve either the rich or the poor.

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