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.

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Economic Myths #7 – Government means Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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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.