Gun Ownership and the Government

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In the United States, the story is always the same. Some maniac (examples of whom, we might add, will be found in any society regardless of the strength of its gun ownership rights) walks into some public building such as a school or shopping mall, opens fire and kills anything from a handful to tens of individuals. Then comes the usual tirade of arguments from the “gun control” advocates on the one side, crying out for more government control of private gun ownership in response to these heinous crimes, batted back by pro-gun ownership rhetoric from the likes of the NRA and the remainder of the gun lobby.

Many libertarians leap into this issue automatically in favour of the pro-gun lobby and deplore the attempts of government to regulate gun ownership. So far so good, but this does not examine the issue fully from the standpoint of pure political philosophy. Such an examination is, admittedly, often very difficult given that the question of gun ownership rights is enveloped in the history and tradition of the United States, a union born out of a revolution and where the right to bear arms has been enshrined as a constitutional amendment. Many pro-gun Americans who favour gun ownership rights would probably say that not only are these rights sacrosanct but also that it is a good thing for people to be privately armed, preserving one’s right to self-defence and reducing crime, or at least creating some sort of symbolic gesture of being a free individual. People on the gun control side, however, would not only like to see strict, gun regulation but would probably also state that increased gun proliferation, regardless of government intervention, is a bad thing and people should not own guns at all. In other words, not only do they support government gun control (up to the extent of an outright ban on private gun ownership) but they also believe that people should not choose to own guns in the first place and that gun ownership is an inherently bad scourge on the face of society.

In our capacity as libertarians we do not take either of these positions. We do not think that it is a good thing that everyone owns guns, in other words we are not crying aloud in response to gun control advocacy that “everyone should own guns!” We may each believe privately that gun ownership by individuals will create a more peaceful and law-abiding society, but we may just as plausibly detest the idea of individuals possessing firearms and lament the fact that we cannot trust every other human being to live in harmony with us. But the important thing to realise is that whether guns (and people owning them) are good or bad is not a libertarian issue. The only thing that concerns us as libertarians is whether the trade and ownership of firearms should be regulated by government fiat, i.e. by the force of the state. Whether gun ownership should be abundant or not is something that we must reflect upon in our privately held morality. Indeed, as libertarians we are not, therefore, against “gun control”. We are simply against government gun control.

Let us, therefore, restate clearly the libertarian and the statist positions on gun ownership. As libertarians what we will argue here is that any government control of gun ownership is just as unethical as government invasion of any other private property, whether it be a house, a car, your bank account etc. The central tenet of the statist, on the other hand, is that the sale and ownership of guns must be controlled and regulated by government force. We must note that the statist position does not necessarily mean that the entirety of the citizenry be completely disarmed and that guns will be totally banned. While many gun control advocates would prefer this, such rhetoric is usually employed as a straw-man scare tactic by the gun lobby into frightening its supporters into the belief that “government will take all of our guns!”, a notion made popular by catchphrases such as “from my cold dead hands!”. The only argument we will assume on the part of the statist is that government should control gun ownership without necessarily banning it.

Libertarians and Gun Ownership

On a strictly theoretical level, gun ownership is no different from the ownership of any other homesteaded or voluntarily transferred physical good. A gun is simply a piece of matter like a pen or a wristwatch and owning it per se endows nobody with the right to violently interfere with that ownership. People may become very concerned at the possession of a gun by another individual, but in the absence of any reasonably imminent threat of an attack by the gun owner and if he is otherwise a normal and law-abiding individual, the proper response to any subjective fear on the part of anyone else is to arrange one’s own property in such a way as to minimise the damage from any attack. On the bare bones of theoretical ethics, this argument is sufficient to dispose of any argument that suggests an individual should be violently prevented from gun ownership. Nevertheless such an argument would be most unlikely to convince any pro-gun control advocate. If we are to make any headway in promoting libertarian views on this issue we must, rather, tackle the utilitarian issue of minimising the effects of aggressive violence with firearms. What libertarians need to state convincingly, therefore, is that just as the regulation of anything that is dangerous is better left to the voluntary interaction between free individuals in the marketplace, so too is the regulation of firearms, whereas regulation left to government will not only fail to accomplish this to the extent that the free market can but may actually exacerbate the situation and make it much worse.

Indeed the acknowledgment that our common goal is to reduce violence may be a strong card to play in any debate on this topic and libertarians, who are usually so good at stressing their anti-violence credentials, should use them to their full extent in this issue. Not only do we have our commitment to the non-aggression principle but we all hope that our libertarian world will be a peaceful one with minimal crime, and guns do, we have to acknowledge, empower someone with an augmented ability to commit an act of aggression. Emphasising that we have plenty of common ground with government gun controllers might be an important first step in convincing them that we are not advocates of a society of heavily armed warriors. We simply believe that gun violence would be more effectively controlled through voluntary trade and interaction than by government fiat. Indeed, as we shall see, we might even conclude that private gun ownership in a libertarian world may not even be that common.

Before we proceed to demonstrate the truth of our libertarian claim, we must add that we will not be making use of any empirical study, however methodical or thorough, that in some way indicates that lightly regulated private gun ownership reduces the rate of crime. Empirical experiments in the social sciences are, at best, illustrative of a phenomenon rather than the provider of categorical proof and it is impossible, when measuring the effects of government gun control across different parts of the world, to account for differences in time, culture, history, technology, and so on. Furthermore there are as many studies purporting to debunk the claim that light regulation of private gun ownership reduces crime as there are that support it. Drawing any conclusion from this tangle requires one to fall back on investigating the method of each study (or set of studies) and attempting to see where the variables are not held constant rather than looking to the results themselves. For example, a pro-gun control study might observe that gun deaths per capita are higher in the United States, where gun control is loose, than in, say, the United Kingdom, where gun control is strict, and conclude that gun control reduces gun violence. However this fails to account for the fact that Americans simply want to own guns more than the British do and yes, gun violence may well increase if people exercise their voluntary choice in such a way as to make guns more common. If all gun control in the United Kingdom was abolished today it is very unlikely that you would see gun shops springing up in every high street heavily arming the population, simply because gun ownership in the UK has no basis in history, culture, custom or social acceptability, and any relinquishment of gun control may prove to have minimal impact on the rate of gun violence. Such an occurrence would therefore invalidate the theory that gun control diminishes gun violence and the study would be reduced to examining the effects of voluntary choices in regards to guns. But this is irrelevant to the gun control issue as this debate does not concern how people wish to exercise their voluntary choices. Rather, the question we are concerned with is if we take how those choices would be made as a given, would government regulation of those choices make gun violence better or worse? In other words, if, in a country such as the United States, a high number of people wish to own guns, and this causes a higher rate of gun violence compared to foreign countries where people choose not to own guns, does government interference with that choice exacerbate or reduce gun violence? Bearing in mind, therefore, that there are some interesting studies that conclude that light gun regulation reduces crime, let us not make them the focus of our deliberations here but, rather, attempt to draw some more potent conclusions a priori.

Gun Control in a Free Society

In the first place, we can mention some more familiar arguments as to why gun ownership would be better regulated in a free society. First, in a free society all people who commit gun violence are criminally liable for their actions and the penalties flowing from them just as they are in a government-controlled society. Secondly, scattered, heterogenous gun ownership amongst the population would make criminals think twice before committing an act as they do not know whether their opponents are armed. Thirdly, criminals will still get guns if they want to regardless of any law that is passed and the only effect of a gun control law is that the obedient citizenry are left with a reduced capacity for self-defence. Finally we might also say that there is the possibility for tortious liability or for insurance penalties for vendors, manufacturers and owners who trade or otherwise allow their firearms to fall into criminal hands. All of these are fairly common arguments with which readers may be familiar.

There are however, two more fundamental arguments for stating that guns would be better controlled in a free society rather than in one run by a government, arguments that concern the nature of government-controlled societies and free societies rather than the control of guns itself. Furthermore an aspect of many of the more high profile incidents of gun is that perpetrators intend not to come out of the situation alive and so all of the disincentives that may exist are practically useless. The following two considerations will serve to deal with this aspect as well.

The first consideration concerns the dual role of a firearm as a weapon of offence on the one hand and as a weapon of defence on the other, roles that are closely correlated1. Indeed, guns or no guns, we can say in general that people’s need to commit crime and the responsive need by everyone else to protect themselves from that crime will rise and fall together. In a low-crime rate society that is peaceful and law-abiding, crime may be committed only by a bear handful of nutcases in very rare and isolated incidents. The demand by criminals for guns as weapons of offence would therefore be extremely low. But if crime is low then the need to protect oneself from incidents of crime is not likely to be very pressing either. So demand for guns for defensive purposes will also be correspondingly low and, indeed, gun ownership may be relatively scattered and reduced purely to sporting or recreational ends. In a society where crime rates are very high, however, not only are criminals likely to be all the more eager to acquire guns to carry out robberies, assaults and murders, but so too, among everyone else, will the desire to defend oneself become enflamed. Imagine, for example, crime rates being so high that you would not feel safe exiting your house to walk down the street unless you were armed. In short, it is people’s desire and capacity for committing crime and other people responding with their need to defend themselves from that crime which causes gun ownership to become prevalent, both for the purposes of offence and defence respectively. But this trigger of widespread gun ownership – people’s desire to commit crime – does not occur in a vacuum, appearing and disappearing without explanation.

We can say first of all that government’s enforced monopoly of security production and the prevention and detection of crime would necessarily be inferior to that which would be provided by private defence and security provisions. Hence, government inefficiency will incite crime by making it more likely for a criminal venture to be successful and people will feel more of a need to take defensive capabilities into their own hands. More importantly, however, in societies where private property rights are secure, time preferences are low and economic growth is consequentially high, the incentives to commit acts of crime are, all else being equal, low, simply because crime “would not pay” compared to carrying out some kind of legitimate and voluntary activity. In other words, strong, formal constitutional or legal protection given to private property rights in turn furnishes people with the substantive desire to uphold them. When one can go to even a relatively menial job knowing that your pay packet can be kept by you in full and is enough to buy a wealth of economic goods that are selling for a dime a dozen, the incentives to risk criminal sanctions are relatively low. Furthermore, low time preferences mean that the passion for satisfaction now (a distinct characteristic of criminals) is reduced, not only cooling demand for instant gratification but also providing a dampener on feelings of unfulfilment and the consequent negative emotions such as anger, hatred and depression which are the fuel for the flames of much violent crime. Crime rates, therefore, will fall and so too with it will be the demand for the offensive and the defensive use of firearms. Government, however, does everything it can to provoke crime rather than to prevent it. Government confiscates approximately half of all productivity, slashes the incentive for economic growth, raises time preferences, exacerbates poverty, creates permanent and endless unemployment, robs the young of opportunity and ambition through fruitless state-run schools, legislates by the shelf-load every day, and makes it impossible to carry out any long term plan with security. All of this makes crime relatively more attractive. This is before we even consider the effect of the general legitimacy that government confers upon taking what you want from those that have it and murdering those whom you dislike. Government is, after all, a criminal organisation, levying its income from involuntary taxation (i.e. theft) and using the proceeds to line the pockets of its friends and fund its machinery of perpetual war and death. The dismantling of the perceived legitimacy of private property rights serves to dilute the conscience and inoculates people from any incisive moral fervour. Indeed, one of the supreme ironies of the government gun control argument is that the US’s constitutional preservation of the right to bear arms is nothing to do with your ability to shoot at private criminals in self-defence. Rather it is so you had the right to shoot at the government when the government was taken over by tyrants. Government was the original plunderer and pillager against whom people wished to defend themselves, and only government and not private criminals has inspired popular revolutions. It is the government that is the major criminal, not private actors, and yet gun controllers somehow think that this arch crime organisation is the one that should be regulating our gun ownership.

Indeed there is a distinct lack of logic in the government gun control argument. If government is going to control private gun ownership then we are entitled to ask the obvious (but seldom acknowledged) question “how will this control be enforced?” Clearly the police cannot go to offenders, whether they are gun manufacturers, vendors, or owners, sit them down with a cup of tea and have a nice chat, finishing with perhaps a slap on the wrist. If a criminal (the very person whom we do not want to have a gun) wishes to purchase a firearm he is not likely to take government whining as a formidable deterrent and even if he did encounter a run in with government officials he, as the armed party, would have the upper hand. Minus the threat of compulsion the government will simply be ignored, if not laughed at. Rather, gun ownership can only be regulated if the government too is prepared to use force, i.e. guns, in ensuring that its gun control laws are adhered to. No true gun control advocate can deny that if their edicts are to be taken seriously they need to back them up with brute force2. If our gun control proponent accepts this then his argument begins to spring some leaks. On the one hand he says that “people” or “the market” (i.e. people voluntarily interacting) cannot be trusted to self-regulate gun ownership to stop weapons from falling into criminal hands, but on the other hand government can be trusted not only to decide who should and who should not, out of the population at large, own guns, but they also have the sole privilege of whether, how many and what type of guns they themselves (the government) can possess. In other words the government is permitted to regulate us and self-regulate their own gun possession without any oversight. So why, if regulation of gun ownership by the general population causes them to be used dangerously and fall into the wrong hands, do we trust these particular people in the government with the same weapons? Why should they and only they have the privilege of self-regulation? The government consists of humans that are as fallible and frail as the rest of us. What gives them some kind of unique ability to ensure that they will restrict their use of firearms for the “common good”? Of course, our budding gun advocate will simply retort “Ah! But we have democracy! The government won’t use its guns for bad things because they will be voted out of office!” Even if we accept for the moment the dubious argument that the outcome of elections somehow results in government reflecting the “will of people”, our gun control advocate’s argument has now reduced to this: “People cannot be trusted with guns; but they can be trusted to choose the other people who can be trusted with guns, trusted not only to choose who else should be trusted with guns but trusted to ensure that they themselves do not misuse guns”. This argument is not only absurd but it also ends up conceding the vital point that gun control is ultimately subject to the oversight of the people anyway. So if this is true then why can’t we do this through the mechanism of the market, where our choices and preferences are made with far more potency than they are in a once in a blue moon election? The reason, of course, is that governments cherish gun regulation as it is in their advantage to disarm the citizenry and leave the latter impotent against government power. The “democratic oversight” simply means that people stop shooting at each other directly and try to get the government to do so on their behalf, with the politicians promising eagerly to spend, spend, spend and rob others to foot the bill. At least private crime is viewed with brutal honesty and plainly has no right to inflict injury or theft upon your person and property. But by gilding the same acts with the legitimacy of democratically elected government, a government that controls the right of the populace to defend itself, it becomes far easier for the rights to liberty and private property to be eroded, if not completely dismantled. Indeed, there is only ever an outrage in the mainstream media when it is private actors who commit gun violence. When the same is committed by a government actor such as the police (either deliberately or from botched operations where “officer safety” is, for some reason, more important than the safety of innocent civilians) or on government premises such as the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 and at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, there may be one or two words of regret but there is none of the political and media frenzy that accompanies shootings by private citizens.

We can also say that much gun proliferation is caused by the fact that government criminalises voluntary behaviour such as the vending and use of drugs, prostitution and gambling. When these activities are driven underground, the resulting criminal organisations cannot compete openly nor enforce the terms of their trade through any public court or arbitrator, leaving violence and turf wars as the only way in which to settle disputes. Such an environment sucks in youths demoralised by the lack of opportunity created by government strangulation of productivity and its mind numbing education, driving them into gangland violence where they at least feel a part of something significant, however odious it may be.

Finally, we might as well mention the alleged influence that psychiatric drugs have had on some recent perpetrators of gun violence, for example, in the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, something that, curiously, has not been explored in the mainstream media. This may be either because of the influence of state-connected “Big Pharma” or simply because explanations of gun violence that do not per se concern the prevalence of gun ownership would undermine the gun-grabbing agenda3.

The second reason why guns may be better controlled in a free society than by the government is that the likelihood of the private individual being armed for the purposes of self-defence in a free society is, at worst, debatable and at best, highly unlikely. With a free society comes specialisation and the division of labour and everyone, except for a few recluses, outsources the production of their needs to other people. Hardly anyone, for example, has in their home the ability to produce food or fuel, or to make cleaning products, clothes, and so on. So too is it likely that the needs of private defence would be outsourced to specialists with whom we would contract to provide us with defence services. We may still choose, privately, to own a modest weapon to stave off the most immediate threats and, indeed, if defence services are operated by insurance companies, as suggested by Hans Hermann Hoppe4, they may require ownership of and training in use of a firearm in order reduce one’s security insurance premium. We can, of course, never know the precise outcome of freeing people for voluntary action but judging from how the market provides us all with other goods and services we can be confident that abolition of government gun control and its monopoly over security would not leave everyone to fend for themselves. Rather, they would purchase these services from specialist providers. Government, by enforcing its security monopoly, retards this process and the inevitable failure of government policing to prevent and detect crime drives people towards putting defensive capabilities into their own hands and hence personal gun ownership rises5. In a free society, however, it is quite possible that gun ownership would be restricted to the few who enjoy sporting activities such as shooting and hunting.

Gun Safety

For the sake completion, we can also discuss how gun safety would be handled in a free society. In other words, how would accidents (as opposed to deliberate violence) to oneself and to others be regulated without the government? The issue of safety and protecting people from harm is a prerogative that government often arrogates to itself presumptuously. What is not realised is that safety is always a trade-off between ends just like any other in the marketplace. When we live in a world of scarcity every human faces a choice of which ends he will direct means towards in order to achieve fulfilment and which ends he will discard. The desire to drive may be a valuable end that a person wishes to fulfil, and so also is making sure that it is accomplished safely – we do not wish our car to crash or explode on any of our journeys. Yet safety too comes at the expense of resources that could be used for the furtherance of other ends. Safety is not free and comes at a price just as every other end that must utilise scarce means. Therefore we must choose precisely at which point we are going to stop devoting resources to safety and leave ourselves open to the risk of a bad event. To give an exaggerated example, I might decide that my car should contain brakes, seat belts, air bags and so on and so forth in order to minimise the damage from any crash. But I would probably deem it to be an awful waste of resources to build it like a tank so that it could withstand a blast from a rocket launcher. Such a car would be immensely safe but the resources needed to do so could have been better spent on fulfilling other ends and were, hence, wasted. Not only that but if government was to ban cars altogether in the name of avoiding car accidents we can imagine the obvious loss of utility we would experience from such an act. We always, therefore, face a trade-off between fulfilling our ends on the one hand and doing so safely on the other. Private parties must decide precisely at which level safety is justified and at which level it is starting to encroach on the fulfilment of our other ends, a level at which we would be happy to accept the residual risk of an accident occurring rather than forego a valuable end.

If we consider first of all the danger to oneself from using firearms (as opposed to the dangers to other people), manufacturers will design and build firearms at a level of safety that we are prepared to pay for when the gun is operated as intended and there are no design flaws. Any manufacturer or vendor whose products became associated with accidents caused by a failure to meet this level would quickly lose business to manufacturers who offered safer products. Such a feature might include a trigger locking device to prevent accidental discharge, for example. Where a manufactured gun contains a design flaw resulting in an operation other than that intended (for example if the weapon fails to discharge a round and simply explodes in one’s face) then the manufacturer or vendor would be either contractually or tortiously liable for this damage, in addition to losing custom6.

Exactly the same principles are in operation when we consider the possibility of injury to third parties. Given that, in a libertarian world, every person bears the liability for injuries caused by his/her property, owners of firearms will demand a level of safety from manufacturers and vendors that reduces this risk to a level that they are willing to bear. Indeed, one’s own insurance company may require a certain level of safety precautions to be taken, not only safety features inherent in the product itself, but how it is stored and a specified degree of training for all intended users. The consequences of not following these edicts would be either to pay higher insurance premiums or to find that the insurer would not pay out in the event of an injury, leaving the individual to foot the bill for compensation to the victim of the accident. There are therefore powerful disincentives in a free society to prevent accidents from the use of firearms. Government responses, however, will always be to set levels of safety that are not acceptable to consumers. Governments could, for example, simply ban guns outright (in the same way they could have banned cars to prevent road accidents). Yet people may have decided that the benefit to be gained from gun ownership – either for defensive purposes or for sport – outweighs the risk that one might have to bear responsibility for an accident and government only achieves a less valuable outcome that frustrates consumers.

Conclusion

What we have determined, therefore, is that government gun control is not only as unethical as any other state interference with private property, but that the prevalence of gun violence is primarily caused and exacerbated by the state, for many different reasons. These aspects would not exist in a free society and, indeed, we even concluded that gun ownership is likely to be relatively miniscule in a libertarian world.

View the video version of this post.

1The offensive and defensive capabilities of firearms, and the relationship between them, is something that is seldom explored in detail in the mainstream gun debate, or at least not by the same author or spokesman. Gun controllers tend to stress only the offensive use of guns, concluding that a rise in gun ownership must necessarily cause a rise in gun violence, whereas the gun lobby concentrates on the defensive use of guns and determines that strong gun ownership rights must reduce crime.

2The use of government force and compulsion is something that proponents of government action, even “lay” people who would not explicitly self-identify as statists, fail to explicitly acknowledge. In proposing that “government should do this” or “there should be a law against that” they lack the conscious awareness of the fact that what they mean is the use of the gun, the prison, and the gallows in order to enforce what they want. When presented with this fact they either have to abandon their edicts if they find this distasteful or concede that they are calling for nothing more than violence against people who refuse to comply with what they want. As Mises puts it: “He who says: There should be a law concerning this matter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: the police should force people to obey this law”. Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government, p.49.

3Scott Lazarowitz, Getting it Wrong, Over and Over and Over Again, www.lewrockell.com, May 24th 2013.

4Hans Hermann Hoppe, Government and the Private Production of Defense, Ch. 10 in Hoppe (ed.), The Myth of National Defense.

5As an additional point it is curious how much gun violence always appears to occur in public spaces where people are reliant upon government policing for their defence. Of the twenty-five deadliest shooting incidents in the US, more than half of them took place wholly or partly on government-owned or funded property. See www.CNN.com, 25 Deadliest Mass shootings in US, October 26th 2013. An alarming number of less publicised incidents take place in public schools and universities.

6Indeed, another factor in the gun debate is the level of government-granted exemption from tortious liability enjoyed by gun manufacturers and vendors.

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Climate Change and Social Rules

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

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

Let us start by outlining a few key assumptions:

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

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

Rights and Obligations

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

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

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

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

Humans and Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Statism and Non-Aggression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Good Libertarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-War and Anti-State

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The furore over the recent attempt of the UK government to commit military force in Syria in concert with the US government revealed a widespread popular opposition to war that appears to span the entire political spectrum. Indeed, libertarians must admit that the ideological left, with its anti-imperialist and anti-war profiteering motive, has often been a louder voice in castigating the warmongers and interventionists in conflicts past and present.

Nevertheless it must be emphasised that if one is to be truly anti-war then that commitment alone is, regrettably, not sufficient. For war is always propagated by states, between states and for the benefit of states. Libertarians often point out that “war is the health of the state”, permitting the government to suspend the status quo and enact all manner of heinous oppression and control that would be unthinkable in a time of peace, measures that, curiously, do not disappear as soon as the alleged enemy is vanquished. But as much as it is true that war feeds the state so too does the state feed war, not only siphoning off resources from the productive sector towards the creation of bombs and missiles, but, crucially, the very desire to create a bigger state makes war more likely. Many anti-war activists of the left have no problem with government metastasising to whatever size in economic and social matters, creating alleged “fairness” and “equality” and whatever other emotive but elusive goals happen to sound most appealing. The aims may be innocently honourable enough but it is ridiculous to think that the means of the state can ever be used peacefully, let alone to believe that a large state can be the promoter and preserver of peace. There are three key reasons for this.

First, the state always means conflict. The precise means at the states disposal, the only means that it can use – violence – results in the constant diversion of scarce resources away from the ends of their owners and towards the ends of others. The state is effectively engaged in a constant war on its own citizens, forever plundering and pillaging them to fund their lavish lifestyles and to line the pockets of their friends under the guise of wasteful socioeconomic programmes. Foreign war, fundamentally, is no different and every motivation for it ultimately reduces to a battle over resources. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that anti-war activists are content to allow a government to war against its own citizens but, for some reason, as soon it comes to doing the same against foreign nations then all hell breaks loose. However correct this latter reaction may be, not only is it hypocritical but it is also dangerously naïve to expect the state to restrict itself to peace and harmony abroad when it will never even do so at home. Nazi Germany, for example, was met with such ambivalent dithering in the interwar period precisely because its ideology – big government control and intervention – was of no particular distinction from that which prevailed everywhere else at the time. The only difference was that it was prepared to take this ideology to its logical end, additionally piling on racial dogmas and nationalistic overtones that resulted in crimes which, however horrific and unforgettable, obscures the basic similarity between Hitler and, say, Roosevelt.

Secondly, big states attract the attention of control freaks and the greedy. The more money that is stashed in the government and can be leeched away by bloodsuckers and parasites then the more alluring it becomes to try and take a slice of that pie – and once that slice is taken, how wonderful it would be to take another slice, and then another after that! Finally when government intervention naturally starts to stifle productivity and there are no more pies left to be eaten, the siren song of war becomes ever sweeter to governments and their sponsors, not only as a distraction from their own economic mismanagement but as a way forward to secure a flow of resources from abroard and to tighten their grip on the domestic citizenry through lasting wartime or “emergency” measures. Neither must we forget that there is, among the political class, an alluring quality to being a wartime leader or “warrior”. Seeing off an alleged terrible enemy and apparently saving one’s people from invasion (although it doesn’t even need to get this far) is judged as being more heroic and worthy of the highest honours and decorations whereas creating “mere” peace and prosperity is apparently rather dull and uninspiring. Indeed, the most highly rated leaders all made their mark during wartime or were at least warmongering – Lincoln during the War between the States, Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II, and Reagan and Thatcher during the Cold War, for instance. Only when a conflict is so obviously pointless, futile and/or unjustified – such as those in Vietnam and Iraq – does this strategy backfire, as it did upon Johnson, Nixon and the younger Bush.

Finally, the degree of government intervention necessary to create alleged social or economic ends have only been met during a legacy of wartime control. The New Deal, for example, was modelled upon the wartime regime of Woodrow Wilson; World War II on the New Deal; and the post-war “Great Society”, the fight against poverty and the Civil Rights era all came after these wartime regimes were firmly in place. The citizenry have to be “united” (or worn down) by something such as war before they can ever begin to accept the degree of interference necessary to promote big government measures during peacetime. Ironically, therefore, a lot of the cravings of the anti-war left are reliant upon war if they ever have the hope of seeing the light of day.

In sum, therefore, to be anti-war but pro-state is the epitome of all dangerously ill-informed and contradictory positions, giving birth to the very thing it seeks to destroy. Rather, to be anti-war one must also be thoroughly and unreservedly anti-state, recognising this evil entity for precisely what it is – perpetual and endless conflict and violence. Only when we are well and truly rid of this scourge will there ever be a chance for peace.

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The Ethics of Interventionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Limits of Libertarianism

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A distinct disadvantage of advocating a libertarian society as opposed to some sort of collective is that libertarians seldom win the emotional battle when pitted against competing ideologies. Democratic socialists and redistributionists can effectively wear their bleeding hearts on their sleeves, forever waxing lyrical about their concern for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and which ever other group appears to be in need of pitiful platitudes at this particular time. Libertarians, on the other hand, in calling for the right of every person to own his/her income, appear to advocate nothing more than greed and selfishness, the slippery slope to the disintegration of society as we each ferret ourselves away in an increasingly atomised existence.

This is a misunderstanding that is common not only among the opponents of libertarianism but also among libertarians themselves and it is high time that the latter stood up for themselves and realised how to counter these straw man attacks. Libertarianism is not and never has pretended to be a complete philosophy of how a given person should live his or her life. It is only states that each person should be given the freedom to choose what he does with his person or property. It does not mean that because an individual should have such a choice that he should keep his person and property for himself. One of the options is that he could, for example, give some of his money to the poor. It is, therefore, quite open to and consistent for the libertarian to state that a person should do X, Y or Z but that such a person should not be forced to do so. Simply because a person cannot be forced to do something does not mean that libertarians do not, individually, believe that people are subject to other moral obligations; it’s just that libertarianism itself stops short of discussing them. So as long as these obligations are not violently enforced then they are compatible with libertarianism, but do not form part of it.

Collectivism, however, is markedly different. For when collectives posit a certain forced redistribution of wealth and income amongst society this is usually based on an all-encompassing moral and political theory. So, for example, a collectivist might state not only that a person should donate a portion of his income to the poor but that also he should be forced to do so. It is this aspect that makes collectivists look more “caring” and “sensitive” to the needy – the fact that they are prepared to “enforce” their moral outlook seems to show they mean business. Libertarians, in contrast, come across as cold and uncaring, relying only on a vaguely defined notion of voluntary charity to take care of society’s ills.

There are three possible ways in which this may be countered. The first is to admit that libertarians are somewhat guilty of contributing to this view as few have developed an additional moral philosophy on top of their libertarian beliefs (although we can perhaps excuse ourselves given that the weight of government violence and intervention in today’s world is more than enough to be getting on with). But we must either turn our attention to developing our own, private, moral philosophies on which our passion for liberty forms the core, or, at the very least, we must be prepared to acknowledge the problem and explain the compatibility of any moral philosophy with libertarianism as long as it permits the individual to choose.

Secondly, contrary to popular opinion, the history of ideas has seldom been one of “liberty” vs. “collectivism”; rather it has been that of one version of collectivism versus another. As Mises pointed out, everyone has their own idea as to how they think goods and resources should be distributed throughout society: “In the eyes of Stalin, the Mensheviks and the Trotskyites are not socialists but traitors, and vice versa. The Marxians call the Nazis supporters of capitalism; the Nazis call the Marxians suporters of Jewish capital. If a man says socialism, or planning, he always has in view his own brand of socialism, his own plan. This planning does not in fact mean preparedness to coöperate peacefully. It means conflict”. (Omnipotent Government, p. 253). By pointing out this fact libertarians can demonstrate how, in a free world, everyone can pursue, in harmony, the ends that he believes are morally right with his own person and property, whereas to do so violently would just mean endless conflict with everyone else who happens not to share your view.

Thirdly, if a collectivist claims to care about the needy in society then we are entitled to ask why he favours a system that is almost guaranteed to make them worse off and why they oppose the very system – capitalism and freedom – that has been responsible for the most enormous increase in the standard of living in the whole of human history. Poverty is the state of nature of humans in the world; it is their ingenuity that has flourished through freedom that has allowed them to harness the powers of nature and increase the amount of wealth and satisfaction that we gain from them. If we compare the condition of human existence in 1800 (where 85% of the world’s population was living on $1 a day) to that of today (down to 20%) then we can see that freedom has been exceedingly good to the poor. Perhaps smart libertarians, accused of ignoring the plight of the needy, should raise this point and query whether, in fact, it is their ideological opponents who are really the ones who don’t care?

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