Rights Theory, Liberty

A Libertarian Rehabilitation of Hobbes

I think that libertarian hostility to Hobbes has blinded them to one of his deepest insights, an insight that in many ways makes him less authoritarian than many of the libertarians I know.

I. Hobbes and the Problem of Private Judgment

First, I recommend this on Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy.

Let’s begin with some review. Hobbes believes that all people are naturally free and equal.* That is, no one was born with natural authority over others. Political authority can only come from agreement. Yes, Hobbes has a notion of tacit consent and yes, Hobbes believed in a limited set of natural laws that prescribe some natural duties. But he nonetheless recognized that in a great many circumstances, for John to have a duty to obey Reba, John must have agreed to that duty.

We all know that Hobbes thought the state of nature was a state of Warre. And for this reason, each person’s rational self-interest dictates that she should submit herself to the Sovereign, who in turn would have almost unlimited power to resolve disputes and provide for the common good. You should know that in Hobbes’s day, Bishop Bramhall called Leviathan a “Rebell’s Catechism” because Hobbes argued that subjects have a right of self-defense against the Sovereign, not only to preserve their bodily integrity but to preserve their family and even their honor. So the Sovereign’s power is not unlimited.

Some of you were probably taught that Chapter 15 of Leviathan is the whole book. That’s the chapter where Hobbes addresses the “foole” who said in his heart that there is no such thing as justice. The point of Hobbes’s contractarianism, so the story goes, is to answer the foole, to show that even he is rationally committed to signing up with the Sovereign.

But I read Leviathan differently (I’m not alone). Hobbes is not worried first and foremost about the foole. Instead, he is concerned about how ordinary people with their various moral and religious views can get along with one another. That’s why the entire second half of Leviathan concerns the Christian religion. He is not only worried about sincere individuals who disagree about what the natural law requires of them but about what God requires of them (these are not really distinct for Hobbes, but whatever).

The core problem of Leviathan, then, is this: how can free and equal people who deeply disagree about what the natural (moral) law requires of them, live in peaceful, stable relations with one another? Hobbes recognizes that “no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty.” For Hobbes, therefore,

[W]hen there is a controversy in an account the parties must by their own accord (emphasis KV’s) set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will be standard, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature; so is it also in all debates of what kind soever (Ch.V, paragraph 3, emphasis KV’s).

Ordinary people disagree all the time and for all kinds of reasons. And if they are to live together well, they need to resolve these disputes. The reason that I believe that half of Leviathan is devoted to religion is because Hobbes thought the need to resolve religious disagreements was perhaps most important of all. Hobbes spends an extensive amount of time trying to show how his conception of public judgment (or public reason) is compatible with Scripture and why the final interpretation of Scripture must lay with the Sovereign.

II. Libertarians vs. Hobbes

Traditional libertarians criticize Hobbes for thinking that disagreement is a disaster. Through the market, private property and limited government, we can go our separate ways and live together well. I agree with that criticism. Libertarians also recognize that some property claims will be the subject of dispute and so arbiters are needed (at least in the form of protection agencies or a minimal state). I agree with that too.

However, the problem with traditional libertarians is that they confine the range of reasonable disagreement to disputes about how to make libertarian property rights more determinate and resolve disputes among legitimate property holders. In other words, they think the range of disagreement is rather small and so arbiters have limited authority.

But let’s confront traditional libertarians with an undeniable truth: reasonable people disagree about way more political and moral matters than the scope of libertarian property rights. In fact, the large majority of reasonable people find libertarian conceptions of property rights deeply objectionable. And many of those reasonable disagreements remain after they become familiar with libertarian arguments.

So let me pose a question to traditional libertarians (related to one of my previous posts): you want to set up a libertarian society because you think it is required by justice and to serve the common good. But your free and equal fellows reasonably reject your conception of property rights. As a result, the coercion you are prepared to use to defend your property against their encroachments will be coercion that they have strong reason to reject.

Libertarians avoid the problem of private judgment by implicitly assuming that libertarian property rights are the default no-coercion point. A society without coercion is a society with property rights. But that’s false. Property rights are coercive. That does not mean that property rights cannot be justified. It just means that the coercion involved in defending property rights must be justified to all persons.

I suspect most libertarians will respond that they can use coercion to protect their justly acquired property no matter what other reasonable people think. After all, libertarianism is true and statism is false. But that means that you, libertarian, are prepared to coerce your equal to do what you demand even though she has not agreed and will likely not agree were you to explain your reasoning to her. That is, you are prepared to subordinate your non-libertarian fellows to your will.

Hobbes thinks you would be wrong to do that because you have no authority to impose your interpretation of what morality and justice require on others. When you do so, you exercise power over them without authority. Hobbes believed that coercion requires justification to the rational self-interest of all persons. Of course, he thought the most easily justified regime was near-absolute monarchy (actually, that’s not quite right) but he still understood the problem of private judgment. Unlike libertarians, Hobbes was not prepared to use violence against others to establish his preferred system of authority if others did not recognize that having a state was in their self-interest. But traditional libertarians are different: when it comes to non-libertarians, they’re the boss.

Traditional libertarian, in at least one sense, Hobbes was less authoritarian than you.

III. Postscript for Hobbes-Hataz

I know libertarians aren’t supposed to say anything nice about Hobbes because he was a Big Ole’ Statist. But please try to separate his Big Ole’ Statism from his political philosophy as such. If you’re a libertarian Hobbes-hata, you probably know enough philosophy to have an opinion on Aristotle. And if you’re a contemporary libertarian, you probably like Aristotle. You overlook his belief in natural slaves because, of course, that’s not essential to his philosophy. But if you’re open to Aristotle despite his belief in natural slaves, surely you can be open to Hobbes despite his Big Ole’ Statism.

*I will say more about the idea of natural freedom and equality in a future post.

  • Jessica Flanigan

    You say “Hobbes thinks you would be wrong to (coerce) because you have no authority to impose your interpretation of what morality and justice require on others (who disagree)” but the next move in Hobbes is to assign a sovereign who does just that! And insofar as we implicitly consent to the sovereign, it has nothing to do with his moral authority–Hobbes is explicit that this authority is not moral authority, that is why you have no duty to obey the sovereign if it threatens your life. Instead, our reasons to obey are more like reasons of prudence, but you might have reasons of prudence to consent to me when I impose my interpretation of justice as well, so there you have it.

    In any case, I think as long as the sovereign was right about justice he ::would:: have the moral authority to coerce even if there was disagreement. Insofar as your interpretation of Hobbes is the correct one, so much the worse for Hobbes.

    Interestingly, Hobbes was once tempted by a kind of anarcho-libertarianism in De Cive, where he genuinely wrestles with the question of whether a free but violent state of nature is preferable to political authority, but by the time he wrote Leviathan his experience with political unrest had convinced him that the consequences of anarchy were too terrible to allow. If you look on Wikipedia at the frontispiece of De Cive (which Hobbes designed) it poses a clear choice between freedom/anarchy and political power, but in Leviathan the famous frontispiece is pretty much the least libertarian picture ever.

    • Kevin Vallier

      (1) I thought for Hobbes all moral reasons are going to be in some sense prudential reasons (with the exception of our reason to comply with *some* natural laws – I don’t know if Hobbes has deontic reasons in his conception of practical rationality), so it seems like Hobbes thinks we have bona fide moral reasons to comply with the sovereign.

      (2) I cannot see how moral authority derives from being correct. It reminds me of Locke’s famous discussion in the Letter: 

      “But if one of these churches hath this power of treating the other ill, I ask which of them it is to whom that power belongs, and by what right? It will be answered, undoubtedly, that it is the orthodox church which has the right of authority over the erroneous or heretical. That is, in great and specious words, to say just nothing at all. For every church is orthodox to itself, to others, erroneous and heretical.”

      I think Locke is making a “wrong kind of reasons” objection here. “I am right” is not a reason of the right kind for someone to be under your authority. Imagine a husband and wife arguing: 

      Wife: I don’t want to go to the movies right now. I want to go to the grocery store.
      Husband: But I want to go to the movies.
      Wife: So, why does that mean I should have to go to the movies?
      Husband: Because I’m right and you’re wrong!
      Wife: …

  • “Property rights are coercive. That does not mean that property rights cannot be justified. It just means that the coercion involved in defending property rights must be justified to all persons.”

    I think property rights can be “justified to all persons” if we start distinguishing between “property” in a general sense of the word and “property because of ownership,” which the Supreme Court began doing when the great debate over income taxes started in the 1895 Pollock case, but seems to have ceased doing after World War I.

    The distinction is important because when generally speaking about property rights, we usually simply mean a reasonable power to exclude others in order to peaceably enjoy the property and/or to prevent “tragedy of the commons.” I would argue that if state coercion is used to do more than this, as in Jason Brennan’s prior post about blocking someone’s access to public roads, the line has been crossed and the coercion is illegitimate.

    The distinction is also important from a Georgist perspective because the term “property because of ownership” cannot be construed so as to include ownership rights in land and natural resources, though again, a limited degree of property rights can be extended to so-called “land owners” in order to reasonably manage resource extraction or harvesting.

    Here’s an excerpt from one of my prior Facebook posts on the subject:
    The Supreme Court began using the term “property because of ownership” when the great battle over income taxes began in the 1895 Pollock case, and then more often in a few tax cases after that, particularly in Flint v. Stone Tracy (1911), Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad (1916), and Eisner v. Macomber (1920). The Supreme Court’s use of the term “property because of ownership” is what gives the term a powerful legal effect, both for lawmakers and courts. 

    For example, here are some excerpts from the 1916 Brushaber case, with relevant comments about “property because of ownership” in CAPS:  

    “Without stating the minor differences, it may be said with substantial accuracy that the divergent reasoning was this: On the one hand, that the tax was not in the class of direct taxes requiring apportionment, because it was not levied directly on PROPERTY BECAUSE OF ITS OWNERSHIP, but rather on its use, and was therefore an excise, duty, or impost; and on the other, that in any event the class of direct taxes included only taxes directly levied on REAL ESTATE BECAUSE OF ITS OWNERSHIP.

    Putting out of view the difference of reasoning which led to the concurrent conclusion in the Hylton Case, it is undoubted that it came to pass in legislative practice that the line of demarcation between the two great classes of direct taxes on the one hand and excises, duties, and imposts on the other, which was exemplified by the ruling in that case, was accepted and acted upon.

    In the first place this is shown by the fact that wherever (and there were a number of cases of that kind) a tax was levied directly on real estate or SLAVES BECAUSE OF OWNERSHIP, it was treated as coming within the direct class and apportionment was provided for, while no instance of apportionment as to any other kind of tax is afforded. 

    Again the situation is aptly illustrated by the various acts taxing incomes derived from property of every kind and nature which were enacted beginning in 1861, and lasting during what may be termed the Civil War period. It is not disputable that these latter taxing laws were classed under the head of excises, duties, and imposts because it was assumed that they were of that character inasmuch as, although putting a tax burden on income of every kind, including that derived from property real or personal, they were not taxes directly on PROPERTY BECAUSE OF ITS OWNERSHIP. And this practical construction came in theory to be the accepted one, since it was adopted without dissent by the most eminent of the text writers. . . . 

    Indeed, from another point of view, the [Sixteenth] Amendment demonstrates that no such purpose was intended, and on the contrary shows that it was drawn with the object of maintaining the limitations of the Constitution and harmonizing their operation. We say this because it is to be observed that although from the date of the Hylton Case, because of statements made in the opinions in that case, it had come to be accepted that direct taxes in the constitutional sense were confined to taxes levied directly on REAL ESTATE BECAUSE OF ITS OWNERSHIP, the Amendment contains nothing repudiating or challenging the ruling in the Pollock Case that the word ‘direct’ had a broader significance, since it embraced also taxes levied directly on personal PROPERTY BECAUSE OF ITS OWNERSHIP, and therefore the Amendment at least impliedly makes such wider significance a part of the Constitution,-a condition which clearly demonstrates that the purpose was not to change the existing interpretation except to the extent necessary to accomplish the result intended; that is, the prevention of the resort to the sources from which a taxed income was derived in order to cause a direct tax on the income to be a direct tax on the source itself, and thereby to take an income tax out of the class of excises, duties, and imposts, and place it in the class of direct taxes. . . . “

  • Aeon Skoble

    It’s not just the big ol’ statism – it’s also the moral subjectivism.  Hobbesianism necessarily conduces to authoritarian politics because he’s _not_ the same sort of natural law thinker that Locke (or Aristotle) is.  The “natural law” as he conceives it is insufficient to ground cooperation, therefore cooperation is impossible, therefore we need the sovereign.  As I tried to show in DtS, every step of this is wrong.  It’s true that every philosopher from the old days will have something we disagree with, and that in many cases that thing(s) will be conceptually seperable from the things we think are good about that person.  But in Hobbes’ case, the necessity of an absolute sovereign just _is_ the point.  On his view, cooperation is impossible without the sovereign.  That’s false.  Also, your claim that property rights are coercive assumes the point at issue, viz Hobbesian subjectivism, and fails to distinguish aggression from self-defense, or in other words taking all uses of force as morally equivalent.  That’s also false, as far as I can tell.

    • good_in_theory

      “he’s _not_ the same sort of natural law thinker that Locke (or Aristotle) is.”

      Sounds like a feature, not a bug.  Not relying on ‘nonsense on stilts’ is probably for the best.

      “On his view, cooperation is impossible without the sovereign.  That’s false.”
      No, on his view cooperation is entirely possible. However, lack of cooperation resulting in the self-interested use of force is possible and, further, likely without a sovereign.  Not so false.

      ” fails to distinguish aggression from self-defense, or in other words taking all uses of force as morally equivalent. ”

      Where does Kevin do this?  He clearly distinguishes between justifiable and unjustifiable uses of coercion.  Whether coercion is by definition unjustified/wrong is a matter of definition.  If ‘just coercion’ is not defined so as to be absurd, then clearly just coercion and unjust coercion are not morally equivalent, and aggression and self-defense, insofar as they can be sorted into those categories, are not morally equivalent.

      • 3cantuna

        “Property rights are coercive” is the same kind of language transformation that turns “liberal” from a negative liberty descriptor into connoting positive property claims of all persons in all other persons. Call it democracy or communism. But libertarian?  Maybe by Noam Chomsky’s definition. Not Rothbard’s et al… If indeed one needs to rationalize and gain acceptance for acquiring excludable food and space to live from every reasonable being– humanity would die out in the process for obvious practical reasons.
        When the distinction between the initiation of aggression v. voluntary cooperation is so easily obscured by word meaning, sometimes intentionally, then “justice” is also ruled out as something that can be democratically deliberated, right? Why should any individuals caught in immediate disputes wait around for a Worldwide MLA meeting before getting on with life?
        Prof. Vallier makes a great point that libertarians ought to take a closer look at Hobbes.  I, for one,  know enough philosophy to fight my way into a paper bag.  But back out again?  That said, it is economic reasoning that shows monopoly power (The Sovereign) inferior to a competitive system in settling disputes.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
        I am starting to think that contractualist morality, as an end so conceived, can never be more warranted than the concrete means chosen to attain it. If the deliberative process is in itself incompatible with rational economic cooperation, then it must be discarded as unworkable. What am I missing?

        • good_in_theory

          “Property rights are coercive” is the same kind of language transformation that turns “liberal” from a negative liberty descriptor into connoting positive property claims of all persons in all other persons”

          Not sure what you’re worrying about here.  No matter how you spin it a property right pretty much always implies the right to use force/violence/physical power/coercion, or whatever other word one would wish to use.

          “If indeed one needs to rationalize and gain acceptance for acquiring excludable food and space to live from every reasonable being– humanity would die out in the process for obvious practical reasons.”

          Universalization is a regulative ideal, not a practical requirement.  As it stands, rationalizing and gaining acceptance for excluding others from those reasonable beings one is likely to exclude is rather practical, insofar as often they live in community, or at least proximity, to you.

          “Why should any individuals caught in immediate disputes wait around for a Worldwide MLA meeting before getting on with life?”
          Because democratic deliberation  has tended to lead to more just social institutions, increased equity, and more equal treatment of all?

          • 3cantuna

            Contractualism blurs the distinction between, for example, taxation v. penalties for non-payment in a fee-for-service contract.  Or forced integration v. voluntary segregation. It is this difference in the use of the word “coercion” that sets real libertarians apart from pretenders, welfare statists and entitlement liberals. My question:  is this obfuscation necessary for contractualism to work?  

            Does contractualism define community by proximity? If so or not, how is such a boundary to be decided and by who?

            The empirical case for democracy would need a definition of democracy first. Do you have one? Is there a universally recognizable one?

        • “Property rights are coercive” is the same kind of language transformation that turns “liberal” from a negative liberty descriptor into connoting positive property claims of all persons in all other persons.

          Libertarians are prone to resist the claim that property rights are coercive because they view coercion as bad and property rights as good. But I don’t think this is a battle worth fighting.

          Property rights are coercive in the following sense. A scheme of property rights licenses the use of coercion in certain specified ways, and prohibits it in others. If we say that people can acquire property rights in apples by plucking them off trees, then people who pluck apples are licensed to use coercion in certain ways to protect those apples, and other people are not licensed to use coercion to take those apples away.

          The point libertarians need to make is not that property rights are non-coercive. It is that some kind of coercion is defensible, and other kinds aren’t. Now, that’s a more complicated, nuanced, and difficult argument to make than “all coercion is wrong.” But it’s the only argument that’s going to do the trick.

          • It goes farther than that. The libertarian needs to make the case for why their particular formulation of property rights is correct, or at least most fair or desirable in some way. For example, at the risk of sounding like one of our resident one-note-nancies, the Georgist conception of property rights diverges strongly in the case of land. (Looking forward to that symposium, Matt!)

            Furthermore, the minarchist libertarian has to make the case for why property rights have primacy over other recognized rights (assuming a rights-based framework). Because if one assumes that a legitimate function of a minimalist state is to supply the social machinery for the protection of property rights then one also has to assume that the state has the legitimate power to coerce taxes to pay for such machinery — property title registration, police, courts, prisons, etc. At the same time, this libertarian has to make the case for why such a state does NOT have legitimate authority to coerce taxation to provide the social machinery to defend one’s right to life with, for example, a universal health care system.

            Now the typical response is something along the lines of, “I didn’t cause your health problems, so why should I have to pay to fix it?” My response would be, “Well, I’m not the one breaking into your house so why should I have to pony up for the police to protect your property (or at least apprehend the criminals)?”

            Now the an-cap chimes in and says, “That’s why we want privately provided police services. You pay to protect your own property; problem solved.” But then, in what sense do you actually have rights? Isn’t a defining characteristic of rights that they are universal? If I don’t have the wherewithal to pay the subscription fee (or however it works) then in what practical sense do I actually have property (or any other) rights? And then, if we really DON’T have universally recognized rights, then what is your philosophical justification for complaining about state coercion in the first place?

          • shemsky

            Individuals have all kinds of rights, but, absent consent or agreement, other individuals don’t have an obligation to see that those rights are protected. Just because I have the right not to be murdered or assulted doesn’t mean that you have an obligation to protect me from being murdered or assulted. However, you and I do have an obligation not to murder or assult others.

          • That’s the “negative” conception of rights. Basically amounts to a declaration of what one cannot do to another human. But even then, without some kind of organized enforcement, what does that really amount to? Rights as good intentions? Strongly worded suggestions?

            Alice and Bob consent to your system of “rights”. They agree not to commit aggression against one another but they also agree that they are not obliged to actively protect each other. Chester, who doesn’t subscribe to your rights theory, rapes Alice. Does Bob have any obligations toward Alice at that point?

            Indeed, can Bob even legitimately do anything as punishment or retaliation against Chester? After all, Chester has done nothing to Bob.

            And this differs from a state of nature… how?

          • shemsky

            Does Bob have any obligations toward Alice at that point?

            He does if he has previously agreed to protect Alice. Perhaps Bob and Alice and others have a voluntary agreement to watch out for and protect each other. That would be a natural association for individuals to enter into. In that case, each of them would have an obligation to live up to what they had agreed to. And nothing more. Is that not organized enforcement? Why can’t it be based strictly on mutual consent, Rod? Since Alice (obviously) didn’t consent to have Chester rape her, he has opened himself up to retaliation from Alice or from whoever Alice has engaged to do so.

          • In a small group or village, sure. In a city of 10,000,000 mostly strangers… I’m not sure how you would work that out.

            Keep in mind that I grew up in the former and have lived in the latter, so I have some first-hand knowledge of how such societies function… or don’t, as the case may be.

          • shemsky

            Also, Rod, you asked the question above, what if one doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay the subscription fee. Well, under a state if one doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay for political clout then they generally get screwed over by those who do. How do you solve that problem?

          • It’s not easy, but at least it’s formally against the principles of law, rather than being built into the system as a feature instead of a bug.

          • shemsky

            For the politically connected it’s definitely a feature. I have no doubt about that. And it works very well for them.

          • 3cantuna

            Ok. I see. If coercion is made more generic, non-normative, then…
            Wouldn’t it follow that mere existence is coercive?  A human takes up space and energy. How would, following the contractualist take, someone get permission to merely be alive from everyone else, granting for the moment that getting total permission were possible? And how would an individual grant permission when, assuming they are alive, that would mean using scarce energy, time and space– things that one would need permission to use from everyone else in the first place?

          • Ok. I see. If coercion is made more generic, non-normative, then…
            Wouldn’t it follow that mere existence is coercive?

            Depends on how you define it, I suppose. But I don’t see how this follows from the mere fact that we define coercion in a non-moralized way. Here, for instance, is the way Robert Nozick defines coercion in his classic piece:
            P coerces Q if and only if:
            1) P aims to keep Q from choosing to perform action A;
            2) P communicates a claim to Q;
            3) P’s claim indicates that if Q performs A, then P will bring about some consequence that would make Q’s A-ing less desirable to Q than Q’s not A-ing;
            4)P’s claim is credible to Q;
            5) Q does not do A;
            6) Part of Q’s reason for not doing A is to lessen the likelihood that P will bring about the consequence announced in (3)
            (For more, see the SEP entry on coercion, here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/coercion/#NozNewAppCoe)

            There are problems with Nozick’s account, of course. But it defines coercion in a non-moralized way, and doesn’t lead to the problem you suggest.

            Your other comments about getting permission for the use of resources seems tangential to the question of how coercion should be defined. Like I said, questions about what coercion is are different from questions about when its use is appropriate.

          • Damien S.

            “Wouldn’t it follow that mere existence is coercive?”

            In a sense, yes!  We are not free-floating atomic individuals; our very existence has a marginal effect on everyone else, starting with the air we breathe and the land we take up.  If there are few enough people one can ignore that.  With 7 billion people on a planet that gets harder.

            You’re so close to enlightenment…

    • Kevin Vallier

      On your second claim, I can’t see why the idea that property rights are coercive assumes the point at issue. Suppose you legitimately own a lamp and I try to take it from you. You call the cops, who then drag me off your property. Haven’t the cops coerced me regardless of whether they have done so legitimately or not?

      • Aeon Skoble

        I guess I’m not sold on that being coercion.  They’re using force, but I’m not sure I want to make the move that use of force=coercion.  Let’s say I’m trying to go into the polling place to cast my vote, and you’ve hired some big guy to stop me.  He even pushes me away from the door.  I’d say his use of force is coercive.  Now say I’m pretty badass myself, know kung fu, etc.  So I try again to get into the polling place, and he goes to shove me and I flip him across the hall and go cast my vote.  Have I coerced him?  That seems like a poor choice of words.  I did use force, to be sure, but I don’t see that I have coerced him into letting me vote.

        • Hume22

          I think Kevin (and Gaus on this point) would say that we can look at “coercion” as a normative interpretive concept and argue about what is justifiable and what is not at a more abstract level, and then once we figure out what is not justifiable, and call that “coercion.”  Or we can see coercion as normatively neutral, put everything on the table as “coercive” in some sense, and then move on from there and discuss what is “justified coercion” vs “unjustified coercion.” 

          In this case, I tend to agree with Kevin.  It is often obfuscating to do all the work one level up, determining what actions are justifiable, and then calling everything else “coercion”.  It is a lot easier and clear when we say in discussion “justified coercion” then to use a morally-loaded concept of coercion.

        • shemsky

          How about using aggression instead of coercion? I view aggression as unjustified coercion.

        • That’s not the usual distinction between force and coercion, though I agree the two are distinct. I use force when, say, I physically accost you, or perhaps when I break into your house. I use coercion but not force when I threaten to beat you up. I can also coerce by threatening to harm you in ways that do not involve force, say by disclosing that embarrassing thing you did at the Liberty Fund colloquium last January.  Careful, Aeon.

          Now, we could be moralists about all this and reserve the term coercion (or force, for that matter) only for those threats of harm that we believe are wrong. One can use words in whatever way one wishes, I suppose. But it does get a bit confusing. Are we to say that a justly convicted felon is not coerced into going to prison? That only one side of a just war employs coercion against the other?

          I’m more inclined to define both force and coercion in non-moralized terms and then talk about which kinds of force and coercion are wrong, and which aren’t. 

    • “Hobbesianism necessarily conduces to authoritarian politics because he’s _not_ the same sort of natural law thinker that Locke (or Aristotle) is. ”

      First, I wonder why a disavowal of natural law would per se lead anyone to a classical liberal view. If I’m not mistaken, Leo Strauss wrote squarely in the tradition of natural law (with much reverence to it); he was profoundly illiberal. Conversely, Antony de Jasay is quite the stern moral subjectivist AND contractarian,  who uses both of these positions in his arguments for anarcho-capitalism. 

      So, if anything, I don’t see the “necessarily” link between moral subjectivism and authoritarianism or natural law theory and liberalism. 

      Secondly, I think Kevin’s point is still well taken here. If I live in a society where there is vast disagreement on x (where I believe that adherence to natural law says y about x), I can’t see how I am justified in any way in forcing y conclusion onto my neighbors any more than they are justified in forcing their conclusion on me. Hence, at least to a degree, we must take something LIKE a moral subjectivist position regarding political disagreements. (At very least, we must accept the idea that in disagreements, we may all believe what we will and try to convince others of it, but none of us have the right to force our conclusions on others, even if we strongly believe they are correct.) 
      “Also, your claim that property rights are coercive assumes the point at issue, viz Hobbesian subjectivism, and fails to distinguish aggression from self-defense…”For good reason, I think. How many feuds have been started and keep perpetuated precisely because what one side sees as ‘legitimate’ self-defense, the other sees as ‘illegitimate’ intrusion – what one side sees as just retaliation, the other side sees as unjust attack? I suppose anyone could argue that there IS a right answer in all cases of these disputes, but all we have in cases of disputes like these are ‘he said/she said’ arguments. I may dislike Hobbes’s absolute sovereign as much as you, but so far in my readings about the merits and demerits of anarchism, I have not been convinced that what these situations need is some overriding rule (and rule-giver and rule-enforcer) to keep these disputes (even with some arbitrary rule) either from occurring in the first place or to resolve them with (even artificial) finality. But either way, I don’t see how we can talk about failing to distinguish between aggression from self-defense as if the line between these is somehow self-evident. The fact that Hobbes doesn’t seemingly think it is is, at least I think, a virtue rather than a vice. 

    • Steve Corner

      But what if the “sovereign” is an asshole, IE a fascist? How is this “system” moral?”

  • dL

    Hobbes is indeed the proper framework to defend libertarianism


  • Hume22

    Great post, Kevin, although I prefer more of a Lockean framework (very similar to Hobbes on the need for public authority due to differing interpretations of right reason, the umpire function, etc.).


    You say: “Unlike libertarians, Hobbes was not prepared to use violence against others to establish his preferred system of authority if others did not recognize that having a state was in their self-interest. But traditional libertarians are different: when it comes to non-libertarians, they’re the boss.” I’m sorry, but I don’t see this at all.

    Don’t egalitarians believe that society should be organized along egalitarian lines, and that the state is morally authorized to enforce their preferred pattern of holdings? Isn’t the same thing true for utilitarians? They would think so because on their conception of justice, people have a right to a certain level of material resources, welfare, utility, etc., and if you have a right to something then you should be permitted to enforce it against others. So, if this is what you mean by “use violence,” then I guess libertarians are as guilty as all other moral theorists; but, so what. If you don’t mean this, then I simply don’t understand what you are talking about.

    I don’t understand “pubic reason” theory well enough to understand how it deals with conflicting claims of rights, but it seems to me that at any given moment in society some conception of rights will have to be enforced by violence.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I think you’re right to extend my claims about libertarians to utilitarians and egalitarians. As John Rawls said of his political liberalism, it “applies the principle of toleration to philosophy itself.” You cannot permissibly coerce others unless they recognize some reason to comply. In cases of conflict, citizens must appeal either to direct claims about what reasons people have to comply with the proposed coercion or appeal to the directives of a publicly justified decision procedure.


        Thanks for the reply, but on behalf of libertarians I still plead “not guilty” to the accusation that we license the  the use of violence in any special way. Different political philosophies largely spring from different, deeply held value commitments. So, egalitarians feel that any distribution that departs to far from their ideal pattern is unjust and libertarians are equally committed to relationships based solely on people’s voluntary decisions. These differences cannot be bridged by reason alone.

         Thus, neither side will be persuaded by “direct claims about reasons people have to comply” and neither side will view any decision procedure that produces a result that is contray to their values as just. Accordingly, the alternatives are anarchy–which is I presume a result not contemplated by “public reason” or a political system in which some rational persons are forced to live under poltical principles with which they disagree. So, libertarians are not guilty of anything not contemplated by all political theorists, even if they won’t admit it.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Your claim, in short, is that under normal circumstances there will be no norm for which each normally functioning moral agent will have sufficient reason to endorse from her own perspective. When you say these differences “cannot be bridged by reason alone,” that’s what I take you to mean. 

          Let me put it another way: When it comes to the eligible set of proposals with respect to some issue (the set of proposals for which no significant number of moral agents have defeaters), the set is typically empty. In other words, you’re claiming that for the vast majority of matters for which we might want some normative solution, the eligible set is empty.

          Is that right?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            No, as you said in a previous response to Danny, there are uncontroversial (and thus uninteresting from the standpoint of political philosophy) norms, like don’t rob, murder, rape, etc. Beyond this, I see little room for concensus. In their bones, egalitarians believe that it is unjust for some to have way more than others, even if an entrepreneur starts from nothing and builds a great corporation by providing goods that willing buyers purchase in a competitive marketplace. Still, the state is authorized in the name of justce to take from him/her in order to build a more equal society.  ONLY a patterned set of holdings can be just.

            Libertarians believe as a matter of justice that it is wrong for individuals or the state to use force to take from innocent persons in the name of redistribution. How do you propose to use reason to convince one side or the other to surrender their values, which spring from different ethical foundations, which are themselves based on differing moral intuitions?

            In any society, the state will have to adopt a set of laws that one side or the other will regard as fundamentally unjust, and enforce it through “violence.” How does libertarianism differ from any other moral perspective this way? Sorry, I still don’t see your point.

          •  I deny that norms such as don’t rob, murder, rape, etc. are uncontroversial.  Libertarians think people should not rob. Rawlsians think they (or their favoured politicians)  are entitled to rob. Of course, they don’t call it ‘robbery.’ But to say that people can agree on the form of words, ‘don’t rob,’ is not to say that they agree on a norm, since they may interpret the form of words in very different ways, as my example shows. The same goes for ‘murder’:  some people think the death sentence is murder, other don’t; some people think ‘meat is murder,’ and so on. Similarly for rape: some people think it is okay within marriage, for example. Every ‘uncontroversial norm’ is open to reasonable dispute and, I would guess, every one of them is actually disputed with some kind of  reasoned case.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Of course, at the edge of every rule there are grey areas–for murder, euthanasia would be an example. But I don’t really think that renders the general principle, in its usual application, controversial. Its easier with a concrete case: Mr. Smith is a typical person, sitting at home, minding his own business. He has done nothing, and threatens nothing, that would provide any person with an excuse or justification to kill him. Is it really controversial in your mind that it would be morally wrong for anyone to intentionally take his life at this point?

          •  What is the ‘usual application’ differs from person to person. I think what you want to say is that there is a range of cases on which everyone (or almost everyone) would agree. No doubt that is true. But the next thing you know, someone has come up with a new theory (moral, political economic or whatever) that implies that people have been mistaken in some of those agreed cases.

            The example you give seems to me to be made bomb-proof by being made empty.  You say: ‘He has done nothing, and threatens nothing, that would provide any person with an excuse or justification to kill him.’ That just begs the question doesn’t it? The question is whether there CAN be a case of which it can be true that it would exclude all possible reasons for killing. Just describe a case without that qualification and it will always be possible to come up with a plausible  reason for killing him (not necessarily straight away, but with a bit of thought, or as a product of a bit of research, possibly on an apparently unrelated problem).

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            How about this proposition: “It is morally wrong for an agent to kill any other healthy human being simply for the agent’s pleasure”? I deny that any development in our moral understanding will ever make this proposition false. 

          •  What if the person wanted to be killed for the pleasure of another? Let’s change your proposition to: “It is morally wrong for an agent to kill any other healthy human being, against that human being’s will, simply for the agent’s pleasure.” I agree with you that that proposition is true and I find it difficult to conceive that we could ever come to discover that it is false. But to admit this is consistent with what I have been saying, for two reasons.

            First, it is possible for someone reasonably to disagree with the proposition. Aren’t utilitarians committed to disagreeing with it under some circumstances (the pleasure to the agent considerably outweighs the loss of utility to the victim, etc.)? Of course, utilitarians typically try to find ways of avoiding that consequence. But some of them could accept it. For example they could say that their theory is so simple and successful overall that we should swallow this consequence. You and I think these utilitarians are mistaken; but that does not make them unreasonable or irrational.

            Second, the history of science offers many cases in which, at one time, it seemed inconceivable that a particular proposition should be true while, at a later time, that proposition was embraced as true as a result of the development of theory.  For example, that the axiom of parallels is false, that simultaneity is not absolute, that solid objects are mostly empty space, that the sun is on the horizon when we see it there, and so on and so forth. In light of this, we cannot rule out developments in moral theory which would show our proposition to be false.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Danny,
            Thanks for the response and your friendly amendment. Given your epistemological/metaphysical starting point, you are right. I just happen to start from a different place. I don’t think basic moral propositions are like purported scientific truths, but much more akin to mathematical or logical axioms, and that at least some moral truths (like the one offered above) are self-evident. I don’t pretend to have any decisive arguments for this. But, if you are interested, my ideas here are better expressed by Michael Huemer in his Ethical Intuitionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 

          •  Hi Mark,

            It is always a pleasure to converse with you.

            I, too, assimilate moral truths to logical and mathematical truths. The trouble is, I see logical and mathematical truths as like scientific truths (i.e., ultimately empirical). We can test moral theories according to their implications for human flourishing (i.e., see how communities fare if they live by them). Hayek’s idea, of course.

            I’ve not read Huemer. I have no decisive arguments against self-evident truths (or against anything else – there are no decisive arguments, decisive is not something an argument can be). But there are strong arguments against the possibility of self-evident truths. Frege’s fifth axiom for arithmetic was thought to be self-evidently true. But Russell showed that it was self-contradictory (Russell’s paradox). Russell, who had for years tried to establish mathematics on a self-evident basis, gave up self-evidence after that and claimed that maths and logic were ‘inductive.’

          • Kevin Vallier

            Two questions and a comment:

            (1) Do you think that any norms governing property rights are in the eligible set? If so, in contemporary liberal democracies, what do you think those norms will be (even if they’re vague in broad outline)?

            (2) Public reason types resolve conflicts by determining the eligible set with respect to some issue and employing a decision procedure for selecting a member of the set. If no one of these groups has a defeater for any member of the set, then they will have sufficient reason to endorse the selection of some member of the set. 

            Of course, these groups must acknowledge that coercion without justification is wrong, but public reason liberals take pains to show that this standard of justification is implicit in our shared ideas (Rawls), linguistic practices (Habermas) or our reactive attitudes and social-moral practices (Gaus). If any one of them is correct, then all sects are committed to recognizing the public justification principle as a fundamental critical restraint on permissible coercion.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the response.

            Your #1: Part of the problem I have with “public reason” is that it seems very unclear how one is to determine what belongs in the eligible set. Using what you said above, i.e. what “each normally functioning moral agent will have sufficient reason to endorse from her own perspective,” I think the null set [regarding property rights] may be about right. Left anarchists start with the premise that there is no innocent way to create private property, so “All Property is Theft!” Libertarians believe the opposite. Both sides reach well-reasoned conclusions given their underlying moral assumptions/premises and value commitments. Whatever shared norms exist, they would be so skeletal that no functioning society could run on just the agreed on norms. In other words, the things in controversy wouild vastly overwhelm the minimal agreements.

            2. See my response to #1.

            I don’t understand what you mean in your last paragraph by “this standard of justification.” If it means “show that the position at hand is morally correct,” you will never “justify” much of anything, for the reasons above stated.

            Does “public reason” rest on the assumption that there are no objective moral principles that may be known by moral agents? If we start with the assumption that there is an objective morality that may be apprhended, and I think that some proposition is a moral fact, why should I ever give up my belief, even if for prudential reasons I don’t think I should employ violence to defend it? By the same token, if another moral agent holds a contrary view, and believes his/her view and not mine is a moral fact, how can I possible justify to him/her that they should change their position (assuming I have tried all my arguments)? A non-anarchistic polity must be organized along some lines, and some reasonable persons will sincerely disagree with these rules. And, the state will have to threaten violence to keep those members from violating the rules that happen to be in place. This is why I pay my taxes, even though I think that the state is not morally justified in collecting the bulk of them.

          • Kevin Vallier

            (1) There’s *no* property system that left-anarchists and libertarians can agree is better than no property system at all? That seems implausible, given the extraordinary costs of no acknowledged system of mine and thine.

            (2) Public reason do not assume that there are no objective moral principles, merely that the system of social morality and its associated obligations cannot be justified by appeal to one sectarian conception of what objective morality consists in. The process of interpersonal justification involves showing that each person has reason to accept some norm by her own lights even if from her own private judgment the norm is not optimal. She is willing to abide with a suboptimal norm because it is (i) compatible with her personal commitments and (ii) required by the recognition of her compatriots as free and equal.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            OK, thanks for taking the time to help me better understand the public reason approach, although this has not made it any more appealing. If, for example, I believe it is a moral fact that taking from one innocent person to give to others in the name of establishing a patterned set of holdings is wrong, then any violation of this  principle by the state is not “suboptimal,” but simply wrong. This is like telling a principled opponent of capital punsihment, “Hey, we will only use it for the most serious crimes.” I can easily accept the fact that people who disagree with me on such matters are “free and equal” while maintaining that they are deeply mistaken on many important normative matters. I see no reason why I should surrender my deeply held ethical views, and am unwilling to do so, although it is generally not worth resorting to violence to resist the majority.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Sometimes people will have defeaters for proposed norms. The cases you offer suggest that the objector in question has a defeater for the law. But in other cases, people will hold that some norm with respect to an issue is better than no norm at all. As a result, some one member of an eligible set of norms can be selected as publicly justified. So I’d recommend distinguishing between norms that are defeated and norms that are suboptimal.

            Also, public reason does not require you to surrender your ethical views. It only requires that you not coerce others in accord with norms for which they have defeaters.

            As for your final thought, I’m a little confused. All I am wondering is if you think there exists some minimal set of property norms that both left-anarchists and libertarians regard as compatible with their respective moral and philosophical commitments. 

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Let me reply to your question and clarify my view as follows.

            Suppose the all-powerful King summons all the left anarchists and libertarians to his Great Hall and says this: “If you folks don’t agree on a system of property rules I will continue to enforce my own.” The King’s system consists of secretly and randomly selecting a particular village for taxation, and in the middle of the night his agents come and seize 100% of the village and the villagers’ property and turn the residents out in the streets naked.

            Faced with this, the two sides agree on a system of property rules that closely approximate what we now have here in the U.S. . They all leave the meeting sincerely believing that this system is unjust, but substantially better than the King’s system. Is this system “publicly justified?” Regardless of your answer, I claim that even if he faithfully enforces the agreed-upon rules, the King is using violence to enforce an unjust system and that the participants are under no moral obligation to obey it, and if they can cheat or evade the system w/o violence in a way that more closely fits their version of justice, they are entitled to do so. Do you disagree?

            Apart from rejecting the “King’s system” and comparable methods, I deny that libertarians and left-anarchists would freely and voluntarily agree on anything. If you disagree, feel free to sketch out the rules that they would each regard as just (but not what they might agree to if faced with the King’s system).  I still fail to see how theoretically accepting what I regard as an unjust set of rules that are not THE most unjust set can “justify” anything or commit me to anything or count as my having “sufficient reason” to agree to anything. Sorry.

  •  I found this post difficult to follow. Your question for libertarians seems to be something like this (I use quotes, but I am not quoting you). “You want a libertarian society. Many people will oppose it. Therefore you can only get it by use of force. Why isn’t that authoritarian?”

    But I don’t see how that ‘therefore’ gets in the picture. Why can’t we pursue libertarian reform through peaceful means, by ‘waging the war of ideas’ and perhaps also by more directly political activities? This will involve using the already established ways of making changes when many people disagree (parliamentary processes and such like).

    We would only need unanimity if we were somehow setting up a society from scratch (or from a state of nature). But we are not doing that: we are starting from where we are and intending to make improvements by degrees. The fact that there is a whole range of culturally inherited machinery in place, which we can use to settle disputes peacefully, means that we do not have to choose between unanimity or force.

    Of course, some people, either impatient or just sick to death of the current arrangements, may decide to use force, instead of persuasion using existing peaceful processes. But we do not need to follow them.

    • gcallah

       “I found this post difficult to follow.”

      Yes, because following it would involve seeing the falsehood of the central libertarian claim.

      • I’m afraid I found your post difficult to follow too. Can you explain?

    • Kevin Vallier

      The post is not about how to bring about a libertarian society, but about how traditional libertarianism licenses the use of coercion. My claim is that it licenses coercion in an authoritarian fashion because it permits people to coerce others in ways they have no sufficient reason to accept. Hobbes understood this.

      • “…but about how traditional libertarianism licenses the use of coercion.”For myself, I’ve always found this to be a key, and correct, point in Hobbes that libertarians just don’t seem to appreciate. I think it is because we libertarians have made “coercion” and “coercive” an evaluative rather than descriptive word. But “coercion” means “use of force,” not “UNJUST use of force.” So, even a society with property rights coerces because it limits what people can do and allows coercion to protect and defend violations of property rights. Very good points. 

  • Hume22


    Doesnt Hobbes allow for an existing Sovereign to conquer others, and thus, in the end, all that really matters is the power/ability to enforce norms?

    How much of this relies on a prescriptivist view of “moral talk”?  Is the Gausian view undermined if moral practice and moral claims are not authoritarian in the face of disagreement?

    Gaus seems to pooh pooh the particularity problem (see OPR, p. 471, n.39), but it seems to me that he simply pushes it back a level to the level of “social morality.”  Hobbes and contractualism also seem unable to adequately answer Simmons: who ought to be subject to the contractarian requirements in the first place?  What makes up a legitimate polity?  How do we determine the boundaries?  I’m not pursuaded by the “well, we’ll just rely on history to answer that one” argument. 


    • Kevin Vallier

      I think that constructivists about moral and political authority (which includes most contractarians) will answer that moral authority requires shared norms, practices, ideas, etc. The reason that Rawls privileges nations, in my view, is that they have a much higher degree of shared social practices and ideas and so can form a moral and political order with a thick enough set of norms to warrant other nations treating them as a unit. I think Jerry has a similar view, though he explicitly extends public justification to trade networks, as I remember from OPR. You might also read the appendix in Justificatory Liberalism on this subject.

  • gcallah

    “You overlook his belief in natural slaves because, of course, that’s not essential to his philosophy.”

    I often think that if Aristotle were brought back to life today, and saw factory workers and domestic help, he would say, “Yes, this confirms my point!”

  • j_m_h

    Somewhat along the same lines as your general theme, years ago I had a discussion with someone about Hobbes and the concept of Leviathan/the Sovereign. What he said was that people were mistaken in thinking that those powers, at least from a theoretical view, needed to be vested in a person or group of people. The point was that institutional structures could play that role — essentially the idea being that there would be the analogous structure politics as markets play in economics.

    • Yes, I had the same thought. Under our Constitutional system, “the people” are sovereign, but I think we could argue that the IRS, or its head, is our “sovereign” enforcer.

      Along with j_m_h’s comment, Hobbes reminded me of the great 19th century “philosopher of pessimism” Arthur Schopenhauer. A comment in Wikipedia links him to Hobbes as follows:

      ” . . . Schopenhauer described himself as a proponent of limited government. What was essential, he thought, was that the state should “leave each man free to work out his own salvation”, and so long as government was thus limited, he would “prefer to be ruled by a lion than one of [his] fellow rats” — i.e., by a monarch, rather than a democrat. Schopenhauer shared the view of Thomas Hobbes on the necessity of the state, and of state action, to check the destructive tendencies innate to our species. He also defended the independence of the legislative, judicial and executive branches of power, and a monarch as an impartial element able to practice justice (in a practical and everyday sense, not a cosmological one). He declared monarchy as “that which is natural to man” for “intelligence has always under a monarchical government a much better chance against its irreconcilable and ever-present foe, stupidity” and disparaged republicanism as “unnatural as it is unfavourable to the higher intellectual life and the arts and sciences.”

      • Okay, I know this is a total non-sequitor and I’m taking the statement out of context, but considering the modern Republican Party, when I read ‘disparaged republicanism as “unnatural as it is unfavourable to the higher intellectual life and the arts and sciences.”‘, I couldn’t help but laugh.

        You may now return to your high-level, philosophical discussion…

      • I’m by no means an expert on Aristotle, or Hobbes for that matter, but if he and Hobbes were debating, I’d image Aristotle as defining men as “rational animals,” but Hobbes countering, “That’s far too generous. Humans are first and foremost animals, through and through, with potential to be rational.”

  • berserkrl

    I suspect most libertarians will respond that they can use coercion to protect their justly acquired property no matter what other reasonable people think. After all, libertarianism is true and statism is false. But that means that you, libertarian, are prepared to coerce your equal to do what you demand even though she has not agreed and will likely not agree were you to explain your reasoning to her. That is, you are prepared to subordinate your non-libertarian fellows to your will.

    And likewise a woman who forcibly resists being raped without first ascertaining whether the rapist, given his upbringing and prior beliefs, could reasonably assent to her resisting, is shockingly “prepared to subordinate the rapist to her will.”  Which is one more illustration of how bizarre it is to place the reasonable-consent standard above the actual-rights standard.

    • gcallah

       Yes, believing that people might, for instance, have some obligation to help the needy is pretty much the same thing as rape, isn’t it?

      • berserkrl

        Um, your comment has zero to do with the point I was making.  

        There is, for example, a difference between an argument by analogy and an argument by counterexample.

        • gcallah

          Um, you deliberately chose rape as your vehicle for your counterexample for a
          reason. You could, instead, have used someone sitting on my couch who I
          don’t want on it. You chose rape, as a rhetorical ploy, for  shock value. I was noting the rhetorical ploy is over the top. To now pretend that your post can only be evaluated by technical philosophical standards and not as a piece of rhetoric does not fly.

      •  Your three comments in this thread seem to be sneers rather than arguments. I presume you have arguments that account for the sneers. But if you don’t tell us what they are, how can anyone give a reasoned response?

        • gcallah

          1) When I posted to your comment I was making en evaluation of what the difficulty was.

          2) My response to Roderick has been explained above, but I thought the point was obvious from the start.

          3) ‘I often think that if Aristotle were brought back to life today, and saw
          factory workers and domestic help, he would say, “Yes, this confirms my

          Why in the world do you think that is a “sneer”?

          •  1) Your evaluation made it clear that you think I am making a mistake, but it left it entirely unclear (to me) what mistake you think I am making. If I am making a mistake (which I may well be), it would be really helpful if I knew what it was and how I might be able to correct it. I am still none the wiser.

            2) That is an improvement, though (it seems to me) not a substantial one.

            3) You appear to be comparing slavery, on the one hand, with domestic service and factory work, on the other. Everyone knows there is a very big difference between the things you are comparing. Slavery is almost universally condemned, factory work and domestic service are unremarkable parts of everyday life. You offer no argument for your comparison. As it stands, then, you comparison is no more than a sneer.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I hope that an entire political tradition is not so easily counterexampled! 

      (1) On the contractarian view, practical reason is typically said to contain an asymmetry between initiating coercion and employing it defensively (you accept the asymmetry in your own way). Initiating coercion requires a public justification, and since the woman in your case arguably has a defeater for the coercion, the rapist does wrong. The woman uses coercion to protect her bodily integrity against the initiation of force and so the need for public justification is accordingly less urgent. Lest you apply this distinction to property rights, there is far less dispute about the legitimate boundaries of the body and the boundaries of property. When determining who owns what, the initiation/defense distinction is much harder to apply.

      (2) A norm permitting the use of force to protect one’s body is clearly publicly justified to all moral agents given that norms are essentially reversible and anyone has reason to accept a moral rule that protects them from such severe bodily violations. So there’s no problem here. 

      (3) Contractarian theories of justice do not claim that coercion in your case is justified only when the person employing coercion has actually made the epistemic determination that her rapist has sufficient reason to endorse a norm permitting her to defend herself and barring him from raping. What makes coercion permissible is that each person has sufficient reason to endorse the norms in question (subject to a mild caveat I leave aside here).

      (4) I don’t think you’re so different from me on these issues. On your view, a necessary condition on having an obligation means that you must have some sufficient practical reason associated with your eudaimonia that commits you to the obligation. (Neither you nor I have an endorsement standard for obligation at the ground philosophical floor. We both think that obligations arise from our personally accessible rational commitments. My conception of practical reason is just more deontological than yours.)

  • Thanks, Kevin, for your clarificatory response to my earlier comment. In response, let me clarify my earlier response.

    Your post uses two words, ‘coercion’ and ‘authoritarian,’ which can cause a lot of difficulty. I will leave ‘authoritarian’ on one side here, to avoid spending too much time on clarifications. I will talk instead of a person imposing a view on someone else. I will use ‘coercion’ to mean a morally impermissible use of force or threat of force. Assume, for simplicity, that the ideal of the  libertarian is a minimal state; and assume that we live in such a state and that state power is not abused (the state does what it is supposed to do). Then no actions of the state are coercive. If any citizen acts coercively, other citizens and the state are entitled to use force, or the threat of force, against him, and such use or threat of force will not be coercive (so long as it is proportional).

    Suppose that one of the citizens has been reading Rawls. He now thinks that he is entitled to some of my stuff. Let’s suppose that he thinks he is entitled to help himself to it. If he makes a grab for some of my stuff, he is acting coercively, even though HE happens to think that he is doing the right thing; but if I use force to stop him, I am not acting coercively, even though I don’t have his consent to use force, and even though he has strong reason (Rawls’ fat book) to reject my use of force.

    Suppose that neither he nor I want to use force: he would rather that I just hand over my stuff to him; I would rather that he just go away. I suggest that we take the case to court. He rejects that suggestion because he knows that the court accepts, and has the function of enforcing, my moral view, not his.

    He complains that I am imposing my views upon him by being prepared to use force to defend my property, when he has a different view about what my (legitimate) property is. He complains that the court system imposes my views upon him, for a similar reason. I explain that I am only defending my rights against incursion. He can have whatever views he wants, so long as he leaves me and my property alone. But he insists he has a right to my stuff, so that my preparedness to use force means I am ignoring his view.

    He may say that my right to use force against him presupposes that my moral view is legitimate. But since he reasonably denies my moral view, my right to use force is questionable, and therefore my property is up for grabs. And he complains that to assume a questionable right to use force against him is impermissible.

    This, I think, is where your post leaves us. But now I echo my earlier response. First, I concede to the Rawlsian that my moral view is open to criticism and might eventually be replaced by a better one, and even that it might eventually be replaced by his view if he can find arguments substantially better than the Rawlsian ones he is currently using. Second, I point out that we are not inhabiting some remote logical space from which we can take a God’s-eye view of all possible views and all possible arguments and can come to an agreed impartial judgement, which we can justify to anyone, about what the best or true position is. We have the limited powers of human beings, so the best that we can do, in morals as in science, is to improve upon what we have. Since, in the assumed scenario above, we have a minimal state that recognises my property rights, not his proposed conflicting ones, that is where we stay until he can persuade us to change.

    The underlying point here is one I have made before. Reasonable disagreement, about anything, is always possible. To maintain that we cannot act legitimately unless we can rule out reasonable disagreement is either to say that we cannot act legitimately at all, or to quash some potential reasonable disagreements as unreasonable. The latter is presumptuous, dogmatic, closed-minded (and other words that might do duty here for ‘authoritarian’). Of course, we need ways of settling disputes when we cannot reach agreement. But we do not have to agree to them because they already exist. We can and should, though, try to improve them.

  • What then is a liberarian justification for the imposition of our idea of property rights upon others?

    Nock’s argumentation ethics are based on the idea of conflict resolution. Everything, including the property rights, flows from that. We are not, in a sense, imposing ourselves on others. We are just asking that they avoid performative contradictions when laying out non-violent solutions to our disagreements.
    Example: Saying “I do not own myself” is a contradiction.

    At least thats how I understand it.

    •  I am not sure if you are addressing your question to me (since it seems directly related to my last message) or to Kevin. I will assume the former and give an answer. Even if you were addressing your question to Kevin, my answer might be of some interest.

      There is no justification for libertarian property rights. The search for justification (for anything) is misplaced. The best we can do is to show that one position is better than its current rivals. That does not justify it, because further analysis of problems and attempted solutions may change the order of the rival positions. Further, some new position may be proposed which turns out better than any we currently have.

      How do we show that libertarian property rights is a better moral system than its alternatives? We show that it has better consequences, in terms of individuals’ self-discovery, the growth of knowledge and the arts, as well as many aspects of welfare.

      How do we impose a system of libertarian property rights? Peacefully and gradually. That means by persuasion, changing the climate of opinion, and perhaps more activist political activities which use (and thereby also change) the existing machinery of government. This is a long struggle and any achievements will be won in the teeth of disagreement, some of it reasonable.

      I don’t know who Nock is. The views you ascribe to him sound likes those of Hoppe. Was that who you meant? For what it is worth, I think Hoppe’s argumentation ethics is a house of cards.

  • TonyFressola1950

    Two claims in the initial post strike me as odd: 

    First, you say “Hobbes thinks you would be wrong . . . to impose . . .” and “Hobbes believed that coercion required justification . . . .”     To the contrary, my reading of Hobbes is that absent the contract, everyone is equally at liberty to do anything, including “coercing” and “imposing”, since no one has (claim) rights to anything.  Hobbes might think  the fact that we are all  more or less equal in physical strength intellectual capability (“the weakest has strength enough the kill the strongest”), would make it imprudent to try to coerce or impose, but not that it would make it wrong.

    Second, you say “the large majority of reasonable people find libertarian conceptions of property rights deeply objectionable”.   This seems to me, at the very least, an overstatement.  Granted most folks would be less convinced than libertarians that property rights include the stringent immunities to taxation and government regulation that libertarians assert.  However, my sense is that the overwhelming majority of folks recognize certain kinds of action as theft and/or trespass. and view those kinds of actions as wrong.  That is, they recognize property rights.  I would go further and speculate that most folks would pay deference to conventional titles that many libertarians would find illegitimate.

  • Hume22

    I highly recommend Loren Lomasky’s Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350 (1998).  This article deals clearly with many issues discussed here and in the comments, specifically the relation between libertarianism and democracy.  Indeed, the fundamental issue Lomasky sets out to resolve is the relation between two facts (if one is a libertarian): (1) Libertarianism is the correct political morality, (2) the vast majority of our fellow citizens disagree with the status of libertarianism.  Here is an excerpt:
    “For those who believe that libertarian precepts can be read off the book of nature by all those who enjoy the moral equivalent of something like a tenth-grade reading level, it is virtually unavoidable that those who fail to subscribe to libertarianism will be regarded as dunces or as wicked. The alternative libertarianism, what I shall refer to as *cooperative libertarianism*, is more generous. It is willing to concede that the nonlibertarians among whom one lives are mostly well-meaning, honorable people with whom one may cooperate without thereby dishonoring oneself. (Of course, just as the fact that one is paranoid does not mean that
    one has no real enemies, so too are there nonlibertarians—and libertarians!—who genuinely are evil and stupid.) Nonlibertarians are, to be sure, importantly mistaken concerning a momentous matter, but that mistake discredits neither their intellect nor their character. Possession of moderate goodwill and moderate intelligence do not immunize people from statist persuasions. Indeed, neither does an abundance of goodwill and intelligence. That is because the moral terrain that must be traversed in order to arrive at the libertarian
    destination is steep, rocky, and dotted with mirages. Nongeneralizable items within one’s personal experience heavily influence the likelihood that one will achieve that happy consummation. Rawls refers to these epistemic obstacles as the “burdens of judgment.”  Let me offer some examples that specifically relate to acceptance of (L). …” [at 360].

  • Regarding Hobbes on monarchy, the British political economist Walter Bagehot apparently agreed with Hobbes and saw the American Constitutional system as flawed, as Bagehot expressed in “The English Constitution:” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_English_Constitution

    In 1867 Bagehot wrote: “The British Constitution, in a word, is framed on the principle of choosing a single sovereign authority, and making it good: the American, upon the principle of having many sovereign authorities, and hoping that the multitude may atone for their inferiority. The Americans now extol their institutions, and so defraud themselves of their due praise. But if they had not a genius for politics; if they had not a moderation of action singularly curious where superficial speech is so violent; if they had not a regard for law, such as no great people have yet evinced, and infinitely surpassing ours, the multiplicity of authorities in the American Constitution would long ago have brought it to a bad end.”

  • Brandon Turner

    This sentence:

    “Hobbes thinks you would be wrong to do that because you have no authority to impose your interpretation of what morality and justice require on others.”

    …strikes me as wrong–“every man has a Right to every thing; ever to one anothers body” and all that.  Considering what he has to say about “covenants extorted by fear” being valid makes the bit about justification also less convincing.   I think you’ve made Hobbes into Locke here.  

    Of course, this post wasn’t really about Hobbes.  Your more substantive point about property and coercion is persuasive.  FWIW, Hobbes’ take on Aristotle’s natural slavery is pretty tasty.

    • Damien S.

      Similar ideas in Epicurus, much earlier: “Justice is an agreement not to harm or be harmed.”

      31. Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.

      32. Those animals which are incapable of making binding agreements
      with one another not to inflict nor suffer harm are without either
      justice or injustice; and likewise for those peoples who either could
      not or would not form binding agreements not to inflict nor suffer harm.

      33. There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only
      agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at
      various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.

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