Social Justice, Libertarianism

What We Can Learn from Drowning Children

Drowning childSo, it turns out that Bryan Caplan isn’t a bleeding heart libertarian either.

Unlike Will, though, Bryan’s problem isn’t with the libertarianism of BHL, but with its bleeding heart. Bryan, you see, doesn’t think we have much in the way of obligations to strangers beyond simply leaving them alone. That might sound like a radically libertarian doctrine, but Bryan thinks that is really just a matter of “common-sense ethics.”

That sounded quite wrong to me, so I asked Bryan what he thought of the sort of “shallow pond” examples made famous by Peter Singer. To me, these cases seem to present exceptionally clear examples of situations where we do have a positive moral obligation to strangers.

Yesterday, Bryan blogged his response (UPDATE: fixed link). Bryan starts off by questioning whether we really have an obligation to save the drowning child. After all, we’d praise someone who rescued a kid in that way as a hero. So perhaps this shows that they are going above and beyond the call of duty?

This strikes me as pretty implausible. To have a duty to X is for it to be wrong for one not to X. And it’s pretty clear to me that someone who walked passed the drowning child without a very good excuse would be acting quite wrongly. We might call the person who saves the child a hero, but I think that’s a bad way of distinguishing duty from supererogation. The way to make that distinction is not to look at how we react to people who do the good thing, but to look at how we react to people who fail to do it. And someone who fails to save a drowning child is going to trigger a very different set of reactive attitudes than someone who fails to perform a paradigmatic supererogatory action like, say, volunteering for the Peace Corps.

But is it an enforceable duty? Bryan asks:

Would it be morally permissible to point a gun at a person if he fails to rescue the Drowning Child voluntarily?  Much less clear.  To pull the trigger?  Even less so.

Why, oh why, does it always have to be about guns for libertarians? Yes, I know that in some ultimate sense, every law is backed by the threat of violence. If you break the speed limit and are sent a fine, and don’t pay it, and resist when the cops show up at your house, and resist very effectively when they try to physically force you into their car, then eventually they very well might take out their gun. But that just. doesn’t. mean. that posting a speed limit sign is the same thing as pointing a gun at you. Or even the moral equivalent of doing so. So yes, I’m quite willing to say that people have an enforceable duty to rescue drowning children. Whether pointing guns at the recalcitrant is morally defensible or advisable is an entirely different question, though to sate your curiosity I’m sure we could come up with a suitably fancy thought experiment in which I’d be willing to do it.

Which leaves us with Bryan’s final, and I think strongest, point. Peter Singer wants to use the drowning child case to argue that we have a moral obligation to give lots and lots of money to poor people in the developing world. The idea is that their poverty puts them in a desperate situation analogous to the drowning child, and our (relative) wealth puts us in the position of the passer-by who can help at relatively little personal cost.

But as my old mentor David Schmidtz forcefully argued  (along with many others), there seem to be a lot of morally significant differences between the case of the drowning child and the case of international poverty. And one difference – the difference that Bryan highlights here – is that while being in a position to pull a drowning child out of a pond is a bizarrely rare occurrence, being in a position to rescue someone in poverty is not. Indeed, we’re all in that latter position right now. And if you head on over to Oxfam and save somebody by, say, donating $500 right now, you will still be in that position with respect to all the other starving children in the world, and all the rest of the money in your bank account.

So what does this mean? Well, one way of putting the point is this. It’s reasonable to think that people have a moral obligation (even an enforceable one) to save any drowning children they come across because the expected cost this obligation imposes on any given individual is vanishingly low, while the expected social benefits are high. If, however, we held that people had the same obligation to rescue starving children abroad as they do to rescue drowning toddlers in ponds, then the costs to individuals would be immense. We can live a rich, normal life being fully committed to rescuing every single drowning child who crosses our path. A commitment to rescue every starving child in the world, in contrast, would consume our life.

If this line of argument works, it counts against an expansive personal duty to rescue. But…and here’s the rub for a libertarian like Bryan…it looks like it might actually count in favor of certain kinds of redistributive public policies. Here’s why. The problem with an expansive personal duty is basically one of fairness and free riding. Since most individuals will likely not comply with such a duty, those who do will be left with an unreasonably large share of the overall burden. If, on the other hand, everyone could be counted on to do their share, then each individual’s share might not be unreasonably large. And that’s just what coercive redistributive policies do. By greatly reducing the free rider problem, they can (in principle) devote serious resources to problems of poverty without imposing an unduly large burden on any particular individual. Think about it – on a purely domestic level, how much of your tax dollars go to programs that are actually designed to redistribute wealth to the poor (as opposed to, say, the elderly)?

So here’s the takeaway. The idea that individuals have no positive duties toward strangers is entirely implausible. And nothing in Bryan’s argument gives us any reason to doubt that those duties are real obligations, and in some cases even enforceable obligations. Moreover, part of Bryan’s argument actually counts against viewing those obligations as individual, private duties and in favor of viewing them as collective duties that should be coercively enforced. In other words, Bryan’s given us no reason here to oppose institutionalizing the duty to rescue in the form of a state-funded minimal social safety net.

Obviously, a lot matters on the details, and nothing in the argument presented here addresses other arguments that might be made against the welfare state, or against particular forms and mechanisms by which the welfare state might be instituted. But, in principle, I don’t see anything in Bryan’s argument that should keep him from joining us in the BHL camp. I’ll be sending him his t-shirt soon.

  • On a side note, but it may somehow be related, there is the evolutionary interest involved.  It may in fact be in our genes’ interest to save our species and, thus, our genes.  Dawkins and Shermer have pointed this out.  It obviously does not equate to a duty, but it does show that there might be a genetic self-interest in saving the drowning kid.  When one adds the hero status associated with saving it, then we have the peacock’s seemingly useless plume effect.  We signal that we are so strong that we can sacrifice ourselves to save the weak and hapless.  Once again, this has nothing to do with a duty, but it does relate to self-interest, even if at the genetic level.    

  • Kevin Vallier

    Thanks for the great post. I almost composed a similar post. Let me add two (three?) points:

    (1) Notice Bryan’s argument for his second point: because we consider saving the drowning child highly praiseworthy, it seems that we think the “saver” has gone beyond his ordinary duty. I don’t see it. We praise people for doing their duty all the time. We all fall short, so we appreciate that sometimes doing the right thing requires effort.

    (2a) The discussion so far has implicitly assumed that property titles are both legitimate and publicly recognized in the cases discussed. In the drowning child case, the assumption goes undetected because the sacrifice the person makes is the use of his body and its hard to see how we can justify coercing someone to do something with his body alone. But suppose we alter the case. Suppose the man has five hundred dollars in his wallet and he is the only one he can purchase the rescue equipment needed to save the child. Lots of people are willing to use the equipment to save the child, but they cannot afford it. In this case, I think it is far more obvious that the man has an obligation to help. Further, it is far easier to see why the obligation would be enforceable because the enforcement seems less invasive.

    (2b) Further, the drowning child’s needs may give us reason to revise what counts as legitimately held property. If the saver in the story holds five hundred dollars, we can ask whether he is in fact entitled to it. But everyone but traditional libertarians will at least be open to the claim that the saver’s legitimate entitlement to his money does not give him a total moral immunity to expropriation in all circumstances. I would say that due to the drowning child’s needs, he has no immunity to expropriation if the money will very likely be used to aid the drowning child. 

    • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

      What if the $500 could save two lives if donated to a Malaria charity? In that case:

      a) Wouldn’t he be justified in walking away so long as he in fact completed the donation?


      b) How could the state have allowed him to dispose of the money in any other way in the first place? Shouldn’t the Malaria donation have been mandated?

      I want to be open to the idea that mixing one’s labor with raw materials and then delaying their consumption opens that property to risk of emergency procurement (albeit with rights of restitution). But although this works reasonably in practice (because it is rare) it is problematic in principle and I would like to see someone formulate it in detail.

  • What’s wrong with the middle position? I think we have a duty to save the child, but not an enforceable duty (the child has no right to our assistance).

    I think that because it seems intuitively right. How would I argue for it?

    I would make a case that we would all be worse off if kids had a right to be saved from drowning rather than people having non-enforceable duties to rescue them. Why would that be? One reason would be a slippery slope argument, which seems to be Bryan’s response: if we accept that right, we will have to accept lots of others leading to a totalitarian welfare state. Anther argument might be that if we introduce that right, children will take less care when playing in the pond, so they will never properly grow up and take responsibility for themselves, more of them will have accidents and the rest of us will spend all of our time pulling half-dead kids out of pools. Perhaps that particular argument is not very convincing, but I guess it could be improved. Another argument would concern only the enforcement costs of the new right and the  resources consumed in investigating and prosecuting cases and punishing offenders, which may outweigh any benefits.

    That’s off the top of my head. Presumably there are better arguments for my intuition?

    • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

      I think it’s far more than intuitive, and I don’t think it needs the consequentialist justifications. What Mike never asks is this: what rights of the child’s, or his parents’, are violated when someone chooses to ignore him? We may have a thousand reasons to appreciate society, and a thousand reasons to include the saving of drowning children in our list of basic societal activities. The vast majority of us might even consider them morally obligatory on the basis of religion or other moral systems. That’s not just fine – I think it is wonderful. But social involvement is not enforceable by a just state. There are many things that a Christian is morally obligated to do, in his own eyes, on the basis that his religion is very explicit about participating in society and actions toward strangers. But the state may not enforce any of this. Each individual has the right to completely ignore other individuals, insofar as they can do so without accidentally interfering with them through their subsequent ignorance of their intentions and concerns (which would be a form of negligence).

      A person who ignores a drowning child is judged to be horrible by our standards for societal participation, and I have no gripe with that. I would make the same judgement. But this question is a great one in that it goes to the heart of the deontological libertarian difference: the rejection of the state as a goal-oriented tool for achieving an ideal society. What continues to concern me is the contrasting rejection of, and disappointment with, consent as the basis of social cooperation. Isn’t social recognition, involvement and cooperation more meaningful, reliable and praiseworthy when it is voluntary? Shouldn’t we be thrilled that not one person out of ten thousand would let the child drown, instead of incensed that they do so under a system of voluntarism rather than compulsion?

      •  Your intuition and mine agree. Also, as Brandon has pointed out, the child would be grateful (and so would the child’s parents) to anyone who saved the child, which strongly suggests that their intuition is that the child did not have the right to assistance (we are not usually grateful when others respect our rights, we expect it).

        But what does this show? That our prevailing system of morality accords us a duty, but not an enforceable duty, to save the child, if we can do so at reasonable cost. The next question, though, is: why should we stick with this moral conception? Why not instead give drowning children rights to assistance? That’s where the arguments come in.

        I don’t think appeals to consent are what matters in relation to this question. What we need consent for depends upon what people’s rights are; but the question at issue is what people’s rights are.

        • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

          Bad choice of word – I got it right later on. I’ve changed it to “voluntarism”. That might not make a difference to your response, but it more accurately reflects my intention.

          •  You are right: it makes no difference to my response. What is voluntary and what compulsory depends upon what people’s rights are. Sorting out people’s rights is the prior question. Or, to put it another way: your appeal to voluntarism assumes our current conception of rights. But the question is: could we have a better conception of rights? In the case at issue, I think our current conception is fine: the kid does not have the right to be saved; the duty to save is not enforceable. But this needs to be argued for, not simply assumed.

  • But that just. doesn’t. mean. that posting a speed limit sign is the same thing as pointing a gun at you.”

    Yes it does.  you just aren’t looking close enough at the sign. 

    A posted sign you either can ignore or not ignore.

    If you will accept at state where all signs are just suggestions, then you are correct – and god wouldn’t we love to live in that state!   IF they are not suggestions, but in fact threats – theres only one reason – the gun behind the sign.

    BTW, libertarians like guns because they are prepared to live in the the “suggestion sign” state.

    • But so is driving too fast, or running a red light, etc.  (Pointing a theoretical gun, I mean.)

      It’s not as if you’re the only person using the roadway. And it’s not just about your skill and reaction time, either, because the other guy has to react to you just as much as you have to react to him.

      If you want to pull out the libertarian “gun” argument, at least apply it to a case that’s more obviously about the prohibition of truly innocent behavior — like smoking a joint in your living room or something.

      • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

        Rod, there are two questions here that I think we can pry apart:

        1. Is a posted speed limit pointing a gun at you?

        2. If so, is it justified?

        Without putting words into Morgan’s mouth regarding question #2, I think he does a find job of pointing out the answer to question #1. Yes, it is pointing a gun. He may also believe that this is unjustifiable, but I don’t see him arguing that here. Reckless driving is certainly not acceptable in most (all?) formulations of a libertarian state.

      • Sorry Rod, you are just wrong.  There are actually less accidents in signless roadways.  A guy I run into from time to time is very big on the subject: 

        Actually letting folks figure shit out on their own at that specific moment, saves lives, time, and money.

        The true downside of signs and rules and government in general is that people become complacent in their surroundings, they quickly RELY on the authority of the state to keep from having to do any mental work.

        This reliance snowballs.

        The human condition is such that libertarians WANT everyone to have to always be the agent of action in each and every moment.

        Think of brains as ORANGES, and real time thinking for personal survival as JUICE, and libertarian theory as a horribly brutal, hyper efficient JUICER.

        Stop trying to waste juice Rod.

        • Sorry, but that TED talk in no way supports your thesis. He was mostly singing the praises of roundabouts vs. stop signs & lights and advocating for more intelligent road & intersection design, including signage. He never once uttered the words “speed limit” or “signless roadways”.

          Look, I’m a professional driver. I log (literally; I have to keep a log) about 150,000 miles a year all over the continental U.S., so I know a thing or two about roads, driving, and the behavior of and skill level of your average driver out there. People *think* they’re a hell of a lot better drivers than they really are. No, you can’t actually talk on the cell phone and drive safely, even with a bluetooth. No, you can’t drive as fast on snow and ice as dry roads just because you spent a lot of money on a 4-wheel drive SUV.  (That’s about 3/4 of the cars I see in the ditch in bad weather.) No, you really can’t drive OK after a few drinks.

          Sure, you *could* have no set speed limits on highways and just have laws that define reckless driving as “too fast for existing conditions”. They used to do that in  Montana, for example. But is that really an improvement, even from your perspective? Because instead of a fixed standard, so you’ll actually KNOW whether you’re breaking the law, you get that replaced with the “judgement” of a highway patrol officer. Maybe he doesn’t like the kind of car you drive, or your haircut, or maybe he had a fight with his wife last night. Don’t you prefer rule by law to rule by people? I do.

          I get that you don’t like being told what to do or not do. And frankly, I couldn’t care less if you drive your car into a tree. But as long as I have to share the road with you, much less my wife and kids, I and everyone else have a legitimate interest in how you conduct yourself behind the wheel.

          The gun is justified.

  • You also mis-interpret the free rider problem.

    Certainly ALL BHL would agree that “beggars cannot be choosers”

    Example: a BHL should  be perfectly comfortable ending the food stamps program and replacing it with a right to baisc staples (flour, eggs, milk), basic cookware, and cooking classes.

    While I personally am not a BHL, if  I HAVE TO cover food stamps, I’d much prefer to use the need to feed the hungry to force them to learn a skill which will raise up the quality of their life.

    The mistake you make in arguing about EVERYONE being required to do their share fails because you aren’t thinking about what we are going to make the beggar do – it isn’t your instinct to think about what the saved child OWES.

    In fact, if liberals focused exclusively on convincing Red Staters that they are make sure the beggars are performing this private improvement instead of filingl up a cart with non-staples or swiping EBTat McDonalds – there probably wouldn’t even be a BHL site.

    • j_m_h

      You hit on an interesting theme that I suggest is rather important to the BHL agenda. As libertarians, and others agree, so often point out: incentives matter. How we implement social support is probably more important that if it’s morally kosher to force all to participate in the whole program (which has both funding and  receiving sides).

  • Great post, Matt.  I would only add this: For Singer, the opportunity cost to the giver *is* a factor in determining one’s duty to give.  It is certainly true that “a commitment to rescue every starving child in the world . . . would consume our life,” but Singer’s approach would not impose such a blanket commitment.

  • Nicholas Weininger

    This is an extremely handwavey argument. “It seems pretty clear to me” why? “People would react to [failure to save] badly”– and why exactly would they be justified in reacting badly? What if it’s just because they have been conditioned by bad ethical norms?

    If you believe that there is an enforceable obligation to save a drowning child, even if the child is a stranger and you have not done anything at all to put the child in the drowning situation, then you believe that in some sense the child owns you, that their need constitutes a claim on you. This is slavery. And it’s not just slavery to the child; it is slavery also to the people who set themselves up to decide what a “very good excuse” is, and just how much disruption to *your* life is permissible in order to serve the needs of others you did nothing to make needy. The first principle of ethics is that other people do not belong to you.

    • good_in_theory

      Unless the first principle of ethics is that you owe something to others.

      But then there  is no ‘the first principle of ethics.’

  • Javier Hidalgo

    I agree with most of what Matt Zwolinski says here, although it does seem to me that posting a speed limit and enforcing this speed limit actually is nearly morally equivalent to pointing a gun at someone. At least, I don’t get why they are not morally equivalent.

    My concern goes deeper–with the whole approach of relying on “commonsense” to justify libertarian policies. There is something troubling about an unrefined and undifferentiated appeal to commonsense intuitions. Don’t get me wrong, I think that we do need to ultimately appeal to our moral intuitions in order to justify our moral views. But what’s more troubling is that Bryan Caplan and other people like Michael Huemer appeal to our moral intuitions about institutions to justify libertarian policies. And this seems just wrong.

    Here is what I have in mind: property rights. To simplify a bit, Caplan will basically say things like: “I have an intuition that it is wrong for you to steal my private property and that is why redistributive programs are unjust.” This judgment tacitly assumes that the current, actual private property holding are entirely just and legitimate. But clearly that needs a good justification. A liberal egalitarian will just reply: “look, we need a theory of distributive justice to determine what is entitled to what. If the right theory of distributive justice shows that you actually have some property that I am entitled to, then some third-party is justified in taking this property and giving it to me, just like a third party is justified in returning property to me that someone stole.” So an appeal to commonsense intuitions about our property institutions will be entirely unpersuasive to the critics of libertarianism, as they will just counter that our actual property holds are unjust at present.

    Moreover, there seems to be a qualitative difference between our moral intuitions about institutions and our moral intuitions about interpersonal morality. For instance, I and most people have the moral intuition that it is wrong to kill an innocent person without a very powerful justification. This is not an intuition about any institutions. Now, contrast this situation with another one where I say “I have the moral intuition that parliamentary democracy or the common law system is just.” Well, here our intuitions seem less reliable to me. I’m not sure how one can have reliable intuitions about contingent institutions like this. But this is basically the nature of the argument that Caplan and other “commonsense” libertarians are advancing. There is something fishy here.

    • Joshua Katz

      Well, if you mean for this to apply to the case at hand…then the analogue of the property holdings is my self-ownership.

    The link to Bryan’s response to the child in a pond case (“Yesterday, Bryan blogged his response”) is actually a link to an article by Peter Singer.

    I think the reason why it “always have to be about guns for libertarians” is precisely the reason you specify. The question is not whether or not we are morally obligated to save the drowning child, or whether or not it would be wrong (or vicious or really bad fro m a moral point of view) to let the child die. It’s whether or not this obligation is enforceable. You bring this issue up, but only to dismiss it… but that seems to be where the real disagreement is. I don’t think that any sane person would claim that it’s morally permissible to watch a child drown when rescue is neither extremely costly nor especially risky. But it’s not insane to think that the obligation or duty to rescue is not enforceable. To figure out the correct answer, you would need a theoretical account of force or coercion and its relationship to deontic constraints (if we’re talking about obligations and duties in the strict sense). And that, I take it, is where the action is.

    But in response to Bryan’s remarks about rescue being heroic or morally “above and beyond the call,” I’d note that we typically praise rescuers only when their rescue is especially costly or risky. When rescue is neither of these things, rescue isn’t heroic and adulation isn’t warranted. What response IS warranted in these cases is gratitude from the child (if the child is competent)  as well as gratitude from the child’s parents and guardians – gratitude which, though warranted and perhaps morally required, is probably non-enforceable.

    • Fabian_Wendt

      Hi Brandon!
      I think you’re right that everyone will agree about there being a moral duty to rescue the child. And indeed the interesting question is whether this duty is enforceable or not. But maybe there is no sharp line between enforceable and unenforeable moral duties because enforceability comes in degrees. We have a lot of different means to enforce moral duties. Depending on the stringency of the duty (or the corresponding right), some means of enforcement might be adequate while others are not. While it might be right to blame you or to shout at you, it might be wrong to point a gun at you. I think this might be part of Matt’s point concerning “why must it always be guns for libertarians”…

      • CFV

        “But maybe there is no sharp line between enforceable and unenforceable moral duties because enforceability comes in degrees.”

        Interesting. I want to see more of this line of thought.  The standard
        libertarian response in drowning children cases, as I take it, is Eric Mack’s “Bad Samaritanism and the Causation of Harm,” Philosophy & Public. Affairs, 9 (1980), 230-59. One pretty straightforward argument in support of this standard libertarian response is that libertarian institutions simply should not mirror our common-sense morality.

        “While it might be right to blame you or to shout at you, it might be wrong to point a gun at you.”

        I fail to see why our different reactive attitudes are a kind of “enforceability”. What it is a stake in the end is, I think, some sort of institutional enforceability. Can a libertarian state rightfully give prizes (instead of the threat of punishment) to promote “‘Good Samaritans”? How the revenue of those prizes would be collected?


        • Fabian_Wendt

          Thanks for the reply! Here’s a short clarification of what I mean by “degrees of enforceability”.

          I think enforceabiliy encompasses two kinds of enforcement rights:
          1. If Tom’s moral duty to x is enforceable, then others have liberty-rights to demand compensation and to punish him if he acts against his duty. Maybe it’s only the victim that has these enforcement rights, but at least concerning punishment it seems more plausible that, at least originally, all others have these enforcement rights (like in Locke’s state of nature).
          2. If Tom’s duty is enforceable, then others have liberty-rights to prevent him from not fulfilling his duty (or to make him fulfill his duty).  Again it seems most plausible that all others have these enforcement rights. Maybe they not only have liberty-rights to enforcement in this sense, but are even required to enforcement in this sense.

          Both kinds of enforcement rights can be more or less extensive (and in that sense, enforceability comes in degrees):
          1. For not-so-stringent duties only relatively harmless forms of punishment will be appropriate,  while for stringent duties more serious forms of punishment will be appropriate. Not all forms of punishment must involve legal institutions. Mild forms of social exclusion, I take it, are a form of punishment as well.
          2. The same is true of the other kind of enforcement rights. For not-so-stringent duties only relatively harmless forms of making-Tom-fufill-his-duty are appropriate, while for stringent duties more serious measures are appropriate. Blaming and shouting at a person are, I think, relatively mild forms of trying to make a person fulfill his duty. Pointing a gun at a person, on the other hand, is a rather serious form of trying to make a person fulfill his duty, which is not apprioriate regarding many enforceable duties.

  • Rule #1: never, ever let your children go swimming with Brian Caplan’s children.  He can get a blog post, a book, and maybe even a Cato board membership out of letting your children drown.  And, even better for him, be treated like a hero by his fellow conservatarians for letting your children drown!  Best of all for him, he can shrug off criticism by saying that by (his) definition anyone who would expect him to save your child is immoral and therefore their opinion of him is worthless.

    In other words in both economic and social terms there’s be a huge upside for him if your child drowned while he watched, whereas all he might get out of saving your child is a ruined cell phone, a soggy wallet, and gratitude or respect from people he thinks are contemptible anyway.

    Hmm… Last year there was some similar radical-selfishness thought experiment making the rounds about whether it was moral to refuse to throw rope to a drowning man unless he agreed to pay you for it.  Since I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Caplan I might be willing to let my children swim at that author’s house because I might expect them to have the avarice (if not courtesy) to call and say my child was drowning and would I be willing to pay him to perform a rescue.  With book deals and board memberships on the line it’s unlikely I could afford Caplans asking price, and therefore even if I was as evil a rattlesnake when it comes to children’s lives as Caplan it would still be a straight-forward economic decision not to let my children swim under his supervision.


    • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

      I am curious what Caplan has said that makes you think you know anything about his behavior in such a situation. He might put himself at much greater risk in the effort of saving your child than would his most adamant detractor. Because he would not physically threaten one who ignored your child, you think he would not save the child himself? I cannot find a connection.

      •  “He might put himself at much greater risk in the effort of saving your child than would his most adamant detractor.”

        Hey, maybe you’re right.  I certainly hope so!  But would you be willing to be your own children’s lives that the (very consistent) public positions he takes have no bearing on his personal behavior?


        • KhartoumHero

          What an absurd leap of logic.  Do you really believe that people, unless they are under threat of state sanction, will never do any good on their own?

          I’m not worried about my kids over at the Caplan house. I’d be worried about them over at your house. Would you screech at them and threaten to beat them if they didn’t eat all their dinner later?

          No, I’d be more worried about the kind of person who believes the only incentive people respond to is the threat of violence.


    Hi Matt,
    Nice post, which illustrates one of the “hard cases” that divide consequentialist and deontological ethics. I actually had occassion recently to do some research on the laws regarding required rescuses, and to the best of my knowledge only two states, Vermont and Rhode Island, have a legally enforced duty to rescue in such cases as the one you reference. Now, I recognize that this means little from the moral perspective, but one way to explain our general reluctance to impose such a duty is the distinction deontological philosophers draw between causing harm and not alleviating harm caused by others. If the state can force you to alleviate harm that you are not responsible for then, at least for those moments you lose your moral autonomy and become a tool of others, even for what is admittedly a very worthy purpose.

    In an environment of required rescue laws, people who rescue drowning children can at most be “praised” for fulfilling a legal duty, like paying your taxes–big deal. In the absence of such laws, people who perform rescues are going above their legal duty, and so are entitled to at least some minimal praise, even though we would expect that decent people would perform the rescue w/o the law. So, this difference may illustrate the fact that required rescue laws deprive us of some portion of our moral agency. Nevertheless, a tough case for deontologists; but there are plenty of tough ones as well for consequentialists.

  • “So, it turns out that Bryan Caplan isn’t a bleeding heart libertarian either.”

    I think this might win today’s “least surprising sentence in the blogosphere” prize. 

  • tomkow

    You will find an argument that we do *not* have a moral obligation to save the drowning child 

  • Michael Fisher

    “But that just. doesn’t. mean. that posting a speed limit sign is the same thing as pointing a gun at you.”

    How many levels of indirection does it take before it. just. doesn’t. mean. the. same. thing?

    1.”Have sex with me or I’ll shoot you.”
    2.”Have sex with me or I’ll punch you around a bunch and if you resist that, I’ll shoot you.”
    3.”Have sex with me or I’ll sometimes punch you around a bunch, and if you resist that, I’ll shoot you.”
    4.”Have sex with me or I’ll put you in the closet. Resist, and I’ll sometimes punch you around a bunch, and if you resist that, I’ll shoot you.”
    5.”Posted: If you’re hot, you better put out.”

    • The only possibly acceptable answer (if in fact the state does exist at all), is: please have sex with me.

    • Cole Gentles

      It certainly seems to me that the only argument he’s making against why saying “at the point of a gun” is wrong is that it nullifies the rest of his argument.

      It IS the right argument to make, because, fundamentally, that is always. what. it. is. backed. up. by.

      I do not see why adding layer upon layer of indirect demands before the gun is pulled makes it any less correct and true.

  • Jessica Flanigan

    It’s surprising to me that MZ only uses the overdemandingness objection to block the slide from the drowning child to famine relief. Does he think that it’s an enforceable duty that we give to famine relief with tax money (because the obligation is a collective one) as long as the costs are not unduly high to individuals? This seems like it would still justify massive redistribution. What am I missing?

    Also, does MZ think there would not be an enforceable duty to save the child if it would risk imposing serious financial costs on my lifestyle (say I passed the child en route to a job interview that I would have gotten, but now I won’t) It seems like people with the intuition that you should save the child think that you should do so even if the costs are high. 
    Whatever blocks the move from the drowning child to massive global redistributive policies, I don’t think that appealing to the costs to the rescuer makes sense of our intuitions here. 

    • For what it’s worth, I think the demandingness issue is just one point that counts in favor of a collective, enforceable obligation rather than an individual voluntary one. I don’t think it settles the issue at all. So I wasn’t trying to take a stance on the all-things-considered permissibility of enforceable redistribution, either domestically or internationally.

      But yes, I think the case for an enforceable duty depends, in some way, on what the costs and benefits of such a rule would be, and on the distribution of those costs and benefits across different persons. I might agree with you that missing a job interview isn’t sufficiently costly to justify your not saving a child. But if it were the kind of thing that we would expect to happen every day, or that cost you a finger every time you did it, then my intuition would be different. But perhaps my intuitions are unusual in this respect.

      •  I’d also add that the save child vs job interview “dilemma” is clear cut either.  Unless you’re applying for a job at Cato or maybe Abu Ghraib there’s a non-zero chance that if a potential employer learned that someone felt an interview was worth more than a child’s life they would lose all interest in hiring them.


  • I think the “passing a law vs. pointing a gun at someone” distinction is one that warrants its own blog post. I do believe there are a number of morally important distinctions between the two, but this post didn’t give much of an argument to support that. Consider it a promissory note.

    • Aeon Skoble

      Consider it considered.  😉

  • 3cantuna

    If the modern state is simultaneously the biggest free rider and contributor to famine, and the Peace Corps is a junior partner in the state, would it be my enforceable duty to drown a Peace Corp activist (given that I do not have the resources to stop the Peace Corp altogether) when the opportunity presents itself?  It would also fulfill Matt’s preference for non-gun libertarianism. 

  • j_m_h

    I wonder what Brian says about how we treat people who simple look at the drowning child and then walk on? What does that say about how “we” (a society, a culture, a very large group of people) think about the obligations to one another.

    • shemsky

      There are non-coercive sanctions available, such as refusal to associate with anyone who does something like that. The threat of non-coercive sanctions can be a very powerful incentive. It would be very difficult to live in a society where most others refused to associate with you.

      • j_m_h

        Sure. Of course in certain situations one might say that’s not much different than pointing a gun. 

        In any case, my question was really to point out the equally true statement that most would give the person infamy for failing to act when they could — and possibly to a greater extent than we would honor the one that did act. I don’t that he’s offering any really support for the position with such a statement.

  • Damien S.

    Matt, serendipitously, a very utilitarian friend directed me today to re-read Singer’s 2006 essay,
    which seems rather apropos to this and to BHL in general.  Though Singer is somewhat of a maximalist, he gives provocative estimates of what “fair share” donations by just the top 10% of the US could raise — enough to completely swamp the estimates of what’s needed to alleviate the worst poverty int he world.  (Especially since I just noticed his saying ” Their figures are for pretax income, excluding income from capital gains“, holy crap.)

    And on the older topic of how our affluence comes at expense of the poor:

    “he points out that international corporations are willing to make deals
    to buy natural resources from any government, no matter how it has come
    to power. This provides a huge financial incentive for groups to try to
    overthrow the existing government. Successful rebels are rewarded by
    being able to sell off the nation’s oil, minerals or timber.

    In their dealings with corrupt dictators in developing countries, Pogge
    asserts, international corporations are morally no better than someone
    who knowingly buys stolen goods — with the difference that the
    international legal and political order recognizes the corporations, not
    as criminals in possession of stolen goods but as the legal owners of
    the goods they have bought. ”

    Finally, this was one of the most encouraging posts I’ve seen on BHL.  But how much difference is there between a libertarian who accepts a state-funded social safety net and a modern liberal?  Are you at ‘risk’ of rediscovering how classical liberals turned into modern liberals in the first place? 🙂

  • good_in_theory

    Perhaps you should be morally required to not save the child.  After all, on what grounds do you proclaim to know whether or not that child wants to drown in a shallow puddle of water?  Moving him from that puddle would require claiming knowledge of intentions about which you can only infer, as well as the physical coercion of another person’s body.  Why, that must be at least as bad as a tax.

    I mean really, how dare you save a drowning child.  The nerve.

  • Michael Zigismund

    1. “Why, oh why, does it always have to be about guns for libertarians?” LOL!

    I don’t blame you for not covering this, but I’d like to see a post at some point discussing the moral difference between the threat of force and the use of force, and whether that has any bearing on a law and the enforcement of the law.

    2. “people have a moral obligation (even an enforceable one) to save any drowning children they come across because the expected cost this obligation imposes on any given individual is vanishingly low, while the expected social benefits are high.”

    This is exactly why the obligation should not be enforceable. Because there are already natural mechanisms which incentivize us to help the drowning child. As Milton Friedman points out, enforcing morality is effectively preventing the spontaneous growth of virtue in society by replacing the feedback mechanisms of virtue:

    3. Just a cursory look at Singer’s thought experiment shows, to me, that IF we have a moral duty to save the child, then we have a moral duty to make a SMALL contribution to world aid, not a large and continuous one.

    • 1. It depends. In depends on the behavior you’re proposing to regulate and the consequences of the actions you’re proposing to prohibit. I find it interesting that many libertarians seem to believe that threatening the use of force to regulate driving behaviors — which can easily, and frequently do, have fatal consequences — is unjustified. Yet these same folks would justify the use of force to prevent the same person from stealing your car, which is at worst only a financial injury (and in the case of the ’89 Ford in my driveway, not much at that 😉 ).

      2. This is perhaps a poor example for the reasons you state. I’m not sure we can learn a lot from it.

      3. I think it’s clear that we can do a lot more good by simply refraining from harming them in the first place. We could start by not dropping any more bombs on them and not enacting trade policies that favor our beloved trans-national corporate interests that rape them. But just imagine what we could do if we converted half of our defense spending to international development aid.

      • Damien S.

        1. And even more than that, libertarians tend to advocate private roads, whose owners would be able to regulate behavior of driving on their roads, such regulation being enforced… at the barrel of a gun.

        The state does not regulate how you drive a car.  It regulates and licenses how you drive on public roads.  As examples of state tyranny go, this issue seems extremely poor.

        • Jay_Z

          I think it’s likely that if roads were privatized, the individual driver would simply be priced out.  Every new driver adds liability, and it simply wouldn’t be worth it to the owners for the piddling added revenue.  The individual would be left with the train or the bus for transportation.

  • You didn’t even skim the surface of the problem.   The problem isn’t just that there is a child drowning in a pool…the problem is that there is also a baby that a parent left in the car with the windows rolled up during summer.  The problem doesn’t end there.  The problem is also that you only have $1 to spend correcting the problem.

    No, that’s not the problem. That’s a problem you just made up. You’re welcome to create your own hypotheticals. But in the one I presented, you’re faced with a drowning child and the question is whether you have an obligation to rescue him or not.

     If you’re willing to entertain the possibility that perhaps you might be wrong then check out the Wikipedia entry on tax choice.  It has links to Hayek’s partial knowledge and Bastiat’s opportunity cost.

    You do realize that I’m familiar with Hayek and Bastiat, right? So perhaps if I’m ignoring your ad nauseum appeals to their ideas, the explanation has to do with something other than my ignorance or close-mindedness?

    • Economics is the study of scarcity. I just made that problem up? Fallibilism is the understanding that everybody makes mistakes. I just made that problem up as well?

      No. That’s not what I said. The problem I said you made up was this:

      The problem isn’t just that there is a child drowning in a pool…the problem is that there is also a baby that a parent left in the car with the windows rolled up during summer. The problem doesn’t end there. The problem is also that you only have $1 to spend correcting the problem. Does the problem end here? Of course not. You also have the option to spend that dollar on a procreation licencing program.

      Like I said, you’re free to make up whatever hypotheticals you want. But this one doesn’t have anything to do with the hypothetical I presented. In that hypothetical, you have a choice between rescuing the child or not. Getting a baby out of a locked car or sending money to a parental licensing program isn’t an option. So bringing them up is just dodging the issue.

      Why would you want to separate morality from reality?

      I have no idea what this means or why you think I’m trying to do it.

      So no, you’re not at all familiar with Bastiat or Hayek if you think there’s any value in pretending that there aren’t price tags attached to every single good.

      For someone who talks so much about the value of humility, you display shockingly little of it.

      • Go back and read this thread again, starting with my original post.Your original reply accused me of missing the point. But on closer examination it turns out that what that means is that I didn’t discuss the point that you wanted to talk about.

        And this is how it always is with you on this blog. You’re a true believer. You’ve got your one idea about how to change the world, and the only thing you’re interested in is convincing other people of its truth, usually with a healthy dose of links to your own blog. You can’t approach a conversation with an openness to learning something new, to talking about something besides your own pet issue.

        And this makes me tired. And I think it makes other people on this blog tired. Do you ever wonder why people aren’t more responsive to pragmatarianism than they are? Do you wonder why people don’t engage with your comments more than they do? Is it possible, in your mind, that perhaps the fault is not entirely with them?

        At any rate, I’m tired of this. You’ve got your truth, and I wish you the best of luck with it. But please, preach it somewhere else.

  • geoih

    It seems to me that BHLs are simply unwilling to recognise the reality of rules enforced by the state. You say that ultimately speed limits are enforced at the point of a gun, but why can’t we just ignore or discount that fact. This then becomes your position on all state enforced rules that are ‘good’. Surely everybody can agree that we should enforce the ‘good’ rules, but the fact that there are plenty of people agruing about which rules are ‘good’ and which rules are ‘not good’ shows that everybody cannot agree, so we’re back to pointing guns.

    It seems to me that if you are a BHL, and you’re willing to use the state to enforce your positions, then you have to be willing to accept the statement ‘be good, or we’ll kill you’. I’m not saying I disagree with that position, but it is the logical conclusion.

  • KhartoumHero

    Let’s throw out the moral obligation question, assume it has been settled, because it has been made legally enforceable.

    Let’s say there’s a law that one must rescue a drowning child. Does this law say that the child must actually be saved? Does the law mandate a minimum standard of effort put into the rescue attempt?

    Let’s say, to resolve this question, the legislature includes in their must-rescue law a minimum set of actions a potential rescuer must perform in order to fulfill the legal side of the obligation. What if a person does the legally mandated minimum effort in their rescue attempt, but no more. The child dies, whereas with a little more effort the child would have survived. Is that person just as guilty as the person who, under a system where there is no such law, just walked by? Or have they fulfilled their moral duty?

    Let’s say that the legislators realize that the law does not cover the full extent of the moral obligation. Let’s say they amend the law, establishing a minimum distance a person must wade into a pool, the minimum length of a stick, etc. All sorts of detailed stipulations. And once again, someone encounters the situation, and only exerts the new legally mandated minimum effort, but the child dies, whereas a little more effort would have resulted in a successful rescue. Since the law was expanded to cover the full extent of the moral obligation, has that person now fulfilled their moral obligation?

    I think the problem with overlaying the moral surface with a legally enforceable obligation is that the moral obligation will always expand beyond the reach of the requirements of the law, so if the goal is to have a moral law that matches the moral obligation, the law can never be fully moral. A law that fails to codify the complete moral obligation will always be an immoral law because of where it falls short.

    The only thing  that avoids this is a law that allows the only scenario where the child dies is when the rescuer dies as well. This would be enforced by employing the death penalty against any unsuccessful rescuer.

    And on the other side, the only alternative that allows the judgment of the rescuer to determine what action to take is completely indistinguishable from no law at all.

    • Jay_Z

      I agree it’s difficult to craft a law for this.

      The flip side is that suppose I amhosting a pool party for the neighborhood children.  One of the children drowns.  The parents of the dead child come by to find out what happen.  My response is “yeah, so what,” and I seem to be almost smirking.  Their response is not a lawsuit, but a beatdown that results in my death.  Others stand by and let this happen, and no jury will convict.

      Perhaps in that instance I’d think twice and make an appropriate effort to save the kid to save my own neck as well.  Since vigilante justice in general isn’t very effective, hopefully this scenario doesn’t occur very often.

  • Dshapiro

    Hi Matt. Two points: First, re the difference between a law and somone pointing a gun at you, it might be worthwhile to put a link to Christopher Morris’ State Coercion and Force in the recent issue of Social Philosophy and Policy. I think this is the right link. It’s an interesting challenge to many views about the coerciveness of law.
    Second, Lester Hunt published an interesting argument why duties to rescue (and I agree there is a duty to rescue the drowing child) should not be legally enforceable. I can’t find an ungated link, but here is a gated link:

    Daniel Shapiro

    • Thanks, Danny, for reminding me about Christopher’s paper. I was there at the conference when he originally presented it, but I think it’d be worthwhile to refresh my memory! I’ll check out Lester’s piece too.

      • Christopher Morris

        Weren’t you sleeping through my session, Matt?


  • Christopher Morris

    Coming across a small child drowning in a shallow pond is not a common occurrence, though one can think of situations that are similar. It’s is however, very uncommon — unheard of, to be precise — to find a society of humans where someone who failed to save a small child drowning in a pond would not be condemned and at least shunned. It is rare to find a human society where there are not some recognized obligations that are “positive”. “Enforceability” is a secondary matter, having to do with supplemental practices and institutions (and a red herring in these discussions). 

    Most of us, at least if we are not in the grips of a simple-minded picture, would say that the person who fails to save the child act wrongly and in fact wrongs the child. Saving the child is not supererogatory. Similarly, if someone knocks on one’s cabin door in the middle of a snow storm, one has an obligation to save them. If one finds a raft of shipwrecked people on the ocean one has a duty to rescue them if no one else is coming to their aid. Our practices and attitudes recognize these duties. And these are duties TO the people in danger. 

    Notice two things about these duties. The contexts in which we are required to act are unusual (e.g., shipwrecks) and emergencies (e.g., snowstorms, natural disasters). In the Calcutta of old, one would not have a duty to help every destitute child one encountered. Secondly — and this is some importance to libertarians, who happen to be anti-statist — in social orders or contexts where states and law are weak or non-existent, duties to rescue tend to be especially strict. Desert people have especially strict duties of hospitality, for instance, requiring one to open one’s door even to one’s enemy and to offer food and shelter, with reciprocal duties on the recipient. (Google ‘Pashtun hospitality’, for instance.) 

    Libertarians need not fear admitting a couple “positive” duties into their hearth. They not only won’t overwhelm the household; they will enable liberal people to prosper, through mutual aid, without the assistance of a nanny state. 

    • shemsky

      And how did these societies deal with violaters, Christopher? Did they verbally condemn their actions, shun them and treat them they same way they had treated those unfortunates (a libertarian response), or did they lock them in a cage for a period of time and steal their possessions to make up for their bad behavior (an authoritarian response)? To me, that’s the core issue here.

      • Jay_Z

        How can they even shun him?  A “shit list” or word of mouth is a positive action against him, which is off the table by your definition.  All they can hope for is that he encounters a similar misfortune, they are the only ones around to help, and refuse to help him in turn.  Seems like an unlikely deterrent.

        I don’t think you can design a working society where no positive actions are required.  Suppose I live in a community.  I have knowledge that a marauding gang is going to attack the community.  I’m buddies with the marauders, and know that when they attack they will keep me whole and give me some of the booty if I remain silent and don’t show up for community defense.  I do so, the marauders take over the community, kill everyone, and give me some of their property.  By your definition I’ve committed no positive act so I did nothing wrong.  Yet my inaction made me richer and led to the death of everyone else.

        • shemsky

          There’s a big difference between refusing to associate with someone you don’t care for and locking that person up or confiscating their property. You aren’t obligated to associate with any other person unless you have caused them harm or you have entered into some kind of agreement with them. That’s what freedom of association means. So I’m not sure where you’re coming from when you say that shunning is off the table by my definition. Perhaps you could explain.

          Positive actions can be legitimately required as the result of one’s negligence or consentual agreements. Otherwise, no. Regarding your example, you haven’t said why you are keeping quiet or what will happen to you (and perhaps others) if you refuse to keep quiet. That information might make a difference as to whether I would consider your actions wrong or not.

          • shemsky

            Although your possession of property you know to be stolen is wrong, regardless of whether you participated in the robbery.

          • Jay_Z

            Under our current law, presumably I can’t punch you unless it’s in self defense.  Even if you punched me a week earlier, I can’t punch you today, though I can have you charged with assault.

            However, I can write a book titled “He Punched Me” and as long as it is true, you may lose millions of dollars because of cost to your reputation and suffer emotional distress, but normally you can’t do a thing.

            I am saying that extrapolating on the idea that we may take no positive action that harms another could be expanded to include words and information.  The book I wrote certainly harmed you, and it was produced through a positive action of mine.  Further, by that same principle maybe my newspaper can’t print a negative restaurant review, and I can’t tell my neighbor not to go to a certain store because I had a bad experience there.  I am causing harm through positive action in either case.

      • Christopher Morris

        No, it’s not just that the person who watches a child drown and refrains from saving him or her is “not a very good person”. This person acts wrongly. Also, this person wrongs the child (though this is more controversial). 

        I am indifferent to the suffering of others, I neglect my friends, I hurt the feelings of others. We conclude that I am “not a very good person”. Ok. But someone who could easily have saved someone from drowning, at little cost to himself, when no one else was around, is not merely “not a very good person”. That person acts wrongly, failed to do something he had a duty to do. 

        Put aside for the moment the question of how we should respond. US law is clear that we don’t, apart from special relations, have positive duties to rescue. Leave US law to one side. (I trust libertarians don’t take their guidance from American tort law!) Just ask yourself if you don’t believe something more than what you assert — “not a very good person”. 

        I can’t imagine a human community worth living in where most people did not think that the person who failed to save the drowning child acted wrongly. And I don’t know why one would want to deny this, except for the mistaken fear that acceptance of a few, not-very-demanding positive duties, will bring down one’s entire libertarian edifice. 

        • shemsky

          Christopher, the whole purpose of people like Peter Singer bringing the drowning child example up is to get their hooks into and bring down the entire libertarian edifice. And, obviously, some libertarians around here are falling for that bullshit. I mean, how many libertarians do you know that would actually watch a child drown and do nothing to help that child? I’ll bet not a one.

          • purple_platypus

            You have far too high an opinion of how much attention Singer, at least, likely pays to the “whole libertarian edifice”.

            And anyway, even if true, that would be a red herring unless it were somehow a given that that edifice was worth saving. Needless to say, that is not an assumption non-libertarians can be expected to automatically make; if they made that assumption, they would be libertarians.

            In any case, doesn’t your own remark that no actual libertarian would ignore the drowning child go at least some way toward suggesting that, if and to the extent that libertarianism implies that there is nothing wrong with this behaviour, libertarianism is ipso facto deficient in some way?

          • shemsky

            Libertarianism doesn’t imply that there is nothing wrong with this behavior. Libertarianism (in my view) implies that there is no enforceable duty to save the child.


          I agree with you that any person who ignores the drowning child (or the like) acts wrongly. But, so does the person who engages in false and malicious “hate speech” against any race or ethnic group, or who refuses to associate with another person or group solely because of their race or religion (or lack thereof). And, we don’t think it right to punish bigots solely on account of such conduct. So, it seems to me that it remains a live (and interesting) question as to whether we should punish those who ignore the drowning child.

          I believe this presents the classic case of whether the “end justifies the means.” Obviously, saving innocent children is a noble goal, but using state coercion [or coercion by a private “protection agency” under ordered anarchy] is an ignoble means of achieving this end, since it nullifies our moral agency. We can also ask how many people would not rescue the drowning child BUT FOR a law requiring them to do so, particularly a law that in all probability will impose only a minor penalty. So, we would be passing a coercive law for the entire population, which might as best save a small number of lives. Its a tough case, but I am against such laws.

          • Christopher Morris

            Imagine a world with no states, with a smaller global population than exists today, and with whatever practices and institutions you think are permissible in a stateless, and reasonably just world. 

            Case 1. Someone walks by a pond, spots a child and pushes it in the shallow waters. The child drowns. The person killed the child. 

            We all think: She is a bad person; she acted wrongly; she wronged the child; she violated the child’s right to life.

            Case 2. Someone else walks by the pond, spots a child struggling in the shallow waters, doesn’t do anything and walks on by. The child dies.

            What do we think? 

               She is a bad person — obviously!

               she acted wrongly — equally obviously, I think 

               she wronged the child — some will start balking here, but I agree

               she violated the child’s right to life — more readers of this list will pause, but I don’t. Now I don’t say anyone has a natural right to be rescued in easy cases, but then I’m not sure what natural rights we have. But I cannot imagine a society, community, or place I’d want to live that would have not have a duty to rescue in easy cases, and one owed to the individual in question.

            Now think through these questions before asking about responses and punishments. There are no states around, so we don’t need to ask what they are justified doing. We simply asking whether the act of not saving was wrong, and whether it is a wrong to the child. 

            Give me that, and we have a positive duty of justice, and I rest my case. 

            Now I don’t see why anyone should be scared or worry. (Stop saying what you think states can do! There aren’t any here.) One small positive duty does not warrant a massive welfare state. 

            I don’t mean this as a reply solely to Mark. I’m mainly trying to restate my original point in a clearer fashion. I think the negative/positive distinction uninteresting, and the enforceable/unenforceable one irrelevant here. I also would not want to live with neighbors who did not think they had a duty to the child to save it! So please let me know if you are moving next-door.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            First, I’m not planning to move next-door, but for the record I do think I have a positive duty to rescue the child and would do so.

            But, what I don’t understand from your various comments is whether you deny that it is possible for persons to have positive duties that they nevertheless have permission to ignore without being punished by the state, their neighbors, their community, or anyone else. A denial of this possibility seems implausible to me, and if you think this, I believe you owe us a good argument.

            For example, if I own a business I believe I have a positive duty not to refuse to hire any race, ethnicity, etc. solely on that basis. However, I believe it would also be wrong to use force or the threat of force against such an employer, either by the state or the community (in the absence of a state). On the other hand, I think it would be great if the members of such a community withheld their patronage from such a bigot. They certainly have a right to do this, but I deny that they have a right to use violence or the threat thereof to retaliate.  

            Similarly , whether or not a state exists, I think a community should shun, condemn and refuse to do business with anyone who ignores the drowning child, but I deny that they have the right to go beyond this.  So, in this form the “enforceability” issue is still relevent, as far as I can see.

          •  Hi Chris,

            You say: ” We simply asking whether the act of not saving was wrong, and whether it is a wrong to the child. Give me that, and we have a positive duty of justice, and I rest my case.”

            I agree with you that it would be wrong not to save the child and also that it would wrong the child (though I had to think about that second point). I therefore agree we have a ‘positive duty’ to rescue the child. But I deny that this is a duty of justice. It is a duty of benevolence. If it was a duty of justice it would be enforceable: the child, or the child’s relatives if the child dies, would be entitled to claim compensation from the non-saver for violation of the child’s right. But, as it is a duty of benevolence, no compensation can be claimed, though the duty-evading swine might offer some after the fact, for whatever reason.

          • Christopher Morris

            To Danny Frederick:

            I listed all the things I wish to say about the person who fails to save the child: he (a) is a bad person, (b) acted wrongly, (c) wronged the child, and (d) violated the child’s right to life. You accept a and b but deny c (and d). This enables you do deny the wrong is one of justice. And I agree that justice is what is needed, most of the time, for “enforceability”. 

            We don’t run into drowning children often, but don’t you think that you are guilty of an injustice if you fail to offer shelter to the person who knocks at your cabin door in the middle of a blizzard (and who dies)? Or the shipwrecked people who die because you don’t save them? I think, though I am no expert here, that in law both typically have a case that you failed to carry out a duty you had to them.

            But this is complicated, and it is not easy to settle. You put your finger on the right question.

            To Mark Friedman:

            You don’t think we (or the state) have the right to use force or violence against someone who fails to carry out some positive duties (owed TO others?). Does one have the right to coerce that person? Coercion need not involve force, much less violence. You say we may withhold patronage from bigots. I agree that even if, as I think, certain acts of racism are acts of injustice against the people in question, one rarely would be justified in using force against them (though I can think of some cases where one would be — can one not see why it might make sense for Germans to prohibits Nazism after WWII?). But the threat of a boycott would be a form of coercion, and it would seem justified. So there are circumstances in which coercion may be used against people who fail in their positive duties to rescue. 

            I don’t have a simple view about “enforceability” as I don’t think it’s a simple thing. There is pressure, coercion (mild to less mild), force, and violence. While everyone talks a lot about state violence, there is comparatively little in the domestic setting. Similarly with force. Both come into play only when a lot of other things have happened. Suppose you fail to carry out a duty (of any “enforceable” sort). Then the authorities might issue you a summons to appear and explain yourself — another duty. Suppose you fail to comply. They may threaten to fine you — another duty. At some point some assets of yours may be impounded or ceased, and you may be forced to appear in front of a judge. But, in countries like ours, in the vast majority of case, the imposition of new duties, backed up by threats of coercion, are all that is needed to ensure compliance. I can thin we might wish to do the same with some positive duties to rescue (e.g., the blizzard and shipwreck cases I mention) but not others. I note there are cases of justice which we do not choose to “enforce” either.

            You ask whether I “deny that it is possible for persons to have positive duties that they nevertheless have permission to ignore without being punished by the state, their neighbors, their community, or anyone else.” In a sense I do: if you have a positive duty to others to save them, you do not have permission to refrain from saving them (barring certain excusing circumstances, etc.). They are not at liberty to ignore their duty. And, quite often, their community has a right to pressure, coerce, and (something different) punish them. 

            You say I owe you an argument. Is this a positive duty? An enforceable one? [Ed. note: at this point Morris’ reply is illegible and e-contact is lost with him.]

          •  Thanks for the response, Chris. I did not deny (c). I denied only (d). I think your two other examples are in the same category as the drowning child.If I don’t help, I fail to discharge a duty towards them; but I commit no injustice. There is more to morality, and more to our duties, than simply justice.

            We are entitled to criticise, condemn, even shun, a person who fails to discharge a duty of benevolence. But none of thesee amount to coercion, because none of them violate, or threaten to violate, that person’s rights. To coerce is to act unjustly. I deny that a boycott is coercion.

            What counts as injustice and what counts as coercion depends upon what people’s rights are, not on what duties we have towards them.

            I agree that we could enforce duties of benevolence; I agree we could modify our conception of what rights people have and thus modify our conception of justice. But whether it is a good thing to do that depends upon the consequences (broadly conceived). I think it will be a bad thing.

            I might come back to this later, but I am busy for most of today.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I will focus on just this. You say: “But the threat of a boycott would be a form of coercion, and it would seem justified. So there are circumstances in which coercion may be used against people who fail in their positive duties to rescue.”

            I think you are right that we cannot uniformly condemn “coercion” w/o defending some underlying moral theory about what constitutes morally illegitimate “coercion,” and what forms of “coercion” are unobjectionable. To try to articulate that here would take too much effort.

            However, at least from a libertarian perspective I think there is a pretty clear-cut, defensible distinction between withholding my association from a person or refusing to do business with him/her, both of which I clearly have a right to give or withhold at my discretion, and threatening to incarcerate them or to forceably take resources from them, which I don’t have a right to impose, absent a particular type of wrongdoing on their part. And, of course, I deny that failing to save the drowning child constitutes that form of wrongdoing. 

            I grant you that I am speaking here from a particular and controversial moral perspective, but I believe your earlier comments were intended to show that even within the context of this view we should support enforceable obligations, and that is what I am rejecting.

        • j_m_h

          On of the thoughts that this thread has generated for me is the question: At what point do one’s actions become a contributory factor in an outcome and therefore at least a proximate cause?

          I suspect many here will react very negatively to the following — and I’m not completely sure about my own position — but there may be a case to be made that the adult who failed to help the child has engaged in some form of homicide .

        • KhartoumHero

           What if, working on some puzzle of molecular biology, I happen to come up with an idea for the cure for cancer. All cancer, no matter how advanced.

          What if I then fall asleep, wake up the next day, and forget about it?

          Is that any different that watching a child drown?

          What if I possess the intellectual capacity to cure cancer, but I decide to become a bond trader instead, or a rock star?

          You see, you start getting into some really shaky ground when you start punishing people for what may have happened in an alternate universe.

          Oh, but saving a drowning child is the only alternative to watching him drown. Or is it? What if I can’t swim? Or what if I can, but I’m not very good and fear that if I try to rescue the drowning child, I myself will drown in the process?

          How exactly do you extract that knowledge from someone else’s mind of what their motive for inaction was? How can you confidently say that the reason I didn’t jump in to the pond to rescue the child was pure malice, rather than fear for my own safety? Is there any way for a person to defend themselves against a charge from an angry, bereaved parent that the inaction was out of malice or indifference?

          • Jay_Z

            The community tries to determine intent behind actions that lead to crimes all of the time.  Hopefully there is some evidence of the intent of the action.  It would be different if the only thing we knew is that the person was in the vicinity of the drowner and didn’t act.  Perhaps they didn’t even hear the person calling for help for some reason.  But if they knew they were there, could have acted at minimal inconvience to themselves and no risk (they only needed to toss a flotation device into a swimming pool), but deliberatily didn’t and bragged about their maliciousness afterwards, people’s reactions should be different.  Even if there is no legal saction, only shunning/shaming, we still want to be right.

          • j_m_h

            I think you’re missing the point of Matt’s Thought Experiment and how to work with it. He (I think but perhaps it was one of the other bloggers) has a good posting on what thought experiments are that is a good read to keep everyone on point in discussions. I think it was about 4 or 6 months back.

            Your comments don’t really make that strong a case — after all:
            1) Joe has a bullet hole in his head and is dead.
            2) Sue has a gun that has at least 1 bullet shot from it.
            3) Sam saw Sue pull the trigger and shoot Joe.

            We don’t know why Sue did this so we have no real reason to try you for murder — Joe may have threatened to take Sue’s children and sell them into child pornography. I think you’re trying to argue that “walking away” is some how not just as positive of an action as pulling a trigger. 

            As Jay_Z points out we have other social institutions to deal with the question of incomplete knowledge and discovery of relevant information and hopefully a true understanding of a given situation.

        • Joshua Katz

          What is this “at little cost to himself” all about?  If it is at much cost to himself, then he is not obligated to do it?  And who determines how much the cost is, since costs are subjective?

    • j_m_h

      Interesting observation about the  weak state and strict social duties. One wonders why democracies appears to prone to replace these more informal social duties with formal legal obligations — apparently the formal state solution is poorly suited for the task.

      • Where exactly do you see that? The OP stated that only two states have any laws specifying a positive general duty to rescue.  Otherwise, I can think of only two legislative trends that are relevant. The first are the “good Samaritan” laws that indemnify rescuers from legal liability for consequences of trying to help. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

        The second are laws that address the “is there a physician in the house?” situations. Now that’s probably the most relevant example of the principle MZ was getting at here. I can see where that would seem problematic from a libertarian perspective — a kind of ad hoc draft. But I think it’s also reasonable to consider that physicians are the recipients of a fair amount of taxpayer funded training (think subsidized student loans, grants, etc.) as well as the enhanced social stature that they enjoy. But in the end I suppose you could argue that it isn’t necessary due to the Hippocratic Oath, assuming they take that seriously anymore.

        • Joshua Katz

          Oh come on.  I have $100 in my bank account, which can buy meals for 20 starving people.  Little cost to me.  Sounds like it should be obligatory.

  • j_m_h

    [Response to Rod Englishman – seems I hit the wrong Reply]
    Lets see. The reported fact was societies with weak states adopt strong social rules for helps others in emergency types situations. CM didn’t say “only two states…”, he offered two examples to represent his more general claim.

    Most of the developed countries can be labeled societies with strong governments; that’s hardly a controversial statement. 

    So what’s the formal and informal obligations for various emergency types situations? Loose your livelihood (unemployments) for reasons beyond you control. States’ provide welfare while many neighbors shake their heads and say “bad luck — it will get better soon.” and do little or nothing else while the person looses his home.Or, the state is providing welfare but we still have people living on the street homeless in bad weather. How many people offer these people any form of shelter? Sure, there’s a risk inviting them into your house, but then we lack that social obligation and trust in both parties honoring it for these infrequent situations that seems present in the weak state societies.

    Why in the weak-state society does the obligation, even to one’s enemy, seem to hold while clearly it’s eroded in the strong-state societies?

    • Perhaps you have the causation backwards? Maybe cultures with weak social obligations are precisely the ones that develop strong states and vice versa.

      But actually, I think it has more to do with anonymity. I grew up in a town so small they’re getting ready to close the post office — population ~200 including the surrounding farms. I’ve also lived on the north side of Chicago. It’s a hell of a lot easier to ignore the plights of your neighbors in the latter situation than the former.

      • j_m_h

        I suspect causation works in a lot of directions and it’s not just weak informal institutions/social adherence to social duties that are driving the growth of strong-state societies. As you point out, strong-state societies don’t completely overwhelm informal social arrangements and duties. 

        I suspect whatever influence you’re giving anonymity it’s probably due to how you’re defining and using the term (or what assumptions you have but have not stated). After all, the social duties to assist apply to strangers — for the most part the shipwrecked are not locals, nor or the travelers caught up in the severe weather.  I would not disagree that it’s a factor though.

    • Damien S.

      Weak-state society is likely a much smaller population, and linked by kinship and shared-religion ties.  The stranger may not be personally known, but can be expected to share cultural context and values.  A modern country with millions of inhabitants, possibly immigrants from many source cultures, is an entirely different context.

      I note a general trade off: all societies need governance, broadly speaking, but this can be from central government (from “big man” or chiefs on up to modern states) or from strong social norms, enforced by shunning, feud, outlawry (being declared outside the law), or mob justice.  It is a conceit of libertarians and anarchists that there’s a deep moral difference between shunning someone until they die vs. the state taxing or coercing people.

      • j_m_h

        I suspect your first statement about population size is probably correct — as the general rule. I would note that even up to a bit before WWI the US still qualified as “weak-state” society; some might put the date at the start of the Civil War.  I suppose we might consider it an exception but then we’d need to explain the change without considering any other factors. (In other words, the grand experiment of limited government must necessarily fail for large populations.)

        I think you need to drop that generalization about libertarians and anarchist conceit — I made exactly the same point about the similarity of shunning/exclusion and guns earlier in this same discussion. Anarchist/libertarian is not a misleading description for me. Moreover, I cannot think of any anarchist or libertarians that have really claimed that only the statist application of the gun can kill the person when considering various social sanction mechanism.

        • Damien S.

          Total population is probably less important than density and mobility, or the radius/amount of people encountered.  100 million people in mostly isolated villages can support village “small state” life; 1 million people in a dense city, less so.  Anonymity and diversity again.

          Also, the balance between retroactive punishment for actual torts and proactive regulation will shift based on how much damage can be done and how much it costs to monitor and regulate.  Fire and building codes beat “sue people afterwards” when it comes to large cities burning down.

          Related to an argument I made a while back elsewhere about urbanites being more liberal than rural dwellers because (a) they need government more, externalities being more pronounced with density and (b) they often experience government working, as when it clears the streets of snow multiple times every winter.

  • For me, libertarianism is about not violating rights. For you, libertarianism is about bending others to your will. 

    I think one of us doesn’t understand what libertarianism is. (Hint: it’s you.)

  • Are you arguing in favor of “enforceable collective duties,” including wealth redistribution by the state, Matt?

    It sure seems like you are heading in that direction toward the end of your post there. I hope not. Libertarians oppose wealth redistribution by the state.

    Given your line of argument in this post, I wonder if you have any principled arguments against wealth redistribution by the state — assuming you are against it, that is. If you do have such arguments, I’d like to see them. It would help reassure many people that bleeding-heart libertarianism really is a form of libertarianism rather than welfare “liberalism” lite.

    I”m a virtue ethicist, not a consequentialist or a deontologist. I don’t see that there is any such thing as “collective duties,” much less enforceable ones. I can see a moral obligation to save a drowning child, depending on context — but not a duty, not a universal and absolute rule, much less a law to enforce it. 

    Moreover, the way you frame the debate assumes a modern statist system of law and punishment. What are you going to do to people who break your “good samaritan” law?

    Put them in prison? Many libertarians, such as myself, don’t approve of prison systems; they amount to enslavement systems. 

    Extract restitution? That’s more like it, assuming the obligation is enforceable. But still…

    None of this will bring the child back to life. None of this will necessarily force someone to be a good samaritan.

    And how would you enforce the law? Put up CCTV cameras everywhere to make sure everyone is complying with your “good samaritan” law? Encourage neighbors to snitch on one another? That hardly sounds libertarian.

    Why not look to boycotting and ostracism as adequate methods of dealing with anti-social people who do particularly heinous things that they have a right to do? You don’t even need a “good samaritan” law for this. It’s purely voluntary and can be quite effective.

    I think it’s inappropriate and invalid to generalize moral principles from lifeboat situations and other emergencies and edge cases; a code of ethics is for everyday life and we must use prudence in applying it to such rare cases, not the other way round. It’s even more wrong to generate laws from such uncommon cases.

    Finally, why are you so worried about an enforceable obligation to save a drowning child in the first place? As you say, the passing-stranger-and-drowning-child scenario is an uncommon one. Even more uncommon  is the passing-stranger-lets-the-child-drown scenario. Is this something we really need to worry about in a free society? Drowning children everywhere for want of a “good samaritan” because “there oughta be a law!”? To riff on Michael Barnett’s point, the path of the moralistic do-gooder busybody is a dangerous one to start out on; it’s bad for one’s character and leads away from libertarianism.

    • Good and fair questions, Geoffrey. What I’m saying about collective enforceable duties is that there is an argument to be made in favor of them. I do think there are also arguments to made against them. And I think those arguments are principled, though for me at any rate, those principles are less than absolute. So I do not hold an extreme position that says that redistribution by the state is always and necessarily wrong. In this, I take myself to be in the main line of the classical liberal tradition, though at odds with certain contemporary libertarians like Rand and Rothbard.

      I agree with you that the question of enforcability in the drowning child case is not a central philosophical concern. I do think it’s important to recognize that we have positive moral duties to the child in such a case, and hence that those who deny the existence of any such duties are mistaken. But enforcability is a different matter. If a child was drowning, and I was sitting there in my wheelchair with a stranger who looked on indifferently, would I feel justified in using coercion to get him to go in? I guess so. Do I think we should have a law requiring such rescues? I’m much less certain about that. But I suspect my reservations come down largely to pragmatic considerations that you might regard as unprincipled. Rest assured, however, that if I did, I would not be in favor of posting closed-circuit television cameras everywhere. I’m in favor of laws against murder, but that certainly doesn’t commit me to favoring any and all methods of enforcing that law.

      • Thanks for the clarification.

        “those who deny the existence of any such duties are mistaken.”
        I don’t have much patience for such people, and I daresay the average person wouldn’t either. That’s why I don’t see much point in debating it. I’m much more concerned about people wanting to violate my rights for various (usually do-gooder) reasons.

  • Matt wrote: “Why, oh why, does it always have to be about guns for libertarians? Yes, I know that in some ultimate sense, every law is backed by the threat of violence. If you break the speed limit and are sent a fine, and don’t pay it, and resist when the cops show up at your house, and resist very effectively when they try to physically force you into their car, then eventually they very well might take out their gun. But that just. doesn’t. mean. that posting a speed limit sign is the same thing as pointing a gun at you. Or even the moral equivalent of doing so.”

    No, it’s not morally equivalent. It’s more cowardly. It’s voting for and “hiring” someone else to use the gun.

    It’s perfectly valid to ask someone if they would be willing to point a gun at you, and use it, to enforce some statist law or regulation they’re proposing or defending. If they are willing to do so, well, that shows their depravity clearly and puts you on notice that they’re not fit for civilized society. If they aren’t willing to do so, but are willing to vote and pay (or rather, force someone else to pay) for someone else to do it, I think that speaks to a certain level of cowardice and probably in many cases an unwillingless to fully accept what their beliefs entail. The statist-democratic process allows people the illusion that the laws and regulations they favor are voluntary and legitimate. Somehow the state magically transforms actions that we normally consider evil by private individuals into good when performed by agents of the state. The state is the great transvaluer of values — the coldest of all cold monsters.

    The reason it always has to be about guns for libertarians is that we’re opposed to the threat or use of initiatory physical force, so when someone insists we have a duty to do something we want to know if they plan to initiate force to make us to do it against our will. If they do, then we know to do evil to impose their values on others, that they’re uncivilized, and that they’re not libertarian. We live in an unlibertarian world full of such people, so yes, it’s always rightfully on our minds. That doesn’t mean we all think there are no unenforceable positive moral obligations. We just like to make sure you will respect our rights first before we enter into largely academic discussions about what one should do in certain rare emergencies.

    Maybe I’m becoming a cranky old man before my time, but more and more these days I’m finding these sorts of discussions strike me as unnecessary mental masturbation — something to which I think philosophers and libertarians are particularly prone. Most people don’t see any need to discuss it; they would just jump in and save the child. In the moral (not the political/legal) sense, it’s not a matter of choice — it’s just the right thing to do (HT Mal). Yes, even in the eyes of adjectiveless libertarians.

    • If you find our discussion to be “unnecessary mental masturbation,” so be it. I certainly won’t hold a gun to your head to force you to continue it.

      But I do think you’re a bit too quick in passing judgment on who is fit for civil society and who is not. If you stand idly by while a child drowns, indifferent to his plight, and I (from my wheelchair) threaten to beat you with a stick unless you go save him, I should think most people would deem you the uncivilized one, not I. And I would agree. A lot depends, I think, on the quality of the coercion and the moral cost of failing to utilize it. Threatening me with jail time unless I refrain from smoking weeds that you don’t want me to smoke does seem pretty uncivilized. Is taxing a small portion of my income to, say, provide immunizations for indigent children equally strong evidence of a non-suitability for civilized society? I should think not.
      As a more meta-philosophical matter, I should think that even if the belief is wrong it would not be evidence that its holder is uncivilized. Surely there is room for honest and reasonable disagreement about such issues?

      • “If you find our discussion to be “unnecessary mental masturbation,” so be it. I certainly won’t hold a gun to your head to force you to continue it.”

        But would you put up a sign the ultimate enforcement of which would require it? ;o)

        Do I find the question of whether libertarians can support a “good samaritan” law to be unnecessary mental masturbation? No. But I do tend to find discussions like ones about whether someone should save a drowning child to be such.

        “But I do think you’re a bit too quick in passing judgment on who is fit for civil society and who is not. If you stand idly by while a child drowns, indifferent to his plight, and I (from my wheelchair) threaten to beat you with a stick unless you go save him, I should think most people would deem you the uncivilized one, not I. And I would agree.”

        I was envisioning something a little more violent than a wheelchair-bound old man threatening someone with a stick, and I think you probably knew that. But why can’t both of these individuals be uncivilized? I’d say they both are uncivilized, albeit not to the same degree and in the same ways.

        “Is taxing a small portion of my income to, say, provide immunizations for indigent children equally strong evidence of a non-suitability for civilized society? I should think not.”

        Equally strong? Maybe not. But still strong evidence to be sure. Amazing how one little word can change the meaning of a sentence. I don’t think I implied anywhere that all aggressive actions are equally strong evidence of being unsuitable for civilized society.

        “As a more meta-philosophical matter, I should think that even if the belief is wrong it would not be evidence that its holder is uncivilized. Surely there is room for honest and reasonable disagreement about such issues?”

        Well, if you’re not going to act on the belief…

        But the problem is people do. They vote. They call the police. The police assault and arrest or kill. Etc.

        • “Do I find the question of whether libertarians can support a “good samaritan” law to be unnecessary mental masturbation? No, although I think the answer is clearly that we can’t.”

          Actually, I take this back. I do find it to be unnecessary mental masturbation for the reasons I laid out in my first comment. Even if we do have an enforceable positive moral obligation to be a good samaritan, I think a law to that effect would be stupid so what’s the point in discussing it? It’s a bad idea to give the state the power to enforce positive moral obligations and the best way to deal with antisocial people who would let a child drown is shunning.

    • Damien S.

      Also perfectly valid to ask the libertarian if they’re willing to point a gun, and use it, to defend their claims of property and autonomy.  Say to keep a starving child from taking some food, or to defend their right to pollute the air, or to seize land they viewed as virgin but a community viewed as in common use.

      It’s all down to force for just about everyone.

      • So you make no distinction between initiatory and defensive force, Damien?

        “Say to keep a starving child from taking some food,”

        This seems about as likely to happen as someone refusing to save a drowning child. Even less likely would be for this to happen when no one else is capable of giving the starving child food. In any case, while one has a right to defend one’s property, that doesn’t mean that one has the right to use any means one wishes, regardless of context and the principle of proportionality. I think shooting a starving child stealing  some food would be disproportionate and that someone who refuses to give food to a starving child, generally-speaking, should be shunned. 

        “to defend their right to pollute the air,”

        What right to pollute the air? Generally speaking, there is no right to damage the person and property of others. If there is sufficient proof that any chemical or whatever going into the air is damaging the person and property of others, then there is a claim against the polluter. On the other hand, there are cases in which latecomers might not have a claim because they knowingly moved into certain conditions, e.g., building your house next to some train tracks and then complaining of the noise pollution.

        “to seize land they viewed as virgin but a community viewed as in common use.”

        What right to seize such land? Assuming it actually is in use. Jointly owned private property is still private property. But if it’s actually in use, is it virgin? I’m afraid this hypothetical example is underspecified, as hypotheticals tend to be. 

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  • I turned my two comments into a blogpost at The Libertarian Standard.

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  • From the looks of it, Zwolinski could benefit from learning the difference between a need and a claim.

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  • @mattzwolinski:disqus ,

    I’m still fairly new to your site. I’ve read your opinions on the basic income guarantee, but I haven’t gone through enough of the site to guess what you’d think about this.

    A lot of people, especially American “libertarians”, feel that all tax is theft and is a form of coercion. I agree with this to an extent, but I also feel that wage labor is a form of coercion.

    In our current system, most people are absolutely required to have a wage paying job just to survive. Because of this, our employers have all of the power to provide whatever pay and working conditions they see fit. We either accept their offer or we lose the roof over our heads and the food on our plates. Some would say that we have the freedom because we have the ability to choose, but I’d argue that there is no choice at all.

    What coercion is worse? Do we tax people to provide for the greater good or do we allow people to fight for themselves?

    • Hi Allen,

      Have you read my piece on Hayek and the basic income?

      I’m inclined to agree with Hayek that coercion can occur in the marketplace, not just with the state. But coercion isn’t simply a matter of having to do something you don’t want to do. You’re not coerced just because you have to work to eat. Coercion is a matter of being subject to the arbitrary will of another person. And generally, in a competitive marketplace, that doesn’t happen. But it’s possible. And when it is, there might be a good case for doing something about it.

    • Hi Allen,

      Have you read my piece on Hayek and the basic income?

      I’m inclined to agree with Hayek that coercion can occur in the marketplace, not just with the state. But coercion isn’t simply a matter of having to do something you don’t want to do. You’re not coerced just because you have to work to eat. Coercion is a matter of being subject to the arbitrary will of another person. And generally, in a competitive marketplace, that doesn’t happen. But it’s possible. And when it is, there might be a good case for doing something about it.

      • Excellent article, Matt. The third to last paragraph is exactly why I believe in the BIG.

        I have the train of thought that the number of available jobs will continue to shrink as the labor force grows. When this is true (and I believe it will remain true, even in the most free market) the employers have all the power in the world over the employees. Several 100 years ago someone may have had the ability to stake out a piece of land and work it for survival. Today, we have no such option. It is work for a boss or starve. This may not be direct coercion by the employer, but it is certainly not freedom. As you stated in the article, true freedom is freedom from doing something, not freedom to do something.

        Thanks for the insight.

  • Jan Narveson

    People including the author are just comparing intuitions on this case. The intuition that it is wrong not to help strangers is very variable among people, especially as you go around the world. There it matters that the strangers are strangers. Some are stranger than others, after all. If you start supplying information about the hypothetical “stranger” he becomes less strange – supply a lot and you’ll be getting close to his being positively your neighbor or friend. But if we leave the stranger just a blank case, Caplan’s view strikes me as perfectly reasonable. We are welcome to help people all we want, but this business of forcing people to help? It won’t wash.

    The insurance pool/welfare state idea if you apply it worldwide isn’t likely to sell either. Several billion times zero is still zero; several billion times much of anything, on the other hand, is quite a bit of your life!

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  • Ryan Cox

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 10 people die in the United States each day due to unintentional drowning. In addition to these deaths, many non-fatal drowning injuries also occur. In fact, for every child who dies from drowning, there are five young people treated for non-fatal submersion injuries in emergency rooms.