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Blogging at

The folks over at were kind enough to ask me to do a bit of blogging for them. As a big fan of the site – George Smith’s Excursions series is excellent, and their collection of libertarian video is amazing -I readily accepted. My first two posts are now up.

The first is mostly introductory, but makes a case for asking hard questions about common libertarian beliefs, and for thinking more deeply about their moral justification. A lot of people like free markets and private property because they “work,” but

we cannot know what works unless we know what it means to “work.” A policy “works,” presumably, if it gets us the right results. But what results are right? Economic growth? Increased happiness? More freedom? … To know what works requires, at the very least, that we decide which outcomes are worth pursuing and what means are legitimate for pursuing them. It requires, in other words, that we think philosophically about morality and politics.

The second post begins a series on libertarianism and freedom, noting that the relationship is more complicated than is often assumed by both libertarians and their critics. Libertarians like freedom, and libertarians like justice. And they are both values that are well worth liking.

But we should resist the temptation to suppose that they are the same value. That they are not the same entails that it is possible, in principle at least, that they may in certain circumstances come into conflict.

One such conflict arises in the relationship between libertarianism and property – a conflict that I will examine in detail in a future post. The next post scheduled to go up looks more closely at the idea that libertarianism is committed to maximizing freedom, and rejects it as flawed. After that, I plan to devote a post or two to Herbert Spencer‘s “Law of Equal Freedom.” isn’t set up to handle comments, so if you’ve any thoughts on the first two posts, feel free to express them in the comments thread here. I’ll post links to my essays as they are published.

  • martinbrock

    I hadn’t browsed the site before, so I watched the 60 second intro video which taught me, among other things, that libertarianism got the space shuttle off the ground. Science, it’s a libertarian thing.

  • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

    I will be interested to read these. It has always seemed to me that where justice and property are in conflict, it is only because of an underspecification of property. I.e., a theory of property that does not take all relevant moral facts into account.

    I think that interesting formulations of property rights are ones that attempt to account for all relevant moral considerations. Through that connection to moral rules they limit the potential moral actions of individuals with regard to the property of others, and so the potential moral actions of governments insofar as governments are only delegations of their constituents. This is a choice on my part, akin to deciding whether to cast an argument as inductive or deductive. (i.e., You can always make an inductive argument deductive by adding or bolstering a premise, though all the uncertainty will simply migrate into that premise – there is no net gain.) The two alternatives seems to be:

    1. A formulation of property rights that does not take into account all moral considerations. This formulation could therefore be morally contradicted or superseded by other systems that did account for all moral considerations, or that accounted for any differing subset of moral considerations.

    2. A formulation of property rights that is not based on moral considerations at all. For example, a formulation in which property is merely a convenient administrative tool, or a formulation in which the notion of property is limited to describing the status quo – a “starting point” of factual possession on which other systems will act.

    The first I see as too messy to lead to any resolution at a theoretical level, yet descriptively this is exactly what we have because it’s the best we can do today. We feel property rights should be pretty fundamental and individual, but we lack a theoretical model for their collision with some issues of justice so we end up with laws aimed in both directions. The legal system is adept at reconciling these conflicts on a purely practical level without addressing the theoretical conflict, so the actual operation of our system doesn’t necessarily churn out clues or wisdom about how to resolve the question. In fact it tends to become more insular and self-referential as the years go by. My rejection of this choice in a nutshell: we’re going to have to deal with all moral considerations that are relevant to property somewhere. Why shouldn’t we call the complete set of those considerations our theory of property?

    The second I find uninteresting both viscerally and practically. To wit, it seems practically uninteresting to formulate government of property among people who are not viscerally opinionated about the topic. There are a few scenarios for this. The hypothetical post-scarcity society, in which the worst potential property violations are only akin to cutting in line. Or a full-knowledge, full-empathy community in which my property brings you as much utility as your own, and in which property rules are akin to traffic lights, existing only to reduce confusion and ensure efficient utilization of resources. Alternatively, this formulation could be applied to our world but in a way that moved all the moral issues of property fully into another sphere, in which case it becomes a subset of alternative #1 and subject to those objections instead.

    • “we’re going to have to deal with all moral considerations that are
      relevant to property somewhere. Why shouldn’t we call the complete set
      of those considerations our theory of property?”

      There is a standard answer to this question, which distinguishes questions of right from questions of virtue (see, e.g., Kant, ‘Metaphysics of Morals’). To use an example Haidt uses (in a different connection): a man has the right to buy a (dead) chicken from the supermarket, take it home, and have sexual intercourse with it. Some people would say that what he does is wrong, in the sense that it is a vice of some kind; other people would see nothing wrong with it at all. But both can agree that he has the right to do it; and this can be explained in terms of property rights. To put it another way, even if the man acts viciously (unvirtuously) he does not act unjustly. Given that disagreements about virtue are and, I hope, always will be, matters of dispute, the distinction between right and virtue, and thus the distinction between property rights and morals, is essential for social peace.

      • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

        Ah, right. I meant to refer only to enforceable moral considerations, leaving (unenforceable) virtue and vice out of it. If redistribution of wealth is “mere” virtue, for example, then we must refrain from coercing it. If, on the other hand, it is actually justice due the poor as a result of enforceable moral facts about property, then coercive measures are actually a duty of the state.

        • I would rather say: coercive measures are permissible. Why presuppose a state?

          • Ethan Pooley (furball4)


  • Colin

    I look forward to reading your posts Matt. I especially liked what you said in today’s post: “A policy ‘works’, presumably, if it gets the right results. But what results are right? Economic growth? Increased happiness? More freedom?…” It seems like these are the crucial issues that need to be addressed by political philosophers of all stripes. I also look forward to the book you are co authoring with John Tomasi. BTW, do you have a feel for when that book is going to be ready for purchase. This post was very insightful like all of the posts on this site.

  • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

    I’ll also be looking for the maximization and Herbert Spencer discussions, because I have been working on a formulation that goes something like this:

    “The law of equal freedom contains within it the law of maximum freedom. For if a majority decides any issue for all, that it could have avoided, it makes the minority less free than itself, and thus unequally so.”

    I had written it down and intended to come back to it, because it struck me as too neat and therefore potentially confused.

  • j_m_h

    Matt, your href= to seems to have an extra w in the URL so the hyperlink isn’t working.

    • Wwhoops! Thanks for the tip. 🙂

      • j_m_h

        Happy to help — now if I could only catch my own gaffs and keep my fingers from putting my foot in my mounth….

  • aecklund

    I am not a philosopher, but I have always bristled at the
    notion that libertarians want to maximize freedom. Freedom is such a vague term that means
    different things to different people. It
    always begs the question, freedom from what.
    Freedom from taxes? From obligations? Consequences?
    Gravity? In the broadest sense,
    the only way to maximize freedom is to eliminate all personal attachments,
    which to most people seems like an unfulfilling way to live. I answer this question by saying our goal
    should be to maximize freedom from coercion.
    While free from coercion, we retain our responsibilities toward our
    neighbors. The debate between the mini-anarchist
    and the anarchist becomes do we limit or abolish the notion of justifiable
    coercion. In both cases, maximizing
    freedom from coercion is a moral end with practical advantages. The libertarians I have encountered
    understand this even if they do not always clarify it well. In my experience, the only people who
    struggle with the idea are critics of libertarianism.

    It is a common joke among libertarians that our critics
    demand perfection from libertarian approaches while accepting obvious flaws in
    State approaches. That said we have all
    fallen into the perfection trap. You
    brought up the possibility of employers coercing their employees. The standard trap we fall into is arguing in
    a free society employers would not coerce their employees because the employees
    are free to find new employment. While
    this might be sound economic reasoning, the argument falls flat because most
    people understand implicitly that coercion will always exist. Regardless of the political system, bad
    people will always be among us, and sometimes they will get away with doing bad
    things. Furthermore, we can make strong
    moral and practical arguments why employers should show restraint. It is reasonable to expect consequences for
    employers who fail to do so.

    As libertarians, we would do better if we consistently took
    Roderick Long’s approach in the CATO Unbound article you referenced. We need to explain how State coercion not only
    fails to deter employers from coercing their employees, but also actively protects
    coercive employers. By doing so, we can
    undermine both the moral and practical justification for State coercion. Again, the libertarians I have encountered
    understand this, but we still too often fall into the perfection trap.