Book/Article Reviews

Jason Brennan Did Not Like Gary Chartier’s New Book

My review of Chartier’s most recent book is here:  Perhaps I have the minority point of view here. Tesón calls it “required reading”. Zwolinski says that book is “one of the most important books of libertarian political theory to be published in the last forty years.”

Chartier responds to me here:

I didn’t intend originally to discuss this on Bleeding Hearts, but instead to keep my criticisms confined to academic obscurity on NDPR. But here we are.

To start, it’s worth noting that of all the billions of people in the world, I’ve got to be among the very very closest to Chartier in terms of ideological disposition. I think his project is important, and that his broad political conclusions are right, or at least pretty close to right. Still, I found the book deeply unsatisfactory. Chartier had a book workshop at Arizona in which one of my colleagues expressed similar concerns to mine. I wish that workshop had occurred earlier, so that Chartier might have had a chance to revise the manuscript in light of the comments. If Chartier had written the book with a much more hostile audience in mind, it could have been a fantastic work.

One of my complaints about Anarchy and Legal Order is that Chartier bases it on a controversial moral theory. Chartier responds:

He is doubtless correct that NCNL theory is both controversial and not the majority view among Thomists.[2] Whether this is, on its own, a reason to criticize it is presumably another matter. Compare: libertarianism is a minority position in political theory; and bleeding-heart libertarianism of the sort Brennan endorses is a minority position among libertarians. That hardly means it’s not interesting or important.

I’m hardly one to avoid controversy, true. I think for-profit business can be a way to exercise civic virtue, that most people shouldn’t vote, and that democracy is unjust. But there’s a huge difference between A) starting with uncontroversial premises to generate controversial conclusions and B) starting with controversial premises and then ending with controversial conclusions. My work generally tends to be instances of A. Chartier’s most recent book is an instance of B. Now, if Chartier just meant the book to be a big conditional–if you accept my controversial moral theory, then anarchism follows–then his book would be less problematic, but also of less value.

In my critique, I point out that Chartier’s theory has some extremely counterintuitive implications. So, for instance, almost everybody accepts the following claims:

  1. A day spent winning the Olympics you trained your entire life for is better than a day spent watching a movie you barely enjoy.
  2. From a moral point of view, it would be better if everyone were virtuous and happy rather than if everyone were suffering and miserable.

1 and 2 just seem like really obvious, pre-theoretic claims to me. Accepting 1 or 2 doesn’t commit us to consequentialism. Pretty much every moral theory–except Chartier’s–is compatible with 1 and 2. Now, perhaps 1 and 2 are mistaken, but we’d a really compelling justification to show why. You’d have to show me that believing in 1 and 2 leads to certain absurd or troubling conclusions, conclusions so troubling that I’d have to give up 1 and 2. Chartier has some arguments against this (and he does a much better job explaining then in his blog post than in the book), but the problem is that 1 and 2 seem much more plausible than any of his objections to them. So, if 1 and 2 are incompatible with Chartier’s premises, my take is so much the worse for his premises.

As for Chartier’s concerns about incommensurability and public policy, see David Schmidtz’s excellent paper on cost-benefit analysis here:

Last point:

And of course Huemer’s Problem of Political Authority, which he cites approvingly, devotes very little time to addressing the problem of poverty in a stateless society. So it’s not clear just what he would regard as a satisfactory treatment of the issue of economic vulnerability.

That’s right, and I’m curious to see how Huemer will respond to Hassoun’s criticism of him on this point. In fact, if I remember correctly, I recommended to Huemer that he explicitly address this problem in his book. Huemer has no treatment of this issue, while Chartier has an unconvincing treatment of it (and I say that as someone who basically agrees with Chartier on his conclusions). So, yes, both their books are flawed in this respect.


  • There is nothing wrong with starting with controversial premises and ending with controversial conclusions. That is what a scientist does when he proposes a new scientific theory. The theory may be accepted if the controversial conclusions survive empirical testing. This often also involves reinterpreting previously accepted empirical evidence which conflicts with the new theory. This is possible because empirical evidence is theory-laden, so replacing old theories can turn counter-evidence into corroborating evidence.

    The same thing can be done in maths, logic and philosophy, and the reason is essentially the same. Our intuitions are the products of our culturally and biologically inherited theories. The notion of ‘pre-theoretical intuition’ is incoherent. A revolutionary new theory can bring in its train developments in our theoretical framework which lead us to reject past intuitions and replace them with new ones. That happened in the Renaissance when ideas of natural hierarchies, which seemed intuitively obvious before, were challenged and eventually replaced, so that by the time of the Enlightenment it seemed intuitively obvious that people are in some sense essentially equal.

    Of course, you are right that there is useful intellectual work to be done in deriving novel conclusions from uncontroversial premises. But that is not how the big advances are made.

    Your #2 seems to be false. It is at least not obviously true. How can we have virtue if our supposed virtues are never tested? We need to suffer and to confront difficult situations, not only in order to display virtue, but in order to acquire it. Similarly, an important part of virtue consists in, and derives from, helping others. If there were no suffering and miserable others to help, such virtue would atrophy. Of course, I am not saying that, from a moral point of view, it is best that everyone is suffering and miserable (and vicious). But I am saying that a world without suffering, unhappiness and vice would seem to leave morality with nothing to do.

    In short, we need both intellectual and moral cojones.

    • Sean II

      Three comments Danny.

      1) “The notion of ‘pre-theoretical intuition’ is incoherent.”

      I very much agree. The example I’m fondest of using in arguments – because nearly everyone who grew up pre-1990 can attest to this – is there used to be a powerful universal “intuition” that homosexuality was evil and revolting. Kids who knew nothing about sex, who came from houses where it was never discussed, somehow acquired the idea. All the main anti-gay slurs were part of a standard playground vocabulary by the age of five or six. Any honest social science researcher operating back then would have said “it seems a natural part of human nature to fear and hate gay people.”

      Today, the opposite is true. If a kid uses an anti-gay slur on a playground, he’s the one who gets ostracized. The fact that it was so easy, essentially within one generation, to defeat the anti-gay intuition satisfies me that it was no intuition at all. That, along with plenty of other reasons, satisfies me that the whole idea of moral intuition is probably madness (though it seems to have taken in plenty of people I otherwise admire).

      2) “Of course…there is…work to be done in deriving novel conclusions from uncontroversial premises. But that is not how the big advances are made.”

      The fetish for starting from uncontroversial premises clearly owes a lot to the evangelical project in libertarianism. People who swear they’re not involved in attempted public persuasion, people who claim to be humble academic searchers for truth, show a strange fondness for starting points that don’t make much sense except as a calculated means to outreach. I can recall someone praising one of Brennan’s books on the grounds that the whole thing “was written so as to convince people who don’t already agree with him.” What the reviewer meant was, “Yea!, He starts from such obvious and uncontroversial premises, maybe people won’t notice or won’t be able to resist when, presto, on page 127 they suddenly find themselves rationally compelled to stop voting.”

      But you’re right. When a really big advance comes along, there’s a good chance the first symptom will be that it alienates just about everyone by the time they reach page 2, thanks to a premise every bit as controversial as its conclusion.

      3) “If there were no suffering and miserable others to help, such virtue would atrophy.”

      That would put Rawlsianism in a difficult position. It aways seems weird to me when libertarians agree to discuss a future libertarian society in terms of how it will treat its poor and wretched. I thought the whole point was, like, to not have a bunch of poor and wretched running around waiting for Rawlsian justice to redound to the benefit of them (which doesn’t sound like so much fun, when you say it that way).

      Maybe that means I’m not really a BHL’er, and shouldn’t be here.

      • You should definitely be here, Sean. I am no kind of BHL-er (I think talk of social justice is nonsense). I am here because I disagree, not because I agree. If everyone here agreed with me, I’d have nothing to learn. We’d all just be ‘proving’ uncontroversial conclusions from our intuitively obvious premises.


        Hi Sean,
        About your #1; how about a more challenging example: “It’s wrong to torture (unconsenting) people for your own amusement”

        • Sean II

          I have answer for that.

          If you search the web you’ll find hundeds of street fight videos, real fight videos, whatever they’re called. One disturbing feature in many of these is the naked enthusiasm of the live audience, laughing and cheering at the sight of a fellow human getting his ass kicked. The assailant in the fight does no violence to your idea that “it’s wrong to torture people for your own amusement”. You’re allowed a few exceptions, and the mere existence of a moral intuition doesn’t make a guarantee against individual acts in breach of it. But I don’t think you can believe in that intuition and still explain the behavior of the cheering crowd.

          See also, the whole history of bloodsports, gladiatorial combat, etc. See also, middle school bullying, usually perpetrated by one or two people by enjoyed as a spectacle by many more. See also, the spectrum of BDSM fetishes, because…who cares if most people manage to limit their expression of sadism to consenting “victims”? That could just mean they value staying out of prison more than they value a full release of their urge to torture people for pleasure.

          If moral intuition means “most people say X when confronted with Y”, then it’s just silly. To modify a famous joke:

          An economist and an ethicist are walking down the street. They step over a old homeless man who is moaning pathetically and shaking from alcohol withdrawal. The ethicist says, “This is what I’m trying to tell you! Thanks to moral intuition, we both feel an innate desire to help this poor, suffering man.”

          The economist waits until they’ve walked about ten steps further, then says, “Obviously not.”

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I certainly agree that not everyone will have this intuition, and I do not even claim that most people are intrinsically moral (versus the fear of getting caught), but the issue I think is more “is the very idea of having moral intuitions coherent?” Or, is it like the idea of riding a unicorn. See my ongoing discussion with Danny.

          • Ah, you might have misinterpreted me at one point. I do think we have moral intuitions. There is no incoherence in the claim that people have moral intuitions. My point is only that those intuitions are not ‘pre-theoretical.’ They are products of accepted (usually inherited) theories.

          • I doubt that this is an answer to Mark. As he pointed out in response, having a moral intuition is one thing; acting on it is something else. We all sometimes do what we think to be wrong.

          • Sean II

            “Having a moral intuition is one thing; acting on it is something else.”

            No, no, no! I am saying precisely this: if you do not act on it, then it’s not really your moral intuition, and it has no moral meaning. (Unless I missed the part of Aristotle’s ethics where he said “One day there will be born a man named Jonathan Haidt. The highest good is whatever people tell him in surveys. Ignore the rest.”)

            The idea that actions count, first and best, seems so central to an understanding the free market, I actually can’t believe anyone here disputes it. Most of humanity goes around saying things like: “money doesn’t matter”, “it’s better to give than receive”, “I’m not doing this for myself”, “of course I would totally clean toilets for nothing in a Marxist utopia, wouldn’t you?”

            I don’t see how one can even be a libertarian, without calling bullshit on all that, and without putting demonstrated preference ahead of stated preference whenever the two depart.

          • I think there is a confusion here; and a falsehood. First the confusion.

            Let’s assume that preference = demonstrated preference. One may have a moral intuition that doing x is wrong and yet prefer to do x and actually do x. In other words, there is a distinction between what I think is right and what I prefer to do. Kant, of course, makes much of this, though it is part of traditional morality. It is very easy to understand because our moral views come from culturally inherited theories, which often clash with our desires (a point Hayek makes much of).

            The falsehood is the doctrine of demonstrated preference. It should be seen that this is false from what I said already, at least if we accept that we sometimes do what we think we ought rather than what we would prefer. But it is also false because of weakness of will, confusion, poor memory, not putting two and two together, and so on and so forth. one often chooses what one does not prefer due to human frailty.

            I don’t see these points as having anything particularly to do with libertarianism or its denial.

          • Sean II

            So if you have a friend who keeps telling you “I really want to quit drinking”, but who keeps showing up drunk 3/4 of the time you see him…do you describe him as “my friend who wants to quit drinking”, or as “my friend who drinks too much.”?

            There is nothing in the concept of demonstrated preference that says “all the time” or “with no exceptions”. I would gladly still call Gandhi a celibate, even though he evidently broke down and got his freak on once or twice per decade. Still close enough for me.

            But if he’d kept ten mistresses and staged orgies twice a day (like so many other gurus seem to do), then I’m afraid his stated preference fades into insignificance.

            So the question is, which more closely resembles humanity in the general case? Gandhi, who came pretty damn close to doing what he said and saying what he did, or…the other option.

            The reason why this has everything to do with libertarianism is simple:

            1) Most people state a preference for socialism, communalism, anti-materialism, non-spontaneous order, etc.

            2) They are clearly lying in a sense, because more than half the time you catch them out, maximizing their own utility quick as they can, gobbling up the goodies of the market, etc.

            3) One of the things we as libertarians are saying is “Stop doing 1), and feel free to continue 2), but you know, try to be honest about it”.

          • He could be both: the friend who wants to quit drinking; and the friend who drinks too much. Preference is distinct from behaviour. But the two are connected, more or less loosely, in that we would test our theory about a person’s preferences in part by seeing what he does, in part by hearing what he says. But how things are (his actual preferences) is one thing, and how we test our theory about how things are is a different one. Positivists like Quine and Davidson run the two together (the old confusion of truth with verification); lots of economists have been heavily influenced by the positivists (including the ostensibly anti-positivist von Mises).

            One of the problems in these sorts of discussions is the very looseness of the sense of ‘preference.’ If a person does what he thinks is right rather than what he prefers, we might say that he preferred to do what is right on that occasion. If we are to think clearly, we really need to drop the catch-all term ‘preference’ and use a range of more specific terms, such as ‘what he desires,’ ‘what he values for himself,’ ‘what he values for others,’ ‘what he thinks right,’ and so on. In case you are interested, I say a lot more about this in an unpublished paper, ‘Adversus Homo Economicus,’ which is available here:


            None of this amounts to a rejection of economics. It is simply a recognition that economics offers a simplification of reality, what Popper calls a ‘model.’ Thus, economic theory is false but predictively useful, just like scientific theories in general. But we may count it as, in some sense, an approximation to the truth. This tallies, more or less, with Milton Friedman’s classic paper on the methodology of economics, which is very similar to Popper’s view. I criticise, and then defend a modified version of, Popper’s view in a recently published paper which is available here


            and here


            I sympathise with your points (1) – (3). But in the light of the preceding, I would tone down (2) and (3) a bit. For example, one might prefer socialism but think that, so long as we live in a market economy, the best way to live is to conform (there could be a number of reasons for that). In general I try to avoid accusing people of being liars, though there are many circumstances in which it is natural or understandable, and I am sure I do it sometimes. But those are occasions on which I act against my preference.

          • Sean II



      Please see my question to Sean below.

      • Hi Mark,

        You have raised this one before, quite a while back. But my answer has not changed.

        The proposition:

        “It’s wrong to torture (unconsenting) people for your own amusement”

        is currently a part of a leading theory. Therefore, any theory that conflicts with it seems to be false given the current state of debate. I agree not only that it might be the case that the proposition will never be falsified, but that it is very implausible to say that it might one day be falsified. Still, implausible though that is, it might, for all we know, come about. After the discovery of Neptune it was highly implausible that Newton’s theory would one day be rejected as false. But it happened. Who knows what the future will bring? Humankind is in its epistemological and moral infancy.


          Yes, I remember our earlier conversation. I would just say that I think it is so very implausible that this statement will ever be falsified that it is much more useful, and consistent with our ordinary use of language, to call this a “moral fact” than a “leading theory.” You have previously relied on human flourishing as the keystone of morality–I can’t imagine how a community could flourish if this most basic proposition is abandoned.

          However, I would also add that you started by saying that “The notion of ‘pre-theoretical intuition’ is incoherent.” Perhaps you are using “incoherent” here in some non-standard way, but the fact that something can be proven wrong does not render it incoherent. Newtonian physics (and just about all scientific theories) have been revised in light of current knowledge, but I don’t think this makes them incoherent.

          • But you WOULD say it is so very implausible, wouldn’t you? Just as I would. Just as physicists 150 years back would have said that it is so very implausible that Newton’s theory could turn out to be false.

            I don’t mind you calling it a moral fact. I talk about some things being facts, even though I am prepared to admit they may turn out to be false. Fact-theory is a matter of degree.

            I was using ‘incoherent’ in a standard way. If intuitions are inherently products of theory and cannot be anything else, then a pre-theoretical intuition is something that cannot possibly exist. So the idea of it is incoherent. Intuitions are a product of theory because they are ways things seem. And the only way things can seem to us is by us interpreting them by means of a theory. That’s the way the mind works. Just as perception is theory impregnated, our ‘mental seeing’ (intuition) varies with the theories we hold.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I guess we are just going to disagree about your claim that: “Intuitions are a product of theory because they are ways things seem. And the only way things can seem to us is by us interpreting them by means of a theory. That’s the way the mind works. Just as perception is theory impregnated, our ‘mental seeing’ (intuition) varies with the theories we hold.” I don’t see this. I don’t need, and do not rely on, any moral or empirical theory for the intuition that “torturing (unconsenting) people for fun is wrong.” Of course, I can articulate a theory as to why this is so, but this is a separate matter.

            Your rather conclusory claim that: “And the only way things can seem to us is by us interpreting them by means of a theory. That’s the way the mind works,” is not self-evident to me, especially with respect to moral intuitions (versus scientific observations). If I stub my toe, and go “ouch,” I don’t think this exclamation is the product of any theory I might have about the nature of pain, its causes, etc. Similarly, I am not sure why my basic moral intuitions are necessarily the product of any moral theory. I think you need to say much more about this.

          • The easiest way to see that moral intuitions depend upon moral theories is to compare intuitions across cultures or across historical periods. Change the culturally-inherited theories and the self-evident certainties change too.

            ‘Ouch’ is just an exclamation. It is not a way of seeing anything. But you can’t be comparing moral theories to ‘ouch’ because you are not a subjectivist. So, I don’t really see what that example is doing there.

            I recommend reading Popper’s contribution to ‘The Self and its Brain.’ There are several discussions there concerning how the self is constructed out of theories (which is Popper’s counter-intuitive way of putting it). Each of us has to learn to be a self; and that learning involves the mastery of a set of theories, some of them inborn, e.g. about persons and time. Without theories to interpret the world, there is no us.

            More recently, David Papineau has argued that our intuitions are just inherited theories, though he does not mention Popper. He has a selection of papers here:


            I think it is ‘The Poverty of Analysis’ and the paper on the A Priori in which you will find the relevant stuff.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the clarification and references. I would just say that my understanding is that when philsophers use the term “pre-theoretical intuitions” they are not implying “free of cultural influence” or the like. In other words, people from different cultures can have conflicting intuitions, as they obviously do, while still being “pre-theoretical.” I think the point of this phrase is that the intuition is not logically derived from or dependent on a conscious, pre-existing moral theory. Rather, it is something that we just see or feel, rather than a conclusion we derive from some chain of reasoning. See Michael Huemer’s defense of philosophical intuitions here:

          • If that is the way they use the term, it is misleading. If the intuitions are the products of unconscioulsy-held theories, it hardly conduces to clarity to call them ‘pre-theoretical.’ But the intuitionist tradition is different to that. According to that tradition we have a mental power or faculty of intuition which enables us to ‘see’ truths. I think that a lot of what contemporary philosophers say only makes sense on that assumption. But I won’t make a big deal of this, because I don’t pay much attention to it (I often stop reading when someone talks of ‘pre-theoretical intuition’).

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Ok, fair enough, but you might want to read Huemer’s book Ethical Intuitionism before you dismiss this entire philosophical tradition. I think that in this book he answers the very objection you raise regarding a special “mental power or faculty.”

        • Sean II


          I submit the theory of moral intuition doesn’t need to be falsified, because the only thing that makes it falsification proof is its own negation. Here’s what I mean:

          Fifteen minutes ago, I saw a woman driving a car and smoking a cigarette, with her hair exposed. I didn’t throw up or get mad or stone her death or anything. I just waved hello. Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of dudes in Waziristan who would collectively shit themselves with rage, if they saw what I just saw. If I asked them why, they would say, “What the hell do you mean why? Everyone knows women shouldn’t smoke or drive cars. Everyone knows that’s a disgusting sin. What were you, raised by jackals? Is this stupid question time? Why don’t you ask me why I breathe?”

          Now…somebody’s right, and somebody’s wrong. Either my moral intuition is correct and women really are people, or it’s not, and they aren’t.

          If they’re right, then I somehow tricked myself into ignoring what was supposed to be my moral intuition. If I’m right, then some combination of Islam and Pashtunwali managed to trick them into ignoring theirs.

          Either way, moral intuition ain’t terribly sticky. So the intuitionist has a problem.

          A: “Nearly everyone believes X, intuitively.”

          B: “Um, not these guys, not these guys, and not those guys over there. Actually, on close inspection, it seems like only European and Americans with a PPP above $20,000 a year believe that and act on it reliably.”

          A: “Yes, but all the others have simply been misled.”

          B: “So morality is both intuitive and also totally malleable?”

          A: “That’s all the time we have. Join us next week…”

          • Yes, the danger with the idea that truth is manifest is that the people who do not accept the manifest truth must be liars, cheats, evil so-and-sos.

  • mercrono

    For those of us less familiar with the background material here, could someone offer a brief explanation for why Brennan’s claims 1 and 2 are incompatible with Chartier’s moral theory? That suggestion just seems so absurd that I wonder whether it’s unfair to Chartier, but then, maybe he has a really absurd moral theory.

  • matt b

    You might disagree with me but I think that the the results are in and they aren’t great for Huemer. His reply to Hassoun is basically as follows “So you say government can tax people to reduce poverty. But if I came to you and said I’m going to throw you in a cage if you don’t take part in my OxFam drive you would say that’s wrong. So therefore government anti-poverty programs are wrong.” For Huemer, the intuition here is that while poverty is bad and people should help end it you don’t have a right to make them do so. Really? What if the only way to prevent mass starvation or disease was to go to people and demand, under threat of imprisonment, that they contribute to relief efforts. Would that be wrong? This is not a wild scenario either so that’s the type of situation that is taking place in the thirld world. I also wish he’d address the BHL claim that property rights are only justified if they are sufficiently beneficial to all though to be fair that’s not exactly what Hassoun was saying though I view her position as far closer to the BHL view (she says property rights must not function in a way that prevent people from meeting their basic needs) than Huemer’s.

    • @2f4691b10773fb0f85ce8f9e621ec209:disqus

      I agree with you that Huemer doesn’t have a strong response to Hassoun, though I don’t think Hassoun has a knockdown argument against Huemer either. I don’t see either of them as giving the other person much reason to budge, given their starting points. I think the issue here is the Huemer would reject the reasoning in the post below, while Hassoun would embrace it:

      But Huemer’s book is really good at dealing with a wide range of other issues.

      • matt b

        Thinking over this, I think I am may have been a little hard on Huemer or at least failed to express the fact that I think, like you, that his book is really good at dealing with a wide range of issues. Huemer’s hits against social contract theory and the “majority makes it right” view are really quite awesome. I just was dissapointed by his failure to engage in a deep, comprehensive way with various “the consequences of no state would be awful” arguments.
        I completely agree. While I’m not an anarchist of course, I can’t stand when people hit Huemer and others with “oh you like Somalia do you” arguments. It’s really poor quality argument and I was annoyed that Hassoun went there. I generally found Hassoun’s argument solid though but then I went and did some research and was dissapointed to find out that she’s quite well known for critiquing global free trade as a meaningful anti-poverty measure. I think she is but one illustratinon of the challenge of the BHL project: so many left-liberals are reflexively anti-market that they twist themselves into pretzels saying markets aren’t the solution to anything.

        • The funny thing about the Somalia example, though, is that there are all these peer-reviewed articles in econ journals arguing that Somalia is actually better off under anarchy than it was under a state, and that it has outperformed other similar regions over the past few years. Huemer cited one of those papers.

          I went to graduate school with Hassoun. She’s definitely one to suffer from confirmation bias. I once had a conversation with her that went like this:

          Hassoun: Hey, J, you know a lot about economics. What should I read in macroeconomics so I can get a good grasp of what economists think?
          Me: Well, there are some textbooks I can recommend to start. What do you need this for?
          Hassoun: I want to explain why they are wrong.
          Me: If you don’t know what they think, how do you already know they’re wrong?

          EDIT: This is posting from my wife’s facebook page for some reason.

          • matt b

            Ha I was so confused for a second. I’m reading through this and I’m like “Why would someone named Lauren be called J” Okay makes sense. I seriously cannot believe that exchange, Jason. Like really? I hope she’s grown up since then. The funniest thing is the “want to explain why they are wrong” comment as if all economists think the same. I’m not that surprised thought since a lot of people on the left seem to think that all economists do is come up with misleading data to implement their Ayn Rand worldview.

      • Aeon Skoble

        “at best, they can do empirically well-informed speculation, because the truth is we just don’t know until we experiment”
        Happily, we do have actual experience. Huemer’s case is much stronger than you suggest when we consider actual history. Consider the work of David Beito, for instance. Before there were state insitutions to prevent poor people from starving to death, voluntary institutions prevented people from starving to death. Indeed, I am not sure there _any_ examples of mass starvation (or mass murder) that aren’t _caused by_ states, so using mass starvation against Huemer is not a good move.

        • Aeon,

          I agree, but I think Beito’s and others similar work is what make is reasonable to suspect, but not yet to expect, that anarchism could work. It gives us reason to think that we should give it a try on a small scale and see what happens. Start with New Hampshire.

    • jtkennedy

      Matt, “What if the only way to prevent mass starvation or disease was to go to people and demand, under threat of imprisonment, that they contribute to relief efforts.”

      I think Humer’s reply would be that this not normally the case and and could conceivably justify only the tiniest fraction of actual government anti-poverty programs.

      “This is not a wild scenario either so that’s the type of situation that is taking place in the thirld world. ”

      As Caplan pointed out in the same debate the greatest thing that could be done to ease world poverty would be to recognize the *negative* rights of individuals by opening the borders. So no, extortion is not the only way to prevent mass starvation.

  • matt b

    One last comment on Huemer since his response to the criticisms of his book is up today: he seems to think he’s scored a major intellectual victory by moving away from the NAP to a “non-aggression presumption.” In other words, yes non- hard libertarians you are right that it wouldn’t be wrong to steal a penny to save ten thousand people. His formulation is basically one of “You can coerce to prevent really bad things.” But this tells us little as Huemer does not, to my knowledge, really engage with what liberals and others claim are really bad things. For example, when Hassoun says the reality of mass suffering, starvation, and disease is so horrible that it justifies taxation to mitigate these problems all Huemer says, and I’m paraphrasing is, “If someone came up to you with a gun and said give me money to help the hungry and the sick you would think that’s wrong.” So is this Huemer’s way of saying that mass suffering, starvation, and disease are bad but not the type of really bad thing that could justify coercion? And if that’s not enough then it seems to me that Huemer’s position is almost indistinguishable from that of people like Walter Block. It seems less extreme because he goes from absolute “non-aggression” to be a presumption but that presumption is so incredibly strong that, in practice, it’s essentially absolute.

    • As I read it, I think Huemer would then say, if you’re correct that mass suffering, starvation, and disease could justify massive, forced taxation, then either your intuition about robbing people as an individual to make a donation to Oxfam is wrong, or it’s right, but you now need to provide some explanation for the difference between your non-right to rob for extremely good reasons and the state’s right to rob for extremely good reasons. You can’t just say, the state can do it, and I can’t, and there’s no problem to be explained there.

      • That’s right, but then lots of people have already offered fairly plausible explanations of why the state is different from the average person here.

      • matt b

        Let me be clear (I always think of Obama’s baritone lecture voice when I say this): I would say that any individual would be morally justified in extorting money from people to correct mass suffering, starvation, and disease. So I don’t say at all that “Oh only the government can do it.” I say, quite emphatically, that individuals would be justified in doing this if it was truly a case of “do this and prevent mass suffering, disease, and death” or “don’t do it and watch the misery index hit 1000.” I’m sure Peter Singer is pretty hated around these parts- and I disagree with him on many points- but I think he’s 100 percent right when he says a basic moral intuition is that people who can participate in a project that does a great deal of good at little cost to themselves are morally obligated to participate. That seems right.

    • Sean II

      I kind of think Huemer has scored a big victory in switching from the non-agression principle to the non-agression preference.

      I mean, what’s not to like? Now I can oppose corn ethanol subsidies without promising to let my neighbor starve his kids. That seems faint praise, but since half the libertarian movement mind-@#$&ed itself for nearly 50 years on the latter question, I guess this’ll just have to pass for a major innovation.

      It misses Huemer’s whole point to insist that he provide some absolute cut score for the use of coercion.

      Half the people I know would use state coercion to cut birthday cake, if they could only figure out a way. I’d be thrilled beyond dreams to live on a planet where I spent my time arguing with people who were slightly reluctant to use violence against me.

      • matt b

        It would be missing Huemer’s point to insist that he provide some absolute cut score. I did not say that he should however. Let us not forget the core premise at the heart of the book: “Absolute NAP libertarians are wrong that you can never use coercion except to protect narrowly defined negative rights. If stealing a dollar could prevent an asteroid you should do it.” In other words, you can coerce if the consequences of not doing so would be really bad. Okay great. But at this point some examination of what “really bad” means is needed. To many people, even libertarians, the fact that there is mass suffering, starvation, and easily preventable disease which has and continues to be mitigated by foreign aid (and please people don’t give me the ron paul “foreign aid is taxing poor people to serve rich people” line because (a) it’s largely false (b) I know there are many problematic things about foreign aid and that global free trade and open borders are the really effective measures to help the poor) is an example of coercion being used to mitigate something really bad. Yet in his reply to Hassoun, Huemer basically tells us “Hm it’s bad but probably not bad enough to justify coercion.” Well if millions starving and dying because they get bit by mosquitoes is not the type of really bad thing that could justify the use of coercion to mitigate then what would fall into that category? Holocausts maybe?