Links, Libertarianism

The Foundations of Libertarianism

Recently, I concluded a critical essay on the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) by making the following claim:

there comes a point where adding another layer of epicycles to one’s theory seems no longer to be the best way to proceed. There comes a point where what you need is not another refinement to the definition of “aggression” but a radical paradigm shift in which we put aside the idea that non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe. Libertarianism needs its own Copernican Revolution.

But if not the NAP, then what? Where is the proper moral foundation of libertarianism to be found?

That’s the question that a group of us are going to be exploring over at this week. My own essay went up this morning. In it, I claim that the problem with the NAP isn’t that it’s the wrong moral rule on which to ground libertarian belief. It’s that the search for a moral rule from which libertarian beliefs can be neatly deduced is itself misguided. What we need are principles, not rules.

Principles are not like rules. Where rules function in our reasoning like trump cards, principles function like weights. If the appli­cable moral rule forbids X, then X is ruled out, so to speak. In contrast, principles can weigh against X without categorically ruling out X.

Principles make moral reasoning messy. Their application involves judgment and discretion, and they leave room for the possibility of irresolvable disagreement between reasonable parties. Simple rules like the NAP avoid this messiness, but

while we can make our moral theory as simple as we wish, that doesn’t do anything to simplify the underlying moral facts that theory is supposed to represent. Morality – even just the sub-part of morality concerned with justice – is complicated. As libertarians, we can either ignore that complexity, pretending that considerations of need, desert, and utility are of no intrinsic significance. Or we can embrace it, and argue that our system does better than any alternative at coping with that complexity, and generating reasonable political prescriptions on the basis of all the morally relevant information.

You can read the whole essay here. More essays are coming this week from (at least) Jason Kuznicki, George Smith, Brink Lindsey, J.C. Lester, and Aaron Powell. Stay tuned!

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Jameson Graber

    Liked the essay, as I, too, am against any sort of moral foundationalism. But I see a lot of people on the left take individual liberty as a “principle” that then becomes rather quickly “outweighed” by other principles. What makes the difference in these debates between a BHL and a left liberal who thinks we need massive government regulation in order to keep people free?

    • ThaomasH

      Or between a liberal and a garden variety Libertarian who sees market transactions with externalities, e.g. CO2 or SO2 emissions, that the tort system has not been able to internalize, or the failure of a market to develop for a subscription-based food and drug screening service to protect consumers, or a collective action problem if a large number of people are willing to purchase (be taxed for) a non-excludable public good (NASA, research that does not lead to patentable profitable products) if others are too.

      • Sean II

        “…or the failure of a market to develop for a subscription-based food and drug screening service to protect consumers…”

        When didn’t that not unhappen?

        • ThaomasH

          Sometime between the Big Bang and this morning.

          • Sean II

            Oh, okay. Thanks for narrowing it down. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I had to make sure it wasn’t just something you made up or imagined. I feel much better now.

    • Sean II

      And there you’ve hit it, the very reason why so many people fight so hard to defend non-aggression as an axiom. It’s the only way to guarantee libertarian outcomes across entire the policy spectrum. It’s the only way to fuse all political choices into a single question.

      You asked what is the difference between a left liberal and a BHL, once the silver bullet is given up? The answer is: “Hmmm…that’s tough”, or “Oh, c’mon…you know.” or maybe “You can sorta tell, ’cause if you ask about free trade, the liberal might give himself away as a skeptic.”

      Because of course you’re right. Now there is no obvious difference between a libertarian and either a liberal or a conservative. Most importantly, there is no test, no way to exclude people from the category. You know how Bill Maher likes to call himself a libertarian for shits and giggles? Well, under this standard, no one can say he isn’t. He can be just another piecemeal reformer, with a lot of pieces on their way to a very big meal.

      And that’s the ugly truth hiding behind this post. Matt Z isn’t giving us a new solution to an old problem, he’s giving us an old problem that was temporarily hidden behind a fake solution. It’s not for nothing that so many brilliant people fought on behalf of something as silly as absolute non-aggression, for so long. It’s not like they all caught encephalitis and lost their minds. They had a very good reason, and that reason is: the alternative truly sucks. Despite the benign cooking analogy, rule-free libertarianism is much harder to digest than Matt’s chow mein.

      • “And there you’ve hit it, the very reason why so many people fight so hard to defend non-aggression as an axiom. It’s the only way to guarantee libertarian outcomes across most or all of the policy spectrum.”

        And you’ve hit upon exactly the reason why I think this is a terrible approach. Political philosophy shouldn’t be a matter of searching for arguments to justify the conclusions you’ve already decided are correct. That’s bad philosophy when people on the left do it. But it’s no better when libertarians do it.

        • Sean II

          No doubt. It was always a bad solution, a non-solution. But knowing and admitting that – which you have, and I do – doesn’t make the underlying problem any less vexing.

          Personally, I’ve long thought the strict NAP was really just an unfortunate by-product of libertarianism’s wilderness years – roughly 1930 to 1980. Few may remember now, but there was a time when if you started a conversation with “I oppose the minimum wage”, people would just start hating you on the spot. Not figurative hatred, but real. With many people, you had a better chance of being thought decent if you stomped the life out of a puppy than if you, say, criticized the New Deal.

          Perverse as it is, the same people who foamed at the mouth when confronted with libertarian policy specifics, didn’t mind when you said something like “I oppose the initiation of force in all cases”. No one knew what to make of that at first blush. After all, it sounds like some harmless hippie bullshit, so you got treated more like a Krishna weirdo than a Dickensian villain. And if anyone can’t imagine why a libertarian would actually prefer and welcome such treatment…well, then he must be under the age of 40.

        • Sean II

          I should add, on a slightly separate note: I’ve never met a libertarian who honestly claimed to arrive at his convictions through deductive moral reasoning. I’ve never met one who could convince me that he just a priori’d his way into the philosophy, and then – happy accident! – went on to discover it’s many practical features.

          Every libertarian I know has a distinctly utilitarian-sounding origin story: “I saw that the consequences of smoking pot were nothing like the authorities claimed, and then I got suspicious about some of the other rules” or “After waiting in a gas line in the late 1970s, I saw a supply and demand curve, and it rocked my world” or “I interned one summer at a government welfare office, and it was just like Brazil“, etc.

          Now, it’s fine and good to take those experiences and go searching for the theory that explains them, ties them together. We’re supposed to do that. But what we’re NOT supposed to do is a) Force the issue with theories that don’t fit, or b) Forget what really brought us here in the first place.

          • How we get to our libertarian beliefs is one thing. What we do with them once we’ve got them is another. I suspect I got to libertarianism in the same way that everyone else did – an odd mix of psychology, personal experience, and a bit of reading. But I make every effort to hold my libertarianism as a revisable hypothesis, not a dead dogma. And that means treating counterarguments as opportunities to learn, not threats to “my position.” I’m a libertarian because I believe libertarianism to be true. If someone convinces me that libertarianism is not true, then (I hope) I’ll give up on libertarianism long before I give up on truth.

          • Sean II

            1) “How we get to our libertarian beliefs is one thing. What we do with them once we’ve got them is another.”

            I’m suggesting: maybe they should not be two different things. I’m suggesting: maybe the reasons that first bring us to libertarianism are actually the most important reasons to be a libertarian. I’m suggesting: maybe the ontogeny of the individual libertarian has something to teach us about the foundations of liberty.

            2) “If someone convinces me that libertarianism is not true, then (I hope) I’ll give up on libertarianism long before I give up on truth.”

            Okay, but I don’t see how relevant this is to the matter at hand. The fact remains: you are pretty damn sure that ain’t happening. The chances “someone will convince you” truth is the enemy of freedom are close enough to zero, we may pretend they are so. Lord knows I could not respect you more, o’ best blogger on the web’s best blog…but I just gotta call bullshit here: that humble boast about your philosophic purity doesn’t change the fact that the game is on, and you’ve chosen your team.



          With all due respect, your reply to Sean ignores the point made by Jason, which Sean endorsed. Once you start down the road of value pluralism, BHLs and high liberals will enunciate the same list of values, but will assign substantially different weights to them. Liberals will say, of course we value property rights and free markets, but in cases x, y, z, these values are outweighed by the requirement of social justice. AZnd BHLs will say, of course we accept the demands of social justice, but in cases x, y, z, property rights must be respected.

          • Damien S.

            I’ve wondered how many people there might be who are perfectly supportive of universal health care, safety nets, public research and progressive taxation… but view the war on drugs and illegitimate wars and civil liberty erosion as moral dealbreakers that justify voting Libertarian, and thus call themselves libertarian. I guess they’d be way less vocal than the purists, at least in the online circles I’m used to. It seems a defensible and psychologically plausible position; OTOH straddlers often face attack from other sides, and pressure to conform more to one common ground or another.

          • matt b

            I support universal healthcare. I just don’t think central planning monstrosities like Obamacare are the right way to get us there. Safe with the safety net: for it but I want to see it re-structured along the lines favored by Friedman and Hayek. Public research is tricky since much of it goes to fund research corporations are perfectly capable of funding themselves but wish to have the public fund instead. You also run the risk of politics dictating research and not scientific evidence. I don’t have a first principles objection to prog taxes unlike many libertarians (the tax burden should be consistent with the requirements of fulfilling justice) but I think taxes are too high for most people at the moment, with most of the money serving no morally defensible purpose.

          • Damien S.

            The basic structure of Obamacare is the Bismarck system, that works in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, and Japan, in varying permutations, mostly with more “central planning” (price setting) than the US will. All of which spend less socially on health care, while living longer.

            Government research tends to be basic research that’s nowhere near profitability. Corporations aren’t that capable of funding it, not when the actual profit may be captured by someone else entirely. Or they could keep their research secret but that rather defeats the point, socially. Corporations that fund lots of blue sky research tend to be near-monopolies with money to burn.

          • matt b

            It really does not work well at all. Central planning undermines choice, competition, quality, accountability, and innovation. Wait times are awful. It’s easy to spend less when you ration. And yes they live longer but that’s for a series of factors related to culture and lifestyle and not so much health care per se. And we libertarians aren’t defending our system. It’s a mess. It’s a terrible quagmire of government control and special interest influence, not a free market.

            That’s actually just not the case in a number of cases. Often government research is simply another form of corporate subsidy. Not always but often.

          • Damien S.

            Choice and competition don’t matter if the consumers lacks the information or ability to make good choices, which as Kenneth Arrow argues is true of medicine. “Socialized medicine” countries have produced a lot of innovation and by some measures have better quality than the US.

            Wait times for non-emergency care aren’t that great in the US either, depending on location; I get to wait 6 weeks to reschedule a dental cleaning, and I pay in full up front. Medical side isn’t any better. As for other countries… AFAICT, *Canada* has really long wait times, but this isn’t a problem with universal health care, it’s a problem with Canada. On the other end, the Japanese expect to walk in off the street and see a specialist.

            In _The Healing of America_ T. R. Reid visits and describes several systems and how they reacted to his gimp shoulder. Canada had a year wait, UK a few months, Germany and France not worth mentioning, and Japan was same-day. All have universal health care. All spend much less than the US.

            He also describes how those and other countries got into UHC. Especially Switzerland and Taiwan, which made recent and deliberate shifts away from “free market” health care. Taiwan was probably close to the ideal of low regulation in doctors or insurance; they chose otherwise. Why?

          • Michael Philip

            “Choice and competition don’t matter if the consumers lacks the information or ability to make good choices”

            In most of the healthcare systems around the world that choice and competition are restricted, to various degrees, by the socializied systems themselves. In the UK your choice is dependent on where you live and you cannot travel to select a different primary health provider. In Switzerland bureaucracies tell suppliers what they must produce, and laws tell buyers what they must buy.

            “As for other countries… AFAICT, *Canada* has really long wait times, but this isn’t a problem with universal health care, it’s a problem with Canada. On the other end, the Japanese expect to walk in off the street and see a specialist.”

            This is one of the many features associated with all socialized systems including the USA. The waiting lists are long not just in Canada but in the UK, Germany and NZ (where I live) as well. It’s not merely a problem with the country but with the essence (economic structure/ moral structure) of the healthcare system itself.

          • Damien S.

            “This is one of the many features associated with all socialized systems”

            Tons of people say otherwise, out of their own experience.

          • matt b

            I felt compelled to write a reply because I think Damien had made some errors in terms of his evaluation of the empirical evidence and then I read this and felt satisfied the work of spreading the gospel of truth had been done 🙂 Thanks man.

          • Damien S.

            Also, it’s one thing to have values that disagree with most of the world. But when you say “it really does not work well at all”… why does approximately no one outside of the US agree with you? There are over two dozen countries with UHC. Countries as diverse as all of Western Europe, Chile, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Costa Rica, and Oman. Political pressure to dismantle such systems is nigh non-existent, even from otherwise classical liberal parties. The only case where it happened was when China basically de-Communized in 1979, and modern China’s trying to recreate it. The oldest UHC system is Norway’s, from 1912 (Germany’s roots go back to the 1880s, but became universal in 1941) while 5 market-friendly countries adopted it in 1993-1995 (like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland.)

            How do you explain that? How is that much of the world in such diversity that deluded about UHC working or not?

          • Michael Philip

            Their agreement is not required and the diversity of countries adopting a bad model is a non-sequitur. The systems are treated as having a near sacred status and are popular only by default, so it is not surprising that no political party would talk about dismantling it. There is another important thing at work here and that’s the role of philosophy, in particular the role of ethics.

          • Damien S.

            They’re not popular by default. Lots of those people have travelled a lot, including experiencing the US’s health care. Taiwan carefully looked around the world at what everyone else was doing, before deciding on imitating Medicare for all.

            If a philosopher argues that the sky must be green, we dismiss them as insane. US right-wingers arguing UHC doesn’t work are arguing the sky is green for just about everyone who lives under UHC. Experience trumps theory.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            As far as I know, every developed country in the world has crop subsidies of various types. These favor producers at the expense of consumers and third world farmers. They are completely indefensible economically and morally. So because they are universal, they are good? Give me a break.

          • matt b

            Give me a break… John Stossel should sue you for copyright… but does he believe in it 🙂 ?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Now don’t go stirring up a hornets’ nest with libertarians and IP–we enough bad blood around here already.

          • Damien S.
          • I didn’t read much of that, but it seems to be merely anecdotal. Here in the UK one of the big news stories of recent weeks is the crisis afflicting hospital accident-and-emergency departments because loads of people are turning up there for treatment simply because they cannot get an appiontment to see their doctors.

            Incidentally, this means that the a-and-e units are not meeting their target of attending to patients within 4 hours! That’s the TARGET they aspre to – you wait no more than 4 hours to be seen if you have suffered an accident or emrgency! It seems a pretty poor aspiration to me. And they are not even meeting that.

            This comes on top of a whole load of scandals (one in the news today) of appalling pateint care, neglect and abuse in National Health Service (NHS) hospitals.

            I know several people who work for the NHS (who doesn’t? It is the largest empoyer in Europe and one of the largest in the world). Some are in admin or management positions. But those who work in patient care have told me horror stories about what goes on. One of them stopped working there for that reason.

            Despite all this (the failings of the syetm are common knowledge), people generally support the NHS; they just want it to provide a better service. Why do they support it? A range of reasons. But one is that they cannot afford private healthcare. What irritates me is that they don’t see that, if they got back the tax money they pay for the poor service the NHS provides, they would be able to pay for private health care (and probably have change in their pocket because there is so much waste in the NHS).

          • Damien S.

            It was anecdotal, but it was also strikingly one-sided in the anecdotes. In another comment I post a link with actual data, that I found. One which put the UK as one of the weaker countries, though stronger than Canada or the US.

            “recent weeks”… so would that be an inherent features of the NHS, or a result of the austerity policies that the coalition keeps insisting on?

            “if they got back the tax money they pay for the poor service the NHS provides, they would be able to pay for private health care (and probably have change in their pocket because there is so much waste in the NHS).”

            I see no reason to believe either thing. The UK spends only 8% of GDP on health care, which is low even for “socialized medicine” countries (range of 8-11%) and half that of the US, at 16-17% of GDP (itself estimated to be 1/3 waste, while not serving everyone.) And as a monopsony that sets its rates, is the NHS likely to be overpaying or underpaying providers compared to ‘market’ rates? Certainly they pay a lot less than US insurers or patients, or even US Medicare.

          • Actually, the NHS budget has been ringfenced to protect it from the so-called austerity measures. This particular problem, the a-and-e crisis, seems to have its roots in the bargain struck with doctors by Gordon Brown in the last Labour Government.

            If the NHS was a profit-motivated organisation it would be expected to use its market-power to get good deals. But it is not. Like all government bureaucracies, its managemt is a chaos of interest-group wrangling; and the waste in the organisation is notorious (recently, massive spending on useless IT systems has been been in focus).

            You may be right that, if people got their tax-money for health spending back, it might not give them enough to buy the health care they want. But they would, in most cases, willingly top it up, because they know they would be likely to see the benefit of it. But with a rationing system, based on politically-negotiated priorities, you could pay an awful lot more in tax for health care and still end up being turned away because your life-or-death problem is not one of the political flavours of the month.

          • Michael Philip

            the living longer aspect is incorrect. Obamacare is just romneycare on a bigger level and doesn’t solve any of the problems with the current system, it just multiplies them

          • Damien S.

            How is it incorrect? They have longer life expectancies than the US; this is a matter of public record.

            Romneycare, and Obamacare, solve the problem of people not being able to get health insurance. I live under Romneycare. Once again, the sky is not green.

          • Mark,
            Why is the BHL answer the right one? There aren’t any shortcuts here. The only way to show that our answer is the right one is to work through the arguments in detail. As Nozick wrote, we tend to think, or hope, that good philosophical arguments will be such as to force people to accept our conclusions. But that’s surely too much to hope for. And it would be an even bigger mistake to select our arguments on the basis of how well they “defend” our established conclusions, or how well they “attack” the positions of others, instead of how well they track the truth.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You said to Brian that part of the function of moral theorizing is “to figure out what to believe in cases where we don’t already have strongly held convictions, to obtain some sort of practical guidance.” I am questioning whether the version of BHL that you outline in your linked essay can do this because–as far as I can tell–it provides no principled means of prioritizing the various values you endorse. If, as you say (and I agree), there are indeed moral facts, then a theory should be able to identify them. I don’t see how yours does this. I would like to be proven wrong, so perhaps you can address this in a future post.

          • matt b


            Remember we’re all Keynesians now? I think we’re all value pluralists now. You should see how angry hard libertarians get when I tell them their position would prohibit trading off one point of liberty for 1000 points of utility. They tell me “No no that would never happen.” So everybody recognizes that there are values, in addition to liberty, which come into consideration. Hard libertarians simply think liberty is a means to realizing those other values. I largely agree though I think they overstate how perfectly and invariably it compliments to those other values. I think part of this is just rejecting some of what high liberals value and not pretending that it is compatible with BHL. For example, I think income inequality matters not one bit in and of itself. If it did, there would be something valuable in some sense about NK or Cuba, a pretty repugnant conclusion.

          • Damien S.

            “For example, I think income inequality matters not one bit in and of
            itself. If it did, there would be something valuable in some sense about
            NK or Cuba, a pretty repugnant conclusion.”

            That seems like a rather circular logic. “I don’t like X, therefore anything associated with X must be bad, else I would have to somewhat like X?”

            AFAIK North Korea has a rather low crime rate; that doesn’t make low crime bad, nor does it mean we have to like North Korea, but we could grant that at least NK fails to combine crushing totalitarianism with rampant private violence. I can imagine an oppressive government with a wrecked economy that also has gang or bandit problems.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            We may all be value pluralists now, but not all theories that incorporate value pluralism are created equal.

          • matt b

            True dat Mr. Friedman 🙂

      • matt b

        At the risk of ruining our newfound comity resulting from agreement on Bass’s (I hope I spelled that right) post I have to slightly disagree 🙂 To me, the fundamental difference is that libertarians, from Ayn R to Matt Z, think that the role of government is to protect people from harm they did not consent to. For Rand, this is a guy stabbing you and taking your money or breaking in to your house. For Zwolinski, it’s those things but it also extends to ensuring that institutional arrangements do not systematically disadvantage the most vulnerable by preventing them from securing a basic level of welfare. At the end of the day, BHLs reject the right’s insistence that the state is entitled to coerce us to make us better people (as well as their idea of what it means to be a better person, ie no pot smoking or porn viewing) and the left’s insistence that income inequality is bad as such, central planning works, and that economic liberty is not morally valuable.

        I would also say as someone who has watched him for years that Bill Maher sort of is a libertarian. He is vehemently anti-drug war, anti-civil liberties abuses, speaks out against California’s confiscatory taxation, opposes Bloombergism, does not like unions, is pro-immigration, and supports at least the partial privatization of SS. He just seems to think the best way to achieve the BHL goal of securing minimal welfare is programs like Obamacare. To me that’s more an empirical dispute than a big philosophical one.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          But Mahr’s basic instincts are toward a government solution, at least on a gut level. Also tainted with an unattractive viscousness that makes his views less rather than more palatable. Not really someone I would value as a libertarian spokesperson.

          • matt b

            I think like a lot of people he just hates the GOP so much that when he hears “free market health care solutions” for example he thinks of them and then assumes it must be a bad idea. One of the dudes over at Reason Magazine had this great line where he says that if we could only prohibit repubs from using the term free markets it would be a lot easier to sell the idea to those on the left since often they don’t hate free markets but rather republicans. I don’t think he’s vicious at all. He routinely tells his audience not to boo and badger conservative/ libertarian guests and defended SE Cupp against Michael Moore on gun control just recently. He’s also called Obama ” this asshole, this imprisoner of innocent people” over his drug warrior insanity so that, in and of itself, makes him cool in my books

          • Damien S.

            I’m on the left. My opinion on “free markets” is “free from what? What does that even mean?”

            Competitive markets without externalities or asymmetric information/adverse selection are pretty awesome. But I believe externalities and anti-competitive structures exist that can be usefully corrected by government action, even with the risk of regulatory capture.

            A lot of people may hate the GOP and associated idea on reflex, but there’s also a lot of people who think the “free market” does not work for either health care or health insurance, starting with Kenneth Arrow and extending to *every rich society on the planet* — including the US in its way, with drug and doctor licensing, and the EMTALA requirement for ERs to stabilize people regardless of ability to pay.

            There is more diversity in prostitution law or recreational drug policy than there’s acceptance of medical free markets. Every wonder why?

          • Sean II

            “There is more diversity in prostitution law or recreational drug policy than there’s acceptance of medical free markets. Every wonder why?”

            Yep. I’ve wondered so much, I know the answer.

            The special thing about health care markets is that they’re uncommonly easy for governments to take over. Most people don’t consume health care very often, so it’s easy to intervene in the market without raising the anger of a large constituency. Indeed, as long as you pander to old people and doctors, you needn’t fear losing the next election.

            At the same time, people are economically ignorant and health care is a perfect area to entice them into pretending scarcity doesn’t exist, free lunches can be willed into being, costs don’t matter, etc. All you have to do is cook up a nightmare scenario: a flat-broke 73 year-old woman needs an $850,000 heart surgery in order so that she can die at age 80. No one except an economist or an intellectual would dare to publicly explain why she shouldn’t get that procedure at public expense. The way you get elected, here as ever, is by saying something untrue: that life is priceless, we all have a right to bankrupt the world on our way to the grave, etc.

          • matt b

            I love when we can agree. Economic ignorance is the culprit here without question. As someone who was born in Canada, I can tell you that people here go around saying how amazing the system is (it’s this insufferable feel good sanctimony) and then when they experience it directly you hear “I had to wait forever, I didn’t get treated well, I….” and it goes on and on. I think a lot of it comes down to a gut level feeling that insurance companies want your money and government wants to care of money. The first of true for sure (but Apple wants our money too and they serve us well to get it), the second… not so much.

          • matt b

            sorry not take care of money but rather take care of us.

          • Damien S.

            “Most people don’t consume health care very often, so it’s easy to
            intervene in the market without raising the anger of a large

            This implies that government intervention should piss off the people who do use health care a lot, like old people. But we find the opposite.

          • Sean II

            Aha! Now I finally have proof that you don’t really read comments before blurting out your responses. Else how could you have missed this in my last:

            “Indeed, as long as you pander to old people and doctors, you needn’t fear losing the next election.”

            Every health system in the world, including the current American scheme, is (or at least it pretends to be) a vast mechanism for robbing the young to subsidize the health consumption of the old. It is precisely the unsustainable and potentially infinite cost of this that creates political pressure for an eventual move to full-on rationing.

            Stage 1 is: pretend scarcity doesn’t exist and promise the world. Stage 2 is: scarcity joins forces with subsidy fueled price inflation and fights back hard. Stage 3 is: rationing, and what do you know, granny doesn’t get her new hip – not for free, and not for pay either.

            And that’s why I said “pander”. You wonder why there is so little complaining from old folks in the world’s many Stage 3 countries. Well, it’s no great mystery: they’re more sensitive to price than quality. As long as someone promises they won’t have to pay for whatever they get, and as long as the ugly reality of Stage 2 remains hidden behind egalitarian rhetoric, they don’t mind too much. Doesn’t mean they’re right, though…ad populum and all that.

          • Damien S.

            I did see you mention pandering to old people, but it didn’t make any sense. First you said government can intervene safely because most people won’t notice the damage it’s doing, then you say it’s pandering to the very people who do use health care and should be noticing the damage it’s doing.

            Now you say the people who do experience the government intervention are too dumb to notice the damage being done. Convenient how you can explain away everyone who disagrees with you.

            Even though granny *does* get her hip replacement.

          • Sean II

            “Convenient how you can explain away everyone who disagrees with you.”

            I don’t know, Damien…I can’t seem to explain you away, since you’re still here.

            For the record (i.e. for non-Damien BHL readers): there is no inconsistency in my arguments above. To recap, I said health care is a great place to attack the market because most people don’t use the service and thus won’t fight to protect it. As long as political leaders make sure the flow of transfers is from young to old (since old people do consume health care), and as long as providers are allowed to go on capturing rents, the state can get pretty much do what it wants. Even after prices go up and quality suffers, it doesn’t matter, because the key constituency – old folks – still believes it’s getting a better deal than anyone else, or a better deal than it otherwise would. By that point, any possible alternative is invisible to them.

          • matt b

            Okay be real with me here: where you a really hilarious badass in high school? Like the smart kid who read a lot but people liked you because you killed it with put downs? Because lines like “I can’t seem to explain you away” are pretty frickin awesome (no offense to Damien, I actually enjoy your pinko commie dissent 🙂

          • Sean II

            What I was in high school…I think the precise term for it is “complete fucking asshole, world-historical class”.

            You’re not too far off your guess, though. I mostly managed to escape the social consequences of nerdosity with a variety of shabby tricks. One of them was wit, superficial charm, whatever. One of them was always having drugs, and being in a state of permanent war with the authorities (I found out early this last point was the magic key to gaining sexual options without being obliged to surrender my nerd values). And one of the tricks was a lot of phony tough-guy posturing that, fortunately for me and my oral-maxillofacial health, only rose to the level of action half a dozen times.

            Here’s hoping that Damien S. doesn’t throw it down and demand to meet me in the parking lot at three o’clock. If it came to that now, I’d probably be forced to flee.

          • matt b

            Haha I think we would have been friends. I asked my teacher if we could watch a John Stossel special once? His response… who is John Stossel? So I was a less cool version of you since I did no drugs. Pot made me cough like crazy so I figured anything beyond that was too hardcore for me.

          • The old people themselves are often too frail or failing to be able to make a fuss. Indeed, someitmes they have been killed by the lack of care or inapprotriate care they have received. But their families sometimes do complain. There are a lot of pissed-off families campaigning to reform the NHS and to have senior managers sacked because of the neglect or mistreatment of their elderly relatives. Again, this has been an ongoing controversy in the news here (UK) for a couple of years or more.

          • Damien S.

            Uh, in the US the “old people” are one of our most powerful lobbies. They have the time (retirees) to devote to politics or “make a fuss”, and a keen sense of their benefits in Social Security and Medicare.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            But, they won’t do anything about it because the govenment is broke.

          • It is not just a question of money. The last Labour government increased spending on the NHS massively, but a before-and-after study by the LSE (a very NHS-friendly institution) said that services in some areas had got worse and in others were generally not much better. When money is pumped in, it tends to get lost in the system (partly in pay to the heavily unionised workforce and partly in waste). But reforming the system, which every government in living memory has tried to do, always stalls because of the highly organised vested interests that infest the service and the backing they receive from the left-leaning media.

          • Sean II

            Something I’ve noticed in nearly every UK’er I have met (outside of libertarian message boards) is that the NHS enjoys a sanctified political status roughly equivalent to the military in my country. You can criticize specific outcomes and specific individuals, and nearly everyone seems to, but in most company it’s social suicide to talk about radical reform.

            In the U.S., if you say “we should cut the defense budget by half, and remove the president’s power to make war alone” it decodes to most listeners – no matter their party – as “Hello, I’m a bad person, possibly a traitor, certainly insane”. The mythology really goes that deep.

            The last time I made the mistake of (ever so gently) telling an Englishman what I think of the NHS, I got back a wide-eyed look suggesting that he had suddenly found himself in the presence of an evil lunatic. I mean, he was actually nervous, not “Oh, let’s avoid this topic” or “Ugh, must I really explain all this again” but more “Okay, be calm dammit, I’m in a nest of fascists, and this is just like that scene with Michael Fassbender in the brau haus from Inglorious Basterds.”

            The point being, there are a number of ways to cut down on customer complaints. One is to provide good service. Another is to make people feel like its pure treason to do anything more than helplessly whine about details.

          • Yes, I get the same thing. I was in a pub in Brighton some years ago with a friend and another bloke who later became a friend but whom I hardly knew at the time. Our talk somehow got on to the NHS and I explained why I thought it should be privatised. The man I hardly knew was astounded. He had obviously never heard anyone suggest such a thing and he could not contemplate the proposal being taken seriously. His only response was a bewildered, perhaps disgusted, and oft-repeated, ‘that’s incredible!’ I noticed a bloke sitting on his own at the bar who was listening to our conversation and who laughed each time I offered yet another argument for privatising the NHS. He was looking at me with a kind of admiration. But from what I could make out from his demeanour, it seems he thought I had come up with a funny comic routine, as if I had concocted surprisingly specious arguments for a totally insane conclusion.

            It is partly indoctrination. All the (socialist) teachers at the state schools inculcate the myth of the virtues of the NHS; so do the politicians of every mainstream party (and probably the other parties too); so do virtually all the journalists in all the papers and on all the TV and radio broadcasts; and, of course, so do almost all the university teachers who speak on the topic. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes.

            By the way, I like your new picture. Presumably it is a more recent one?

          • Sean II

            You presume correctly. This picture is a current and accurate representation of me, as I might be seen on any morning awaiting my breakfast.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            well that only means he is being ecumenical with his visciousness. I actually don’t like talking about a president in public in those terms.

        • Sean II

          I really regret causing this Bill Maher-based exchange. Always the hard choice: Don’t use an example in your comment, lose color and texture. Do use an example, watch it overpower the whole comment.

          So, without wasting any time: Maher can’t be any kind of libertarian, because he has no grasp of economics. If a man from another galaxy came here to study libertarians, he’d phone home with a report that included something along these lines: “they talk a lot about prices, coordination, incentives, costs, marginal utility, etc. Even those among them who are moral philosophers, talk like that.”

          If the term libertarian is to have descriptive value, there must be some people who can’t claim it, and Maher (along with the vast army of economic ignoramuses) pretty well has to be one of them. That’s why I picked him.

          • matt b

            Well I thought it was a good example in terms of illustrating our divide over how libertarian friendly some liberals are. So I do agree that Maher would benefit from picking up an economics textbook, no doubt and that he’s not a libertarian, not only in the hard Nozick or Rand sense, but in the BHL sense because of his preference for state solutions in the economic realm as the dominant approach. But I do think that if you look at his basic values- a belief in the idea that over his mind and body the individual is sovereign, objection to paternalism, skepticism about union and bureaucrat power as well as corporate power, and sympathy towards letting people do what they want- you see openness. Let me ask you this though Sean. Bill Maher invites you on his show. You guys debate. Do you say he’s an economic ignoramus or do you, god forbid, put it delicately and say something like “I think your understanding of the economics of Obamacare is not supported by evidence and experience”?

          • Sean II

            I give you the only honest answer possible: If I was on Bill Maher’s show, I would do nothing to risk my chance of gaining an invitation to whatever 8-ball and porn star festival he’s got going as an after party. I’d pretty much blatantly kiss his ass by focusing on what I know to be our two points of total agreement: drugs are fun, and down with Jesus.

            Now before you call me a sell-out, let me remind you nothing said on a show like that matters anyway. It’s not like they were ever gonna edit in some substantive and boring remark about health care that begins “First, we must learn the difference between pricing and queueing, and after about three minutes explaining that, we can talk about how signals work to create incentives for another two minutes…”

            That, by the way, isn’t even Maher’s fault. It’s not some sinister conspiracy to silence the libertarian genius for economics. He can’t run comments like that because a) they violate the 20-second turn-taking procedure which distributes air time and creates the false appearance of intellectual parity between the guests, and b) viewers would simply change the channel, if required to follow an enthymeme with multiple inter-connected parts.

          • matt b

            It’s actually live so you could go on some wonky rant and shout anyone down who tried to stop you from spreading the gospel of price signals 🙂 You’d be great on that type of show though Sean. You’re witty, think fast on your feet, and have a vast supply store of facts and figures ready to pull out like Django’s gun ha.

          • Damien S.

            All libertarians understand economics?
            Certainly not the case that all economists are libertarian.

          • matt b

            That’s true and that’s what’s annoying about some libertarians, you know those who act as if anyone who is skeptical of, say, the possibility of a clean environment without government regulation are crazy and don’t understand economics. That said, most economists are quite sympathetic to most libertarian positions. Even someone quite left-wing like Paul Krugman is pro-free trade, very skeptical of rent control, and quite worried about marketplace interventions working out well in general. Indeed, if you look at all surveys of economists you see pretty strong agreement in favour of standard Cato Institute policy positions. Now they could be all wrong but I think that should be noted.

          • Damien S.

            They’re sympathetic to a lot of libertarian positions; I don’t know about most. Pro-free trade, skeptical of rent control, and worried about many regulations, yes, as you say. OTOH, many support minimum wage laws, government research, universal health care, pollution taxes, and Keynesian interventions, as well as central banks, and think of the gold standard as silly. That’s a lot of Cato disagreement, too.

            A 2008 poll of economists I saw had most of them as Democratic or independent, not Republican, and most of them supporting Obama over McCain and thinking he’d have better economic policies.

          • matt b

            The vast majority of economists agree that minimum wage hikes boost unemployment among young and unskilled workers. Government research isn’t controversial in theory. The question is whether the research is really only research the government can carry out (as I said before we are currently funding a lot of private research interests). Universal health care is an area where there is a vibrant debate, no doubt. I’m for pollution taxes as they are perfectly consistent with the harm principle. A lot of economists are sympathetic to stimulus though many believe it should take place in the form of tax cuts. The gold standard is kind of silly but central banks don’t exactly have a great record. In theory, there is a case to be made for them that’s not too weak but in practice they haven’t been all that great. Yes most economists are moderate Democrats who share the aims of social justice but think market mechanisms are well suited to promoting those aims. They’re crypto BHL!

          • Damien S.

            Actually economists seem a lot more divided than that on the minimum wage:

            Your vast majority applies in 1978, but has been shrinking with time, going by the Wiki numbers.

            Here’s a Greg Mankiw summary of what economists agree on:

            90% support for fiscal policy stimulus working; 85% saying the budget should be balanced over a business cycle, not year to year; minimum wage increasing unemployment, yes (giving the same number as a 1992 poll on wikipedia; Mankiw doesn’t source his numbers.)

            Crypto BHL maybe, in the sense of being way more tax friendly than most of the bloggers, let alone the commenters, here.

      • Damien S.

        What’s more important, being able to exclude people from an artificial category or being able to cooperate to create a feasible and desirable world?

        • Sean II

          Bad question. If you’re trying to build a more desirable world, but you can’t exclude or even clearly identify people who desire a world opposite to the one you’re building …then brother, you got problems.

  • Ryan Long

    What a coincidence. Reading The Nicomanchean Ethics over the weekend, I concluded that real justice is impossible, since ethical guidelines tend to be (using Zwolinskian vernacular) principles, whereas laws tend to be rules.

    So what is the way out? I agree that ethical decisions can only be made by applying principles, but in the real world, we need rules to satisfy our sense of justice. That includes BHL social justice, of course.

    At least the an-caps have a valid solution in that they have eliminated the need for rules entirely. Isn’t it ironic, then, that they tend to be the most vociferous proponents of the NAP “rule?”

    • Aeon Skoble

      “At least the an-caps have a valid solution in that they have eliminated the need for rules entirely. Isn’t it ironic, then, that they tend to be the most vociferous proponents of the NAP “rule?””
      Generalize much?

      • Ryan Long

        I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to say anything controversial. I hoped by saying “tend to be” it was clear that I was making a generalization out of my own personal experience with various libertarian “flavors.” I in no way mean to suggest that anyone is right or wrong for stricter or more flexible adherence to the NAP. I was merely trying to highlight the apparent (in my opinion) irreconcilability of our ethical views of justice versus what justice becomes when it is carried out politically. Certainly no criticism or offense intended.

    • martinbrock

      I understood what you meant by “have eliminated the need for rules entirely”, but I don’t believe that an-caps (Rothbardians) have quite done it, and some Rothbardians seem as rigidly archic as anyone about their preferred rules.

      A while back, I decided to try to out-anarchist the an-caps with a radical conception of intentional community. If you join a community freely, then anything its rules (positive law) require of you, short of your death, is definitively just until you decide to leave the community.

      At first, I was only playing a rhetorical game, but I’ve since talked myself into believing this story. As long as people may freely constitute communities characterized by any rules they can imagine, free association is the only justice that anyone needs.

      By “eliminate rules”, I do not mean that people don’t need or don’t want or won’t inevitably formulate rules. I only mean that people choose the rules they respect and that any formal theory of “justice” presuming particular rules, beyond a rule entitling people to any rules of their choice within a closed group defined by a common choice, is never more than a rationalization of imposing the theorist’s rules on others.

      In other words, justice is almost entirely subjective, like the price of goods in a free market. Rothbardians want to presume particular property rights and let everything else emerge from the intersection of subjective choices, but why presume the property rights? Why not let the property rights also emerge from the intersection of subjective choices?

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        is merit in this argument. If a bunch of religious zealots like the
        Branch Davidians want to go off into the woods and create their own
        society, no matter how bazaar it is. Then that is their liberty in
        action. Of course as a practical matter other concerns arise, Are
        they being psychologically manipulated and the free will is only
        illusory? What about children, what are their rights?

        • martinbrock

          Is “illusory free will” meaningful here? My parents and others indoctrinated me. My wife and others psychologically manipulates me on a daily basis. When is my free will not an illusion? If you declare my free will an illusion, aren’t you psychologically manipulating me?

          I don’t know what to tell you about children specifically. Children have the rights that people around them will respect. If a state’s child welfare authorities take possession of children from subjects of the state, then the children have the rights that the child welfare authorities will respect.

          I’m content with children being subject to their parents within the constraints imposed by a community that their parents freely accept. I can’t promise you that no child ever suffers mistreatment, by my standards, if I don’t try to impose my standards on everyone, but I can’t promise you that no child suffers if I do try to impose my standards either.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            I mostly agree with you, But I don’t think as a practical matter it is so cut and dried. If we were trying to invent a more libertarian society then we would have to deal with popular will, which could be
            swayed by stories of abuse. This is the reason always insist that even though I dislike social welfare, I see a need for a very basic social safety net simply because the absence of one would cause a vacuum that could be exploited by socialists pushing an agenda upon every sob story that comes along.

          • martinbrock

            I also see a need for a social safety net, even a not so basic net in some scenarios, but I’m also nearsighted.

            Andrew Cohen’s heart bleeds for a child doused with boiling water, but he presumably describes an isolated parent, not a community standard. Human nature being what it is, I’m extremely skeptical that any community of more than hundred people would tolerate this behavior among its members, but even a community prohibiting this behavior can’t effectively prevent it, since the parent in this case almost certainly acts irrationally. No community standard can rule out insanity.

            On the other hand, a judge in Texas at this moment threatens to remove children from their mother’s custody unless the mother’s lesbian lover moves out of their house, and this judge does enforce a community standard. I don’t know the role that a father plays in this case, but in the utopia that I imagine, the mother might leave the jurisdiction of this judge and take her child with her. If she does so in the U.S., she risks prosecution for kidnapping.

            You can always imagine some child suffering terribly if you aren’t there to protect it, but imagining this child is not a sound argument for a state protecting children, because no state is omnipresent in reality.

          • Damien S.

            “he presumably describes an isolated parent, not a community standard”

            Today I ran across a bit about Pitcairn Island, which seems to have been a case of near-total abuse of female children. Every woman victimized, every male guilty.

            It’s possible to view the customs of ancient Greece as institutionalized adolescent abuse; a young boy gets abused, in return for abusing later as an adult. There’s some surviving tribe I’ve read about, where they believe sucking lots of dick is necessary to mature into a proper man.

          • martinbrock

            You’re discussing the variety of behavior that can emerge and be accepted among human beings here, but boys sucking dicks to “ingest manhood” is not remotely like dousing a child with boiling water, and I wouldn’t roll in the tanks to suppress the behavior among some isolated tribe myself.

            The female children on Pitcairn were no younger than the legal age of marriage in ancient Rome.

          • Damien S.

            Rape, OTOH, kind of is.

            How about cutting off bits of genitals?

          • martinbrock

            Statutory rape doesn’t seem to me like dousing a child with boiling water.

            I had bits of my genitals cut off as a infant. Do you want my parents jailed?

          • Damien S.

            I was referring to female genital mutilation.

          • martinbrock

            O.K. That’s obviously different.

          • Damien S.

            More like a culture that systematically abuses half of its children, would you agree?

          • martinbrock

            No. That was sarcasm in case you didn’t get it. Female circumcision varies widely, and older women typically perform it on younger women. I don’t assume that a “victim” of it feels any more abused ultimately than I do, and I know that many women who experience it deny that it was abusive, particularly the women who go on to perform it themselves.

            Men and women in isolated cultures do all sorts of things to their bodies that I would never do to mine.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Not totally different. IMO cutting off parts of an infants genitalia with no anesthetic even, is a pretty barbarous and brutal practice from our dim, backward, dark age past.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t remember the pain, but I don’t remember a lot of stuff.

            I have two sons, one circumcised and the other not. In both cases, when my son was born, a nurse walked in with routine forms to sign including a release for circumcision. When my first son was born, I signed without much thought. I had heard the stories about ucky stuff under a foreskin and increased risk of stds and cancer and such.

            By the time my second son was born, I had heard competing stories about how the other stories were mostly bogus and that simple hygiene is as effective as the mutilation, so I refused to sign. I told the nurse and my wife that he could make the choice himself later, and that’s really how I felt about it. I don’t regret my circumcision or think that circumcision is a bad thing at all. I just don’t feel like making the choice for someone else.

            I use “refuse” advisedly here, because the nurse looked at me like I was a Jehovah’s Witness refusing my child a blood transfusion.

            Obviously, female circumcision in some remote tribal setting can be much worse than male circumcision in a modern hospital. Male circumcision outside of modern hospital can also be much worse, and the worst form of female circumcision, as intended, may be worse that the worst form of male circumcision. I’m not denying any of that.

      • Fido

        You should read Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago. This is much his position.

        • martinbrock

          Thanks. Kukathas seems to defend the same thesis. I wish the Kindle price of his book weren’t $30.

          • good_in_theory

            George Crowder has a review from APSA available for free online. A cheaper, shorter, less filling substitute, if you please.

          • martinbrock

            Thanks. I’m reading Crowder’s critique now. I can hardly judge it without also reading Kukathas, but a few thoughts spring to mind.

            Crowder claims that Kukathas’ “freedom to exit” is so weak that it’s practically inoperative. If he’s right about that, then I accept the critique and advocate a stronger freedom to exit but not the sort of “stronger freedom” that Crowder imagines.

            Again, I associate “freedom to exit” with a right of habeas corpus. If a person wishes to exit a community, the community has an affirmative obligation to deliver the person to officials of a state responsible for “adjudicating” the person’s grievance, and the community bears the cost. This judicial process essentially offers the person any other community willing to accept her. Communities do not accept this cost freely. A state imposes the cost.

            But Crowder wants a much stronger “freedom to exit”. He wants people free of forces he calls “psychological” and “educational” for example. He seems to be saying that a person may not know her own mind, that a person acting as Crowder thinks she shouldn’t may somehow be judged “psychologically forced” to act as she does, so that Crowder’s “liberal state” may educationally force her to understand that she isn’t free enough to know what’s good for her.

            Crowder generally appeals to emotion, with the usual heroic male’s pretense of protecting vulnerable women and children, but that’s par for the course.

            Crowder also includes “shunning, ostracism or being shut out of contact with family members” among the community forces that he finds unacceptable. People must somehow have a “freedom to exit” that includes not being separated from the people who don’t want them around because they refuse to respect rules that the people want respected. This objection seems incredible to me. I must be so free to exit that I’m not required to exit?

            Typically, Crowder grants a “more liberal” state that he imagines godlike power that he simply denies to Kukathas’ utopia. Kukathas’ freedom to exit can’t effectively protect homosexuals by enabling them to exit a community full of homophobes, but Crowder’s liberal state is somehow protects homosexuals even when they’re surrounded by homophobes, though he doesn’t tell us how it’s supposed to provide this protection.

            Needless to say, my imaginary state has similarly godlike powers, but I’m aware of that, and the powers that my state exercises aren’t nearly as extensive as the powers that Crowder presumes for his “liberal” state.

      • TracyW

        Yet, leaving a community is often costly, and contracts are never fully specifiable ahead of time. So people often want to resolve disputes within a community on matters that weren’t fully laid out ahead of time, and when the dispute comes along they want to be treated justly, or fairly, or by some other language.

        • martinbrock

          Free communities may have dispute resolution procedures for matters not fully laid out ahead of time. No procedure fully satisfies all parties to a dispute. A community member deciding that he doesn’t want to be governed by the community’s procedure may leave the community for another community with a different procedure, but he can’t simply demand that any community always settle disputes as he likes.

          What alternative is there? Everyone is subject to some procedure that you decree “just” or “fair”?

          • TracyW

            Judging by the world I see around me, the alternative is spending a lot of time arguing over what is just or fair.

            And a community member just leaving the community for another community isn’t always an easy solution. Let’s say A has a child with B, then A and B falls out, and A wants to leave the community with the child, while B wants to stay with the child. Or B claims that A owes B money and that A is trying to avoid A’s debts by leaving. Or B claims, with some supporting evidence, that A murdered B’s father, can A avoid the dispute by leaving?

          • martinbrock

            I expect people to argue over what is just and fair, but the existence of an argument does not imply the existence of a solution unless one party to the argument may simply impose the solution that he favors. I imagine no freedom from the argument, but I try to imagine freedom from the imposition.

            I don’t imagine easy solutions either. Children are indivisible property of their parents in my way of thinking, i.e. parents have rights to raise their children and corresponding duties to raise them properly. That children are indivisible is true enough, but it can’t be an argument against any particular system of resolving disputes, because it’s a problem for every conceivable system.

            The problem of monetary debt is not a problem at all in my way of thinking. A may avoid a debt to B by leaving. Period.

            If A has property in the community, then the community may require A to leave this property behind to settle the debt, and a second community that A would join may require A to pay a debt to B by laboring in the second community, but no community may compel A to pay a debt to B otherwise. I have no problem with that.

            If A indisputably murders B’s father, A may void the dispute by leaving, but no community is required to accept murderers. In other words, A is not subject to B’s sense of justice. He is only subject to the most humane community’s sense of justice.

            Should a murderer simply subject to his victim’s family’s sense of justice?

          • TracyW

            I agree that you try to imagine freedom from the imposition. I doubt you succeed though. Say in a dispute over child custody, where A leaves with the child, that strikes me as A imposing his favoured solution on B.

            Equally, if A leaves to avoid a dispute about debt, then A has imposed her favoured solution on B.

            As for murderers, what happens if it’s disputable whether A murdered B’s father or not? If A goes to another community, it might well make it far more expensive, or impossible, for B to present his evidence (say the second community requires witnesses to be physically present and B’s witnesses are unwilling to travel that far). A again here strikes me as quite possibly imposing his favoured solution on B. (And how many murders are truly indisputable?)

            On your point of murderers being subject to victim family’s sense of justice, you jump straight to the point of assuming the murderer is guilty. But imagine that you might be falsely accused of murder, would you like an opportunity to clear your name without leaving your community?

          • martinbrock

            Yes, A may leave with a child, but B may also follow.

            What do you propose as a solution? You (or some process that you imagine) picks a winner, and then you jail or shoot the loser if s/he doesn’t bend to your iron will? That’s a better solution?

            If so, the archipelago permits a solution of this sort. A community may jail a member. The member may choose to leave the community’s jail by leaving the community, but the community may jail a member as long as the member chooses to remain in the community, so a community may award custody of a child to a parent when both parents remain in the community while threatening the other parent with jail. The archipelago doesn’t rule out this possibility. What else are you suggesting? Must you tell every community how to conduct this process to be satisfied?

            If another community accepts A, B must pay any necessary cost to present his evidence, assuming that the other community will try A for murder at all, but prosecuting murderers is never free of any cost, and no system whatever offers B any satisfaction he desires.

            I can hardly imagine a community accepting any murder that comes knocking. More likely, another community accepts A conditionally in this case. If a neighboring community accuses A of murder, another community might accept A only with a plea of guilt and an agreement to be jailed according to the standards of the second community.

            I explicitly assumed that the murderer is guilty. If I’m falsely accused of murder, I have the option of remaining in the community accusing me or moving to another community with a different standard of justice, presumably to be tried there, but this other community must accept me on its terms. I don’t imagine many communities agreeing to hold murder trials for every other community.

          • TracyW

            I don’t follow. A wants to leave the community with the child, B wants to say with the child. A leaves with the child, even if B chooses to follow, A has still imposed what A wanted. Maybe all of what A wanted, if A wanted shared custody still (one week with the child, one week adult life, knowing child is well-looked after). While B is stuck with the same amount of time with their child, but living in a community whose rules they don’t like, maybe away from their friends and family and job contacts. Hasn’t A imposed what A wanted on B?

            The alternative solution is indeed, a judge picking a winner, or mandating a solution, and then jailing or otherwise punishing people who don’t comply. Not a perfect solution, either, but one that people might well prefer to making commitments like children that one party can just walk away with. You haven’t made a case that your solution is more just or fairer.

            I agree that another community might accept accused murderer A conditonally only, or they might accept A unconditionally. A can pick a community more likely to accept A unconditionally, if I understand your scheme correctly then A is not obliged to go to any particular other community. And if the vast majority of communities would only accept an accused murder with a plea of guilty and an agreement to be jailed, then this raises the prospect of someone laying false accusations of murder in order to harm A and reduce A’s options to go elsewhere.

            On the case of you being falsely accused of murder, that sounds like a rather unfair outcome to you – having to live under a cloud of suspicion in the community with someone who accused you, or having to leave under a cloud of suspicion (you yourself say that you don’t imagine many communities accepting accused murderers from another community unconditionally). You might prefer this, but I can easily imagine that many other people would prefer to live in communities with a general procedure for resolving such accusations, that does use language like “fair” and “just”, because one can’t specify ahead of times all the ways that someone might try to murder someone else (or frame someone else for murder).

          • martinbrock

            You imagine A leaving a community with the child. You can also imagine B leaving the community, recovering the child and returning, so you A’s capacity to leave with the child is not a power to impose a solution.

            Much depends on the rules these different communities respect. I don’t pretend to tell you how this tragic dilemma should be resolved, and simply telling me that a judge decides doesn’t tell me how it should be resolved either, but the archipelago essentially resolves it with a judicial procedure anyway.

            The procedure occurs either in the community that A and B share before one of them moves with the child, or it occurs in the community to which A moves, but it presumably occurs somewhere, and a parent unhappy with the resolution either accepts it or sits in jail in the deciding community or leaves this community without the child.

            How is this resolution significantly different from the one that you recommend? That either A or B could change the jurisdiction by moving before a hearing? Why assume that the first community should decide?

            Why assume that a community would accept A and child under these circumstances? I expect most communities to refuse membership under these circumstances, unless the community from which A moves has a custody procedure offensive to the community to which A moves.

            I haven’t made a case that any solution is just or fair in the opinion of both A and B, because no solution is. You don’t make this case either. The existence of an irreconcilable dispute is not an argument against any particular system of resolving disputes.

            The essence of the archipelago involves avoiding disputes rather than resolving them. Two parents bring a child into a particular community, because both parents accept the community’s standards. If a parent subsequently changes her mind, this change of mind has consequences for the other parent and the child, but any conceivable system of justice faces this dilemma.

            A can pick a community more likely to accept A unconditionally …

            A must find a community accepting A unconditionally to be accepted unconditionally. Nothing guarantees than any community accepts A on any terms.

            If A is a random, serial killer, I can’t imagine any community accepting A unconditionally, but if you want to live in a community full of random, serial killers, that’s your business. I doubt that many random, serial killers would want to live in this community, much less anyone else, but if a random, serial killer has no other option to live in a community unconditionally, living in a community full of random, serial killers seems his just deserts.

            … if the vast majority of communities would only accept an accused murder with a plea of guilty and an agreement to be jailed, then this raises the prospect of someone laying false accusations of murder in order to harm A and reduce A’s options to go elsewhere.

            False accusation is a problem for any conceivable system of justice. I don’t know why it’s a particular problem for the archipelago. If I falsely accuse you of murder in my neck of the woods right now, you might end in jail in my community with no options. In the archipelago, you at least have a chance to appeal to other communities. In principle, you have countless avenues of appeal. In a conventional state, you have only appeals to the state.

            On the case of you being falsely accused of murder, that sounds like a rather unfair outcome to you – having to live under a cloud of suspicion in the community with someone who accused you, …

            Again, I don’t pretend to describe an impossible nirvana. Being falsely accused is everywhere and always a problem for the falsely accused. It’s not a particular problem for persons subject to the archipelago.

            People in the archipelago do live in communities with procedures for resolving such accusations, including procedures incorporating language like “fair” and “just”. No one is required to leave his community to avoid its system of justice.

          • TracyW

            Now you have raised the prospect of A and B spending years taking the child back and forth. It doesn’t make your picture of the archipelago any more attractive to me.

            Nor does the way you respond to my questions about murder cases and accused murders by trying to switch to talking about extreme cases of people undisputedly guilty or random serial killers, rather than more murky cases of guilt that are very common in real life. You’re taking the easy cases and avoiding the difficult ones, which makes me even more doubtful.

            If I falsely accuse you of murder in the United State right now, you might end up in jail with no options outside of the United State. In the archipelago, you at least have a chance to appeal to other communities. In principle, you have countless avenues of appeal.

            Doesn’t this rather contradict your earlier claim that most communities would be reluctant to accept an accused murderer? You earlier said: “If a neighboring community accuses A of murder, another community might accept A only with a plea of guilt and an agreement to be jailed according to the standards of the second community.”

          • martinbrock

            I haven’t raised the prospect of A and B spending years taking the child back and forth. I explicitly state otherwise. Communities may have procedures for resolving this sort of dispute and may jail a party to the dispute refusing to accept a resolution, just as you suggest. A person jailed for his refusal may leave the community, but this right does not enable him to leave the community with the child.

            I don’t respond to your questions about murder cases and accused murders by trying to switch to talking about extreme cases of people undisputedly guilty or random serial killers. I directly address your questions without avoiding any cases. Random, serial killers have no haven in the archipelago, but in the cases you call difficult, people would find havens for the same reason that people find juries willing to acquit them.

            Doesn’t this rather contradict your earlier claim …?

            No. I claim that a community might accept A only with a plea of guilty. I do not claim that a community must accept A only with a plea of guilty. Countless communities with countless standards exist in the archipelago, and you may appeal to all of them simultaneously.

  • Fallon

    Matt, If you could, please clarify that there is a difference between economics and moral reasoning even when they are simultaneously pursued from an axiomatic, deductive perspective. You seem to have conflated the two in such a way as to imply if one is wrong via apriorism, so is the other, in your response to Molinari.

  • Kevin

    Excellent point that morality is a weighing process, a mixing of competing constraints. But once a weighing occurs, doesn’t that imply a rule?

    If you are arguing that there is some legitimate fuzziness where we disagree on the proper weightings or rules, then wouldn’t that be a reason to err on the side of liberty?

    In keeping with the blind lady weighing to achieve justice, I think it is important to also include punishment in the balance. A bunch of supposed NAP paradoxes exist because the hypothetically constrained punishment is disproportionate to the crime.

  • Brian Doherty

    “The underlying moral facts that theory is supposed to represent”–I assume this means we know them without theory; where do they come from? If we have means to apprehend them, what is the primary use of moral theory? Can moral theory lead to hitherto unknown moral facts? Can we see examples of this, ideally real-not-theoretical examples? (That is, not imagining ways in which moral theory COULD lead to unknown moral facts, but examples where they have)? To be bald: evidence that moral theorizing isn’t just typically long complicated ways ’roundabout to moral facts that we already knew (or thought we knew) prior to the theory?

    • Hi Brian,

      Those are , of course, huge questions. So whatever answers I’m going to give you here will not be adequate. But, yes, I think we can have knowledge of moral truth without a moral theory. We know that lying is generally wrong, that killing people is almost always wrong, etc., long before we ever sit down to start theorizing about it. Theorizing is something we do, for the most part, as adults, to try to make sense of the various moral beliefs we have acquired. We engage in moral theory for two purposes – to better understand our moral beliefs, i.e. to know what it is about right actions that makes them right, what the common feature is; and to figure out what to believe in cases where we don’t already have strongly held convictions, to obtain some sort of practical guidance.

      Can we see examples of this? Sure, I think so. Not, usually, from academic moral theory, directly. It’s not like some professor publishes an article in Ethics and all of a sudden the world changes. But moral theorizing, I think, is a task that most thoughtful people engage in to some degree or another. And sometimes when they do their beliefs change as a result.

      So, for instance, I think that the persistent drive toward equality over the last two centuries has been at least partly the result of moral theorizing. A lot of people concluded that slavery was wrong because they thought about it, listened to arguments, and decided that whatever differences exist between black people and white people aren’t morally relevant. Or aren’t relevant in a way that would come close to justifying slavery. The same was true in the struggle for equal rights for women. And, today, a lot of people are convinced by moral theoretical arguments of the sort popularized by Peter Singer that many of the things we do to non-human animals are morally wrong.

      It’s sometimes hard to find examples of people changing their minds. And when they do it’s hard to know whether they’re doing so because of moral theory or some other cause. But I think the historical influence of moral thinking is relatively clear. And, on a more personal level, I see it in my students a lot. Perhaps they’re at an age and in a place where they’re much more open than usual to this kind of thinking and flexibility. But it’s there. It’s possible.


      • Damien S.

        “It’s sometimes hard to find examples of people changing their minds.”

        Support for gay marriage is said to be rising faster than generational turnover, i.e. it’s not just old people dying and being replaced by tolerant youngsters, but people becoming more accepting at all ages.

        As a negative example, 9/11 resulted in a whole lot of people who’d presented as libertarians suddenly being very supportive of jingoistic warfare and even “nuke them all” sentiments. (This on the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written, where as a completely unscientific gut feeling it seemed like half the libertarians were suddenly pro-war and pro-Bush.)

        • Brian Doherty

          Sure people change their minds Damien, though what’s at issue here is whether the rigor of moral theorizing ever makes people change their minds. (I’ve been playing with the cynical notion that all moral theory ends up being a convoluted way for people to convince themselves of things they already believed. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a sophisticated modern moral or political theorist argue themselves into any conclusion that I’m not pretty sure they already “knew”/agreed with.)

          • Damien S.

            Peter Singer sparking the animal liberation movement? Theories may convince others, if not the originator, or help strengthen a tendency, not just passively affirm it. Being able to articulate reasons for belief helps conviction.

          • Brian Doherty

            Damien—Singer may actually be an example of what I’m looking for, though my years of thinking hard about him or the evolution of animal rights thinking are far behind me.

  • j_m_h

    In other words, libertarians really need pirate rules, not philosophical rules or political rules or legal rules.

  • Mike Christison

    Pardon my sarcasm, but… this entire long-term discussion was spent disputing the use of the non-aggression PRINCIPLE in Libertarian thought, only to conclude (in some small respect) that the non-aggression PRINCIPLE should be seen as a principle and not a rule?

    • Damien S.

      It’s called a principle, but it’s often taken as a rule. When I was libertarian, logical deduction of the LP platform from the NAP was much of what attracted me. It’s also how the SF of L. Neil Smith worked, which is what introduced me to the idea. And I’ve seen it a lot from others, too, not “maximizing freedom is a strong principle” but “violating freedom is absolutely wrong”.

      And for a lot of people, principles *are* rules, the things you take a hard stand on. “Welcome to the Libertarian Party — the Party of Principle!”

      “4. A fundamental truth; a comprehensive law or doctrine, from which others are derived, or on which others are founded; a general truth; an elementary proposition; a maxim; an axiom; a postulate.” — 1913 Webster

      • Mike Christison

        I can’t tell which definition you are citing here.

        Interestingly, I was planning to add something about “maxims” though. The standard philosophical “maxim” is pretty much synonymous with what Mr. Zwolinski is shooting for here with regard to how we should understand the NAP. It’s usually seen as a general (almost colloquial), light rule for how one ought to act—in other words, a “principle” as he calls it.

  • Pingback: The Foundations of Libertarianism - Unofficial Network()

  • Pingback: The Foundations of Libertarianism - Unofficial Network()