Toleration, Libertarianism

Toleration, Cultures, International Issues, and Corporations

This is the fourth (and likely last) post in a series that explains a little of what I try to do in my recent book, Toleration. The first post is here; the second is here, and the third here. In the second post I indicated that my libertarianism is based on the harm principle. In the third, I discussed what conclusions that leads to about when interference in the treatment of children, animals, and the environment is warranted. In this post, I do the same, but for treatment of cultural and international issues as well as the business world. In all cases, interference–rather than toleration–is warranted when there is a harm.

First: Cultures. I do not think cultures have interests. I assume most BHL readers will agree with this; whatever else they are, cultures are groups of individuals. While individuals have interests, groups do not. This means they have no interests to be wrongfully setback, so no possibility of being harmed (harms are wrongful setbacks to interests). Of course, cultures are not just groups. They are important groups that (among other things) contribute to the creation of the identity of their members. Of course, members of cultures can have interests set back, sometimes wrongfully, and some of those interests may be interests that are importantly linked with their cultures. If I identify as a member of a culture that places value on X and so value X myself, the destruction of X may be a setback to my interests. If the setback is wrongful, I may well be harmed by the destruction of X. For one example, consider Shiprock in New Mexico—this is, as I understand it, an important place for those of the Navajo Nation. Its destruction may well setback the interests of individual Navajo and its wrongful destruction may well harm those individuals. Given that, interference may be warranted. This does not mean, though, that cultures must be given any sort of support to keep them strong. If people want a culture to survive, they can work on this on their own—the failure of others to help them, when those others have no special obligation to do so, is neither a wrong to the members of the culture nor a setback of their interests. It is certainly not a wrongful setback of interests to the culture itself (since cultures don’t have interests).

Second: International Issues. Thomas Pogge has done some of the best work in international political philosophy. One simple point he makes very clear is that leaders of countries have certain privileges that are problematic.

The international resource privilege is the ability that leaders have to sell (or control the sale of) the resources found in their countries. While they might sell those resources in the name of their people, they control the proceeds.
The international borrowing privilege is the ability that leaders have to borrow money based on the credit of their countries. Dictators may fall, but the loans they take out remain for future governments to pay off. Few countries dare to unilaterally void loans taken out by former leaders as doing so risks ending access to future loans.

Why are these relevant here? In both cases—and others—the international system is set up in such a way as to not only allow but also to help governments harm their people. Proceeds from oil and money from international loans can be used to buy arms to repress (or worse) those that oppose existing regimes. When this happens, the harms done by leaders are made possible by the international system. When we benefit from that system—and we all do, though some do more than others—we are complicit in the harms they make possible. Buy your gasoline from a company that buys oil from a dictator killing his own people and you almost certainly help make it possible for him to do so. You not only do not interfere in the harmful activity, but are complicit in it. The current system makes this near impossible to avoid. Taking the strict version of the harm principle seriously means taking seriously the need to interfere in this system. Our hearts should bleed for innocent victims of dictators and when those dictators are supported by international oil and banking, we should seek alternatives to our current system.

Third: Corporations. Corporations (like cultures) have no interests and so no interests to be set back, wrongly or not. Corporations are formal groups of individuals, organized in certain legal ways. Acts of various sorts (corporate espionage, for example) might harm individuals who are principles in the corporation and the corporation may be damaged (as a lamp might be damaged), but the corporation can’t be harmed (just as a lamp can’t be harmed). I think corporations are importantly on par with cultures in this regard. Like cultures, corporations are not due any sort of support to keep them strong. If individuals—stockholders, employees, customers, etc.—want a corporation to survive, they can work on this on their own. The failure of others to help them, when those others do not have a special obligation to do so, is neither a wrong to stockholders, employees, or customers of the corporation, nor a setback of their interests. It is certainly not a wrongful setback to the corporation itself (since corporations don’t have interests). (We live in a system whereby corporations are, and cultures are not, legal entities, but the lack of formal organization in cultures does not strike me as a substantive difference. Indeed, I tend to think the legal framework upon which corporations exist should be removed.)

To end this series, I note that I also have a large chapter in the book wherein I go through a significant subset of the arguments for toleration. Some of those arguments strike me as powerful; some strike me as misguided. In all, the book lays out what I think commitment to the strict version of the harm principle requires and offers defense of such commitment. The view is, I think, a BHL view.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I have a big problem in saying corporations don’t have interests. Unlike a culture which is a loose amorphous group, A corporation is a entity of ownership. In other words, named individuals collectively own said corporation. It’s shareholders therefore do not somehow loose their interest just because they own in conjunction with others. The corporation does have interests, as do it’s shareholders, which can be set back by, for instance, someone stealing from the corporation. The theft is a loss and is felt no matter that ownership is diffuse. You can state that the corporation has no interests only the individuals, but in all matters except semantics this is not the case.

  • ThaomasH

    For many purposes a harm to a corporation is a harm to its owners and so it makes may be convenient to talk about harm to a corporation. But that is just convenience. It may or may not be good policy to allow corporations to make political contributions, but if it is it is not because they are persons with rights but because those contributions are a proper way for its owners to exercise THEIR rights. [Personally, I do not think corporate governance is robust enough to withstand that transfer of rights.]

    Of course I do not accept that preventing harm is the only legitimate role of government. I maintain that collective consumption and redistribution, although problematic, are also legitimate roles.

  • Sean II

    If I ever get taken captive by a serial killer, I plan to scream “Please stop, you’re wrongfully setting back my interests!”

    At the same time, I’ll keep repeating the name of my corporate person, because supposedly that humanizes the victim.

  • TracyW

    I think the argument about the international system reveals the limit of the harm system. The international system of trade also brings major benefits – for example how many people in Australia would have starved to death during their drought in the 2000s if if were not for Australia’s ability to import food? How many violent religious insurgencies have been prevented by dictators (or democracies) able to afford military funding to defeat the even-worse guys? I remember studying Russian history, wondering how anything could be worse than the Tsars, and then finding out, yes, actually, the Communists could be worse.

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