Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Libertarianism: So Thick that it is Unrecognizable



Thanks to Robert Wenzel, today I came across this dandy of a post, entitled “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle, by Matt Zwolinski.

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. He has published numerous articles at the intersection of politics, law, economics, with a special focus on issues of exploitation and political libertarianism. He is the editor of Arguing About Political Philosophy (Routledge, 2009), and is currently writing two books: Exploitation, Capitalism, and the State and, with John Tomasi, Libertarianism: A Bleeding Heart History. The latter is under contract with Princeton University Press. Matt Zwolinski is the founder of and a regular contributor to the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Not a mere child, at least not chronologically.  On to Associate Professor Zwolinski:

Many libertarians believe that the whole of their political philosophy can be summed up in a single, simple principle. This principle—the “non-aggression principle” or “non-aggression axiom” (hereafter “NAP”)—holds that aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.

Technically, I would add the term “initiation” somewhere in the definition; otherwise, Matt pretty much nails it.

From this principle, many libertarians believe, the rest of libertarianism can be deduced as a matter of mere logic.

“Mere” logic…as if logic on this subject comes so easily to thick libertarians.

On its face, the NAP’s prohibition of aggression falls nicely in line with common sense…. But the NAP’s plausibility is superficial.

In the remainder of this essay, I want to present six reasons why libertarians should reject the NAP.

Interesting; Professor Matt doesn’t suggest that libertarians add on a bunch of garbage to libertarianism to make it more palatable, hip, mainstream, or cool.  He suggests libertarians should reject that which is the heart of libertarianism.  And this is published at a site called Libertarianism.org.

Matt offers his six reasons:

·        Prohibits All Pollution
·        Prohibits Small Harms for Large Benefits
·        All-or-Nothing Attitude Toward Risk
·        No Prohibition of Fraud
·        Parasitic on a Theory of Property
·        What About the Children???

I find no need to go through each in detail.  The founder of the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians (who would name his blog for a term that has no definition?) believes he has stumped advocates of NAP with statements such as:

As I noted in my last post, Rothbard himself…

Murray Rothbard, who ploughed virgin soil with virtually everything he wrote regarding libertarian theory and the NAP, somehow didn’t resolve every single issue – at least in the eyes of Professor Z.  Shame on Murray – you failed as a central planner.

June 13, 1941



I continue with a more detailed review of Suvorov’s book, The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II.  “June 13, 1941” is the title of Chapter 34.  This will be my final post for this book; in this post, I will focus on the key date in support of the key point of the book:  Suvorov suggests that Stalin’s objective was conquest for the sake of expanding communism.  In this, Stalin followed a very cohesive strategy; ultimately, he achieved partial success, but not to the extent he desired.

In other words, Stalin manipulated events with the intent of drawing the western powers (Germany, France, Great Britain, and ultimately the United States) into a war of exhaustion, after which the Soviet Union would move west and spread communism throughout a spent continent.

Things went according to plan up to this point – so far, so good.  Stalin manipulated events that drew Great Britain and France into war with Germany.  So, what is special about June 13, 1941 – just a few days before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union?  Suvorov suggests that events on and around this date make clear that Stalin was within weeks of invading Germany…had not Hitler beat him to the punch.

On June 13, 1941, Moscow radio broadcast a rather unusual announcement of the Soviet Union Telegraph Agency (TASS).  It claimed that “Germany was following the conditions of the Soviet-German Pact as flawlessly as the Soviet Union,” that the rumors of an impending German attack on the USSR “were clumsily fabricated propaganda by the enemies of Germany and the USSR, interested in broadening and prolonging the war.” (P. 207)

According to Suvorov, the style of the announcement was widely recognized to be that of Stalin’s:

Everyone knew the author of the TASS announcement.  Stalin’s characteristic style was recognized by generals in Soviet staffs, inmates in the labor camps, and Western experts. (P. 207)

Yet, one week later, Germany invaded. 

Both the Soviet and foreign press wrote extensively about the TASS announcement.  Many of those who spoke out on the subject laughed at Stalin.  The TASS announcement was sometimes described as a sign of nearsightedness. (P. 207)

Suvorov suggests that the TASS announcement, on the surface, did not fit Stalin’s character:

The man most familiar with Stalin, his personal secretary Boris Bazhanov, characterized him in the following way: “Secretive and extremely sly….He possessed an extraordinary ability to remain silent, and in this respect was unique in a country where everyone spoke too much.” (P. 207)

Citing A. Avtorkhanov, “[Stalin] was an implacable enemy of word inflation and excessive talking.  Do not say what you are thinking.”  Robert Conquest, a scholar of the Stalin era: “Extremely reserved and secretive.  We still have to peer through the darkness of Stalin’s exceptional secrecy….Stalin never said what was on his mind, even regarding political goals.” (P. 207)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Liberty Without God?



This is both an interesting and troubling post.  Interesting, because I, too, believe that for a society to survive and thrive, there must be some common belief, some unifying core; troubling, because if it must be “God” as the Bible describes, then even amongst my neighbors on my block we have no chance for survival.

I will add: I believe the Bible is the Word of God – not the words of men that were godly, but God’s word.  For this reason, I find it fortunate that there is much concurrence between Biblical and libertarian / Austrian thought.  If not, I imagine my brain (or soul) would explode.

Back to “interesting” and “troubling”: I guess I come down on the side of troubling….

I will go in order from least troubling to most troubling:

“In the eyes of God, the lowest person on the social scale is equal in his God-given rights to the highest and most exalted anywhere in the world, whether he be a captain of industry, king, or president.”

Too many Christians look at the interpretation as it is presented here – the lowest is equal to the highest.  This is true enough; however, the counter interpretation is equally valid, and should be equally emphasized – the highest is also equal to the lowest.  In other words, concepts like progressive taxation are not Biblical.

“Some totalitarian regimes recognize state-controlled or state-authorized religion, in sometimes elevating the tyrant to god-like status.”

Nowhere mentioned is the state with perhaps one of the most effective unifying state-religions – the United States of America.  The myths supporting the “exceptional” American dream are phenomenal in their effectiveness, beginning with Washington not being able to tell a lie and continuing today with they hate us for our freedom.  In between, we have examples such as Lincoln, the (so-called) Good War, and 911.

“Magna Carta is the best known example of this statement, for the king was forced to admit that all men had rights that could not be taken away, regardless of social rank.”

It is too bad that the Magna Carta is regularly viewed as a turning point from the evil of the Dark Ages to the liberalism of the modern age.  It stops an appropriate examination of the relatively libertarian and effectively decentralized Middle Ages, especially during the Merovingian Period, but continuing in Britain until the 11th century, in France until perhaps the 13th century, and in Germany until at least the 15th century.

“Nevertheless, here’s the argument: if man is formed in the image of God, then all individual men are equal to one another in their rights, which derive from God and cannot be derived from other men.”

But does this automatically result in the counter? “…if man is [NOT] formed in the image of God, then all individual men are [NOT] equal to one another in their rights…”  I don’t see why.  Even if man sprang up from the squid (which, as should be clear, I do not believe), what makes one man today more equal than another?

“It is no wonder that most communist regimes forbid organized religion. They must deny that man has any God-given rights, only state-given rights…”

These are not the only two options.  Man has rights as man.  Even without God, there is no reasonable argument to suggest that some men are more equal than others.

“Whether the West and the rest of the world can remain economically liberated in the absence of a belief that man is made in God’s image remains to be seen. I have my doubts.”

I have my doubts as well – but not so specifically about the absence of “God” as described in the Christian Bible.  Most religions throughout the world hold some view similar to the Golden Rule.  Even with this worldwide recognition, the Rule has not prevailed.

It isn’t a rejection of the Christian God – it is a rejection of a moral basis common to all men, regardless of faith.

The Sanctity of Contract



I will start with some history: I recall my fascination when first learning about the concept and philosophy of law during the Middle Ages.  I discovered this through a book written by Fritz Kern, “Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages.”  Through my study of this book, I wrote several posts, which can be found here.

For those not familiar with the concept of law during this time period, the book and these posts are worth a read.  However, I offer a brief summary: law was individual; law was based on custom; for law to be law, it had to be both old and good; the king was not above the law, but subservient to the law – on equal footing with the lords and nobles; the king’s duty was merely to uphold the law, not to legislate.

Most important for the purpose of this post: relationships and agreements (between nobles, between nobles and kings, and even between nobles and serfs) were based on a sacred oath; the two parties would agree via an agreement stronger than a contract, something grounded in their faith.

When reading this history, it struck me how similar this would be to what a libertarian world would look like – not a perfect match, but one of the closer examples I have found in history, and an examples that survived for several centuries.  One important feature was this idea of the sacred oath – what I will now label the sanctity of contract.

Try to imagine a functioning libertarian world without contracts that are respected and, as necessary, appropriately enforced.  I cannot.  Perhaps second (if not equal) to the necessity of respecting private property, the non-aggression principle requires individuals to honor agreements made with one another – not merely for moral reasons (do what you say); trade, in anything more than rudimentary (instantaneous barter) form, is ultimately not possible without such a reliance.  (Boy, I hope I am not making an argument for “thick.”)

More important than honoring the agreements, if interactions between individuals are not governed by private agreements – call them contracts (in whatever form – explicit, implicit, unilateral, etc.), handshakes, a meeting of the minds, whatever – what will govern such relationships in a libertarian society?  How would the non-aggression principle be given meaningful form without private property and contract?

Thus I come to the sanctity of contracts.  It is a slippery slope when libertarians suggest that certain kinds of contracts – otherwise not inconsistent with the non-aggression principle – cannot be consummated between two or more willing participants.

Yet there is a debate in the libertarian community regarding the extent to which one can contract.  Perhaps the two viewpoints can best be presented by Murray Rothbard on the one hand and Walter Block on the other.

Citing Rothbard, from “The Ethics of Liberty:”

THE RIGHT OF PROPERTY implies the right to make contracts about that property: to give it away or to exchange titles of ownership for the property of another person.

Unfortunately, many libertarians, devoted to the right to make contracts, hold the contract itself to be an absolute, and therefore maintain that any voluntary contract whatever must be legally enforceable in the free society.

Their error is a failure to realize that the right to contract is strictly derivable from the right of private property, and therefore that the only enforceable contracts (i.e., those backed by the sanction of legal coercion) should be those where the failure of one party to abide by the contract implies the theft of property from the other party. In short, a contract should only be enforceable when the failure to fulfill it is an implicit theft of property.

For there can be no property in someone’s promises or expectations; these are only subjective states of mind, which do not involve transfer of title, and therefore do not involve implicit theft.

The basic reason is that the only valid transfer of title of ownership in the free society is the case where the property is, in fact and in the nature of man, alienable by man. All physical property owned by a person is alienable, i.e., in natural fact it can be given or transferred to the ownership and control of another party. I can give away or sell to another person my shoes, my house, my car, my money, etc. But there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily.

That is the ground for the famous position of the Declaration of Independence that man’s natural rights are inalienable; that is, they cannot be surrendered, even if the person wishes to do so.

Rothbard offers as an example the bride-to-be who, after promising to be wed, decides to change her mind.  Should she be forced to go on with the marriage?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sheldon Richman Returns to Thick Libertarianism



Sheldon Richman is out with a new post today, entitled “TGIF: What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.”  In it, he seems to be responding – albeit indirectly – to criticisms of his post from a couple of weeks ago, “TGIF: In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism.”  I was one of those critics.

As I wrote in the previous post: “I am not a philosopher; I am not a trained libertarian theorist.  On such matters, I am the first to admit that I am not very sophisticated.” 

But I do want to work through Richman’s comments.

If I were compelled to summarize the libertarian philosophy’s distinguishing feature while standing on one foot, I’d say the following: Every person owes it to all other persons not to aggress them. This is known as the nonaggression principle, or NAP.

So far, so good.  Although, I would suggest it isn’t the “distinguishing feature”; it is the feature – no qualifier necessary. 

What is the nature of this obligation?

The first thing to notice is that it is unchosen. I never agreed not to aggress against others. Others never agreed not to aggress against me. So if I struck you and you objected, you would not accept as my defense, “I never agreed not to strike you.”

If I were to ask, “Why do we owe it to others not to aggress against them,” what would you say? I presume some answer rooted in facts would be offered because the alternative would be to say this principle has no basis whatsoever, that it’s just a free-floating principle, like an iceberg. That would amount to saying the principle has no binding force. It’s just a whim, which might not be shared by others.

Now if we have an unchosen obligation not to aggress against others and that obligation is rooted in certain facts, this raises a new question: Might the facts that impose the unchosen obligation not to aggress also impose other obligations? If one unchosen obligation can be shown to exist, why couldn’t the same foundation in which that one is rooted produce others?

It seems a worthwhile question to explore.  At least we don’t have to consider the point of view of a rock this time.

To the question “Why do we owe it to others not to aggress against them,” I would respond along these lines: because we individually should treat other persons respectfully, that is, as ends in themselves and not merely as means to our own ends. But some libertarians would reject that as too broad because it seems to obligate us to more than just nonaggression.

I would be one of those rejecting libertarians.  Richman pre-emptively offers my reasoning:

They might answer the question this way: “Because one may use force against another only in defense or retaliation against someone who initiated the use of force.” But this can’t be sufficient because it amounts to a circular argument: To say that one may use force only in response to aggression is in effect merely to restate the nonaggression principle. One shouldn’t aggress because one shouldn’t aggress. But the NAP can hardly justify itself.

At least he wrote “they might.”  Of course, I might not.

I have mentioned that I am not a philosopher or a trained libertarian theorist.  But even I wouldn’t offer such a reason.  Who would?  Who has?  Can it be so simple, so easy to put up an argument that is so easily rejected?  Has Rothbard written in such terms?  Hoppe? Rockwell?  The entire foundation for the NAP is this fragile; an argument that might be offered by “anonymous” on one of any number of comments sections in various libertarian forums?

There is a term for the use of logical fallacies of this specific type.  What is it (he types, while scratching his little mosquito head)?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Children are Confused (or Just Being Used)



Today must be conspiracy theory day.  While my earlier post is an example of the awakening in the mainstream (academia) this time toward the reality that elites control the state, this post is an example of the children not keeping up with their elders.

Once again, the culprit is to be found associated with the Students of Liberty.  The post is a few years old, but apparently was posted again recently.  The post is entitled “Conspiracy Theories Hurt the Liberty Movement.”

The author, Ankur Chawla, starts well enough:

Conspiracy Theory: The idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.

The definition is so well written; using this definition, I am hard-pressed to see how anyone could believe that such conspiracies do not exist.  I am also hard-pressed to understand how conspiracy theories hurt the liberty movement.

Almost immediately, it is obvious that logic and critical thinking are no longer taught to students.  There is too much to unpack in the following few sentences; I will only take a quick run-through:

Both libertarians and conspiracy theorists have a key thing in common: They dislike the government.

It isn’t clear to me that all conspiracy theorists dislike the government.  It also isn’t clear to me that all self-proclaimed libertarians dislike the government (as opposed to just wanting to make it more efficient; a scary enough thought) – for example, many of those associated with Students for Liberty.

The difference is that those interested in liberty dislike the state because it restricts our freedom and limits our prosperity.

Not all of those interested in liberty dislike the state for this reason, although it is a true enough statement.

We do not think the government is intentionally malevolent, just very misguided and unintentionally harmful.

Many individuals who dislike the state come to this view precisely because they believe the government is intentionally malevolent and intentionally harmful.  Just ask the few hundred million who have died at the hands of the state over the last 100 years.

On the other hand, conspiracy theorists fear the government because of its alleged diabolical secret plans it has been cooking up for all these years.

There are many conspiracy theorists that do not “fear the government” – they believe that government actors are justifiable in implementing their conspiracies, and they support such actions. 

The examples of “diabolical secret plans” are so numerous, it is difficult to imagine anyone with an internet connection and a curious mind could miss these.  I guess only one out of two are necessary to write for SFL.

Tin Foil Hats: Coming Out of the Closet



There is a small group of powerful elite that achieve their ends through government. 

This is very difficult for many to accept – after all, it calls into questions the entirety of their faith in the state.  Yet, I can prove it with one simple statement (and I won’t cite it exactly correctly, and I wish I recall where I first read it):

Democracy is the false belief that you and your wife have twice the political pull of someone named Rockefeller.

Now, I know this isn’t convincing enough for many.  They want facts from credible (mainstream) resources; not from Murray Rothbard, and certainly not cute little quips from a mosquito. 

Well, slowly but surely these doubters are getting their wish (or nightmare, as they don’t want their belief in the state shaken by facts).  I commented on one such mainstream report a few months ago, in a post entitled “Tin Foil Hat Has Gone Mainstream!  In a study conducted by psychologists and social scientists in the US and UK, it was determined that those who believe in so-called conspiracy theories are saner than those who believe the government-peddled version of events; further, the so-called conspiracy theorists represent the majority view when it comes to online discussions.

Now another, as reported in the Telegraph: “The US is an Oligarchy, Study Concludes.”

The US government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country's citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities has concluded.

My little quip pretty much covered this.  But I am not a recognized researcher.

After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

I will go one step further, focused on the phrase “its economic elite”: the US government, like most governments around the world, is greatly influenced by an elite that does not consider itself the captive elite of any one nation.  They consider themselves global.  But I know many will want to read this from a more authoritative source. 

Let’s clarify the term “conspiracy”:

The act of conspiring; an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot; any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.

So, back to the study: are these powerful individuals influencing government through open means?  Do they advertise their intentions, publish minutes of their meetings with congressmen and regulators, or seek open debate on the Sunday morning talk shows?  Have you been invited to the meetings?

The answers are, of course, no, no, no, no, and (I am taking a leap of faith on the last one) no.

Hence, a conspiracy.

Now, in some events it might come easy for those who discount other conspiracy theories to also accept that a small yet powerful group of financial elite have an extraordinary influence on government policies.  For example, the bail-outs of Wall Street are an obvious example, one that should need no further statement to convey the connection.

But if here, why not elsewhere?  Why not in cases that are not so obvious?  Why not in actions directed primarily by state actors?  Why not in actions of export policy, government subsidies for food and shelter?  War?

Researchers concluded that US government policies rarely align with the the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favour special interests and lobbying oragnisations: "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it."



Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t say it.