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)?

My objection is based on life and, as an extension, the property produced via life.  Absent life, there is no reason to concern ourselves with rights.  Absent the ability to accumulate and dispose of property, there is no life.  (Of course, I am speaking of human life.  I dealt with Richman’s nonsensical rock / man conundrum in the last post.)

I am not owed respect, as Richman suggests – I have no claim on another person’s treatment of me or feelings about me outside of violations to my life and property.  I do not require others to be nice to me in order to live and accumulate property necessary to sustain life.  I know this is true, because not everyone is nice to me today, yet I am alive today and own property.

However, I cannot live and own property if someone decides to take these away from me.  And then I return full circle – absent life, what’s the point?  There’s some circular logic for you!

If I am owed respect, how would I enforce this?  “He looked at me funny, so I shot him.”  Whereas this statement works well if one is facing a deadly attacker.

How about “he refused to sell a candy bar to me because I am a Martian”?  Whose property is the candy bar?  Under what justification should a third party (or even the buyer, the second party) have authority to override the candy bar owner’s position?

Perhaps not philosophically sophisticated, but there it is.  I warned you regarding my shortcomings.

So we need a real justification for the NAP, and the one I’ve offered seems like a good start. The NAP is an implication of the obligation to treat persons respectfully, as ends and not merely as means. Of course this also requires justification. Why should we treat other persons respectfully?

As I consider Richman’s introduction a bad-faith and faulty beginning, I don’t care much about exploring the rest of his post.  Richman set up the most flimsy straw-man (yeah, that’s the word!) and proceeded to demolish it.  From this foundation of sand he continues as if he has a foundation of rock; as if knocking down a straw-man would suffice for this discussion.

While I don’t care much for exploring the rest of his post, I didn’t mean to suggest I don’t care at all.  I think the remainder of Richman’s post offers a good opportunity for an object lesson.  From this point on, Richman offers more than 1500 words of very sophisticated and complex philosophical constructs.  He cites an essay by Roderick Long, it being 123 pages.

What is my point?  Look, I have openly admitted I am no philosophic sophisticate; at the same time, I don’t believe I am a complete ignoramus.  I had a very difficult time following Richman’s reasoning; what is the likelihood of the average person doing so?

Most people in this world already live by the non-aggression principle.  They get it, it is simple; in almost all (but not all) situations the application is obvious.  A new man need not be created – the existing man already gets it. 

In living by the non-aggression principle, the average imperfect man has only one shortcoming – a very fundamental shortcoming, yet only one: he does not apply it consistently when considering actions taken by state actors.

At the same time, most people in this world live with – in fact survive via – holding prejudices of one sort or another.  As long as the prejudices do not manifest in ways that violate the non-aggression principle, they are living by the non-aggression principle. 

The wonderful thing about the NAP is its simplicity; it makes sense, people almost intuitively get it.  Most religions around the world offer some form of it in their teaching; it is almost universally understood and understandable.

It is enough for me that – in this world, populated by actual human beings – people leave me alone; they do not aggress against me.  Would I like them to respect me – setting aside that I am not so insecure as to concern myself with another’s view on this?  It would be nice.

But just leave me alone.  The joy, pleasure, and satisfaction that this would bring is indescribable.  It is enough to wish for in a world made of imperfect humans.  And a few billion humans already live by this code – just not consistently applied due to the blindness brought on by the state.

Almost no one lives without prejudices or bigotry (and I feel pretty safe removing “almost”).  And no one owes me respect.  Their view on me is theirs to have – I don’t own their thoughts.  Their intent on selling me the candy bar that they own is fully up to them.  I don’t own their property.

Richman, and others peddling similar views, wants what social engineers throughout history have wanted – to create a new man, one not burdened with human imperfection.  For these prejudices and for actions (that fall short of NAP violations) based on these prejudices to be eliminated, a new man must be created.  It is the dream of communists, socialists, and fascists. 

Richman and his fellow travelers desire that it is also the dream of libertarians.

In the meantime, under the humble assumption that Richman (or Borders, or Tucker, or the children at SFL) have read any of my objections regarding the various burdens they want to place on the non-aggression principle, I have yet to find a single, direct response to my simple queries.

This is very simple for me, the simpleton: either I can decide the disposition of my candy bar, or someone else can.  Justify why it is acceptable that someone else can.  Tell me: who can decide the control, use, and disposition of my candy bar?  And if the answer isn’t me, explain why.  Remain consistent to the NAP.  Don’t hide behind 1500 words that few people will understand, linking to 123 pages that even fewer people will read. 

In summary: who owns my life?  Who owns my property?

Make your thick dreams fit within the thinness of these simple questions while remaining consistent with the non-aggression principle and you might be on to something.

Otherwise, all you are doing is ensuring no room in the tent because your tent does not welcome humans of this earth.


  1. This is the problem with defining libertarianism based on a derived concept, i.e., the principle of non-aggression. As much as I personally dislike Kinsella, his recent talk with Tom Woods was really good in that he spoke of how libertarianism bases itself first and foremost on its particular and specific treatment of property, starting with the idea that we control our bodies and then moving to how we acquire physical property, etc.

    It is only from this concept that the principle of non-aggression is justified. If you go through the entirety of the libertarian corpus of ideas, they all amount to question begging without this justification.

    So for Richman, who's supposedly a knowledgeable libertarian, to go on an on about the principle of non-aggression, basically asking "why" or "so what," assuming he already knows the answer, boggles my mind.

    1. In the subject essay, Richman does not mention the term "property" at all. This is one of the points I tried to make in my critique - his dream cannot be achieved without violating my rights in property. Once such a violation is justified, there is no more "libertarian."

  2. Richman has been around the block in the libertarian world. So it’s really hard to believe that he's not being quite disingenuous about his lack of knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of the NAP. I mean really, it’s been covered extensively by many, from Hoppe, Rothbard, etc. to Stefan Molyneux’s UPB.

    This whole thing is getting rather tiresome.

  3. But shooting someone for refusing to sell candy is treating them merely as as a means and not as an end in themselves, that is, in a non-respectful manner as Richman identified it. In that sense, you agree people are owed the respect to be treated as ends in themselves.

    As libertarians, there isn't disagreement over the NAP or property rights. The point is of the article is to explore why the NAP is enforceable and what implications that might have. You seem to take it as a given that the NAP is enforceable, but don't offer an explanation why.

    1. In case you did not see it, this post should be read in context with my earlier post on a previous Richman commentary:

      Now to your comments:

      “But shooting someone for refusing to sell candy is treating them merely as as a means and not as an end in themselves, that is, in a non-respectful manner as Richman identified it.”

      This is precisely the point: when a conflict arises between NAP and the “respect” that Richman and other thick libertarians wish to burden the NAP with (as it must), how will the conflict be resolved while remaining consistent with the NAP? Should the initiation of force be acceptable in order to relieve the shop owner of his candy bar, for the benefit of a Martian to whom the shopkeeper would otherwise refuse to serve? Or is the mere refusal to sell the candy bar now to be considered an initiation of force, for which self-defense is acceptable? (What does that say about property rights?)

      “You seem to take it as a given that the NAP is enforceable, but don't offer an explanation why.”

      I do so, in response to Richman’s straw-man (read the entire section in context; to re-post here will be too large): “My objection is based on life and, as an extension, the property produced via life. Absent life, there is no reason to concern ourselves with rights. Absent the ability to accumulate and dispose of property, there is no life. (Of course, I am speaking of human life. I dealt with Richman’s nonsensical rock / man conundrum in the last post.)”

      Can you explain how life is possible if life is to be made impossible? And if life is to be made impossible, none of this matters, does it?

      “Oh, woe is me; he doesn’t like me” doesn’t make life impossible for the Martian. It just means he should find a different circle of associates. Somewhere there is a shopkeeper who will sell him a candy bar.

    2. Justin, I actually found the perfect reply to your comments in the strangest of places:

      The most relevant fact is that an individual’s life is an end in itself. Since this is true of all people, a person’s life should not be subordinated to the life of another. The right to life means that a person should be free to exercise one’s own judgement, while leaving others free to do the same.


      Thank you for stopping by.