Monday, May 14, 2018

Doing Business With Immoral People

Romans 3: 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.  12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

I guess I could end this post here, as the hurdle is set impossibly high to find moral people with which to do business.

Snippets From a Dialogue

Rien: …just create a virtual libertarian paradise, ruled by NAP, where libertarians will only trade with fellow libertarians….I am assuming that doing business with people that share our morals is better than doing business with people that do not share our morals.  Why would you even want to do business with immoral people?

Nick Badalamenti: …I'll say that there are many subjective standards by which people might feel on another are "immoral".

Rien: …maybe when B.M. spends a post on it we get an opportunity to discuss it.

OK, let’s give it a go.

Before We Get Started

In Rien’s opening statement (as I have provided above) are a few items worth pulling apart and examining – this even before getting at the topic that makes for the title of this post.  Perhaps most striking: just because someone fancies himself a libertarian does not necessarily suggest he is moral in another libertarian’s eyes.

For example, libertarians have different opinions on the application of the NAP.  Begin with the minarchist / anarchist view – anarchists might suggest that the minarchist is advocating immoral behavior. 

Then there is the undefendable that is defended by libertarian law.  Many of these undefendable activities are at the same time not inconsistent with the NAP and also considered by many to be immoral practices.

More significant, perhaps: how about abortion or open borders?  There are libertarians on each side of these issues that, to a small or great degree, consider libertarians on the other side of the issue to be immoral.

What I am getting at: many libertarians have more in common morally with non-libertarians than they do with each other – libertarians are divided morally almost as much as is the general population.

Libertarianism’s Amorality

But, now, let’s take a step back and consider areas where it would seem all libertarians who consistently apply the NAP should agree.  What does the non-aggression principle suggest about doing business with immoral people?  (Hint: pretty much nothing.)

Gary Galles offers Amoral markets versus immoral coercion.  The title itself is suggestive of both the libertarian and (truly) free market reality.  Much of the post is offering cites from Leonard Read.

Summarizing Read, Galles offers:

…Read showed that liberty’s failure to gain more adherents than utopian statism can be, in part, traced to the fact that it is the ends envisioned, rather than the means involved, that often motivate people. And since unlike utopian visions, freedom, including free markets — an “amoral servant” — cannot be proven to have no objectionable results to anyone, liberty can be saddled with an inspirational deficit.

The market is amoral; it provides a mechanism for man to express his desires – moral or otherwise.  Citing Read:

[But] it is necessary to recognize the limitations of the free market. The market is a mechanism, and thus it is wholly lacking in moral and spiritual suasion…it embodies no coercive force whatsoever.

The market is but a response to — a mirror of — our desires.

And Read quoting W.H. Pitt:

“[T]he market, with its function for the economizing of time and effort, is servant alike to the good, the compassionate, and the perceptive as well as to the evil, the inconsiderate, and the oblivious.”

You get the idea.  Markets, when viewed through a libertarian lens, provide almost no moral guidance.

I Said “Almost”

Richard W. Wilke offers An Appropriate Ethical Model for Business and a Critique of Milton Friedman’s Thesis (PDF).  To summarize: lobbying the government for favors is unethical.  I think most libertarians would agree with this – I certainly do.  I do find a difference in lobbying the government to get it to stay out of markets – for example, lobbying against minimum wage laws, rent control, additional regulations, etc.

But lobbying for favors?  Unethical by libertarian standards.  Yet…it seems virtually impossible to survive in the modern world without doing business with companies (or trade / business associations) that lobby the government for favors – given that this would include almost every company and every industry.  Is there a way to slice this population into different segments?  I think so, but I am now introducing my morality and not necessarily a thin libertarian morality.

I find a subset of such businesses to be a pretty easy call.  Not every underlying business of such “lobbying” companies is in itself a violation of the NAP.  For example, automakers lobby for certain inducements, yet producing and selling an automobile is not, in and of itself, an NAP violation.

What of banks?  Of course, the lobbying by firms in this industry is rampant; I also find the entire business model corrupt, as it relies on both monopoly protection and inflation that steals from the common man.  Yet…I find no way to live in anything approaching a modern economy without utilizing the services of a modern bank.

Now, for an example that I used to think was simple and obvious: defense contractors, merchants of death.  Of course, most of us are not in the market to buy their products; however, we do have a choice about investing, or not, in their business.  I always thought the answer was cut and dry for a libertarian: investing in and profiting from such a business is a clear violation of the non-aggression principle.

Yet Richard Maybury advocates just such investments.  It is really beyond me based solely on ethics that can be deduced from libertarianism.

I have now exhausted an analysis of this topic from the basis of the non-aggression principle.  I know it leaves one wanting more, but the NAP is equipped for no more.  Yet this does not come close to addressing the issue fully: doing business with immoral people.

One Man’s Moral is Another Man’s Hell

What is moral?  The word “moral” derives from “custom.”  But custom changes – sometimes organically and sometimes by external force.  Custom is different in different places and different times.  Custom in the west has been destroyed so meaningfully that the term is almost irrelevant.

So on what basis are we to define “moral”?  Way above my pay grade.  I appreciate the best of western civilization and will gladly discard the worst.  But what is the “best,” and what is the “worst”?

I feel like a hamster on a wheel.


Coming to Rien’s main point, again Galles citing Read:

Instead of cursing evil, stay out of the market for it; the evil will cease to the extent we cease patronizing it.  Trying to rid ourselves of trash by running to government for morality laws is like trying to minimize the effects of inflation by wage, price, and other controls. Both destroy the market, that is, the reflection of ourselves…attempts not to see ourselves as we are…

Read seems to suggest that it is the running to government that is evil.  Yet, defining evil is done within each one of us; of course, we are influenced by the definition of others, of society, of religion.  Even if we are using the same words to define evil, we each might have different definitions in mind for these words.  Ultimately, we each have our own picture in mind when considering terms like “evil” or “moral.”

Libertarians will be partially influenced in creating their definition by the non-aggression principle; the general population will be partially influenced in creating their definition by the state (along with the controlled schools and media) – the state that has replaced religion as the moral guide. 

But, as I have written too often, regarding “moral,” liberal libertarians will have more in common with the broader left than they will with conservative libertarians just as conservative libertarians will have more in common with the broader right than they will with liberal libertarians.

In other words, getting libertarians to coalesce around a common idea of moral and then acting on this is almost as hopeless as getting the general population to agree to a common idea of moral and acting on this.


  1. "There are libertarians on each side of these issues that, to a small or great degree, consider libertarians on the other side of the issue to be immoral."

    Yes, and often times each side will claim their interpretation of the NAP- in essence trying to claim the "moral" high ground. (I put "moral" in quotes because of it's subjectivity-I don't mean to demean the idea of morality in general or question it's existence)

    "In other words, getting libertarians to coalesce around a common idea of moral and then acting on this is almost as hopeless as getting the general population to agree to a common idea of moral and acting on this."

    Yes. The only answer I see to this is decentralization and freedom of association/disassociation.(smaller, mostly like minded communities that basically leave other communities alone-maybe with the exception of trade)

  2. Hmm, I cannot say that I am very happy with this. It feels as if something is "off".

    Btw in this piece you seem to conclude that this question is indeed terra incognita. But you do not evaluate pro and con, which is a question I particularly like to see answered ;-)

    I see two aspect to this question: morality and evangelizing.

    Morally I tend to keep to the approach I already mentioned in the previous thread: deputizing is possible, but the moral end-responsibility stays with the highest level. So if we want to behave as moral as possible, we have no other alternative than to evaluate the hierarchy below us: i.e. the entire supply chain up to the point of transaction.

    Evangelizing: I am assuming that most or all NAP-ers want to see a world where NAP is the common denominator. Flavour be ***, as long as it is NAP, its fine by me.

    So far the evangelizing has failed "bigly". It does not work at all. As a percentage I would bet that NAP-ers have lost ground year after year.
    (Though the advent of the internet may have caused a small uptick in some years round 2000-2010) Reasoning clearly does not work.

    The only alternative I see is to become an example. Which means the NAP-ers should become a very wealthy group.

    How that can be achieved is not too difficult, there are many examples out there. For example the Jews. But the deep state is another one. Alumni from universities used to be there too, but they have been watered down considerably. The trick to becoming an influential group is in-grouping.

    Which for NAP-ers means doing business with other NAP-ers wherever possible. Even if that means higher prices. In-grouping minimizes outflow, and that is the best way to 'get rich' __as a group__!!

    As the group gets richer, more people will want to join, and more people will find reasons to accept NAP as a guiding principle. After all, rationalizing works better than convincing.

    Anyway, those seem to be my two main points that would support trying to deal with NAP-ers as much as possible.

    1. I wasn't very happy with it either, because in the end it seems to me most libertarians value things higher than they value the NAP. Our "in-group preference" (as you put it) happens to be with other groups.

      I find no reason to prioritize my trade with pro-life libertarians or libertarians who practice the arts of every chapter in "Defending the Undefendible."

    2. I think that in our subconsciousness we know that in restricting transactions to moral people only we will out-group ourselves. And nobody really wants that. We need the group, even while virtue signalling to ourself how much better we are, because ... NAP.