Libertarianism, Property Rights and Self-Ownership

by John Holbo on April 15, 2010

OK, I’m going to try to raise the philosophical tone of this whole libertarian thing. It’s the least I can do. Snarking is a base motive, after all.

Jacob Levy has earnestly maintained in comments that it is unfair to judge libertarianism by the standard of Bryan Caplan’s attempts to turn the Gilded Age into a Golden Age of ladyfreedom, and I would just like to say that, in a sense, Jacob is perfectly correct. Let me make this first point briefly (because lord knows this post is going to be long enough). Sometimes people distinguish ‘thin’ and ‘thick’. ‘Thin’ is the kind of ‘propertarian’ libertarian that Caplan can’t be because the whole inability to make contracts/own your own property thing is a straight-up deal-breaker. ‘Thick’ is the kind of libertarian Caplan can’t be because of all the Mill stuff in my previous post: can’t let society play the tyrant. It’s perfectly reasonable for Jacob to maintain that if you are going to pillory libertarianism, in a theoretical sense, you should pick one or the other of these two sorts – or both. But Caplan is neither, in his arguments about women’s freedom under coverture. What is Caplan really? I dunno. I suppose he’s a momentarily strayed ‘propertarian’, although I’m happy for him to speak for himself on this point.

But Brad DeLong and others fire back that it’s reasonable to hold libertarianism to account for the bad company that keeps it. Well, I dunno. I agree that it calls for diagnosis, but you still want to keep the theoretical point separate. Maybe that will even help with the diagnosis.

Here goes. I think it is not generally recognized – it seems right to me, correct me if I am wrong! – that the thick/thin libertarian distinction, even though it can be fuzzy, in practice, marks out two fundamentally distinct kinds of political philosophy, based on totally different principles. This gets disguised because there is considerable overlapping consensus at higher levels; and the thin side, in particular, tends to be systematically confused about where it is coming from (where it has to be coming from, to be what it is). Once we see this, a few things that are a bit strange about libertarianism, as a sociological phenomenon, look less strange. Also, maybe it turns out that libertarianism is a Bigger Tent than liberalism, philosophically, even though it is sometimes classed as a mere fringe of the liberal tent. Liberalism really is one kind of thing, broadly speaking. But not libertarianism – which is really two fundamentally different kinds of thing in one. (You could debate that, arguing that liberalism, too, has some pretty serious and deep internal divisions. But that’s not today’s topic.)

Let’s start with a paper that was recommended in comments to my last thread. Samuel Freeman, “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism is not a Liberal View”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 30, 2 (Spring 2002), 105-151. [Sorry, subscribers only.] Jacob Levy hints in comments that he doesn’t really like it. I can guess why, in part. Even if some forms of libertarianism are illiberal, others are perfectly liberal. It’s a bit annoying, if you are a liberal libertarian, that Freeman doesn’t acknowledge this. But if we grant this point, and extract what is right from Freeman’s analysis, I think we arrive at my point. Freeman argues that libertarianism – the illiberal sort – is better classed as a form of feudalism. And that’s right (so long as you are careful about what you mean by ‘feudal’. More about that in a moment.) So we really need to recognize that libertarianism can run the gamut from feudalism to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. That’s really pretty weird.

Now: why would libertarianism be a form of feudalism, of all things? Here I would like to offer an argument of my own, which I came up with reading Jan Narveson’s The Libertarian Idea, a couple years back, which dovetails with Freeman’s argument. He discusses Narveson quite a bit along the way and has thereby gotten me off my butt, to write out these old thoughts. (Pardon me if someone else has already made this argument, or nearly. It seems like the sort of thing that someone has probably already tried on for size. I am not a literature hound on this stuff.) Libertarians – propertarians, anyway – rather notoriously maintain that you really ought to be able to sell yourself into slavery, if you want to. After all, you’re your property. You should be able to dispose of yourself as you see fit. (Some libertarians don’t go so far but many do. Nozick, for example. I think it’s pretty hard to resist this conclusion, in princpled fashion, once you’ve bought the strong self-ownership principle.)

Now: suppose we drop, experimentally, just the libertarian ‘self-ownership’ assumption, while keeping the ownership model. Imagine a society in which everyone belongs to their parents, at birth. (Or, if their parents belong to someone, to their parents’ owners.) The libertarian logic of this is clear enough, I trust. (I don’t say all libertarians should be bound by logic to embrace this vision of utopia on the spot, but they ought to recognize libertarianism, minus assumed self-ownership, as a form of the philosophy they advocate, albeit an extreme form.) You didn’t make yourself. You are not the sweat of your brow. Someone else made you. And people are the sort of things that can be owned. So you are a made-by-someone-else thing. And made to be owned. Why shouldn’t you be born owned by whoever went to the trouble (two someones?)

It would be kind of fun to sketch a hyper-propertarian society, organized along these lines. It’s not obvious how such a society would work. Obviously it could work (or fail to) in a lot of different ways. It wouldn’t have to turn out radically differently than what we’ve got now. Most parents love their children, so they would free them – officially at birth, or when they turned 18 or whatever. But it could turn out quite differently, if different social patterns developed. You could have your free children and also your slave children, and you might regard them very differently. This utopia doesn’t seem likely to shape up as a more free society than the one we’ve got, by any ordinary stretch of our ordinary notions of freedom. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if it turned out radically … feudal. Libertarianism, in this extreme form, could turn out to be the road to serfdom. But beyond that, it would be quite feudal in the sense that Freeman actually has in mind, which is not the serf-sense. He means that political power is privately held. And a bit more. I’ll just quote Freeman:

Under feudalism, the elements of political authority are powers that are held personally by individuals, not by enduring political institutions. These powers are held as a matter of private contractual right. Individuals gradually acquire the power to make, apply, and enforce rules by forging a series of private contracts with particular individuals or families. Oaths of fealty or service are sworn in exchange for similar or compensating benefits. Those who exercise political power wield it on behalf of others pursuant to their private contractual relation and only so long as their contract is in force. Since different services are provided to people, there is no notion of a uniform public law that is to be impartially applied to all individuals. (148)

In other words:

Libertarianism resembles feudalism in that it establishes political power in a web of bilateral individual contracts. Consequently, it has no conception of legitimate public political authority nor any place for political society, a “body politic” that political authority represents in a fiduciary capacity. (149)

Now, to repeat: this Freeman sense has nothing to do with serfs (hence nothing to do with, say, Marx’s view of feudalism as tied up with serfdom.) Freeman emphasizes that feudal Japan, for example, fit his ‘web of bilateral individual contracts’ feudal model, but they didn’t have a lot of serfs around the place. Nevertheless, when we add a bunch of actual serfs to the picture – by making everyone be owned by someone else at birth – it isn’t hard to imagine the place could start shaping up as really, really feudal. Maybe in a 21st Century sort of way. (Or a 23rd Century way.)

But of course libertarians just don’t think you should be owned by someone else at birth. But why not? Because freedom, that’s why.

But seriously. Suppose an inhabitant of this feudal libertarian utopia objected to not being able to own his own children. Because creeping socialism, that’s why! (What will they take away from me next?) The government is stepping in and taking property, without compensation, and redistributing it to – well, to the property. And a very undeserving sort of moocher it looks, there in its crib. This welfare scheme – taking things from owners and giving them to themselves – is sure to lead rampant child abuse, typical liberal self-defeating perverse consequences idiocy. (Anyway, why should there even be an agency with the authority to take and redistribute property in this extremely expansive and unwarranted fashion?)

Now, to repeat, libertarians don’t have to buy this hyper-propertarian scheme, by any means. But I think libertarians should admit that it is a libertarian scheme. It’s roughly half of what libertarians believe, plus an argument that the other half is really inconsistent with the half we are keeping, hence ought to be let go.

Let’s get some quotes in here (I’m getting them out of Freeman, who sees basically the same features in these ideas that I am bringing out by my thought-experiment). Jan Narveson: “Liberty is Property … the libertarian thesis is really the thesis that a right to our persons as our property is the sole fundamental right there is” (p. 66). And Murray Rothbard:

In the profoundest sense there are no rights but property rights…. Each individual, as a natural fact, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person. Then, “human” rights of the person . . . are, in effect, each man’s property right in his own being, and from this property right stems his right to the material goods that he has produced. (Property and Market, 238).

Now obviously this is strictly inconsistent with making everyone someone else’s property (at least at the start); but only incidentally inconsistent: just as the question of who owns which house or car is hardly essential to the general idea of private property ownership, so the question of who owns which person ought to be separable from the general idea of libertarianism – which is, simply, that there are no rights but property rights. And liberty is but one form of (alienable) property, albeit a very important form of property.

What Freeman says about this sort of thing – the very thing I thought reading Narveson – is that it turns out that libertarianism isn’t about the importance of liberty. It’s about the nature of rights and property.

The response to this would surely run, rather angrily, as follows. Narveson: “The idea of libertarianism is to maximize individual freedom by accounting each person’s person as that person’s own property” (p. 175). I am sure that Rothbard and Nozick would chime in with more of the same. The obvious problem with making everyone belong to their parents, rather than themselves, is that you don’t maximize individual freedom that way. Hence the problem with dropping this crucial element of libertarianism, then complaining that libertarianism isn’t about liberty, is that of course a philosophy will lack any bit that you’ve gone and carved out of it.

But this is too quick. That’s a very funny sentence from Narveson I quoted. Compare:

The idea is to maximize individual freedom by locking everyone up.
The idea is to maximize individual freedom by a punch on the nose.

Ok, a bit more seriously:

The idea is to maximize individual freedom by providing a guaranteed minimum income and generous social welfare programs from cradle to crave.

And a bit more simply:

The idea is to maximize individual freedom.

Now, plausibly, you can do all these things, if you choose. To maximize freedom by locking everyone up, I suppose you would try to build the very most open-ish, least restrictive sort of jail you could devise. To maximize freedom by punching noses, I guess you would study the ways of the Batman, or something. What is far from obvious, obviously, is that doing either of these things equates to maximizing individual freedom. Period. And the same goes for maximizing individual freedom by accounting everyone their own property. You can set out to do this by attempting to devise the most smooth and efficient system for treating everyone as their own property. But it obviously doesn’t follow that this is the way to maximize individual freedom. Period. It’s more plausible that you will maximize freedom by treating everyone as their own, alienable property than by punching them in the nose, but it’s not self-evident that you can do it either way. Maybe people would be more free, on the whole, if you do something else entirely.

So what do libertarians believe? 1) That we should maximize freedom. 2) That we should get the most freedom we can, by treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property (at least at the start). 3) That in fact treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property, necessarily will (or will tend to) maximize freedom. 4) That we should treat liberty as property, and everyone as their own property.

I take it that pretty much all libertarians would like to believe all of 1-4. This is what makes them a family. But 3) is not a normative principle of political philosophy so much as a falsifiable hypothesis. Suppose there’s a problem with 3 (we’re getting there). That will create a split. Some libertarians will stick with 1). Those are the liberal libertarians, the ‘thick’ sort, like J.S. Mill. Some others, on the other hand, will stick with 4. That is, there are no rights but property rights. Liberty is property. And everyone is their own property. This makes for a very serious and fundamental philosophic split down the middle, to put it mildly. Because 4 can be regarded as a kind of feudalism + minimum welfare state: everyone is given one lump-sum gubmint handout at birth – herself. Feudalism + welfarism is a cheeky formula for thin libertarianism, to be sure. But it brings out its genuine kinship with other views like: your parents owns you at birth. The king owns you at birth. God owns you at birth. The local lord owns you at birth. These ‘propertarian’ variants are but one step from propertarian libertarianism.

Yeah, but that one step is a doozy, freedom-wise. Let me quote Freeman again, quoting libertarians advertising their positions.

Libertarians commonly announce their view with such claims as, “The only relevant consideration in political matters is individual liberty” (Narveson, p. 7); or “Libertarians agree that liberty should be prized above all other political values” (Machan, p. vii); or “The idea of libertarianism is to maximize individual freedom” [Narveson again]. Nozick, more cautiously, makes no such general claim. But he does contend that “liberty upsets patterns” of distribution (ASU, p. 160), and argues as if anyone with a proper regard for liberty should see that patterned theories of distributive justice violate a commitment to freedom

The question is really what ‘liberty’ means. That last thought from Nozick is nice, because a defender of my hyper-propertarian utopia would no doubt deploy this thought against any socialistic scheme to redistribute babies to themselves. This sort of ‘patterned theory’ of distributive justice – everyone gets 4 limbs and a mewl, to have for their very own, at birth – violates proper regard for ‘liberty’. Everyone owning themselves is a flagrant violation of liberty. What sense of ‘liberty’ is operational here? Freeman:

Libertarians may reply that the enforcement of a person’s rights is not coercive interference with others’ lives. “Coercion” in their account is not just any use of force but the aggressive interference with another’s rights. People are not coerced when prevented from actions (such as trespass or theft) they have no right to perform. This moralized definition of ‘coercion’ may accord with common usage in some cases, but to extend this manner of speaking to all cases has peculiar consequences. (124)

Obviously, no one is in favor of someone ‘taking someone else’s life’ – to focus on a paradigmatically extreme sort of aggressive violation. But if the life animating your biological organism doesn’t necessarily belong to you, because it is a piece of alienable property, we can’t just go assuming the killer wasn’t ‘taking his own life’, i.e. killing a slave that properly belonged to him. And libertarians are ok with ‘taking your own life’, if you want to.

And:

What of libertarian declarations that “people interfere with each other’s liberty as little as possible” (Narveson, p. 32)? This declaration cannot mean that libertarians seek to minimize the number of interfering actions. It is easy to imagine a libertarian society without popular support, where the majority of people do not accept (because they cannot afford to) its absolute property rules, are prone to forage for their subsistence, and meet with constant and regular interference because of legal trespass or theft. The point of libertarian arguments for minimizing interference is to keep to a minimum, not interfering actions, but the kinds of political duties we have, and in particular any enforceable obligations to transfer market-acquired holdings to benefit the disadvantaged. (126)

Jim Crow, for example. The social-legal lot of women in the U.S. in the 19th Century is a less extreme case, but similarly illustrative.

There is a very brief, oddly Buddhistic way to put this: if liberty means non-frustration of the exercise of legitimate property rights, you can be made perfectly free by being completely relieved of all property, including your own life. (Just as Buddhists may say that the route to freedom is killing all your desires, so they cannot be frustrated.) So: not only is slavery in principle acceptable to a libertarian (propertarian), the slave remains, technically, completely at liberty, even at the moment he is killed with impunity by his master. (His master has no duty to transfer title to the market-acquired slave’s life back to the disadvantaged slave.)

Whatever the merits of this view, it is radically at odds with our ordinary notions of freedom, to say the least. (We could dispute what those ordinary notions are, or should be: but ‘slavery is freedom’ is not among them.) Libertarians are, of course, not interested in maintaining that ‘slavery is freedom’ any more than liberals, but – because this is so – they really have to drop the advertisement that libertarianism (of the propertarian sort) aims at maximizing freedom, or minimizing people’s interferences with each others’ freedom. It does so only in the tricksy, Buddhistic sense.

To review. Why won’t libertarians like my ideal, hyper-propertarian utopia? Because it doesn’t maximize freedom, that’s why. But it does, in a technical sense. If everyone is a perfect slave, infringements of liberty are reduced to zero, by definition. OK, fine. We mean the ordinary sort of freedom. The sort we actually want. Fine, but now why stop at giving people themselves, and nothing else? This might get us only to Jim Crow, or to the lot of women in the 19th Century. That’s not freedom in the ordinary sense. So obviously we need to keep going along this path, if the goal really is to optimize the supply of liberty, and make sure everyone has essential access to that basically equal supply. The hypothesis that you actually will do this just by giving everyone self-ownership, and letting the market take it’s course, is empirically implausible. It is predictable that there will be ‘market failures’, and it is implausible that those failures can never be corrected except in self-defeating fashion, i.e. by creating greater loss of liberty on some other front. It just isn’t that hard to end Jim Crow without accidentally enslaving the white people, as an unintended consequence. So if ‘society is playing the tyrant’, in Mills’ sense, and you – a libertarian – don’t feel obliged to do anything about it, you are giving up on the ideal of freedom, except in this highly technical sense that really doesn’t have much appeal. Slavery can be freedom.

Turning this point around: if libertarians stick to their ‘thin’ guns they are sticking with feudalism + minimum welfare state and letting go of any ideal of liberty, in any ordinary sense. There is no other philosophical reason to stick with that position. (More realistically, you are elaborately apologizing for the status quo.) On the other hand, if libertarians stick with the ideal of maximizing (optimizing) the stock of freedom – making sure there is as much of the stuff as is consistent with everyone having that amount of it – then you are like Will Wilkinson or Jacob Levy. Namely, you have no fundamental philosophical disagreements with a great many liberals, only an instrumental, policy dispute over the best means of achieving what is basically a liberal end. You find yourself in the position of agreeing with ‘thin’ libertarians about a lot of policy questions, because you think that 3) is often basically true, even though it isn’t some sort of conceptual truth or absolute normative principle. You think liberals are perversely obstinate about resisting market solutions; but you are philosophically at odds with ‘thin’ libertarianism because you are in favor of liberty, whereas at bottom those others have this funny sort of feudalism + welfare thing going on. Which they are concealing under screwy usage of words like ‘liberty’ and ‘coerce’ that pretends to be no-nonsense usage.

Let me finish with a final note about the case of Bryan Caplan. I honestly feel a bit bad about having snarked at him so severely because, after I did that, I remembered that I have actually met him. (Hey, he doesn’t look anything like that picture up on EconLog.) And he seemed perfectly friendly and nice, and we got along fine, which causes me to feel irrationally remorseful for my high-handed mockery. Which doesn’t make a bit of sense, because either snarking is ok or it isn’t. And I don’t retract a word of my complaint, philosophically. But I think we can see the source of his error, possibly, in light of my brilliant analysis. Caplan is, I am pretty sure, a ‘thin’ libertarian. Self-ownership and the market and non-aggression and no fraud. The minimum libertarian package. He has this idea that men, in the 19th Century, in the US, were closer to his libertarian ideal than men today. Because less government and lower taxes, pretty much. He has been trying to make out that, functionally, if not strictly legally, the lot of women was not so much worse than that of men. Conclusion: women back then still better off, libertarian-wise, than women today. This isn’t plausible, for all the tons of reasons that have been piled on, and you aren’t really allowed to reason this way anyway, as a libertarian. As Jacob keeps begging him to admit. But the really simple problem here, which is leading to so much bafflement on the part of spectators, is that Caplan is measuring freedom in such a narrowly libertarian way. Liberty is not being interfered with, if the exercise of your legitimate property rights is not interfered with. But by that standard, not only might married women in the 19th Century qualify (if we accept the ‘put your foot down’ and force your husband to do it form of argument); but, actually, African-Americans under Jim Crow would quality. And indeed, African-Americans in slavery might qualify, if it had only been the case that their sales had been on the up-and-up, libertarian-wise (which they clearly weren’t). That is, you can’t tell that there is any lack of freedom, just by looking at the pre-Civil War South, and noticing there are lots of slaves. You have to ask: how did they get this way? Since Kaplan is not looking at how women in the 19th Century got into the general social state they were in, he is hardly going to conclude that there is anything necessarily ‘unfree’ about that state. Unless there are high taxes in it.

In short, everyone is looking at the screamingly feudal results and saying: how the hell does this look like liberty? And the answer is: Caplan is a libertarian, so of course it can look strangely feudal. That’s because it can be completely feudal. Jacob Levy and Will Wilkinson are pained by this, because, though they too are libertarians, the principles that they are working from – optimize the supply of liberty (in something like the ordinary sense) – are radically incommensurable with the principles that have to be behind Caplan’s philosophy. And I am sure Caplan would deny this, but I don’t think he can, in good philosophical conscience.

UPDATE: there’s a kind of thin/thick liberalism/propertarianism parallel that runs through the post, by implication, that doesn’t fully hold, on reflection.

{ 277 comments }

1

Marc 04.15.10 at 7:06 am

I’ve always thought that rank and file libertarians simply bought into the flattery that they, and they alone, were responsible for any achievement in their lives. This is deeply satisfying for a certain class of people, born to advantage or simply lucky, who think themselves to be above the common herd. Adults, by contrast, typically recognize that we are social creatures and that our achievements owe much to civil society.

The policies advocated by economic libertarians serve the interests of the rich and powerful, ensuring that they are well funded. I’ve always thought that this explains the otherwise puzzling philosophical disconnect between the fervor on tax rates for the rich and the odd indifference of many libertarians to the civil liberties issues which they nominally should care about. If you work for a society designed to serve the interests of people like you: well, rules like drug laws are designed for the common folks and you will be able to avoid them. In this senses, I guess, one could view many libertarians in daily practice (as opposed to, say, libertarian writers) as being de facto feudalists. McArdle certainly comes across as someone who would happily trample the peasants under the hooves of her steed when she was in a hurry.

(People of all ideologies don’t seem to like to admit that simple luck plays a major role in getting ahead, which does not change the fact that it does. But that’s a different topic altogether.)

2

Chris Bertram 04.15.10 at 7:08 am

_Libertarians – propertarians, anyway – rather notoriously maintain that you really ought to be able to sell yourself into slavery, if you want to. After all, you’re your property. You should be able to dispose of yourself as you see fit. (Some libertarians don’t go so far but many do. Nozick, for example. I think it’s pretty hard to resist this conclusion, in princpled fashion, once you’ve bought the strong self-ownership principle.)_

(Left-libertarian) Hillel Steiner has an argument, which I’m not quite sure what to make of, that this isn’t as obvious as people take it to be. If you sell something, then you transfer a right to a new right-holder and (thereby) acquire duties wrt to the new right-holder and what s/he now has rights over. But slaves, being the mere property of others, can’t, according to Steiner, have either rights or duties. (See his _An Essay on Rights_ p.231, fn4. – the original readable via Google Books btw.)

3

Charlie Stross 04.15.10 at 7:24 am

That was beautiful. (Libertarians: not uniformly spherical entities of density d.)

4

alex 04.15.10 at 7:43 am

@2, but you aren’t a slave until you’ve sold yourself – when you do the selling, you’re a free person, only after do you become a chattel to be whipped into submission. Force is how one extracts dutiful compliance from slaves. It’s all perfectly logical.

And always worth remarking that, as here, people are too keen to expose a term like ‘feudal’ as if it marks out some special kind of bizarrerie, when in fact all that separates us from it is the passage of time. And in some senses, geography – for what is the rule of drug-lords and gangs if not a form of brutal feudalism?

The good stuff – individual rights, voting, welfare, education – really needs less taking for granted than it gets in these debates sometimes.

5

Anarcho 04.15.10 at 7:53 am

The critique that “libertarianism” (i.e., propertarianism) does not maximise freedom is one that genuine libertarians (i.e., anarchists or anti-state socialists) have been making for some time. Indeed, from Proudhon’s What is Property? (back then it was called liberalism, these days “classical liberalism”).

With inequalities of wealth, liberty becomes for the many simply to sell your liberty to the property owner — who is, after all, like a state (the landLORD). Ironically, Rothbard himself implicitly admitted as much as I discuss here:

An Anarchist Critique of Anarcho-Statism

The critique of left-wing liberals of the forerunners of propertarianism (people like Auberon Herbert) echoed Proudhon’s critique, as can be seen in J. A. Hobson’s “A Rich Man’s Anarchism” (as discussed here). The propertarians really cannot answer the obvious objection that absolute property rights turns property owners (i.e., the wealthy) in rulers and those with just “property in the person” into people who sell their liberty to survive (Proudhon: “To tell a poor man that he has property because he has arms and legs — that the hunger from which he suffers, and his power to sleep in the open air are his property, — is to play upon words, and to add insult to injury.” ). Rousseau stated the obvious:

“That a rich and powerful man, having acquired immense possessions in land, should impose laws on those who want to establish themselves there, and that he should only allow them to do so on condition that they accept his supreme authority and obey all his wishes; that, I can still conceive . . . Would not this tyrannical act contain a double usurpation: that on the ownership of the land and that on the liberty of the inhabitants?”

Proudhon, Bakunin and others developed such insights into a vigorous libertarian socialist tradition.

All this is at the core of libertarian ideas since we anti-state socialists coined that word for our ideas back in 1858. What is staggering is that in a few decades since the 1970s the word “libertarian” has, in America, become the exact opposite of what it used to mean (such is the power of money funding think-tanks in the “market place of ideas”). It now means the ideology that anarchism developed to combat in the name of liberty!

As such, the whole “thin/thick” libertarian discussion misses the point — it is a debate within propertarianism with the “thick” propertarians coming closer to genuine libertarian thought than the obvious propertarians.

In terms of discussions on propertarianism, I would again recommend Carole Pateman and I would add David Ellerman. His The Libertarian Case for Slavery is a classic piece of satire — sadly, some propertarians actually DO argue for voluntary slavery (after all, if the worker sells their liberty for 8 hours a day why not 80 years?)

6

Will Wilkinson 04.15.10 at 8:42 am

7

Chris Bertram 04.15.10 at 8:57 am

@4 .. whilst true, your point about whipping the slaves into obedience rather misses Steiner’s point, if I grasp it correctly, which is not about what people do or can be got to do, but rather a normative point about being subject to an obligation. The transferor of a right is the both subject to an obligation and, crucially here, the kind of entity that can be subject to an obligation. A chattel slave is not an entity of that type. Presumably other kinds of unfree labour lack this disability, so the point is a rather narrow one.

8

JoB 04.15.10 at 9:30 am

I guess all of this activity on libertarianism here just proves this word is won by those who work with the pair of words ‘power’ and ‘freedom’ as synonymous. No matter how lengthy the post, it is better to just acknoweledge that and move on. There are enough other words out there and, if push comes to shove, we can invent a new one.

By the way – I read somebody quoting Oscar Wilde as America jumping to decadence without a stop at civilization and interpreting that as a negative for America. I kind of think it is a positive certainly if you see what civilization did to Oscar Wilde: the punishment was civil enough, but it was still punishment undeserved. Sadly, Wilde was too optimistic; the US seems stuck in the law of the strongest (or as it is more widely known: The American Dream).

9

Doug 04.15.10 at 9:56 am

(How many Holbovian lengths comprise a sagan?)

10

Harald Korneliussen 04.15.10 at 9:57 am

There is a very brief, oddly Buddhistic way to put this: if liberty means non-frustration of the exercise of legitimate property rights, you can be made perfectly free by being completely relieved of all property, including your own life.

It not only has shades of Buddhism, but lots of other “cynic”-like philosophies, including pietist Christianity. For every hope that dies down here, I have a new in heaven. a popular (and rather grim) psalm here in Norway says. Ibsen also said “Forever owned is only the forfeited”. He was an atheist, as I remember, although he put it in the mouth of a radical Christian.

Let me finish with a final note about the case of Bryan Caplan. I honestly feel a bit bad about having snarked at him so severely because, after I did that, I remembered that I have actually met him. (Hey, he doesn’t look anything like that picture up on EconLog.) And he seemed perfectly friendly and nice, and we got along fine, which causes me to feel irrationally remorseful for my high-handed mockery.

I can sympathize with that. He certainly seems likable enough, but I stopped reading his blog after some particularly egregious “just desserts”-posts.

11

herr doktor bimler 04.15.10 at 10:30 am

it is unfair to judge libertarianism by the standard of Bryan Caplan’s attempts to turn the Gilded Age into a Golden Age of ladyfreedom

No True Scotsman exponent of freedom would make such obviously crap arguments? Is that all?

12

Nick Barnes 04.15.10 at 10:34 am

Two someones?
No.

13

alex 04.15.10 at 11:06 am

@7 – no, I see that point, I was glossing a rather obvious schmibertarian explanation of why it doesn’t apply. Since the argument itself is insane, it hardly matters, however.

14

Matt 04.15.10 at 11:15 am

Jacob Levy and Will Wilkinson are pained by this, because, though they too are libertarians

I’d say they are not, if we want “libertarian” to mark out a distinct view. Rather, they are “classic liberals” in the 19th C. sense. (That’s how they’d come out on Freeman’s account, at least, and I think that’s right. Will’s view has, I think, some other stuff mixed in with it in a way that I’m not quite sure makes a coherent whole, but then, most of use don’t have fully coherent views. ) I think it would be a huge improvement in clarity and coherence if we distinguished, on the one hand, a family of liberal views that run from classical liberals to social-democratic liberals on the one hand, and a family of libertarian views on the other, as a distinct set of views. There will obviously be over-lap. There’s some significant over-lap among pretty much any set of political views, given facts about the world and a mostly common subject matter. But, for example, if you think Hayek (a classic liberal) and Nozick and Navarson, (libertarians) are working with the same basic ideas or assumptions, because they all want a smaller state and are liked by people on the right, then you’ll get confused.

15

engels 04.15.10 at 11:26 am

I stopped reading [Caplan’s] blog after some particularly egregious “just desserts”-posts.

Personally I lost patience after the Cherry Clafoutis…

16

Anderson 04.15.10 at 11:52 am

The free/slave children thing existed for quite a while; they were called “sons” and “daughters,” respectively.

17

Barry 04.15.10 at 12:32 pm

John: “Let me finish with a final note about the case of Bryan Caplan. I honestly feel a bit bad about having snarked at him so severely because, after I did that, I remembered that I have actually met him. (Hey, he doesn’t look anything like that picture up on EconLog.) And he seemed perfectly friendly and nice, and we got along fine, which causes me to feel irrationally remorseful for my high-handed mockery. “

John, ‘seemed perfectly friendly and nice,…’ doesn’t mean diddly, unless you have some secret talent for figuring out a person’s actual character by having lunch with them. Which is a talent claimed by most of the elite MSM, of course, but one which is rarer than hen’s teeth.

From Bryan’s first posting on this alone we know that the only question is how ignorant, foolish or nasty he is. His basic position was that as a white male, his government regulations and taxes would be less, so as far as he was concerned, there was more liberty. He openly dismissed half of society to start with (women), in ways which were frankly evil. He handwaved away marital rape, loss of adult autonomy, and the fact that women couldn’t vote. Governments taxing white men was a horror, but women’s problems – meh.

This is in additon to what was suffered by black people, hispanic people and chinese immigrants, who would have found the restrictions on white women to be a major step upwards.

This results in something like 60 (70?) percent of the adult population of the USA having their rights massively restricted by law and custom (where ‘custom’ included torture and murder as routine methods).

And that’s dealing with a whole boatload of white men (Catholic, Jewish, from despised ethnic groups, or simply poor) who didn’t have freedom worth much, because (a) a weak government meant that the men with money had massive power, and (b) those rich men made sure that a weak government included enough power to crush the poor as needed.

Those are not the beliefs of a man who is nice; those are the beliefs of somebody who lives down to the worst reputation of libertarianism.

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John Quiggin 04.15.10 at 12:35 pm

It gets worse, from the thin libertarian viewpoint. From feudalism, you can easily take an unbroken chain of just transfers to social democracy.

http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2003/07/08/notes-on-nozick/

19

Gwen 04.15.10 at 12:40 pm

I have to agree with Barry, at least in part. It’s not merely an intellectual error to trivialise rape and dependence, and to hand-wave away the significance of the experiences of everyone-not-like-me; it’s a fundamental moral error. And is, for that reason, not very nice. Professor Caplan himself may be a wonderful and empathetic person, I’m sure – everyone makes moral mistakes sometimes – but his views on this point, if he still retains them, are pretty nasty.

20

Rich Puchalsky 04.15.10 at 12:50 pm

There are many, many people who have pointed out that libertarians, by their own dogma, are driven to a belief that slavery is OK. But really you don’t need this philosophical bit about people owning their children. It’s quite sufficient to think about what would happen, in libertopia, to people who would otherwise starve. Of course the libertarian thinks that they should be allowed to sell themselves as slaves, and that interfering with them doing so would be typical liberal interference with the market. Of course the libertarian can not imagine any sort of organized power in libertopia that would drive people into starvation in the first place, like, say, a local monopoly or dominant employer — market failures do not exist in libertaria’s Economics 101 world.

But I really disagree with the whole “the better libertarians are like classical liberals” thing. There’s a reason why classical liberals became modern liberals! If you want to maximize freedom, you have to acknowledge that freedom means the ability to actually do things, which leads you straight towards positive rights — taking some percentage of a rich person’s income to redistribute it to poor people does not restrict their freedom as much as it increases the poor people’s freedom, because the extra marginal income to the rich person doesn’t increase their range of action as much as the income needed to prevent the poor person from having to sleep under a bridge. If you really believe as the classical liberals did, you would have been convinced by the same historical events that convinced them. The people who like to call themselves “classical liberals” are just libertarians with a PR department.

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Chris Bertram 04.15.10 at 12:51 pm

Just a note on the Freeman piece. Freeman has an agenda, which is to cut between theories that assert some kind of primacy to pre- or extra-institutional norms (including rights) and theories that realize values via institutions in a manner such that any individual claim to justice has to be couched in institutional terms. Libertarianism (property rights in anarchy), cosmopolitanism and (at least some versions of) luck egalitarianism are the target views. The fact that Freeman is giving the bad guys a good kicking in the article shouldn’t necessarily lead you too cheer him on, if you yourself are tempted by, say, cosmopolitan egalitarianism or luck egalitarianism.

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Selfreferencing 04.15.10 at 12:58 pm

Very neat post and I agree with it’s broad thrust but a few quibbles:

(1) The libertarian alternatives to propertarianism are many. Will and Jacob do not have the same moral theory at all. That matters because it isn’t quite right to say that the ‘Mill’ group wants to maximize liberty. That is a primarily consequentialist reaction to value, not a deontological one (propertarianism is not the only libertarian deontological view either).

(2) There is a meme among some libertarians these days that libertarianism can be understood as a subset of liberalism and that the main differences between social democratic liberals and market liberals is empirical, not normative (Will, Jacob, John Tomasi). But market and sd liberals only have similar lists of values they want to advance. Desert is not really on the s-d liberals’ list but it is typically on the market liberal list; the same in reverse for equality rather than mere suffiency of material goods. Second, even the values held in common are ranked differently. So there are still serious normative differences though they are arguably still ‘in house’.

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Mrs Tilton 04.15.10 at 12:58 pm

Imagine a society in which everyone belongs to their parents, at birth. (Or, if their parents belong to someone, to their parents’ owners.) … It’s not obvious how such a society would work

I expect Belle could provide some background on how one such society worked, if we limit the value of “parents” to the paterfamilias.

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Jim Bower 04.15.10 at 1:02 pm

I’m confused. In the absolute continuum, from the individual caveman (free to do what he/she wants, own what he/she can take care of, and go where he/she wants) until today, is it the advent of clumps of people or the advent of eggheads that removes those liberties?

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J— 04.15.10 at 1:03 pm

He has this idea that men, in the 19th Century, in the US, were closer to his libertarian ideal than men today. Because less government and lower taxes, pretty much.

Caplan in his postcard post on the Gilded Age makes things easy (emphasis his).

1. Taxes were much lower and economic regulation much more limited, so all else equal, men and women were much freer than they are today.

All you need to know, as Colbert says.

26

J— 04.15.10 at 1:03 pm

Sorry, blew the blockquote.

27

Jacob T. Levy 04.15.10 at 1:12 pm

Matt, John Tomasi’s forthcoming book distinguishes between the liberal spectrum and “libertarian” at just the juncture you pick out. And one could so stipulate. I guess I don’t see the point. It would make “libertarian” almost unique among ideological labels for attaching only to one very specific formulation of one very rigid doctrine. “Liberal” (or even “modern liberal”) doesn’t just mean A Theory of Justice. “Conservative” doesn’t just mean Robert George. You say “if we want ‘libertarian’ to mark out a distinct view,” but I’m not clear what’s linguistically gained by having it uniquely mark out *that* distinct a view. You say it would still be a “family,” but isn’t it just the family of Rothbard, Nozick, and Narveson? That’s a narrower specification than we usually give ideological words.

As much as this pains me– because John’s offered got a fair, interesting, and substantive argument! this is *much* more engaging to read than most of the digital ink that’s been spilled in the last week!– I’m going to beg off further participation at this stage. Classes ended yesterday, so today is the first day of the year-of-no-teaching in which I’ll be finishing my book that’s really directly about a lot of this stuff. Spending that day formulating the right way to frame my arguments in blog comments doesn’t seem like the right decision. John (and Matt), I promise to send you a copy of the book when it’s done. And, John, I’ll footnote you if I can find a way to squeeze in “because freedom, that’s why.”

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ScentOfViolets 04.15.10 at 1:25 pm

If this be a defense for libertarianism, how about some of the people who name themselves as such publicly toss out a few of their own who don’t meet the criteria? Instead, no matter what the likes of Caplan or McArdle say, they’ll remain members in good standing.

Just my opinion, but until you see libertarians policing their own, and using justifications such as John just gave, this is a little bit too much Christian charity. Particularly in Caplan’s case who is quick to jump to the argument that if you don’t agree with him, it’s because your not as smart as he is. Having seen more than one lazy, contrarian, and dull-witted student whine that he received a poor grade because the teacher didn’t understand his brilliant ideas, I’m a little bit thin-skinned when it comes to tolerance of this trait. Iow, no, from what I’ve seen of the guy, Caplan doesn’t strike me as a particularly nice guy.

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Ben A/baa 04.15.10 at 1:28 pm

Let me preface this by noting that I’m not a libertarian, but rather an old fashioned center-right statist, maybe even a ‘right-Hegelian’ if it comes to that. So I don’t ultimately find libertarianism compelling. That said, I found this critique weird, and the central thought experiment unhelpful.

My understanding of libertarianism has always been as an explicitly *political* doctrine about the appropriate level of state coercion. I can’t say I found John’s characterization of the range of libertarian belief entirely clear, so I’m going to rephrase some of it, and maybe in so doing change it. Here are a couple of options how libertarianism can play out:

1. A consequentialist view that individual liberty (alert! definitional problems ahead!) is the most important thing to maximize; government coercion is only acceptable if it maximizes liberty

2. A consequentialist view that The Good is the most important thing to maximize, and limiting the scope of state coercion tends to be an extremely reliable methodology for achieving The Good

3. A non-consequentialist view that certain personal rights have moral force prior to any appeal to the consequences of their exercise (e.g., I have a right to control my own body even if the consequences would be in some sense be ‘better’ if I were coerced to do something other than what I want to do). There is a strong moral presumption against the state (or anybody!) violating these rights.

These 3 senses of libertarianism are not philosophically consistent, but one can easily imagine that their supporters would find commonalities on many matters of public policy. They would likely vote the same way on the draft, a ban on contraception, etc. I suspect libertarians of all three stripes would also unanimously reject a proposal to make children their parent’s slaves.

How will the three types of libertarianism respond to the kids = slaves scenario? Let’s go last to first:

3. This answer will depend on the normative theory, I suppose. But most ‘3’ libertarians will likely say: “that’s absurd; you can’t own people without their consent.” How plausible you find this will depend on the appeal of the underlying moral theory. But I would think type ‘3’ libertarians would have the same resources as non-consequentialist liberals for defending notions of personal rights. Liberals make non-consequentialist arguments all the time, right? (e.g., a woman should be able to control what happens to her body). It seems a libertarian on this model is just a non-consequentialist liberal who a) recognizes a wider scope of rights against state coercion or b) puts more weight on the moral force of rights when they appear to come into conflict with otherwise desirable consequences.

2. Type 2 libertarian responds: “Why does that have to do with anything I believe? What is the argument that this scheme of state coercion – namely, forcing people to be slaves – maximizes The Good?” This type of libertarian will generally have a default opposition to state coercion, and will countenance instances of state coercion only when supported by an argument that this specific case furthers The Good. Often, libertarians of this kind believe they have such arguments for, e.g., certain definitions of property rights, sole provision of national defense, and (yes!) mandatory taxation to support a safety net. Of course, as above, there will be a basic moral theory problem in defining the nature of The Good. Again, this is a problem shared with … consequentialist liberals.

1. The most problematic case, I think, as it depends entirely on the definition of ‘liberty.’ Here, I tend to agree that you have either problems. How do you define liberty that it is OK to violate liberty via coercion to support? Is liberty best thought of as “liberty from state coercion” (in which case, why don’t we care equally about other forms of coercion?) or as “the ability to do what you want to do” which starts to sound like just an undercooked value pluralist concept of The Good.

Is there something I am missing here? Or is the point merely that type 1 libertarian thinking is confused, and probably boils down to type 2 or type 3?

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Matt 04.15.10 at 1:32 pm

I’ll look forward to the book, Jacob. But, I think that the “libertarian” family as I describe it includes not only “right” libertarians, but also “left” ones. Of course, I like more of the left-libertarians’ views on particular issues, but think they go wrong for all the reasons they share with “right” libertarians. And, I think the differences between the family of liberal views and the family of libertarian ones are important enough that it’s useful to distinguish between them. Names don’t matter that much, of course, but I do think that making this distinction helps highlight important differences between families of views that are often glossed together in a way that leads to incoherence.

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Tom West 04.15.10 at 1:32 pm

To be fair, is there *any* explicit political philosophy that when adhered to rigourously cannot be twisted into the absurd by various corner cases? Certainly as an undergraduate, I don’t think I ever found one.

While tying Randists and a few Libertarians like Caplan up in philosophical knots is kind of fun (at least it was as an undergraduate), given that they have no political influence worth talking about, is it worth the time and effort? Anyone who generally espouses the theory, but isn’t dogmatic (i.e. anyone with some common sense) is going to dismiss the absurd with a “well, we won’t do that.” (Same applies to those who tiresomely try to claim out that slavery to the state is the logical end point of socialism.)

(And, as someone mentioned in a previous thread, Bryan takes away much of the fun of pushing Libertarianism into the swamp of silliness by basically doing all the work for you.)

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Andrew Lister 04.15.10 at 1:36 pm

@2, 4: Arthur Ripstein gives a good account of Kant’s argument against the conceptual possibility of slave contracts in Chapter 5 of his book Force and Freedom, starting at p.135; it sounds similar to Steiner’s argument. I don’t think you’ll object if I add Rousseau, here: “To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts.” I’ve been telling my students that Rousseau’s point is that I have no right to subtract myself from the moral duties I naturally have to other human beings.

These arguments from Kant (and Rousseau) are sometimes presented as being about human dignity, and then criticized as paternalistic, e.g. “who are you to tell me what my dignity requires? take care of your own dignity and leave me to decide what mine requires.” Freeman (in the article cited above) responds to this objection. His argument is that people are free to agree to servitude, but that they cannot expect other people to participate in enforcing these agreements as valid contracts.

“Nothing about liberalism’s inalienability restriction prevents people from voluntarily assuming the roles of master and subordinate to nearly any degree they choose. If this is the kind of life a person wants to live in relationship with another who consents, so be it; it is protected by freedom of association. The inalienability restriction implies that a person has the right to exit at any time this essentially private relationship. The problem comes with the contrary suggestion: that into this private relationship should be introduced the legal mechanism of contract and the institution of private property, with their provisions for coercive enforceability. Then the voluntary servitude arrangement is no longer merely a matter “between consenting adults”; it becomes a matter of civic law and a publicly recognized right. One party to the arrangement enters the public and political realms to demand, as a right, that others recognize and respect a private agreement bestowing ownership in another person… Alienation of basic rights, if politically recognized, imposes duties not just upon the transferor, but also upon society and its members to respect and uphold such transactions. We are called upon to ignore the moral fate and political status of others as equals, and to participate in their civic and moral debasement.” (p.112)

One problem with this argument might be that it could apply much more broadly. Plato objected to the enforceability of contracts in general, because it encouraged materialism (this is Socrates at 556b of the Republic). Lots of people have lots of different objections to lots of different contracts, but we generally expect them to support the state that enforces all of these different contracts.

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JoB 04.15.10 at 1:39 pm

“libertarians policing their own”, I guess that’s why it makes more sense to abandon the term – it is just such a hassle to be policing people that hold self-refuting views certainly if by doing so it’s you that wind up holding a self-refuting view. Let’s just become Decadents! – wanting hammocks for each & every single individual in which to do (or not do) whatever the hell they want – safely protected in the security of a wellfare world that is administrated without moralizing.

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Andrew Lister 04.15.10 at 1:40 pm

Forgot to note that the Rousseau quote is from Book 1 Chapter 4 of the Social Contract, which (to give credit where credit is due) is available in a variety of formats on the Liberty Fund’s “Online Library of Liberty”.

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Cannoneo 04.15.10 at 1:43 pm

The topic of this post is pwnership as well as ownership.

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ScentOfViolets 04.15.10 at 1:53 pm

To be fair, is there any explicit political philosophy that when adhered to rigourously cannot be twisted into the absurd by various corner cases? Certainly as an undergraduate, I don’t think I ever found one.

Well, that’s the problem: my political philosophy, such as it is, is mainly just muddling through, taking situations on a case by case basis, etc. I make absolutely no claims with regard to rigour or consistency. But this is not true of libertarians or Randites: they tend to claim they have some sort of axiomatic system that can be logically built from the ground up starting with a few “reasonable” axioms. So, you bet, if they want to claim superiority on this basis I’m going to prang them for it. In fact, that seems to be the motivation of a lot of people.

“libertarians policing their own”, I guess that’s why it makes more sense to abandon the term – it is just such a hassle to be policing people that hold self-refuting views certainly if by doing so it’s you that wind up holding a self-refuting view.

Well, no one – I think not even libertarians – claim they’re a particularly ethical or moral lot. They’re quite happy to say that X isn’t really a libertarian or holds a view that’s not really libertarian when it suits them, only to turn around later and say that X is a member of Distinguished Organization Y to claim some sort of intellectual respectability when it suits them to do so.

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alex 04.15.10 at 2:13 pm

His argument is that people are free to agree to servitude, but that they cannot expect other people to participate in enforcing these agreements as valid contracts.

Exactly, every schmibertarian has to whip his own slaves, and sit up at night, shotgun and bourbon in hand, in readiness for their insurrection. It wouldn’t be manly to do it any other way.

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Bloix 04.15.10 at 2:15 pm

“Each individual, as a natural fact, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person.”

I find this sentence to be completely without content. With respect to oneself, “owner” and “ruler” are not “facts.” They are metaphors. They make some sort of sense if we imagine that a person is composed of a physical mechanical object, the body, and an inner homunculus, the soul, which bear a relationship to each other similar to that as between a person and a non-person (ownership) or a superior person and and an inferior person (rulership). But if you reject this conception of human existence, then the owner-ruler metaphor is worse than useless.
I don’t “own” or “rule” myself; I am myself. The attempt to make the concepts of ownership and rulership reflexive is nonsensical and results in nonsensical conclusions.

I do understand that there may be legal regimes in which human beings are subject to ownership, and that in such a regime a person who is not owned by another may be deemed to own himself. But this is not the same as saying that it is a “natural fact” that people own themselves. Indeed the whole point of such a legal regime is that it is not a natural fact that people own themseves; they are owned by their owners, who might or might not be themselves.

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Ceri B. 04.15.10 at 2:29 pm

Random thought experiment: propertarianism is the creation of AIs, either already existing and in hiding or having come back in time or communicating from the future, arranging a society to be to their greatest advantage when they go public. Citizenship on equal terms with organic entities is less desirable than the absolute entitlements of strong property rights, and the eventual prospect of abolishing the notion of citizenship as incompatible with being owned, too.

What in propertarianism is not compatible with this agenda?

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alex 04.15.10 at 2:34 pm

But, to be honest, aren’t there a lot of times in history when property has been more important than people? The present is really quite unusual in that being less the case than in, say, Republican Rome, feudal Europe, the slaveholding early-modern, etc etc. Surely the AIs could have picked a more propitious moment to infiltrate? Or perhaps their I is not as I as they would like to think?

41

ogmb 04.15.10 at 2:45 pm

All this discussion would be futile if it were just possible to acquire property rights on vacuous political concepts like “Libertarianism” and the owner of Libertarianism™ were able to sue the likes of Caplan for trademark infringement.

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roac 04.15.10 at 2:51 pm

While tying Randists and a few Libertarians like Caplan up in philosophical knots is kind of fun (at least it was as an undergraduate), given that they have no political influence worth talking about, is it worth the time and effort?

Isn’t Alan Greenspan a Randist? And was he not, for quite some time, as close to being the Galactic Overlord as anyone ever was?

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Tim O'Keefe 04.15.10 at 3:19 pm

Despite the fact that Narveson himself apparently frames things this way, I’m worried by the claim that the central imperative of libertarianism is that we should maximize freedom. That sounds suspiciously consequentialist for a libertarian. Nozick, at least, would be happier saying that respect for the rights of others (including their property rights) acts as a ‘side constraint’ on the range of permissible actions, both for individuals and for states. Within that range, one can act so as produce certain consequences. But even if stealing a bunch of Bill Gate’s money could somehow lead to a maximization of freedom (e.g., I give it to the Cato Institute which in turn is able to agitate successfully for the institution of a Libertarian Utopia in the United States), stealing it would be impermissible.

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chris 04.15.10 at 3:23 pm

ISTM that relatively few people would sell themselves or their indispensable vital organs outright (although, historically, quite a few sold their children, even without counting marriage customs that can be considered analogous to sale).

But quite a lot might borrow money that they fully expected to be able to repay without being aware what they had pledged as collateral. If you think predatory lending is bad in a universe with bankruptcy laws and some rights inalienable, you haven’t seen it in Libertopia (or perhaps I should say Propertopia?). Market participants, after all, converge on the most profitable possibilities within the legal and societal constraints surrounding them.

I’m not sure I like that society’s idea of a student loan, either. (Naturally, they would be secured by a lien on the educated, and therefore valuable, worker.)

Anyway, I agree that “The question is really what ‘liberty’ means.” Most people are in favor of liberty (at least, the kind that ends where my nose begins) but they don’t mean the same thing by it, so their agreement is illusory. (Similar remarks apply to “justice”.)

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engels 04.15.10 at 3:31 pm

Why would stealing Bill Gates’ money be impermissible? Does Gates have a legitimate title it, in Nozick’s terms? Surely not.

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Sebastian 04.15.10 at 3:41 pm

“I don’t say all libertarians should be bound by logic to embrace this vision of utopia on the spot, but they ought to recognize libertarianism, minus assumed self-ownership, as a form of the philosophy they advocate, albeit an extreme form.”

I’m not really sure how the logic of this sentence works. Trying to talk about libertarianism, minus assumed self-ownership, sounds to me like trying to talk about consequentialism minus assumptions about the greater good, or theories of punishment minus assumptions about law and justice. It is tough to get that to work even as an intellectual exercise.

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Brian 04.15.10 at 3:42 pm

Then, “human” rights of the person . . . are, in effect, each man’s property right in his own being, and from this property right stems his right to the material goods that he has produced.

Wow, I hadn’t seen this formulation before — pretty stunning. Does the propertarian recognize responsibility stemming from exercise of said rights? Sure, if I produce something, I am entitled to it, but what about the byproducts of what I produce? Am I not responsible for them? Even if I dump them in a river or spew them in the stratosphere? Under the propertarian conception, I am responsible for these as long as I haven’t legally contracted that responsibility to someone else?

I assume they’ve thought that part out completely, because if they haven’t, we know why adolescents find this philosophy so appealing.

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Tim O'Keefe 04.15.10 at 4:06 pm

Engels, are you thinking of some problems with Bill Gates’ money in particular, or general problems with anybody having legitimate title to their money (in Nozick’s terms), given the actual and deeply problematic historical facts about how goods have been acquired?

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politicalfootball 04.15.10 at 4:13 pm

baa @29 captures my objection to the original post.

Is liberty best thought of as “liberty from state coercion” (in which case, why don’t we care equally about other forms of coercion?)

This is it, right? I mean, the libertarian conversation is about the role and limits of government. Other matters must be left to individuals to work out for themselves. Laws against public accommodation discrimination are inappropriate because they limit free association, and such laws add nothing to the freedoms of those who are discriminated against, because they don’t change any relevant (read: governmental) limit on freedom.

The real question is, how does Caplan get from there to defending coverture as not-so-bad. The answer? Incoherence and willful ignorance.

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Tom West 04.15.10 at 4:33 pm

But this is not true of libertarians or Randites: they tend to claim they have some sort of axiomatic system that can be logically built from the ground up starting with a few “reasonable” axioms. So, you bet, if they want to claim superiority on this basis I’m going to prang them for it.

Ah yes, the Church of Rand, as we called it in high school. On the other hand, I remember at least one Libertarian classmate claiming indignantly, “I’m not a Randist, I’ve use common sense!” Bryan is a bit odd in that he’s not a Randist, but is still willing to follow his axioms into the swamp of absurdity. The Randists generally try to hide it better and then change the subject when “A is A” leads to high silliness.

Isn’t Alan Greenspan a Randist?

There are lots of admirers of Rand who think she had something useful to say to them (oddly enough, a fair number of young women who felt that Rand gave them the right to say no to family who were trying to foist social and emotional responsibility for family and relationships upon them because you couldn’t expect boys or men to be able to handle that).

However, that doesn’t make them Randists. To be a member of the Church of Rand, you have to accept her philosophy. No picking or choosing parts. Otherwise, you’re just another garden-variety libertarian.

I don’t think that Greenspan falls into the Rand camp in any way much more than a general espousal of “free-enterprise, rah!” I could be mistaken, but I haven’t read any articles where he quoted as saying anything that differentiates him from generic free-enterprise boosters.

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tristero 04.15.10 at 4:45 pm

I suppose exercises like this have value (and I read most of this post; I thought that I was prolix…whew!). Someone – but not me – should take the trouble to wallow in the muck of libertarianism if for no other reason to confirm in finer detail what the rest of us already understand.

The only good aspects of libertarianism are those that are derived from, and consonant with, liberalism. The rest is naivete, selfishness, indifference, racism, and class privilege marketed as philosophy.

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roac 04.15.10 at 5:03 pm

Here’s what Greenspan’s Wiki article says about “Greenspan and Objectivism.” Footnotes are omitted. (In case the formatting goes wrong — all that follows is part of the quote.)

In the early 1950s, Greenspan began an association with famed novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand that would last until her death in 1982. He wrote for Rand’s newsletters and authored several essays in her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Rand stood beside him at his 1974 swearing-in as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Greenspan was introduced to Ayn Rand by his first wife, Joan Mitchell. Although Greenspan was initially a logical positivist, he was converted to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism by her associate Nathaniel Branden. During the 1950s and 1960s Greenspan was a proponent of Objectivism, writing articles for Objectivist newsletters and contributing several essays for Rand’s 1966 book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal including an essay supporting the gold standard.

During the 1950s, Greenspan was one of the members of Ayn Rand’s inner circle, the Ayn Rand Collective, who read Atlas Shrugged while it was being written. Rand nicknamed Greenspan “the undertaker” because of his penchant for dark clothing and reserved demeanor. Although Greenspan was once recognized as a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, some Objectivists find his support for a gold standard somewhat incongruous or dubious,[citation needed] given the Federal Reserve’s role in America’s fiat money system and endogenous inflation. He has come under criticism from Harry Binswanger, who believes his actions while at work for the Federal Reserve and his publicly expressed opinions on other issues show abandonment of Objectivist and free market principles. However, when questioned in relation to this, he has said that in a democratic society individuals have to make compromises with each other over conflicting ideas of how money should be handled. He said he himself had to make such compromises, because he believes that “we did extremely well” without a central bank and with a gold standard. Greenspan and Rand maintained a close relationship until her death in 1982.

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roac 04.15.10 at 5:05 pm

(And indeed, what the Preview function showed is not what emerged.)

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Jim Harrison 04.15.10 at 5:11 pm

Although Greenspan was indeed a Randian, he wasn’t quite Randian enough for my taste. Just think how much better off we all would have been had he gone Galt in 1980.

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Brian 04.15.10 at 5:21 pm

However, that doesn’t make them Randists. To be a member of the Church of Rand, you have to accept her philosophy. No picking or choosing parts. Otherwise, you’re just another garden-variety libertarian.

Of course, those are Rand’s rules, not ours. I’m not sure it makes any sense to let Greenspan off the hook and say that he’s not an example of a person with distinctly Randian viewpoints who has wielded enormous political power simply because the Church of Rand doesn’t accept him as a full-fledged member in good standing.

In other words, I don’t see how Greenspan’s not still a direct contradiction to Tom@31.

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CaptFamous 04.15.10 at 5:25 pm

It strikes me that philosophies like libertarianism would be perfectly workable, if there weren’t so many other people around.

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Sebastian 04.15.10 at 5:28 pm

Greenspan worked for the government for about twenty years. Maybe I don’t understand Rand enough, but I would think that almost automatically disqualifies you.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.15.10 at 5:30 pm

My favorite objectivist is prof Leonard Peikoff; he’s incredibly funny. Here he makes Bill O’Reilly look (kind of) reasonable.

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engels 04.15.10 at 5:31 pm

Tim, what I meant was seeing as (almost?) nobody in the present day US has legitimate title to (almost?) any of her money or property according to Nozick’s principles, because if it wasn’t acquired directly through force or fraud it was almost certainly acquired from someone who acquired it from someone who (at some point in this chain) acquired it in this way, (eg., in the recent past, from government grants or contracts funded through coercive taxation or oil seized from an occupied country, or in the slightly less recent past, by the dispossession of native land owners or the exploitation of slave labour), or because I produced it myself using land or materials acquired (at some point in the chain of ownership) in this way, is there any good reason on Nozick’s view why I may not walk off with Bill Gates’ wallet given the opportunity, even if his view of ownership is entirely correct? If I happen to be the descendent of dispossessed Native Americans or African American slaves don’t I in fact have a good prima facie justification for doing so?

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Substance McGravitas 04.15.10 at 5:32 pm

It’s not just Greenspan. Rand’s books are goofball bibles, Cato has influence.

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Ebenezer Scrooge 04.15.10 at 5:46 pm

If John ever wants to develop his post further, he should remember that not all property is alienable. Indeed, the classic conception of property in English law–the estate in land–was generally inalienable, this side of death (or sometimes mortgage.) There is no reason we cannot view a person has having an inalienable property right in themselves. Or a partially alienable property right in themselves. Btw, this is current law: the covenant not to compete for example. It’s far short of feudalism or slavery, but can be galling. Military recruitment is another. (Employment is not alienation of human capital, but rather a rent of its proceeds.)

It is also worth noting that there is no such thing as freedom of contract for alienation of property rights. The alienation of property rights follows certain forms: the numerus clausus principle. You can’t sell land on a handshake, or even agree to sell land on a handshake. You can alienate your property rights in widgets without delivering them, but you can’t alienate your property rights in widgets unidentified to the contract. And so on. This is all classic 19th century law: the kind that the thin libertarians worship.

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ogmb 04.15.10 at 5:47 pm

When Amazon.com still showed their local “most popular in” rankings, Redmond, Washington was always in the top ten for all the Ayn Rand books…

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Colin Danby 04.15.10 at 6:01 pm

Thanks a lot for this post, John, and the reference to the Freeman piece. It certainly clarifies the libertarian problem of drawing a clear line between private and public, or “cultural” and “political” in Caplan’s writing. John Q’s extension @#18 above was helpful.

Surely, though the account of feudalism we end up with above, though clarifying as a thought experiment, seriously underplays the thickness (and heterogeneity) of actual feudalism, and the degree to which it was in various ways underpinned by larger systems, even if it’s anachronistic to call them states. The fealty/service stuff above seems right and insightful as far as it goes, but an inadequate account of feudal power. I also worry about how the term “contract” is moved across time and space.

Once we’ve jumped all over poor Bryan Caplan for using the U.S. 1880s in a thought-experiment in ignorance of the reality of the U.S. 1880s, we open other uses of history to the same criticism.

When do we get some Burke blogging? It seems to me Edmund Burke gives us a much thicker feudalism, better insight into power and culture, and a usefully conservative critique of the ambitions of liberals as well as libertarians.

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CharleyCarp 04.15.10 at 6:21 pm

Scrooge, you can so agree to sell land on a handshake. The buyer might not be able to enforce your oral agreement — but that presupposes your unwillingness to go through with it. Also, if you balk, he sues you, and you acknowledge the oral agreement at your deposition, well, that kills the Statute of Frauds as well.

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CharleyCarp 04.15.10 at 6:50 pm

Not that I care. Ignoring libertarians is pretty easy for a practicing lawyer: ‘Have you ever sued to enforce a contract? A frictionless universe this ain’t.’

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JLR 04.15.10 at 7:02 pm

“Freeman emphasizes that feudal Japan … didn’t have a lot of serfs around the place.”

That’s just wrong.

“Now, to repeat: this Freeman sense has nothing to do with serfs”

Brad DeLong has weighed in on this, and I think he’s exactly right.

The starting point of minarchist or anarchist propertarianism is the tiniest hair’s width away from the starting conditions for the evolution the serfdom and feudalism (which, it is important to note, is not appreciably different from any other form of warlordism or rule by organized crime, except for the religious sanction). I have trouble seeing how it can do anything else.

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j r 04.15.10 at 7:04 pm

i find it odd that you can have an entire discussion about slavery and libertarianism without mentioning the stock libertarian response: slavery necessitates government enforcement. in a truly libertarian society, whatever that means, slavery becomes an impossible institution to either establish or maintan. yes, i understand the conception of slavery you deal with is a fuedal one more akin to serfdom where obligations are enforced by private contracts. the fact remains, however, that slavery needs two distinct sets of contracts in order to exist. the first is the contract between owner and soon-to-be-slave. the second is the contract between those parties and the rest of society.

as a libertarian i would defend any individual’s right to make an arrangement wherein he reduces himself to being another’s slave. if a man wants to work for only room and board and generally consent to being bossed around, so be it. as long as he is of sound mind he can make any arrangement he wants. if, however, the “slave” wakes up one morning and decides that he no longer wishes to honor the arrangement, i have no interest in making him do so. slavery as a mere private contract between individuals really has no meaning, because contracts really have no meaning unless there is a larger social and political framework to enforce them.

self-ownership is more than a philosophical construct or poltical wish. it is a fundamental recognition of biology. it is the impulses from my brain that make my feet move one in front of the other. if another tells me to walk and i do, it is only because i have voluntarily complied. maybe i have complied because i want to or maybe i have complied because he is holding a gun at my head. neither situation changes the physical reality of self-ownership. does this means that i don’t recognize the existence of slavery in certain situations? no. it means that slavery is an artificial condition maintained by the application of force and coercion.

as for ownership of children by parents, again this depends on an artifical conception of ownership. we might say that a mother has ownership of an embryo or a fetus because it resides in her womb. beyond that how can you say that parents “create” their children. they donate some genetic material: sperm and egg containing DNA. the material, however, is not what makes life. it’s the encoding in the DNA that makes a human being. i own several beethoven CDs, but i don’t own the music on them. in that sense this becomes a sort of intellectual property rights issue and an answer to the question of who “owns” life probably depends on your particular spiritual bent. a religous person would say that god owns life; an atheist would say the universe. at the end of the day, they are rather the same thing.

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Stephan Kinsella 04.15.10 at 7:06 pm

I am a libertarian and I have argued (without relying on any religious assumptions) that parents do not own their children (see How We Come To Own Ourselves), and also that body-rights are different than rights in homesteaded, external objects so that voluntary slavery contracts are unenforceable (body-rights are inalienable), based on libertarian principles (see Inalienability and Punishment: A Reply to George Smith,; A Libertarian Theory of Contract: Title Transfer, Binding Promises, and Inalienability; also Slavery, Inalienability, Economics, and Ethics; ). Libertarianism, whether atheistic or not, does not result in voluntary slavery being enforceable or in parents owning children.

These publications may be found at http://www.stephankinsella.com/publications/.

As for whether early America was a quasi-libertarian paradise, not all of us agree with this: see my post Was the American Revolution Really about Taxes?.

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Greg 04.15.10 at 7:35 pm

@Engels 59,
Nozick at one point suggests that Rawls’s difference principle might be the best candidate for a principle of rectificatory justice given the acknowledgement of the very point you make, re: the untraceable multitude of past injustices in acquisition and trade. So even Nozick quite clearly admits that his theory is incapable of telling us much at all about the justice of present distributions. How so many ignore that passage (which I can’t dig up just now, since my copy’s at home), continues to puzzle.

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Charles Thompson 04.15.10 at 7:46 pm

John’s argument about ‘thick’ libertarians having no basic philosophical qualm with liberals is instructive, but of limited use. A thick libertarian, as John observes, places heavy emphasis on John’s premise 3, “That in fact treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property, necessarily will (or will tend to) maximize freedom”. Its difficult to imagine how granting persons the right to make slave-contracts maximizes freedom overall, so premise 3 libertarians (or thick libertarians) as it seems would have to drop slave contracts. Thin libertarians, by contrast, would embrace slave contracts. This might conceivably lead to the kind of propertarian utopia John describes, wherein parents own their children, or the children of slaves belong to the slave owner. This, as I understand John to contend , is a version of the thin libertarian scheme.

“Now, to repeat, libertarians don’t have to buy this hyper-propertarian scheme, by any means. But I think libertarians should admit that it is a libertarian scheme. It’s roughly half of what libertarians believe, plus an argument that the other half is really inconsistent with the half we are keeping, hence ought to be let go.”

I am not convinced. Thin libertarians ground their views in the idea of self-ownership. They do hold that a person has rights to the fruits of their labour (an offshoot of self-ownership), but they do not hold that a person has ownership over their offspring because this would interfere with their self-ownership. Any property right held by the parent is nullified by an analogous property right held by the child to his/her own body and labour. It doesn’t seem to me a principled argument to grant self-ownership only to certain kinds of people because it is more convenient for them. If these theoretical hyper-propertarian (feudal?) libertarians really do exist, they would have to make a principled argument for why self-ownership applies only to adults and hence children can be born into slavery.

John goes on to write:

Why won’t libertarians like my ideal, hyper-propertarian utopia? Because it doesn’t maximize freedom, that’s why. But it does, in a technical sense. If everyone is a perfect slave, infringements of liberty are reduced to zero, by definition. OK, fine. We mean the ordinary sort of freedom. The sort we actually want. Fine, but now why stop at giving people themselves, and nothing else?

To follow in Nozick’s footsteps, we give people themselves and nothing else because they have no natural entitlements to things outside themselves. This point is heavily contested, but nonetheless it is what thin libertarians tend to believe. This argument does not hinge on thin libertarians’ “letting go of any ideal of liberty, in any ordinary sense.” Rather it hinges on an argument on what fundamental rights people have, and as a corollary, how we should understand liberty itself.

To reply to Engels, we might view Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice as being defeated by the necessity of redistributing in order to right past wrongs. Nozick himself acknowledges that fact, at least a little. The problem is that any principle of justice we apply in order to right the injustices of the past will only very roughly ameliorate the actual injustices that took place. Take the example of the dispossessed native american descendant stealing from Bill Gates. Why should Gates himself foot the bill? Because he happens to be white and rich? Gates’ family wasn’t always rich, and certainly Gates’ riches do not derive directly from rights abuses against native americans. We might attempt to penalize persons or groups for past wrongs but not without acknowledging that the results would be borderline arbitrary; formerly dispossessed groups might be getting their due, but there is no way of guaranteeing that they are reimbursed by the right agents.

I realize I’m dragging on, but to respond to Marc’s earlier criticism that we should “…recognize that we are social creatures and that our achievements owe much to civil society.” and I assume that this should imply a moral imperative to give back, I thought I might reiterate a quote from Nozick that I’m sure many of us have read, but that I really do love.

You may not decide to give me something, for example a book, and then grab money from me to pay for it, even if I have nothing better to spend the money on. You have, if anything, even less reason to demand payment if your activity that gives me the book also benefits you; suppose that your best way of getting exercise is by throwing books into people’s houses, or that some other activity of yours thrusts books into people’s houses as an unavoidable side effect. Nor are things changed if your inability to collect money or payments for the books which unavoidably spill over into others’ houses makes it inadvisable or too expensive for you to carry on the activity with this side effect. One cannot, whatever one’s purposes, just act so as to give people benefits and then demand (or seize) payment. Nor can a group of persons do this. If you may not charge and collect for benefits you bestow without prior agreement, you certainly may not do so for benefits whose bestowal costs you nothing, and most certainly people need not repay you for costless-to-provide benefits which yet others provided them. So the fact that we partially are “social products” in that we benefit from current patterns and forms created by the multitudinous actions of a long string of long-forgotten people, forms which include institutions, ways of doing things, and language (whose social nature may involve our current use depending upon Wittgensteinian matching of the speech of others), does not create in us a general floating debt which the current society can collect and use as it will.

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Bloix 04.15.10 at 7:46 pm

CharlieCarp’s rejoinder to EbenezerScrooge illustrates a fundamental error in libertarian thinking – the constant confusion between what people can do and what the government will force them to do. Libertarians routinely talk about property and contract rights as if they are self-executing. They’re not. Property is a relationship between a person and a thing that the government will maintain by the use of force. A contract is a relationship between persons that the government will maintain by the use of enforce. You won’t pay your landlord the rent? Men with guns will push you out and put your belongings on the curb.

People and things have all sorts of relationships, and the government will not maintain all of them by force. The decision to maintain some and not others is a political decision. But libertarians pretend that the relationships are self-enforcing, and thus they ignore the political implications entirely.

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Charles Thompson 04.15.10 at 7:48 pm

Sorry…my apologies for the poor formatting.

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Steve LaBonne 04.15.10 at 7:53 pm

i find it odd that you can have an entire discussion about slavery and libertarianism without mentioning the stock libertarian response: slavery necessitates government enforcement. yes, i understand the conception of slavery you deal with is a feudal one more akin to serfdom where obligations are enforced by private contracts.

Since serfdom has as a matter of plain historical record thrived in societies in which there was barely any state at all, and since it hardly makes much difference to an unfree person whether he technically is a serf or a salve, this “argument” qualifies as typical libertardian casuistry. And as such most definitely not worth mentioning. What the hell does it matter whether you’re violently held in captivity by the lord’s retainers or the police?

As Brad DeLong pointed out (linked @66), medieval European serfdom arose precisely via the libertarian paradise created by the collapse of the Roman state. That IS what libertarianism looks like in the real world. The standard contemporary example is of course Somalia.

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Tim O'Keefe 04.15.10 at 8:00 pm

Engels@59.

Yeah, that’s an important difficulty for Nozick’s position (I see that Greg above says something regarding it); luckily, I’m not a libertarian, so it’s a problem for me. But I was just using the “stealing from Bill Gates to maximize freedom” example to illustrate the point that (for most libertarians) it wouldn’t be OK to violate somebody’s property rights even if doing so had good freedom-maximizing consequences, because folks like Nozick aren’t consequentialists.

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Tim O'Keefe 04.15.10 at 8:00 pm

Aargh–I meant “it’s NOT a problem for me.”

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Tom West 04.15.10 at 8:03 pm

The rest is naivete, selfishness, indifference, racism, and class privilege marketed as philosophy.

I’m a little troubled by the self-righteousness that’s implicit in the sentence. I’m moderately far to the left (at least for Canada), and my leanings could be classified as:

- naive : I’m concerned about the short term misery relief even if there may be long term consequences

- selfish : Well, the policies I espouse make *me* feel better, so in any honest way, I espouse a more egalitarian state for *my* benefit. That it may help others doesn’t make my actions any less selfish.

- indifference : I can’t help notice that I’m not interested in selling off all my possessions and sending the proceeds to where they’re definitely needed, so I’m definitely indifferent to their suffering that in every way is vastly worse than I’ll ever endure. No, I don’t count “feeling bad” for them. If I’m not making fairly major material sacrifices, I’m indifferent in any way that counts.

- racism : I’m a white child of middle class privilege, so I’m inherently racist. More to the point, the policies I support are fairly race-blind. Given the very real effects of racism, my preferred policies could easily be classified as racist.

- class privilege : I certainly believe that it’s the responsibility of those who have the capability and an environment that has allowed them to express that capability to help those less capable and less fortunate than themselves. For those of my class, I have higher expectations and less tolerance for those who fail to live up to what I feel are their social responsibilities. Class privilege at its finest.

In other words, is it necessary to pretend that we’re all noble and they’re all scum in order to express the superiority of our policies? I don’t think we need to claim morally superiority in order to claim superior policies.

Note, there are a great number of people I *do* consider morally superior. However, almost all of them are actually making great personal sacrifices to help where it’s needed most and most don’t spend any time at all pointing out the moral inferiority of those with which they disagree.

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Tom West 04.15.10 at 8:04 pm

Whoah. The formatting of the preview doesn’t match the formatting of the post! I actually do believe in line-breaks.

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matthias 04.15.10 at 9:03 pm

Will’s post @6 is great because it shows: wow, some “thin” libertarians really do bite the bullet and say their stateless utopia really would be more hierarchical and authoritarian than the status quo. From Hoppe:

States have not just disarmed their citizens by taking away their weapons, democratic states in particular have also done so in stripping their citizens of the right to exclusion and by promoting instead – through various non-discrimination, affirmative action, and multiculturalist policies – forced integration. In a natural order, the right to exclusion inherent in the very idea of private property is restored to private property owners.

Accordingly, to lower the production cost of security and improve its quality, a natural order is characterized by increased discrimination, segregation, spatial separation, uniculturalism (cultural homogeneity), exclusivity, and exclusion. In addition, whereas states have undermined intermediating social institutions (family households, churches, covenants, communities, and clubs) and the associated ranks and layers of authority so as to increase their own power vis-a-vis equal and isolated individuals, a natural order is distinctly un-egalitarian: “elitist,” “hierarchical,” “proprietarian,” “patriarchical,” and “authoritorian,” and its stability depends essentially on the existence of a self-conscious natural – voluntarily acknowledged – aristocracy.

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matthias 04.15.10 at 9:04 pm

That second paragraph was supposed to be part of the blockquote.

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Brad DeLong 04.15.10 at 9:20 pm

Tim O’Keefe writes: “it wouldn’t be OK to violate somebody’s property rights even if doing so had good freedom-maximizing consequences, because folks like Nozick aren’t consequentialists…”

Except when they want to be: cf. Lockeian Proviso.

It always seemed to me that ASU should be characterized not as libertarianim but as Calvinball…

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DWAnderson 04.15.10 at 9:23 pm

I thought this was an nicely reasoned post, but there are a number of false dichotomies that set up straw men, in response to which, a few thoughts:

– The self ownership rhetoric and resulting theory is probably best thought of as a heuristic. Some may take it too far, and it may not produce correct results in all instances, but it produces good results in the vast majority of cases.

– I would posit that libertarian beliefs 1 and 4 are held by most libertarians independent of a causal connection between them (I’d also add add some more utilitarian conception of human welfare into the mix as well). In some situations falsifiable belief 3 may be untrue, but that just means that the libertarian needs to fall back on how relatively important he believes each of 1 and 4 to be to determine how to approach that situation. For example, assume some amount of redistributive taxation really does increase liberty in a meaningful sense. You might want to do some of it, but even increasing aggregate liberty wouldn’t justify making some people slaves.

One can be a “thick” libertarian who believes some significant account needs to be taken for claims of self-ownership (even if such claims are not always dispositive) and a “thin” libertarian who believes that effects on liberty should inform what property rights people have. Sure, this calls for some exposition of how you would adjudicate such claims, but I haven not thought enough about that to offer a more rigorous explanation of how that might be done.

For now it is enough to show that is a viable third way and is probably consistent with how most libertarians would actually think about such issues.

Response published at

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Brad DeLong 04.15.10 at 9:26 pm

Jacob Levy writes: “As much as this pains me—because John’s offered got a fair, interesting, and substantive argument! this is much more engaging to read than most of the digital ink that’s been spilled in the last week!—I’m going to beg off further participation at this stage. Classes ended yesterday, so today is the first day of the year-of-no-teaching in which I’ll be finishing my book that’s really directly about a lot of this stuff…”

Looking forward to the book…

But meanwhile, why not double your participation in comment threads by posting stray paragraphs from the book?

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Bloix 04.15.10 at 9:55 pm

“Most parents love their children, so they would free them – officially at birth, or when they turned 18 or whatever. But it could turn out quite differently, if different social patterns developed. You could have your free children and also your slave children, and you might regard them very differently.”

Well, yes. For example, Thomas Jefferson did. And he was more benevolent than most. Why are we pretending to be operating in a world of theory when we are talking about historical reality?

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Substance McGravitas 04.15.10 at 9:58 pm

Libertopia is of Heaven and not of Earth.

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Harald Korneliussen 04.15.10 at 10:03 pm

When I read what j r and bloix say about contract enforcement, I was reminded of a good saying: “The only bilateral contract is a gentleman’s agreement”. With a little googling, I found out who said it, it was Steve R. Waldman, when talking about the legitimacy of regulation of financial products.

But he and you talk about the state and violent force as the contract enforcer. I’d like to point out that the contract enforcer does not need to be the state, nor does the means of enforcement need to be coercive force. The question “what contracts should I care if my neighbours break”, or more generally, “which of other’s people’s contracts should I act as if didn’t exist”, is important anyway. Even out of self-interest, there are some third-party contractual agreements I would not recognize, help to enforce or even accept other’s enforcement of. Such as “voluntary slavery”. I don’t understand how anyone can come to another conclusion if they take the third-party question seriously.

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LFC 04.15.10 at 10:16 pm

R. Puchalsky @20:
If you want to maximize freedom, you have to acknowledge that freedom means the ability to actually do things, which leads you straight towards positive rights

I think this is correct (at least once one rules out what the post calls the Buddhistic sense of “freedom,” in which it means “freedom from desire to do or have X, except for spiritual enlightenment”).

Puchalsky is also right, imo, to stress the point that political/ideological views are formed, and either stuck to or oftentimes abandoned, in particular historical contexts (“there’s a reason why classical liberals became modern liberals”). It is psychologically easier, one might argue, to be a ‘classical liberal’ today in a developed country where the mass deprivation and misery that came with capitalist industrialization have been largely — though not totally of course — eliminated. If you were a classical liberal in, say, 1850’s Manchester, you could hardly fail to see at first hand the awful results of your political/ideological views, at least if you walked around the city to any extent. (Of course, you might not draw the connection between your ideology and the prevalent social conditions, but that in itself would require intellectual blinders and self-protective stubbornness.) Whereas a self-identified classical liberal in a big city in a developed country today would have to take a much more thorough walk than his or her mid-19th-century counterpart to encounter entrenched poverty. He could certainly find it, but it would take more effort.

So, to conclude, maybe all present-day classical liberals should transport themselves, via one of those thought experiments beloved of philosophers, to a mid-19th-century manufacturing city, and after that experiment there would not be any more classical laissez-faire liberals. (Dream on, I suppose.)

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CharleyCarp 04.15.10 at 10:19 pm

I don’t understand who is supposed to enforce a contract if not the state. And how, if not by coercion. Oh sure, you can have private arbitration to adjudicate whether one side or the other has breached an agreement. And to assign damages, if any, for the breach. But what happens then? The winning party files the arbitrator’s award in a court, and seeks an enforceable judgment. And, having it, the winner then sends writs of execution to the loser’s bank.

Only the Montana Freeman try this step without the state.

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Substance McGravitas 04.15.10 at 10:25 pm

Incidentally, Libertopia.

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engels 04.15.10 at 10:39 pm

Tim, fair enough, but my (probably over-laboured) point was just that as far as I can remember there is _no_ reason in anything Nozick says why I shouldn’t go ahead and steal Bill Gates’ wallet if I want to. So if Bill Gates wants a firm reason why I must not take his money and a consequentialist won’t provide it, Nozick isn’t going to either.

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Harald Korneliussen 04.15.10 at 10:48 pm

CharleyCarp: Depends on what you think of as a contract. If you mean the big legal monstrosities, then it is one thing. But if I lend you something, and you refuse to give it back, then regardless of what the state does my neighbours may not want to have business with you. That is an example of non-coercive “contract enforcement”. In some situations, it may be the only form of enforcement necessary or desirable.

I think that although contracts (by which I mean agreements of any sort, really) and even laws are formally enforced with violent state force, in reality lots of them could be maintained non-coercively. There is not very much I can do without the cooperation of my fellow citizens, and this they are entitled to withhold – that would not be coercion. That they aren’t actually well-organized enough to do so without force doesn’t necessarily mean that the demands they make of me are illegitimate.

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Chris J 04.15.10 at 10:58 pm

Incidentally, Libertopia.

Some interesting descriptions of the speakers on that Libertopia program, Substance McG. One guy apparently writes “anarchist science fiction” No McMegan, though.

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clew 04.15.10 at 11:46 pm

“the material, however, is not what makes life. it’s the encoding in the DNA that makes a human being.”

Our DNA is, AFAIK, not *sufficient* to make us. Trivially, DNA sitting there by itself becomes nothing; not even a cell alone does; we need months of a lot of biological support just to get born, and no-one is born alone and lives. But even if you’re myopic about the IP in our DNA, it isn’t enough. We don’t develop just by letting the DNA program ‘run’ on raw material from the womb; the environment of the womb sends and receives signals that affect our development. We are not informationally distinct from our mother (nor are we informationally distinct from our families as we’re raised).

Still, the view that our parents own us because they made us has (hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates) recently led to things like this:

“Augusta Boujey is nine years old. Her mother, who is almost white, was owned by her half-brother, named Solamon, who still retains two of her children.”

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Rich Puchalsky 04.16.10 at 12:29 am

“I don’t understand who is supposed to enforce a contract if not the state. And how, if not by coercion.”

Ah, CharleyCarp, you may want to Google “The Machinery of Freedom”, by David Friedman. It’s about, among other things, how you could have private police, courts, and laws. Linked here, actually.

“How, if not by coercion”, is a more difficult question. But you can rest assured that rich people would not simply buy justice for themselves at the expense of others. As Friedman points out, it just wouldn’t make economic sense for protection agencies to specialize in special rights for rich people. It isn’t economic, since rich people do not control a majority of the disposeable wealth used to buy social power, and therefore just wouldn’t happen.

Ah, libertarians. I’m sort of nostalgic now, actually. They were so reliably nutty.

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ScentOfViolets 04.16.10 at 12:30 am

Let me quote that old commie, Stanislaw Lem:

“By the Ten Noses of the Phoo, I implore you, O stranger, do not utter such vile heresy, which attacks the very foundation of our freedom! Our supreme law, the principle of Civic Initiative, states that no one can be compelled, constrained, or even coaxed to do what he does not wish. Who, then, would dare expropriate the Eminents’ factories, it being their will to enjoy possession of same? That would be the most horrible violation of liberty imaginable. Now, then, to continue, the New Machines produced an abundance of extremely cheap goods and excellent food, but the Drudgelings bought nothing, for they had not the wherewithal. . .”

“But, my dear Phool!” I cried. “Surely you do not claim that the Drudgelings did this voluntarily? Where was your liberty, your civic freedom?! ”

“Ah, worthy stranger,” sighed the Phool, “the laws were still observed, but they say only that the citizen is free to do whatever he wants with his property and money; they do not say where he is to obtain them. No one oppressed the Drudgelings, no one forced them to do anything; they were completely free and could do what they pleased, yet instead of rejoicing at such freedom they died off like flies.

I see an trend in some of what I read for entertainment where the solution of what to do with the “nonproductive” types – read, 95% of the populace – is simply to kill them off in a way that does not imperil the elites. This type of story wasn’t nearly so common thirty or forty or more years ago, but I see a lot of writers trying out the idea either as part of the plot or the back story.

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ScentOfViolets 04.16.10 at 12:41 am

Ah, CharleyCarp, you may want to Google “The Machinery of Freedom”, by David Friedman. It’s about, among other things, how you could have private police, courts, and laws. Linked here, actually.

Something interesting about Friedman – he once claimed that wages couldn’t be stagnant and a referenced paper was obviously using bogus statistics because the Census Bureau figures showed that family incomes were rising. I tried in vain to point out that (a) the paper was referencing actual BLS stats, not massaged data put out by the authors, and (b) that the two facts do not contradict each other, but gave up after the fifth or sixth go-round. A classic tosser who also – surprise – shows a surprising resistance to admitting error about, well, anything.

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Donovan 04.16.10 at 1:05 am

I’d argue that politically conservative philosophies share a basic set of common traits. Note that since we’re talking American politics, this applies to American political philosophies only. Attempting to map these traits onto another country’s political philosophies is not recommended and may void your warranty:

They hold that the natural unit of measure for humanity is the individual: That all moral and philosophical reasoning about what is a) true and b) normative for human beings has to start from one person and build up. That there’s no such thing as a “collective good” or “collective right” or “collective responsibility” that are not derived (logically) from individual goods, rights, and responsibilities. The precise weight put on an individual varies, but the focus does not.

They hold that the government is primarily intended to preserve negative rights, not positive rights: A negative right is an individual freedom that imposes no burden on anyone else. Life, Liberty, and Property is Locke’s holy trinity of rights, for example. You don’t need anyone to do anything special for you to have these things, you need them to NOT do things (kill you, lock you up, take your shit). A positive right on the other hand is specifically a right TO something even if that means it must be provided by people around you, such as a right to health care, a job, a house, a living wage, an education, a pony…

They care about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome: This is where we get into the distribution of wealth, racial/gender quotas, and similar issues. A conservative would argue that as long as there is equal opportunity to succeed in society, the statistical breakdown of who succeeds, how much more they succeed by, and so on is irrelevant. What’s interesting is that because we tend to value education so highly as a basic equalizer of opportunity, many political conservatives are still unwilling to oppose the effective nationalization of our education industry because of this principle.

They believe in limiting domestic government scope and authority, and are skeptical of domestic government intervention: This (what other people have listed first) comes down here because logically it flows from the principles listed above. You’ll note that I specify domestic power and domestic intervention. There’s a lot of debate even within what I’d call “Fringe” conservative movements like the Libertarian party over whether this opposition of government power domestically should translate to a non-interventionist or even isolationist foreign policy, and so this point is really only true in terms of domestic politics.

They are, to varying degrees, originalist: that is, they defer to a narrow reading of constitution with an eye to its original meaning, as of the time it was written. How strict they are about this point, and how they go about determining original meaning may vary, but they would tend to oppose the philosophies that hold that the constitution should be re-interpreted as needed in order to move with the times (and therefore justify potentially unconstitutional laws by simply re-interpreting a tricky passage, rather than being required to pass a constitutional amendment).

Note that I didn’t mention the market at all? That’s because, again, support for the free market isn’t really a root principle, it’s an outgrowth of the principles I already listed, and also because like foreign policy there’s a wider variation of views here.

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Doctor Memory 04.16.10 at 1:29 am

ScentOfViolets@95: ah, ran into Friedman on usenet, did you? Good times, good times…

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ScentOfViolets 04.16.10 at 1:34 am

Doctor Memory@97: Yep. Back in the day I posted on the rec.arts.sf.* groups. Haven’t done that in ages. There’s a livejournal guy who gives occasional updates and has said Friedman and this other character you may know, James Donald, are almost single-handedly killing the group shwi with their bizarre fixations.

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Doctor Science 04.16.10 at 1:34 am

The person I agree most with so far is Bloix:

With respect to oneself, “owner” and “ruler” are not “facts.” They are metaphors.

Exactly. And treating labor as though it were property is also a metaphor. IMHO, treating land as though it were a chattel (portable property) is *also* a metaphor, or at least a category of convenience.

Later Bloix says:

Why are we pretending to be operating in a world of theory when we are talking about historical reality?

I am continually stunned by the anthropological and historical ignorance of libertarians (for which Bryan Caplan is now the poster child), thick or thin. It’s perfectly possible to have a functioning human society in which property is non-existent or trivial. In some of these societies there is great freedom, in some there is almost none: it’s the network of non-governmental relationships, aka “human society”, that determines whether people have great latitude for action or not.

CharleyCarp said:

I don’t understand who is supposed to enforce a contract if not the state.

It is more common than not, historically, for contracts to be enforced by the local community, and for the state not to be involved at all.

For instance, most marriages. You stould up in public with your chosen (or chosen-by-your-parents) spouse and said, “we’re married”. And everyone was there, and so everyone knew you were married. Most human societies over time have been illiterate and state-less, and yet contracts and agreements have been pledged and enforced. They’re not enforced by the violent monopoly of the state, they’re enforced by the fact that if you break them you can’t live there anymore. Or no-one will talk to you, or no-one will bring you soup and firewood when you’re sick, so you die.

I have long thought that the defining characteristic of libertarians is that they don’t believe humans are social animals — which is why many people in the Asperger’s spectrum are attracted to libertarianism. Libertarianism is *easy* and logical, compared to social reality.

The human reality, IMHO, is that the basic unit of power isn’t property or stuff, it’s relationships with other people. The libertarian dream of “property is liberty” is the hope that you won’t have to deal with so many people: the perfectly wealthy and perfectly free man is Robinson Crusoe, who answers to no-one and is constrained by no-one. And is almost insane with loneliness, but hey, that’s apparently the price of freedom. +eyeroll+

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Nicholas Weininger 04.16.10 at 1:38 am

If I may attempt to cut through the usual nonsense and make a few points re: the original article:

1. I don’t take “thick” vs “thin” to mean quite what John H. takes it to mean. As I understand it “thick” libertarians are those who say we should be concerned about making social norms and non-state institutions more tolerant and not just with reducing the size and scope of the State. Roderick Long and Charles Johnson might be taken as canonical examples of “thick” libertarians by this definition and indeed they wrote a lengthy and interesting paper arguing for “thickness” in libertarianism on many different grounds. They are no less radically opposed to the State than any “thin” libertarian, and no less concerned with individual rights as side constraints.

2. There are in fact lots more important divisions among libertarians than just “thick” vs “thin” and many other ways to come to libertarianism than the two you cite. Some of us, for example, simply believe that the available justifications for the legitimacy of state force don’t hold water, and that mass force, being in general a bad thing, requires serious justification, so a decent person should not countenance the methods of the state; while market interactions have good moral justifications for their legitimacy, and are in general good things. You don’t need a particular account of property to believe this, and it can get you to a much more radically anti-state place than the “thick” libertarians John mentions would ever go to.

3. Several commenters here have talked of libertarians “policing their own”. I wonder how they feel about neocon calls for Muslims to do the same. More saliently, it seems to me that the Caplan controversy is an excellent example of how we do in fact “police” our own, in the sense of arguing publicly against our ideological confederates when they make serious moral mistakes: Caplan has gotten a great deal of criticism from libertarians of all stripes on his blog.

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CharleyCarp 04.16.10 at 1:55 am

Earlier in the week, I wrote, somewhere else, that arguments with or between libertarians were like arguments about the physics of Star Trek. The linked article is exquisite; it almost tells exactly how intense a tachyon burst is required to disable a Romulan cloaking device.

People will comply with arbitral awards because otherwise they would get a bad reputation. Gang warfare as the path to freedom. The Grand Negus lives!

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CharleyCarp 04.16.10 at 2:00 am

Most human societies over time have been illiterate and state-less, and yet contracts and agreements have been pledged and enforced.

Illiterate yes. Stateless? Are you kidding me?

They’re not enforced by the violent monopoly of the state, they’re enforced by the fact that if you break them you can’t live there anymore.

This is not coercive?

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DN 04.16.10 at 2:11 am

This all becomes a whole lot easier when we introduce some straightforward politics. In the United States, the term “libertarianism,” much like the term “federalism” (or, more properly, “states rights”) is deployed instrumentally by people, often (but not always) on the right, who object to particular policies that the Federal Government is contemplating or has already implemented. Hence attempts to do away with various forms of local, regional, and social coercion often get framed as assaults on liberty; even people who want to impose theocratic governance can be allied with libertarianism. Now that I think about it, “libertarianism” really is often code for localism of various sorts, which makes it look (in a faux amix kind of way) like “feudalism,” insofar as “feudalism” was a decentralized form of governance with often confusing and overlapping jurisdictions.

Hence David Friedman publishes all sorts of nonsense about how medieval Iceland demonstrates the workability of right-libertarian-anarchism . But most liberals look at models of localists and decentralized societies and see them as brutal, arbitrary, and highly coercive environments. Which they were.[*] And, of course, most of the people using “libertarian” now (in this instrumental sense) would, if allowed, create brutal, arbitrary, and highly coercive environments for one category of person or another.**

*And libertarians point to the many examples of high-capacity states that turned predatory on their citizens. Of which there are many. And liberals point out that properly constituted liberal republics pretty much beat everyday life in just about any other political system to ever exist, which they do. And someone eventually says “Hitler” and then someone says “Goodwin” and we start all over again.
**I’m sure there’s a feminist argument about property and patriarchy and libertarian rhetoric to be made here, but not by me. Interestingly, this is the issue that started the whole week or so of blog warring, so may. ****
****I’ll stop before I descend into complete incoherence.

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DN 04.16.10 at 2:15 am

Except to say that people really do say “Goodwin” when they usually mean “Godwin.”

And to say that the whole argument in favor of “stateless” societies depends on the rather quaint notion that “state” is a term only appropriate to describe the list of things Weber included in his ideal-typical description of modern, bureaucratic states, rather than coercion-wielding political communities of the kind that have pretty much existed since (at least) late prehistoric times.

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Bloix 04.16.10 at 2:27 am

“humans are social animals”

We were social animals before we were humans. We could not have become humans if we had not been social animals first. The libertarian project is to create a society that forces us to become a wholly unnatural something that we have never been, all in the name of restoring us to a fictional natural order.

You would think in considering these things, we would have got beyond the creation myths of Hobbes and Locke, but apparently not.

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Doctor Science 04.16.10 at 2:27 am

CharleyCarp:

*Most* human societies have historically and pre-historically been fairly small groups of foragers, herders, and/or subsistence farmers, lightly linked to form larger units. Most human societies have been “uncivilized” — that is, have no cities and very few adults who do anything for a living other than trying to get enough to eat.

Even in societies that have “states”, most people haven’t usually interacted with the state or “the government” more than a few times in their lives.

For instance, Jews have had an exceptionally well-developed system of contract law for thousands of years. For most of that period, Jews have not done much more with “the state” than get it to leave them alone. Jewish contracts were witnessed and enforced by the Jewish community, not “the government”. The government usually had a monopoly on deadly force, and the Jewish community leaders *could* call it in if necessary — but they would go to great lengths not to. If there were problems in the community, they had to work it out themselves, and government-mandated force was the *last* thing anyone would want to invoke. Reputation, gossip, fines, public apologies, shunning, and, at the limit, expulsion — that’s how contracts were enforced. The “state” had nothing to do with it.

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Matt Steinglass 04.16.10 at 2:49 am

Sorry to jump in extra-threadulously, but reading the comments on the previous post, I notice a point being made by the generally very thoughtful Jacob Levy, and I think it’s worth a corrective. The question is raised whether libertarians may or must think you have the right to sell yourself into slavery, and Levy responds that many do, but that:

“They may not, and must not, think that the answer to that question matters in the slightest for our evaluation of American chattel slavery, or for any slavery into which people are born, or for almost any slavery that has existed in the last 1500 years.”

I think in fact that the answer to this question matters very much indeed for our evaluation of the most common kinds of slavery that exist right now. For example, this week several dozen Southeast Asian fishermen were rescued by Costa Rican police from a vessel where they had been held under duress by Taiwanese owners and forced to work for many months under terms much harsher than those they had signed up for. Their passports had been taken, they were forced to work up to 20 hours per day, they were given little food, and they had not been paid the $250 per month they were promised. When there was no fishing to be done, the boat’s owners rented the men out to other employers as construction workers. The Vietnamese press referred to the Vietnamese who were rescued as “slaves”.

Was this term being used accurately? Was the men’s treatment technically in violation of the contracts they had signed? What if it weren’t? What if the contract specified that they would need to work as many hours as owners demanded, made no mention of adequate food, and stated that owners would hold their passports for the duration of the contract and pay salaries only at the end date? What if the contract specified they must first work off the costs of employing them, and then set a rather high figure for those costs? Moving beyond this specific case, this sort of debt peonage or captive contractual servitude is extremely common in today’s global economy. There are millions of export laborers working as construction workers or domestic servants in the Persian Gulf, Malaysia, and, yes, even in the US and Europe who have found the terms of their employment to be abusive and would like to leave, but cannot, because their passports are held, they owe large sums of money to their employers, and they have no way of contacting assistance.

These people are not technically “slaves” in the formalized legal sense in which the term obtained in 19th-century America. They are workers whose employers are violating the terms of their contract, or in some cases, even more challengingly, whose employers are observing the terms of their contract. I am not going to accuse libertarians of supporting this sort of thing, but I do think libertarians need to explain how it is that their philosophy provides reasons to oppose it. And I think that on this issue, the question of whether someone has the right to sell himself into slavery, or whether a contract can be enforced when the terms it creates are functionally equivalent to slavery, or whether the state needs to be empowered to send police in to violate the terms of such a contract in the interests of the worker who sold himself into the functional equivalent of slavery — these are questions that actually are very important for libertarians to address. If, for example, there are types of contracts that individuals should not be allowed to enter into freely, because they are inherently abusive to the contracting individual, then the question is just how far such limitations on contracts extend, and how the state is empowered to enforce the prohibitions.

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Jack Strocchi 04.16.10 at 2:53 am

John Holbo said:

Sometimes people distinguish ‘thin’ and ‘thick’. ‘Thin’ is the kind of ‘propertarian’ libertarian that Caplan can’t be because the whole inability to make contracts/own your own property thing is a straight-up deal-breaker. ‘Thick’ is the kind of libertarian Caplan can’t be because of all the Mill stuff in my previous post: can’t let society play the tyrant.

I’m not sure that I would be a libertarian through “thick” and “thin”. There are no absolute ideological values in evolution. Talk of libertarianism as abstract theory independent of concrete history is “rationalism in politics”, a vice that once infected the Left. But has now crossed the ideological species barrier to contaminate the Right (cf Russia and Iraq).

Libertarian ideology is an abridgement of historical circumstances, mostly those pertaining to 18th and 19th C Anglophone settler societies (USA, AUS, NZ, SA, CAN). It was pretty cool for some back then. [cue TV theme for Daniel Boone]

The real problem with libertarianism in particular and abstract political philosophy in general is complete ignorance of the anthroplogical basis of the ideological super-structure. It makes no sense at all to prattle on about the theoretical virtues on one or other insitutional arrangements without sounding out the individual foundations.

Libertarianism was the guiding philosophy of bourgois property-owning democracts – famers and merchants and trappers – who founded the US. It is a philosophy of individualist self-government because that in fact was how these people were governed in those days. Both the founding fathers and the common folk were more or less self-sufficient in provision and protection.

Libertarianism only works as a coherent social structure with the following conditions, apologies to Marx, nods to Weber, Durkheim and Darwin:

Economical sub-structure: Based on scarce labour and abundant land. (See Franklin)
Anthropological structure: Christian in religion, Constitutional “regent” and Caucasian race. (USA identity – God, “King” and family values Country.)
Ideological super-structure: limited federal government, private property, rule of law, low taxes and night-watchman state. (Jefferson, Calhoun)

Once you own your own means of production then you are free in the sense of self-ownership. “You” being straight, white males, would not have to:

alienate your labour to capitalist,
bond your labour to a feudalist or
conscript your labour to a statist.

The economic basis of this were abundant arable land and scarce free labour. Ben Franklin understood the economic basis of libertarianism more than a quarter of a millenia ago:

Europe is generally full settled with Husbandmen, Manufacturers, &c. and therefore cannot now much increase in People… Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short Time save Money enough to purchase a Piece of new Land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family;

So long as the population did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land there should be land “enough and as good left in common for others” to keep both Nozick and Cohen happy. Once the land is filled up the frontier closes and that the end of old-fashioned freedom.

Of course all this freedom for some depended on the exploitation and oppression of others. Taken land and forced labour supported the whole structure of libertarian freedom, through the treatment of:

natives as vermin;
coloreds as slaves and
women and children as chattels.

“Actual and existing” libertarianism still resonates in Red-States where some of these economic and anthropological conditions are more or less satisfied. (Although the Red-States are still recipients of large federal handouts in the form of farm subsidies and military bases.)

But there is still enough of the old society about to strike a distant chord. Particularly in Texas where a man yearns to own his own spread, sire a decent brood and roam free accross the land (on horse or car). Thats why guys like Ron Paul will always get a warm welcome there. You de-racinated Brits don’t understand.

I lived in Texas a whiles and was mighty impressed with the general standard of person there. They all drove pick-up trucks, cradled shot-guns and even when they voted Democrat governor they made damn sure she handed out death penalties like parking fines. “We catch and kill our own here.”

Unfortunately this kind of rock-ribbed, red-blooded Republican freedom is a fading, sepia-toned dream in all but the fly-over zone. The current political tendency is to maximise diversity, density and therefore “debtquity”. Thats the basis of high turn-over customised consumerism.

With everyone each day trotting off to the office chook pen/welfare office, the corner convenience store and then back to their rabbit-hutches surrounded by Asian-made consumer durables. The “Road to Convenience Store” is a comfortable existence but not exactly one to make the pulse quicken.

What it does not give is freedom understood as the traditional rights of an Englishman to be master of his own domain. In some ways a pity, but thats the price of progress.

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Joshua Holmes 04.16.10 at 3:01 am

But most liberals look at models of localists and decentralized societies and see them as brutal, arbitrary, and highly coercive environments. Which they were.[*]

And liberals point out that properly constituted liberal republics pretty much beat everyday life in just about any other political system to ever exist, which they do.

The same factors that make a liberal democratic republic different and better from an illiberal republic are likely to be similar to the same factors that make a localist society less brutal and arbitrary than historical examples. A state with the sort of power that modern states wield, but not bounded by Enlightenment notions, is dangerous and brutal. A localist society bounded by those same Enlightenment norms is likely to be far less repressive than one in, say, 850 A.D.

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Lee A. Arnold 04.16.10 at 3:01 am

The largest acephalous system I remember from reading anthropology was 11,000 people. I think it was a tribe in northwest Africa. I imagine they had elders deciding things. But every social system of larger numbers is found to have an instituted leader position. Starting with the Big Man tribute-then-reciprocate transaction.

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CharleyCarp 04.16.10 at 3:05 am

A community that can impose fines, order expulsion or, when it really thinks it needs to, violent force, *is* “the state.” New Plymouth was no less a state because it arose from a Compact.

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CharleyCarp 04.16.10 at 3:10 am

For example, this week several dozen Southeast Asian fishermen were rescued by Costa Rican police from a vessel where they had been held under duress by Taiwanese owners and forced to work for many months under terms much harsher than those they had signed up for. Their passports had been taken, they were forced to work up to 20 hours per day, they were given little food, and they had not been paid the $250 per month they were promised. When there was no fishing to be done, the boat’s owners rented the men out to other employers as construction workers.

A good shunning is certainly in order here. Who’s with me?

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Mark 04.16.10 at 3:39 am

Re: Parents owning children,

IIRC, this is exactly the charge that Susan Okin levels against Nozick in “Justice, Gender, and the Family,” with the (small) difference that mothers, in particular, would necessarily owe their children, who are (quite literally) constructed out of materials and the mother’s labor.

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DN 04.16.10 at 3:40 am

” A localist society bounded by those same Enlightenment norms is likely to be far less repressive than one in, say, 850 A.D.”

Interesting. I say “liberal republic” and you say “same Enlightenment norms.” Given the existence of numerous illiberal (and non-republican) Enlightenment positions, I think what you really mean is “if you had a small political unit organized in such a way as to check the arbitrary use of power both via institutional mechanisms and dominant norms, then it would be preferable for that unit to be small than to be large.” I suppose it is only small steps to a kind of pre-Madisonian republican theory, in which small size (and, let us not forget, often the relative social equality of small landholders) is conducive to, or even necessary for, stable republican governance.

I don’t really agree with either the empirical or the theoretical basis of the argument (that large polities dilute the impact of individual political choice and therefore ones ability to decide the rule by which one is governed?), as my rough guess is that very small communities are more prone to majoritarian tyranny than large ones, and I do not see why we should prefer to keep every function of our government close to home. But I suppose what really matters when debating the efficacy of scale are circumstances; we should not expect what “works” for yeomen farmers to “work” for industrial societies, whether we are talking about state-society relations or the ability to remain militarily secure.

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nick s 04.16.10 at 4:09 am

A tangential point: as an British expat paying attention to the election, I’ve noticed how my tolerance of the Lesser Spotted American Libertarian has gone down considerably, thanks to exposure to a politics where such positions appear appropriately juvenile and silly.

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alex 04.16.10 at 7:34 am

It’s just a shame that all the OTHER positions espoused by the major UK parties are also silly, for other reasons. Aircraft carriers, ICBMs and higher wages for all, yay! Unless you work in the public sector, boo! Better schools, yay! With lower spending, boo! etc ad nauseam…

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Anarcho 04.16.10 at 8:06 am

“Hence David Friedman publishes all sorts of nonsense about how medieval Iceland demonstrates the workability of right-libertarian-anarchism .”

Particularly as Friedman ignores all the non-propertarian elements of that society such as common lands (the almennin), communal self-government (the things), a compulsory welfare system (the hreppr) and such like (as discussed here). It survived because it was relatively egalitarian (something which Rothbard proclaimed as being “a revolt against nature”). As wealth inequalities increased, so did social conflict and the rise of lords.

May I also suggest this essay (A Dilemma for Libertarianism) by Karl Widerquist which shows how propertarian assumptions results in Monarchy (i.e., dictatorship). This is, of course, is hardly libertarian in any meaningful sense of the word as admitted by propertarian Hans-Hermann Hoppe:

“In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance towards democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They — the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism — will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.”

Nozick argued on the same lines:

“If one starts a private town, on land whose acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression], persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision procedures for the town which the owner had established.”

This authoritarian result is inevitable given the starting assumptions — which is why propertarianism is not libertarian. Proudhon’s “property is despotism” springs to mind!

What gets me is that those on the left take the propertarian claim of being “libertarian” at face value… They are not and the sooner we start describing them as propertarians the sooner we can move on to discussing how to increase real freedom in society.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.16.10 at 8:17 am

What Jack Strocchi said, 108. Also, various Cossack societies in Eastern Europe.

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JoB 04.16.10 at 10:04 am

What is said in 100, point 3 thereof!

It’s an understandable reflex to go all agitated on a group of individuals sharing characteristic A and then asking all of them to denounce B as done by some of them (with or without invoking A) but it’s nevertheless a despicable thing to do whether or not the characteristic is muslim, calling yourself libertarian or whatever else. It’s even illiberal to ask anything of an individual because you may have evidence for her belonging to a certain group.

The only thing to do in such a case is to try to establish that position A leads to behaviour B – as in the Catholic Church where the reactions to saveguard the name of the church is linked to late denouncing of pedopholies (and hence more of them).

After more than a 1000 posts in a similar vein I don’t see any evidence that libertarian positions cannot but lead to juvenile Tea Party believes (in fact it seems obvious that all Tea Party beliefs are on average quite at odds with any seriously libertarian idea). But be that as it may, there has been in the US a successful campaign to lure people with populist low taxes ideas combined with the usual mix of conservative moralizing under the banner of libertarianism. Get over it already and: stop giving fellow non-juveniles who are used to call themselves libertarians for at least the good reasons a hard time. It’s hard enough to have your word hi-jacked not to have to deal with the gloating of others on the left smugly saying ‘I told you so!’ (or in Barry/Steve lingo: you’re a bunch of idiots for holding any position that is not mine!)

PS: now I am on my horse, NO, I do not have to defend myself for all the stupidities said & done by Hayek, in order to justify why I believe there are some things Hayek said that are very worth being considered. If that were the bar for considering the ideas of an original thinker – we might as well all go hide in caves again.

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Scott Martens 04.16.10 at 11:11 am

I’ve long thought that the self-ownership principle was really Cartesian dualism as an economic principle: Inside of each person is a homunculus able to own and transfer property and enter into contracts, including into contracts that alienate him or her from their thoughts, knowledge or even bodies. Otherwise, how could a person sell themselves into slavery and still be able to receive ownership of themselves when manumitted? Since this kind of dualism is rejected for pretty good reasons in both the social and physical sciences and retains a foothold only in religious thought, it probably qualifies as a spiritual belief at best and a rank superstition at worst.

While Friedman’s beliefs about the Icelandic Communwealth genuinely qualify as a defense of feudalism, Nozick’s always struck me as an argument for constitutional monarchy. Presume that at one time the UK was in a state of nature, that each man was freeholder of himself, his land and his things, owing nothing to anyone unless he had freely contracted for it. Then, imagine that the custom arose of selecting an individual to arbitrate disputes and take charge of defending freedom from less high minded (socialist?) continental Europeans. We’ll call him the King. Let us further presume these freeholders agreed to provide financial support to the King to pursue these ends.

Let us further imagine that as time passed and the population grew, the number of freeholders did not increase but the land became full, and much of the population lived – voluntarily – under obligation to some landowner. Now let us further presume that these freeholders agreed – wholly voluntarily – to contract to give up their freehold to the common leader in return for some guarantee of security and limited autonomy and that the King, in return, agreed to limit his own powers in ways that ensure the former freeholders held some influence over his actions.

We might further suppose that the King, with the consent of the freeholders, ultimately established legal codes concerning the power to contract, the operations of courts, the collection of revenue to sustain the King’s activities, and the nature of tenure in land. And, eventually, that the King and his vassals voluntarily conceded the authority to act to a council that was democratically elected.

This is a quite stylized history of the UK, but one not wholly alien to it. If we consider all British land to be under feudal tenure from the crown, then under Nozick’s principles, Britain is already a libertarian utopia.

121

alex 04.16.10 at 11:18 am

all British land to be under feudal tenure from the crown

Which it is, of course… If only we could get rid of the dam’ politicians intruding between us and our natural allegiances…

122

Brad P. 04.16.10 at 12:40 pm

Libertarianism is based upon our conceptual understanding of ourselves as self-determined, rational actors, and that understanding doesn’t mesh well with reality in the extremes and grey areas.

Unfortunately for critiques like this one that fringes upon that fact, that understanding is built into how we observe the world, and it is impossible for any system of governance to be a really good solution.

123

Chris Bertram 04.16.10 at 12:58 pm

#120 this kind of thing is often said, but really doesn’t convince. There’s good discussion in G.A. Cohen’s _Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality_ where Cohen defends the coherence of the concept, whilst arguing against its truth. To say that someone owns themselves is just to say that the ownership relation can be reflexive – it doesn’t commit anyone to a mysterious inner entity (any more than ordinary ownership relations do).

124

Perezoso 04.16.10 at 1:14 pm

Nozick, more cautiously, makes no such general claim. But he does contend that “liberty upsets patterns” of distribution (ASU, p. 160), and argues as if anyone with a proper regard for liberty should see that patterned theories of distributive justice violate a commitment to freedom

Nozick’s taking on Rawls (via Locke). Rawls himself grants distributive justice might entail a loss for some (ie the rich, even the middle class). So, libertarian freedom’ s good for the …rich, and even the middle class–not great for the poor. And for that matter, anti-democratic in the sense that the majority is always right (do people vote on the Constitution? nyet). So most ‘Mericans tend to be libertarian to some degree. For that matter, why is anyone obligated to be democratic (instead of libertarian, or machiavellian, etc)? The usual CT petitio principii

Nietzsche’s a libertarian in a sense–the bad-guy, feudal sense–seize your property, establish laws to keep it yours . Then, seize mo’

125

j r 04.16.10 at 1:34 pm

@bloix,

You would think in considering these things, we would have got beyond the creation myths of Hobbes and Locke, but apparently not.

the creation myths of hobbes and locke are firmly grounded in the recognition of humans as social animals. and the “libertarian project” is to create a liberal democracy, where that term is used to make a disctinction from a social democracy. some may prefer social democracy and that is fine, but please don’t try to make the desire for liberal democracy into some sort of pathological misunderstanding of the human condition.

126

rea 04.16.10 at 1:53 pm

you could have private police, courts, and laws.

. . . and private wars, when the private police courts and laws did not agree.

127

JK 04.16.10 at 1:54 pm

#120 and on your bit about ‘a quite stylized history of the UK’, I actually think it true that there are at least a few libertarians who really do think that the whole history of feudalism and after really was as voluntary and non-coercive as that.

Which I find mindboggling.

128

JoB 04.16.10 at 2:08 pm

124- Only we wouldn’t call them wars. We would call them disagreements that need to be settled by force.

129

T Man 04.16.10 at 2:14 pm

You clearly missed Virginia Postrel’s essay “An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head”, your post would’ve been so much better. You should still read it though
http://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/03/18/virginia-postrel/an-18th-century-brain-in-a-21st-century-head/

130

Mike Furlan 04.16.10 at 2:16 pm

Both the founding fathers and the common folk were more or less self-sufficient in provision and protection.

Imperial armies protected the colonies during the French and Indian wars. Resistance to paying for that protection is, as we know, claimed to be a reason for the Revolution. A Revolution that would not have succeeded had not the French Empire aided it to such an extent that the French were bankrupt.

The slave plantaions were individually helpless against slave insurections, and required vigilant slave patrols to survive.

And both the founding fathers and the common folk depended upon a world trading network for anything beyond mere subsistence.

The infantile “I did all myself” was never true.

131

Scott Martens 04.16.10 at 2:17 pm

Chris #122, I’ve read a bit of Cohen on the subject and I still don’t see a coherent notion of ownership that isn’t a social relationship, nor how you can have a social relationship with yourself unless suffering from a fairly serious mental disturbance. If self-ownership is reduced to the social relation under which I have unlimited power to deny others the right to take my organs, I suppose it’s coherent, but Nozick’s self-ownership is a rather more expansive thesis than that. It says that I own myself in the same manner that I can own a car, with the right to dispose of myself and all that I identify with myself in whatever manner I see fit. But if so, then why can’t a car own itself? If you allow self-ownership to mean the same thing as owning a car, then admit the possibility that people can regain ownership of themselves, then you’re stuck with having to grant some kind of essentialist quality to people.

I assume that Nozick would deny that cars can own themselves, since IIRC, Nozick took for granted that every scarce thing was owned by someone.

Not being based on a thesis of self-ownership, real slavery never confronted that kind of philosophical problem. Cohen seems to me to just brush that away by assuming that the slave-owner relationship is philosophically unproblematic, but it becomes problematic in the context of Nozick’s principles.

132

chris 04.16.10 at 2:17 pm

The government usually had a monopoly on deadly force, and the Jewish community leaders could call it in if necessary—but they would go to great lengths not to.

Sure, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t involved in the dispute resolution. The fact that all parties were aware that if other means failed, the state *could* be called in, made it shape the discussion even without taking action.

“Make a deal, because otherwise we’ll have to call in the state” is not that different from “Make a deal, because otherwise we’ll have to fight”. One part violence, nine parts explicit threats of violence, ninety parts implicit awareness that violence could result if some other solution is not found.

Overall I think you are applying a more “heavyweight” definition of “state” than is appropriate to this type of discussion — in particular, apparently implying that e.g. hunter-gatherer tribes don’t have “states”. Sure they do — albeit small ones.

133

jdkbrown 04.16.10 at 2:33 pm

“To say that someone owns themselves is just to say that the ownership relation can be reflexive – it doesn’t commit anyone to a mysterious inner entity (any more than ordinary ownership relations do).”

Well, you need an account of *how* it can be refelxive–just saying it is so needn’t dispel all mystery. Compare: Oh, I’m just saying that being-taller-than is reflexive; I’m just saying that being-a-parent-of is reflexive; etc.

134

Steve LaBonne 04.16.10 at 2:46 pm

The infantile “I did all myself” was never true.

And a society in which this in fact reasonably close to being true- but inevitably, given the lack of public order, for only a few- consists of a poor, ignorant, degraded populace comprising almost all of the population, lorded over by a small elite of warlords and their retainers. That is, Western Europe in the Dark Ages or Somalia today. That is what Actually Existing [right-]Libertarianism, or Propertarianism, really looks like. It bears as much resemblance to liberal democracy as a dog turd does to paté de foie gras.

135

Chris Bertram 04.16.10 at 3:06 pm

Scott @128.

Well of course self-ownership is a social relationship (or implies one) since if I own myself then the rights that I have over myself imply duties that you have (etc. etc.).

The fact that I am the kind of entity that could own itself (unlike a car) doesn’t establish whether or not I do own myself. I might not, if I am a chattel slave. Or someone might want to argue for the moral truth of universal self-ownership such that all entities that could own themselves do own themselves.

I happen to think that the Steiner argument that I mention above is probably right, so that selling yourself into chattel slavery is (contra some libertarians) not possible. But that argument doesn’t address the “essentialism” point.

The “essentialism” argument would, if correct, afflict not just self-ownership but ownership in general, since, presumably, the idea of a _person_ whether as the subject or the object of an ownership relation (or both) is just as problematic in all cases.

136

Stuart 04.16.10 at 3:14 pm

Isn’t the tendency for (some) libertarians to gloss over the negatives of historical periods and concentrate on the positives related to one of their underlying axioms – that bigger government is a bad thing which reduces liberty (or the more nuanced version, almost always a bad thing). This implies that in the past – when governments couldn’t possibly get away with levying the sort of levels of tax they can get away with today without starving almost the entire population, and therefore by necessity had to be much smaller than most of today’s governments – liberty should be much higher than it is today.

137

steve phipps 04.16.10 at 3:22 pm

There’s a cartoon in the April 19 edition of the New Yorker that says alot about this subject.

138

Chris Bertram 04.16.10 at 3:30 pm

_Well, you need an account of how it can be refelxive—just saying it is so needn’t dispel all mystery. Compare: Oh, I’m just saying that being-taller-than is reflexive; I’m just saying that being-a-parent-of is reflexive; etc._

If I thought there was a mystery, I might need to dispel it. The burden of argument is on _you_ jdkbrown .

Here’s Cohen on the subject:

“Persons and their powers can be controlled, among others by themselves, and there is surely always an answer to the question, with respect to anything that can be controlled, who has the right to control it? – even if that answer is no-one. The thesis of self-ownership says that the answer to all such questions about persons and their powers is: the person herself. Why should that answer be judged incoherent?” ….

“We do not say that a person owns some deeply inner thing when we say he owns himself. To say that A enjoys self-ownership is just to say that A owns A: ‘self’ here signifies a reflexive relation. I see nothing in the concept of ownership which (like fatherhood) excludes a reflexive instance of it. Anyone who purports to see in the concept something that excludes its reflective use must say what it is.” (S-O, F &E p. 210-11)

139

Harald Korneliussen 04.16.10 at 4:13 pm

chris: I often see this sentiment, that although issues were resolved peacefully, the real reason for it was the clubs/guns/nukes in the back room. But I want you to consider: If you for instance lend someone money, there are many things compelling the person you lent them to to return them as agreed upon.

In first rank, we could put his sense of justice and reciprocity, purely internal motivation.
In the second rank, put society’s non-coercive efforts at ensuring compliance (what CharleyCarp dismissively called “shunning”. It’s a lot wider than that, as anyone who has been married should know).
In the third rank, put violence. The state, their feudal representatives, or whatever forms that dodge the state’s supposed monopoly on it (spanking, whatever).

If you had to live in a society that lacked one of these three, which would you choose?

I’d say you were a madman to not choose the third. Just because violence is the final resort, doesn’t mean it’s the most important.

140

Perezoso 04.16.10 at 4:40 pm

is there any good reason on Nozick’s view why I may not walk off with Bill Gates’ wallet given the opportunity, even if his view of ownership is entirely correct?

Heck no. That’s what’s so cool about Nozickian style libertarianism–“don’t get caught”, and “if it feels good, do it being” or “just win, baybe” are the controlling maxims. Rather superior to the liberal crypto-marxist mommy state.

141

Stuart 04.16.10 at 4:41 pm

If you had to live in a society that lacked one of these three, which would you choose?

I’d say you were a madman to not choose the third. Just because violence is the final resort, doesn’t mean it’s the most important.

Except it is the most important – even if ideally it is never used – otherwise you end with a society in which those that are willing to break its rules, and don’t care about justice or reciprocity, and which aren’t deterred by being shunned or other non-coercive methods of controlling them, are left unchecked. It hardly seems the act of a madman not to want to live in a society that lets thieves and murderers wander around, and considers shunning and non-coercive punishments suitable punishment for their crimes. I would consider either of the first two are much more amenable to being sacrificed (my first choice would probably be the second one) – they would both lead to a much worse society, of course, but not as bad as dropping the last one.

142

jdkbrown 04.16.10 at 4:47 pm

“The burden of argument is on you jdkbrown”

Well, I wasn’t arguing that ownership *couldn’t* be reflexive, just pointing out that *asserting* that it is isn’t much of a response to those who find the notion of self-ownership problematic.

I haven’t read Cohen, don’t work in political philosophy, and don’t have any considered view on the issue. I’m perfectly happy to believe that Cohen has a much more developed response; and, on the evidence of the quotes you provided, it looks like he does. But I’d point out that exactly what Scott and Bloix (at comment 38) are doing is saying that they find self-ownership mysterious and attempting to meet Cohen’s challenge of explaining why.

143

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.16.10 at 5:00 pm

Except it [violence] is the most important – even if ideally it is never used – otherwise you end with a society in which those that are willing to break its rules, and don’t care about justice or reciprocity, and which aren’t deterred by being shunned or other non-coercive methods of controlling them, are left unchecked.

Unfortunately with the third model what you often (always?) get is a society in which those who are willing to break the rules become the enforcers.

144

roac 04.16.10 at 5:08 pm

No. 135 assumes, without demonstrating, that a society could be created in which not only actual violence, but the threat of violence, no longer exists.

I would love to see either an actual historical example, or a convincing, step-by-step, workable program for getting there from where we are now. Until I see one, I prefer to live under a state with a theoretical and practical commitment to the suppression of private violence, because otherwise I think you inevitably get endless cycle of ambushes and retaliatory midnight house-burnings, as seen in the Icelandic family sagas. (I gather that there is some guy out there who argues that blood feuds are preferable to progressive taxation. I don’t have to read what he says to know that I disagree.)

145

Chris Bertram 04.16.10 at 5:34 pm

@137. Sorry if I was a bit snarky. I too find self-ownership problematic, but just not for the reasons that Scott and Bloix do. That is, I don’t think it nonsensical, but just wrong as an account of the moral relationships.

146

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.16.10 at 6:15 pm

I would love to see either an actual historical example, or a convincing, step-by-step, workable program for getting there from where we are now.

1. Spread the rumor about an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural being that will punish you for breaking rules (and even the thoughts about breaking rules) in the afterlife.
2. Make everybody really-really believe it.
3. Perfect society!

147

chris 04.16.10 at 6:24 pm

@136: If you had to live in a society that lacked one of these three, which would you choose?

Some people *already* lack the first set of restraints, so any society that functions has to function in spite of the fact that some people in it aren’t restrained by the first set. Therefore we could probably do without it entirely, if we had to, although it wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant.

I also think the second and third sets are less distinct than you seem to think. But maybe that’s just because I come from a species where social hostility frequently erupts into violence.

Also, spanking doesn’t “dodge” the state’s monopoly on violence. Aside from people who do it voluntarily for, uh, recreational purposes, it either occurs in the context of a state-sanctioned relationship in which some of the state’s powers are effectively delegated to an authority figure (e.g. parent), or it is assault and prosecutable as such. The state stands behind a parent just as much as it stood behind an 1880s husband (if not more so).

@135: Persons and their powers can be controlled, among others by themselves, and there is surely always an answer to the question, with respect to anything that can be controlled, who has the right to control it? – even if that answer is no-one. The thesis of self-ownership says that the answer to all such questions about persons and their powers is: the person herself. Why should that answer be judged incoherent?

Well, because it leaves many of the interesting parts of the discussion up to the undefined terms like “person”, “control”, and perhaps most importantly, “right”.

Also, if it’s taken at face value that no one has a right to control other persons, isn’t that total anarchy? If property ownership comes with the obligation not to use your property in a way that damages others, does self-ownership do likewise? And if so, isn’t the real work of the system being done by that set of limitations rather than the supposedly core principle?

148

mds 04.16.10 at 6:25 pm

Some of us, for example, simply believe that the available justifications for the legitimacy of state force don’t hold water, and that mass force, being in general a bad thing, requires serious justification, so a decent person should not countenance the methods of the state; while market interactions have good moral justifications for their legitimacy, and are in general good things.

[Emphasis added]

I am interested in the fundamental axioms that so inevitably provide such good moral justification for the latter, while deploring the coercion of the former. Especially if one is a capitalist rather than a free market anti-capitalist (i.e., mutualist), which is predominantly the case in modern libertarianism.

A localist society bounded by those same Enlightenment norms is likely to be far less repressive than one in, say, 850 A.D.

Indeed. For example, before it exerted control over Italy, it was absolutely marvelous to live in the early Roman Republic, inspiration for so many Enlightenment values. At least, as long as one was sufficiently close to the top of the class pyramid. Same with the former colonies under the Articles of Confederation.

149

chris 04.16.10 at 6:26 pm

@142: Step 2 is a doozy. How do you get *everyone* (and even a few exceptions will really ruin your day) to believe a threat which is *never* observably carried out?

150

Salient 04.16.10 at 6:30 pm

How do you get everyone (and even a few exceptions will really ruin your day) to believe a threat which is never observably carried out?

You find a fall guy to take one for the team, in a spectacular fashion?

151

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.16.10 at 6:41 pm

How do you get everyone (and even a few exceptions will really ruin your day) to believe a threat which is never observably carried out?

You get them while they are young.

And why would a few exceptions ruin my day? I still have shunning and expulsion in my arsenal.

152

Sebastian 04.16.10 at 6:53 pm

Scientoligists?

153

Rich Puchalsky 04.16.10 at 7:47 pm

I’ll give my oft-repeated summation from years of reading (OK, and laughing at) libertarian argument. Namely, that the only way to have an intellectually respectable libertarianism is to, in fact, have some variety of anarchism. There just isn’t any good way to distinguish the state force that libertarians support (keeping poor people from sleeping under privately owned bridges) from the state force that they don’t support (having rich people pay taxes on privately owned bridges).

And once it’s reduced to anarchism, some other really important problems come to the fore. Like, for instance, all of the classic problems with anarchism. But in addition and over those, the whole libertarian presumption that coercion equals state coercion, and that no other kind of coercion really exists or anyways is worth bothering about, falls apart too, as people start to ask whether they are really going to be any more free — in the ordinary sense of “free” — in libertopia.

154

Substance McGravitas 04.16.10 at 8:15 pm

It’d be interesting for libertarians of various stripes to develop a country ranking from most to least libertarian. Would there be population inflow or outflow from the most “free” countries?

155

roac 04.16.10 at 8:30 pm

I haven’t tried to follow the distinction between “thick” and “thin” libertarians, and maybe I wouldn’t get it if I tried. The distinction I draw is between Naive Libertarians (“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along by exercising our mutually understood rational self-interest?”) and Evil Libertarians (“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get rid of the artificial restraints that keep me from using my intelligence/strength of will/money/facility with the use of weapons to make other people do what I want?”) Is a headcount possible, do you think?

156

Doctor Science 04.16.10 at 8:55 pm

CharleyCarp:

A community that can impose fines, order expulsion or, when it really thinks it needs to, violent force, is “the state.”

Overall I think you are applying a more “heavyweight” definition of “state” than is appropriate to this type of discussion—in particular, apparently implying that e.g. hunter-gatherer tribes don’t have “states”. Sure they do—albeit small ones.

No, they don’t. You are failing to distinguish between a “society” and a “state”. I’m not necessarily committed to a Weberian definition, but there’s a kind of size and exclusivity to a “state” that makes it different from just a “society”. Note that Weber’s definition excludes societies with e.g. blood feuds from being “states”, because there’s too much sanctioned violence outside the government apparatus — such as it is.

157

Jeff R. 04.16.10 at 9:41 pm

It’s discussions like these that make one realize just how lonely a branch one appears to be sitting on…I had no idea how few in the libertarian camp added ‘inalienable’ to the axiom of self-ownership. (And when you compound that with a view that there’s no relevant first-principles theory of ownership of anything other than selves, apart from some forms of intellectual property, in a world where every scrap of land[excluding worthless bits like Antarctica] has been seized or stolen thousands of times between now and any supposed person able to have made an initial claim on it and eventually have to throw up one’s hands an leave that determination in the hands of a sufficiently legitimate government, I doubt I have much company at all…)

158

James Kroeger 04.16.10 at 10:21 pm

Unlike others, I believe the weakest chain in the Libertarian argument is its reliance on a conceptualization of “property rights” that has little to do with reality.

Libertarians typically speak of property rights as if they are actual things that an individual can keep in her possession, that “no one can take from her.” In truth, a right is nothing more, and nothing less, than a moral obligation directed at others that enjoins those others to behave in a particular way with respect to the person/group that has been granted the right. Clearly, it is not possible for an individual to ‘possess’ the moral obligations that are felt by others.

A truly moral right can never exist in defiance of the general will. It can only ever exist in reality IF society—in its collective wisdom—wants the right to be granted. Now it is true that any individual or group can claim to have a right—(i.e., can claim that others have a moral obligation to treat the group/individual in a particular way)—but simply stating that claim does not cause the right exist. When can society be counted on to agree that a right should be bestowed on a certain group of people?

Answer: Whenever the behavior ‘recommended by the right’ is moral. What makes an action [or failure to act] moral? A simple test can be used to find out: If everyone would benefit if everyone acted in the same way, then the act—-or decision to not act—-is moral. If everyone would be worse off if everyone were to act the same way, then the act/choice is immoral.

Libertarians like to proclaim that property rights are or ‘inalienable’ or sacred, but nothing of the sort is true. The granting of certain rights to property owners is simply a good idea, one that everyone in society benefits from, so long as no other moral considerations are trampled on. If the behavior of some property owners/acquirers would make everyone worse off if everyone were to act in the same way, then it is simply rational for a community to withdraw the ‘right’ that it has granted the property owners/acquirers to do with their property as they please.

No property right exists without the consent of the collective. If Libertarians properly understood this fact, they would no longer be Libertarians.

159

Graham Shevlin 04.17.10 at 12:11 am

The biggest challenge that I have with libertarianism in the USA right now is that a lot of self-identified libertarians, IHMO, are nothing of the sort. They are authoritarians sailing under a flag of convenience, wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are in favour of big government as long as it is their kind of big government, and in favour of small government when the government is spending money on things of which they disapprove.
I actually had a diehard GOP supporter describe himself to me a few years ago as a libertarian. However, when I asked his opinion of the War On Some Drugs, he opined that it was good and necessary…that is the sort of inconsistent pseudo-statist nonsense that I read all of the time from many self-identified libertarians. That, plus a slogan-heavy, rhetorical reliance on ad hominems about “leftists”, “socialists” yada yada. IOW, not libertarianism as I understand it.

160

DN 04.17.10 at 12:39 am

“No, they don’t. You are failing to distinguish between a “society” and a “state”. I’m not necessarily committed to a Weberian definition, but there’s a kind of size and exclusivity to a “state” that makes it different from just a “society”. Note that Weber’s definition excludes societies with e.g. blood feuds from being “states”, because there’s too much sanctioned violence outside the government apparatus—such as it is.”

The “stateless” character (if we think that’s a correct description) of small hunter-gather groups isn’t a function of “too much sanctioned violence outside of the government apparatus,” but they don’t produce surpluses that enable a subset of their members to specialize in extracting rents.

But as earlier commentators have pointed out, this is a bit of a red herring, as real libertarians shouldn’t be concerned with state coercion per se, but with coercion in general, as any coercive force deprives an individual of (negative) liberty.

Minimal-state advocates wager that the optimal balance involves alienating the right to adjudicate and enforce property claims to the state, whether through internal enforcement of property rights or external defense of the (political) contracting community.

I’ve never been terribly persuaded by this argument, as either (1) you wind up having to define private acts of coercion as illegitimate because they deprive people of their “property right” to “themselves,” which leads you quickly into states that spend a lot of time regulating social and economic interactions or (2) wind up tolerating such a wide range of private coercion that the sum total of liberty looks pretty blech, i.e., claims that women in the 19th century were more free because they didn’t have to pay income taxes to the Federal Government.

So, as #153 (among others) have pointed out, that pretty much leaves you with anarchism and all its attendant problems.

161

DN 04.17.10 at 12:43 am

#159: yes, exactly. “Libertarianism” is usually instrumental, not substantive.

162

foolish commentary from afar 04.17.10 at 2:39 am

There’s a lot of print here, apologies if this has been covered, but it would seem you don’t need any kind of formal contract with others to choose to be a slave. Perhaps, you chose for legal recognition, you’re choosing for recognition, by others, of something the Law refutes, hence you’re citing that you really don’t want to be a slave because you’re demanding of others.

Abstract Law theory, The Demand Refutes the Request.

163

foolish commentary from afar 04.17.10 at 4:22 am

*note, i’m not a libertarian. am going now, bye.

164

Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 5:21 am

I’m sorry, but this posting is a complete waste of time. It keeps running aground on one shoal or another. If you don’t own yourself, then you have no right to life, and whomever owns you can kill you at will. Clearly that is not a workable society. Okay, so this posting was just a thought experiment, but as soon as you run into this impossiblity, then you give up, because all the thoughts that it will generate have no relationship to reality.

I think you’re trying to over-simplify libertarianism, by taking one idea, and saying “Okay, what if libertarianism was totally crap except for this one idea. Let’s prove that One-Idea Libertarianism can’t work, and thus no libertarianism can work.” It’s just … it’s just stupid. And pointless. And frustrating, because you think you’re thinking good thought, but you’re just wanking. Wank away, if you want, but don’t expect your ideas to bear any fruit, having just spilled your fruit.

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 5:27 am

Graham, libertarianism, like liberal before it, is an attractive label. People want to be libertarians, just as they wanted to be liberals, and now are. Trouble is that the definitions of words change over time (which is why you have trademarks). So, where once upon a time a libertarian was against aggression, now you have leftist libertarians, and conservative libertarians, all of whom are against aggression unless it’s necessary to coerce out a result THEY consider favorable. Pretty soon, “libertarian” won’t have any meaning at all, and we-who-tolerate-anything-peaceful will have to come up with another word to describe ourselves.

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 5:42 am

James, please don’t say “No property right exists without the consent of the collective” and think that that is sufficient to prove that libertarianism doesn’t exist. I own my property because I have a gun and if you trespass on it or try to take it, I’m going to kill you. That should be pretty simple to understand.

The rest of the complications of property ownership derive from the fact that 1) people don’t want to be killed, 2) people don’t want to kill, and 3) people don’t want to have to defend their property 24×7. For example, there’s a registry of who owns what property, and nearly all the time, that works perfectly fine for property ownership. Sometimes, not, though, so there are laws about trespass. These laws emerged from the three principles listed above. And there’s attractive nuisance, hidden deadly hazard, squatter’s rights, etc, etc, complications and cooperation abound.

All of that comes from me offering violence to people who don’t respect my property, not any collective decision about property.

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 5:50 am

roac: Think of the Icelandic Sagas as newspaper accounts. Then look at the dates, and who’s killing whom. Suddenly something that used to look like ripe fare for an action movie becomes a few days of violence spread out over several lifetimes, and not many people’s lives. Then you realize how peaceful Iceland actually was. Or maybe this response was in vain and you don’t.

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 6:04 am

JLR: you presume, without evidence, that serfdom and feudalism is a permanent condition. It isn’t. Look at the history of the last 500 years. People who were formerly serfs slowly gained their freedom. Suggestion: _A History of Wealth and Poverty_, by John Powelson. It’s online now, so you don’t have to buy it.

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 6:13 am

LFC @86: industrialism didn’t cause poverty. poverty is the natural condition of mankind. freedom and property are what elevate people from poverty, and when they’re removed, poverty returns.

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David Moles 04.17.10 at 6:19 am

Chris Bertram @145: If I can sell myself, why can’t I also sell my right to self-ownership? Or, say, some sort of option on my eventual manumission that amounts to the same thing. Maybe I can even sell them separately. (“Sorry, the body’s already sold, but I can give you a good deal on a homunculus and some doll furniture…”)

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 6:26 am

Doctor Science @99: ahhh, strawmen, they’re so easy and rewarding to beat up (you get all that straw flying everywhere), and they never fight back. I refer, of course, to your ridiculous “libertarians don’t believe humans are social animals”. It’s much more truthful and accurate to say “libertarians don’t believe humans have to be forced to be social animals.” But if you prefer your fantasies, far be it for me to bring light into your life.

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Russell Nelson 04.17.10 at 6:37 am

rea @126: you presume that war is profitable, but you don’t show that. Therefore it’s improper to conclude that private police, laws, and courts inevitably lead to private wars, just as private bananas don’t inevitably lead to private bicycles either.

Apparently, here, red is green, and yellow white.

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Chris Bertram 04.17.10 at 7:32 am

@168 Well it would be a necessary condition of selling yourself, that you are (anyone is), actually, a self-owner. Since I don’t think that you are, in the sense libertarians believe, then the problem doesn’t arise for me. But the point you’re appearing to miss is that (according to me, and merely following Jerry Cohen here) the concept of self-ownership isn’t incoherent or nonsensical or dependent on nutty ideas about homunculi. Its just that no-one actually has the full rights of self-ownership that libertarians believe people have.

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alex 04.17.10 at 7:35 am

Dear Russell, are you mad or just stupid? “I own my property because I have a gun”? Really, seriously, that’s your argument? Because in that case, I have a bigger gun and a telescopic sight, and when I blow you out of your shoes one sunny morning, I’ll own your property, won’t I?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.17.10 at 8:01 am

@164 All of that comes from me offering violence to people who don’t respect my property, not any collective decision about property.

But how do you and others know what “your property” is? How do you decide to kill for this particular item and not for another one? What if you and a whole bunch of other people pick the same item to call “my property”?

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James Kroeger 04.17.10 at 10:02 am

Russell Nelson 164:

James, please don’t say “No property right exists without the consent of the collective” and think that that is sufficient to prove that libertarianism doesn’t exist. I own my property because I have a gun and if you trespass on it or try to take it, I’m going to kill you. That should be pretty simple to understand.

If simplicity is what you understand best, then you’ll want to note the difference between having the [moral] right to ‘own’ property and the might to ‘own’ property.

Others have pointed out how ridiculous it is to argue that having the might to possess property gives you the right to possess it. In civilized societies, possessing a recognized [moral] right to own property means that you won’t need a gun to hold onto it, because everyone (who is sensible) will respect your claim to possession.

We civilized types think that’s a really good idea.

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Dan 04.17.10 at 10:12 am

Chris Bertram,

Its just that no-one actually has the full rights of self-ownership that libertarians believe people have.

Who does own me, then, if not myself? Although Jerry Cohen denies self-ownership, he never (as far as I can tell) explicitly tells us what the “proper” structure of ownership of people over other people really is. Seeing as you’re here endorsing his critique I’d be very interested to see what you think the answer is. Of course I fully realize that ownership can be analytically separated into different incidents, but that just raises the question of with whom those incidents lie.

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Chris Bertram 04.17.10 at 10:43 am

_Who does own me, then, if not myself?_

Well the simple answer to that would involve saying that sometimes or in some respects others (beside yourself) have the right to control your person and powers for the common benefit, where their having that right is not a consequence of you having voluntarily transferred it to them. So if there are enforceable positive duties, or associative obligations etc. then you could think of those as negating full self-ownership. As to who holds those rights that might vary: humanity, the community, the family, the state, would all, depending on the exact issue be possible part-owners of you (have an ownership interest in you), with that ownership exercised (on a trustee model) by, say, the state.

States who conscript soldiers to fight in a just war, to give one example, are asserting and exercising rights of control of the persons and powers of those soldiers.

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jdw 04.17.10 at 11:55 am

sometimes or in some respects…your person and powers

ESTRAGON:
Perhaps he could dance first and think afterwards, if it isn’t too much to ask him.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.17.10 at 12:40 pm

Well, now that the thread has attracted an earnest libertarian, it will last forever.

But note the “I have property because I have a gun and will shoot people!” example, because it is so illustrative. All of libertarianism apparently depends on the existence on guns, not as metaphors for force, but as actual types of weapons. Let’s say that Russell Nelson had to make the same claim but only had a metaphorical bow and arrows. Then the answer would be something like “WTF? The neighbors would surround your house, crazy bow man, and if you really shot somebody without social sanction then his family and friends would burn you out.” The only way in which he can make his property defense somehow an individual action and not something that implicitly depends on community mores is with the totemic properties of a gun as a magically viewed device that lets individuals impose force on anyone who comes near them.

But, of course, guns really aren’t that kind of device. The neighbors have guns too. Russell’s example shows all the foresight and analytical follow-through of the people who hole up in some fortified compound with a pile of weapons and dare the Feds to do anything about it.

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Ceri B. 04.17.10 at 12:51 pm

Double-dip agreement with little hearts about Rich’s point about “analytical follow-through”. The standard propertarian “I’ll just shoot you” thing assumes a society in which there will never be more follow-up than about this: Did you shoot him? Yes. Was he on your property, and informed of it? Yes. Then you’re fine. The idea that a society built around procedural claims could end up with a lengthy, expensive, and uncomfortable process through which to establish the validity of one’s act of killing another never seems to occur to them. Ditto for possibilities like the libertopian equivalent of insurance companies settling on a standard wergild that’s too high for middle-class would-be violent defenders of property to afford.

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Current 04.17.10 at 1:24 pm

As Will Wilkinson and others have shown libertarians have discussed this quite a lot.

The Libertarian leaning economist Glen Whitman is one of the writers on the TV series “Fringe”. One of his episodes “On Human Action” can be seen as a bit of discussion on these problems.

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Barry 04.17.10 at 1:46 pm

“Ditto for possibilities like the libertopian equivalent of insurance companies settling on a standard wergild that’s too high for middle-class would-be violent defenders of property to afford.”

Or MegaJusticeCorp simply executing the killer, on the grounds that he killed one of their clients, and that they are not satisfied with the killer’s explanation. The killer had his own ‘defensive force agency’, but microjusticellp just doesn’t carry much clout vs MegaJusticeCorp.

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Ceri B. 04.17.10 at 1:56 pm

Current, I’m not talking about what analytically inclined libertarians have discussed – I’m talking about what J. Libertarian In The Street seems to keep ending up saying.

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DN 04.17.10 at 2:21 pm

“Think of the Icelandic Sagas as newspaper accounts”

Sure, but then people would think I was an idiot.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.17.10 at 3:11 pm

Thanks, Ceri B. But I should emphasize that it’s not only about contemporary procedural issues. Russell Nelson offers a defining account of what property is that depends on him individually defending it. But his account implicitly relies on a gun as a sort of individualist magical totem that waves away the fact that property is whatever his community says it is. If they decide that his idea of what is his property isn’t right, the gun isn’t going to save him. That’s true in any society, whether it’s a hunter-gather tribe or a medieval village or a modern city.

And once you accept that the definition of property is not “what I defend” but rather “what the community decides is property”, there’s just no particular reason to accept the libertarian’s desire that everyone play by his rules. Sure, he can argue for them. But he’s really arguing for an exceptionally stupid sort of property rules that reduces the freedom of everyone in a contemporary society, and most people can see that.

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The Fool 04.17.10 at 3:18 pm

Kris Kristofferson summed up the propertarian position quite well when he wrote:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Kristofferson also made an incisive (and decisive) critique of that position when he wrote the next line:

And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free

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BillCinSD 04.17.10 at 3:41 pm

Isn’t the idea that property rights not depending on the collective will being disproved by shooting one person a bit like the old martial arts movies where the hero is surrounded but wins because the attackers don’t coordinate their attacks.

So can one shoot a hundred people or a thousand before they can disarm you? Only if they attack one at a time like true libertarians.

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Sebastian 04.17.10 at 3:51 pm

“Well the simple answer to that would involve saying that sometimes or in some respects others (beside yourself) have the right to control your person and powers for the common benefit, where their having that right is not a consequence of you having voluntarily transferred it to them. So if there are enforceable positive duties, or associative obligations etc. then you could think of those as negating full self-ownership.”

Are we going to be letting pro-lifers use this argument in the abortion context? Or is it only reserved for bashing libertarians?

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rageahol 04.17.10 at 3:59 pm

I’ve never heard a libertarian use the word “usufruct.”

funny, that.

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Substance McGravitas 04.17.10 at 4:00 pm

Are we going to be letting pro-lifers use this argument in the abortion context?

Sure. If they can prove that the non-person nobody’s ever seen is good for the community they can get right to it.

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Sebastian 04.17.10 at 4:59 pm

They’ve gotten plenty of traction with unborn babies for years. So much so that a majority of the population of the US thinks that abortions should be much less frequently allowed than they are. And Chris’ argument plays perfectly into it. Don’t own ourselves? Check. Others having the right to control your person for the common good? Check. State exercising power to protect those who can’t protect themselves? Check.

Or, on the flip side, you can see that almost all of the pro-choice rhetoric is grounded in the libertarian arguments you are making fun of here. You have to parse VERY fine lines to get a pro-choice argument that doesn’t essentially boil down to “it is my body, I have ownership of it”. Which I am certain sounds very convincing to most people here in the abortion context.

Most of the libertarians on the thread, and elsewhere, seem to be arguing that it doesn’t make sense to ‘experimentally’ drop the self-ownership assumption when trying to talk about libertarianism. (See me at 46 for example).

But if it does make sense, it makes just as much sense to analyze pro-choice rhetoric while ‘experimentally’ dropping the self-ownership assumption. And well pro-choice rhetoric looks awfully silly once you drop the self-ownership assumption. Right?

So hilarity ensues! Because those pro-choice people sure are stupid. Right?

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LFC 04.17.10 at 5:09 pm

R. Nelson @167:
LFC @86: industrialism didn’t cause poverty.

I didn’t say that industrialism “caused” poverty where there was none before. What I said (or clearly implied) was that the early phases of industrialism created quite miserable conditions in cities, which doctrinaire advocates of laissez-faire believed were inevitable and unameliorable (to use a clumsy word), or alternatively that any actions to alleviate those conditions, such as for example child labor laws or the 8-hour-a-day law, would just make everything worse by interfering with the “magic” of the market. (I also said some other things, but I’ll leave it at that.)

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Chris Bertram 04.17.10 at 5:45 pm

Well quite right Sebastian. A lot of pro-choice rhetoric does indeed appear to endorse self-ownership (as some socialist rhetoric did). But it doesn’t follow from the rejection of (full) self-ownership that others have the right to prevent a woman from having an abortion. The extent of the rights that others have over my person and powers is a matter for further elaboration and justification in the light of a whole range of issues, including (this is not supposed to be a comprehensive list) a person’s interest in autonomy, in their own plans and projects, justice, the positive duty to assist others in need, associative duties to family and country (if there are any) etc.

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bianca steele 04.17.10 at 5:51 pm

It’s interesting how quickly the discussion turned from property to the right to use force.

Chris B. @ 175 :

Under some circumstances, the emphasis on self-ownership seems to deny full citizenship to anyone who cannot claim total mental, economic, and even emotional independence of all other persons. This is a “bourgeois” rather than a “left” view, however, and surely Cohen does not endorse it?

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bianca steele 04.17.10 at 5:53 pm

And also, though in a way libertarian, absolutely not feudal (because based on the liberties won by the urban merchant middle classes specifically against the feudal order).

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Chris Bertram 04.17.10 at 5:55 pm

Perhaps you’d care to explain that point Bianca, because I’ve no idea what you mean.

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Jim Harrison 04.17.10 at 5:57 pm

What these arguments demonstrate, if nothing else, is that the desire to reduce moral and political issues to universal rules and simple concepts invariably produces nonsense. As a rule of thumb, for example, there may be nothing wrong with the precept that I have a right to control my own person; but taken to extremes, individualism runs up again the obvious fact that we’re social animals and that absent community personhood doesn’t mean anything and practical personal autonomy is impossible. There are other values besides personal liberty. Making selfishness a metaphysical principle is humanly unwise and theoretically incoherent.

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bianca steele 04.17.10 at 6:12 pm

Chris:

I mean the idea that there is a class of people–usually financially comfortable, liberally educated, mostly white adult men–who are considered fully human in a sense that theoretically can be denied to others. They don’t have to work for another in order to earn a living. They don’t have to please another in order to be happy or to fulfill their projects. They are fully capable of what is considered friendship in the true sense because they are independent and have no pathological emotional needs. People who work for wages, thus, are definitionally excluded from the set of people considered capable of personal liberty. Women are definitionally excluded. They are not fully human, under the theory, to the extent that others appear to own them in whole or in part.

The modern version seems to be that people who’ve made enough money in business can set up themselves or their sons and grandsons in this kind of life, in which they can be insulated from the demands of the (female) social world, the (crass) commercial world, and the (superstitious, oppressive) religious world.

I disagree with this strongly myself. I prefer a more realistic version, which I realize could fairly be denigrated as petty bourgeois.

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ScentOfViolets 04.17.10 at 6:16 pm

What these arguments demonstrate, if nothing else, is that the desire to reduce moral and political issues to universal rules and simple concepts invariably produces nonsense.

That’s exactly right. I’d have to say that all of my rules of conduct are situational, of the rule-of-thumb sort, and subject to revision at any time. That might be some people’s cup of tea . . . but that’s life.

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bianca steele 04.17.10 at 6:33 pm

Looking again at the OP’s quotes from Freeman, I suppose the theory fails if institutions develop among the free bourgeois white males. It becomes a form of feudalism again. Interesting.

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engels 04.17.10 at 7:17 pm

Of course moral rules are never universal and always have exceptions. I usually make one for myself.

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harold 04.17.10 at 7:30 pm

I am surprised nobody mentioned Herbert Spencer.

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Gareth Rees 04.17.10 at 7:47 pm

If you don’t own yourself, then you have no right to life

I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a statement.

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harold 04.17.10 at 8:08 pm

Locke was the first political theorist to maintain a natural right to property existing before the establishment of government. All the previous ones and most since have held that government is necessary before property rights can be asserted and that therefore property is a secondary and not an inalienable right. My sense is that Locke was wrong and the others are right. Only a social compact can ensure a right to property.

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MQ 04.17.10 at 9:03 pm

Holbo’s writing drives me crazy because it’s so self-indulgent and cutesy. He lets himself go on for thousands of words and his (often interesting) point is just snowed under. So far as I can tell there’s a pretty straightforward argument here, and I wish it had been made more clearly. I mean, isn’t this just a form of the conflict between utilitarian / consequentialist and deontological ethics, which appears in lots and lots of different political theories (including liberalism)? Or maybe not, because it’s possible there were some brilliant new twists buried away in the middle of this ginormous essay that I didn’t have the patience to read through. But if there are, then Holbo would benefit by trimming away a lot of the excess so people can see those brilliant points.

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DN 04.17.10 at 9:28 pm

“Locke was the first political theorist to maintain a natural right to property existing before the establishment of government.”

I’m not sure this is true. Locke’s theory of property is very similar to a number of other political sorts writing around the same time.

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Sebastian 04.17.10 at 10:13 pm

“But it doesn’t follow from the rejection of (full) self-ownership that others have the right to prevent a woman from having an abortion. The extent of the rights that others have over my person and powers is a matter for further elaboration and justification in the light of a whole range of issues, including (this is not supposed to be a comprehensive list) a person’s interest in autonomy, in their own plans and projects, justice, the positive duty to assist others in need, associative duties to family and country (if there are any) etc.”

Sure it doesn’t automatically follow. But then it doesn’t automatically follow that you could sell yourself into slavery either. Are we suddenly allowed to invoke common sense stopping points into the argument? We don’t seem to allow that for libertarian arguments. My point is that nearly all of the actual pro-choice rhetoric is about self-ownership and the alleged right to keep the government off your body. That is libertarian rhetoric. Full stop.

It is precisely the kind of rhetoric being mocked in this post and in these comments. Could you theoretically construct a pro-choice rhetoric that didn’t invoke self-ownership? Maybe. But that isn’t the argument that is actually used in the real world, and it would probably look rather ridiculous to normal people. In the real world, self ownership is the argument. And I think most people on this blog find it VERY convincing.

So maybe it isn’t such a ridiculous premise to have after all.

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James Kroeger 04.17.10 at 10:53 pm

Sebastian:

Could you theoretically construct a pro-choice rhetoric that didn’t invoke self-ownership?

Sure. Self-ownership concepts have never been a basis for my support of abortion rights.

I think it is ultimately a better approach to emphasize the fact abortion is just another form of birth control. Virtually all of the moral, logical, and emotional arguments that are used to condemn abortion can also be used to condemn every other form of birth control, including abstinence. If this important fact were emphasized in public discourse, then suddenly the vast majority of those who are accustomed to pointing the accusing finger will find themselves among the accused.

Put them on the defensive. Use their own arguments against them. Then watch as the squirm themselves into a ‘pro-choice’ position.

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Jason McCullough 04.17.10 at 11:02 pm

Sebastian, it makes more sense if you approach it from a relative values weighting perspective rather than a “take X philosophy as a given as far as it’ll go” approach.

Sticking entirely to the libertarian framing: the abortion arguments for most people come down to relative weighting on intent and principles: “value of future quasi-life” vs. “value of what you can do with your own body.” You can make just as strong a case for protecting the rights of a quasi-citizen fetus as you can for retaining the right to do what you want until it reaches full citizenhood, where theoretically all this rhetoric about freedom applies to it. There’s no “taking libertarian arguments X distance”; it’s just tradeoffs.

By contrast, for slavery the arguments always end up outcome-based rather than principles, because, 1) the effects are so blatantly horrible every time it’s tried and 2) the market is involved, and virtually all people have different moral frameworks for market and non-market transactions. Sure, theoretically from a libertarian perspective that 100% ignores outcomes and focuses entirely on a rights framework, there’s nothing wrong with selling yourself into slavery, but that just means it’s a value weighting most people find very, very strange.

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roac 04.17.10 at 11:03 pm

Whatever the family sagas are, they are not “newspaper accounts,” having been written two centuries after the events recounted.

Essentially, they are historical fiction based on robust oral traditions.

As for medieval Iceland having been “incredibly peaceful,” the question is “compared to what,” and I would be very surprised if the necessary data turned out to exist.

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Chris Bertram 04.17.10 at 11:28 pm

_Are we suddenly allowed to invoke common sense stopping points into the argument? We don’t seem to allow that for libertarian arguments._

But Sebastian, the cases aren’t symmetrical. Since my view was that rights of control can be distributed between several persons and agencies, I can allow that the form that distribution takes is informed by a range of considerations and values. The libertarian view is that people are self-owners and can only acquire duties to others (except for duties not to interfere with the property of others, including property in themselves) through voluntary acts. The silly implications of that view turn out to be reasons not to hold it in the first place.

But as I said, you’re right about pro-choice rhetoric (often) invoking self-ownership.

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TGGP 04.17.10 at 11:29 pm

I’m an ultra-“thin”, so I suppose I don’t qualify as a libertarian at all. I’ve followed the Max Stirner path of rejecting the idea of some transcendent normative truth, “human rights” being one such example. “Good” and “bad” are too fuzzy to be useful, and the “thick” varieties of “liberty” or “freedom” are likewise. Like Benjamin Tucker, I am then led to view social relationships (given that others won’t elevate my personal interests as I will) a form of contractarianism (actual contracts, not the phony “social contract) in which people may prefer non-libertarian government, and as a meta-libertarian who am I to object to their preferred regime? Patri Friedman’s “Seasteading” idea and the “Thousand Nations” blogs are good examples of that sort of pluralist meta-libertarianism, which is also the undercurrent of Nozick’s framework for utopia.

I’m so radically pro-choice that I favor legalizing infanticide, basically viewing children as the property of their parents. Children can of course “homestead” themselves and parents will have a tendency to agree with their children’s decisions, since they are both genetically wired to be invested in the reproductive success of said children. Of course, as Robert Trivers explained that still leaves room for conflict since children are 100% related to themselves, less so to each individual parent (particularly if cuckoldry is possible). There are some paternalists who say individuals should not be allowed to have such authority over their future selves, and I reply with that genetic interests argument.

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Harold 04.17.10 at 11:32 pm

DN, ok. But who exactly were the other “political sorts” and what do you mean by “at the same time”? From what I can gather there was no right of property beyond what was needed for immediate survival.

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Adam Ricketson 04.17.10 at 11:37 pm

Since there seems to be so much interest in libertarians disowning Caplan (some of it expressed in the comments to the “marital rape” post), I’ll give you what you want.

I am a libertarian, in the modern American sense, rather than the old European sense (comment 5). I have no use for Caplan’s writings. His arguments range from silly to distasteful. However, I have to recognize that there is a continuum between him and me, and some people who I generally respect think that he is worth listening to (for instance, the editors at Reason magazine). If we define libertarianism by the social relationships between individuals, then he is clearly a libertarian, though I think he represents one extreme. So is it enough for me to tell you guys that I don’t care for his arguments, or do I have to ostracize everyone who associates with him? Perhaps I can find some way to only associate myself with pure, righteous individuals, to at least the sixth degree. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’d be able to participate in politics if I did this. I’m sure that I wouldn’t be able to vote for anyone. Or perhaps I should stop using a word (“libertarian”) that would accurately convey 90% of my policy preferences to anyone who is interested in such things, even if it would be completely misleading to those who are interested in practicing disdainful amateur psychoanalysis at a distance.

As for the crux of the argument, I’ll reinforce what was said in comment 32: ownership does not imply the possibility of legally binding contracts. Contract enforcement is not a core part of libertarianism. It is something that some people tack onto libertarianism, generally for conventional or consequentialist reasons.

As for absolutist ideologues (deriving things from ahistorical axioms), they are a purely academic exercise. Many people (not just libertarians) spend too much time on these things, and foolishly latch onto one ideology while ignoring the usefullness of others. Still, I think that the world needs a greater appreciation of libertarian ideology, only it needs to be used as a way of generating policy proposals and evaluating policies alongside other considerations, rather than some absolutist dictate of an ideologue. I wrote more here: http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com/2005/09/libertarian-ideology-give-it-break.html

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piglet 04.17.10 at 11:43 pm

I need to make an off topic report. I’m not making this up. I am at the AAG conference in Washington DC at the Marriott hotel. The hotel’s internet cafe, equipped with all of 6 internet stations, is run by a platform called iBahn. It has crookedtimber on a list of blocked sites because of a “keyword pedophilia”. I can still access individual posts but the main site is blocked. Isn’t it great to be in the internet age.

What is worse however is that the hotel has exactly one place to get coffee from for thousands of participants. It reminds me of Soviet socialism but hey what would anybody else expect from Washington in the Obama era.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 12:08 am

Sure it doesn’t automatically follow. But then it doesn’t automatically follow that you could sell yourself into slavery either. Are we suddenly allowed to invoke common sense stopping points into the argument?

No, libertarians aren’t[1]. Easy answers to ludicrous questions.

[1]At least, not until there’s some sort of concerted acknowledgment on the part of libertarians that claiming there was more “freedom” in 1880’s than in the 1980’s is being totally off the wall wacko. You don’t get to have it both ways. Period.

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Sebastian 04.18.10 at 12:13 am

“At least, not until there’s some sort of concerted acknowledgment on the part of libertarians that claiming there was more “freedom” in 1880’s than in the 1980’s is being totally off the wall wacko. “

Ummm, Tyler Cowen, Megan McCardle, and Will Wilkinson (all relatively prominent libertarian bent people) have all said that was totally off the wall wacko. So we’re already there.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 12:26 am

Ummm, Tyler Cowen, Megan McCardle, and Will Wilkinson (all relatively prominent libertarian bent people) have all said that was totally off the wall wacko. So we’re already there.

Three people . . . and you’re already there. You must be a libertarian with this sort of cartoon innumeracy.

220

TGGP 04.18.10 at 1:00 am

Also, rageahol, Kevin Carson is fond of the term “usufruct”. When I pressed him, he never gave any justification for why usufruct should be preferred to non-proviso Lockean regimes of property, just falling back on panarchy. That fits my pluralist inclinations just fine, which is why Carson is a favorite of mine (though I don’t feel any affinity for the left, broadly speaking).

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Bloix 04.18.10 at 1:15 am

“Could you theoretically construct a pro-choice rhetoric that didn’t invoke self-ownership? Maybe. But that isn’t the argument that is actually used in the real world, and it would probably look rather ridiculous to normal people. In the real world, self ownership is the argument.”

Actually, I’m pro-choice and I find the self-ownership argument preposterous. As I’ve said above, I don’t think people own themselves. I think they are themselves. “Ownership” when talking about one’s relationship with oneself is a dangerous metaphor that, like many metaphors, tends to obscure more than it illuminates, while giving a false sense of understanding.

For me, the compelling argument favoring unrestricted availability of abortion is an equality argument, not an ownership argument. Abortion is a necessity for full equality between the sexes. And I see no countervailing state interest that would justify the inequality that results when availability to abortion is restricted.

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Sebastian 04.18.10 at 1:22 am

“Three people . . . and you’re already there. You must be a libertarian with this sort of cartoon innumeracy.”

Well that is kind of an asshole thing to say. What exactly do you want? Which people would have to say things before you would be satisfied that moderate Muslims (oops I mean libertarians) had fulfilled their obligation? You apparently think that citing ONE case is enough to indict all libertarian thought, so why shouldn’t three very strong denunciations be enough? All three of the people I cited are more prominently known libertarians than the one you cite. So what does that say about the validity of your argument?

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Harold 04.18.10 at 1:23 am

An incredibly peaceful thing that happened in Iceland was its decision around 1,000, to adopt Christianity by majority vote in their parliament (called the “thing”). The minority chose to go along with the majority on this occasion.

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Harold 04.18.10 at 1:27 am

Correction: Althing. Qv: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Althing

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geo 04.18.10 at 2:26 am

Sebastian@205: My point is that nearly all of the actual pro-choice rhetoric is about self-ownership and the alleged right to keep the government off your body. That is libertarian rhetoric. Full stop.

True, up to a point. But I suspect (and I suspect you suspect) that that’s merely a matter of rhetorical opportunism by pro-choicers, intended to exploit the mindless American tropism toward the phrase “keep the government off …” What really underlies the pro-choice position is the belief that, as between a woman unwilling to endure pregnancy and motherhood and a three-inch-long, one-ounce clump of cells with no consciousness or sensation, there’s no question of rights. Of course, if it were discovered that a fetus is fully conscious and has sensations, even experiences, then there would be such a question – except for genuine libertarians, who would invoke the principle of self-ownership.

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Donald Johnson 04.18.10 at 3:01 am

“What really underlies the pro-choice position is the belief that, as between a woman unwilling to endure pregnancy and motherhood and a three-inch-long, one-ounce clump of cells with no consciousness or sensation, there’s no question of rights. Of course, if it were discovered that a fetus is fully conscious and has sensations, even experiences, then there would be such a question – except for genuine libertarians, who would invoke the principle of self-ownership.”

I’m not sure this is true–I think some people do argue for the pro-choice position on libertarian grounds, whether or not the fetus is conscious, because the fetus has no right to demand that the woman’s body be at its service. And it’s my impression some philosophers argue for the pro-choice position on libertarian grounds as well. The average person who is pro choice is probably thinking along the lines you outline, that a clump of cells isn’t conscious and doesn’t have rights–that’s why many or most people get more and more uneasy about abortion the later it occurs.

Though I have no evidence of this either. Maybe someone has done a poll on the question.

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roac 04.18.10 at 3:01 am

According to Njal’s Saga, or my recollection of it, the circumstances leading to the adoption of Christianity in Iceland were stranger than that. The Althing was legally deadlocked, with a majority in favor of paganism, so it was agreed to let the Law-speaker (lögsögumaðr) make a decision; he (I forget his name) surprised everyone by pronouncing for Christianity, with a sort of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell permitting the pagans to go on sacrificing to Òðinn in private.

The saga was of course written two centuries after the event. (If there is another source I haven’t read it.)

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b9n10t 04.18.10 at 3:31 am

If the conversation fully turns “libertarianism-propertarianism + abortion” then the thread hits 350+.

The recent announcement of the whatever-numbered post inspires this question: what is the posts/thread maximum in CT’s history?

…and just think of the timing, “lib-prop-abortion + SCOTUS”. Let it hit 500, so far the conversations been good enough to sustain it.

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Harold 04.18.10 at 3:33 am

Well, in any case, it happened without bloodshed — except that of the sacrificial victims, of course, since didn’t the Norse pagans practice a form of suttee at one time.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 4:09 am

“Three people . . . and you’re already there. You must be a libertarian with this sort of cartoon innumeracy.”

Well that is kind of an asshole thing to say. What exactly do you want? Which people would have to say things before you would be satisfied that moderate Muslims (oops I mean libertarians) had fulfilled their obligation? You apparently think that citing ONE case is enough to indict all libertarian thought, so why shouldn’t three very strong denunciations be enough? All three of the people I cited are more prominently known libertarians than the one you cite. So what does that say about the validity of your argument?

Since you believe in straight talk, let me be equally blunt: your original statement about having three “prominent” libertarians on board so that you’re “already there” was not only innumerate, but innumerate smarmy assholery.

What else is new? More specifically, since you are (also a big surprise) being intentionally obtuse, libertarians need to drop all that smug rhetoric about deriving a political philosophy from first principles before they can start talking about “common sense”. Logical deductions on first principles is what generated that asinine statement about the 1880’s in the first place.

And as for your “three prominent libertarians”? You know as well as I that this is just Kling, Caplan, Boaz, et al, filling in as the Monster of the Week. From here on out, they can’t be cited as either respectable or authority on anything if you want this to be credible.

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Sebastian 04.18.10 at 5:07 am

Duly noted, Ms. Violent

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DN 04.18.10 at 5:22 am

214: “But who exactly were the other “political sorts” and what do you mean by “at the same time”?”

Well, Locke and his ilk weren’t really “political theorists” in the modern sense–Locke was actively involved in political plots, etc. etc. I’m thinking of Tyrrell, Sidney, etc. Both Locke and Tyrrell (not sure about Sidney), argued that the natural right to property converted into a titular/civil right to property after entering into political society, which both viewed as distinctive from the natural variant. I’ve always felt that the argument begins to unravel at that point (even if one has accepted the earlier derivation of a natural right to property).

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Harold 04.18.10 at 5:34 am

First indications of civilization, according to Thucydides:

For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirates . . . [I]ndeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory. .. . The same rapine prevailed also by land.

And even at the present day many of Hellas still follow the old fashion . . . . from the old piratical habits. The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. . . . The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life; indeed, it is only lately that their rich old men left off the luxury of wearing undergarments of linen . . . [A] modest style of dressing, more in conformity with modern ideas, was first adopted by the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], the rich doing their best to assimilate their way of life to that of the common people.–Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War (431 BCE), Book I

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Matt Austern 04.18.10 at 6:00 am

There’s libertarian grounds, and there’s libertarian grounds. I agree that a lot of defenses of abortion (and free speech, and the right to vote, and the right not to be thrown in jail without cause…) have a lot to do with libertarian ideas. Particularly so if you interpret “libertarian” broadly, as a loose family of ideas oriented around liberty, instead of interpreting it narrowly as a right-wing doctrine founded on the idea that an absolutist interpretation of property rights underlies everything.

I disagree that most of these defenses rely on the notion of self-ownership. Most people, I suspect, have never thought about that notion and would probably find it rather weird. A question like “Who does own me, then, if not myself?,” after all, only makes sense if you think of me as the sort of thing that can be owned — self-ownership only becomes a problem if you think of people as natural property and if you think that the only question is whose property they are. And that, it seems to me, puts far too much emphasis on the notion of property than there’s any justification for.

Much more natural, I think, to just say that people (like many other things) aren’t the sort of things that are owned. Ownership is not a fundamental attribute of the universe, and property isn’t liberty.

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Harold 04.18.10 at 6:14 am

Well, DN, I thank you, since I had never heard of Tyrrell or Sidney. Of course it is not surprising that Locke should have had friends and contemporaries with similar ideas. They do seem to be rather minor figures, though, compared to, say Grotius, Pufendorf, and Hobbes. — Perhaps I am wrong, but from a cursory glance at google books http://books.google.com/books?id=jUTUFWFSIqMC&pg=PA41&lpg=PA41&dq=Tyrell+property+rights&source=bl&ots=GeAGdyQexF&sig=xvIao6qst8FfXPkjAP6IjusT__s&hl=en&ei=s57KS9-zMYWdlgf3s9SLBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAYQ6AEwAA#v=snippet&q=Tyrrell&f=false
I gather (I may be wrong) that their argument was that in a state of nature the land was owned communally by all the People, as against the Royalist idea that the King owned all the land and the People used it at his suffrage — and I doubt this is what modern libertarians mean when they invoke an inalienable right to property. (I don’t know if Locke meant the right to property in same way).

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Harold 04.18.10 at 7:14 am

Tyrrell argued that “no man has a natural right to any more things than he can make use of, nor any right at all to those he had no need of, nor had actually seised to his own use.” — J. W. Gough, “James Tyrrell, Whig Historian and friend of John Locke” (The Historical Journal 19:,5 (1976): 586-87

Like Locke, Tyrell thinks that American Indians personally owned the wild animals they killed; again both refer to Cain as evidence of the punishment for murder enjoined by the law of nature Ibid. p. 587

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Miko 04.18.10 at 10:13 am

DN: “And, of course, most of the people using “libertarian” now (in this instrumental sense) would, if allowed, create brutal, arbitrary, and highly coercive environments for one category of person or another.”

The key phrase there is “if allowed.” The propertarians have all sorts of terrible ideas, but the real libertarians won’t let them get away with it. You say, ““libertarianism” really is often code for localism of various sorts.” This is not too far off, although I’d prefer the terms “decentralism” and “anti-hierarchalism”, but the real difference between the liberal and the libertarian is one of tactics, of which is a better way to guarantee your liberty. The liberal argues that we should entreat a government to please not abuse us too badly while simultaneously reassuring them that there are absolutely no penalties if they ignore our request. The libertarian advocates that we take direct action to stop people (whether they style themselves a government or just call themselves capitalists/feudalists/propertarians/etc. without pretensions to statehood) from interfering with our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

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Dan 04.18.10 at 10:37 am

Most people, I suspect, have never thought about that notion and would probably find it rather weird. A question like “Who does own me, then, if not myself?,” after all, only makes sense if you think of me as the sort of thing that can be owned—self-ownership only becomes a problem if you think of people as natural property and if you think that the only question is whose property they are. And that, it seems to me, puts far too much emphasis on the notion of property than there’s any justification for.

I have to say, arguments like this (which crop up a lot in this thread, and apparently share more popularity than I imagined) strike me as incredibly disingenuous or otherwise simply ignorant. Suppose property over some entity is, as in the analysis of Honore, a bundle of rights (the right to use, the right to manage, the right to income from, etc etc). Now, it makes perfect and total sense to ask with respect to each person: who – if anyone – possesses each of these rights. The libertarian answer is pretty clear: that person themselves. A left-liberal, in their intellectually honest moments, will answer (as Chris Bertram has done) that individuals are part-owned by some entity like the state, the community, humanity, etc. Quite often the question is evaded entirely, which I think just reinforces how intuitively attractive and plausible self-ownership is, that people don’t like to explicitly deny it.

I take it that the complaint that self-ownership puts too much emphasis on the notion of property is supposed to tar libertarians as being excessively materialistic and more concerned with property than liberty, but that is where the disingenuous part comes in. There are a bunch of different possible rights that someone can possess over her own person and actions, and all libertarians are saying when they talk of self-ownership is that bunch of rights is maximally extensive.

As for property, and more specifically, self-ownership, having nothing to do with liberty: you are aware, I hope, of the long linguistic tradition in which the antonym of “freedom” is “slavery” – i.e. the ownership of one person by another. It shouldn’t be too hard to see the relevance.

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alex 04.18.10 at 10:55 am

And yet again, one will respond that ‘owning’ is something done to things, not persons. Making someone a slave is making them a thing – a chattel, as in the precise term ‘chattel slavery’. “We” don’t like that language precisely because as long as you talk in terms of people owning themselves, you leave the conceptual door open to them owning other people. It’s stupid, dangerous and not conducive to the maintenance of maximal civil liberty for all.

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idlemind 04.18.10 at 11:26 am

But, Dan, just because you and your particular group of Libertarian buddies have taken a particular basket of rights and agreed to call them “ownership” doesn’t mean those outside your club use that word the same way. Calling Matt “disingenuous” or “ignorant” for making this point makes you sound all haughty and stuff.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.18.10 at 1:39 pm

I used to have a dog that thought that she owned something once she peed on it. Other dogs seemed to acquiesce. I noticed, however, that after a while, when the scent disappears, the thing becomes up for grabs again. I think it’s a good model, and humans should accept it too.

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Ceri B. 04.18.10 at 1:56 pm

There is much to be said for that, Henri. As a diabetic I have a head start, too, with nice smelly..never mind.

I remember a bit in the first volume of Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, about the evolution of thinking that led to belief in gods. First there’s the observation that people can make things. Then there’s looking around at the world. Guy says, “Who MAKE the world?” Woman thinks, “I think I detect a logical fallacy.”

There are times when propertarian demands like “Well, then, who does own you?” strike me about like “Well, then, which sky god do you make sacrifices to?” Even in my most pagan moments I don’t have that kind of a relationship with anything I worship, and likewise, I don’t believe that ownership in that sense is a good description for anything very interesting about how societies actually work.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.18.10 at 2:08 pm

Dan (@ 3 posts back) quotes:

A question like “Who does own me, then, if not myself?,” after all, only makes sense if you think of me as the sort of thing that can be owned—self-ownership only becomes a problem if you think of people as natural property and if you think that the only question is whose property they are.

And in this form, ‘who if not me’ presumes ‘someone anyway’ which is the whole problem. This false dichotomy (self-ownership v slavery) is explicitly perpetrated by the rather pitiable Hans-Hermann Hoppe (among other imbecilities too numerous and jawdropping to mention), in his role as the heir of Rothbard, who does the same but in a not-quite-as-obviously-ludicrous way.

And that, it seems to me, puts far too much emphasis on the notion of property than there’s any justification for.

Which is the basic problem with libertarianism. Most first-order political philosophies (that is, those which don’t deal with operational issues of social decision – and a Nozickian libertarianism is one of those par excellence, having no room for legislation or politics as we know it at all) can be expressed as ‘everyone can do what they like, subject to…’ and its what comes next that’s the key issue regarding personal liberty. With Libertarianism, what comes next is property rules of a kind which are pretty well guaranteed to end up with a (de facto) oligarchy. If the focus is on civil freedom, i.e. individual freedom from the minimal state (whose power is supposed to be composed of individuals’ rights, some delegated or transferred), then the problem is conceived by libertarians as mostly about taxation (as if PAYE were a kind of coercion), with issues like procedural rights, punishment, public interest in prosecution, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc, relegated to side-issues. I can’t help thinking ‘what a bunch of wankers’.

Dan responds:

I have to say, arguments like this (which crop up a lot in this thread, and apparently share more popularity than I imagined) strike me as incredibly disingenuous or otherwise simply ignorant. Suppose property over some entity is, as in the analysis of Honore, a bundle of rights (the right to use, the right to manage, the right to income from, etc etc). Now, it makes perfect and total sense to ask with respect to each person: who – if anyone – ah, so possesses each of these rights. The libertarian answer is pretty clear: that person themselves. A left-liberal, in their intellectually honest moments, will answer (as Chris Bertram has done) that individuals are part-owned by some entity like the state, the community, humanity, etc. Quite often the question is evaded entirely, which I think just reinforces how intuitively attractive and plausible self-ownership is, that people don’t like to explicitly deny it.

Honore’s jobbing paper, attempting to apply a concept of ‘ownership’ to English law at the time, did indeed come up with a bundle of – presumably jointly sufficient but certainly not severally necessary – conditions for applying that term. Which you might well take as a failure to introduce the unitary concept in any useful way.

It may make sense to ask of each of those incidents to whom if anyone they belong. But that’s a different question, since the false dichotomy is removed by the ‘if anyone’. And even if one were to suggest that some of Honore’s incidents vis-a-vis individuals should be in the hands of the state, that doesn’t amount to part-ownership of individuals.

I take it that the complaint that self-ownership puts too much emphasis on the notion of property is supposed to tar libertarians as being excessively materialistic and more concerned with property than liberty, but that is where the disingenuous part comes in. There are a bunch of different possible rights that someone can possess over her own person and actions, and all libertarians are saying when they talk of self-ownership is that bunch of rights is maximally extensive.

No they’re not. At most they are saying that that bunch of rights is maximal given that everyone has in some sense the same rights (rather important how general these are and overall how they are framed: schemes of rights may not be commensurable), and that the rights of others constrain mine (i.e. these are not merely liberties, but claim-rights). And they are wrong anyway on their own account – because on a libertarian view, the rights of others over their property limit my liberty to do what I like (cf the weirdo above mouthing off about blowing lost childrens’ brains out for straying into his plantation etc.).

As for property, and more specifically, self-ownership, having nothing to do with liberty: you are aware, I hope, of the long linguistic tradition in which the antonym of “freedom” is “slavery” – i.e. the ownership of one person by another. It shouldn’t be too hard to see the relevance.

It’s not that it has nothing to do with liberty – it’s that it’s not the same as liberty, and that as private ownership increases, the liberty of the rest of us to do ordinary things tends to reduce (though the ‘liberty’ of those who can afford it to do the kind of invented activities like transferring rights to payment that libertarians seem to consider so instrinstically valuable – oh fuck it I can’t be bothered

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Sebastian 04.18.10 at 2:10 pm

““We” don’t like that language precisely because as long as you talk in terms of people owning themselves, you leave the conceptual door open to them owning other people.”

Yet libertarians for the most part don’t leave that conceptual door open *at all* while to the contrary, it is liberals more like Chris who not only leave it open, but pretty much confirm that their theories of justice operate under the assumption that other people DO own you (or at least the right to use you). So you are making a theoretical complaint against libertarians which doesn’t exist in practice, while ignoring the same against liberal thought.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 3:11 pm

Sebastian 04.18.10 at 5:07 am

Duly noted, Ms. Violent

Sigh. Given this is how you so frequently behave, why in the world would you expect anyone to take you seriously or believe that you argue in good faith?

I would think, given all the justified ridicule libertarians have been receiving over the last week that you might take that as a hint to be on your absolute very best behaviour, but, well, that’s just me I guess.

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Chris Bertram 04.18.10 at 3:13 pm

Well yes, most people do think that some other people have the right to make use of you in some respects. Only libertarians of the utterly fruitcake variety, however, think that this is morally equivalent to chattel slavery.

I’d like to object, btw, to the following in one of Dan’s posts:

_A left-liberal, in their intellectually honest moments, will answer (as Chris Bertram has done) that individuals are part-owned by some entity like the state, the community, humanity, etc._

Not only do I resent that suggestion that my periods of intellectual honesty are fleeting, I also rather doubt that those who (following Kant) deny on conceptual grounds the possibility that persons can, morally speaking, be owned (including by themselves) are being intellectually dishonest. I happen to disagree with them of course, but that’s another matter. They and I agree, of course, that persons may sometimes be justifiably subject to the coercion of other persons for reasons having to do with the securing of some positive goods.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 3:14 pm

There are times when propertarian demands like “Well, then, who does own you?” strike me about like “Well, then, which sky god do you make sacrifices to?” Even in my most pagan moments I don’t have that kind of a relationship with anything I worship, and likewise, I don’t believe that ownership in that sense is a good description for anything very interesting about how societies actually work.

Exactly – in this context, “ownership” is an absurd reification of the concept of control. In a very real sense, I am the only one who has control of my body, but that doesn’t mean that I “own” it.

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rageahol 04.18.10 at 3:21 pm

what does “ownership” look like if it cannot be transferred? i’m no philosopher, but transferability seems like an innate part of the legal fiction of ownership (ownership being a legal concept and distinct from mere posession.)

i guess, echoing nearly everyone else in the thread, my point is that “ownership” ceases to be a meaningful concept if we include non-transferable ownership. for example, if i am irritated by glibertarians, i do not own irritation with glibertarians, because that irritation is not transferable. if ownership can be non-transferable, then the word actually seems like it probably shouldn’t be used at all, since it can be variously confused with “to have/possess” and “to be” and thereby provides significantly less information to those we communicate with than those other words. it becomes a sort of halfassed pronoun, but as a verb.

if, otoh, we think that ownership does imply transferability, but that self-ownership is the exception because SLAVERY BAD well, that seems logically inconsistent. you’re making a huge and unjustified exception to the definition of a word that seems rather important to your worldview based on a fundamentally social concern i.e. that you not be seen as venal douchegoblin assholes for suggesting that slavery is ok.

so, either your word loses meaning, or you’re just gigantic douches. choose one.

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Perezoso 04.18.10 at 3:25 pm

“Locke was the first political theorist to maintain a natural right to property existing before the establishment of government.”

yea, and ideologically-squeakin’, that’s the equivalent of monks taking on a dozen longboats of vikings with the vulgate and their garden rakes….which is to say Locke’s beulah-land social contract (which Nozick basically follows from) was a regression from Hobbesian starting points, ie a state of nature (hardly perfect but ….real)

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Dan 04.18.10 at 3:52 pm

#245 I resent that suggestion that my periods of intellectual honesty are fleeting

Perhaps that sentence was phrased poorly – I didn’t mean to cast any aspersions on your own personal intellectual honesty, rather that of those liberals (of which there are plenty of examples in this thread) who deny the intelligibility of self-ownership on what are pretty clearly tactical grounds, namely that they don’t want to come right out and deny it. It’s not like the analysis of ownership as consisting of rights is that controversial (incidentally, I had no idea that Tony Honore was one of my “group of Libertarian buddies,” as 239 suggests).

#242 And even if one were to suggest that some of Honore’s incidents vis-a-vis individuals should be in the hands of the state, that doesn’t amount to part-ownership of individuals.

Maybe, maybe not. But even so, it’s hard to deny that the incidents the state does as a matter of fact claim amount to part ownership. If you had a lawnmower in your possession which I had the unilateral power to stop you using in certain (purely self-regarding) ways, as well as a claim to up to 50% of any income you derived from its use, surely it is pretty well impossible to deny that I would be a part owner. Well, that seems to be exactly the position people are in vis-a-vis the state.

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Harold 04.18.10 at 3:52 pm

Some Metaphysical background.

Professor J. W. Gough, an authority on Hobbes and Locke and author of what used to be a standard work on the social contract (The Social Contract: A Critical Study of Its Development, 1936: ISBN 9780313204944), referred to libertarianism (i.e., the beliefs of the followers of Herbert Spenser), as “the police state school of political theory” — I quote from memory.

Spenser, a Lamarkian, thought that Evolution was moving in a benevolent direction (Evolution=Providence) and that things would get better on their own if only Nature were allowed to take its course without man-made interference. My sense, however, is that the notion that a state of nature is one of relentless struggle — “tooth and claw” — and that any sort of man-made social reform contravenes God’s plan, and government should therefore confine itself to police and military functions derived from Joseph de Maistre and his followers on the ultra-right. This prepared the ground for rightwing libertarians.

When things are going your way and you are the British Empire under Quen Victoria or the CEO of a large corporation or the Czar of Russia, then it is “God/Nature’s Plan” or Providence, and it would be blasphemy to mess it up with petty “artificial” and “unatural” man-made ideas of justice or law.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 04.18.10 at 3:58 pm

In sci-fi, when the minds can be easily transplanted from one body to another, the bodies usually do become property. That opens a whole world of possibilities for new exciting contracts.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 4:00 pm

Perhaps that sentence was phrased poorly – I didn’t mean to cast any aspersions on your own personal intellectual honesty, rather that of those liberals (of which there are plenty of examples in this thread) who deny the intelligibility of self-ownership on what are pretty clearly tactical grounds, namely that they don’t want to come right out and deny it.

. . . And here it comes. Any libertarians want to come out and rip this guy a new one for this sort of dishonesty? As I just noted, this would be a very good time for libertarians to be on there absolute very best behaviour.

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Sebastian 04.18.10 at 4:03 pm

SoV: “Given this is how you so frequently behave, why in the world would you expect anyone to take you seriously or believe that you argue in good faith?

I would think, given all the justified ridicule libertarians have been receiving over the last week that you might take that as a hint to be on your absolute very best behaviour, but, well, that’s just me I guess.”

I don’t expect you to know what a good faith argument looks like, as you seem completely incapable of them. I’ve given 3 examples of more prominent libertarian writers criticizing the one example you have given. You apparently don’t think that is sufficient for your purpose, refuse to tell what would be sufficient, and rudely go on and on about how evil libertarians are for agreeing with Caplan, when nearly all of the major actual libertarian voices don’t seem to actually agree with Caplan. And then you accuse me of failing to argue in good faith.

Umm. Yeah. That pretty much speaks for itself.

Chris. Unlike SoV, who I definitely am accusing of intellectual dishonesty, I wasn’t trying to slyly insinuate that you weren’t being honest (or that you are rarely honest). I’m happy to come right out and say it when I think that. Sorry for giving the impression that I thought that of you.

It seems to me that hyper-technical parsing of self-ownership a la “libertarians use the word ‘ownership’ which denotes ‘property’ which may have negative third, fourth or fifth order connotations is missing the forest for the trees. For libertarians who don’t believe in selling one’s self into slavery (which so far as I can tell are nearly all of them), the concept of self-ownership is functionally indistinguishable from the ‘right’ that feminists use to describe what they think the wrongs of society are vis-a-vis gender–that women ought to be allowed to control their own bodies and selves. In fact they take that concept FURTHER than many libertarians by suggesting that this is a right not only against the government, but also a right against other people’s private transactions/interactions.

(And to be clear I’m not attacking feminism when I say it goes further than libertarianism…I’m defending libertarianism.)

We can argue, angels on a pin style, about whether that concept is ‘ownership’ or ‘control of self’, but they are extremely similar in almost all cases, and the cases where they are different, ‘control of self’ in the feminist sense goes even further than libertarians take the ‘ownership’ sense. So criticisms a la this post extend very easily to criticisms of feminism.

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Sebastian 04.18.10 at 4:06 pm

Heh. I would have sworn I wrote something exactly like Dan, but it was one of the comments that got deleted when I hit the back button like an idiot. But I won’t withdraw my apology, because it is something I had meant to say. But not in an offensive way. :)

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Adam Ricketson 04.18.10 at 4:10 pm

“what does “ownership” look like if it cannot be transferred? “

Read Leviticus 25 (though the King James version uses the term “possession”).

“i’m no philosopher, but transferability seems like an innate part of the legal fiction of ownership (ownership being a legal concept and distinct from mere posession.)”

If you want to get into semantics, I consider ownership to mean the socially recognized right to use/modify/dispose of something (such as a particular body of matter) and prohibit others from doing so.

It is distinct from possession in that possession does not involve social recognition.

I would use “property” as a more specific form of ownership that includes transferability, though this is not a distinction that I could expect others to understand without explicitly defining it.

Still, I think that the notion of “ownership without transferability” is quite compatible with common sense notions. Most people acquire ownership for the sake of use, not for the sake of transfer.

Also, the issue is not purely “transferability”, but the legal enforcement of the transfer. Even when transfer is not enforced, an owner could allow another to use the item as thought that other person owned it. The issue of enforceability occurs when the original owner decides to reposes the item.

There may be legal terms that distinguish between these slightly different bundles of rights, but I’m not familiar with them. Ultimately, I think that terms like “property” and “ownership” can have very flexible definitions (as all non-technical terms do), and we should interpret them vaguely unless an exact definition has been provided.

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Dan 04.18.10 at 4:24 pm

Any libertarians want to come out and rip this guy a new one for this sort of dishonesty? As I just noted, this would be a very good time for libertarians to be on there absolute very best behaviour.

Or what, you’ll send us to bed without any dinner?

At any rate, I’m not really sure how the post exhibits any dishonesty – my earlier one was obviously ambiguous between accusing Chris of dishonesty and not accusing him of it, and I have absolutely no problem accepting this and clarifying that I meant the latter. If I had meant to insult him, why would I bother to be dishonest about it?

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 4:30 pm

Any libertarians want to come out and rip this guy a new one for this sort of dishonesty? As I just noted, this would be a very good time for libertarians to be on there absolute very best behaviour.

Or what, you’ll send us to bed without any dinner?

Chuckle. Right. You won’t behave unless there are consequences. We get that.

At any rate, I’m not really sure how the post exhibits any dishonesty – my earlier one was obviously ambiguous between accusing Chris of dishonesty and not accusing him of it, and I have absolutely no problem accepting this and clarifying that I meant the latter. If I had meant to insult him, why would I bother to be dishonest about it?

The dishonesty is trying to push the notion that rather that of those liberals (of which there are plenty of examples in this thread) who deny the intelligibility of self-ownership on what are pretty clearly tactical grounds, namely that they don’t want to come right out and deny it. Without, you know, having to actually go to the work of naming them. You wouldn’t be doing this to try to imply that “liberals” are “just as bad” as libertarians, now, would you? ‘Course not.

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rageahol 04.18.10 at 4:46 pm

@254:

please provide examples of things that you can “own” i.e. use/modify/dispose of (preferably matter-based) that you can not transfer to others.

It may seem like i’m getting into semantics, but i’m actually trying to ground this in practical, real-world terms. therefore, asserting that the two are distinct means you need to provide an example so that i may understand you better. since the idea of self-ownership is the one under dispute, please do not refer to it for your example, as that would be tautological.

p.s. appeals to “common sense” are usually horseshit.

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spole 04.18.10 at 5:05 pm

Walked through … strange to call it ‘scenery’. Our names for things reveal an inclination to perceive them through the prism of their uses. Even nature, there, is how it can be mined for images, for put-putting aesthetic raptures and touristic fulfilment. The scenic frame is in the framer, who’s nevertheless the only sort of thing around that sees at all. And can we framers intrude upon the sense in which a volcano isn’t majestic — isn’t disruptive — but just is? In which it can’t be winched back into a flyloft, or acted in front of, or translated to JPEG and forgotten about. For it erupting, from any angle you’d observe a different scene, yet none would be the scene of the volcano itself.

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Aldous 04.18.10 at 5:17 pm

I haven’t read through the comments thread and, given that there are over 250, somebody has probably already made this point. Anyhow…

You say: “So what do libertarians believe? 1) That we should maximize freedom. 2) That we should get the most freedom we can, by treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property (at least at the start). 3) That in fact treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property, necessarily will (or will tend to) maximize freedom. 4) That we should treat liberty as property, and everyone as their own property.”

And later distinguish between “thin” and “thick” sorts of libertarians by saying that the “thick” sort want to maximize freedom.

But both point (1) and this distinction don’t seem to acknowledge what Nozick says about moral side constraints. Maybe the goal of a third type of libertarian is to maximize freedom, constrained by some sort of maxim like “but always in pursuing your goal respect the fundamental right to self-ownership.”

Or have side constraints gone out of vogue since Nozick?

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Bloix 04.18.10 at 5:49 pm

“Intellectually honest moments,” indeed. The only response Dan is entitled to is “fuck you.”

But what he’s said is so widely believed that it’s worth addressing on the merits.

The starting place is that there is no such thing as ownership divorced from the state. Possession, control, and use can exist independent of any legal order. But the hallmark of ownership is that it is a relationship that does not require possession or control and instead permits a person to gain access to the power of the state, including force. The whole point of ownership is that it exists regardless of possession, control, or use.

Imagine I inherit some farmland in Georgia. I have never seen the land, and my only relationship to it is that I receive checks from the tenant and pay taxes to the state. If the tenant fails to pay the rent, I can petition the state to put the tenant out, and it will do so. If I fail to pay my taxes, the tax authorities will petition the state to terminate my ownership rights, and it will do so. I do not need possession or control of the land to own it.

Suppose I sell the land to my tenant. My relationship to the land is terminated. I no longer have any interest in it, and no relationship of any sort remains.

My legal ownership of this land was entirely socially created. It has no meaning outside the framework of some sort of government-imposed ordering of relationships through a system of law.

Can this ownership cast any light on my relationship to myself? I would think it’s obvious that it cannot. My relationship to myself is not a legal construct. It is inalienable, not by law or rhetoric or aspiration, but as a matter of physical fact.

Note that I am not claiming that a person cannot legally be owned. There is nothing incoherent about the ownership of one person by another – many legal systems, including those of ancient Israel, the Roman Empire, and our own, have had no difficulty dealing with that sort of relationship. And in such a regime it may be useful to deem a person to be his own owner for certain legal purposes.

But the fiction of self-ownership tells us nothing that we might want to know about fundamental human nature. Human nature is not fundamentally a legal relationship. And in a legal regime without slavery, self-ownership is not even useful as a legal fiction.

Even as a metaphor, analogizing my relationship to some farmland in Georgia to my relationship to myself is profoundly misleading in answering any questions I might have about a person’s place in society. But to say that my relationship to myself is literally identical to my relationship to that farmland is not merely unhelpful – it’s deranged.

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Chris Bertram 04.18.10 at 6:04 pm

Bloix, you need to establish not that there is some ownership relation that depends on the existence of state power but, rather, that there can be no ownership relation that is independent of state power. I know that some Kantians believe something like this, and think that property needs something the determinacy of a state-backed legal order. Indeed they (you?) often take this to a conceptual claim about what property is. But I, for one, find it hard to see why an anarchist community couldn’t evolve rules of ownership, with common knowledge among members about what those rules are etc, that would amount to a property regime.

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Chris Bertram 04.18.10 at 6:07 pm

Addendum …

_But the hallmark of ownership is that it is a relationship that does not require possession or control and instead permits a person to gain access to the power of the state, including force._

I think I’m right in saying that Roman private law did not grant property-holders access to the power of the state but merely to a customary system of adjudication.

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Harold 04.18.10 at 6:29 pm

Well, Chris Bartram had the last word. But I agree with Bloix.

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Bloix 04.18.10 at 7:10 pm

Chris, I don’t see why I have to establish that a concept of ownership that differs from our concept of ownership that might exist. The point is that even if we imagine a non-state property regime, the property concept would be a social one, which is contingent and subject to historical change.

But libertarians believe that property rights are “natural” and thus immutable and eternal (God-given? Generated in the Big Bang? What?) All other human relationships, they argue, can and must be reduced to property relationships. Even the other two members of the original triad – life and liberty – lose their co-equal status and must be derived from property, which then informs the scope of the life and liberty rights. This is not political theory – it’s some sort of fetish or cult.

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piglet 04.18.10 at 8:00 pm

I think it is pretty well established that the kind of property ownership propertarians really care for, e. g. land ownership, does not and has never existed independent of a political system capable of enforcing those property concepts, whether you call it state or otherwise. The burden of proof is on the propertarian side to demonstrate that political power is not a necessary condition.

Apart from that, I have to say CT wastes way too much time on that issue. And blog posts as long as this one by Holbo should simply be punished by not reading and not responding.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 9:27 pm

Even as a metaphor, analogizing my relationship to some farmland in Georgia to my relationship to myself is profoundly misleading in answering any questions I might have about a person’s place in society. But to say that my relationship to myself is literally identical to my relationship to that farmland is not merely unhelpful – it’s deranged.

No doubt. My daughter has “her” locker at school, I have “my” office at work. And even though my office is “mine”, by no stretch of the imagination do I own it in the sense that I do my car. For that matter “my” breath smells like coffee for at least ten hours a day – what does the “my” signify in that statement that even vaguely stinks of ownership. No, this is just libertarians playing more word games of the “No cat has nine tails” type.

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Alex 04.18.10 at 9:50 pm

SoV: responsibility. You’re responsible for the state of the office, the locker, and that your breath doesn’t excessively offend anyone.

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ScentOfViolets 04.18.10 at 10:20 pm

SoV: responsibility. You’re responsible for the state of the office, the locker, and that your breath doesn’t excessively offend anyone.

That seems to be the answer to a question, but I don’t know what the question is.

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subdoxastic 04.18.10 at 11:23 pm

Reading the posts and associated comments has really affected my view of libertarianism.

As a Canadian watching U.S. politics and policy, I had originally conceived of libertarians, and not just specifically “The Tea Party People”, as analagous to what it must be like to be a civil war re-enactment enthusiast or other niche anachronistic hobby-horse rider.

I’m now finding out that some folks feel slavery is okay — and the only way that happens is if we have a real messed up idea of liberty. When by the way did liberty become a commodity tradeable as any other?

My perspective allows me no insight into how or why one would choose a system that seeks to splinter even the most basic concepts of collectivity. And what with all the talk of “contracts” you’d think this was a business posting.

My alarm over this phenomenon seems to ironically underline my original lazy assumptions. Frontier fetish+corporateese+a return to simpler times, does not equal neighbourly disinterest. It adds up to concern.

And with that I think I’ll head over to the photography post where I’m sure to learn a whole lot more. And happily.

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parsimon 04.19.10 at 1:50 am

Huh, I hadn’t followed this thread since its earlier days, but subdoxastic’s comment is a good one.

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Bread & Roses 04.19.10 at 4:50 am

Dan says at 3:52 pm

[quote]it’s hard to deny that the incidents the state does as a matter of fact claim amount to part ownership. If you had a lawnmower in your possession which I had the unilateral power to stop you using in certain (purely self-regarding) ways, as well as a claim to up to 50% of any income you derived from its use, surely it is pretty well impossible to deny that I would be a part owner. Well, that seems to be exactly the position people are in vis-a-vis the state.[/quote]

That seems easy and necessary to deny to me. If you owned the only gas station within travelling distance, and you told me you wouldn’t sell me gas for my mower- or any gas- if I used my mower on Sundays, you could pretty effectively keep me from using my mower on Sundays. And if I had a lawn-mowing business, you would certainly be able to claim a good bit of the income from that business, in the form of the price of your gas. Yet you would be in no sense the owner of my lawn mower, or lawnmowing business. Your notion of ownership is weird. Ownership and control are different things, that intersect in some ways.

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Anarcho 04.19.10 at 8:22 am

The problem for defenders of propertarianism is that there are plenty of other propertarians who do argue totally insane things and justify them based on the principles and methodology favoured by propertarianism itself. I’ve mentioned the whole “voluntary slavery” position of Robert Nozick and Walter Block. Here is Hans-Hermann Hoppe summation:

‘Accordingly . . . a natural order is characterized by increased discrimination, segregation, spatial separation, uniculturalism (cultural homogeneity), exclusivity, and exclusion. In addition, whereas states have undermined intermediating social institutions (family households, churches, covenants, communities, and clubs) and the associated ranks and layers of authority so as to increase their own power vis-a-vis equal and isolated individuals, a natural order is distinctly un-egalitarian: “elitist,” “hierarchical,” “proprietarian,” “patriarchical,” and “authoritorian,” and its stability depends essentially on the existence of a self-conscious natural – voluntarily acknowledged – aristocracy.’

So a “libertarian” society is authoritarian, an “anarchy” riddled with heir-archy… Which begs the question “What part of an-archy is hard to understand?”

This “natural order” is going to have to have lots of police to enforce all that segregation, separation, exclusivity, exclusion, etc. But, apparently, there will be no rules governing spelling…

Anarchists and other genuine libertarians have been pointing out the obviously self-contradictory nature of “anarcho”-capitalism and “libertarianism” for some time. Proudhon was right, property IS despotism…

What is worse, from an anarchist perspective, is that this authoritarian ideology (“propertarianism”) calls itself libertarian and so tries to associate itself with, when not simply trying to appropriate the word, with the long and rich socialist tradition of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Chomsky, etc.

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Harold 04.19.10 at 1:49 pm

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The Raven 04.21.10 at 2:47 pm

A very late addendum: it seems a great deal of libertarian advocacy of the past 30 years has been bought and paid for by David and Charles Koch, who have a great deal of oil money:
http://hisvorpal.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/a-demitasse-of-dumbitas/

What are we to make of this?

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Chris Bertram 04.21.10 at 3:13 pm

Come on now, drink up! Don’t you people have homes to go to?

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