Archives for category: Political Theory

The hard question for Anarchism and Libertarianism is “How do we protect children?” So how do we protect children?

 . . . as answered on Quora. . . .

The legal status of children in a regime of liberty would seem to be a problem, at least theoretically. In The Methods of Ethics, in his two-page critique of the libertarian idea, Henry Sidgwick regarded this as one of the most obvious difficulties. But, to get into the spirit of his criticism, let us consider how he characterizes the libertarian notion of justice:

There is . . . one mode of systematizing these Rights and bringing them under one principle, which has been maintained by influential thinkers, and therefore deserves careful examination. Many jurists have laid down that Freedom from interference is really the whole of what human beings, originally and apart from contracts, can be strictly said to owe to each other: at any rate, that the protection of this Freedom (including the enforcement of Free Contract) is the sole proper aim of Law, i.e., of those rules of mutual behaviour which are coercive and maintained by penalties. All Natural Rights, on this view, may be summed up in the Right of Freedom: so that the complete attainment of this is the complete realization of Justice; the Equality at which Justice is thought to aim being interpreted in this special sense of Equality of Freedom.

This is a very precise, steel-manned statement of the Law of Equal Freedom promoted by Sidgwick’s liberal contemporary Herbert Spencer.

Within this vision of social order, however, how would children fit? Children do not have the liberties of adults in any society known to man. And not without reason. Children are by their nature weak; ignorant; foolish; irresponsible; and on their own often endangered and not infrequently dangerous — almost by definition. Sidgwick states the problem concisely:

[I]t seems needful to limit somewhat arbitrarily the extent of its application. For it involves the negative principle that no one should be coerced for his own good alone: but no one would gravely argue that this ought to be applied to the case of children, or of idiots, or insane persons.

But the Libertarian Party, back in the 1970s, had in its platform a plank on children’s rights stating a simple principle: “Children have the same rights that adults have.” [from memory]

Now, I was 20 when I read that. And, though I called myself a libertarian soon after, I did so while recognizing that the Children’s Rights plank was, almost self-evidently, idiotic.

A quick view of the most similar plank of the platform of the current Libertarian Party of the United States, we see this:

Parental Rights

Parents, or other guardians, have the right to raise their children according to their own standards and beliefs, provided that the rights of children to be free from abuse and neglect are also protected.

Much more circumspect.

But it doesn’t seem very “libertarian,” does it? Libertarians defend rights to liberty, not rights “not to be neglected,” which is merely a curiously negative formulation of a positive right, with the right’s corresponding positive duty.

There are three basic positions libertarians have held about children’s rights:

  1. Children are property of their parents.
  2. Children are free.
  3. Children have certain positive rights against their parents, which may be enforced by third parties.

I hold, with some necessary nuance, to the third position. Individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker held to the first, as many readers of his journal Liberty: Not the Daughter But the Mother of Order found to their shock. The second position — which I regard as preposterous — has been upheld by numerous libertarians, but none more ably than anarchist-communist Viroqua Daniels in the pages of The Firebrand, a fin de siècle anarchist rag from Portland, Oregon.

The evolution of Herbert Spencer’s view of the matter is instructive, but a full analysis would require a treatise. Consult the first edition of Social Statics with the abridged and revised edition, and especially with the chapter on children’s rights in the fourth part of The Principles of Ethics, the fascinating Justice. Spencer derived his view of a political-legal normative order from the “law of life” that, among adults, “benefits received must be in proportion to merits possessed” while for children, prior to the development of the capacity to cooperate productively, benefits must be directed in reverse proportion to merit. Both children and adults have a right to life, in this view, but this expresses itself in two distinct regimes: children requiring sustenance, and sustenance and education being therefore a right; adults capable of reciprocity and mutually advantageous cooperation, therefore for the fullest flowering of advance there must be rights to liberty.

Spencer thus elaborated, in his mature philosophy, a variant of the third position I suggested above.

One way to look at these basic rights is to take antagonism and menace as a given, and see how basic rights can prevent calamity. A right to freedom prevents parasitism and predation from strangers and neighbors, a state of liberty being the compromise position between A killing B and B killing A; A stealing from B and B stealing from A. Because adults are capable of reciprocal action, including the negotiation required to cooperate, freedom makes sense, because it promotes general advance and wealth and health, etc.

A child, on the other hand, starts out with such limited skills and even limited capacities of self-control that he or she cannot work to acquire property or maintain it, or even be trusted to trade it. So children constitute a standing threat, of sorts. Their freedom doesn’t prevent outrageous moral horror — it can even increase it, straining adults’ resources. Which is why their freedom even in a free society has been limited, and responsibility for their actions placed upon those who bring them into the social world (usually their parents). Further, parents are usually charged with the responsibility — indeed, obligation — to feed, clothe and house their own children, and instruct them so that, upon maturation, they can become responsible adults.

The point of basic rights is to distribute responsibility broadly so to decrease burdens and allow progress. Adults should not be burdensome to other adults, so that the burden of raising children — who do actually require great sacrifice — can be efficaciously met.

Which is why libertarians criticize socialized education efforts. For that is a move away from distributed responsibility to centralized responsibility, and generally makes adults less responsible. And, over the generations, state-run education raises children who become adults with decreasing senses of their own capacity to govern their lives. In a truly free society, children possess basic rights, but the obligations to meet those rights would fall upon parents and guardians, not on society at large through the agency of an activist state.

Which leads to the current outrageous moral horror of the current pandemic panic, with whole societies acting in utter cowardice and servility to “the experts” — who prove themselves to be liars as well as reckless gamblers with fate.

Libertarians, as I see it, would protect children with a rule of law and with a distributed — not centralized — regime of responsibility. A free society is a responsibilitarian society. Children would grow up in such societies to possess virtues, not “be good consumers” or loyal voters of political factions.

Children are not adults, and do not have — should not have — the exact same set of basic legal rights. But the rights they would possess in a free society should enable them to mature into the status of free individuals capable of reciprocity, self-defense, defense of others, and of negotiating cooperative endeavors for mutual benefit and (thus) the progress of society at large.

twv

The evolution of states, social hierarchies, and organized religions cannot simply be explained away by coercion or deception. After all, ideas upon which stand an edifice of power often permeate social existence even before the edifice is built up, and even as we realize, however belatedly, that a power edifice was not what one moral idea or another had needed.

Power is built up by those who benefit from it, but also by its eventual victims. Anarchy thus does not describe how we would have lived had states not existed. The idea of anarchy emerges of course out of longing for a less coerced, more voluntary, and negotiated social existence. But anarchy is not about reliving some ideal past or returning to a state of nature. Rather it is about adding something to humanity that is actually not yet evidently in it, even though we perceive it because certain dimensions of the human experience show a clear quest after it.

Mohammed A. Bamyeh, Anarchy as Order (2009).

As a libertarian, are you more of a conservative libertarian, a centrist Libertarian, a bleeding heart Libertarian, or somewhere in between two of the three given choices?

…as answered on Quora….

I am closest to a centrist, but with a caveat: I regard liberty itself as a moderating principle, as “centrist,” and always have. Liberty is the middle ground between you killing me and me killing you; you enslaving me and me enslaving you; you stealing from me and me stealing from you.

Liberty is an ideal compromise.

But since we live in an unfree, illiberal world, compromises with the existing order are inevitable but not easy. Still, most of us pay our taxes, and I am not advocating a tax rebellion. We muddle through all this, and I am open to alternative notions of reform, acceptance, resistance, and rebellion. Libertarians should be able to argue about this sort of thing. Rationally.

I am not much tempted by either the left or the right, though I respect the good intentions of both movements while rejecting the vices of both. That being said, the silly, witless “bleeding heart” metaphor is not for me, and though I am not a conservative, I have gotten rather tired of typical lefty attitudes on a whole bunch of issues, so I often sound more conservative now than I used to: I don’t think “slut-shaming” is a moral horror, I am not into “trans acceptance,” and I think immigration is a bigger challenge to beltway bleeding-heart-ism than most of my friends do. Further, I do not think that racism and sexism are any more inimical to liberty than older-style vices like greed and pride. Bleeding Heart Libertarians — who think that liberty should promote “social justice” and oppose icky “reactionaries” — don’t like this take.

I just think people should treat each other with respectful reciprocity, granting each other their baseline freedoms while holding each other responsible for their actions. But if most of us ignore most others, and fall short of the rigors of Universal Love and Full Dignity, I think that is OK. Similarly, as useful as religions are for in-group cohesion, all of them are wrong and I can accept none of them, which makes me a non-conservative, I think. My commitment is to philosophy, not tradition or religion, no matter how useful they may be for the masses.

“As a libertarian,” I think we should emphasize liberty, not these other standards, like Tradition or Social Justice. Liberty should adjudicate between the competing claims of these other paradigms.

twv

Some people in society will always be bullies, tricksters, frauds, and terrorists.

The classical theory of the state has it that government is instituted to protect good citizens from the depredations of the Bully and Trickster class, and is made up of fine, upstanding leaders — heroes all! — in pursuit of this noble aim.

The Trick-or-Treat, or Halloween, Theory of the State has it that the state is made up of those bullies, tricksters, frauds and terrorists. By organizing into politically governing bodies, and accepting our bribes (taxes, not candy), their behavior becomes less obviously anti-social than otherwise (as is the case with tricksters participating in Halloween’s “trick-or-treats” tradition). The big conceit is that it is good and noble people who work for the state, get money from the taxpayers, and push us around, etc.

The comparatively minor conceit can be found in a certain core group of activities in which the members of the Bully and Trickster class police their own, taking away a fraction of the worst offenders — but mainly the ones who bully and trick independently, who won’t “play along.” This secondary function apes the classic theory of the state, as children mimic devils at Halloween. Serious protection rarely emerges.

Unfortunately, because Trick-or-Treating, er, politics, is made so fun, the rites of democracy and statesmanship so charming, and the rewards so enticing, a lot more people get caught up in the activity than would have otherwise done so. As in Halloween, we wind up with more people spending more money on candy (taxes) than the total loss would be from the straightforward damage done by tricksters acting randomly, unorganized.

The Halloween Theory of the State thus explains both the origin of the state and the growth of the state. This cannot be said of classic theories, such as State-of-Nature contractarianism, which are utopian and deludedly romantic in character.

The Halloween Theory can be extrapolated beyond the mere sketch provided here. The chief problem with it is that the title’s holiday/festive parallel suggests understatement. Children begging for candy are harmless. Mostly.

The state is not.

twv, October 31, 2010

The Libertarian Standard

How can we know whether libertarianism is even possible?

…as answered on Quora….

First, let us be precise. How do we know that liberty, as conceived by libertarians, is possible? That is the question.

Liberty, let us stipulate, is the freedom that can be had by all.

Freedom makes sense in a variety of contexts, and one popular definition is absence of obligations, or socially imposed requirements.

One need not be a philosopher engaged in some elaborate phenomenology to see that obligations, or duties, are inevitable in society; likewise, one need not be an anthropologist or social psychologist to understand that some people wish to avoid one variety of obligations, while others choose a different set from which to unburden themselves. Popularly, some folks of a rebellious nature see in any duty an imposition, and demand liberation — for them, any burden is “oppression.” That may be the urge of the anarchist, or nihilist, or socialist, or merely the froward. But it is not what libertarians are up to.

Libertarians look at the social world as transactional. Force, and threat thereof, is different from cooperation which is different from avoidance; initiated force is distinct from defensive force, which is distinct from retaliatory. Of the many contexts in which freedom makes sense, libertarians see that freedom from initiated force is the freedom that all can have, and, moreover, the variety that places the least amount of obligatory burden upon society, for the duty each individual faces is not to initiate force, violence, coercion, or threat thereof.*

So, can this be achieved? Can coercion be equalized and minimized, as a matter of law?

Well, we can see that it is the basic principle of many realms of social life. It is even a deeply embedded assumption in current law. The libertarian idea is at the heart of why murder and theft and even fraud are regarded as crimes legitimately fought with defensive and retaliatory force.

Of course, many legislated laws — which can be quite different critters from the laws we see in the practice and scope of the common law, where traditional understanding of crimes and torts developed — flout these principles. Many laws as concocted by tyrants and legislators are themselves initiations of force. Libertarians oppose these.

Past American society was burdened with far fewer laws of this latter type than now. So we know that freer societies are possible. But no society has ever been wholly free, by libertarian lights. How could we know whether the fully free society is possible?

We cannot, not now.

I regard the plausibility of the libertarian ideas as a hunch. I know that I prefer the freer interactions in our own society to the forced interactions. Further, by history and social theory (including but not limited to economics) I know that were we freer, we would be, on the whole, much better off: not merely “happier” but more virtuous and adaptable and even honorable. But given that some people even now cannot cope with the little freedom they have, and that many, many people regard their lust to rule over others — as well as to be ruled by others — as bedrock to their own sense of order, that we have to wonder how far this can scale, and to which populations.**

I do not know (with the certainty this word “know” implies) that a fully free society is possible. I do strongly suspect it is not possible with humans as they are — in no small part because we do not have it. Libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer believed that the basic institutions of society must fit the character and circumstances of the people they apply to. People given to crime, panic, servility, and powerlust cannot be free. Alas, give them the institutions to constrain them from their worst crimes but nevertheless allow them to express their worst natures and what do you have? Any progress to betterment? Any progress to freedom?

It depends.

My basic position is that we are now too far from a free society to know how far towards freedom we can successfully move, and how sustainable a complete form can be. Reason editor Jesse Walker dubbed my position agnarchism, a droll portmanteau. I am a philosophical anarchist in one sense, but my fallibilism (or falsificationist epistemic) is such that I accept limits to my knowledge — I am agnostic on many issues. I do not know how far civilized man can peel back the onion of the state.

But I do know a number of things that point strongly in the direction of freedom.

I know, for instance, that the current political-legal order, along with its nearest reform ideologies, is routinely defended by recourse to lies, careless errors, unwarranted fantasies, and bad reasoning; that masked agendas are the most important agendas; that critiques of freedom as a goal or standard are based, chiefly, on ignorance and outrageous displays of repugnance; that folks who blithely go on pressing “morality” into their politics generally live by preference falsification and false consciousness, and incorporate bedrock vices into their conceptions of virtue; that politics as a whole is an ugly business based on strife and exploitation masquerading as peace and justice; and that the people are generally ignorant of the true nature of the society they live in, and cannot think two steps down the chain of causation of any proposal for reform they make.

To use a religious analogy: I do not know my god exists, but I know that other gods are devils, and not merely in the details but also in the Grand Scheme.

This suggests to me that carrying on the advocacy of equal freedom remains a noble cause, and a matter of honesty.

As it is honest to admit the limits of all our knowledge.


* It gets more complicated, but the basic conception is clear. The basic notion is that libertarians insist that the civilized approach to sociality is to demand the same from each, and the least from each, as well. And upon this bedrock set of minimal obligations people can form their lives, which will of course entail many additional obligations — but which they themselves choose.

** The saddest truth is that some people, now, could very easily manage and thrive in a free society, but others by genes and culture and institutional instruction would not. This is an important point, and is really where actual political and ideological discord rests.


N.B. From the above, it should be noted that there can be no guarantee of liberty, for it depends upon reciprocal restraint. When some attempt to destroy us, or rob us, there can be no assurance that they will not succeed. We must strive, at some expense, to prevent the usurpations that abridge our rights to freedom. It should follow that the freer a society is, the less effort will be required to defend freedom.

Why do libertarians focus so much on taxation?

…as answered on Quora….

Libertarians pride themselves — not unreasonably — on their principles, which they say make sense from root to leaf of society. Whereas most of politics is argument over fruits and twigs, libertarians aim to go much deeper, down the trunk to the structure in the soil.

Politics is the art of influencing the behavior of the State, and taxation is the most basic state activity. Organizations without the power to tax do not qualify as States. Libertarians extol voluntary (reciprocal; multilateral) interaction, and correctly point out that taxation is hegemonic . . . based, ultimately, on initiated violence and the threat of it. So libertarians look at taxation suspiciously — at best.

Classical liberal theorists were of a similar mind. French economist J.-B. Say, for example, argued that “A tax can never be favorable to the public welfare, except by the good use that is made of its proceeds.” The idea here is that taxation itself is the worst way of going about building a civilization, but if there is no other way to protect the public, then tax, and expend the conscript resources only on projects (rule of law, national defense, say) that truly benefit everybody.

Libertarians often argue that most government spending, these days, does not fill the old liberal standard of benefiting everybody. Instead, most spending of taxed resources aids some at the expense of others, and amounts not to serving a plausible public interest, but, instead, serving private, or factional interests.

Therefore libertarians argue against all variants of statism on grounds that would have been familiar to the old liberals, often making arguments like this: government funds built on taxes must inevitably present a “tragedy of the commons” where individuals and factions fight each other to exploit the common resource each for maximum advantage, gaining more than the other — or at least not gaining too little to become a net taxpayer. This endangers the common resource — just as overgrazing of a common field, or over-fishing of a commonly owned lake, river, or stream — and can have the effect of favoring the greedy and powerful over the masses, and eventually leading to the degradation of the commons.

Classical liberal economists, individualist social theorists, and libertarian political philosophers have been elaborating variations on this theme for centuries. These arguments have demoralized statists, over and over, to the point that they turn to obscurantism (Marxian fancies or Keynesian farragoes) or mere name-calling, in response. (Statism is the idea that the public good can be served by massive state regulation and spending, all dependent upon taxation.)

But this is mostly conflict over branches. Down at the root libertarians emphasize what the old liberals usually just “understood”: taxation is expropriation by force, and is an intrinsically bad way to run a civilized enterprise.

And, on this level, we see many to the far left taking the opposite approach. It is not uncommon, these days, for “progressives” and socialists and other statist politicians to look upon taxation as a good thing in and of itself. It is good to take most of the wealth of some people, and some of the wealth of most people, and not only to “do good” with that wealth. People should not have that wealth. They do not deserve it. They cannot properly use it. Marshaling the State to confiscate this wealth is a virtuous and indeed noble activity!

President Barack Obama took that tack when he argued that the capital gains tax rate should be kept high or even raised even if lower rates would yield more revenue. He flouted J.-B. Say’s rule; he flaunted the thief’s ethos, right in our faces. And when he and Senator Elizabeth Warren floated the “you didn’t build that” meme, they were carrying on that fundamentally illiberal program. It is an attack on voluntary society and an upgrading of the State to a kind of super-paternalistic (and maternalistic) Authority.

Libertarians focus on taxation to counter these fiends. Taxation is the key to the whole super-state mania. Libertarians see in the statist defense of the intrinsic righteousness of taxation an assault on civilization’s liberatory principle: the growth of reciprocity, voluntary cooperation, and peaceful relations. And libertarians see in the lip-smacking lust to ply the State to take other people’s money as the grossest corrupter of morals: the celebration of greed and envy and malice under cover of bogus “social justice” and pharisaic “caring.”

Libertarians oppose the demagoguery behind super-state transfers of wealth, hoping that humanity can avoid the cementing of tyranny by means of the greatest long con in history.

Here is Thomas Jefferson discussing his conception of natural rights with Francis Gilmore on June 7, 1816. It is an interesting argument.

No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him: every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him: and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. [W]hen the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions, and the idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural right. [T]he trial of every law by one of these texts would lessen much the labors of our legislators, & lighten equally our municipal codes. [T]here is a work of the first order of merit now in the press at Washington, by Destutt-Tracy, on the subject of political economy, which he brings into the compass of 300. pages 8vo. in a preliminary discourse on the origin of the right of property he coincides much with the principles of the present MS. but is more developed, more demonstrative. [H]e promises a future work on morals, in which I lament to see that he will adopt the principle of Hobbes, so humiliating to human nature, that the sense of justice & injustice is not derived from our natural organisation, but founded on convention only. I lament this the more as he is unquestionably the ablest writer living on abstract subjects. [A]ssuming the fact that the earth has been created in time, and consequently the dogma of final causes, we yield of course to this short syllogism. Man was created for social intercourse; but social intercourse cannot be maintained without a sense of justice; then man must have been created with a sense of justice. [T]here is an error into which most of the speculators on government have fallen, and which the well known state of society of our Indians ought before now to have corrected. [I]n their hypotheses, of the origin of government, they suppose it to have commenced in the patriarchal, or monarchical form. [O]ur Indians are evidently in that state of nature which has past the association of a single family; & not yet submitted to the authority of positive laws, or of any acknoleged magistrate. [E]very man, with them, is perfectly free to follow his own inclinations. [B]ut if, in doing this, he violates the rights of another, if the case be slight, he is punished by the disesteem of his society, or, as we say, by public opinion; if serious, he is tomahawked as a dangerous enemy. [T]heir leaders conduct them by the influence of their character only; and they follow, or not, as they please, him of whose character for wisdom or war they have the highest opinion. [H]ence the origin of the parties among them adhering to different leaders, and governed by their advice, not by their command. [T]he Cherokees, the only tribe I know to be contemplating the establishment of regular laws, magistrates and government, propose a government of representatives elected from every town. [B]ut of all things they least think of subjecting themselves to the will of one man. [T]his the only instance of actual fact, within our kno[w]lege, will be then a beginning by republican, and not by patriarchal or monarchical government, as speculative writers have generally conjectured.

Jefferson mentions a manuscript by Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, which he is trying to get Gilmore to translate. Jefferson himself translated — or at least edited the translation — of Destutt de Tracy’s book which should have been titled A Treatise on the Will and Its Effects, but which Jefferson titled A Treatise on Political Economy. One other Tracy work was published in America around this time, a commentary on Montesquieu. I have not read the Du Pont treatise, which was published a century later than Jefferson wanted. It is available on Google Books as National Education in the United States of America.

Du Pont’s son founded the Du Pont chemical business, and thus gave rise to the Du Pont fortune.


There are many interesting elements to this passage.

The first is the most obvious: the expression of a “natural right” in terms of a negation.

No man has a right to aggress….

This more than implies, it entails, possession of a right not to be aggressed against. This negative formulation became more common at the end of the century in England, among the individualists, especially Auberon Herbert.

Now, contra the honored Destutt de Tracy, who conceived of rights conceptually coherent as having no obligations, rights are, as numerous philosophers and legal theoreticians have since explained, only coherent in terms of obligation, or duty. A right is the flip side of an obligation; a right is a claim to obligatory treatment; a right articulates a duty. So the right Jefferson speaks of here is a fundamental and universal right that obliges all others not to aggress against the rights holder, that is, all have a right not to be aggressed against and none have a right to aggress.

The phrasing, though, is odd.

…against the equal rights of another….

Why not just say all are rightly free from aggression, and none can claim a right to aggress? That is, all are duty-bound not to aggress?

Jefferson does not appear to be hiding anything in the “equal rights” clause, for he goes on to say that laws may restrain us only to prevent aggression. This is quite clear so far.

But the next principle seems to provide a completely different standard:

…every man is under the natural duty of contributing
to the necessities of the society….

If what we call a natural right be a fundamental, universal right, a “natural duty” must be a “fundamental, universal duty.” But by the logic of the first principle enumerated, our fundamental, universal duty is to not aggress against others. Does an obligation to “contribute” to the “necessities” of society require that some may be compelled to do that, orthogonally related to the first enumerated right? May we coerce someone to do their duty by society? By others?

This is all very murky, for it seems to abridge the first right. If we all have natural rights to freedom from initiated coercion (aggression), then compelling a duty for some vague-or-not-so-vague pool of necessary social requirements looks a lot like initiating force, aggressing. The second principle looks like it could nullify the first. And certainly that is how many argue: they say this or that is “necessary” — road-building, alms for the poor, church construction and maintenance, the fine arts — and then proceed to extract the wealth necessary to fulfill the so-called necessity.

On the other hand, it is so vague that it may just be a supplemental way of looking at the first right: by not coercing others, we are contributing to the most necessary thing to the maintenance of society.

The third point is the most interesting, for here we wander into the territory marked by Robert Nozick in the first part of Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974): procedural rights. We all lack “a natural right to be the judge” between ourselves and others and it is our

…natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third….

This absence of a right to judge altercations and disputes of which we are a part is an interesting one, and is one that John Locke referred to as an inconvenience of the State of Nature, where (in his philosophical fiction, but not entirely unrealistic considering Jefferson’s discussion of the Indians) human beings go about doing precisely that, exacting revenge and recompense for perceived wrongs without the aid of another’s impartiality.

The Nozickian angle on this is to assert that this natural duty to submit to impartial third parties is a procedural right we all possess. Without it, we would be at the mercy of the strong, the unjust, the . . . well, you get the idea. Where do we get this right? In the wake of Nozick’s book, many libertarians simply denied any procedural right like this, such a nicety being only a matter of convenience and prudence. Or, as in Jefferson’s Indians, custom.

Jefferson, I bet, would regard this right as deriving from social necessity. Which is where the right to liberty comes from, too. And with social necessity we go back to the previous point.

Is this all there is to it?

Does this make sense?

One could argue that the basic right to liberty bakes into its cake this procedural right, too. And that many of the other oft-enumerated social necessities must be compossible with this basic, fundamental right, or else must be negotiated for.

And this latter point is important, I think. For there is a vast range of goods that are necessary for society that do not require compulsion to perform. We all need to eat. We all need to bury, dissipate, or somehow process into harmlessness our urine and feces. But none of these require a special right or a special duty, do they? Property rights define the limits of externalities such as excrement disposal, and property rights also allow us to cooperate to provide each other with the necessities of life like food, shelter, and education. There is no real reason to compel by universal duty — to make compulsory, mandatory — the production of most basic goods. At least, not so long as private property is allowed to work its way into the social fabric, and provide the natural regulation via the right to liberty itself.


Jefferson is more Lockean than Hobbesian. This is clear from the remainder of the letter, though it would have been interesting to see him carefully dissect Locke’s two treatises on civil government. Complaining about the Hobbesian element in his friend Destutt de Tracy’s work, he calls the Hobbesian approach “humiliating to human nature,” which I guess I can understand. Jefferson’s point is that Hobbes’s view was that

…the sense of justice & injustice is not derived from our
natural organisation, but founded on convention only….

. . . specifically, I presume, the convention entailed by deployment of Leviathan’s overwhelming force. Against this notion, Jefferson elaborates a moral sense doctrine in creationist terms: “Man was created for social intercourse; but social intercourse cannot be maintained without a sense of justice; then man must have been created with a sense of justice.”

The evolutionary revision of this notion was given by Herbert Spencer and others: “human beings are social animals; sociality requires a sense of justice, therefore they could not exist without a sense of that justice somehow ingrained, baked into the cake, so to speak; therefore we should not be shocked to see humans exhibit just such a sense, by ‘survival of the fittest.’”

A common objection to this sort of argument is to note that human being possess deeply anti-social natures, as well, and often engage in outrageous criminality and not infrequently display sociopathy and psychopathic tendencies. Which is true. But even most criminals betray a sense of fair play and justice. And the exceptions to an evolutionarily advantageous propensity do not disprove the propensity, it just means that when we discover someone so far outside the bounds tit-for-tat justice and common moral sense that they attempt horrible criminal acts, as a matter of justice we must wield what Jefferson says the Indians wielded: the “tomahawk chop.”

Interestingly, Jefferson conceives it an error to assume that governments arise from

…the patriarchal, or monarchical form….

. . . and he goes on to say that the Indians prove this, especially the Cherokee, who were in the process of setting up a civil government along republican lines.

Of course, what he does not mention is that they were mimicking the Euro-American form of government, but giving it a more egalitarian structure than even the Euro-Americans, since in their nearer-to-a-state-of-nature societies, hierarchies were not strong.

What Jefferson does not contemplate is the likelihood that most governments have been set up along patriarchal and monarchical and bullying principles, but that some less so.

But all are modern governments are based on assumptions of borderlines and territory and compulsory allegiance and coerced duties. Even those that are (or pretend to be) rights-based do implement some notion of “natural duty” as Jefferson did in his second principle, above, and this natural/civic duty principle is the de facto ground of all else. You are not allowed to not ally yourself with a government, these days. It is not like the Indians, where the “disesteem of society” defends basic rights and serves as the punishment for most rights violations. We are not allowed to ignore the State.

And this tension exists in this passage, and Jefferson has not argued it away. It remains in libertarian theory. Only the “anarchists” have dissolved it by dissolving any basic duty ungrounded in basic rights.

Though every now and then someone arises to take up the argument anew, the situation is still . . . unsatisfactory. Something seems off about “anarchy,” yet the case for the State appears incoherent and arbitrary, as if we were merely arguing for it because we cannot seem to get rid of it, not because it makes as much sense as a neat and tidy rights theory suggests that it should possess.


I wonder what Jefferson would have said about what happened to the Cherokee Nation, and Jackson’s forcing of their march on the Trail of Tears.

Perhaps had the federal government been better confined to defending natural rights, such a tragedy would not have occurred, and the boundaries of the Cherokee accepted as redrawing the borders of the adjacent, imperialist states that pushed for their ouster.

twv

Did any Greek political philosophy (500 BC – 500 AD) align with American libertarianism?

…as answered on Quora….

Elements of liberal-libertarian individualism can be found in most schools of ancient philosophy.

Plato’s admonition to favor persuasion over force — seeing civilization as the triumph of persuasion over force* — could ably serve as a libertarian motto.

The idea of natural law, especially as developed by the Stoics, provided an important perspective for the growth of the rule-of-law idea so vital to classical liberalism, and, more narrowly, the tool that is “rights,” from which libertarianism grounds its limited and limiting conception of justice.

But it is in Epicureanism we might see the greatest libertarian foreshadowing among the Greeks. Epicurus, I think, offered a number of important concepts that spurred the growth of the libertarian idea.** Chief among these is a stripped-down conception of justice as the rules that allow people to form compacts for mutual protection. Both utilitarianism and contractarianism find early formulations in Epicurean writings — most of which are, alas, lost.***

And there is something in Epicureanism that is not to be found in Platonism, Aristotelianism, or Stoicism: absolutely no aggrandizement of the State, no conception, even, of its moral legitimacy. The State of Epicurus’ day, and all the associated politics surrounding its warfare and plunder and busybodyism, was something Epicurus advised his followers to avoid. He imagined a better system, in his simpler, non-lofty idea of mutual protection compacts. But they could not be put in place generally in ancient times, so Epicurus advised avoidance of the State. He was a social schismatic, if not a utopian.

In his attitude towards the State Epicurus was, in effect, applying the same approach that he applied to religion: debunking.

The four-fold cure serves, I think, as a good summary of Epicureanism:

  1. Do not fear death;
  2. do not fear the gods;
  3. good things are easy to get;
  4. suffering is easy to endure.

Epicureans argued that much of our phobias about life derive from superstitious myth and religious hectoring about afterlife punishment by vengeful and mercurial deities. Epicurus himself developed a scientific viewpoint to show that there is no afterlife, and thus nothing to fear in that regard, and that the gods, if any there be, would be uninterested in human affairs, so they were no threat. He saw the cosmos as complex but not conspiratorial. The social world, on the other hand, did have malign conspiracies everywhere, and, though one could fear them, the best recourse is pain- and threat-avoidance, for the thing most needful for a happy life was a baseline cheerfulness and a resistance to fear.

A friend of mine told me, recently, that he sees Epicureanism as being all about fear — fear of pain. I think this is exactly backwards. Fear exacerbates pains. One should try to avoid complex habits of life that conjure up more pain than they are worth, that is the Epicurean strategy. But with what pains one is inevitably delivered in life, we had best use philosophy and the therapies of desire to deal with them. I beseech thee: do not get caught up in fear.

Indeed, decades ago I reformulated the four-fold cure as an anti-phobic discipline:

  1. Do not fear death;
  2. do not fear the gods;
  3. do not fear boredom;
  4. do not fear suffering.

And once you have mastered these attitudes, apply them against politics, which is filled with what Max Stirner called “wheels in the head” — made-up and reified notions of State Sovereignty, moral authority, and Divine Justice as imposed via the State. All that is just nonsense that some people use to get you to conform to their outrageous demands. These notions are carried over from religious superstition. They mask what is really going on in the political realm.

De-mystify all that.

There is a pipeline from Epicureanism to libertarianism. It is not for nothing that one perceptive Christian author quoted nearly five full pages from the Data of Ethics by the great libertarian theorist of the 19th century, Herbert Spencer, as exemplary of Epicureanism in modern times.**** The affinity is quite striking.

What is even more striking, though, is how little explored it is.


* “From Force to Persuasion,” in Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (The MacMillan Company, 1954), pp. 87–109.

** See Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), for a discussion of the historical importance for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment of the unearthing of the great Epicurean poem by Titus Lucretius Carus.

*** But see James H. Nichols, Jr., Epicurean Political Philosophy: The De rerum natura of Lucretius (Cornell University Press, 1976).

**** William DeWitt Hyde, From Epicurus to Christ (The MacMillan Company, 1904), pp. 10–15.


About the image, above: Harry Browne and a statue of Epicurus. Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World was reviewed by philosopher John Hospers in Reason magazine, under the title “The New Epicureans” (March 1974).

Posted earlier, my notice of the new episode of the podcast. Now it is time to share the video version — is it called merely a vlog or a vlogcast?

LocoFoco Netcast #16, vlog-version, June 29, 2020.

With the kicking of Stefan Molyneux off of YouTube, I have to admit, putting anything up on YouTube bothers me. But we shall survive?

twv

Anthony Comegna returns to the LocoFoco Netcast. The latest episode is up on SoundCloud right now, and is probably wending its way out to the podcatchers as I type these words.

LocoFoco Netcast #16, June 29, 2020.

I disagree with Dr. Comegna on very little, though I don’t use his conception of left and right, and I do not see the divisions in the libertarian movement quite the way he does. I will obviously have to talk more about this, and perhaps I can cajole @DrLocoFoco to come back on the podcast again!

Obviously, on the history he knows quite a bit more than I do. His notion of a research program to trace out what Herbert Spencer called “the filiation of ideas” is heartily seconded by me.

twv