Archives for category: Political Theory

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.

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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?

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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.

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The Law of Nemesis holds that you conjure up your own destruction — at least when hubris is your modus.

And sometimes your nemesis is your very dear self.

In war, the obvious problem is: to fight your enemy you become more like your enemy. The United States, in fighting two empires in World War II, became more imperial; in fighting the Soviets in the Cold War, the U.S. became more tyrannical and deceitful — even setting up disinformation bureaus.

In fighting racism, Americans are becoming more racist. Admittedly, it is a new kind of racism. Which makes the putative anti-racists look . . . ridiculous.

The turning point is when enough people see that white anti-white racism is utterly stupid, and its willing victims risible.

The “resistance” to Donald J. Trump is similar, but not just by an invisible hand process: it is by design. Sure, the center-left and the center-right conjured up their nemesis in the form of Trump. But Trump is savvy enough to know how to play his opponents. He makes his opponents oppose him in ways that make them look ridiculous.

That seems to have recently changed, in the context of the pandemic panic and the race riots. But I expect Trump to get his game back.

Because, I think, he instinctively — and perhaps consciously — understands the Law of Nemesis. And his enemies do not. They think he is ridiculous and that they look better for pointing it out.

That is part of their hubris.

Pride goeth before a fall.

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Richard Overton, cited on Common Sense with Paul Jacob.

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s. I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom. . . .

Richard Overton, An Arrow against all Tyrants from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever (1646).

A Threat to Civilization?

Now up on YouTube, the twelfth episode of my podcast:

LocoFoco #12, featuring Kevin D. Rollins

It is also available as a podcast on Apple, Google, and Spotify, and other podcatchers, as well as at LocoFoco.net:

Caricature by Andre Gill.

Progress is in inverse ratio to the coercive action of man on man, in direct ratio to his command over things. The Protectionist, by trying to prevent his countrymen from consuming what they choose, wishes to remove them from the effects of all external progress, and when he gains his ends he may indeed find the most extravagant conceptions of Swift pale before the irony of his creation.

Yves Guyot, The Comedy of Protection, 1906, viii. (h/t Common Sense with Paul Jacob).
Caricature by Andre Gill.

We must not confound liberty with anarchy. Liberty is the reciprocal respect for personal rights, according to certain fixed rules known by the name of law. Anarchy is the privilege of some and the spoliation of others, according to the caprices and arbitrary will of the cunning and the violent, and the feebleness and lack of energy of the timorous.

Yves Guyot, The Tyranny of Socialism, 1894 (h/t Common Sense with Paul Jacob).

It was the bicentennial of Herbert Spencer’s birth, on Monday, so I threw together a celebratory podcast episode, of sorts.

And, in that ninth outing of the LocoFoco Netcast, I blew through the theory of dysgenics so fast that I did not clearly distinguish (a) my thoughts from Spencer’s, (b) the best case for these ideas, especially in the theory of (c) incentives and disincentives, (d) inculcation of virtue and success, and (e) concern for the welfare of the worst off. Indeed, I am pretty sure I came off as a callous Social Darwinist, leaving Spencer and myself open to the usual criticisms.

That is what I get for being in a rush.

But then Jim Gill, who joined me for the final segment, had even harsher things to say!

Which means that I will have to quickly put up a follow-up episode. I am thinking it will have a subtitle: “Let’s ‘Nuance’ This Up a Bit.”

Which is something Bill Bradford used to say.

And Jim and I will do just that.

But how bad, really, did we get? You can listen at LocoFoco.net, or on the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, et al.:

LocoFoco Netcast #9: My Herbert Spencer Problem — and Ours.

The video of the new episode is uploading to YouTube, and will take a while.

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