Tuesday, June 14, 2005

More on Libertarianism

In response to my recent posts on libertarianism, Peter Cresswell has written up a lengthy article which fails to actually address the specific points I made. It consists of an odd mix of snide insults, misinterpretations, and unsupported or irrelevant assertions. But I'll ignore the insults, and simply focus on correcting the misinterpretations and engaging with his arguments.

PC begins by distancing himself from Nozick and the self-ownership thesis, which is fine by me. As I have repeatedly explained to him, my arguments are not solely directed at Nozick; they apply to all rights-based libertarians. Disowning Nozick does nothing to deflect my criticisms.

My Criticisms of Libertarianism (a reminder):

1) An impoverished and 'thin' conception of freedom that is merely formal rather than substantive. (A "freedom from" only has substantive worth insofar as it yields a complementary "freedom to".)

2) The problems relating to initial acquisition (and the subsequent illegitimacy of actual holdings). To quote the relevant excerpt from my essay:
Discussing the transfer of property rights begs the question of how one could acquire title over unowned resources in the first place. Consistency should commit the libertarian to denouncing unilateral appropriation of common resources as a form of theft, since it peremptorily deprives others of their liberty to use the appropriated resources. Autonomy recommends that individuals have a veto over appropriations which exclude them from the commons.

3) The problems posed by ongoing needs and Intergenerational Justice, that together suggest that justice requires that ownership / property rights be understood as conditional rather than absolute.

4) The coercion and exploitation of those who lack bargaining power and reasonable alternatives (i.e. the poor and disadvantaged).

And, more recently,
5) Poverty renders one unfree (in the libertarian sense) in a capitalist society. Enforcing property laws is a form of state intervention. And, given the conflict of liberties (between rich and poor) that this gives rise to, the intellectually honest libertarian is committed to concluding that the liberty of the poor has moral priority (in certain specified circumstances).

PC's arguments

So, those are my criticisms. How does PC respond to them? Well, for the vast majority of my criticisms, the answer is not at all. His only real attempt at a response relates to #2, initial acquisition. Here he writes:
38... how land was initially acquired is only really an academic argument - one rather over-used by our friend Nozick.
39. However, the US Homestead Act of 1862 and common law rule of acquisition by prescription rightly recognise that using land unchallenged for nineteen years gave one rights in that land. I think that’s fine, and makes perfect sense.

Now, how one can acquire property rights in the first place is actually of the utmost theoretical importance to libertarianism, if it hopes to provide an adequate account of justice. After all, one can pass on a title (e.g. through trade) only if that title was rightfully yours to begin with. If not, you're effectively trafficking in stolen goods, and the recipient has no more right to the stolen property than the original thief.

Now, PC has failed to give an adequate theoretical account of initial acquisition; he has merely dismissed the problem instead. See the essay excerpt I quoted earlier in this post for a taste of the problems facing the libertarian here.

Unchallenged use of a resource is clearly insufficient grounds for justly yielding an absolute right over said resource. If I steal your car and drive it around for 19 years without getting caught, that does not make it mine by right. Similarly, if I appropriate all the productive land in a region, effectively forcing everyone else to become subserviant to me, the mere fact that nobody thinks to challenge me would not make my actions just. The most that can be said here is that unchallenged use of an object might yield a prima facie right, something that counts in favour of my continued use of it (especially if it is central to my life and well-being). But it certainly falls short of creating any absolute right.

Again, the inter-generational reductio (see my #3 links) is illustrative here. If our grandparents (between them) had unchallenged use of all the world's natural resources for 19 years, surely it would (still) be a grave injustice for them to destroy those resources, leaving future generations (us!) with nothing. But PC's libertarianism implies that they would be well within their rights to do so. This is clearly absurd - PC's libertarianism must be mistaken. People do not have any absolute right to acquire natural resources and exclude others from their use.

PC quotes Ayn Rand as saying:
Any material element or resource which, in order to become of use or value to men, requires the application of human knowledge and effort, should be private property - by the right of those who apply the knowledge and effort.

He then adds, "41. What that would mean is that we can only own what we own." (Why he would choose to emphasize an empty tautology I'm not quite sure, but I suspect he instead meant to write "we can only own what we use." Thus, he says, Robinson Crusoe could not claim to own his entire island. Yet many rich people today have assets equivalent to many islands - far more than they could ever need to use. Is he suggesting an upper limit on wealth here?)

Returning to the Rand quote, it fails to recognize that any unilateral appropriation will exclude others from the use of the resource, and preclude them from using their "knowledge and effort" to develop the resource. Libertarian doctrine on initial acquisition basically amounts to "first come, first served". But why think that this provides a fair or just system? What if the latecomer could have made better use of the resource? What if a more equitable split would have been better for those who have been excluded? These are all problems I discussed in my 'initial acquisition' post, and they are problems that PC has studiously ignored.

PC's Misconceptions:

A) PC confuses freedom and rights. In section #46, responding to my post Poverty as Unfreedom, PC writes: "This assumes that need is somehow a claim on the production of others, and represents a Disneyland view of existence."

In fact my post assumes no such thing. All I do in that post is point out that there is a clash of liberties between the rich and the poor. If you do not have the money to buy a sweater, then you are not at liberty to take the sweater. This is a brute fact, and does not (by itself) entail that one has a right to the sweater. Indeed, I explicitly say that: "Which liberty ought to win out is a topic for a future post."

But PC seems not to have read my post. At least, he certainly does not understand it. Just look at his bizarre and twisted re-interpretation of my conclusion:
47... The purported conclusion: "Money provides freedom, and to lack money is to lack freedom. If the poor man tries to pursue his ends in life without the money to pay for them, then others will forcibly interfere with him. The thief interferes with the liberty of rich to dispose of their holdings as they please; but likewise, the security guard interferes with the liberty of the thief to take from others' holdings as he pleases. This is a genuine clash of liberties, and it cannot be decided without appealing to some other, non-freedom, value (such as self-ownership)."

Or to put it another way, ‘I want the freedom to do whatever the hell I like, but reality doesn’t let me. I want a comfortable living, and I insist you provide it for me.’ This is really an infant’s view of freedom – or that of a modern philosopher.

Or, to put PC's response another way, "I don't know how to read. I certainly don't know how to respond to your arguments. But I want to argue anyway, so I'll put words in your mouth and then mock them to make myself feel better. *pauses to listen to self* ... You philosophers say the stupidest things!"

B) PC misunderstands my "intervention" arguments.
Lacking money certainly gives us fewer existential choices – and so does lacking the smarts you were born with -- but if your political freedom is protected (ie., if you are protected against physical coercion) then you have the freedom to make money yourself, and so to expand your own existential freedom.

This common misconception is exactly what Cohen was arguing against with his ticket argument. Money is not like natural abilities - it is a social rather than natural artifact. The poor man has the capacity to take the loaf of bread -- and, absent interference, he could successfully do so. But the baker, or the police (i.e. the state), will physically prevent him, if he lacks the money to pay for it.

PC says that "freedom in the political context is freedom from physical coercion." And I have shown that poor people are subject to physical coercion when they try to meet their basic needs (by taking from the surplus of the rich). That was the whole point of that post. I can't imagine how PC managed to miss this. But he has entirely failed to give any sort of adequate response. He asserts that "Libertarians aren’t for state intervention after all", all the whilst failing to recognize the point I have made repeatedly and explicitly, that enforcement of property rights is a form of state intervention.

In my post, I even cautioned:
I have shown that poverty in a capitalist society involves exactly the sort of interference and lack of negative freedom that libertarians claim to abhor. But the commonplace rhetoric is so rarely challenged that it may be difficult to overcome one's deeply ingrained assumptions and recognize this brute fact.

PC seems to have missed this -- he certainly has shown no evidence of having understood my arguments.

C) PC confuses freedoms 'to' and 'from'. In section 4, he quotes Rand:
There is only one fundamental right ... a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action - which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfilment and the enjoyment of his own life.

This actually supports my position. I would entirely agree that what matters is that people are free to pursue their goals (see criticism #1). The problem, of course, is that libertarianism provides no such thing. It merely provides freedom from interference. But this is clearly insufficient, like I've said before:
If you're stuck down a well, and I refuse to throw you a rope, you don't have any "freedom" worthy of the name. If everyone ignores you, consistently with perfect non-interference, that does not make you perfectly free. Unless you consider death to be perfect freedom, that is.

Compare PC's point 11: "To die we need only do nothing." It's a pity he never thought to apply this insight to his conception of freedom.

D) PC misunderstands utilitarianism: "17. We have no collective brain". You think utilitarians don't know that? I have discussed this silly objection before.

E) Life and Property:
22... if our lives are to be safe and secure, then we need the security of knowing that the things we use to further our lives are themselves safe and secure. This is what Ayn Rand means when she says that the right to one’s life is the “source of their rights, and the right to property their only implementation.”

I can grant that there is some utility to having a stable system of property, but it need not yield absolute rights. (Indeed, it ought not, for reasons explained above.) If you are taxed at some relatively stable and predictable rate, then that will not lead to the sort of chaos that will prevent you from planning ahead and living a flourishing life. The rich seem to manage just fine in modern society. Pity the same can't be said for the poor. Perhaps a more important consequence of the right to life should be the right to a decent education and other opportunities in life that libertarians would deprive poor children of. Not to mention basic needs like food and shelter. Poor children won't have much chance to pursue a flourishing life without those, after all.

F) Resources are not created ex nihilo:
33... resources are not ‘held in common.’ They never were in any case, and never are. A ‘resource’ is an identification of the human mind – nothing was a resource until a human mind identified it as such – before it was so identified, a ‘resource’ was just a bunch of rocks or trees, or so much swampland, or just so much dirty black liquid oozing from the ground.

On the contrary, a resource is any material object that may be used by humans to advance their purposes. Thus "rocks or trees" are indeed resources, and if you take and use them then that means that other people can't. Re-read that essay excerpt at the start of this post again. It's absolutely crucial. We want to make use of natural resources, of course, but we must find a fair way to do so. "First come, first served" is not a principle of justice when we have a scarcity of resources, such that whoever appropriates thereby makes the others worse off. Again, I discussed all of this in my 'initial appropriation' post. Again, PC has simply ignored my arguments.

Well, I think 'F' is an appropriate grade letter to stop at. I do appreciate PC taking the time to write a response. I only hope that next time he will actually respond to some of my arguments.


  1. Richard, I'll respond to your 'corrections' and omissions over the weekend.

    Might I suggest in the meantime that you re-read my piece and see all the points you've ignored simply because they dont fit your rationalistic model.

    Think too on these questions, which might supplement you rather 'thin' understanding of the real-world import of this topic: where does wealth come from? - what makes it possible? - why is the concept of rights necessary? - how do those 'boundaries' of moral space arise, and why are they necessary?

    You might also find value in Tibor Machan's article, Two Senses of Human Freedom, which might help you understand your fundamental error in collapsing the distinction between existential and political freedom.

  2. You (Richard) are basing your conception of "libertarianism" on Nozick and PC's on Ayn Rand. Nozick was in reality no libertarian at all, and Rand was quite simply a loon.

    Run, don't walk, to www.mises.org and read the works of Rothbard and Hoppe in particular.

  3. Actually, a lot of what is refuted in this piece translates to the works of Ludwig Von Mises and Murray Rothbard, Anon. I think it is you who needs to revisit the Mises website. There is nothing more dangerous than a half-literate human being reading the likes of Rothbard and Rand - for their juvenile translation as to the principles they set forth become dangerous rhetoric and cries for the rise of anarchy.

  4. Regarding initial acquisition: the assumption that unowned property is a common resource implies that everyone has certain universal rights over unowned property. Property can either be owned or unclaimed. In reality, everyone has only one right to unclaimed property: to claim it. Claiming physical property is merely being the first physical presence to physically acquire said property.

    People who make use of unclaimed property as if it were a "common resource" aren't using the property legitimately, but there is simply no way to contest their use until the property is claimed.

    Consider the analogy to intellectual property: an idea that has not yet been invented is not a common resource, it is simply unclaimed. Everyone has only one right with respect to uninvented ideas: to invent/discover them. Ideas are claimed by inventors/discoverers, at which point they have exclusive control of their ideas to varying degrees.

    Where is the difficulty?


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