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Debunking Hoppe on Immigration

PhilosophyPosted by Nico Metten Thu, July 23, 2015 13:32:00
Hans-Hermann Hoppe is known for his skepticism of open borders. He thinks that open borders are inconsistent with libertarian principals. Therefore, real libertarians have to oppose this policy, at least as long as the state exists. I think Hoppe is mistaken on the issue. His arguments seem deeply confused and I am going to show why. As he claims to be a libertarian and the state is basically illiberal, then in order to make a supporting statement of a very intrusive state policy like immigration, his argumentation just has to be very messy. There is no real case for the support of this policy. To show exactly how this works, let us look at two of his articles on immigration.

Recently, re-published two of such articles. The first was entitles “Free Immigration is Forced Integration” and the second “Immigration and Libertarianism”. Let us start with the first, “Free Immigration is Forced Integration”.

In this articles Hoppe tries to make essentially one argument. The argument is that “free” immigration violates the property rights of the locals and can therefore not be libertarian. To get to this conclusion, Hoppe needs to distract the reader with a number of argumentative tricks to make it look like, his conclusion follows from his premises.

Let us go through the article systematically. The article is divided into 7 parts. He starts by summarizing what he describes as “the classical argument for free immigration”. I am not sure if there is such a thing as “the classical argument”. There are definitely a number of different arguments in favour of open borders. Hoppe, in a side note even concedes this in the second part of the article. But he makes it incorrectly look like this is another route to dispute the open border claim by calling it a “first shortcoming” of the free immigration argument. No, what Hoppe calls “the classic argument” for free immigration, is merely the economic argument for it. But fair enough, it is an important argument and Hoppe, as far as I can tell summarizes it correctly. He also explicitly agrees with the idea that free immigration does not cause economic problems. He understands correctly that this would be an argument against free markets in general.

In the second part of the article, he then goes on to say that trying to criticise open borders by pointing out negative effects of the welfare state is also not persuasive. These are problems of the welfare state and not of open borders in and of itself. I think this is correct. If the welfare state or for that matter any other state policy leads to negative effects of freeing up markets, then libertarians should attack these policies and not the freeing up of markets. So far, Hoppe seems to make the case in favour of open borders. One thing that is important to note until this point is, how he uses the word 'free'. The word 'free' is used in the libertarian sense of “free from constrains”.

Now, from the third part of the article, Hoppe starts making the libertarian case against free immigration. His argument is that in an anarcho-capitalist society, everything worth owning is already owned. Therefore, there cannot be freedom of immigration. So the property prevents the freedom. Wait a minute, what? Why is property in contradiction with freedom? This is a strange argument coming from the founder of The Property and Freedom Society. But maybe they serve free alcohol there? But seriously, isn't the whole point of libertarianism that property and liberty are closely linked with each other? How can Hoppe make the argument that since we have property, there cannot be freedom. That sounds very confused to me. It should be clear that Hoppe at this point has started to use the word freedom in a non libertarian way, as in 'free of charge'. He argues that we have property, therefore immigration cannot be free of costs. In this sense of the word however, libertarianism is also in contradiction with free markets. A free market would be a market in which everyone can help themselves to everything they like, free of charge. That clearly is not libertarian. That is more a socialist way of using the word freedom. Libertarians explicitly stress that their idea of freedom is to be free from proactive impositions from others. Even more remarkable is that Hoppe just a few sentences earlier has used the word in exactly this libertarian meaning. And now he just changes the meaning of “free” without even telling the reader about it. One wonders why? Is he not smart enough to realise that he is using the word with the different meaning, or is he speculating that his audience won't be? I don't know the answer, but I know that at least one of the two needs to be true.

So let me make clear, what a libertarian like myself means when talking about “free immigration”, or for that matter immigration. Immigration is a collectivist term. It means the movement of people over some form of collectivist borders. These can be cultural borders or state borders. As such it is not always completely clear when to call the long term reallocation of a person to another location immigration and when he is just moving house. Simply moving house from Charles Street a few miles down the road to Summer Lane is usually not called immigration.

In today's statist world, immigration is usually understood to mean the long term reallocation of a person from one side of a state border to another. Free immigration therefore means that people who would like to make such a move are free from not interpersonal liberty maximising compatible restrains. The biggest of such restrains right now is state immigration controls. These come in the form of state issued passport controls at state borders and visa licensing systems that allow the state to control who is on its territory for how long and what reason.

I am not trying to argue about words. If Hoppe has a problem sticking to a consistent meaning of a word let us just argue about the meaning itself. Can we agree that the state is violating people's liberty with these types of policies or not? And can we therefore agree that these policies have to go unconditionally or not? Unfortunately, Hoppe seems to really believe that state immigration controls, to some degree are not in violation of liberty. However, as I argue above, the attack on open borders via redefining the word 'free' can hardly be taken seriously. So what other arguments does Hoppe have?

Although, not so fast. At first he seems to continue the article, explicitly rejecting state immigration controls as unnatural in part four. However, immediately after he has done so, he starts to develop a new way of arguing that current immigration is violating the liberty of people. Hoppe says that since we have a state, that state then employs policies like building roads that are not market results. This distorted market will also have a distorting effect on immigration. And this is what he calls forced integration, because we now have more roads than we would otherwise have and therefore the locals have to put up with more immigrants than they would normally get.

This is a really odd argument in many ways. To start with, he seems to contradict himself. In part two of the article, he argued that trying to argue against immigration with the welfare state would not be convincing, as this is a problem of the welfare state, which will have to go. But now he is applying the logic that he himself rejected earlier, to do just that. If immigration leads to problems with other state policies than libertarians need to argue against these policies instead of making themselves advocates of more statism.

But his argument is also not economically correct. Yes, the state is distorting the economy. But it is hard to tell what the exact market result would have been. How does Hoppe know, that we now have more streets then we would otherwise have? If we could figure that out without the market, then we would have a pretty good argument in favour of central planning. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe now, we have less roads than we would otherwise have. In that case the same argument would lead to the opposite conclusion of forced exclusion. As a scholar of Austrian economics, he should know that?

Next he argues that in today's world the government and not the market is fully in charge of admitting people. That however, seems simply wrong. Behind the state borders, especially domestic property is still mostly owned privately. So despite the fact that we have state borders, the control over who comes into the country is still to a large degree in the hands of the market of that country. Without anyone renting out or selling a property to the immigrant, the immigrant still has a problem. But there does not seem to be a shortage of people doing that and I cannot see why there would be a shortage without border controls. Quite to the contrary, with the freeing up of markets it is reasonable to assume that accommodation could become cheaper as productivity increases.

Hoppe however argues that immigration controls lead to forced integration and forced exclusion. I can see how immigration controls are forceful exclusions. If a property owner on the inside of the fence would like to invite someone, the government can prevent this. That is why it is not libertarian. I find it harder to see a case of forceful integration. If the government lets someone through the state border, the people inside the fence can still say no to the person. And if everyone does, then the person would have simply nowhere to go, even in today's worlds. In order for this to be forced integration, it would need to be the case that someone is invited by the government and the government gives that person an accommodation. This does not seem to happen very often. If it does however, it is indeed not libertarian. But then again, instead of establishing general border controls and a visa system, the way to deal with that would be to abolish these state programs too. In fact, in this case, border controls and visas are clearly of no importance, as this obviously happens with or without these policies in place as well. So Hoppe is simply wrong if he concludes that it is the immigration controls itself that lead to forced integration.

Up to this point in the articles Hoppe has failed completely to establish an argument in favour of libertarian state border controls. However, in the remaining three parts, his arguments actually get a lot worse. While up unit now, he at least tried to make it look like he was making a consistent argument, he completely loses this in what is coming. It is a mixture of wild speculation and false conclusions that is not concerned with principals or consistencies. Let us have a look at it.

In part five he argues that if we had an absolute monarch that owned the whole country, then we would get similar results to free market immigration. It is beyond me how he comes to this bizarre conclusion. I guess, his line of thoughts goes something like this: Libertarianism is about property. If we had a single ruler, then the country could be seen as property. Therefore this would produce similar results to free markets.

Just like in the case of the word 'free', Hoppe has probably confused himself with words. He calls both property and therefore it becomes the same thing. He does not seem to realise that a King owning a country has absolutely nothing to do with property as being advocated by liberty loving libertarians. To be fair, a lot of libertarians do not understand the link between liberty and property. They therefore cannot distinguish between liberty maximising and non liberty maximising property. They simply think liberty is property. And Hoppe's argument is probably a result of that confusion.

But at the very least, he should realise that it is very dangerous to even just approximate a head of state to a private property owner. This is an argument often done by statist who want to justify things like taxation and regulations. They will argue that really no one owns anything, everything is owned by the state and therefore the state can tell you what to do with it or even take it away from you.

He continues this strange argument into part six, where he approximates a democratic government as the owner of the country. But since this owner, is not a single person anymore, but a changing committee, it will produce very different immigration rules than a king, so he argues. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with libertarianism? The state simply should go out of the way. The problems of immigration that Hoppe correctly or not incorrectly describes in this part are not problems coming from open borders, but from other state policies. And as he himself argued in part two, that is not a good argument against open borders.

He also takes this ownership analogy way too far, as if the democratic state would directly allocate people into properties. The reality however is, that this rarely happens. Most of the residential properties in the US as well as all the other western countries are owned privately. The state in such an environment going out of the way is just a policy of liberty.

Finally in part seven, he comes to a conclusion. This is not a logical conclusion. His argumentation so far was all over the place. He uses words in different meanings as it suits him in every given sentence. He wildly speculates about results of all kinds of systems and presents the conclusions of his speculation as market results if he likes them. And he simply is not very bothered with contradicting himself. In one word, his argumentation is a big mess. And so he concludes not what has followed, but what he wanted to conclude all along; that as long as the state exists (and to his credit, he stresses that the state will have to go), libertarians need to support certain state immigration policies which Hoppe thinks are close to market results. This is nonsense and I cannot see that he has even come close so far to an argument that would justify such a conclusion on libertarians principals.

A similar mess is the second article, “Immigration and Libertariansm”. Here he repeats a lot of the arguments that we have already seen. However, he makes some new ones. But first he start by attacking “left-libertarians”. He suggests that those are not real libertarians. I can see some people who might be called left libertarians that really are not, like Noam Chomsky. However, Hoppe never explains who exactly he means by that. But from the article, it seems that if you believe that the state should get out of the way of immigration unconditionally, then you are a left libertarian as opposed to just a libertarian. Silly attempt of an ad hominem attack.

His new arguments are first, that one could see the state as a trustee of all its citizens (he seems obsessed with constructing arguments that present the government as legitimate property owners. He never talks about liberty, property is clearly all he knows). On the basis of this argument he then goes on to outline what he thinks a sensible immigration policy would be. By that he means, what he would like to see. It is not at all clear why his proposals should be the results of a trustee.

Seeing the state as a trustee of its citizens is of course absolute nonsense from a libertarian point of view. Again, this is exactly the kind of nonsense that statist are trying to sell us. The state is not a voluntary and therefore legitimate organisation that can legitimately make decisions on behave of its citizens.

Hoppe actually concedes that seeing the state as a trustee is not a good way of looking at it. But his reason for that is really strange. He does not reject the idea because it violates people's liberty, no. He think this is a bad analogy because we don't see the immigration policies that he thinks we should see, as Hoppe sees them as market results.

In reality, since the state cannot be seen as a trustee, any policy that comes out of the state restriction the free movement of people on the basis of private property has to be seen as illegitimate, no matter what these policies are. And Hoppe never comes up with an example of the state actually violating the property of domestic people by letting “foreigners” through the state gate. Sure there are plenty of other policies in place that do violate private property rights. But those are separate policies from immigration controls.

Policies like the welfare state, which he goes on to blame for some negative effects on immigration. The welfare state might or might not produce these effects, the case is actually a lot less clear than he might think. In any case, Libertarians are not advocating welfare, just open borders. And again, Hoppe himself rejected the argument of conflating the two in his other article, so why does he bring it up here?

At one point he actually not only concludes that immigration is bad for the welfare state, but that “a financial crisis of unparalleled magnitude would result”. This is really beneath Hoppe. There is not a shred of evidence that immigration is causing economic problems. If it did, it would be an argument against free markets in general. And as we have seen above, Hoppe knows this very well.

It is a bit difficult to make a clear conclusion from all of this. Why is Hoppe coming up with such a mess of an argumentation? Is he too stupid to realize what he is doing? He might be, but it is not the impression that I have of Hoppe. I think he knows what he is doing and he is doing it deliberately. It looks to me like that he knows that there is not a case for libertarian state border controls. But he really does not like the outcome of this particular free market policy. So he is deliberately creating a messy argumentation. That way he can suggest to the anti immigration crowd that they are ok rejecting immigration on libertarian grounds. And that crowd seems more than happy to ignore the mess and pick up the ball. On the other hand, if a critic comes along trying to suggest that he is not a libertarian, he will point to the sentences in which he says that he does not like the state and wants to get rid of it. But that does not change the fact that these sentences are in contradiction with lots of other things he writes. He is clearly trying to avoid that critics can easily pin him down. It is easy to pin someone down who has a good argument but is making little mistakes. Than a critic can point to the specific mistake. But if someone's arguments are all over the place, criticism becomes more difficult as it is difficult to find a starting point. It is also harder to totally dismantle the mess. And so he can create the illusion that, although he might have made a mistake or two, there still is a case for libertarian state border controls. This is nonsense, as I have shown.

I don't like what Hoppe is doing. He makes libertarianism look disingenuous. Libertarianism looks like statist conservatism, an ideology which, like all statist ideologies is only in favour of some freedom, but also has its favourite state programs. We do not have to trick people into Libertarianism. If we cannot argue honestly, this movement will fail.

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What is wrong with Democracy?

PhilosophyPosted by Nico Metten Mon, May 04, 2015 21:32:22
This week, on May 7th, the local gang of thieves, also know as the UK government will ask its subjects for approval of their crimes. And amazingly, people will come out in flocks to give it to them. Their motivation for doing so will be different. Many have been promised a share of the booty. Some will have to live with the promise of one party robbing them less badly then the other. And there are those whose survival strategy seems to be, to not think at all and just follow the crowd.

The vast majority of all of them will have in common to dislike my characterisation of the government as a gang of thieves. “No Nico” they will say, “the government is just everyone getting together as a community and figuring out what is best for all of us. Everyone can take part. Everyone has a voice. The government is not a gang of thieves. The government is us.”

I would buy that story, if I was 12 years old. In fact, I did believe it when I was 12. But in my view, it really takes the naivety and life experience of a child to believe it. There are so many holes in that story, it is difficult where to start. Maybe we should start with the idea of the government representing the people.

Who are the people? The people are all of us you might say. Great, so in that case governance by the people would logically mean that everyone has to agree with a policy. I actually like that. The government could never do anything if everyone had to agree with it. The criminals would be stripped of their power and therefore leave us alone.

Unfortunately, we don't have that. Instead, what we have is that a part of the people will be enough to legitimise a policy. Here is my first problem. How can the government act in the name of the people, if a part of the people is systematically excluded? But hardly anyone seems to be bothered by this contradiction. They think they have a solution. The solution is that we can call it the rule of the people, when a majority of the people approves a policy.

But what is supposed to be so magical about a majority? Why should the majority part of the people have a right to tell the minority part what to do and still call this the rule of the people? As a famous saying goes, democracy, that is two wolfs and a sheep voting for what is for dinner. There seems to be nothing moral or logical about the idea that a majority can legitimise the exercise of power. The only thing the majority idea has going for it is that that way the exercise of power becomes possible. But then again, why would we want someone to exercise power over us anyway?

Nevertheless, even though the whole majority story seems very much arbitrary, let us for the sake of the argument assume for the moment that a majority can indeed legitimise power. How is that then been implemented in the current political system?

Currently, you can vote for parties or candidates. Both represent a whole agenda of ideas and political proposals. I shall be surprised if we could find anyone voting for a party or a candidate, who really agrees with the whole agenda. But let us get back to that later. First, let us take a simple example of an election result. Let us say there are two major parties A and B and a bunch of smaller parties. Let us assume 60% of eligible voters show up at an election to vote. 10% of these vote for smaller parties. 26% vote for Party A and 24% for Party B. Pretty much every western democracy has election rules to keep small parties out of the representative assembly. So we now have two parties, representing the will of the people. Party A is going to provide the government.

But wait a minute. Party A only has 26% approval of the voters. What kind of funny world is it, in which 26% represents the majority and 74% the minority? That means that the minority is almost three times as big as the majority. This is the funny world of politics, in which most basic principals of mathematics do not apply.

Right here we can conclude that the whole rhetoric of the rule of the people and majority rule is simply a fairy tale. But it actually gets worse. As mentioned above, most people do not vote for the whole agenda of a party. The system is set up in a way, so that you have to give your vote to a party according to a few issues that are important to you. This issue can be, and very often is as simple as, “party A promises me to subsidies my bus ticket”. Now you have voted for party A to get a cheaper bus ticket (btw who is paying for that?!) and party A interprets your vote as a mandate to do whatever is on their agenda. But since you haven't voted for them because of the rest of the agenda, this claim is simply false.

What does this mean for the democratic legitimacy of party A's policies? Well, it means that many policies on the agenda of party A are actually not even approved of by the majority of voters of the two major parties. If we think this through, that means that it is possible for a policy of the government to be only approved of by a tiny fraction of the voters. In fact not only is that possible, but it is happening all the time.

Almost everyone I talk to seems to agree that the government is putting out too many regulations in some area of their lives. How can it be that people in general seem to agree that there is too much government in some areas and yet we only seem to get more government? After what we have found out above, it should be clear why that is. It only takes a small fraction of the people to grow the government. A small interest group that is giving out their vote only on the basis of a certain regulation being put in place. While most people may disagree with this regulation, they are more concerned with getting their own favorite regulations approved. So this has more priority than to stop other regulations. Politicians know that and that is why they promise everyone their favorite government program.

The government will grow, no matter who wins an election. There is no way the government can be shrunk by voting. If you want to shrink the government by voting, you have to defeat the special interest groups. And since their issues are very important to them, you will likely lose. Even if you do manage to defeat one of them at some point, defeating all of them is impossible.

That means that since most people are not voting out of moral principals, but just for the benefit of their own bank account, the system has become a gigantic exploitation machine. The only question in every election has become, who is going to be the exploiter and who the exploited. And that although the system has become so complex, that it is impossible to really say on which side one will end up on. However, since wealth creation is becoming increasingly difficult in the middle of this battle, it is fair to assume, that we are probably all losing a lot on the whole. Democracy is not the rule of the people. It is not a noble system and the end of history. It is a fundamentally immoral system that deserves to die.

It will die anyway, since more and more people want to be part of the parasites. I don't blame them. As long as the system is set up the way it is, that is, as long as we think we need a government to organize society, taking part in the exploitation seems like a rational thing to do. The problem with parasitic systems however is, that eventually they grow so big that they kill the hosts. That is were most western welfare states have gotten to right now. So either, people start realizing that the system itself is the problem, or things are going to get really messy. Humanity will not make progress until we have slayed Leviathan in even its democratic form.

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Inheritability of Intellectual Property

PhilosophyPosted by Nico Metten Sun, April 19, 2015 17:11:34
Should Intellectual Property be inheritable? Some defenders of IP, like Jan Lester think it should. I would disagree. Why should anything be inheritable from a libertarian point of view? If Libertarianism is all about maximizing interpersonal liberty, should dead people be still considered a person whose liberty is worth maximizing? I don't think it should. Liberty is for the living, not the dead. The concept of inheritance is basically giving a person property rights beyond his or her death. Why is that supposed to maximize liberty, unless we assume that the liberty of dead people still matters?

Having said that, I am in favour of the inheritability of physical wealth. The reason for that is that physical things cannot be in the public domain. That is the reason why property is libertarian in the first place. Allowing the concept of property on some scarce things is actually liberty maximising. With the death of a person, his physical wealth does not go away. If it is true that property in this wealth was maximising liberty before his death, then it is reasonable to assume finding a new owner after his death is liberty maximising too.

To put it differently, physical wealth needs to be inherited to someone. Putting it in the public domain is not really possible because of its scarcity. And if the question is just who inherits the wealth, it seem to make sense to let the previous owner decide who the next owner should be. If not him, who else should decide it? It also seems like a good solution, because the previous owner is likely the best to make an educated decision of who is best suitable to inherit certain things. This is most likely to keep the wealth in the most productive hands.

Things look a little bit differently for IP though. There are certainly many parallels between the concept of physical and intellectual property. However, there are also some crucial differences. In particular there are two differences that make the idea for inheritability of IP look questionable.

The first one is the fact that the usability of physical property is always limited to a few people. For example, if I have a chair, only one person can sit on it at a time. The same limitation applies to every other physical property I can think of. That means that for physical things, it is inevitable to have a rule according to which we can determine, who can use a desired object for which purpose at a certain time. Most of the time, the best solution will be to grand people property rights on these objects. Less often it might be enough to have a simple possession solution in place.

IP on the other hand is lacking this characteristic of physical property. In principal, information can be used by an unlimited number of people simultaneously. There is no limitation on the information itself. For example, me reading The Wealth Of Nations does not limited someone else to read the same book at the same time. This is a big difference between physical and intellectual property. The only limitation would be the availability of the physical medium on which the information are stored. But as I already said, inheritable property rights on the medium are not a problem to me.

The second difference is that physical wealth decays. There seems to be no exception to this, although some things are so robust that for all practical purposes they can be seen as not decaying. This makes it necessary to maintain physical things. Maintaining things usually is a capital intense process. People will less likely engage in this process if they are not allowed to have some control over the result.

Information on the other hand do not decay. The pythagorean theorem for example has not decayed one bit, despite the fact that it is thousands of years old. One might argue that the physical medium it is stored on needs to be maintained otherwise the theorem would get lost with the medium. That is true, but is not much of an argument in the digital internet age. Desired information will be stored in many different locations at almost no cost.

These two differences make the idea of the inheritability of IP questionable. Other than physical property, IP can actually be in the public domain. If that is true, than what justifies giving it a new owner, after the old one has died? This seems to be an unnecessary imposition on everyone who is not the new owner.

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A response to “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Wed, March 18, 2015 12:57:55
A response[1] to “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”[2]

J C Lester

We are first told that

"Some of the currently most popular forms of libertarian thought are defined by a commitment to the “non-aggression principle” – a principle which holds that it is always wrong to initiate physical force against other human beings."

Although “popular”, this is a poor expression of libertarianism. “Aggression” is problematic as being what libertarians are against. For one thing, it is rarely explained exactly how non-aggression is supposed to relate to a theory of interpersonal liberty. For another, “non-aggression”, in plain English, is no more up to the task than “non-coercion” (another libertarian favourite, although less popular of late)—not without charitable interpretation, at least. As glossed in the above quotation, “aggression” clearly does not work for two main reasons. 1) Theft and fraud don’t need to involve anyone having to “initiate physical force against other human beings”: you don’t need to initiate physical force against me in order to steal my money or cheat me out of it. 2) Consequently, it will sometimes be necessary to “initiate physical force” against thieves and fraudsters: to arrest them and bring them to trial, for instance.

That said, we can try to make a little more sense of the “non-aggression principle” (NAP); partly because many libertarians use it, and partly in order to move towards something clearer. Therefore, we might, as above suggested, provide a charitable interpretation of “aggression”, e.g., ‘the proactive interference with the bodies and external property of other people (where that property is itself not acquired by proactive interference)’. And if we do that, then it begins to make sense that the absence of such “aggression” is what interpersonal liberty is (although this sets aside various precise philosophical problems with this account). For such “aggression” against us would be other people initiating constraints on us. And we can then make sense of interpersonal liberty as the absence of such initiated constraints. (However, it ought at least to be mentioned that what liberty is—as a theory and as social phenomena—is a factual matter that is completely separate from the moral issue of whether breaching such liberty is “always wrong”. Conflating the two issues, as the article does, is a major source of confusion.)

Having rectified that account of the “non-aggression principle” sufficiently for our current purposes, we can now proceed to the second major error in the article:

"The problem is that libertarianism seems to imply that environmental pollution, insofar as it constitutes or involves aggression against other human beings, is morally impermissible. Not just a bad thing, mind you, but absolutely morally impermissible in the same way that theft, assault, and murder are."

The error here is easily explained. The “non-aggression principle”—as interpreted here, at least—is best seen as being what observing liberty fully or absolutely would require. That is, full liberty is the absence of any “aggression” (i.e, proactive interference with people and their—non-proactively interfering—property). Now, it is true that pollution will be “aggressive”. But that is only half of the story. Because to prohibit the activities that are causing the pollution will also be “aggressive”. Consider a simple example. If I have a fire for warmth and cooking, then you might suffer some minor pollution as a result. But if you can force me not to have a fire, then you have deprived me of warmth and cooking. Both the allowance and the prohibition of pollution will be “aggressions” (although ‘proactive impositions’ seems to be a clearer expression). Whichever one is preferred, or however they are balanced, there will be some “aggression”. Therefore, it is impossible to implement the non-aggression principle in the event of such clashes. So what is the libertarian solution? It is surely libertarian to maximise liberty. That means adopting a minimum-aggression principle (or MAP). And that probably involves compromise and possibly compensation. How are minimum aggressions to be determined? They can often best be measured, traded, and compensated for by assigning market—or, at least, reasonable—monetary values to the gains and losses involved. In any event, the general solution to the problem is to see the NAP as referring to observing liberty when matters are one-sided. But the MAP applies when there are clashes.

Note that this proffered solution is not, as the article suggests, restricted to “discrete interactions between identifiable individuals”. It applies just as much to “a world increasingly characterised by the complexly interrelated activities of large numbers of dispersed individuals”. But to engage in, say, class actions (as the legal term has it) over “contemporary environmental problems such as automobile pollution, acid rain, and global climate change” is not in any anti-libertarian sense to be “less individualistic in identifying perpetrators and victims”. However, there is an important equivocation here. In one sense, rules that are intended to protect the general public (rather than any individuals in particular) are thereby, ipso facto, not “individualistic”. But they can remain individualistic in the libertarian sense that is opposed to collectivism (whereby individuals cease to have claims to liberty because of the greater good of the majority). Such individualism-in-principle is not abandoned just because there are lot of indeterminate people involved. Neither is the MAP in principle “less absolutist”. This is because liberty remains the thing that must absolutely be maximised. Consequently, it is clearly possible to “keep the individualism and absolutism where it makes sense” because, as interpreted here, it makes sense everywhere.

Then we are asked this question:

"How can libertarians still maintain that it is wrong to impose a small tax on the wealthy, even if the social benefits would be enormous, while allowing that drivers are entitled to send small amounts of toxins into other people’s lungs since, after all, the social benefits of driving are enormous?"

The question is confused in two main ways. First, no libertarian need concede that it is even practical “to impose a small tax on the wealthy” such that “the social benefits would be enormous”. This mere logical possibility flies in the face of the deleterious unintended consequences of tax-transfers. In an imaginary world, the state might be a welfare boon. In reality, it is a welfare bane. There is no sound reason to suppose that “utilitarianism” must in practice “countenance violations of individual rights”. Second, it is, at best, a muddle to describe the libertarian case for allowing the “toxins” caused by driving as being because “the social benefits are enormous”. It is, again, necessary to look at both sides before applying the MAP. 1) Allowing driving despite its toxins: this will proactively impose (“aggress”) to a minuscule degree on people (probably too small to make compensation claims economic); and this has to include a deduction to the extent that any particular individuals also engage in driving, or benefit from the consequences of driving (such as the delivery of goods to their area, etc.), or chose to move into an area where driving is allowed, etc. 2) Banning driving because of its toxins: this would proactively impose huge costs, in one way or another, on almost everyone. Hence, 1 is the liberty-maximising option.

If the foregoing analysis is roughly correct, then the answer is not “waiting to be discovered by future libertarian philosophers”.[3] And it is more mere fantasy and confusion to suppose that any solution must ultimately mean “pushing libertarians back … toward the more moderate classical liberalism of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Hayek”.

Clarificatory conclusion

Because of the way that the problem was originally framed, it is easy to misinterpret the above response. In particular, it might look as though it amounts to a moral advocacy of a sort of consequentialist libertarianism to replace deontological libertarianism. It does not. And such an interpretation would be to miss the crucial main point in a typical way. For the response is not really about libertarian morals. It is about what interpersonal liberty is (in abstract theory) and what applying it objectively entails (in normal practice). Most self-identified libertarians unwittingly have a moral muddle without a central factual theory of liberty. They cannot yet see that they first need to sort out what liberty is, and therefore entails if instantiated, and only after that can moral questions about it be coherently raised and tackled. An analogical error would be utilitarians who could not even give an account of utility.


[1] The article in question repeats a criticism of libertarianism that was one of those raised ( and briefly answered ( on The revised replies to those criticisms are now available in a book chapter (Lester 2014, Ch. 5). But as the new article is somewhat different, and the audience different, a reconsideration of these important issues seems merited.

[2] IEA Blog, 20 February 2015:

[3] It ought to be noted that any attempt to refute this overall theoretical approach that is based on criticisms in Gordon and Modugno 2003 or Frederick 2013, ought at least to be aware of the replies to those criticisms: chapters 9 and 10 in Lester 2014.


Gordon, David and Modugno, Roberta A. 2003. “Review of J.C. Lester's Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 17, 4: 101–109.

Frederick, Danny. 2013. “A Critique of Lester’s Account of Liberty.” Libertarian Papers 5, 1: 45-66. Online here:

Lester, J. C. 2011. Arguments for Liberty: a Libertarian Miscellany. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

—— [2000] 2012. Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism Without Justificationism. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

—— 2014. Explaining Libertarianism: Some Philosophical Arguments. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

Zwolinski, Matt. 2015. “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”, Institute of Economic Affairs, Blog, 20 February. Online here:

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Are ethics universal?

PhilosophyPosted by David McDonagh Fri, August 29, 2014 12:43:46

The moral law is universal.

Many people seem to think that as all do not adopt the moral law then philosophers like Plato, or his epigone, Kant err on this hallmark of ethics that moral rules are universal. Many feel that cross cultural studies suggests to them that moral rules can vary from society to society. They also feel that the breaking of the moral law by theft or murder by some people in all societies also shows us that the philosophers badly err.

But neither supposed counter example is really germane, for the flouting of the moral law does not mean it is not universal, as universal here does not mean we have all adopted it, but rather that it applies to one and all by the moraliser. Ethics is about rules, not facts. A flouting of the formal or categorical moral rule is no more a refutation of it than is any schoolboy getting his sums wrong in boring mathematical lessons is a refutation of arithmetic.

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utility monsters, etc.

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:18:05

utility monsters, etc. Mental-state utility aside (see *utilitarianism), if utility ought to be maximised in some form then we need to reply to three classic *criticisms of this as a desirable criterion (and also as compatible with *liberty). 1) This will engender the social and even genetic evolution of utility monsters: people with huge appetites that have come about because the biggest appetites will win in any *resource-distribution contest based on mere utility. 2) We ought to engineer people’s wants by dishonest *propaganda, coerced *eugenics, etc., to make sure that their wants can most fully be met. 3) We should prefer a more-*populated world with low average utility as long as total utility is plausibly higher than that of a less-populated world of much happier people.

We can immediately agree (if only for the sake of argument with 3, which is not so clear) that all of these outcomes would be undesirable, and unlibertarian if imposed, but argue that they are not entailed by utilitarianism as such. 1) We can rule out pandaring to utility monsters on the basis that the long-run effects would be disastrous for utility. It would be like always giving in to the tantrums of a small child, only on a society-wide scale. So gross appetites alone are not a sufficient reason to *proactively impose on others. 2) People do not want to be deluded or forcibly engineered to achieve someone else’s conception of their ‘utility’. People value having their own *spontaneous wants satisfied, including as these wants also spontaneously evolve. Therefore any proactively imposed wants do not count as utility-improving by this conception of utility. 3) This is a mere logical possibility. In practice it would involve forcing people to reproduce and then maintain their offspring, by some method, beyond what they would freely choose to have done. The ensuing loss of utility to the parents and wanted children plus the kind of *totalitarianism that would need to be involved, and the *tax-funding of that totalitarianism, do not seem to make it a practical problem for utilitarianism.

However, even if there were a systematic clash between liberty and utility at some theoretical extreme, that need not indicate an inconsistency between libertarianism and utilitarianism for most practical purposes. And thus the *classical *liberal compatibility thesis is preserved in practice. See *consequentialism.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:12:40

utilitarianism This is the idea that the ultimate criterion of *morals is utility, and so whatever actions appear to maximize overall utility (in the long term and as far as we can tell) are at least *legitimate and probably mandatory. Several points need to be made in a *libertarian context. What follows relates only to *persons and not to non-person *animals.

1) Conception of utility. If ‘utility’ is understood as a mental state, as it was originally and often still is, then it is hard to defend it as desirable in principle because most people want at least some real states of affairs. They do not want the *happy or pleasurable delusion of having the things they want, nor some zombie-like state of wellbeing. The more recent preference utilitarianism, by contrast, means having more of your preferences or wants satisfied, even if you can never know it (such as a lost friend’s wellbeing or what happens to your paintings after your own *death). Only one’s unimposed wants (not those induced by *fraud or force) will count, because we do not value *proactively-imposed wants however happy, etc., they might make us. Thus (unimposed-)want-satisfaction is a criterion of *welfare, although not an exclusively *self-interested one, that people would choose for themselves if they could. *Economics should be interpreted as referring to this sense of utility.

2) Conceptual connection with liberty. There are conceptual connections between preference utilitarianism and libertarianism: individual persons have more *liberty and utility to the extent that they are not proactively imposed on; and liberty and utility are necessarily desired. These connections are not ad hoc: they involve interpretations of liberty and utility that independently withstand *critical scrutiny. These connections do not make the overlap between utility and liberty tautological: we can coherently imagine the *state’s being able to increase overall utility by infringing liberty.

3) Contingent connection with liberty. There is no logical incompatibility between preference utilitarianism and *laissez faire; contra, for instance, Bernard Williams (1929-2003) (see *unintended consequences). And, contingently, it appears from economics, primarily, that the *free market and liberty are just what does maximize want-satisfaction. There seem to be no systematic clashes between them, at least (see relevant topic entries if this is doubted). Thus ‘rule utilitarianism’ can be interpreted as requiring the rule of observing libertarian *rights (rather than calculating the consequences for each act as ‘act utilitarianism’ entails; but see *consequentialism).

4) Significance of connection with liberty. Neither preference-utility nor liberty are ultimate values (goals we would uphold as ends in themselves no matter what the consequences): both are only moral frameworks, or can even be mere egoistic modus vivendi (possibly arising from a *social contract), within which diverse values and ends may be pursued. That utility and liberty do not clash is not a *‘justification’ of either by the other. Correctly understood, they can both float as unrefuted practical moral conjectures. But it allays criticisms of each that, if either were to be maximised, it would damage the other too much. And liberty and utility are the two biggest, supposed, rivals in Western moral theory; so they make an overwhelming alliance. Ultimately, one is a libertarian or utilitarian first and foremost to the extent that one would favor liberty or utility in the event of a clash. Not many people would favor liberty regardless of the consequences for utility, or vice versa. But as they do not clash in systematic practice one need not choose.

See *utility monsters, etc.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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harm principle

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:05:00

harm principle It is often suggested, sometimes even by *libertarians, that actions that harm other people should not be allowed. But taken literally, this cannot be correct. For we often *objectively harm others, or *risk harming them, with their permission: such as by providing them with ‘junk food’, cigarettes, or participatory *sports. Harming, or risking harming, others on a voluntary basis is part of *liberty. A better criterion of what should not be allowed is what *proactively imposes on other people (or normal adults, at least; with the mentally impaired, etc., being treated like *children of similar intellect), even if it does the imposed-on people some objective good.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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