Some readers may have noticed that my blog posts feed into the People’s Press Collective. How this process works is a mystery to me, and I’m not even sure whether my posts automatically feed into it or whether they must pass through a human gatekeeper. At any rate, I think it’s a useful site, and I like all the contributers I know. That said, I disagree with the occasional post there.
A recent post by “AnCap” — a.k.a. Justin Longo of Complete Colorado (and I’m not spilling any beans here) — is quite interesting even though fundamentally wrong.
Longo’s main point is that radio host Mike Rosen often compromises free-market principles in the name of “reality.” I can attest this is true. Rosen often has expressed a belief that what’s good in theory may not work in practice. Therefore, he often jettisons principles for the sake of pragmatism. For example, Longo notes, Rosen supported the TARP “stimulus” corporate welfare. As Longo paraphrases, Rosen is “still reluctantly for TARP because doing nothing would have been far worse.”
Longo is correct that Rosen’s position violates free-market principles. Moreover, Rosen is simply wrong: “doing nothing” would have been far better than forcibly transferring wealth from the productive economy to political boondoggles. Robert Higgs makes this case.
The more fundamental point that Rosen misses is that restoring a truly free market would be a lot better than “doing nothing.” Advocates of free markets are not for the status quo: we are for replacing today’s mixed economy with liberty. As my dad and I reviewed, politicians caused the mortgage meltdown. Since then they have been worsening the recession and delaying recovery through massive wealth transfers, new and capricious economic controls, and continuous threats of more of the same.
As Longo reviews, Rosen believes that free market reforms today are “not on the table.” What Rosen neglects to notice is that what’s on the table is what we put on the table. Free market reforms are not on the table today because practically all Republicans have busily renounced free markets in favor of more political controls. But that’s not quite true; despite the Republican war on free markets, some free market reforms are on the table thanks to the efforts of a small but dedicated few devoted to liberty, such as the idea to expand Health Savings Accounts. (This reform appears to be hidden under a napkin, but at least it’s on the table.)
True, cultural changes can be long and arduous. But we can’t achieve positive change unless we fight for it. Just look at what the abolitionists achieved in a span of years. Rosen creates a self-fulfilling prophesy by presuming that free market reforms are off the table. Pragmatists content themselves to gnaw on the scraps tossed to them by those with the ambition to take a seat at the table.
Yet Longo’s deeper critique of Rosen illustrates precisely what’s wrong with the libertarian movement. Rosen plays the “pragmatic libertarian” to Longo’s “dogmatic libertarian.” This is precisely the problem I observed in the Libertarian Party a few years ago — and the reason I left the party and no longer count myself a libertarian.
Longo’s argument is worth examining:
If stopping an employee from negotiating a mutually agreeable wage with an employer is wrong because third parties do not have the right to infringe on voluntary transactions, then one conclusion we can draw is that the minimum wage is immoral. Now take that principle and apply it universally, to all parties, at all times, and to all contracts, decisions, and transactions. Think about it. Do you not like the outcomes you get in some scenarios? Too bad. Those are the consequences you must deal with when principles are applied universally.
Is it wrong to kidnap another human being against their will? Yes? Okay, now apply that principle to all parties, at all times, ever in history? Oh no! You mean we cannot conscript soldiers during war? You mean we can’t force people to sit on juries they don’t want to? Too bad. Those are the consequences you must deal with in order to claim you are principled.
I realize that applying basic principles universally is scary, as some of the outcomes we reach are sometimes outcomes we are uncomfortable with. However, applying principles universally is an important thought experiment that allows us to see whether we really believe in something or we don’t.
Let me close by suggesting just two principles I live by and apply universally. You are more than welcome to run millions of thought experiments in order to reach as many conclusions as possible with these two — warning: some outcomes will scare you.
First principle: You own yourself. No one else has a higher claim on you than you do.
Second principle: It is ALWAYS wrong to initiate force on someone else. (notice the use of the word initiate. Self-defense is absolutely moral).
As you can see, the second principle is really just a logical extension of the first principle. In my view, all we need is the first principle, as everything else is logically deduced from principle one.
Please apply my two principles universally — to all people at all times, ever in history. You will then see why I believe what I believe and how I reached my own conclusions over the years.
To Longo, it is simply “too bad” if libertarian theory, say, causes a death or the destruction of the planet. But obviously he doesn’t really believe that “principles” should be completely detached from consequences; he suggests in his final line that, on net, looking at “all people at all times, ever in history,” the principles he favors achieve the best results. Is that not why he believes what he believes?
The problem is that Longo’s principles aren’t principles at all; they are statements of dogma. A principle is a guide to action integrating vast knowledge about the real world. If a principle doesn’t work in the real world, that means it’s false. Contra Rosen, a principle is such precisely because it is tied to the real world. There is no split between theory and practice — provided that one’s theory is grounded in reality and one’s practice follows sound principles.
Longo claims that “everything else is logically deduced from principle one,” which is, “You own yourself. No one else has a higher claim on you than you do.”
Not only can very little be “deduced” from this claim, but the claim itself is, without principled grounding, completely arbitrary and implausible.
If we look at the course of human history, practically everyone has flat-our rejected the notion that “no one else has a higher claim on you than you do.” Most people have accepted the authority of a king, a priest or deity, a democracy, or some proclaimed moral leader.
So where does Longo’s “first principle” come from? It is certainly not intuitively obvious, it is not written in our genes, it is not written in the heavens.
For libertarians, this “first principle” — this fundamental dogma — is pulled out of nowhere. And that is the most basic problem with libertarianism.
Now, I certainly agree with the principle that a person properly directs the course of his own life. But this is a moral proposition that can only be grounded in the facts of human life and the nature of social interaction. One must prove it and determine its context, not just invoke it as some magical formula. (Proving it takes a lot of hard work that I am not prepared to undertake here, though I will note that in my view Ayn Rand made the most progress in developing the principle.)
But the statement “you own yourself” is not some sort of axiom. Indeed, it cannot possibly be an axiom. Ownership arises, conceptually, in the context of property, which arises only in a social setting. One could not even reach the idea of owning one’s self without the idea of owning some bit of property (a tool, a bowl of food, whatever). Why should I think that I own the stone ax that I made? What if the tribal leader thanks me for creating the ax for the tribe and graciously hands it over to the canoe carver? A lot has to go on conceptually to get to the point where I can think about owning some piece of property. And, as I’ve noted in brief, Leonard “Peikoff argues that ownership properly applies to external objects, and that ownership of one’s self doesn’t make sense.”
But let’s assume that we’ve developed some idea of self-ownership. What deductively follows from that? Practically nothing.
Consider. If I “own myself,” and “no one else has a higher claim” on me, doesn’t that mean I get to control my own actions? Fine. I want that nice-looking TV in the window, so I smash the window and take the TV. The libertarian will reply that the owner of the TV also owns himself, so I have violated his rights. But why should I give a rip about that, if self-ownership is the highest axiom? Go ahead and go own yourself; all I’m doing is taking is TV. To get anywhere with this, we need a complex theory of property rights, and this is not a matter of spinning out deductions from some alleged axiom. We have to say something about why property rights are necessary for human flourishing and why we should adopt one particular theory of property rights instead of some alternative one (such as one in which a king decides who controls what property).
“Second principle: It is ALWAYS wrong to initiate force on someone else.”
Or, as one libertarian put the matter:
Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it’s distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.
In fact, some libertarians have argued that children have a “self-ownership” right to have sex with adults, which is absolutely abhorrent. The quote above seems to sanction child pornography, which is disgusting and despicable. With “principles” like this, who can blame those who “pragmatically” stray from the “principles?”
The general problem is that what counts as force, and what counts as the initiation of force, depends entirely upon our theory of property rights, which again depends on complex moral and legal theories.
Saner libertarians argue that parents may, after all, use force in some contexts when it comes to their children. For instance, if Johnny is playing in the street and refuses to move, a parent may properly pick Johnny up and put him in a safer place. Unquestionably this is the use of force. Whether it is the “initiation of force” depends on which ad hoc rationalization the libertarian confuses for a deduction.
To hint at the real solution, the concept of rights (including property rights) arises in a particular context: the context of rational (as opposed to insane) adults capable of peaceful interaction with others. But again this is the end result of a complex chain of theoretical knowledge, not some first “principle” pulled out of the sky.
Let us extend another of Longo’s examples. He argues that employers and employees should be able to voluntarily agree to a wage, and I quite agree in the normal context. But what if somebody decides to sell himself into lifelong slavery for a supply of drugs or a sum of money? Must we refrain from intervening in that transaction?
The sane libertarian will reply that contract law depends on certain conditions, and that selling one’s self into lifelong slavery could not possibly meet those conditions. Regardless, the conclusion does not simply spin itself out deductively. Principles must integrate a wide range of facts about the human condition, and they can only be applied by examining the particular facts of the case at hand in light of the broader facts identified by the principle.
Ultimately Rosen and Longo make the same error of detaching principles from practice. Rosen abandons principles to achieve what allegedly works. Longo says we must stick to “principles” even when they are scary in practice. However you flip the libertarian coin, you get ungrounded theory on one side and unguided practice on the other. The dogmatists and the pragmatists clash as codependents.
Where I think Longo is headed is that consistently applying principles can create short-term and narrowly defined problems. But the far more important insight is that properly derived principles are absolutely essential for a person’s success in life. Exercise might be momentarily unpleasant, but it contributes to general health. That union of theory and practice cannot come from libertarian dogma disguised as “first principles.” Obviously it cannot come from the pragmatic rejection of principles. It can come only from a proper understanding of what principles are, why sound principles necessarily work, and why successful action must be guided by principles.