Rosen 0, Longo 0

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.

11 thoughts on “Rosen 0, Longo 0”

  1. An anonymous poster wrote, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on ‘self-ownership.’ I’ll admit that I’m a proponent of it (there may be a better choice of words to express it). I’m assuming that even if you don’t (fully) buy into self-ownership, that you’re certainly not a proponent of ‘society’ or any individual having claim over another’s life.”

    The point of whether “self-ownership” is the appropriate term is a side-issue. I wrote that “a person properly directs the course of his own life.” If you want to call that “self-ownership,” I don’t really mind.

    The major point is that you can’t just pretend that “self-ownership” is some sort of self-evident axiom or that the rest of political philosophy spins deductively from it.

    If you want to claim that people should have certain freedoms of action and property rights, you must prove it, not just assert it.

  2. Hi Ari. That’s certainly thought provoking. To say that the concept of self ownership comes out of nowhere seems non-useful to me. One could just as well state that it’s opposite has the same provenance. I would point out also that self-ownership doesn’t negate the possibility of voluntary submission to an authority figure.

    But, more to the point, I think that in any philosophical system, you have to start somewhere. The historical authority of kings, emperors, etc. of which you speak has often been predicated upon deific endowment. For example, IIRC, the Aeneid was commissioned by a Roman emperor in order to trace his lineage back to Jupiter, and thus establish legitimacy of power. (If it wasn’t the Aeneid, it was some other work from the Roman Empire.)

    But I have to ask: if you don’t own your own life, how is it that you can own your own labor? And if you don’t own your own labor, how can you contract with others to exchange it for money, or goods, or other services? And do so freely, without relying on any warrant from your feudal overlord, or whomever it is to whom you’re beholden? This is my take on a sort of reverse proof of the validity of the argument. Though I admit it requires acceptance of individual liberty as a condition. But to take the other side allows justification of serfdom, slavery, monarchy, dictatorship, etc.

    I don’t buy your TV theft argument either. Using self-ownership as a basis of property rights implies that you also respect the property rights of others. Thus it doesn’t justify theft as OK on the basis of “no higher claim”, because of course, it is owned by someone else, and your claim isn’t higher than his. The higher claim applies only to things you rightfully own. If I’m a shop owner, no-one has a higher claim than I to my inventory. Otherwise, how could I undertake to contract with others for its sale?

  3. Jed, it’s amazing to me that you could so fundamentally miss my point.

    The central issue is that libertarians are wrong to take “self-ownership” as some sort of self-evident axiom or to think that other complexities, such as property rights, can be deduced from it. The claim that “self-ownership,” by itself, implies robust Lockean property rights is simply nonsense. One could just as easily argue that “self-ownership” implies the right to food, housing, health care, etc.

    I don’t really care whether you use the term “self-ownership,” so long as you explain what you mean by it and justify it. The argument against using “ownership” to apply to one’s person is simply that the concept should be restricted to one’s relationship to material items. Did you somehow miss my statement that “a person properly directs the course of his own life?”

  4. I attended a seminar on patent law a few years ago, and the presenter described property and ownership in terms of the “right to exclude” others from using it. This phrasing is fairly useful in explaining what ownership means (at least I think so), but of course not sufficient for resolving property rights and individual rights.

    In any case, very good post, Ari.

  5. Your article is indeed thought provoking. However, I would have to agree with Murray Rothbard that self ownership is a property right. In fact, the most important property right one has. How can one truly have any other property rights if one does not have exclusive rights to one’s self? This seems to be an idea that does not need any testing in the real world.

    Also, if a “person properly directs the course of his own life” wouldn’t intervention in that course, even in the cause of preventing one from self harm, assume that the interventionist had some greater inner knowledge of that persons subjective reasons?

    I don’t understand how subscribing to a “self-ownership” axiom could imply a right to food, health, etc. It simply claims a property right to a scarce resource that one has homesteaded. Having homesteading rights over one’s body seems self-evident. Having automatic property rights over services and goods does not. These things would require some claim of ownership.

    In regards to the child and self ownership dilemma, I believe that once a child reaches an age of rationalization, the child “homesteads” his self ownership or property rights of himself.

    This is a subject that most certainly can be debated quite extensively and I find it a most fascinating topic.

    While I disagree that “self-ownership” isn’t an axiom, I enjoy and appreciate the contrary point of view. I will have to ponder this in greater depth.

  6. Allow me to clarify my major points.

    1. “Self-ownership” cannot possibly be an axiom. It is not self-evident, it is not obvious, it is not widely agreed upon. It might be true, but it’s not an axiom.

    2. Very little can be “deduced” from self-ownership. Chuck writes that self-ownership “claims a property right to a scarce resource that one has homesteaded.” Okay, you can say that, but it’s certainly not logically implied by “self-ownership.”

    3. I’m not sure that “ownership” is the proper language to use with respect to one’s self. I agree I should be able to control my body and actions consistent with property rights. But is that “ownership?” We literally cannot reach the concept of “ownership” until we relate it first to material items. For example, “I own this stone ax that I just made.” Is it a legitimate step to then apply the concept of ownership to one’s self? Perhaps, or perhaps it’s a useful analogy. I’m not sure about this. But you can’t even reach the concept of ownership until you first assert (implicitly or explicitly) your right to control your own body and actions, so it seems like ownership is coming out of a prior assertion of rights.

  7. Wouldn’t arguing against self ownership put oneself into a performative contradiction as Hans-Hermann Hoppe argues? By this I mean, if you use persuasion to convince people that self ownership is not an axiom, than you imply that I have a right to disagree. If I do have a right to disagree, does that not mean I have the ultimate authority of myself?

    Regardless of whether the concept of “self-ownership” is an axiom or not, it seems to be the only principal compatible with morality as the other alternatives are total communism or accepting partial control from another group.

    Perhaps including a caveat of rational behavior should be considered as I tend to avoid absolutes and there do seem to be situations where this may not always be beneficial. On the other hand, the freedom to commit errors seems just as fundamental.

    Again, I think this discussion is quite provoking and I’ll have to marinate on these concepts much more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and clarifications on the subject.

  8. I regard Hoppe’s argument as hyper-rationalistic nonsense. It does point out something interesting about consistency. But he has to load a great deal of other assumptions into his argument to make it work, including, as you suggest, that we should want other people to act by their own judgment.

  9. I’m the first, anonymous poster. I agree with you that there needs to be a philosophical basis/proof for “self-ownership.” However, for me at least, I thought it was pretty self-evident when I was younger (I told my dad something about being able to make decisions and act on them). Of course, I was relieved to not be the only one to think that way when I later found Rand and read her stuff.

    Thanks for the good website,

  10. Ari, I don’t believe I’ve fundamentally missed your point. Agreeing with it is another matter. You’ve emphasized that “a person properly directs the course of his own life”, and I agree with that. But then I have to ask how that is possible without self ownership. If someone else owns your life, then that person directs your course, not you. It seems that self-ownership is a necessary condition for your statement. But then it looks to me as if you’re coming at it from the other direction.

    Anyways, my body is a material item, and I own it. The energy which it produces via chemical reactions is therefore mine as well, and so is the labor that this enables. I can use this labor to acquire other material items, and therefore own them as well. I simply don’t see much in the way of complications there, philosophically.

  11. Ari, thanks for causing the discussion of the ‘first principle’ issue. From recent debates, my own argument against self-ownership as a first principle has emerged as this:

    When the libertarians, voluntaryists, anarchists and misesians hold self-ownership to be a political first principle, it fails for lack of an ethical principle that would give rise to any concept of ownership, let alone self-ownership. When they hold it to be an ethical first principle, it begs the question of what facts of our nature require it.

    The missing facts are that humans must resolve the most fundamental alternative living creatures face — existence or nonexistence — by exercising our volition to opt for and pursue life by applying reason to action and to do so independently to protect ourselves from and retain responsibility for the fallibility that is volition’s corollary and common to each and every one of us.

    It is only the accommodation of these facts of our nature that will logically establish individual autonomy as right morally, and subsequently require (when extended to a social context) the political first principle that …

    no person shall initiate the use of physical force to gain, withhold or destroy any tangible or intangible value of any other person who has either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange,

    … and a government, as well, that will apply it by managing force per objectively defined political rights and enforcement procedures — i.e., radical capitalism.

    This seems to be consistent with your position … Or?

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