Why I Am Not a Libertarian

I: The Dilemma of the Commons

I don’t usually post purely political essays on Daylight Atheism, as opposed to posts that touch on religion in some way. But the new series beginning with this post is personally important to me, and deserves an exception.

Though I only have anecdotal evidence, it’s my experience that the majority of atheists hold a politically liberal view. The second largest group, a substantial minority, takes a libertarian stance. (Classic conservativism is a distant third.) I know many members of the second group personally – some of them post comments on this site!

At its best, libertarianism is a noble affirmation of individual dignity and freedom in the face of tyranny; at its worst, it is a cynical and selfish excuse for the rich to exploit the poor and tell them that they deserve it. However, even in its best incarnations, I don’t agree with it. Individualism is a fine thing, but so is community. Neither is solely good or solely bad, and terrible things can result from taking either one of them too far without the counterbalance of the other. I believe libertarianism has gone too far toward one of those ends, and in this series, I’ll explain why.

The first and most important reason why I am not a libertarian is the dilemma of the commons. Akin to the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, this problem consists of a situation where everyone could potentially take more than their fair share, or pay less than their fair cost, for the use of a public resource. The usual solution to these problems is to introduce the notion of private property, which gives people an incentive to take care of their segment of the commons. This is feasible in some cases, but some things – some very important things – are public by their very nature and cannot be privatized. In such cases, the only way to solve the dilemma of the commons is to introduce an overarching authority that has the power to regulate the actions of the players.

In general, the things that cannot be privatized are natural phenomena that do not respect property lines. The abstraction of private property assumes that the actions and effects of a given person can be neatly partitioned off, separated from the rest of the world, so that it is easy to identify who is responsible. But nature itself cannot be divided into a set of hermetically sealed boxes. The world in which we all must live, and which we all depend upon, is composed of an enormously complex and intricate web of interdependencies. Any attempt by humans to draw clean lines through this tangle, identifying who is responsible for X and who is responsible for Y, is bound to end in illogic and futility.

Chief among these is the concept of environmental health. We cannot partition the environment. We all drink the same water; we all breathe the same air. Rivers, streams, aquifers and oceans cross property lines, and pollutants entering the water anywhere on the planet can cause problems almost anywhere else. Take the example of a farmer who lives upriver and a fisherman who lives downriver. The farmer may need to use nitrogen fertilizers to promote the growth of his crops; but runoff from those fertilizers that leaks into the river can lead to blooms of phytoplankton that suck all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones that suffocate the fish that fishermen depend on for their livelihood. Clearly, private property is not going to solve this problem; both farmer and fisherman need to make a living, both can reasonably claim ownership over their section of the river, and the requirements of each are inimical to the other’s livelihood. And what if the conflict is not with a fisher, but with people who use that water to drink or bathe, pitted against a company that owns another segment of the river and uses it as a waste dump? Whose ownership of one part of that water triumphs over the ownership rights of the other?

Similarly, how is a libertarian system to deal with the problem of air pollution? A state or municipality that insists on building cheap, dirty coal-fired power plants to run its electric grid will emit sulfur, mercury and other toxins into the air, potentially causing smog and acid rain hundreds of miles away. Similar problems occur with the owners of old, inefficient cars. How can private property resolve this problem? Who owns the air? Certainly, no one could ever prove that it was the emissions of one individual polluter that caused any particular problem. And what if the pollutant is not sulfur dioxide or particulates, but carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming and thereby causes destructive hurricanes, droughts and rising flood waters all over the planet? Again, no individual polluter is wholly responsible for these destructive side effects, and yet inarguably, the less greenhouse gas is emitted into the atmosphere, the better off we will all be.

Or, consider a common problem in the American West: homes built in chaparral and other ecosystems that are adapted to fire. After decades of mismanagement, we have learned that our well-intentioned efforts to manage this habitat by snuffing out small fires were a terrible mistake. Regular burns consume the dead wood from these habitats, keeping fires frequent, but small. Trying to suppress fire altogether only leads to tinder building up until a truly gargantuan wildfire inevitably begins, one that is impossible to contain and is far more destructive than small fires would have been. Again, private property cannot solve this problem. How could a libertarian system handle a stubborn landowner who insisted on stamping out every fire that began on his property, putting not just himself but his neighbors in danger?

Also, consider fish and other wild food sources. The ocean cannot be privatized – fish schools can and do move around, after all – and as a result, fisheries worldwide are collapsing as the most sought-after species are fished to extinction. Even worse, as a fish species draws closer to extinction and becomes rarer, demand increases and a catch can command an even higher price, leading to even more fishers seeking it. Unfettered capitalism cannot stop this destructive spiral.

Finally, not all tragedy-of-the-commons situations involve the environment. What about the issue of compulsory state service – for example, a military draft? There is no better example of a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation than this. In a time of war, each individual may reason that he personally is better off not joining the military. But if everyone follows this logic, society in general will collapse and everyone will lose their freedom and possibly their lives. Private property certainly cannot solve this dilemma.

There is no way to get rid of the commons. The products of human industry we can buy, sell and trade, but there are some things that cannot be divided up and that no one person can own. By their very nature, they must be shared and held in trust; either everyone has access to them or no one does. Clean air and water, a safe living environment, responsible use of natural resources, and national security are all among these. A purely libertarian state, with no power to direct what individuals do on their own property, cannot adequately respond to these issues.

Instead, without abandoning the notion of private property – for it is a very useful abstraction in many cases, one that often does motivate people to do the right thing – what we need is a governing authority that can control access to the commons. To address the valid concerns of force and fraud, this authority should be established by mutual agreement of the people, formed by widespread consent and bound by rules governing what actions it may validly take, so that it will not be exploited by one part of society to the detriment of another. But it should not lack the ability to take effective action to prevent the destructive Prisoner’s Dilemma situations that would otherwise arise, where the logic of individual selfishness leads to group suicide. Only a classically liberal, rather than a libertarian, society can effectively address this problem.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Please note: I don’t want the discussion on this post to turn into a general political blowup. I welcome a debate, but if there is one, I want it to specifically address the points and examples raised in this essay. Comments will be moderated if necessary to ensure this.

    P.S.: I mean it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Please note: I don’t want the discussion on this post to turn into a general political blowup. I welcome a debate, but if there is one, I want it to specifically address the points and examples raised in this essay. Comments will be moderated if necessary to ensure this.

    P.S.: I mean it.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    I agree completely.

    Essentially all of the atheists I know fall into either the liberal or libertarian category, and in both cases it’s a question of wanting to ensure freedom — the dispute is over what kind of management of public resources and space is necessary to ensure real options. I lean towards the liberal end for the very reasons you outline here.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    A very complex subject. Libertarianism/individualism must be balanced with environmental economics, or the factoring in of externalities. It is indeed the very “tragedy of the commons” which shows how important is the drawing of the line between individual responsibility, property, and the community.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    A very complex subject. Libertarianism/individualism must be balanced with environmental economics, or the factoring in of externalities. It is indeed the very “tragedy of the commons” which shows how important is the drawing of the line between individual responsibility, property, and the community.

  • Jim Baerg

    That’s a fair criticism of the anarcho-capitalist variant of libertarianism. However, there are quite a few people who would call themselves libertarian of the minimal state variety, & they would approve of such things as pollution taxes to keep SO2 or CO2 emissions down.

    BTW I don’t think the draft is optimal way to solve the issue of common defense. After all not everyone is physically able to be a soldier, but many who are unable to do that could earn enough to pay taxes, even enough for hazard pay to those who volunteer for the military.

  • Jim Baerg

    That’s a fair criticism of the anarcho-capitalist variant of libertarianism. However, there are quite a few people who would call themselves libertarian of the minimal state variety, & they would approve of such things as pollution taxes to keep SO2 or CO2 emissions down.

    BTW I don’t think the draft is optimal way to solve the issue of common defense. After all not everyone is physically able to be a soldier, but many who are unable to do that could earn enough to pay taxes, even enough for hazard pay to those who volunteer for the military.

  • Ric

    That’s a very nice, succinct statement of my political views. I am a liberal because I espouse two things: personal freedom and social responsibility.

  • Ric

    That’s a very nice, succinct statement of my political views. I am a liberal because I espouse two things: personal freedom and social responsibility.

  • Polly

    While I agree with the emphasis on the individual in Libertarianism, I think it’s too extreme. They seem to leave NO room for anything that doesn’t derive from pure self interest.
    On the other hand, I worry that liberals will do away with private property altogether. Even if that’s not what YOU believe in, I don’t trust those liberals in power. Come to think of it, I don’t really trust anyone in power.
    Also, I think conservatives, like Libertarians, tend to emphasize responsibility for one’s own condition rather than micromanaging the nation using tax dollars. But, the piece that’s missing with con’s and libertarians, is responsibility to one’s community, country, world. But, there’s great room for abuse by legislating these broader responsibilities.
    The only hope is to have a government with a mixture of representatives of both these two competing ideas and let them negotiate and check each other.

  • http://everyoneserves.org Rob Johnston

    I have seen the challenge of Libertarians to my campaign to encourage mandatory national service. They come to the site and post “this is slavery,” and cite the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Your expression of the commons is an effective counter argument, and makes clear that we’re not operating in the ideal world where we can each maximize our own comfort.

  • http://everyoneserves.org Rob Johnston

    I have seen the challenge of Libertarians to my campaign to encourage mandatory national service. They come to the site and post “this is slavery,” and cite the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Your expression of the commons is an effective counter argument, and makes clear that we’re not operating in the ideal world where we can each maximize our own comfort.

  • Jim Baerg

    Hello Rob Johnston:
    Have you read _Starship Troopers_ by Heinlein?

    In this book he floated the idea of a society in there was no draft but to have the vote one 1st had to do some sort of national service. If you signed up you could say what you preferred to do, but would not necessarily get that. For the term of your service you would do the work assigned to you. The book follows the story of someone who ends up in the army, but many end up doing some other sort of government work.

  • lpetrich

    A more concrete example of the problems of libertarianism is road building. Ideally, roads ought to be straight or gently curving, which requires the acquisition of appropriately-shaped land to build them. However, people’s property is usually not laid out for the convenience of future road builders, and some people are unwilling to sacrifice any of their property for building a road on it. Which is why road departments often end up using Eminent Domain to acquire land, what a libertarian might call a forced transaction.

    Also, roads are natural monopolies, at least in well-developed areas; it’s hard for there to be more than one road in front of your house. Some libertarians have attempted to argue otherwise, pointing to private toll roads, and how there was once a vogue for them in the early 19th cy. However, it was difficult to make very much money off of those roads, and all of those road companies eventually went out of business. This was true of an early 20th-cy. effort, the Vanderbilt corporate empire’s Long Island Motor Parkway. Parts of it still survive, but are now run by various local road agencies.

    Present-day private toll roads appear to be roads run by contractors, rather than roads built on land acquired by road companies.

  • lpetrich

    A more concrete example of the problems of libertarianism is road building. Ideally, roads ought to be straight or gently curving, which requires the acquisition of appropriately-shaped land to build them. However, people’s property is usually not laid out for the convenience of future road builders, and some people are unwilling to sacrifice any of their property for building a road on it. Which is why road departments often end up using Eminent Domain to acquire land, what a libertarian might call a forced transaction.

    Also, roads are natural monopolies, at least in well-developed areas; it’s hard for there to be more than one road in front of your house. Some libertarians have attempted to argue otherwise, pointing to private toll roads, and how there was once a vogue for them in the early 19th cy. However, it was difficult to make very much money off of those roads, and all of those road companies eventually went out of business. This was true of an early 20th-cy. effort, the Vanderbilt corporate empire’s Long Island Motor Parkway. Parts of it still survive, but are now run by various local road agencies.

    Present-day private toll roads appear to be roads run by contractors, rather than roads built on land acquired by road companies.

  • lpetrich

    I must mention Mike Huben’s Critiques of Libertarianism — it’s a good collection of resources.

    Also, I’ve collected a lot of “Political Compass” political-quiz data, and I’ve found that Ebonmuse’s impressions are supported by the numbers that I’ve found. I’ve also found a curious correlation between one’s economic and one’s social positions; though there is a lot of scatter, many of the scores fall on a line between

    socially libertarian, economic left
    and
    socially authoritarian, economic right

    though the line has a somewhat shallow slope, with there being about twice as much economic variability than social variability in many of the places I’ve looked at.

    This may explain why libertarianism seems so odd to many people — it is off the curve.

  • Pi Guy

    I tend sit somewhere between small “L” libertarian and liberal on most matters. I agree with fiscal/economic conservatism (small gov; minimal spending on social programs) but also support taking responsible risk on people who are at economic and/or social disadvantage and giving them an opportunity to contribute to the community – ie: redistribution of wealth. OTOH, I tend to be liberal socially (I’d sure like to see more discourse on current drug, gambling, prostitution, & marriage policies). I do like the idea of personal responsibility but there many areas where a responsibility and ownership cannot be boiled down to the single, private entity. The environment is the ultimate example. As Ebonmuse notes, there is no system perfect.

    That said, I am not a veteran of the the Armed Forces but I do work in the Military Industrial Complex and wonder if compulsory service might be a better idea than I thought when i was younger and uninitiated. Even the most minimally invasive federal government is expected to provide for the common defense. Unfortunately, not many people actually understand the importance nor the enormity of that task.

    Jim Baerg said:

    After all not everyone is physically able to be a soldier, but many who are unable to do that could earn enough to pay taxes, even enough for hazard pay to those who volunteer for the military.

    I don’t object to that in the least. However, in today’s modern technologically driven military, there are many important mission areas that don’t require that same level of fitness that we expect of infantry. As I said, I’m at least on the fence on this issue and this might be the appropriate forum as libertarians would tend not to be in favor of forced service (but neither do liberals).

    I’m curious to know what people think.
    Pi

  • Pi Guy

    I tend sit somewhere between small “L” libertarian and liberal on most matters. I agree with fiscal/economic conservatism (small gov; minimal spending on social programs) but also support taking responsible risk on people who are at economic and/or social disadvantage and giving them an opportunity to contribute to the community – ie: redistribution of wealth. OTOH, I tend to be liberal socially (I’d sure like to see more discourse on current drug, gambling, prostitution, & marriage policies). I do like the idea of personal responsibility but there many areas where a responsibility and ownership cannot be boiled down to the single, private entity. The environment is the ultimate example. As Ebonmuse notes, there is no system perfect.

    That said, I am not a veteran of the the Armed Forces but I do work in the Military Industrial Complex and wonder if compulsory service might be a better idea than I thought when i was younger and uninitiated. Even the most minimally invasive federal government is expected to provide for the common defense. Unfortunately, not many people actually understand the importance nor the enormity of that task.

    Jim Baerg said:

    After all not everyone is physically able to be a soldier, but many who are unable to do that could earn enough to pay taxes, even enough for hazard pay to those who volunteer for the military.

    I don’t object to that in the least. However, in today’s modern technologically driven military, there are many important mission areas that don’t require that same level of fitness that we expect of infantry. As I said, I’m at least on the fence on this issue and this might be the appropriate forum as libertarians would tend not to be in favor of forced service (but neither do liberals).

    I’m curious to know what people think.
    Pi

  • The Vicar

    Pi Guy:

    Unfortunately, not many people actually understand the importance nor the enormity of that task.

    The pedant in me can’t resist: look up “enormity” in a dictionary, and you’ll see the irony of this statement. Hint: it doesn’t mean what you clearly think it does, although some dictionaries now list that as a secondary meaning to reflect popular usage.

    Compulsory service is a scylla with an all-volunteer army as charybdis. When there’s compulsory service, it means that any idiot politician has a really big army to use as a threat, and there’s a vast number of politicians who fail to understand that the primary way of keeping your country safe is to not piss off other countries. Think the U.S. is in a bad position now? If Bush had been able to throw larger numbers of troops around, then in all likelihood World War III would already have been run. (In fact, I have a feeling that the minute a draft starts up in the U.S., the rest of the world will form an ad hoc alliance against us. Even if Americans don’t learn their history, others do.)

    On the other extreme, you can have an all-volunteer army, as the U.S. currently does. Then you have a force made up of the unwilling poor and the psychotic rich, so to speak, and guess which group rises disproportionately to the top of the command chain? Not, perhaps, the best people to rely on in the event of an emergency. And, of course, it means that in the event of the idiot politicians mentioned above starting a war, feelings about the war are very weak among a majority of the population because most people aren’t in immediate contact with anyone who’s going off to fight.

    Many people have proposed requiring national service, but making the service not necessarily be military. It’s a nice utopian idea — hey, we could use them to maintain the crumbling infrastructure, or mend the ecology, or digitize books which are about to fall apart because of acidic paper — but it wouldn’t work as a means of maintaining balance. If such a plan had been in place in 2000, regardless of how illegal it would have been to turn all the people into soldiers, they would all have gone into the armed forces; the war in Iraq was actually against U.S. law but it’s still being fought, and the same people who pulled that off would have had no problem breaking another law.

    (How was it illegal? Glad you asked. When World War II wound down, the U.S. signed a bunch of treaties in which all the signatories agreed not to allow preemptive war in order to prevent the rise of another belligerent dictator. The U.S. then passed laws which, in essence, said “it is against the law of the U.S. to contravene the terms of the treaties we just signed.” That’s generally how treaties are implemented in the U.S. — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, has a large section which writes the terms of an international treaty on intellectual property into U.S. law. Thus the invasion of Iraq not only broke longstanding treaties, it also broke U.S. law. It’s just a matter of finding someone who will prosecute. No volunteers so far — turns out that, if you’re rich and powerful, you can just ignore the law and nobody will ever even mention it, let alone prosecute. The people from whom we have inherited this system are probably spinning quickly enough in their graves to generate, if turbines were fitted to them, enough electricity to power quite a large town.)

  • The Vicar

    Pi Guy:

    Unfortunately, not many people actually understand the importance nor the enormity of that task.

    The pedant in me can’t resist: look up “enormity” in a dictionary, and you’ll see the irony of this statement. Hint: it doesn’t mean what you clearly think it does, although some dictionaries now list that as a secondary meaning to reflect popular usage.

    Compulsory service is a scylla with an all-volunteer army as charybdis. When there’s compulsory service, it means that any idiot politician has a really big army to use as a threat, and there’s a vast number of politicians who fail to understand that the primary way of keeping your country safe is to not piss off other countries. Think the U.S. is in a bad position now? If Bush had been able to throw larger numbers of troops around, then in all likelihood World War III would already have been run. (In fact, I have a feeling that the minute a draft starts up in the U.S., the rest of the world will form an ad hoc alliance against us. Even if Americans don’t learn their history, others do.)

    On the other extreme, you can have an all-volunteer army, as the U.S. currently does. Then you have a force made up of the unwilling poor and the psychotic rich, so to speak, and guess which group rises disproportionately to the top of the command chain? Not, perhaps, the best people to rely on in the event of an emergency. And, of course, it means that in the event of the idiot politicians mentioned above starting a war, feelings about the war are very weak among a majority of the population because most people aren’t in immediate contact with anyone who’s going off to fight.

    Many people have proposed requiring national service, but making the service not necessarily be military. It’s a nice utopian idea — hey, we could use them to maintain the crumbling infrastructure, or mend the ecology, or digitize books which are about to fall apart because of acidic paper — but it wouldn’t work as a means of maintaining balance. If such a plan had been in place in 2000, regardless of how illegal it would have been to turn all the people into soldiers, they would all have gone into the armed forces; the war in Iraq was actually against U.S. law but it’s still being fought, and the same people who pulled that off would have had no problem breaking another law.

    (How was it illegal? Glad you asked. When World War II wound down, the U.S. signed a bunch of treaties in which all the signatories agreed not to allow preemptive war in order to prevent the rise of another belligerent dictator. The U.S. then passed laws which, in essence, said “it is against the law of the U.S. to contravene the terms of the treaties we just signed.” That’s generally how treaties are implemented in the U.S. — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, has a large section which writes the terms of an international treaty on intellectual property into U.S. law. Thus the invasion of Iraq not only broke longstanding treaties, it also broke U.S. law. It’s just a matter of finding someone who will prosecute. No volunteers so far — turns out that, if you’re rich and powerful, you can just ignore the law and nobody will ever even mention it, let alone prosecute. The people from whom we have inherited this system are probably spinning quickly enough in their graves to generate, if turbines were fitted to them, enough electricity to power quite a large town.)

  • Mark C.

    The Vicar,

    all the signatories agreed not to allow preemptive war in order to prevent the rise of another belligerent dictator

    Unless there’s something I don’t know or have forgotten, the preemptive war was to take down a dictator, not to prevent the rise of one.

  • The Vicar

    Mark C:

    Nope; if you actually examine the history, you will discover that all the Allied powers were willing to leave Hitler to it (and Mussolini and Hirohito) as long as they stayed within their borders. Not even the construction of concentration camps was enough to do much more than raise a little concern. (Partially because up until World War II, concentration camps were used by pretty much everybody. The British used them on the Boers during the Boer War, for example. Of course, before the Nazis, concentration camps were usually not designed to systematically kill their occupants — only incidentally, so to speak — which is why the Holocaust came as such a surprise.) It was when the Axis powers started to invade other countries that the Allies became an actual alliance, and even then the U.S. might very well have stayed out if not for the monumentally boneheaded move by the Japanese of bombing Pearl Harbor.

  • The Vicar

    Mark C:

    Nope; if you actually examine the history, you will discover that all the Allied powers were willing to leave Hitler to it (and Mussolini and Hirohito) as long as they stayed within their borders. Not even the construction of concentration camps was enough to do much more than raise a little concern. (Partially because up until World War II, concentration camps were used by pretty much everybody. The British used them on the Boers during the Boer War, for example. Of course, before the Nazis, concentration camps were usually not designed to systematically kill their occupants — only incidentally, so to speak — which is why the Holocaust came as such a surprise.) It was when the Axis powers started to invade other countries that the Allies became an actual alliance, and even then the U.S. might very well have stayed out if not for the monumentally boneheaded move by the Japanese of bombing Pearl Harbor.

  • Mark C.

    Ebonmuse,

    I’m really glad you’re starting this series. I am an ex-Randist (i.e. an associate of Objectivism, though for only about a year, thankfully), and have thus had much experience with libertarian and pseudolibertarian thought. It really is a blinder to its adherents, as is the cult philosophy of Objectivism. Neither has an accurate take on what kind of a creature humans actually are. We can’t just go about our business for our own, shortsighted, sake. Community and positive interaction with others (including letting one’s pride go every now and then) are immensely important, and very few people, if any, could actually lead a satisfying life as a hermit.

    Anyway, it looks like I now might get some good philosophical reading on this site, other than whatever deals directly with atheism. Very nice and convenient. Thanks, Ebonmuse! :D

  • Mark C.

    The Vicar,

    Actually, I was talking about the Iraq war, which you said was against US law and international treaties. Is there something I’m missing? It doesn’t look like the Iraq war goes against said treaty.

  • Mark C.

    The Vicar,

    Actually, I was talking about the Iraq war, which you said was against US law and international treaties. Is there something I’m missing? It doesn’t look like the Iraq war goes against said treaty.

  • Brian Jones

    As a Libertarian (county officer) and a Humanist (AHA chapter board member) I concur with the anecdotal observation of atheists being mostly liberals with a smattering of libertarians and practically no conservatives.

    My analysis of this article has me agreeing and disagreeing. It is easier for me to explain how I think libertarian principles should be applied and what I observe within the Libertarian Party first, then addressing your view.

    As you mention briefly, the underlying principle of libertarian thought is liberty, exemplified by the non-aggression principle. The Libertarian Party currently requires its dues paying members sign a statement that they do not support the initiation of force or fraud for political or social goals.

    This seemingly simple statement has lots of depth to it. The word, “initiation” indicates that self-defense is perfectly acceptable. The pledge and the underlying concept, that of the self as a sovereign, that of you owning you, is powerful once understood. It shows how having the government tell you what size peach he can sell is the use of force by individuals using the cover of government (their agent) to use a gun to impose force on him.

    Here’s the thing that a libertarian must understand in order to avoid the mindset you describe of “all government is bad.” No government is also bad. You will hear many libertarians explain that minimal government which attempts to minimize uninitiated force and fraud from criminals or invading forces is not inconsistent with the philosophy. They will also argue that the government should operate via voluntary contributions.

    It was when I understood the potential flaw with this argument that I really fine-tuned my own principles. The whole thing boils down to an ethics question. I came to the realization that ANY government, no matter however limited, consisted of force at the point of a gun. We accept the use of that gun to ensure maximum liberty. Haul off the rapist and after a fair trial, lock him up. Society is a better place. The rapist didn’t agree to a prison term. It was forced on him and we are okay with that because it leads to a society where those who don’t respect others liberty are not given a continued opportunity to impose (in this case, greatly) on others.

    All this protection requires money. Taking money whether through a mugging or taxation (a mugging via the government as agent of the majority) not only represents the abstract concept of theft (in as much as property rights are abstract) but slavery since money represents the stored value of one’s previous efforts and hence is slavery after the fact. To fully understand this concept, think about what Ken Lay and company (Enron executives) did to the people who held most of their life savings in Enron stock.

    And here is the important part. Since we are trading one form of mugging for another, we are generally happy to submit to a certain level of government force through taxation to prevent the anarchistic threat of force that would take its place if it were not there. Even more important, we agree to taxation to prevent our benevolent government being replaced by force by a malevolent government that doesn’t mind using excessive force to benefit those in charge. Even if you make taxes voluntary (turning them into contributions, not taxes) you have to allow for taxation to make up the shortfall if contributions don’t bring in enough to provide the protection. Thus we have made the ethical decision that even uninitiated force CAN be ethical in that it is used to prevent a far greater ethical travesty, that of leaving the citizens completely vulnerable.

    That last bit is, I believe, not understood clearly by many registered Libertarians, many dues paying members of the Libertarian Party, but not very many if any of the leaders of the Libertarian Party. I know I considered myself a libertarian long before I understood the principle of non-aggression at this level. Since it is prudent to ignore it when it is ethical to do so, it should be viewed as an important guiding principle, not an absolute dictum. It is that understanding that is behind a movement in the party to do away with the non-aggression pledge (among other reasons outside the scope of this post.)

    Even without this level of understanding, those who lean libertarian generally do so because they get sick and tired of government being all-invasive. Maybe they don’t think deeply about the subject, but they know they pay more for milk than they have to because of milk price mandatory floors (in Callifornia at least) or any number of complaints having to do with the government imposing usually well-meaning laws that end up making no sense due to unintended consequences. Many build up a level of resentment that makes them brace WHENEVER government causes them inconvenience. It is the same effect as that of the nagging wife who might be telling her husband something that really does need to be done for their well-being, but due to the noise level (nagging for the sake of nagging) the nag/instruction gets zoned out.

    Along comes the government saying we need to have our cars smogged to protect the environment. The individual described directly above who values his liberty but has not thought deeply about the subject, responds with a few explicatives. Being someone who doesn’t think deeply, or spend his valuable time analyzing the environmental impact, he might not see how this is something that is needed to protect others from his grossly polluting vehicle. This is exacerbated when people start telling him he needs to make a huge financial sacrifice like giving up his $15,000 vehicle due to its smog-producing ways without compensating him fully for his loss.

    Affecting the commons IS uninitiated force and therefore is not allowed under libertarian principles, however, the imposition of large financial consequences for small impositions against the commons, you run the risk of the unethical force outweighing the ethical goal. In other words, environmental responsibility enforced by government might be a proper role, but it MUST be ethical. If you want an example of this guideline not being followed, look up the Supreme Court case of John Rapanos which was ruled on last year. I believe the Pacific Legal Foundation represented him and they should have information about the case on their website plf.org.

    A couple of other points I would like to make before I conclude.

    Regarding the dwindling fish populations, some fish which can live in captivity such as catfish, make excellent alternatives to those who do not. Consuming farmed fish is an excellent way of letting the free market provide what nature cannot. Regulating limited populations of wild fish may very well lead not only to preserving fish populations and the dependent ecosystems, but also to financial benefit for those who provide a healthy sustainable alternative.

    As far as the draft goes, an argument can be made for mandatory military service. Switzerland is a great example, but as is the case in Switzerland, should only be allowed in cases where there is a strong self-defense-only policy in place to prevent being forced to participate in pre-emptive wars against a strategy (terrorism) where there is no enemy country to surrender nor sign a treaty; where people die to protect our supposed interest in somebody else’s oil.

    Roads, for me fall into the one exception I make to my libertarian principles — pragmatism. When it comes to roads, I feel the ownership and planning functions are one of those things the government is just better suited for than the private sector. Commerce, free association, and many other things we value greatly are best served by an orderly system of roads owned by the public. I prefer private maintenance contracts competitively bid upon using more than one contractor per governing authority with the government providing oversight for the maintenance function. Most people, even most Libertarians agree with this. The anarcho-capitalists that eschew this model are a minority even within libertarians from my observations. That said, there are I think going to be more an more situations where private ownership, or leasing, would be reasonable with the advent of things like RFID technology, but right now, I don’t see it.

    If you would like to comment on what I have written, either via email or by posting here, please write to me at brian kent jones at gmail dot com [I trust you can convert that to a proper email form] Unless I receive notices that this post is updated, I won’t know a new post has occurred since I found this via a Google Alert.

  • The Vicar

    Mark:

    Oh, I just realized you meant Saddam Hussein.

    Sorry, again no. Yes, Saddam was a dictator, but no, we didn’t go to war because we didn’t like him. Heck, the U.S. had a long history of supporting him — most of it done by the same goons who constituted our current nitwit president’s cabinet at the time of invasion, and after Saddam did all the things that made us categorize him as a dictator. Read the caption given here for a rather famous photograph.

    The fact of the matter is that the Bush regime needed to keep America frightened to keep their approval ratings out of the toilet and score some heavy cash via no-bid contracts, realized that Osama bin Laden was almost certainly already dead (as they periodically admit in interviews) and thus a poor focal point, realized that they could probably grab control of Iraq’s oil fields if they toppled Saddam, and suddenly “discovered” a link between terrorism and Iraq. (If Bin Laden isn’t dead, he must be happy with the outcome — Iraq was the only Islamic country his agents had serious problems operating in.) The facts that Saddam had barely enough military to keep order in his own country, had no active weapons capable of doing serious damage, and no programs to develop more (as even the White House has finally admitted) were totally irrelevant. Gotta keep them voters frightened, in case they realize the Republican party has finally given in and become a bunch of outright crooks.

    And now, the Bush regime having lost Iraq and sunk back into the bottom of the barrel in approval ratings, we’re going to go after Iran. If that really happens, say goodbye to the value of the U.S. dollar, kiddies, ’cause it’s going down the toilet, along with our military and quite possibly our democracy. Unlike Iraq, Iran actually has a decent military, and all it would take would be some simple mines in the straits of Hormuz to push gas prices up to about double where they are now, to say nothing of the fact that adding well-funded and trained Iranian troops to Iraq would basically wipe out the U.S. bases there. (An old joke among oil company employees: what’s blue, 21 miles wide, and the cause of World War Three?) That happens, and the U.S. dollar will be worth somewhat less than the equivalent square surface in toilet paper. Used toilet paper.

  • The Vicar

    Mark:

    Oh, I just realized you meant Saddam Hussein.

    Sorry, again no. Yes, Saddam was a dictator, but no, we didn’t go to war because we didn’t like him. Heck, the U.S. had a long history of supporting him — most of it done by the same goons who constituted our current nitwit president’s cabinet at the time of invasion, and after Saddam did all the things that made us categorize him as a dictator. Read the caption given here for a rather famous photograph.

    The fact of the matter is that the Bush regime needed to keep America frightened to keep their approval ratings out of the toilet and score some heavy cash via no-bid contracts, realized that Osama bin Laden was almost certainly already dead (as they periodically admit in interviews) and thus a poor focal point, realized that they could probably grab control of Iraq’s oil fields if they toppled Saddam, and suddenly “discovered” a link between terrorism and Iraq. (If Bin Laden isn’t dead, he must be happy with the outcome — Iraq was the only Islamic country his agents had serious problems operating in.) The facts that Saddam had barely enough military to keep order in his own country, had no active weapons capable of doing serious damage, and no programs to develop more (as even the White House has finally admitted) were totally irrelevant. Gotta keep them voters frightened, in case they realize the Republican party has finally given in and become a bunch of outright crooks.

    And now, the Bush regime having lost Iraq and sunk back into the bottom of the barrel in approval ratings, we’re going to go after Iran. If that really happens, say goodbye to the value of the U.S. dollar, kiddies, ’cause it’s going down the toilet, along with our military and quite possibly our democracy. Unlike Iraq, Iran actually has a decent military, and all it would take would be some simple mines in the straits of Hormuz to push gas prices up to about double where they are now, to say nothing of the fact that adding well-funded and trained Iranian troops to Iraq would basically wipe out the U.S. bases there. (An old joke among oil company employees: what’s blue, 21 miles wide, and the cause of World War Three?) That happens, and the U.S. dollar will be worth somewhat less than the equivalent square surface in toilet paper. Used toilet paper.

  • Mark C.

    Hm, out of a somewhat guilty conscience, I retract what I said about libertarianism above. I should do some studying before I make any such statements about it. Looks like my knowledge of Objectivism and its libertarian bent has, perhaps wrongly, influenced my views of libertarianism.

  • The Vicar

    Mark C:

    The invasion of Iraq was against the treaties signed after World War II. The (very few) clauses which could have been used to make it legal were nowhere close to being fulfilled. Remember when we were supposed to believe that Saddam had weapons capable of reaching New York, then that proved to be blatantly false so it was changed to Israel, and then that proved to be blatantly false so they switched to “weapons programs” which also turned out not to exist? Even if Iraq had actually had those weapons in the first instance, we would have had to have evidence that they were actually planning to use them — a far cry from just “they’ve got them” — before we could invoke any escape clause.

    Bush had better hope that his administration doesn’t break the U.S., because his whole administration will quite certainly be put through a new set of Nuremberg trials if they do, and they almost certainly will be found guilty. They’ve violated not just those treaties, remember, but also the Geneva Conventions (over and over and over). The Republicans may not give a damn about the troops on the ground, but other countries realize that if the Geneva Conventions are dismissed, then troops are in serious danger of being used for retaliation.

  • The Vicar

    Mark C:

    The invasion of Iraq was against the treaties signed after World War II. The (very few) clauses which could have been used to make it legal were nowhere close to being fulfilled. Remember when we were supposed to believe that Saddam had weapons capable of reaching New York, then that proved to be blatantly false so it was changed to Israel, and then that proved to be blatantly false so they switched to “weapons programs” which also turned out not to exist? Even if Iraq had actually had those weapons in the first instance, we would have had to have evidence that they were actually planning to use them — a far cry from just “they’ve got them” — before we could invoke any escape clause.

    Bush had better hope that his administration doesn’t break the U.S., because his whole administration will quite certainly be put through a new set of Nuremberg trials if they do, and they almost certainly will be found guilty. They’ve violated not just those treaties, remember, but also the Geneva Conventions (over and over and over). The Republicans may not give a damn about the troops on the ground, but other countries realize that if the Geneva Conventions are dismissed, then troops are in serious danger of being used for retaliation.

  • Mark C.

    The Vicar,

    Perhaps I misinterpreted your paraphrasing of the treaty, because everything else you’ve said hasn’t done a lick for me.

    Here is my interpretation: “State A agrees not to preemptively strike State B in the event that a new dictator may arise in State B.” (Doesn’t make too much sense to me.)

    Here is what I’m now guessing you were saying: “State A agrees not to preemptively strike State B and risk the rise to power of a new dictator in State A.”

    Either of those interpretations could be inferred from “all the signatories agreed not to allow preemptive war in order to prevent the rise of another belligerent dictator”.

    The phrasing and punctuation didn’t make your meaning clear, assuming you actually meant what I stated in the second possible interpretation.

  • Mark C.

    The Vicar,

    Perhaps I misinterpreted your paraphrasing of the treaty, because everything else you’ve said hasn’t done a lick for me.

    Here is my interpretation: “State A agrees not to preemptively strike State B in the event that a new dictator may arise in State B.” (Doesn’t make too much sense to me.)

    Here is what I’m now guessing you were saying: “State A agrees not to preemptively strike State B and risk the rise to power of a new dictator in State A.”

    Either of those interpretations could be inferred from “all the signatories agreed not to allow preemptive war in order to prevent the rise of another belligerent dictator”.

    The phrasing and punctuation didn’t make your meaning clear, assuming you actually meant what I stated in the second possible interpretation.

  • The Vicar

    Mark C:

    So, where’s the proof that Saddam was belligerent? The last time he attacked anyone was back in the 1990s, and he had permission from the Bush (Senior) administration, who promptly turned around and stabbed him in the back. (As you may recall: Kuwait was drilling diagonally under the Iraqi border to take oil out from under Iraq. Saddam asked our ambassador, April Glaspie, whether there would be intervention if Iraq stopped this. Glaspie, following the direction set by James Baker — yes, that James Baker — said no, that was okay. This was consistent with earlier Bush policy — Bush himself had been instrumental in both providing Iraq with weapons and with preventing Congress from imposing sanctions against Iraq. Then suddenly Bush did a u-turn, said that Iraq was invading Kuwait without just cause, and used that as a cause for invasion.)

    Since then, Saddam had disassembled all his major weapons, shut down all the unconventional military programs, and settled in to make a profit off oil and use it to build up infrastructure. (Nepotistic self-promoting infrastructure, true, but if the choice is between hot and cold running water that’s provided by the son-in-law of a dictator and living in a desert nation with no water, I’ll take the water, thanks.) Very probably, had that been the extent of our involvement, he would have been overthrown from within. Unfortunately, Iraq had oil, so we set up sanctions which let Saddam’s government both improve its popularity by managing emergency services and suppress any major dissent which might have led to overthrow — as any child could have foreseen. There’s nothing like being attacked for improving the image of a ruler. Look at Bush’s approval ratings pre- and post-September 11, 2001, even though he basically sat around twiddling his thumbs the whole time.

    So: dictator? Yes. Evil? Yes. Deserving of overthrow? Probably. Belligerent? No. Sufficiently wrong to justify invasion under the law? Not even close.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Let’s stay on topic, please.

  • Chris

    To return to the original post: This seems a bit like victory by definition. I think it’s a libertarian stance to want as little government as is reasonably possible, but you seem to be restricting the definition of “libertarian” to only people who want *less* government than is reasonably possible, or even to outright anarchists.

    I realize that “reasonably possible” is not rigorously defined, but to me that just underlines the fact that we may be dealing with a semantic disagreement as much as a substantial one between people who call themselves libertarians and people who declare their grounds for opposition to libertarianism. They may not be talking about the same kind of libertarianism.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Chris,

    I don’t think I’m being unfair in my characterization of libertarianism. The defining principle of libertarianism, as I understand it, is that the right of private property is supreme, that all economic transactions should be entered into only with the full consent of all involved parties, and that any forcible taking of any person’s property – such as taxation – is a moral wrong, regardless of the intentions behind it. The U.S. Libertarian Party platform, for example, advocates the end of all taxation and the private takeover of all public lands.

  • Peter

    The U.S. Libertarian Party platform, for example, advocates the end of all taxation and the private takeover of all public lands.

    If that last was to happen “They’d pave paradise and put up a parking lot!” – to slightly misquote Joni Mitchell. Imagine suburban type developments in Yellowstone National Park; shopping malls in the Grand Canyon; flashing neon signs advertising Coca-Cola, etc. in Monument Valley; and the Golden Arches everywhere. Yuk!

    If you want an example of what private developers can do when let loose by a corrupt government, check out the Gold Coast in Queensland here in Australia – a beautiful beach completely overshadowed by high rise hotels & apartment blocks.

  • http://www.brentrasmussen.com RickU

    I believe I am one of those libertarian atheists…but I also refer to myself as a liberal libertarian with conservative leanings..for exactly the reasons you lay out. When it comes to politics I don’t think any system carried to it’s extreme is viable. Laissez-faire capitalism, socialism, and communism all have their failings when taken as a single solution.

    What I do believe is important is that we have as much individual liberty as is possible in a structured society…which doesn’t really fall in with the Libertarian’s or the anarchists.

  • Alex Weaver

    I seem to recall reading that some Libertarians have proposed eliminating commons as a “solution” to this, some even going so far as to advocate intentionally poisoning the atmosphere so that people would be required to buy bottled air on a private basis. Does anyone have any more information about this (IE, was this an actual proposal on someone’s part, or merely satire)?

  • Chris

    What gives the Libertarian Party the right to define libertarianism? We don’t define democracy by the Democratic Party platform, do we? The Pope can define Catholicism because that’s pretty much what Catholicism is about, but libertarianism doesn’t have that kind of authority structure (even if the Libertarian Party might).

    I guess I’m just saying, target your criticisms carefully. I think that anyone who wants to move their present society toward the libertarian corner of the political matrix can be regarded a libertarian in that society, regardless of precisely *how far* they want to move it.

    Personally, I tend to test as a social libertarian but have mixed (and sometimes undecided) positions on economic issues. IMO, the government has its fingers in way too much of society, and some of our economic problems are the result of too *much* government interference in the economy (subsidies, government-created monopolies, IP laws that favor corporations over consumer and public interests, etc.) Government is an imprecise tool that is sometimes worse than not doing anything at all.

    However, there are other times when it’s necessary to use it – and just as necessary to closely watch it. I consider secrecy by governments extremely dangerous and almost proof of wrongdoing in itself. It’s one thing for individual people to have a desire for privacy, but governments don’t deserve privacy and really shouldn’t have anything to hide. And governments should be mistrusted as a matter of principle – if they’re telling the truth it only costs you a little time to doublecheck, but if they were lying you may have averted a catastrophe.

    Is all that “really” libertarian? I would say yes, comparing it to present day society. Certainly it doesn’t fit all that well with what currently goes by the name “liberalism”. But the position you describe as the Libertarian Party’s doesn’t describe me either – I think abolishing taxation altogether would almost certainly be unworkable even in principle, let alone as an action plan for the next decade/generation/some other reasonable time period. While I favor completely open borders in principle, I think implementing them immediately might not be the best idea. Etc. But there isn’t really any better word for my beliefs than “libertarian” – that I know of.

  • Bechamel

    What Chris said, pretty much. When asked my political views of late, I’ve responded “somewhat libertarian of center”. The word “Libertarian” (especially when capitalized) seems to have become a near-synonym for “anarchist” in common usage. In my perusals of the Internet, though, I’ve come across many people who identify as “small-L libertarians”—people who believe, like myself and a couple others in this discussion, that government has a legitimate place in any realistic society, but that, on the pure-socialism/pure-libertarian continuum, we might be best served by sliding somewhat toward the latter from where we’re at now.

    In our current system in the U.S., the Republicans seem to want to outlaw and/or eliminate anything they don’t like: stem cell research, gay rights, women’s rights, sex education, Iraqi life, church/state separation, online poker, navel lint…. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like the Democrats want to take my money and put it into all kinds of programs. I can understand helping out the extremely needy so as to prevent them from resorting to theft. But what I see is money going to subsidize tobacco, give grants to artists, and billions being thrown at a broken school system (certainly, we need something, but what we’ve got sure ain’t it). And it seems to me that both parties are succeeding in getting their agendas through. Is it so bad that some of us would like to see the government slow down a bit?

    Ebon, you’re arguing against very extreme position in this essay. As someone with libertarian tendencies, this doesn’t reflect my views any more than a screed against a 70% income tax along with a $15,000 annual stipend to each resident and a $200,000 earning cap, would affect what you believe. Are you terribly against the libertarian leanings of posters like Chris or me, among many others out there, or is it just the extreme that you’re arguing is so wrong?

  • http://wintershaven.net Jacob Wintersmith

    In my view, libertarians split into two camps along an ethical line between deontologists and consequentialists.

    I’m a consequentialist libertarian, and I think the label fits Ebonmuse too.
    See the post on my blog for a more detailed explaination.

  • http://wintershaven.net Jacob Wintersmith

    Oops, typo in my last comment broke the link to the post. Click here instead to see it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello all,

    Since some people think I’m painting with too broad a brush, let me clarify my position and the one this post series is arguing against.

    I believe that the government is best that governs least, and freedom, both for individuals and for business, should be increased to the greatest extent possible. I also believe that the government as it currently is is far too intrusive in many areas (and this is not solely the Republicans’ fault). If that’s what it means to be a libertarian, then I’m a libertarian. But that position seems too broad to be the essence of what libertarianism means, because I don’t know anyone who disagrees with it. Who thinks that people should have less freedom than they could feasibly have?

    What I’m responding to in this essay is not just the position that less red tape is good, but a specific political philosophy which holds that private property is an inviolable right, that the only legitimate type of economic interaction is one of full and mutual consent between individuals, and that the only responsibility of government is to prevent violence or fraud. Libertarians of this type, as a general rule, believe that all taxation is a moral wrong (some go so far as to call it theft or slavery), that all social safety-net programs funded with taxation should be abolished, that all public lands and public organizations should either be dismantled or sold to the highest bidder, and that that voluntary private charity should be solely responsible for caring for the needy. In short, they advocate the furthest extreme of laissez-faire capitalism and take that as the model for all of society.

    This is not a straw man: there are many people who believe exactly this. Here’s an example post by Timothy Sandefur, frequent guest author on Positive Liberty and the Panda’s Thumb, which argues that there is no moral distinction between taxation and robbery. Even some commenters on this site have expressed this view.

  • Bechamel

    Who thinks that people should have less freedom than they could feasibly have?

    Republicans?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Touché. :)

  • James Bradbury

    Chris,

    And governments should be mistrusted as a matter of principle

    Sorry to be the grammar pedant, but I thought this distinction is worth pointing out.

    Mistrust – Trusting someone unworthy of your trust.
    Distrust – Not trusting someone.

    I think you intended the latter.

  • http://deanpence.com Dean

    As a libertarian, I personally don’t see the conflict with natural resources that naturally cross and/or cannot be contained to property lines. The abstraction of private property is accurate only insofar as it recognizes that fact. The water that crosses your property and the air that exists above it, while on your property, can arguably belong to you for the time it’s there, but reality demands that it not be treated with the same rules as land and structures that more accurately fit the abstraction. What you do to the water and the air necessarily affects your neighbors (ultimately, your global neighbors) in coercive ways, so I personally think that polluting it can morally be made illegal in complete consistency with libertarian principles.

    I may be in the minority among libertarians in that I do not think that government is a necessary evil to be distrusted and reviled. I think government is a noble and moral human institution when it is bound by proper restrictions and set to perform its proper functions.

  • Steve Bowen

    Ebonmuse

    Chief among these is the concept of environmental health. We cannot partition the environment. We all drink the same water; we all breathe the same air. Rivers, streams, aquifers and oceans cross property lines, and pollutants entering the water anywhere on the planet can cause problems almost anywhere else.

    Including surely, locally. If I am your hypothetical polluter I will also become a victim of that pollution (eventually). Self interest and enlightened self interest are two fundementally different positions

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    That’s true, Steve, but it’s not the whole picture. If suffering through the effects of my own pollution costs me less than it would cost me to clean up that pollution myself, then I have an incentive not to clean it up – to spread the costs out across society, rather than bearing them all myself. That’s the problem of externalities, and I don’t think it’s one that a pure libertarian political system can adequately address.

  • Max

    Taxation is evil for sure. Whether or not it’s a necessary evil is debatable. True, coersion is definitely an easier solution, but I don’t think it can be justified simply because some of us lack the creativity to properly think through a private sector solution (me inluded). I think there have been some good libertarian ideas listed above already. It’s a complex philosophy and cannot be simply shrugged off (even the extreme versions) with just one article.

  • lpetrich

    I fail to see how taxes are so much more evil than bills.

    And Max seems to be proposing anarchist utopianism.

  • Larry Kulp

    Re: Dean’s last comment.

    Dean is on the right track. I think he is rejecting the whole idea of there even being a “commons.” On the other side of the coin, he does not seem convinced that even fleeting “ownership” of moving, frangible resources is a viable concept either. (This would be unlike, say, compressed air in a scuba tank, which obviously can be owned.)

    I believe that Dean, correct me if I’m wrong, views pollution as being a trespass or nuisance. In other words, pollution aggressively interferes with the use and enjoyment of property which IS owned.

    If this view is correct, and I believe it is, then the “no government” variety of libertariansm would be unable to stop such aggression in many, if not most cases, although doing so would be entirely consistent with–if not outright required by–libertarian concepts of justice. You have victims, and you have perpetrators, but you would have no practical remedies. Can you imagine some Joe Bloke trying to join every factory owner, as a joint tortfeasor, in a trespass or nuisance lawsuit? He’d have to sue all or most of them, because only in the aggregate do they cause appreciable damage? Just getting them all served with a summons would cost millions of dollars.

    It seems clear that laws against pollution are ethically proper in a libertarian society, and it seems equally clear, from the standpoint of the feasibility of enforcement, that only an institution having wide constituency and jurisdiction, as well as considerable power, could protect Joe Bloke from such aggression.

    Although we can engage in a lot of philosophical hair-splitting (e.g., must or should such a government be a monopoly supported by coerced taxation, could it be a natural monopoly supported by voluntary contributions, could it be a system of competing law enforcement agencies bound together in a volutary compact, must the government be appointed as an agent of the victims, etc., etc., etc.)–one thing is certain. The “no-governmment” version of libertarianism cannot do the job here.

    Larry

  • Larry Kulp

    Re: Max’s last comment.

    “Necessary evil” is an oxymoron in the context of natural law. Under natural law theory, what is “good” is determined by observing human nature and the laws of our universe. If a given “means” does not comport with those things, then it is doomed to failure, both in terms of accomplishing intermediate goals (e.g., Will throwing this stone break your window?) and in terms of accomplishing more important goals (e.g., Will it make me happy?).

    Taxes cannot be both necessary and evil, unless the Universe is indifferent to contradiction.

    The phrase “necessary evil” is used most often by “big government” advocates. It is akin to the expression, “The ends justify the means.” In one sense, it is true that one must always employ means to achieve ends, and the means have no other purpose than to achieve those ends. But at least two questions are involved in evaluating the proper means. First, will the means actually achieve the desired ends, e.g., will taxes increase government revenues? Secondly, will the means (though achieving the desired end) be destructive of some other, possibly more fundamental or important end or value, e.g., one’s right to be secure in his property?

    It is the second question which most “big government” apologists ignore. But, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” I suppose that’s why leftists so often have to explain, “At least our hearts were in the right place.”

    Larry Kulp

  • faithlessgod

    Ebonmuse, an interesting and well written article. However I am responding to the comments regarding the distribution of political affectations of atheists. Clearly there is some language issue here since in the UK there is a broad distribution of atheists from socialist, through liberal to conservative and, if anything, the majority I know are conservative, the minority are socialist and I am one of the rare liberal types. “Libertarian” has not much mileage here and I hope it remains that way.

  • http://www.stangdecisionsystems.com Spencer

    First off, this a a surprisingly thought provoking discussion (initial post and comments).

    Second, using the liberal, conservative, statist, libertarian (and even moderate) pigeon-holes can often break down into a “framing” argument where people seek “victory by definition” as a previous poster accurately noted. If you believe that Govt. is too big and too intrusive both socially and fiscally then you lean libertarian. We can quibble endlessly about roads and pollution controls (which libertarians do amongst themselves) but if your fear of private roads is making you support so-called liberals or conservatives (especially neo-conservatives) then you need to look closely at who those people really are based on their behaviors–they are statists (i.e., fascists)! If you don’t believe this then do some research on the growth in Govt spending over the last 100 years. It doesn’t matter who is in power they all add to size of Govt. (yes, even Reagan). They all have their reasons–wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism, individualism, etc. They all make you afraid not to vote for them because the other person is even worse. Did republicans cut spending when they could have–hell no. Have democrats gotten rid of victimless crimes when they had the chance–hell no. I repeat, if your fear of the most extreme libertarian views is making you support statism then you are playing into the fear mongering of the politicians.

    Finally, if we’re lucky and we do get to the point where we can start arguing about the extent that private property rights can solve the commons dilemma then there are multiple viable options including but not limited to peer pressure, social ostracism, boycotts, preemptive contracts, trespass laws, lawsuits, arbitration & mediation, eduction (including outright propaganda), democracy (i.e., majority vote), fuzzy logic voting (not to be confused with “fuzzy math”), pollution credit markets (not to be confused with Cap and Trade), new technologies, volunteering (i.e., somebody pollutes and I volunteer to clean it up) and 100 other options that nobody has thought of yet. At a minimum it seems that we should default to freedom and voluntary interaction between people before we break out the guns and treat each other like social misfits.

    If nothing else, remember that Govt is force and it should only be brought into play where you are comfortable using force to get your way (e.g., to save a sick child, to protect your family from violence, etc.). People may differ on where they believe force is appropriate but the sooner we understand that force (i.e., Govt) should be kept to an absolute minimum, the better off we will be. If you’re using taxes to build a football stadium you are essentially saying that your willing to put a gun to your neighbors head for that stadium. If your telling the cancer patient that he can’t smoke a joint to ease his pain, you are putting a gun to their head to enforce your morality.

    Finally, in response to many comments above, I’ll be blunt.
    Taxes = theft (you can argue about whether the theft was justified but it is theft).
    Mandatory national service = slavery (again, you may justify it but it is slavery).

  • Alex Weaver

    Second, using…pigeon-holes can often break down into a “framing” argument where people seek “victory by definition”

    they are statists (i.e., fascists)!

    I see what you mean.

  • Alex Weaver

    Second, using…pigeon-holes can often break down into a “framing” argument where people seek “victory by definition”

    they are statists (i.e., fascists)!

    I see what you mean.

  • Danikajaye

    Hmmm… I not the full bottle of politcal and philosophical ideology and terminology- Can somebody help me define the following:

    From what I can understand of libertarianism it strives to “maximize individual liberty”. Is the maximising individual liberty intended to facilitate collective human prosperity? Or is maximising individual liberty the “end goal” (for lack of better terminology) in itself?

    If libertarianist wish to enhance collective human prosperity through acting in their own self interest I see the distinction between self interest and enlightened self interest as stated by Steve Bowen to be of integral importance. To what extent is an individual meant to be able to gauge what is in their best interest? How is an individual with limited education and knowledge meant to know the many possible consequences of their actions? A decision made in self interest could easily actually lead to consequences NOT in the interests of said person if they are not properly informed even if it is in some convoluted “Butterfly Effect” kind of way. Would this type of thinking disadvantage those who do not have access to adequate information or education given that there would be no better informed authority which they could use to guide their decision making? Is this something where everything varies by degree? Ideally I guess the individual would love to be omniscient.

    With the goal of increasing human prosperity in mind I have always thought that there is some kind of interdependence between “individual liberty” and authority/government. Without sacrifices on the part of individuals the advancement of human civilisation would be difficult as conflicting self interest would make it hard for groups to cooperate. I can see it argued that if a long-term goal outweighed the short term sacrifice of the individual then the sacrifice itself would be seen as in the best interests. It is then highly subjective as to what is classified as “best interests” as it depends on the individuals own emphasis.

  • Alex Weaver

    Would this type of thinking disadvantage those who do not have access to adequate information or education

    Yes. Listening to Big-L rhetoric, one could be forgiven for thinking that was the point.

    Without sacrifices on the part of individuals the advancement of human civilisation would be difficult as conflicting self interest would make it hard for groups to cooperate.

    Big-Ls maintain that groups could cooperate by voluntary efforts, based on the rational recognition of the fact that such cooperation served their interests as well. The mental gymnastics they go through to avoid acknowledging that “rational recognition” has no relationship to the way most people make most decisions, and to avoid drawing the connection between their proposal and the social contract concept while leads to states which they whine incessantly about, are truly breathtaking.

  • Alex Weaver

    Would this type of thinking disadvantage those who do not have access to adequate information or education

    Yes. Listening to Big-L rhetoric, one could be forgiven for thinking that was the point.

    Without sacrifices on the part of individuals the advancement of human civilisation would be difficult as conflicting self interest would make it hard for groups to cooperate.

    Big-Ls maintain that groups could cooperate by voluntary efforts, based on the rational recognition of the fact that such cooperation served their interests as well. The mental gymnastics they go through to avoid acknowledging that “rational recognition” has no relationship to the way most people make most decisions, and to avoid drawing the connection between their proposal and the social contract concept while leads to states which they whine incessantly about, are truly breathtaking.

  • http://www.georgeoughttohelp.com bitbutter

    In general, the things that cannot be privatized are natural phenomena that do not respect property lines.

    Like cattle. With a little ingenuity, and when allowed to by law, humans figured out servicable ways of making cattle property.

    But nature itself cannot be divided into a set of hermetically sealed boxes.

    That’s true. But this isn’t a barrier for establishing property rights. For example, the boundary between a human body and it’s environment disappears if we zoom-in closely enough. This clearly doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to identify a murderer or otherwise punish violators of bodily integrity. We don’t need to deny that nature has no real boundaries to establish private property.

    Clearly, private property is not going to solve this problem; [] Again, private property cannot solve this problem. [] The ocean cannot be privatized [] Unfettered capitalism cannot stop this destructive spiral.

    Translation: I don’t yet understand how markets and or private property can solve these problems.

    It’s puzzling to me that you, as an atheist and rationalist, are so ready to commit the argument from ignorance fallacy when it comes to the subject of stateless-order.

    This reading list will be instructive:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-market_environmentalism#External_links

  • http://www.georgeoughttohelp.com bitbutter

    @Danikajaye

    Is the maximising individual liberty intended to facilitate collective human prosperity? Or is maximising individual liberty the “end goal” (for lack of better terminology) in itself?

    Libertarianism describes an attitude towards the acceptability of initiating the use of force. It says nothing about the moral convictions or general motivations of a person.

    This article describes it well: http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html

  • http://www.georgeoughttohelp.com bitbutter

    @Danikajaye

    Is the maximising individual liberty intended to facilitate collective human prosperity? Or is maximising individual liberty the “end goal” (for lack of better terminology) in itself?

    Libertarianism describes an attitude towards the acceptability of initiating the use of force. It says nothing about the moral convictions or general motivations of a person.

    This article describes it well: http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html

  • http://www.georgeoughttohelp.com bitbutter

    @Larry Kulp

    If this view is correct, and I believe it is, then the “no government” variety of libertariansm would be unable to stop such aggression in many, if not most cases, although doing so would be entirely consistent with–if not outright required by–libertarian concepts of justice.

    Given that the absence of a state does not necessitate the absence of laws or their enforcement, it’s not obvious why you believe that a stateless-order would represent a free-pass to polluters.


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