Mob Mentality

If Ayn Rand is good for anything, she is great source of concise and lucid observations. One of my favorites is:

There can be no such thing, in law or in morality, as actions forbidden to an individual, but permitted to a mob.

This statement holds much intuitive appeal for nearly all libertarians.

On similar lines, Bryan Caplan noted:

[I]t is a common observation among libertarians that everyone follows libertarian principles in his or her private life; it is only where government is concerned that they grant a moral sanction to the initiation of force. And if you asked your average person why it was wrong to commit murders, or rob, or defraud others, one popular answer would be: "That's just common sense." Indeed it is; the principle of non-initiation of force is just common sense;
which is to say, that even the simplest mind, if it honestly and critically turns itself to the proposition that it is wrong to use violence against peaceful persons, or rob them of what they have produced, can immediately grasp its truth. All that would then be required to establish libertarian moral theory
would be to couple this everyday insight of direct reason with the
premise, derived from observation, that governments habitually violate
the non-initiation of force principle, and then use deductive reason to
draw the final inference that most, if not all, of what government does
is wrong and must be stopped at once.

But as intuitive as this may seem, most libertarians, including Ayn Rand herself, do not actually believe this. In fact, Rand argues, there are certain actions that should be forbidden to an individual but permitted for a government, such as maintaing a legal monopoly on the use of force, through such institutions as the police, the courts, and the military.

Now, there are certainly good reasons why this should be so. Perhaps government is necessary for a stable and peaceful society. Perhaps the coordination problems associated with providing military defense and other public goods cannot be overcome except through some amount of coercion.

But once we travel down this road, we are no longer making a moral argument; we are making a pragmatic one. No longer can we claim that what is forbidden to the individual cannot be permitted to a mob. [Stephan Kinsella made a similar point in his article, "What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist"]

I have no beef with pragmatic libertarians; in fact, I consider myself one. If you think that government is necessary, you may very well be correct - I simply don't know. I remain skeptical, but I can respect the argument.

What I don't understand, though, is how one can make moral claims against government intrusion in certain areas but not others. How can Rand claim that it is wrong to grant government special privedges when she does so herself?

A possible response might be something along the lines of the "ought-implies-can" principle. We do not say that someone ought to perform a certain act unless it is possible for the person to perform the act. Thus, Rand might argue, if a purely voluntary society is pragmatically impossible, and government is necessary, then government must be morally justified.

I see two problems with this response. First, pragmatically impossible is not the same as physically or logically impossible. Even the staunchest statist would admit that it is theoretically possible to live under no government- in fact, historically, this has often been the case. Rather, the argument is that the costs of living without government are too great - we would all be better off if we simply accepted government rule. But then we are no longer subject to the "ought-implies-can" principle. It might still be the case that although we are much worse off without a government, it is still morally wrong to implement and maintain one.

Second, even if the "ought-implies-can" principle obtains in this case, it still seems to contradict Rand's claim that "There can be no such thing, in law or in morality, as actions forbidden to an individual, but permitted to a mob." In other words, even if government is morally justified in maintaining these legal monopolies out of necessity, we can no longer claim that it is wrong to grant government special privedges forbidden to individuals.

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It's essential to be clear

It's essential to be clear that this is about the retaliatory use of force, not the initiation of force.

Individuals do retain the right of self-defense, and may act on that principle on their own in circumstances where great damage could be done before the government is able to step in.

It isn't correct to say that individuals are forbidden from employing force while the government is allowed. What is permissible to each looks quite similar when you keep the context in mind. The purpose of reserving force to the government in the general case is to place that force under objective control; to make its use more rational and less emotional.

"I have no beef with

"I have no beef with pragmatic libertarians; in fact, I consider myself one. If you think that government is necessary, you may very well be correct - I simply don't know. I remain skeptical, but I can respect the argument."

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that any system will turn to chaos. The only way to counter this is homeostasis: having stabilizing processes within the system enforcing control. The human body has many of these.

Society also needs such processes to prevent devolving to chaos. However, that doesn't mean they should all be placed under the same controlling body: the government. One could just as well imagine multiple governments in one society that one can choose from. Or no government at all, but many institutes that battle for control. (Of course, democracy has formalized this approach in some way, but that might not be the most effective strategy.)

To quote MC Hawking: "The

To quote MC Hawking:

"The 2nd Law is quite precise about where it applies/ only in a closed system does the entropy count rise/ The Earth's not a closed system, it's powered by the sun"

-from "Entropy" off his 2nd album, "Fear of a Black Hole"

More seriously, though, you are probably correct that polycentric decision making would be more stable than a top-down one-size-fits-all method, but democracy is most assuredly the latter, not the former.

If you haven't already, look

If you haven't already, look into Nozick's writings on libertarian states ("Anarchy, State and Utopia" in particular). He builds a case for a minimal state arising to assume a (local) monopoly on the use of force in certain circumstances - and he demonstrates that such a statelike apparatus could arise without violating libertarian principles along the way. It's not an airtight argument, but it's an interesting one, and one in which could help Randish thinkers bridge the gap between the ideal and practical sides of their thinking about the state.

Moorlock, I'm familiar with

Moorlock,

I'm familiar with Nozick's argument, but I don't find it very convincing. Randy Barnett and Hans-Hermann Hoppe (in his introduction to Murray Rothbard's "The Ethics of Liberty") have both written pretten devastating (in my opinion) critiques of it.

Also, even if it is true that a statelike apparatus could arise without violating libertarian principles, it could not maintain its monopoly on the use of force in the face of competition without using some element of coercion.

Cap'n Arbyte, You say that

Cap'n Arbyte,

You say that "Individuals do retain the right of self-defense, and may act on that principle on their own in circumstances where great damage could be done before the government is able to step in." But why can't individuals also act even after the government is able to step in? The common response, as you put it, is that "The purpose of reserving force to the government in the general case is to place that force under objective control; to make its use more rational and less emotional." And this may be true. But in order to make this argument, you must first concede that it is ok for the government to maintain its monopoly on force through coercion, otherwise, why shouldn't the individual have the moral right to use retaliatory force just like the government?