Your Dog Owns Your House

In the comments to Jonathan's post below questioning the legitimacy of specific performance in military service contracts, Arthur B. raises a point so important and so central to libertarian political economic theory that it cannot be emphasized enough:

The social contract was constructed by philosophers on top of real contracts, therefore the moral claim that you should obey an actual contract is obviously always stronger than the claim you should obey a social contract. Yet, he uses the later to make a case for the former. Absurd.

I first came across this integral insight in Anthony de Jasay's essay, "Your Dog Owns Your House", which reads like a distillation and combination of Leonard Read's economically intricate "I, Pencil" and Bastiat's classic political satire, The Candlemakers' Petition:

[D]id you know that your dog owns your house, or rather some portion of it? If this is not immediately obvious to you, you will find it helpful to consider some aspects of the ethics and economics of redistribution.

Your dog is alert, plucky and a fearsome guardian of your property. For all we know, without his services, you would have been burgled over and over again. Your belongings would be depleted and the utility you derived from your home would be much reduced. The difference between the actual value of your home and its unguarded value is the contribution of your dog, and so is the difference between the respective utilities or satisfactions you derive from it. We do not know the exact figure, but the main thing is that there is one.

More thought is needed fully to unravel the question of who owns your house, and indeed the question of who owns anything. If there were no fire brigade, the whole street might have burned down and your house would no longer stand. The fire brigade has contributed something to its value, and some figure ought to be put against their name. The utilities should not be forgotten, for how would you like to live in a house without running water, electricity and so forth? Some tentative numbers had better be credited to them. Surely, however, you cannot just ignore the builder who erected the house, the lumberman, the brick factory, the cement works and all the other suppliers without whom the builder could not have erected it. They too must have their contribution recognized, even if it must be done in a rough-and ready fashion.

Is it right, though, to stop at this primary level of contributions?—should we not go beyond the cement works to the builder who built the kiln, the gas pipeline that feeds the fire , the workers who keep the process going? Tracing the ever more distant contributions at level after level, we get a manifold that is as complex as we care to make it, with a correspondingly complex jumble of numbers that purport to place rough-and-ready values on the contributions. We can count them moving sideways as well as backwards as far as the mind can reach, starting with that of your dog and ending (if you finally lose patience and decide to stop there) with the Founding Fathers or Christopher Columbus.

At this point, you give up and say that your house, and any other holdings you thought you owned, really belong to society as a whole, and so do the holdings of everyone else. Everybody has a rightful stake in your holdings and you have a rightful stake in everybody else's holdings. Society, that is "we" are alone entitled to decide how big everybody's stake ought to be. "We" are the rightful owners of everything, the masters of "our" universe. As such, "we" are entitled to take from Peter and give to Paul, as well as to regulate what Peter and Paul are allowed to do in matters of production, commerce and consumption.

[...]

How soon, in reading the above, did you spot the underlying, crucial fallacy? Its course is a mixture of the plausible and the preposterous, and any reader who gets a little lost in the backing and filling between such opposites has an excuse of sorts for being bemused. However, clearing away the muddle is fairly straightforward provided we refuse to be impressed by verbiage, but stick doggedly to common sense, hard as that may sometimes be to do in the face of the massive browbeating that seeks to enthrone the verbiage.

There is a minor and a major point to recognise. The minor point is that the "framework" is not a person, natural or legal, to whom a debt can be owed, "institutions" do not act, "society" has no mind, no will, and makes no contributions. Only persons do these things. Imputing responsibility and credit for accumulated wealth, current production and well-being to entities that have no mind and no will is nonsense. It is a variant of the notorious fallacy of composition.

Once this is understood, we can move on to the major point. All contributions of others to the building of your house have been paid for at each link in the chain of production. All current contributions to its maintenance and security are likewise being paid for. Value has been and is being given for value received, even though the "value" is not always money and goods, but may sometimes be affection, loyalty or the discharge of duty. In the exchange relation, a giver is also a recipient, and of course vice versa.

In the broad scheme of things, all this is part of the universal system of exchanges. Some of these exchanges may be involuntary. Such is the case where redistribution, a coercive act, is taking place. We then lose the trace, the precise measure and the assured reciprocity of contributions to wealth and income, but this circumstance can hardly serve to justify the very redistribution that has caused it. However, where exchanges are voluntary, tracing and measuring become, in a strong sense, otiose and irrelevant. For in a voluntary exchange, once each side has delivered and received the agreed contribution, the parties are quits. Seeking to credit and debit them for putative outstanding claims is double counting.

All is left then for the redistributor to argue is that value received and value given are not necessarily equal. Some, perhaps most, transactions are inequitable, leaving behind them unsettled moral claims that tax-and-transfer policies are fully entitled to square. This is a far weaker claim than the one that would have everything paid for twice, but it is still effective because it is open-ended and beyond the reach of empirical disproof. Who can falsify the allegation that an exchange has unduly favoured one of the parties, that one of them was "exploited?

It is always possible to affirm that voluntary exchanges are seldom if ever equitable, for the parties have unequal "bargaining power." This term is wide open to abuse, and is in fact widely abused. It is so easy and so irrefutable to brand a bargain as "unequal" that it is doubtful whether the expression is anything more than the speaker's say-so that can be just as irrefutably opposed by an adversarial say-so. All we can safely say of any voluntary exchange is that either party would rather enter into it than not. This is the classic case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," for few social arrangements have more solid foundations in manifest agreement.

It is wrong to "fix it" not because "it works"—though it undeniably "works" better than other arrangements "fixed" by well-intentioned social engineers. Social democracy in today's Europe, stricken by chronic unemployment, and socialism in yesterday's workers' paradise, are eloquent enough examples. But the decisive, argument-stopping argument against "fixing it" is quite different and has little to do with property. It has everything to do with agreement.

Most modern theories of how society ought to work rest on some idea of agreement. Almost invariably, however, the agreement is fictitious, hypothetical, one that would be concluded if all men had equal "bargaining power," or saw things through the same "veil" of ignorance or uncertainty about their future. Or felt the same need for a central authority. The social contract, in its many versions, is perhaps the best known of these alleged agreements. All are designed to suit the normative views of their inventors and to justify the kind of social arrangements they should like to see adopted. Yet the only agreement that is not hypothetical, alleged, invented is the system of voluntary exchanges where all parties give visible, objective proof by their actions that they have found the unique common ground that everybody accepts, albeit grumblingly, but without anyone being forced to give up something he had within his reach and would have preferred. The set of voluntary exchanges, in one word, is the only one that does not impose an immorality in pursuit of a moral objective.

[Emphasis in bold mine]

I dare say that Anthony de Jasay is our contemporary Bastiat, and I predict (or at least hope) that this essay will continue to be read and reread in 150 years, just as Bastiat continues to be read and reread today.

Share this

I first came across this

I first came across this integral insight

Sounds more like a rationalization. Reject the premise of the social contract, and yeah, you're right. Accept it, and then what?

But that's sort of the

But that's sort of the point, isn't it? We accept the premise of a social contract (at least for the sake of argument) because we are first persuaded by the value of the voluntary nature of private contractual relations themselves. But then the voluntary nature of contractual relations--the very essence that makes contracts so persuasive--is forgotten or willfully ignored, yet we are nevertheless expected to continue to go along with the argument and allow the empty shell of a social contract lacking actual consent to override and violate the meaningful, real consent of private contractual relations.

This argument constitutes what is called an immanent or internal critique - the criticism of another philosophy based on the other philosophy's own standpoint, thereby showing (if the critique is successful) that the other philosophy leads to insoluble contradictions and antinomies.

What's especially interesting is that social contract arguments themselves are also attempts at an immanent critique of pure libertarian relations, attempting (but failing) to demonstrate that we can somehow use our freedom to construct and enter into (social) contracts to somehow limit our collective freedom...to construct and enter into contracts. As Randy Barnett points out, this mistake derives from a failure to understand that Freedom of Contract consists of two parts: the Freedom to Contract and the Freedom from Contract. Social contract theory (or at least most forms of it) violates the Freedom from Contract because it doesn't require any real form of consent, nor does it offer any real escape option for a party to refuse to give its consent to the social contract.

Oh ok

Now I understand the connection with my post, it wasn't obvious at first.

Another typical fallacy along this line of thinking is the shareholder / stakeholder debate.

Since employees contributes much more than the shareholders who don't do anything, why shouldn't they enjoy the whole fruit of the labor says the marxist.

The new twist being : since the employees have at much as stake as the shareholder (they stand to lose their job) why shouldn't they get as much say as the shareholders when making decisions. Why should the company protect only the interest of the stakeholders.

Old fallacy, but new supporters everyday. Today, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President from the right-wing UMP announced that from now on, the companies will be mandated to divide profits as follow, one third for employees, one third for shareholders, one third for investment and challenged everyone who think the split was not fair to come up and argue for a fairer proportion. Yup, this is how bad things are.

One hand clapping


But then the voluntary nature of contractual relations--the very essence that makes contracts so persuasive--is forgotten or willfully ignored, yet we are nevertheless expected to continue to go along with the argument and allow the empty shell of a social contract lacking actual consent to override and violate the meaningful, real consent of private contractual relations.

This is why I said recently that I think Natural Rights are probably incompatible with volition. I believe in Contractual Rights as a just claim arising from an agreement made between two parties.

But who is the other party supposed to be who grants you a Natural Right? The Creator? Collective humanity? If I have a Natural Right to my life, does that mean that each and every member of humanity is bound by my claim that they respect my life, whether or not they agreed to this? I wouldn't want to use a concept of Natural Rights that is based on either the supernatural or a blatant disregard of human volition.

But as you said before, Micha, Natural Rights are a very useful fiction. I think you can still build a solid edifice by recognizing volition as a fundamental attribute of humans. Some will choose to reciprocally respect the rights of others. Perhaps not a majority, and perhaps not in all situations, and perhaps not all who do so understand their choice clearly, but enough so that you can form a cooperative alliance to enforce your will upon others.

And from here you bootstrap your system of justice. There are no guarantees that you and your allies are among the chosen righteous, or that your enemies will fall down under the power of your logic. But you do the best you can to employ force when needed for survival without destroying the lives of others needlessly.

Other ways

But who is the other party supposed to be who grants you a Natural Right? The Creator? Collective humanity?

There are other ways to think of natural rights. Very roughly: Natural rights are to contracts as market price is to the price offered by a specific seller.

The price offered by a specific seller is the price he offers. Period. Who offers the market price? The Creator? Collective humanity? Neither: the market price isn't offered, it is simply the point at which supply meets demand, and also the point towards which specific sellers will tend to gravitate in their own pricing. Similarly with natural rights.

Just because there isn't a great big Market Price Setter in the sky, does not mean that there is no such thing as market price. Same with natural law.

Here's something else interesting about market price: most people have a pretty good idea what it is in specific cases. They have an idea of what "the price" is for something, what "the going rate" is. But they may not have any appropriate theoretical understanding of what it actually is. What it actually is, is (an economist might say) the price at which supply meets demand. The average person may not have the necessary concepts to understand this. So the average person can know perfectly well what the market price is of something (from experience) without knowing theoretically what it is.

Such a person might one day start to have doubts. He might think, "the market price is just a fiction." And so on. This is possible because he has no intellectual apparatus that will help him to grasp what a market price is, and that will back up his (initial) intuition that it is something real.

Same with natural law. A lot of critics of natural law have (evidently, from the nature of their attacks) not been exposed to much in the way of possible theoretical underpinnings of the concept of natural law. And so they reject it.

Market Price?

Do I understand that you mean "market price" as in the aggregate of many individual offers and acceptances of trades?

Does this mean that a Natural Right is a statistical aggregation of what many individuals consider to be acceptable?

Since most countries would offer a public education for its citizens, does this means that a citizen has a Natural Right to be educated?

No

Do I understand that you mean "market price" as in the aggregate of many individual offers and acceptances of trades?

No. I defined "market price" as a point where supply meets demand. Talking about an "aggregate" of many individual offers doesn't really say anything very clear, at least, not to my mind. If ten people offer something for five dollars, is the "aggregate" fifty dollars? Or what? It's not clear.

Does this mean that a Natural Right is a statistical aggregation of what many individuals consider to be acceptable?

No. I only said it was a rough analogy. But we can actually still learn something from the market analogy. The market price is not equal to "what many individuals consider to be acceptable." The market price is determined in a particular way, and is not "equal do" any of its input components. The inputs define two curves, a supply and demand curve. Where these two curves meet, is the market price. That point is not equal to any of the inputs (except accidentally). It is not an average, nor an aggreagate. It is not a mean, median, or mode.

In response to the market price, individuals will develop a sense of the price. The market price will be acceptable to both buyers and sellers in the sense that sellers will not seek a much higher price, as they are aware the market will not bear it, and buyers will not bother seeking a much lower price, for the same reason. So, first comes market price, and only then comes the intuition that people develop of the appropriate and expected price of a thing. So the causality is reversed.

Since most countries would offer a public education for its citizens,
does this means that a citizen has a Natural Right to be educated?

No. State-derived law is to natural law as a command economy is to market prices. A command economy cannot be trusted to imitate market prices (unless it deliberately imitates a functioning market economy, but the imitation will still suck). Similarly, a state cannot be trusted to establish natural law.

And people's opinions will tend to adjust to whatever society they find themselves in. If there is free public education for all, people will tend to think that this is right and just. People adapt to their situation.

 

Market Prices

I defined "market price" as a point where supply meets demand.

I think we have the same concept in mind--just wanted to be sure. Here is my concept of market price:

There are three gas stations in my town. I drive past the one that advertises unleaded regular for $3.099/gal, stop in at the one that offers at $3.049/gal and fill up, then as I drive off and turn the corner, I see that I could have gotten it at the third for $2.999/gal. Three merchants are willing to trade a gallon of gas for different prices; since I am willing to buy at the price of one of them, we make an individual transaction based on mutual agreement. The price of the transaction is an intersection of his valuation of a gallon of gas and mine.

The "market price" would be some sort of aggregation of all the individual transactions for the day. Maybe we check the three station's advertised price at 6:00pm and (assuming that many people must have bought at that price) average them. Or maybe we are more careful and take the total revenue from gasoline sold in town that day and divide by the total volume. The market price could end up being $3.01/gallon if the cheap shop had a good day--it doesn't mean that his competitors did (in the past) or have to (in the future) choose to sell at that price. Market prices give a rough indication of the choices people have made, but they don't obligate you to make the same choice.

I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page with what it meant, because it took me by surprise that you thought "Market Prices" were analogous to "Natural Rights".

I still think I'm missing something, because I don't usually hear people claim this is how Natural Rights work. If I fly to Ireland, and find that four out of five girls kiss me on the cheek, does this mean that I have a Natural Right to demand a kiss on the cheek from every girl I see? If I fly to the Congo and find myself in an angry crowd slaughtering members of a village with pangas, does this mean that I no longer have to respect the villagers' Natural Right to life?

Most advocates of Natural Rights I have talked to see them as objective things that don't change according to circumstances. This has bothered me because I don't see how they can advise us how to act and still be rooted in reality or even human nature without somehow constraining our volition.

So I am making volition the more fundamental concept--people can choose to act however they wish. Some people* choose to reciprocally respect the life of others, and this choice gets slightly mis-packaged as "Natural Rights".

Perhaps you were thinking that, like the gas station owner advertising the price at which he is willing to sell a gallon of gasoline, someone who has chosen to respect the rights of others advertises to all that he is willing to deal with them on this basis. When another person accepts this offer, that is the other half of the transaction.

================

* In fact, most people choose to act this way. It is a good strategy for dealing with others, for the reasons you gave in this post.

Too precise

As I tried to warn, I wasn't trying to make a precise analogy, but only a rough one, and the usefulness of the analogy was limited to my purpose. I was not trying to give you a picture of what natural law is exactly by analogy - rather, I was trying to make the general point that, just as price is not given you you by a price-setter in the sky and yet it exists though it takes some work to define it well, so is natural law not given you by a contract-maker in the sky and yet it exists though it takes some work to define it well. My point is that you can broaden your view a bit, to encompass more "ways of being". My point is not to state exactly what natural law is.

If you want to know what exactly natural law is, you may have seen me try to explain my concept of it a few times before so I'm not sure if there would be any benefit in my re-iterating. James Donald and Mikel Evins formulated and defended it in two different but related ways years ago, and I have never topped them, and I have repeatedly been linking back to their explanations of it. If you want I'll give you the links again, but I've given the links twice before (and re-published Mikel's essay as a blog entry here) and I want to avoid flogging a dead horse.

Most advocates of Natural Rights I have talked to see them as objective things that don't change according to circumstances.

Well, I think they are biological realities specific to our species, and they can change if our species changes. But our species changes very slowly.

Moreover, I suspect that natural law is more general than our species. My guess is that many similar intelligent social species would develop spontaneous (decentralized) social regulation that was strikingly similar, if not identical, to human natural law. I am talking about convergent evolution. Similarly, the eye is a feature which has evolved completely independently in different parts of the animal kingdom, or so I believe. The octopus eye and the human eye have no eye-ancestor (or so I remember reading). The octopus is a creature so alien to us that we often use the octopus as a model for extraterrestrial aliens, and yet there are interesting aspects where we converge not because of an accident of shared ancestry but because we are independently rediscovering the same "place" in the space of possibilities. So in a sense, the eye is "eternally there", "outside of time" - I fully expect that, if there are aliens in other galaxies, some of them likely have eyes which are like ours in great detail. Similarly, in that sense, natural law might be "outside of time".

However, if humans developed into hive/colony animals like ants and bees, then intra-colony social regulation would be very different from what it is. So it is not fixed and eternal - it does depend on our biology.

So I am making volition the more fundamental concept--people can choose to act however they wish. Some people* choose to reciprocally respect the life of others, and this choice gets slightly mis-packaged as "Natural Rights".

Volition certainly is more fundamental. My point is that there is more to it than merely the fact that certain people happen to choose to respect the life of others. You acknowledge this yourself where you write "a good strategy" - except I take this point a lot further. What is a "good strategy" will depend on circumstances and on the strategies of other people. The concept of an "evolutionarily stable strategy" is more than just a good strategy in the context of other strategies. A "good strategy" is relative to other strategies, but a "stable strategy" is one toward which people will gravitate more or less regardless of where they all start out. A "nash equilibrium" is a similar idea. There's more involved in the concept than "good strategy".

So, my point is, we can back up and think about things from a longer perspective than just the immediate perspective of an individual self-interested actor. We can consider what equilibria exist in the possible strategies for a group of self-interested human beings.

Without necessarily expressing it in these terms, I think that skeptics of natural law tend to think there are no equilibria, and adherents of natural law tend to think there are equilibria. Skeptics stress variability in law and a lack of any way of distinguishing between possible sets of law other than mere arbitrary choice, which to my mind amounts to doubting that there is an equilibrium.

Nice Post

I really like the equilibria analogies to market price, the evolution of the eye, and successful human behavior. Useful stuff, illuminating.

But who is the other party

But who is the other party supposed to be who grants you a Natural
Right? The Creator? Collective humanity? If I have a Natural Right to
my life, does that mean that each and every member of humanity is bound
by my claim that they respect my life, whether or not they agreed to
this?

You are thinking like a positivist. Rights are not "granted" by anyone. Rights and property are not neat collectible little cards that we hold and play against another, they should not be  thought of as tokens but as barriers. It's not about who gives me my rights, but where the barriers are between me and other people. These barrier derive from human nature and interaction, the purpose of natural right is to describe those barriers.

Contracts are a way for two people of agreeing where the barrier will be should they enter in conflict.

You are thinking like a

You are thinking like a positivist.

Perhaps. I like to chase difficult problems into a tiny black box, then apply math and logic to them from the outside. I think I can put "volition" in the box, and then build a moral calculus on it.

These barrier derive from human nature and interaction, the purpose of natural right is to describe those barriers.

I am maintaining that the barriers derive from human choices. Choices could derive from human nature, or they could be calculated in a big spread sheet. We don't get any special permission to assume that someone's choice is incorrect and impose what we think is a "more reasonable" choice on them.

Contracts are a way for two people of agreeing where the barrier will be should they enter in conflict.

Contracts are careful agreements between people. I maintain that these take precedence over what someone thinks the parties "should" have agreed. I can see that this is leading me to a position on the "selling oneself into slavery" thread...

I meant a legal positivist,

I meant a legal positivist, not scientific positivist.

Contracts are careful agreements between people. I maintain that these
take precedence over what someone thinks the parties "should" have
agreed. I can see that this is leading me to a position on the "selling
oneself into slavery" thread...

How does that contradict what I say? I do agree that it is possible to sell oneself into slavery. Check Walter Block for example.

I believe in Contractual

I believe in Contractual Rights as a just claim arising from an agreement made between two parties.

If you haven't read them in depth already, you may be interested in exploring the work of Jan Narveson, David Gauthier, and the aforementioned de Jasay - all of whom are part of the contractarian tradition.

But who is the other party supposed to be who grants you a Natural Right?

While I still think this is a useful critique of some (vulgar) formulations of natural rights theory (I'm thinking of certain interpretations of Rand and Rothbard here), I'm becoming increasingly convinced (mainly by Randy Barnett and Roderick Long) that some formulations are legitimate and persuasive. For those formulations, the above critique isn't useful, because natural rights are simply the observed laws governing human behavior, which, if followed, will tend to lead to human and social flourishing, and if violated will lead to the opposite. Under this type of formulation, contractarianism, rule consequentialism, and natural rights are all describing the same phenomenon, but with different (and perhaps mutually incompatible) language.

Reductio ad absurdum

You know, I've heard people on French TV making exactly the same claim about property without batting an eye. The dog à la mode is the sum of labor of all past generations.

This essay is great and I'll make sure to quote it. However I don't think it directly relate to my comment, which was intended as an internal criticism of the soldier's message. That is: the criticism holds regardless of the existence or validity of a purported "social contract".

This whole thing strikes me

This whole thing strikes me as impractical. "Well, we're not really bound by the constitution, so blah blah blah, you don't have any obligation to obey the law."

Great. There's a lot of places with greater ideological purity, why don't you live there? Like Somalia for instance.

Idea: because they are third world hell holes.

Corollary: there is more to your evaluation of the fitness of a society than its ideological purity.

Concomitantly: in action if not in words, your decisions flow from practical considerations.

Conclusion: employing a wholly impractical argument to discuss the real issue of a soldier and his orders is a bunch of bunk.

That's all fine and dandy

That's all fine and dandy but we're discussing normative considerations. Your practical argument is not wrong, it's just irrelevant.

Arthur already presented my

Arthur already presented my response for me. This thread isn't (primarily) about what is practical or what is useful. Instead, it is about whether social contract arguments work: whether their conclusions logically flow from their premises. Answer: they don't.

Incidentally, from what I've been able to gather, the current view among most political philosophers and legal theorists (not sure about political scientists) seems to be that social contract arguments do not work in the way many would like them to. They do not sufficiently justify the legitimacy of authority. So, instead, apologists for authority must turn to other sorts of justifications, such as the utilitarian one you gave.

Of course, I fully agree that "there is more to [my] evaluation of the fitness of a society than its ideological purity." I doubt anyone in the world would disagree. But this proves nothing about the legitimacy of political authority.

But this proves nothing

But this proves nothing about the legitimacy of political authority.

The whole point is that arguments about the legitimacy of political authority are mostly a load. The soldier in question was basically saying "I knew what I was getting into when I signed on the dotted line." You're having some sort of meta-debate about whether the dotted line should be valid in the first place. Whatever.

Practically, sticking around in America is tantamount to accepting its laws. If you don't like the rules of the game, go play somewhere else --- or be prepared for the consequences when you break them.

Your point of contention is when Olmstead says "Soldiers cannot have the option of opting out of missions because they don't agree with them: that violates the social contract." Because, you cry, social contracts are crap. Fine. Replace that with "Men don't renege." It makes the same point.

Three Responses

Mark: Contracts are careful agreements between people. I maintain that these take precedence over what someone thinks the parties "should" have agreed.

Arthur B.: How does that contradict what I say?

I didn't put in the comment about "'should' have agreed" to address anything you said. I only wanted to stress that I think a benefit of my position is that it does away completely with "social contracts". I don't like it when people try to replace an actual contract with a "social contract".

As to logical positivism, I'd have to read more on it (I remember seeing a nice history of the philosophy of law post here a couple of months ago). But the Wikipedia article says it is distinguished from natural law by being amoral.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that morality is completely subjective--as to what goes on inside that black box of volition. I will allow that any human can make whatever ethical decisions they want and I really have nothing to say about whether it is or is not in accordance with their nature, or with reality, or with their long term best interest. I have seen so many people do such damn crazy things that I will not be so bold to suggest that there are limits to what decisions might burst forth from their heads.

If, however, they make a clear and simple decision to mutually respect others' lives, and if they are willing to accept the standard trappings of science--that the world follows a discoverable order, that we can observe an objective reality, that we can use reason, but that the world is subtle and we are fallible and peer review is our only tool to find flaws in our reasoning and observations--then you can make ethics an objective science.

Constant: Moreover, I suspect that natural law is more general than our species. My guess is that many similar intelligent social species would develop spontaneous (decentralized) social regulation that was strikingly similar, if not identical, to human natural law.

If you allow that "natural law" is shorthand for a reciprocal respect for others, then I agree with you completely that it is not limited to our species. Most (but not all) of the animals I meet do not attack unprovoked. They are, of course, not capable of such detailed negotiations about territory and resources as humans are. But more than the major fauna I have experience with, I suspect that any moral agents, placed within a landscape of predation and reproduction and finite resources would settle into several strategies: fast reproducers that try to outpopulate their enemies; bad ass predators that are strong enough to destroy competition long enough to reproduce; intelligent builders that can cooperate to exploit their resources with ever increasing sophistication. I'm not sure that there's much specifically in human nature that makes "natural law" work for us any more than that makes mathematics work for us.

Variable: There's a lot of places with greater ideological purity, why don't you live there?

Been there, done that, got the scars.

I lived with my wife and sons on a farm in South Africa for 15 years while it went through three governments. During that time I lost dozens of friends and acquaintances to violent deaths. I've been in firefights--not where your family is safe a continent away and you can call in air support--but where they are at your side and your and their preparation and reactions and luck are all that keep them alive.

And I discovered that none of those governments were any help--that they were more dangerous predators than were the common criminals. And I had to call on my neighbors for assistance, and be prepared to assist them, and find allies wherever I could no matter where they were from, and decide for myself what was right and wrong because the morals that were being spoon fed to us all were twisted nonsense. That was the situation that made me examine my beliefs and led me to the Philosophy of Liberty.

So I can't take rule-based Constitutional law for granted. It is something that I have to understand right down to the core, because our survival depends on how well we understand it ourselves, and how well we can explain it to others.