Routine Libertarian Question Begging

Micha reposts this libertarian parable. In the comments, Scott links us too a response . Read them both if you haven't already for a bit of context.

The parable is a sort of standard story that libertarians tell to illustrate how the state is coercive. In Richard's response (he's actually responding to a similar story from Kling), he concludes:

There are good pragmatic reasons to favour some libertarian policies. But the moral ideology ("taxation is theft") is obtuse.

I completely agree, but for different reasons. Why does he think "taxation is theft" is obtuse? He quotes himself:

A well-ordered society is governed by the rule of law. This means that there are institutional processes to govern certain classes of action. The outcome of a just
institutional process -- whether it be a guilty verdict, or minimum wage legislation -- has a different normative status than the corresponding action of a neighbour who takes it upon himself to unilaterally impose his will on others.

I don't think any libertarian would disagree with that statement. Richard just misses the point - the libertarian theory of justice. Libertarians, at least of the sort we are talking about here, would simply claim that our current institutional processes are unjust and thus dodge Richard's criticism. The libertarian theory of justice is usually claimed to flow completely from the non-aggression principle (NAP). This is highly misleading, however, as Richard inadvertantly makes clear in the post he quotes himself from:

To claim ownership of a resource is to prevent others from making free use of it. If another attempts to use the resource in the same way as you do, you can call it "theft" and initiate force against them (or have the police do so on your behalf).

Thus it seems the NAP alone forces us to conclude that property is theft. And we thought Proudhon was a socialist. But this isn't the full libertarian story. A complete statement of the NAP, at least as I understand it, looks something like this:

It is always and everywhere immoral to initiate force against a person or his or her property.

Notice that the NAP presupposes property. There is another principle at work here which has to do with acquiring property coming straight down the pipe from Locke: the homestead principle (HP). For this reason I call this sort of libertarianism Lockean libertarianism or neoLockeanism. It rests on these two principles, as far as I can tell. Some versions try to derive the NAP from the HP, but that is unimportant fo For completeness, here is the HP as I understand it:

The only just way to acquire unowned property is by mixing one's labor with it.

These two principles together seem to be the foundation of neoLockeanism, though to digress, one important libertarian conclusion doesn't seem derivable from them: that voluntary exchange is always moral, or at least always just even if it is immoral. The NAP gives us that force or coercion is bad, but it doesn't give us that voluntary is good or even just. Perhaps I have screwed something up here (let me know if I have), but this isn't the point of this post anyway, so I'll let it go.

So Lockean libertarianism rests on these two principles, but do they hold water? The NAP is intuitively appealing and not all that controversial among ethicists. All deontologists (Kant) and virtue theorists (Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume) would accept it in some form while most utilitarians would reject it. Two out of the big three ain't bad. I say "in some form" above because the theory of property you accept may affect the NAP in some way, but the general idea runs across both classes of theories. I suspect even Richard accepts it in some form, with caveats for the formation of property.

The HP, on the other hand, has it's problems. For one, I still don't know what "mixing my labor" with something means. Labor isn't literally a substance that is mixed with other substances. Metaphors may be useful in communicating a complicated concept, but in this case we have all metaphor and no concept. Intuitively we have an idea of what it means, but without an actual definition, we'll argue endlessly about what actions count as labor mixture and how much property can be acquired by them - even with the "Lockean proviso," which is just as vague.

The problems with the HP don't end there, however. It is often asserted among libertarians but rarely defended. Locke himself tried to ground it in the existence of God. Ultimately, he assumes it anyway because God owns us by "maker's right" which allows him to argue that we have to take care of ourselves by acquiring property through the HP. I don't know what "maker's right" is outside of the HP. Rothbard is content to assert the self-evidence of his foundations without an account of what self-evidence means. Ultimately, he's waving his hands. Hoppe's argument is an attempt, but it doesn't work for a variety of reasons, on of which is that it isn't incoherent to argue with your slave (for fun, of course). Nozick also assumes the HP, but - and correct me if I'm wrong because I'm going off memory here (this applies for everyone else's views above as well) - he acknowledges this and points out that a rigorous account of property might substantively alter his conclusions, but he ignores the issue to get to other things.

As far as I know, no one has actually given a solid defense of the HP, let alone a clear exposition of what it actually is. I haven't read every libertarian theorist, so I might have merely missed it, but I have my doubts (but by all means, correct me if I am wrong).

In the mean time, let's forget about the HP principle and see what happens to the libertarian's favorite conclusion. The striking thing is that we know longer know if taxation is theft because we don't have an account of property. It seems the neoLockeans were begging the question all along.

So in the end, I agree with Richard's conclusion wholeheartedly - not, like him, because I think the neoLockeans misunderstand institutions, but because I think neoLockeans assume their pet theory of justice.

If one holds a markedly different theory of justice, say something like Hume's, governments seem almost by definition to have a legitimate property right. This doesn't automatically give us the social contract theory as the justification for government, but it does imply that governments are voluntary. Time permitting, I'll have more on this relatively soon.

Now, if this doesn't start a shitstorm, I'll be very disappointed in you guys. Or is my assumption that most of you are neoLockeans is wrong?

edit: Micha agrees that Richard misses the point.

edit: After reading Micha's post again, I think I need to make myself a bit more clear. I agree with just about everything he says. In particular, social contract theorist beg the question too; and Nozick, given his assumptions, doesn't really justify the state. At this point in my argument, it would just as question begging to say that taxation is theft as to say that it isn't. What social contract theorists and neoLockeans alike need to avoid the fallacy is a theory of justice/property. Until an adequate one is presented, we just don't know whether taxation is theft or not under any (or all)
circumstances. Time permitting, I plan on presenting a Humean take on this, but it may have to wait until the final weeks of the semester have passed.

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some further context

"I don't think any libertarian would disagree with that statement."

Eh? I wrote that statement in response to a libertarian (Daniel Klein at Cato Unbound) who wrote: "Just imagine if your neighbor decided that he would impose a minimum wage law on us. Wouldn’t we all agree that he was coercing us? If it is coercion when he does it, why isn’t it coercion when the government does it?"

It's a sentiment I commonly hear from libertarians, and indeed it is absolutely central to the parables in question, which after all involve describing acts that would be wrong if a private actor did them, and inferring on this basis that it must be wrong for the government to do it too. That's the implicit argument of the specific parable I was responding to. So it's just not true that I was "missing the point". You're just raising a different point; that's fine too.

I agree that there are further criticisms to make of NeoLockeanism, and it's good to see you raise the broader issue here. Hopefully it'll kick off some interesting discussion.

On a second look I think I

On a second look I think I misinterpreted you. That being said, I still think the neoLockeans can agree with you and hold onto the "taxation is theft" conclusion without pain of contradiction because of the homestead principle. If all governments happen to be unjust, your criticism is only relevant insofar as it helps clarify the neoLockean's thinking.

That being said, I do think you are right, but the why of it will have to wait for my next post.

Not exactly the inference you have in mind

Richard,

The inference is not from "This would be wrong if private actors did it." to "This is, therefore, also wrong when the government does it."

Rather, the inference is from "This would be be wrong if private actors did it and there are reasons why it would be wrong if private actors did it and none of those reasons depends on whether the doer is a private actor or an agent of a government." to "So this must be just as wrong when the government does it because all the same reasons apply."

It may be that your reasons for objecting to private theft include "The takers aren't acting on behalf of a government." I wonder: what are you assuming to make you think that this should matter?

You don't need a theory

The striking thing is that we know longer know if taxation is theft because we don't have an account of property. It seems the neoLockeans were begging the question all along.

By that logic we don't know if anything whatsoever is theft. If you want to argue that libertarians are begging the question merely because they claim something is theft and yet they don't have an account of property, then you are logically constrained to say that all claims of theft are question-begging. For example, when a Rembrandt or a Vermeer or is stolen from a museum, you are constrained to say that we don't actually know whether it was stolen or taken by its rightful owner, because we don't have an account of property. If you have some logic which singles out the claim that taxation is theft while leaving alone the claim that what happened at the Gardner Museum is theft, you haven't expressed it.

(Old) news item: "Thieves posing as police brazenly looted the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum more than seven years ago, making off with works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet and Degas."

Matt Simpson's argument reapplied: "Routine newspaper question begging. I don't see any account of property in this news article, so the claim that these men are 'thieves' is begging the question."

You can extend your argument to apply against every word in the news item, including "as" and "the". Most of us would have a terrible time accounting for our words, and I doubt if even the most complete accounts of the linguists are really complete.

But let's set that aside. If you want to argue, as you seem to, that the government has a right to tax because it is our landlord, then you are coming up with a theory of taxation to which the government itself does not appear to subscribe. (There are many such theories; another one is that taxation is a fee for a service.) If I were to respond to a landlord's demand for rent by asserting that I owe him nothing, he would respond by pointing out that I was renting his property and that we had agreed on suchandsuch rent, and if I objected to that then he would bring out the contract we had signed. That landlord would indeed be appealing to the theory that he has a right to charge rent because he is my landlord. This is not how the government responds. If you think the government is our landlord, you'd better tell the government. Your insight would make the troublesome matter of eminent domain so much simpler! But it gets worse: not only doesn't the government respond the way a landlord does. It can't. Because it doesn't have the proofs that a landlord has (e.g., the rental agreement). Not to mention that government explicitly recognizes that suchandsuch land is the property of suchandsuch private individual.

Nor can it newly assert that it is a landlord. It's too late - the property is already taken. Nor can it renew an old assertion. Even if the government had been, at the dawn of history, the landlord of everything in the territory, it is no longer landlord because it has not been actively asserting its ownership. Yes, it taxes the citizens, but it does not claim to do so as landlord. When a private property owner fails to actively assert his ownership over a bit of property, then it can be taken by squatters, which is what we would be in the scenario in which the land was the government's at the dawn of time.

Finally, even if we granted that the state is the landlord, which it is not, this would not give the state the powers of the state. A landlord does not gain the powers of a state over his tenants. His power over them is limited to what power the contract that they have signed gave over to him, and the validity of a contract that signed over too much (e.g. a slavery contract) is dubious. The state can imprison a tax evader. A landlord cannot lock a delinquent tenant in a closet.

Arguing past me?

By that logic we don't know if anything whatsoever is theft. If you
want to argue that libertarians are begging the question merely because
they claim something is theft and yet they don't have an account of property,
then you are logically constrained to say that all claims of theft are
question-begging.

Only if all claims of theft fail to rely on an account of property.

For example, when a Rembrandt or a Vermeer or is stolen from a museum,
you are constrained to say that we don't actually know whether it was
stolen or taken by its rightful owner, because we don't have an account of property.
If you have some logic which singles out the claim that taxation is
theft while leaving alone the claim that what happened at the Gardner
Museum is theft, you haven't expressed it.

You're right, I haven't expressed it. The point of my post was to attack the neoLockeans, not argue for a different conception of property- that's a different post which I hope to be able to get to soon. We could say that what happened at the museum is theft as the general public intuitively understands it or according to whatever institutions are currently in place (which is what the newspaper is/would be reporting), but without an account of property, we can't say if it legitimately is or isn't theft.

But let's set that aside. If you want to argue, as you seem to, that
the government has a right to tax because it is our landlord, then you
are coming up with a theory of taxation to which the government itself
does not appear to subscribe.

Not quite a landlord, but that's close. But as I said, I haven't gotten into an actual theory of justice yet. The point of this post was to show that at least one important strand of libertarianism is question begging.

Matt, I'm not sure if this

Matt,
I'm not sure if this will help answer your questions because it's been a while since I last read it, but Roderick Long has an interesting article discussing various initial acquisition theories: LAND-LOCKED: A CRITIQUE OF CARSON ON PROPERTY RIGHTS

I haven't had time to give

I haven't had time to give it a thorough read, but it seems as if he is trying to show which of three competing theories which all assume the HP and the self ownership principle is correct. e.g.:

For present purposes, I wish to challenge Carson’s claim that libertarian principles of self ownership and original appropriation by themselves, apart from consequentialist considerations, give us no reason to favor one theory
of landed property over the others.

The three theories are Lockean, Georgian, and mutualist, and according to my definition of "Lockean" or "neoLockean" above, they would all be Lockeans since they all accept the HP.

Hmmmm

I'm still waiting for any rationale or objective facts that back up the idea of private property at all, especially that of capitalist property (which mixes the labor of others with material to make distributive property and capital for the capitalist).

As far as I'm concerned private property is a contract an individual has with the rest of society, it is a social institution protected by and regulated by the rest of humanity. I really don't see how private property could exist without a society to protect it, legalize it..etc..

Angelo, I think you will

Angelo,

I think you will find the answer to your first paragraph when you realize that the answer you seek is contained in your second paragraph. Look at private property as an engineering rule that must be adhered to if one wishes to live in a stable, flourishing society. This engineering rule is as objective as gravity; if one wishes to build a physical structure that is stable under most circumstances, one better design the structure with gravity in mind. If one isn't concerned with collapse for whatever reason, then one is free to ignore the force of gravity. So too, if one isn't concerned with the stability and likely flourishing of human society, one is free to ignore the idea of private property.

Well then,

Why, pray-tell, is private property such an underused concept? In no society has private property ever been held as sacred, even in the most Capitalistic of societies ever recorded. In no case has a society managed to forgo the rather natural tendency towards collectivism. I have yet to see any country or civilization put forth property rights as a central tenant, even our founding fathers switched "Life, Liberty, and Property" to: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".

I'd also like you to have a word with your ancestors, the ancients. While private property technically existed at least as far back as the classical era it has always been subject to the will of the people, the tyrant, the dictator, the pope, the church, or other bodies of collective power.

I find it strange that mankind managed to develop under systems which, according to you, are ignoring a rather objective "engineering rule". In fact, most of the greatest civilizations ever recorded were highly collectivistic, Egypt, Rome, Athens, Persia, Macedonia...centers of education, commerce, power. They did rather well by putting private property second, if it even placed in the top ten. The other civilizations are mildly so (The United States, Britain).

Also, I find it strange that in most successful societies currently private property is, at least, put to use for the public good. In states where it is heavily regulated (with democratic governments) and taxes they seem to do rather well (Norway, Sweden, France, England, Netherlands..etc..etc..). It seems that the more socialistic and democratic a society is, the better it tends to do.

Socialistic tyrannies tend to do rather poorly, as do Plutocracies. But at any rate Socialistic tyrannies do survive, and have managed to pull off some rather lofty feats (albeit at a terrible price).

I'd like to remind you, also, that collapse seems to occur regularly in economies governed more towards free market principles than collective security.

It seems as though history is open to a greater diversity of socio-economic organizations than you are admitting. After all, there are plenty of methods of engineering a bridge...and simply expecting a bridge to engineer itself in a coherent manner seems to be the least likely of all. Odd.

A hypothetical situation - just for fun

Assumptions:

1. There are no institutions. There are no governments or private institutional frameworks to enforce or adjudicate anything.

2. You cannot use physical force.

3. I've made a claim to a piece of property that you now very much desire.

On what basis will you attempt to convince me that I should relinquish my claim and allow you to use the property?

We are removing coercion and attempting to solve the problem of human cooperation through rational persuasion only. We are removing bestial man and replacing him with rational man.

I'm open to argument and quite capable of being swayed. What would you argue?

Why, pray-tell, is private

Why, pray-tell, is private property such an underused concept?

A concept doesn't have to be easy to grasp in order to have massive implications. People didn't have a very good understanding of gravity until Newton, evolution until Darwin, absolute advantage until Smith, and comparative advantage until Ricardo. All four of these concepts are in many ways counter-intuitive - they contradict common sense. So much the worse for common sense. As to why we systematically make these sorts of mistakes, see Capitalism and Human Nature

In no society has private property ever been held as sacred, even in the most Capitalistic of societies ever recorded.

I'm not sure where you are getting the idea that private property needs to be held perfectly sacred, above all other values, for a society to survive. I certainly never made that claim. Private property needs to be respected in a certain respect, under certain conditions, or certain predictable results will occur. This is not an all or nothing concept but a matter of degree; the better a building is built to withstand the force of gravity, the less likely it is to suffer collapse. So too, the better a society succeeds in protecting private property, the less likely that society is to suffer extensive social problems, and the more likely that society is to flourish.

I have yet to see any country or civilization put forth property rights as a central tenant, even our founding fathers switched "Life, Liberty, and Property" to: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".

Not quite true; see the 5th and 14th Amendments. But whatever, I need not defend imperfect documents written by imperfect men. Insofar as they failed to create society that fully respected private property, they failed to achieve their full potential.

I find it strange that mankind managed to develop under systems which, according to you, are ignoring a rather objective "engineering rule".

Do you find it similarly strange that mankind managed to develop under scientific, religious, medical, dietary, and other such systems which ignored rather objective facts about the world that we only now, in the last 200 years or so, have come to understand? Humans are a resilient species; we wouldn't have gotten this far if we weren't. That's sort of the point of evolution, natch.

In fact, most of the greatest civilizations ever recorded were highly collectivistic, Egypt, Rome, Athens, Persia, Macedonia...centers of education, commerce, power. They did rather well by putting private property second, if it even placed in the top ten. The other civilizations are mildly so (The United States, Britain).

Greatest civilization according to whose standard? Great from the perspective of the people who had to live and slave under those civilizations? Or great from the perspective of the leaders, tyrants, and slave owners? Mussolini made the trains run on time (well, not quite, but he claimed credit for it anyway), Nazi Germany gave us Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and some advances in military tactics and technology, Soviet Russia gave us, well, Yakov Smirnoff and Ayn Rand. And they produced a lot of stuff, even if it wasn't the sort of stuff consumers actually wanted. I guess that was kind of the point.

If producing stuff, even if its stuff people don't actually want, or stuff that comes at the cost of massive slavery, exploitation, and suffering, is the sine qua non of great society, then why would any of us want to live in or respect great societies? A society that sufficiently protects private property may not be a society that produces lots of public statues - oh noes.

And what do you mean by the United States and Britain being only "mildy so"? If you ask me, the U.S. and Britain are pretty fucking great places to live for the average joe, at least in comparison to ancient Egypt, Rome, Athens, Persia, and Macedonia. Of course, the U.S. and Britain, coming much later onto the scene, have a few advantages in terms of overall human knowledge.

In states where it is heavily regulated (with democratic governments) and taxes they seem to do rather well (Norway, Sweden, France, England, Netherlands..etc..etc..).

No. The Nordic model is indeed quite impressive, but it is not accurate to say that it entails heavy regulation. Just the opposite; regulation is rather low under the Nordic model. Taxes and redistributionist welfare spending are high, but not overall regulation. These are very open, free trade (and culturally homogeneous) economic models. But therein lies the rub. P.J. O'Rourke tells a possibly apocryphal story:

A Scandinavian economist once proudly said to Milton Friedman, "In Scandinavia we have no poverty." Friedman replied, "That's interesting, because in America among Scandinavians we have no poverty, either.

If the Nordic model were to be applied to an economy with a heterogeneous population, popular support for high welfare spending would plummet. People are less likely to believe that "we are all in this together" economically if they aren't in it together ethnically. Some people use this to argue for immigration restrictions and other laws designed to protect culture, i.e. discriminate against foreigners. I say just the opposite; welcome all comers and get rid of the welfare state. And since economic inequality is much greater between countries than within countries, who is really the better egalitarian: the country with a high rate of internal redistribution but doesn't allow entry of migrants, or a country with a high immigration rate (lots of poor people moving to a developed country to make better lives for themselves and their families) but a low to non-existent welfare state? Insofar as the Nordic model is nationalist, it is not egalitarian.

It seems that the more socialistic and democratic a society is, the better it tends to do.

Cuba and North Korea are the most socialistic of all existing societies at the moment; all of the means of production are controlled by the state. How are Cuba and North Korea doing? France is one of the most socialistic countries in Europe; how is it doing compared to one of the least socialistic countries in Europe, Ireland?

As for democratic, it's difficult to be more or less democratic in the way that a country can be more or less socialistic. A country either is or it isn't democratic. India, much of South America, and a few countries in Africa are democratic. Democracy doesn't seem to be doing much for them. Singapore, Hong Kong, and yes, even China aren't very democratic, and yet they seem to be doing pretty good. Hitler was elected democratically; American slavery was signed into the Constitution and protected for decades through the democratic process.

I'd like to remind you, also, that collapse seems to occur regularly in economies governed more towards free market principles than collective security.

Evidence for this claim?

It seems as though history is open to a greater diversity of socio-economic organizations than you are admitting. After all, there are plenty of methods of engineering a bridge...and simply expecting a bridge to engineer itself in a coherent manner seems to be the least likely of all. Odd.

I never claimed that certain kinds of socio-economic organizations are impossible, or would necessarily collapse. I claimed that certain kinds of socio-economic arrangements are unlikely to achieve long-term stability while promoting human flourishing. Slave societies may be stable (until the slaves rebel and demand their freedom), but they certainly do not promote human flourishing. To the extent that a society respects private property, it is likely to flourish. To the extent that it doesn't, it is likely to fail.

Unplanned orders do indeed seem odd to most people. Just as it is hard for people to understand economies as a product of human action, not human design, it is difficult for many people to grasp basic evolutionary theory. This is not just a loose analogy; writes Stephen J. Gould,

The theory of natural selection is a creative transfer to biology of Adam Smith’s basic argument for a rational economy: the balance and order of nature does not arise from a higher, external (divine) control, or from the existence of laws operating directly upon the whole, but from struggle among individuals for their own benefits.

Or consider the same observation by Jim Lindgren,

One thing that strikes me about Intelligent Design is that it must have been much more intuitively appealing before the failure of socialism. Socialism in the 1920s--1940s was in part based on the idea that the world had become so complex that central planning was necessary to deal with this complexity. Yet Von Mises was arguing just the opposite, that as the world became more elaborate, no one could plan it. ID seems to be based on an assumption that most conservatives reject in the economic sphere--that as the economy gets more elaborate, to work well it must be the product of the intelligent design of a master planner.

dude, post that shit

Don't let it slip by in the comments

Which Part?

Any part in particular or all of it? I try to avoid reposting my own comment thread fiskings to the main page, as it seems a bit unfair to the person I am fisking. Also, I didn't really say anything all that novel (to me), nothing that I haven't written about a thousand times before. Of course, I'm overexposed to myself and tend to think my stuff is overrated.

I agree with J-dub. And you

I agree with J-dub. And you should post all of it, because it is a good recitation of the good. As Ezra Klein tells us, the benefit of blogs is precisely the ability to repeat things that are true.

Especially because it's tedious

Correcting the empirical arguments of anti-capitalists is tedious work. And this may be one of the reasons theory is associated with the economic "right wing" - rather, it is the "left wing" (the anti-capitalists) that relies heavily on (incorrect) empirical arguments. There might be a reason for this: the sort of theoretical nonsense that anti-capitalists are typically able to muster is relatively easy to debunk, simply by working through the logic. The sort of empirical nonsense that anti-capitalists are typically able to muster can be quite a bit more tedious to debunk because it requires doing the research to retrieve the relevant facts and supporting citations.

Since it can be so much more tedious to debunk empirical nonsense than theoretical nonsense, then those whose goal in life is to spread nonsense will, as a means of self-defense, to deter opponents, rely on empirical nonsense.