The circular justification for Libertarianism.

In this entry, Roderick Long wants to convince us that Libertarianism is actually not bizarre but really derived “from a quite ordinary set of values.” But first, a word on the capital L. He is not talking about anti-authoritarianism here but rather about that peculiar American ideology (or as Chomsky would say, an American aberration), which is why I capitalize the word. He does not, perhaps to let us equate his “libertarianism” with the anti-authoritarian tradition, which is very silly since property rights are the opposite of anti-authoritarianism. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We start with a bang:

Libertarians believe that there is, fundamentally, only one right: the right not to be aggressed against. All further rights are simply applications of, rather than supplements to, this basic right. Hence the vast panoply of other rights – positive rights, welfare rights – recognized by existing political regimes is dismissed as illegitimate.

And we run into our first problem. How is this “right not to be aggressed against” (merely a restatement of the Non-Aggression Principle, it seems like) justified? Long himself says that his goal is not to justify this supposedly all-encompassing right, because his objective is merely to show that it is not strange. He then dismisses this strangeness in one fell swoop:

But whatever the grounds, even those who reject the Positive Thesis will agree that it is attractive and that there is nothing mysterious about embracing it…

So Long actually wants to glide over the first part of his entire thesis. He does not, in fact, want to demonstrate that the “right not to be aggressed against” is derived from an “ordinary set of values”: he actually wants to use the “right not to be aggressed against” as his “ordinary values” and the bedrock of his argument that Libertarianism is not bizarre.

The problem with the “right not to be aggressed against” is not its bizarreness (although he could at least have pretended to care about that issue, since it was his avowed objective at the beginning of the article) but the fact that it is utterly meaningless. The concept of aggression is not primary, and in itself it has no content, but rather depends on a whole conceptual underpinning of freedom, equality, power, and so on. How wide or narrow these concepts are defined will inevitably lead us to wildly different concepts of aggression. To a believer in rights1 like Long, aggression necessarily means aggression1, in which anything other than physical or verbal coercion is not aggression.

Long’s prestidigitation act involves smuggling in premises while pretending to remain objective. And this is where the misdirection happens:

If an activity involves no use of force, then there can be no right to suppress it by force, since such a use of force would be aggression, and so would violate the obligation component of the right not to be aggressed against.

So the use of force is used as Long’s standard to determine whether an action is a form of aggression or not. But how does he define force? The premises of his formal argument for the “right not to be aggressed against” include the following premises:

2. Aggression = initiatory force. (Premise.)

5. An activity constitutes non-initiatory force just in case it is a use of force to restrain others from initiating force against one. (Premise.)

Force is defined in terms of force: we are trapped in the circular file. But as we will see, Long does have a very specific conception of aggression/force in mind: a conception which includes “property rights” as non-aggression, and egalitarianism or self-government as aggression. He’s misdirecting us on purpose: as long as he doesn’t define “aggression” or “force,” he can keep us agreeing with him with his vague-sounding principles (no one likes the word “aggression”) and keep us agreeing when he starts getting into specifics. So let’s get into these specifics.

Since libertarians accept the Positive Thesis, they can acknowledge a right to control external resources only insofar as interference with such control would constitute initiatory force. This brings us back to the question of specifying what counts as force. Imagine a world in which people freely expropriate other people’s possessions; nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body, but subject to that constraint, people regularly grab any external resource they can get their hands on, regardless of who has made or been using the resource. Any conception of aggression according to which the world so described is free of aggression is not a plausible one.

I agree with Long that such a conception of aggression is not a plausible one. No one would want to live in a “grab-all-you-can” ownership system. And yet it is the most “objective” system that anyone can come up with; Matt Bruenig even argues that it is the system most consistent with non-aggression:

Since grabbing pieces of the world is permissible and violently preventing grabbing is not, the grab-what-you-can world satisifes the non-aggression principle and no other world does.

I think it is that second clause that is most important here. Bruenig is arguing that all other ownership systems we can conceive, or at least all the ownership systems people propose, involve using force against people’s bodies. “Property rights,” as conceived by Long, are inherently based on force in that they delimitate some forms of “grabbing” which must be stopped by force and some which must not, and the patterns of land ownership we observe today are the result of massive worldwide violence (the enclosure of the commons). The necessity of using force is true of any libsoc system as well, or any other ownership system that is not “grab-what-you-can.”

You might say, so what? Obviously no one subscribes to the “grab-what-you-can” system, so it’s not relevant. Libertarians don’t believe all forms of physical violence are aggression. That’s true enough, but, as I pointed out before, that belief is not primary but is rather based on prior premises about freedom, equality, power, and so on. Unless those premises are explicitly listed and justified, there is no reason to accept any specific conception of aggression.

Another reason to consider the “grab-what-you-can” system is that it’s a great metaphor for “negative right” dissociated from “positive right.” In the Libertarian view, we have “negative rights,” rights not to be aggressed in our body or actions, but we have no “positive rights,” rights to access resources to support that body or actions.

But, as I’ve pointed out many times on this blog, a “negative right” dissociated from its corresponding “positive right” is not a right at all: the right to life is meaningless without the right to access health care and other life necessities, the right to assemble is meaningless without access to a place to assemble in, the right to free expression is meaningless without access to the tools of that expression, that the right to justice is meaningless without the means to be treated as an equal, and so on. A “negative right” is not a tool of freedom but a mere theoretical curiosity which reduces itself to “the more money you have, the more power you have.” In short, might makes right.

I say the “grab-what-you-can” system is a good metaphor for the Libertarian “negative rights” construct because they are both scenarios in which you are protected from physical harm (in theory) but where you can make no claim on the resources necessary for your survival. Libertarians seem to intuitively understand that the “grab-what-you-can” system is a horrible idea for that very reason.

You might reply that Libertarians also believe in “property rights,” so the two scenarios are different. First, I did say it was a metaphor, not a literal identity. Second, adding “property rights” into the mix only makes the scenario even worse: now not only can you lack the resources for your continued survival, but other people can exclude you from those resources as well. How does that provide any sort of improvement over the “grab-what-you-can” system? At least in that system there is more equality in that no one can appropriate anything, and a person in need can always grab resources from other people in order to survive.

So it seems at least somewhat problematic for Long to reject the “grab-what-you-can” system out of hand. There is a deeper problem there. I contend that this is because the notion of stand-alone “negative rights” is absurd on its face.

Now, remember the magic act? This is where you’re supposed to clap:

Libertarian property rights are, famously, governed by principles of justice in initial appropriation (mixing one’s labour with previously unowned resources), justice in transfer (mutual consent), and justice in rectification (say, restitution plus damages).

It is easy to see how the right not to be aggressed against will be interpreted here: I count as initiating force against a person if I seize an external resource that she is entitled to by the application of those three principles.

So now Long has put actual content into the term “aggression”: aggression means seizing resources that didn’t involve mixing your labor, transferring a resource that was obtained in this way, or is not the result of an act of restitution.

There are fatal problems with this already: the whole “mixing your labor” principle is incompatible with “property rights”, and, even if you can justify a person’s initial property claim, there’s no way to logically justify transferring a property claim to someone else. So Long’s list of “libertarian property rights” are conceptually dead in the water.

More importantly, Long does not even try to demonstrate that these “property rights” are not strange, which I thought was part of his intent. Remember that Long is proceeding backwards from logic, establishing his “right to not be aggressed” as primary and stating that the “right to property” is nothing but “an instantiation” of it. As I’ve already discussed, this is illogical: aggression cannot be primary to property, because our beliefs about property determine to a large extent what we consider to be aggression. So Long’s “property rights” are a very strange animal indeed, and he fails to answer to that.

To me, this failure, coupled with his refusal to normalize the “right to not be aggressed,” means that he has not at all discussed the supposed topic of his entry, which was to show that Libertarian norms are not strange.

I could simply end here, but he goes into some specifics against the welfare-statism position. I am not a statist and therefore these objections do not apply to my libsoc position, but I find that his questions entail interesting questions for Long, and the Libertarian position as well.

Suppose that the disparity of wealth between Scrooge and Cratchit is great enough to trigger an entitlement on Cratchit’s part to some portion of Scrooge’s resources. Several difficulties immediately arise.

First, if Cratchit was initially as wealthy as Scrooge, and through some misfortune has become poor overnight, then Scrooge, through no action of his own, has unwittingly passed from rightful possession to wrongful possession of the resources in question. If seizing resources is to count as force, as it must if property rights are to be based on the right not to be aggressed against, then from Cratchit’s suddenly acquiring title to (and thus a right to seize) these resources in Scrooge’s possession, it follows that Scrooge’s possession of them must suddenly have come to count as aggression (since otherwise Cratchit’s seizure of the resources would be initiatory force). But any conception of aggression according to which one can become an aggressor merely by undergoing a [one-sided, quantified] change seems inadequate.

First of all, I want to point out that this is an invalid definition of the welfare-statist position. Long speaks as if the welfare-statist position describes ownership relations between individuals. But in reality the welfare-statist position describes ownership relations between individuals and the State. It is the “property rights” position, Long’s position, which describes ownership relations between individuals mediated by the State. So Long has this exactly backwards.

This basic error dictates Long’s subsequent errors. He wonders how a simple change in one person’s bank account changes Scrooge from not being an aggressor, because his possession is entirely legitimate, to being an aggressor towards Cratchit, because his possession of a certain portion of money is no longer legitimate. But surely that can’t be right: if the State can decide at any time that a portion of your resources is no longer yours, then it was never your property in the first place; property implies exclusive control, and you clearly did not have exclusive control over that portion of resources if the State can suddenly claim control over it and supersede your claim.

Cratchit, on the other hand, cannot take that portion of resources legitimately. Such a thing would be considered theft and severely punished by the State, because the State claims a monopoly over violence or threats of violence, including resource redistribution. Long claims that Cratchit acquires a title to some of Scrooge’s possessions, but this is fantasy: nothing like this actually happens in a welfare state in real life.

This whole passage from Long is a garbled mess, and the effects of his error continue in this next passage:

Moreover, how great must the disparity of wealth between Scrooge and Cratchit be before the transfer of property rights is triggered? To what percentage of Scrooge’s resources does Cratchit become entitled? If there are many Scrooges and many Cratchits, by what means are we determine how much which Cratchits may take from which Scrooges? The Rawlsian Difference Principle and other such guidelines would be of little help here, for they specify no determinate outcome; one cannot say, e.g., that any given Cratchit has a right to keep seizing resources from any given Scrooge until the disparity in their respective socioeconomic conditions is reduced to a point that is favorable to the worst-off person, for that yields no concrete guidance.

No, Cratchit is not entitled to any percentage of Scrooge’s resources because he is not entitled to any specific person’s resources; Cratchit is entitled to a portion of the resources seized by the State, from all manners of private and corporate sources, for redistribution purposes. Again, no Cratchit can take anything from any Scrooge for their personal gain, even if they work for the IRS.

But consider Long’s main criticism against welfare-statism, that the redistribution process is essentially arbitrary. How does that criticism not apply to any ownership system? Free market economic theory entails that the owners of means of production deserve to receive their employees’ entire production and pay back wages set by the market. There is no more justification for such an arrangement than there is for particular welfare redistributions, which are determined by the democratic interplay of political interests. Neither of them are arrived at by any kind of objective process.

In the previous quote, Long also complained about the arbitrariness of a conception of aggression where the status of aggressor can change based on a specific variable. Fair enough. But all hierarchical systems are ultimately arbitrary: why should certain specific people have the power to define ethics for an entire society and enforce them, and everyone else not have that power?

Libertarians are divided on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration and Intellectual Property. Who gets to decide which positions on these issues are right for their society? Why those people and those positions and not others? The answer has to be some form of interplay of political interests; but that’s also where the arbitrariness of welfare-statism comes from. So what’s the difference really?

This leads us to a conclusion by Long:

Since governments, on any liberal view, are not mystical bodies of social union but are simply collections of individuals, on an equal moral footing with the individuals they govern, a government can have no rights in excess of the sum of the rights of the individuals composing it.

This is a radical proposition by Long, and it doesn’t sound very Libertarian at all. After all, I know of no Libertarian who advocates against State police (although they might want it to be privatized), and having a police implies unequal powers. A cop is not, by definition, on an “equal moral footing” with his targets, and must, by definition, have “rights in excess of the sum of the rights of the individuals” he targets.

I know Long fancies himself an “anarcho-capitalist,” a laughable chimera of anti-authoritarianism and economic tyranny, and therefore does not claim any belief in State police. Nevertheless, any implementation of capitalism requires government; no free society could structurally withstand the kind of massive inequalities generated by capitalism, and it’s been a rule of history that lack of freedom goes hand-in-hand with inequality levels (see for example the city-states of the Middle Ages or the difference between Amerindian societies and their oppressors).

That’s the end of my review of Long’s article. The basic reasoning is all wrong, and the stated goal of the article is not even touched on. There is a serious attempt to address counter-arguments, but not on any of the main points. Using welfare-statism as his opposition is pointless since, as he points out himself, welfare-statism also upholds “property rights.” The analysis would have been much deeper if Long had chosen as his opposition a position which rejects “property rights” (e.g. actual Anarchism).

So what is the “quite ordinary set of values” which Long believes underlies Libertarianism?

1. The “right not to be aggressed.” This may look ordinary simply from the use of the word “aggressed.” Of course I value not being aggressed, and who doesn’t? But we all have different conceptions of what aggression means. This value is only “ordinary” because it is a rhetorical trick.

2. We have no other rights than the “right not to be aggressed.” This is a very bizarre value, and I certainly do not share it. Long can only demonstrate this because he’s banking on the abstracted meaning of “aggression” as being a bad thing. But this is sophistry, not reasoning.

3. “Property rights.” This is perhaps an ordinary value insofar as our Western societies go, but Long’s ultra-right-wing stand against welfare certainly is not ordinary at all, and is not a value shared by many. He tries to answer this point by stating that the Libertarian conception of property is more consistent than the welfare-statist one, but in that he failed.

2 thoughts on “The circular justification for Libertarianism.

  1. […] which seem coherent, such as non-aggression and private property. I’ve already discussed how these principles are bizarre on their face. They are reason enough to reject this whole ideological mish-mash we call […]

  2. […] (i.e. they benefit some people while leaving no one worse off). Even a hypothetical advocate of the Grab-What-You-Can system (I say hypothetical because, as far as I know, not even the most consistent voluntaryist is stupid […]

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