Sunday, August 31, 2008


Contracts are promises made in the context of proposed reciprocity. Contracts, therefore, take the familiar form: "if you scratch my back, then I'll scratch yours." When faithfully executed reciprocity advances the interests of both parties, and entire communities benefit economically. Fraud (or theft) takes place when either the buyer or seller deliberately fails to fulfill their end of the bargain; that is, when the seller fails to deliver the product or service as promised and/or when the buyer fails pay for those products and services as promised. (Bi-lateral fraud is rare, and philosophically interesting.) Reciprocal altruism is embedded in human nature in the sense that when we are cheated, we naturally experience powerful feelings that drive us to seek retribution. Hence, fear of retribution alone can provide a powerful incentive to uphold contracts. However, many cheaters do not fear retribution because they know they can escape detection and/or physically thwart retribution. Private retribution is obviously more difficult when the cheater is more powerful than the victim. Habitual cheaters can be thwarted by warning other members of the community. "Beware! Joe does not keep his promises." In a small community, where cheaters are easily identified and located habitual cheating can usually be held in check by word of mouth; and powerful cheaters can often be held accountable by coalitions comprised of the victims relatives and friends. However, in large communities, cheaters can more easily conceal their identity and/or hide from the victim or other potential victims. This advantage can often be partially neutralized via surveillance technology, mass media, and/or weaponry: but not enirely. Therefore, in large communities, there only two ways to control cheating. First, we can employ legality and tap into coercive power of government to monitor and enforce laws against cheating. Or second, we can use morality and simply teach everyone to keep their promises. My view is that today we need both. Today, we obviously cannot solely rely on parents, and public schools to teach their children not to cheat, let alone steal from others, or even kill others. Therefore, I believe that large communities really do need tax-supported criminal justice systems to monitor and enforce laws that control cheating. But, unfortunately many cheaters are highly intelligent, and have learned how to avoid getting caught. Therefore, it is essential that we also teach (at least) our most intelligent progeny not to cheat. That way, criminal justice systems can focus their efforts on cheaters that are easier to detect, catch, and punish. Take for example, the proverbial bank robber that scribbles his threatening note on the back of one of his own deposit slips, and then conspicuously drives away in a getaway car licensed in his own name. Even the most inefficient governments can handle cheaters like that! We also have to teach buyers that if it looks "too good to be true," it probably is! Buyer beware!

Freedom's Philosopher

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Public-Private Distinction

Libertarians invest a lot of intellectual capital in, what I call, the public-private distinction, which requires drawing a philosophically defensible line of demarcation between public ownership and private ownership. All libertarians favor private ownership and are at least skeptical of public ownership. Of course, a lot here depends on how we define the basic terms public and private. In an earlier blog I suggested that it is based on ownership, however, the more fundamental difference lies in how it is intitially acquired and subsequently funded. Anything that is acquired by a public entity (local, state, or federal government) is paid for with tax money extracted from the general public. Invariably, any system of voluntary taxation will lead to empty tax coffers. Although you might argue that leaders could acculturate followers to pay their taxes as a matter of duty, and eventually abandon monitoring and enforcement of tax law, I think that's idealistic nonsense. But we might explore that option in another blog. In so far as taxation requires coercion, it violates our property rights. In other words, taxation is tantamount to legalized theft, or forced labor. (About 33.33% of my wages are extracted from me via taxation!) Now some libertarians are willing to condone legalized theft for the greater good. Most notably, some of us are willing grudgingly allow governments to collect taxes in order to pay for self-defense; namely to fund an army and a criminal justice system. However, a few libertarians would even privatize those services. Here's why. The argument against public armies (and police forces) is that when there is a large sum of money sitting in a bank, there is no incentive for public officials to be thrifty. After all, they are not spending their own money. They are spending ours! Worldwide military expenditures tend to increase exponentially with little if any concern for "bang for the buck." And the more powerful the army, the more likely a government will use it. Military action becomes not only defensive but also preemptive. As tax rates increase the demand for public services tend to increase because we all want to "get something" in return for our lost wages. Politicians call it :"bringing home the bacon." Therefore, leaders tend to expand the public sphere by funding: sports stadiums, zoos, orchestras, etc. Of course, the more governments fund via public coffers, the higher tax rates. Expansion of the public sphere also tends to discourage private investment in those areas, even though government's rarely do a very good job. For example, public schools are gradually putting private schools out of business, not because they do a good job, but because they have unlimited funding. If current trends continue, eventually, all private colleges will be put out of business by public colleges (even Harvard!), which will leave behind a state run monopoly in higher education. That same pattern will be replicated for sports stadiums, zoos, and orchestras. In other words, there seems to be a natural tendency to expand the public sphere. Most European governments have already socialized retirement pensions, health care, and mass transit. As a result, those countries have very high levels of taxation. At a bare minimum, libertarians stand firmly against the unlimited proliferation of public monopolies and the public sphere. Why? Public monopolies have infinite resources, and therefore have an unfair advantage over competitors in the private sector. The most obvious exception is the U.S. Postal Service. Over the years, the Post Office has done such a poor job delivering packages that most of us now would rather pay more for a private delivery service than take a chance on the U.S. Postal Service. Most of us no longer rely on the P.O. to deliver our letters, our bills, or payments. I don't know about you, but about all I ever get in my mailbox are advertisements, and most of them are political advertisements.

Freedom's Philosopher

Friday, August 29, 2008


Communitarians argue that communities are the basic unit of human existence and that individuals can be completely explicated in terms of groups. Many if not most communitarians argue that individuals do not even exist! I believe communities are natural and an essential component of the good life, but I do not believe that we can reduce individual human beings to the communities that they spawn. One of the hallmarks of the modern era is that we can now associate ourselves with both small communities and large communities. Hence, there are both small group communitarians (that identify human fulfillment with small communities) and large group communitarians (that identify human fulfillment with large communities). In my view, small communities are supported by biological evolution, or our natural tendency to associate with our families and friends. During the Pleistocene era, say 3 million years ago, human communities were limited by the capacity for leaders to control followers. Our brains are the brains of hunters and gathers. We are naturally inclined to live in small groups. The formation of large urban communities required a lot of cultural evolution; most notably, communication technology, which facilitated the exchange of information, and weapon technologies which increased the efficiency of the use of coercive force. Now both small and large communities tend to rely on the use of coercive force, but I think large communities are more likely to actually employ it. That's because it is easier for small communities to monitor and enforce rules, while it is more difficult in large communities. That's because, we are individuals and we tend to use communities to advance our self interest. Large communities tend to accumulate free-riders that enjoy the benefits of group membership without abiding by its rules. Free-ridership is obviously less common in small communities. Unfortunately, given our unlimited capacity for fast-paced cultural evolution, small communities tend to get taken over by large communities. Some libertarians prefer to live in large communities that have a lot of rules that are impossible to monitor and enforce, while others prefer to live in small communities that have leaders that they know personally, fewer rules, and have fewer free-riders. Paradoxically, the larger the community the less efficient they become at serving the public good. However, our capacity for living, voluntarily in large groups has been enhanced by the evolution of morality; that is by our capacity to willingly comply with certain rules without being forced. I do not steal from others because I believe that it is immoral, not because I'm afraid that I will get caught and punished. I will not employ physical aggression either. Large communities, therefore, can be voluntary to the extent that their members willingly choose to not steal, keep their promises, and eschew violence. Today most human beings live in large impersonal nation states that rely more on legality (coercive force) than morality (consent) and therefore require ever-increasing levels of taxation to pay for more policemen, lawyers, judges, and prisons. As these large communities attempt to do more and more on our behalf with increasing levels of inefficiency, our tax burden increases along with our desire to avoid paying those taxes. Hence, most large communities have a very active underground economy. I am a communitarian to the extent that communities are voluntary; that is to say that individuals can freely enter or exit those communities in the absence of physical aggression or threats. Obviously, I would rather live in a society ruled by morality than legality, but not many large nation states are ruled by morality. Therefore, most libertarians are realists. We acknowledge that nation states must monitor and enforce their most important rules: rules that control theft and murder. But that's about it. The less legality, the more room there is for liberty and personal morality. Hence, my beef with communitarians is that they expect government to do too much and often tolerate the violation of the non-aggression axiom. Good communities are communities that survive because individuals CHOOSE to associate with them.

Freedom's Philosopher

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Atomic Individualism

Libertarians defend "atomic individualism," or simply "individualism," however, there is a lot of disagreement over exactly what that means. First of all, I am not a recluse or a hermit! I don't live out on a mountain top or a desert island. I have many friends and I associate myself many different communities. Individualism is often misguidedly contrasted with communitarianism. I'll admit that there is a tension between the two, but I don't think they are necessarily mutually exclusive. Communitarians argue that human beings are inexorably social animals and that what we call our "individuality" is invariably shaped by our social relationships. Although, our identity is often shaped by our association with these communities, I still believe that we are individuals with our own unique faces, genetic codes, experiences, and personalities. I am not just an American, an Ohioian, or a Cincinnatian. Although my association with communities shapes my identity, it does not completely explain who I am. I am an individual that chooses to associate with some communities and chooses not to associate with others. Therefore, I am responsible for the communities that I choose to associate with. I also shape and reshape the communities that I associate with. If I decided that I no longer wished to be an American citizen, I could move to Canada. (I would never do that for a variety of reasons!) If Canada decided to build a wall along the border with armed guards, that would certainly influence my decision. However, if I were kidnapped, bound and gagged, and taken to Canada against my own free will that would violate the non-aggression axiom. In other words, if you are a libertarian you will defend voluntary community and reject involuntary community. The best thing about my concept of voluntary community is that provides a mechanism by which some communities become extinct. The number of Ku Klux Klan members has been in decline for a long time. Someday these organizations will become extinct. If you want to join the KKK, I certainly will not violate the non-aggression axiom to prevent you from joining. But I will certainly try to persuade you to not do it. If you join, hopefully you and your friends will not violate the non-aggression axiom. But in the final analysis, communities like that only exist because individuals choose to join them. Finally, think communities survive to the extent that they allow their members to be themselves. Toyota discovered this a long time ago! They learned to listen to what the workers on the assembly lines have to say about how to make good cars.

Freedom's Philosopher

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Non-Aggression Axiom

The "Non-Aggression Axiom" is the least controversial component of libertarian doctrine. Simply put, libertarians will not employ physical force in order to advance their interests, except in self-defense. Keep in mind that physical aggression is subject to degrees ranging from a gentle push to the use lethal weapons. This moral committment to non-aggression extends to libertarian political beliefs as well. How much aggression can I justifiably employ under what kinds of circumstances? What does self-defense mean? Well, it clearly involves both rights and duties. It indicates that libertarians acknowledge that they have a duty to NOT employ physical force, unless others employ it first. In short, I will use physical force to protect myself. Unfortunately, there is a grey area here. What can a libertarian do when other parties threaten to employ physical force, but have not yet actually employed it? In other words, under the non-aggression axiom, is preemption ever justified? I have serious reservations when it comes to preemption. Threats are subject to personal interpretation. Sometimes we interpret the behavior of others as threatening based on misinformation or disinformation. And sometimes others threaten to use physical force, but really have no intention of doing so. Unfortunately, when we employ physical force preemptively in order to ward off an imagined threat, we can expect others to seek out retribution. This invariably leads to tit-for-tat cycles of retribution. We might invoke the concept of an immanent threat as justifcation for the use of physical force. If you walk into my home at night with a gun drawn, would I be justified in shooting you as an act of preemption? As far as I am concerned, it would depend on the availability of other non-lethal options. The best way to conceptualize libertarianism's committment to non-aggression is to assume that our default moral position is peace. However, do not interpret our committment to peaceful non-aggression as an invitation to employ physical force against us. If neccessary, we can be very efficient in the art of self-defense.

Freedom's Philosopher

Monday, August 25, 2008


Admittedly, the libertarian concept of "self-ownership" is bit troublesome. Unlike other libertarians I do not to invest a lot of intellectual capital defending it philosophically. But I do think that it provides a useful set of metaphors to help clarify many key issues. In classical liberalism and economic theory, there is a longstanding tradition of dividing up the world into persons and property. Persons are living beings that possess attributes such as consciousness, sentience, self awareness, and intelligence. These attributes plug into our Judeo-Christian notions of rationality, free will, and moral and legal responsibility. Property is non-conscious, non-sentient, non-self aware and non-intelligent. The things that we own or want to own. Every non-person is either owned by some person(s) or unowned. A lot of economic theory is about how unowned property can be acquired and how it can be fairly tranferred from one person(s) to another. The obvious problem with self-ownership is that it blurs the longstanding distinction between persons and property. On the other hand, it really does provide a useful set of metaphors that help libertarians draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable treatment of property and/or persons. For example, the concept of ownership sets fairly clear boundaries as to how you might treat my guitar without my permission. You can't steal it. You can't destroy it. And you can't transfer it to someone else without my permission. If I were five years old, you might talk me into trading my valuable Martin guitar for a bag of one dollar bills, say 200 dollars. But if you did that you would be assuming that a five year old child has the intelligence to engage in a complex contract like that. Most governments prevent adults from exploiting children in contracts like this. Now back to self-ownership. . . If I own myself in a broadly metaphorical sense, what would that imply in terms of how others might treat me. Well, if I own myself you cannot steal me, destroy me, or give me to someone else without my consent. Of course this raises interesting questions concerning the status of young children. Clearly, they cannot own themselves because they lack the intelligence to rationally negotiate with adults. Therefore, there are two ways to frame the moral status of young children. You could argue that children are the property of their parents or you could argue that they are public property. Libertarians are more likely to trust parents than government in protecting the interests of children. In fact, most of us find the whole idea of "public property" to be incoherent. (More on that in a later blog.) Take a look at what usually happens to public property. Simply put, when everyone owns something, nobody owns it. Philosophers and economists call this the "Tragedy of the Commons." When governments take children away from their parents a similar phenomenon takes place. Do you believe that governmental agencies do a good job of owning "our children?" What do you think about the quality of public education, child protective services, children's health care etc? From personal experience I can say that when my children were young I treated them as infinitely valuable property. I would never kill them sell them or anything like that. Similarly, if you are going to treat me as property, treat me as self-owned, infinitely valuable property. Before you do anything to me, my wife, or our children you had better ask for our permission. So although the concept of self-ownership is a bit clumsy, it does put you into the libertarian mindset. It really does provide a useful starting point for discussions about zygotes, fetuses, children, comatose adults, persons suffering from intractable pain and devastating disabilities, and even dead persons. At a bare minimum, start with the assumption that persons own their own bodies. Personally, I think we're all better off we do not allow government to turn our bodies into public property. Unless you think the government has done a good job caring for other forms of public property such as the air quality over Cincinnati or the water quality of the Ohio River. What do you think?

Freedom's Philosopher

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What is Libertarianism?

What is libertarianism? Well, it is a social and political philosophy committed to the advancement of personal liberty. It is usually contrasted with various forms of collectivism based on its distinctive views on property rights and the use of force. Although the term “libertarianism” first appeared in political discourse in the 1950s, its conceptual framework was firmly established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by political economists and philosophers in the “classical liberal” tradition, most notably John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Despite the fact that there is a lot variation among its proponents, most libertarians agree that the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression are foundational.

Many libertarians argue that all rights can be reduced to property rights. John Locke’s “principle of self ownership,” argues that we own ourselves in the same sense that we may own property (natural resources and/or artifacts). Entitlement to property is based on how it was originally acquired. For example, Lockeans argue that initial ownership of unowned natural resources become owned property after a person mixes their labor with that unowned resource. Based on the principle of self-ownership, we own our selves, then we have a right to the “fruits of our labor.” The institution of involuntary slavery, for example, is universally morally wrong because it violates the principle of self-ownership by depriving individuals of their natural right to their bodies and what they produce with their bodies. Self-ownership, therefore, sets limits what we can do to each other and our property without our consent.

Once unowned natural resources come under initial ownership, entitlement to those natural resources and/or the subsequently created artifacts may be transferred to others, if and only if the resulting contract is informed and consensual. Once legitimate ownership is established, neither other individuals nor government can coercively seize that property. Hence, most libertarians reject any governmental agenda that coercively redistributes privately owned property based on a preestablished "pattern" or preferred, end state such as: merit, need, equality, or utility.

Libertarians argue that non-aggression provides the foundation for both morality and legality. Unprovoked acts of physical aggression and/or threats of physical aggression obviously violate the principle of self-ownership. Most of us follow John Stuart Mill and distinguish between other-regarding acts (which violate property the rights of others) and self-regarding acts (which do not). The inviolable bounds of personal liberty lie within the sphere of self-regarding actions. Self-defense is the only justification for violation of the non-aggression axiom.

According to libertarianism, the non-aggression axiom imposes a negative right to life, which posits a duty not to kill others, or deprive them of their liberty or their property without their consent. There are no positive rights (rights to have something) that obligate us to assist others and therefore there is no positive right to life. Even if we could justify such a right, most libertarians would agree that that it would be more efficiently secured by charitable acts by individuals and non-governmental organizations than by tax-supported welfare programs.

The non-aggression axiom applies to both individuals and governments. Libertarians disagree over the implications of non-aggression axiom. Most of us agree that it limits government’s ability to raise revenue via coercive taxation, or raise an army via involuntary conscription. Most libertarians favor limited government that protects citizens from external threats posed by aggressive nations(via an all volunteer army); and from internal threats posed by aggressive individuals (via a criminal justice system). Some radical libertarians are anarchists who argue that all governments violate the nonaggression axiom and/or that all governmental functions can be more efficiently served by private individuals, voluntary, non-governmental associations, and the free market. I am a "minarchist," and therefore I advocate limited small government.

Libertarians hold that most (if not all) social problems are caused by intrusive government. Therefore, we prefer to empower individuals to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. If you need help, ask your friends and relatives or work out a reciprocal agreement with strangers. Most of us are also free market capitalists that stand opposed to any government redistributive programs intended to serve the public good, including governmentally supported programs such as social welfare, urban planning, socialized medicine, affirmative action, minimum wage laws, or public schools. We resist any attempt by individuals or governmental central planners to coercively impose any one moral or religious view upon everyone. I am especially wary of planners that prescribe governmental policies that seek to control: marriage, birth control, pornography, and recreational drugs. Admittedly, libertarian views on abortion, stem cell research, and cloning are contingent upon whether one believes that self-ownership can be rationally extended to zygotes, fetuses, tissue, and clones.

In terms of foreign policy, libertarians must hold firm to the non-aggression axiom and therefore declare war only in self-defense. Pre-emptive wars are deeply problematic. In global economic affairs, libertarians embrace free market economic policies and laissez faire government. I limit the role of government (national and international) to protecting buyers and sellers from theft, and fraud. Most of us stand against governmentally enforced monetary policy, protective tariffs, anti-sweat shop legislation. We all agree that if foreign aid is ever necessary (which is not very often) it is best provided by individuals and private non-governmental organizations.

On the contemporary political landscape, libertarians are classified as social liberals and economic conservatives.

Freedom's Philosopher

Welcome to My Blog

Well...I finally did it! I've been thinking about setting up this blog for a long time. My classes start tomorrow, so I decided that if I'm going to do it, I'd better get it started today! Hopefully, I'll find enough time to keep it rolling.

Why would I focus a blog on liberty and libertarianism? Well, first of all I think that most Americans have a grossly overly-simplistic view of libertarian doctrine. Even some of its most most ardent defenders tend to gloss over its hidden complexities. Although, I will certainly address contemporary issues that are ripe for libertarian commentary (health care, education, violence, war, welfare, etc), I will also try to further develop its philosophical foundations. Therefore, I will try to clarify basic philosophical architecture that underlies libertarian doctrine, key concepts such as: the liberty principle, personal autonomy, community, non-aggression, coercion, knowledge, evolution, culture, and government.

Let me state out front that my closest friends and colleagues disagree with my stances on most social issues. If fact, most of them are welfare liberals if not outright socialists. Therefore, I fully expect to attract a lot of criticism. Fortunately, like all true libertarians, I have extraordinarly "thick skin," and therefore you will not offend me by offering criticism. In fact, I must admit that libertarian doctrine is, in fact, far from philosophically "air-tight," and that I don't have everything all figured out. But until I'm convinced otherwise, I do believe that any alternative social and political philosophy based on involuntary collectivity is clearly indefensible.

Freedom's Philosopher
P.S. You might want to read the older enties first.