Friday, December 26, 2008

The Libertarian Stance on Abortion

What can a libertarian philosophy professor teaching in a small, private, Roman Catholic college say about abortion? Good question! Although, there is no single libertarian stance on abortion we do offer a common approach to the issue. The first step in that approach is to personally decide whether the non-aggression axiom applies to early life: sperm, ova, zygotes, fetuses, and/or neonates. But even if abortion is deemed an “other-regarding action,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that abortion is unconditionally wrong. There might be circumstances when abortion (like killing in general) might be justified: beneficent reasons (euthanasia), rape, incest, or self-defense (save the life of the mother). Some libertarians defend abortion based on self-ownership and argue that sperm, ova, zygotes etc are “private property:” body parts that we ourselves “own.” Hence, one might argue that sperm and ova are “personal property” while zygotes are “joint-property.” Or one might argue that a zygote is the private property of the female owner of the uterus. But there is no single libertarian dogma that elucidates any of these issues. Libertarians also disagree as to whether abortion ought to be legal or illegal. Obviously, if a zygote is a “person” morally equivalent to an adult, then abortion could be viewed as a crime comparable to manslaughter, homicide, or even genocide. Even if post-conception abortion is outlawed, some libertarians would argue that the law itself would be much more difficult to monitor and enforce than other laws that relate to killing. What would it actually take to monitor every pregnancy in the United States? Would women be subjected to monthly uterine examinations to insure the safety of zygotes? Should these extraordinarily invasive laws be monitored and enforced by local, state, or federal government? Moreover, if government decided to expend the time, energy, and resources necessary to effectively protect early life, it would almost certainly lead to unregulated “black market” abortions. If you think black markets are easily controlled, check out the ongoing drug war. But the most compelling argument against outlawing abortion outright is that it becomes an arcane “legal debate” dominated by lawyers, judges, and juries. In fact, today the political debate over abortion has been co-opted by the Supreme Court, therefore most of the debate now centers on whom the next president will appoint to the court after the next judge dies of old age. My views on abortion politics are pretty straightforward. Abortion is an enormously complex moral issue that invariably invokes deeply held religious, political, and cultural debate. Rather than expending time, energy and resources lobbying government, I prefer rechanneling those efforts. If you have serious moral concerns for the well-being of ova, sperm, zygotes, and fetuses, then you have a personal moral obligation to work to reduce the number of worldwide abortions. As moral individuals, we can more effectively reduce that number by donating our time, effort, and resources to non-governmental organizations that focus on strengthening marriage and providing child care for the poor. Therefore, strategically, pro-life libertarians (in the John Stuart Mill tradition) prefer active participation in the moral debate coupled with personal voluntary action. The old strategy of paying high-priced lawyers to argue cases before a Supreme Court stacked with “old white men” has done little to reduce the number of abortions performed worldwide.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Concept of Health Care

What is health care? Well, let’s start with the basics. First, it involves the exchange of a products and services between buyers and sellers. Second, the health care industry employs an imponderable number of sellers including research scientists, physicians, insurance professionals, malpractice lawyers, allied health professionals, product manufacturers, educational institutions, hospitals etc. For those that are willing (or able) to invest in the requisite education, these are all good paying jobs. Third, our understanding of health care has been masked by a longstanding cultural tradition that obscures its economic basis. Much of the obfuscation takes place within our language: "buyers" become "patients," "sellers" become "providers," and "health care" becomes "whatever health care providers are willing to sell you." Thus, most of us believe that “health” is something that is provided by others and that we cannot be healthy apart from a "health care system." Similarly, the concept of “disease” has become synonymous with “needing” the products and services offered by the health care industry. So a state of disease is anything that attracts buyers to sellers. Modern medicine is based upon the ever-increasing malleability of the concepts of health and disease. Even if you believe that you are presently “healthy” you still might have an undiagnosed disease, a predisposition for a disease, an early stage of a disease, or a previously “cured” disease might be coming back. Therefore, in order to remain healthy you must maintain an ongoing relationship with a health care system and its legion of well-paid providers. One of the more striking features of the American health care has been the exponential expansion in the number of actual and potential “diseases” and “providers.” Today we routinely consult with “licensed” health care providers to lose weight, fight depression, quit smoking, break an addiction (drug, alcohol or gambling), have a child, not have a child, eliminate a potential child, or die peacefully. Critics of the American health care system argue that it provides too much and that it must be refocused on providing “basic health care,” which is even more malleable than the concept of “health care.” Basic health care is whatever politicians say it is. This means that in order to keep their good-paying jobs, providers must lobby congress and persuade legislators to officially decree that their products and services are “basic.” Fortunately, if we wait long enough, every health care product and service currently on the market will eventually become “basic.” But in a free market, the concept of “basic health care” is vacuous. It is a blunt political instrument that governments use to deny some individuals direct access to specific products and services. So what can we conclude about the concepts of “health” and “disease?” Libertarians prefer to let the free market sort that all that out. The first thing that the free market will do is help us sort out what actually works and how much we’ll have to pay for it. Viva Viagra!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Social Safety Net

Recently, there has been a lot discussion in the media concerning our increasingly porous “social safety net.” Let’s take a look at that under a libertarian microscope. Let’s all admit from the outset that “Mother Nature” has equipped most of us humans with feelings of sympathy that motivate us to assist others in time of need; and that those feelings are stronger toward relatives, friends and other groups with whom we identify, than toward strangers. These feelings are embedded into the moral structure of all human societies. In the Judeo-Christian moral tradition “need” implies a "right" to assistance by others and a "duty" on the part of others to assist. So we have a society where “need” inspires “providers.” When our relatives and friends are in need, we are more likely to willingly assume responsibility for either providing direct assistance or for paying expert providers. As we become increasingly dependent upon strangers to fill our needs we must inevitably deal with the question of compensation. Our growing reliance upon “assistance providers” has generated vast industries: health care industry, social welfare industry, education industry, child care industry etc. Given that all of these “providers” earn paychecks, it makes sense to at least look into “how much providers are paid” and “how providers are paid.” Well, all of the official providers cited above must, by law hold a license before they can provide, which requires at least a college education. A college education requires years of study and hefty tuition payments. Suppose you graduated from a medical school with a debt of say $150,000., and have $10,000 a year in malpractice insurance premiums. Say you have two kids that “need” braces on their teeth, an elderly parent that “needs” living assistance, and you have a spouse that “needs” a reliable automobile to transport those children and parents. As a provider, how much will you charge others for providing? My answer: I’d rather be paid more than less. If payment is too low I won’t provide anymore. I'll change occupations. Now, “how are providers paid?” Well, in our society, we have systematically delegated most of our personal responsibility to government to pay for our providers: physicians, social workers, teachers, etc. We like to pretend that governmentally subsidized providers are free, but we pay for those services indirectly via taxation. When we get the tax bill from those providers we, invariably, complain about the high price. At a bare minimum, libertarians acknowledge that in the real world someone must pay for the providers that comprise our social safety net and that a publically-funded “net” is less cost-effective than a private net. There are no cost-free safety nets in the real world. Unless we either empower governments to force providers to involuntarily work for free, or convince providers to take an “oath of poverty” and voluntarily work for free, we can expect providers to earn paychecks. Anyone that seeks to bolster our sagging “social safety net” must face this reality head on.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Corporate Bailouts

What can a libertarian philosopher contribute to the ongoing debate over the government’s response our current economic malaise? In positive terms…not much! But here are a few questions that might lead us to a more enlightened conversation. First of all, why do we Americans continue to embrace deficit spending as a way of life? Why do we discount the value of a distant future on behalf of the immediate present? Why do all levels of government, all corporations, and almost all Americans live in debt? Why do we demand that our politicians nurture an economic environment marked by easy credit so we can borrow money from the future so we can live in spacious homes, drive new cars, and attend college now rather than later? Why do we max out our credit cards today, knowing full well that we’ll pay more for those goods over the long run, and perhaps even face foreclosure and/or bankruptcy next year? Why do so many of us risk our hard earned income on lotteries, and casino and online gambling? Pay day loans? Underfunded pension funds? In short, why do we believe that the only way for us to maintain our current standard of living is to perpetuate access to easy money, deficit spending, and to live our lives in debt? That’s a lot to digest in one blog! Simply put, here’s my short answer: We Americans have become excessively bound by tradition. We’ve become so dependent recycling old solutions to old problems that we’ve lost the ability to come up with new solutions to new problems. Why? Because centralized governmental structures have undermined our capacity for ground-level innovation via: legislative barriers, tax incentives, and corporate subsidies. The examples are legion: the persistence of transportation technology based on 19th century fossil fuels, employment-based health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, public schools, etc. Libertarians argue that government has a perverse tendency to support the status quo at the expense of innovation. Economic legislation tends to pursue equilibrium rather than change. Legislation such as professional licensure, institutional accreditation, and building codes tend to protect the status quo from external competition by erecting artificial barriers to innovators. How else can we explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that most of the high-level discussion on economic recover centers on bailing out old, large, tradition-bound corporations like AIG, General Motors, and Ford? The arguments in favor of these wholesale bailouts usually hinge on a collectivist, utilitarian premise, “too large to fail.” But why do we continue to believe that old, big, inefficient, and inflexible institutions are better than young, small, efficient, and flexible ones? So if the “Big Three” fail, what happens to all those workers? Well, they’ll probably have to wait for Honda, Toyota, and other younger, more innovative corporations to build newer, smaller, more efficient, and more flexible factories. But those workers will probably have to relocate to other states and go back to school and become more efficient. In a nutshell, when upholding tradition and the status quo no longer works, we must be willing to change. But first, we’ll have to overcome our government’s institutionalized preference for everything that is old, big, inefficient, and inflexible.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Drug War

The easiest target for a libertarian public policy critique is the ongoing Drug War. From the outset, let me state unequivocally that I do not know of any libertarians that advocate drug use or abuse. However, the distinction here is important. Drug use becomes drug abuse, if and only if, it violates the non-aggression axiom or the property rights of others. In those cases, we expect government to punish offenders. So if you are stoned, don’t get in a car wreck and harm others! Drug use that is merely self-destructive and/or destructive of personal relationships must not and cannot be effectively controlled by government. You’ll have to pay the costs of your drug use. So don’t expect us libertarians to pay for your hospital bills when you pick a fight with a three-hundred pound NFL player in bar, and don’t expect us to pay for your rehabilitation and/or marriage counseling. You and your family can pay for it all. Put it on your Visa or MasterCard, take out a second mortgage on your home, or cash in your retirement funds! Libertarians prefer to let the free market work solve these kinds of problems. If you’re too stoned to work, then you simply cannot afford to be a self-sustaining drug addict or alcoholic. If you choose to steal from others, you’ll go to jail. Life is full of choices! But in the final analysis, the Drug War has been its own worse enemy. When you make drugs or alcohol illegal, and expend vast public resources monitoring and enforcing drug laws, you invariably raise the risk associated with selling and buying drugs and therefore raise prices. Because the government does not enforce contracts within the illegal drug trade, buyers and sellers enforce those contracts on their own through the use (and threats) of violence. If you plan on selling illegal drugs, you better be willing to beat up and/or kill non-paying customers. If you don’t, your buyers simply will not pay for their drugs. If you buy drugs that you can’t afford to pay for, you better have a loaded gun ready to protect yourself. If you would prefer to avoid shooting it out with a ruthless, well-armed drug dealer, you’ll choose to steal from your non-violent neighbors to pay that debt. (But don’t steal from a libertarian because he/she probably has a loaded gun waiting for you!) Hence, the illegal drug market attracts armed, ruthless buyers and sellers that are willing to violate the non-aggression axiom. If drugs were legalized tomorrow, and government began enforcing those risky contracts the most violent transaction costs would disappear. For a while, non-violent drug dealers would enter the market in search of profits, which may temporarily increase the supply of drugs , but dramatically reduce the market price. Now, let’s talk about long-term employment opportunities. Would you rather be a drug dealer that sells marijuana or cocaine for $1 a pound on the free market, or work at McDonalds for $8.00 an hour? At these prices would you bother to drive or fly to Columbia to pick up your inventory? Would you even be willing to pay Federal Express delivery charges? Moreover, at those prices you could afford to buy all the drugs you want on your McDonald’s salary and you wouldn’t be tempted to risk stealing from your unarmed, non-violent neighbors. In short, legalize drugs and soon the supply of drugs will be drastically reduced, and all of those ruthless former drug dealers will move into another illegal trade such as prostitution or gambling. If we make abortions or guns illegal we can expect them to move into those potentially lucrative markets too. In short, unlike social conservatives and bleeding heart liberals, libertarians understand how black markets work. Free markets are much more efficient enforcers of personal morality than the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States Government.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The War on Terrorism

The so-called “War on Terrorism,” raises serious problems for the Non-Aggression Axiom. The most obvious is that the concept of “terrorism” connotes specific war strategies (e.g. suicide bombing) that many nations regard as immoral. Secondly, most acts of “terrorism” are executed by individuals and small groups (terrorist cells) and are not directly state-sponsored. These terrorist are usually members of decentralized, loosely- knit, (often) religious organizations that seek to upend established governments. Although many of these organizations are international they do not have “international leaders” that are comparable to presidents, prime ministers etc. As far as we know, Bin Laden encourages terrorist activity, finances a lot of it, and might even suggest targets. But he probably exercises very little control over his followers. As we fight the war on terrorism we mistakenly believe that if we kill or capture Bin Laden, the “War on Terrorism” will end and that his followers will surrender and sign a peace treaty. That’s the way wars between centralized nation states usually end, but not the way wars with decentralized groups will end. Many scholars, therefore, argue that a more effective strategy for fighting the “War on Terror” would be to approach it as a “War of Words,” an ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of future terrorists. That will entail spending much more on “words” than “weapons.” One way to control terrorism is to eliminate its main targets: free-standing nation states. Many of us peacenik libertarians look forward to a distant future where nation states are replaced by a single, international minimal government that focuses its energies on enforcing the non-aggression axiom, contracts, open markets, and borders. Can you imagine: a world without nation states: a Middle East without borders, a Europe without borders, an America without borders? Imagine a world where corporations compete without collusion, subsidies, tariff protection, or favorable tax status? Can you imagine a world order where we all rely on free markets to fulfill our wants and needs? Can you imagine a world where acts of terrorism are universally condemned and national armies are replaced by one single police force?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

War and the Non-Aggression Axiom

War is an enormously complex human phenomenon. The fact that throughout human history, in all times and all places groups of human males have been engaged in war, suggests a natural foundation. However, the mere fact that war is natural does not shed much light on whether it is good or not. Libertarians argue that violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom can SOMETIMES be justified only as a means of self-defense. However, the precise meaning of “self-defense,” is a bit fuzzy.” Most wars are initiated by the leaders of nations as offensive acts of aggression in pursuit of specific goals such as resources or territory. Some wars are initiated as preemptive strikes against perceived threats of aggression. Others are initiated as retribution for previous acts of aggression. Therefore, peace-loving libertarians must draw clear lines between self-defense and various acts aggression. But that’s not easy. That’s because the concept of “self-defense” is highly malleable and subject to political manipulation by leaders. Nations naturally “defend” themselves against not only harms, but also threats of harm. The clearest example of self-defense is when a nation is actually under lethal attack by another nation. If Canada or Mexico sent armed troops, tanks, and/or launched missiles across our borders, it would be a clear act of lethal aggression and the United States would be justified in violating the Non-Aggression Axiom. Most of the conceptual malleability associated with the concept of a “threat” can be attributed to imperfect information available to pre-emptive defenders. But most wars have been initiated in defense of economic interests and/or in defense of religious, tribal, or national ideological goals. Since the twentieth century, the United States has justified most of its use of lethal aggression in defense of ideological principles such as “freedom” and/or “democracy.” Given the overwhelming worldwide plurality of aggressive, non-democratic, authoritarian political regimes, this stance drastically expands our list of potential enemies. How many despots can the U.S. afford to depose? How much are we willing to spend on these non-defensive wars and the subsequent nation-building? If war is not a very effective means of reducing non-defensive, state sponsored, lethal aggression, what’s left? How can we promote world peace? Most, but not all libertarians, have faith in markets and see warfare through the lens of market failure. Competitive human males that are engaged in mutually-self-interested commerce tend to be more peaceful and avoid war. Therefore, if we hope to minimize the global incidence of human warfare, we need to prevent the formation of coalitions between unemployed young men and leaders of nations. That entails lessening the influence of government and increasing the influence of non-governmental organizations, especially corporations. How do we do that? Well, in democracies, the first step is for wary citizens to minimize their leaders’ capacity to wage non-defensive wars by limiting the number of troops and resources at their disposal. Although large standing armies may deter invasion by some hostile neighbors, they also provide leaders with a powerful incentive to engage in pre-emptive strikes and/or invade their neighbors. In the tradition established by John Stuart Mill, we libertarians are wary of the power of governments: not only the power of the governments of other countries, but also our own.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Libertarians have a lot of faith in competition. Why? Whether we like it or not, in Nature, competition is about variable degrees of winning and losing. Winners get a “prize” (survival) and losers do not (extinction). Humans decide when to compete based on our assessment of the value of the prize and the cost of competing. Some prizes are worth the expenditure of time, energy, and resources required and other less so. Assessment implies a clear understanding of the rules. Rational players enter competition, if and only if, they understand the rules. Once we understand the rules, we decide whether it’s worth playing the game. This requires assessing costs and benefits. Competition is ruled by “Supply and Demand,” therefore, accurate information concerning number of competitors is always useful. The number of competitors is largely contingent upon the desirability of the prize(s) offered and the costs associated with entering and playing the game. As a general rule, the more competitors there are the more difficult it is to win. Even though you probably will not win the lottery, you might decide to risk $5.00 to win $1,000,000. Other entry decisions are more complicated. Lotteries are based on a random selection process while other more complex games are based on human judgment. If you are deciding whether or not to compete, it helps to know something about the rules that the judges will apply in the selection of winners. Sometimes winners are decided based on an objective set of rules: in poker a full-house always beats a pair of aces. But sometimes winners are decided based on subjective rules that depend more on the personal, wants, desires, and/or taste of the game-keepers. Most games are played under variable degrees of subjectivity, which is why good looking persons with outgoing personalities tend to win many competitions. If you can enter a competition with an abundance of time, energy, and or resources, one sure-fire way to increase your odds of winning is to manipulate the entry requirements in your favor: that is, convince the game-keepers to raise the cost of entry. For example, if the game-keepers raise the entry fee (increase the time, energy, and resources required to compete) and if you have more time, energy, and resources than the other competitors, your odds of winning will be increased. A more indirect way is to convince the game-keepers to raise entry qualifications. “You can enter this competition, if and only if, you meet certain preconditions.” These preconditions usually involve requiring an advanced college degree, professional certification, a license, or union membership. How does a well-situated competitor go about influencing the game-keepers? Bribes and/or threats have always been very reliable. Bribery involves offering the game-keepers an enticement in exchange for skewing the rules in your favor. Money is the universal enticement. But bribery thrives in secrecy. If word gets out that the winners will be decided based on bribery, non-bribing competitors tend to not enter (or exit) the competition. Then the winners are decided based on who offers the most enticing bribe. Another way to skew competition is to threaten either the game-keepers or the other competitors. Groups engaged in organized crime routinely bribe and threaten both game-keepers and competitors with loss of resources (theft) or physical harm (aggression). “If you try to enter this competition I’ll steal your car, beat you up, and kill your wife!” However, as the value of the prize increases, more competitors willingly take those risks. What will these new risk-taking competitors be like? Well, they’ll probably not have a car or a wife, and they probably they'll probably be powerful enough to thwart or match threats. One way to increase the incidence of illegal bribes and threats is to create a “Black Market” by making the prize illegal: drugs, gambling, prostitution etc. Government skews competition by not only creating Black Markets, but through legalized bribery and legalized threats. Competitors can always get a leg-up on competitors via legalized bribery: that is, by lobbying Congress to alter the rules of the game in their favor. Governmentally enforced licensure requirements reduce competition by threatening non-licensed competitors with fines and prison. Hence, if you want to open a liquor store or drive a taxi, you must pay for a very expensive license. Who originally lobbied for these licensure laws? You guessed it! Liquor stores and taxi cab companies that can afford to pay the costs of those licenses.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Health Care Reform

In the United States, there is a growing consensus that our health care system is in dire need of reform. How should we proceed? Well, most critics agree that reform must address three key issues: access (Who can access the products and services they want or need?), quality (How good are the products and services that can be accessed?), and cost (What is the cost of providing these products and services, who pays that cost, and how?). As in the case of education, the provision health care in the United States involves both public and private payment systems. “Public systems” (Medicare, Medicaid, Veteran’s Administration, and Social Security) are financed by tax revenue and private systems are financed by non-governmental payers (patients, insurance companies, charitable organizations). Where does this money go? Well, it goes directly or indirectly into the pockets of a staggering number of health care providers. Hence, these “providers” are really “sellers” of health care products and services. They include: doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, research scientists, malpractice lawyers, hospitals, research laboratories, medical schools, private health insurance companies, financial institutions (banks), credit card companies (Visa and MasterCard), public and private research laboratories, technology corporations (General Electric), drug companies, and the lobbying firms that represent all of the above. For a libertarian, the first step to health care reform is to openly acknowledge and embrace the obvious, inescapable reality that health care is about buying and selling. Because the frontline sellers (doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, researchers, etc.) are highly educated and therefore have substantial college loans to pay back, they expect to earn a substantial return on their investment of time, energy, and resources. If you are a retiree, you probably hold stock investments in corporations that sell health care products and/or services. If so, you certainly expect a healthy return on your investment. Traditionally, pharmaceutical stocks have been a staple of the most lucrative mutual funds. If you own stock in a corporation that provides health insurance to its employees you are probably concerned with the rising cost of providing that benefit. If you are an employee of a corporation that provides your health insurance you are probably dissatisfied with the access, quality, and cost of the health care you receive. So as we explore access, quality, and cost of health care, the basic problem is that it will be prohibitively costly to provide Americans with universal access to high quality health care. Therefore, in the real world, there are three possible rationing strategies: 1.) provide less-than-universal access, 2.) provide less-than-high quality products and services, or 3.) reduce unnecessary costs by increasing the efficiency of the system and/or shell out a lot more money. When health care reformers suggest any combination of these strategies, they invariably alienate stakeholder groups, which contributes to high-stakes lobbying activity. Therefore, given the current political structure in the United States, health care reform will be shaped by access, quality, and cost of hiring lobbying firms that can persuade (or bribe) government officials to ration health care in their favor. Now, what does all of this suggest about the prospects of meaningful health care reform?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Public Education

There is widespread agreement that our system of primary and secondary education is in dire need of reform. The most distinctive feature of this system is competition for students and money between public and private institutions. But, unfortunately, the competition is not fair. Usually, private schools are financially supported by a combination of tuition and charitable giving (e.g. parochial schools), while public schools can (at least temporarily) dip into an unlimited source of tax revenue. In Ohio, public schools are funded via a property tax based on the value of one’s home. What is the justification for public education? Ideology states that an educated citizenry is a public good that is best distributed equally via tax-supported, governmentally-operated monopolies. Before we explore the question of whether public schools, in fact, distribute education equally (see next blog), let’s look closer at what they actually distribute. Ideology conveniently obscures the fact that school boards distribute contracts to purchase more tangible commodities such as: classroom buildings, classroom furniture, libraries, books, computers, sports stadiums, and parking lots, and food. They also distribute service contracts for not only faculty, but also an army of support staff: librarians, security officers, nurses, bus drivers, and custodians. The contracts for all of these providers are highly coveted due to their generosity. Ideology states that contracts are based on a transparent, competitive bidding process that balances quality and cost negotiated by impartial, civic-minded superintendents and board members. However, in the real world, school boards have little incentive to engage in hard-nosed bargaining with providers. Moreover, the bidding process is usually less-than transparent and undermined by cronyism. Try to find out exactly how much your local school district actually paid for that new air conditioning unit, desk, social studies textbook, or football helmet. As for hiring personnel, entry into these positions is restricted by governmentally mandated licensure requirements and/or labor union contracts. In order to gain access to the “teaching profession,’ you must earn a state-mandated license, which requires graduation from a public or private college or university with at least a bachelors degree in education. Most of the educational curriculum at colleges and universities is designed by government officials that are sensitive to well-funded lobbyists. For example, the more credit hours required for a degree, the more students have to spend on tuition, which usually means heftier student loans from banks. Teachers unions lobby for more stringent requirements, which tend reduce the pool of potential teachers competing for jobs. Now back to the competition between public and private schools. Unionized urban and suburban teachers usually earn hefty paychecks, generous tax-supported retirement pensions, and health insurance coverage. The largess of public school teachers has little if anything to do with the quality of education. In fact, some dreadful urban school districts (Cincinnati) pay their teachers very generously. But don’t blame the teachers. Teaching is a pretty crappy job. State and local school boards tell them what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. They also lack the authority to discipline unruly students that interrupt their classes. Little wonder that the vast majority of primary and secondary teachers leave the profession within five years of graduation. What I worry about are the few that choose to remain in a profession that is micromanaged by elected school boards.

Equality of Public Education

As stated in my previous blog, one of the basic arguments offered in support of public education is the idea that it provides an equal opportunity for students to secure an education. Is that true or is it propaganda? School boards pay providers of products and services with tax revenue. In Ohio, schools are funded by property taxes. Revenue, therefore, depends on whether you live in a rural, urban, or suburban community. Because suburban property is generally more valuable than either rural or urban property, suburban schools are often extravagantly funded, while urban and rural schools operate on tighter budgets. If governments were really interested in equality of education, you would expect suburban schools to be subsidizing rural and urban schools. However, there is little political support for that kind of redistribution. If you earn a decent income, you have an incentive to purchase a home in suburbia, where property values are higher. If you have young children you also have an incentive to move away from urban cores and rural areas where school funding is much lower. If you are a teacher, you have an incentive to teach in a suburban school where salaries and benefits are usually more generous. Historically, public schools compete with private schools. But private schools cannot compete with generously funded public schools. Therefore, most of the surviving private schools tend to be located in suburban areas where there are dysfunctional public schools. In fact, if you live out in the suburbs, you are more likely to be able to afford to send your kids to private schools or home school. Eventually, the market for urban private schools dries up and parents are stuck with public schools. When suburban public schools decline, parents can send their kids to private schools or homeschool. When suburban schools begin to decline and parents send their kids to private schools, they (along with with parents whose children have already graduated) grow weary of escalating property taxes and vote down levies. This leads to over-crowded suburban schools that that cut back on faculty (usually art and music teachers go first), library services, special education, bus service, and sports etc. Fortunately, those education-minded suburban parents that moved out to the suburbs in pursuit of better schools have options that urban parents do not. But urban parents are not only disappointed in the quality of their new schools, they are left without any private alternatives. The ultimate irony is that Americans tend to equate quality of education with generous funding. Unfortunately, there is little correlation between quality of education and how much the district pays its various providers. But there is a definite correlation between generous funding and tax rates.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Economic Freedom

Libertarians are champions of economic freedom. But exactly what does that mean? Economic freedom is usually defended within a rights-based moral framework: that is, a moral argument based on interlocking rights and duties. Hence, if economic freedom is a right, that right confers a duty upon others not to interfere with the exercise of that right. All rights are enforced by either legality (government), morality (culture), or both. Economic freedom refers to the right of individual and collective buyers and sellers to forge contracts with one another based on mutual self-interest, without governmental interference. If buyers and sellers own their own bodies, then they own the fruits of their labor. As an ideal, economic freedom is usually associated with contracts forged based on perfect information, perfect freedom, and perfect competition. In the real world, perfection is elusive, therefore, some libertarians argue that government must monitor and enforce laws against false advertising, theft, and/or collusion. Others prefer to allow the free market enforce those ideals. If you defend economic freedom as a right, you must accept the corresponding duty to NOT INTERFERE in voluntary transactions between individuals unless those contracts violate the rights of third parties: that is, harm other non-consenting persons or their property. This means that government may not interfere with the forging of contracts involving harmless immoralities. Economic exchanges that involve products and services regarded by third parties as immoral, but harmless, must be regulated by morality (blame) but not legality (fines or prison). Therefore, morally suspect transactions between consenting adults ranging from the sale of pornography to the sale of liquor on Sunday can be regulated by culture, but not by government. In a society based on economic freedom, individuals must remain free to engage in the exchange of goods and service without outside interference, unless convincing arguments are presented that indicate involuntary harm is being inflicted on third parties. Therefore, libertarians prefer to allow public debate over these issues and thereby allow critics to convince individuals to not engage in these harmlessly immoral activities, but critics cannot simply employ the coercive power of government to usurp our economic freedom. One of the more recent assaults on economic freedom is a proposed law in Ohio that will set limits on how much interest "payday lenders" can charge buyers, which will in effect drive these sellers out of Ohio. (a topic for a future blog?)

Freedom's Philosopher

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is another important strand of libertarian thought. But what does that really mean? For a start, lets admit that freedom often has something to do with alternatives or options: the more options that are "open," the more freedom. Under monopolistic conditions freedom consists in either accepting that one option or not. (Sometimes you can't even decline that offer!) When you reject a monopolistic offer, there is usually another option or substitute. If monopolies limit freedom, then libertarians must do everything they can to expand options and limit monopolies. But some monopolies are inevitable and necessary. When one offerer earns a monopoly by offering a superior product or service, and (fairly) drives out all other competitiors then, that's natural and OK. Natural monopolies, however, are shortlived as long as entry and exit to that competition remains open. When other potential offerers see the profits rolling in to a monopoly, they will invariably seek a piece of the action. Problems arise when monopolies are sustained by the coercive power of government and not by competitive acumen. Artificial monopolies are created, when government limits competitive entry (or exit). Free from the yoke of competition, these monopolies tend to offer inferior products and services. In the United States we are flooded with artificial monopolies: public utilities, U.S. Mail, police and fire departments, etc. My view is that in a free society, freedom of religion requires governmental neutrality; that is, allow alternative religions to enter and exit the religion market unimpeded by government. That way, if you are not satisfied with your current religion you can find one that more closely suits your spiritual needs. In a society that offers a variety of religions, including atheism, we all have more religious freedom. However, if any one religion repels enough of its followers, it will eventually go out of business. Under monopolistic (or oligapolistic) conditions, governments use the coercive power of government to prop up one religion (or its beliefs) at the expense of its competitors. This is exactly what happens in theocracies where governments allow one single religion (Saudi Arabia); and in atheocracies where governmenents disallow all or most religions (China). The United States Government interferes with the religion market in two main ways: legal moralism (passing laws that regulate harmless immoralities favored by one particular religion); and tax policy (by offering some religions non-profit tax status). Of the two methods, legal moralism is the most subtle and the most pernicious. In direct democracies, lobbyists are responsible for most instances of legal moralism. For example, say a powerful group of church leaders get together to pass a local ordinance against Sunday liquor sales (Blue Laws). Next year, a coalition of groups that oppose that ordinance pay a lobbying firm to get it overturned. But this only inspires the tea totalers to lobby more effectively next time around. So the problem with legal moralism in a direct democracy is that the time, effort and resources expended on forcing the entire community to comply with it's own moral views, could have been expended more efficiently monitoring and enforcing compliance within their own flock: "If we catch you purchasing liquor on Sunday we will kick you out of our church!" And of course, if you do not want to abide by this particular moral rule, you can always become a Roman Catholic. We have no religious prohibitions against drinking, or gambling (another future blog?). Have you ever attended one of our festivals?

Freedom's Philosopher

Friday, September 5, 2008

Gay Marriage

The question of Gay Marriage provides another important litmus test for libertarian theory. Let's admit that the issue hinges almost entirely on one's beliefs about the Nature of the institution of marriage. As a Roman Catholic, I believe that marriage is a religious ceremony, a sacrament, and a great excuse to get your family and friends together for a party. As a libertarian Roman Catholic, I believe it is essentially a three-way promise (or contract) between a husband, wife, and God. It is also a highly efficient way to raise children. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have ruled that Gay Marriage is contrary to church doctrine. As a philosopher, I do not find the logic presented in support of this view to be very compelling, therefore, like many other Catholics, I tend to disagree with the hierarchy. I also disagree with the church on a few other issues too. But I remain a Roman Catholic because I still agree with most of what it says and does, and because the church has not excommunicated me for disagreeing. (Actually, the church is very tolerant of dissenters like myself.) In other words, I am a Catholic because I choose to be one, and because the church chooses to allow me to remain a member. No one forces me to remain a Catholic and no one forces the Church to keep me: entry and exit are open! But most importantly, the government has nothing to do with those decisions. Now, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons marriage is now, not only a private religious institution, but also a sociopolitical institution embedded in legality; hence the proverbial "marriage license!" Today marriage has become an institution that governments use to redistribute resources. The best examples are laws that govern inheritance, health insurance, child support, taxation, even college loans. The issue here is how much coercive power are you willing to grant government to use marital status as an instrument of redistribution of resources? Given that libertarians are against government redistribution in general, most libertarians prefer to treat civil marriage as a contract between couples that settles questions concerning disposition of property and children in the case of death or dissolution of that contract. We call these contracts civil unions. In this sense, I believe individuals ought to be able to freely enter into these legal agreements regardless of their sexual preference. In fact, given the current state of the economy we can expect a lot more gay and straight co-habitation. Those individuals ought to be able to forge legal contracts with one another too! As for marriage as a religious institution, churches ought to be able to enforce their own rules. Some religious denominations are supportive of gay marriage, others do not. If you are gay, the Roman Catholic Church currently won't allow you to marry someone of the same sex. But you can always find a church that will marry you. Or, you can get together with other gay Catholics and try to convince the hierarchy that their reasoning is flawed. Who knows, someday the Pope might change his mind. As the situation stands in the United States, marriage is both a religious and a civil institution. Most of us libertarians would prefer to separate those two functions. We certainly do not need the government to dictate religious doctrine, or even moral doctrine (see my earlier blog on legal moralism). Religious tolerance and governmental neutrality are cornerstones of libertarian doctrine. Finally, it is important to note that in the United States the institution of marriage is on the rocks. Why? All libertarians (without exception!) agree that government is the primary culprit. One obvious factor is a welfare policy that encourages the the avoidance or dissolution of marriages as a precondition for receiving welfare. More on that later. . .

Freedom's Philosopher

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Legal Moralism

One sure measure of your committment to libertarian principles can be found in your stance on legal moralism. In earlier blogs I suggested that libertarians argue that government interference in one's right to exercise personal liberty must be limited by the harm principle; that is, harm to a person or a person's property. Defenders of legal moralism argue that governments also have an unfettered right to enforce harmless immoralities. Unfortunately, all governments use the coercive power of government to prevent individuals from engaging in various harmless activities that are considered to be immoral. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is both immoral and illegal for women to appear in public without a veil. (In fact, in many Muslim countries virtually every act that is immoral is also illegal.) Based on libertarian principles, it would be impossible to justify monitoring and enforcing this law because wearing a veil is obviously a harmless self-regarding act. Muslim men might be offended by seeing an unveiled woman in public, but being offended and being harmed are far from identical. On the other hand, libertarians would also argue that if the citizens of Saudi Arabia wish to live in a theocracy with a legal code steeped in legal moralism, it's their business. If Saudi Arabia suddenly decided to adopt a libertarian form of government, they could still monitor and enforce the veil as a matter of morality. Moreover, the veil would be perfectly acceptable as long as women freely consent to wearing it as a precondition for remaining within the Muslim faith. Muslims, however, could excommunicate violaters. But, as it stands, if you do not want to wear your veil in public in Saudi Arabia, you could be fined, inprisoned, or punished physically. If you want to go veilless in public your only recourse would be to emigrate to another country. Now Saudi Arabia does not have a monopoly on legal moralism. We have more than our fair share. Take for example our laws against polygamy, breast feeding in public, laws that forbid purchasing alcohol on Sunday, and most recently laws that forbid gay marriage (worthy of a future blog?). In these cases there is no reasonable connection with the harm principle. They are simply laws that enforce morality according to one specific religious tradition. Unfortunately, once we abandon the harm principle as a bulwark against the unfettered growth of legality, personal liberty and morality can be quickly eroded. Fortunately, most governments cannot afford to monitor and enforce legal moralism with any degree of efficiency: black markets take over. However, oil-rich Saudi Arabia is very efficient at monitoring and enforcing its vast criminal code steeped in legal moralism. I think most libertarians agree that we must try to maintain a clear line of demarcation between morality and legality. Once we allow government to control harmless immorality, we are well on our way to the ROAD TO SERFDOM. If you think I'm irrationally concerned with the contagion of legal moralism check out

Freedom's Philosopher

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Harm Principle

John Stuart Mill's classic work ON LIBERTY provides most of libertarianism's theoretical foundation. One of Mill's most enduring contributions was his articulation of the boundary between between personal liberty and governmental interference. Mill basically argued we ought to be able to do whatever we want, as long as we do not harm others. But the so-called "harm principle" can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on what you mean by "harm." Mill's followers often use the term "self-regarding acts" and "other-regarding acts" to draw that boundary. Other regarding acts violate either the non-aggression axiom or property rights, while self-regarding acts do not. Unfortunately, Americans today have expanded the non-aggression axiom to cover miniscule harms, vague harms (psychological harms), and improbable harms. Our culture has expanded the non-aggression axiom to include a growing number of verbal harms; that is offensive verbiage. Mill argued that we can say whatever we want, short of falsely yelling "FIRE!' in a crowded theater. What he had in mind there is that the word FIRE could lead to a stampede for the exits, which could physically harm many of the theater patrons. We might expand that notion to include deliberately spreading false rumors about others, which damage the reputation. Of course, if it's true, then that's something else. Most recently, there has been a tendency to censor words that are highly likely to elicit physical retribution from the victim: so called "fighting words." The problem with expanding the non-aggression axiom to cover "fighting words" is that the tendency to react violently to words is culturally bound; that is, if we teach children to "punch out" anyone that calls them an offensive name (usually an ethnic slur), then we can expect an increase in aggressive behavior. Mill would have argued that we need to teach our children to have "thick skins" and to respond to verbal assaults verbally. "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" We have also become overly generous in restricting other-regarding behavior in the context of property rights. Real libertarians argue that all rights are negative rights, which means that others (individuals and government) have a duty to NOT interfere with an individual's pursuit of private property via the transfer of property between individuals. The duty to not interfere is NOT the same as a duty to provide. Therefore, no one has a positive right to have anything apart from a mutually agreed upon contract. Therefore, I do not harm beggers by not giving them money. It is, after all, my money. On the other hand, if I choose to put a couple of dollars in a hat, that's OK too. But I do not have a duty to do it, and he does not have a right to expect it from me. Hence, I do not harm others by refusing to assist. So a good way to interpret the harm principle is to say that: "You can do whatever you'd like, as long as you do not violate the property rights of others, including the right of self-ownership.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Private Language Fraud

When was the last time you read your health insurance or homeowner's insurance policy? Do you really know what you are getting? How about your automobile lease or mortgage agreement? Information asymmetry is one of the more nettlesome problems facing libertarian theory. In an ideal world there is symmetry between the information possessed by buyers and sellers; that is, both know exactly what they are getting out of the contract. When there is transparency in contracts, both buyers and sellers are usually satisfied. However, in the real world both buyers and sellers often conceal critical information from each other, and thereby gain a competitive advantage. For now, let's focus on information asymetry in favor of the seller. It's classic form is probably false advertising, where the seller induces the buyer to make a purchase by providing false information. Some instances of fraud in the inducement are easily decoded as simple theft: "I ordered a Mercedes and the car dealer delivered a Ford.!" The most difficult offers to decode can be found in those industries that have developed their own private languages: most notably, insurance, medicine, and law. Convoluted language obfuscates contracts and gives an unfair advantage to the sellers. Of course, if you do not know anything about these private languages you can pay someone to decode their contracts for you. But that's not always possible nor is it very efficient. A few libertarians are willing to allow government to enforce a degree of transparency in contracts and use the coercive power of government to force lawyers, physicians, and insurance salesmen to speak English. Others, argue that the free market will eventually weed out fraud in the inducement, as buyers become aware of these deceptive practices and competing companies offer transparency as an alternative. One of the problems with the free market solution is that we tend to grow acculturated to accept information asymmetry in certain domains. Many of us have been led to believe that the language of law, medicine, and/or insurance is unavoidably complex and therefore we must must simply TRUST our lawyers, physicians, and insurance agents. However, institutionalized gullability undermines the efficiency of markets and is very difficult to correct once it takes root. Therefore, in the final analysis we cannot forget the libertarian motto: "Buyer Beware." However, reliance on "Buyer Beware" is difficult in country plagued by functional illiteracy. If you can't read a newspaper you certainly can't read your health insurance policy.

Freedom's Philosopher

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.