Chad Perrin: SOB

7 March 2008

an insomniac defense of “libertarianism”

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 03:16

The writer of a weblog called Unqualified Reservations, who goes by the nom de plume Mencius Moldbug, is a clearly well-reasoned individual. There are times that I will find myself reading a particular bit of his phrasing (I’ll assume “he”) and thinking “I wish I’d written that.” That’s not something I often think — in general, I tend to think I do pretty well on my own with the whole “reasoning and writing” shtick. The fact it has happened probably half a dozen times in about as many of his essays may be some kind of record.

In a new post of his, titled in pedestrian fashion UR will return on Thursday, April 17, he had this to say:

My fundamental disagreement with libertarians is ethical: libertarians see property rights (and human rights, which can be defined as property rights) as moral absolutes, whereas a formalist such as myself sees property as an instrumental means to the end of minimizing violence. Thus I am perfectly willing to concede that the US Government is the legitimate proprietor of the powers it exercises at present, regardless of the means by which it acquired these titles. To a libertarian, taxation is theft; to a formalist, taxation is rent.

I have some comments to offer on this.

In economics, I lean toward formalism. In some respects, I think of it as something akin to an engineering-physics discipline: it consists of determining the rules by which a system works, and speccing them out to the point that one can make reasonable choices for how to achieve certain goals as an actor within that system. This is, in part, why I lean so heavily toward the Austrian school of economics — it is one of the principles by which a system’s forces operate, rather than one of wishful thinking and judgment fulfillment. It merely describes the system impassively, and leaves the action within it up to the actor based on goals, rather than assuming certain goals and setting out to find actions that will lead to them. In this respect, I suspect Mencius and I think similarly (though we may describe it all quite differently).

Before attacking the matter of where we disagree, however, I have to lay some groundwork.

On the subject of morals and ethics:

  1. A system of morals is that which defines what we should do, as moral beings. It is derived from a metaphysical understanding of the universe. It encapsulates the defining characteristics of good, evil, and moral indifference, even if these are not the terms one’s moral system uses. If someone chooses to make the moral choice to engage in the evil act of attacking an innocent, the innocent’s involvement is morally indifferent, and that of a passer-by who chooses to intervene on the strength of a moral conviction is engaging in a good act. That example depends upon a particular interpretation of morality, based on a particular metaphysical foundation, under particular circumstances, of course — if the “victim” is in fact guilty of some evil, the attacker may be performing a good act, for instance. The point is that it is the compulsion toward action based on a metaphysical understanding of good and evil that defines the moral character of an act. Morals are slippery things, in that they are based on foundations of belief that are (as far as I’m aware) entirely unprovable.

  2. A system of ethics, on the other hand, is that which defines what we should not do to other ethically significant beings. Whereas morality addresses the matter of how our beliefs compel us to act, ethicality addresses the matter of how the circumstances of our interactions with others compel us to refrain from acting upon those others. A system of ethics encapsulates the defining characteristics of right and wrong, even if those are not the terms one’s ethical system uses. If someone is protected against a particular class of action by ethical prohibitions, that person has rights — and observing them is right. If someone else chooses to violate those rights, the resulting action is wrong. The point is that it is the restrictions on how one individual acts upon another as a function of a valid, consistent understanding of right and wrong that defines the ethical character of an act. Ethics are sharply edged concepts, remarkably resistant to deformation under stress and susceptible to examination by the cold light of logical necessity. They are often easily established, when properly formulated, based on an agreeable set of initial premises.

If you disagree with my use of, and distinction between, the terms “ethics” and “morals” above, I have two things to say:

  1. You probably misunderstand the terms, but I’m sure I won’t convince you otherwise. That’s the only reason I have the second thing to say on the subject.

  2. Pretend I’m using the terms “foo” and “bar” instead of “ethics” and “morals” if that’ll put your mind at ease. Just go with it for now.

On the subject of the definition of “libertarian”:

There are really two major formalized ethical (as opposed to moral) libertarian philosophies, as far as I’m aware. I of course exclude all forms of libertarian left-whackery, wherein people claim to be a “libertarian whatever” of the “we’re all free because we’re enslaved to one another economically” variety. Such non-libertarian “libertarians” tend to call themselves things like “libertarian socialists”, et cetera. Note that many such use the term “left libertarian” as well, though there’s also a “left libertarian” movement that uses the term “left” only to mean “revolutionary” (as opposed to the more commonly understood “left = crazy pinko commie agricultural reformer Marxist theft-culture collectivist” definition).

I’ve strayed from my point. Back to it:

There are really two major formalized ethical libertarian philosophies. Both of them involve a foundational principle, and both of them are internally consistent. They are:

  1. Property Rights Libertarianism — This is what you get when you use the idea of “self ownership” as the basis of your ethical system. All other rights derive from the proprietary right. One has a right to sanctity of life and limb based on one’s self-ownership, for instance. This is the form of libertarianism to which Mencius evidently refers when he says “libertarians see property rights (and human rights, which can be defined as property rights) as moral absolutes,” though at this point I think he mixes up property rights libertarianism with natural rights libertarianism. That is completely understandable, since many philosophical libertarians (con)fuse the two to produce a single Natural Property Rights Libertarianism, whereby a metaphysical understanding of the world leads to a moral imperative understanding of ethics predicated upon proprietary rights. The natural rights component can be safely discarded for purposes of this discussion, however, as long as we assume Mencius said “ethical absolutes” instead. What we end up with, then, is an ethical absolutism, with the proprietary right as the inviolable, foundational Truth on which all of ethical behavior must be predicated. This is probably the most popularly well-known of the two forms of philosophical libertarianism I discuss in any depth here, and that is probably due in large part to the attractiveness of a property-based system of (political) ethics to those who call themselves “libertarians” for no better reason than to improve their own material lot in life. Such people often wear the ideological trappings of libertarianism while, in fact, being little more than pseudo-corporatist opportunists. Their dishonesty should not, however, be considered an indictment of those who honestly hold a property rights libertarian philosophy to be true on its own merits.

  2. Non-Aggression Libertarianism — This is what you get when you use the notion that initiation of force is wrong as the basis of your ethical system. That statement — that initiation of force is wrong — is alternately labeled the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP for short) and the Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP for short). “Non-Aggression Libertarianism” is also often called “NAP Libertarianism” or “ZAP Libertarianism” amongst those familiar with the terminology. One might as easily call it something like “Conditionally Pacifist Libertarianism”, because (contingent upon nobody enacting violence against them) no such libertarian wishes to enact violence upon others, and in fact considers acts initiating force against others to be unethical by definition. This is a form of philosophical libertarianism that Mencius ignores (probably because he hasn’t really noticed it is distinct from property rights libertarianism).

The proprietary rights basis of libertarianism is, so far as I’ve been able to determine, constructed by tracing apparently necessary reasoning from a free-market libertarian perspective to the ethical system’s foundational principle. It is basically the inductive reasoning form of philosophical libertarian ethics.

The non-aggression basis of libertarianism is, by contrast, constructed by beginning with a minimal assumption (“I think, therefore I am!”) and its necessarily attendant axioms (“solipsism is a philosophical dead end — let’s assume others exist as well, if only to hedge our bets against negligent unethicality”), and reasoning via predicate logic to the ethical system’s foundational principle. It is basically the deductive reasoning form of philosophical libertarian ethics.

In the ethics of the NAP libertarian, proprietary rights are in fact nothing more than a convenience — an abstraction used to stand in for the more complex concept of the extension of one’s right to freedom from initiations of force. In short, if some prehistoric Proto-Libertarian picks up a rock, and does not wish to relinquish it, his Proto-Authoritarian counterpart must either offer some enticement toward free exchange or initiate force against the Proto-Libertarian to acquire that same rock. Thus, the Proto-Libertarian “owns” the rock, et voila — we have the basis for proprietary rights.

The difference between this and the property rights libertarian perspective is that the property rights libertarian does not differentiate between ownership of the rock as a right in and of itself and ownership of the rock as an extension of the rights inherent in the individual with regard to himself alone. They’re all property rights. To the NAP libertarian, meanwhile, ownership of the rock is merely a convention used to summarize the relation of the sovereign individual to the extended right of freedom from initiations of force that make it unethical to take the rock against his will.

Now that I’m ready to wrap this up, we should revisit Mencius’ statement about libertarianism vs. formalism.

On the subjects of individual, state, and property:

While it can be argued that property rights libertarianism is inherently individualistic in nature, and thus anti-corporatist, it is also possible (if significantly more difficult) to justify corporate entities with proprietary rights from a basis of property rights libertarianism. Thus, when Mencius says:

My fundamental disagreement with libertarians is ethical: libertarians see property rights (and human rights, which can be defined as property rights) as moral absolutes, whereas a formalist such as myself sees property as an instrumental means to the end of minimizing violence. Thus I am perfectly willing to concede that the US Government is the legitimate proprietor of the powers it exercises at present, regardless of the means by which it acquired these titles. To a libertarian, taxation is theft; to a formalist, taxation is rent.

. . . his assumption that property rights libertarians necessarily oppose the concept of a government being the “legitimate proprietor” of its powers is not necessarily accurate in all cases. Democratic government is, after all, simply the most public form of corporation. It is a collective entity, in which all citizens are shareholders, that theoretically claims proprietary rights. Of course, this interpretation of property rights libertarianism is a massive, mind-boggling engineering failure, where the only real principle of its brand of libertarianism is that “entities” (for some definition of “entity”) own things, allowing all kinds of governmental abuses to sneak in with “Darnit, that’s not nice!” being the equivalent of all objections to these abuses. That’s not to say that this interpretation is inconsistent in theory — it is simply unsustainable in practice.

The more consistent-in-practice interpretation of property rights libertarianism rejects corporatism on the grounds that a “collective entity” is not a real entity, and thus does not have real proprietary rights. The most recognizable consequence of this interpretation is that government is not ethically entitled to proprietary rights, and merely acts as a proxy for the proprietary rights of its constituents. It is empowered by those constituent citizens, and possesses no power of its own. Taxation, then, as a means of employing force to confiscate wealth, is theft because it is the mechanism of the constituency using the proxy of government (which has no proprietary rights of its own) to steal from individuals (who do have proprietary rights of their own).

The non-aggression libertarian, in practice, often refers to taxation as theft (I have done so often enough). This is just a convenience of phrasing, however, because theft by government is not possible. Theft, in and of itself, is merely a convention describing a particular form that an act of force initiation takes — the actual ethical violation in the case of taxation is not theft, but is initiation of force itself, in the form of coercive demands to relinquish wealth. In case you weren’t clear on the idea, threats of violence (the means by which the agents of the state coerce us) are as much an application of force as applications of violence (what the agents of the state use to neutralize resistance when threats aren’t enough). The only theft that really occurs in this view is the theft carried out by the specific agents of the state who are directly involved in the act of relieving the individual of wealth in his possession.

In short, to say that taxation as an exercise of government power is “theft” is entirely meaningless from the non-aggression libertarian perspective. Individuals (agents of the state) initiate force against other individuals (the taxpayers) to coerce them to relinquish wealth, and that is all. Those individuals directly involved are thus ethically wrong, and anyone who is involved in encouraging their unethical behavior is — by way of (often informal, as in the case of voters) conspiracy — also ethically wrong.

On the subject of taxation as rent:

In the view of a Mencius-style formalist (there are other formalisms, y’know), taxation is rent, because Mencius Formalism only recognizes the economic form of taxation as a movement of resources from client to service provider to fund its efforts, without considering its formal (pun intended) ethicality.

In the view of the (practically consistent) property rights libertarian, taxation is theft of resources from the individual by the government, as a proxy for other individuals.

In the view of the non-aggression libertarian, taxation is theft of resources by individuals, at the behest of a largely informal conspiracy of many more individuals, but is not theft in the sense that government can steal anything — because government does not truly exist as a distinct entity except in the imaginations of individuals. Taxation is also rent in the perspective of the non-aggression libertarian. That rent passes through the effective ownership of many individuals in its life as state resources, eventually burned as fuel for further acts by individuals who imagine themselves part of a fictional government “entity”.

The Ending Question:

So . . . since your identification of taxation as “rent” is not strictly at odds with (in my opinion) the more logically supportable libertarian philosophy — what’s your problem with non-aggression libertarianism, Mencius?

Rhetorical Notes:

Of course, this is a semi-rhetorical question. I don’t know if he’ll even notice this essay. Since he’s on Blogspot, it requires far too much jumping through hoops to bother posting a note there directing him here. I just felt a need to address this matter, and ending it with a question seemed appropriate to tie everything together.

I’m not sure how well this will all hold up once I’ve had some sleep. It is, in part, simply an extended ramble spawned by tonight’s insomnia. I lay in bed, that paragraph from Unqualified Reservations that I quoted above going through my head, unable to fall asleep (as happens too often for comfort), and finally decided I should just see if I could order my thoughts on the matter of non-aggression libertarianism with regard to Mencius Formalism.

. . . and with that, I’m done.


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