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Archive for the ‘Libertarianism’ Category

A comment on drug legalisation

In Drugs, Libertarianism, Nozick on January 11, 2014 at 7:13 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on January 10th 2014, 3:00 pm.

James Bloodworth has an interesting article on Left Foot Forward making the case for the legalisation of cannabis. His major points are utilitarian and libertarian. His utilitarian argument is this: “The illegality of drugs (and the criminal activity which is funded by drugs) causes vastly more misery than the use of drugs.” His libertarian argument is a rhetorical question: “If someone wants to put a substance into their system, then why should it be any of the government’s concern?” He clearly wants his readers to infer from the question that the government should not be concerned with what people do with their own bodies. This libertarian position was expressed eloquently by Michael Huemer last year. He argued that drug laws are unjust because “they violate a substantive moral right, the right to control one’s own body, that individuals possess regardless of the decisions of the state.” (Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, [Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], p.172.)

The general libertarian argument about controlling one’s own body does not just work for cannabis use, it also works for the use of any other drug including crack cocaine and heroin.  Depending on the services the state provides it is not at all clear that the government should not be concerned with what people do with their own body. In the UK we have a government (tax payer) funded National Health Service. If someone wishes to start injecting themselves with heroin then it does become the concern of government if that person gets addicted and wants to avail themselves of government funded support services such as rehabilitation, withdrawal programmes, prescription methadone and any other services.

The National Health Service is funded by the tax payer which is a payment extracted from people with coercion. If James has the view that people should be able to do what they want with their own body, does he accept that this should be universally applied and not selectively applied? If so, then how can he justify taxing person A to pay for the drug treatment of person B? If James wishes to make the libertarian argument then he should really consider Robert Nozick’s point that “Taxation of earnings is on a par with forced labour.” He explains it thus: “taking the earnings of n hours labour is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing a person to work n hours for another’s purpose.” (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, [Basic Books, 1974], p.169.) In order to be consistent with his argument, James should be of the opinion that someone who started using crack cocaine and became addicted has no right to use the tax payer funded National Health Service for addiction treatment. If this is not his position then his position is that a drug user can control their own body and they can also force others to work for their benefit if that benefit is required. This means that others cannot control their own body as they find themselves having to work extra hours to pay for the treatment of the addict. It is a logical contradiction as it means not everyone can control their own body.

Why there should be no such thing as society

In Anarchism, Libertarianism, Rothbard on May 5, 2013 at 4:57 PM

Murray Rothbard explains:

The individualist view of “society” has been summed up in the phrase: “Society” is everyone but yourself. Put thus bluntly, this analysis can be used to consider those cases where “society” is treated, not only as a superhero with superrights, but as a supervillain on whose shoulders massive blame is placed. Consider the typical view that not the individual criminal, but “society,” is responsible for his crime. Take, for example, the case where Smith robs or murders Jones. The “old-fashioned” view is that Smith is responsible for his act. The modern liberal counters that “society” is responsible. This sounds both sophisticated and humanitarian, until we apply the individualist perspective. Then we see that what liberals are really saying is that everyone but Smith, including of course the victim Jones, is responsible for the crime. Put this baldly, almost everyone would recognize the absurdity of this position. But conjuring up the fictive entity “society” obfuscates this process. As the sociologist Arnold W. Green puts it: “It would follow, then, that if society is responsible for crime, and criminals are not responsible for crime, only those members of society who do not commit crime can be held responsible for crime. Nonsense this obvious can be circumvented only by conjuring up society as devil, as evil being apart from people and what they do.”

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, (Second Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006) pp.46-47. Available  free on line.

Ayn Rand Worship

In Ayn Rand, Book Review, Libertarianism on April 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM

According to Jeff Walker, followers of Ayn Rand, who like to call themselves Objectivists, can revere their idol in an unhealthy cultish way. He comments (The Ayn Rand Cult [Open Court, 1999), p.145):

While not official doctrine, Objectivists were nonetheless expected to believe that (1) Ayn Rand is the greatest mind since Aristotle and the greatest human being who ever lived; (2) [Ayn Rand’s novel] Atlas Shrugged is not just the greatest novel of all time, but the greatest achievement in human history; (3) Rand is the ultimate authority on what thoughts, feelings, and aesthetic tastes are appropriate to human beings.

I have just finished reading Allan Gotthelf’s book, On Ayn Rand, published in 2000 as part of the Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Given that I enjoyed Edward Feser’s book, On Nozick, published in the same series, I had high hopes for this volume. How wrong I was. If there is anything that makes one think that Walker might not have been making up his claims, this book would be an example of something to read. Below I copy some extracts:

From page 1:

It is high time that academic philosophers accept the responsibility of understanding, thoroughly and with full, professional expertise, this highly original thinker and the scope and content of her often groundbreaking thought.

From page 2:

This book is dedicated to the memory of Ayn Rand, for her inspiration and her genius.

From pages 13-14:

On the course’s oral final exam she was disappointed to be asked only about Plato. Her answers earned her the highest grade possible, but her professor, discerning her lack of sympathy with Plato, asked her why she disagreed with him. “My philosophical views,” she said, “are not part of the history of philosophy yet. But they will be.

From page 18, note 6:

Her cousin’s remark is of some interest, suggesting (as one might well expect) that Nietzsche’s influence on Ayn Rand was not a matter of her absorbing whole a body of ideas new to her. Rather, Nietzsche articulated and expanded upon ideas she had already formulated and had been presenting to others–and indeed she was aware of important differences from the beginning.

From page 48:

I venture to suggest… that there is no thinker in the history of philosophy who has as profoundly developed and integrated a view of the harmony of mind and body as Ayn Rand.

It is not just the idolisation of Ayn Rand that makes this book worthless as an objective (in the true sense of the term) source to find out about Ayn Rand and her philosophical views, but the content. While the book is only 100 pages long, and it is therefore understandable that Gotthelf had to leave a lot out, it doesn’t mean to say that within the space available he should not have given fair weight to different aspects of Rand and why she is of interest.

After the preface and introduction, the next two chapters are devoted to biographical details of Rand. Excluded from what can only be called a hagiography is the fact that Rand had a long affair with her top student, but the much younger, Nathaniel Branden. When Gotthelf states that “in 1968 [Rand] terminated all relations with Branden,” (p.24) readers would not know that the reason she did so was because Branden informed Rand he no longer sexually desired her and that he was romantically attached to someone else. (Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, [Doubleday, 2009], pp.365-373.)

Gotthelf finds the space to mention that Leonard Peikoff was designated Rand’s heir (p.25), but not the space to mention that she had previously, in her dedication note at the end of Atlas Shrugged, dubbed Branden her “intellectual heir.” (Heller, p.277.)  I do not think it a coincidence that this is the case. Gotthelf is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute that was founded by Peikoff. Following Rand’s excommunication of Branden, Peikoff and others pledged loyalty to Rand and renounced any further contact with Branden. Moreover, Peikoff, who had unquestioning loyalty to Rand, made his own students sign a waiver promising that they would not contact Branden or purchase any of his books. (Heller, pp.381-382.)

It is not just the biographical detail that is poor, it is also the discussion about her views. A reason many people become interested in Ayn Rand is for her pro-capitalist political philosophy. Her ideal society would get rid of a welfare state and leave the government in control of the minimum things that she believed necessary: “the police, to protect men from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—[and] the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.” (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, [Signet, 1964], p.131). According to this view, “taxation—or to be exact, payment for government services—would be voluntary.” (Ibid., p.135). As mentioned, Gotthelf’s book is 100 pages long. The complete discussion of Rand’s political views is no more than one page. (Gotthelf, pp.91-92).

If someone wants to understand what Ayn Rand was about, they are better off reading something other than Gotthelf’s book. I am surprised that Wadsworth published it.

Fruits of Labour, Entitlement, and the Road to Ruin

In Libertarianism, Nozick, Philosophy on December 12, 2012 at 10:32 PM

Normblog, the weblog of Norman Geras, is one of my favourite blogs. He has recently written a series of ten blog posts on the subject “Fruits of Labour.”[1]

I wish to pick up one point that Norm has made in his tenth post in the series: his example that he calls “Wilt who?” It is quite clear that Norm has loosely based his example on Robert Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example which Nozick used for a difference purpose to that of Norm.[2] Both Nozick and Norm have a very talented basketball player, Wilt, who is a draw to the game. Spectators are happy to pay extra if Wilt plays. In Norm’s example there is a dispute between Wilt and the fans as to who is entitled to the money from the additional gate receipts. Norm has Wilt believing he is entitled to the additional money, but the fans are of a different opinion: they think that perhaps some of the additional money can go to Wilt, because in Norm’s case, Wilt is having difficulties, but the balance should be used on improving spectator facilities. This dispute does not come up in Nozick’s example for a key reason: Nozick have the fans drop 25 cents of the admission price into a separate box that has Wilt’s name marked on it. The implication is clear: the 25 cents is to go directly to Wilt and not to the club. Nozick is explicit:

Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. They could have spent it on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for watching him play basketball.[3]

One wonders if Norm would agree whether Wilt would be entitled to the 25 cents from each fan for each game if his own example were in line that of Nozick’s.

A further point that is explicit in Nozick’s example is that Wilt is a free agent. Nozick is also explicit that “Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams.”[4] This means that if Wilt does not get the 25 cents from each fan for each game, he would be free to find another club to take him on at his terms. Norman Geras does not really deal with this matter in his dispute between the fans that turn up to Wilt’s games and Wilt himself. The fans, in Norm’s example, can argue as much as they want that Wilt’s value “depends on them” but what would Norm have them say if Wilt turns round and says “If that is how you feel, I will leave the club and go and play for a different team.” Would Norm, or the fans in his example, restrict other basketball clubs from offering Wilt a contract on terms that both the club and Wilt could agree?

I now wish to use my own example, but to make a point similar to that Nozick made with his Wilt Chamberlain example: that liberty upsets patterns.

Consider two families that live next door each other: the Adams family and the Brown family. The Adams family comprises Mr and Mrs Adams, and two children aged ten and eight. The Brown family contains Mr and Mrs Brown and two children of identical ages to that of their neighbours. Mr Adams and Mr Brown work in the same factory in an identical job earning an identical salary. Likewise Mrs Adams and Mrs Brown both work part time in identical jobs earning identical salaries. At a given point in time, the value of the assets of the Adams family matches that of the Brown family to the last penny. The egalitarians can look at these two families and smile at the equality that exists.

Now consider the lifestyle differences. Mr and Mrs Adams both smoke whereas Mr and Mrs Brown do not. Mr and Mrs Adams and their children spend their weekends lazing at home watching television, whereas the Brown family spend quite a lot of time cultivating a vegetable patch in their garden, the produce of which they consume thus reducing their weekly grocery bill. Finally, the Adams family have a weekly night out to a cinema or a pizza restaurant, whereas on that night of the week, the Brown family bond with each other via playing Scrabble or a card game together. The net difference is that Adams family spend on average £150 a week more than the Brown family. After a few weeks, the Brown family have accumulated enough money from saving to purchase an iPad for their children to share. The Adams family do not have one. The two Brown children are continually arguing as to which one of them can use the iPad and their parents, fed up with the constant arguing, a few weeks later purchase a further iPad so both children can have their own.

The point Nozick would have made with this example is that nobody has done anything wrong; it is not unjust that the Brown family now has two iPads whereas the Adams family has none. The egalitarians, on the contrary, might wish to interfere. They could claim that it is unjust that Brown family has two iPads whereas the Adams family has none and insist that the Brown family give an iPad to the Adams family. Nozick’s point is that if you set up to create an egalitarian society or any other society whereby there is a “pattern” of the distribution of assets for justice, there has to be “continuous interference with people’s lives.”[5]

I now wish to go a stage further and discuss the consequences of such interference. Imagine, in my example above, the Brown family continually have to give things to the Adams family to keep the planned distributional pattern. After a while one might expect that they get tired of it. On Saturday afternoons while the Browns are toiling away at their vegetable patch, they can look over their garden fence and see through a window to the Adams family’s sitting room where the family are all lazing around watching television. Mr Adams has even cracked jokes to Mr Brown telling him to pay particular attention to the output from the vegetable patch as his family will be entitled to the benefits of half of it. The Browns might begin to feel that because they only get the benefit of half of their savings from not spending money like the Adams family and they only get to benefit from half their labour in their vegetable patch, that they will simply not bother continuing their more frugal lifestyle.

While Mr and Mrs Brown do not take up smoking, they decide to go out with their family once a week to a decent restaurant and a further night to the cinema and also to jack in the vegetable patch so they can sit at home at weekends and watch television like the Adams family. By changing their lifestyle to spend as much money per week as their neighbours, they now do not have to make any regular transfers to their neighbours. By having some of the benefits of the fruits of their labour – the vegetables they grow in their garden – taken away from them, they lack the motive to grow the vegetables. In other words, they lack the motive to work at weekends. If this is replicated on a bigger scale around the country, it seems to me that it is the road to economic ruin.


[1] The link to the tenth in the series is
This post provides the links to the earlier nine posts.
[2] Norman Geras admits in footnote 48 that his own example is used for a different purpose to Nozick.
[3]Robert Nozick, Anarchy State, And Utopia, (Basic Books, 1974), p.161.
[4] Ibid., p.161.
[5] Ibid., p.163.

Getting it wrong on libertarianism

In Libertarianism, Rothbard on September 17, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Max Dunbar is a friend of mine and I enjoy reading his articles. Given my interest in libertarianism, I was particularly interested to read his article that was alerted to me via his Facebook status: “the trouble with libertarians: notes on the sex myth.” The post is actually a review of Dr. Brooke Magnanti’s recently published book, The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. I have not read this book and thus cannot comment upon it; what I do wish to comment upon is a  section in Max’s review where he makes an observation about libertarianism:

I give you Vincent Tabak. He murdered Joanna Yeates by strangulation in 2010, and a search of his computer revealed an internet history full of hardcore, violent pornography that depicted women being bound and choked. Nothing to see here, says Belle. ‘The judge made the right call, and Tabak was convicted of murder on a case that was strong enough on its own.’ She is right that the evil came before the influence, and that attributing the murder entirely to the effect of hardcore porn takes away the responsibility that Tabak should carry forever himself. But can we really say that Tabak’s obsessive interest in sadomasochistic imagery had no influence whatsoever on his crime?

The libertarian fallacy is to assume such a thing as the pure individual. [Emphasis added]

I asked Max what he meant by the sentence that I have emphasised above. He explained to me that it was “the idea that we can remain totally immune from external influence.”

Where Max is wrong is that libertarians qua libertarians do not have a position as to whether individuals can remain free from external influence. They are not specialists in being able to determine whether or not sadomasochistic imagery does or does not influence violent and/or sexual crimes. The libertarian view is simply that one should not initiate the use of non-consensual force. She would allow hardcore, violent pornography providing it was made with the consent of the actors. This is because  the rights of actors have not been violated.

Ridiculing liberals, libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard explained in 1973:

[W]hile liberals are in favor of any sexual activity engaged in by two consenting adults, when these consenting adults engage in trade or exchange, the liberals step in to harass, cripple, restrict, or prohibit that trade. And yet both the consenting sexual activity and the trade are similar expressions of liberty in action. Both should be favored by any consistent libertarian. But the government, especially a liberal government, habitually steps in to regulate and restrict such trade.

The effect of allowing pornography or prostitution is not something  with which classical libertarian theory concerns itself.  The libertarian is just concerned that everyone involved was doing so of their own free will as opposed to under coercion. Even if it is true that hardcore violent pornography does influence violent and sexual crimes, the libertarian would not seek to prohibit it. Likewise, the libertarian would not ban alcohol or narcotics because some people who drink alcohol or use drugs become violent. The libertarian qua libertarian is concerned with the rights of the individual, she does not concern herself with determining whether violent pornography leads to violence.


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