This is the first in a series of posts with the intent of laying out my political philosophy. At least, the starting point of my political philosophy. That is to say, what it was three years ago when I wrote this manifesto in my head.
Rather than provide my take on every single debated issue, I believe it is more fruitful to give the fundamental axioms that can be used to predict views on the individual issues. This little political philosophy that I have invented concerns itself with the right to property and its legitimate extent, hence, Proper Ownership.
You may not find this post extremely original. Mostly rehashed libertarian arguments with a twist. Fear not; the next part in this series will feature arguments I can virtually guarantee you’ve never heard before.
Sponsored by taxes and other mandatory fines, the state is an inherently coercive institution. Since governmental politics is the study of the appropriate behavior of government, and since the government is judged by society to have the sole legitimate claim to force, political science as we understand it is, axiomatically, the philosophy of when coercion is appropriate.
The space to list what the state (or anybody) should not due would be prohibitive. There are any number of things they should not do. The more appropriate approach to political science is one of “enumeration.” Enumeration, the approach adopted by the US constitution, is the action of limiting yourself to describing what the state is allowed to do, with the implication that anything not listed should be not the role of government. The founders went so far as to be reluctant to include the Bill of Rights for fears it would distract from that philosophy.
I will be taking the approach of enumeration, with each post in this series addressing a specific role for government. I will start with the assumption that there is no proper role for government in society. From that starting point, I will then argue from first principles what tasks are justified to be taken on by the government, i.e., the “state”. Therefore, this manifesto will read like a rebuttal to Anarcho-Capitalism, the right-wing philosophy that there is no proper role for government. Indeed, learning about anCaps is what started me writing this manifesto in my head.
But before that: fuck the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule, do unto others as you wish they would do unto you, has been a teaching of the West for centuries. Although it serves as a quick and easy way to teach kids how to have empathy, it is no basis for a system of government. The problem is the manifest reality that people do not attend to their interests with the same attention as to those of strangers. An ideology based on the notion that they do (an ideology that denies reality) will result in disaster as that presupposition fails to hold. We should deal as the world as it is.
But, more importantly, it’s not just that people don’t follow the Golden Rule, but neither should they. If taken literally, and to its fullest extent, it would render you either neglectful of yourself or a slave to others. By all means, attempt it. But you should not be coerced to serve the pleasures of others. You are responsible for the pleasure, or lack thereof, of no one. In my view of the Trolley Problem, it may be morally good to divert the trolley, but failing to do so is not morally bad, merely morally neutral. The morally bad person is the absent conductor.
The old adage goes “my right to punch ends at your nose.” I can throw punches into the void of air all I want. I only have a problem when a punch contacts your face. I can pursue my own desires, to the extent that I do not interfere with your right to do the same. Here’s a stronger example: my right to buy and sell ends at buying and selling people; to hold slaves would be to limit the freedom of others.
It comes down to coercion: physically interfering with a person’s body or property against their desires. When the pain is caused intentionally, I call it aggression. When the pain was caused incidentally, I call it an externality. Aggression can take indirect forms. Instructing someone to commit murder is still accessory to murder. Threats of violence carry much of the same weight as violence. Fraud is a soft form of theft. And so on.
Coercion, to me, is not merely another factor to consider. It is the bedrock of Proper Sovereignty. It is the difference between sex and rape, the difference between charity and a mugging. People and their desires are all that we have in the world of morals.
Proper Sovereignty leaves no room for laws against victimless crimes, nor the policing of private behavior. Neither paternalist notions that you need to control people’s behavior “for their own good.” I don’t entertain unspecific claims that “if everyone is allowed to be a drug and gambling addict, it will have adverse affects on the broader society!” Who is the “broader society”? Can you name him? If so, he is owed restitution. If not, I do not owe people the welfare of regulating their lives. The responsibility for self-improvement should fall on the individual’s shoulders, just as the incentive for it naturally does.
There are only three modes: non engagement, coercion, and consent.
In the consensual world of goods and services, people will trade materials and favors. Axiomatically, someone who participates in a trade consensually must have been more willing to make the trade than not, so you generally have no right to prevent them from doing so. Bartering was once popular, but it has its drawbacks, as I will discuss in a future post. This is why we invented money, a facilitator of trades. From this, a complex system of networks emerged that we call the “free market”. Economic freedom is a freedom valuable in its own right.
The free market justifies itself with the principle of consent. Critics of the free market often point out how the market often fails to be free. Although these criticisms may be accurate, it does not follow that the free market is bad. It just means we need more freedom, not less.
“Capitalism” is not an economic structure imposed from the outside, it is simply the aggregate of millions or billions of many small decisions that accumulate into market forces.
One of the best arguments against me is that markets ultimately depend on government coercion to enforce property rights. Without protection of property, there is no trade, and therefore no capitalism. Although this might seem intuitively true, the opposite intuition is no less valid. Though governments do and should protect property, people will also for the most part do that themselves. Even some animals can grasp of the concept of property.
I need not rely on intuition, however. I can make a more philosophical case for property rights.
Humans have desires, and make decisions based on those desires. What do they make decisions about? Things that they control. If we define property as simply, “that which one controls,” then regardless of whether property ought to exist, it axiomatically does.
Let’s take an example of “faux ownership”. Suppose you “owned” an object, but were allowed little to zero direct discretion with respect to its use. When, where, and exactly in what manner you must use it is prescribed (dictated) by a central authority. We would not call this “ownership” much at all, would we? You have no control.
The question: what should one control? An simple answer is “everyone should control everything.” It’s obvious why that can’t work. Different people have different opinions about what should be done with property. The greater the number of “owners,” the more disagreement. What do you do about this disagreement? As soon as one person makes a decision, then the wishes of dissenters are being ignored. Who are we to call the dissenters “owners” then?
A proposed solution to this conundrum is to institute some institutionalized system for making decisions in the presence of disagreement. Maybe people could cast votes, and then you count up votes, and then… sound familiar? This is democracy.
The word “democracy” has a very positive connotation in the West. However, it is arguably the best of a set of bad systems. Would you defer to democracy to make every decision, from what shampoo you use to what you eat for breakfast?
Virtually all democracy is not direct democracy. Most people have neither the time nor expertise to make decisions on every single legislative decision. We elect representatives. Furthermore, people may not be aware the insane degree to which the representatives themselves delegate. It’s no longer politicians writing laws; it’s bureaucrats wring legislations.
The rosey view of democracy is colored by the reality of the necessity of delegation. Take an example. An army general, being a diligent public servant, orders tanks to move from one position to another. He then orders soldiers to their deaths. Arguably, these are the types of decisions that need to be made.
Wait a second. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the “faux ownership” I outlined a few paragraphs ago? Having decisions dictated by a central authority? Where is the “collective ownership” then?
Ultimately, large organizations do not make every decision “collectively” (whatever that means). Let’s call “delegation” what it is: the existence of leaders. Large groups of humans naturally tend towards hierarchy. I mean nothing normative by it. This is a fact that has revealed itself. This is a fact about efficiency.
To say that, “everyone should own everything” is the equivalent of saying that nobody should own anything. To me, the only satisfying alternative, is: “people should own what they create, or are given by the previous owner (in a recursive chain back the original creator).”
Why do I favor that answer? When you create something, you exercise control over the materials used to make it, and therefore, you axiomatically are the owner. To confiscate the creation, then, would be a break from ownership, and so an act of aggression.
I can make a more rhetorical case for my answer. Would you prefer a world where the carpenter does not own his creations? Where the sculptor, the moment upon completing a sculptor, has it confiscated? Where the handyman, the moment he completes an invention, has it ripped out of his hands?
Do not get confused about contractors or employees who agreed to create works for others. They consensually signed up to give their creations to another person or company.
Property is an expression of separate domains of control. I have the freedom to do whatever I wish with my domain of control (my property), so long as it does not interfere to do what you want with your domain of control (your property).
Of course, I am not against property having multiple owners. For example, a household is owned by two people in a married couple. Or, an enterprise is owned by a large number of people, who vote using shares, and… sound familiar? This is how stocks work.
Non-overlapping domains of control is the way to resolve the fact that people disagree about philosophy. Do you have a philosophy about how you want the world to be? Good, you can make the world like that, at least, the part of the world that is within your domain of control. Act until your philosophy rubs up against other people’s domain. If they agree with you, they can do the same as you do. If they do not, they have every right. Your philosophy will take hold, but only to the extent that people actually want it.
In this manner, Proper Ownership is actually compatible with every other philosophy insofar is they are not imposed violently.
For example, forms of Communism are compatible with PS. It is possible for the workers to own the means of production. Create a company, and distribute ownership equally between the employees. This is already allowed to happen. It just usually doesn’t, probably because it doesn’t work too well. Which is a fact to reveal itself concerning the efficacy of Communism.
Corporations, having many owners, are owned more collectively then, say, sole private ownership. But do Marxists support corporations? Of course not. Marx advocated for the eventual dissolution of government. But, in practice, Marxists advocate for more government, not less. If state coercion was interfering with their objectives, they would want less government, not more. If Marxism worked in a free system, they would not need the coercion of government.
For another example, utilitarianism is compatible. If you want to promote the total wellbeing/happiness/utility of humans, you can work to do that, up until you coerce others. Just because utilitarianisms is your ideology, it does not give you license to force others to pursue it.
The rallying cry of libertarianism is called the Non-Aggression Principle:
No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property.
As that stands, it’s bullshit.
Ok, bullshit may be a strong term. It’s just incomplete. It does not deal with the world as it is. I have taken the quote out of context. The next sentence reads:
Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another.
There we have it. Without the right to self-defense, the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) means nothing. It would be great if there were no criminals, and no one aggressed against anyone unjustifiably, ever. Upon such a day, I will take the purist, out-of-context version of the NAP seriously.
Until that day, self-defense is easy to justify. Consider this thought experiment:
I stand in a corner. Someone runs at me with an axe, swinging it towards me. He has rage in his eyes, and intends to kill me. Am I justified to shoot him?
Of course I am. I’m aggressing against the axed maniac, but to prevent the aggression against me. The threat to me is clear and obvious.
Self-defense is justified. So, we can all hire private defense firms! Not so fast.
We cannot all be resigned to defend ourselves. The ability of some people to coerce is greater than the ability of others to defend. A world of private defense is oligarchy. The rich can enslave the poor. I am totally unsatisfied by arguments like, “they won’t do that, because it’s unprofitable to overpower self defense…” You don’t know that, and even if you did, some people do crazy things.
“The people who need to defend themselves will band together”, you say. In that case, the “private defense firms” are factions in all but name, warring against each other. People who subscribe to one faction will all move to the same place, so they are easier to defend, and then you are right back to competing states.
It is easy and good to dream up how a system of law enforcement should work in a stateless society. A society of impartial, third party lawyers. Why will the rich and powerful care about these structures? They can kill the lawyers that they can’t pay off.
Consider another thought experiment:
A man stands in a corner. He is unarmed. He is my friend, and an innocent man. Someone runs at that man, swinging an axe to kill him. Am I justified in shooting the axed maniac?
This thought experiment is about acting to defend a third party. The answer is still yes. Does it matter that the gun that does the killing is in my hand, rather than in the hand of the potential victim? No.
The ideal system is to have some sort of organization that is a super-controller of land, that charges fees for residing within the land (as separate from usual rents from landlords), in order to fund protection for everyone within that land. It profits off of prosperity; the larger the economy, the larger the tax pool. Infighting and smaller acts of rogue violence don’t help it. And, as I’ll explain in a later post, there are systems of checks and balances to try to ensure the organization acts appropriately…
Stop. I am describing government.
“But taxes are coercive!”
We solve this problem with a thought experiment slightly more complicated than the previous two:
An axed maniac is charging at a friend, let’s call him friend A. Fortunately for me, friend B is sitting close beside me, and he owns a gun. Unfortunately for me, friend B is an avid pacifist. He refuses to so much as touch his gun, and he refuses to allow it to be used for violence under any conditions whatsoever. Am I justified in stealing friend B’s gun, to shoot the axed maniac, to save friend A?
I answer yes. It is justified to minimally coerce a third party (such as via taxes) only to fund coercion … so long as it can be reasonably expected to prevent more coercion that it causes.
This all brings me to the function of government #1. Briefly, to protect you. To hold a monopoly on legitimate coercion, in order to minimize total coercion.
This is how we justify the police and military. The police deal with internal threats, the military with external threats.
Moreover, I am not opposed to a limited number of reasonable health and safety regulations.
Here, I am taking the NAP in a direction it perhaps wasn’t intended for: to defend government rather than attack it.
Libertarians go wrong in failing to realize that humans are not the only beings that can coerce.
A bear rips me to shreds. Is that coercion?
How about a hurricane? Or pestilence? Or the wind and rain? Was I not coerced by the snow that gave me hypothermia?
It doesn’t matter to me whether my crops are destroyed by the weather, or in equal amount by a hungry bear, or a person for that matter, at least in this theoretical. I do not care that the hurricane did not have a brain.
The difference is that bears can’t organize a counteroffensive. That is why we allocate the duty of property protection/repair to the owners in cases of mother nature’s coercion.
There is one exception: physical bodily harm.
Nature’s damage to property does not change your ability to exercise jurisdiction over a domain. Jurisdiction over ruble is still jurisdiction. Nature’s damage to body is of a whole different nature. It fundamentally alters the distribution of jurisdiction, because you cannot hold jurisdiction over property when you are dead.
This is how we justify emergency services, such as the fire department, coast guard, and so on. But I’ll take things a step further. Consider the following thought experiment:
My friend is about to die of disease that can be cured with one medicine. Am I justified in robbing the pharmacy to steal the medicine for my friend?
Or this one:
My friend is starving. Am I justified in stealing a loaf of bread so he does not die of starvation?
Of course, if that actually happened, I would just buy some food for my friend. Indeed, that is an often refrain we hear from libertarians. “I feel for the poor; that’s why private charity is important!” I understand what this is getting at, perhaps better than even most libertarians. I do feel bad for the extent, if any, to which government has replaced private charity.
However, to be frank, this refrain is a dodge. What if private charity is not enough? It could be enough. But you actually have to make an argument that it is.
If private charity is not enough, there is justification for government to fill the gap. Coercion is justified, I have argued, to save a life. Government can distribute that coercion more evenly. Instead of one random mugging, you get a low level of predictable taxation.
I am making a case here, for some degree, for welfare. I propose a specific welfare system here. Don’t fear; I am not arguing for a lot here. Only the essentials, so that people do not die from starvation, the elements, etc.
I will move on to the more complicated issue of children.
You kidnap a man and bring him to an inhospitable environment, like, say, Antartica. You abandon him there. Did you aggress against this man?
I think the answer is obvious. But the clear corollary is that every environment is inhospitable to young children who cannot fend for themselves without guidance.
A baby did not consent to come into this world. They were forced too, by the acts of the parents. To create a person and then abandon them is clearly and act of coercion. Being non-coercive means providing for children.
Because the parents created the child, they are responsible for raising it. However, some parents are irresponsible and neglect this duty. Perhaps these parents should be punished. But with that said, some non-neglectful parents simply lack the means to raise a child appropriately. Should we simply allow this poor situation to fall on the kid?
The case for welfare I outlined above extends to children. More specifically, it extends to providing children the essentials for them to grow into self-sufficient adults. This is part of the justification for government sponsorship of child education.
So there you have it. Role of government #1 is to reduce coercion by protecting the right to person and property.
I have spent so much time on this relatively boring function of government for two reasons. First, I like reasoning from first principles. Second, it often gets confused with functions of government that are in actuality completely separate. Stay tuned for part 2.