Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Peculiar Theory

There's a peculiar theory floating around which says that libertarians can have nothing to say, as libertarians, about how people exercise their rights.


Dennis said...

I think some of this can be explained by a misapplication of libertarian ideas, but I think there mightt be something else here too. There is a hesitancy to appear on the same side as the authoritarians. For instance, I completely understand the existence of corporate malfeasance, but I am inclined to be more charitable toward corporate bad actors because I view the bulk of their opposition as being something far more dangerous, social democrats. The current system is deeply flawed, and the system that would result from what some call vulgar libertarianism might be less than ideal, but I think both are far better than robust social democracy. There is, to me, an understandable wariness about inadvertently aiding something even worse than the flawed present system.

Dennis said...

I don't know if I made my point very well. I certainly will criticize a corporate malefactor, but due to the structure of the discourse, it is hard to do this without appearing to side with the even-worse-guys. As I read my above post, it seems like a non-sequitor, but I assure you I think there was a relevant point somewhere I was trying to make. But it is late and I am tired.

brian said...

The above statements miss the point, I think. More often than not, unfortunately, I've seen libertarians defending bigots' right to be bigoted, racists' right to be racist,sexists' and homophobes' right to be sexist and homophobic, without even beginning a conversation on libertarian methods of anti-bigotry, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-homophobia. This has to stop, and we would very likely win more statists to libertarianism if we showed that libertarianism isn't so wretched as to just be about (as Walter Block seems to think) "defending the indefensible."

A large part of this is the authoritarian strain within market libertarianism itself. However "anti-state" these libertarians are, they vociferously defend hierarchy and authoritarianism in the economy in the name of property (consider even the nonsense raised about one's right to sell oneself into slavery). This, perhaps, is the real reason these people are so quick to defend bigots - they don't believe in state authority, but believe that historical institutional inequalities are more sacred and any attempt to dismantle them is foolhardy or even anti-capitalist (Rothbard himself belonging in this category). This is nothing other than letting the market dominate and suppress people instead of the state, with no democratic mechanisms of correction.

We have to confront the possibility that, within the market libertarian camp, genuine, systematic criticisms of institutional inequality and cultural hegemony aren't more common because market libertarians do not really think racism, sexism, corporatism, homophobia, etc., are actual problems.

So, like you Dennis, I am also hesitant to appear to "side with the even-worse-guys." But unfortunately in this case, libertarians themselves are often among the "even-worse-guys," so we need to be the "better guys" on the scene, not the silent accomplices.

A libertarian who just wants a freed market is useless.

Younes Megrini said...

Let's not forget that defending a person's right to engage in a certain behavior is not advocacy of said behavior and that believing in freedom doesn't mean anything unless you believe in freedom precisely for the views you despise, like say racism, sexism, etc.
Unless we want to live in a dystopian thought-crime society, we have to draw a strong distinction between thought and action. No thought, whatever it may be, is objectionable. Thus, interpersonal moral philosophies, libertarianism being one, can only deal with actions. In other words, the thoughts and motivations behind a particular action are irrelevant to its legitimacy. That is why one cannot, as a libertarian, criticize bigotry as long as it does not involve aggression.
It is not a peculiar theory, but merely a logical implication of the different concepts involved, I would say.

brian said...

Certainly one can defend another's freedom, even to do something one disagrees with. One should, however, also defend their own right to react to that behavior, whether through ostracism, boycotting, organized protests, and other forms of direct action. This has nothing to do with any notion of "thought crime." It's the direct product of a society based on free association.

Of course thoughts can be objectionable. Unless you believe freedom of speech is only a social good because it's meaningless and affects no one, then thoughts can indeed be objectionable.

As far as your comment on thoughts, motivations, and legitimacy, I'm not sure what you mean, but your conclusion that a libertarian cannot "criticize bigotry as long as it does not involve aggression" is absolute nonsense. And if, as you say, it's merely a "logical implication of the different concepts involved," then libertarianism is bullshit, and should be driven out of any public discourse.

Dennis said...

Brian, sorry that I didn't write anymore yesterday, otherwise I could have spared you the time it took you to write your response. My thoughts were a bit foggy the other night thinking about thickness, left-libertarianism, etc. and instead of writing something relevant to Sheldon's post, I inelegantly typed some thoughts regarding our relationship to the status quo and other movements opposed to the status quo. In regards to what Sheldon was actually posting about, I agree, libertarianism is not moral relativism. I agree with Charles Johnson and Roderick Long that consistent libertarianism entails thickness. A libertarian can "respect" a bigot's right to free association by opposing laws forbidding it, while supporting much more effective means to effectively stamp out bigotry through norms, economic pressure, etc. Sorry to have unwittingly inspired a long post on your part.

Younes Megrini said...

I didn't mean that libertarians shouldn't criticize bigotry when it does not involve aggression. They certainly can and should, but not as libertarians. The same way, an economist can certainly criticize monopolies, but not as an economist, since economics is a value-free positive science.
Ostracism, boycotting, organized protests, and other forms of direct action are ways by which a free society would deal with "peaceful bigotry". But they are irrelevant to libertarianism as far as I understand it (acceptance of the non-aggression principle).

Dennis said...

Younes, do you view libertarianism as something analogous to atheism? All atheism is is the lack of belief in a deity, it tells us nothing about epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, etc. Is it your understanding that all that libertarianism is is a commitment to the NAP and an acceptance of property rights? I don't agree with that, but it is one way to look at things. I would argue that one has to have a reason to be a libertarian. One is an atheist because s/he has reached a particular conclusion about a question of fact: does a god exist? One is a libertarian because they believe it is morally superior to its alternatives, or it is better at achieving particular ends. In either event it is not value-free; in the first case there is a clear moral value judgment, in the second there is still a preferred end.

If I am right then a commitment to the NAP and property rights are a necessary condition for libertarianism, but they don't fully describe it.

If you are right, then libertarianism is a necessary part of a moral philosophical outlook, but it does not wholly describe a proper social philosophy.

I suppose that ultimately what matters is the whole outlook, whether that is just libertarianism as I describe it, or libertarianism as you describe it combined with a number of other values. I think there are good arguments for thinking of libertarianism as something more than NAP + property rights.

brian said...

Thanks for the response, Dennis.

Younes Megrini, libertarianism is not synonymous with the NAP, nor is the NAP even an essential element of libertarianism. A large part of this relation is that the NAP, even consistently applied (if restricted solely to physical aggression), would probably leave most forms of social domination intact. What's even more troubling, however, is that you seem to suggest that libertarianism is actually consistent with various forms of bigotry - in other words, that one could consistently and with no hypocrisy write pamphlets for libertarianism on Monday and pamphlets for white supremacy or misogyny on Tuesday. This is a gross misunderstanding of libertarianism, both in terms of libertarianism as a movement and a historical tradition.

Younes Megrini said...

You shouldn't minimize the value of the Non-Aggression Principle. The NAP has very broad and important implications, even property rights can be derived from the NAP, as Roderick Long does in his "Foundations of Libertarian Ethics" lecture series.
I believe that non-coercive bigotry would be innocuous in a free society. I know not of any form of "social domination" that does not rely on initiatory force or the threat thereof, in one form or another.
People will inevitably use their freedom in ways that you disapprove of. You can legitimately protest, boycott or ostracize them but, at the end of the day, if they refuse to yield, you will have to leave them be.
It would certainly be contradictory to believe in both Libertarianism and White Supremacy or Misogyny, since the former does entail a belief in Human Equality. In fact, I haven't heard of any libertarian white supremacists or misogynists. But stupidity is compatible with the NAP, as far as I know.
Libertarianism deals with the area of ethics relating to enforceable rights and obligations. There are other areas of ethics and morality where principles like altruism, solidarity, courage etc, can complement Libertarianism in guiding our behavior, principles over which preferences may greatly differ. But there is value in keeping the message pure and clear.
We don't all have to agree on everything, we just have to agree to be free.
I think I would prefer living among non-coercive bigots to living among authoritarian humanitarians.

brian said...

I minimize its value because I think its value is minimal; moreover, I would argue that the NAP is more often employed as the result of a particular conception of property, not a foundation.

I think the main problem with your definition of "non-coercion," as mentioned earlier, is that it leaves most of the major forms of exploitation intact, e.g. wage labor. Moreover, it has nothing to say - or even nothing to criticize - about other major problems in capitalist society, such as the feminization of poverty (particularly among people of color).

But let's be realistic: there is no such thing as non-coercive bigotry. Contrary to vulgar libertarian lore, people have indeed valued their own racism over profit (or as was often the case in the labor movement, racism over solidarity). It's easy to talk about a lone "non-coercive bigot," but when you look at our own society, where the hegemonic culture is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., and all this without needing any coercion (at least by the definitions of the NAP) to push it along.

So all of this comes down to two points for me. The first is that while a society with libertarian features would certainly allow for bigots, we actual libertarians must be vehemently anti-bigotry (in the same way that, while some small capitalist businesses would probably survive in a libertarian society, libertarians themselves must be vehemently anti-capitalist). The second point is that libertarians need less propaganda about non-coercion and more propaganda about libertarian methods against bigotry as well as authoritarianism. Doing nothing because the bigots aren't physically coercive is counterproductive.

Younes Megrini said...

I personally hold Roderick Long's position concerning the NAP and property rights which consists of two principles.
The first is that there is, fundamentally, only one right: the right not to be aggressed against. All further rights are simply applications of, rather than supplements to, this basic right.
The second point, which is a corollary of the first, is that property rights themselves can only be applications of the right to self-ownership.
(cf. Why Libertarians Believe There Is Only One Right)
Granted, there are many conceptions of property, but only one seems compatible with the aforementioned principles : the No-Proviso Lockean conception of property. (cf. Land-locked : a critique of Carson on Property Rights)
As I mentioned in my previous comment, Roderick Long does show that a theory of Property Rights can be reasonably derived from the Non-aggression Principle in his Property, Land and Contract lecture.
For all these considerations, I think that you underestimate the importance of the Non-Aggression Principle. If there is ultimately only one human right (understood as legitimately enforceable claims), then that right is bloody important ! I would love to see a Libertarian Declaration of Human Rights that has only one article. :D

I do not believe that wage labor is exploitative. The capitalist provides a valuable service to the worker, mainly : raw materials and means of production without the need to save and a share of the expected returns without the need to wait or bear the risk. The Labor contract is mutually beneficial, like any voluntary association from the point of view of the participants necessarily is, at least, ex ante. Sure, workers may have been deprived of better opportunities (which is a case of aggression) than what they had to settle with and the employers might have been instrumental in pushing for those restrictions, I do not deny that that is often true in our current system. But in a freed market, which is the point under discussion, that wouldn't be the case anymore.
I don't know what the Freed Market will be made out of. Whether it be worker coops or capitalist businesses is fine by me either way, as long as people are free.

You say that, realistically, there is no such thing as non-coercive bigotry then, in the same paragraph, say that our society practices bigotry without the need for coercion. You cannot have it both ways.
Your minimization of the NAP makes me think you might be willing to violate the NAP in order to fix some perceived "social injustice" that does not involve any aggression. That is clearly unlibertarian. If you're not willing to, then we can be friends. :D

I think it is useful to keep a certain sense of priorities. We live in a world where aggression is everywhere, even forms of aggression (the State) which are regarded as legitimate by the many. Making sure that a person doesn't get thrown in a cage because they happen to have the wrong plant in their pocket certainly takes precedent over making sure that they don't suffer discrimination for the color of their skin, their gender, sexual orientation or religion. Just this week, in Albuquerque, a homeless man was gunned down for "illegally" camping in open space. Compared to this, non-coercive bigotry is definitely lower on my list.

brian said...

Thanks for the response, Younes. Also, I appreciate the links.

My objection is not so much to the NAP itself as to its centrality in libertarianism, and I object to its centrality on the basis that the NAP, as Long himself admits, is a bit vague as to what counts as aggression. As Long states, “Any doubts as to whether a particular course of action counts as force will be mirrored by doubts as to whether the initiation of that sort of conduct counts as aggression.” Insofar as the NAP is vague and could center of multiple disparate concepts of aggression, then, the dispute on aggression reverts, as Jason Brennan argues (http://tinyurl.com/mr7r75t), on “who owns what and why they own it.”

Consider, for example, Henry George's assertion that land rent should be owned collectively, rather than privately owned, because its value is created by the public; in this instance, one could argue that an individual's attempt to make the land his/her own private property is an act of aggression against the community. But this doesn't take us far. The real question is one of how the value of land rent is created, who has a right to this value, and, by extension, who can claim the right to exclude others from access to this value. As in Long's article, the question has little to do with the NAP and far more to do with property rights, which affirms what I stated earlier in our discussion: the version of the NAP you end up with depends on the conception of property rights you start with.

This brings us to the notion of self-ownership – defined by Locke as the property one has in his/her own person, which by extension grants that person property rights to that which one mixes with the properties of his person(ality) through labor (notice the two uses of “property” here). I will begin with Proudhon's critique of self-ownership, which centers on one's “proprietorship” of oneself. Proudhon pointed out that the “properties” of the self are not so much proprietary as they are available for use; that is, the self does not have “absolute mastery of [its] faculties” (http://tinyurl.com/lvayqjg).

Another way of putting this is that one cannot own itself as organism when the self is, for lack of better wording perhaps, the point of contact – the space of interaction and support – between organism and environment. Because the organism itself has changing needs and desires and seeks support from its environment in difference ways, the Self, or the process in which “self” arises, is never static but always in the process of becoming in relation to its natural and social environment. Thus the self is not universal, but relational, in the sense that it is determined by the interaction between organism and environment (including social ties.)

This relational self-in-process, seeking support from the environment and from others to meet its needs and wants (food, shelter, love, sex, friendship, etc.), gives us a far more complex vision of the relation between self, use, and property than Locke's narrow, isolated individual who labors in pursuit of property as a good unto itself; Locke's individual pursues property in the state of nature, i.e. pre-politically, with no ostensible motivation other than being a bigger, better proprietor. In short, I favor self-support over self-ownership.

brian said...

If we consider the individual's support of oneself in the environment and in society as basic, then, we end up with not one right (not to be aggressed against in one way or another), but three: the right to seek support from the social/natural environment in accordance with one's own will, that no individual has more of a right to this self-support than another, and that one individual's right of self-support thus deserves protection as much as any other's. Thus, in relation to the NAP, a definition of “aggression” follows in the sense that any violation of another individual's self-support, their equal right to self-support, and the protection of their self-support, constitutes aggression, whether physical or otherwise.

According to the above reasoning, I believe that wage labor is exploitative, because it the subjugation of individuals' labor for self-support that privileges the capitalist's self-support above their own, not on the basis of their own capacity for self-support, but on their being excluded from the use of what is considered private property.

You are right in pointing out that I was unclear in my discussion of non-coercive bigotry. I meant to say that our society practices bigotry without the need for direct physical coercion, in the sense that it can still put bigotry into practice via economic and social pressures (pressure, for example, to subjugate oneself to and become dependent on a capitalist via wage labor because of one's exclusion from the use of private property).

You are absolutely right in saying that we live in a world where aggression is everywhere. It is for precisely this reason that pacifism for its own sake is, historically and morally speaking, impotent. Regarding social injustice, it is difficult to deploy the NAP one way or the other. What one libertarian views as an act of aggression may be another's act of self-defense. Within the libertarian orientation, my view is that the question of violence or nonviolence centers on prefigurative politics and direct action. What is clear from this standpoint is that libertarianism stands against all forms of statist violence, including and especially violence by the state in protection of monopoly capitalism or in the name of humanitarianism. So we have, at least, two conditions for violence and nonviolence in libertarianism: either way must be political (embodying libertarian principles) and either way must not depend on the state as its weapon.