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Kooky, counter-intuitive "libertarianism" to avoid

Is there a version of libertarianism (I'm considering the political, not metaphysical, thesis here) that the most learned and scrupulous of philosophers could endorse?  Imagine if you can an overlapping libertarian consensus held by all of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and whatever other philosophers one may hold in the highest esteem.  What would such a libertarianism have to look like?

I self-identify as a libertarian.  More importantly, I identify as a eudaimonist, and more importantly than that I identify as an advocate of Aristotelian rationality.  (I basically have in mind the Aristotle of T.H. Irwin's characterization, not of Bertrand Russell's caricaturing [which just goes to show that if there's a philosopher, someone will caricature that philosopher's views], an Aristotle of perfective but not necessarily perfect rationality.)  The sort of "Aristotelian libertarianism" I advocate presupposes a people or society already educationally prepared for libertarian institutions (hence a humanly realistic version that would require a requisite cultural backdrop), which is also to say that educationally prepared people would support libertarianism over the alternatives, via a dialectical process of elimination.  (Irwin's Aristotle distinguishes ordinary dialectic from strong dialectic which aims not just toward coherence among beliefs but correspondence to external truth.)  At the same time, what I take to be an educationally prepared populace (probably one where philosophy for children - a no-brainer if there ever was one - is an institutional norm) would also embrace eudaimonism with all its implications for how a people would interact with one another, which would include supportive institutions for the cultivation of human flourishing or eudaimonia.  It is widely held nowadays that activities of the state are always and everywhere, or at least usually, required for such cultivation, but that is a thesis I deny.  (This would require a revision of the historical Aristotle's views about the state.)

What is libertarianism as I conceive it?  It basically consists of two related themes: (1) Individuals' lives belong to themselves completely, for them and them alone to dispose of as they see fit; (2) The only point of a state (if any) is to use protective or defensive or coercion against violators of (1) (and is not licensed to become a violator of (1) itself).  I also hold that, in principle, there is a harmony between libertarianism so conceived and widespread if not (near-)universal human flourishing, especially given the immensely productive role of the mind or reason or intellect in human existence.  This is why I take Rand, who homed in on the "role of the mind in man's existence" as a (if not the) central philosophical thesis which she applied in her massive Atlas Shrugged, to be an especially potent and insightful defender of the laissez-faire capitalist principles involved.  The productive potentialities of the human intellect - actualized especially in the modern era from the Industrial Revolution onward - can lead to ever-unprecedented levels of prosperity.  Of course, human intellects come connected with numerically individual bodies (hence the characteristically libertarian principle of self-ownership), and the value-added consequences of intellectual productivity are necessarily material, hence characteristically libertarian private (capitalistic) property rights.  Hence, to adapt a formulation of Nozick's, for a state to forcibly seize (especially without compensation, namely, for redistributive purposes) n hours of production from an individual is morally on par with forcing the individual to work n hours without compensation.  (Implied in how welfare statists and socialists think (sic) about these things, time couldn't be a resource that rightly belongs to the rich exclusively.)

That's the background/context in a nutshell for the following.

Any number of not-so-philosophically-bright libertarians, who haven't given thorough consideration to the above points, might conceive of property rights in the following terms:

Every item on earth should in principle be privately owned.  The oceans, the air, plants, animals, parcels of land completely surrounding another individual's parcel of land, you name it.  If there are national parks and monuments (the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, etc.), privatize them - sell them to the highest bidders to do with as they see fit.

This leads to counter-intuitive results if applied unwisely.

Ownership rights usually confer upon the owner the unlimited prerogative to do with the owned objects as he/she sees fit.  But does it always and without qualification?  What about established legal concepts like duty of care, in which with the exercise of rights comes a responsibility not to make others worse off (thereby violating a Randian-style harmony-of-interests principle)?

Let's take the Redwoods example?  Would the owner of the Redwoods have a right to destroy them?  Think about this: if the fundamental grounds of a property right is the protection of the person's ultimately-intellectual products from seizure, how does that apply to the Redwoods which weren't created by humans?  Any supposed right to destroy the Redwoods runs counter to common sense.  Aristotle would frown upon this.

Or how about rights over animals?  Does that entail a right to torture them for fun?  Even if one doesn't endorse the thesis that non-moral-agents like animals can have rights, do moral agents (i.e., humans) have no rights to intervene and protect the animal?  How about their rational interests in animals not being tortured for fun?  Harmony of interests, remember?  (And if we can't speak of an animal's rights, we can still speak of its interests, i.e., welfare.)  Locke certainly didn't endorse an unqualified right to treat animals like inanimate resources, and prima facie Locke's ideas should be treated as gold standard of common sense about rights.

The likes of Rothbard have come kookingly close to endorsing such counter-intuitive, anti-commonsense notions about the implications of libertarian property rights.  He explicitly addressed the conceivable scenario of someone buying up all the land surrounding an enemy, and basically said "tough shit, surroundee, better find some friends, or purchase an easement, etc."  What if the enemy surrounder doesn't consent to an easement?)

Or: can libertarianism sustain a fraud standard?  Fraud violates commonsense legal norms, but taken in a kooky way, the "self-ownership" principle entails only prohibitions on force, and fraud or deception can't be deduced from within that prohibition.  I don't think Rand's justification for rights falls prey to any such problem, given that a legitimate market transaction involves a meeting of the minds, and the mind has a central/fundamental ethical role in Rand's normative theory which somehow just doesn't seem to be expressed (or expressed well) by numerous other 'libertarian' theorists who take "self-ownership" to be primarily own-body-ownership without reference to the fundamentality of mind in human life.

The Rothbard-types don't seem to take seriously the sort of 'Lockean Proviso' that Nozick brought up to address extreme or borderline cases that test the limits of property rights, where real harms to others are probable or likely.

Who is this Rothbard guy, anyway?  Well, he was for a period of time (roughly the '70s and '80s) the supposed leading authority on "libertarian theory."  He rose to prominence as a libertarian theorist primarily on the strength of his economic writings, having been mentored by Mises (who also wrote a review of Rothbard's magnum opus praising it as eminently wise).  But he has had minimal influence on libertarian political philosophers working within the dialectical area of academic philosophy such as Den Uyl and Rasmussen, Hospers, Machan, Mack, Lomasky, Narveson, Paul and Paul, Schmidtz, and Tomasi.  Aside from Nozick's mentioning a "long conversation with Murray Rothbard that stimulated [his] interest in individualist anarchist theory," it's not evident that Rothbard exercised much influence on the final product of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  It's not even clear that he exercised much influence over other anarcho-capitalist theorists such as David Friedman, Randy Barnett or Mike Huemer.  A primary "intellectual successor" and near-clone of Rothbard is Hans-Hermann Hoppe, whose distinctive approach to discourse ethics owes more to the likes of his teacher Habermas, and interest in which would align more with interest in the likes of Gewirth than interest in Rothbard.  One should have a good look at Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty and then compare (i.e., contrast) with the standard approach to argument in the mainstream philosophical literature to get an idea of why his influence would be very minimal in that arena.  (There's also Sciabarra, who uses the second half of his exhaustively-researched magnum opus, Total Freedom, to "out" the un-dialectical aspects of Rothbard's thought.  Otherwise Rothbard did seem to exercise considerable influence over Sciabarra, but apparently not enough for him to write an entire book on him and from an essentially positive perspective the way he did with Rand.)   Rothbard's biggest strength is economic theory.

Before his break with Rand over charges that he plagiarized ideas from her then-associate Barbara Branden, he was in awe of Atlas Shrugged, not something that would come easily to him given his having reserved intellectual awe only for the likes of Mises and presumably Aristotle.  He then went on to formulate his libertarian theory without (in print) crediting Rand's influence, which would support her charge (without naming him specifically) that he did plagiarize her political ideas while giving extremely short shrift to the necessary philosophical and ethical underpinnings.  (His main piece of writing about Rand was an attack on the "sociology of the Ayn Rand cult," a rather bizarre fact given that Rothbard purported to be a hard-hitting commentator on the history of libertarian and other ideas.  Why would he have limited his in-print commentary on Rand to this alleged facet of her . . . I can't say "philosophical ideas" here . . . ?)  In his essay about Rand upon her death, libertarian theorist and activist Roy Childs mentioned that Rothbard had credited mainly Ayn Rand for bringing him to his natural rights theory; at the very least one can determine he was in awe of her even if he had other influences in the likes of Aristotle, Aquinas, Spencer, Spooner, and Tucker.  It's a well-known theme within libertarian thought that "it usually begins with Ayn Rand."  It so began in my case, as a then-student primarily of economics, encountering her Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, which begins as only Rand could begin such a book: "This is not a treatise on economics; this is a collection of essays on the moral aspects of capitalism."  After that I was hooked, going from economics to philosophy as my primary focus of study.  It took some time, going through Laissez Faire Books catalogs to discover all the leads to this or that facet of libertarian thought, and extensive study in academic libertarian political philosophy, and further study in philosophy, and in Objectivism, to fully come around to Rand as the preeminent philosopher of capitalism (for the reasons I outline above).

So how did Rothbard achieve such prominence for a time even during Rand's lifetime (ending in 1982, the same year as Ethics of Liberty as it happens)?  I think it has mainly to do with the sociology of intellectual and political movements.  First off, the Rand-Branden split in 1968 (my take on which is summed up here) had some rather devastating effects in terms of breaking up an ever-growing intellectual movement centered on Rand's ideas, and of throwing a great many people off the scent.  There was around the same time the rise of the 'libertarian political movement' (eventuating in the formation of the Libertarian Party with Prof. Hospers running as its first presidential candidate in 1972 [who wouldn't in principle prefer a philosophy professor as president over the clowns in politics these days?...]).  Then there was the rise of "anarcho-capitalist" thought in the early 1970s, with Rothbard himself (1970 and 1973), along with Friedman (1973), the Tannehills (1970), and Tuccille (1970) contributing books to the literature.  Shortly thereafter (1974) Nozick made a splash with his book, further taking the spotlight off Rand.  Then Rothbard wrote his last major work before the history of economic thought he was working on at the time of his death, Ethics of Liberty, an attention-grabbing title nearly on the level of a Rand book in its attention-grabbingness.  (Still, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is that much better a title, and still that much better a book.)  It definitely had my attention during my first year or so of study of libertarian thought, before I grew out of its intellectually near-infantile elaboration of the content of property rights.  (Speaking of infantile, just check out his treatment therein of the rights of infants.  I mean, just the very fact that he would devote intellectual resources to this topic the way he did, when there are bigger intellectual fish to fry, says something.)

Anyway, Rothbard's influence on libertarian political thought (as distinct from economic theory) has not been very helpful in terms of spreading these ideas to thinkers of the highest caliber with all the scrutiny they would bring to bear.  What his influence has done is to encourage kookier/flakier libertarian theorists to follow his example.  When you hear the slogan "taxation is theft," that's Rothbard-level propagandizing.  Taxation being morally on par with theft is more interesting, but Nozick does him better even there: it's morally on par with forced labor, and commonsense-wise, forced labor is a worse offense against morality than theft.  But Rand does either of them better in originating the moral principle "your life belongs to you," and taxation is thereby antithetical to human life, i.e., "anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life."

I'm not even saying that Rothbard was on the whole a kook, even in political philosophy.  He was un-kooky enough to get Nozick to take him very seriously.  But in application of some basic themes or ideas or principles, he did get kooky, and his example encouraged kookiness among his students and followers (and the least initial deviation from non-kookiness is multiplied in time a thousandfold).  I don't see anything in a Rothbard-inspired treatment of libertarian rights that would lead away from an in-principle right to burn down (privately-owned) Redwoods.  Less kooky but still very kooky would be the putative right to chop them down for lumber sale.

So anytime you encounter someone promoting 'libertarianism' without having put the decent amount and sort of thought into issues or both justification and application, keep in mind that this is not libertarianism as its strongest proponents (as conceived under Dennett/Rapoport Rules) would promote it.  In other words, one would do better to address the non-caricatured arguments of the likes of Rand, Hospers, Nozick and Mack if one wants to mount a case against a "principled, hardcore" libertarianism in its strongest terms.  And if I knew how to do that, I would....

(I guess this means that, in the process of showing how I don't know how to do that, I need a good counter to Nozick's chapter-length 'repudiation of hardcore libertarianism' in his otherwise excellent The Examined Life (1989), more or less a popularization of his rather abstruse Philosophical Explanations (1981).  Indeed, I found the "Zigzag of Politics" chapter to be the most disappointing chapter in the book considering all the arguments made in AS&U against placing individual lives at others' disposal.  Paraphrasing Mack from some interview a long while back, any proposed deviations by Nozick from AS&U could be handled by any number of argumentative resources available in AS&U.  This may be a topic for a future blog post, but for now what strikes me as most inadequate about any deviations along the lines of "community expression" as a grounds for state action rather clearly runs together community and state.  If Nozick's "Zigzag" argument is more subtle or directed elsewhere than that, I'll have to go back and re-read the chapter, which I'll do anyway, to figure out how.  In any case, as I suggest above, libertarianism as realpolitik would require a cultural transformation; talk of pushing some button to enact libertarianism here and now seems like farting in the wind.  (Is there an Aristotle-ism for that?  His "sounds without sense" dismissal of the Forms comes to mind.))

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