Who is Really to Blame for the Grenfell Fire?

In the wake of such a disaster, one of our most important priorities is to establish how to prevent it happening again. To do that, we need to know why the fire happened. Treating this fire as an isolated incident, we would have a very hard time figuring out where to begin. There are many potential causes, and it’s difficult to pick out exactly which ones to focus on. Fortunately (or perhaps, unfortunately), we have numerous examples of similar fires from the past. What this means is that we can look into each case and search for a common theme running through them. A recent BBC article on the Grenfell fire provided us with this handy list:

fires
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40302745

 

First things first, let’s look at the Grenfell fire itself. One of the best signs of a correct theory is that it has predictive value, so a good way to start looking for explanations is to see if anyone saw this fire coming. As it happens, yes they did. A tragedy like this was warned against multiple times by a residents’ association known as the Grenfell Action Group (who we will refer to by the unfortunate acronym of GAG). As a GAG blogger posted in 2016:

“We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.”

“It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!”

From this, it looks like our primary suspect should be the KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation), in collusion with the RBKC (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) local council. It is also somewhat damning to note that the RBKC threatened legal action against GAG campaigners in 2013, accusing them of “defamation” and “harassment”. Earlier, I mentioned how much simpler this all becomes when you stop looking at the fire as an isolated event, but in the context of the many similar fires in recent times. Returning to the BBC list points to an underlying problem:

2001 fire in Ramsgate, Kent – Council owned building

2009 fire in Lakanal House, Camberwell – Owned by Southwark Council

April 2010 fire in Shirley Towers, Southampton (no thanks to the BBC for this info) – Council owned building

July 2010 fire in Madingley block, Kingston upon Thames (props again to the BBC) – Council owned

2011 fire in Deptford, South London – Council owned

2012 fire in Swiss Cottage, Northwest London – Council owned

2016 fire in Brixton, South London – Privately owned (!)

2016 fire in Shepherd’s Bush, London – Council owned

2016 fire in Portsmouth – Council owned

It doesn’t take a genuis to see a link between council ownership and unacceptable safety standards. Digging deeper into our only example from a privately owned block reveals that, in hilariously slapstick fashion, the fire was caused by a man who decided to bring his motorbike up on his balcony and start having a barbeque next to it. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the motorbike exploding. We can’t really attack the private landlord for this; it’s a bit much to blame profiteering for the detonation of what is effectively a large petrol bomb.

https://www.thesun.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/nintchdbpict000264859345.jpg?w=960&strip=all
BBQing a motorbike, from The Sun

 

Badly Regulated Fat Cats?

Jeremy Corbyn and those close to him have been quite vocal in the aftermath of Grenfell, and many others have been blaming the fire on a lack of regulation. This argument is pretty weak. If bad regulation alone is really the problem, then why is it that negligence related fires only seem to happen in council owned buildings? Privately owned buildings aren’t magically immune to the effects of insufficient regulation. If regulation really was the culprit we would expect to see a similar rate of fires in privately owned tower blocks to government owned ones, but this is not what we see. If regulation is to blame, why is it that the private sector has been able to prevent its buildings burning in droves all these years, whilst local councils haven’t? Quite clearly, there is an underlying factor at work here which is related to these buildings being council owned.

The second argument that’s been bandied about is one which seems a lot more reasonable. It’s that years of Conservative cost cutting measures have resulted in councils simply not having the money to keep their buildings up to scratch. As such, this tragedy is exclusively the fault of the Tories and not Labour. This is a more convincing argument, as it explains why these fires only happen in council owned buildings and seems to be backed up by the BBC’s timeline. Note how our list shows three fires during 9 years of Labour government, compared to twice that during only 8 years of the Tories. However, some digging revealed two more tower block fires in the 2000s, on Labour’s watch. I will not resort to clichés about the biased BBC, but it is certainly very odd that they neglected to include these fires in their list, despite both of them being reported on the BBC’s own website. Including these shows both parties to be just as disastrously incompetent as each other:

2 dead and 70 evacuated after tower block fire in Hertfordshire, 2005 (6 tower block fires under the Tories, 4 under Labour)

60 firefighters tackle tower block blaze in Glasgow, 3 of which are hospitalized, 2008 (6 tower block fires under the Tories, 5 under Labour)

Admittedly, as the motorbike barbeque happened in an upmarket, privately owned block, we can’t really hold the government responsible. With this in mind, the count becomes 5 fires under the Tories and 5 under Labour. As such, it doesn’t seem correct to leave Labour off the hook here; both parties are equally guilty. There is still an argument about severity, though. The Grenfell fire was undoubtedly the most devasting of all those we’ve discussed so far. A recurring theme in the press coverage of Grenfell has been how low price cladding was used during a recent refurbishment, as opposed to a more expensive, fire retardant version. The purpose of such cladding is to reduce heat loss, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings so they can comply with various environmental regulations. The first point to note here is that our old friends the KCTMO were the ones responsible for the decision to use this cladding. The KCTMO’s board of directors demonstrates the strength of the link between it and the Tory dominated local council, with said council nominating 3 of the 15 members. However, with these nominees containing 1 Labour and 1 Tory councillor, we once again see both parties with their fingers firmly in the pie. It’s also worth noting that the incumbent Labour MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, sat on the KCTMO board for 4 years until 2012 (although she has wasted no time in attacking them for the fire).

Board Members
The board of directors, from the KCTMO website

 

So, was penny pinching by the KCTMO responsible for the fire? It doesn’t seem so. Though it is true that a cheaper option for cladding was used, the difference in cost between this and the fire retardant version was only £5,000. Given that the total cost of the refurbishment was a hefty £2.6 million, and that this was part of an even larger £8.6 million project, it seems like the blaze was more a result of bad decision making rather than backs-to-the-wall cost cutting. Factoring in the context of a combined salary of £760k a year for the top 4 KCTMO bureaucrats, we are hardly shown a climate of brutal austerity. One must remember that Kensington is the richest constituency in the country, with the highest property prices and by extension council tax receipts. It is very much not a council in crisis. Indeed, it has recently emerged that the building was in fact over insulated and already met the energy efficiency regulations. Far from resorting to cheap cladding in a desperate attempt to bring the building up to standards with poor funding, the building was having an excessive amount of cladding put on to “avoid having to repeat the job”. On top of this, there is an argument that all such cladding can cause a “chimney effect”, and that it is this effect responsible for the blaze rather than the cheapness of the cladding itself. This evidence points strongly to sheer incompetence as the cause, rather than underspending.

 

Reasons for Incompetence, and Potential Solutions

The discussion so far might point to the incompetence of local councils and their affiliated organisations, but it doesn’t explain why these groups are so supremely useless in a way that their private equivalents are not. In this section, I will give a few explanations and hint towards some solutions.

  1. The current incentive structure for government is messed up

One of the key ways in which government differs from the free market is what happens when things go wrong. Consider for a minute what would have happened if the Grenfell Tower had been privately owned and the legal system had been properly employed. If such a disaster had happened, we would already have seen images of the tower’s owner being led into the back of a police van, attempting to cover his face with a jacket. The lawsuits would be mounting up and, in an ideal world, the remainder of the owner’s estate would be getting auctioned off to compensate the victims. In fairness, some of this would happen to a private landlord in our present society, and that fact goes a way in explaining why these kinds of fires don’t seem to happen in private buildings.

When the Lakanal fire happened, the result was that the council got fined £570,000 for failure to comply with regulations. These fines were, of course, ultimately paid by the taxpayer. The actual bureaucrats responsible are always let off the hook; no one ever serves any time or bears any real personal responsibility. The most sickening part of all of this is that there will be widespread calls for local government to be given yet more funding to “prevent a reoccurence”. When you suffer a crime committed by someone in the private sector, that someone gets punished. When you suffer a crime committed by government, you yourself are punished. You are first punished by being forced to pay for a grandstanding inquiry, conducted by your assailants into themselves. You are punished again as the government levies fines against itself which you have to pay. You are punished a final time as your assailant seizes even more of your money for itself, under the guise of “preventing future incidents”. In short, an incentive structure that rewards failure with additional money is one which is beyond defective.

2. Lack of accountability

Linked to the previous point, it is extremely unlikely that the democratic checks in place will cause the responsible councillors to lose their positions, especially considering turnout in these elections is typically under 25%. The KCTMO itself is a hilariously corrupt organisation, receiving a North Korea-esque 98% of the ballot in favour of its continuation at the last AGM. The clearest piece of evidence of how far beyond the public’s reproach these people are is the previously mentioned salary paid to the board of directors; what accountable organisation could get away with such sums whilst its constitutency quite literally burns?

3. Lack of expertise

Given recent events, it is fair to say the members of the RBKC and KCTMO are not experts in the construction industry. One of the useful things about voluntary enterprise is that people who engage in it tend to be at least vaguely familiar with their field. This is not the case when you have a bunch of stuffy, middle-aged functionaries, many of whom have spent their entire lives living at the taxpayer’s expense, making far reaching decisions on topics they don’t have a clue about. Grenfell Tower’s overinsulation, and its disastrous results, are testament to this fact.

4. Land prices are an important factor

Kensington is known for having some of the highest housing prices in the country, and many properties in the constituency are left unoccupied by people who want to profit via “land-banking. Kensington councillors benefit from these prices in a variety of ways, from increased council tax receipts to the personal benefit of their own properties increasing in value. If you’re wondering why the council was so obsessed with splashing millions of other peoples’ money on refurbishing the outside of the building, all whilst legally mandated sprinklers (which could have been installed for £200k) were absent from the inside, you could do worse than looking towards the ways in which councillors benefit from artificially inflated property prices. When you have a vested interest in keeping property prices high, large sums of public money at your disposal and bear no responsibility for the disastrous effects of not spending such money properly, it is not a surprise that millions will be channelled towards environment beautifying vanity projects as opposed to vital safety equipment.

The small morsel of consolation from all this is that the charred skeleton of the Grenfell Tower isn’t going to be doing local property prices any favours. It isn’t enough, though. There will be no true justice for the victims of this fire. The culprits will once again walk free, with maybe a financial slap on the wrist ultimately paid for by their own victims. This could have been avoided if we had a legal system which was capable of properly holding government to account. It could have been avoided if we had communities genuinely owned and governed by the members of those communities, not dicated to by corrupt and unaccountable TMOs imposed by central government. This could have been prevented if we took away the incentive for people to profit from land banking. Simply opening up social housing to market forces by replacing housing benefit with an unconditional UBI (see) would have helped. As it happens, we can do none of these things. In 10 years’ time, the inquiry will finish and the guilty will go unpunished, with nothing changed to stop other councils from making the same mistakes.

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Why are Steroids Banned in Competitive Sports?

Well? This may seem a pointless question to ask, but it’s actually quite an interesting one. The answer isn’t “Because it’s cheating”. “Because it’s cheating” is not an answer; it’s a rewording of the question. Cheating means “Doing something which is banned”. To answer the question “Why are steroids banned?” with an answer equivalent to “Because we banned taking steroids” is the equivalent of treading water. It is like answering the question “Why is the door shut?” with “Because I closed it”. We are still no closer to a meaningful answer.

A less pointless answer is “Because it gives people an unfair advantage”. Though less pointless, it is still wrong. It is not the reason why taking steroids is banned, it is actually a result of steroids being banned. The advantage steroids would give a current athlete is only unfair because other athletes don’t take steroids. Why don’t they take steroids? Because they are banned. If steroids were not banned, presumably there would be some sort of mad arms race by professional athletes to take them. As long as steroids are legal and there are some athletes taking them, everyone else will also have to do so or risk losing a massive competitive edge. The result of this cannot be called unfair though. If everyone becomes ultra-jacked, and waddles about unable to put their arms down fully, we have simply reached a new equilibrium. It is a strange fact that when everyone does something unfair, that thing ceases to be unfair. It is unfair to bring a gun to a knife fight. It is not, however, unfair to bring a gun to a knife fight where everyone else has also brought guns.

An argument could be made that steroids would disproportionately benefit already rich sports clubs. Even if this were true, I doubt the effect would be greater than other advantages of wealth in sports which we are, at least in this country, happy to tolerate. In football, for example, money brings better facilities, better coaches, better physios, medical staff, sports scientists and so on. If anything, steroids would make great strides towards levelling the playing field. Comparing say, Manchester City and Burton Albion, we can see just what an advantage money brings to the table already. Manchester City have millions of pounds channeled into training facilities, gym equipment and staff to keep their players in peak physical condition. Burton Albion could never dream of such an expense. Whilst Kelechi Iheanacho gets to work out on a state of the art exercise machine, wired up to more heart rate and vital statistics monitors than owned by the entire NHS, coked up on isotonic sports drinks and a specifically tailored nutrient diet, Kyle McFadzean can only jog around some brightly coloured cones in the Derbyshire drizzle. This advantage could be wiped out in one fell swoop by legalizing steroids. Suddenly scores of doctors are forced back into a resentful health service whilst millions of pounds’ worth of gym equipment lies derelict. Chelsea get knocked out of the FA cup following a hat-trick by Stalybridge Celtic’s 400lb centre forward. Lionel Messi, his diminutive frame unsuited to such a development, is no longer able to keep up and gets signed on a free by Port Vale. If anything, the ensuing anarchy would see an unprecedented explosion in the fortune of small clubs.

But despite all of this, why is it we still think steroids should be banned? The answer can, I think, be traced to two main sources. First of all, we appreciate suffering. There is a part of every human which is fundamentally unhappy with the idea of gain without pain. One of the few things that makes jealously over the incredible lifestyle of many athletes bearable is the knowledge that, from the age of about 8, they have been rigorously trained, drilled and painstakingly chiselled into their sport’s conception of the perfect human. Mario Goetze’s late winner in the world cup final would mean a lot less if his preparation for the game had been injecting drugs, lifting weights for 10 minutes and then heading off for a nap. The pain we know he has been through makes it mean all that much more. At the same time, the sight of those dejected Argentines, their faces wet with tears and their hearts broken, is so much more fascinating in light of the time and effort they invested in trying to avoid what just happened. The drama is so much more intense because we know that Carlos Tevez, retirement creeping ever closer, has spent so much of his life before the final in the gym and on the training field, after his nation was so thoroughly humiliated by the Germans 4 years previously. Football is a game about characters and, as far as character goes, steroids can never be a replacement for blood, sweat and tears. Nothing destroys the heartwarming tale of “the boy from the estate turned good” more than the knowledge that the aforementioned “turning” process consisted of pumping an obscene quantity of drugs into his arms, thighs and torso.

The other factor is resemblance. Regardless of how finely tuned the bodies of top tier footballers are, the game still recognizably takes place between two sets of human beings. Wayne Rooney might be on the verge of a £40 billion a week contract in China, but he’s really not that different from you and I. If he had never made it in football, no one would think he looked out of place behind a bar or as a taxi driver. As long as this is the case, it will be possible to empathize with sportspeople. This is why it’s quite difficult to form an empathetic relationship whilst watching WWE. I have never met a man who looks like Hulk Hogan, and I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would come to resemble him. As far as I am concerned, he is a member of a different species. The gutted expression on Wazza’s face when he misses a penalty is so much more interesting because we can imagine either being him, or him being someone we don’t like, depending on our feelings towards his club. The furious howl of the Undertaker as the seventh chair of the evening is smashed over is forehead might be amusing to watch, but it is not an emotionally moving experience. Now, imagine 22 Undertakers kicking a ball around a field. It just isn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, I would pay to watch it at least once, but I can’t imagine it taking on the kind of soap drama come religion status that football and other sports have.

So there we have it. The next time one of your friends starts spouting off about “cheating sportsmen”, feel free to alienate all those present by presenting a needlessly long argument about how the only cheating that matters is cheating fans out of a dramatic emotional experience. And the next time you hoot with laughter as a member of a rival team turns the ball into his own net, be sure to savour just how large a percentage of his life he has dedicated to preventing that very incident.

Violence as Objective Value

In my last post, I promised to discuss what kind of reasoning one might employ to justify a rights based ethic. Whilst this post won’t do that entirely, it is one of a few arguments which will get the ball rolling. What I aim to argue is that extreme skepticism about objective value naturally results in a non-initiatory pacifism of the sort I previously advocated, and that complete skepticism about subjective value is impossible.

All purposeful human action must be performed in accordance to values which the actor holds. This is essentially tautology; any action that is performed without reference to values cannot be meaningfully considered purposeful. Taking lead from Kant, we will say that ethical discussion only makes sense in a context of such “free actors”. This does not mean that an action is free only if one sits down, pauses and engages in an internal debate about value. It simply must be the case that there has been some kind of conscious engagement in the decision making process. Weighing up of options is not necessarily an overt, concerted period of reflection and deliberation. People typically make decisions about action on the fly in a very intuitive manner, but this does not mean that they act automatically. Seamless, intuitive, on the fly decision making is not the same as robotic, unfree action, although the difference may not be overt, because an individual has the ability to control the former and could have behaved differently, whereas the latter will always run in the same way. I will not here argue for metaphysical libertarianism, but I will simply assert that any kind of ethical debate is meaningless without it. It is as absurd to engage in ethical condemnation of an action which was not freely chosen as it is to explode in a furious moral tirade against the table on which you stubbed your toe. Again, just as ethical discussion requires purposeful human action, purposeful human action requires ethical discussion; an action which is performed without reference to values and therefore ethics is not one of a free actor. In other words, genuinely amoral action is impossible for a free actor, as it is impossible to act freely and deliberately without reference to values.

The argument that it is impossible to freely act amorally is not one which should need a great deal of pushing. My action to sit here and type this post required me to make a decision that I would do just that. Like any decision about acting, that necessarily involved assessing the worthiness of the action, and  whatever alternatives sprang to mind, in accordance with a set of values. One might protest that, as it is possible to perform significant and widely impacting actions by carelessness or simple accident, free action gives an insufficient account of ethics. I would argue otherwise. In instances of genuine accident, where there is no way that the perpetrator could have known their action would cause harm, it is not appropriate to condemn their ethics. Carelessness is a slightly different point. Genuine carelessness requires that one was aware of the risks of one’s behaviour, and chose to continue anyway. As such, although a careless action may not always be freely chosen in itself, behaving carelessly in general requires you to freely adopt a kind of meta-rule that “it is ok to generally act carelessly”. It may be the case that a person never considered such a meta-rule. However, somewhere along the line, they must have therefore adopted another meta-rule of “I don’t have to introspect about my actions”, possibly in conjunction with a rule of “I do not need to consider the impact my actions may have on others”. Ultimately, when pursued far enough, careless behaviour can be traced to an initial value judgement and is therefore appropriate for ethical discussion. In the almost certainly impossible scenario that someone had at no stage in their life made any value judgements whatsoever, it would no longer be appropriate to condemn their actions. It would be questionable to what degree they should be considered worthy of ethical consideration themselves, however, as such a feat would only be achievable by some sort of biological automaton.

We can now start to consider subjective and objective values. Consider a rule of the form “it is ok for me to do to myself what I think it is ok for me to do to myself”. More precisely, the logic of such a rule could be seen as “I should act according to subjective values so long as such subjective values are held by those affected”. There are two parts to this proposition, “I should act according to subjective values” and “as long as such values are held by those affected”. It is impossible for a free actor to object to the former. Obviously, a free actor who is skeptical of objective value cannot oppose this point; any action, including objection, would be a demonstration of their agreement with it. All action is an undeniable demonstration that the actor believes they should act, and if they are skeptical of objective value then they must be acting in accordance with subjective values. A possible alternative is someone who acts according to objective values which their subjective values eventually led them to. This is something which I would like to devote an entire post to, but for the time being I will simply note that, for such a person, their initial subjectivity is unavoidable, and it would be bizzare for them to completely condemn a process which led to supposedly objective truth. The only alternative remaining would be to suggest that a person can arrive automatically at a complete set of objectively correct values. Even if this were the case, such a being could no longer be considered free. Every action they undertook would be the product of external, objective laws and could not be considered their own action. As such, even if such a being did exist, along with their dubious set of objective values, they would not be an appropriate target for ethical discussion. Any move to block the second part of our proposition would involve criticising it in light of one’s own subjective values or in light of some set of objective values. To do the former is obviously incongruent. It would involve claiming that “a person should prevent people from acting in accordance with subjective values which do not correspond to their own subjective values”. Such logic is self-refuting. Anyone who intervened with another person’s action on such a basis would necessarily be acting in a way which was not in agreement with the subjective values of their counterpart. To put this more clearly, anyone who forcefully intervenes with another person on these grounds would necessarily be acting in a way which should be prevented under their own logic. To force one’s own subjective values on another is, therefore, absurd. Even if one elevates themselves, on the basis of their own subjective values, to a higher plane than ordinary people, their violence would not cease to be absurd. For as long as they do not appeal to some objective value, they are doing nothing which the victim of their violence could not also do in contradiction. Their logic of “if you subjectively value yourself above other people you should force your subjective values on others” is firstly self-referential, and secondly contradictory under the same reasoning as used previously; if the victim subjectively values themselves as more important then they should be acting to prevent the agressor. A similar line of argument can be used against any justification an agressor might use for their violence, so long as it is not an objective universal law.

There are two main arguments to address at this point. The first is to claim that you don’t care about values, and as such don’t have to be constrained by them. This argument is absurd, because it only makes sense if the person making it believes in certain values. To argue such a point is effectively saying “I don’t have to be constrained by values, because I don’t value being constrained by values”. It is using one’s own subjective valuation to justify why subjective valuations don’t matter; it is a conclusion which denounces its own argument. It would make just as much sense to wander the streets, attempting to debate passers by on the proposition “I don’t believe in arguing”. The second, similar, stance is to take this further and to deny that values have meaning altogether. Returning to earlier, this is an impossible move for a rational actor. Anyone who at any point engages in purposeful action must by definition make value judgements and act upon them. Only a human in a completely catatonic state is able to avoid doing so. To act at all is to make value judgements. Even if you decided that all values were meaningless, that life was also meaningless, and so attempt to avoid all future action, you would still be choosing to do so. If you killed yourself, your final act would be in contradiction to the line of reasoning that led to such a decision. Now, it may very well be the case that all values are meaningless. The point is that, even if it is true, it is impossible for anyone to actually behave in accordance with this. Furthermore, as a free actor, you could only arrive at the conclusion that the world has no value as a result of your own reasoning. Yet, to actually believe your conclusion would be to impart some sort of value to your thought process. It is illogical to believe the world is without value, because belief of any kind presupposes certain types of value. If you think the world is valueless because of a thought process, you are imparting value to that thought process. The only way to avoid this would be by automatically believing the world was meaningless and remaining constantly immobile, in which case you would not be an appropriate subject for moral discussion anyway. Even if you, without considering the topic at all, immediately declared and believed that the world had no meaning, you would still have arrived at this conclusion via a meta-rule of “it is ok for me to jump to conclusions without thinking”, which requires value judgements to be made.

The consequence of this is that interpersonal violence can never be justified by appealing to subjective values, or indeed by decrying the existence of value. Therefore, the only possible justification for violence is to raise the values by which you propose violence to objective status; to declare them to be a universal law which stands true regardless of the opinions of mere human others. It should be noted that this means all those who denounce objective value, outside of those values I have argued must be universal on account of their alternatives being contradictory or impossible, must also be pacifists. That is not to say that they are unable to defend themselves if violence is committed against them. To commit violence against another on subjective grounds is to act under the logic that “you should force someone with different subjective values to act according to your subjective values”. Whilst this has already been argued as flawed, we can still consider its consequences for the defender. By using defensive violence, you still act in accordance with the logic “you should act according to subjective values so long as such subjective values are held by those affected”, because the person who committed violence against you has demonstrated that they hold the (albeit inconsistent) value that such violence should be done. From their perspective, it is impossible to protest your defensive violence without going against their own logic that violence is acceptable. Indeed, the only way they could consistently protest against your defensive violence would be to stop being violent themselves, in which case your own violence has served its purpose.

This brings us to a close for now. I have argued that the natural consequence of extreme skepticism about value is a pacifism which does not stretch to an inability to act defensively. This, of course, does not provide a complete answer to those who claim to have objective reasons as to why their violence is justified, for example by an appeal to religious value. It will also be necessary for me to begin discussing the other framework values, which are universal on account of being presupposed by the nature of free actors. Such issues will be discussed in future.

 

 

 

 

 

Rehabilitating Natural Law, Part I

The other week I wrote a post which took a glance at some of the philosophical underpinnings of the Libertarian movement. In it, I discussed the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) as formulated by Murray Rothbard:

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”

I talked about how this principle works out and one or two instances where Murray, great economist but terrible philosopher, was lacking. The motivation of this post is to try and develop further on that theme, figuring out what core ideas Rothbard was getting at and how to best realize them. Some readers will be well aware that the NAP isn’t exactly a purely Rothbardian innovation. Principles similar to the NAP can be found in the works of people like Lysander Spooner, Kant (as discussed at length previously), Locke, and indeed in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Broadly speaking, I think all of these approaches are lacking in various combinations of the following regards when it comes to political philosophy:

  1. Not delineating clearly enough between moral and permissible behaviour
  2. Moralising on the surface level instead of exploring underlying principles
  3. Unconvincing or non-existent development from basic premises
  4. Failing to transcend various basic counterarguments (primarily the is-ought problem)

Naturally some of these apply to certain cases more than others. Most significantly for modern Libertarians, Rothbard fails catastrophically on every front. Nonetheless, I will proceed in a Natural Law spirit and try to address some of these shortcomings.

The Old Natural Law

The NAP is, unfortunately, very much an economist’s attempt at Natural Law. Here is a relevant excerpt from Murray’s work:

“the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. Possessing no automatic instincts, each man must learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life. Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly ‘antihuman’; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.”

Reading this gives me mixed emotions. In many ways it is like the sympathy one might feel whilst watching a schoolchild who bravely stands up to a bully, before being clobbered anyway. Rothbard has an appreciation of what is right and a desire to halt the march of what is wrong. Unfortunately, his economic expertise is not adequate equipment for this task. Leaving alone some of the ambitious (read: baseless) statements he proceeds from, the primary concern for us is the worrying conclusions one can arrive at from his law. A variety of trolley problems ensue. If aggression is in all instances forbidden, may we not scratch the back of a man’s hand in order to save 1,000,000 lives? There is also a concerning failure to address Hume’s is-ought problem. Even if we concede that humanity is free, this does not amply justify why we ought to treat people in accordance with the NAP.

A New Natural Law

Despite the failings to date, I don’t think trying to proceed in a Natural Law vein is a pointless task. Perhaps it would be unwise to pin all of our hopes on a revised Natural Law, and certainly there will be many who remain unconvinced, but we can at least try to shore it up and make the most of such an argument.

For whatever reason, Natural Law theorists often attempt to supress their underlying motivations in their work. However, accepting and thinking more clearly about these motivations can provide important insight. As discussed previously with Rothbard, it’s clear he simply wants people to be free from violence and let to live their own lives. The state, the main historical purveyor of violence, is as such a key target for him. When discussing his famous “starving kids” self-reductio previously, I talked about how he mistakenly focused too much on maximising negative liberty, or, freeing people from any external force whatsoever. The focus, which I believe gets closer to his desire to let people live their own lives, should instead have been on freeing people from unjust responsibilities. As opposed to viewing a needy child as an external, coercive, demanding force, it should be viewed as a binding responsibility incurred through the action of its parents. After all, the existence of the baby in its vulnerable state is causally dependent on the actions of its parents; there would be no needy child without them. In this mode, I will begin reshaping the NAP. Firstly, to address coercion and rights:

  • It is impermissible for a person to perform an action which necessarily involves another person, without their consent or a reasonable assumption of consent
  • This is not the case if the effect of that action is to efficiently cause another person to fulfil their responsibilities, assuming they would not fulfil their responsibilities independently
  • To behave in a way which does not conform to the previous two points is to behave coercively
  • A person has a right to not be behaved towards coercively

And to address responsibilities:

  • Responsibilities are incurred when a person (the aggressor) performs an action which directly results in another person (the victim) being in a situation to which they do not consent, and which would not exist had the aggressor not acted
  • Responsibilities are fulfilled when the aggressor’s contribution to the unconsented situation is undone, prevented, compensated for or when the victim freely agrees that responsibilities have been fulfilled
  • In instances where two parties have responsibilities towards one another, responsibilities can be considered fulfilled when the effects of coercive behaviour are minimized

This revision and developments from it can help us in combatting some of the shortcomings of Natural Law theory. Naturally, it will be necessary to elaborate further on these points in a variety of ways. In the remainder of this post, I will discuss how the revision grants us more leeway in dealing with the eternal trolley problem and its corollaries.

Consider a situation in which 100 people are suspended midair in a cage. In 10 seconds, the cage will be released and all 100 will perish. The only way to prevent this release is by pressing a button, the path to which is blocked by a man A who is unaware of the 100’s peril. Another man B who is aware of the situation will be able to press the button and save the 100, but only if he dispenses with pleasantries and pushes A of the way. Under the standard Natural Law of the libertarians, this is impermissible. Not only would pushing A out of the way constitute an act of aggression on B’s part, A would in fact be justified in using deadly force to prevent it. Murray Rothbard was aware of such problems, and gave the vague and unsatisfactory answer that the NAP “doesn’t apply to lifeboat situations”. With our revised principle however, this ceases to cause issues. In a world without A, B could simply press the button and free the 100. In other words, the 100 are only in peril as a result of A’s existence and actions, be he aware of it or not. This causal relationship means that A is now responsible to the 100 to the extent of placing them in a situation no worse than if he hadn’t existed, i.e. it is his responsibility to get out of B’s way. As A will not move quickly enough of his own accord, by pushing him out of the way B efficiently enforces A’s responsibility to the 100. Thus, B has acted in accordance with the revised Natural Law and incurs no penalties upon himself. In an instance where B is overzealous in enforcing A’s responsibilities, for example by shooting him in the leg as opposed to simply pushing him, a question of efficiency arises. If it is the case that B’s shooting of A was in excess of what was necessary to make A comply with his responsibilities, then B becomes responsible to A. The extent of this responsibility would be determined by the appropriate means, via mutual agreement between A and B, through a court of law or so on.

On a similar note, consider if B would be able to save the 100, but only if he could motivate himself with the reward of murdering A, who is now a bystander as opposed to an obstruction. It would be impermissible for B to murder A, even if this would result in some kind of utilitarian increase in people being placed in desired situations. This is because the causal relationship between A and the 100’s peril has been removed. As an obstruction, A’s existence meant that a tragedy, which could be avoided did he not exist, was now on the verge of happening. As a bystander, if he did not exist, the 100 would still die. The causal link between A’s existence and the deaths has been severed. He is not responsible, and it is impermissible for B to murder him even if this results in a utilitarian net gain. The fundamental reason for this is that a person cannot be considered responsible for an undesired scenario, when this scenario would persist anyway in their absence. To say that people who can contribute to alleviating undesired scenarios must contribute is to disregard their individual rights, and is equivalent to proposing straight utilitarianism. It implies that people are born without a right to self determine, and come into the world burdened with a catalogue of other people’s obligations. Even if A was an obstruction, so therefore responsible once more, it would still be impermissible for B to murder him. The murder would here only be justified if it was the most efficient way of removing A as an obstruction, and fulfilling his responsibility to not cause the 100 to die. Murdering A in lieu of an equally sufficient shove would return us to the conclusion of the previous paragraph.

Whilst a start has been made here, there are still numerous niggling clarifications to be made. What should happen if A, upon being pushed by B, held his ground, thus leading to the deaths of the 100? Intuitively, it seems unjust to hold him liable for the whole affair. After all, he was unaware of the 100 and behaved in a way most people would consider appropriate in response to being shoved by a stranger. And what of instances where a person has a disproportionate reaction to a relatively innocuous action by another? For example, someone suffering a mental breakdown and needing to be interned on a psychiatric ward as a response to someone coughing unexpectedly? Perhaps most crucially, whilst all of this sounds nice, how do we justify any individual rights conception whatsoever? These exciting questions and more are subjects for future posts.

 

Does Inequality Cause Poverty?

Another interesting Mises article posted yesterday seemed to answer the question of this post in quite a decisive fashion. They make some fairly sensible points about poverty to which I would agree, but on some levels a deeper analysis is needed.

What is Inequality?

No trick question, quite we will simply define inequality as a disparity in wealth. But this raises a secondary question: what is wealth? Well, we can say that wealth refers to material goods or commodities. So far, so obvious. So what is the point here? The answer has to do with what wealth actually consists of and the effect that this has on the ability of other people to produce wealth.

Every material good which can be construed as wealth is made up in varying quantities of the two primary factors of production; land and labor. Land here refers not just to land in the traditional sense of the ground we walk on, but is in fact any input to a commodity which comes from nature rather than human endeavor. When we deconstruct wealth in this way, it becomes easier to answer the inequality/poverty question.

Wealth and Labor

As far as the portion of wealth that comes from labor is concerned, the LvMI is more or less on the right track. Quite clearly one person deciding to do some work does not unfairly harm other people or impede their ability to do work. Claiming you have a right to stop someone laboring would be an alarmingly oppressive thing to do.

Some argument could potentially be made that one individual’s laboring can impede other people. From the perspective of say, a mediocre comedian, the introduction of a rival comedian who is far better than him is a big problem. People will be more willing to consume the superior service over the mediocre one, and this will affect the mediocre comedian’s livelihood. But is this unjust, and does it generate poverty?

Whilst the mediocre comedian might gripe and cry injustice over being competed out of the marketplace, the alternative is far worse. For him to maintain his position would require either harming the superior comic by demanding he cease his activities, or by forcing the consumers not to consume. He would be violently interrupting consensual agreements between individuals which would be taking place regardless of whether or not he existed. It is hard to describe this as justice. And does it generate poverty? Well, when the mediocre comedian is outcompeted, the loser in society is himself. On the other hand, the superior comedian gains employment and the consumers gain a service which they prefer. To upset this arrangement would be to take gains away from the superior comic and the consumers for the benefit of someone who probably needs to find a more suitable job. In this regard, we see that attempts to upset marketplace competition in labor are likely to generate far more poverty than they prevent. Does Peter Kay’s wealth cause poverty? Probably not. This is also something to bear in mind when people describe the wages paid to various athletes as “disgusting” and so on.

Wealth and Land

If the labor component of wealth isn’t responsible, then the only way inequality can contribute to poverty is through land. Here the LvMI misses a crucial point.

When a person accumulates wealth, they section off more and more resources from nature for their own individual use. These resources can then not be used by anyone else, meaning that people in the future will have poorer opportunities to obtain wealth from nature. It logically must follow that accumulation of wealth in this regard makes it more difficult for other people to obtain wealth, and thus contributes to poverty. There are two main mechanisms at work here. The first is simple extraction of resources. When blood diamonds are mined in the poorest regions of Africa, they are obviously no longer in the ground for anyone else to extract. Given that the extraction of resources in the world’s poorest countries is often carried out by first world multinationals, without compensation to society, a variety of ethical concerns emerge. It is difficult to see how one can argue that the extraction of oil in Nigeria, profits from which are diverted to foreign shores, doesn’t weaken the long term position of the Nigerians. Certainly I don’t deny that the country’s infrastructure and historical poverty would make it difficult for them to benefit from the oil without outside help, but is this fairer than a scheme by which everyone shared in the value derived from land? Value which the multinationals in no way helped to create?* The practise whereby foreign companies lay exclusive claim to various reserves, typically by currying political favour, certainly impoverishes the ordinary people who those reserves belong to by right.

The second mechanism is one which is more prevalent in the developed world, and which has more to do with land occupancy than exploitation. In the United Kingdom, around 2/3 of the cost of a new house is the land that house is built on. The source of this massive cost becomes clearer if one is aware of the fact that a tiny percentage of the UK’s population, largely consisting of the traditional aristocracy and the monarch, owns in excess of 60% of the country’s land free of charge. This is in a country with some of the smallest average house sizes in Europe. It is no wonder that the British people need to drive themselves into such debt, and pay such extraordinary costs to simply put a roof over their heads, when the nation’s land is horded by the descendants of the its most effective schemers.

But it is not just in the old nations of Europe that this hording takes place. As linked to in a previous post, a variety of American billionaires enjoy spending their fortunes on amassing as much land as possible out of a desire to act as “stewards”. Whilst this is all seemingly very noble, what right do these people have to section off vast tracts of land on a personal whim, in doing so making it harder for everyone else to make their way in the world? By all means, if they wish to spend their money on conservation they are welcome to do so. But it is wrong for it to happen in this manner, and without the general public being compensated for their loss of opportunity.

Ultimately the answer to this post’s question is a conditional “yes”. A claim that other people’s wealth accumulation by labor impoverishes you presupposes a right to that labor. It presupposes that others have an inherent responsibility to provide for you. On these grounds, such a claim will never be defended here. On the other hand, as land is a resource of fixed quantity, accumulation that involves depreciating the total value of land must leave other people in a worse condition. Human beings cannot live without inputs from nature. If people have no equal right to access nature, of what consequence are any other rights that have been declared? 

 

*There is a counterargument here along the lines of “by extracting resources people take them from a useless to a useful state”. I will probably address this at greater length in a future post. Essentially, extracting resources entails combining labor with land. You might have an entitlement to the labor component, but not the land. Similarly your labor is not the sole source of value. To emphasize this, consider how productive constructing and laboring on an oil rig over a location with no oil would be.

On Mises and the Supposed Dangers of a Basic Income

Earlier this week our good friends at the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI) posted an article criticizing the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The article attacks it on standard Austrian grounds, but the real question is: Do these criticisms hurt the Geolibertarian UBI? Here I will argue that the answer is no.

What is the Geolibertarian UBI?

The Geolibertarian worldview is similar to that of the LvMI. Free markets, free people, but a crucial difference of opinion on land. Whilst Geolibertarians agree that taxes on an individual’s labor and productivity are abhorrent, we believe that land is a very different issue. The view is that, as it was not created by any individual, unworked land should be regarded as social property. All taxes should be replaced with a tax on the value of land (LVT), and any surplus should be distributed equally among citizens in the form of a UBI. As it is not my intention to fully justify this idea here, I will simply sum up the perspective with a quote from the late Danish politician Dr. Viggo Starcke:

“What I produce is mine. All mine!

What you produce is yours. All yours!

But that which none of us produced, but which we all lend value to together, belongs by right to all of us in common.”

What does the LvMI say?

Now I will attempt to analyze the article’s most pertinent points. Their opening statement is:

“First, UBI does not eliminate the disincentives to work that are inherent in welfare programs; it simply moves them around.”

Which they justify by adding:

“[…] a UBI means that the more a person earns, the higher percentage of their wealth will be taken from them. The work disincentives are therefore still very much present in the tax system. They’ve simply been transferred onto different, higher income groups of people.”

This is a strong argument in the case of most traditional forms of taxation, especially income tax. It is certainly true that a UBI funded by income tax is equivalent to robbing the productive for the benefit of those who do not produce. If funds are raised by an LVT, however, this argument falls down. LVT is categorically not a tax on earnings. LVT is a tax on people who deprive other people of the ability to be productive. If a person claims the right to exploit a natural resource or plot of land, they are simultaneously declaring that no one else is allowed to make use of it. My claiming of a vein of gold ore deprives other people of the gold’s benefits, despite neither of us having made it in the first place. In economic parlance, LTV is a tax on negative externalities rather than production. What is being disincentivized is not production, but the act of depriving other people of the land necessary to produce. Far from dissuading production an LTV encourages it; it pressures land to only be held by those who can make it pay its way, rather than having whole swathes wastefully used at the whims of the world’s landowners. If someone is able to participate in the economy without depriving other people of the ability to benefit from nature, then they will not be made to pay tax. This includes jobs from comedians to paper boys and from athletes to shoeshiners. All forms of wealth generating activity that don’t impede the ability of other people to generate wealth, no matter how extravagant, will remain untouched. Kanye West can sleep safely in his bed. Exxon Mobil, which generates enormous profits by simply extracting liquid cash, which it spends on land to extract further liquid cash, is in a more dubious position. The wealth of the oil industry is largely produced by nature rather than man, and there is no good reason that people who merely manipulate the deeds to land should be entitled to such a disproportionate share of that which they didn’t create. Taxing this, and redistributing via a UBI would provide a constant pressure for land to be used productively, far from creating the “work disincentives” that the LvMI worries about.

The second charge of the LvMI article begins as follows:

“Far from promoting the unemployed from searching for work the market rewards, it [UBI] actually subsidizes non-productive activities.”

…and goes on:

“In a functioning marketplace, producers of goods the consumers don’t want would quickly have to abandon such endeavors and focus their efforts into productive areas of the economy. The universal basic income, however, allows them to continue their less-valued endeavors with the money of those who have actually produced value”

Following on from our previous argument, the first point of contention here is obviously the implication that UBI necessarily takes money away from producers of value; not the case with an LVT. The main thrust of the LvMI’s argument though is of course that, by guaranteeing a basic income to everyone, we are making it easier for producers of less valuable commodities to continue doing so. I would concede that this is probably the case with traditional forms of welfare, but with an LVT funded UBI I am less convinced.

As a dedicated follower of Carl Menger, I of course subscribe to the view that value, and therefore what we class as productivity, is subjective. Few people in today’s society would claim that van Gogh or da Vinci were unproductive humans. However, reversing back in time, one would probably struggle to find a Neolithic subsistence farmer who felt the same way. The point here is that increased wealth cultivates a taste for increasingly more superfluous goods. It may be true that a UBI would lead to the production of more goods that are undesired by society before the introduction of the UBI. But whether or not this is the case is not relevant. The increase in disposable income that would be had by the vast majority of people would fundamentally alter the dynamic of the marketplace, and create demand for goods that previously didn’t exist. The UBI is unlike other forms of welfare in this regard. Whereas state healthcare et al simply impose unnatural regulations on the marketplace that are antagonistic to every other element within it, the UBI fundamentally alters the dynamic from the ground up. No specific industry is unnaturally singled out by the UBI, and any apparent subsidization of unproductivity primarily takes place by the standards of a now non-existent society. It would take a strange person to argue against the affluence of the modern world for subsidizing the bottled water industry, simply because such an industry would seem extravagant to a society where the median consumer and producer was poorer. With UBI, we are not subsidizing anything. We are reconstructing the market from the most elementary level, and creating a new machine that works on new rules.

It may be the case that UBI would make people feel secure enough to do things that they previously couldn’t have. This is simply, in Mengerite terms, a result of the fact that the marginal utility gain from their pursuing this activity is now greater than their alternatives. This is only abnormal by the measure of a system which has been replaced. On another marginalist note, we should remember that, even though it’s now easier to engage in less valuable activities, more valuable ones are just as much more profitable as they were before, and we aren’t giving people a reason to not engage in them. One might counter this by saying that the law of diminishing marginal utility means that the incentive to engage in this more profitable activity is reduced, because it now yields money that is further down on people’s utility scales. This would, of course, only be a bad thing if it resulted in an increase in poverty and thus some kind of net utility loss. However, any speculative increase in poverty would also continually increase the incentive to engage in more productive activity, as decreasing wealth would undo the aforementioned effect of the law of diminishing marginal utility. Thus we have a  self-correcting element to any way in which UBI might negatively impact on production, if we even concede that it does. This again is indicative of the fact that we are rebuilding the system to drive towards new equilibriums under new conditions, rather than simply distorting what existed before. As such, whilst one might argue that the UBI subsidizes unprofitable activities, it is incoherent to argue that this would result in a net utility loss; any such loss would continually diminish the force that supposedly created it, thus rectifying itself.

Without wishing to flog a dead horse, one might claim that increase in supply to less valuable goods would be balanced out anyway, as the median person’s more affluent status stimulates a corresponding demand. Let us not forget either that our funding is only coming from people who impose negative costs on others. Even if we ignore all the arguments which have gone previously here, it is hard to conceive of a worst case scenario more fearsome than simply shifting counterproductive forces from one part of the market to another. To drive the point home to the boundary of nausea, UBI is in no way like traditional welfare programs. It does not work against the market but rather alters the market’s very nature.

Final note

To end on a more abstract level, the idea of “First come, first served” has never been a powerful moral argument when it comes to the distribution of unearned wealth. Similarly, this discussion is an area where the classical Lockean homesteading principle breaks down. Yes, you might mix your labor with the gold when you dig it up, and a Geolibertarian would agree that this gives you a claim to enjoy it. But, as long as it remains in the Earth, you have no claim to it more legitimate than anyone else. The second you declare, on whatever principle, that a swathe of land or unproduced resources are your property, you deprive everyone else of the ability to do the same. If this happens without you paying compensation to people for depriving them of that chance, then I would argue that an injustice has taken place. Most pertinently to the LvMI’s argument, it becomes impossible to claim that we are introducing “work disincentives” as much as we are introducing “depriving others of opportunity disincentives” and corresponding compensation.

Marxism I

This is the first of a series of posts I intend to make on Marxism and the present state of the hard left. The traditions I personally follow most closely, and as such where my comments will be coming from, are those of the Georgists and of the Anarchists. I am, however, more Henry George than Pierre Proudhon, and don’t advocate the abolition of the state. That is not to say that I don’t take the criticisms of the Anarchists incredibly seriously, so a lot of what I end up saying will probably still resemble them without being from exactly the same camp.

To be more specific, my main objections to Marxian theory and practice are as follows:

  1. It abstracts too heavily from the subject, and grants a wide scope to forcefully impose normative judgements on groups of people who would prefer otherwise
  2. The Marxian labor theory of value (LTV) is an unsatisfactory description of the real world
  3. The Marxian LTV conjures up exploitative relations where they don’t exist
  4. All attempts at creating Marxian economic systems (which I am aware of) run into insurmountable epistemic problems in calculation
  5. Historical attempts to run societies on Marxist principles have failed to match the growth in living standards realised by capitalist contemporaries (or, as this point is commonly known in internet discussions, “something something USSR gulags 200 trillion dead”)

A certain theme here may be quite apparent. Apart from (5), which is a utilitarian argument and 5th for a reason, my main issue is that Marxism appears to remove the subject too hastily. This is obvious in the case of (1). In (2), the reason I consider it unsatisfactory is that it doesn’t incorporate the subject sufficiently. This in turn leads to the creation of point (3), which is exacerbated by Marxists not having a good way of negotiating point (4).

Naturally none of this remotely constitutes a refutation of Marx, which is why this is to be a series of posts. I completely intend to develop all these points in the fullness of time, but am not interested in defending any of them before doing so.

Here, I will start addressing point (3). My main argument is as follows:

  • All material wealth consists of land and labor

If:

  • We assume an equal starting distribution of material wealth
  • Every member of society has an equal right to land
  • The proportion of wealth derived from land can be identified and shared equally between the members of society
  • Every individual has a right to dispose of their own labor and the fruits of their labor as they please
  • Any exchanges involving labor and the fruits of labor must be mutually consented to

Then:

  • Any following inequality in the distribution of wealth is the result of differences in individual productivity of socially necessary labour, and cannot be described as exploitative

Here wealth is definied as “anything that commands a price”. Land is defined as “factors of production that do not consist of labor”, and therefore includes everything from fish to timber to land in the traditional sense. I was initially going to develop this argument in further detail, but realised that doing so would involve pre-empting certain criticisms and leave room for me to pre-empt incorrectly, thus wasting the time of both writer and reader. As such I will leave it here and respond to any actual arguments in a future post.

Finally, to soothe the rage of any Austrian or marginalist who may see this, I am entirely aware of the apparent contradiction in complaining about calculation problems in Marxism before proclaiming that we can simply identify “the proportion of wealth derived from land” and redistribute it. Rest assured I have answers to this problem, though they go beyond my remit in writing this.

Libertarian Philosophy and the NAP

To clarify, and no doubt to the annoyance of every left anarchist ever, I here mean Libertarian in the sense of the American right. Ron Paul 20XX and so on. Sorry.

Libertarianism is a weird ideology. One reason for its weirdness is the fact that people in intellectual circles are generally keen to stay as far away from it as possible. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t seek to attack Libertarianism on the grounds of some kind of reverse argument from authority. However, of the big three Libertarian intellectuals- Rand*, Rothbard and Nozick- it’s generally advisable to only out yourself as a fan of Nozick lest you be deemed some kind of sociopath. Despite Nozick’s seniority, and as much sympathy as I have with him, anyone who’s attempted to read his work will recognise that it’s essentially a catalogue of slightly rambling intellectual musings. Bemusingly, we have someone unwilling to address many of the sticking points of his philosophy, significantly a refusal to justify his foundational natural rights premise, who receives plaudits such as “free-form” and “ecumenical” because he does so openly and unashamedly. I appreciate that good Libertarian thinkers are in short supply, and that the presence of a brain in Nozick’s head leads people to parade him about as some kind of messiah. Yet, however intelligent he may be, Nozick does not and has never professed to provide enough meat to base an entire political philosophy on. His work is rather one which critiques socialism and speculates about the merits of a minarchist state, without claiming to justify such a state from simple premises. Let’s also not forget that time he seemed to publically renounce his Libertarian beliefs.

There is also Ayn Rand. Where do you even start with Ayn Rand? In this case nowhere, because I don’t really have much to say about her that hasn’t already been said. All I can say is that she is Stirner if Stirner adopted a stupid and contradictory conception of property rights. She wants to have her self-serving egoist cake whilst also eating her “Pls no one take all my stuff which I can’t justify keeping” cake. That’s still a bad comparison, because she is worse than Stirner in every conceivable other way too. Anyway, and more excitingly, I want to talk about…

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Murray “Starve the Kids” Rothbard

Murray Rothbard. The granddaddy of deontological Libertariansim. Full disclaimer here, I unironically love Rothbard. In that classic question about “Which 10 historical figures would you invite to a dinner party?” Rothbard is my number one. He’s a funny guy, a real character, and someone undoubtedly devoted to human freedom. Unfortunately, he’s also an example of good intentions gone awry, and the consequences of blind committment to unnuanced ethical laws. In his famous reductio ad absurdum of himself:

“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive”

Yes, yes it’s a cheap shot to bring up Rothbard’s child starving. It’s been done before. The fact remains though that this is an unavoidable implication of the non-aggression principle as formulated by him, i.e.:

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”

As this is the same formulation that provides the cornerstone of the political beliefs of many modern Libertarians, it cannot be taken lightly. As an ethical law it is too crude, too unnuanced. Certainly it gets at what I believe is a very pertinent point, with some of the trappings of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but it is unserviceable in this form. What the NAP wants to get at is the idea that no person should have other people’s burdens forced upon them. In Kantian terms one might rephrase this as “a person has a right not to be forcibly used as a means by another”. This I have sympathy with. But quite obviously by consciously bringing a child into the world the parents have taken some sort of burden upon themselves. What Rothbard endorses is an attitude of “You mind your business, I’ll mind mine”, but he misses the fact that bringing a human being into the world in a state of intense vulnerability is quite the opposite of minding your own business. Going back to Kant, we must acknowledge the fact that the only reason the infant needs to use its parents purely as a means is because those parents have created it in a form where it cannot do anything else. In a very real sense, the parents are being used as a means as a direct result of their own will. One cannot complain that one is using oneself as merely a means and not an end. On the other hand, it is difficult to justify that you are using a being as an ends when you force that being into a situation where it must suffer without your assistance, before refusing such assistance. Looking at the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, it will not take much argument to explain why the maxim of “I shouldn’t bother to feed my children” cannot be willed to be a universal law.

Moving away from Kant, the objective of the NAP is essentially to create a rule under which every man can live his life without unsolicited impedence from anyone else. This is a goal which I think, on some level, almost everyone has sympathy with. On the basis of this, Rothbard thinks that legislating for parents to feed children constitutes those children unsolicitedly impeding their parents lives. What’s false here is the unsolicited part. Take for instance, a pilot flying a plane with 200 passengers on board. If the pilot decided he’d had enough and wanted to jump out, Rothbard would likely have to say that the pilot had done nothing wrong, and what’s more any attempt by the passengers to stop him would constitute an act of aggression by them. The ticket is a contract between the passenger and the airline company. The pilot is free to quit his employment contract at any point and, having no personal contract with the passengers, is not aggressing against them. The 200 would have to plummet to their deaths. Maybe their families could sue the airline, but the pilot must walk free. This is clearly not right. By choosing to fly those people, the pilot has accepted responsibility for their safety, even if no formal agreement has been reached. It is ludicrous to say that the pilot didn’t ask to have this burden placed upon him, and certainly no one has forced him into the situation. In this instance, as with the case of the baby, the actions of one party A (the parents and the pilot) have placed the other party B in a state of some vulnerability. A in both instances is directly responsible for B’s position of jeopardy, and is the only party who can ensure they do not fall ill to it. Likewise in both instances, A abandoning B is equivalent to A allowing B to die in a trap of A’s making. Unlike in the passenger’s case, the baby hasn’t even agreed to be put in such a precarious position. Essentially, a human agent has been ejected into the world in a broken and weak form, without consultation, and is being abandoned to a slow death by the very people who dragged it there. This is, quite clearly, not the sentiment which the NAP wants to express. This does not stop people from mindlessly adhering to it. It provides a textbook case of the folly of mindlessly parroting the statements of someone you initially agree with. It also lends some clues as to the way in which, from seemingly innocuous premises, modern Libertarianism arrives at some extremely alarming political conclusions**.

My plea to Libertarians is this. The works of Murray Rothbard et al are not gospel truth. Do not treat them as such. They may sometimes cast light in the direction of ideas that have real merit, but this does not mean that they are the sole embodiment of such ideas.

 

 

*I am well aware that arch-contrarian Rand despised the Libertarian movement and especially anarchists. I still count her because, well, ask your average Libertarian what they think of “Atlas Shrugged”. Also, her moaning aside, what she proposes is essentially indistinguishable from most minarchists.

**See literally anything written by Hans “physically remove the gays and communists” Hoppe. In the kind of magnificent self-reductio which seems to be the domain of Libertarians, he manages to use standard private property rights to justify enforced “scientific” racism, draconian free speech laws, banishment of “deviants” from society and monarchism over democracy, all without violating the NAP.