I was following the comments on this post and wrote a response that turned out to be long enough for a post. So here goes:

Here is my principled (not utilitarian) argument [against anarchism].
To implement the non-aggression principle, people must agree on what constitutes aggression, not just at a philosophical level but at a more detailed level. For example, firing a gun in the air is not aggression but firing it close to someone’s residence is. Even if I am a champion shot and the bullets do not hit anyone. That might not be the best example, but the point is that some of these distinctions are not philosophical but merely a matter of convention or reasonable definition. If such distinctions are not made beforehand, then the non-aggression principle is meaningless. Establishing the process by which people can agree to such distictions is what politics is (should be) all about. Saying that each person must form his own answer and never commit to any answer (committing would mean agreeing to be bound by it) is an abdication of politics. As you mentioned, politics only arises in a social context and therefore must involve social processes. Because these distinctions depend on convention (by necessity, not for any lack of good philosophy), there is a need for legislation – a process by which people can agree to and modify (when necessary) conventions.
So the answer to Rothbard’s question “how does the state get the authority to govern?” is:
By the delegation of those who choose to form a state. Ideally, the state would be formed by those who subscribe (philosophically) to the non-agression principle. If someone does not recognize the authority of the state, he is not harmed by the state. Unless he breaks its institutionalized definitions of aggression. As long as the state does not break its own definitions of aggression and as long as the definitions are not philosophically wrong, the mere existence of a state is not aggression against any individual.

As I wrote above, anarchism is an abdication of politics. It is merely a moral position that states: man should not submit to be bound by legislation. The answer to that position is merely “Don’t submit”. The funny thing is: I dont know of any sane anarchists who follow that moral position. A seemingly political way of framing anarchism would be: “In an ideal society, no organization of people should have a monopoly over the exercise of force.” But that is a thorougly contradictory position. What sort of monopoly is being referred to here? Metaphysical or existential? If it is metaphysical, then we already have anarchy, since no state can have a metaphysical monopoly on force (or on anything else). If it is an existential (or de facto) monopoly that the anarchist wants to abolish (not the right word, the right word would be ‘wish away’), then the anarchist is claiming that other people should not grant their consent to a de-facto monopoly on force. But then, that is a moral position.

Psychologically, an advocate of anarchism is saying:
I refuse to be bound by <i>any</i> institutionalized principles. Even if I agree with those principles today. I do not wish to take responsibility for my beliefs. The desire for anarchism is not a desire for freedom from aggression – it is a desire for freedom from responsibility.


Just as I began writing this post, I saw this short piece by Kendall J.

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong.

This idea usually comes from people who want the state to step in and force everyone to be charitable. A case in point is the recent discussion I had with T.R. who was arguing for free public education so that poor people can afford education. The ironic part is that we already have a free (and broken) public education system for precisely this reason, indicating that there are many people who are concerned that poor people would not be able to afford education and don’t mind getting taxed to “solve” the problem. So why do these people need the state to intervene? As I see it could be two reasons:

1) They think their donations would not be enough to run an adequate system and so they want to coerce others.

2) They think they themselves would not donate if the state did not force them to.

Since there are very few people who ever advocate the scrapping of subsidized education, reason 1 is not credible. What about reason 2? Clearly reason 2 is paradoxical. Why would they not spend money voluntarily when they themselves think it is important to do so?

The answer can be found in the morality of altruism. Altruism creates an artificial line between actions that help you and actions that help others and claims that only actions that help others are noble. So if Edison invents the electric bulb and sells it for a profit, his action is called selfish (and at best amoral) even though it has benefitted innumerable people much more than it has benefitted him. On the other hand, when Bill Gates donates a large part of his wealth to charity, his action is called selfless (and noble) even though much of those donations will be ineffective (Africa’s biggest problem is not disease). Note how actions are being judged not by their rationality but by their (intended) beneficiaries. So Mother Teresa, who never produced any wealth in her life is judged to be incomparably nobler than Dhirubhai Ambani, who established a large business empire that created wealth for so many people (including himself). By this absurd standard, man is certainly not noble (and that is a very good thing – just imagine everybody spending their whole lives with a begging bowl with the intention of helping others with the proceeds).

The proper standard for judging actions should be – does this action actually benefit the actor? Is this a rational, workable, sound idea or is this a stupid idea that will cause harm? Since most men use both standards, the altruistic standard in the domain of morality and the rational standard in the domain of practicality, they carry over the obvious conclusion from the moral standard and apply it to the practical standard. Thus they reach the conclusion that man (not this or that individual, but man as a species) is incapable of acting for his own long term interests and has to be forced to do so.

But the domains of morality and practicality are not separate. Proper moral principles are <i>derived</i> from practical experience. The moral is the practical. Applied to charity, charity is just another action like investing in a company or buying a work of art and like any other action it can be good or bad. It is only the absurd morality of altruism that claims that charity cannot be in one’s self-interest and then exhorts one to engage in it nevertheless. The proper way to judge it is to balance the costs with the rewards (not necessarily in terms of money). The Mother Teresa kind of charity (redistributing wealth created by others in the prime of her life and sinking into a depression at the end of it) is bad charity because it is incredibly stupid. The Carnegie kind of charity (establishing libraries and universities when he might have lacked the energy to engage in directly productive work) is good charity because it brought him great satisfaction at little cost while also helping others.

Terrorism and moral outrage

In my last post, I wrote about political outrage among the public (directed at the politicians) in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai and why it is unjustified (Ramesh has a long post on a similar theme that, unlike mine, is not polemical). This post is about moral outrage and its importance.

Why do we feel morally outraged by a terrorist attack? Is it because of the number of people who are injured or killed? No. People die because of a number of causes but we don’t feel outraged by their deaths. Is it because the deaths were untimely? No. People die in accidents but we don’t feel outraged at that. Is it because the deaths were preventable? No. People die in adventure sports but we don’t feel outraged by that. We feel outraged because the injuries and deaths inflicted by the terrorists are unjust. Because the people who suffer do not deserve to suffer. Because they are not morally responsible for the whatever grievances (if any) the terrorists may have. Specifically, the moral value that the terrorists outrage is justice. And the implicit principle by which we recognize the violation of justice is deliberate initiation of force – the use of force against men who did not use it. Consider some simple examples to see that it is indeed so.

A soldier is practising with his rifle in an enclosure. Someone accidentally enters it and gets killed. We do not feel outraged at the soldier because his act was not deliberate.

A trader on the stock market loses his entire fortune and kills himself. We do not feel outraged at the other traders on the market because there is no force involved.

A criminal tries to set fire to someone’s house. The victim happens to have a gun and shoots the criminal. We do not feel outraged at the victim because he has not initiated force, but merely used it in retalliation.

Note that this principle is an absolute. No mitigating factors, ideas, or convictions can justify deliberate initiation of force. If men wish to remain in a civilized society (and with the size of the world population being what it is, there is no other way to live), they must recognize this principle, or rather, the extent to which a society recognizes and implements this principle is the extent of its civilization.

A person who violates this principle is a criminal and deserves to be treated as such. Most people who do so are petty, short sighted crooks who seek short term gains and hope to get away with their crimes. They deserve punishment proportionate to their crimes (and it is a matter of philosophy of law to determine this punishment). A terrorist however is not an ordinary criminal. Whatever his motivations, he is not after short term gains. His acts are a rejection of civilization as such. The only appropriate response – morally and practically – to a terrorist act is the use of overwhelming force in retalliation and defence. Morally, overwhelming force is justified because what is at stake is the very principle of civilization. Practically, overwhelming force is necessary, because any indication of uncertainty can only increase the motivation of the terrorists (more so when the terrorists are motivated by supremacist religious principles). The only proper issues to be considered in a response to a terrorist act are ones of strategy – not what needs to be done, but how it should be done.

Such a response might involve civilian casualties in the countries that harbour and promote terrorism. The moral responsibility for any innocent people who may suffer in such an attack belongs to the terrorists, to the governments who support them and to the civilians who elect the governments. And it is here that moral courage and certainty comes into play. Are we so sure of our innocence that we are willing to take all measures to protect them? Do we value our lives enough to believe that force used in retalliating to lethal threats is always justified? Do we believe fully in the justice of our cause to accept the idea that there are no innocents in war?

Needless to say, we do not have such courage or certainty. And for good reason. We simply do not value our lives high enough. We believe in a code of ethics that holds serving others as the highest virtue. We constantly tolerate any amount of interference from the governments in our private lives. We advocate policies that are based on nothing but coercion. We participate in a political system that recognizes no absolute principles and places no limitations on the powers of the government to coerce people. There is no way we can say that we deserve to live even if it takes a war that may kill innocents to secure our lives. Is it any wonder that the statements of our elected representatives are empty platitudes devoid of any meaning or intent? And is it any wonder that the terrorists are convinced that they are morally supreme?

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The moral outrage that we feel everytime the terrorists attack, is a badge of virtue. It represents the implicit sense of justice that is needed for a civilized society. But in itself, it is not a guide to action. What we need is to understand the principles on which that sense of outrage is based and apply them consistently. Until we do so, until we establish a just society based on absolute moral principles, we will have no answer to terrorism.

Note: The ‘we’ in this post refers to the dominant culture as I see it.

Freedom of Speech

Paul McKeever has a post on Freedom and the Proper Regulation of Speech in which he claims that it is the role of government to outlaw speech that denies individuals control over their life, liberty and property. The object of this post is to argue that freedom of speech is indeed absolute.

The right to freedom of speech is a special case of the right to freedom of action – the only right that man has (Look at the first five paragraphs of this post for a detailed argument on why man has the right to freedom of action). It is considered specially by most constitutions because of its importance in maintaining a free society. Given this importance, it is worth considering the concepts underlying the right to free speech.

Speech as a form of action:
Speech is just a form of action. There is nothing about speech that does not apply to other actions. Speech may involve the initiation of physical force. Shouting “Fire!” in a theatre is just as much of an initiation of force as is the breaking of a chair in the same theatre. Both are actions that are not permitted by the owner of the theatre and thus are an initiation of force.

Initiation of force:
Initiation of physical force is the only thing that can curtail man’s freedom of action, and consequently, the only thing that a government must protect. Any “regulation” of speech that does not involve the initiation of force is a violation of  the right to freedom of action.

Responsibility of judgement:
Judging the statements or claims made by others is a necessary part of living in a society. Since no one can think for another person, this judgement and its consequences are the sole responsibility of the individual. A liar is morally responsible for his lies but that does not absolve his victims from the responsibility of judgements. Nor does the fact that man is infallible absolve him of that responsibility. It is a fact of nature that man must think, judge and act even though he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

Fraud as distinct from lies:
Fraud is the violation of a contract and thus an initiation of force. Not every statement is made within the context of a contract. In fact the vast majority of conversations do not involve any contract at all.

Role of government:
The proper role of government is limited to protecting the right to freedom of action. Ensuring any other form of justice is not its role. Notably, ensuring that rational men do not suffer because of the wrong judgements of others is not the role of government. Governments are instituted because of the necessity of placing the retalliatory use of force under objective control. Any other function that a government performs necessarily involves the initiation of force and is a perversion of the concept of a government.

Impossibility of outlawing lies:
The initiation of physical force (whether direct or the violation of a contract) is an objective standard. There can be no honest disagreement about whether a particular case involves the initiation of physical force in the presence of witnesses or evidence. Truth is often not an objective standard legally nor does it apply to all statements. A statement such as “X is incompetent to complete project Y on time.” is a matter of individual judgement and a prediction about the future. Truth does not apply to it. (Update: Look at the comments below for more on this) A statement such as “Candidate X believes in sorcery” cannot be judged objectively as there is no way to either prove or disprove it. A legal system that allows laws without objective standards will soon disintegrate into an arbitrary rule of men.

It should be clear from the above points that freedom of speech is an absolute right just like the right to life and the right to property and may not be violated by a proper government. For the sake of completeness however, I will analyze the flaw in McKeever’s argument and consider his examples.

McKeever writes:

Freedom is control. Specifically, it is control over ones own liberty and property; over the pursuit of ones own survival and happiness. The role of government is to ensure that no other person causes you to lose that control; that no other person deprives you of your freedom.

This is the primary flaw in his argument. Freedom is not control. Man is free by nature. He does not control his own life in the same sense. For example, I do not control whether I get to keep my job. If my employer decides to fire me, is he causing me to lose my control? I do not control my immediate emotions. If a stranger abuses me verbally and I get angry, is he causing me to lose my control? In both these cases I retain my freedom but do I lose my control or did I never have it?

Consider his examples:

By selling you a can of highly corrosive acid labeled “Soda Pop”, a person can deprive you of your life.

This is fraud and has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By framing you for a crime you did not commit, or by bearing false witness against you, you can be deprived of your liberty.

If he frames me for a crime I did not commit and escapes detection completely so that he is not even required to testify, this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. If he bears false witness, he is lying intentionally on oath, which is a violation of an explicit contract with the legal system itself. Again it has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By selling you an ineffective substance as “a new, 100% effective cure for strep throat”, you can be deprived of your property (i.e., the money you paid for the substance).

Fraud again.

Common to each example is the making of false or arbitrary assertions upon which you or others found decisions concerning your life, liberty, or property.

No. Common to each example is the initiation of force.

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