A Conservative Philosopher?

Nathan Schlueter claims to be one. What is he conserving? In his own words: “one may legitimately speak of a Western philosophical and political tradition. Conservatism seeks to ‘conserve’ the best elements of that tradition.” (13)

But what does it mean, to conserve ideas? Are books of ancient philosophers out of print? Is the state punishing people for reading them? What exactly is Schlueter trying to do?

Clearly, our conservative’s mind is so weak or fearful that he is unable to improve upon the ideas of previous luminaries. Still, a conservative cannot conserve just any old set of (contradictory) ideas. Jefferson, Locke, Kirk, and other “great authorities” don’t always agree with each other. He must at least be able to distinguish between good and bad ideas proposed in the past and cannot for that reason be completely intellectually sterile.

It is possible, for example, for Schlueter to read Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty (which, astonishingly, he did read) and become so impressed by it as to say, “From now on I’ll be conserving this ethics and the anarcho-capitalism entailed by it.”

Precisely because Schlueter cannot improve the Rothbardian (or any other) system (nor is he trying to in this book) and therefore cannot be considered an intellectual or philosopher, he can only be a teacher of it; he can instruct young people and bequeath to them their heritage. It is an honorable even if rather humble occupation.

Whether Libertarians Are Antiperfectionist?

Schlueter argues, very reasonably:

The end of political authority therefore is not perfectionist; it cannot provide knowledge, friendship, religion, or any other basic good. These are the objects of individuals and associations within civil society. But this does not mean that government must be antiperfectionist. …

Natural law liberals therefore can be called “soft perfectionists,” insofar as they maintain that government plays a legitimate but indirect or subsidiary role in fostering and protecting the conditions in which individuals pursue their own perfection (“the pursuit of happiness,” as the Declaration puts it), rather than perfection as an end in itself. (28-9)

But libertarians, too, are perfectionist in this sense. They, too, seek “good government”; it’s just that some of them believe that anarcho-capitalism is precisely the perfection of politics, or that that government is best which governs not at all.

I myself am not a pure anarchist. My vision of a good society is one where there are no governments above local, but cities and counties as political organizations are probably Ok. However, it is a mistake to label Rothbard, say, an antiperfectionist:

We might refer to this as the “button-pushing” criterion. Thus, Read declared that “If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which would release all wage-and-price controls instantaneously I would put my finger on it and push!” The libertarian, then, should be a person who would push a button, if it existed, for the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty… (EoL, 259)

But injustices are deeds that are inflicted by one set of men on another, they are precisely the actions of men, and, hence, they and their elimination are subject to man’s instantaneous will. …

In the field of justice, man’s will is all; men can move mountains, if only men so decide. A passion for instantaneous justice — in short, a radical passion — is therefore not utopian, as would be a desire for the instant elimination of poverty or the instant transformation of everyone into a concert pianist. For instant justice could be achieved if enough people so willed. (260n6)

How much more perfectionist can one get?

Libertarians want to save people from unjust government violence. They want to promote voluntary social cooperation within the economy and civil society. They do not want to take away people’s “art, play, knowledge, and friendship.” (27)

Hopelessness of Consent Theorizing

Schlueter finds problems with the “pernicious” sense of social contract theories which require explicit consent or contract:

Political authority requires either unanimous consent or less than unanimous consent. If it requires unanimous consent, then in fact there is no political authority because each individual simply does what he wants to do.

If it requires less than unanimous consent, then some individuals are empowered to rule others against their consent, and thus consent theory violates its own moral requirement.

… then two historical problems appear. First, what political authority can point to such a moment of unanimous consent at its foundation? (And is every existing political authority that cannot do so therefore unjust?)

Second, how could the unanimous consent of one generation (assuming this is possible) bind another without once again violating its own moral requirement? (35)

Tacit consent to the state allegedly given by residing on the territory ruled by it is unsatisfactory for other compelling reasons. For example:

It is by no means clear that someone who merely acquiesces to political authority is thereby morally obliged to obey it, especially when the costs of emigration — one’s family, friends, language, property, life — are high, as they usually are.

We may acquiesce to a robber at gunpoint when the cost of resistance is high, but this does not mean we acknowledge his authority. (35)

It might be worth saying a few words on decentralization. Our author writes: “The principle of subsidiarity is a profoundly conservative principle and more useful than ‘decentralization,’ which is only negative in form and does not distinguish those cases when decentralization is a threat to liberty and human flourishing.” (29)

The argument for decentralization in the abstract does not depend on the idea that every concrete secession is good for liberty. Rather, it has 2 general effects. First, it increases competition between polities, thus providing people with more and cheaper exit options. The costs of moving from Kent to Akron are smaller than the costs of moving from Ohio to California which in turn are smaller than the costs of moving from America to Mexico.

Second, it tends to internalize government errors. In a town, a few mistakes by the city council, and the respectable burghers composing it will find themselves ruling a ghost town, with people having fled from oppression, high taxes, or hostile business environment. Their own property values will plummet. This understanding supplies a potent incentive for them to keep government small and efficient. On the other hand, even most horrifying blunders of the US federal government do not cause mass exodus and seem to result in no repercussions for the lawmen. I bet if the feds dropped a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles, even then Americans would continue to worship the damn flag.

Again, libertarians may look askance on state governments, but unlike the federal government, Ohio cannot go to war or print its own paper money; its taxes are much smaller than federal taxes (and some states don’t tax income at all); its regulations are less restrictive; it cannot impose trade barriers such as tariffs; and so on. The main reason for these blessings is that Ohio competes with the other 49 states for citizens and businesses.

Subsidiary regards vertical hierarchical delegations of authority; decentralization regards horizontal competition between entities. Both seem nicely complementary. Private business firms and organizations are at the bottom of the hierarchy, and the subsidiary principle, when rightly understood, recommends that almost the entirety of all production be performed by them rather than by higher entities like city or state governments. Laissez-faire economy is its direct consequence. Decentralization agrees, especially in a global economy with millions of competing companies.

Again, subsidiary suggests that a state-level solution is usually preferable to a federal-level solution. Decentralization supplies a reason for it, namely that states (and much more, cities) are “laboratories of democracy” where it is more practical for people to “vote with their feet,” i.e., revolt against bad policies by moving out.

Picking up, what follows is a standard defense of the state as (1) beneficial and (2) inevitable / necessary. But if that’s how it is, then why invoke consent at all? What does it matter if the citizens do or do not consent to good, i.e., Schlueter-approved, government? It seems that they need to obey this government whether they like it or not.

There is a two-fold irrelevance of consent.

First, consent cannot be valuable to Schlueter in his capacity as philosopher-king, since anyone who opposes him is by the fact of resisting “good government” a pervert or traitor.

And if traitors are to be shot, then clearly there is no consenting going on; one either obeys or dies.

Second, it is true that in practice, an unpopular government cannot endure in the long run. But a thing like the President’s “approval rating” is an inextricably collective measure. Consent cannot be valuable to any individual Smith the citizen, either, because Smith is powerless by himself, as one man among a hundred million, to influence or threaten the regime, indeed despite the fact that “ideas have consequences.” (Note in this connection the important distinction between power and might. Might and Consent.)

Schlueter goes on:

The reason (most) Americans recognize the legitimacy of American political authority over them and not, say, French political authority, is because

(1) it is effective (more or less) in securing their “safety and happiness” (to quote the Declaration of Independence) and

(2) because it is theirs by history, tradition, and fact. (37)

(1) is debatable; in fact, it seems to be the main issue of this book. Schlueter cannot just broadcast the conclusion; he has to prove it.

(2) asks, essentially, “If you are looking for a government to trust, why not this one?” That’s a good point: “my” government might indeed be preferable to the faraway French government. But only under the assumption that I’m eager to trust some government, and a more radical than I anarcho-capitalist might refuse to grant this premise.

Whether Libertarianism Entails That Parental Authority Is Slavery?

Schlueter quotes Rothbard on the issue of what determines the extent and duration of parental guardianship or “trustee” rights over their children:

Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to run away and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own.

Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return.

The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age. (EoL, 103)

But Schlueter does not seem to understand the argument, commenting, “Rothbard exemplifies the remorseless logic of strict contractarianism. Unless we are prepared to regard all parental authority as slavery, we must acknowledge that at least some forms of authority are legitimate independent of consent.” (36)

That parental authority is slavery does not follow from Rothbard’s ethics.

Parents enter into an implicit but definite contract with their children. Children benefit from parental care but, since they live on the property of the parents, are obliged to obey the rules of the house. This is no different from the fact that a customer in a grocery store must heed the store owner’s policies or be kicked out. But, just as with the store, a kid who runs away from home has terminated the contract. He no longer takes anything from the parents but also, since he lives on his own, is unbound by the parental will. Parental authority is not slavery, because children stay in the parents’ house voluntarily but have vast exit options. A worker is not his employer’s slave for a similar reason, i.e., because of the vigorous competition between business firms for labor. In comparison, government authority is much more like slavery, because of the limited number of exit options.

Schlueter is well aware of this, as seen in the previous post: “the costs of emigration — one’s family, friends, language, property, life — are high, as they usually are.” (35)

It may be objected that the costs to a small child of leaving his family are also high. But this is so only because the parental authority bestows benefits which the child is unwilling for the time being to do without. In contrast, the behavior of the government authorities, far from a reason to stay, is precisely the reason to move out. The real cost is losing the social ties from rootedness in a place, not state protection and care. Hence the analogy fails.

In other words, it is perfectly meaningful to say, “I love America but hate the government.” But this sentiment cannot be adapted to the family.

Parental authority for Rothbard is based entirely on property rights, as is his entire system, though not rights or “authority” over children but merely rights over the house in which the children live (and over all the money parents expend on their kids).

Of course, a family is bound by love, and blood is thicker than property rights. But I see no contradictions in Rothbard’s treatment of this aspect of family law.

Three Strains of Libertarianism

In this marvelous second chapter, Nikolai Wenzel distinguishes between 3 flavors or strains of libertarianism: classical liberalism, minarchism, and anarcho-capitalism.

1. In economic terms, classical liberals espouse the concept of the “productive” state beyond the “protective” state — but not the “redistributive” state. (63)

The state has a duty of “erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions.” (64)

… the state should solve collective action problems, decreasing overproduction of bads (such as environmental harm) and increasing underproduction of goods (such as education, roads, or mosquito control) when the market has failed — without, however, lapsing into the “redistributive” state of progressivism. (48)

Redistribution both from the minority of high-income people to the majority of low-income people and from the majority of the consumers to the minority of crony capitalists is proscribed. To paraphrase Will Durant, the poor cannot despoil the rich through violence or votes, and the rich cannot despoil the poor through ability or subtlety. In short, no one is privileged or protected from competition.

2. “Under minarchy, the purpose of the state is the protection of individual rights from the aggression of others; the state itself may not engage in any coercion, except to prevent coercion.” (69)

For example, “robust political economy casts fatal doubt on the very existence of socially optimal equilibria, the ability of specialists in political economy to identify them, and the state’s ability to correct market failures without unintended consequences or political capture.” (71)

The market flows, as a process of everlasting improvement driven by entrepreneurs and consumer sovereignty.

What is efficient or “socially optimal” today will not be so tomorrow. Economists are usually bad entrepreneurs (and vice versa!) and cannot “identify” inefficiencies. (If they are so smart, why aren’t they rich?)

State regulations assume a frozen economy and themselves tend to freeze it, including in unexpected, subtle, but destructive ways.

3. Anarcho-capitalism is “appealing and in many cases obvious… Just as government will abuse its power if it provides traditional goods and services, the same will happen with the provision of security and the protection of individual rights. The market and civil society can protect individual rights more effectively than the state. Limited government is a fool’s errand, and the only defense of rights can be found in markets and civil society.” (68-71)

In my view, however, pure anarcho-capitalism is defective because enforcement of laws for the sake of general deterrence through fear of punishment presupposes an organization in society that has enough coercive power to crush any individual or group within that society. We may identify 3 reasons for rational violence: vengeance, just punishment, and self-defense. Vengeance is generally a corruption of justice and is altogether outlawed both for the citizens and for the police. The state has nothing to do with self-defense at all: cops are not anyone’s bodyguards. However, the state’s monopoly on punishment is not a bug but an essential and unavoidable feature.

Here is how I would describe myself in the context of the design of the US system of government:

I am an anarchist for the federal government: it should disappear.

I am a minarchist for state governments: they should concern themselves solely with execution of justice. As I have written before, the 3 branches of government are differently privatizable: judges fully, the legislature in part, and the executive branch not at all. Let’s make what we can private and keep what we must public.

I am a classical liberal for local governments: it is on this level that control of externalities and production of a few definite public goods are reasonably effective.

My favorite example of a useful positive local externality-fixing ordinance is one mentioned by Steven Landsburg: “Exterminators shall not drive the vermin next door.” Mosquito control is probably best supplied by cities, etc.

Stiff competition between tens of thousands of cities will keep local governments in check.

I am a “statist” for private firms and organizations in the sense that they should have full powers to bind themselves by contracts however they please.

Public Choice “Entrepreneurs”

The main point of public choice economics seems to be that people go into politics often for the same reason why they become doctors, accountants, or hit men: in order to profit or make money, and because they enjoy some advantage in these lines of work.

In principle, politics is a battle of ideas: people spar with each other with arguments of how best to promote justice and common good (defined by Jason Brennan as “a combination of institutions — such as social order, shared ethical/social norms, rule of law, and markets — that are indeed to everyone’s advantage” (89)). “Politics is fundamentally cooperative, not competitive,” says Schlueter (100).

But politics is easily corrupted from a debate on how to promote the general public interest to a battle of factions and pressure groups to promote their own particular private interests precisely at the expense of the common good.

Politics “without romance” is simply loot and privilege seeking; what’s more, this type of politics is far more lucrative than honest concern with general welfare.

It is my contention as a libertarian that 99% of politics on the federal level is in this sense corrupt.

Refuting Conservative Prohibitionism

Schlueter claims that the conditions for human flourishing to be supplied by the state include mitigating:

– harms to reputation (for example, defamatory speech, libel, and slander), harms to social order (such as open borders), and

– harms to moral culture (including pimps, prostitutes, drug pushers, panders).

Either such nonphysical harms exist, or they do not. If they do exist, they are a proper object of political authority. (112)

Consider now the “weapons” or sins of the lower 4 of the 6 human temperaments. Monsters sin with unjust violence; Barely Humans, with deception and fraud; Guardians, with false accusations; and Idealists, with sly temptations.

Libertarians, however, hold that only the first two ought to be outlawed; the third and fourth sins are merely vices and not crimes.

Therefore, a distinction exists between harms in general and unjust harms. I agree that “that reputation is a good that can be harmed by the false speech of others is too obvious to be argued for.” I disagree that false accusation (unless in a court of law) is an unjust harm that can properly be punished by the state. The reason is elaborated by Rothbard:

We have therefore affirmed the legitimacy (the right) of Smith’s either disseminating knowledge about Jones, keeping silent about the knowledge, or engaging in a contract with Jones to sell his silence. We have so far been assuming that Smith’s knowledge is correct.

Suppose, however, that the knowledge is false and Smith knows that it is false (the “worst” case). Does Smith have the right to disseminate false information about Jones? In short, should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

And yet, once again, how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.

The counter-view, and the current basis for holding libel and slander (especially of false statements) to be illegal is

– that every man has a “property right” in his own reputation,
– that Smith’s falsehoods damage that reputation, and
– that therefore Smith’s libels are invasions of Jones’s property right in his reputation and should be illegal.

Yet, again, on closer analysis this is a fallacious view. For everyone, as we have stated, owns his own body; he has a property right in his own head and person. But since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones’s “reputation” is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones’s “reputation” is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people.

But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people. …

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. (EoL, 126-7)

Schlueter goes on:

Conservatives believe that there is such a class of wrongful, non-coercive actions, including assisted suicide, prostitution, pornography, and the sale and consumption of addictive mind-altering drugs.

Such actions, they argue, directly harm basic goods that constitute human flourishing, such as life, conjugal union, and personal integrity. They also harm the moral character of the persons who engage in them, making it more difficult for them to recognize and embrace those basic goods.

If these actions are themselves wrong, then it is unjust to offer them to others. (114)

We have seen how properly to think about accusations. Regarding temptations, an even less serious infraction, our entire consumer culture revolves around them! Every commercial aims to kindle a desire for the product being advertised. Giving in to some temptations is a bad idea, but it’s something that each individual needs to handle personally by disciplining his own soul. What is a dangerous temptation to one man is a legitimate pleasure to another; a blanket prohibition of alcohol or even prostitution shows only a lamentable failure of our conservative to discriminate.

Regarding prostitution, for example, comedian George Carlin argued this way:

I don’t understand why prostitution is illegal. Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. Why isn’t selling fucking legal? You know, why should it be illegal to sell something that’s perfectly legal to give away? I can’t follow the logic on that one at all!

Of all the things you can do to a person, giving someone an orgasm is hardly the worst thing in the world. In the army they give you a medal for spraying napalm on people! In civilian life you go to jail for giving someone an orgasm!

Maybe I’m not supposed to understand it.

At the very most, prostitution is a local issue, where the cops might chase away hookers from public streets sporadically in order to keep a semblance of decency.

The only further move open to Schlueter is to deny self-ownership, which he promptly does on two grounds. First, he says, it’s bad metaphysics:

Kant regarded the notion of self-ownership as self-contradictory: Persons are subjects of ownership, whereas ownership is of things. Were persons to own themselves, they would be simultaneously persons and things, which is impossible…

The only way to avoid this self-contradiction, Kant suggested, is to divide the self partly into a person (such as the conscious, thinking part of the self) and partly into a thing (such as the body part). This entails an untenable body-self dualism.

As Robert George has written,

The dualistic view of the human person makes nonsense of the experience all of us have in our activities of being dynamically unified actors — of being, that is, embodied persons, and not persons who merely “inhabit” our bodies and direct them as extrinsic instruments under our control, like automobiles. (118-9)

Ray Kurzweil calls humans “spiritual machines.” As I point out in my book, however, this has things exactly backward: we are not spiritual machines but machine-like spirits, or spirits whose operation depends to an extent upon laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and the rest, even though, more fundamentally, the spirits have wills and intellects and control rather than are controlled by their bodies. This means that our bodies are essential aspects of ourselves; we are not angels in consumes.

Schlueter is right that the relation between soul and body is more intimate than ownership. It’s not so much that I own my body as that I am in part my body. But if my body is an aspect of me, then a fortiori, I can be said to own the body, as well. And the weaker relation of self-ownership turns out to be sufficient for all politico-philosophic concerns.

For example, if my friend Smith needs a kidney transplant in order to live, and I’m a suitable donor, who is to decide whether I shall donate my kidney? Is it Smith, the government, or me? Surely, I am the one to decide. If a socialist were to propose that kidneys or eyes be nationalized, and people with 2 eyes must be forced to give 1 eye to the blind, would we not consider this to be a grave injustice? But for what reason if not of self-ownership?

Further, the soul and body are distinguishable both in the intellect and even in reality, as upon physical death. Suppose Smith tells me that I am a weak, pathetic, and contemptible human being. “You’re a worthless loser,” he charges. I am distraught for having been judged so harshly. Again, let my girlfriend break up with me. I’m spiritually devastated, but no crime has been committed. Suppose now that Smith punches me in stomach. Now I feel physical pain. Everyone would agree that this is unjustified aggression. Hence, the “whole me,” soul and body, is not a completely inseparable psychosomatic unity.

To illustrate, consider Tom Jones’ famous song, Delilah:

I saw the light on the night that I passed by her window,
I saw the flickering shadow of love on her blind.
She was my woman;
As she deceived me I watched and went out of my mind.

At break of day when that man drove away I was waiting
I crossed the street to her house and she opened the door.
She stood there laughing;
I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.

The man’s sorrow for being betrayed is not unjustly inflicted according to law; but murdering Delilah in jealous rage is unjust. And the man recognizes is, concluding the song with “Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn’t take anymore.”

Hence the law prohibits inflicting bodily harm but not spiritual harm, thus easily distinguishing between soul and body, spiritual joy / sorrow and sensual pleasure / pain. You shall not stab Delilah for essentially the same reasons why you shall not slash her car’s tires: it’s an unjust violation of her property rights.

Second, Schlueter’s argues that self-ownership proves too much, in particular anarcho-capitalism, and even Wenzel generally rejects it in favor of minarchism.

But this is only because Rothbardian libertarianism assumes human nature to be pure and holy. If humans were fully uncorrupt and unfallen creatures, then the state would indeed be neither necessary nor desirable, as Rothbard relentlessly proves. Billiard balls and angels obey their laws without fail; not humans. The state, though conceived in injustice, is necessary to counteract the injustices of individual criminals. We allow the state because humans do unnatural things, in order to contain the damage thereof, but for no other reason. Coupled with this understanding, libertarianism stands defended.

Libertarian Arguments for Open Borders

Wenzel considers 3 arguments against free immigration.

First, the cultural argument:

The institutions of liberty do not spring forth randomly; rather, they are the necessary consequence of an underlying political and constitutional culture that supports liberty.

The people of a free society must be self-governing, must have civic virtue, and must support rule of law and limited government.

Immigrants, who are typically fleeing the consequences of illiberal government, are typically not steeped in a culture that supports liberty. (125-126)

Wenzel replies:

It is quite probable (given historical experience) that immigration will change the host country’s culture. It is also clear that the institutions of liberty rely on specific cultural and philosophical foundations.

However, the knowledge problem plainly indicates that we do not know the costs and benefits of preserving a particular cultural snapshot.

Indeed, who really knows the ideal number of immigrants to the United States and the ideal breakdown by country of origin? (126)

But the open borders policy in our present world marked by massive disparities in different nations’ levels of prosperity and civilization will not just “change” the culture. It will entirely sweep it away. The problem is obviously less severe for the United States than for Europe. But fully open borders will, upon the arrival of 100 million savages within a few months, annihilate American’s cultural and political identity as it currently is.

I do not understand why drowning ourselves in a sea of huddled masses is such a pressing need.

Second, the economic argument:

Native workers (or the trade unions that represent them) fear that immigrants will take “their” jobs.

On the macroeconomic level, there is some concern that immigration hurts the host economy because many immigrants are low skilled. (127)

Wenzel replies:

In a free society, the market will regulate movements; a sudden influx of workers would cause a drop in wages (for a particular segment of the labor force), thus reducing the desirability of crossing a border for a job.

Likewise, the market would efficiently regulate access to private services through the price mechanism and the ensuing incentives to entrepreneurs. (129).

I am astonished that Wenzel could write down the first sentence without noticing its inevitable conclusion: “a sudden influx of workers would cause a drop in wages” until a state of equilibrium is reached in which every country is equally poor.

The economic argument against open borders will fail only in a world with full laissez-faire capitalism, where wealth disparities between nations are small or quickly disappearing. (Such is the case, for example, between the several states of the US.)

Otherwise, any particular nation’s politico-economic success will be punished and neutralized by a huge influx of immigrants from failed states. As I have already noted, there is a crucial difference between immigration of people and outflow of capital, as firms relocate into poorer countries to take advantage of cheaper labor. Success attracts both immigrants who lower wages and capital which raises them. The incentives to a nation to grow rich are the most potent under limited immigration and free trade.

Wenzel’s libertarian socialism consisting in equal misery for all does not follow.

The final argument regards government services. It’s true that most of these should not be provided by the state in the first place. Again, however, given our present system, opening borders right now is not a rational policy.