Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Reductio Ad Absurdum of Libertarianism: Child Abandonment

As I’ve stated before on this blog, libertarianism (in its Rothbardian form) is a political philosophy with the non-aggression principle (NAP) as its foundation, stating that individuals may not aggress against or threaten aggression against other individuals and their justly attained property. Libertarians strictly deal with political questions such as when violence can be justly used and what sort of rights exist, but moral questions beyond that are set aside.

As such, libertarianism is a system of “negative (legal) obligations,” meaning that while it states you may not do X, and that violence may justly be used against you if you do in fact do X, there are no “positive (legal) obligations,” obligations of the form that you must do Y, and violence may justly be used against you if you do not do Y.

This inevitably creates substantial problems for libertarians, since most of us think there are at least some situations in which there are positive obligations of such degree or kind that violence can justly be used – either to make a person do something or punish him for not doing it. For example, wouldn’t a law obligating parents to feed their children be just? And if a child was starved to death through parental negligence, wouldn’t it be justified to use violence against the parent by throwing them in jail for murder? Common sense may say so, but libertarianism says otherwise. In a society with no positive legal obligations, parents could let their children starve to death. It’s true that parents could not directly attack or harm their children, but it seems parents could indirectly harm them by leaving them on their own.

Rothbard, describing the implications of the NAP, states:

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 Ethics of Liberty, p. 100)

The problem with this is that it is so obviously the case that a parent starving his child is murder, and that laws against it and violence used to prohibit or punish it are just. Yet if a parent is thrown into jail for starving his child to death, the main complaint of the Rothbardian will not concern the clear and atrocious murder, but instead be about the (perfectly reasonable) fact that the parent was thrown in jail. And this is manifestly absurd.

Walter Block meanwhile has a slightly different view of what the NAP implies for the rights of children. In a paper discussing child abandonment, he makes the argument that the very process of homesteading (one of the ways people can come to own things justly, according to libertarians) carries with it certain implications because of its purpose in bringing previously unowned things into ownership. For example, “forestalling,” meaning to homestead a certain area of land, say, in the shape of a donut, and in the process make other land, on the inside, unownable (by refusing people through your own property), contravenes the entire point of homesteading, and is therefore illegitimate on libertarian grounds. Analogous would be the situation of a parent who, through the ownership of their house, forestalls the ownership of a child by not letting people through while the parent has given up ownership and decided to no longer feed it. In addition, to be logically consistent in giving up ownership of something, a person must enable others to homestead that object by making known the fact it is now unowned. Otherwise, as in the donut scenario, the process of homesteading is contravened. Therefore, the parent who gives up ownership of their child must both make it known they have given up ownership and allow anyone who wishes to homestead the child to do so. Anything else would be contrary to libertarian principles, according to Block.

While I do have some objections to this argument, what’s more important to note is that even according to Block, the problem is not fully solved. He states:

Would it ever be possible, under libertarian law, for a baby to be abandoned by its parents, for there to be no other adult willing to care and feed it, and the baby be relegated to death? Yes. However, this could occur only under the condition where the entire world in effect was notified of this homesteading opportunity, no roadblocks were placed against new adoptive parents taking over, but not a single solitary adult stepped forward to take on this responsibility. Since there are no positive obligations in the libertarian lexicon, it is logically possible for such a sad state of events to take place.

Giving up on demonstrating the conformity of libertarianism with our moral intuitions, Block is forced instead to argue that the chances of such an event happening is very low. However, while the terrible occurrence might be less likely to happen in a country such as the United States, it is far more plausible in third world nations where many people are in dire poverty. And it’s just not true that this could only occur without contradiction to libertarianism in situations where individuals were unwilling to take ownership of the baby. It could also occur if information could not spread very far or quickly enough.

For example, say a family of two parents and their one year old child somehow end up stranded on an island. The parents, not out of the lack of food or shelter or any other good reason, arbitrarily decide to stop feeding their child. There is no one in sight to yell for, and they make no attempt to inhibit someone from reaching their baby. Weeks later, the parents are discovered, but it’s too late for the child, who is found dead. According to Walter Block, it’s unjust for the saviors of the parents to throw them in a prison cell for their misdeeds.

It’s great that Block does attempt to make the libertarian philosophy more palatable by narrowing down the absurdity. Unfortunately, whether this attempt is successful or not does not matter. Even if it is successful, it simply is not enough: the leftovers are still unreasonable. Therefore, the libertarian principle is not universal.

Photo Credit: upsand via Compfight cc

The Phlogiston Theory – Wonderfully wrong but fantastically fruitful

A great explanation for why incorrect scientific theories can sometimes lead to fruitful results:

The Renaissance Mathematicus

There is a type of supporter of gnu atheism and/or scientism who takes a very black and white attitude to the definition of science and also to the history of science. For these people, and there are surprisingly many of them, theories are either right, and thus scientific, and help the progress of science or wrong, and thus not scientific, and hinder that progress. Of course from the point of view of the historian this attitude or stand point is one than can only be regarded with incredulity, as our gnu atheist proponent of scientism dismisses geocentrism, the phlogiston theory and Lamarckism as false and thus to be dumped in the trash can of history whilst acclaiming Copernicus, Lavoisier and Darwin as gods of science who led as out the valley of ignorance into the sunshine of rational thought.

I have addressed this situation before on more than one occasion…

View original post 1,303 more words

Austrians Wrong on Maximum Hours Legislation?

Tom Woods had a podcast out recently in which he gave the Austrian explanation of the effect of maximum hours legislation:

Let’s take maximum hours legislation because that seems harmless enough. We don’t want people working too long so we will have maximum hours legislation. Who could possibly be against that? Well, I want to think through the logic of this here. Think about you yourself today. Think about you and the number of hours that you work. Now, you, no matter how much you work . . . could be working more. . . you could get a second job, a third job, you could work an extra two hours a week as a tutor, whatever. . .

Why aren’t you doing it?  Because you value the leisure. Because you’ve gotten to a point and society and the economy have gotten to a point where we are physically productive enough that we can produce enough goods that you would be physically satisfied, after, say a 40 or 50 hour week. . .

What if we said a 40 hour week was inhuman, it’s just too much? . . . And we impose on you, a limit. We have a law saying, you can’t work more than 30 hours a week.

Woods goes on to say that because you’ve already balanced your preference for work vs. leisure, the law clearly makes you worse off. If you now are forced to work 30 hours, sure, you’ll have more time for leisure, but you won’t be able to get as much money and buy as many goods as you did before. And you’ve already shown (through your allocation of time before the enactment of the law) that you value the extra income you receive over extra time for leisure.

The problem with this argument is that there are all sorts of situations in which someone might value their work/leisure balance after the law higher than their balance before it. For example, it is entirely possible that you did not limit yourself to working 30 hours prior to the law because in those circumstances, you could not find any 30 hour jobs in your local area and would have to commute between two jobs (which you highly dislike). Or perhaps the 30 hour jobs you could find didn’t pay enough. After the law is enacted, though, you might actually be happier with your new configuration because the situation has now changed. Since every employer is now forced to hire each employee for a maximum of 30 hours/week, the number of job opportunities goes up and you’re able to stick with your old job or find a new single job that pays well in your area.

It’s important to clarify what this means for Austrian economics. Woods’s argument makes complete sense within the Austrian framework. It is true that if we keep everything constant, a person’s action shows he prefers that action over his alternatives. However, when applying this argument to reality and making policy prescriptions, we have to take care not to go too far and make our claims too strong. Preferences or (in this case) situations might change over time, and therefore the actual effect may differ from the one Austrians have theoretically.

The number of other examples where this can happen is probably very large. I do not think Austrians can make policy prescriptions without adding certain empirical claims as well. However, what’s particularly pernicious about my example is that the situational effect is present within the law. It would be more accurate to say the law benefits you than to say the law would have harmed you, if not for the situational change – because the situational change is itself one of the law’s effects!