Author Archives: Bharat

“If You Don’t Vote, You Have No Right to Complain”

With the presidential election coming later this year, and one that I might not vote in, I thought it was an appropriate time to respond to a criticism I’ve received in the past but never answered adequately.

“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

Here are three reasons why I think that’s wrong:

1. An individual vote doesn’t matter.

In 2012, the United States had 129 million people turn out to vote. Even if we divide that by 50 and account for some of the differences in state sizes and voting procedures, it’s still clear that your vote is a nearly infinitisemal part of the total. The truth is that your vote only counts in the case of a tiebreak. If there is no tiebreak, even if you hadn’t voted, the results would have turned out the same.

Why is this relevant? Because it doesn’t make sense to say that unless you did something of symbolic value, with no real impact, you have no right to complain. The argument’s plausibility rests on you being able to do something about your situation, and if it loses that, it loses its basis.

2. If a person’s views are outside the box, those views can’t be furthered by voting.

Imagine a box of opinion in mainstream politics. Anything within this box is votable – there is some candidate or the other that represents the opinion and is willing to fight to make it reality. But what if your views are outside the box? If your views aren’t represented by a candidate with plausible chances of becoming president, then they simply can’t be furthered by voting for existing candidates. Once again, voting turns into an action without consequence. (In reality, presidential elections are worse than the box analogy makes it seem: you actually have only two distinct points to choose from, and any view outside, and also, in between, is not votable – I could add more nuance to this, but I’ll leave it there for now)

3. There are other ways to advance a political cause than through voting.

The biggest fallacy the argument exhibits is its overwhelming emphasis on the importance of voting, as if there exist no other means to change a society one lives in. You can start a blog, talk with your friends, talk to strangers, start an organization, donate to an organization, educate yourself, live your ideals, join a protest, etc. etc. Even complaining itself is a way you can advance your cause. And with that, I think the argument is fully demolished.

 

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Net Neutrality and Facebook’s Free Basics: A Case Study on Being Too Stubborn

In the past two years, Facebook has brought access to basic internet services to people in developing countries through a campaign called Free Basics. While Free Basics (as the name suggests) is completely free, it only offers limited services, a characteristic that is inflaming net neutrality advocates to not just criticize Facebook, but in some cases even call for its illegalization.

Net neutrality is the position that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all content equally and without prioritization. The stock example is the issue that took place between Netflix and Comcast/Verizon a few years back. Many accused Comcast and Verizon for slowing internet speeds for Netflix streaming, which (at least as claimed) was particularly outrageous since they may have been doing so in an attempt to rid themselves of competition in the television arena. Net neutrality advocates want to ban this sort of behavior so that those that use the Internet as a platform to sell products and services do so on an even playing field.

While I think there are problems with net neutrality in general, what is more disturbing is when advocates take that principle to the point of absurdity. The outlawing of Free Basics is one such example, and economist Don Boudreaux brings clarity to that with a thought-provoking analogy:

A hungry woman dying of thirst in the desert is approached by an entrepreneur who offers her unlimited quantities of bottles of water and a selection of snacks, all at a price of $0.  No strings attached.  The entrepreneur also informs the woman that, if she wishes, he’ll sell to her a seven-course meal (champagne included) for $100.  A moment later an armed regulator shows up.  Offering nothing to anyone but diktats, the regulator orders the entrepreneur to cease and desist this practice of differential pricing.  Unless the entrepreneur offers to the woman access at one, flat price to all that he sells, the entrepreneur must not offer the woman anything.

Uncertain of the woman’s willingness to pay enough for a seven-course meal (champagne included) – and unable to afford to supply such a meal free of charge – the entrepreneur leaves the scene, giving the woman nothing.  The woman soon dies as the regulator boasts of his magnanimity at having protected her access to “food-neutrality.”

The situation with Facebook is the same. Through Free Basics, Facebook is offering completely free access to the Internet. It’s true that these involve only access to limited services, but something is better than nothing. It’s fine to try and persuade Facebook to expand the services they offer (as long as one keeps in mind there is a price they have to pay for this, and at some point it becomes overly difficult), but as soon as a person goes from polite criticism to the use of force to prevent them from doing anything, he steps over the line. It’s not just disrespectful to Facebook, who is attempting to help developing nations, but disrespectful to the people of these developing nations, including many impoverished individuals who have never had access to the Internet before.

A separate criticism Peter Nowak makes is that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not properly understand philantropy:

Ultimately, the difference between charity and marketing is that the true altruist doesn’t seek anything, including recognition, in exchange for a donation.

Those who seek something in return are merely catering to their self-interest.

A self-styled philanthropist like Mark Zuckerberg should know that.

Nowak might be correct in criticizing Zuckerberg for being deceitful about his motives – the CEO claims to be doing this out of altruism, yet includes Facebook as one of the services Free Basics offers – but I don’t think that’s very important. While altruism is an amazing virtue, it is not always practical. The most beautiful quality of capitalism is that people in market economies are led to serve others despite being motivated by self-interest. The person who exchanges goods he has produced for money does so only because he values the money over the goods. Meanwhile, the person who exchanges the money for the goods does so because he holds the opposite valuation. Through the voluntary trade of the property each owns, both parties benefit. In offering selective services free of charge, Facebook is receiving something it values more than it is giving up – likely the access to millions of users and the data they provide. Likewise, the individuals who are choosing to get access to these basic services are doing so because they value the access free of monetary charge over the data they give up. Attempting to ban Free Basics is direspectful of the choices these people themselves think will bring them benefit.

Which brings me to my final point. Though I disagree with net neutrality in general, I at least can admit that the arguments for it are plausible. Proponents are scared that the internet they know will change for the worse and become segmented based on the selfish interests of ISPs. But they need to realize that there are exceptions to be made. In stubbornly holding onto the idea that there should be a neutral internet, they should not go so far as to say that otherwise there should be no Internet. Because a third option, a completely free, though limited Internet, helps and would help billions of people on the planet, a portion of which are too poor to afford anything else.

 

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Child Abandonment: Why Kinsella’s Analogy Doesn’t Work

In my last post, I discussed an argument by analogy made by Stephan Kinsella and Tom Woods against the critique that parents have no enforceable obligation to feed or take care of their children in a libertarian society. The analogy was as follows: suppose A pushes B into a lake, and B starts drowning. Under libertarianism, A has aggressed against B, and therefore has an obligation to save B. Likewise, a set of parents that create a child but abandon him have aggressed against that child by putting him in a situation where he will likely die (like B who would likely drown on his own). Because of this, the parents have a positive obligation to take care of that child.

(Note: whenever I say “obligation” or “positive obligation” in this post, I’m referring to a positive enforceable obligation, not merely a positive moral obligation, unless otherwise stated)

Last time, I discussed why even if this argument works, the NAP still leaves rarer cases of child abandonment (e.g. rape) along with positive enforceable obligations to strangers (e.g. a random girl drowning) unsolved. This time I’ll discuss why I think the argument doesn’t even work.

In an interview with Daniel Rothschild about a year ago, Walter Block made some interesting arguments against this analogy. His main argument was that in the case of child abandonment, the parents’ act of creating the child and thus giving life to it actually puts that child in a better situation than he was before. Therefore, the parents giving the child life and then abandoning it would be analagous instead to a situation where B is about to get hit by an oncoming truck, and A pushes him and saves him from the truck but pushes him into a river. A has bettered B’s situation by saving him from the truck, but by pushing him into the river he has only given him a few more minutes to live. In this scenario, it’s not so clear that A has a positive obligation to save B.

However, ever since I heard Kinsella’s original analogy, I took issue with it but I was never able to figure out what that issue was. Listening to Block’s argument clarified it for me. Consider the following:

In making the analogy that if A aggresses against B by pushing him into a lake, A now has a positive obligation to save B, what is the comparable act of aggression supposed to be in the situation of the abandoned child? It certainly isn’t the act of [leaving the child alone] by itself. There are adults all across the earth who have no connection to the child and are leaving the child alone: we wouldn’t consider this an aggression. And it isn’t the act of [creating the life of the child] by itself. This would nonsensically suggest that all sexual acts ending in fertilization constituted aggressions. The act of aggression then is the series of acts, the totality of both creating the life of the child and later abandoning it.

Let’s say that the parents engage in the sexual act at time(t)=0 and and at t=100 they abandon the child. In addition, at t=1 the egg was fertilized and the child’s life came into existence (this necessarily happens after the sexual act since neither the sperm or egg is under the control of either man or woman after the sperm is released and the sperm takes time to reach the egg). Since the totality of both acts is what constitutes the aggression, the parents were aggressing against their child from t=0 -> t=100. But what this means it that the parents were aggressing against the child before it even existed.

As I said before, at t=0 the parents are engaging in the sexual act: the child does not exist yet. At t=1, the child comes into existence. But since someone making the river analogy is calling the series of acts from t=0->t=100 an aggression, they are necessarily saying the parents were aggressing against the child at t=0. Of course, we only know in hindsight that the action at t=0 was part of a series of acts constituting an aggression. But it nevertheless was part of it, and that implies that the parents were aggressing against tthe child before it existed.

This is a clear contradiction. In order to aggress, we must be aggressing against someone. If I attack Bob with a knife, I’m aggressing against Bob, and Bob necessarily exists. If Bob didn’t exist, I couldn’t attack Bob because there is no Bob. Likewise, if Kinsella and Woods say that a set of parents is aggressing against their baby, but the baby doesn’t exist, they are contradicting themselves. Therefore, the analogy does not work.

 

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Woods and Kinsella on Child Abandonment and Libertarianism

Tom Woods has a podcast out with Stephan Kinsella examining several arguments made by Matt Zwolinski against the non-aggression principle (see “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle”). While I agree with the majority of their critique of Zwolinski’s article, I’ll here address my one major disagreement.

In October, I discussed the child abandonment issue for libertarianism at length, mentioning both the views of Murray Rothbard and those of Walter Block. As I noted, a Rothbardian, faced with the situation of a parent being thrown in jail for allowing his child to starve, would absurdly have to complain not about the blatant murder of the child, but instead about the fact that the parent was thrown in jail. With no positive obligations, Rothbard’s view of libertarianism allowed for a society where parents starved their children in the masses. There were no limitations and violence could not be used to punish or prevent these parents. Fortunately, one could, however, shout at them and tell them what terrible people they were (from one’s own property).

Block’s view was an improvement but still had some unreasonable leftovers. According to Block, in a libertarian society, a parent would have to notify as many people as practically possible around them (e.g. through a newspaper, or through adoption agencies, etc.) if he chose to give up ownership of his children. In addition, he would not be able to stop those trying to adopt his kids from coming onto his property in order to homestead them. However, in situations where the adults in the community were unwilling to take his children, or unable, due to poverty or lack of knowledge (due to a slow spread of information), the children could still starve to death, and no use of force to either prevent the parent from doing this or to punish him in the aftermath would be allowed.

In Woods’s podcast with Kinsella, the two promoted a third view and offered an interesting analogy. Suppose you push a person into a lake and he can’t swim so he starts drowning. According to Kinsella, by your voluntary action of pushing the person into the lake and aggressing against him, you now have a positive legal obligation to save him. Most of us agree with this, but is it libertarian? Perhaps just as you lose your rights when you aggress against someone, and they have the right to punish you and take restitution, you also have an obligation to reduce the damaging impact of your previous aggression. I find this plausible, but it does need to be laid out systematically. For now, let’s move on.

Like Block’s attempted fix, Kinsella’s unfortunately also leaves the child abandonment issue unsolved and libertarianism open to other criticisms under the category of positive obligations. For the former, consider acts of rape. Let’s say a woman is raped by a man, becomes pregnant, and has a child. If the man disappears or is imprisoned, he may not effectively be able to or be called on to take care of the baby. If the child’s custody then falls to the woman, how is Kinsella to deal with a situation in which she chooses to abandon the child? Since a mother who is a rape victim did not voluntarily choose to have sex and create that child, it seems that she, unlike the voluntary mother, has no positive obligation to take care of it. It seems, then, according to Kinsella and Woods, that a rape victim who becomes a mother can let her child starve to death.

What if we take Kinsella’s general view and add on to it Block’s view for cases of rape (I see no necessary contradiction between the two beliefs)? (EDIT 1-13: I’ve just realized that it is unnecessary for someone with Kinsella’s view to add on Block’s view. Kinsella’s view doesn’t just create a positive duty for someone who voluntarily has a baby, but also for someone who voluntarily homesteads a baby. However, the 2nd criticism in this paragraph still applies and the “drowning child” criticism further below applies as well.) Then the rape victim who chooses to abandon her child must notify as many adults as she practically can around her and not stop others who wish to adopt her child from coming onto her property in order to homestead him or her. However, we are then back with the same problem we had originally with Block’s view. In situations where a rape victim wants to abandon her child and there are no adults around willing or able (perhaps, again, due to poverty or lack of information) to adopt the child, she can legally let it starve to death. In addition, there is another scenario that proves troublesome. What if, after the baby’s birth, the mother who was raped never claims ownership of the child but simply lets it be? If she never homesteads her child, then Block’s solution doesn’t work; she doesn’t have to notify anyone she is giving up ownership if she never had ownership in the first place. This is hardly the extreme reductio we started out with due to the rarity of the situations, but it nevertheless poses a problem for NAP libertarianism: it threatens the principle’s universality.

Finally, what of the “other criticisms under the category of positive obligations” that the views of Kinsella and Block (respectively, but also if combined) leave libertarianism open to? Consider Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment. Let’s say you’re walking to class one day and you notice a child drowning in a shallow pond nearby. You could save him fairly easily and without risk to yourself, but you’d have to go through some trouble of getting your clothes wet and muddy. Do you have a positive obligation, and one that can be enforced, to save that child from death?

Most of us would agree there’s a positive moral obligation to save the child. Any person who chose not to because they didn’t care enough or were lazy would be an unethical human being. Would it be an enforceable (or legal) obligation though? This isn’t as clear, but I think most would still fall on the side of saying yes. It’s possible I’d oppose a “duty to rescue” law (like the Good Samaritan law on Seinfeld) forcing people to act in such situations, but my opposition would not center around it being strictly immoral to use force in such situations, but instead around practical reasons, e.g. is it easy to tell the motivations of the person, could he have just frozen up, was there risk involved, would a law be the right way to incentivize people? Meanwhile, the NAP libertarian would be forced to declare any law created or any force used as punishment against the bystander an aggression. If the government fined him $100, libertarians would call it theft. If an adult late to the scene came and punched him in rage for his inaction, libertarians would call it assault, and consider it justified for the “assault victim” (yes, we’re talking about that guy who just let a little kid drown to death) to press charges.

For those that are still unsure, luckily, it’s quite easy to come up with variations of the drowning child example to find other situations we can agree with more easily. For example, now let’s say that you’re a few miles away on the phone with your friend, and your friend is the one who walks by a shallow pond with a child drowning in it. He tells you about the situation and how the little girl is kicking and slapping her arms about wildly but says he’s going to be late for class and doesn’t want to help. You shout “How can you be concerned about your class at a time like this!? Go save the kid!” He refuses. At your wit’s end, you angrily and truthfully shout into the phone “If you don’t save the kid, the next time I see you, I’m going to beat the snot out of you.” Your friend, realizing your anger and believing your threat, finally decides to save the child.

If it wasn’t for the threat of force against your friend, the child would have died. Because of that action, the girl is alive and your friend has done his duty; he may even realize this one day and thank you for it. Again, most of us would agree that this threat is perfectly just. We might argue about some practical considerations like “maybe he should have tried persuading him without the threat at first,” but ultimately if a threat was necessary, it would definitely be justified.

Unfortunately, the non-aggression principle has no way to deal with this. Kinsella and the libertarians who agree with him must call the threat unjust because, like the rape victim who lets her child starve to death, there is no voluntary action linking the potential savior to the dying child and creating a positive enforceable duty between them. Finally, even those that agree with Block or want to apply a combination of both views, have no way of doing this either since the potential savior never homesteaded the drowning girl, as a voluntary parent does for his child, and therefore also has no link to her to create a positive enforceable duty.

 

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Trump and Vague One Liners

Sometimes a statement or argument sounds plausible only because of how vague it is. But when asked “what does it really mean?” and elaborated on, it crumbles quickly to the ground.

A few weeks ago during the Republican debate, Donald Trump defended his desire to kill the innocent family members of terrorists – their mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, children, and babies. I tore down some of those arguments previously and pointed out how evil and twisted Trump’s view on this issue was, but there was one exchange during the debate I did not mention:

In the clip, Rand Paul stated that in order to kill the innocent family members of terrorists, we would have to violate the Geneva Conventions and “defy every norm that is America.”

Trump responded concisely, saying “So . . . they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

On its face, the one liner sounds plausible. If someone is trying to kill you, of course you can kill them. That’s what the right to self defense is about after all. All Trump is saying is that we can defend ourselves by killing those intending to do us harm.

But what does the statement really mean? The pronouns and the vagueness they maintain are the only reasons this example sounds persuasive at all.

“So . . . they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

Let’s fill in the pronouns with their antecedents.

“they” refers to the terrorists

“us” likely refers to Americans in general (military and civilians; for those that think it’s just civilians, such as our innocent family members, I’ll include this as a 2nd possibility below)

“we” refers to Americans again

“them” refers to innocent family members of terrorists

Re-stated now, the one-liner appears as:

“So . . . the terrorists can kill us Americans, but we Americans can’t kill the innocent family members of terrorists?”

To which the appropriate response now becomes “Uhh . . . of course not. Why would we want to kill the innocent family members of terrorists? The terrorists are the ones we should punish.”

The second possibility appears as:

“So . . . the terrorists can kill American civilians, but we Americans can’t kill the innocent family members of terrorists?”

One more time, of course not. We classify the act by terrorists of killing innocent civilians as immoral. If we do the exact same thing, how are we any better? Punish the crime-doers. Don’t punish their children.

Again, the initial plausibility vanishes frighteningly quickly. It’s as if a blindfold was over the reader’s eyes, and one simple request for elaboration was enough to remove it.

 

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Nuclear Weapons in a Libertarian Society: A Nuke for Everyone?

A common attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism is the nuclear weapons argument: in a society following the non-aggression principle (NAP), wouldn’t every person be free to own a nuclear weapon (and wouldn’t that likely lead to the destruction of civilization)? In a post a few months ago, I argued that child abandonment is a fatal flaw for libertarians, but this time I’ll argue the opposite.

The most common response by libertarians against this reductio starts by pointing out that the NAP allows for the use of  purely defensive force, but not aggressive force (i.e. the initiation of force). For example, if Bob initiates force against Phil, and Phil responds by defending himself against Bob, Bob has committed a crime and Phil has not. But if Phil responds not just by using force against Bob, but by also initiating force against an innocent third party, he has gone beyond his right of self-defense and is now an aggressor himself. Since certain weapons, such as nukes, cannot be pinpointed and necessarily transgress the rights of innocent individuals even if they are directed at an aggressor, individuals have no right to own them.

Many (including previously even myself), especially those familiar with Austrian subjectivist economics, find this argument atrocious. They respond that yes, it’s true that individuals defending themselves can use force against aggressors, but cannot aggress against third parties. And it’s true that nuclear weapons cannot typically be used to defend oneself since it will break this principle by harming innocents. However, a typical use is not the only use. For example, in a very rare situation, perhaps the entire area that a WMD is targeted at contains only aggressors and no innocents. Or perhaps the nuclear weapon is “used” by being sent into space and harming no one. Or perhaps the individual owning the nuclear weapon is someone with merely historical interest in State weaponry and “uses” it by looking at and contemplating it. In other words, even if a weapon is typically used in an aggressive manner, that wouldn’t outlaw all ownership, but only specific uses of or actions with that ownership. For an analogy, just because a gun can be used to aggress against someone doesn’t mean we can outlaw it on that basis: there are many other uses!

What this objection misses (and it is not entirely the fault of those who make the objection – those who make the original argument generally do an extremely poor job explaining it and tend to do so in a misleading way, as I have done on purpose above) is two things: 1) it is not the initiation of force per se that is the issue at hand, but the threat of force, and 2) the way the entire libertarian system is defined, including what can justly be owned, what is considered aggression, and what is considered a threat, has continuum problems and is dependent on what is called the “reasonable man standard.”

Let’s first discuss point #1. The reason I call the original argument misleading is because it makes a person think the main issue at hand is the use of actual force, e.g. the dropping of a bomb or the firing of a weapon. As such, since there’s a distinction between ownership and a particular use of ownership, one naturally argues that ownership itself cannot be outlawed merely because a large number of typical uses involve aggression. But the use of actual force is not what is relevant. What is relevant to this argument is what is actually a threat. And the mere ownership of a nuclear weapon by various, random individuals would certainly be considered a threat by many.

This brings us to point #2 – what is a threat? It seems odd to define this subjectively, either by the individual(s) feeling threatened or the individual(s) doing what is considered threatening by others. The former seems strange because individuals often feel threatened by things that are not actually threatening. And if we were to accept this as a principled way of defining a threat, at its most absurd, we’d have to listen to insane and paranoid individuals calling others threatening for doing nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, there are some cases in which we’d accept the subjective perception of the individual(s) feeling threatened even if they were wrong. For example, Walter Block points out:

Suppose A comes rushing at B carrying a knife in the up-thrust position, while yelling ‘Kill!’ in a blood-curdling manner, whereupon B draws his pistol and shoots A dead. Later, it turns out that A was merely an actor, practicing for a part, and that the knife was made of rubber, as are most stage props of that sort. Is B guilty of murder? Not a bit of it. Rather, B would properly be judged to have done no more than exercise his right of self-defense. Even the reasonable man would have so concluded. (pp. 294-295)

In this example, if we were to follow the subjective desire of the “attacker” A, we’d consider B a murderer. But even in such a scenario we do not.

On top of this, what is and isn’t considered a threat is subject to continuum problems. For example, if A shakes his fist and shouts at B when he is only a few feet away, this could be reasonably considered a threat, and if B punched or attacked A first, it would be reasonable to consider B acting in defense and not an aggressor. However, if this occurred while A was a few hundred feet or a few miles away, etc. the opposite would hold true. This suggests that there is some point in between where A turns from an innocent individual into an aggressor and vice versa for B. However, any point picked seems arbitrary. Let’s say we chose 30 feet as our dividing point. Why not 1 foot more or 1 foot less?

The answer to both these problems is to use what’s known as the reasonable man standard. How would a “reasonable person” in a given society act under such circumstances? In practice, this would likely be determined by a jury of some number of disinterested individuals making a judgment on the case. The reasonable person would likely side with B in our first scenario: after all, how is he supposed to know that A is not “really” threatening him as he runs toward him with knife in hand. In our other scenario, the reasonable man would side with B if A was shaking his fist at him at a very close distance. At some further distance, the decision would become murky, but eventually it would fall to the opposite side.

How would the reasonable man standard apply to the case of nuclear weapons then? It is plausible to think that most people in a society would consider the mere possession of nuclear weapons by random individuals as a threat. For one, an analogy can be drawn between A shaking his fist under B’s nose from a proximate distance. After all, a nuclear weapon constantly poses a danger to those in its vicinity if it were to go off. And like in the other scenario, where A runs toward B with knife in hand, even if A does not intend to harm B does not necessarily mean the reasonable person wouldn’t side with B using force against A.

All of this is conjecture, of course, but that’s the point. There is no clear connection between the non-aggression principle and legal ownership of nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons  fall, at the very least, on the murky area of the continuum of threatening behavior.

It’s Not a Lack of Seriousness That Disqualifies Trump – It’s a Lack of Moral Character and Judgment

I posted the following on Facebook two nights ago:

Trump’s statement during the debate tonight that we should intentionally kill the families of terrorists was one of the most immoral things I’ve ever heard a politician say. Just imagine for a second, that your sibling or one of your offspring happened to be a terrorist – does that at all justify killing you or your other innocent family members? Of course not. We don’t purposefully kill parents, or grandparents, or brothers, or sisters, or children, simply because they had the misfortune of being related to someone guilty of a crime.

Trump’s response in the debate centered around the family members knowing something was up in certain terrorist incidents, the fact of which I haven’t confirmed. But even if it was true in one or some cases does not mean it will be true in every case (and thus justify a forward policy of killing the families of terrorists). Some relatives of known ISIS members oppose them so much that they even wish they would die; if there exist family members like this, we can surely expect there to exist family members that would report on their relative if they knew what was happening. Now, even if it was true that family members thought there was a plot and didn’t say anything, it’s still irrelevant. Not speaking out about the dangers of your relatives is not the same thing as actively participating in terrorist crimes, and the former certainly does not justify death. On top of that, why not extend this reasoning to all the friends of the San Bernardino shooters who didn’t report their radical statements on social media? Should we just kill them too?

Trump’s second defense had to do with efficacy: terrorists might not care about their own lives, but they do care about their family’s lives. This is not entirely true, as some terrorists have threatened their own families. However, even it it was true, it is still a despicable way to bring about justice. It shows we’re willing to give up our values when we’re fearful and stoop to the levels of barbarism that the terrorists themselves exhibit when they purposefully kill innocents all over the world.

Sometimes, certain consequences of a belief system are so clearly absurd and depraved that they should invalidate that belief system. Likewise, sometimes certain statements are so clearly absurd and depraved that they should invalidate the person making those statements as someone we put our trust into. This is because it shows a lack of judgment and moral character. If you’re a Trump supporter, ask yourself “is this something I really agree with?” And if not, does it not frighten you about a potential president’s lack of judgment?

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.

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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…

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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!