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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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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.

Feser on Rothbard: Children and Rights

A few months back, I ventured onto a post by Edward Feser criticizing Rothbard as being a philosopher “incapable of giving a philosophically interesting argument for his claims.”

Feser states:

In the revised edition of For a New Liberty, the argument begins as follows:

“Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” (pp. 28-29)

Here are the [problems] that occur to me:

1. Even if it were true that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” and that “the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation,” it just doesn’t follow that anyone has a right to self-ownership.

Furthermore, why should we grant in the first place that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish”? Children survive and flourish very well without choosing most of their means and ends.

The following is in no sense a reply to Feser, but just some thoughts generated while thinking about the subject of children. I have not come to a conclusion myself nor read any of the libertarian literature on this topic, but hopefully at some point I will.

The essence of a human being is rationality: having intellect and will.

(Assuming an A-T metaphysics) The intellect’s final cause is to determine what is good for a man. The will’s final cause is to choose what is good for man.

The way I think about this is that an individual cannot use his will unless he is free. The final cause of the will – to choose what is good for oneself is hampered unless man is allowed to choose means he finds suitable for his chosen ends. This implies a right from the initiation of force of another.

Feser’s example of children brings up interesting thoughts though. The child in such a situation isn’t choosing the right choice; his parents are making it for him. If the parents are simply recommending a choice of action to him, then this is a different situation. In the first, he is not allowed to use his will (if he has it). In the second, he is allowed to exercise his will.

Maybe Feser would argue that barring children from making certain decisions – such as a 6 year old leaving the house at 10:00 at night is obviously morally good for it. It could be seen as an absurdity if Rothbard’s argument for rights does not allow a parent to make such a decision for his child.

Another issue though, is the question of consent. At what age or point is a child truly rational? One could argue a child of 6 years of age is incapable of rationally making choices for himself. As such, a parent deciding something for his child could be much like a individual acting upon a squirrel. While the action of the parent or individual might be moral, the actions a child or squirrel take are amoral, because one is not yet capable of using his will and the other does not have a will to exert.

One issue that troubles me in claiming children cannot consent is where we draw the line. At what age or time can they consent? I don’t think the absence of a fine line delegitimizes any talk of children not having consent, but it does make it harder to think about.

Again, just some thoughts. If anyone else has thoughts on any of what I’ve mentioned, feel free to share.

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One Question to See If You Should Read an Anti-Libertarian Article

One question to see if you should read an anti-libertarian article:

Ctrl F ‘Rothbard’. Does it appear anywhere? If it does, read the article. If it doesn’t, don’t read the article.

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Does the Free Market Presuppose the State?

Finally finished Man, Economy, and State after only 2 years! (Yes, I read other stuff and took huge breaks in between haha)

Done! Only took me 2 years. Reading a Harry Potter book in one day doesn't train you for 1100 pages of econ.

A post shared by Bharat Chandrasekhar (@negligible91) on

Now I’m going to start reading a bit of Power and Market in my free time, but mainly I’ll be reading a book called The Last Superstition by Edward Feser.

Regardless, here’s a short passage I just read from Power and Market:

The laissez-faireists offer several objections to the idea of free-market defense. One objection holds that, since a free market of exchanges presupposes a system of property rights, therefore the State is needed to define and allocate the structure of such rights.

This is an important argument to deal with. Here’s an analogy: if someone said the natural sciences presuppose free will, then the natural sciences cannot tell us anything about free will. Likewise, if the free market presupposes a system of property rights, someone could argue the latter must be built outside of the free market.

But there is nothing obviously wrong about saying defense can be provided by the free market even if the free market presupposes property rights. All that’s needed is a slight semantical change. Let’s say 10% of the free market is defense and 90% of the free market is the other stuff. I can say that 90% of the free market presupposes the other 10% of defense services. There is nothing illogical about this.

By acknowledging defense services can be provided by the free market, we can have a consistent libertarian theory unimpinged by a State that so clearly contradicts it.

Hahahahahahaha hahahahahahahaha!… You serious?

Yesterday, Michael Lind wrote an article at Salon titled “The questions libertarians just can’t answer.” I have a feeling he was speaking to the mute.

I found Lind’s post so entertaining, I had to make a response. Quotes are italicized, my commentary is not.

If your approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?

If I had to explain why this is a non-sequitur, I think my head might explode. (Hint: can inventions ever be good?)

While there is no purely libertarian country, there are countries which have pursued policies of which libertarians would approve: Chile, with its experiment in privatized Social Security, for example, and Sweden, a big-government nation which, however, gives a role to vouchers in schooling.

These sound like State policies, not libertarian policies.

But think about this for a moment. If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?

After thinking for the mandatory one-mississippi, I realized this was another non-sequitur. It’s right there, he is with a straight face saying “If X1 is discredited by Y, then X2 is discredited by Z.” Y and Z are not in the same class.

The rest of Lind’s article is a comparison of the United States with one other country that is ranked 2 spots better in Heritage’s economic liberty index. The United States surpasses this one country in a few (important, I’ll grant) characteristics, so he’s proven economic liberty sucks (i.e. he doesn’t say anything about the other 9 countries ranked better than the U.S. in said index).

Tom Woods chuckles and Bob Murphy giggles.

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