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.
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.
Image Credit: wallpaperfo.com
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!
Check out this post if you are unfamiliar with tax shifting. It will help in understanding the following.
Rothbard states “Shifting occurs if the immediate taxpayer is able to raise his selling price to cover the tax, thus “shifting” the tax to the buyer, or if he is able to lower the buying price of something he buys, thus “shifting” the tax to some other seller.” (p. 1156)
As he goes on to point out in the case of the general sales tax, however, both a producer’s selling prices go up and buying prices go down. So I thought these clearly could not be the key criteria.
He states “It is true that a tax can be shifted forward, in a sense, if the tax causes the supply of the good to decrease, and therefore the price to rise on the market. This can hardly be called shifting per se, however, for shifting implies that the tax is passed on with little or no trouble to the producer. If some producers must go out of business in order for the tax to be “shifted,” it is hardly shifting in the proper sense but should be placed in the category of other effects of taxation.” (p. 1156-1157)
My issue with Rothbard was, however, that I felt this argument could be flipped on him; Rothbard believed that a sales tax could be shifted backward.
I could say “It is true that a tax can be shifted backward, in a sense, if the tax causes the demand for the factors of the production of the good to decrease, and therefore the price of the factors to fall on the market. Production in this way is hampered, causing supply to decrease and marginal firms to go out of business. This can hardly be called shifting per se, however, for shifting implies that the tax is passed on with little or no trouble to the producer. If some producers must go out of business in order for the tax to be “shifted,” it is hardly shifting in the proper sense but should be placed in the category of other effects of taxation.”
This is because, even in Rothbard’s proposed correct version of events where a tax is shifted backward, supply decreases, meaning marginal firms go out of business.
If the above seems a little confusing to you, try this one instead:
In Murphy’s Study Guide to Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market, he states:
“Tax incidence refers to the actual long-run burden of taxation, which may differ from the immediate target. No tax can be shifted forward. (If retailers had this power, why wait for the tax?)”
That’s basically what I was trying to do, although my response to Rothbard’s is more detailed.
After discussing this with Dr. Herbener, he pointed out that the two cases are not symmetric in the relevant sense. What matters is not whether firms eventually go out of business, but whether firms immediately go out of business as a result of shifting the tax. It’s true that firms eventually go out of business in both scenarios, but in the forward shifting scenario, firms go out of business immediately (as supply decreases – this is the proposed mechanism for tax shifting for this scenario, firms immediately go out of business) while in the backward shifting scenario, firms go out of business eventually (the tax shift occurs earlier, the proposed mechanism being firms paying lower incomes to their facts, which they do not directly go out of business from, but eventually go out of business from because of the “other effects”).
Why is this important? Because the immediate effect is what matters for whether we call it tax shifting or not. If firms go out of business as an immediate effect of shifting the tax, this cannot be properly seen as shifting a tax. However, in every scenario where taxes are added to a free market, there will be “other effects”, or as I have been saying, eventual effects, where people are harmed, including firms. So firms being eventually hurt does not invalidate backward shifting as an example of tax shifting.
In conclusion, yes: a tax can be shifted backward and this is perfectly consistent with Rothbard’s argument against forward shifting.
Often, after someone hears of anarchocapitalism, all sorts of objections on practical grounds are raised. How would the roads be built? How would private defense function? Wouldn’t warlords just take over?
The ironic feature of all these questions is that they are purely speculative. Meanwhile, more fundamental knowledge is on the side of the anarchist libertarian, who points out, e.g. in response to the second question, that not only is there nothing logically incoherent about private defense (you could just defend yourself or hire others, after all), but practically speaking, we have reason to expect private defense to be much more efficient.
Ex ante, two individuals that engage in a voluntary transaction both gain from the trade. Otherwise, they would not have engaged in the trade. So we know that private defense would satisfy the desires of consumers far more effectively than government, an institution completely separated from the satisfaction of preferences.
I find this analogous to the knowing vs. thinking (or believing) distinction. The more fundamental knowledge i.e. knowing, is what we can deduce from human action about voluntary transactions, e.g. that a private defense agency must satisfy the preferences of consumers or it would go out of business, and a more efficient competitor would take its place. The less fundamental knowledge, thinking, is the speculative objection, e.g. that an incentive exists known as the “free rider” incentive and such an incentive could possibly lead to worse defense service production on a free market (for a quick rebuttal, note that the free rider incentive is one of many competing incentives involved in human action. Another, for example, is the desire for social acceptance, and those who paid for a private defense agency could socially reject free riders). Of course, this distinction can be applied to a number of examples.
This is why so many libertarians who read Mises and Rothbard (especially the latter) on economics have no problem imagining a stateless society. If the state can’t manufacture and sell shoes as well as the market, why should we expect it to do better anywhere else? Praxeology, after all, makes no distinction between the content of means or ends, but only discusses the fact that man does have means and ends (and so a consistent application of the praxeological analysis to economics should lead one to taking the libertarian position on every issue when it comes to economic efficiency).
In fact, as I heard Tom Woods say recently, to him it’s so clear a stateless society could work (he did not say this last phrase, but I believe it was a hidden part of his argument; if he ever sees this and doesn’t think this is accurate, then I would take his word over mine), we should accept that as our initial premise and fully accept the non-aggression principle, and those in favor of a State must make their case why a stateless society cannot work. In other words, it should not be up to the libertarian to prove a stateless society could work.
- Tom Woods goes psycho and decides to post
an entirehalf of a college-level course free on YouTube.
- Nope. Thousands of low-ranking analysts in the NSA can listen in on phone conversations without warrants.
- Russell Brand elegantly explains why young people get their news from Comedy Central.
- Wade Roush resists fandom and says Google, Apple, and Facebook will not come out with the next big thing.
- Google politely asks Roush to take it back.
- I tell startups why they should get VoIP.
6/18/2013 11:37 PM: Whoops, just realized Woods only uploaded half of the course to YouTube, not the entire course. Still pretty psycho if you ask me 😉
These guys have hit it out of the park with their interview of Tom Woods. Really unique interview style and questions and unique video-making style as well:
I haven’t heard of them before; their YouTube channel shows their name as “MundaneMedia” but it looks like this is their first interview. From how good this interview was, I expected at least another 10 interviews on their YouTube Channel. They look promising! I hope to see more videos from them soon.
One of the prime features of the free market is that you only have to know that the price does change, but not necessarily the reasons for it.
Money prices are the medium through which the communication of necessary information is made to coordinate effectively the actions of individual planners. As Hayek has pointed out, each particular decision maker does not need to know all the facts pertaining to the changes in resource usage. What is relevant to each is “how much more or less urgently wanted are the alternative things he produces or uses.”  The economic question is always a question of the relative importance of specific things available for the satisfaction of human wants. Each planner does not usually need to know why the relative importance of the things that he uses or produces has changed. What he does need is some indication of the extent to which its relative importance has been altered.
The coordinating function performed by the price system can be illustrated by assuming a sudden shortage of some resource. Those people who will eventually solve the problem of the shortage do not need to understand its cause. The price of a unit of the resource will be driven upward as those who employ it in the most important usages, i.e., use it for the generation of products promising the highest return, outbid those producers who plan to use it in less remunerative products. The shortage has meant that the marginal uses of the resources that could be supplied before the advent of the shortage cannot be provided for as long as the shortage persists. The higher price successfully causes the curtailment of the employment of the resource in its marginal uses. (Thomas C. Taylor, An Introduction to Austrian Economics, 35-36)
…the marvel is that in a case like that of a scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued, without more than perhaps a handful of people knowing the cause, tens of thousands of people whose identity could not be ascertained by months of investigation, are made to use the material or its products more sparingly; that is, they move in the right direction….I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do. (F.A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” p. 87)
When that occurs with credit expansion (the reason) changing the interest rate (the price change), knowledge of the reason would allow an entrepreneur to make proper investments. The fact that he does not know how much of the lowering in the interest rate is due to credit expansion and how much is due to real increased savings is the reason the business cycle must take place. An invaluable market signal tampered with by government intervention loses its prime quality as a signal.
We have just seen that there are two factors that tend to hold down the rate of interest below the level sufficient to allow for the related elements emerging on the market: (1) The implementation of the price premium lags behind the changes in purchasing power stemming from the inflation; and (2) the additional supply of money thrown onto the market has a dampening effect on the interest rate. Concerning the latter point, it must be realized that entrepreneur-producers are unable to differentiate between additional funds that have been artificially created and additional funds emanating from real savings. (Taylor, 93) [my emphasis]
To blame the entrepeneur for not being able to understand the signal misses the point and misunderstands the esteem Austrians hold entrepreneurs with.
Tom Woods sums up this type of thinking very eloquently:
“If the free market is so great, why can’t it operate without the free market?”