Monday, November 26, 2007

The sophistry of liberty?

Andrew Russell has posted a rather well-written critique of the philosophy of liberty.
Over at the Devil's Kitchen, where nuance fears to tread...

Why thank you. It does strike me that an awful lot of people seem to take this blogging lark very seriously; there have been an awful lot of people critiqueing the style in which this internet character likes to write.
... we are presented with nothing less than the philosophy of liberty [hat-tip] - in a Flash animation at that.
...

The whole thing starts with one of the most astonishing assumptions ever taken as an axiom:
"You own your life"

The great thing about axioms of course, is that technically you don't have to do anything as boring as support them with evidence.

Most philosophies start from an essentially unprovable axiom. And, yes, the philosophy of liberty starts with this axiom because without this there is no philosophy of liberty. Liberty simply doesn't matter.
However, anyone who might question this bizarre assertion is immediately warned of the perils with which they flirt:
"To deny this is to imply that someone else has a higher claim on your life than you do."

Dash it all, I was all set to argue the point, but now I realise I might as well just fetter myself and be done. What nonsense. To deny this axiom is simply to reject the absurd conflation of ownership with existence. I live my life. I am my life. But to claim that I "own" my life, presumably in similar fashion to the way I own this PC (which I bought), or my copy of Luther Bisset's "Q" (which was a gift) is meaningless.

I certainly didn't take it as meaning that you own your life like you own a possession, but that you own the right, when faced with a set of choices in your life, freely to make your own decisions. This is a premise that you must accept is you are to belief in any kind of personal liberty. If you don't accept this concept, that's fine; by all means say so.

But without this concept, there are no human rights at all and we can just return to the law of the jungle in which the strongest can dominate the weakest. Is this what you would advocate? Are you denying that you should be able to make your own informed decisions about how you want to live your life?
But it's the second assertion which really highlights a lack of serious thought: there are whole classes of people capabable of exchanging property voluntarily who must not be allowed to do so. Let's just pick one: minors. The kiddies, bless their little hearts.

Really? I had always taken it as read that the reason that we do not allow minors to live their own lives is because they are incapable of being able to make rational, voluntary decisions (which is why we have the concept of "an age of consent"). I had always just assumed that the animation applied to adults in their right minds who are capable of rational thought.

Evidently, I was just a crazy fool in assuming that people might understand that a rational understanding of the consequences of an action was a prequisite for making a voluntary consensual choice.

Of course, you could argue this another way, and say that—if this philosophy does include children (or any others that are deemed irrational, e.g. the insane)—that they have made a contract, through rational choice, to subsume some of their practical freedom for a limited time in exchange for protection and succour. As you like really.
You see? You thought you lived in a democratic society, which had collectively decided to a) submit to the will of the electorate...

"Collectively decided"? Ah, you mean that other people made a decision for me and never actually bothered to ask me what I think about it? That's the joy of collectivism, isn't it?

Libertarianism does, of course, allow for voluntary collectivisation, but the emphasis is on the word "voluntary", of course.
... and b) empower the government to collect taxes to provide a safety net for poor people, but no! You have empowered fine-hatted governmental officials to deprive others of their justly earned property; you have tolerated the initiation of force for your own ends.

Yes, quite. Your own end is that you think that the government should provide a safety net for the poor; this may be because you have a social conscience or because you are one of the poor but you are, ultimately, still doing it—voting for it, if you like—for your own ends. Otherwise, you wouldn't do it.

But since when did living in a society equate to empowering a state to provide a safety net for the poor (although that is not to say that I would not opt to do so)? Has the state provided a safety net for poor people for the entirety of human history? No. In fact, it is a relatively new phenomenon.

Essentially, in Andrew's world, we have all "collectively decided" (without actually being asked) to live in a democracy (the particular implementation of which, as of the last election, forces 78.4% of the electorate to "submit to the will" of the other 21.6%) and to "collect taxes to provide a safety net for poor people".

Still, at least Andrew is consistent, for this state of affairs is entirely at ease with Andrew's (assumed, on my part, I'll admit) belief that we should not have a right to make our own decisions about the choices in our lives.
What is perhaps worse: you have deprived the poor of their glorious failure, from which they could learn and grow. (The poverty of others is always a noble and inspiring thing, isn't it?)

For someone who entitled his article "the sophistry of liberty", this is taking something of... well... a liberty; the full sentence reads as follows:
Success and failure are both the necessary incentives to learn and grow.

Success and failure, you see? Not simply failure. Need we point to the various self-made millionaires, or those who have come from poor backgrounds to become successes (in whatever way they might measure that term).

Many of them—indeed, many of the born-rich—have even set up charities so that they might voluntarily help those who are poor or disadvantaged (demonstrating that the state is not the only agent that can deliver a safety net).

Is failure "glorious"? No; it's usually painful and humiliating. But it does teach. My last company was a failure, but I understand why it failed and, having learned from that, I now have now put much better options in place and am doing far better. Failure does teach, sometimes rather more so than success.

But, fundamentally, all that this exchange demonstrates is that, if you come from a different mindset, you can never agree. Andrew is, I assume, a collectivist: at the very least he will be more in favour of positive liberty than negative liberty. I favour the latter, so I can appreciate the philosophy of liberty as laid out in the animation; Andrew does not and thus denies the first axiom without which the philosophy is void. Fair enough.

But I would still challenge the idea that even if you believe in a safety net (in whatever form), that the state is the best organ for delivery. And for me, even if you do believe that the state is the best form to do so, if the state is taking more money from you than you would be willing to give voluntarily, it is still theft (or, rather, extortion with menaces).

And it follows that, if you think that the state is the best organ for delivery, it is because you do not believe that others would give as much as you; thus you are sanctioning the forced removal of property from others (even if not from yourself) and that you are, indeed, condoning the "initiation of force for your own ends".

You may think that those ends are noble, but fundamentally they are your ends and not the ends of others. For if others truly shared your motivation, you would not need to use the threat, or actuation, of force in order to make them comply. In effect, you wouldn't need the power of the state at all: it would merely be a mechanism for delivery.

And if the state is only a mechanism for delivery, is it really the most efficient mechanism that you can think of? With every pound going into the Treasury being worth roughly 30p by the time it comes out, not to mention the other problems (overpayments, underpayments, delaying payments, fraud, etc., that often most harm those that you are trying to help), then surely there must be more efficient means of delivering your largesse to the poor? I would suggest that there are.

In which case, if there are more efficient means of delivery that the state, then what is the point of the state (leaving aside issues of criminal law, etc. for the moment)? By this logic, there is no point to it, of course, apart from to curb people's freedom by forcing them to pay money in taxes in order to provide the safety net for the poor, etc.

So, either you believe that the state is needed because people would not voluntarily give (enough) money to the poor, in which case you must accept the premise of the animation that taxes are theft; or you should accept that you do not need the state (because everyone will give voluntarily) and thus accept the premise that people own their own lives and that they have the freedom to make whatever choices they deem best.

Unless, of course, you feel that some human beings are naturally higher than others and should be able to coerce them without the assistance and special powers of the state? In which case, I would love to hear the premises for that idea.

52 comments:

Bill Sticker said...

DK

Methinks Mr Andrew Russell should go out and get a proper job of work so he might one day learn the real value of liberty. Those who preach collectivist philosophies I have found are generally idle bastards who just like telling others what to do without making any real contribution themselves.

The boy's a fool.

Regards

Bill

Vindico said...

Excellent rebuttal, DK.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Pragmatism is the New Libertarianism!

You don't need to justify pragmatism in any way shape or form, there is no arguing over 'belief systems' or 'philossphies', you just look at what works and what doesn't, and then do the stuff that does.

We have an almsot infinite amount of real life experiments showing which things governments and societies around the world do (and have done) are a) successful and b) which things have failed miserably and/or totally backfired.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Mark,

As I have stated a number of times, I am primarily a consequentialist libertarian; that is I am anti-state because it is shit.

So, pretty much the same result as you arrived at...

DK

p said...

The issue around children (and animals) is one that's been considered philosophically on many occasions.

Google 'Non-Autonomous Sentient Beings'.

Top of the list for my search was a link to 'Thirteen Things That Are Wrong With Libertarianism' - not a great start ;-)

A little further down was a link to Vallentyne's oft quoted paper.

Note that this is not solely a problem for libertarian thought, but a much wider ethical question.

Devil's Kitchen said...

"Top of the list for my search was a link to 'Thirteen Things That Are Wrong With Libertarianism' - not a great start ;-)"

Some of those arguments have validity, some are just horseshit, e.g. this idea of the free market as a moral entity as opposed to a process.

I may fisk it when I get a moment.

Thanks for the link to Vallentyne; I'll have a read. I have actually read very little on any of these subjects; the vast majority of what I write comes out of the top of my head, based on what I think and how I reason, rather than any received wisdom.

DK

Devil's Kitchen said...

P.S. In the follow up to The Thirteen..., Jon says this.

"I stand by my appropriation of Galbraith’s quote based on the main thrust of Galbraith’s work, which was that as societies become relatively more affluent, private business tends to eclipse the public sector, and due to a need of private business to create or manufacture consumer wants to sustain themselves, the public sector becomes neglected."

I've not read Galbraith, but did he write in an isolation tank? I mean, if you look back on the last thousand years of human history, is it true that the "private sector" has eclipsed the public sector?

No, the public sector has to have some kind of economic activity to raise taxes from and so the private sector must come first. The public sector, almost by definition, must grow as a proportion of the private sector...

DK

p said...

the vast majority of what I write comes out of the top of my head, based on what I think and how I reason, rather than any received wisdom

Quite right too - common sense 'aint so common these days :-)

Incidentally, if you do get around to reading the Vallentyne piece, bear in mind that I don't personally agree with him at all - it's simply that it's oft quoted, and has some good sources listed for further reading...

Tom said...

Just quickly, DK. You say, "Success and failure are both the necessary incentives to learn and grow", and claim that this disproves one of Andrew's claims. But, according to that sentence, both success and failure are, therefore, necessary. Failure is, therefore, necessary. I therefore fail to see what your quibble is with Andrew's claim that you believe that failure is necessary.

To put it another way, if you'd argued "People need food and water to grow" and Andrew had said "DK says people need water to grow", it would be weird to say that Andrew was wrong to say that you think that people need water to grow, simply because he hadn't mentioned the part about food.

You really do think that failure is necessary for growth. Andrew really does think you're wrong. You might be right. But he hasn't misrepresented you.

Incidentally, Andrew doesn't just deny the axiom "You own your life". He argues against it. So when you say:

Andrew does not [favour negative liberty over positive liberty], and thus denies the first axiom without which the philosophy is void.

you are misrepresenting him. In fact, his denial is based on an argument: the idea that "you own your life" is based on a category mistake. Andrew explains why he thinks this - he makes an argument, rather than simply making an assertion about the relative importance of positive and negative liberty. You might disagree with him, but you need an argument to explain why it makes sense to say that your relationship towards your own life is one of "ownership" rather than "existence" - i.e. why it makes sense to think that "you" and "your life" can be meaningfully separated from each other.

(To put it another way, Andrew is arguing that "You own your life" isn't axiomatic.)

I'm sure you've got all the arguments you need to prove him wrong.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Good point, although it does seem to me that if you do not own your life, then who does own it? It seems to me that we are having a symantic argument about what "life" means in this context.

In a way, I don't think that it actually matters, and the reason is that the animation makes quite clear that no human being has any higher moral rights than another human being.

Therefore no other human being can legitimately own your life (in whatever way you define it). So either you own your life, or nobody does: in either scenario you are free to make the choices that you wish to.

Also, as ph pointed out in the comments over there...

""You own your life" means no more than that your life belongs to you. If your life doesn't belong to you who does it belong to? Like it or not people have been and continue to be traded as objects and consequently the distinction you make between your life and yourself is meaningless.If you do not believe that peoples lives belong to themselves on what basis would you object to slavery?"

DK

Tom said...

I'm not sure "Your life belongs to you" gets us any further - "you own x" uncontroversially means "x belongs to you", but Andrew is claiming that this - ownership of your life - is what makes no sense.

It might, rhetorically at least, be a good response to claims that slavery is a good thing (in the case of slavery, and in very few other cases, "ownership" really is at stake), but this isn't an argument we usually have to have these days - not that I'm belittling slavery or denying that it still goes on, just that you won't find many people seriously defending it (I wouldn't). I'm not sure how useful it is in response to claims that, say, you should obey the law or pay your taxes or tidy your room.

So "You own your life" is a (perhaps rather badly-worded) way of saying something like "You can do whatever you like"?

Is that fair?

("You can do whatever you like" is a much more controversial claim, and difficult to use as an unargued axiom - so I accept I might not be rephrasing "You own your life" justly here.)

Devil's Kitchen said...

I am not sure I like that either: I thought that I'd summed it up reasonably when I said that "owning your own life" meant "you own the right, when faced with a set of choices in your life, freely to make your own decisions."

DK

Tom said...

How, if at all, does "You own the right, when faced with a set of choices in your life, freely to make your own decisions" differ from "You can do whatever you like"?

It might implicitly add the caveat "within the boundaries of logical and physical possibility", but I'd have thought that went without saying, really.

However, if you start introducing issues of law, power, comparative strength and so on - what we might call "the real world" - then you don't have freedom to make your own decisions any more, because the choices are presented with are severely restricted, and presumably part of the point of "You own your life" is to argue that at least some of these restrictions are illegitimate. Isn't it?

I guess what I'm asking is: what do "when faced with a set of choices in your life" and "freely to make your own decisions" mean? Do you mean any choices in your life and completely freely, or do you think some constraints exist? And if the latter, what constraints?

In other words, what's wrong with my characterisation of "You own your life" as "You can do whatever you like"?

Or, to put it another way, how much of your life do you think you own? And if it's less than 100%, doesn't that disprove the axiom?

Devil's Kitchen said...

Tom,

My aversion to "you can do whatever you like" is two-fold.

1) It's a phrase that people inimicable to this concept would simply love to highjack, citing the whole theory as selfish. Enough people seem to conflate libertarians with libertines as it is.

2) It simply isn't true. You cannot choose to grow wings and fly, for instance.

"It might implicitly add the caveat "within the boundaries of logical and physical possibility", but I'd have thought that went without saying, really."

Yes, but that is precisely the kind of thing that we are having this discussion about, surely? To me, the idea that one owns one's own life goes without saying.

But that's not entirely what I meant: I was couching in those terms lest I be attacked along the lines of a poor person cannot simply choose to go to an expensive public school (which is not, of course, a choice that they can make).

Perhaps it would be better to say, "You own the right, when faced with your life choices, freely to make your own decisions"?

DK

Andrew Russell said...

I just wanted to drop in and say that (contrary to what Bill's tea-leaves may have told him) I'm currently at work (in the private sector, if such a thing can be believed) but hopefully I'll be able to put up a response tonight. For those of you who just can't wait, allow me to foreshadow my response by saying that I very much agree with the line Tom is taking.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Cheers, Andrew; I'll look forward to it.

I'll admit, the definition is proving to be a bit of a poser. I more or less know what I mean, and I know what I don't mean, but...

DK

Longrider said...

But I do own my life and I did not agree to submit to the will of the electorate.

Tom said...

Clearly, "Ah, but you can't grow wings and fly" is an extremely silly critique of libertarianism, or indeed of any political philosophy. Anyone who tries it can easily be ridiculed. Not a problem.

But your argument now seems to be that the poor have fewer choices than the rich - not "You own your life" but "You own those bits of your life that you can afford", which looks remarkably like "If you are poor, you don't own your own life". Is that a fair characterisation of your position?

Also, there are a number of "options" which you might like to have but which in fact you don't have for various reasons which are beyond your control and for which you are not responsible: physical impossibility; logical impossibility; poverty; illegality; stronger people getting in your way; foreseeable unwelcome consequences which for whatever reason you are not prepared to bear; lots of others (we can all make our own lists). I get the impression that you think that some of these are legitimate and some aren't, but I'm not at all clear how you differentiate between them. Any ideas?

Poor people can't decide to go to public school (because they don't have the money); you can't decide to kill someone (because you'll be arrested); you can't decide to pay someone less than the minimum wage (because you'll be arrested). Are these restrictions on your life choices all the same kind of thing? Why (not)?

More to the point, for all the emphasis on "your life choices", I just don't understand what you're distinguishing "your life choices" from. It looks like you think that there are some "life choices", which I could physically and logically make, which are not in fact mine to make (perhaps the choice to stop you doing something) - if not, then the word "your" isn't doing any work. If I have the power to stop you doing something, why isn't that one of my life choices? Or is it? Which are your life choices, and what's wrong with me using my life choices to stop you making them, if I want to?

I guess my point is that it looks to me like you don't think "You own your life" at all - that "You own your life" is so hedged with qualifications and caveats as to be meaningless.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Tom,

"But your argument now seems to be that the poor have fewer choices than the rich - not "You own your life" but "You own those bits of your life that you can afford", which looks remarkably like "If you are poor, you don't own your own life". Is that a fair characterisation of your position?"

No, not at all. We are still trying to define what owning your own life means, correct?

The poor are every bit as free to make decisions as the rich. Everyone is free to make their own decisions, as long as those decisions do not actively impinge on the freedom of others to make decisions.

A poor person can make a decision to try hard at school, just as a rich person can choose not to try at school, etc.

However, what people like Andrew would try to say is that people are not on the same level, and are thus not free, because their choices are materially different.

I am arguing precisely against that: that everyone is free to make a choice given the circumstances in which they find themselves and this is the way in which they own their life.

"Poor people can't decide to go to public school (because they don't have the money) [1]; you can't decide to kill someone (because you'll be arrested) [2]; you can't decide to pay someone less than the minimum wage (because you'll be arrested) [3]. Are these restrictions on your life choices all the same kind of thing? Why (not)?"

1) That's life. But you are free to make your choices, and thus own your own life, within that framework.

2) You impinge on their liberty (and life) so is wrong (in libertarian thought). Ultimately, you will be punished because it is wrong.

3) This is an arbitrary law and not really relevent to the discussion.

I should probably try to answer this in a post but I have to ask, since you have ascribed so much to what you imagine I think, what is your position? How would you define, "you own your own life"?

Is it as "you can do whatever you want"?

DK

Tom said...

First, to answer your final question: I wouldn't. I'm asking you what you think it means, because it's a position you claim to hold and I'm interested in what you think it means and you haven't explained it coherently yet. I don't (so far as I can make any sense of it) hold that position myself. Since my view is that the position is either incoherent or untenable or both, I tend to think that defining it is probably a mug's game. Fortunately for me, this is your problem, not mine. As they say, you started it.

Anyway, I'm very interested in your points (2) and (3), because they get to the heart of what we both think this discussion is about. For me, without wanting to get all pretentious, this is a discussion about political philosophy: about the question "How do we live together?" or "How should society best be organised?" I'm not sure you're interested in the same question.

We both agree that murder is wrong. But your "ultimately, you will be punished because it is wrong" confuses me. Who will punish me? On what (or whose) authority? Is it magic? Karma? A lynch mob? Some sort of criminal justice system? If it's that, who set it up, and do I have a say? You will agree that whatever your answer, you are suggesting some limits on what I get to do, some external force impinging my freedom. If this is what I want to do with my life, and you're not going to let me do it, then it looks to me like I don't own my life. In terms of the overall discussion, it looks like you're refusing to engage with the political philosophy question "How do we decide together what behaviour is and is not acceptable, and how do we react to unacceptable behaviour?" and engaging only with the question "Killing: a good thing, or not?" Your answer to the second question (killing, it seems, is a bad thing - well done you) tells me nothing useful about your answer to the first.

Meanwhile (you can see where this is going, I'm sure) you think that minimum wage legislation is arbitrary, and therefore "not really relevant to the discussion". You'll forgive me if I say "You what?" This is a discussion of the choices we get to make and the choices we don't get to make. I give an example of a choice we don't get to make because there are (rightly or wrongly) laws against it. And you tell me this is irrelevant. But this is precisely what the discussion is about. There are some things which (really) infringe our choices, and I'm trying to tease out which ones you think are legitimate and which ones aren't. You might think that minimum wage laws are illegitimate, but I don't see why they're any more or less illegitimate than any other laws, including the one in (2). What is your basis for saying that some laws are legitimate and others aren't? Both are imposed on me.

I don't like killing people either (so I never, ever do it). But the point of law is that it prohibits certain behaviours, and imposes penalties for doing them, because some people really do want to do them, and really do do them. If nobody ever wanted to kill anyone, we wouldn't need laws against murder. Murderers' and potential murderers' freedom is being impinged, by the law. They are not "free to make a choice given the circumstances in which they find themselves and this is the way in which they own their life". They don't "own their life", because you want to stop them doing stuff. On what basis do you want to punish these people?

- Bear in mind that "killing is wrong" completely fails to cut it as an answer.

- If you think that other laws are arbitrary, then "most people think that killing is wrong" also fails to cut it, because most people think all sorts of weird shit (including supporting the minimum wage).

- As for "I don't want to live in a society in which people get to kill each other": well, who the fuck asked you, and why should I give a shit what society you want to live in, and what makes your view so much better than anyone else's? How do we evaluate between competing positions? Do the strongest guys win? My experience of the strongest guys is that they don't think killing is wrong. So should we have a vote? Cool! Do we get to vote on minimum wage legislation too? Why not?

You say, "Everyone is free to make their own decisions, as long as those decisions do not actively impinge on the freedom of others to make decisions." Who decides which decisions do and do not impinge on the freedom of others to make decisions? And where those decisions do impinge on the freedom of others, who stops them?

The point is: you think that some external force should be used to put limits on my otherwise free action. I want to know: What force? Which actions? On what basis? Who decides? How do I own my own life?

ENGLISHMAN said...

One can not say that you own your own life,for there would have to be an owner and an owned,this is the path to delusion because you are one, a whole exsistence,if you are murdered,to whom does the ownership pass?
In the present difficulties that we find ourselves in with regard to the eussr,and our "pretender" in downing street,it will be observed that we are not free,our chains are as long as our masters want them to be,we have no voice in political decisions,or control over our lives to any meaningfull extent,you can only buy what they are willing to sell to you,and if it all has nike logos on it,they have put us in uniform,and when we can no longer create a profit for them,we are discarded like rubbish, to dribble our last while being evicted from a care home.
As for life chances and choices,all of them are little more than a guess for who can see into the future,who would want to and destroy such a beauty.
Thanks to all concerned for a plesant discussion.

Budgie said...

All philosophy starts from axioms, or premises. An axiom exists - it is not a reason. It is the resultant conclusions that are the measure of an axiom's validity.

"You own your own life" is such an axiom. It is stated in order to exclude any one or any thing else owning you. The axiom does not require that "you" and "your life" are separate. Otherwise there would be problems talking about "my own brain".

Tom carefully avoids answering the question "If you don't own your own life, who (or what) does?" Unfortunately statists in all ages have answered "the state owns your life". The consequences have been terrible.

The axiom that you own your own life implies all humans do so. This means you cannot "do what you like" because it will interfere with others ownership of their lives. In particular the conclusion that murder is wrong can be derived from this. The minimum wage is indeed irrelevant because you can exist without it, but you cannot exist without your own life.

Anonymous said...

This reads like an argument between Ayn Rand and slick willie...

A.R. - 'A is A'

bubba - 'Well, that depends what your meaning of "is" is'

Tom said...

Tom carefully avoids answering the question "If you don't own your own life, who (or what) does?"

No. The point is that this is a bogus question. I'm not saying that someone else rather than you owns your life. I'm saying that it's not coherent to think of anyone owning your life - to think of humanity as anyone's property. Indeed, I think that's quite a dangerous line to go down.

There's a big difference between denying that an axiom makes sense and asserting that the opposite of the axiom is true. For example:

"Your life is purple."
"No it isn't."
"Well, what colour is it then?"

If I say your life isn't purple, I could be saying that your life is actually yellow, but in fact I'm saying that it just doesn't make sense to think of your life as having a colour. Same here.

Roger Thornhill said...

tom,

Your logic re: purple, yellow is correct in itself, but then if you deny that someone does not own their life, then how can they work for a living? Surely working is the lease/rent/sale of a portion of their lifetime and only the owner of the property has the right to sale/rent/lease property and keep the proceeds.

This is why income tax is seen by some as the State "owning" your life by always having first call upon the fruits of your labour (unless they are so genrous an'dumble in giving you a tax allowance...).

Paulie said...

I think that what Tom is edging towards, Roger, is that the whole basis of this slightly illiterate version of 'libertarianism' (trans: Poujadism looking for a cloak of ideological respectability) is built upon sand.

The notion that 'you own your life' is - itself - nonsensical, and Tom has demonstrated this very well. So if you extrapolate anything from that notion, you are likely to reach a nonsensical conclusion.

And when you say "...this is why income tax is seen by some as the State "owning" your life by always having first call upon the fruits of your labour (unless they are so genrous an'dumble in giving you a tax allowance...)", the 'some' in that sentence are the bloggertarians.

Off topic, just out of interest, have you still got that hilarious bit of photoshopping on your site where you imply that there is no difference between working in Britain and working in Auschwitz?

With logic like that, reasoning with you is a bit like reasoning with a creationist. Pointless.

Tom said...

Roger, I'll be polite and ignore your "if you deny that someone does not" double negative: of course one can perfectly coherently deny that "owning one's life" makes sense, while asserting that one can choose to work in return for an income. It just doesn't make sense to think of one's relationship with one's life in terms of property rights. Apart from anything else, this seems to be a claim that when one is working, one (temporarily) doesn't own one's life after all because someone else has paid for ownership - which is in itself a denial of the axiom we're discussing (it turns into "You own your life unless you have a job, in which case your employer does"), and presumably this isn't where you wanted the argument to go. It all gets very silly indeed, I think, although I accept that you may be keener on a Marxist-style analysis of the relationship of the labourer to the employer in capitalist society than I am. I must say I never expected to be castigated in Devil's Kitchen's comments box for not being Marxist enough by a man who uses his own blog to make "hilarious" and "apt" comparisons between the current British government and the Nazis.

Anyway, the question I was more interested in, and which nobody has attempted to answer (which is fine - you're not under any obligation, and you can believe whatever nonsense you like) is about what the hell you think "You own your life" means, and how the hell you reconcile your belief that "You own your life" with your belief that it's nevertheless right for external forces to limit your action without your consent. It looks rather like you just don't, and you take whichever side of the contradiction suits you at the time.

Budgie talks about the derivation of the conclusion "murder is wrong" from the axiom that "You own your life". Well, if that's where you want to take it, fine. But, as I said before, the murderer doesn't just get punished by magic. Someone's got to do it. Concluding that murder is wrong is the easy bit. Are you lazy, or have you just not spotted that you're missing a few steps?

Who prevents the various kinds of behaviour you identify which interfere with others' ownership of their lives? How do they derive their right to prevent it - to impose force on other people? Do they wear fine hats? It looks to me as if, once you start wanting to prohibit certain actions, you stop believing that "You own your life" at all, because you want to impose limits on other people's behaviour. And then you seek to get around this by refusing to discuss the issue at the level of politics, and engaging with it only on the level of idealised ethics - which, as I say, is the easy bit. It's a total cop-out - and, more to the point, it's total and utter bollocks.

I thought you wanted to use "You own your life" as the starting-point for a set of suggestions about how society should be organised. It turns out that that's too difficult for you, and you just want to use it as the starting point for a set of suggestions about how people ought to behave if only they were nicer.

And I thought that you went around calling people cunts because you thought it was cool or funny or something. I'm a bit disappointed to discover that it's actually the outcome of your entire philosophy: since everyone "owns their life" you have no moral basis for actually doing anything about people who do things you disapprove of, apart from shouting "You're cunts" at them.

No wonder you're cross.

Sacerdote said...

Everybody owns their life. This is what I think it means.

1. No one else may own it without your consent. This means that slavery is wrong, but that you can rent yourself out to other people if you choose to. Under whatever conditions you choose.

2. No one may end it or impair it without your consent. This means that murder is wrong, as is assulting/raping/stealing from people. There are nuances here about psychological harm, but the principle stands.

3. You may dispose of it as you see fit. This means that taking drugs is ok, as is suicide. Steaing stuff to pay for you drugs is not ok. Nor is beating people up when you are high (from 2.)

4. Ownership implies responsibility. You cannot blame other people for your life being shit, nor try and force other people to improve your condition (again from 2.)

There's probably more, but I think from this formulation of life as property one can reasonably derive the basic rules for a civilised society.

As far as enforcement goes: in an ideal world there would be no need for police and governments, as they are only required for the people who do not use these rules and cheat. Yes it would be good if people were nicer, but they are not. In the real world we need some system of policing, but that does not make it a good thing. Only the lesser of two evils, and as such should be kept to an absolute minimum.

That is imho the difference between a libertarian and a statist. Only the statist regards laws as an intrinsically good thing.

Andrew Russell said...

Sacerdote,

"Renting out my life" is an entirely inadequate description of my relationship with my employer. I am not paid for my charming conversation, dashing good looks, infantile sense of humour or pre-occupation with TV series "Heroes". I am paid simply to produce work - yet all of the above (yes, all of it) is inseparably part of my life, and features in my working day. Is my employer now in sole charge of all that? Does she control my thoughts? Or is she, in fact, just exchanging money for a specific form of labour?

Secondly, it's not enough to show that "murder is bad" or that any other "basic rule for a civilized society" follows from the premise "you own your life". It's trivially easy to derive your rules above from the premise "We are the creations of a loving God" or even "human beings matter".

Thirdly, you are glossing over some significant problems when you blandly state "we need some system of policing".
1)Who is going to make the rules?
2)Who is going to enforce the rules?
3)What gives them that power?
4)Are there any aspects of my life they cannot rule on?
5)If yes, what separates those from the aspects they can rule on?
6)Who decides the answer to 4) and 5)?
7)If I agree with some of their rules but not others, which is it moral for me to obey?
8)If others can limit my choices and control my behaviour, do I really own my life? How much control, of what nature, suffices to confiscate my life?

Paulie said...

I love it! 'Bloggertarians for Indentured Labour!'

Yeah! Where do I join?

Sacerdote said...

Andrew,

Firstly, "Renting out your life" seems to me to be a fair description, bearing in mind that you are choosing the conditions of the rental. You are not renting out the entirety of your existence, only some of it. It's hard to see how you could rent it all out all of the time. Even a slave has his own charming conversation, dashing good looks, infantile sense of humour or pre-occupation with TV series "Heroes".

However, you are not free, generally, at work to watch telly, get drunk, sleep etc. You also, generally have to perform the labour which your employer requires. All these things are true of slaves as well, except that you have the right to terminate your arrangement, which a slave does not. (As an aside, this is why our relationship with the government is closer to that of slaves, than that of employees.)

Secondly, I agree with you, I was entirely glossing over the problems, and without wishing to minimise the difficulties of maintaining order in a civilised society, I think that the overriding principle should be to implement only those controls which are absolutely needful, and no more. Thus no silly laws about what I can do with my own body, but punishments for murder.

As for your numbered points I think I'm with Winston Churchill when he said that Democracy was the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried, although sometimes I do wonder. However Democracy is not incompatible with minarchism, which is essentially what I'm advocating.

Andrew R said...

Sacerdote,

Democracy isn't necessarily incompatible with minarchism, but somehow we've never yet seen people vote themselves into a minarchist state. Why do you think that is?

My suggestion would be that the answer lies in your phrasing above:
"only those laws which are absolutely needful, and no more"

Trouble is, people - even minarchists - will disagree about what laws are absolutely needful. Almost certainly, no-one has ever said to themselves "time to go and vote for a needless law, by golly!" Yet you would argue that they have done this most of the time. Is the majority of humanity really so deluded?

To take one example that I bet would be contentious even among minarchists, would a ban on abortion be "a silly law about what I can do with my body" or "punishment for murder"? You might have one answer, but unless you're going to play "No True Minarchist" then you'll almost certainly have opposition. So either the minarchist state will be "failing to protect its citizens" or "exceeding its proper authority", depending on your point of view.

The point is, a democracy will always produce solutions which a proportion of its members will object to. One response is to argue that any decisions one disagrees with are fundamentally illegitimate; another is to stop whining.

Sacerdote said...

Well, it seems to me that up until relatively recently, vitually everyone lived in a minarchy. A few hundred years ago we had no police, no income tax, no social security, no universal schooling and no national health service.

And I'm afraid I have to disagree about the degree of certainty of people passing needless laws. The current Dangerous Pictures legislation is a fine example of a totally needless law, as are the Id cards. The problem is that there is one group with a vested interest in passing laws, needful or otherwise, and thats the politicians. It's their job, after all. It's important that they be seen to 'do something' whenever there's an event.

I don't think that people are deluded, but I do think that most people aren't that bright (50% of people are of below average intelligence, after all). Also I think that when there's a perceived choice between freedom and safety, people go for safety most of the time. Lastly I think that people tend to vote in direct alignment with their own perceived interests, regardless of the common good.

The abortion law is a tricky one because its not just one's own body that one is talking about, but also the body of an unborn child. No-one cares if I cut my hair or nails because thats definitely me, but there is contention over whether a fetus has its own rights or not, and if so, when these rights come into being. So yes it's stil contentious.

Contention is not a bad thing. There is no perfect society. And I agree that even minarchists will have disgreements about whether it is "failing to protect its citizens" or "exceeding its proper authority", however, I contend you could dismantle at least 90% of the current state apparatus before you reach that point.

Paulie said...

Come on Sacerdote. Time to take off the mask now. Hi-jacking Devil's Kitchen's comments boxes with a sophisticated lefty spoof is just not cricket.

Coming out with absurd parodies of bloggertarianism isn't the way to make your point.

I think that the arguments stand up for themselves without this sarcastic parody, so knock it off.

(Is it you Pootergeek?)

Sacerdote said...

Apologies if I'm hijacking, but I'm afraid they're all my own views. Do point out the absurdities in more detail. And I don't think lefty views need spoofing, really. They mostly do that themselves.

Tom said...

I tend to think that pointing out the absurdities in more detail would destroy everyone's will to live.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Andrew,

""Renting out my life" is an entirely inadequate description of my relationship with my employer. I am not paid for my charming conversation, dashing good looks, infantile sense of humour or pre-occupation with TV series "Heroes". I am paid simply to produce work - yet all of the above (yes, all of it) is inseparably part of my life, and features in my working day. Is my employer now in sole charge of all that? Does she control my thoughts? Or is she, in fact, just exchanging money for a specific form of labour?"

Yes, that is exactly what she is doing. And it is labour that you choose to do, and you choose to abide by the conditions that she sets whilst you are doing that labour.

I don't think that I understand what the problem is here.

Tom,

"I thought you wanted to use "You own your life" as the starting-point for a set of suggestions about how society should be organised. It turns out that that's too difficult for you, and you just want to use it as the starting point for a set of suggestions about how people ought to behave if only they were nicer."

It would be lovely if no one broke the rules but they do.

The animation is an idealised view, of course it is. But it is, if you like, a starting point for the practical application of laws in a society.

As it happens, I view myself as a minarchist, i.e. I acknowledge that some form of state -- with powers over and above what a normal person has -- is necessary; otherwise, as you and others have pointed out, how would we be able to detain criminals?

Having said that again, my ideal state would be one which is solely concerned with the protection of citizens. In that capacity, it would essentially only run Defence (protection of citizens from other aggressive* states) and Criminal Justice (protection of citizens from the aggression* of other citizens).

I do not think that the state should be running health, education, etc. mainly because it does so so extraordinarily badly. As I have pointed out before, my political position derives principally from "consequentialist libertarianism": the state does things badly so it should do as little as possible.

DK


* In this instance, I am using "aggression" to mean force and fraud, etc.

Tom said...

Seriously, DK, do you not see how you are totally ignoring all the difficult questions? There are loads in the thread, but for convenience why don't you start with Andrew's questions 1-8, above?

Given that much of this discussion is about what on earth you think you mean by the claim "You own your life", perhaps you could focus in particular on question 8.

(You don't have to, obviously. I'm just that, despite myself, I'm quite interested.)

Tom said...

By the way, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the juxtaposition of this, by Paulie:

I love it! 'Bloggertarians for Indentured Labour!'

Yeah! Where do I join?


with this, by Sacerdote:

Well, it seems to me that up until relatively recently, vitually everyone lived in a minarchy. A few hundred years ago we had no police, no income tax, no social security, no universal schooling and no national health service.

I'll give you this: you really know how to make a political philosophy sound appealing.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Tom,

I shall do my best. Before I start, I should reiterate a couple of things. As I stated above, I view that philosophy as being an ideal, rather than a practical working model.

Second, my views are far from set in stone. However, I do find the problem that you have with the concept of one owning one's own life totally incomprehensible.

Third, on a general note, the thing that I find most entertaining is that I have posted that video at least four times previously: I had to transcribe it for easy reading before anyone would engage with it.

Anyway, onto the questions.

"Thirdly, you are glossing over some significant problems when you blandly state "we need some system of policing"."

One does tend to gloss over this because it is a complicated situation. However, it is not incompatible with minarchism, which does allow for a small state.

"1)Who is going to make the rules?"

The rules derive from the libertarian principles, i.e. the laws are only those that apply to stop force or fraud against a person.

Presumably, the libertarian principles would be enshrined in a Constitution, and the actual laws drafted by *shudder* lawyers. However, they shouldn't need to be tremendously complicated.

If you are asking about democratic legitimacy, I suppose that you could have referenda at various stages.

"2)Who is going to enforce the rules?"

The criminal justice system, run by the state as I said in the comment above.

"3)What gives them that power?"

Power enshrined in the Constitution for the state to act to protect its citizens. Ultimately, the state is given power by legitimate vote by the citizens.

"4)Are there any aspects of my life they cannot rule on?"

Ideally, yes. They should not be able to rule on anything that I do that does not affect the freedom of others.

It should be, for instance, none of the state's business whether or not I take drugs. If, however, I harm someone when on drugs (or when totally sober, for that matter) then it becomes a matter for the criminal courts.

"5)If yes, what separates those from the aspects they can rule on?"

As above.

"6)Who decides the answer to 4) and 5)?"

I'm not quite sure what you mean here. However, if you mean "how do you get them to stick to that" then a binding Constitution is the only way (or, of course, the people voting them out at the end of the term, etc.).

"7)If I agree with some of their rules but not others, which is it moral for me to obey?"

If the laws are laid out as described, i.e. the only laws that exist are those that prevent the curtailment of others' freedom, it is not moral for you break any of them.

The rule of law is pretty fundamental to a libertarian society, even that idealised version in the video.

Since it is a society based on voluntary trade, property rights are an essential: you cannot trade what you do not own. If you do, it is fraud and thus there are laws against it.

"8)If others can limit my choices and control my behaviour, do I really own my life? How much control, of what nature, suffices to confiscate my life?"

You own your life as long as you stay within the law. If you are imprisoned for breaking the law, you own your own life again upon release.

The whole "own your own life" is a cipher for "you make your own decisions". If you make a decision to break the law, that is still your decision: however, you have made that decision knowing that there are consequences to you, e.g. incarceration.

DK

Devil's Kitchen said...

P.S. In some ways, even when incarcerated, you still own aspects of your life.

That is why I am against the death penalty or, as someone suggested once, mutilation (steralising paedophiles, for instance) because that implies that the state stil owns a part of your life even after you are released (though, obviously, that'll not happen with the death penalty. But you get the gist).

DK

Roger Thornhill said...

Tom

Firstly, if you are suggesting that I go around calling people 'cunts', I would ask you to provide links to that effect - and it would have to be more than the odd one to justify "going around".

Secondly, yes, you are right to gloss over the double negative typo, otherwise it would have made you out to be a pedant.

sacerdote has dealt with the issue of the workplace that you and Andrew raise - it is not the narrow, absolutist situation as you both suggested.

People's lives are curbed all the time - to suggest anyone can do whatever they want is absurd, as that would deny the equally valid property rights of others. You are running away with your own presumptions of my viewpoint here and elsewhere in your post, btw.

Keeping murderers in prison is the least worst option, directly and immediately linked to the actual actions of the individual. The village is not imprisoned, neither is the family. The need for law enforcement, prisons etc. is also a least worst, pragmatic solution - like some tax it is a necessary evil and should be treated with all the caution that it suggests.

Most Libertarians I suspect are in favour of Rule of Law, by which I mean in the way Leon Louw would define the term.

The Kusabi said...

As it happens, I view myself as a minarchist, i.e. I acknowledge that some form of state -- with powers over and above what a normal person has -- is necessary;

And where would the state get the powers to do what normal people cannot? Would it grant them to itself? How could it do so legitimately, unless the state was 'above' the people in some way?

Pardon me for my naivete, but I thought the state rightfully should only derive its powers from the people i.e. the state can rightfully do nothing that the people do not already have the right to do.

As in the following example:-

otherwise, as you and others have pointed out, how would we be able to detain criminals?

The state (in this case the police) can detain criminals - has the right to - because the public has the right to detain criminals. The state therefore derives its right to detain criminals from the people. Sir Robert Peel formed the original police force on this very basis.

I don't see how the state gets to derive its powers from us and then turn round and say, 'actually, these are things we can do that you just can't by right', Obviously though this is the way our servants in government actually think...

Sacerdote said...

Tom: I'll give you this: you really know how to make a political philosophy sound appealing.

Why thank-you! :) However I wasn't so much trying to make it appealing, as to point out that it's a perfectly normal way of living. In actual fact I think that we would do better without social security, or income tax, and with privatised health care. The police and schools proably need to be provided by the state, since They are public goods that most people wouldn't pay for otherwise.

The Kusabi: Minarchists believe in small, limited goverenment, not no government. That would get its legitimacy the same way as our fat bloated government does.

...the state can rightfully do nothing that the people do not already have the right to do.

That's not acually true. People cannot demand taxes nor declare war. Also it is not the police's right to detain people. That belongs to the prison service, after judgement from the courts (another thing that people are not permitted do on their own). The police have the power of Arrest, shared with the public, although I think that the police's powers of arrest were embiggened a few years ago.

Cleanthes said...

tom

let's go back to the top:

"I'm saying that it's not coherent to think of anyone owning your life ..."

That's the whole fucking point of the axiom Tom. We start from exactly that premise: that no-one else can own your life except you.

Saying that it is incoherent for someone else to own your life does not undermine the axiom that you do. In fact, it supports it: the opposite (that you do not own your life because someone else does) is clearly bollocks.

"[it's incoherent]... to think of humanity as anyone's property."

um. yes. for the same reasons as above. "Humanity" is the classic leftist's/statist's get out for refusing to accept that humanity is made up of individuals.

Your objection supports, not undermines, the axiom that "you own your own life". No-one can own humanity because no-one can own the individuals that make up that humanity other than each of those individuals individually.

"Indeed, I think that's quite a dangerous line to go down."

Exactly. As we have seen by every single political system everywhere that gives the group rights over the individual, i.e. all forms of leftism.

Your position supports the fundamental axiom.

Paulie,

Get a grip. Even to discuss your "bloggertarians for indentured labour" would give it a level of credit it does not deserve.

We'll just note that someone who appears to believe that taxation is not coercive but TV adverts are doesn't really need listening to on anything of consequence.

The Kusabi said...

So, Sacerdote, would you like to enlighten me as to where the state gets its powers to demand taxes, or declare wars, or imprison people? If it does not need to draw the power/right to do so from the people, might it be that the state just creates the right to do so out of whole cloth for its own benefit (which would mean the state was a law unto itself)? How does that work?

Sacerdote said...

Are you asking me how it does, or how it should? For the former, the state relies on its monopoly on lethal force, and the complicity of its subjects. Truly try and oppose the state and you will find armed men taking you to prison.

In the ideal world it should rely on the agreement of the people, freely chosen. This is a nice idea, and one generally promoted by proponents of democracy (of which I am one). However it's not really historically accurate.

I'm not sure I can really enlighten you further without knowing why you feel a minarchy requires a different level of justification to our current government. It's the same thing, only less so.

The Kusabi said...

I was asking how it does. And from your answer it sounds as if it just gains its powers from having the most muscle. Which is very expedient I'm sure but not really that legitimate (I won't ask you to explain why it might be legitimate because it seems to be beyond the limits of your imagination).

As to your notion that having the state rely on the free agreement of the people being 'idealistic', again, I point to Sir Robert Peel, and a little phrase, 'policing by consent', That's how things have worked in this country...in fact I'm not sure when we actually went from 'consent' to 'coercion and complicity' as you might suppose we did.

Sacerdote said...

Well in that case, I maintain my assertion that political power comes from the barrel of the gun, and most people are too lazy, stupid or scared to do anything about it. Democracy works because it makes people feel happy about this state of affairs. Beyond which there is ample evidence that people like hierarchies and feel happier being ordered about.

Despite my limited imagination it seems fairly obvious that a government's action might be regarded as legitimate if everyone in a group voted on its proposals and a majority agreed. Except that such a government would not be a government, merely an executive. Which would be much easier to do in a minarchy (and seems to work in Belgium at the moment).

What we have now is a representative oligarchy, which comes considerably further down the list on the legitimacy stakes.

And we go from consent to coercion when the state does things which we neither agree with, nor were asked about, but are imposed anyway. Iraq war anyone?

Tom said...

I don't suppose anyone's reading this thread any more - it's been a while since I looked. And this thread, like almost every comments thread, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. But, DK, you say:

You own your life as long as you stay within the law. If you are imprisoned for breaking the law, you own your own life again upon release.

The whole "own your own life" is a cipher for "you make your own decisions". If you make a decision to break the law, that is still your decision: however, you have made that decision knowing that there are consequences to you, e.g. incarceration.


So, to be clear:

"You own your life" means "You are entitled to make decisions within the law. This is pretty banal, but it's a fair description of the contemporary legal situation in the UK. You will agree, therefore, that your ownership of your life is not threatened by the contemporary UK political and legal system.

Any criticism of the contemporary UK political and legal system must, therefore, rest on something other than the claim that "You own your life".

(To be clear: I'm not denying that you can make plenty of perfectly good criticisms of the contemporary UK political and legal system. It's just that they won't flow from "You own your life", according to your own explanation of what that means.)

Also, DK, I wondered what you made of this comment above, from Cleanthes:

every single political system everywhere that gives the group rights over the individual, i.e. all forms of leftism.

The political system you support, which includes enforcible laws imposed by the individual over the group on pain of imprisonment, is characterised by Cleanthes as a "form of leftism". Do you agree? Are you a closet leftist? If not, what is wrong with Cleanthes' formulation?

Tom said...

(Sorry, in that last paragraph, it should read "imposed over the individual by the group", not the other way around.)

The Pedant-General in Ordinary said...

tom old fruit,

you've answered your own question.

Laws imposed on the individual do not necessarily constitute the granting of rights to the group.

This is classic leftist woolly thinking again. This is the kind of thinking that produces nonsense of this sort:
"We ban murder - does that not increase the liberty of most (to feel safe) at the expense of a few who like to murder? "
The law against murder - to take this example - is not about group rights: it is an attempt to protect against an infringement of the rights of individuals.

Repeat after me: groups have no rights. Only the individuals within that group have rights, and membership of that group ought not to give them additional rights that others do not enjoy.

(there may be benefits accruing from membership but they should not be contingent on being paid for by others outside that group)

Whilst we all know that murder is an extreme case and you may therefore be tempted to ignore the example, show me a law that does indeed grant rights to a group at the expense of individuals and I'll show a law that really ought to be repealed because it's looting of the first water.