Sunday, July 6, 2014

Non-aggression, Libertarianism, and Definitions

Some claim that NAP (the non-aggression principle) cannot be used as a grounding for the libertarian ethic, since it begs the question in favor of libertarianism by defining aggression in accordance with libertarian preconceptions.

This is incorrect. NAP presupposes the notion of aggression that is not libertarian, but commonsensical. Since definitions of everyday concepts can be debated endlessly, the most intellectually respectable thing to do in this context is to follow the Wittgensteinian dictum "meaning is use" and accept their most mundane, everyday definitions (provided that they are sufficiently unambiguous) rather than, say, sophistically conflate them with definitions of related concepts. Isaiah Berlin understood this well when he wrote: "Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience".

"Aggression" belongs to the category of such mundane concepts - it is not a piece of abstruse philosophical jargon, but a basic term readily understable to laypeople as the initiation of physical force against persons and property. Whenever one wishes to detach the concept of aggression from its inherently physical connotations, one has to qualify it with an adjective, as in "verbal" or "psychological aggression". In this sense it is similar to the concept of justice, which is typically intuitively understood as "equality before the law", but which, as Hayek understood all too well, loses all clarity and comprehensibility when qualified with the adjective "social".

Having understood the above, it is then not difficult to appreciate the common-sense appeal of libertarian arguments grounded in NAP, regardless of whether one agrees with their finer philosophical details. In other words, regardless of whether one agrees that aggression is wrong because it is a violation of human nature (whose defining characteristic is the ability to act freely, an ability that cannot be exercised when hampered by physical force), or because it necessarily entangles the aggressor in a performative contradiction, it is then not difficult to appreciate the moral plausibility of the presumption against aggression, and, by the same token, the moral plausibility of the presumption for libertarian freedom.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Omnibenevolence, Omniscience, and the Inherent Failure of Interventionism

One often encounters the following concession on the part of the proponents of the free market to the proponents of state interventionism: the free market is more effective than any form of state interventionism because 1) its efficiency-inducing incentive structure does not depend on the benevolence of its participants, and 2) it is particularly suited to aggregating decentralized and tacit information in a speedy and comprehensive manner. If, however, state officials were omnibenevolent and omniscient, then state interventionism would be the superior alternative.

I never understood the point of making this concession, as it seems to me to be completely unnecessary, and in fact plain wrong. This is because 1) if state officials were omnibenevolent and omniscient, then they would most likely know how to employ voluntary means to convince everyone else to follow and implement their plans, but in this case they would not be state officials any more, since they would no longer rely on monopolized violence to put their will into action, and 2) if they knew that there are no voluntary means that can be employed to convince everyone else to follow and implement their plans, then - their omnibenevolence and omniscience notwithstanding - coercive imposition of these plans on others would still be Pareto-inferior, since it would be contrary to the latter's subjective values and preferences.

In sum, the free market would be superior in terms of efficiency to any form of state interventionism even if state officials were omnibenevolent and omniscient - no concessions to the proponents of "correcting" the market by means of monopolized violence are needed, regardless of what moral and intellectual qualities its wielders might hypothetically possess.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Note on the Stability of Libertarian Anarchy

Those who believe that libertarian anarchy is bound to degenerate into warlord conflict over power vacuum make the error of thinking of libertarian anarchy as "statism without the state", i.e., the situation where a territorial monopoly of violence disappears, but everything else, including the mentality that legitimizes and supports its existence, stays the same.

However, what practically every libertarian anarchist claims is that a successful, permanent withering away of territorial monopolies of violence and all the attendant, unnecessary evils can take place only if statism - the world view that condones or even praises their existence - is sufficiently eroded.

Think of "abolition without abolitionism" as a logically parallel scenario, where the toppling of old slave masters immediately gives rise to the appearance of new would-be slave masters, vying for control of newly liberated slaves. And think of how such a scenario differs from the one that we actually experienced in history - i.e., the one in which the widespread acceptance of abolitionism was recognized as a necessary condition of successful abolition.

In sum, while clearly recognizing the inherent instability of statism without the state (also known as "failed state"), libertarian anarchists are the only ones who do not fail to appreciate the fact that non-statism without the state is something qualitatively altogether different, especially in terms of stability.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Note on Private Charity vs. "Public Welfare"

Under a laissez-faire system of private charity:

1. The productive rich are richer, so they have more to contribute to charity.

2. The productive poor are richer, so they are less reliant on charity, thus leaving more charitable help for the involuntarily non-productive poor.

3. All productive individuals, being able to keep all the fruits of their labor and thus feeling that their liberty and dignity is genuinely respected, have not only the means, but, more importantly, also a genuine incentive to contribute to charity.

4. The voluntarily non-productive poor, knowing that they have no right to live at the expense of others, have a strong incentive to become productive, thus leaving more charitable help for the involuntarily non-productive poor.

In sum, under the system in question there is less poverty, both involuntary and voluntary, and more means to eliminate it.

Under a statist system of "public welfare":

1. The productive rich are poorer, so they have less to contribute to the "welfare fund", let alone to private charity.

2. The productive poor are poorer, so they are more reliant on "public welfare", thus leaving less "welfare aid" for the involuntarily non-productive poor.

3. All productive individuals, being regularly expropriated of a large part of the fruits of their labor and thus feeling that they are treated like slaves or milking cows, have not only hardly any means, but, more importantly, also hardly any incentive to contribute to the "welfare fund", let alone to private charity, or even to continue being productive.

4. The voluntarily non-productive poor, believing that they have a right to live at the expense of others, have a strong incentive to remain non-productive, thus leaving less "welfare aid" for the involuntarily non-productive poor.

In sum, under the system in question there is more poverty, both involuntary and voluntary, and less means to eliminate it.

Make your choice wisely.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Four Stages of the (D)evolution of Socialism

1. Utopian socialism (wouldn’t it be nice if we all became one big, loving family composed of entirely selfless individuals?), confronted with the incentive problem (why exert oneself in the absence of profit rewards?), turns into "scientific" socialism (The New Socialist Man will exert himself even in the absence of profit rewards).

2. "Scientific" socialism, confronted with the calculation problem (in the absence of private property in the means of production and the competitive price system, how do you rationally allocate resources?), turns into "market" socialism (socialist managers can be ordered to act as if they were market entrepreneurs).

3. "Market" socialism, confronted with its own logical inconsistency (if socialist managers become market entrepreneurs, then it is not socialism anymore, and if they do not, then they cannot solve the calculation problem), turns into social democracy (let the market produce and distribute goods, but the state will redistribute them).

4. Social democracy, confronted with the logic of interventionism (interventionism, by encroaching on voluntary social interactions, necessarily backfires, thus necessitating its total abandonment in favor of laissez-faire or its intensification that ultimately leads back to cruder forms of socialism), turns into BS/"postmodern" socialism (why should we care about all those supposedly logical arguments and allow them to get in the way of our struggle for "social justice"? What good is logic anyway? It's just a totalizing metanarrative like any other!). And it goes on happily ever after. Or does it?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why Embracing Libertarianism is So Difficult

Embracing libertarianism requires immunity to the Stockholm syndrome, immunity to libido dominandi, understanding the notion of opportunity cost, thinking in terms of indirect, remote, and unintended consequences, being able to universalize ethical rules, and being able to consciously reject all forms of tribalism. All of which is rare and contrary to our instinctive intuitions.

Embracing statism requires susceptibility to the Stockholm syndrome, instinctive obedience to authority, focusing primarily or exclusively on what is seen now, believing that intentions easily translate into desired consequences, not being able to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of morality, and instintively accepting all kinds of tribal identities. All of which is almost universal and deeply embedded in our evolutionary heritage.

Thus, I believe that in most cases the intellectual struggle between libertarianism and statism is not a struggle between good and evil, but between discomforting reflection and comfortable habit. Hence, in waging this struggle, one should not expect miracles overnight, but patiently trust in the power of expanding knowledge and cultural evolution.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Libertarianism, Communism, and Realism

Some say that there is a logical parallel between communists insisting that "genuine communism" would not degenerate into Soviet-style totalitarianism and libertarians insisting that "genuine free-market libertarianism" would not degenerate into crony capitalism, a parallel that is alleged to demonstrate that both of these groups are equally unrealistic in their expectations.

There is, however, an essential difference between their respective claims. "Genuine communism", understood as an economically rational social order, is a logical impossibility - a form of society that is logically incapable of allocating resources to their most highly-valued uses due to its elimination of the market price system that reflects sovereign consumer choices and entrepreneurial expectations of their future shape. "Genuine free-market libertarianism", on the other hand, is merely psychologically difficult to establish - just as it was difficult to bring about the abolition of slavery due to how universally accepted and culturally well-entrenched the institution in question was, so it is even more difficult to convince the majority of people to reject the Stockholm syndrome that sustains territorial monopolies of force that corrupt businesses by subsidies, monopoly privileges, bailouts, fiat money credit expansions, etc.

In other words, trying to establish "genuine communism" is trying to square the circle - it is based not just on unrealistic expectations, but on logical falsehoods as well. On the other hand, trying to establish "genuine free-market libertarianism" is as little and as much as trying to accomplish an admittedly hard task of persuading the majority of people to become significantly more economically literate and morally aware than they currently are. The difference between the two is the one between difficulty and impossibility, and it is a crucial difference indeed.