Sunday, January 16, 2011

The initiation of violence

Commenter Rod tries to define "voluntary cooperation":
A society of voluntary cooperation means that there is no legal initiation of violence. There is however legal violence when a criminal initiates violence against someone's person or property, and by doing so forfeits his own right not to be violated.

Voluntary cooperation does not mean that violations of person and property will be absent or should go unpunished by a legal system. When a criminal initiates violence, the victim has the right to use violence for restitution and punishment.
I would definitely agree with Rod in that there are uses of violence I consider in some sense "legitimate", and others I consider in some sense "illegitimate". The problem with Rod's definition is it that includes property, and the interesting controversy is not about the initiation of violence, but rather about precisely what constitutes property.

Furthermore, if we take the literal meaning of the "initiation of violence" as "the first use or threat of physical force against a person" (few would constitute the use of physical force against a nonsentient object as a violation of that objects own rights; the use of force against "property" is a violation of the sentient owner's rights) then the acquisition of property entails the initiation of violence: I must be the first to use physical force against a person who attempts to expropriate or infringe on the use of my nonsentient property. To escape the conundrum, the Libertarian must define the "initiation of violence" as something other than the plain meaning of the phrase: It must mean the use of force in ways the Libertarian considers illegitimate. But that's the fundamental definition of every form of government: a type of government is defined by its distinction between the uses of violence considered legitimate and illegitimate. We have to wonder why Rod is trying to bullshit us by using an English phrase with an unambiguous and uncontroversial literal meaning to represent the abstract, non-defining case.

("Radical" Libertarianism, which does not include property, is coherent and has, as Eric Frank Russell describes, considerable appeal. It might or might not be viable or evolutionarily stable.)

There are only four definitions of "property". The first is the recognition of ownership by mutual consent. If, for example, I find your wallet on the street, I'm going to give it back to you because I do in fact agree that the wallet is your property. But if property is established by mutual consent, theft is logically impossible. If I actually do agree that some object is yours, why would I take it? Contrawise, if I take some object, by definition I do not agree that it is in fact yours. So on this definition there can be no "violence" against property rights; where violence exists, there is by definition no mutual agreement to establish property.

The second definition is "the objects a person can physically protect," i.e. those objects a person can successfully initiate actual violence to maintain possession or ownership of. This "might makes right" definition seems so obviously contradictory to Rod's formulation that we cannot attribute it to Libertarians, at least not the garden-variety sort.

The third definition is "the objects over which a person has ownership by virtue of a social process." This definition overcomes the problems of property by mutual consent and avoids the "might makes right" implications of the second definition. But the problem is that almost all modern societies, including our own, implement this definition of "property". (All societies everywhere throughout history implement this definition of property, if you include passive compliance with a king or other authoritarian regime as a "social process".) And if ownership can be granted by virtue of a social process, it can equally be taken away by that process. When the government taxes you, it is taking away ownership by the same means it granted it to you in the first place; it is inconsistent on this definition to assent to one and object to the other.

The fourth definition is "the objects over which a person has ownership by virtue of some natural right." This seems like the definition that most Libertarians would prefer to use. The problem with this definition is that any conception of "natural" rights are at least as complicated as any body of legislation. More importantly, there is no objective means to settle disputes over natural rights in the same sense that there is an objective means to settle scientific disputes. Trying to establish some basis for natural rights just moves the problem around: Why choose a basis that establishes a "natural" right to some object for one person over another that establishes a "natural" right for another person?

I'm in favor of the third option: property is ownership established by a social process. The question then becomes not about property per se or the initiation of violence, but what sort of social process we want, and what we want it to do or not do. If any Libertarian agrees with the third definition and would like to describe a social process that grants a "Libertarian" definition of ownership, I'm all ears, and I'll evaluate that candidate social process on the basis of whether it is in my own interests. If any Libertarian agrees with the fourth definition, and can give a coherent account of "natural" property rights that is at least as rigorously provable as scientific claims about natural law, I'm equally receptive.

17 comments:

  1. You wrote: "The second definition is "the objects a person can physically protect," i.e. those objects a person can successfully initiate actual violence to maintain possession or ownership of."

    Perhaps this quote shows that we have a different understanding of "initiation of violence".

    If you are defending your property you are not initiating violence, you are reacting to a violation that has been initiated by someone else.

    I understand property as the result of ownership, or the condition of having full control over a good and its services.

    In practical terms all four of your definitions have validity: what you can't defend will probably be stolen, what others don't recognize as yours could be mistaken for a good without owner etc...

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  2. as far as the natural right goes, I see its validity in one's own body, not as far as things and other people's bodies go. But I too, am open to hear other points of view.

    The social process is valid in a social context. However, for previously un-owned scarce goods, ownership can be established through appropriation (homesteading) as well.

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  3. Not a bad response, Rod. I'll give it a more thorough response later. For the moment let me just ask your opinion about absentee ownership, where one by definition does not have full control or possession of some property, such as a landlord renting to a tenant or a factory owner employing a worker?

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  4. I am glad to hear Larry.

    I am not sure I understand your question, but in absentee ownership you have cooperation by virtue of contract and coordination, in which case the relationship between the two (or more) parties is symmetrical, in the sense that they are not cooperating by virtue of subordination by force but by mutual agreement.

    Again, in practical terms, the ability of both parties -but particularly the landlord- to enforce the terms of the agreement falls into the category of being able to protect your property.

    I hope this was what you were asking.

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  5. In absentee ownership you have cooperation by virtue of contract and coordination, in which case the relationship between the two (or more) parties is symmetrical, in the sense that they are not cooperating by virtue of subordination by force but by mutual agreement.

    Contracts get a little tricky, trickier than physical possession. There are some subtle issues with physical possession, but superficially, I would have to physically pry the object out of your hands to take it, which would fall under the ordinary literal meaning of the "initiation of violence" against a person.

    The problem with absentee ownership comes about when mutual consent fails. If I decide for whatever reason to no longer pay rent, you have to initiate violence against me to remove me from the property.

    Binding contracts essentially establish property rights by virtue of a social process. We have to socially decide when a contract stops being binding; we have to socialize a determination of the meaning of the contract when the parties no longer mutually agree to its meaning; most importantly, we have to socialize the literal initiation of violence against persons.

    Once we socialize the initiation of violence, we have a state; the questions then become: What kind of state do we have? Whose interests does the state fulfill? What power do we leave to those whose interests the state does not fulfill, at least primarily?

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  6. you wrote: "The problem with absentee ownership comes about when mutual consent fails. If I decide for whatever reason to no longer pay rent, you have to initiate violence against me to remove me from the property."

    I would argue that the refusal to leave a property that is not yours, while having forfeited your rights due to your breach of contract, constitutes trespassing which is forceful behaviour, so the violence needed to enforce the contract is reactionary, not initiative.

    Using your example, if mutual consent fails and there is a breach of contract in the form of a discontinuation of rent payments, but tenant vacates the premises when instructed(no trespassing), then there is no initiation of violence on the part of the tenant and no violence on the part of landlord/society is legal. Any remaining grievances could be settled with external arbitration (if needed), such as civil court.

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  7. I would argue that the refusal to leave a property that is not yours, while having forfeited your rights due to your breach of contract, constitutes trespassing which is forceful behaviour, so the violence needed to enforce the contract is reactionary, not initiative.

    First, you are redefining the ordinary literal meaning of the initiation of violence, which means to be the first person to use physical force against another person, to mean to take an action which you disapprove of. There are many circumstances where I myself approve of initiating violence, but you cannot honestly leverage our moral intuitions regarding the (private, unjustified) initiation of violence to privilege your preferred kind of social contract. This is what I mean by the fundamental intellectual dishonesty of the Libertarian position.

    Also, you are ignoring what makes a property "yours" or "mine", if we are not to use more-or-less simple physical possession.

    Using your example, if mutual consent fails and there is a breach of contract in the form of a discontinuation of rent payments, but tenant vacates the premises when instructed(no trespassing)

    That's one possible remedy. But why should that be the preferred remedy? What if I disagree that that should be the remedy? Who decides?

    And who decides what the contract means? What if I say that the contract means that under the present circumstances, I get to stay, but the landlord interprets the contract to mean I have agreed to leave? Who decides what the contract actually means?

    (And if you think that we can rely on the ordinary, literal meaning of the contractual language, you are woefully ignorant of the complexity of contract law and computer programming.)

    As well, what kinds of contracts do we permit, and what kind do we forbid? Should we permit contracts that amount to de facto slavery? If so, I'm done talking to you (if you allow even the possibility of slavery, then I'm just your enemy); if not, then who decides what kinds of contracts we permit or forbid?

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  8. The other problem with the contract paradigm is that any society can be described in pure contract language. The only exception is one a resident cannot freely leave at the exact age of majority.

    For instance, your local "governmental" zoning committee cannot just arbitrarily command the police. They must go through the same kind of process that a "private" shopkeeper must go through to prosecute theft or fraud. Therefore, we can look at most of the "government" as simply "private" entities, which own certain kinds of property, some absentee and abstract, and for which they have the fee structure ("taxes") they choose to implement. If you want to use their property, you agree to their terms; if you do not, you are free to leave their property.

    Again, to argue against this sort of setup, you have to say that some contracts are not permissible. But why should we permit or forbid the sort of contracts you like or dislike, and not the sort I myself like or dislike? What privileges your kind of "good" contract?

    Libertarianism is a nice idea if you don't think about it too deeply. Most Libertarians simply do not; it's as unrewarding to talk to them as it is to talk to a fundamentalist Christian. You seem unique, Rod, in that you do seem willing — at least so far — to think about it deeply.

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  9. Well, it is becoming rather complex, and going deeper into libertarian law theory, which is not my area of expertise.

    You are right to challenge the libertarian concept of violence. What I can tell you is that the libertarian concept of violence encompasses things like the threat of use of violence, and non consentual invasions of person and property even when they are not violent by the dictionary definition. For example, there can be non-violent rape by the dictionary definition of violence. This, however, is still treated as a violent offense by libertarians and also by our present legal system, even when the victim does not oppose physically or verbally.
    Also, when you are approached by a person who asks for your wallet, it is understood that you are being mugged, they are not asking for voluntary donations, even when actual violence is not used.

    A literal definition of violence for legal purposes cannot be used, just like literal language in contracts cannot be counted on. A libertarian legal system is no different from other legal systems in that they are evolving systems, always imperfect, always being refined by experience.

    Regarding property and simple physical possession: simple physical possession alone does not define property in a social context, otherwise stolen goods would simply change owners legally. This only works with previously un-owned goods. How a person's property is defended and defined in a social context will vary depending on the sophistication of the society and the legal system in question.

    Regarding arbitration: yes you are correct, there can be disagreements regarding wording in contracts and the solution on how to solve these disagreements. Again, I am not an expert in libertarian law, but the way it has been done so far was that one party could approach a court, while the other party approaches another court, or no court at all, and there were mechanisms to deal with defendants in absentia, or with the use of delinquent courts. There are also agreement between non-delinquent courts to settle disagreements with yet another third higher court. I believe prof Hans Hermann Hoppe and prof Walter Block will be better sources of detailed information on this.

    Regarding private entity government: you are absolutely right, and this is one of the pillars of libertarian societies. These entities that are basically private government entities in fact spontaneously appear, and they should be welcomed. The difference between them and our own governments is that our present governments exercise a series of monopolies and coercive policies.

    For example when you buy property in a gated community, you agree to abide by certain rules, even on what colours you can use in painting your house. However, nobody is forcing you to be a part of this gated community. Same with the local chess club or a Kibbutz in Israel.

    Regarding voluntary slavery: libertarians are divided on this one, some say that your natural right to your own body voids any voluntary slavery agreement. Some others say that voiding such an agreement, in itself, would limit your natural right to do as you please with your own self. I am in the first camp.

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  10. Well, it is becoming rather complex, and going deeper into libertarian law theory, which is not my area of expertise.

    I have heard Libertarianism described as nothing *but* a theory of law. At the very least, legal theory seems pretty central to Libertarianism. Indeed, legal theory is where the rubber hits the road for any theory in political science. If there are no disputes, political science is unnecessary.


    You are right to challenge the libertarian concept of violence. What I can tell you is that the libertarian concept of violence encompasses things like the threat of use of violence, and non consentual invasions of person and property even when they are not violent by the dictionary definition.


    The threat of violence still depends on the literal meaning of violence. I'm not sure what a non-consensual invasion of person means, but again, the point is not whether invasions of property are violent, but how property is defined.

    A literal definition of violence for legal purposes cannot be used, just like literal language in contracts cannot be counted on. A libertarian legal system is no different from other legal systems in that they are evolving systems, always imperfect, always being refined by experience.

    Perfection is not the issue. The issue is how the evolving and refining takes place, and who is doing it.

    Regarding property and simple physical possession: simple physical possession alone does not define property in a social context, otherwise stolen goods would simply change owners legally.

    Exactly my point. We need socially constructed notions of property.

    This only works with previously un-owned goods.

    And not always then.

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  11. Again, I am not an expert in libertarian law, but the way it has been done so far was that one party could approach a court, while the other party approaches another court, or no court at all, and there were mechanisms to deal with defendants in absentia, or with the use of delinquent courts. There are also agreement between non-delinquent courts to settle disagreements with yet another third higher court. I believe prof Hans Hermann Hoppe and prof Walter Block will be better sources of detailed information on this.

    And all of these issues require fairly sophisticated social mechanisms. If you want to investigate the theories of Hoppe and Block and report back, I'd be quite interested... I'll probably even publish it.

    Regarding private entity government: you are absolutely right, and this is one of the pillars of libertarian societies. These entities that are basically private government entities in fact spontaneously appear, and they should be welcomed. The difference between them and our own governments is that our present governments exercise a series of monopolies and coercive policies.

    Monopolies, as best I understand, are not objectionable per se in Libertarian theory, so long as they are the "right" sort of monopolies. And when property rights are socially constructed, "coercion" becomes a subjective evaluation.

    For example when you buy property in a gated community, you agree to abide by certain rules, even on what colours you can use in painting your house. However, nobody is forcing you to be a part of this gated community. Same with the local chess club or a Kibbutz in Israel.

    And the same with the United States government. You're free to leave the country at any time; no one is forcing you to be a US citizen. (I'm not sure if you yourself are a US citizen, but unless you live in North Korea or Cuba, the same holds for most countries.)

    Regarding voluntary slavery: libertarians are divided on this one, some say that your natural right to your own body voids any voluntary slavery agreement. Some others say that voiding such an agreement, in itself, would limit your natural right to do as you please with your own self. I am in the first camp.

    I'm in neither camp. I say slavery is an abomination, not for any reason but in and of itself. Any social system that could permit slavery is never one I could assent to.

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  12. Rod, With your permission, I'd like to quote you at length from this conversation in a new blog post.

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  13. yes, go ahead, thank you for the courtesy

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  14. I reject the definition of libertarianism as nothing but a theory of law.

    In a rule of law anarchy, such as we have in stateless societies, there is no need for legal engineering. Judges compete against each other and are patronized accordingly, they themselves are the law. The law and the interpretation of fairness would vary with social changes. When I say "judges" I do not mean it necessarily in the narrow sense, there could be councils of peers etc...

    On Monopolies: you are right, we do not object to non coercive monopolies. The state, however, does not allow for competition.

    On our freedom to choose countries: yes, you are right, and that freedom is exercised by many. But why arbitrarily limit our freedom at the state level?

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  15. I'll be a couple of days until I can reply.

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  16. While you're eagerly awaiting my reply, you might enjoy And Then There Were None by Eric Frank Russell. as well as the novel Distress, by Greg Egan. Both works describe successful more-or-less anarchist societies in more-or-less modern contexts.

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