Saturday, October 27, 2012

The initiation of coercion

Yesterday, Anthony and I debated Libertarians Jon and Will Adams of the Young Americans for Freedom. We recorded the first hour or so of the debate, and if all goes well, it will soon appear on YouTube; when it does, I'll post the link. After a little reflection, I want to discuss some of my thoughts about Libertarianism. My reactions are to the brand of Libertarianism described by Jon and Will; if you have a different view of Libertarianism, I'll be happy to discuss that too.

As I understand their position, Libertarianism fundamentally consists of the objective moral value that the initiation of coercion is absolutely wrong, and that interference with one's property, broadly defined, always consists of the initiation of coercion. This foundation is deeply problematic on a number of levels.

The initiation of coercion with regard to property is much less problematic if ownership were defined exclusively by physical possession and use. When coupled with absentee, abstract ownership (property that one person owns, in some sense, even though someone else occupies or uses it), however, the initiation of coercion seems to become self-defeating.

Whether or not we accept objectively true moral values, to be coherent, moral objectivism must entail that moral judgments should attach consistently to objectively determinable physical circumstances. In other words, if two events are objectively identical in morally relevant ways, we should have the same moral judgment regarding both circumstances. But the plain English meaning of "initiation of coercion", i.e. the first use of physical force, does not distinguish between two events that have the same objective physical circumstances. Specifically, consider the case of two people, Alice and Bob, both peacefully occupying their houses. Neither has given any offense to their neighbors; there is no relevant physical difference between their respective occupancies. One day, a group of armed people come to both of their houses, and, at gunpoint, evict them. Objectively, since the armed people are the first to use physical force, they are initiating coercion. Physically, objectively (in the sense of disregarding any individuals' subjective states), the situations are completely identical. Alice's eviction is illegitimate because she "owns" her house; Bob's eviction, however, is legitimate because someone else, Carl, "owns" his house, and Carl wishes to reclaim his property. There is no objective difference between the two situations; the only morally relevant difference is subjective: socially constructed ownership. Therefore, we cannot claim that the initiation of coercion is an objective moral standard, since purely subjective states are morally relevant.

The point is not to say that only objective physical states in some sense ought to be morally relevant; the point, rather, is that the claim of objectivity is flatly contradicted if subjective states are relevant to forming our moral judgment.

There are two ways to try to get out of this dilemma, but both fail. The first is to simply say that because we believe Bob's eviction is legitimate, it is not the initiation of coercion. But that would be a useless tautology: to be useful, the objective determination of initiation of coercion needs to be independent of our naive or intuitive evaluations of legitimacy; we must be able to appeal to the objective facts to argue against another's intuition. Another way is to argue that Bob's eviction is not the initiation of coercion, because he had already agreed to vacate at Carl's arbitrary whim. But this argument fails because an agreement is not an objective fact; it is a subjective fact, a fact about the minds of Bob and Carl (and perhaps their community). Again, there is nothing wrong per se with attaching legitimacy to subjective facts, but subjective facts are not objective facts.

I have more thoughts on the subject. I'm going to talk about Libertarianism and oligarchy, as well as Libertarianism without absentee, abstract ownership.


  1. I'm struggling with the inclusion of "objective moral value" as you didn't include that earlier. was this something that came up in the debate?

    I don't tend to think that Libertarianism necessitates such a concept... But, Randians abound it's not surprising.

    1. Yes, Jon and Will were explicitly moral objectivists. Perhaps surprisingly, they were not Randians.

  2. If you're randy are you a Randian? Sorry...

    Interesting stuff, including the next two posts. But of course all this theoretical discussion doesn't consider whether or not such imagined systems would work with human beings. Political theorists are notoriously wrong about consequences of particular political moves, which is not surprising, because humans are notoriously complex agents.

    And while I can see the use as a simplified ideal a continuum between "objective" and "subjective" morals, I don't see any place to carve morals at the joints. The imagined hard line between "objective" and "subjective" is, imho, yet another philosophical word-driven conclusion that has limited application in the real world.

    But I'll definitely do some more thinking about this stuff. And I suspect I agree with you pretty much about the direction that will be a better balance for us all.

  3. But of course all this theoretical discussion doesn't consider whether or not such imagined systems would work with human beings.

    Of course not. This post is about one little piece of a complex subject. But it is, I think, kind of fundamentally important: how do you justify a political system? What is the "good life" that our political system should be fulfilling, or helping us fulfill?

    Should our political system have anything to do in the first place with the good life? Perhaps it should focus only on keeping the lights on and the water running? Or perhaps it should focus only on keeping the relative minority of nutjobs and assholes from wrecking everything and leave even the lights and water to individuals.

    These are all interesting, nontrivial questions with nonobvious answers. Libertarians might be a little... weird... but they are at least questioning the conventional wisdom of the liberal welfare state. That ain't chopped liver.

  4. And while I can see the use as a simplified ideal a continuum between "objective" and "subjective" morals, I don't see any place to carve morals at the joints.

    I don't either, but I suspect the Libertarian account needs to do this. I don't see how a Libertarian account (one that includes absentee ownership) can successfully employ a consequentialist, utilitarian account; intrinsic to the philosophy seems to be the idea that the "common good" is not even wrong; it's at best incoherent and at worst a myth privileging oligarchic collectivism.

    So Libertarianism really needs to have a deontic account, which, without a God, seems to need an fully objective account of moral behavior.

  5. It's tangential but worth pointing out that countries who adapt libertarian economic policies (UK, US and to a lessor extent Ireland) have a very high degree of state control in the form of street cameras and intrusive police powers. The UK has more manned public security cameras that any other western country and the US has progressively granted it's law enforcement agencies increasingly intrusive powers.

    It's paradoxical that systems designed to avoid the evils of 'statism' require an intrusive state to protect them from the consequences of their own system.


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