Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Libertarian FAQ

This post was co-authored with Logan Chipkin.

Some responses to the most common criticisms of and questions about libertarianism. To reference, click on a heading. Feel free to share.

There’s a glossary at the bottom.

Who would build roads if there was no government?

The same people who build them now, only they’d be paid directly by those who actually use them. When the government owns the roads, all taxpayers bear the burden, even if they’d prefer not to consume the roads. This results in overconsumption of roads, since consumption has been forcibly severed from payment by the consumer. This is a special case of the more general tragedy of the commons that results from government illegitimately claiming ownership of some good or service that the government offers for public consumption.

It’s worth noting that citizens under different national governments already settle disputes with each other, and there is not (yet) a global government. So, people have already solved the problem of how to settle disputes despite being subject to different systems of law (coercively).

Secondly, despite the government’s imposed monopoly on legislation and its system of courts that cannot possibly go out of business no matter how much people do not want to purchase its services, people still find private alternatives (namely, out-of-court dealings and private arbitration services) to resolve their conflicts.

In an anarcho-capitalist society, a company can only earn a profit by persuading people to purchase its goods or services. In this case, the service that people want is reliable adjudication between interpersonal disputes. If two parties find themselves in a conflict that they cannot privately resolve, they may shop around for a court that both parties find fair and cost-effective.

Alternatively, the parties may have purchased insurance that covers whatever conflict they now find themselves in. In that case, the insurance agencies, if different, have an interest in resolving the dispute such that both of their reputations remain intact. Should either insurance agency refuse to pay out/cover the damages, no one would trust them enough to do business with them ever again.

Depending on how developed the economy is, these insurance agencies may have predetermined agreements with each other about which court to which they will present their clients’ disputes.

What about the police?

People could purchase private security.

So the poor couldn’t call the police?

Yes, they could. There could be charity, support networks, credit, etc. Also, free-market security companies have incentives to be much cheaper than the police, because they can go bankrupt, whereas the police can’t. Ironically, poor neighborhoods are often chronically underserved by the police already, whereas private security companies could enter such neighborhoods by offering low prices.

Shoes are a good free-market example. Virtually everyone needs them, and poor people do not struggle to purchase them. The same mechanisms of innovation and competition would yield affordable and quality security services to them, as well.

What about healthcare?

See police.

What about foreign invaders?

Eventually, private security and insurance.

Why don’t you just move to Somalia?

This is a silly suggestion that people like to make, implying that a libertarian society would be a lawless society. But that’s just not the case. Libertarians want rules, and consequences for those who break them. What libertarians don’t want is to be subjected to coercion. The rejection of coercion does not imply the rejection of rules.

Additionally, there is more to civilization than the size of government. The culture of a civilization and its level of wealth are at least as important with respect to its ability to correct errors and allow for progress.

Finally, mankind was born into utter poverty: at the dawn of our species, life really was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. So it is the existence of wealth that requires explanation, not poverty. Why is the United States wealthier than it was one-hundred years ago? Was wealth created by the growth of its government? Similarly, would Somalia become wealthier if some of them coercively acquired wealth from the rest of them?

If there’s no force/coercion, doesn’t that mean people would be free to steal and commit murder?

No. A libertarian society would still punish crimes. There is a difference between the initiation of force and the use of force in defense against those who initiate force. A libertarian society, by definition, would not tolerate any initiation of force, but the use of force in defense would be allowed. Therefore, crimes would still be investigated and prosecuted. There wouldn’t be no force at all.

Isn’t capitalism evil?

Capitalism just means that people who want to work together voluntarily get to do so unhindered, and that those who want to be left alone are, in fact, left alone. There’s nothing evil about that. What is evil is when a parasite like the government mooches off of that peaceful interaction.

Doesn’t capitalism need something like a government to counteract and balance it?

You mean counteract and balance the peaceful and voluntary interaction between people? No, that’s not necessary.

Does this mean you don’t want poor people to receive any help?

No. People are free to help each other in a libertarian society.

Moreover, governments only hinder the growth of wealth. Global poverty is at an all-time low (or was, before the shutdowns) because people are evermore free to create, trade, and solve problems. No top-down legislation has, or could possibly, create wealth for people who need it.

Don’t you need some foundation like the government on which to build and make decisions?

No more than biological evolution needs some blueprint before bringing complex, seemingly-designed structures into reality.

It is impossible for a single person or company to know the problem-situation of millions or billions of other people. An economy is unplanned—objective prices emerge from the local interactions of countless individuals in various problem-situations. No one can determine what a price of some good ‘should be’, and when they try, shortages and inefficiencies result. Similarly, the very processes by which goods and services are created from raw materials is often global in complexity, counterintuitive, and such that no single person knows the entire process (See I, Pencil by Leonard Read).

How would you protect employees from exploitation?

Certainly not by initiating exploitation in the first place, which is what governments do when they acquire revenue coercively.

Employees are free to unionize if they think that that might benefit them.

The more employers there are competing for labor, the greater the conditions (wage, working conditions, etc.) will be for employees. This is a special case of a more general principle: competition breeds higher quality. Governments cannot provide a multitude of employers in the market.

Technological innovation increases the productive capacity of a given employee, which increases his bargaining power. Innovation cannot be coerced into existence. Rather, it must be created.

How would you protect consumers from fraud?

You could file a claim with a private arbitrator (which already exist). There could be private reviewers of companies and products (which already exist). There’s a market opportunity for competition to discourage fraud. And so on. Conversely, the government is the reason we have corporations that get the government to enforce regulations to make it harder for others to enter their market and compete. A libertarian society would be better equipped to deal with fraud, and there would exist no institutionalized discrimination against business.

Why is freedom so important to you? Isn’t loving and helping other people just as important?

Freedom and helping others are not mutually exclusive. And again, people are free to help each other in libertarian societies. Helping others when you want to and can: great. Being forced to help others whether you want to or not: evil.

But rules are enforced in traffic, so it’s okay to coerce people.

It’s truly amazing how many people reach for the traffic thing as a “gotcha,” and how reliably they do. There must be some widespread meme causing this curious phenonemon… In any case, that coercion is okay because traffic rules need to be enforced is a complete non sequitur.

Yes, traffic needs rules. Whoever owns the roads can make those rules and enforce compliance in exchange for letting others use them. This goes back to property rights: he who owns the roads gets to make the rules. The government (sadly) owns the roads, so the government gets to make traffic rules. But government does not own people’s homes, or their bodies, or any other of their property (by definition, or else it wouldn’t be their property), and yet government makes and enforces rules about what people can and cannot do with their property, and robs them of some of it. That’s a gross and immoral overreach. This immorality is the fundamental gap the traffic metaphor doesn’t bridge, and that no argument has ever bridged. Traffic rules have nothing to do with coercion.

What about externalities?

1) Even if externalities pose a problem, it is a non sequitur to conclude that only an institution that acquires resources coercively may solve it.

2) Furthermore, because the value derived by one’s environment is subjective (individuated and continuously changing in time), the benefit or cost of externalities as consumed by each individual is impossible to keep track of.

3) Thirdly, if the only way that a given externality is dealt with is via coercion, then, by demonstrated preference, this implies that people would rather employ their resources towards other ends.

(1 & 3 example: an individual may freely benefit from the sight of his neighbor’s well-kept lawn, but that does not imply that government should coercively intervene, nor that either party wishes it to do so)

4) Fourthly, externalities emerge precisely under circumstances in which privatization is lacking. This is either because the government coercively forbids it (consider, for example, public land), or because of technological limitations (consider the atmosphere). Nobody owns the atmosphere or the oceans, that’s why they aren’t well protected/preserved. Their capital value is not maintained. If somebody owned them, externalities caused by others could be reined in through voluntary collaboration, and nobody would be forced to care about the environment who doesn’t.

(See Hans-Hermann Hoppe's The Economics and Ethics of Private Property)

What about minimum wage?

Like all price controls, a minimum wage prevents buyers (in this case, employers) and sellers (in this case, employees) from agreeing to an ex-ante mutually beneficial agreement. This results in avoidable unemployment, higher prices of consumer goods (because fewer employees results in lower levels of production), and greater difficulty for low-skilled individuals from jump-starting their careers.

For example, Employer A may wish to hire Employee B at $5/hour and anticipates a return of $5.50/hour. Employee B is happy to be hired at $5/hour. However, the minimum wage law of $6/hour forbids them from coming to such an agreement. It is not the case that Employer A can simply pay Employer B more, since he would run at a loss.

Wouldn’t inequality keep rising in a libertarian society?

Yes, because people would be less constrained in their endeavors to become richer. That’s a good thing. People are naturally different and want to pursue different goals. Making things equal is contrary to human nature and can only be done by force, expropriation, and violence.

Furthermore, to those who care about inequality, governments exacerbate it (in a bad, hard-to-correct kind of way): regulations serve as a barrier to entry for small businesses, rich people can afford to avoid taxes more so than poor people, inflation benefits those who are politically connected at the expense of those who are not, and lobbyists who influence the government tend to work for powerful institutions, rather than for the poor.

Economic inequality, as measured in dollars per person, is as morally irrelevant as any other inequality between people. Correcting for errors, solving problems, and increasing our knowledge and wealth are not hindered by inequality of resources, preferences, or genetics.

Any society with a government necessarily consists of at least two classes: those who create wealth peacefully, and those who acquire wealth by force. This inequality can only be erased by the dissipation of the government (and any other entity that parasitizes off of wealth-creating individuals).

Inequality is not only a function of the size of government. A dynamic society may become more unequal than a static one, even if the former contains a relatively larger government.

What happens when a monopoly forms?

To the extent that monopolies concern people, they should first and foremost direct their ire at governments themselves, which hold a territorial monopoly on coercive extraction and legislation. Typical concerns of free market monopolies—that they will exploit consumers—apply exactly to governments insofar as they employ their plunders towards the creation of goods and services for their subjects.

Competition between suppliers is an underappreciated regulatory mechanism. Should a company try to raise prices, a competitor can simply undercut him. Should companies in an industry form a cartel and agree to keep their prices high, a new competitor is still free to enter the market and outcompete all of them by offering lower prices. 

Moreover, every product and service competes with every product and service. Should all ice-cream suppliers raise their prices in unison, people are free to purchase frozen yogurt, cigarettes, or cookies instead.

Finally, even when a company does restrict output in order to raise prices, the fact that output is restricted implies that more resources are available for the production of some other consumer good(s).

(See Murray Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State)

But force is just part of life. We’re all forced to go to work. We all have to do things we don’t like sometimes.

It’s important to distinguish between self-coercion and interpersonal coercion. For one thing, the former is outside the scope of a universal theory of private-property ethics, while the latter is not. 

It’s also not the case that “we’re all forced to go to work.” It is necessary for most people to go to work—unless they have achieved financial independence—but necessity is not coercion. People may self-coerce out of necessity, but that still doesn’t mean that necessity is the same as coercion. The confusion between the two is widespread and necessity is often used as an excuse to inflict coercion or justify it after the fact.

You are forced to eat and go to the bathroom etc, are you not?

No, that also isn’t force. That’s necessity. Necessity is a part of life and will always be a part of life. Coercion need not be a part of life and it is an evil that we can get rid of.

What is the significance of property?

All purposeful action requires the employment of scarce resources that cannot be simultaneously employed to infinite ends. Therefore, a theory of who has the legal & moral right to employ which resources is required (see Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard)

Explain how problem X would be solved in a free market. If you cannot, I assume that an organization that acquires wealth by violating people’s property rights is necessary to solve this problem.

This is a fallacy, in that an (epistemologically invalid) burden of proof is placed on the advocate of freedom. The reality is that governments are themselves composed of people—they do not have magical problem-solving powers that the rest of us do not. By this fallacious standard, one will always end up finding reasons that we ‘need’ government, since no one possesses the knowledge of how to solve every conceivable problem.

Better to ask: “What is required, in principle, for a person to solve his/her problems in the absence of other people? What is required, in principle, for a person to solve his/her problems in a world in which others seek to do the same?”

This fallacious burden of proof on the advocate for a Stateless society is reminiscent of the “God of the gaps” fallacy. In both cases, opponents take the lack of a solution/explanation as reason for the necessity of government/God.

Libertarians value freedom over all other values. This is why I’m not a libertarian.

There is no tradeoff between freedom and other values. On the contrary, respect for private-property rights is required to pursue any other value (such as order, harmony, peace, self-actualization, community, and happiness). 

Aren’t libertarians dogmatic in their advocacy for free markets?

It is not faith, or dogma, that leads libertarians to think that the free market is always superior to the government in providing goods & services. Rather, our best explanations of epistemology (critical rationalism) and economics (praxeology/Austrian economics) indicate that that is so. 

As a parallel example, consider the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Because it is a universal explanation of how apparent design can, and has, emerged throughout the biosphere, it is not ‘dogmatic’ to claim that the apparent design of any biological entity that one could ever encounter does not require a Designer to have emerged. Universal explanations do not allow for exceptions.

Aren’t libertarians utopian?

No. “Problems are inevitable” (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity, chapter 3), no matter how much coercion or lack thereof exists in society. The libertarian position is ‘merely’ that you cannot coerce your way to a better world (alternative formulations exist).

Aren’t libertarians unrealistic?

The only ‘unrealistic’ positions are those whose possibility is forbidden by the laws of nature. Everything else is possible.

Furthermore, the question of how to extinguish the State is an interesting question, but it is not the case that libertarianism assumes that it could possibly disappear tomorrow, nor even that such a transformation is desirable.

And, given our best epistemological explanations, isn’t it those who think coercion is morally okay and can solve problems that are being unrealistic?

What, exactly, is the State?

In addition to the economic explanations about the inefficient, counterproductive, and wealth-destroying actions of the State, it is worth taking seriously precisely how the State 1) acquires revenue and 2) enforces its edicts. Naturally, the State does not want its subjects to consider its methods at all, and, unfortunately, the State has been effective in muting criticisms against its immoral methods that, once raised, are devastating.

First, the State acquires its revenue by extorting its subjects. If a subject refuses to oblige the State, he will be kidnapped against his will and thrown into a cage. Should he defend himself against the State agents, he will be murdered. The revenue streams acquired in this way are known as ‘taxes’. The State conceals the coercive nature of taxation by sending out warning letters, communicating with its subjects as a businessman might, and adopting other placating measures. 

Secondly, whenever someone advocates for some new government law—a regulation, a price control, or a new tax—it is important to take seriously exactly what is being advocated. What are you, advocate of regulation X, willing to do to those who disobey? What are you willing to do to those who engage in trade that violates some price control? The State enforces its legislation by initiating coercion against those who violate it. Should the violator resist, he will be killed. Are you willing to kill an employer who is caught paying someone less than minimum wage?

I accept the economic and moral arguments against all government intervention. So what? The institution we call government possesses a lot of knowledge that we shouldn’t so readily dismiss.

That’s right. It’s important to distinguish 1) our best economic explanation and what it implies about coercive intervention in a system of people interacting voluntarily, 2) our best moral explanation of who has a right to employ which scarce resources, 3) the nature of the State, and 4) how to get to a voluntarist society from where we are now.

But sometimes you need a government that can step in when something bad happens.

When “something bad” happens, that means there’s a problem. To solve a problem, one has to create knowledge. That’s an epistemological concern. Coercion does not create knowledge. Political philosophies that rest on coercion have their counterpart in epistemological theories that rest on allegedly authoritative knowledge. Economics and politics are downstream from epistemology: those who (falsely) think knowledge needs to be justified or decreed by an authority will think that a government is necessary, while those who (correctly) believe that knowledge needs no justification or authority will recognize that there is no need for a government.

For any problem that may occur in society, simply ask yourself: how can it be solved? The creation of a solution requires creativity. Coercion is not a creative process, it is a mechanistic one, so it cannot create solutions to problems. Coercion may “solve” a problem for some of the involved parties in the sense that the problem goes away, but not for all of them, and it’s not a solution in the epistemological sense of explaining how to solve the problem.

What’s wrong with statism in a broad sense?

Statism is really a rather cynical view of humanity and a crude desire to control others. It rests on several bad philosophies including foundationalism, anti-creative and coercive thinking, and creationism, among others. Anti-creative sentiments in particular serve the suppression of new thoughts and ideas.

Many things statists allegedly don’t want are exacerbated by the state (see above re monopolies, fraud and corruption, exploitation, etc). Then there’s the issue that nobody has ever given a non-refuted moral explanation for why it would be okay to employ coercion against peaceful people. Coercion does not solve problems—it just steamrolls over one side of the argument.

Libertarianism is the only consistent and morally sound political and economic philosophy. It treats people with dignity. And, seeing how politics and economics are downstream of epistemology, libertarianism is the only political philosophy consistent with the best epistemology we have: Popperian epistemology.

How could one change your mind?

If you can present a single instance of a problem that can only be solved using the initiation of coercion rather than the creation of knowledge, then we will consider libertarianism refuted.

How could one change your mind about coercion being a necessary part of society?

OK I’m sold. But surely we can’t get rid of the government over night?

That is correct. The Popperian approach is to recognize that the government contains a lot of valuable knowledge, and that revolution should be avoided in favor of piecemeal changes.

To facilitate that, we need better and less coercive politics, the rapid spreading of knowledge, and rapid innovation and progress.

Glossary

  • The state — Institution that coercively secures revenues. It tends to have a territorial monopoly on legislation and arbitration.

  • Statism — The false political philosophy that advocates and justifies the morally and economically legitimate and/or necessary existence of the state.

  • Voluntarism/libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism — The true political philosophy advocating a society in which there exists no institutionalized coercion.

  • Property — a scarce resource that can rightfully be employed by an owner. Who owns what is determined by the private property ethic (see The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe).

  • Coercion — see the TCS glossary

The authors of the referenced works do not necessarily agree with the views presented in this article.


What people are saying

Thank you so much Dennis and Logan, I’m a big fan of both of your work and I really like this FAQ you wrote. Both of you changed my mind a lot, I’m really enjoying reading A Window on Intelligence and ever since I heard Logan on the Do Explain podcast, I’ve been gobbling up Murray Rothbard and Ludwig Von Mises books.

My question is this: What about intellectual property? Property rights make good sense and I really like Hans-Herman Hoppe’s argumentation ethics… but does all this apply to the ideas that one creates? It seems like to successfully copy an idea it has to be re-created in the person that does the copying (using their own computational resources), so I find it hard to believe when people say that an idea has been “stolen”. Information doesn’t seem scarce in the same way matter and energy is. If I copy the computer code that you created, you are still free to use it yourself, meaning I didn’t take it away, right?

But then, if intellectual property isn’t a valid concept, is it okay for me to just pirate all software at my hearts content, so long as I can get away with it? Or on the other hand, if I was to ever publish software myself (which I plan to do, hence the question), would it be morally reprehensible for me to attempt to publish this software under anything but the most liberal open source licenses possible? I suppose it must be okay to keep secrets, but would it ever be okay for me to demand that people pay to use my software if they can just pirate it? Can I really say that they have stolen it from me, or does this not apply here?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Amaro | 5 months ago

Hi Amaro,

Thank you for the kind words. You’re right that you cannot own an idea. To own a pattern of information is effectively totalitarian, because it would imply that you have a property right (partial or otherwise) over every other information-carrying medium in the entire multiverse.

Many issues around copying software and ideas have already been solved in some interesting cases, such as stand-up comedy. There are no laws against stealing someone’s jokes (nor should there be). Still, comedians police their own and ostracize those whom they think are repeating jokes that other comedians had created. As always, the process is fallible, and sometimes joke ‘thieves’ get away with it, and sometimes someone is wrongfully accused of ‘thievery’. But mistakes are inevitable whether there is a government or not.

Also, there are ways to monetize one’s creation even in the absence of IP laws. In fact, without IP laws, creators would be more inclined to solve just that problem. Amazing how creativity is unleashed on a problem when coercion is off the table.

I’ll also say that it’s not even clear that there’s more innovation under an IP legal order. Think about the additional legal costs on people who might be sued for accidentally ‘copying’ someone else’s work. That alone will inhibit creative endeavors.

I tried to be brief, but I highly recommend Stephan Kinsella’s short book, Against Intellectual Property - https://cdn.mises.org/Against%20Intellectual%20Property_2.pdf

Logan Chipkin | 5 months ago

Isn’t it a bit ironic that the Mises Institute has a copyright notice on page 3?

Copyright © 2008 Ludwig von Mises Institute

Dennis | 5 months ago

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer and sharing “Against Intellectual Property”, it took me a moment but I did end up reading the whole thing. I found it to be very persuasive and a great aid for thought on the subject. I am generally convinced that IP should not be enforced, but there are some implications to this that I am still struggling to wrap my head around. I would love to read your thoughts on this (Logan or Dennis, as I guess that both of you would have interesting things to say on the subject).

If IP is illegitimate, what are the implications of this to things such as plagiarism, privacy intrusion, media and software piracy etc.?

Can we maintain that such things should be simultaneously conceived of as both immoral as well as legal? Or are they, perhaps, not even immoral? Should comedians really be outraged for having their jokes ‘stolen’? I’m genuinely unsure.

Talking about plagiarism, I ran into this article by Temple accusing Dennis of plagiarising Temple in Dennis’s book A Window on Intelligence. The fact that I had found that article (I won’t link to it here, I don’t want to give the guy any traffic) by looking up his name on Google precisely because I ran into a bunch of citations mentioning his name in the book didn’t really lend Temple much credence when it came to his accusations. I had never heard of the guy until stumbling upon the citations that Dennis had bothered to include in his book. Mentioning this here might not amount to much more than gossip, but I did think that was very curious and I was wondering what was up with that. Is Temple just an unusually bitter person? His article was pretty hard to read, filled with righteous indignation and vitriol as it was.
Anyway, to bring this back to my question: Would Dennis have been wrong if he hadn’t cited anyone and if so, why? I’m starting to doubt that the common attitude towards accreditation is very useful, at least in as strong of a form as it is commonly held. I have read both of David Deutsch’s books, for instance. His ideas appear a lot in A Window on Intelligence, but I wouldn’t have been able to acquire all my understanding from them if I hadn’t also read them in the context in which they appear in Dennis’ work. Accreditation or not, writing that book would still have been a feat of creativity, even if it could be well described by saying that it is merely an aggregate of other people’s ideas (I don’t happen to think that that is an apt description). Accreditation or not, it would still be the best book on the subject I have ever read, and I have read a few.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there are plenty of good reasons to give people credit, many of them are actually in the author’s own interest, but I think a demand for accreditation is a bit like a demand that people say please and thank you in every day interactions. Doing so may be polite and proper, but not doing so is hardly a severe breach of morality that should be punishable by, for instance, being expelled from one’s university.
I have a feeling that attitudes towards software piracy and intrusions on privacy should be similarly downgraded in terms of moral urgency.

What do you think?

I realise that this is quite far off topic now, so if you’d rather discuss this elsewhere, feel free to reach me via amaro@amarokoberle.com

Amaro | 4 months ago

Following a suggestion, I have changed the following passage

Then there’s the issue that nobody has ever given a moral explanation for why it would be okay to employ coercion against peaceful people.

to say “non-refuted moral explanation” instead. As suggested, “there has been plenty of moral philosophy dealing with that, starting with Hobbes and Rousseau. Whether the theories are satisfying or not, they do exist.”

Likewise, the following sentence that used to say

Arguments usually concentrate on certain outcomes that may seem desirable, but it is never explained why coercing yourself there is okay.

has been changed to

Coercion does not solve problems—it just steamrolls over one side of the argument.

Dennis | 2 months ago

What are your thoughts?

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