16 Feb 2016

Problems With Libertarianism?

Libertarianism 68 Comments

A reader sent me the following email, which he gave me permission to reprint. I thought his concerns were quite understandable but that I wouldn’t have the time to do justice to them. So below is his (edited) email, and then my own two cents. Please chime in (with courtesy) in the comments.


Dear Professor Murphy,

I’m a teen who is interested in Libertarianism and Free-Market Economics. I recently started taking the course entitled “Introduction to the free market” and so far I’m liking almost everything I’m learning. That is, except for Libertarianism’s emphasis on selfishness. In Libertarianism, people who are selfish are praised and selfishness is perfectly okay even in the most extreme cases. For example, if B is riding in A’s boat, A has a right to throw him off even if that means he will certainly die. (I’m afraid to even mention Ayn Rand’s opinion in such a case.) I like the idea of not having a welfare state or a Fed, but Austrian Economists take an additional step and praise the selfish Wall Street businessmen calling them “the driving force of the market”.

Murray Rothbard writes in his book “The Ethics of Liberty”, chapter 14, entitled “Children and Rights”, that parents should have the legal right to allow their children to die. I know that [David] Gordon and Stephan Kinsella say that since parents bring their children into the world in a situation in which they are not self sufficient, they are obligated to support them until they are self sufficient. But that doesn’t really solve the core of the problem, namely, that Libertarianism believes in selfishness, and therefore, only in some cases will Gordon and Kinsella’s answer apply. For example, if the children are yours, you brought them into the world and are obligated to feed them. But if you see someone else’s child about to die from starvation, (God forbid) that would be okay.

I now have a dilemma. On one hand, Libertarianism makes a lot of sense. I can’t just stop believing in it. But on the other hand, it allows for immoral situations such as people murdering others indirectly. I emailed [some libertarian thinkers], but to no avail. What should I do about this? Is there a book that deals with this problem?

Thank you very much,
Isaac D. Cohen


Some quick reactions:

(1) Libertarianism doesn’t purport to be a complete theory of ethics. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty should make that clear, upfront. Libertarianism in the tradition of Rothbard is a theory of property rights (including your ownership of your body). It is connected to ethics in this way: If you have the right to X, then it would be immoral for outsiders to use force to interfere with your exercise of X.

For example, standard libertarianism says you have the right to become a heroin addict. That is, it would be immoral for outsiders to use force to prevent you from using heroin and becoming addicted to it. But one could be a libertarian and still think that heroin addiction is immoral.

(2) Austrian economics is distinct from libertarian political theory. Austrian economics is the “value free” study of how human choice leads to patterns in the economic arena. Walter Block illustrates this distinction nicely, by saying we could logically imagine a socialist Austrian economist. That is, this person knows from the study of scientific economics that socialism leads to chaos in the allocation of resources to satisfy consumers. But this person is a misanthrope, and his value system ranks human misery very highly. So he advocates socialism, knowing that it is a means to achieving his end of human suffering. There is nothing that contradicts Austrian economics in this, though of course he would not be a libertarian.

So, in the real world, the reason Austrian economics and libertarian political theory overlap so much is that most people desire a world in which poverty and childhood illness are minimized, where we have rising standards of living, etc.

(3) It is undeniably true that a lot of libertarians think selfishness is a virtue; Rand even picks that as a title. But there are also many libertarians and Austrians who are Christian. I personally would say that selfishness is a vice when it is taken in the popular connotation, while altruism is a virtue. However, the beauty of voluntary market relations is that they take our natural, base, selfish impulses and through an “Invisible Hand” (which is God’s) they channel those impulses into altruistic actions. We unwittingly serve our fellow men and women when we obey the rules of property rights.

68 Responses to “Problems With Libertarianism?”

  1. E. Harding says:

    “But this person is a misanthrope, and his value system ranks human misery very highly.”

    -Or, alternatively, he values equality and order above liberty, and doesn’t think efficiency and choice are that important. Socialism has had its failures, but it hardly maximizes human misery. There’s lots of places worse to live than North Korea. Arguably, the British had worse government in India than the Kim regime did in Korea. The Cambodian and African socialist experiments were pretty miserable; East Germany, Slovenia, and Czechoslovakia were OK.

    Any bets on whether this [guy] will be a Cato libertarian, leftist, Rothbard libertarian, or something other than these six years from now? I was a Rothbard libertarian, now I’m a barely-ideological far right person who loves Scott Sumner (except when he praises democracy in theory or denounces Donald Trump).

    My guess is that this dude will not be a Rothbard libertarian six years from now (80% confidence). My best guess is leftist (50% confidence).

    • Major.Freedom says:

      “Or, alternatively, he values equality and order above liberty”

      That is just a restatement of misanthropy and ranking human misery highly.

      Read Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron for what “equality” and “order” actually would look like if attempted in the pure form.

      I won’t bother explaining that your very disagreement of “Or, alternatively” is predicated on the freedom of inequality.

      • guest says:

        “… what “equality” and “order” actually would look like if attempted in the pure form.”

        Right. The assumption, here, is that unequal amounts of stuff is bad, per se.

        What isn’t being understood – and this meant to be understood in the general sense – is that all the productive innovations that are enjoyed by the rich that also *could* be used to end poverty and such, only exist because their manufacturers valued what they got from the rich more than what they would have got by pursuing egalitarian interests.

        So no one is being robbed by inequality, per se. If the rich didn’t want playthings, the poor would *still* be without those particular productive means to help them out of poverty.

        When competition is allowed – something the egalitarian anti-trust laws prevent – that brings better technology within closer reach of the poor.

        By trying to impose equality, everyone has less stuff.

        There’s also a failure on the part socialists to understand that since value always originates with the consumer [Menger’s Theory of Imputation], and consumers have unequal interests, a healthy economy is *necessarily* going to have inequality.

  2. Major.Freedom says:

    Eye for an eye ethics regarding leaving a baby to fend for itself, would have the punishment of the parents being left alone to feed themselves.

    Libertarianism is not an advocacy of any particular action that would be considered legal. Just because libertarianism does not call for violence against a parent who leaves their babies, that does not equate to libertarians encouraging or even liking or respecting people who do such actions. At any rate, libertarianism allows for caring and loving people to take possession of abandoned babies, so there is a way libertarians can avoid living in a world of starving babies. Similar to what we have now, except the parents who abandoned the baby are not in prison. That’s fine by me, because such people are not a violent threat to others. They are just callous. It would be a waste of resources to give them free room and board.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      In liberty, every seller of food could legally refuse to sell food to the parents who refused to feed their baby.

      And every water seller could refuse to sell them water.

      And clothing.

      And even shelter.

      Their employer could fire them on this basis.

      In other words, parents who leave their babies to die could be effectively ostracized from libertarian society, and be compelled via defense of property rights to find a place to live in the woods.

      • Major.Freedom says:

        In other words, libertarianism does have mechanisms in place that allow good people to oust bad people. You just can’t hurt the parents by aggressive force.

        Is the absence of initiating physical force against the parents really what concerns you Isaac? That is what you are disputing.

        • Guest says:

          But how many people want to leave their children? Libertarians always get stuck defending unlikely scenarios. Additionally, nobody ever stops to ask,
          ” what motivated these parents to leave their baby?”

          Anti pro choice camp always say, “She wanted to go on a cruise ship so she killed here belly baby!” Out of 55M abortions, how many women actually went on a cruise?

          The majority of women who get abortion have other motivation than going on a cruise.

          I am simply saying, why waste time defending absurd and unlikely scenarios. Once you are backed into an imaginary corner, it is difficult to find your way out and then these ridiculous *libertarian* positions are developed.

          • Major.Freedom says:

            I get what you’re saying guest, but that is the nature of the beast. New ideas, radical ideas, are often, and quite justifiably, “tested” to a relatively high degree. Much higher than the status quo.

            It is society pushing the new idea to its limits, because it is a threat to the existing order. All threatening ideas are treated differently than traditional ideas.

            I would not so much cry foul on this. I would take it on he chinz and be ready to defend where the principles go, if you are a principled person.

            People who come to the world with radical ideas, new ideas, relatively speaking, should not refuse to answer the unlikely what if scenario type questions. Even if you tried to defend your refusal to seriously engage on the basis of fairness in discourse, you will likely appear as deliberately withholding something, and when people are threatened by the basis of your ideas, they’ll sniff that a mile away and believe, rightly or wrongly, that you are trying to deceive them.

            I say embrace those hypothetical unlikely scenarios. You are actually getting free help in practising your own arguments and you are being given extremely low cost examples with which to work. And best of all, if you can answer those unlikely scenarios satisfactorily, then the zillions of other every day scenarios and problems will become a cakewalk for you.

      • guest says:

        Also, in liberty, kids could actually pull themselves out of poverty by working lemonade stands and such, which is currently prevented by the government due to child labor laws.

        So, parents would feel less of a need to abandon their babies with so many more opportunities to make money being available.

        Further, repealing child labor laws would allow abused kids to more safely run away from danger.

  3. tomepats says:

    Ayn Rand’s objectivism may make the claims that are here being conflated with libertarianism and austrian economics generally. However, Ayn Rand does not speak for all libertarians.

    Rothbard, himself, eventually rejected Ayn Rand. If I remember correctly, he was married to a Catholic and Rand and her followers wanted him to divorce her because of her religion. Although his reason for rejecting may have more to do with the cult of personality around Rand than any disagreements with her philosophy. I don’t really know enough.

    Basically, as Bob, you pointed out, you can think selfishness is bad and still be a libertarian. The NAP is what’s important.

    E. Harding – dropping the hard J. Seemed appropriate and definitely not needlessly condescending.

  4. Patrick Szar says:

    I’ve been following a back and forth between Robert Wenzel @ targetliberty.Com and the blogger Bionic Mosquito lately. They have been discussing culture as governance, which directly relates to the actual functioning of a libertarian society. I think RW is off his rocker, and BM does a great job discussing how free people maintain society/social bonds, but it was pretty good reading on the subject and ended up including Walter Block in the discussion

    • knoxharrington says:

      Wenzel is just plain weird. I quit paying attention to him after the “debate” with Stephan Kinsella on intellectual property. He is absolutely off his rocker.

  5. Andrew Keen says:

    For example, if B is riding in A’s boat, A has a right to throw him off even if that means he will certainly die.

    This is a hotly debated topic within libertarian circles. For example: Wisniewski, Jakub Bozydar. “Rejoinder to Block’s Defense of Evictionism,” Libertarian Papers 2, no. 37 (2010): 1–7.

  6. guest says:

    “But that doesn’t really solve the core of the problem, namely, that Libertarianism believes in selfishness …”

    I think it will help to say that the Austrian position is that, strictly speaking, *all* human action is necessarily self-serving, and cannot logically be any other way.

    If you like to feed other people’s poor kids, then that just happens to be your particular highest-ranking end at the moment. Austrians would say that obviously you profit [psychic profit] from doing so, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.

    Even though the act helps others, the reason you do it is because *you* value what you believe will be the result.

    So everything you do is always for your own benefit first and foremost.

    I think the following two videos could actually make you feel good about *not* doing things for others, believe it or not, because they show that high or low prices are not problems to be solved, but rather just reflections of consumer values given their individually perceived scarcity conditions:

    Calculation and Socialism | Joseph T. Salerno

    The Birth of the Austrian School | Joseph T. Salerno

    • Guest says:

      “I think it will help to say that the Austrian position is that, strictly speaking, *all* human action is necessarily self-serving, and cannot logically be any other way.”

      Even Mother Teresa was trying to get to Heaven.

  7. Bharat says:

    I think Isaac has hit upon an important issue that, in my opinion, has not received a sufficient answer from libertarians, though it has received some interesting ones. No matter which road you take on child abandonment, you will be left with scenarios which are clearly problematic. If you take the Rothbardian route, any parent can abandon and starve their child to death. If you take the Blockean route, any parent can abandon and starve their child to death if other parents are unwilling or unable to take care of the child. If you take the Kinsellian route (which I disagree with and will get into only if others are interested because it’s nuanced), any raped parent can abandon and starve their child to death.

    On top of that, what every conceivable libertarian position cannot deal with is the situation where a person lets a stranger, e.g. drown to death. There is no necessary connection between strangers like there is between a parent and their child, so no force may be used to compel a person to save a stranger. But if a situation demanded it, it would quite obviously be correct to threaten another person if he would then save a stranger. For example, if A, B’s friend, walked upon stranger C drowning, and A is on the phone with B saying he doesn’t feel like saving C, it would be perfectly just for B to threaten A into saving C. We could add stipulations about trying to persuade first, or using the least amount of threatening force possible, but I think most people would intuitively agree that if a threat is necessary in this situation, then it becomes just.

    • tomepats says:

      I would point out that rape is problematic for any worldview to deal with and is itself a violation of libertarian principles.

      However, if a woman is raped (going with Kinsela’s route), the mother could possibly abandon their child. However, there would be clear responsibility on the side of the father.

      A popular thought experiment is the plane. If I invite you on my plane but while we’re 10k feet in the air decide I no longer want to share my plane with you. I don’t have the right to expel you from my plane. I haven’t thought through it in detail but in the case of rape you could say. Someone has drugged both of us and put us on my plane. I wake up at 10k feet. Do I have the right to kick you off my plane? I’m sure others have had this thought and worked through it more. I would say no. But you have the right to land the plane as soon as possible and kick you off. But you can’t just land in the middle of the Sahara either. You would need to make sure they can reasonably survive. I would argue this is analogous to giving a child up for adoption.

      For your point about drowning. I would just reiterate what Bob pointed out. Libertarianism itself does not say that you have an obligation to save a drowning person but you can be a libertarian and also believe people have a moral obligation to save the drowning person.

      I don’t think I agree that B is justified in threatening C into saving A. Why wouldn’t B just save A in the first place? Also, there has to be some risk involved in saving a drowning person. C is perfectly justified in using their judgment if they think the risk is too great. Perhaps they’re a poor swimmer. You could likely come up with another analogy that removes these problems but I wonder how well you could do so without completely divorcing the hypothetical from reality. B would be perfectly justified in never again associating with C. Even in encouraging others not to associate with C and telling all about how C did nothing. That kind of social pressure could help resolve these situations without aggression.

      • Bharat says:

        Sorry, I should have added more detail into that scenario. I’m using Peter Singer’s popular drowning child scenario, in which case a child is drowning in a shallow pool, and there’s clearly no risk involved in saving the child. The only trouble you’d have to go through is getting your clothes wet and dirty and maybe using up some of your time.

        The changes I make to Singer’s scenario is that a person B is on the phone with person A (who can save child C). B is far enough away that he cannot save C himself, but he nevertheless can make a convincing threat to A (because at some point B will be in A’s vicinity, he knows where he lives, etc.).

        You state “Even in encouraging others not to associate with C and telling all about how C did nothing. That kind of social pressure could help resolve these situations without aggression.” Right, but my point is that if it came to it, a threat would be justified, while a libertarian sticking to the non-aggression principle must argue that any threat is universally unjust regardless of the situation.

        Your drugged person on plane analogy is really interesting, and I also would have to think about that some more before coming to a conclusion. My first thought though is that could conceivably be another case of the NAP dealing improperly with a situation. (I agree with your conclusion by the way, it’d be immoral to kick him off the plane, I just don’t know if that’s the libertarian conclusion)

        • tomepats says:

          Hmmm, definitely a tougher hypothetical and I think see what you’re saying.

          I guess I’d argue that a threat of violence is still not justified but is perhaps reasonable. Maybe we’ll just end up disagreeing here.

          If we played this out though. And A is able to convince B to save the child by threat of violence. In a truly anarchist/libertarian society. A would have to face the consequences for violating the non-aggression principle.

          What would we argue are the consequences? He has caused some sort of psychic harm perhaps. B has gotten his clothes wet/dirty and it has taken some of B’s time. Perhaps a libertarian judge would say that A needs to do a load of laundry for B and say he’s sorry. I think it likely that this kind of thing would not require arbitration at all. So while technically a violation of the NAP, it is inconsequential enough to bother with doling out punishment or rethinking the NAP as a whole.

          As for the plane analogy. I think this is definitely a situation where there are disagreements in libertarian thinking which you obviously are aware of. However, I think our belief that you can’t kick this drugged person off your plane fits with the NAP by stating the principle that because this person is trespassing through no reasonable fault of their own. By kicking them off your plane you are the aggressor and the one initiating violence. Now, what we may need to think through further, is if my ‘trespassing through no reasonable fault of their own’ idea holds up in other situations.

          Something that I want to say I’ve heard Kinsella mention before (although maybe it was someone else). Is that you have to keep in mind that all philosophies of ethics have difficulties with nuances like this. So while we may be able to poke a small hole in the NAP here and there, the question in response would be what is the alternative?

          And while I don’t think we’ve yet poked a hole in the NAP, I for one would much rather debate these nuances and the best way to deal with them from within the framework of the NAP than from outside of it.

          • Bharat says:

            Right, the most I think one can say from my argument alone (if a person agrees with it) is that the non-aggression principle is not universal. Unless a person were to poke many other holes (which I think may be possible but I haven’t done yet) in the NAP, it wouldn’t totally illegitimize it. It is of course also important to note that if one is able to make exceptions to a principle under certain situations, analagous situations that do occur in real life would also permit an exception.

      • Bharat says:

        it’d be murder* to kick him off the plane (he doesn’t have a right to do that)

        • Major.Freedom says:

          Bharat, what do you mean *exactly* when you say that in liberty, people “can” abandon their babies or “can” watch people drown? In other words, what do you mean by “can”?

          If you mean “legally” what exactly do you mean by “legally”?

          If you mean “can do it without punishment”, what exactly do you mean by “punishment”?

          What I am getting at is that in liberty, in the Rothbardian/Blockean expressions, it is not true that parents abandoning their babies is an activity is not to go without any punishment whatsoever. There are ways to punish parents who do such a thing AND respect their libertarian rights.

          You can punish people to an extremely high degree without violating their libertarian rights. This is actually the logical flipside of people exercising their liberty to an extremely high degree without violating the libertarian rights of others, such as parents abandoning their babies.

          One example of punishment could be adults “abandoning” the parents. This could consist of sellers refusing to sell ANYTHING to the parents. Imagine what your life would be like tomorrow if everyone suddenly stopped accepting your money. You try to go the grocery store, and you can’t buy food. You try to pay your electricity bill, and your money is rejected. You try to pay your water bill, and your money is rejected and your water is turned off. Think about that for a while.

          This activity on the part of the sellers would not be a violation of your libertarian rights, but would you think of this is anything other than punishment? It would be brutal for you, for anyone who has become dependent on others in a division of labor, that is, for anyone who is a member of society.

          The parents, if they wanted to live, would have to leave society, and go sustain themselves in the woods, or move to another part of the world, in another society and practically ask for a second chance.

          Is that not a punishment? Is that not an outcome that allows the rest of the people to live their lives without having to deal with these parents?

          For some reason too many people have the belief that if an activity is “legal” in libertarianism, that the activity has absolutely no adverse consequences for the people who engage in those acts. And worse, the activity would become a big business of its own.

        • Major.Freedom says:

          In libertarianism, you, Bharat, would be free to not deal with these parents at all. And, you could take advantage of the Blockean concept of blackmail, and even blackmail the parents.

          There are a lot of ways you could make a person’s life uncomfortable in libertarianism. And again, even that realization, the fact you can do such things does not mean you must do them, or even that you will not incur any costs of doing such things. You would have a choice.

          Do you really believe that handcuffing and throwing the parents in jail, to be sustained by taxpayer theft, with free food and free water, to be the only conceivable meaningful definition of punishment?

          • Bharat says:

            Hey MF, I think I mean the same thing you do. In a libertarian society strictly following the non-aggression principle, persons could legally let others drown. Any threat involving force beforehand would not be permissible and neither would any punishment involving force after.

            I think you raise an excellent point that there are ways to punish someone (and I’d add, “threaten” someone as well – not “threat” in terms of aggression but in nonviolent terms) extremely severely without resorting to force. However, what I’m trying to argue is that if a threat of force was used, or if a punishment with force was used, it could in fact be perfectly just, while the libertarian must argue that all such acts are universally unjust.

            That’s what I argue with my drowning child example. If it were extremely easy for A to save child C, and person B made a threat of force to get A to save C, this would be a just threat of force. If A were for some reason not going to be convinced by being boycotted to the maximum, but would be convinced by some sort of threat involving force, it would be just to make that threat.

            If another example, if a woman, D, was to come on to the scene too late and slap A for not saving the child, the libertarian would have to say that this was an act of assault. I think our intuition meanwhile would side on such an act being perfectly fine.

            There are all sort of scenarios one can come up with that demonstrate this. As I say above, I’m not trying to argue the non-aggression principle is useless, I’m just arguing it’s not universal.

            • Isaac D. Cohen says:

              So if the NAP is not universal, is there a rule that we can use to figure out when it applies and when not?

              I ask because if there is no such no such rule then anytime someone is upset with the NAP they can just say it doesn’t apply in this case and before long everyone will be making their own laws.

    • guest says:

      “But if a situation demanded it, it would quite obviously be correct to threaten another person if he would then save a stranger.”

      No doubt you believe this based on a belief in some objective rights for the stranger.

      Unless your belief is based in a belief that God wants you to use force, the act of force turns out to be a denial of any objective rights for the stranger in favor of either “might makes right” or collectivism/majority rule.

      (Aside: Unless you can convince others that your God is the right one, you’ll understand why they cannot simply grant you your premise. From their perspective, it would make sense for them to say “Who are you?” and resist your use of force.)

      But if might makes right, then the right isn’t objective; Same with collectivism/majority rule, since as soon as the collective changes their mind, some other set of things become “rights”.

  8. Nick says:

    As has been stated by others here, Austrian economics is different from libertarian political theory (though the two often go together), and libertarianism is not a complete ethical system. Economics as a social science tells us things about how people make decisions involving the exchange of goods and services in relation to other people, and the material effects of those decisions; it doesn’t give a moral opinion on when or if such an exchange is morally good or bad.

    Libertarian political theory is more philosophical than economics in that it attempts to answer the question, “When is it morally appropriate to initiate force against someone else?” This is undoubtedly an ethical question, but not a complete ethical framework. As said elsewhere, someone could believe that the use of narcotics is unethical, while at the same time opposing the Drug War or the use of force to solve that issue.

    It goes even beyond that type of issue, and we quickly see that libertarianism can’t definitely answer its own question in an absolute sense. For example, there are Christian libertarians, atheist libertarians, Buddhist libertarians and a whole host of other types. There are some libertarians who are minarchists who think some form of minimal state is good (e.g., Ron Paul), and others who are anarchists or anarcho-capitalists who believe that a state is always inherently bad (e.g., Rothbard, Hoppe, Rockwell, Woods). As mentioned, even amongst people with substantially similar political and metaphysical/religious theories (e.g., Kinsella and Rothbard, both of whom would be classified as anarcho-capitalists and somewhere along the lines of atheist-agnostic) there may be disagreement on the ethically-proper secular-political applications of libertarianism. An atheist libertarian may believe that the use of force in recovering stolen property is justified, while a Christian libertarian who is also a pacifist may argue that while the theft of the property was immoral to begin with, it would be additionally immoral to initiate force to recover the stolen property.

    Taken in this regard, libertarianism cannot completely answer the question, “When is it morally appropriate to initiate force against someone else?” However, libertarianism is able to provide some measure of consistency in addressing specific issues where the consensus of adherents would probably say, “It is morally illegitimate to use force against that person in that specific circumstance.” For example, libertarians of all metaphysical/religious worldviews would generally come to the broad consensus that the Drug War is morally illegitimate, though some of those same people would go farther in condemning the use of force in other circumstances than would their peers (see the atheist/Christian example on recovering stolen property above).

    So we can’t depend on libertarianism alone to answer all ethical questions, and not even to answer all ethical questions about force. These issues stretch far beyond and into the realms of religion and philosophy. What we SHOULD be able to come to agreement on when considering how both Austrian economics and libertarianism work cohesively are things such as: while we may not agree on everything that constitutes what is improper, but we can agree that THIS specific thing is improper; while we may not agree on how people should spend their money or run their businesses, we know that the market can and would operate in THIS trend when unencumbered by intervention, etc.

    • Guest says:

      “So we can’t depend on libertarianism alone to answer all ethical questions, and not even to answer all ethical questions about force.”

      I follow the NAP and want government to do the same. The original Constitution said the military was for Defence (not offence nor entangled alliances).

      The Bible says to turn the other cheek yet defense is okay. The Bible goes so far as to say if an evil man try’s to come into your home during darkness, it is okay to kill him.

      ” If a person on the other side of the room comes and me with a mallet, I am going to sock him in the face.”~ Murray Rothbard

      • Nick says:

        You want government to use the non-aggression principle; some of us don’t want civil government to exist at all. You believe that violent self-defense is ethical; some of us do not. Who is right? Libertarianism can’t answer that question. It’s a ethical religious-philosophical question. My point was simply that libertarian political theory is incapable of comprehensively answering the question of all legitimate and illegitimate uses of force; at best it can help us answer specific questions about when it is definitely NOT okay to use force. So, for example, we can AGREE that pre-emptive war is wrong, but libertarianism does not tell us if ALL war is wrong.

        On a separate matter, since you brought up specific biblical references, let’s consider the verse from Exodus you alluded to. Here is what it actually says:

        If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. (Exodus 22:2-3, ESV, here and elsewhere)

        To use that reference that without historical-theological context is bad hermeneutics. The verse doesn’t even say quite what you insinuated it says; it actually goes on to say that if the offender is killed by the homeowner in the daylight, then the homeowner is guilty for killing the thief! Presumably, then, the point was to limit bloodshed against the backdrop of ancient near eastern thought and practice on retribution, not to encourage bloodshed.

        Furthermore, is that a universal moral principle, or was it a specific application of a specific circumstance meant for the conduct of Israelite society at a specific point in redemptive history? You can’t just open the Bible at random places and pick things out and apply them universally without any regard to the context and overarching narrative; the Bible is fundamentally telling a story about God and man, and to understand what the application is TODAY you have to consider the whole scope and unfolding of the story, not just go back to an early portion, pick out a reference, and treat it like it is a book of miscellanies that are divorced from the whole arc of the Bible narrative.

        At this point in history, as we sit here in 2016, Christ has come, the New Covenant is inaugurated, and we are in a new age. So at this point in history, what is the ethical imperative God has imposed on mankind regarding man’s use of force against other men? It is again poor hermeneutics to say that the Bible says one thing, but also another thing, and so what we should do is just kind of let the extremes balance each other out. That does not do justice to authorial intent; it assumes the author is basically schizophrenic and saying things that can’t reconcile and so it is up to us to blend them and balance them out. But nobody does this with any other text; it’s an irresponsible method of handling an author’s work. Unless there is a compelling reason to assume otherwise, we should take what authors say at face value, and then first ask ourselves if the misunderstanding is not with us, i.e., if there is something deeper going on than meets the eye. Here is some of what the New Testament says about violence, force, retaliation, and dealing with ones’ enemies.

        “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

        “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:9-11)

        “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

        “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:38-47)

        Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

        Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)

        Here we see Jesus, Peter and Paul all saying the same thing about life in the New Covenant, in the present age. How then does someone logically look at other verses and conclude that these things need to be heavily footnoted and don’t really mean what plainly, consistently say at this: the complete and final era of biblical revelation?

        Recommended resources on this subject:

        Preston Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

        Greg Boyd, Myth of a Christian Nation

        Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President

        Of course, if someone is not a Christian, there is no point in even discussing this. It is futile to debate the meaning of the Bible and theology with someone who is not Christian, because:

        The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

        But for those who accept that the Bible is infallible and authoritative, I cannot recommend the aforementioned three books highly enough.

        • Guest says:

          Well right of the bat you misrepresented what I said and what the Bible intended.

          I said ” The Bible goes so far as to say if an evil man try’s to come into your home during darkness, it is okay to kill him.”

          You said “The verse doesn’t even say quite what you insinuated it says; it actually goes on to say that if the offender is killed by the homeowner in the daylight, then the homeowner is guilty for killing the thief! Presumably, then, the point was to limit bloodshed against the backdrop of ancient near eastern thought and practice on retribution, not to encourage bloodshed.”

          So you see, I did say darkness. Not daylight. You presume what this means, I know what this means. It means, during the day, you can see who it is, there is no immediate need, it is not dark, etc. So if somebody is dumb enough to come into your home when it is dark, they are going to die.

          Now all the NT stuff you quote. I am very well aware of all of that. I think you are guilty of applying all of that way to broadly. You are also taking it to extremes.

          If you can honestly tell me that you will let a thug, murder you and your family, good for you. You stand there and look down that barrel as his buddy has his way with your wife. I am sure Jesus will reserve special place for you.

          I have read, listened and watched every single thing Greg Boyd has published. I suggest you watch his twisted scripture about Job and how he eludes to God saying there are evil forces at play God can’t even understand and control. Wow, strong stuff that would be taken as blasphemy by most Christians.

          • Guest says:

            Simply put, have you poked out your eye and chopped off your hand yet?

            The problem with the understanding the Bible is mostly this. Does what is being said apply to that exact moment or is it eternal? I have noticed most seminary experts use double standards. They sort of pick and choose depending on the narrative they live by.

            Regarding civil authority, it is not that I want a government, it is that there is a government. So I am going to ask it to commit only defensive violence, never offensive. A step in the right direction.

            None of this is easy and portraying yourself as an authority never helps. 1 Cor 8:1 “We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.”

            See how I did that, I used something about food and pointed it at you. Is it applicable?

            Jesus never explicitly says to let evil men harm you in a bodily way. Jesus even avoids this multiple times until the 1 time God has commanded him not to, at the Cross.

            Paul evaded evil men and certain death by being lowered out a window.

            So no, I do not believe the OT nor the NT advocates 100% let yourself be maimed, harmed, injured, murdered, destroyed in a physical sense. It is saying, don’t try to create Heaven on earth and don’t hurt anybody attempting to build this not possible utopia.

            Non violence yet self defense in obvious situation. It is all common sense. Does Jesus ever command you to ignore your God given logic an ability to reason, no. Matter of fact, Jesus tells you to love Him with all your heart, not the guy trying to kill you.

  9. Tel says:

    It’s going to be difficult to come up with a system where people have the freedom to make decisions while also offering a guarantee that every decision is a good decision.

    If you don’t appreciate selfishness, then don’t be selfish… the choice is yours Isaac.

    Let’s look at the alternative option, you have a bunch of people with guns going around who threaten to shoot anyone caugh behaving in a selfish way (based on their opinion). Will this make a better world? How do we now guarantee those enforcers don’t get tempted to use their special power for their own selfish ends?

  10. Tel says:

    For example, if B is riding in A’s boat, A has a right to throw him off even if that means he will certainly die.

    If B is stowing away and gets caught, and A is the legitimate captain and crew then personally I don’t have a lot of sympathy, although probably in most cases B would not be killed anyway.

    If B was a paying passenger with a ticket, then A would be in breach of contract to throw them overboard. The consequences of such a breach would need to be enforced by port authorities or other relatives with interest in B’s well-being.

    • knoxharrington says:

      Good points. If A allowed B to get on the boat B would rationally presume that he would not be asked to leave the boat mid-voyage or else why would he get on. B detrimentally relied on A’s real or implied representation that he would not be jettisoned from the boat mid-voyage.

      Fortunately, lifeboat ethics or Lon Fuller’s speluncean explorers rarely if ever come up in reality. Would anyone think that A was morally in the right to extend an invitation to B and then summarily decide to tell him he is trespassing and to get off the boat and die? Really a stupid hypothetical. It would be akin to inviting a person into your birthday party and then deciding he is not an invitee but a trespasser therefore allowing you to shoot him.


  11. Colombo says:

    My two cents.

    Selfishness is more a description of reality than a prescription of behavior. If the State had a “self”, then we would say that the State is quite selfish, meaning it tries to achieve good to itself by causing harm to others.

    Selfishness, as an expression of bad behavior towards others, can be seen in all living beings. The opposite of selfishness is quite unusual: causing harm to yourself (or allowing a bad thing happen to you) in order to cause something good to happen to someone else. Let’s call this “altruism”. This behavior is demanded by some precisely because it is very difficult and rare. Failing in altruism gives others a leg over you in the future, even if they exhibit the most selfish behavior.

    But this is not really what people have in mind when they demand altruism. because they want people to do good to others without losing too much, or even by asserting that they will be better off if they do good to others. So there is no real sacrifice involved. This is exactly the same idea behind libertarian selfishness: I do something good for my self without causing harm to others because that would likely bring retaliation in the future, and because I beleive (or wish) that by causing good to my self I will (hopefully) do also good to others, which, in turn will benefit me even more. So this selfishness and that altruism are the same concept, from a different perspective, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. Which is a fact that randians (and even some ex-randians) hate to admit.

    The only problem is that people love to waste time arguing over words and concepts and futile distinctions. I beleive it is better to pursue real knowledge rather than demoralizing entertainment.

  12. Craw says:

    Do not confuse libertarianism with Rothbardism. They are not at all the same. Rothbardians worship a strange theory about property and “deductive property rights.” Libertarians care about the rights of the individual, but Rothbardians really don’t when push comes to shove. For a true libertarian people matter, but for Rothbardians property matters. As you note they will sacrifice people on the altar of their unshakeable belief in in their bizarre theory of ownership. Even newborns.
    As an example I think you are entitled to a fair trial, regardless of your wealth. Murphy thinks you are entitled to only the defense you can afford, in a court of your accuser’s choice should you be poor, [edited by Murphy] and that you have no right to subpoena a witness.
    Rothbardians are even worse on some other issues, as you will learn if you read more. But freedom and markets are great things. Give up on Rothbard and his acolytes, but not on libertarians.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Wrong, Craw.

      You cannot protect individual rights without protecting their property rights.

      Stop trying to brainwash the author of the letter. It is insulting to his intelligence.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Craw, it’s probably going to save us both a lot of work if you stop telling people what my views are, when your purpose is to convince them what a nutjob I am. Chances are I’m going to disagree with your paraphrase.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        The one part of that that was accurate is I reject the power to subpoena. You know, because I care about people and don’t want them to be forced to testify against their will.

        • Craw says:

          If you care about people you might not alter their words without their permission. Of course you would do that if you care more about your “property rights” in a blog which you present for discussion, and were serious about debate.
          Now what were we discussing? Respect for people or respect for property wasn’t it?

          • guest says:

            Your position reminds me of that scene in Robin Hood: Men in Tights where the woman says, “You might take this body, but you’ll never have my mind”, and the dude responds, “Oh, of course. *That* I respect.” (paraphrase).


            (The point being that respect for people *entails* respect for their property as logically deriving from their ownership of their own bodies.)

            If *you* cared about people, you would respect Bob’s right to edit your comments however he sees fit, because it’s his blog.

            • Craw says:

              There it is Isaac. The Rothbardian way to deal with dispute isn’t respect, or debate, or to answer speech with speech, it’s to impose your will “because property rights.” They prove my point for me.

              • guest says:

                “The Rothbardian way to deal with dispute isn’t respect, or debate, or to answer speech with speech, it’s to impose your will “because property rights.””

                Ah, but you didn’t take issue with his unwillingness to debate you – at least not as stated.

                What you did, rather, is attempt to equate his exercise of his property rights as somehow synonymous with lack of respect.

                But since all rights are property rights, that’s not the case.

                There’s no human right to be respected.

                There’s a human right to be left alone – the alternative being that everyone may impose their own will on you.

      • Craw says:

        Bob Murphy
        Do you dispute that under your private law if you wanted to extract from me something you think I owe you would not sue me in a public court but take some action through what you call a “private court” and that this “court” would be one chosen by you?
        If you do dispute that then what about the case where I a poor man think you, Bill Gates, owe me money? If you cannot compel me in the first case, how can I compel you in the second?

        • guest says:

          The court would be chosen by both of you before hand, or else you wouldn’t enter into a contract with him.

          In a free market, while you’re not entitled to a defense you can’t afford, businesses that go around violating people’s rights would lose market share to those who treated people better.

          You might find the following video helpful:

          Applying Economics to American History | Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

          And what about the case where I, an individual, think nobody has a right to my property but me, but in the interest of the “public good” or of “externalities”, your public court rules that my property can be confiscated?

          • guest says:

            This article is good, too:

            The Political Economy of Moral Hazard

            “Moral Hazard on the Free Market …

            “… We will argue that moral hazard does not necessarily entail expropriation whenever information asymmetries combine with a separation of ownership and control; that, whenever moral hazard results from them accidentally, there are strong forces at work to eliminate expropriation; and that moral-hazard-induced expropriation is therefore not only accidental, but also ephemeral on the free market. …”

            ” … Consider the problem of principal-agent relationships. Suppose the owner of a grocery shop hires a clerk for a salary of €1,000 per month … and that he can … not effectively supervise his new clerk all the time. [The clerk] can have longer naps over the lunch break, be sloppier in dealing with customers, and so on. …”

            “… The clerk does not necessarily enrich himself at the expense of the owner because the latter can anticipate the behavior of the former. To the extent that he does anticipate it, the payment of €1,000 would properly reflect the discounted marginal value product of sloppy labor.”

          • Craw says:

            Bob Murphy steals my dinner forks only after we agree on a court? I inheritedland Bob Murphy thinks an old will means he should have inherited not me, but we agreed on a court before either of us knew of the land? Bob Murphy dumped his garbage on my lawn?
            There are lots of ways we can get into a dispute without having formalized a contract beforehand. So you answer is no answer.

            • guest says:

              “There are lots of ways we can get into a dispute without having formalized a contract beforehand. So you answer is no answer.”

              LOL. So, your solution is to collectivize individuals against their will so that you can say you don’t really need each and every indivudual’s consent?

              You haven’t solved anything – you just pushed the problem back.

              We *still* have the issue of what dispute resolution *should* look like.

              Libertarianism is the philosophical basis for a just dispute resolution system.

              It does not say that you have the right to rob others of the funds necessary to defend your property rights. You don’t.

    • Tel says:

      Libertarians all agree on the broad principles of maximum individual freedom, voluntary participation and markets.

      However that still leaves significant room for disagreement on the details. Such as:
      * Exactly what things can you claim property rights over.
      * What sort of contractual agreements are enforceable.
      * Who should enforce the law and how.
      * What mechanism is acceptable as defense of the realm.

      • Craw says:

        Well put. Exactly what I said. You can (and should) be a libertarian without being a Rothbardian.

      • guest says:

        Those disagreements only arise when people are willing to sacrifice your liberty for their safety.

        As I noted before, though, since rights are rights regardless of whether or not they are enforced, consistency demands that the enforcement mechanism conforms to the rights people have a right, themselves, to enforce.

        Otherwise, “rights” becomes just whatever the majority happen to think it is, at the time.

        So, the enforcement mechanism for preserving the right to property must necessarily operate absent a collectivized law enforcement.

  13. Craw says:

    On selfishness. No, it’s not a virtue. The great thing about markets is that they turn selfishness to the good of others. Markets let me benefit from your selfish pursuits. What other system puts selfishness to a good purpose?
    You don’t need to accept the bilge about how great selfishness is to justify why markets are good.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      But those others are getting goods in a selfish manner.

      The good of others, in a market, doesn’t have any meaning without the good of oneself.

      You said it yourself: “Markets let me benefit from your selfish pursuits.”

      Bilge? The bilge is the good of others without the good of oneself. For then nobody gets any good.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Markets do not “turn” individual selfishness into something else. They are an expression of it.

      • Tel says:

        Working in return for payment is selfish (ultimately you aren’t doing it out of generosity to your boss) but stealing is much more selfish than working. If you steal resources you don’t have to consider in the slightest what happens to the other guy, while working for a living requires that you at least provide something of value to the other guy.

        Thus, libertarians opposed to stealing would automatically be discouraging one of the worst types of selfishness.

        • Bala says:

          I disagree. Stealing is not really selfish if one were to take a long-term view of the consequences of the action and if one were to try to elevate it to the level of a principle. If everyone were to resort to stealing, everyone would be worse off in the long run. Any selfish individual concerned about his own long-range wellbeing shouldn’t be stealing and not stealing would be the real selfish action. This is just a case where appears selfish in the short-run and is ex-ante selfish (stealing) turns out to be not-so-selfish in the long-run.

          • Tel says:

            I’d say there are subjective points of view on that. Seems like a lot of robbers do get away with it, while most of the productive people have largely accepted their fate and allow themselves to be robbed.

            So evidence says it works for some. Yeah, it wouldn’t work if everyone did it, but so far that hasn’t happened.

            I agree though, that the short-term analysis is quite different to the long-term analysis. Don’t underestimate the socialists, they do have a long-term game plan, but it necessarily involves some being more equal than others. The use of envy is a means to an end IMHO, but cannot be the final endpoint.

    • guest says:

      “The great thing about markets is that they turn selfishness to the good of others.”

      Bob also holds this position, but I disagree that selfishness – a more accurate term being “self interest”, for our purposes – is a character flaw.

      You bear all of your own opportunity costs when you do anything deliberate at all.

      So, to say that someone else is somehow entitled to your time, labor, and/or resources is to make you out to be their slave.

      Why you don’t see the contradiction in the notion of two (or more) people being entitled to each other’s stuff, I don’t know.

      If you have religious reasons for believing you should do something for your fellow man, that’s not actually a rejection of Rothbardian ethics – God happens to own everything, and as a matter of property rights, he gets to tell you what you should do for others.

      Rothbardianism holds in either case.

  14. Bala says:

    It looks like Craw is one of those misanthropes who hate man for being just that – man. For man, who acts, is a purposeful being who, through every action of his, is attempting to satisfy ends more valued to himself than are other ends. and is therefore a selfish being by design. Anyone reviling selfishness is by extension reviling man for being man.

    Just makes me wonder how people get to be such horrible misanthropes.

  15. David L. Kendall says:

    The word “selfish” is nothing more than a verbal bludgeon that one person uses to beat another. Selfishness cannot be defined in a meaningful way devoid of one’s own value judgments. Libertarians value the sanctity of individuals over all other values. The very meaning of moral behavior must be based on the sanctity of each individual soul. For a full explanation of this idea, see “Morality and Capitalism: A Dialogue on Freedom,” which is available at Amazon.

  16. Isaac D. Cohen says:

    Bharat wrote: “If you take the Rothbardian route, any parent can abandon and starve their child to death. If you take the Blockean route, any parent can abandon and starve their child to death if other parents are unwilling or unable to take care of the child. If you take the Kinsellian route (which I disagree with and will get into only if others are interested because it’s nuanced), any raped parent can abandon and starve their child to death.”

    You say you disagree with the Kinsellian route. Well, I have more of a problem with the Blockean route. Walter Block’s solution seems to be entirely based on the false premise that if own something, I have to take care of it. That’s not true. If I own a cellphone, do I have to charge it? Of course not. So why if I own a child do I have to take care it?

    Block’s entire solution is that I can’t give up my ownership without letting everyone know. And as long as I still have ownership I must feed the child. But this is not true. The reason Rothbard believes that one may abandon his child is not because he believes that parents own their children and therefore they must take care of them, but if they abandon them, they no longer own them. On the contrary, Rothbard actually believes that parents don’t own their children. But rather, whether or not parents own their children they still have a right not to feed them because the children don’t have a right to the parents’ food. This is the real problem.

    Furthermore, according to Block that parents own their children, when would the ownership terminate? Is a 50 year old man still owner by his 70 year old parent? Can the parent directly murder his child since he owns it?

    In conclusion, either I didn’t understand Block correctly or he’s wrong.

  17. Edgardo Tenreiro says:


    You have not misunderstood Rothbard nor Block nor Kinsella (nor Hoppe). They are logically consistent in applying the NAP and Lockean self-ownership to their ultimate consequences of legalized abortion, child abandonment, suicide, voluntary slavery contracts, etc. The excuse that Christian Libertarians, Murphy, Woods, etc., can somehow separate the morality of these acts from their legality is simply a reflection of their inability or unwillingness to deal with the dilemma you have. At the core of this dilemma is a peculiar interpretation of Lockean self-ownership. In general, Libertarians don’t accept all of Locke (especially his assertion that it is God who owns the self) but more fundamentally and specifically, Christian Libertarians don’t realize that the empiricism of Locke is no way to anchor the concepts of “self” and of “ownership” and more importantly, that Locke is no way to anchor Misesian economics and praxeology (the axiom of human action, that all human action is rational and teleological, etc.)

    Sent from my iPad

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Edgardo wrote:

      The excuse that Christian Libertarians, Murphy, Woods, etc., can somehow separate the morality of these acts from their legality is simply a reflection of their inability or unwillingness to deal with the dilemma you have.

      Hang on Edgardo. Are you saying a Christian should want the government to throw people in cages for committing anything sinful whatsoever?

      • Edgardo Tenreiro says:

        Hi Bob,

        Not at all. I think some sins, such as adultery and prostitution, can and perhaps ought to be legal. Where you draw the line, however, is a matter of prudence.

        Of course I’m skeptical about the ability of the state to do good. But from there to accept that Rothbard has proven beyond any doubt that all taxation is robbery and that the state itself is illegitimate, is too large a leap, especially when his reasoning clearly and logically leads to a justification for abortion, child abandonment, etc.

        I think the burden of proof that Rothbard is wrong lies squarely on the shoulders of Christian anarchocapitalists like Tom and you. I have yet to read a convincing proof though. And the “Rothbard is not talking about ethics, etc.” argument is very weak (and very funny to me when his magnum opus on the subject is called The Ethics of Liberty.) I for one think that Rothbard is 100% correct…but only if you accept his Lockean self-ownership assumption. But once you go down the rabbit hole of rejecting self-ownership, most of anarchocapitalism unravels….and you’re left trying to look for another metaphysics on which to re-build Misesian praxeology.

        Thanks for the blog and your study guides on Human Aciton and Man, Economy and State.

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