Monday, February 28, 2011

Would Anarcho-Capitalists Allow the Earth to be Destroyed?

A lively debate has inflamed the blogosphere, concerning the natural rights-based (and pro-free market) libertarians’ view that it would be immoral to tax people coercively to prevent the earth’s destruction by an asteroid. Some of the relevant posts are below:
Sasha Volokh, “Asteroid Defense and Libertarianism,” February 15, 2011.

J. Bradford DeLong, “Empirical Proof that America's Libertarians Are Completely Insane...,” February 15, 2011.

Robert P. Murphy, “Empirical Evidence That Brad DeLong Is Completely Obtuse,” Mises Daily, February 22, 2011.

J. Bradford DeLong, “Robert Murphy Joins the ‘It’s Immoral to Tax Americans to Destroy an Asteroid’ Caucus,” February 22, 2011.

Robert Murphy, “Murphy vs. Famous Keynesian,” 22 February 2011.
For J. Bradford DeLong, this is proof that (pro-free market) libertarians are “completely insane” – a not unreasonable conclusion.

But, in fact, such a position by them is logically consistent with their ethical theory. The difference between Austrians/pro-free market libertarians who would accept some government intervention to save the earth and those who would reject such intervention lies in their ethical theories. That is the fundmanetal point that, I think, escapes a good many people: this is about ethics, not economics per se.

Nor will it do any good for anarcho-capitalists to try and evade the question by claiming that the situation imagined is “unrealistic” or “unlikely.” Hypothetical scenarios that are possible (whether likely or not) are precisely what are used in good discussions of ethical theories to test them and their implications. To refuse to answer the question of what your ethical theory says is the right thing to do in a hypothetical situation is intellectual cowardice and surrender. You may as well wave the white flag.

This applies to Robert Murphy’s claim that taxes would not be needed to fund a project to save the earth, as many people would in fact give voluntarily. That may well be true, but is irrelevant to the actual moral question and simply evades it. Suppose not enough people give. Suppose more money is needed: is it moral to tax people to get that money or not?

The Misesian classical liberals who believe in a minimal state and who use utilitarianism as an ethical theory could in fact justify government intervention in such a case (whether they all do so in practice, I don’t know). Their utilitarianism gives them such a justification.

Natural law/natural rights-based Austrians in the tradition of Rothbard will vehemently reject all government intervention, even to save the earth, without logical inconsistency, in a way that (to them) appears rational, as that is what their ethical theory leads them to.

The cold, rational reason why they are wrong is simply that their natural law/natural rights based ethics is severely flawed and untenable (an interesting starting point is L. A. Rollins, The Myth of Natural Rights).

A more practical reason to reject their view is that, with no sense of the public good, and an ethical theory which would place absolute rights to property above not just a single human life but above the lives of all humans on the planet, their society would quickly destroy itself.

Why? In fact, we would not need an asteroid. Anarcho-capitalism would logically require the private production, sale, ownership, and (possible) use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. How long would civilization last in such conditions? (see “The Different Types of Austrian Economics,” December 5, 2010).

And, if there are any anarcho-capitalists who deny that this is a logical conclusion of their ideology, let them explain why chemical, biological and nuclear weapons should not be privatised. They won’t do it convincingly without some concept of the public good or consequentialist ethics.


  1. "A more practical reason to reject their view is that, with no sense of the public good, and an ethical theory which would place absolute rights to property above not just a single human life but above the lives of all humans on the planet, their society would quickly destroy itself."

    You're discussing Rothbardian ethics without mentioning the right to self-ownership. You're intelligent, you can do better than this.

  2. "You're discussing Rothbardian ethics without mentioning the right to self-ownership."

    Rights are not natural, in any sense.
    Whatever rights we have are ethical or legal contructs.

    If the right to self-ownership is supposed to mean the right not to be subject to unjustified bodily harm, killing, arbitray arrest, freedom of religion and speech, a rule consequentialist theory can defend those rights perfectly well, with out any need for teh fable of natural rights theory.

  3. Sorry LK, but hypothetical situations are totally useless to discuss problems of our day to day life.

    Such an approach involves discussing things by setting aside all facts. I have seen you and that silly Objectivist Bala discuss and debate in Bill Anderson's blog.

    With all due respect, you and Bala always make up some nonsensical caricature of a situation and throw it at each other. The other person finds the example ridiculous but then does the exact same thing. Sometimes I find it funny, sometimes I find it awkward and irrelevant. Incredible situations are posed, involving guns put to people's heads, starving children, and people setting their houses on fire. Watching this tragic comedy play out is akin to watching a Monty Python sketch.

    This is not public debate, this is internet trolling, and it would sooner have a place on Saturday Night Live than on Phil Donahue. That's exactly how I describe this Sasha Volokh-Brad DeLong-Robert Murphy debate, everyone thumping their chests about how to resolve an event that will never happen.

    Jokes aside, the problem is exactly where you say, "this is about ethics, not economics per se." Economists and layman economics enthusiasts are crippled inepts at discussing ethics. They are not Thomas More, they are not Thomas Aquinas, they are not William Hazlitt, they are not Plato, they are not Socrates, they are not Aristotle, they are not Machiavelli, and they are not even James Burnham. Those giants carry a tradition of moral thought that is rooted in the experience and analysis of 10,000 years of humanity, while wonks approach morality in a way that resembles their wonkish sciences, where they create ideas in a vacuum.

    Morality is far closer rooted in casuitry and day to day experience in human life than these artifices like "utilitarianism", "Rawl's theory of justice", "Kantian categorical imperative", "natural rights", and all that collection of stilted ideas created in a vacuum.

  4. you and Bala always make up some nonsensical caricature of a situation and throw it at each other

    Such hypothetical scenarios I have used in debates there are perfectly possible, and, as I said above, refusing to answer the question of what your ethical theory says is the right thing to do in a hypothetical and possible situation is intellectual cowardice and surrender.

    "That's exactly how I describe this Sasha Volokh-Brad DeLong-Robert Murphy debate, everyone thumping their chests about how to resolve an event that will never happen."

    How on earth do you know that such an event "will never happen"? It has happened in the past.

    A small event happened at Tunguska in 1908 that, if it had hit a big city, would have killed millions of people.

    We live in a dangerous, dangerous universe indeed, and humanity in fact needs to devote itself to threats like this:

    "Every century or so, a 10-meter meteor slams into the Earth with the force of a small nuclear device. Tunguska was the site of the last, in 1908, and it was pure luck that that meteor landed in the uninhabited wilderness of Siberia. Every few thousand years, Earth can pass through unusually thick parts of the debris trail of comets, turning the familiar light show of a meteor shower into a deadly firestorm. Roughly every 100,000 years, a projectile hundreds of meters across unleashes power equal to the world's nuclear arsenals. The result is devastation over an area the size of England, global tidal waves (if the impact is in the ocean), and enough dust flung into the atmosphere to dim the Sun and kill off vegetation. That could ruin your day.

    Then there's the "Big One". About every 100 million years, a rock the size of a small asteroid slams into the Earth, causing global earthquakes, kilometre-high tidal waves, and immediately killing all large land animals. Creatures in the sea soon follow, as trillions of tons of vaporised rock cause drastic cooling and the destruction of the food chain based on photosynthesis. There's good evidence that this happened 65 million years ago and our tiny mammal ancestors were the beneficiaries as the giant lizards were extinguished.
    A supernova is a small squib compared to a hypernova. In this dramatic and rare event, the violent collapse of a very massive star ejects jets of gas and high-energy particles at close to the speed of light, and for a few moments the star outshines the entire universe in gamma rays.

    If a hypernova went off within 1,000 light years, and Earth was within the narrow cone of high- energy radiation, we'd experience an immediate global conflagration. It's brutal luck if a hyper nova ever goes off with its beam aimed at us."

  5. At any rate, I think I have asked before if you subscribe to an ethical theory, and, if so, what one.

    Rothbard's case for anarcho-capitalism is justified by natural rights, and will not be credible without it.

    If you think that natural rights is one of the theories that is a "collection of stilted ideas created in a vacuum", then presumbly
    anarcho-capitalism collapses too.

    Mises adhered to utilitarianism, so his moral theory would be out the door too.

  6. I don't have an ethics theory in the first place, so there is no question of intellectual cowardice or surrender for me, since I never made the intellectual cavalry charge. I prefer casuitry.

    However, I merely question getting distracted into the ethics debate or rather the merits of the kind of debate Volokh initiated.

    When you and Bala begin discussing initially state-run medical care, for example, the debate ends up distracted. The conversation is never about the consequences of state-run medical care. It is always diverted to whether it is moral.

    This betrays an inability, typical of even the most intelligent public intellectuals, to distinguish intentions from results. The good intentions of a state-run medical care system to take care of the sick and the weak have ultimately little to do with whether it actually takes care of the sick and the weak in a cost effective way. A Kenyan-Indian family I know was based in the UK: the elderly grandmother had cancer, but the waitlisting by NHS went on until she could no longer be treated. That's a selective case which does not necessarilly refute the merits of having the NHS, but you get my point.

    In that sense, the asteroid debate, by entering morality, tries to stick to a small vacuum of whether it is moral. Of course, if it turned out that even the best technology on earth could not stop that asteroid, the debate ends up futile. Yes, ethics are divorced from feasibility or practicability, but that is discussing things in isolation. In real life, nothing exists in isolation.

    PS: I once discussed with the Austrian economics enthusiasts in forums that 18th century government programs to create batheing facilities helped reduce illness, bad sanitation, and poor public hygiene. The general response was, surprisingly, that the government deserves credit where it was due.

    PPS: I think the Austrian economists made a mistake by entering ethics into their economics; their ethical stands are easily demolished.

  7. "Individual liberty" is the biggest hook that the libertarians have, but it is a terribly one-dimensional measure for civil society. Even worse is the monotonicity of such measurements: the drive to absolutism. No political philosophy is worth considering unless it is BALANCING competing values both of individuals and between individiuals.

  8. Suppose not enough people give. Suppose more money is needed: is it moral to tax people to get that money or not?

    Is it moral to tax people to save them when they themselves have voted with their money (or rather lack of it) that they do not want to be saved? Paternalistic liberals or conservatives say yes, libertarians say no, the usual, we are going in circles.

  9. "Paternalistic liberals or conservatives say yes, libertarians say no, the usual, we are going in circles."

    Utilitarians/consequentialists (whether socialists, liberals, conservatives or Miseian Classical liberals) would say "yes."

    Adherents of natural rights/law (Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists) would say "no".

    As I said above, this is about ethics, not economics or political ideologies.

  10. Unless the utilitarian argument pro-tax guys use is wrong. And it is wrong because it assumes people wouldn't voluntarily give money to save the Earth. I would, for one.

  11. "And it is wrong because it assumes people wouldn't voluntarily give money to save the Earth."

    Again - this is just a cowardly evasion. Changing the hypothetical scenario will not anwser it.

    Suppose there is not enough money. Is it moral or not to tax coercively to save the earth?

  12. @ Joanna Liberation
    Is it moral to tax people to save them when they themselves have voted with their money (or rather lack of it) that they do not want to be saved?

    My problem with this is two-fold: 1) Free-riding, and 2) The consequences of your actions are not limited to yourself; they may have a direct impact on me. As I have said elsewhere, that's why - taking the collision scenario to its conclusion (sorry Prateek!) - you would ultimately be talking a very serious matter of negligent or culpable criminality.

    One last matter... The asteroid example may strike (ha ha) us as a very unlikely scenario, but it has eerie parallels with some rather more plausible events, most obviously anthropogenic climate change.

  13. Well, what can you expect? The likes of Nozick (a minimal state propertarian) and Walter Block ("anarcho"-capitalist) both think voluntary slavery is fine, indeed "libertarian"...

    F.2.2 Do Libertarian-capitalists support slavery?

    Compare the arguments of Block with this great satirical article by David Ellerman

    The Libertarian Case for Slavery

    So arguing that human liberty (but only from taxation!) is so important that humanity itself must be destroyed is not such a surprising position

    An Anarchist FAQ

  14. Iain,

    Great links and good points


  15. I wonder if Iain will respond to this, since this is already an old blog post, and I wonder what the writer of this blog himself feels about it, but:

    "The last resort, in the liberal case against voluntary slavery, is pure and simple paternalism. People must be protected against their own judgment; people must be forced to be free.

    A basic policy that is justified this way in part is the prohibition against a person's selling or mortgaging himself: Freedom is a para­mount value, and whenever a person feels that he wants to sell himself for something else offered in return, he should be protected against his own poor judgment"

    was written in that very interesting link. I enjoyed reading it.

    So, LK, what do you think about it? If an aspiring entrepreneur says that he has a fantastical idea, but wants to mortgage away his house to get the money for his scheme, should the law forbid it so that he be protected against his bad judgment?

    And Iain, have you refused to take insurance, because the insurance company can take away your car or your home if damage comes to it, in return for settlement? A situation that thus enslaves you to insurers in return for their financial protection?

    J. Philmore may be addressing "free market liberals" only, but his views are radical enough to challenge conventional wisdom here. Therein, the onus falls more on him than on his opponents. That is not to say that Locke wasn't a deeply amoral person for supporting slavery (Locke was also deeply amoral for a lot of crazy views).

    In day to day lives, the only people protected against their own bad judgment are children, teenagers, and young adults, while a 45 year old who might bankrupt himself with his groundbreaking invention is allowed to go ahead, because he might even succeed!

    The ironic thing about progressive views is that they encourage experimentation and trying bold untested ideas in public life. But in private life, do progressives discourage the very same thing?

  16. Rule consequentialism can provide perfectly good arguments against slavery, voluntary or involuntary.

    The charge of "paternalism" is pointless and totally ineffective, because any law code, libertarian or otherwise, treats people in a way that is open to the charge of "paternalism."

    For example, in Rothbard's anarcho-capitalist law code (privately enforced) fractional reserve banking is prohibited. Hwo is this not a collectivist, "paternalist" attempt to tell people what is best for them?

    I and my clients want to engage in FRB freely and voluntarily, so why the "paternalist" anarcho-capitalist violation of private freedom?

    have you refused to take insurance, because the insurance company can take away your car or your home if damage comes to it, in return for settlement? A situation that thus enslaves you to insurers in return for their financial protection?

    You are not "enslaved" to the insurer. You have merely lost an asset - a piece of property.

  17. Sure sure. But that piece also notes that security or freedom from want is a paramount value and also that if freedom was a paramount value, then one can not voluntarily deny one's own freedom. I assume he feels the same way about security and lack of a necessity, such as a roof over one's head or a means to get to one's place of work quickly?

    Were wage slavery a fully valid concept (although I am sure you don't necessarilly agree with the anarchists on it), wherein one stands to lose much from not towing the employer's line and losing the job, then I would guess that an insurance contract that could cause you to lose something essential is also...slavery?

    (Okay, never mind, may be I really am stretching it.)

  18. It seems to me that individuals whom put forth the asteroid scenario are presupposing moral absolutism, and then creating as extreme an example as possible. The scenario isn’t really any different, with the exception of the number of people involved, than the classic debate question of whether or not it is acceptable to steal food if it is to feed a starving person(s) (perhaps yourself).
    Basically the question is: Do the desires/needs of some trump the desires/needs of others?
    Some people will say: “It depends.”
    Moral Absolutists want a yes or no answer that can be applied to all situations and irrespective of perspective and context. If such an answer were possible then there would be no need to debate ethics.
    Silly scenarios like the asteroid proposition (as Prateek alluded to above) also ignore reality in regards to the end results. The scenarios assumes that the project to save the planet is both necessary (i.e. destruction and death for everyone is assured without intervention), that the project is going to be completely successful, and that it is only feasible to fund it via theft.
    If you think it’s justified to steal money/resources to fund your project then you would have to also understand when someone who thinks your project is going to be unsuccessful proceeds to kill you and then take all the loot to fund a supposedly superior save the planet solution.

  19. Dear Lord Keynes,

    After reading your critique, I feel the need to point out some of the mistakes I've read.

    First off, by stating that Free-market libertarians are 'completely insane', being not a unreasonable conclusion is just an opinion based on subjective personal feelings. Furthermore it does not conform to the definition of 'insanity' in any way.

    I agree that every possible scenario can and must be rationally discussed, even if it's a very unlikely scenario. The enire conclusion is based on the assumption that an argument for 'the public good' has any merit. The 'public' is simply a collection of individual people, with individual desires, wishes and preferences. So the only 'good' there is, is the good of all individuals. That's why the natural-right argument can't be refuted by simply stating that it has no sense of the 'public good'. Furthermore, your statement that "Absolute property rights are held above human life" is a fatal misunderstanding and nothing more than a strawman of libertarianism.

    On the basis of personal property rights, I reject the claim that it is justified in any way to coerce people into paying for an anti-meteor shield. Why? Because of the same reason I reject every kind of utalitarian reasoning. Massacring 49% of the people in order to save the rest of humanity is an obvious act of aggression. Just as the act of forcibly robbing people in order to save humanity is an act of aggression. It's my own body, and my own property. I will not be murdered, raped or robbed without my consent, that's my right. This scenario (un)purposefully ignores that.

  20. Part 2)
    Let's delve some deeper in the (extremely unlikely) offered pro-statist scenario and look at it's logical conclusions:
    First, lets say that a meteor will hit the earth, destroying every human on the planet unless we tax everyone enough money to fund a giant governmentally-built meteor shield. The definition of a 'tax' is that it's an involuntary transaction under the threat of force. If someone would refuse to submit his property to the aggressor, sanctions would have to be taken against him, amounting in larger violations of his body and property. Next, if this aggressed-against person would defend himself against these aggressive actions, the government would have to respond with increasing aggression to inforce the tax/regulation/ban/etc. The logical and inevitable conclusion of this is that every tax is enforced with the (threat of) use of deadly violence against it's victims.

    Now we've reached this conclusion, let's again look into this scenario a little deeper. This scenario assumes if a large amount of people weren't willing to voluntarily pay for the meteor shield. You already wrote it's unlikely, but a necessary component of this argument. I agree. So let's assume a large part, maybe even a majority of people weren't willing to pay the humanity-saving taxes, then what? What would the correct response be? Well, like I already explained, the only logical course of action are the coercive measures the government has to take in order to collect the taxes. Now, we've already established that large amounts of people aren't willing to comply. So let's draw this assumption to it's logical conslusion. The government would have to use enormous amounts of violence in order to reach it's goals. If people defend themselves hard enough, the state would even have to respond with mass-murder in order to collect the property. So, now I ask you; Would you support the murder of extremely large amounts(perhaps even a majority) of people unwilling to comply? Would you vote for, and give your responsibility to a government which would take this course of action? If you say 'no'. Then you've reached the same conclusion as the (insane)libertarians; 'The ends don't justify aggression'. However, if you anwer 'yes', I would argue that yóu may be the one who reaches 'insane' and very authoritarian conclusions.

  21. Now a response to the strawman that a (misesian) utilitarian could justify this course of action. First of, utilitarianism is the theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes happiness. Now, let's look back at the scenario again. The coercive violence is necessary in order to save humanity, therefore it's justified according to utilitarianism. But on the other hand, the entire argument rests on the assumption that many people do nót want to pay. In short, they value the property they refuse to pay more than their own lives. Do we maximize their happiness if we took away their property? The only possible anwer is no. The people who dó value their lives over their property however, would gladly donate much more, all on a voluntary basis. Even in the cenario that this was just a small group of people who wouldn't nearly have enough money to pay for the meteor-shield, where would you then derive your 'public good' justification for the violent robbery of almost everyone on earth from? In short, the public good/utilitarian argument falls short here.

    And finally, as a response to the last point you were making about nuclear weapons and the extreme dangers of libertarians; You're again making a gross misunderstanding about the libertarian ethics and philosophy. A libertarian wouldn't have to rely on a 'public good' argument, again because the 'public' is just a concept for a large amount of individuals. Libertarianism rests on the premise that (the threat of)aggression is unjustifiable. Say, someone is walking through a mall, pointing a gun to everyone he walks past by. This would be an obvious threat of aggression, and wouldn't be consistent with the libertarian philosophy. Now imagine a gun pointing to everyone around you, this gun would álways be pointed to everyone around you, and would be a threat of aggression to them. Would this be consistent with libertarianism? The answer is again a resounding no. The equalivant to this gun is an explosive, toxic or nuclear device, it's comparable to the gun of spheres, being a threat to everyone around you within a specific distance.