The Libertarian Case for Immigration Restriction

I read Mr. Woodman’s recent post with some interest since it is generally considered a truism that libertarians are not in favor of government interference, and immigration restrictions being a prime example of said interference, are, ergo, not in favor of that as well.

What I found strange was that the most prominent libertarian advocate for immigration restrictions, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, was not mentioned. This is a particularly grave omission. Hoppe is the foremost critic of the libertarian dogma of freedom of movement, and his arguments possess the most influence. He also pivots many of his arguments around a concern that Mr. Woodman has omitted: tribalism.

In his article on Lew Rockwell, On Free Immigration and Forced Integration, Hoppe writes:

To libertarians of the Austrian school, it should be clear that what constitutes “wealth” and “well-being” is subjective. Material wealth is not the only thing that counts. Thus, even if real incomes rise due to immigration, it does not follow that immigration must be considered “good,” for one might prefer lower living standards and a greater distance to other people over higher living standards and a smaller distance to others.

The argument against immigration is fundamentally one of tribalism, though it is cloaked in economic rationalizations. Thus it is tribalism that must be reckoned with if Mr. Woodman desires to dismiss the arguments against immigration restrictions root and branch. That Mr. Woodman has not done so is regrettable, and it is an error I will attempt to address here.

Despite what I consider an omission, Mr. Woodman extensively, and mostly admirably, interrogates several consequentialist arguments “many libertarians” – presumably, he writes of those interlocutors he himself has sparred with – have made in favor of immigration restrictions. I will summarize them below.

I. Immigration Has Bad Consequences

Mr. Woodward summarizes the consequentialist argument against immigration thusly:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

However, if this logic is sound, then it gives the government carte blanche to use whatever force it wants to restrict anyone from doing anything, assuming it can prove that it causes a harm. Mr. Woodward writes:

For an example, as long as we have government-provided Medicare programs, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programs; following the logic of the argument above, the government would be justified in implementing paternalist policies that restrict people’s right to consume what they want to reduce the burden of the welfare state. People with lower incomes are more likely to use welfare programs as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilization.

Via reductio, this leads to a situation where force can be used arbitrarily and nefariously, which libertarians and likely most people of any political persuasion would find unsavory. Therefore, the argument in favor of government restricting immigration to avoid bad effect X is both morally untenable and inconsistent with libertarian doctrine.

II. Things Fall Apart

There are several weaknesses in this argument, the first being the contention that immigration restrictions are a restriction of an individual’s fundamental rights. As Mr. Woodman writes:

To be clear: immigration restrictions are a form of government intrusion into an individual’s freedom of movement. It is the government using its monopoly on force to restrict someone from doing something they’d otherwise be able to do, that is move across an arbitrary line we call a “border.”

Hoppe would argue that borders are anything but arbitrary lines demarcating abstract entities on a map. Rather, they reflect the outermost holdings of a nation, which claims ownership of the land, and has sole use and rights to it. In the aforementioned article, Hoppe writes:

in order to render the… argument applicable, it is – implicitly – assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier).

Yet, very little territory these days is virginal, and the examples can be counted on one hand. In Hoppe’s example of an anarcho-capitalist society, all land is privately owned, and so freedom of movement becomes absurd. How could one individual have the untrammeled ability to traverse another person’s property? The only proper relation is one of mutual freedom of association – one property owner may decide to hang out with, say, Mexicans, while another would not. Freedom of movement becomes dependent on individual consent, which in turn (using the historical example of the monarchy) is based on calculated self-interest. This leads to another possibility: all property owners could willingly confederate and decide they will not associate with Mexicans or some other group, and freedom of movement to that group, such as it was, ceases to exist. Thus, freedom of movement as a human right is absurd in an anarcho-capitalist society because there is no freedom to traverse the unowned land.

More importantly, it is absurd in any other society as well, all of which are predicated on some form of ownership. In a monarchy, the king owns all the land, and in a democracy, an association of elected bureaucrats holds sovereignty over all land in the name of an abstract entity, the public, to whom it is avowedly beholden. In a monarchy, the sovereign wishes to enrich his own holdings and so will adopt an immigration policy that, according to Hoppe, would resemble most individual approaches to free association – acquire high-quality immigrants and offload low-quality citizens. In a democracy, the sovereign association of bureaucrats would seek to enrich itself (because it has temporary custodianship of the monopoly on taxation, rather than outright ownership), often at the expense of the existing citizenry, by allowing the immigration of any individual likely to enrich him – quality notwithstanding (Quote: “In fact, such negative externalities – unproductive parasites, bums, and criminals – are likely to be his most reliable supporters.”). Immigration thus becomes, in a democracy such as our own, a system of forced integration – the negation of the rights of some for the prerogative of others. This is Hoppe’s crucial point and the source of his opposition to opening immigration to all comers without prejudice. Here is the relevant passage:

Like a king, a democratic ruler will promote spatial over-integration by over-producing the “public good” of roads. However, for a democratic ruler, unlike a king, it will not be sufficient that everyone can move next door to anyone else on government roads. Concerned about his current income and power rather than capital values and constrained by egalitarian sentiments, a democratic ruler will tend to go even further. Through non-discrimination laws – one cannot discriminate against Germans, Jews, Blacks, Catholics, Hindus, homosexuals, etc. – the government will want to open even the physical access and entrance to everyone’s property to everyone else. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the so-called “Civil Rights” legislation in the United States, which outlawed domestic discrimination on the basis of color, race, national origin, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc., and which thereby actually mandated forced integration, coincided with the adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy; i.e., mandated inter-national desegregagtion (forced integration).

Even if Mr. Woodman rejects the validity of this argument, there is another weakness to his own: it assumes there is an equivalency between immigration and any other government policy, such as Medicare or eugenics. Without such an equivalency, Mr. Woodman’s appeal to the faulty logic of his interlocutors’ argument falls apart, as his own argument no longer possesses the balance between its two examples it relies upon for its logical and persuasive force. Here’s the problem: Medicare or eugenics are internal policies that affect the ingroup, the citizenry, only. Immigration is an external policy that affects both an outgroup, the immigrants, and the ingroup, the citizenry. Because immigration arguments look both inwards towards domestic concerns and outwards towards foreign ones, Mr. Woodman’s reductio is no longer applicable. (An important caveat: This comes with the assumption that any second-order effects spilling outside the country, such as, say, a global market distortion due to government programs for public healthcare in the United States, are not to be counted.)


Let’s examine that a minute.

When the members of an ingroup debate the merits of eugenics or Medicare, they debate how these policies will affect themselves – alone – well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via taxation or force on themselves will lead to the salutary result they desire.

When they debate over whether to admit immigrants from an outgroup, their debate hinges on whether the assumed future behavior of the members of that outgroup will affect them well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via force on others will lead to the salutary result they desire.

In both cases, the policy that wins does so based on the opinion of the ingroup as to its efficacy for whatever definition of welfare they have set for themselves. As welfare is a subjective term and does not only include economic goods, this ultimately reduces to this: welfare is whatever the people want it to be.

The ingroup can then argue, with complete logical consistency, that it both supports freedom (for itself, within the borders of its territory) and does not support it (for the outgroup, which is outside its territory and wants to come in). The reductio-into-slippery-slope that Mr. Woodman would like us to believe force inherently leads into is, in this case, fallacious. Force can certainly be directed outwards without being directed inwards. One could make an argument that acceding to a government imposition of force in one area is itself a slippery slope to force everywhere, but that is a different argument, and not the one being made.

III. Conclusions

To summarize the lines of argument thus far:

  1. Freedom of movement is a fallacy predicated on incorrect notions of land ownership. Movement from one sovereign territory to another is instead privilege of movement.
  2. Within a publicly held system such as our own, privilege of movement is dependent on the consent of the government which holds lands in the name of its citizens, its own ingroup.
  3. However, because the government seeks to enrich itself – often at the expense of its avowed ingroup – it will often pursue immigration policies that are detrimental to the ingroup, who are in turned forced to bear the burdens of the policy that enriches their overlords.
  4. The end result of democratic “free” immigration is forced integration, a betrayal of libertarian principles.
  5. Various logical points.

Mr. Woodman challenges libertarians to “justify some argument for why it [government] can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens.” It should be clear that this is a non-sequitur: non-citizens do not have rights to the sovereign territory of a country, which is held either by private citizens or the public. The government does not restrict their rights when it refuses to grant them the privilege of traversing land that is publicly held for the ingroup because they had no rights to that land to begin with. Because the government is nominally beholden to the ingroup, and not to any outgroup, rights discourse concerning the outgroup is fundamentally absurd when considered in terms of Hoppe’s arguments.

While Mr. Woodman has provided examples of policies restrictive of immigration being or becoming harmful economically, that does not negate the truth that a harmful economic policy may also come bundled with a salutary domestic policy. The citizenry, who do not want to associate with X group, have had their biases enshrined in law according to their desires.

Despite the centrality of tribalism in immigration, it is understandable why Mr. Woodman failed to attack the root of anti-immigration arguments. As we can observe in the current American election cycle, arguments against immigration generally take a utilitarian strain. Indeed, Donald Trump has based his opposition to immigration on the following issues:

  1. Immigrants are increasing the level of crime because many of them are criminals
  2. Immigrants are not adequately screened, leading to point one
  3. Immigrants are harming the economy

As stated by Mr. Woodman, there are clear arguments to be made against these points. However, he has failed to address why these arguments are convincing: tribalism, the doctrine of sticking with one’s kith and kin at the expense of others, is the root ideology. And there are clear – and libertarian! – arguments in favor of it.

I expect, and welcome, a hearty critique of Hoppes’s position, my articulation of it, and my response to Mr. Woodman’s article.

Why the Holocaust in Europe?

Advanced technology cannot explain it, for far lesser civilizations such as Cambodia, pre-industrial China, and the many Bantustans of Africa prove that nothing more than a machete, or a pistol, or indifference are required for mass murder. However, it can explain how Nazi Germany could kill off ~11 million people in six years, in multiple countries in Europe and North Africa, while fighting wars on two fronts against industrialized world powers. Without their technological advancement and smoothly functioning bureaucracy, the pace and extent of the slaughter could not have been possible.

The status of minorities within the state cannot explain it, for the persecution of undesirable minorities in Germany was, paradoxically, restrained by the stable governance of the nation until the end of the war. Only in the East, where military “government” was nothing but a term and warlords ruled with impunity over fiefdoms the size of Poland, did the protections of law break down so that whole peoples could be liquidated – only in a state of utter lawlessness were such actions, contrary to all laws and customs, ever possible. This is largely why the extent of the Holocaust remained largely unknown until the end of the war amongst the Allies, and largely unknown in the West for years after.

Material conditions in Germany could not explain it, for if one were to look for the most likely culprit of an anti-Semitic genocide, it would not be enlightened, cultured Germany, but France or Russia. France became notorious in the late 19th century for falsely convicting a highly decorated officer of treason – because he was Jewish. Crowds jeered at this son of Moses in the streets for his creed. His trial became the catalyst for Herzl’s der Judenstaat, the foundational book of modern Zionism. Russia was known throughout the world for its state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, and the many pogroms it allowed or overlooked. That it would be Russia that liberated many of the Jews from the death camps at the end of the war is nothing if not a historical irony.

The success of the Holocaust in Europe shows the lasting triumph of ideology in human affairs. Only in Europe had anti-Semitism enjoyed such a long and insidious history. Only in Europe had hatred of the Jews seeped into the foundation stones of churches and parliaments, into ditties and songs and folk tales and political programs. Only in Europe could the Jew be turned into the root of all evil, rapine, and civilizational decline. The Holocaust could not have occurred without this narrative, constructed over hundreds of years of enmity.

As I said in my comment on Brandon’s recent post:

Christianity has had a fraught relationship with Judaism from its foundation. It could never really get past its humble beginnings as a Jewish cult, and its theologians could not grasp why the Jews would not accept Jesus as the Messiah who was promised in apocalyptic literature. The dominant viewpoint among Christians became that Jews could be permitted to live and work in their lands, but only in a fallen and wretched state, a reminder to all who would not hear the Good News that this is what becomes of the heathen – you can find one of the earliest articulations of this in St. Augustine’s writing. Anti-Semitism became a virulent, and in some ways integral, strain of European culture. In every country, the Jew was forced into ghettoes, required to wear demeaning garments, robbed of the ability to work freely, forced to pay exorbitant donatives at the will of the ruler, and often murdered or driven out. The emancipation of the Jews in the early 19th century eliminated many of the material conditions brought on by institutionalized anti-Semitism, but the attitudes themselves deepened and took on a twisted and contradictory nature: Jews were downtrodden, but their great wealth makes them a powerful menace! Jews have no culture, but these beasts have become our most prized artists, actors, and musicians! The ugly inner nature of the Jew marks him out as benighted among the nations, but lo! He can infiltrate anywhere, he is impossible to spot!

It also led to the development of a newer narrative: the Jew is insidious whether he is oppressed or free – what is the final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe? Assimilation? Expulsion? Destruction? These questions were debated in the closing years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, without a satisfactory answer. Part of the reason Nazi Germany became so murderous is because, unlike past states which oppressed Jews in addition to other duties, Nazism was a Manichaeism that saw Jews as the pole of evil, and their eradication as the panacea that would usher in an age of pan-Nordic domination. One of many policies became the central pillar of state propaganda. They provided a definitive answer to the new question of “whither the Jew?” That they were so destructive is due to mechanization, but it cannot explain the destruction itself, which was the culmination of 1500 years.

The Holocaust remains an important lesson in many ways. Most importantly, it teaches us that ideology proved to be the great enabler of all the horror that followed. When the Jew came to be seen as evil not as a result of action but of being, his destruction was assured. Can something irredeemably evil be given sympathy and be saved, after all? All other factors are subordinate to this, which gave life and purpose to the machinery of genocide.

This leads to some problems, because it is impossible to live without ideology of some kind. At its most basic level, ideology forms the framework of thought, the prism through which we see the world and can interpret it, the unconscious reaction to and existence in the world. For example, that the world is real, that we act within it, and that our actions have consequences on the other beings we perceive within this world are basic positions that must be held to function.

As an aside, if one philosophically disagrees with them, that only adds an additional layer of complexity to the ideology, without challenging the ideology itself: even if Descartes believed an evil demon could, possibly, be controlling his experience, he would not test the hypothesis by throwing himself off of a cliff. The reality we have, regardless of its true nature or whether it is true in itself, is held to be beyond reproach for all practical purposes. Skepticism is thus a thinking man’s attitude to truths that are taken as given by everyone else. The truths are explored without being denied, and are given a deeper meaning. As Schopenhauer quotes:

The fundamental tenet of the Vedanta school consisted not in denying the existence of matter, that is, of solidity, impenetrability, and extended figure (to deny which would be lunacy), but in correcting the popular notion of it, and in contending that it has no essence independent of mental perception; that existence and perceptibility are convertible terms.

Whether this is true is a philosopher’s dilemma, but it is an example of my point that no matter the inquiry, fundamental experience remains unchallenged, and so the ideology becomes enriched without quite changing its essential properties.

If this schema is broadly applicable, then it can be easily seen in the political sphere. The national security state exists to keep us safe, it protects us from the terrorists, and all good Americans hold this to be true – it becomes part of the being of America, and so is no longer questioned. The educational system is necessary to the functioning of the American polity, it is the foundation of our economic might and its lack of quality is a detriment to our competitiveness, hence it is for the common good, the common good is the highest good, and to deny any of this is to deny the foundations of American democracy, and America itself. Global climate change is obviously caused by humans, all the major scientists agree, and to disagree is to not only challenge consensus, it is to challenge science itself – and science is the only rational means of interaction with the world!

When a position descends from something that is questionable to something that is ideological, rational thought will mostly cease. Only loons and freaks will debate these obvious truths. We should be careful, as we stake out our own ideology and what that means for our perception of and interaction with the world, that we maintain for ourselves an openness to the validity of other truths, an ability to question our own deep-seated ideological beliefs, and a willingness to abandon what is no longer suitable to replace it with something good.

In sum, we must not let the ideology we have keep us from creating the ideology we need! And what the hell does that mean? Certainly the topic for another post.

Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

My colleague Chhay Lin Lim has an excellent article on Chuang Tzu, Taoism, and living libertarianism as a philosophy of life rather than a mere political philosophy. You can find it here.

His post reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time: Chinese Legalism. For those not in the know, Legalism was a school of thought that competed with Confucianism, Taoism, Moism, and other ideologies during the Warring States Period of Ancient China. It attained its greatest prominence under the Qin dynasty, after its compiler, Han Feizi, contracted himself to then-prince, Shi Huang.

What is most notable about Legalism is that it is the most notable extension of Taoist life philosophies into the sphere of rulership, an example of when quietism becomes political. The book he wrote, often titled simply Han Feizi, details a variety of methods rulers might understand their people, attain leadership, and maintain it in perpetuity. In a chapter titled “The Way of the Ruler,” Han Feizi describes the attributes of the prudent ruler, and then the state he will naturally develop from his personality and his penetrating insight into the nature of things. He begins with a poem of several very cryptic sentences:

  1. The Way is the beginning of all beings and the measure of right and wrong.

  2. The enlightened ruler holds fast to the beginning in order to understand the wellspring of all beings, and minds the measure in order to know the source of good and bad.

  3. He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves and affairs reach their own settlement.

  4. Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness; being still, he can correct the mover.

  5. Those whose duty it is to speak will come forward to name themselves; those whose duty it is to act will produce results.

  6. When names and results match, the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.

In (1) and (2), Han Feizi argues that the ruler must know the conditions of the world in order to govern properly, because it is those conditions that provide the basis for his laws. There is no such thing as a transcendental morality for Han Feizi. He compares the ruler who attempts to implement laws based in supposed eternal truths to a “farmer of Song,”[1] who had serendipitously caught a rabbit when it hit a tree stump on its land, broke its neck, and died. The farmer “…laid aside his plow and took up watch beside a stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way,”[2] but he failed, and was consequently mocked by all the people of the land. Attempting to govern by old rules is similar, for the ruler does not possess the fortunate conditions of his forebears, and so he cannot use the same tools that they did. To know the measure of things, then, is to understand the present and act accordingly, to “bring together the ideas of the pattern (li) of the universe, and the law (fa) of the ruler in order to produce a harmonious society.”[3] This marks out Han Feizi’s political economy as one of balance, with the realities of the modern world on one hand tallied exactly with the movements of the ruler on the other. If reality is neglected in favor of nostalgic idealism or futuristic novelty, the ruler will not “mind the measure,” his actions will be out of balance, and therefore so will the state.

To understand (3), we must begin by understanding Han Feizi’s Legalism. His system fundamentally depends on a sharp distinction between those who obey the law, or fa, and those who rule by the policies and methods of power, or shu. The ruler, “who is the author of law and outside and above it,”[4] operates under a different set of rules because the basis of the state is firmly set in his ability to exercise power, which by definition is not limited by anything but his own material ability to act. While his subjects must obey the limits he has prescribed in the law, which are firm and unyielding, he must himself obey the unwritten laws of power, those “policies and arts which he applies in wielding authority and controlling the men under him.”[5] Part of a leader’s shu is not only to be a shrewd political manipulator, but also to understand the limits of his power as constrained by the fundamental laws of existence: “there is nothing inherent in the commands of the sovereign, not in the laws that he promulgates, that necessitate their according with the pattern of the universe.”[6] However, if they do not accord with the pattern, then the laws will be useless, and so the ruler will be powerless because of them.

The distinction between fa and shu is not between men who ought to be led on the one hand, and men who ought to lead on the other, for Han Feizi’s dim view of human potential caused him to conclude that most people are utterly without merit. Rather, it is solely between the man who has found himself in a position of power, and the mass of men, women, and children he must exercise that power over. If the distinction depended on merit, then the kingdom would in turn be hamstrung by the lack of meritorious men to run it. Instead of being dependent on the vagaries of human ability, the nature of fa is to self-perpetuate what it contains within the apparatus created by the ruler through shu. The world, its people, and those who minister to it are like the waters of a river, and the laws are like a dam that controls the movement of the waters. The ruler is the gate of the dam, and he alone causes the waters to move in a certain way, whether to rise and form a reservoir, or to be released and form a continuous river.

But if they overflow the dam, the gate must open, and the ruler must act. This is the concept of xingming, or ‘names and forms,’ that Han Feizi refers to in (3), which represents the overarching concept of Legalist governance. The ‘names’ are the promises of men in the service of the ruler, or the roles they are expected to fulfill, while the ‘forms are the deeds in actuality that correspond to those promises and roles. If the two aspects of xingming are at equilibrium, “the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed,”[7] as with (6). However, if those aspects do not match, the ruler can “correct the mover,”[8] as with (4). To do either, he must be “empty and still,” for in emptiness alone can he “comprehend the true aspect of fullness,” which is nothing but the movement of the Way – the changing circumstances of the times – and the functioning of the state qua ruler in response to it. The ministers of the state “will come forward to name themselves,” thereby setting up their precise roles within the apparatus of government, and then “those whose duty it is to act will produce results,” fulfilling the exact role within that government they have been assigned. Names and forms tally only if the ministers do not go above or below their station, but they are in discord if the ministers transgress their bounds by doing too much, usurping the power of the ruler, or too little, thereby defying him. The true purpose of xingming, then, is to subordinate the self-interest of the minister, and perhaps of the ruler himself, to the overarching plan of the state – as people only do things for “selfish reasons… [for] abundant material benefits,”[9] the ruler must be selfless in his pursuit of the interests of the state, which are equivalent with his own but simultaneously beyond them.

What I find quite interesting is where this intersects with Chuang Tzu and Chhay Lin, but also diverts from them. Chhay Lin writes:

Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

Han Feizi laughably rejects this. To him, there is no such thing as a transcendent human nature that, if left to its own devices, would assert itself as a lover of harmony and spontaneous order. Man is made by the age, culture, and circumstances in which he finds himself, far more than any essential nature bubbles up in the age in which he lives. Behold Han Feizi’s beginning to the chapter “The Five Vermin”:

In the age of remote antiquity, human beings were few while birds and beasts were many. Mankind being unable to overcome birds, beasts, insects, and serpents, there appeared a sage who made nests by putting pieces of wood together to shelter people from harm. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven and called him the Nest-Dweller. In those days the people lived on the fruits of trees and seeds of grass as well as mussels and clams, which smelt rank and fetid and hurt the digestive organs. As many of them were affected with diseases, there appeared a sage who twisted a drill to make fire which changed the fetid and musty smell. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven.

In the age of middle antiquity, there was a great deluge in All-under-Heaven, wherefore Kung and Yü opened channels for the water. In the age of recent antiquity, Chieh and Chow were violent and turbulent, wherefore Tang and Wu overthrew them.

Now, if somebody fastened the trees or turned a drill in the age of the Hsia-hou Clan, he would certainly be ridiculed by Kung and Yü. Again, if somebody opened channels for water in the age of the Yin and Chou Dynasties, he would certainly be ridiculed by T’ang and Wu. That being so, if somebody in the present age praises the ways of Yao, Shun, Kung , Yü , Tang, and Wu, he would, no doubt, be ridiculed by contemporary sages.

That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them.

For Chuang Tzu, it seems that spiritual quietism ought to be reflected in political quietism as well. Leaving the people to govern themselves, thereby creating a society of spontaneous order, is superior to governing them like a band of corralled horses with brands and bridles.

Han Feizi rejects this because he represents a different form of political quietism. His philosophy is one of balance between the ruler and the forces he must deal with. If the people are angels, then the ruler’s yoke will be light, or even non-existent, for this is the greatest exponent of xingming. However, if the ruler is faced with an unruly, thieving, murderous people, then he must reign them in to restore the balance they have caused. He argues that people are products of their time, and in so doing dismisses any imputations of agency – they cannot be controlled by appealing to the better angels of their nature, but by beating that nature into submission.

The point of Han Feizi’s reliance on reward and punishment is to accept the realities of human nature, that by default they are lazy, weak, and reprobate, and change that behavior without changing its basic conditions: “when properly applied, [punishment and favor] can change the way that people act on their desire and interest sets without the need to actually change those sets.”  If a man loiters in his property, does not till his crops, and does not pay taxes, his inherent personality will never change. However, his behavior stemming from that personality may be changed through reward or punishment, which must be commensurate to the sin or the virtue – if not, with a punishment an “individual may prefer to loiter doing nothing even when subject to the punishment.”

Indeed, the ruler only corrects their incorrect course, and though he is called harsh, he is only conforming to the natural pattern of the world, so it is simultaneously true that the ruler “deferred [questions about] right and wrong to rewards and punishments” and that “the Way is the guideline of right and wrong.”  Knowing the Way allows the ruler to know proper rewards and punishments, for without knowing the way of things there is no way to “mind the measure,” for the measure is relative to the Way! Although xingming is often implicitly referred to as an aspect of fa, it is evident that even the ruler himself is a part of it, for his own actions must tally with his role, lest he lose his ability to exercise power effectively, and thus become weak – “if you do not guard the door, if you do not make fast the gate, then tigers will lurk there.”  This is ultimately because xingming is also a cosmic concept, with the tally of names and roles being only a particular instance of a complete balance between the state and the pattern of the universe.

Ultimately, Chuang Tzu and Han Feizi are not different, but their emphases – at least as articulated by Chhay Lin and myself – are on different movements in political development, and more fundamentally, on human nature. Chuang Tzu questions the very nature of the state, and argues it is a useless and even harmful appendage to the proper flourishing of the human being. Han Feizi believes the state is a necessary outgrowth of cosmic imbalances, which are cyclical and unstoppable, because human beings develop in cyclical and unstoppable ways. Only the ruler’s machinations, handed down by the decrees of heaven, can possibly halt the imbalances and restore order to the world.

What we’re dealing with are two competing worldviews: the world as full of promise because people are so, and the world as fallen, degraded, and in need of redemption because people are so (forgive me if this has overtones of Christianity and grace. I am only a Westerner, after all). Humanity deserves liberty when it proves itself worthy of it, and it deserves strict rule and terrible punishments when it shows itself in need of them. The world of Chuang Tzu is in balance, and so is Han Feizi’s. What’s fascinating is the extremely different conclusions they can come to, not just in terms of personal liberty, from the very same source.

[1] Han Feizi. Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): 99

[2] Ibid.,99

[3] Eirik Lang Harris, “Is the Law in the Way? On the Source of Han Fei’s Laws,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38.1 (2011): 76

[4] Han Feizi 8

[5] Ibid., 8

[6] Harris 77

[7] Han Feizi 15

[8] Ibid., 15

[9] Paul R. Goldin, “Han Fei’s Doctrine of Self Interest,” Asian Philosophy 11.3 (2001): 152

Legalizing assisted suicide

For opponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia, the central creed of the Hippocratic oath – to “do no harm” – looms large. Because physicians are professionally and morally required to only do good for their patients, the argument goes, assisted suicide is categorically disallowed, as death is the greatest harm of all. There is a problem, however: the Hippocratic Oath never contained this phrase. Instead, it has a curious alternative: “I will keep them from harm and injustice,” or in Greek, “ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν.”

In all its definitions, the Greek word δηλέομαι means to harm through a destructive act, whether to physically hurt a person, to lay waste to a land, or to break a treaty with another. Beyond mere physical harm, however, the physician also has the potential to bring his patient into a state of injustice. He may publicize his patient’s illnesses, embarrassing them. He may fail to treat an illness adequately, even if he has the competence to do so. He may overestimate his level of skill, and undertake a procedure that is beyond his ken. The doctor, as Hippocrates conceived him, was far more than a healer of trauma or a salver of wounds. While he could heal the body, his greatest duty was as a guardian against injustice, and healing was but a part of this.

This points to a broader conception of what the doctor is, or could be. A rigid conception of “do no harm” ignores that perceptions of harm must shift over time in a patient’s life, for example. The adult in his prime would be seriously harmed by a lethal injection, naturally, but the senior in his twilight years, suffering from debilitating diseases and on death’s door as it stands, would perhaps reap a benefit from such an injection: the many days of pain ahead could be cut short, and the absence of pain would thereby outweigh the few days of living that were left to him. To accept this reasoning not only as rational, but as moral and true, is to also accept that life admits of a broader definition than existence or animation. It is also human flourishing, enjoyment, capacity for action, and when these things are taken away the real motive power of a fully realized human life is snatched away also. Allowing people to take their lives, with the assistance of a doctor, is not a position that is anti-life, but one that is against existence for the sake of existence. The doctor who helps his patients take their lives is not acting against life, but is helping these people live – and die – in the way they find most advantageous.

This is not a new position to take, either. For an ancient perspective, witness Seneca’s letter to a friend:

You may consider that the same thing happens to us: life has carried some men with the greatest rapidity to the harbour, the harbour they were bound to reach even if they tarried on the way, while others it has fretted and harassed. To such a life, as you are aware, one should not always cling. For mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.[3] 5. He will mark in what place, with whom, and how he is to conduct his existence, and what he is about to do. He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free. And this privilege is his, not only when the crisis is upon him, but as soon as Fortune seems to be playing him false; then he looks about carefully and sees whether he ought, or ought not, to end his life on that account. He holds that it makes no difference to him whether his taking-off be natural or self-inflicted, whether it comes later or earlier. He does not regard it with fear, as if it were a great loss; for no man can lose very much when but a driblet remains. It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.

While some may find the comparison distasteful, this is the sort of mindset most pet owners take when preparing to euthanize the family dog. Fido has lived a good life, loved by his family, played with, adored, yelled at a few times but not excessively, but alas – a cancerous tumor has erupted on Fido’s right lung. Expensive and invasive surgery could give him another month, perhaps, but it would be a month of unremitting agony followed by a painful death. Why put a beloved creature through such needless agony, when a short and painless procedure can end it all immediately?

Many people have a disconnect between their lucid response to the pain of a family pet and their unhinged response to the pain of a human loved one. I would contend that this tension, while often cloaked in an appeal to rational arguments or religious tenets, is largely based on instinctual emotional distaste for death, and the fear of the unknown that it represents. That is not to say that there aren’t clear reasons to oppose it, but that empirically and rationally, there are stronger reasons in favor of it. I’ll go through some of the common arguments below:

  • Assisted suicide will destroy the trust patients have in their doctors. The physician Leon Kass wrote in the 1990s, “the patient’s trust in the doctors’s wholehearted devotion to the patient’s best interests will be hard to sustain once doctors are licensed to kill.” Fellow physician Mark Hall countered in the 2000s “Our study shows that only about 20% of people believe they would trust their physician less if euthanasia were legalized… The empirical support is weak for those who confidently assert that legalizing physician-assisted death would undermine trust in physicians for most people in the United States.”
  • Allowing doctors to legally kill their patients will provide a perverse incentive for insurance companies to encourage these practices. Like the other arguments, there is conflict on this point: one fact sheet states “It is well documented that the legal option to choose aid-in-dying is not related to finances. End of life choices are relevant only AFTER all curative or other treatments have been tried.”
  • Related to this, legalizing assisted and voluntary suicide will inevitably lead to involuntary suicide. According to the head of the Euthanasia and Guidance Organization, “In the Netherlands we have a living laboratory in which the euthanasia experiment in being conducted, and it is claimed that active non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia are openly practiced there, exactly as predicted by the slippery slope argument. But the claim of the open and common practice of involuntary euthanasia has been often repeated but has never been substantiated, and indeed has been repeatedly challenged.”
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Beyond the empirical evidence that assisted suicide is not the bugbear it is purported to be, there is also the moral argument in its favor: the human being, by virtue of having a ruling reason, is entitled to dispose of himself in the same way he disposes of his property or his time. While there are clear and logical restrictions that must be placed on this freedom, such as against harming others, or harming oneself in a state of mental unbalance or insanity, this is certainly not the case for most assisted suicides. People at the end of their lives are not mentally unbalanced when they want to end their miserable time on earth, but acting completely rationally.

In full disclosure, I went through several drafts of this post attempting to justify my instinctual reaction against the very idea of suicide, before I realized I could not do so on rational and consistent grounds. It would be in tension with my other beliefs, in personal liberty and freedom of choice, and also – don’t tell anyone – my belief in the ultimate dignity of the human being, in life and in death. Assisted suicide is an intellectual and moral no brainer.

Feeling Cynical in San Francisco

I never thought I would say this, but I hate San Francisco. Having worked here full time for one month, I have found little to enjoy about it and much to despise. This, despite growing up very close by, having near monthly access to it, and conceiving of it for the first 23 years of my life as a damn good place to be.

But, I have come to a conclusion: San Francisco is emotionally, spiritually, and sexually dead. Not that people don’t have emotions, experiences of spirit, or sexual escapades here. Au contraire! Such things are legion. Rather, that there is behind much of what goes on… a great emptiness. There is no longer anything in this city for an individual of substance but decay and the new cult religions spawned by progressivism: what I’ve begun to call market optimism, the erroneous faith that the next great invention will cure all social ills and forever, eternally, place us in the light of the sun.

It’s all hogwash. If you spend 40 hours per week streamlining the method for buying a car, that may be useful, but it will never prove true the prognostications of our high priests. Giving rich tourists a better way of buying tours will never solve the gulf people feel between what they are doing, and who they want to be.

I’m weary of it here, but I swear if I see someone smile, I’ll take it all back. I’ve written more on my personal blog. Check it out.

On the Virtue of Self-Rule

I wrote a bit on the virtue of self-rule in my last post, Why I Reject Marxism. I suggested that people within a collectivist society, rather than hoping for the inauguration of utopia, should instead cultivate within themselves the lineaments of that utopia. Namely, self-rule. But what is self-rule, and how ought it to be manifested? Can we define self-rule in a satisfactory way? I will attempt.

Self-rule is the capacity to fully own one’s actions, as well as their consequences. The man in prison, deprived of livelihood and liberty, is equally as liable for what he does as the man outside. The president of a nation is as equally liable for what he does as the average citizen on the street. Dodging responsibility for doing wrong (or, rarely, for doing right); blaming one’s behavior on exterior factors such as parents, friends, the state, culture, or an institutional whatever; rationalizing the negativity of one’s actions by pointing to the similar actions of others; or otherwise masking one’s responsibility in some cloak of self-righteousness, rationalization, or victim-blaming, or combination thereof are all behaviors of the man who cannot rule himself, because he does not understand that it is he, and he alone, who is responsible for what he does. This is not to say that exterior factors do not impinge on our lives; to deny that is obviously false. This is to say that how we react in response to these external actions is what defines us as men of self-rule, or as children. Self-rule truly begins when a man understands he alone bears responsibility.

Following on this, the man that knows he alone bears responsibility for what he does knows also that no one can ever be said to be responsible for him. The state is not obligated to provide him with food, money, or birth control pills. His neighbor is not obligated to build him a road so he can drive to work. His parents are not obligated to keep him in perpetual infancy. When he understands that his responsibility for his life is his alone, then he must begin to act with realization of this truth. He must produce, not just have things produced for him: he must take up an industry, converting his labor into something tangible that he can offer to the world. He must repay his debts and mind his contracts: buying a service that is overpriced, as I and other university students have done, is no excuse for reneging on our promises to our creditors after the fact. He must understand that charity comes from the willing heart, and is not pried from the taut fingers of a clenched fist. All the good that he can expect in his life, he must expect from his own industry, and not through thievery of other’s work.

The above ideas stem from the deeper realization that there is little in our actual power. Indeed, self-rule is fundamentally the understanding of what is in one’s own power, and what is not. A major avenue through which I came to libertarianism as a political philosophy was Stoic ethics. I’ve returned to Marcus Aurelius for the last decade, since I bought my first edition of his Meditations. If we are to rule ourselves, we must know what we are capable of ruling, and through a sober reflection we see that we have current ownership over our possessions, our bodies, and our minds, all in greater or lesser degree in relation to our own individual differences of chance or industry. Yet, we see that our possessions are ephemeral. They may be taken from us at any time, whether through a trick of the market or the sadistic power grab of an overreaching government. Our bodies will not only age, falter, and die, but can be taken into possession by others, whether individuals or the state. There is only one place where a man ever has unbridled freedom: the mind. When we realize that is all we truly own, then we will come to focus our efforts broadly on perfection of that mind. Through disciplining our minds, we can move outwards again: discipline of the mind leads to that of the body, and thence to that of our external affairs. A man’s property is nothing but assurance against privation in the present, and is not the foundation of his self-rule. The only thing that can defend against that is the power of the mind to overcome.

Understanding that we are essentially powerless in the world does not obviate from the need to act in it. To be is to do, after all. What this knowledge presents to us is that everything we do may be taken away. It may fail to work. It may never manifest at all. But we do it anyway, not because it will succeed, but because actions that are good – morally praiseworthy things from mundane work to heroic deeds – are worthy in and of themselves. The baker who goes every day to his baker’s shop, makes bread, and sells it to his neighbors is doing something good because he is providing a service of value, he is providing for himself, and for his community. The man who lays bricks can walk by the buildings he has constructed until the end of his days, confident in the knowledge that he has directly contributed to the wellbeing of another.

This brings me to my last point about self-rule. Human beings were not made to be individuals, their industry was not made for just themselves, but everything that is good, just, and industrious always is in reference to a community. The great divergence between the libertarian and the collectivist is that the former sees community as a group of autonomous peers, collaborating selfishly for their own benefit but, directly or indirectly, contributing to the benefit of all. The latter sees community as a being with independent existence, whose needs must be placed above those of its individual members: we must take the money of our citizens to build schools and hospitals, we must forbid them from drugs and alcohol so that they will be industrious, we must embroil them in foreign wars so they will be patriotic, because it is for the greater good. Hogwash. Remember the words of Aurelius: “We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature.” Analyzing this, the hands and the feet cooperate as part of an ordered whole, a body, and they do so because they must – not a must of coercion, but a must of willing cooperation with each other. The foot does the work that the hand cannot do, and the reverse: the feet bring us to food, and the hands craft it and bring it to our mouths. Extrapolating this to the community, each member must interact for the good of the whole, because each member is integral to that whole. Take away one member, and there is diminishment. Rather than this supporting a collectivist viewpoint, it instead supports the absolute preciousness of the members of our community.

Self-rule is to realize who and what you are, and to act accordingly. We are responsible for ourselves, and once we realize this, we come to rule ourselves. We know that we have no obligations to others, and others have no obligations to us, inherently speaking. At the same time as we consider ourselves to be individuals, we then must turn to how we act individually within communities, and we see that our community is naturally suited for cooperation. Thenceforth, when we interact with other men of self-rule within our community, our interactions become voluntary, the natural expression of our free choices. We help others, not because we are forced, but because it is the completely free expression of our desires to fulfill what we are. Heavy is the head that wears the crown alone. Light is the head that shares it.

Why I Reject Marxism

I was recently given a copy of History of Political Philosophy edited by Leo Strauss and his successor, Joseph Cropsey. It’s a superb book, a well curated collection of essays by distinguished scholars in the field covering the time period from Thucydides to Martin Heidegger. Each essay succinctly covers, in about 20-30 pages, the political thought, life, and times of each of the figures studied. You really all should buy it.

That’s not the reason I’m writing, though. I’ve always felt a visceral disdain for Marxism, from the repugnant nature of its premises (I side with Aristotle: “But that the unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good” Politics Book VII 3.5, 1325.b) to the ugly cant of its diction. There is nothing in it that appeals to me, and its followers whom I have encountered, either snide petit bourgeois professors with manicured fingernails and soft hands, or the spoiled and deluded children of middle-class families, have not helped my perception. Always and interestingly for me is that I have never met a single member of the proletariat who has actually referred to himself as such, or has shown anything but a similarly gut hatred of Marxist rhetoric. Marx’s own anti-Semitism is not endearing to a Jew like me, either (I recommend Sander GIlman’s work, Jewish Self-Hatred, for those who would like more information).

Despite my misgivings, I have not found such a beautiful encapsulation of why I reject Marxism until I read Cropsey’s essay on the great thinker:

Unexpectedly, we now see coming into view a ground of agreement between ancients and pre-Marxian moderns on this most important point: political life rests upon the imperfection of man and continues to exist because human nature rules out the elevation of all men to the level of excellence. The connection between civil government and man’s imperfection is expressed by Rousseau, for example, in the form of the distinction between state and society: men can be social while uncorrupted, but in political community they prey and are preyed upon by one another. At the beginning of Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,t he latter negatively by restraining our vices… The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Rousseau may be said to have suggested, via the doctrine of the perfectibility of man, that government may be more and more replaced by society: in the perfect freedom of self-government, coercion loses most of its sting. But Rousseau did not at all suppose that all men would become philosophic, nor that there is any perfect substitute for the full rationality of men that would render coercion and rhetoric of all kind, i.e. political life, dispensable. He did not, in brief, expect ordinary selfishness imply to disappear from among the generality of men.

What in Rousseau was a limited suggestion, although an emphatic one, came to be the dogmatic core of a confident prognosis, a strident propaganda, and a revolutionary incitation in Marx: the state or political order will wholly wither away, and homogeneous mankind will live socially under the rule of absolute benevolence – from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. No longer will duty be performed incidentally to the pursuit of selfish interest. The link between duty and interest, which is to say the subordination of duty to interest, will be broken once and for all by the abolition of the categories ‘duty’ and ‘interest.’ They will be abolished by the revision of the property relations, by the inauguration of a new economics which will bring on the full perfection of human nature via the transcendence of production for exchange.

Marxism is not simply another political system, or one more ideology. It proposes nothing less than the end of the West – of political life, philosophy, and religion – as the foregoing summary indicates. Perhaps we should look forward with eager anticipation to the end of the West – but we cannot know whether we should without rationally examining the project for strangling philosophy. That rational examination is part of the philosophical quest itself. We cannot free ourselves of philosophy, if only because we must philosophize to pass judgment on philosophy. We begin to suspect the soundness of the anti-philosophic historicism of Marx. Observing its weakness prepares us to concede that history can make room for spiritually impoverished societies: the viability of Marxist nations is a sign not of the soundness of Marx’s prophecy but of the unsoundness of the sanguine historicism on which he based it. We have every right to conclude that history is the opiate of the masses.

Marx’s utopia is impossible because he desires perfection in men, perfection that pre-Marxian philosophers rightly saw as within the province of no one but the philosophical sages. Successful Marxists that came after him maintain their faith in the prognostications of orthodox Marxism in principle but reject it in practice. Mao, for example, rejected his more zealous comrades’ complaints that he had not abolished capitalism in the countryside, arguing that to do so would be inappropriate for a China that had never had a capitalist economy. The fruits of his relative moderation are seen in the totalitarian state he created, which lacked either economic or social development towards any goal but consolidation of the Politburo’s power. When Marxists claim that there has never been a truly socialist state, they are correct, but not for the reasons they think. It is not because socialism has not been fully tried, but because doing so is completely impossible. This impossibility is rooted in man’s very nature, biologically, physically, culturally determined but, crucially, determined without an end. There is no final cause in history. There is only flux, a notion Marx inherited from Heraclitus and stupidly wed to Hegelian progressivism, coming up with the paradoxical idea that the historical change by which past societies arose and fell apart would somehow come to an end in the decay of capitalism.

Libertarianism is an equally utopian vision, but the viability of a libertarian project is considerably rosier, as its utopia does not call for the radical transformation of the human being. Indeed, doing so would conflict with its fundamental principles. Rather, it calls for the harnessing of man’s most self-interested tendencies for a good purpose: selfishness leading to production, production leading to trade, trade to peace and prosperity. The realization of libertarianism in practice is possible. It is a vision of, not better selves, but a better self-actualization of the selves that we possess. Realizing this, we must not make the same mistake that Marx made, for as the popularity of our philosophy shows, we are not the majority. Not even close. We probably never will be. The political life, the state and its coercions, will likely never cease to be a factor in our lives. But what we can do, and what we ought to do, is actualize in ourselves the faculty of self-rule, upon which may be built the more virtuous state.