A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.


Catalonia: a philosophical case for Secession

Yesterday, the Catalan government has overwelmingly voted for independence from Spain and to establish an independent republic. 70 were in favour, 10 were against, and 2 votes were blank. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the central governments of Spain and many other countries. Nonetheless, the Catalan case may inspire the other independence movements in Europe.

In this post I’d like to provide a philosophical case for the ethical right of secession based on a libertarian perspective of self-ownership. My argument is exclusively theoretical, although a discussion on how secession could be achieved practically would be interesting as well. I may save that for a post in the future.

Below, you can find a map of other places in Europe with strong secessionist movements:

Structure of my argument

My argument is deductive and runs as follows:

  1. People have the right of self-ownership in accordance with the non-aggression principle, and based on the natural rights philosophy put forward by the political philosopher Murray Rothbard;
  2. If people have the right of self-ownership, they also have the right of voluntary association, voluntary formation of communities, and the right to choose their own leaders;
  3. Sometimes the state that the individual belongs to, violates the rights of the individual to the extent that the individual does not feel associated with it anymore;
  4. Under such circumstances the individual may perceive the state as an unacceptable aggressor, and he is justified to revolt by separating himself from the state. He can form communal associations to secede as a new political unit;
  5. There is no limit to secession. Provinces have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household.

The right of self-ownership and property rights

In For a New Liberty (1973), Murray Rothbard deduces natural law from the essential nature of human beings. He writes that it is in man’s nature to use his mind in order to select values, ends and the means to attain these ends so that he can “act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life”. He furthermore contends that it is absolutely “antihuman” to interfere violently with a man’s “learning and choices” as “it violates the natural law of man’s needs”. Therefore, man’s nature should be protected through his right of self-ownership. This right asserts that man has the absolute right to “own” his body and “to control that body free of coercive interferences”. This right includes the practice of such essential activities as thinking, learning, valuing, and choosing ends and means without any coercion, since such activities are necessary for the enhancement of man’s life.

From this natural right follows the right to do anything with one’s body, including the right to form free associations and communities, and the right not to be violated in one’s self-ownership. Thus, one has the right to associate oneself with the leader of one’s choice, but not the right to impose a leader unto someone else. Likewise, people should be free to join and to leave communities voluntarily.

In addition to the right of free association, people also have property rights. Rothbardian property rights are directly derived from self-ownership rights, and are based on the Lockean homesteading theory. It states that since man owns his person, he owns his labour, and therefore he also owns the fruits thereof. John Locke (1689) has put homesteading theory in the following way:

… every man has a property in his own person. … The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state of nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Given that man has the right of self-ownership, and that he must employ natural objects for his survival, then the sculptor has the right to own the product he has made through the mixing of his labour. In other words, by producing something with one’s energy through the utilization of unowned nature, one has, as Rothbard calls it, “placed the stamp of his person upon the raw material”. One therefore rightfully owns the product. Any violation of self-ownership and property rights should hence be regarded as an act of aggression.

The state

The state is nonetheless a social institution that has historically interfered most often with people’s self-ownership and property rights. Max Weber has recognized it as an institution with a territorial monopoly of compulsion in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1919). Hoppe, in Democracy – the God that failed (2001), asserts that every government will use this monopoly to exploit its citizens in order to increase its wealth and income.

“Hence every government should be expected to have an inherent tendency toward growth”. (Hoppe)

State exploitation happens in the form of expropriation, taxation, and regulation of private property owners. A state at best respects the rights of individual sovereignty and private property, but because its functioning is dependent on the expropriation of its citizens’ wealth there is a natural conflict between the state and its citizens. According to Franz Oppenheimer (1908), the state can impossibly finance itself without its productive citizens. It can only take that what has already been produced, and therefore it can only exist as a result of the “economic means”. However, this confiscation often involves state violence and aggression as nearly no one is willing to give up on his property voluntarily.

Under such circumstances, it is understandable that conflicts may arise between citizens and the state; sometimes resulting in citizens’ feelings of dissociation from their governments.


Frédérik Bastiat maintains in The Law (1850) that if everyone has the right to “his person, his liberty, and his property”, then

“a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”

Following Bastiat’s reasoning, I believe that citizens who feel dissociated can then revolt and opt for secession as a form of self-defense against state aggression on their self-ownership and property. Any state that does not recognize its citizens’ rights of secession does not sufficiently recognize the sovereignty of its people. Secession is a powerful means of political action to show the people’s discontent with their leaders. If secession would be impermissible, then the people who want to disassociate themselves from the state have the following three options:
(1) continue living under the oppressive state rule;
or (2) revolt against the state;
or (3) emigrate to another state.

By doing (1), the people continue living under perpetual state aggression, and their sovereignty is continually violated.

If the people choose option (2), then there will be severe and costly consequences which can involve war and destruction of private property. In addition, there are also no guarantees that the revolt against the state will be successful. For these two reasons, this option seems to most secessionists to be the least preferable of the three.

The people can alternatively choose (3) and emigrate to another state. This alternative is often used as an argument against secession under the presumption that those who are unhappy within one particular state, should simply emigrate. However, the cost of emigration can be so significantly high that it is unfeasible. One has for example the costs of finding information on the procedure of emigration, becoming accepted by the other state, finding a new workplace etc… The state can also exert barriers of emigration through tedious bureaucratic processes and passport controls, which makes emigration even more unattractive.

Who are morally justified to secede?

Following man’s right of free association, the answer should be: anyone, as long as it happens on a voluntary basis. Even though most secessionist movements are built on a common ethnicity or common cultural heritage, such precepts are not necessary to justify secession. Moreover, secessionists should not be prescribed any form of social organization as they should be free to choose their own form of government. This means that a multitude of social organizations are possible, including those that are currently non-existent. By being epistemologically modest of what governmental form is best, communities are allowed to experiment and find their own form of government. This will eventually add to our understanding of human social organizations.

Lastly, it is important to note that if secession is ethical, ultimately based on the principle of self-ownership, then it follows that the individual has the right to secede as well.

This right cannot be exclusively granted to groups, because only individuals can have ownership of their own bodies. Self-ownership cannot be shared, just like the mind cannot be shared. The mind is an attribute, inherent only to individuals, and collectives only derive their rights from the rights of their individual members. Therefore the right of self-ownership must necessarily imply the right to practice unlimited secession.

As Rothbard would assert, provinces should have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household. This logical consequence is anarchism.


In setting forward a natural rights defense of self-ownership, I have concluded that individuals have the right to free association and property rights. Unfortunately, states sometimes violate these rights to the extent that its people do not want to be associated with their state anymore. Under such circumstances they retain the right to secede. Secession should however not only be limited to communities. Single individuals also bear the right to secede, since only individuals can possess self-ownership, and since groups can only derive their rights from its individual members.

Some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”

Brandon asked me to leave some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”, By Matthew Fay, here. Edwin van de Haar already did that in his “Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story”, but as I tend to follow a different path from van de Haar, I believe I may have something original to say here. So lets go.

First, unlike Edwin, I’m not going to go in the direction of discussing who is a libertarian, who is a conservative, who is a classical liberal, and so on. For one thing, I think that this kind of discussion is really boring (sorry Edwin, no offense intended, believe me). Other than that, it seems to me that discussing vocabulary is tremendously counterproductive. During the Cold War the US defined itself as a democracy. The USSR defined itself as a democracy as well. Both could meet and discuss who was really democratic, without any real gain. The same can be said about discussions within the socialist bloc: Chinese and Russians could discuss forever who was more Marxist, almost going to war because of that, without any real profit. Personally, I think I lost a lot of time some years ago discussing if Venezuela was democratic or not. And then they ran out of toilet paper. So I care not if communists want to call Venezuela a democratic state or not, the fact is that I don’t think any of them are willing to live without the simple but precious item of capitalist modern life.

With that said, if Matthew Fay wants to call his international relations perspective “libertarian,” so be it. But here are some commentaries from someone who usually calls himself libertarian:

“Libertarians have an uneasy relationship with foreign policy. The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.”

I wouldn’t say that. First, I’m a libertarian who studies foreign policy more than anything else. Second, I don’t think that we should say that “The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.” That’s simply not a good phrase to use when talking about International Relations. Better to say that the state is very often regarded as the primary actor in International Relations theory, especially by theorists who identify themselves as Realists. Other theorists would say that individuals, or international institutions, or international organizations are as or more important than the states.

“For libertarians, who want the state to do less, not more, this fact can be hard to stomach.”

I identify as a libertarian and I don’t exactly “want the state to do less.” I want the state to do some things and not others. I know that many libertarians (specially people at the Mises Institute, following Murray Rothbard) understand that anarcho-capitalism is the natural and logical conclusion for libertarians. I’m still not convinced. For example, I would like the state to do a lot about prosecuting murders and nothing about what I put in my own body.

“identifying an aggressor is difficult enough in interpersonal relations—let alone in international affairs.”

That’s something that goes at least to Robert Jervis’ 1978 article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” but I openly disagree. If they are not invading your territory, then they’re not aggressors. They may be potential aggressors, or they may be aggressive, but they’re not aggressors. As an individual, I choose to carry a gun, or even better, to avoid certain neighborhoods. The states should, if possible, avoid certain neighborhoods. If that’s not possible, carry a gun. And definitely keep a gun at home and learn how to use it.

“even when the action of the U.S. government may be superior to that of another government, many libertarians have a difficult time acknowledging that government action is justified. For those reasons, many strict non-interventionist libertarians find themselves openly embracing illiberal governments that they claim are resisting American imperialism and condemning any American criticism of autocrats as a prelude to ‘regime change.’”

First, I don’t think that one can prove that US intervention is superior to anything, ever. It’s basically a broken window fallacy. And I don’t embrace any illiberal government. I just don’t think that it’s the US government’s job to overthrown them. Also, I don’t think any autocratic governments are primarily resisting imperialism.

“Realism is attractive for libertarians because the United States faces no major threats, and therefore does not need to balance either externally or internally.”

Realism in International Relations theory is in general attractive for me because it seems to reflect the reality. Among International Relations theorists, my personal favorites are John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I believe they are very liberal (in the classical sense) at heart but, like me, they are very suspicious of states. By the way, I’m Brazilian and I don’t live in the States, so the second part makes no sense either. There are many libertarians outside the US, by the way, and I think it would be very interesting to check what they think about all this.

“Libertarians, for example, believe that regime change and nation building through the use of military force is unjust and more often than not doomed to failure.”

I don’t think that. The American Revolution and the Puritan Revolution were great examples of regime change and nation building through the use of military force. They worked just fine. I just don’t believe that we can force this on other people.

“But libertarians have also rejected other aspects of America’s post-World War II grand strategy—namely, America’s military alliances and the web of international political and economic institutions they underpin—that have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world. The result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals. It helps ameliorate security competition and establishes expected patterns of behavior that encourage cooperation instead. This order has not been without its flaws and, as Nexon highlights in another post, serious reforms should be explored. But it has also helped underpin previously unseen levels of peace and prosperity. As Nexon writes, ‘we should not confuse two different questions: ‘which liberal order?’ and ‘whether liberal order?’’”

I’m not sure if “America’s post-World War II grand strategy have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world.” Again, it’s a matter of opportunity cost, or another broken window fallacy. I’m also unsure if “the result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals.” I have a really strong tendency to say it didn’t. The problem with theorizing in social sciences is that, unlike in natural sciences, you can’t take things to the laboratory and run consecutive tests. That is, by the way, one of the reasons why I reject positivism as a research methodology. I’m not sure if Matthew Fay embraces it, but the fact is that for me we are better with praxeology, or at least some version of methodological individualism. And with that in mind, we can’t be so bold to say that American foreign policy in the post-WWII Era was the main cause of peace and everything else. It just seems to me that without US intervention in WWI there would be no WWII (and no Russian Revolution, at least not a successful one, by the way). The Founding Fathers were right: Europe is a mess. The farthest you get from it, the best.

Porque privatizar (ou desestatizar) o ensino é uma das melhores reformas que se pode fazer

Talvez seja somente uma percepção subjetiva sem maior relevância objetiva, mas a impressão que tenho é que a privatização do ensino é um dos maiores tabus da sociedade brasileira. Até onde eu sei nenhum partido, figura política ou figura pública de destaque está defendendo a privatização total do ensino no Brasil. Segundo as notícias que chegam até mim, o recente anúncio de corte de gastos na educação causa uma de duas reações: indignação ou pesar. Alguns reagem com indignação, e não aceitam que qualquer corte seja feito; outros reagem com pesar, mas consideram que os cortes são necessários. Ditas estas coisas, penso que cabe a mim agir como Walter Block e “defender o indefensável”: o governo (ou o estado – use o vocabulário que lhe convir) não deveria ter qualquer papel na educação. Para isso irei expor brevemente o que é economia, como ela funciona, e o que isso tem a ver com governo, indivíduos e educação. É uma exposição breve, e pode deixar alguns pontos pouco desenvolvidos. Para uma exposição mais profunda deste tema, recomendo o livro Educação: Livre e Obrigatória, de Murray Rothbard.

Economia é a gestão de recursos necessariamente escassos que possuímos. Os recursos são necessariamente escassos porque somos seres humanos finitos, e não deuses. Alguns paradigmas econômicos (notoriamente o marxismo) partem de um pressuposto de abundancia de recursos, mas isto é falso e até mesmo perigoso: até mesmo o homem mais rico do mundo tem somente 24 horas no seu dia. Tem somente um corpo, e não pode estar em dois lugares ao mesmo tempo. Tem energia limitada, e fica cansado. Todos nós possuímos recursos limitados (ainda que alguns possuam mais recursos à sua disposição do que outros). A economia é a arte de melhor gerir estes recursos.

A gestão dos recursos limitados que possuímos é feita através de escolhas. O nome que os economistas dão a isso é “custo de oportunidade”: a não ser que você detenha infinitos recursos, gastar em uma coisa significa não gastar na segunda melhor alternativa. Exemplos: comprar o carro A significa não comprar o carro B; morar na cidade X significa não morar na cidade Y; casar com Z significa não casar com W; e escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como disse um antigo professor meu, “a vida é feita de escolhas”.

Considerando que possuímos recursos finitos e precisamos fazer escolhas, qual é mecanismo mais eficiente para tomar decisões? Certamente muitas pessoas gostariam de tomar decisões com base nos seus gostos pessoais. Gostariam de escolher aquilo de que mais gostam. Porém, aquilo de que mais gosto nem sempre está ao meu alcance. Exemplos: ainda que eu goste mais de uma Ferrari do que de um fusquinha, talvez eu precise me contentar com a segunda opção. Ou ainda que eu queira viajar, talvez eu tenha que me contentar em pagar o tratamento para um problema de saúde que acabei de descobrir que tenho. É por coisas assim que a economia ficou conhecida como “ciência triste”. Muitas vezes ela está aí para lembrar que nem sempre podemos ter o que queremos. Dito isto, a melhor forma de tomar decisões é pelos preços: os preços nos dizem se aquilo que desejamos é compatível com os recursos disponíveis.

Os preços são geralmente definidos em termos de dinheiro. Dinheiro é melhor definido por aquilo que faz do que por aquilo que é. Muitas coisas podem ser dinheiro: papel, metais preciosos, cigarros, balas ou dígitos num computador. Mas o que dinheiro faz é servir como uma linguagem: o dinheiro transmite de uma pessoa para outra o valor dos recursos envolvidos numa mercadoria ou num serviço. E valor é algo subjetivo. Contrariando a teoria do valor trabalho, é impossível saber de forma objetiva qual é o preço de uma determinada mercadoria ou serviço: é necessário que este valor seja definido por relações de oferta e procura. E é de incontáveis relações de oferta e procura que os preços são feitos. Em outras palavras, os preços nos transmitem de forma simples algo que jamais poderia ser calculado por uma pessoa: uma infinidade de relações de oferta e procura, escolhas e preferências, dentro da economia. Como disse Friedrich Hayek, “a economia somos nós”.

E assim chegamos à educação. Como eu disse acima, escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como essa decisão é feita? Certamente que muitas pessoas escolhem sua carreira com base em aptidões que percebem em si mesmas, ou em considerações sobre o que poderá ser uma atividade profissional mais prazerosa. Porém, este é um luxo que não está disponível para todos: muitas pessoas precisam escolher uma carreira com base no que pode dar mais retorno financeiro com menor investimento e menor risco. Posso escolher uma carreira que promete um grande retorno financeiro, mas com grande risco de não conseguir emprego num mercado de trabalho altamente competitivo, ou com um investimento de recursos (em tempo em dinheiro) que não posso arcar. A vida é feita de escolhas, e essas escolhas muitas vezes envolvem riscos. Escolher uma carreira é dizer não (ao menos temporariamente) para todas as outras. Algumas pessoas tem a chance de arriscar mais. Outras não têm o mesmo luxo. Considerações como relação candidato/vaga, salário médio, nível de empregabilidade e outras são semelhantes aos preços, e podem ser bons parâmetros ao se decidir por uma carreira. Mas com o governo criando vagas em universidades, determinando regras de acesso ao mercado de trabalho e adotando outras medidas, os preços não refletem a real relação de oferta e procura. Em outras palavras, a linguagem é distorcida, e as decisões não são as melhores, nem para os indivíduos, e nem para a sociedade.

Compreendo que pensar assim possa soar extremamente cínico, e pode ser um banho de água fria, especialmente para os mais jovens ou mais sonhadores. Muitas pessoas preferem tomar decisões considerando seus gostos pessoais, sua vocação, seu desejo de ajudar o próximo ou outras considerações. Não estou desmerecendo nenhuma destas considerações. Estou apenas dizendo que somos seres humanos limitados que vivem num mundo de recursos limitados. Precisamos fazer o melhor uso possível destes recursos. Embora os recursos sejam limitados, nossa criatividade para aproveitá-los não demonstra um limite óbvio. O uso criativo e sustentável dos recursos necessita de uma bússola, um guia. O sistema de preços é o melhor guia que possuímos. Sem propriedade privada não há formação de preços, e sem formação de preços o cálculo econômico é impossível. Por esta razão os gastos com educação não param de aumentar e a qualidade dos resultados não para de cair: o melhor juiz para determinar como os recursos serão empregados é o individuo fazendo uso de seus próprios recursos. A interferência do governo prejudica ou até desfaz este julgamento.

Em tempo: estou defendendo que o governo precisa sair da educação e deixá-la para a iniciativa individual (até mesmo porque somente indivíduos podem ter iniciativa). Não estou defendendo que educação precisa ser necessariamente paga pelos alunos. Como disse Milton Friedman, “não existe almoço grátis” (mais uma dessas frases que tornam os economistas – especialmente os liberais clássicos e libertários – pessoas pouco populares). Mas quando uma pessoa tem fome e não pode pagar pelo almoço, outra pode fazer isso. O nome disso é caridade, e quero incentivá-la o máximo possível. Caso você se preocupe com os pobres, sugiro que pare de mandar dinheiro para Brasília na forma de impostos, que serão necessariamente mal empregados (segundo tudo que discuti aqui), e procure pessoas que precisam. Com certeza você não terá dificuldade de encontrá-las.

Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 4: Why Market Anarchism is more Democratic than Democracy

Note: This is the final part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy, and part three, which analyzes how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. Here, I will argue that a synthesis of libertarian and pragmatist perspectives on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.

The insights of classical liberalism, and particularly modern libertarianism, have shown that democracy is likely to lead to a tyranny of an irrational and ignorant majority and public choice theory has shown how it results in awful policies thanks to a number of collective action issues. However, as pragmatists have argued, democracy’s philosophical aspirations to scientific public deliberation, seeking the consent of the governed, valuing the dignity of every individual, and decentralizing political authority to take advantage of dispersed intelligence are still admirable. However admirable these philosophical aspirations are, real-world democracies completely fail to fulfill them.

The natural question is, if not democracy, what political arrangements can live up to the philosophical goals of Dewey and Hook? I think the answer lies in market anarchism. In what follows, I will show how market anarchism could succeed in realizing the aspirations of philosophical democracy where political democracy has failed.

Before we get started, let’s take into account a few minor housekeeping notes. It is assumed that the reader has at least a cursory knowledge of how market anarchism and polycentric law works. If you are not familiar with these concepts I highly recommend watching this video by David Friedman before continuing. Also, I am in no way arguing that any of the thinkers discussed in this series are “really” anarchists unless they’re obviously so such as Huemer. I will not even claim that any of them “should have been” anarchists (with the exception of Hayek). I am simply arguing that if we take into account the insights of their various perspectives, one could plausibly defend market anarchism.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Does Rest on the Voluntary Consent of the Governed

As Michael Huemer convincingly has shown, democracy does not actually “rest upon the freely given consent of the governed” as Sidney Hook claims. The bar tab example illustrates that we would not consider majority rule “consent” in any everyday interaction and there is little reason to think it should be any different in the context of political institutions. By contrast, market anarchism is almost by definition based off of consent. This is the primary reason why many deontological market anarchists, such as Murray Rothbard, are market anarchists in the first place and why they oppose the coercive, non-consensual nature of the state. While democracy’s claim to legitimacy is that the governed vote but they are still forced to follow the (unjustified) authority of a state that has the monopoly on force whether they agree or not to, market anarchism is based off of voluntarily consented to contracts between individuals and defense agencies and contracts between those defense agencies and private, voluntary court systems and arbitrators. Further, the content of the laws is agreed to and law becomes a product one buys in voluntarily agreeing to sign up with a defense company, just as one buys a car, a piece of furniture, or any other good.

It is curious that many pragmatist defenses of democracy sound very similar to what many market anarchists and libertarians write. Not just in Sidney Hook’s definition of a democracy as a government that “rests upon the freely given consent of the governed,” but perhaps most strikingly in John Dewey’s 1939 essay “I Believe.” In this essay, Dewey walked back some of his early Hegelian collectivist lines of his early years:

My contribution to the first series of essays in Living Philosophies put forward the idea of faith in the possibilities of experience at the heart of my own philosophy. In the course of that contribution, I said, “Individuals will always be the center and the consummation of experience, but what the individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life.” I have not changed my faith in experience nor my belief that individuality is its center and consummation. But there has been a change in emphasis. I should now wish to emphasize more than I formerly did that individuals are the final decisive factors of the nature and movement of associated life.

Indeed, throughout the whole essay he emphasizes “the idea that only the voluntary initiative and voluntary cooperation of individuals can produce social institutions that will protect the liberties necessary for achieving development of genuine individuality.” Throughout the essay, he decries (like many left-anarchists do) “state socialism” just as much as he does “state capitalism.” Dewey’s opposition to capitalism is well-known, but what is less known is his opposition to so-called “public collectivism.” His criticisms here could just as easily have been written by someone like Hayek:

Recent events have shown that state socialism or public collectivism leads to suppression of everything that individuality stands for. It is not too late for us in this country to learn the lesson taught by these two great historic movements [ie., the rise of state capitalism and state socialism]. The way is open for a movement which will provide the fullest opportunity for cooperative voluntary endeavor. In this movement, political activity will have a part, but a subordinate one. It will be confined to providing the conditions, both negative and positive, that favor the voluntary activity of individuals.

It is interesting that, like anarchists who favor direct action, he emphasizes that political activity is subordinate to the political movement he sees as necessary.

Of course, there are still notable differences between Dewey and libertarians, he still defends what he calls “functional socialism” in the socialization of medicine and still berates more than many libertarians would be comfortable with (except, of course, for left-anarchists) inequality caused by state capitalism. His vision of a truly individualist society, even in his later years, was one with localized, experimental democratic institutions and economics controlled by those localized governments in a “functional socialist” fashion (as I mentioned earlier, that economic vision is at odds with Dewey’s epistemological commitments).

However, I would argue that it is more than a mere superficial coincidence that Dewey’s criticisms of state capitalism are almost identical to those of market anarchists who decry “crony capitalism,” that his criticisms of state socialism are very similar to some individualist libertarian criticisms, and his overall rhetoric defending democracy on the grounds of “voluntary cooperation of individuals” sounds remarkably similar to many libertarians. This is because, largely, the philosophical ends Dewey seeks in politics are the same as those sought by libertarians, market anarchists, and classical liberals. However, the institutional means he advocates are very different and fail to meet those ends.

There is, conversely, one potential criticism that Sidney Hook would raise at this point: that market anarchism does not really rest upon the freely-given consent of the governed due to its allowance for economic inequality. Hook argued that income inequality undermines consent in democracy and, as a result, economic organization should be controlled by a democratically elected government. There are two points to be made. First of all, when economic organization is controlled by government in democracies it exacerbates the problem of income inequality. Rent-seeking culture arises in which concentrated interests use, through lobbying power, government force to accumulate and protect their wealth. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier,  there have been empirical studies showing how over-regulation lobbied for by those concentrated benefits have regressive effects. Even fairly anti-free market economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have argued that income inequality is not an inevitable result of market institutions, but a result of bad government policies such as corporate welfare.

Second, it is questionable to what degree income inequality would exist in pure market anarchy. Of course, much of the bad inequality experienced under state capitalism is the result of bad policies, but some if it is also just a result of market’s tendencies to disrupt economic distributions (which, as Mises argued in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition is not a bad thing because it allows for luxury markets which can serve as an experimental market for expensive, new goods that one day become popular consumer goods). Some market anarchists, such as Anna Morgenstern, have argued that the type of mass accumulation of capital under capitalism would be impossible under market anarchism. I am unsure to what extent I agree, and a systemic analysis of the economic roots of inequality is outside of the scope of this post. However, suffice it to say that it is an open, empirical question whether purely free markets would result in problematic levels of inequality, as Hook seems to think, and we have some good reasons to think it would not. At the very least, it is clear that the democratic institutions favored by Hook are not a serious solution to the problem.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Relies on a Decentralized Process of Political Decision Making

Dewey argued in “Democracy and Educational Administration” that “it is the democratic faith that [the distribution of knowledge and intelligence] is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” He seems to echo Hayek’s knowledge problem critique of socialism when he argues that the democratic faith is based on the wisdom that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” As we have seen, democracies tend towards heavily centralized governments that undermine this faith and fail to take advantage of the dispersed knowledge (in Hayekian terms) among individuals in society.

Market anarchy, on the other hand, by definition takes advantage of this feature of dispersed intelligence. Rather than having law be designed by a centralized legislature, law arises out of voluntary market exchanges between individuals and, like common law, the precedent of judges in private courts. Of course, both Dewey and Hayek embraced democratic institutions (in Hayek’s case, as well as free market economic coordination) to take advantage of decentralized knowledge. However, both Dewey and Hayek, particularly the ladder (Dewey never wrote about market anarchism as it did not exist as a unique perspective until almost a decade after his death), failed to appreciate the extent to which a polycentric legal system does this much better. Peter Stringham and Todd Zywicki have noted this tension in Hayek’s thought in particular, as they put it in an abstract for their excellent paper on the issue:

Should law be provided centrally by the state or by some other means? Even relatively staunch advocates of competition such as Friedrich Hayek believe that the state must provide law centrally. This article asks whether Hayek’s theories about competition and the use of knowledge in society should lead one to support centrally provided law enforcement or competition in law. In writing about economics, Hayek famously described the competitive process of the market as a “discovery process.” In writing about law, Hayek coincidentally referred to the role of the judge under the common law as “discovering” the law in the expectations and conventions of people in a given society. We argue that this consistent usage was more than a mere semantic coincidence — that the two concepts of discovery are remarkably similar in Hayek’s thought and that his idea of economic discovery influenced his later ideas about legal discovery. Moreover, once this conceptual similarity is recognized, certain conclusions logically follow: namely, that just as economic discovery requires the competitive process of the market to provide information and feedback to correct errors, competition in the provision of legal services is essential to the judicial discovery in law. In fact, the English common law, from which Hayek drew his model of legal discovery, was itself a model of polycentric and competing sources of law throughout much of its history. We conclude that for the same reasons that made Hayek a champion of market competition over central planning of the economy, he should have also supported competition in legal services over monopolistic provision by the state — in short, Hayek should have been an anarchist.

There is one possibly fatal objection to this line of reasoning, that is also the most substantial objection to market anarchism as a whole: the possibility that market anarchy, like democracy, will eventually lead to a centralized state that undermines its attempt to take advantage of dispersed knowledge. This argument was initially hinted at by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia in his argument about the “immaculate conception of the state” but was expanded on most convincingly by Tyler Cowen. Ultimately it is an empirical question whether market anarchy would eventually lead to more centralization, and it is outside the scope of this post to analyze that fascinating question in any satisfactory amount of detail. I will say, however, that Bryan Caplan has given more or less convincing reasons why this may not be the case.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Democracy, Values the Dignity of the Individual

One of the features central to the pragmatist “democratic faith” is the belief that “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity[.]” As I argued, the conflation of democratic governments with the “collective will” of the people undermines this faith as political dissenters and individual thinkers become viewed as opponents to “the people.” Indeed, it seems that the type of “public” and “private” collectivisms that Dewey ridiculed in “I Believe” are a result of democratic institutions run amuck.

Market anarchism, meanwhile, suffers from no such issues. Instead, the intrinsic worth of the individual is respected as their free choices and associations is the main driving mechanism for political organization. There is no violation of free speech and free thought by a deliberative government as such a government does not exist in the first place under anarchy, and thus the intrinsic worth and dignity are not found in the “will of the people” as in democracies, but in the sovereign individual’s choice of which defense provider to contract with.

Market Anarchism, Unlike Anarchy, is Scientific and Deliberative

Contrary to Dewey and Hook’s characterization of democracy as a deliberative, intelligent application of the scientific method to social issues, democracy is instead characterized by polarizing populist pandering and rationally ignorant and irrational voters casting meaningless ballots based cultural associations rather than reasoned consideration of policy issues. Market anarchism, meanwhile, does have the deliberative, scientific nature the pragmatists vainly hope democratic institutions could aspire to. While under democracy the cost of casting an informed vote is very high and the benefits very low resulting in massive amounts of rational ignorance, under market anarchism individuals have every incentive to ensure they are informed about the legal rules they are purchasing, so to speak, by contracting with rights defense agencies. Unlike in democracy where the benefits of casting an informed vote are extremely low because your vote has an infinitely small probability of making a difference, under market anarchy the rights defense agency you chose to contract with has immediate and certain impacts upon your life, thus creating a much larger incentive to cast an informed (metaphorical) vote by choosing to purchase the services of a preferred rights defense agency.

Deliberation about legal policy is far more likely to be more reasoned in market anarchy than in democracy. First, because market anarchism is more radically experimental than political democracy. Freedom of speech and of thought in democracy is often likened to a metaphorical “marketplace of ideas,” but in market anarchy it is a literal marketplace in which the ideas are not chosen just by speculation and public deliberation, but actually experimented with and acted upon in practice. Democracy is only “experimental” in a priori public deliberation about policies, but market anarchy is “experimental” in actually applying those policies and assessing their results a posteriori. Under democracy, once a policy is chosen it becomes difficult to assess counterfactually if another potential policy could have yielded better results, thus it is difficult to ascertain which was the superior policy. It is as if scientists in a lab simply talked about the hypothetical results of various hypothetical experiments and chose theories based on their discussions rather than actually testing the theories by actually running the experiments. Because of the polycentric nature of law under market anarchy, multiple policies are taken on at the same time, making it easier to tell which is more desirable in practice rather than simple theoretical deliberation.

Another reason why political deliberation is more likely to be reasoned in market anarchy than democracy is because of the institutional mechanisms for choosing policy. The main way law is “made” in democracy is through legislation voted on by representatives, who are ultimately accountable to the public through general elections. Often, debate on the floor of legislative bodies is anything but reasoned and deliberative, and clearly discussion about elections quickly devolves into mindless partisan bickering, sensationalist “scandals,” and populist rhetorical flair rather than reasoned discussion about policies. In market anarchy, however, law is “discovered” by private arbitrators and judges who are ultimately accountable to the defense firm’s consumers in the marketplace. It is pretty clear that real-world courtrooms tend to have a more elevated level of dialogue than legislative bodies, to say less of public elections, and I fail to see why this would not be the case under market anarchism.

Further, there wouldn’t be a need for partisan bickering and debates that bring down the level of public discourse in market anarchy, for similar reasons why there isn’t nearly as nasty debates about preferences for consumer goods as there are about politics. To use an analogy, in democracy, if we’re voting on what soda to consume, whoever wins the vote gets a monopoly on their preferred soda; so my preference for Coke could possibly eliminate your ability to enjoy Pepsi; but in a market, if I prefer Coke you still can drink Pepsi, meaning we don’t need to bicker about our consumer preferences. It is similar (though clearly not identical because when we’re talking about law it’s quite a bit more consequential) with legal policies: in democracy, if I prefer one set of legal rules to another which you prefer, we must fight over how to vote because the two are mutually exclusive; but in market anarchy, because law is polycentric and not monolithic, they are not mutually exclusive so we don’t need to fight nearly as hard for it. There’s a good reason why debates among consumers for products they prefer (Coke v. Pepsi, Apple v. Windows, Android v. iPhone) rarely get as nasty as debates in democratic politics, because there is room for disagreement at the end of the day in a market that there is not in politics.


Clearly, democracy is far from the ideal method of political organization. As classical liberals throughout history have shown, despite the fact that it may be possible to other political forms such as oligarchy and monarchy, it has a tendency towards the tyranny of the majority and massive collective action problems. However, the philosophical aspirations of the most ardent defenders of democracy are still extremely valuable, even if their preferred institutions fail to deliver. Market anarchism is a reasonable synthesis of these two insights; it has the potential to live up to the aspirations of pragmatist democrats without the major, systemic problems of real working democracies that undermine those aspirations.

John Dewey once said “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals,” what is needed is a better set of institutions that have a higher probability to cultivate Dewey’s idea of “democratic individuals.” Market anarchism appears to be a viable candidate for such a set of institutions.

From the Comments: Why care about Syrians?

Dr Gibson notes:

I’d say the “big question” makes no sense. Surely some Syrians would be better off under ISIS and some under Assad.

And there’s a bigger question: who the hell cares? Few if any of us Americans have enough information to judge this issue nor should we. We have our own fish to fry. The Washington politicians have done incalculable damage with their ceaseless meddling in the affairs of the Middle East and elsewhere. Let the Syrians and their immediate neighbors sort this out.

I wanted to draw this excellent comment out for two reasons. Reason number one has to do with Dr Gibson’s first paragraph. Questions rarely make sense (which is why you ask people for help), but suppose you asked whether Syrians would be better off under capitalism or socialism. Some Syrians would be better off under socialism than capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s just as good as capitalism. Right? One of those systems is better for far more people than the other, and as an individual don’t you have a moral duty to support the more just system in some form or other? These are questions that libertarians, especially libertarians in the United States, should be asking themselves more often than not. There is a disturbing tendency among this faction of libertarians to lean in the direction of nationalist parochialism when it comes to matters outside of our borders. This brings me to reason number two for highlighting Dr Gibson’s (quite excellent) comment: Reminding libertarians and classical liberals that our creed is an international (and a humble) one.

War refugees represent the humblest of our species. The UN estimates that the war has affected nearly 12 million Syrians so far and, of course, that doesn’t include all of the people outside of Syria’s borders who have been affected. Russians, Europeans, North Americans, Syria’s immediate neighbors, and East Africans have all been affected by the ongoing war. How could you not be interested, especially from an individualist point of view?

I think the problem of the American libertarian’s parochialist nationalism stems from Murray Rothbard’s Cold War-era writings. Unlike F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who were both big supporters of more international cooperation (but who both saw the glaring flaws in organizations like the UN and what is now the EU), Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs were heavily influenced by the fact that the world was dominated by two superpowers and that the government he lived under used lies and deceit to counter Moscow’s power plays. Rothbard’s world of bi-polar geopolitics is long gone. It doesn’t exist. It will not exist again in my lifetime. Ours is a world of multipolarity. Yet somehow Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs (which descended into outright incoherence near the end of his life) still have a profound impact on the American libertarian movement.

Much of my work here at NOL is dedicated to eviscerating this long-expired mindset from the American libertarian movement. Isolationism is nationalist, plain and simple (just pay attention to the rhetoric of libertarians like Justin Raimondo or Doug Bandow if you need more convincing), but Warren’s point about Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other states remains pertinent. So perhaps a different question to ask (even if it doesn’t make sense) is what a more internationalist-minded, in the vein of Hayek and Mises and Adam Smith, US foreign policy would look like. (I’ve been asking this question for a while now.)

Declining to Wed Gay Couples: Right or Wrong?

News item: the Georgia governor has just vetoed a bill that would, among other things, have allowed ministers to decline to wed gay couples.

What a tangle. Let’s see if we can sort things out.

First of all, many decent people, your humble servant included, find the concept of “gay marriage” troubling. I believe any two adults (or three or more) should be free to make any contract they like regarding sharing assets, pledging fidelity, and so forth. I just wish they wouldn’t call it “marriage.” That term is taken.

Second, hate is not a crime. Some people express repugnance or hatred for homosexuality. Ayn Rand called the practice immoral, an attitude that is hard to fathom in this day and age but perhaps understandable given the tenor of her times. Some go farther and express hatred for homosexuals per se. But as long as these people refrain from initiating force or fraud, they should not be molested. Boycotts, shunning, and criticism are legitimate responses to such people, but forcible restraint is not.

Third, rights are not granted by governments. Rights derive from our basic nature as humans, as thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard have so eloquently demonstrated. Contractual “rights” should have a different name, perhaps “privileges.” These are actions that have been legitimized by a voluntary agreement. Thus for example, no one has free speech “rights” on a campus. Students may have free speech “privileges” on a campus if the owners of the campus have granted that privilege in a written or implied contract.

Fourth, freedom of association is a basic human right, and includes freedom of dissociation, whether in personal or business relations. Some years ago I posted a defense of the late Lester Maddox who famously attempted to exclude blacks from his chicken restaurant. My post generated considerable blowback, but I stand by it and note that in this day and age, anyone who tried to exclude blacks would not be elected governor of Georgia as Maddox was, but instead lose most of his customers and close his doors.

In summary, no minister needs permission from the state to deny wedding services to a gay couple. And religion has nothing to do with it. Anyone should free to decline business or personal relationships with anyone, for any reason whatever, or for no reason at all.