A Right is Not an Obligation

Precision of language in matters of science is important. Speaking recently with some fellow libertarians, we got into an argument about the nature of rights. My position: A right does not obligate anyone to do anything. Their position: Rights are the same thing as obligations.

My response: But if a right is the same thing as an obligation, why use two different words? Doesn’t it make more sense to distinguish them?

So here are the definitions I’m working with. A right is what is “just” or “moral”, as those words are normally defined. I have a right to choose which restaurant I want to eat at.

An obligation is what one is compelled to do by a third party. I am obligated to sell my car to Alice at a previously agreed on a price or else Bob will come and take my car away from me using any means necessary.

Let’s think through an example. Under a strict interpretation of libertarianism, a mother with a starving child does not have the right to steal bread from a baker. But if she does steal the bread, then what? Do the libertarian police instantly swoop down from Heaven and give the baker his bread back?

Consider the baker. The baker indeed does have a right to keep his bread. But he is no under no obligation to get his bread back should it get stolen. The baker could take pity on the mother and let her go. Or he could calculate the cost of having one loaf stolen is low to expend resources to try to get it back.

Let’s analyze now the bedrock of libertarianism, the nonaggression principle (NAP). There are several formulations. Here’s one: “no one has a right to initiate force against someone else’s person or property.” Here’s a more detailed version, from Walter Block: “It shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.”

A natural question to ask is, what happens if someone does violate the NAP? One common answer is that the victim of the aggression then has a right to use force to defend himself. But note again, the right does not imply an obligation. Just because someone initiates force against you, does not obligate you or anyone else to respond. Pacifism is consistent with libertarianism.

Consider another example. Due to a strange series of coincidences, you find yourself lost in the woods in the middle of a winter storm. You come across an unoccupied cabin that’s obviously used as a summer vacation home. You break in, and help yourself to some canned beans and shelter, and wait out the storm before going for help.

Did you have a right to break into the cabin? Under some strict interpretations of libertarianism, no. But even if this is true, all it means is that the owners of the cabin have the right, but not obligation, to use force to seek damages from you after the fact. (They also had the right to fortify their cabin in such a way that you would have been prevented from ever entering.) But they may never exercise that right; you could ask for forgiveness and they might grant it.

Furthermore, under a pacifist anarchocapitalist order, the owners might not even use force when seeking compensation. They might just ask politely; and if they don’t like your excuses, they’ll simply leave a negative review with a private credit agency (making harder for you to get loans, jobs, etc.).

The nonaggression principle, insofar as it is strictly about rights (and not obligations), is about justice. It is not about compelling people to do anything. Hence, I propose a new formulation of the NAP: using force to defend yourself from initiations of force can be consistent with justice.

This formulation makes clear that using force is a choice. Initiating force does not obligate anyone to do anything. “Excessive force” may be a possibile injustice.

In short, justice does not require force.

Individual Sovereignty

Individual sovereignty means that it is evil for any other person to interfere with one’s honest and peaceful choices. This prescription comes from natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic:

1) “Harm” means a invasion into another’s domain.
2) All acts, and only those acts, which coercively harm others, are evil.
3) Welcomed benefits are good.
4) All other acts are morally neutral.

Natural moral law is derived from human individuality and equality, and the premise of equality implies individual sovereignty. For if one is not sovereign, some other person has the moral authority to be a master, and equality does not exist. Individual sovereignty is moral equality taken to its logical conclusion. The concept of “self ownership” is the same as individual sovereignty.

Because individual sovereignty derives from the universal ethic and its premise of human equality, it does not imply that a sovereign individual may do anything he pleases. A self-owner may not impose coercive harm on others. One may do as one pleases so long as one’s actions are honest and peaceful. An honest action does not coercively harm others through fraud.

“A person has a functioning mind and the actual or potential ability to make choices based on reason and awareness” (Dictionary of Free-Market Economics). Young children have such minds and are therefore also sovereign. But the ability to use reason is something that develops as children mature, and therefore the parents have a responsibility to exercise some of the sovereignty rights on behalf of their children. Conversely, creating a child also creates a moral obligation of the parent to provide judgment as well as material needs for their children. Upon some age of maturity, the child becomes a fully sovereign human being.

In political theory monarchs have been said to be sovereign, and are called “the Sovereign”. But even if the king has absolute legal power, he is a human being equal to all others, and any coercive power he has over others is a usurpation of individual sovereignty.

When republics and democracies replaced absolute monarchs, the state and its government were said to be sovereign. A country is sovereign when there is no other political body above it. In the United States, the federal and state governments have parallel sovereignty, and the native Indian nations are supposed to have some elements of national sovereignty. The US federal government has entered into treaty obligations and has joined international organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization, but it could withdraw from these organizations and treaties, as the UN and WTO have no sovereignty, but only delegated powers.

Power is always exercised by individual persons, not by mental constructs. Governments and states are mental constructs, having no reality other than what people believe. If a government exercises its sovereign power, in reality, it is the president or prime minister applying the forces of government, ultimately its army, police, and prison guards. Arbitrary state power is ultimately the unequal power of some individuals over others. There is no moral authority or legitimacy for government other than to enforce the universal ethic, which implies that it is immoral for government to interfere with peaceful and honest individual sovereignty. If government makes theft legally a crime, it is already morally a crime, and government simply acts as an agent of the people to enforce moral law, although if it does that, the financing must also be moral.

Therefore individual sovereignty implies peaceful anarchism, with no imposed government, because even if the government confines itself to enforcing the universal ethic, the rulers are human beings who have no greater wisdom, in general, than others, and they could end up imposing their wills to alter peaceful choices. Therefore, pure equality implies that there be no rulers imposed on unwilling persons.

Anarchism, as the absence of imposed government, does not imply chaos and disorder, as connoted by the unfortunate other meaning of “anarchy”. Human beings have always lived in organized communities. In anarchism, most people would join associations such as condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities (owners with tenants). These local communities would federate into broader or higher associations, ultimately covering a continent or the whole planet. The benefit of government – a uniform rule of law – would be provided, without its fatal flaw, the denial of individual sovereignty.

One more element of individual sovereignty needs to be addressed: the issue of land ownership. Self-ownership implies the ownership of one’s labor, the products of labor, and the wages of labor. But self-ownership does not apply to nature, all that is apart from persons and human action. The premise of human equality implies that all persons own an equal share of the benefits of natural resources, and that can be accomplished by collecting the economic rent of land, its yield when put to optimal use, and distributing that rent equally.

The local site rentals, generated by the local population, commerce, and public goods, would be paid to the community’s providers of civic goods. The multi-level federations of voluntary communities and associations would implement the collection of land rent and local rentals, and this geo-anarchism would provide the funding needed to implement the voluntary governance.

Individual sovereignty is therefore feasible and is consistent with, and indeed best generates, peace and prosperity. Wars, such as in the Middle East, would cease if most people recognized individual sovereignty and equal rights to natural benefits, rather than fight over the coercively collective and fictitious sovereignty of states.
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This article first appeared in http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/individual-sovereignty/

Deontology versus Consequentialism: The Great Libertarian Divide

I am not a philosopher. In fact, the two courses I took on philosophy in college (Honors courses on ancient Greek ethics and modern ethics) were the two courses where I received my lowest grades ever in college (B+’s). Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the great divide within libertarianism regarding the concept of ‘rights’.

I don’t want to delve into the concept of ‘rights’ here, largely because I have only a superficial understanding of the notion, but for the sake of non-libertarian readers I’d like to briefly explain that, within libertarianism, there is an argument about whether or not deontological ethics (wiki) or consequential ethics (wiki) is the proper framework with which to analyze the world.

Deontological libertarians argue that each and every individual has natural rights and that any sort of aggression upon these rights is inherently immoral. Consequentialist libertarians argue that the initiation of force is not as important as whether or not a policy makes everybody better off. In some ways, you can see these tensions being played out here on the blog.

Under these strict definitions I am a consequentialist, but I don’t think it’s quite right to label me as such. I think that the two ethical systems are complimentary more than they are antagonistic. For instance, I think the deontological framework is important because the urge of those in power to “do something”  for the greater good is often immense. Deontological ethics plays an important role in establishing boundaries that those in power have to respect. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward provides a clear-cut example of what happens when power is unrestrained in the name of a greater good. Ethnic cleansing, famine, and poverty can all be attributed, in one form or another, to the lack of respect for deontological ethics.

On the other hand, deontological ethics is too dogmatic. It is impossible to have a society based completely upon the foundations of non-aggression. Free trade is a perfect example of this impossibility. Deontological libertarians support free trade because in the absence of coercion free trade would be the natural outcome. Yet this does not seem right to me. Free trade is good because it lifts up the overall standards of living for everybody in a society, but there are short-run losers when it comes to free trade. In fact, losers are a natural part of the marketplace as a whole. Without losers there could be no markets. We should all be thanking as many losers as we can, whenever we can (you can start with me; I recently set up a Tinder account).

Free trade, and the losers that it produces, has harmful short-run effects on some individuals and their property. Competition destroys fortunes and job skills alike. Free trade also creates verifiable prosperity for societies, and even the losers – eventually – become better off under free trade. Even the underlying structure of the capitalist order is based on aggressively protecting that “bundle” of individual rights that is so integral to freedom and prosperity (this does not mean that states are a necessity, but only that aggression is unavoidable in social relations).

I am off-base here? Am I knocking down a straw man? It seems to me that the consequentialist position – which is already very deontologically-friendly to begin with – is the better route to take, philosophically, politically, and rhetorically.