Be Our Guest: “Rights and Government Confiscation During COVID-19”

John A Lancaster has a new guest post up. Peep an excerpt of his definition of rights:

When extended into the realm of human contact, rights must be expressed through voluntary exchange. Any exchange that is not the product of consent necessarily entails an entity seizing use of facilities outside the entity’s personal vessel, which they have no right to do (theft).

Click here to read the thought-provoking rest. And don’t forget: if you’ve got something to say, and nowhere to say it, Be Our Guest!

Federation, not unilateralism, ought to be the American Libertarian’s foreign policy

This is an expanded post that stems from a conversation I have been having with Bruno and Jacques in the ‘comments’ threads. The conversation is more about the nation-state than the unilateralism/federation non-debate, but I thought that’s why it’d make a good post.

The Nation-State

Nation-states are often considered to be sacred territory to conservative libertarians (see Jacques or Edwin, for example), even if they don’t use the word “sacred.” A nation-state is a geographic territory that is supposed to be made up of a single nation. Thus the French live in France, the Germans in Germany, the Greeks in Greece, etc. You can see the problem with this logic right away: what about the people who don’t fit into the idea of what a nation should be? How do religious minorities, for example, or your neighbor who speaks only Romanian, fit in? How are they a part of the nation? (Ludwig von Mises wrote one of the better critiques of the nation-state way back in 1919, using the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an example.)

Nation-states arose in Europe after centuries of horrific warfare and genocidal campaigns, such as the Holocaust, and only came into being elsewhere in the world with the fall of the European empires after World War II. These empires, which never had a good grasp on the territories they claimed as their own to begin with, rebuilt the international order around the ideas of state sovereignty and the nation-state. Part of this had to do with the fact that their own empires had reverted to a form of nation-state (the UK, France, etc., instead of the British, or French, Empire), and part of it had to do with the idea that Asians and Africans deserved a stage on the international scene. (This latter idea was pushed by left-wing Europeans and Asians and Africans who believed their colonies could easily make the transition from colony to nation-state.) The colonies of the European empires, which had been patched together slowly over hundreds of years, did not take nationality into consideration in matters of governance, unless it was to explicitly crush any notions of nationhood among the colonized.

So, the nation-states of Europe and, to a much lesser extent, North and Latin America, have a long history of violence, politics, law, and trade (among other factors) that bolster their legitimacy as organizational entities and their place in the world. The states that formed in the ashes of the European empires had no nations to speak of and entered a world order that wanted to treat these new states as if they did have such a nation.


Since there were suddenly a bunch of new states in the world without nations in them, elites in these new, post-imperial states had to begin nation-building. Barry has a great series, soon to be enshrined as a Longform essay, on Turkish nationalism here at NOL. James Gelvin, a historian at UCLA, has done some good work on nationalism in the Middle East (here is a review of one such work). Eugen Weber (UCLA) and David Bell (Princeton), both historians, have written excellent examples of how Paris went about molding people within France’s territory into French citizens.

In most of the post-imperial cases, elites were proponents of secularism and inclusivity. Elites in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, for example, made a concerted effort to protect the rights of minorities and women, even going so far as to include them in key aspects of governing these new states. Indeed, when the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was chased from power by the Americans in 2003, Iraq’s Christians, women, and other minorities suffered most because the Hussein regime protected them from the (conservative and religious) majority. The same thing happened when the American-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown by Islamists in 1979. Elites in the post-imperial world wanted their societies to be nation-states (in fact, they needed them to be, so that they could get the attention of Western allies), but they thought they could get there through the prism of nationalism.

Minorities, rights, and nations

Nation-building in the post-imperial world has gone about as smoothly as it went in Europe. War has been an ongoing problem (most of it has been intrastate instead of interstate), and genocides have occurred. The intrastate wars are easiest to understand. Elites are trying to build a nation to populate a state (which is just a former colony of a European empire). Those that don’t fit in to the idea of what it means to be a part of X nation, perish, or are harshly oppressed (such as the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, or the Balochs in Iran and Pakistan).

Religion has also been a problem. Most leaders in these new nation-states tried to establish secular regimes, but were also believers in democracy. Unfortunately, secularism and democracy are incompatible without liberty. If Saddam Hussein or Shah Pahlavi had tried to hold elections, Islamists would have been voted into office, just as they routinely are in Egypt and Palestine. India, a former British colony that was perhaps the most intimately connected to its imperial overlord, is sliding back into Hindu theocracy as well. Without robust protections for property rights (or “bundles of rights“), elections will continue to be oppressive for minorities thanks to religious conservatives.

This does not mean that Muslims are incapable of secular self-governance, either, as some libertarians are wont to argue. In fact, the first nation-states of Europe were governed by religious conservatives. The struggle between religious conservatives and liberals was a slow, violent evolution that eventually turned in favor of the liberals, especially after they began to secure their property rights more effectively.

Federation, status quo, imperialism

My argument is that it would better – i.e. more libertarian – to make citizens out of these post-imperial states, rather than members of a nation, by incorporating them into federal or confederal systems that have experience with large, disparate, democratically-governed populations. The United States should just start inviting people from all over the world to petition for statehood within its federation. The elites trying to govern the failed nation-states of the post-imperial world would not appreciate this, of course, but who cares? They would be better off as citizens, too.

Imperialism is still a bad idea. It was bad when Adam Smith railed against it in 1776. It was bad when F.A. Hayek pointed out its moral failings in 1960. It is still bad today, in 2019.

The status quo is somewhere in between imperialism and federation. In my view, the status quo leans toward the latter, at least when it comes to the United States (the polity where I am a citizen). The invasion and occupation of Iraq wasn’t quite old-style imperialism, but neither was it an attempt at federation between at least two separate polities. One good thing that I thought was a lesson learned from the Iraqi disaster is that invading and occupying a foreign country is a bad idea. It’s an even worse idea when you declare that your enemy is the regime of a failed nation-state rather than the people living in it. That’s no way to fight a war. (This is a brutal notion, but a realistic one. If you’re going to invade and occupy a foreign country, and impose your will upon its inhabitants, and consider yourself a free and open society, you’re going to need a population that hates everything about that foreign country. If your population does not hate everything, or even just a few things, about said foreign country, why on earth would you invade and occupy it?)

Post script

I got my copy of Paul Feyerabend‘s Against Method in the mail last week. I’ll be blogging my thoughts as I read through it. Rick has already started in. Federico has some excellent stuff on the philosophy of science coming up, too. And, of course, Bill has already been blogging about Feyerabend. You’ll be hearing more from him, too. Andrei also has some thoughts on Feyerabend. Hopefully, some of the other Notewriters will chime in as well!


  1. What the FBI’s Cohen raid means Ken White, NY Times
  2. Documenting a police detention in New Jersey Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. Why do we have prisons in the United States? Livia Gershon, JSTOR Daily
  4. Erdogan refreshed after talks with Putin, Rouhani Amberin Zaman, Al-Monitor

Around the Web

  1. Why Women Hunt: Risk and Contemporary Foraging in a Western Desert Aboriginal Community (pdf)
  2. Competing to Be Leaderless: Food Sharing and Magnanimity Among Martu Aborigines (pdf)
  3. In Pursuit of Mobile Prey: Martu Hunting Strategies and Archaeofaunal Interpretation (pdf)
  4. Signaling Theory, Strategic Interaction, and Symbolic Capital (pdf)
  5. Rethinking Rights (and Freedom): A Series (be sure to scroll through the ‘comments’)
  6. Deconstructing Colonial Historiography: A Case Study of Afanasy Nikitin

From the Comments: Fallacies in the Threads

We don’t get as many trolls here as we used to, but every once in a while somebody will throw their garbage out the window as they drive by our humble consortium. Marvin’s comments in Dr Foldvary’s recent post on myths about libertarianism is a case in point. Attempting to take me to task for committing a logical fallacy, he  writes:

Brandon [quoting me]: “Dr Foldvary quit arguing with you because he has seen your fallacies over and over again throughout a long and distinguished career as an academic economist.”

Again, appealing to authority is not making a reasoned argument. You seem to be taking offense that anyone who would dare to disagree with or question anything he or you have said. Taking offense where none has been given is also rhetoric, not reason.

Just two things:

  1. An appeal to authority would have to involve me stating that Dr Foldvary is correct because he is an economist. I obviously made no such argument. I was merely trying to point out Marvin’s boorish manners and Fred’s subsequent, predictable reaction.
  2. I don’t see where I have “taken offense” in this thread. Marvin falsely charges me with doing so, and then goes on to suggest that I am angry because he disagrees with me. Now, Marvin would have a decent point if it were true that I was angry with his argument, but as it stands he is simply invoking his imagination in order to make his argument look better.

There is a reason Marvin has done this (I doubt it was a conscious one). He writes:

Brandon [again, quoting me]: “What exactly are you trying to refute, and which aspect of your argument refutes Dr Foldvary’s?”

First, it’s not Dr. Foldvary that I am having difficulty with. It is rather the unsubstantiated myths promoted by Libertarians generally that are the problem. For example, “In my judgment, when most people recognize natural moral law as the proper basis for governance, we will be able to have a truly free society.”

It is nothing but a rhetorical claim to say that my personal collection of moral laws are “natural”, “God given”, or “inherent”. Jefferson was speaking rhetorically (to sway emotional support) when he said “endowed by their Creator”. But when he said, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted” he was speaking of practical rights.

Can you spot the fallacy? I ask for an example of what Marvin is arguing against and he replies by changing the subject (from Fred’s argument to “Libertarians generally”). This particular fallacy is known as a red herring fallacy. In it, Marvin goes from ignoring Fred’s original argument to knocking down a “general” argument that he attributes to libertarians. How convenient!

Now, that’s two separate fallacies in one reply. Is it worth my time to respond? A fallacy is defined as being either a false or mistaken idea, or  as possessing a deceptive appearance. Marvin’s fallacies are a mixture of both, I think, and it would seem, based on his reasoning and on his dogmatic beliefs, that he is, in the words of alcoholics everywhere, fundamentally incapable of being honest with himself.

Nevertheless, I’d like to think that Marvin’s fallacies are based more on a false idea than on deception (I think the deception is largely for himself, anyway). So I’ll humor him one last time:

Brandon [quoting me]: “Being prohibited from killing another human being is not a restriction on freedom (same goes for stealing) because killing restricts the freedom of others.”

Actually, being prohibited from doing anything is a restriction upon the freedom of the person who wants to do that thing. The OD says, for example, freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants”. Obviously if someone wants to steal and is prohibited from stealing, then his freedom is restricted.

You seem to have adopted a different definition, in which a rule against stealing is not really a restriction on freedom because it promotes the optimal freedom for everyone. I don’t think you’ll find that in the OD.

On the other hand, I do agree that all rules are intended to improve the total good and reduce the total harm for everyone. But to achieve that benefit, the rule diminishes the total liberty of everyone.

This is a much more sophisticated fallacy, but it is a fallacy nonetheless. Marvin is trying to discredit libertarianism by arguing that total freedom allows for individuals to steal and kill as they please. This is utterly false, and I’ll get to why in just a minute, but first I think it is important to highlight Marvin’s underlying logic behind this fallacy so that in the future we can all do a better job of rooting out dishonesty from our debates on liberty.

Marvin argues that total freedom must allow for killing and stealing, and only restrictions upon killing and stealing are able to prevent such occurrences from happening regularly. By framing the debate in this way, it then follows that restrictions upon other freedoms (ones that may come to be deemed harmful to society by some) are a logical and beneficial response to social problems. Do you follow? If not, you know where the ‘comments’ section is.

Marvin’s fallacious reasoning in this regard is on full display throughout the thread (please read it yourself).

Yet killing and stealing are not actions that can be found in total freedom (“the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants”). Killing and stealing are actions that can be found throughout the animal kingdom. Does this make animals free?

Of course not, and this is because freedom is a distinctly human notion. Rules and agreements do not diminish total liberty. There is the possibility that total liberty can be diminished by rules. Nobody disputes this. To suggest that (capital-L) “Libertarians generally” do dispute this is disingenuous. It’s also convenient for Marvin’s fallacy.

Total freedom will not be achieved in our lifetimes. It will not be achieved in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. This doesn’t mean it should not be held up as an ideal to aspire to. Ignoring or ceding the ideal of total freedom means that the Marvins of the world will continue to get their Social Security checks in the mail.

Do we have a Natural Right to be Annoying?

by Fred Foldvary

Suppose somebody is walking along the sidewalk carrying a big sign saying “I hate you.” Is he violating your natural rights? Should the state prohibit him from being annoying? Does freedom imply being protected from being annoyed, or does it protect our right to be annoying?

The citizens of Brighton, Michigan, believe that we have a right to not be annoyed. In 2008 the city council enacted an ordinance authorizing the police to cite anyone who is annoying in public “by word of mouth, sign or motions.” Violators will pay a fine. Brighton is not alone in this war on annoyance. Royal Oak, Michigan, also had such an ordinance, which serves as a model for other cities to copy.

A common source of public annoyance in some cities are beggars who ask for money as one passes by or, worse, come up to you with a sad story. Now, with the anti-annoyance ordinance, one can call the police, and the beggar will have his food in jail if he refuses to accept the ticket.

In some places, guys walk down the street in baggy pants that hang low. Another annoyance is inconsiderate guys who walk around with a loud portable music player; the music itself is often cacophonous, hence annoying, Those who are annoyed by such fashion and bad taste can now call the police and ask to have the offenders cited.

In economics, uncompensated bad effects on others are called “negative externalities.” The textbooks say that government can correct this by charging the person who emits the externality for the social cost. Evidently Royal Oak and Brighton have implemented this principle. You annoy, you pay.

Unfortunately, if you walk into a shop and seek some service, but the worker there is yakking on her cell phone, it is very annoying, but in Brighton you may not call the police, since the shop is a private place.

But what if the police are annoying? The police should not be above the law. If you are annoyed by a police officer, you should be able to call other police and have the officer cited.

You get a traffic ticket and the judge pounds the gavel and declares, “guilty!” Very annoying, and the court is a public place. You can get back at the judge; call the police and have the judge cited! But that would annoy the judge, so he will have you cited too. Now you have become annoyed again, and can have the judge cited for citing you. After all, if judges are above the law, we have no law.

What a wonderful weapon is this anti-annoyance ordinance. If your neighbor annoys you by hanging underwear in his back yard, call the police! Threaten to cite him, and he will have to do as you say. But that might annoy him, and then you have to do what he says. Whoops, now they are both slaves of one another. At least it’s equal.

Children are often annoyed by the restrictions and punishments imposed by their parents. They can now do something about it. When they are shopping or otherwise out in public, parents are often annoyed by their children whining, crying, complaining. parents can now tell their children that they will call the police if the kids don’t stop being annoying.

Perhaps the residents of Brighton and Royal Oak find this editorial annoying. Too bad; they can’t do anything about it unless I show up in those towns. I will make sure I never enter those towns.

The unemployment rate in Michigan is nine percent, and its major city, Detroit, is in bankruptcy. What I want to know is, if the residents find the bad economy annoying, who gets cited?

(Note: this article is adapted from “Do we have a Constitutional Right to be Annoying?” in The Progress Report, 2009.)