Wednesday, July 8, 2009

One more bit on libertarianism

An often overlooked feature of libtertarianism, stemming from the principles of self-ownership, absolute property rights, and a free-market, is that people in Libertopia can legally sell themselves into slavery. Robert Nozick, super-libertarian philosopher, thinks this is as it should be. One of my favorite illustrations of the idiocy of libertarianism comes from Thomas Pogge:
The following trialogue is then a realistic scenario within Nozick's libertarian society. A police officer comes upon a couple struggling with each other, the man [a doctor] evidently trying to rape the woman.

Woman: Please, sir, please help me.

Officer (to Man): Hey, you, let her go at once!

Man: Don't get involved.

Officer: I must. You are violating this woman's right not to be assaulted.

Man: No, I'm not. She is my slave. Here are the papers, signed by herself.

Woman: But I was coerced into signing. He said he would not treat my father [for a deadly medical condition] if I refused to sign.

Officer: That's not coercion but at most duress. He was at liberty not to treat your father or to ask compensation for treating him.

Woman: But my father is dead!

Man: The contract says only that I would try to save him, and I did.

Officer (to Woman): I'm sorry, ma'am, but I cannot help you.

Man: But you could help me in forcing her to fulfill her contractual obligations. She has already scratched me. See if you can tie her hands.

(Officer ties Woman's hands, she screams for help as she is being raped. ...)

Man (to Officer): I'm glad the police are protecting citizens' rights. Isn't she great? My sons will have lots of fun with her when I bring her home.
I'm not saying this would happen in a libertarian society, of course. Maybe people would be more reluctant to sell themselves into slavery, even if they were destitute and desperate. Maybe slaveowners wouldn't be particularly cruel to their human property. All I'm saying is, from the point of view of libertarianism, this is the fair and deserved result of self-ownership and free-market transactions. This is libertarian justice.


  1. Gotta say I like your blog and agree with much of what you have written in this, and other posts. But I should point out to you that Libertarianism is a term used by a broad spectrum of political philosophies which seek to maximize individual liberty and minimize or even abolish the state. Libertarians embrace viewpoints across that spectrum ranging from pro-property to anti-property, from minimal government to openly anarchist. The word libertarian is an antonym of authoritarian.

    Depending on one's view of libertarianism, a libertarian world could mean one devoid of factory farms because compassionate people would be at liberty to destroy such facilities without having to worry about repercussions from an overly powerful state authority and its institutionalized laws that protect capital over the rights of sentient beings.

  2. Yes, of course libertarianism is used by a variety of people to mean a variety of things, all in opposition to various forms of authority. I am pretty explicitly only referring to the minimal-state capitalist variety, because that's the most popularly self-identified sort. I tend towards utopian classical anarchist (libertarian socialist) views myself, though I also tend towards pragmatic liberal-state market socialist views.

    And sure, maybe in a state-free libertarian world compassionate people could destroy factory farms without fearing repercussions. More likely, though, they will still have to fear repercussions — from the people whose factory farm they just destroyed. And there will be no overly powerful state authority and its institutionalized laws to protect the compassionate people from revenge carried out by people controlling a lot of resources.

    If we're talking libertarian socialism, the acceptance of factory farming would have to be decided through some form of direct democracy, either a worker's council or a municipal council. If the community accepted factory farms and one was destroyed, the aforementioned compassionate people would still face repercussions in the form of exile, noncooperation, or whatever other sanction the community uses to deal with people that violate its norms.

    But this is all caricature. The bottom line is that libertarianism as a political philosophy, whether capitalist or socialist, minarchist or anarchist, has very little to say in and of itself about social issues, of which I consider animal rights to be. Questions about abortion, racism, sexism, homophbia, and the treatment of animals won't be answered by abolishing or minimizing government. They are political issues, to be sure, but they are system-independent issues — a super-conservative capitalist world could be one devoid of factory farms, too, if those super-conservative people boycotted them.